To millions of fans he was the bad boy of dc Talk, one of contemporary Christian music's highest-selling acts of all time. But for Kevin Max, that chapter of his life ended long ago. Since leaving dc Talk (decent Christian Talk) in 2000, Max has followed his own muse into secular music. But crossing over to a general-market audience has proven difficult as the shadow of his former band still hangs over his head like the mark of Cain.
Max has come a long way since prancing around stages, shouting the lyrics to such God-fearing, pop-meets-rap anthems as "Jesus Freak" and "Heavenbound." Back then he was Kevin Smith and known for being the guy in the group with a gaggle of groupies.
Although he's changed his ways — Max now lives with his wife and three kids in Grand Rapids, Mich. — and distanced himself from the poster boy image of the rebel with a holy cause, he hasn't lost his faith. But after independently releasing several albums, the kind of success he had with dc Talk has never materialized.
While his desire to leave the Christian baggage behind has alienated many of his older fans, his past makes his recent solo efforts seem a bit suspicious to non-Christian listeners. Through it all he soldiers on, writing songs that forgo overt religiosity for a universal appeal. "dc Talk was so huge within the Christian audience that it's been hard for me to say, 'But I'm different.'" Max says, after audibly wincing at the mention of dc Talk videos that reside on YouTube, showing off the group in all its schmaltzy, '90s suburban-rap glory.
"I'm vocal about the fact that I believe in Christ, but I'm scared of Christians," he continues. "The Christian public is such an intolerant bunch that I shy away from them. That makes me a thorn in a lot of people's sides because they want me to be a certain Christian widget, which I'm not and never will be."
Max's latest release, Cotes d' Armor (True Rebels) (dropping Aug. 24 on dPulse Recordings), is a collage of earnest songwriting, electronica and experimentation. It's the eighth album in a discography that has redefined his faith and individuality.
By the time dc Talk came to an end, the group had earned four Grammy awards, and gold and platinum plaques, respectively, for Nu Thang ('90) and Jesus Freak ('95). In the midst of it all, Max began writing solo material in an attempt to break away from the group's God-squad image. But when Virgin dropped dc Talk, Max was shuffled over to EMI Christian, where sales for his debut, Stereotype Be, barely broke an abysmal 80,000 copies. "It fell on deaf ears within the Christian community because they were like, 'Where's our Jesus songs?' There are no Jesus songs on the record."
Other albums followed but received the same, mostly cold response. His new release was initially supposed to be a remix record featuring songs from his failed '09 EP Crashing Gates (Infinity). "I wanted to do an honest, reflective EP of gospel music," Max says. "But I threw in a Prince song and a George Michael song, and they thought I wasn't being serious about it, so that fell on deaf ears again."
Soon after the EP, he began working with dPulse Recordings, home to European and American electronic music acts Pop Will Eat Itself, 3kStatic and Atlanta's R.Garcia. All three contributed production to Cotes d' Armor as it grew into a full-length. "Get On Yer Bike" opens the record with tasteful, but heavily produced, art-pop pacing, while "Walking Through Walls" is a polished round of Nashville power-pop.
The truly interesting songs on the album find Max stepping outside the realm of traditional songwriting, such as the New Order-inspired "Even When It Hurts," and the droning, electronic pop ambiance of "Train To Transylvania."
It's a far cry from anything Max has released, and carries him even further from his beginnings, as has been the goal all along. "At the end of the day, an artist is what he puts out," Max says. "So if it's something that's interesting, then it doesn't matter what your political or religious ambitions are. They become second place to the music — which is a religion in and of itself."