(As published in Rejoice! ...)
"My obsessions? I have some unhealthy musical obsessions," confesses the former Altar Boy Ric Alba when asked about the music he likes most.
"The Smiths, the Psychedelic Furs, Siouxsie and the Banshees--I like the way all of them play."
The proof is Alba's late-1991 solo debut, Holes in the Floor of Heaven. The first disc released on Glasshouse Records (the label recently established by Christian rock's premiere act, the Choir), Holes draws heavily on the atmospheric, driving, and densely layered sound of Alba's favorite bands.
But it goes further. Alba's unflinchingly intimate lyrics, his surprisingly-strong-for-a-longtime-sideman singing, and his commitment to high audiophile standards combine to give Holes a hopeful, otherworldly glow not usually associated with post-punk cynicism. Indeed, in songs like "See You in Person" and "The Secret World," Alba's yearning for a deeper, more meaningful reality practically rings with blessed assurance.
So what exactly does he enjoy about groups such as the Smiths, whose lead singer, Morrisey, titled one of his solo albums Viva Hate?
"Morrisey is so willing to just spit out anything that he's disturbed about," says Alba, "and he does it in a very clever way. Sometimes his cleverness seems very cynical and negative, and maybe there's something in me that likes that. I don't know.
"But people do wax cynical from time to time. And if they're willing to sing about it, great. They're certainly not preaching it. Secular music is very different from Christian music in that way."
Alba knows all about the sometimes awkward marriage of preaching and music that Christian rock has fostered since day one. As a charter member of Undercover, one of a handful of underground Christian rock bands playing and recording under the auspices of Maranatha!'s Ministry Resource Center in the early '80s, he stood on the front lines of the war waged by evangelical rockers for the souls of America's youth.
"We did the whole thing," says Alba. "Altar calls, lay counselling--we were an evangelical package."
But the then-twenty-one-year-old bassist found the hectic life of an evangelical package wearying, and by twenty-two he'd left the band, although not without new insight into the nature of ministry, insight that would significantly affect his later work.
"Presenting a gospel message at the end of a concert was how we'd always seen it done," he says of his Undercover period. "It was how we were trained to do it and how our church, Calvary Chapel, did it. That's why we did it that way.
"Nowadays, a Christian rock band doesn't necessarily need to minister exactly like that. I see now that a band could minister in hundreds of different ways. But then the opportunity for a high-school student--Christian or otherwise--to hear the gospel in a rock situation was not abundant. So there was a hole that Undercover filled."
The word hole pops up a lot in Alba's work and conversation. When he left undercover and joined the Altar Boys, for instance, one of his motives, he realizes now, involved the filling of a hole that began forming during his childhood.
"Growing up, I had severe emotional and social problems," he says, "and from the age of thirteen, I coped with them by diving into music, into being in a band.
"My problem was that I had a hard time feeling adequate. As a kid, I felt inadequate to work hard enough to please my family. They're involved in real-estate development, and we all work in that field. I felt inadequate to that, inadequate in school, and inadequate to play extracurricular sports.
"But in my music, in my garage band, I could totally focus myself. That was my way of coping. In the middle of that, I became a Christian, and the next thing you know I'm in Christian bands doing the same thing."
After several years in the Altar Boys, Alba began to see the way that he'd used music to combat his feelings of inadequacy, feelings that--as a Christian--he knew he should have somehow combated more directly with the help of God.
So between Altar Boy tours, Alba took thirty days off and, in a particularly un-"Contemporary Christian"-like move, checked himself into a psychiatric hospital.
"I got some much-needed instruction on ways to think clearly," he says of the experience, "on ways to relax. I got a lot of encouragement and some practice in knowing what my needs are and being able to ask for them."
But some of the most valuable lessons Alba learned during his hospitalization had to do with the core of faith itself--one's relationship to God.
"I realized that I don't have to go through life alone. God is there to help. But because I'm imperfect, I can't perceive the perfection of God. I can only perceive it through the filter of all the disppointments and pressures that I'm used to.
"What this is all about," he points out, "is healing relationships--my relationship with myself, my relationship with other people, and my relationship with God. Generally speaking, we don't have working relationships in those three areas."
On Holes in the Floor of Heaven, Alba channels his concern for this healing into a dozen songs that vibrate with a tension rarely found in Christian recordings. Much of the credit goes to the Choir's Steve Hindalong, who produced the disc, and Alba's engineer, Dave Hackbarth, whose "grappling with technology" played a similarly large role in the success of the Choir's latest album, Circle Slide.
But credit also belongs to Alba, who, far from serving up stanzas full of Christian code words, conveys his fears, hopes, memories, and commitment to spontaneous, intuitive associations. "With the exception of the title cut," he explains, "the lyrics came pretty quickly and were edited later.
"See, when I recorded the demos, I did them at home with a four-track and a drum machine. And to make it sound good, I had to put a vocal down before I put the bass and a second guitar down. If I wanted to finish a song that day, I needed lyrics to work with. So they usually came pretty fast. And a lot of the lyrics I wrote very quickly have the most impact on me."
Yet despite the speedy nature of his writing and his willingness to let his songs reflect his struggles, Alba succumbs neither to artless sloppiness or artful pretension.
"It's not heavy," he says. "The topic may be heavy. It may be serious. But to be direct with something that's heavy--it's just not something I want to do. I just want to make it listenable."
Inevitably, as in the case of other Christian musicians whose talent sets them apart from the pack, the question comes up: Does Alba want to--or expect to--ever "cross over" and enjoy secular success?
"Right now," he says, "I'm not trying to be the next big thing." One reflective pause later, he adds: "Maybe one of the little things."
Then, again, the "h-word" pops up.
"The way I see this record is that there's a hole among Christians that this could fill. I don't feel that it's being wasted on Christian ears. For it to fit nicely into the Christian market is not a waste. It's definitely doing its job."
And after this one he wants to do another--and maybe more.
"As I continue my journey, I'd like to continue singing about it if I can. I learn so much from it. I learned a lot about myself making this record."
And while, as he puts it, he hasn't "arrived at inner healing" ("It's not something you start and then stop," he says), he has made great strides toward filling the holes in his self-image that created his
need to withdraw.
"As a psychology major, I learn a lot about these things. I also get counseling on a regular basis. There's a whole world of help available out there. I never knew it. But now I do.
"So I have no excuse if I don't do everything I can with the resources that God sends my way."