Interviews

RIC ALBA

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Ric Alba with the Altar BoysRic Alba is a legend to fans of 1980s alternative/punk/new-wave Christian rock. He played bass on Undercover's eponymous debut album, then went on to play with the Altar Boys. He released one solo album before coming “out of the closet” and disappearing from the Christian music scene. As you are about to find out, Ric's musical journey is almost as eclectic as his personal journey – a search filled with certainty, denial, confusion, spiritual manipulation, emotional abuse, acceptance, and hope and love.

Today, Ric and his partner own an interior design firm in California. Ric still plays music, most notably recording a new Dead Artist Syndrome (D.A.S.) album with a fellow legend of the alternative Christian music genre, Brian Healy.

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Back in the 80s, folks sometimes promoted Christian artists “the Christian alternative” to secular artists. As in, “if you're a Christian and you like this secular artist, then you should be listening to this Christian artist.” Were you thinking about that while you were a part of the CCM scene?

I think nearly all bands are in one way or another doing what somebody else started, while sometimes pointing fingers and calling others derivative. But it’s no crime. Just as in the secular world, bands take after other bands that inspired them, and so did we. We played the way we felt inspired to play. 

In the evangelical world though, it was expected that the bands had evangelical reasons for whatever we did. If a band reminded one of say, The Clash, then it was presumed that band’s purpose was to evangelize fans of The Clash.  Navigating our way through the evangelical industry, eventually I realized that it got the job done to go ahead and let it be painted like that’s what we were doing if that’s how people needed to paint it. They had their reasons I’m sure, and I have no reason to say their hearts weren’t pure. But really, we were all just playing the way we enjoyed playing, inspired by and building on the work of those who were already playing that way. We said that a lot, but some folks still kept wanting to paint it as a calculated evangelical strategy. Oh well, okay ... my, what brilliant evangelical strategists we all were!

You're a Christian. And, you're gay.

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I have to say right off that because of my current approach to faith, it’s best that I don’t claim the name “Christian” for myself. The controversy of who is qualified for that name distracts from more important things, so I'll just be who I am, say what I feel, and let people call me what they want, if anything. I understand that for many people, it hurts to hear me say that because so many of my favorite people throughout my life have been those I know from my years as an evangelical. Those relationships are still valuable to me, and I’m in a place of transition, from being somewhat in opposition to a life of faith, toward embracing one for myself.

Most of the Christians I interact with today regard me as one of their own, and I cherish that. The language of my thoughts on God today comes from all that I learned, sought, and experienced when I was a Christian. In that sense there’s a kinship I feel with Christians that will more likely grow from here, than weaken.

I stopped identifying as a Christian after being excommunicated by the Anaheim Vineyard in 1991. At the time, I couldn’t reconcile being gay with being a Christian. I was in a process of trying to do that when I got a call from my church,  telling me to come to their offices and explain myself in regard to sexuality. They told me that if I failed to show they’d pray to release me to Satan so he could kill me before I “fell too far into my sin.” That right there was my clue that things there had gotten too wacko for me to remain there without going completely insane. My refusal to obey at that moment was a kind of self-rescue. I didn’t seem to have anywhere else to go though, in 1991, so I went nowhere in terms of a faith community. 

Tell me about your struggles between being Christian and being gay. When did you sense you were gay?

My earliest crushes, maybe around age seven or so, were on other boys my age, and I knew right then that that might be out of the ordinary, but I didn’t panic over it. It wasn’t until years later when the word ‘fag’ started getting thrown at me on the schoolyard that I realized that liking other guys was such a big taboo. I actually had to ask a classmate what the word meant, and when he told me I thought, “What’s the big deal?” Thankfully I had enough friends outside of school who liked me enough for my musical abilities to overlook the things that my schoolmates bullied me for. I lived comfortably in their company, playing in cover bands throughout high school until the last of those bands broke up.

Then in 12th grade I became a born-again Christian and for the first couple years I basked in the belief that nothing about my past life mattered, because I was a ‘new creature.’ It saved me from the work of having to deal with anything at all about myself, as long as I did all the things I was told to do as a Christian. It was like not even having to acknowledge my own existence. The teaching was to “die to self.” It totally stunted my growth. Denying myself a gay love life wasn’t too hard for me back then. I was a very late bloomer when it came to sex drive. I simply lived celibate, and was grateful for a community that made it easy to do that, with its prohibitions on fornication.

But eventually adulthood caught up with me, and so did sexuality. In 1980 I went for counseling at Vineyard about it. Their response was to “pray the gay away.” I prayed, and they said to get on with my life and forget the whole thing, as an act of faith in my healing. I became very close friends with a girl I met there, and we got married. Problem solved, so I thought. But no, by the mid-1980’s it was clear to me that I was more “same-sex attracted” than ever, but I still didn’t act on it.

How did you respond? Denial? Prayer? Reparative therapy? You were in the Altar Boys at the time, weren't you?

HUGE denial. I wouldn’t even dare think the words, “I’m gay.” I developed a unique way of thinking about it. I developed this theory that there was no such thing as gayness, and that we were all the victims of some kind of societal effect that was robbing everyone of the love they deserved. I theorized that everyone felt a coldness and was seeking warmth in various, destructive ways. In my thinking, same-sex attraction was the result of being intuitive enough to notice that something (I had no theory on what, exactly) was missing in all of society, including Christian society. I prayed and prayed for Jesus to finally come in person and fill in the blanks that He’d left behind when He was last seen in person 2000 years before. That was how I framed everything.

That was my only hope, thinking that Christianity as it was, was incomplete, that there was supposed to be something more, a key of some kind that Jesus would bring someday. In my thinking, openly gay people had given up and settled for less. I thought of gay sexual activity as, “The fires of hell –  which do give warmth, but dude, it’s Hell.”

The idea of a happy gay life well-lived was foreign to me, and my religion prohibited me from even entertaining the idea that a gay life could be a happy one. It was over the course of those years that the songs for Holes in the Floor of Heaven {Ric's 1991 solo album} developed. In public, church, and before my own eyes, I didn’t dare let myself be “me.” The imagery of Holes is loaded with the sounds of someone real, pleading for a way to be unlocked from deep within someone who was not so real, and who was deathly afraid of the person inside.

It got to be totally obvious that the right thing to do was to tell my wife all about what I was going through. The next step after that was to go back to Vineyard and ask for counseling. They recommended a facility (which turned out to be an inpatient clinic) that offered an early form of reparative therapy on a 12-step model. During that time, our hopes for a marriage and family started to fade. I did one more tour with Altar Boys, then left the band and started college in hopes to save my marriage.

No – the therapy had absolutely no affect on my sexual orientation.  My wife and I separated right about the time I started recording Holes. Then … the excommunication.

You left the Altar Boys and the Christian music subculture in which you were living in order to be openly gay. How did folks respond?

Oh, when I left the Altar Boys in late 1990 I had no intention of living a gay life of any kind. I left in order to go to school full-time while pursuing a path to putting out Holes in the Floor of Heaven, once it was clear that our label wouldn’t do it. I never made my personal struggles clear with in the Altar Boys’ circle.

With very few exceptions, I didn’t give people a chance to respond. It wasn’t until  1992, some time after having been excommunicated, I started living a gay love life and disappeared from Christendom so profoundly it was like faking my own death. During the Altar Boys, I had formed so many friendships with fans, who I feared, perhaps wrongly, were too young and impressionable to have to deal with this change in me, so I went quietly into the night. Touring as a Christian musician to support Holes in the Floor of Heaven was out of the question because that would mean living in a closet. By that time I was involved in helping to alleviate the AIDS crisis, which had been caused in great part by society forcing gay people into closets.

How did you come to accept your sexuality within your faith?  

For some years after my excommunication I had no faith in anything “unseen” except the conviction that if God exists, He is a lover of truth, including the truth that the belief system I had lived in for so long had serious problems that made it impossible for me to stay in it. I rested peacefully, knowing that if God existed He will find me, and that whatever the two of us work out will be entirely different from my previous life of faith.

Tell me a little about your current approach to faith.

I have to start by offering that I could be wrong about everything I say about who or what lies beyond the senses. It’s okay though, because I don’t think that having correct beliefs is what matters to the person or persons we seek as the objects of our faith. What is important, what I feel responsible for, is building within myself a good heart and mind. 

Part of that process for me these days is being aware of the possibility that more “exists” than what can yet be detected by our current senses and instruments. So, I don’t say conclusively that there are no such things as unseen beings. I like the idea that they are around. But I do say that whatever is actually, ‘out there,’ their nature and intention is anyone’s guess, so while we’re all guessing, and using our imaginations, I find it both challenging and comforting to envision things that help me to live an authentic life, to love and be loved, to be more kind, patient, helpful, truthful, and all those good things we aspire to be while on the Earth.

Because of my experiences as a “born-again Christian,” I developed a way of thinking that I still have. It was a part of my Christianity, and now it’s an indelible part of me. What I’m talking about is that I still live under the impression that my comings and goings are being played out in front of an unseen audience, which I’m still unapologetically accustomed to calling, ‘The Kingdom of God.’ In my impression, it’s an audience that patiently watches as I go through life and learn my lessons. Partly out of habit, and partly out of desire, the mental image I keep, which represents that “unseen audience,” is Jesus. Of course that fact doesn’t obligate myself or anyone to accept the whole package of any named religion. It’s just that I was raised to be, and then chose to be, a Christian; so when I picture unseen beings from unseen realms who look on our world with an interest in our well-being, that’s the image I have, and I’m good with that.

I don’t apologize to my ‘believing’ side for the absence of orthodoxy, and I don’t apologize to my skeptical side for maintaining that tiny aspect of faith. Both of those sides of me have been learning to accept one another.

So even though I confidently agree with nearly every atheist on record, I think that in my exploration into faith I’ve done a good thing  (harmless, too) by letting some of my past impressions about God remain as a part of my current reality. It goes along with accepting who I am as a person. Christian imagery, some of its moral philosophy, and a little bit of its theology have become an intractable part of this person I am, right along with other intractable parts that I learned to accept. It might sound like a mess trying to put it to words, but it’s my truth as best I can share it without using music.

Let's get back to the music. Who were your biggest musical influences growing up?

Schroeder, from the Charlie Brown gang gave me my first inspiration when I was around five. He was a little boy like me, but he was playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and I just assumed it’s natural for little boys to be able to do that. I remember reaching up to my grandma’s piano to feel out which keys made the song’s opening 3-note pattern, and found them. My dad ran out and got a piano and I’ve been gradually figuring out that piece by ear ever since. I’m almost to the end and I think I’ll leave it where it is. Ludwig’s ending drags out too long anyway. He’ll thank me, and I’ll accept the grade “F” I’ll get from music teachers.

After that the only music that existed for me until Led Zeppelin, was The Beatles.   I learned a lot of Paul’s parts, then onto John Paul Jones, and would you believe, Gene Simmons, who was always underrated as a bassist. I still play those slapped parts from “Detroit Rock City” warming up the bass.

Today, what would you list as your favorite Altar Boys songs and why?

The song, “Against the Grain” is a champion among the songs Mike (Stand) and I co-authored, because it represents a sharp turning point. We’d sung so much up to that point about what was wrong with the world, but I wasn’t really in the world that much. The church was my world, and yet it was still one that had all kinds of things wrong with it. “Against the Grain” was to me, our first steps toward addressing that fact head-on, beginning with the question, “What do we mean by ‘Christianity?’” “The Human Sound” is another along those lines. “Kids are On the Run” is simply a great song.

(Click here to listen to “Against the Grain”).

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’ve been working with Brian Healy on a new DAS project with Ojo Taylor, Gym Nicholson, Riki Michele, Marc Plainguet, John Picarri at the console, and a few TBA’s. It’s been steadily expanding as ideas keep coming.

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You can contact Ric via Facebook. Not too long ago, Ric wrote, recorded, and posted “A Few Words About Bullying Using Words” – click here to check it out.

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D.A.S. (left to right): Left to right, Rikki Michele, Ojo Taylor, Gym Nicholson, John Piccari, Brian Healy, and Ric Alba