The Mile High Makeout: Christianity in Colorado music - Reverb

The Mile High Makeout: Christianity in Colorado music

Denver band Churchill, photographed by Steve Stanton

Churchill is one of many noteworthy Denver bands with strong ties to Christianity. Photo by Steve Stanton.

When people try to generalize about Colorado music, they often talk about the Gothic Americana of 16 Horsepower and Slim Cessna, the piano-driven pop of the Fray and Meese, or the inside-out electronica of Pictureplane and Hollagramz. But the common thread among many Colorado artists (though not all of the aforementioned) is not so much a sound as a set of beliefs — specifically, Christianity.

It might come as a surprise in the notoriously iniquitous world of rock and pop music, but Denver’s music community is filled with current and former Christian believers of one kind or another. Some are devoted followers who put Jesus at the center of everything they do, including music. Others are committed churchgoers who choose to keep their beliefs separate from their art. And at least one is a former born-again Christian turned ardent atheist.

“I don’t want to blame all of my problems on religion,” says Patrick McGuire, frontman for Denver’s Flashbulb Fires, the enigma behind Jeremy Flood and an outspoken ex-Christian. “But I have a grudge and a beef, and I think it’s justified.”

Growing up with a Catholic father and a “very Mormon” mother, McGuire became a born-again Christian as a teenager, and held onto his faith well into his 20s. Over the years, however, the doctrine and beliefs lost their luster for the singer-songwriter, and he was left feeling that he’d been lied to. That feeling is at the core of many of McGuire’s songs.

“It’s a big part of who I am, and I’m not ashamed of that,” he says. “It has everything to do with the music, and it doesn’t mean I want to alienate or belittle people who believe. I’m just trying to be a genuine person.”

Tim Bruns of Denver pop outfit Churchill is still very committed to his Christian beliefs, and they’re every bit as central to his music as McGuire’s atheism is to his.

“A lot of the reason we play music is because of our beliefs,” says Bruns, who met his bandmate, mandolinist Mike Morter, at Baptist Bible College in Pennsylvania. “We don’t want anything to do with Christian music as an industry, but as people, we all believe that, and we want to build relationships with people — not necessarily to preach to them, but to show them love and let them know there’s hope.”

For breakout singer-songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff, hope was what brought him and his family into the church — and into music — and it’s also what led him out.

“We were going to church three days a week and playing music in my teenage years,” Rateliff recalls. Rateliff’s family was the worship band for the church he attended in rural Hermann, Mo., and it was through church music that he would come to know his longtime musical partner and bandmate, Joseph Pope III.

“We were hanging out, doing a lot of sinful things,” remembers Pope of his early years in the church with Rateliff. “We were stuck in this tiny town without a lot of hope …we were searching for something to look forward to, some sense of purpose, and we both really loved music. We started going to church on our own, outside of Hermann, and playing in the worship band there. Some of our first shows were in that church.”

It wasn’t all wholesome family fun, however. “I would smoke weed on the way,” Pope laughs, “but spiritually, I was waking up.”

Nathan McGarvey, the titular frontman of Nathan & Stephen (later Hearts of Palm) who will be leaving Denver for Nashville soon, also “woke up” musically in the church.

“I was a missionary kid,” he recounts. “I grew up in my very young years in the Philippines and my dad was a pastor before that. He got called back here to work for the national organization that sent out missionaries for our denomination, and that’s what brought us to Colorado Springs in the ’90s. That’s a big reason why we clicked so well with the Tills.”

McGarvey is referring, of course, to the musical Till family that includes Stephen (Nathan & Stephen, A Mouthful of Thunder, Black Black Ocean), Jonathan (Nathan & Stephen, Porlolo) and Matthew (Nathan & Stephen, Houses).

McGarvey’s first band — a Christian ska outfit formed when he was just a high school freshman — included Stephen Till and a few other boys from their church youth group. Houses frontman Andy Hamilton and drummer Stephen Brooks (of Minor Note Orchestra, and formerly of Houses and Nathan & Stephen) were also honing their musical chops in Colorado Springs at the time.

“We played a lot of churches,” he recalls, “but that’s mostly because in the Springs those were the only places to play.”

Like many of his peers, McGarvey had a period of time when he felt disconnected from his faith and stopped identifying as Christian. In recent years, however, he has reconnected with Christianity.

“Music and Christianity are both parts of who I am,” he says. “There’s no separating them. Anybody’s world view will affect what they do musically.”

In exploring why so many of his friends in the music community are Christians, the singer blames — or credits — the demographics of Colorado Springs for at least part of the phenomenon.

“Speaking as one of many dudes who came from the Springs with that crazy evangelical community down there, I think music is encouraged more in church than in other places. Most of the people I know from the Springs started playing whatever they play now in church because there was an outlet for it.”

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  • matt

    “There, now you’ve seen one.” -Private Arthur Mayer of Company A, 1st Battalion, 327th Glider Infantry (WWII)