ELECTRIC JESUS: Interview With Wyatt Lenhart
Tell us your background with acting, stage, theater.
90% of our home videos just showcase me and my siblings running around singing and dancing. That's what we did for fun! My mom hosted local musical theater camps every summer that I got to be a part of. I did a lot of local theater and musical theater, Shakespeare, and more musical theater in high school, and all while working as an improv actor at a space simulation center. I would say singing and acting were just part of who I was from when I was really young. I convinced my English teacher to let me turn every term paper into a video project. So, every year I'd rope my friends into these 'big' film projects. My last year in high school they let me take a week off to shoot. Looking at them now they're all quite terrible, but at the time they were all huge passion projects. I had always loved the process of film making, and it just so happened I also really liked being on camera.
How did you hear about this film? What was your reaction when you first heard about it? What made you want to say “Yes” to the offer to join?
I met Chris White while working on another project. One day he asked me, "Are you a musician? You look like a musician." (what gave me away?) We talked about a project he was working on at the time involving music. He sent me the script and I remember thinking, "Wow! I really want to be a part of this!" I wasn't cast as anyone yet but I knew I wanted to be involved. This was years ago, and the script has changed quite a bit since then, but the heart of the project feels the same as it did back then.
What is the film about?
The film is about the fictional but sensational band, 316. The band and their soundman are presented with the opportunity to tour the country and prove they have what it takes to make Jesus famous! Without giving too much away, I think the film really deals with kids experiencing the pressure of the world while trying to remember who they are. The price of fame vs. the purpose of their ‘quest.’ All while trying to have a good time doing what they love.
How did you enjoy the process of making the film?
I loved it! We got together as a cast two weeks before production and did some team-building exercises. This included a 24-hour film challenge with limitations! We really were able to come together as a cast and trust each other to work hard.
Another part of being in the band was learning the songs. I’d been able to sing them for a while because we’d recorded them. So that was easy, but ultimately I ended up learning all the guitar parts to make it look as real as possible while filming. We also got some time to choreograph our own stage routines as a band. We spent hours rehearsing our ‘sets’ every day. I’ve been in real bands and this felt much, much harder. The energy of these songs is so much more explosive. Trying to retain the energy of a teenager gets progressively harder the longer you pay bills. We all went home complaining about our backs after practice.
Did you feel like the historical background, set, props, etc. was authentic? Why or why not?
The people involved in this film were incredibly dedicated with the accuracy of the time period. Props, sets, language and wardrobe were all very, very carefully designed. Our costume designer had a catalogue from the time period and was pulling designs out and making them just for certain scenes. We even had some clothes from the time period!
John Thompson was so dedicated to the accuracy of the musical references involved that he even used some bands I’m sure almost nobody knew about. It's more accurate than we can know.
What was it like performing these songs?
I’ve been in many bands, performed many live shows. I thought I was ready to do these performances as both an actor and a musician. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Even though we were on a set, with actors and cameras. There is a unique energy that comes from being on stage in front of an excited live crowd. Something you really can’t experience anywhere else. Performing shows today, I didn’t really feel the same energy from the audience as I did on the stage during shooting.
I also had to perform these songs live! That added an extra challenge of having this energy of a frontman, while being tied to a microphone. It’s a lot more difficult than it sounds. Getting studio-worthy takes while trying to be in character and play to a live audience is incredibly difficult. I also made sure to play these songs on the guitar to get the most accurate representation of the song (luckily, I didn’t have any guitar solos.).
In the end, it was the most incredible, challenging, and unique experience I’ve ever had as an artist. I’d love to do it again.
What do you think goes on in the head (and heart) of a teenage Christian rock band member? Do you think you conveyed those attitudes, dreams, personality in the film? Why or why not?
I relate a lot to Michael as a musician. I think that sometimes in religious music people can get too caught up in the medium. Whether that’s because of traditional Christian music, metal often being associated with satanic symbolism or just the unfortunate circumstance of rock music really being discovered and popularized so quickly that it was met with so much resistance. My dad wrote a lot of metal. So, when I was really young I had been exposed to a lot of different styles and genres of music. My home was also very religious. The idea of metal and praise or expression was almost intrinsic in my mind. So when I found that so many people didn’t feel that way, I was completely shocked. I was determined to prove that mediums of music were all valid forms of communication and the limitation was placed on the user.
“The spirit is not so weak that it could be defeated merely by the electric guitar.” – Me, probably.
I saw a lot of that in Michael. Michael is a believer. His convictions aren’t based in tradition but rather in finding the same feelings he gets when he reads his Bible or attends church. The words and feelings associated with music are the same. I think he’s trying to prove to the world that Psalms might be better received as a power ballad – a rock opera even. He’s trying to find that place in the world where he can preach, even though I don’t think he quite knows that yet.
Tell me about the music in the film? Who performed the instruments? The vocals? How was it working with them or doing this yourself? What were the biggest challenges?
So, we actually produced the music a long time before the film was made. Daniel Smith wrote and produced the songs. I was blessed to be able to just come in and sing vocals on this already incredible album. Daniel sourced all the musicians for studio work. I can’t say who played exactly what on each track.
I do know that I was extremely nervous about doing these songs. They were very high, and outside my usual vocal tone. We also had to record all the songs in one weekend! Not a whole lot of time for mistakes.
I stepped into the studio for the first time in 2017, I believe. We recorded at Daniel's studio in New Jersey. We started with "Girl." I remember we got into the chorus and I felt like I was giving it my all. All the power behind my voice. After the take, Daniel said, “That was great, now we’re gonna do the second chorus and we need to make it bigger.” I just said, “Okay,” like I wasn’t internally panicking. I’d like to thank my adrenaline and incredible coaching by Daniel. The final product is really quite something.
The next song we recorded was "Barabbas." This one is a bit ruder in terms of vocal performance. I really tried to make it sound harsh like the vocals were grinding metal. The song opens with a high pitched wail that kinda sets the tone for the rest of the track. Feels like really classic Axl Rose vibrato. As awesome as the song turned out, my vocal cords were starting to waver, and we had three songs left to record. We jumped right into "Commando," and looking back I don’t know if that was good or bad. I do know that it was the most difficult. I remember a few takes where I felt like I was just shouting into the microphone trying to create tones that resembled the melody. In the end, we got this really cool sound that I feel like really embodies the craft of the song itself. Which is this feeling of like, “Okay, this was obviously written by kids, but it's actually sick” I sing it all day, and forget that I actually recorded it.
I realize this response is getting kinda long, but there’s one more story in here.
We took a break for the night and I got to rest my vocal cords. I woke up the next day and could barely speak. I was so rasped that I didn’t think I’d be able to sing anything at all.
After warming up and downing what felt like a gallon of lemon ginger tea and honey, we started with “Makes me Wanna Sing.” It opens with this killer vocal, “OHHH,” and I could not sing it.
Even approaching the note sounded like a vocal car accident and it just wasn’t gonna happen. So I was able to replace it with this kind of falsetto scream that I was using for a lot of the high stuff. Right before the end of the song there is a high note that acts as a sort of dissonance before the bookend of the song.
Now, I’d listened to the original, many times. However, the version I’d been rehearsing with had been modified as a joke that I wasn’t in on. That note had been extended more than double the length. It’s a hard note to hit already, but I’d been listening to our instrumental version for so long now that I had no idea. I sang the note and Daniel, although impressed, proceeded to tell me how that wasn’t going to be the final version and they’d forgot to shorten it before recording.
Chris White, The director, was in the room at the time and said, “Actually we’re gonna have you go back in there and we’re gonna take the ending out and I want you to just go MAX power for as long as you can.”
So, I inhaled as much as humanly possible right before the end and channeled my inner waveform. It's actually probably one of the cooler things I’ve ever done. So glad it made it into the film.
How do you feel about tackling a subject like faith – in a comedy film, no less? Is there a delicate balance in doing so? What’s that like? How did you handle it?
I hope people can take a look at these characters and see pieces of themselves as young people. I think humor is a wonderful way to showcase where you came from and not worry so much. I think that the characters in the show really mean well, but it’s okay for people to laugh at where they are in their lives. We were all teenagers once.
Humor is all about perspective. I think my character, Michael, is probably the straight man in this comedy. He’s here to work hard, write awesome songs and praise the Lord. He also wrote, “Commando for Christ,” and I don’t think there’s an ounce of ill intent there. I played the character in a way that made me feel like I was sincere to what I was doing, but also I think Michael will look back in 10 years and laugh really hard when he finally gets his own unintended jokes.
How do you feel about the spoof or inside joke about the band 316 being real?
I think it’s incredible. I look at the comments on some of these posts or videos and I can’t tell which ones are real. Some are people I know sharing stories about, “how they remember seeing the band,” while others are names I don’t recognize. I’d like to see it continue. I’ve always wanted to be a myth.
What sort of exposure have you had to Christian heavy metal prior to working on this film? What do you like or not like about what you’ve heard?
So, I grew up listening to a lot of Christian heavy metal and rock. I found things I liked and didn’t like, I always gravitated back to bands like Relient K and Red. I probably had a dozen or so Christian rock bands (and rappers) in rotation. I think what stuck out to me is the same thing I love about music in general. I love to find a song that you can really tell that the artist cares about. It’s like, in the very bones of the song. Some are well produced while others aren’t. It never really seemed to matter. Finding music that matters to who made it is like finding buried treasure. I think if I had to pick a favorite song it’d be “This Week the Trend" off of Relient K’s Mmhmm album. Although that whole album is amazing.
For more information on the film, go to www.electricjesus.com