according to Derek Webb
By Neil Ellis Orts
Photo by Aaron Greene
Derek Webb may not be a household name, but he’s been making music for nearly two decades. After spending his adolescent years in Houston’s northern suburbs, he was part of the Houston-based Christian rock band, Caedmon’s Call, for much of the 1990s before starting his solo career in 2003. He has just released his fifth album, Stockholm Syndrome, on which this straight family man offers such words to his fellow Christians as “You say you always treat people like you’d like to be, I guess you love being hated for your sexuality.” Another song tells Fred Phelps, “Brother, can’t you see, you’re the one who’s queer?”
It’s causing a little controversy in some circles. Set to an electronic web of loops and programmed beats (co-created with Houstonian and former band mate, Josh Moore), the album also has references to Martin Luther King Jr. and laments about selling out to the state—not your typical contemporary Christian music album.
The Stockholm Syndrome tour comes to Houston’s House of Blues on October 24. (For ticket information, visit derekwebb.com.)
Neil Ellis Orts: Do you like playing in Houston or is it nerve–wracking to play in your home town?
Derek Webb: I always really like playing in Houston. I lived there for about 13 years, I went to high school outside of Houston in Spring, and I’ve still got some friends in Houston. My family doesn’t live there anymore.
Were you a member of a church here?
My parents grew up Baptist and Catholic, so they took us to a Methodist church as a compromise, and then [we] socially wound up floating from one place to another. Then I worked at a church for a while in Houston.
Are you currently involved with a church?
I am. My wife and family and I go to a church in Nashville. We live on the east side of the city, kind of near downtown, and there’s a small church there called City Church East, which is where we’ve been going for some years. It’s a really small gathering of people. It’s unlike any other church I’ve gone to. It’s not really focused on the weekly gathering so much as in living and integrating long–term into the neighborhood where we live, trying to be of good use, trying to put our hands to doing good work.
The reason for this interview is primarily because of two songs on Stockholm Syndrome: “What Matters More,” which takes the church to task for its treatment of LGBT folk, and “Freddie, Please,” which is directed to Fred Phelps. So, is it a goal to have the Westboro Baptist Church protesting your concerts?
I tell you what, it would be a tremendous encouragement to me, to tell you the truth. Man, where to start? I always knew I would make this record. I always knew I would eventually need to draw a line in the sand in terms of a few of these issues. I mean, I’m an artist. My job is to look at the world and tell you what I see. That’s the job of any artist.
When I look around my world where I am, I see this major disconnect between the community I claim to be a part of, the church, these Christian people—which I don’t deny, I am a follower of Jesus—but several of my very best friends are gay and lesbian. And I have had a hard time, over the years, to put a context around people like Fred Phelps or the late Jerry Falwell or several of these kinds of characters. These are apologies I’m no longer interested in making, on behalf of these people, to my friends, to the people in my life who I love.
What this album as a whole kind of became was the sound of me using my art as a barricade between the hate and the judgment in my own community and the people who I love more than anyone else and are in my life.
So for that reason, it’s my most fiercely personal record. I felt like it was time for me to get up on the front lines and absorb some of that judgment myself, because a lot of my friends are coming under [Phelps’] venom and judgment for no good reason. I felt like it was time to join them, to put myself out there as well. For that reason, I would love if he came or sent his church members.
Was your church upbringing more conservative or was it always open? Was homosexuality ever a question for you, and, if so, how did you get to the point where you’re accepting of your friends?
You know what, I don’t really know. I mean we were out in the suburbs, and we were pretty far from a lot of these issues. Not always, but typically, people go to the suburbs to gather together based on their general preferences and general income level and skin color and sexual orientation. People tend to gather intentionally where the people they don’t like can’t afford to join them or don’t feel welcome. So I didn’t even see a lot of minorities growing up. There were like maybe six or eight black people in my class, and I was in a class of several hundred. It’s different now in that same area of Houston, but it’s interesting how you just take in this kind of Christian dogma. It’s like some of this stuff just comes with it, if you’re not careful.
So in terms of how did I come to this place of loving my friends, you don’t have to read far into the things that Jesus said to find that he wasn’t hated and hunted down and executed because he was so morally upstanding that the sinners couldn’t stand him and finally put him up on a stick. It was the arrogant, self-righteous leadership that were ultimately the ones who killed him because he so radically loved people, people they couldn’t accept because of their law.
So this is the irony of the contemporary church. We’re being hated for all the wrong things. If we’re going to be hated for something, we should be hated by people in our own community who are self-righteous, just like Jesus was, and we should be hated because we love people who, for them, are too complicated [for them] to love, and we love them so radically that they can’t stand us for it. That needs to be the kind of trouble we’re getting into. That’s the kind of trouble I’m trying to get into.
Neil Ellis Orts wrote about choreographer Salim Gauwloos in the June issue of OutSmart.