Reese Roper on Five Iron Frenzy and Scum of the Earth, the church he helped co-found
In the course of writing this week's feature ("O Scum All Ye Faithful"), I spoke with Five Iron Frenzy singer and Scum co-founder Reese Roper. Roper was an icon for '90s Christian punk rock, writing songs with a lyrical sophistication that referenced literature and world history. His songs were, at times, critical of the very world that had made him famous, pointing out hypocrisies of religion and culture.
Working within a genre that was known for its sycophantic, xeroxed bands of the secular mainstream, Five Iron Frenzy was unique and controversial, not shying away from using colorful language and discussing difficult political issues.
In 2003, Five Iron Frenzy announced its ironically titled farewell tour, "Winners Never Quit." A few months later, Roper resigned as co-pastor of Scum. He has since pursued various recording projects but has taken a sabbatical from being a rock star.
In 2004, he got married and moved into the Sunnyside neighborhood in northwest Denver. Recently finishing nursing school, Roper works as an RN for a retirement home and spends his free time caring for his newborn daughter and trying to catch up on sleep. I caught up with the Five Iron frontman on the phone as his three-month-old baby napped close by, the formerly boisterous punk-rocker whispering so as not to wake her.
Westword: What difficulties did you experience working within the world of Christian rock?
Reese Roper: In Five Iron Frenzy, we had far more acceptance outside the church than inside it. Very early on, we played a lot of bar shows, and we played the Ska Against Racism tour with Less Than Jake and Mustard Plug and a bunch of other bands. I think we were conditioned to think that we would be attacked outside of the church and be welcomed inside, but it was actually the opposite. The people in the church were like, 'Why are you playing in bars? Why are you doing this?'
What was your response to that?
[Laughs] "Well why aren't you?!" That's what Christ was all about. He didn't hang out with the religious people. He didn't hang out in the temple. He hung out with prostitutes and thieves. And tax collectors -- who were the thieves of their day.
But wasn't your popularity with young people in the Christian scene?
I think it became that way, which was actually a blessing. Playing Christian festivals and churches really paid a lot. Which freed us up to go play at bars and do tours with secular bands because, you know, it's hard to make a living being in a band with eight people. I think there are a lot of bands that can't really make it in the general market. And I think it's easier [in the Christian market]. If you write a song with the word Jesus in it every other word, then you can make a million bucks.
But it seemed like you guys were what the industry was looking for: A Christian alternative to Less Than Jake or Mustard Plug.
Maybe. I don't know. I think when we came on, it was one of the first times when Christian bands were not just copying what secular bands were doing.... I don't want to say in "history," because 100 or 200 years ago, all music was Christian music. But we just started playing ska because we liked it, and it happened to be the same time that ska got big in the rest of the world.
The argument that you "just played ska 'cause we liked it" makes me wonder about others in the Christian-rock market. How would that argument not work for them? DC Talk could say they switched from rap to rock because "they just liked it," right? I ask because you've probably been accused of being opportunists in the Christian-rock world, playing ska because Christians wanted a cultural counterpart to what was popular in the secular world. How was FIF different, as far as being "authentic," from, say, the Newsboys, Michael W. Smith or Carmen?
I believe that we were authentic compared to those bands because we sang about real life and actual problems that we had. It's one thing to say that Jesus changes you and makes you a better person, but completely another thing to say that because of that, you are sorry for being homophobic, or ignorant to the plight of Native Americans, or that blind nationalism is wrong -- things that are offensive to much of the Church but need to be said.
We weren't afraid to say those things -- whereas I think those other bands were either blind to them or afraid of losing their end-cap slots in the Christian bookstores by singing about them. After that, if people still liked us and appreciated us, I think we could have gotten away with playing any type of music we wanted.
It's easy to say that those bands may have been jumping on some bandwagon to be popular or to sell records, because lyrically -- and even their shows and the places they chose to play were inoffensive and candy-coated. No disrespect to them, because I think that the music of all of those people you mentioned is very edifying It just isn't groundbreaking -- or even trying to be.
How did FIF differ from its secular ska counterparts, like Less Than Jake and Mustard Plug?
I think that musically, we were both more poppy and a bit more complicated than those bands. The band that I think we resonated with the most in the secular world was the Mad Caddies. Message-wise, I think we just upset everybody. Too deep and convicting for the Christian market, and too Christian for the secular.
What you guys were writing about was different than most Christian bands, like Native American genocide or materialism in the Christian world. Did you have a lot of personal resentment for the Church?
I think a lot of us had been burned by Christians or burned by the church. How Scum was put together came out of that. We'd been in a band for two or three years by then, and I don't know if we resented that world but...I think if you look at the story of Christ when he was pointing his fingers, it was at the religious people. He would be mad at the Pharisees or the sadducees...but he still loved them. He still had friends who were Pharisees. When he died, Paul becomes his apostle -- who was a Pharisee.
When we as a band write about things that we hate, that becomes the church just because I feel it's the most hypocritical. If your only goal in life is to get ahead and live comfortably, and if you're using the name of Jesus to abuse people, using the power of the church to take advantage of weak people, there's nothing that makes me more angry. We ended up taking that to heart and wrote a lot of songs from it.