Last year, Buzzfeed’s Matthew Perpetua wrote a listicle titled “11 Bands You Might Not Realize Are Christian,” which included surprising entries U2, Belle and Sebastian and Black Sabbath. Maybe we just don’t expect musicians to be into God and be able to appeal to the mainstream or indie shoegazers, and especially not bands once accused of being satanic, albeit mistakenly. We expect, sometimes with strong evidence, Christian musicians to be A) bad at music B) sanctimonious and obsessed with talking about being saved and C) deserving of a separate place in our culture’s musical filing cabinet, often called the “Christian ghetto.”
Missoula’s FUULS (pronounced “fools”) is not a Christian band, though lead singer and guitarist Thomas Cornelius is a believer and his songs sometimes show it—though not in an in-your-face manner and not even in a conflicted Johnny Cash way. In “Dishabille,” one of FUULS’ slow ballads, Cornelius sings, “O’ Lord, are my intentions dishabille?/ Avenge and break them by the wheel/ And seal the disarray/ I’ll find you keep your bread right by the wine/ indulge the piety of time/ It’s mine to waste away.”
The songwriting is subtle, more interested in creating an intriguing storyline than in trying to get across a godly message. “I always try to write lyrics people can apply to themselves without having to feel exactly what I feel,” Cornelius says. Which means that it’s hard to tell sometimes if his lyrics are about God or girls, faith or a crush, sin or heartache. Or something more elusive: “Hell was always probably in Heaven’s big white lobby,” he ends with on “Dishabille.” “Before you die you’ll feel like you’ve got life stuck in your bones.”
FUULS is a new band, just hatched in April, but already they’ve played 10 local shows and created a buzz. They are inspired by bands like The Hives, The Vines and The White Stripes, though there’s more to them than punk-oriented garage rock. Sometimes they sound like a psychedelic Rolling Stones—spacey and strutting—but with more poetic lyrics. Often, as with “Dishabille,” they wander into straight-up acoustic pop-punk territory. Cornelius hints at going through a rough time not long ago, growing up in Great Falls and Browning, feeling wayward. You can hear that in the music, too.
On a recent Sunday night, drummer Aaron Soria, 20, drinks a Shirley Temple at the VFW while Cornelius and bassist Rob Cave, both 24, sip on PBR pounders. They are giddy for the night in a way that contrasts with the other bands on the bill—Tacoma’s Lozen, Oakland’s Qui and Missoula’s Shramana—who play pool and unload gear in an easygoing way that gives them away as veterans of late-night bar gigs. “I just want to get up and play right now!” says Soria, like he’s about to burst.
Soria and Cave don’t necessarily focus on faith. (“I’ve wandered from it,” Cave admits.) But they display a kindness for each other that lacks cynicism or crassness, a sweetness that does well in church but could easily be crushed by others with the force of steel-toe boot at a punk show.
“Rob is one of the best musicians I’ve ever played with,” Cornelius says at one point. “The musicians I’ve felt the most honored to play with are always the ones that truly cared about their craft, that add a certain element of musicality where they felt it deep within them. Sometimes you have a camaraderie that makes you feel connected. And when you find that pocket where you are just channeled in, you can’t help but look over and smile. We’ll look at each other, and we’ll just be vibing. Our music is our favorite to play. We love what we do and we love each other.” He says it with a goofy grin. He says it, amazingly enough, without sounding like an earnest twit.
“You guys are so nice,” I tell them.
“Thanks!” they say, happily in unison.
Of course, being nice and excited doesn’t necessarily translate to being good at rock-and-roll. Fortunately, all the energy the trio has off-stage seems to twist itself into something captivating and even edgy on-stage. That night at the VFW they burned through songs like “Blanket State,” “Round Robin” and “Foreign Devils (Hell No Mephisto),” jumping around like hot potatoes. These are tight songs with unpredictable transitions. Cornelius plays quick, searing guitar solos while Cave swaggers around his corner of the stage and Soria’s long black hair whips through the air while he batters his bright green drum set.
Before they had gone on, Cornelius mentioned that he hadn’t written lyrics for all the songs yet, because he wasn’t satisfied with what he’d come up with so far. “Maybe you’ll be able to tell,” he says. Turns out, I can’t. He delivers all the vocals like they are predetermined—not sent from a higher power, but incarnated from someone with the confidence to not worry about being cool. The crowd responded with enthusiasm. It’s not like they had to believe in God, they just had to let loose and dance.
FUULS plays Free Cycles Fri., July 11, at 6 PM along with WEEED, the Flip Wilsons and Couches for the Camp Daze festival. $5/$20 for Camp Daze pass.