Cool Hand Luke, the three-piece Christian band, has been part of the indie scene for the last four years until their recent decision to sign with Floodgate Records. Since they started as an independent band from Tennessee, a lot of people don’t know a whole lot about Cool Hand Luke, but the people who do know their music seemed to really dig it. So at Cornerstone I tracked down vocalist/drummer Mark Nicks to do an interview. Talking to Nicks, I came to the realization that Cool Hand Luke is a four-piece band, three members held together like a triangle with God in the center.
Matt M: I was just wondering, I saw you guys yesterday and you seem to face the opposite way as the audience, is there some reason behind that?
Mark Nicks: Technically, we face the same way as the audience. OK, sorry. Our reason for doing is we don’t really consider ourselves entertainers or performers and we want it to be a worship experience. We feel like if we’re not facing the audience it helps us focus. We hope that it helps the audience focus and just puts the focus on God, so that we’re not glorifying ourselves.
MM: Did you know there are some other bands that go by the name “Cool Hand Luke?”
Nicks: We played in West Virginia and some people said there was a ska band called “Cool Hands Luke.” Then somebody told us they saw online some cover band in Texas called “Cool Hand Luke.” I don’t know, we’ve never heard of a touring band called “Cool Hand Luke.” I guess yeah, we knew that.
MM: Do you think it will ever be a problem for you guys?
Nicks: I’m more worried about it being a problem because it’s a movie than I am because of other bands. We’ve talked to a lawyer, he doesn’t handle copyright law, but he said that it shouldn’t be a problem because they’re two different markets. You can’t copyright a title. The only problem would be if they decided to come out with a Cool Hand Luke action-figure that was called “Cool Hand Luke.” There might be a problem there because they could copyright that name. But I guess because it’s in different markets it’s not supposed to be a problem, but I’m still slightly worried about it.
MM: So where is Cool Hand Luke from and what’s the music scene like back home?
Nicks: I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, and Brandon and Jason are from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I just graduated from college, but we all go/went to Middle Tennessee State University and that’s in Murfreesboro. That’s where I met them at and it’s pretty much Nashville-it’s only like 30 miles away. The music scene is very sort of conceited there. Pretty much in Murfreesboro and Nashville everybody’s a musician, everybody’s a critic and kids don’t really go to show to have fun. They go to hang out with people, and they just kind of stand there with their arms crossed and critique you.
You’ve got to be a really big band to get a very good draw there. We usually have maybe 50 or 60 kids now when we play in Nashville, but it took a long time to even get that big of a following and half of them are our friends. It’s a very hard scene to be in.
MM: You sing and play the drums. Have you ever considered being up front and playing the guitar?
Nicks: I’ve daydreamed about that, but I’ve never really considered it. There are a lot of reasons. For one thing, I think that I might actually struggle with pride if I was the “frontman” and that would mean having to get another drummer. We’re just really worried that adding another member might change the “chemistry” of the band. We’re really like-minded and have the same spiritual goals, and I don’t know if we could find anybody that meshed with us as well as the three of us work together, if that makes any sense. I think it would be really cool to do that, but that’s really me thinking about what would be cool, instead of me thinking about what would further our ministry and I don’t see how that would benefit God’s kingdom any way.
MM: Supposedly, you started as a pop punk band and then became a screamo band. Musically how have you changed from what you were back then to what you are now?
Nicks: Well, Brandon and Jason had been friends for a long time and they started getting into punk like MxPx, Slick Shoes, old Squad Five-O and stuff like that. They wanted to start a punk band. They wanted to be a new school punk band, but I don’t think we were really good enough to be new school, so we were just kind of pop punk. Not to say that catchier pop punk is not good, I’m just saying that we weren’t good. Anyway and they met me at a Ruby Tuesday through a mutual friend and asked me if I wanted to play drums in a punk band. At that point, I was kind of like getting over the punk thing, but I was like, “I’ll give it a try.” I played with them and we just really clicked. We started out playing punky stuff and our shows just weren’t what we wanted them to be spiritually, because it was more kids just jumping around and pushing each other than it was really focusing on our message. We just started focusing on writing more worshipful music. We never sat down and said, “Hey let’s be screamo.” There was never any conscious change. We started handing our songwriting over to God and it started slowly changing into what it was. I think our first EP is screamo and the full-length has a lot of that on it. To me, I think those are sort of transitional periods where we finding out who we were. And we’re pretty much moving away from the screamy stuff. We just really want to write beautiful music that is glorifying to God and leads people in worship. Whether that what’s we’re doing or not, I don’t always know. But it’s evolving, I don’t think it’s done yet; I think we’re still trying to find our niche.
MM: What’s the songwriting process for you guys?
Nicks: We’re weird. I think most bands a guitar player usually comes in with a riff or the skeleton of a song. Usually a lot of prayer goes into our songwriting. Maybe as cheesy and cliché as it might sound, we really try to let God write our songs. I can say that it’s equal three parts, there’s no predominant songwriter in the band. We just come together and maybe Jason like just rip out something by accident and we’re like “That’s kind of cool. Do that again.” We just keep adding stuff and when I have an idea, I’m usually not good enough to play it on the guitar. I’ll just end up humming something to Jason and he’ll figure it out. Then, we usually write the music first and I’ll record it on a tape, just on a boom box. Then go home and I usually take a couple weeks writing lyrics to a song. I just pray over it and try to find out what God wants the song to be about. I usually get the melody first and then start putting the ideas into those melodies the best that I can. So it’s kind of a long drawn out process that doesn’t make much sense and we don’t really understand how it happens.
MM: What types of topics do you address in your songs and do you ever write about the opposite sex?
Nicks: Well, on the last record there was sort of a theme that I think God gave to it, more than I decided there was going to be a theme to the songs. Just sort of a theme of messing up, sinning, talking bad about your friends and seeing the error of your ways, and coming back to God’s forgiveness. We try to make our songs worshipful, but all of our songs aren’t always necessarily just straight up worship songs. We have a few songs like that; those are usually our favorite songs. But the newer songs are about some things that God’s been speaking to me about. Just about how we strive for contentment and the paradox of how you can’t strive for contentment, because it’s being content with where you are. Encouraging people not to chase “the American dream” and get caught up in this scene, and in materialism, that’s a lot of my lyrics. We try to write songs; also beyond just having some specific message, just songs of worship to glorify God and to maybe make people’s hearts think about that. As far the girl’s thing, we don’t have any songs about girls. I don’t want to write any songs about girls, I just kind of feel convicted not to do that. And I’m not downing bands that do, but I feel like our role is to solely glorify God and to try to minister to people. I have a song that is off of our first EP that is about one of my friends that was raped. There’s a song that is probably going to be on the new record that is about a girl. It’s just a fictional character, but it’s not a love song or anything like that. Besides that I have never been on a date, so I don’t really have much writing material for songs about girls.
MM: Your band seems to be ministry-orientated because of how vocal you guys are about your faith. That seems pretty rare today in the Christian scene, what is about your faith in God that makes you want to share it with people through your music?
Nicks: Acts 4:20 says we can’t help speaking about the things we’ve seen and heard, and that’s the way we feel. None of us have like a radical “I was a drug dealer and then I got saved” story or anything like that. We were pretty much raised in the church and Christian homes, and we’re very thankful for that. But we can definitely see that God has pulled us out of the mud and has given us something very special, and we want to share that with people. God is the biggest part of my life and I can say that he’s the biggest part of Brandon and Jason’s lives. For me, if we were on a platform, if we get on a stage and we don’t mention Jesus Christ, then I’m sinning. I know that God would have for me to share my heart and to share the gospel with other people, and that’s the biggest opportunity that God has ever given me to share Christ with people. To neglect that, I just wouldn’t be able to live with myself. That’s what He’s called me to, that’s what He’s called our band to and I feel like that’s what He’s called all Christians to. It’s just our responsibility and that’s our joy, and that’s the reason why we play music to begin with. Not to mention that just seems foolish to me.
MM: What does worship mean to you?
Nicks: That’s a tough question. I feel like I’m learning a lot, God’s teaching me a lot about worship. Traditionally when you hear worship you think about music, but it’s so much more than that. Henry Blackabee says that, “Worship is bringing your heart to God and being changed.” In light of that, I wonder how often we really worship God. I just think there are so many different ways that you can worship God. Ephesians 5:10 says, “And find out what pleases the Lord.” That’s been my prayer for the past few months. Because I feel like God makes us all unique and there’s a certain way that every human being can worship the Lord that nobody else can do it the way they can; like I sing and play drums-that’s one way that I worship God and Brandon paints. Some people can worship God through just sitting outside and meditating on Him. I think just anytime we acknowledge and just enjoy God-I think that that’s worship. I don’t think it has to be in a musical setting or even in an artistic setting. I just think it’s bringing whatever you can bring to God and enjoying him in that way.
MM: Do you think you’ll be in full-time ministry after the band?
Nicks: I’m planning on pursuing missions. For a while we thought the band was going to break up. I graduated from college in May. I felt called to missions about two years ago at the One Day conference in Memphis. I feel called to missions, I feel called to long-term missions, foreign missions. I thought that God was going to have me leave the band after I graduated, but as we prayed about it we just saw that God was using this band. I just assumed that because God called me to missions that I was going to have to give up the band, but God never actually told me that. So we’re doing this for a while, but I plan on going to seminary and pursuing missions-and that’s what I feel like I’ll be doing with the bulk of my life.
MM: How many releases do you guys have and can you talk a little about each one?
Nicks: Someone got angry because they interviewed me and I didn’t mention our first demo tape. So I’ll mention that. I think if you asked Third Day how many records they have they would mention the ones that are on [a label] and wouldn’t mention their demo tape, but I’ll mention that anyway. Like two months after we got together we recorded a pop punk demo, it was called “Demo Shmemo.” [It] had four songs on it and it was pretty much straight up pop punk, and enough said about that. Brandon sang at that point and I just sang backup, harmonies sometimes. Then we put out an EP called “So Far” and that was when people started calling us “screamo.” It was just sort of melodic emo stuff with a lot of screamy parts in it and we had kind of punky song left over that we recorded on it.
Then last year we put out a full-length called “I Have Fought Against Myself and Torn Myself to Pieces” (right), which is a quote from St. Augustine about his conversion experience. That’s sort of a hodge-podge of old songs that we didn’t want to let go and new songs that we had just written, so there’s not a lot of continuity in it, because there’s a lot of the old screamier stuff and then some more melodic stuff on it. Well, we just put out a 7-inch on Vindicated, which is just two of our newer songs that we wrote. One of them is not a very typical Cool Hand Luke song, it’s kind of rockin’ and dare I say even a little bit poppy. Then the other one is just a pretty worship song.
MM: What made you decide to sign with Floodgate Records after being independent for so long?
Nicks: Well, a lot of prayer went into it. Tim Taber runs the label and he’s just a man of God who I feel like respects us as musicians and he respects our ministry. We didn’t feel like he was going to change us or turn us into some “Rock star” band. He’s a complete man of God and he was in The Prayer Chain, he understands what it’s like to be a touring band and he wants to help his artists out. I think that his label has a lot of integrity. We prayed about it a lot and felt like it was where God was leading us. We’ve been independent and it’s kind of hard letting that go, but we’ve always trusted that God would take care of us. He allowed us to put two CDs out independently and I think this is how God’s taking care of us now, because it was going to be a big financial burden to try to do another record on our own, so it’s going to help us out a lot.
MM: So when will your next album be out and can you preview what you anticipate from it musically?
Nicks: Well, we’re planning on going into the studio probably late September or early October and we’re thinking it will probably be out at the beginning of next year. Musically it’s going to be a little toned down, not as much hard stuff. It’s going to be more melodic; pretty much there probably won’t be any screaming stuff on it. I feel like a Jeremiah of sort, because some of the subject matter is not always happy stuff. It’s kind of like some things that God has laid on my heart, just problems with the world. I’ve addressed some of that and I’m always like, “God, are you sure you want me to say this, it sounds kind of negative?” But it’s some stuff that God’s laid on my heart and I hope that it will be just a really worshipful record. We’re kind of nervous and excited to see what’s going to happen, but I hope it will be pretty.
MM: So who’s in the WWJD choir and what type of music is it?
Nicks: The WWJD choir is: the three of us in Cool Hand Luke and our road manager Joe, and everyone in Norma Jean, except for Doolittle, and sometimes Matt from Unwed Sailor and all those other bands he’s in, sometimes he’s in the WWJD choir. We’re pretty much a boy band with lots of choreography and really catchy songs. It’s just fun for kids of all ages.
MM: Is it really a boy band?
Nicks: We’re a boy band.
MM: Do you have recordings or anything like that?
Nicks: Well, Norma Jean has worked on some demos while they’ve been on tour. We don’t have anything final and official yet, but we’ll let you know as it progresses.
MM: Any last words, thoughts, comments or suggestions?
Nicks: I just encourage everybody to stay in the Word and seek a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, instead of just wearing the name “Christian.” Love God.
For more information about Cool Hand Luke click here.