Featuring fast beats and quirky, often humorous lyrics that mix pop culture with spirituality, the pop-punk band Relient K has been compared to Blink 182 and the Foo Fighters. As Kim Shipman wrote in America's Intelligence Wire, "To get an idea of their lyrics, subtract all profanity and references to drugs, sex, and alcohol…. and double the sarcastic wit and references to God and spiritual struggles." The group's album Mmhmm debuted at number 15 on the Billboard Top 100, an almost unheard-of feat for a Christian band.
The band formed in 1997, while singer-guitarist Matt Thiessen, guitarist Matt Hoopes, and bassist Brian Pittman were sophomores in high school in Canton, Ohio. Thiessen was born in Canada, but moved to Ohio when he was six years old. As a child he took piano lessons, but in high school he became interested in rock music and also listened to Christian punk bands. He met guitarist Hoopes, bassist Pittman, and drummer Todd Frescone in their church in Canton. Every Wednesday night they performed three-chord worship songs for their youth group, but they also began writing their own songs. After about a year, Frescone left and was replaced by David Douglas.
They named the band after Hoopes's Chrysler economy car, a Reliant K; they misspelled the name on purpose to distinguish themselves from the car of the same name. They began performing at a coffee shop called Java Land, begging their friends to go to the shows. Since they all went to different schools, they had a wide circle of friends to draw from, and at their second show, 200 kids showed up. Thiessen told Robert Cherry in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the lack of a music scene in Canton actually helped them: "Our shows became something to do."
Relient K was discovered by Mark Townsend, a member of the Christian band DC Talk, who was also the father of Hoopes's girlfriend (whom he later married). Townsend produced the band's self-titled debut album in 2000, and introduced the band to Gotee, a Christian label co-owned by Townsend's bandmate Toby McKeehan.
Reviewing the band's debut album, Cherry praised the band's "three-chord shout-along songs that somehow balanced smart-aleck, pop-culture-obsessed lyrics with an overtly Christian message." The resulting album was the biggest-selling Christian rock debut of 2000. One song, "Marilyn Manson Ate My Girlfriend," described how a friend of Thiessen's got into trouble and went to a juvenile detention center. During this time, Thiessen told Terry DeBoer in the Grand Rapids Press, his friend started listening to music by artists like Marilyn Manson, known for his anti-religious, antisocial lyrics and attitude. "It's fine to listen to the music," Thiessen said. "But she started getting caught up in the game—the political aspects of those bands. That Christianity is silly, stupid and that God doesn't exist." He also commented that his friend became so interested in Manson's music and message that it was as if "he consumed her mind." The song made it to the top ten on the Christian charts in 2000. In addition to this rather serious song, the band also had a version of the theme song from the television sitcom "Charles in Charge," a show Thiessen watched every day after school. Other songs contain references to actor Michael J. Fox; Seventeen magazine; and Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. These pop-culture references intrigued listeners and may have contributed to the band's quick success and to widening its audience beyond the Christian genre.
Thiessen told DeBoer that the band was surprised at the success of their debut album: "Our jaws are still on the floor with this whole thing. We're just regular ol' kids. That God has been blessing us with this band is, like, unfathomable for us."
Following their debut, the band continued to widen their audience beyond the Christian genre. Their second album was titled The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek. Thiessen told DeBoer, "The kind of music we play is becoming a little more popular these days. We're not really a punk band. We're a rock 'n' roll band with a lot of punk influences. Some people say pop punk." This popularity, as well as the group's well-known sense of humor, led to their being selected to record a song for the soundtrack of the 2002 Veggie Tales animated feature Jonah. Thiessen told DeBoer, "I never thought anything I wrote would ever be sung by a cucumber."
With Two Lefts Don't Make a Right … But Three Do, the band spent months on Billboard's Christian Top 20 list. In addition, the album's first single, "Chap Stick, Chapped Lips, and Things Like Chemistry," attracted attention from alternative and college radio stations, resulting in air time on MTV2, FUSE, and other video and audio markets. Another popular song, "Forward Motion," rose to near the top of the Christian rock charts. Thiessen told DeBoer, "That song talks about no matter what adversity we face, we're gonna move through it as God enables us to do it."
Of the album, Thiessen told DeBoer, "People seem to like it. Some say it's our best record." He also commented that the band's songs reflected their youth and enthusiasm: "We like to sing about our faith … but we're just a bunch of kids. We don't always have the perfect words."
Also in 2003, the band released a Christmas album, Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand, with songs with titles like "Santa Claus is Thumbing to Town" and "I Hate Christmas Parties," as well as more serious, traditional favorites.
In 2005 Brian Pittman left the band; singer John Warne and guitarist Jonathan Schneck joined Hoopes, Thiessen, and Douglas, making the band a quintet. Their 2005 release Mmhmm debuted at number 15 on the Billboard album charts, and sold almost 52,000 copies in its first week. However, the band took this in stride. Thiessen told Cherry that when he heard the news, he was "down here in Hicksville and our manager calls me and says, 'Yeah, you're No. 15 on Billboard!' And then I realized I was at my parents' house and had no one to hang out with and nothing to do, so it was like, 'Well, I guess I'll go play some video games.'"
Laura Willcoxson wrote in America's Intelligence Wire that with this album, the band "have completely outdone themselves." She added, "Each track is filled with not only their original pop-punk attitude, but positive Christian-based lyrics as well." In addition, she praised the band's lyrics about common problems of young people, from feeling misunderstood to the misery of bad relationships and other disappointments. Willcoxon wrote, "Each finely-tuned track brings a sense of warmth, love and like-minded understanding to the ears of the listener." In America's Intelligence Wire, Marcus Toussaint commented, "This is by far the most mature musical effort the band has released to date. The overall sound quality easily overshadows the last three albums; the screaming guitars have never sounded so crisp and clean." Unlike the band's previous albums, this one has no overtly hilarious lyrics, and leans more heavily on introspective lyrics.
Mmhmm was co-released on Capitol as well as on Gotee, a move intended to take it to a wider audience. On whether or not Relient K is still a Christian band, Thiessen told Cherry, "Certain people are going to take things certain ways, no matter what you do. If you play our album for someone who's not a Christian, they're going to take what they take from it; and if you play it for some kid who only listens to Christian music, they're going to take other things from it. Who am I to complain about what you take from the music?" He told DeBoer that a fan once approached him after a show and said, "'You're my favorite band.' And he was Jewish. So it had nothing to do with [religious orientation]." On the band's official website, Thiessen commented that the band has "found it the hardest thing in the world to say 'Jesus' in a song and not be cheesy, so we definitely have our own way of singing about spirituality. But in the end that's who we are and what we believe in. We hope between that and the music, it connects with someone out there."
For the Record …
Members include David Douglas , drums; Todd Frescone (left group, 1998), drums; Matt Hoopes , guitar; Brian Pittman (left group, 2005), bass; Jonathan Schneck (joined group, 2005), guitar; Matt Thiessen , vocals, guitar; John Warne (joined group, 2005), vocals.
Group formed in Canton, OH, 1997; self-released Relient K, 2000; signed with Gotee Records, 2000; released The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek, 2001; released Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand and Two Lefts Don't Make a Right … But Three Do, 2003; released Mmhmm, 2005.
Addresses: Record company—Gotee Records, 1746 General George Patton Dr., Brentwood, TN 37027. Website—Relient K Official Website: http://www.relientk.com.
Relient K, self-released, 2000.
The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek, Gotee, 2001.
Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand, Gotee, 2003.
Two Lefts Don't Make A Right … But Three Do, Gotee, 2003.
Mmhmm, Gotee/Capitol, 2005.
America's Intelligence Wire, February 3, 2005, p. NA; April 1, 2003, p. NA.
Buffalo News, December 3, 2003, p. N3.
Grand Rapids Press, September 29, 2000, p. 10; September 19, 2002, p. 18; October 16, 2003, p. 21; October 20, 2003, p. B5.
Orange County Register, February 22, 2005, p. NA.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), January 3, 2005, p. D1.
"Relient K and CCM's Salvation," PopMatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/interviews/relient-k-050208.shtml (February 8, 2005).
Reliant K Official Website, http://www.reliantk.com/ (May 17, 2005).