The evangelical indie rock scene of the 1990s can be difficult to explain. A rebellious, unhinged underground movement that emerged from megachurch basements and religious colleges? A generation of musicians who broke ties with conservative Christianity but maintained a fan base built through youth groups and Young Life? You kind of had to be there.
Perhaps no band typifies the many paradoxes of this scene and its fallout than Luxury, formed in small-town Georgia in the early 1990s and still together today. The band itself is also hard to describe: maybe Morrissey fronting Fugazi, with sad Radiohead piano, English-major allusions, androgynous sexuality—oh and by the way, three out of five members of the band are Eastern Orthodox priests. (This is called burying the lede.)
And so Parallel Love, a documentary film by Matt Hinton, cannot help but be as strange and wonderful as the band it portrays and the music scene they stumbled into and (mostly) out of. Hinton’s first documentary, Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, also touched on uniquely American religious music. His feature on Luxury, originally released for a short theatrical run in 2019, is available on Amazon, iTunes, and other streaming platforms on May 18.
If you’ve already heard Luxury, you may need no convincing that this band is interesting and worth nearly an hour and a half of screen time. For my money, they are quite simply one of the best, most compelling rock bands of all time. Instrumentally, they toe the line between precision and chaos, presenting a snarling, tangled mess of guitar riffs and feral drums anchored by fat punk basslines, overlaid by an ethereal crooning vocal. It’s gorgeous.
What is more fascinating about Luxury, though, is that they manage to almost by definition be the world’s most Christian band (lead singer Lee Bozeman once claimed Luxury was “the only Christian band”) while not sounding anything like what most people would think of as a Christian band. No songs about Jesus; no positive, “family-friendly” lyrics; no altar calls—in fact, it’s quite the opposite: Luxury’s songs are frequently about sex, sadness, and regret.
Yet the music is made by people who grew up in the evangelical milieu—Lee Bozeman and his brother, guitarist James Bozeman, were pastor’s kids—and, clearly, continue to treat their Christian faith with utter sincerity. The band’s non-priest members remain active in their respective denominations as well.
The two scenes that form the backdrop of the film’s title card set the tone: On the left side, the band’s guitarist, vocalist, and bassist, solemn and dramatically bearded, are draped in gold-trimmed robes, carrying giant crosses past a huge icon. On the right, the same men are prancing about at a sweaty, sensual rock show, aggressively attacking guitars and throwing down microphone stands.
The movie, which uses talking-head interviews with the band, critics, and others in the music business as well as archival footage, is more or less historical, chronicling the band’s journey from their roots at Toccoa Falls, a Christian and Missionary Alliance college in Georgia, to their signing with Tooth & Nail Records, the powerhouse independent record label that fueled the ’90s Christian indie rock explosion, to a horrific touring accident that hospitalized the band, to their eventual comeback and journey toward Orthodoxy and the priesthood.
The first part of the film is preoccupied with the question “Why didn’t Luxury ‘make it’?” The answer is most likely that they didn’t quite realize what they were getting into when they signed with Tooth & Nail and joined the church-basement touring circuit.
The film suggests the band signed with a label in the Christian scene because it was part of their social circle at the time, not realizing the implications. It’s difficult to imagine youth pastors being enthusiastic about the band’s raucous cover of Adam Ant’s “Goody Two Shoes” (“Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?”) or Lee Bozeman’s campy sexiness.
The film touches on this controversial aspect of the band’s early work, and it’s undeniable that the subject matter on Luxury’s first record coyly, if not overtly, flirted with various flavors of sexuality. James Morelos, a former publicist for Tooth & Nail interviewed in the film, calls 1995’s Amazing and Thank You “a queer record, even though they’re straight guys,” and it’s hard to disagree.
While this rock-and-roll flamboyance may have made Luxury an outlier in a music scene that tended to focus more on faith and evangelism, it makes the band’s musical and spiritual growth after the catastrophic van accident all the more intriguing, which is the focus of the film. They maintain a theatrical punk rock dangerousness, but it becomes tempered—whether by age or something else—with a kind of wounded maturity.
By the time we get to the band’s most recent album, its 2019 release Trophies, Lee Bozeman is singing the lyric “Change your life,” on more than one song, with the authority of a man who has had to, more than once. The way he carries himself, you almost want to take him up on it.
The movie was made as Luxury was recording Trophies, and it sort of comes full circle; now fully ensconced in their liturgical lives, the priests in the band seem more comfortable with being some version of a Christian rock band.
Freed from the constraints of an evangelical music scene that demanded a particular performative expression of faith, Luxury has by the film’s end become what you might call a sacramental rock band.
It’s not until the final scenes that the notion of “parallel love” is fully explicated by Christopher Foley, the bassist, who describes how his vocation as a priest helped him understand what the band does:
What does a priest do? A priest is one who … offers something up that then gets returned to us as something life-giving. We don’t take wheat and grapes; we take bread and wine, the work of man’s hands. And that’s what’s lifted up unto Christ, and that’s what gets returned to us as Christ himself, as something life-giving.
The question isn’t “Are you a Christian band or not?” It’s just “Are you, by nature of your life vocation, a priest of creation who offers up … everything that is your matter, you know, your stuff of life—are you taking it and offering it up?” And then if you’re offering it up, are you receiving it as something life-giving?
It’s easy to see a hunger for “something life-giving” in the band after their brush with death, and the moral seriousness and luxurious (eh?) aesthetics of Orthodoxy seem to have been a natural fit for a group searching for that elusive “something more” Christian rockers often vaguely sing about.
A band known for its DIY ethos—“wild and untamed,” as one music critic puts it in the documentary—coming to be associated with an ancient (and, in the United States, “foreign”) faith feels in some ways like the ultimate punk move. (The only other contemporary rock musician I know of who has converted to Orthodoxy, in fact, is Justin Marler, formerly of the doom metal band Sleep and cofounder of the punk-style Orthodox magazine Death to the World, which called Orthodoxy “the last true rebellion.”)
This is more or less where the story of Parallel Love ends, and even if you’re not considering converting to Orthodoxy—which several of the musicians interviewed in the film did, not only the priests in Luxury—when coupled with the rich, dense music of Trophies, it feels quite satisfying. One is left with the notion that any honest art made by a Christian, priest or not, can be an offering.
Luxury’s trajectory from accidental Christian band to purposeful one feels significant. Many of the ’90s indie rock bands from the evangelical scene were pushed toward making music for the Christian market when they were young and not particularly mature in the faith or otherwise.
It’s worth noting that some of Luxury’s peers ended up in very different places: Some of the members of bands they rubbed shoulders with along the way abandoned music for financial reasons (believe it or not, it’s hard to make a living as an artsy Christian rock band!), moved into lucrative mainstream music gigs (the producer of Luxury’s first album now runs live sound for Leon Bridges), or in some cases had public “deconversions” driven in part by what they saw as hypocrisy in the Christian rock scene.
This isn’t to say that converting to Orthodoxy and/or becoming a priest is the only way for ex-Chrindie scenesters to find a spiritual way in the wilderness. While some Gen X evangelicals look longingly toward Rome, Canterbury, or Constantinople as possible ways out of the political and cultural pitfalls of their own traditions, the fact that the Christian rock scene was able to sustain a band as unique and good as Luxury says something about the big-tent ecumenism lurking in “nondenominational” church basements across the country.
Luxury’s cult popularity, captured in Parallel Love, reflects that scene’s openness to a variety of expressions of faith, be they as ancient as the Divine Liturgy or as modern as DIY post-punk records.
Bozeman sings, on Trophies’ “You Must Change Your Life” that “it takes a lifetime and a priest” to understand one’s place in the world. Perhaps it also takes a band like Luxury.
Joel Heng Hartse is a lecturer in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He is the author of several books including the forthcoming Dancing about Architecture is a Reasonable Thing to Do (Cascade).
Hear Joel make his case for Luxury’s best album in an upcoming Zoom discussion with fellow music critics on May 27.