Anarchy on the Cross
Christian punk band Otis is our new voice of political dissent
June 09, 2005
I will always believe in punk rock, because it's about creating something for yourself. Part of it was: "Stop being a sap! Lift your head up and see what is really going on in the political, social and religious situations, and try and see through all the smoke screens."
- Joe Strummer of The Clash, July 2002
The Pauwela Cannery, one-time Haiku pineapple factory, is now home to a myriad of windowless shops—surfboard shapers and screenprinting, mainly—as well as several small studios for local punk and metal bands. The three members of Otis meet here, every Thursday and Sunday night.
Down a long corridor of unmarked doors and connecting passageways, the entrance to the band room is virtually indistinguishable. But inside, the cramped room explodes with loud riffs, heavy drumbeats, massive speakers, variegated posters of the Misfits, Iron Maiden and a wall-sized confederate flag.
"That's not ours," the drummer is quick to point out.
There's a momentary lapse in decibel level as the guys discuss which song to play next. As they launch into opening chords, there is a false start—the bassist isn't singing his part and subsequently, the guitarist loses footing. Apologies are made, the band begins again and the revitalized song flows successfully.
Afterward, the band sits in the hallway to cool off.
"I heard Green Day and Foo Fighters are coming."
"I wouldn't mind seeing Green Day."
"Seeing them? I wanna open for them."
"Oh, right. Then we wouldn't have to worry about tickets."
The members of Otis met a couple years ago at church. Their love of Joe Strummer—leader of legendary British punk band The Clash—brought them together. Named for a friend's dog, they've been performing in public for eight months.
Nate Robertson, drummer, is the most outspoken member and "de facto manager" of the band. Currently working as an apprentice at Hot Rod Ink, Nate is covered in tattoos, including a very prominent spider on his throat. Over the past few years, he's played in local hardcore bands Left 4 Dead, Rubberbandz and Absence of Void, as well as Lawai'a, an eclectic band that fuses island music with soft rock.
He started playing drums seven years ago, influenced by the hard and fast sounds of Rancid, Pennywise and later The Specials and Madness. Nowadays he listens to Only Crime, Black Flag, The Slackers and System of a Down. But no other music affects him as much as punk rock.
"It's not so much a music as it is your outlook on life," he said. "Punk started as a bunch of pissed-off kids who wanted to make a difference."
Nate considers punk's core to be protest and rebellion. And in this case, he wants to use this message to educate people.
"Our message is kind of to Christians," he said, "to sort of wake up and realize that there's a bigger world than your real estate business and your golf games."
Nate's younger brother Noah is the band's lead vocalist and bassist. He's spent the last five years leading popular hardcore band Absence of Void. Soft-spoken and polite in person, Noah is an impassioned and articulate performer on stage, spewing the political lyrics of his brother and friend with convincing venom.
The Robertson brothers moved to Maui 20 years ago. They had a strict religious upbringing—their parents went to an offshoot of Hope Chapel in Haiku—and weren't allowed to listen to any rock music on the family stereo. But by the time he was 13, Nate got a hold of some headphones and the stuff his friends were listening to, and he was hooked. Noah soon followed suit and started playing bass, with guidance from older, more established friends from the Crunch Pups and Khrinj.
Otis' guitarist, Steve Hart, grew up in a Christian household in Michigan. But when he was 16, he got involved with drugs and moved out. Fortunately, he says, with the help of mostly "Christians and gays" in his 12-step program, he sobered a year later and has been clean ever since.
He's been playing guitar for over 20 years, mostly in San Francisco. He also went on 27 North American tours as a roadie, and was a guitar tech for the infamously outrageous Mike Patton-led rock band Mr. Bungle.
Since moving to Maui a couple years ago, Steve's been in school full-time to get a doctorate in English. He also works part-time at Request Records in Wailuku. Like the other two members of Otis, he feels the premise of punk rock is to express the ideology of a frustrated nation.
"I have a 14-year-old son," he said. "And I can't afford to not voice my dissent. In four more years, he'll be 18 and I'm gonna go out swingin' if they're gonna draft him."
Steve was introduced to leftist politics through punk rock bands like the British anarchist collective Crass, Belfast-based Stiff Little Fingers and, of course, The Clash.
"I grew up [with friends in] anarchist groups who said the solution is to get rid of government," said Steve. "But greed is a part of human nature. Anarchy's impossible in its pure form."
"If it were up to me, anarchy would be the best government," said Nate. "In democracy, the main premise is 'mankind is good, is the answer.' We don't believe that. Mankind is destructive without a higher power to set down some rules. Anarchy works on kibbutz in Israel. They believe they have a reason for doing what they're doing. Bob Dylan said 'you gotta serve somebody,' so you might as well serve someone who cares for you."
When Nate isn't apprenticing at the tattoo shop, he works construction with his brother. Sometimes the band has gigs on the weekend, usually at some community center or park. But every Sunday morning, Nate goes to church at 7 a.m. and plays drums in the 8:30 and 10 a.m. worship services.
Hope Chapel is a contemporary Christian church serving about 1,200 parishioners on Maui through its 18-acre facility in Kihei. The sermons are heavy on "inspirational worship" and folk rock-tinged hymns, and are largely in-depth discussions of biblical verbatim taken straight out of the Old Testament. But in a remarkably contemporary manner: during one recent sermon, Pastor Craig Englert ran a PowerPoint Presentation of biblical passages on a giant screen under the title "The OT" done in the same graphics style as the popular Fox television series
Otis members say they've received a lot of support from non-Christian bands but have had arguments with people at church about their politics. In fact, they say that's one of the reasons why they go.
"The right wing of Christianity opposes gay marriage," said Nate. "That's where we differ. We can't have a true democracy or republic if we segregate based on sexual preference. If homosexuality is a sin—I mean, according to the bible, premarital sex is wrong, so how is common law marriage okay?"
"I believe that the Bush Administration is turning people away from God," Steve said. "I don't see much of a difference between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims—both are against freedom and say very similar things."
"Rob Finberg [Christian Fellowship Church pastor and candidate for State Senate] said to follow the Old Testament and stone all gays," said Nate. "If I were gay, how would I ever want that church? The Bible's clear that you're saved by grace. David screwed up his whole life and Jesus said he was a man after his own heart."
"If everything goes unchecked," Steve said, "then who will speak up for the voices of dissent? Because Bush and his administration have hijacked the definition of Christianity, the dialogue of what Christianity means and stands for has rapidly dissolved into a gay-bashing, rights-revoking, capitalist-globalist environment."
Nate and Steve write the lyrics for Otis. They prefer not to use the standard "drink, fuck, fight" rhetoric of some punk. Instead, they focus their songs on politics. And they don't swear. They say they don't want to give other Christians an excuse to stop listening before they hear their message.
"We want people to be offended by what we're playing," said Nate. "Not what we're saying… We're not gonna judge or hit them over the head with it. I will talk to them about my faith. I wanna be a band with a message. And have my faith as a part of it."
Their song "In Control" is about how "your mind is where revolution starts, before it ever gets to guns." "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" calls out Christians who support war.
"We feel it's our moral imperative to stand up against this," Steve said. "The 10 Commandments say, 'Thou shall not kill' and 'Thou shall not covet.' There's no gray area in that commandment."
"We believe Jesus' message is of love and acceptance," said Nate. "Not of condemnation or judgment."
"As Leo Tolstoy pointed out in
The Kingdom of God
," said Steve, "it is our Christian duty to stand up against war of any kind, to serve the weak and most importantly, to be a religion of inclusion."
"I like being called a 'believer' instead of 'Christian,'" said Noah, "and not be associated with the religion."
"'Christians' has such a bad connotation—it's all the judging," said Nate. "I believe if Jesus came, he wouldn't associate with a lot of churches. I've had pastors say 'Well, you're not going to change anything.' But I don't want to be content with complacency."
"I wanna say I tried," agreed Steve.
So Otis has a platform and a purpose. But are they any good? Often, when bands are labeled as being "Christian," acceptance within the community is such that it doesn't really matter what the music sounds like, because the message is what matters.
And that can be the ultimate turn-off for secular music listeners. A "Christian punk band" can easily turn into the latest novelty act without the musical talent to back it up.
"I don't wanna sacrifice the art," said Steve. "The music is just as equally important. I write songs that I'd listen to."
"If your music's not good," Nate said, "nobody's gonna hear your message. And you can be marginalized as a band if you expose your beliefs."
On Saturday night, June 4, Otis took the stage at Life's a Beach in Kihei. A pulsing, melodic rhythm erupted. Tension filled the dark bar. A crowd quickly gathered along the perimeter of where a mosh pit would be—should be, were this any place but Maui—silently appraising the speedy, three-chord rock of Otis' straight-ahead punk.
But an unexpectedly dark, sinister and driving sonic undercurrent built in force until the whole bar was riveted, all eyes on the band. Everyone raised their beers in salute.
"This song is about really powerful men," Steve told the crowd mid-set, "who get really poor men to go to war and fight for them so they can make more money."
The crowd looked confused. Steve smiled and shook his head.
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