Ah, the music of Christians and demons

Described as “nerdy and spazzy” by The Onion, Detholz! — pronounced “Death Holes” — was formed at Wheaton College, a conservative evangelical school from which the band’s members were later expelled, outside Chicago in 1996. Jim Cooper, guitarist and frontman, said, “While we were all attending the Christian university, we became increasingly aware that our faith had a lot of holes. We formed this band to blow off some steam.” Why were they expelled? According to Cooper, they were very naughty boys.

What started as throwaway surf rock soon evolved into a prog rock/new wave sound. Cooper and guitarist Karl Doerfer have been involved since the band’s inception, and the other members joined in 1999. Despite the relatively long run of the band, Cooper said that the project has always been interesting, growing, and evolving — which is why there has been little turnover and no problems staying together.

Although most frequently compared to Devo and The Talking Heads, Cooper considers the band to be a “pastiche of a few different sources.” Since most of the band met in a music conservatory, the members all happen to be self-proclaimed classical nerds. Cooper said that they’ve tried to cram as many influences as possible into any given song, especially with songwriting, where “we borrow a lot from the songwriting of other bands — like repetition and minimalism. I appreciate David Byrne and The Residents as songwriting influences — particularly The Residents’ album* The King and I*.”

Labeled as both Christian and Satanic by their fans, detractors, and the media, the group’s music is a blend of irreverence and appreciation for members’ evangelical upbringings. The band’s MySpace profile proclaims that “the result is something that has consistently defied easy categorization and always produced the strongest of reactions, including accusations and threats of arrest for ‘Satanic Worship,’ prayer circles at shows both for and against the band, and heated (sometimes physical) exchanges pitting fans versus detractors (and sometimes fans versus fans).”

Cooper attributes the group’s spiritual affiliations, or lack thereof, to growing up in conservative evangelical Christian communities. However, Cooper said, “[Our agenda is to] humanize evangelical Christianity for those growing up outside it, based on our own personal experiences.” However, the religions practiced by the band range from atheism to devout Christianity. Since they’ve been given a Christian label by the media, you’d think that their detractors are non-Christians. However, devout evangelical Christians believe that Detholz! is not toeing the party line. Cooper said, “Now evangelicals are running the country, which is a nightmare. People who peg us as a Christian rock band have their own agenda, and we don’t affiliate with any religion. We find it nauseating being pigeonholed.”

According to the band’s Wikipedia page, “One distinguishing feature of the band is the idiosyncratic nature of their lyrics that have — and are often critical of — religious (mostly Protestant evangelical Christian) themes and reference a wide variety of topics including artificial intelligence, psychoanalysis, televangelism, and Mars.”

The band is also featured in the documentary Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? about Christian rock, because of the diverse bands they play with. According to Cooper, “The story behind that was that we bamboozled them into letting us play the Cornerstone Festival [a Christian music festival] in order to get money and to exorcise all the personal demons. It ended up being a humbling experience because the kids were really challenged by our performance. Then we played with Pansy Division, a queercore punk band, and the producers of the documentary asked why a Cornerstone band would ever play with an openly gay group.”
Detholz! has performed and toured with bands like Radio 4, Electric Six, Wilco, and Weird War. While partying with Weird War in Oslo was incredibly memorable, Cooper said, the Wilco shows were the biggest. Cooper described Wilco as “very down to earth and friendly. We’re still pretty close to them. Last year we had a heckler at the 9:30 Club [in Washington, D.C.] and at least 25 percent of the audience hated us. I was so nervous and shaking, but I finally just let loose and gave [the heckler] the finger. Then Jeff Tweedy [Wilco’s frontman] ran up to us and gave us huge bear hugs. We’ll be playing more shows with Wilco in Chicago in the future.”

Detholz!’s second album will be released on October 31. This album has been two years in the making, “so I never want to hear any of those songs ever again,” Cooper joked. The reviews have started to roll in and most of them have been positive.

Cooper couldn’t be more content with where the group is now. “It has become a close-knit community of friends. It pays for itself and we don’t need to dig into our pockets for it,” he said. “We get to play with Weird War and Wilco. Chicago’s a great pop music town and we all feel very privileged to be a part of the music scene. We’re content.... We have delusions of grandeur.”

To Cooper, it has become more about the community around the band than the band itself. The band used to be the center of everyone’s attention but is now part of the amalgam that is the Chicago musical community. And Detholz!’s future plans? Finishing the tour, with a stop at Carnegie Mellon’s Underground on November 4, celebrating the release of its second album, and heading back to the studio to begin its third.