Greycoats' new album CHARISMA! could just as well have been named EMPATHY!
Lead singer Jon Reine repeats that word at least ten times during a conversation at a St. Paul coffee shop, close to the release of an album two years in the making. Reine is not an anxious man, but his delivery is so passionate, whatever subject he touches on, that he’s hard to keep up with. He barely finishes a thought before moving on to the next.
At first, the idea was to keep it simple: CHARISMA! would be a postpunk album, limited to 10 songs, its sound spare, with few overdubs, released at no-frills show at the Turf Club or the Entry. Reine’s original plan was to sound like Joy Division as fronted by Jimmy Swaggart, and he wrote most of the album during 2016 with this vision in mind.
But as he continued reading a biography of Swaggart, Reine’s musical approach shifted. Rather than churning out a simple postpunk record, the band revisited some ideas they had left over from their last album, Adrift. They’d entertained the idea of working with a playwright on Adrift to build out their production, but that record had already overflowed its boundaries. (The group built a spaceship to appease the creative gods on that album.)
While CHARISMA! remained rooted in the music of the ‘80s underground, it also ballooned into something more ambitious. The album release show would be part concert, part theatrical production, and part film. Based loosely on the life of Swaggart, the story begins at the tail end of the Cold War and follows Reverend Jonny (played by Reine) through his rise and fall from grace as a Pentecostal celebrity as he preaches an apocalyptic gospel on satellite TV.
As the group delved into writing with playwright Seth Bockley, the characters grew increasingly more complex. This story delves empathetically into the humanity of an authority figure who caves under the pressure and loneliness that comes with his position, from the stress of having to serve as a rock for others.
In addition to Swaggart, whose downfall began after a late ’80s sex scandal, the story is also drawn from the life of a similarly disgraced pastor, Ted Haggard. Reine stresses that he doesn’t seek to excuse the behavior of these men, but rather to give us a glimpse of what may have motivated them.
“There’s a brokenness, but also a chance for redemption and humility,” Reine says. “They start over, and they have a smaller following. Some things are cyclical. I don’t know if people always learn from their mistakes. You hope they do, but sometimes it’s just in their nature to do what they do. Some of those things factored into this story.”
Reine, his bandmate Mike Smith, and director and cinematographer Kevin Horn decided to travel out to California to film at the Salton Sea, which a song on the album is named for. On their way, the three stopped at a bar in Bombay Beach, a dystopian ghost town where residents clung to memories of happier times.
Like a scene lifted straight out of CHARISMA! (or Mad Max ), this visit almost landed the bandmates in their first bar brawl. “I had a wool suit on and a wig,” Reine recalls. “We walked in and the record scratches, and everybody turned. There were 12 people gathered around a bar, and the bartender yells out, ‘What can I get you?’”
“I’m in my costume in 117 degree heat, and this guy at the bar is looking at me and says, ‘Take your jacket off.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I didn’t want to get frostbite’—making dumb jokes. ‘Oh, you think you’re funny? Take your jacket off.’
“I quickly realized that it was getting weird and he eventually told me to take my wig off, but I said, ‘Oh, yeah, this is my hair.’ Next to him at the bar was this old Mexican guy with a fly swatter. He didn't talk the whole time; he just sat there and swatting flies. Kevin was covertly filming with his iPhone, while this tan, leathery woman sat and drank. It gave me a sense of empathy for the residents in this town: I’m not better than anyone here; I need to respect people’s space.”
An hour later on the road, they found a random cross planted at the Algodones Dunes (where the Jabba the Hutt scenes from Return of the Jedi were filmed), and while dizzy from the fatigue and heat, Reine walked out into the Salton Sea to film a pivotal scene for the film.
“We weren’t sure if it was safe to swim in, but I walked out,” he says. “The water is so salty and buoyant that I couldn't get down. It was also so warm, and I was so scared of where was the drop off was. It was totally quiet and eerie. Your feet would sink into wet sand, and I didn’t know what weird creatures were in there. As soon as we were done, I took off my wool suit, and Mike had to bathe me by pouring water that we brought with us all over me. I brought my salty clothes to the hotel and had to rinse them in the tub. It was a transcendent experience.”
As ambitious as this show and album is, Reine and crew don’t plan on slowing down. “This album was about getting the courage to approach a subject that was vulnerable for all of us,” he says. “We’ve all struggled with it. What does faith and religion mean in our lives? I’ll always be reaching for something else or just reaching for something. At the end of the day, I hope we create a catalog and art from within my heart—something that I can proud of 20 years from now. I hope someone will discover it, because I enjoy making those discoveries [with other artists] on my own. That’s me lionizing myself in the future. Maybe someday people will understand, and I’ll get my platform.
“Success is so relative, and it’s luck of the draw,” Reine continues. “Until we stop feeling compelled to make stuff, it’s not enough for me. I try and value friendships and family I have, but I live in this weird tension where I wish I could put my ambitions away. I wish I could work a job, be a cool dad, and be just settle and be a well-adjusted person. Why can’t I be happy with Chick-fil-A and Friday night lights at a football game? There’s a part of me that wishes I could accept the fact the music is never going to take off, and, yet, I need to keep making. I’m gonna create what feels right for me.”
Where: Southern Theater
When: Sept. 20-23
Tickets: $20 advance, $24 doors, $12 students and seniors, free to ARTshare members; recommended for ages 13 and up; more info here