"I'm not a car buff," Steele confesses after the auto-destructive side show to his band's CD-release party. "I hate working on my car." Nevertheless, the singer and his four bandmates agree to meet for an interview at Tempe's Malibu Grand Prix raceway, where aspiring Mario Andrettis play Mortal Kombat between $2 spins in tiny dragsters.
It's a warm January day, and the band is gathered around a table in a noisy arcade just off the track, bantering about its new disc between bites of nachos and gulps of Coke. As the name suggests, Latterday Speedwagon is top-loaded with Christ and car metaphors. Take the song "Big Daddy Fire," for instance. The track sounds like a head-on collision between Faith No More and Engine 88, and Steele says "Big Daddy" is a dual reference to race-car driver Don Garlits and God.
"Everywhere we go, people think we're a Christian band," he marvels, toying with his black prescription Ray Bans. "But it's not always Christ we're writing about. The real savior is Lee Iacocca, who rescued Chrysler from a fiery corporate death."
Steele and his bandmates of two and a half years--guitarists Jaime Hickerson and Jason Coreman, drummer Matt Collins, and bassist Erick Smith--are on a rescue mission of their own. Once upon a time, Jesus Chrysler was just five guys jamming in an office space-cum-sweatbox somewhere in Mesa. Critics, and there were many, said their music amounted to little more than slabs of predigested Pearl Jam garnished with jangle-pop. Tired of being pegged as grunge knockoffs, Chrysler resurrected itself.
"We're much more riff-rock-oriented now, with an emphasis on vocals," says Steele, who is still haunted by Eddie Vedder comparisons. "We used to be heavier and muddier."
Latterday Speedwagon signals a complete about-face for Jesus Chrysler, which now takes cues from the muscular rhythms of Soundgarden and the gorgeous vocal tracers of Radiohead. From the raging guitars of "Tourniquet/Almond Joy" to the intensely emotive singing on "Thrown Away," the disc overflows with a hard-edged complexity that underscores Jesus Chrysler's new sound.
The band has matured with age, and so have Steele's lyrics, which are often subtle and multilayered. Take the playfully ironic "Astro K": "Astro K saves the day/Takes his prize and flies away/He don't need no rocket wings/He don't need no tricky things."
"It's about a slacker hero," Steele explains. "The guy has all the abilities to save the world, but he never shows up on time."
Collins offers his take: "Our lyrics are about as defined as this band gets, and that's not very defined. We don't try to sell a political message. I mean, who wants to work that hard when you're listening to a record?"
Jesus Chrysler Supercar was built in 1994, when Steele and Hickerson auditioned what seemed like half the rock musicians in the greater Phoenix metro. After finally settling on Nebraskan transplant Jason Coreman, they recruited Collins (formerly of Kill Creek) and Smith, a soft-spoken individual affectionately dubbed Encino Man by his bandmates. "He wears a loincloth and a headdress at home," jokes Collins, "and subsists on a diet of macaroni and cheese."
Two years ago, the band grabbed an opportunity to record with engineer/producer Ed Rose (Paw, Chainsaw Kittens) at Red House Studios in Lawrence, Kansas, and released the six-song EP Supercar. It sold 1,500 copies--just enough to land JCS a headlining gig at KUPD's U-Fest and opening slots for touring groups like Radiohead, Korn and the Goo Goo Dolls.
Hickerson, a burly redhead with an easy smile, waves off local success like a gnat. "It's easy to become a popular band in a small town," he says. "But in the big scheme of things, it doesn't mean shit."
"Yeah," adds Collins, "you'd think that the natural progression from being large locally would be going large nationally. Well, it's not true. You're so caught up in getting attention in your own town, you burn the first year of momentum. Hopefully, this new record will give us the energy and momentum we need to move on to the next level."
With 5,000 units of Latterday poised to hit the street, and merchandise sales consistently reaping between $150 and $300 per show, Jesus Chrysler is revving its engine. Several indie labels have nibbled in recent months, but the band is waiting for a big-bucks offer. "No one wants to lose their day job over something small," says Coreman, a David Koresh/Weird Al Yankovic look-alike who toils in a Queen Creek pork shop by day.
Collins, one of three married band members and the only one with a child, wholeheartedly agrees. "When you're 20, it's a whole different deal. But when you're 27, you're just not intrigued by boozing it up and falling asleep in a sleeping bag underneath a bench or in a van.
"But for the right money," he adds, "we'll do that.