Spirituality and pop music have never been comfortable bedfellows. Even (wisely) ignoring the garish cartoon show that is Christian rock, there's just something about JC and AC/DC that usually doesn't mix well, which is what makes bands like the Daredevil Christopher Wright such a pleasant surprise. On In Deference to a Broken Back, the group's long-awaited debut full-length, the much buzzed-about Eau Claire-based trio tackles the big issues—death, God, faith—without alienating those who are more devoted to Devo than mainline Christianity.
"I'm a practicing Christian, I suppose," admits frontman Jon Sunde, whose parents both worked in traveling music ministries. "But I grew up in a place where much of the Christian music I heard—particularly the Christian pop music—just wasn't inspiring at all. At the same time, I loved the secular music my brother was exposing me to. It was something I struggled with for a while. I knew I couldn't write songs without having some aspect of my spirituality in them, but at the same time I didn't have any models of how that could be done in a respectable way.
"When artists like Sufjan Stevens and Danielson came around, everything changed for me," he continues. "They incorporated faith into their music in a way that felt honest and didn't attempt to clean anything up or avoid doubt. That freed me to feel less nervous about how my songs would come across. I realized most of what I write about—things like struggle—is common to the human experience regardless of people's religious backgrounds."
While lyrical asides about David and Goliath may perk up the ears of the faithful, nonbelievers have plenty of equally compelling reasons to listen up; Deference is a boldly ambitious album, a bewitching blend of intricately harmonized full-band alt-country explorations, cacophonous time signature-shifting rock, and stripped-down singer/songwriter fare. The Daredevil Christopher Wright has more than just faith on their side—they've got serious chops.
"My brother [bass player/backing vocalist Jason] and I were both classical vocal majors at the university in Eau Claire," says Sunde, by way of explanation when praised for his group's impressive technique. "University was my first real exposure to that kind of regimented system and formal training. My passion all along was songwriting, and as I look back now I realize I always had one foot out the door. I certainly value the classical tradition, but it was always just supplementing what I really wanted to do. With this record we tried to utilize what we had learned while filtering it through a sort of pop lens."
Helping with that filtering was Justin Vernon of Eau Claire secret-turned-international sensation Bon Iver, who mixed the record in a way that maximizes Daredevil's impressive dynamics and the impact of Sunde's elastic, Colin Meloy-evoking voice. Prior to Vernon going supernova, Eau Claire was probably best known by Twin Citians as the coolest place one could make a beer run on Sundays; but as Sunde makes clear, the music scene's surprisingly vital given its Lilliputian size.
"Jason and I grew up in Amery, Wisconsin, and came to Eau Claire specifically for its music program," says Sunde. "I went to college with the intention of becoming a music teacher because I figured that was the only responsible thing you could do with it. I was eventually freed from that feeling after spending time in the music community here. It was the first time I really got to see great working bands up close and hear how they evolved. Seeing groups like [Vernon's pre-Bon Iver band] DeYarmond Edison grow up as a band was inspiring, and really gave me a sense of possibility I didn't have before."
Now that Sunde's embraced the role of bandleader fully, with one stunning album already under his belt, he's got the opposite problem. "Every band I hear now inspires me to play music exactly like them, to the point where it gets a bit ridiculous," offers Sunde sheepishly. "I go see Ratatat and immediately come home thinking, 'Man, I should be writing instrumental dance music!'"
THE DAREDEVIL CHRISTOPHER WRIGHT play a CD-release show with Laarks, the Wars of 1812, and Small Cities on SATURDAY, MAY 16, at the 400 BAR; 612.332.2903