Below: Behind the scenes of the making of Jesus Freak. JUMP TO: Track-By-Track reminiscence with Kevin Max & Todd Collins
In Part Two of CCM’s “Jesus Freak At 20,” we continue our conversation with Kevin Max, and additionally with former Gotee Records co-founder and Jesus Freak co-producer, Todd Collins, and gather more insight into the making of this legendary recording, as well as track-by-track recollections from both Max and Collins.
Initially, Collins admits that he doesn’t really remember how the album began to take form. “At the beginning, everything just kind of flew—like we were putting a puzzle together, but already knowing where every piece was going to go.
“I think Toby [McKeehan], being the super-loyal kind of man he is, and as captain of the ship, wanted to shift things a little bit toward Michael [Tait] and Kevin, because he wanted them more involved. He would sacrifice a little bit of his ‘rap stuff’ so they could be a little more musical and ‘poppy,’” shared Collins.
He did confirm that from the onset, the style of Jesus Freak was intended to be more radio-friendly. Alternative rock and grunge was at its pinnacle, and McKeehan, especially, wanted to capitalize on that sound. Once Collins and co-producer Mark Heimermann began manning the dials for this project, they just sort-of, “went for it,” as Collins conveyed. Striving for perfection, Collins expressed that the sessions for Jesus Freak were “tedious,” but the end result was more than worth it.
“It was a time capsule of a record that took every bit of eighteen months to complete. It wasn’t until around the six-month mark, that we began to realize just how special this was going to be.”
Beginning with the title itself, Jesus Freak, Collins said, “We got to collaborate with Larry Norman at an American Music Award one year, and we consider him as coining the term ‘Jesus Freak.’”
He continued, “As Christians, we weren’t going around and cursing and all of that stuff, but we played with a little bit with rebellion, and in a cool sort-of way, we kind of considered ourselves outcasts. We made records we liked we wanted to—like the stuff we would hear all over the radio dial—but obviously also remaining to recording content that contained life applications.”
Recalling the previous album, Free At Last, and its recording sessions, Collins said he and McKeehan were really into Eric B. and Rakim, Run DMC, and a lot of the really hot, up-and-coming hip hop artists of the time. “I kept pushing Toby to go in certain directions—he finally had enough and said, ‘TC man, listen… We have to make records that people want to hear and are relevant to them, not relevant to us. We have to earn the right from our audience to make whatever records we want down the road, and maybe sacrifice what we want on the front end.’”
Toby is a genius at knowing his audience and what they like. Even at that time, he knew he wasn’t doing shows for a predominantly ‘urban’ audience, but knew that if he threw in some elements of that, it would be accepted. He is a master at not starting trends, but following them—resulting in giving the people a taste of what they want to hear.”
Shall we consider Free At Last to be, of sorts, a sacrifice for what was to come—maybe for Jesus Freak? Perhaps even Jesus Freak was even more of a continuance of this notion that ultimately culminated on their last group effort, Supernatural? Excuse our digression—maybe this is a topic for another article?
As he reminisced, Collins winced at the fact that DC Talk wanted to be, in his words, “overtly ‘Christian’”—but also sensing a spearhead-like spirit, as he explained how the group was constantly striving to push the envelope for the ways in which the Gospel could be presented—and eventually accepted.
“Free at Last was a pretty substantial record, and we wanted to take it to another level,” said Collins.
Aiding in this endeavor, in the mid nineties the DC Talk team bought a little house just off the tiny and historic downtown square of Franklin, TN—coincidentally right next door to an elderly couple, many know by name from the famous Jesus Freak skit, Mr. and Mrs. Morgan. The home was gutted, studio installed, and it became the center of operations and ultimately the birthplace of their next, and groundbreaking album.
Once the studio was set up, Collins recalled Toby McKeehan bringing in a batch of really intricate songs—“Incredible,” as Collins put it, that were quite a departure from Free At Last.
“When he would come in with those songs, we were like, ‘Oh shoot, these things aren’t even finished, and they are really good!’” recalled Collins.
Of one of the more memorable tracks, “Between You and Me,” Collins remembered a particularly creative collaboration between he and McKeehan, “This was a phenomenal song, but in its infancy the demo tracks and lyrics weren’t really vibing. Toby agreed, and asked me, ‘What would you do with it?’”
Immediately, Collins thought it should have a heavier groove. “Toby was thinking the track could be a mixture of, ‘Seal meets Whodini,’ a la the song ‘Friends.’ That beat began to lay the foundation for the groove.”
“[McKeehan’s] learning to sing is a testament to his work ethic, his drive and determination. If he tried to play an instrument, he could probably figure it out,” said Collins. “Now, he’ll competently compose a piano or guitar part, sing it for the session players and producers, and they’ll translate it perfectly on their instruments.”
On the experience as a whole, Collins said, “It was a great time in my career and life. I wish I would have enjoyed it more, especially if I knew what was around the corner and in the future,” he admitted. “I definitely look back on it as a labor of love.
“We painstakingly crafted those songs, and the production efforts that they specifically called for. I don’t think we would have the timelines or patience to make a record like Jesus Freak today.”
Track 1: “So Help Me God” (Listen)
Todd Collins: This was not one of the first songs we demoed. The whole intro/guitar part was lifted off of a cassette. We liked the crusty/grainy sound. It was definitely one of the ones where we knew we had to start the record with a “wall of sound.” It sounds vastly different than the demo, which was a lot more intimate. It set a perfect tone for the record.
Kevin Max: It’s a great album opener because of the riff. It immediately set the album apart from Free At Last, yet still retained some of the funkiness to what that album is about… Opens up with a pretty intense shift, but still playful.
Track 2: “Colored People” (Listen)
TC: This song was the “badge of honor” as an interracial band. Toby wanted the track to have more of that “urban feel” to it, as an homage to the R&B music he grew up with. We then built the more non-urban stuff on top of it.
KM: It’s obviously a declaration, and we as an interracial group, lived it out. It was a subject that was very close to all of us. It’s one of my favorites because it has a feel to it that was like arena pop, like a huge anthem… We saw first hand so much of the ignorance that still happens. We lived it everyday, like a skin kaleidoscope.
Track 3: “Jesus Freak” (Listen)
TC: That’s just Toby listening to Nirvana and liking the energy on ”Smells Like Teen Spirit” and saying, “I want to make a song like that.” We tried to be artistic on other stuff, but we made no bones about copying that song. “Teen Spirit” was a very well written, very well structured song. Our difference was on the bridge, the rap part. It was a copy. We were trying to copy that because they do it better than anyone, and we understood that.
KM: I remember Toby and Mark coming up with the actual chorus, and saying, “Wow, this is a big song.” It really wasn’t until Oran Thornton came in and played the riff that I really saw what it could be. Obviously we were aping on Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I think when you add the hip hop qualities to the very subversive dance-like verses, it’s a musical mutant. It’s the same kind of idea as “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” where the chorus and the verses are drastically different. Toby’s rap on that is historical.
Track 4: “What If I Stumble” (Listen)
TC: This was the answer to “The Hardway” [from Free At Last]. Those two songs are Toby’s perspective of looking [at a friend], and how he went through life with struggles that he went through with his family and his acceptance. They were very much about the journey. It is very much about all of us, and applying it to say, “What if that’s me?”
KM: This is probably one of my favorite DC Talk songs of all time, because it speaks with clarity how Christian people are flawed and need the Savior—and that’s the reason that we follow Jesus Christ. It is showing the idea of grace is so huge in the overall structure of faith. I still perform that song live, as it continues to resonate with me today.
Track 5: “Day By Day” (Listen)
TC: We looked at Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and Thriller as being Volume 1 and Volume 2. If you take those two records and put them back-to-back, every song kind of has a part two song. “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” has the answer of “P.Y.T.” from Thriller. We tried to do a little bit of that with “Day By Day,” and feel it is the part two of “Jesus Is Just Alright.” We needed to have another cover on this album. “Day By Day” was really Toby’s torch to bear, because nobody really like the song—including me! Toby said, “No we’re doing this song, and we’re going to do our best to make it fit with the record!” He thought older people would like the track because they knew the song.
KM: I don’t know. I do like it, it’s not one of my favorite songs on the album, it’s OK—a great album track.
Track 6: “Mrs. Morgan Interlude” (Listen)
TC: We just thought it was funny. It was kind of a joke. There were always these kind of, jokey/sarcastic interludes. My favorite is the other Mrs. Morgan interview on the, Freaked! Jesus Freak, tribute album.
Track 7: “Between You And Me” (Listen)
TC: That one was my baby. That was the “Socially Acceptable” [from Free At Last] of Jesus Freak. From demo to the master, and getting the feel right, it’s my favorite DC Talk song of all time. It’s just a great song. Structurally, lyrically, musically, and vocally —the perfect DC Talk song!
KM: [Regarding the music video] What was in the box? Absolutely nothing in the box, but grease. What had been in the box was some form of food that had been sitting there for a while. Maybe that was an even bigger statement, the emptiness and the greasiness of unnatural space.
It was the predecessor to “Consume Me.” It’s a ballad, yet still has that modern soundscape to it. Very alternative pop. A lot of people compare it to stuff Seal was doing at the time, because Michael’s vocal on it and the use of the synth. I think it’s one of those ballads that you can break down with an acoustic guitar and it sounds just as good as it does produced. What I like most about it is the interweaving harmonies between Michael and I. There’s a lot of deep harmonization involved, and I remember distinctly coming up with those parts and Heimermann, just being super excited and happy that we were going that deep with harmonies. He is a huge Beatles and Queen. We had to do these takes live, and we created depth that has stood the test of time.
Track 8: “Like It, Love It, Need It” (Listen)
TC: We had “Jesus Freak” the song, we needed something kind of rocky to balance it out. It’s more of an album filler. I didn’t have a ton to do with the song because they hired a bunch of musicians to come in and play.
KM: I can tell you I wrote on that song, but I don’t remember it. I remember that song being the rock and roll element that I felt we needed to have on the album and for the live show. The lyrics were kind of fun, and a little bit out there. That was sort-of the first time I influenced some of the lyrics a little bit. We had a blast creating that song because it was fun.
Track 9: “Jesus Freak Reprise” (Listen)
TC: This took thirty or forty five minutes worth of work, and was done by me. We were in the studio at 3:00 a.m. and it was me, DC Talk, and Dan Pitts. We were all delusional and joking around after listening to the song “Jesus Freak” over and over for hours, making sure it was perfect. I kept singing the song even when we stopped it, and then I started making fun of it.
The music is an old 70s church record that I stole the intro for, and looped. I never saw Mike and Kevin laugh so hard, they were all crying! I was making fun of the pastor at my church because that is what he sounded like when he would sing.
Toby and Kevin wanted it on the record, and DC Talk never offered any explanation about the track. They all kept it a secret.
Track 10: “In the Light” (Listen)
TC: We had a massive amount of respect for Charlie Peacock. We made the song with a live band and we did some light programming and orchestral arrangements. That song is a huge, epic song, and Charlie is in it at the end. We were trying to make an even better version of his song.
Kevin, to this day, has unbelievable control over his voice, almost like a jazz musician has over his instrument. He has a really unique ability to sing ad-libs that are very sophisticated in tone and execution, but were still simple enough for the average knuckle-head to do. He did these ad-libs that were almost like listening to a guitar solo—genius song-crafting.
KM: Peacock was one of the first artists I saw as a Christian musician. Back when we were at Liberty University, nobody really knew what Christian music was. Toby and Mike understood it more than I did. I was listening to The Smiths, David Bowie, The Cure, Duran Duran—I didn’t know anything that was happening in Christian music. One of the first tours we did was overseas in Europe with Charlie Peacock, The 77’s, and Rez Band, and I remember watching Charlie Peacock and saying “Wow, this is great music. So Christian music is a valid art form.” He’s still, in my opinion, one of the best Christian artists of all time.
What adding his song did for the album was give it a moment to just kind of take a deep breath and a sigh, and get back to a more acoustic feel. It’s a song that’s about paradise and heaven, and talking about imperfections and being human. If there’s any song on the record that kind of feels like a moment where everything turned around, that’s the song.
Track 11: “What Have We Become” (Listen)
KM: This song has fictional scenarios, and is that moment in the process of creating a little more of a rock and roll edge in a song coming from the structure of a pop song. That’s a great example of where we’re at with the amalgamation of all the different talents. It’s like a band that has several songwriters, it develops this strange hybrid of styles. It’s a social commentary song and little bit of a rocker. It’s darker and deeper than the rest of the stuff.
Track 12: “Mind’s Eye” (Listen)
KM: This was taken from some of Billy Graham‘s messages. That is why we used parts of his sermon. Stylistically, I love the song a lot. It was probably one of our favorite moments live on the tour, because it had a really interesting vibe on stage. It was epic and theatrical. I loved the video on this live, as we tried to show the vastness of the universe behind us on stage.
Collins on “What Have We Become”/”Mind’s Eye”
TC: Those two songs, back-to-back, are epic. The two were recorded in a different studio, which is why they have a similar feel to them. They have an urban feel on top, and then were continuously built upon, to create more ear candy. I correlate those two songs with a place. It is sort of DC Talk’s “Abbey Road Medley,” that flows into “Alas My Love.” “Mind’s Eye” had a lot to do with “What Have We Become.” They were touring and Billy Graham asked them to perform at the crusade at the Georgia Dome. They asked if they could put Billy Graham’s voice on the Jesus Freak record. I picked through his sermons and used it as the bridge of the song. It lined up perfectly. The sample brought the song to where it was supposed to go.
Track 13: “Alas My Love” (Listen)
TC: John Mark Painter did that track with Kevin. It was based on a poem that Kevin had written and they made that into song. When it was brought to us, Toby and I loved it.