Songwriter Interviews

Steve Hindalong of The Choir

by Dan MacIntosh

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Steve Hindalong is best known for co-writing the worship song, "God of Wonders." He wrote it for a City on a Hill worship project, and - in addition to being recorded by Third Day - this song is sung in Christian churches on Sunday mornings all over the world. Hindalong is also the primary writer, drummer, and co-producer for The Choir, who started in Southern California in the '80s, and is still at it in Nashville these days. The band's 2010 album is Burning like the Midnight Sun, and with songs that cover topics like Christian cruelty and the role of nature in the universe, it's best enjoyed with a little explanation, which Steve has graciously supplied.
Dan MacIntosh (SF): The first thing I noticed about Burning like the Midnight Sun was its seemingly self-referential songs; namely, "Mr. Chandler" and "Legend of Old Man Byrd." Did it concern you that there may have been too many "insider" moments for new fans to fully grasp? Please explain.

Steve Hindalong: Much of the lyrical content throughout Burning like the Midnight Sun is a celebration of enduring relationships. The title track promises, "I'm never gonna give you up / I'm burnin' like the midnight sun." At this point in my life, it's the deep and lasting friendships cultivated over many seasons that provide the truest satisfaction. Any success usually requires perseverance – be it a career goal, an athletic feat or whatever. This is also true of relationships. It isn't easy. You've gotta overcome conflict – forgive and ask to be forgiven. And sometimes it's just best to let some things go.

SF: "A Friend So Kind" is dedicated to fellow musician, Tom Howard. Please tell me what Tom meant to you and your music? Also, for those that may not be familiar with Tom, what were - in your opinion - his greatest musical accomplishments?

[grooveshark]22373529[/grooveshark]Hindalong: I knew Tom when we lived in Southern Cal. I was intrigued that he had played keys in Larry Norman's band. He was part of that whole '70s "Solid Rock, Street Level" scene with Daniel Amos, Randy Stonehill, Mark Heard and all. I admired those guys – especially Mark Heard, who I became fairly close to. Mark died of a heart attack at 40 in '92. Tom was just shy of 60 when he died this past winter.

A lot of us Californians migrated to Nashville in the early '90s hoping to "make a better life." Kinda like the dust bowl Oakies of the '30s only in the opposite direction! We became like family, some of us, sharing holidays and building our own traditions.

My musical relationship with Tom began when he arranged strings for At the Foot of the Cross Vol 2 - The Seven Last Words of Christ, for which he composed stunning orchestration. Over the next 15 years I hired Tom to arrange strings any time the budget would allow. Listen to the orchestra on "God of Wonders." Brilliant!

One on one, Tom was the kind of friend every one of us needs. He was a passionate counselor and a lover of souls. Yeah, and he was a hilarious character. After I got the shocking news of his passing, I pretty much just sat alone in the dark for three days. On the third day I wrote the poem that served as the lyric for "A Friend So Kind." Ah, I've got some stuff I need to talk to Tom about right now. But he's gone.

SF: The most confusing lines on the album, to me at least are: "I studied law at the blind man's school/Of cruel indoctrination," in the song "It Should've Been Obvious". Well, it wasn't obvious to me, at least. What are you getting at there?

[grooveshark]22373532[/grooveshark]Hindalong: In 1973 my eighth grade teacher at Whittier Christian School spoke passionately, tears in her eyes, about the most honorable thing a young man could do – "Join the army and kill commies." In 1983 Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday was signed into law as a national holiday. My boss at the hardware store where I worked – a deacon and a choir member at the Baptist church I attended commented, "Why don't they kill 6 more of them and give us a week off?" I received plenty of "cruel indoctrination" being brought up in fundamental evangelical Christian churches and schools, where bigotry is alive and well. And I graduated from a conservative bible college.

It should have been obvious that a Christian should not have owned slaves. But it wasn't to so many who professed to be "Christians," including many of our nation's founding fathers. So, what things, I wonder, are not obvious to us today that should be? For example, I kneel before the cross of my redeemer "just as I am." Surely Jesus embraces our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters "just as they are." Only recently have I adjusted my views on this issue. That's why the lyric goes, "Hey, that was me, the self appointed judge…" Jesus said, "Judge not…" (Matthew 7:1). It saddens me that this is such a divisive subject. I have studied it intently and discussed it at length. I view the relative passages of scripture differently now, given their cultural contexts. But mostly my heart and mind are changing as a result of a few individuals who I care for and have begun to understand. If I am wrong – and I am wrong about things every day – I'd rather err on the side of mercy. So often Christians show a cruel face, in shameful contrast to the merciful face of Christ, whose heart we are called to exemplify.

But you know, I don't want to conclude this topic on a negative note. I've experienced so much goodness and light in the presence of believers. My own parents, lifelong devoted servants for the cause of Christ, have been inspiring examples of gentle, unrelenting faith. Enduring joy is strong evidence. We don't agree on all matters of theology, but they have demonstrated authentic Christian love to me – and I believe in it.

SF: The song "The Word inside the Word" almost seems to be an apologetic (defense of the faith)- with references to Gandhi and Buddha. Was there an experience that prompted the writing of that song?

Hindalong: Dan, I'm so tempted to leave this question alone – to let the song speak for itself. I'm a poet, not a pastor. Ya know? When a song is emotive to listeners, inspiring personal reflection – Well, that's a fine result already. A primary objective of art is to invoke response. Ha! That sounded pretentious! But I really don't want to be lured into a polarizing debate about the literacy of scripture. I do understand that Jesus made a new covenant with us. And by his blood, his death and resurrection, we are reconciled to God and liberated from the law.

I have two daughters in college. They're both keen-minded, articulate, independent thinkers. As they observe the world, it has become apparent to them that religion is often a catalyst for dreadful conflict and destruction, as it has been throughout the centuries. Today, Islam has its hate groups, a small minority, misusing the Koran to justify acts of terror. There are violent white elitists in America calling themselves Christians. Ignorant intolerance goes on and on and on. Angry preachers of "the gospel" behind pulpits and cameras, and all over the Internet quote passages of ancient text to condemn others according to their own prejudices. Have you read Leviticus lately? I mean the entire book? There are a whole lot of outlandish rules in there – irrelevant in this present context. Jesus loved people, not dogma. He said, "By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). The word inside The Word is "love."

I want my girls to find their own lasting faiths. I hope and pray they follow Jesus. At times I'm quite sure they've seen the light of Christ in my life – and at certain times – clearly not. I understand how the ugly, false face of Christianity repulses them. But in beautiful contrast, the body of Christ is a miraculous force for good in this world – when we move as one in the Spirit of love. We are His hands. We are His feet. Holy Spirit, whisper to the hearts of my daughters. Let them hear your true voice. Speak to me also, Lord.

[grooveshark]22373561[/grooveshark]SF: At first glance, "Between Bare Trees" seems like a song about Christ's Passion. But upon closer inspection, it appears to be more about the beginnings of a relationship. What's the story behind that one?

Hindalong: My wife, Nancy, is a lover of nature. She grew up in Boise, Idaho and her heart is still in the northwest. She can identify most trees by their bark, seed and leaf. Through her eyes I have learned to appreciate the structure and beauty of bare trees. And it brings to mind the importance of transparency in a relationship. We've shared many difficult seasons over 28 years. There have been times when it seemed we wouldn't make it. But our love is richer for having endured the winters. Yes, and then comes spring – the greening!

SF: The song "I'm Sorry I Laughed" reminds me of the line, "There's something funny 'bout a lot of sad things." What encounter led to the writing of that song?

[grooveshark]22373576[/grooveshark]Hindalong: We were playing at a club in St. Louis back around '90. During our sound check, Dan Michaels somehow lost his balance and fell off the stage. It must have been about 4 feet high, and he went down hard. We all laughed. Luckily he wasn't hurt, but he was quite shaken and his saxophone was badly bent. He had to find a repair shop on the road and wasn't able to play sax with us for several shows. I felt ashamed for laughing. Most humans, it seems, share the same dark trait – finding humor in the misfortunes of others. Why is it funny when someone slips on a banana peel? That seems to be the primary appeal of most reality TV. Why are the humiliation, ridicule and suffering of other people so entertaining to us?

SF: Musically, "I'm Sorry I Laughed" hearkens back to the semi-psychedelic period for The Choir, which was right before the band moved to Nashville. How was the instrumental portion of that track created?

Hindalong: Well, now that you mention it, that song does "hearken back" sonically. Them are some backwards guitar loops Derri's (Derri Daugherty) got goin' there. Back in the '80s we used to have to turn the 2-inch tape reel upside down to accomplish that. I have no idea what all he did, but yeah, it sounds great. I threw a thin blanket over my drums and played with mallets to get that muffled sound. Tim played bass thru a wa-wa pedal that I worked with my hands. We lifted the sax riff from our Chase the Kangaroo album. Dan's lyricon was truly emotive on the outro – maybe his best since "More than Words" from our Shades of Gray EP in '86. Semi-psychedelic period? Sure. But that spirit is always alive!

SF: "Invisible" touches upon spiritual warfare a bit. But at the same time, it considers some of the excesses inherent in some that take spiritual warfare just a little too far. Is that the idea behind this one? If not, what caused you to write - at least a little bit - about demonic activity?

Hindalong: Late one night on a tour, maybe 20 years ago, we were all standing by the edge of the road somewhere in the Dakotas. I don't recall why. Maybe somebody needed to smoke or pee or something. Off in the distance we heard a thunderous rumble and saw a rolling shadow. Had we been considerably further away, we might have imagined it being some supernatural phenomenon. But it became evident that it was an actual herd of wild horses. Sometimes mystical meanings are errantly assigned to natural occurrences. Infinitely more is hidden than is known. And I humbly revere spiritual forces. But I know Christ will win that battle. He already has, in fact. Draw near. No fear.

SF: How is the state of The Choir, all these years on? Is it easier to make records now? Is there less pressure to 'make it big' than before?

Hindalong: We don't feel creative pressure at all. We just make music we want to hear. There are no unrealistic commercial expectations. That's not the motivating factor for us. We have tremendous admiration for one another artistically, and we enjoy hanging out together. For example, whenever Marc Byrd was able to come over to play guitar, we were all so enthused. We love what he does! There's always creative tension and a bit of push and shove. Like I kept insisting to Tim, "It's gotta be tight." And he'd say, "It's gotta swing." Then he'd play us a Rolling Stones record and I'd say, "That's great but what does it have to do with us right now?" To which he'd respond, "It swings!" And I'd say, "Well yeah, but we gotta be tight!" Ha! That's part of our chemistry and none of us would want it any other way.

We are all extremely patient with each other's performance process. None of us are well practiced, studied "session players." We're "band guys," so we struggle in the studio. Seriously. I understand the challenge to "get your musical heart on tape," so to speak, in spite of inability. Sometimes the "kick drum foot" just won't cooperate! That empathy has helped me a lot as I've produced so many bands over the last coupla decades. Patience is a vital virtue in the studio. "Do it again…again…one more time…you almost got it… Yeah, that's it!" It can be so gratifying, bringing songs to life with people you love and respect. That's how it is with The Choir.

SF: With Derri and Steve now full-time Lost Dogs members, how hard was it to concentrate on making The Choir music? Do Choir songs come from a different place, and if so, how does the music differ between those two bands?

Hindalong: No, playing for the Lost Dogs is not "full-time." We make an album once every 2 or 3 years, and tour a few weeks a year. Ya know, when you're riding across the country in a van playing shows, it's like you're 22 forever! It's definitely fun, and I'm grateful to be included. Our most recent release, Old Angel, inspired by a trip we took down Route 66, is an epic work we're all extremely proud of.

We've gotta do a variety of things to survive in this line of work. Making a Choir album requires a lot of focus and time, so we can only do it every so often. But I feel blessed, still being at it after all these years. I've never had a creative dynamic with anyone like I have with Derri, so I was thrilled to dive into another project. It had been five years since O How the Mighty Have Fallen. Derri just got on a roll again, creatively. He played me several demos that resonated with me right away. I just rode the wave, so to speak. Tim Chandler wrote music for a couple of tunes again also. We always appreciate what Tim brings because it's so distinctly "Chandler," melodically and tonally – refreshing to the ear, and part of our "sound" by now.
Writing lyrics for The Choir is different for me than anything else. It comes from a very true place. No agenda – Just honest sentiment in response to the music. I'm very thankful for every opportunity I've had to write and produce songs with Derri and the guys.

SF: How did the song "God of Wonders" come about?

Hindalong: I was fortunate to be able to produce the first two Common Children albums in '96 and '97, so I got to know Marc Byrd well. It's been great how our relationship has evolved over the years, creatively and as friends. And his wife, Christy, who sings all over this album (BLTMS), is among my favorite people ever.

I had a black Guild guitar that Marc used to borrow fairly often. (It's the one I referenced in "Legend of Old Man Byrd." I gave it to him in 2000 for his 30th Birthday.) Anyway, he took it on a lone writing retreat to a cabin somewhere in Arkansas where he professes to have had a spiritual epiphany. There was something profoundly inspired about several songs he wrote on that sojourn. One of them was what would become "God of Wonders." He played me the chord progression, singing a few lyrics like, "Halleluiah to the Lord of heaven and earth…" Immediately I felt soul-stirred. I sensed that it called for loftier language than we are typically inclined to use. Marc and I both tend to write very personal, introspective lyrics. But I felt like this one needed to be more transcendent – grander than us. We both feel thankful for its inspiration, and humbled to have offered it.

It's beyond our comprehension really – this notion that the Creator, not just of our world, not just of the Milky Way, but of ALL the galaxies in the universe – wants to share an intimate relationship with each of his children. When I call His name in the night my savior will recognize my voice! "Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart" (Psalm 37:4). "The Clouds are the dust of His feet" (Nahum 1:3). "God of Wonders" is a celebration of unfathomable divine truth and love.

SF: Outside of the realm of your musical expressions, is there anything else we should know about you?

Hindalong: There is something wrong with my brain – a chemical missing or a wire loose. I walk into closets trying to find the way out of people's houses. But I can twirl a rope, jump on a pogo stick, toss a quarter high in the sky and catch it behind my back with one hand eight out of ten times. Once while on tour, we stopped at the Smithsonian Museum. I stayed outside on the lawn to watch a juggler and drink beer. The guys ridiculed me incredulously, but hey – that guy was a good juggler.

We spoke with Steve on August 12, 2010
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Comments: 2

  • A. J. from FloridaI understand Mr. Hindalong's yearning to be at peace with himself:accepting
    Homosexuals and Lesbians as brothers. As far as mankind (creation) goes, yes; in practice no. Being brother to homosexuality is only so if you are one (That's their creed). Whatever we think, the creator of the universe hold the cards. When all is said and done and we're dead and long gone, He'll still be reigning in power. In other words , my friends, He is the last and abiding word. The final authority. The whole enchilada! lol!
    He calls Homosexuality unnatural affection and unnatural lusts. (Check out the first 2 chapters of the book of Romans. Lest We forget Sodom and Gomorra, burnt to ashes,for a warning; found in the book of Genesis. What some call a lifestyle He calls sin. His only prescription for sin is: Repent and be baptized every one of you in Jesus' name for the remission of sin and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (The book of Acts chapter 2). Webster's dictionary define repent as: to feel sorrow, regret, or contrition for; the action or process of repenting especially for misdeeds or moral shortcomings. In moral shortcomings let's not single them out alone.If we too are liars, thieves, murderers, [*censured*] mongers, drunkenness,fornicators, adulterers and haters of God and parents are subject to the same fate. The remedy is simple: repentance now while there is time. Jesus said all manner of sins shall be forgiven unto men. Stop the lies. Homosexual trail is leading them to destruction. Yes, my friend, the truth is not always sweet and easy. I would rather you not spare hurting my feelings and tell me the truth than sugarcoated lies..Rather, I would have no sex at all with woman, man nor beast if it means eternity in hell. Ain't your soul worth more than some fleeing passing pleasure? "What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?" Your enemy knows your soul is priceless. He wants it. Don't give it to him...

    Your friend A.J....... tony200795@gmail.com
  • Alien Slave Girl from OhioThanks for this interview. The questions were thought provoking and Steve's answers were articulate, funny, and honest. I wish Steve much success and personal fulfillment in the years ahead.
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