Looking at the relatively clean-cut members of August Burns Red, you wouldn't assume they were one of a top-selling metal band. Listening to the band's super-distorted guitar tones, break-neck drum beats, and howling vocals on their latest album Leveler, you wouldn't think they were dedicated, positive-minded Christians.
"We are a metal band, and metalcore is our sub-genre," says guitarist Brent Rambler, speaking last week on the eve of the Lancaster, Pa.-based quintet's current seven-week U.S. tour. "Luckily, a lot of people think that we sound different from most of the other bands in that scene. That's huge. I guess we sound different because of the minds making the music."
Rambler and his bandmates — guitarists J.B. Brubaker, bassist Dustin Davidson, drummer Matt Greiner, and singer Jake Luhrs — shrug at the ironies involved in being a Christian metal band. They let the songs speak to the audience in their own way.
"Lyrically, we always want to make it positive one way or the other so that people can relate," Rambler says. "We don't want people to be super bummed or down. We try to make it upbeat, whether it's Christian-based or not."
While Christian ideology inspires the group's message, Rambler believes that musicianship and technique is just as vital to the band's overall identity. He thinks they've achieved a healthy balance between the musical and religious sides of the situation — and the believers and non-believers in their audiences.
"We do have to walk a fine line," Rambler says. "I think about 75 percent of our fanbase is secular. We don't want to offend our secular fans and we don't want to offend our Christian fans. We do our best to keep them all happy without somehow seeing fake about it, but it's kind of hard to appease both sides.
"One fan might say, 'I don't want you to tour with that band because they cuss too much,' and another fan might say, 'I don't want you to tour with that band because they preach too much from the stage,'" he adds. "We try to balance it out."
Rambler grew up listing to contemporary punk rock, but he veered into metal when he started playing in professional bands. He formed August Burns Red in 2003 with Brubaker and Greiner. They were all still in high school.
Indie label CI Records released August Burns Red's first EP, Looks Fragile After All. In 2005, they signed to Christian metal label Solid State Records and recorded their first full-length album, Thrill Seeker. Their second album, 2007's Messengers, welcomed a new lead singer, Jake Luhrs.
The lineup has been solid for five years. "The main thing we wanted was a group of people who could be able to tour heavily at any time," Rambler says. "We went through a pretty rigorous process to find the two latest members [Luhrs and Davidson]. It's a tight group now. There's that level of adrenaline that hits us when we get ready to go on stage — it hits us and goes by like a whirlwind. Our fanbase is energetic, so it's easy to go on stage and have fun every night."
On and off the road, Luhrs and Greiner stay heavily involved in YourLife Ministries, a nonprofit organization. Luhrs and others express spiritual ideas, religious experiences, and life stories with fans. Both bandmates put time and effort into sharing the ministry with fans before and after shows as well.
Rambler and the rest of band support their colleague's efforts, but they're not yet compelled to follow their lead.
"They do great work through it — and more power to them," Rambler says. "It's just not what I'm called to do right now."
Some fans contend that it's every band member's duty to witness and preach to fans and others. Rambler doesn't quite see it that way.
"Fans might say that we're in a great position to change peoples' lives through Christianity, but tell them that's not exactly why I'm out here," he says. "They say, 'Well, don't you think it should be?' and I say to them, 'Well, do you go to your job and tell 20 other people you work with everyday that they should be Christian?' They have the same platform as I do; I just have more people around me. Not everybody in the world who's a Christian is going to be called to evangelize."
Performing heavy, tight, energetic shows for their fans still seems to be the August Burns Red's main priority. They've toured almost continuously around North America, Europe, and Australia since the release of Leveler last spring. They spent most of the summer of 2011 as a main stage act on the Van's Warped Tour. The winter and spring schedule looks just as busy.
"We're going for quality over quantity, but it's still a lot of travel and work," Rambler says. "Staying healthy on the road is huge. It's physically challenging to play hard every night. I've been going to the gym every day, just trying to get ready to go out and head-bang for an hour and a half every night. Ultimately, for us, it's mostly about going out there and playing our music. As long as these kids like our band, I'm happy."