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Kings Kaleidoscope’s New Rules

Kings Kaleidoscope’s New Rules

A week before Kings Kaleidescope’s self-titled album dropped, frontman Chad Gardner leaked the album online.

“It was totally on purpose,” Gardner said with a laugh. “I posted online to our fans: ‘Anybody who’s coming to see our tour, DM a screenshot of your ticket and we’ll just send you a Dropbox link.’”

It’s a bold move for an indie band. After months of teases, advertisements and buildup for sales, to leak your own album a mere few days before the release is, frankly, unheard of. But it’s also Kings Kaleidescope’s MO. They’re not looking to play by anyone’s rules. Instead, they’re forging their own path forward, even if they’re the only ones doing it this way.

For the entirety of their decade-long career, Kings Kaleidoscope has had to straddle the line of being Christians in a band. Not by their choice, but by culture’s desire to find a label for everything. It’s often made Gardner feel like a bit of a broken record.

Enter his sarcastic robot voice: “We’re Christians, but we’re not a Christian band.” He gets why people have trouble categorizing them.

“For me, Kings Kaleidoscope has always been so clearly a band that makes music about faith for people that need help to have faith,” he explains. “In my mind, we are a full-on Christian band — always. I don’t care if people think that makes us corny, or whatever word you want to fill in the blank. Kings Kaleidoscope is a Christian band.”

Gardner likens the band to Hulvey, a rapper who is quickly becoming one of the most popular Christian artists.

“Hulvey is awesome because he’s doing his own thing, which is basically worship rap,” Gardner said. “It’s so cool because he’s so unpretentious. He just is who he is, and I want there to be just plain Christian artists like that.”

The current Christian music landscape is in two similar but distinct camps, at least the way Gardner sees it. There are artists like Hulvey who are making point-blank Christian music. Then, there are other artists who are distinctly just Christians making music.

Both are needed, Gardner says, but from his perspective, he wants Kings Kaleidoscope to be unapologetically Christian music, no matter what anyone may think of that label.

“In the last few years, I’ve come to fully accept and celebrate that I’m a contrarian in a lot of ways,” Gardner said. “And I think that’s good. I think God makes contrarians to push things around. I just feel like I’m made to just push things around. It’s kind of like I’m a little bulldozer.”

Gardner’s contrarian ways are probably most evident in Kings Kaleidoscope’s music. Each studio album is distinctly different from the last, not only in theme but also in sound. Many people have had a difficult time categorizing the band sonically over the years — Are they pop? Worship? Hip-Hop? Emo?

The short answer is all of the above. Gardner wants the band to expand their sound to every genre possible.

For their most recent record, Kings Kaleidoscope, the band spent weeks together at an old studio located on a retreat center creating dozens of songs with no clear through-message to tie them together.

At the time, it was simply a place for the band to get away from the chaos of the world — the lingering effects of the pandemic, daily responsibilities, the constant scrolling through social media — and create not only exciting music but also memories. The group would spend an hour in the studio, challenging each other to create songs in as many different genres as they could, before going to play a game of basketball.

Initially, the group walked away with 14 “serious songs” that would be released on their fourth studio album, Baptized Imagination.

“That album really stemmed from the isolating time we’d all just been through,” Gardner said. “For me, I was seriously wrestling with the root of my lifelong anxiety disorder. So Baptized Imagination really captures my narrative of that time. It was a difficult album to create, but we found a way to still infuse surrender and hope into the songs.”

The band released Baptized Imagination in October 2022 and quickly began touring their new music. But soon, they realized that they’d left something special on the cutting room floor — a second album full of pure joy, excitement and love.

“It became clear that this album was self-referencing to the fact of how our band encourages each other,” Gardner explained. “The songs are very interpersonal. They’re not like our other albums, where I’m wrestling with God and my faith in very dramatic gestures. These are lighthearted songs of encouragement.”

Gardner describes the songs as “awkwardly fun,” probably because of the way the music came together. Early on, the band decided to embrace cheesiness and corniness as often as they could.

One night, for instance, Gardner had been working on a song for hours when an idea popped in his head that he never had before.

“The song had this big double drum version that was all wrong, and suddenly I realized what the song needed instead: congas, because everyone hates congas,” Gardner said. “So I drove as fast as I could to Guitar Center, bought a set of congas, and came back to the studio to finish the song.”

It became a fun challenge for Gardner and his bandmates to push themselves in a new creative space like they never had before. To everyone’s surprise, it was the most freeing experience they’d had making an album together.

“It’s funny, but that’s freedom,” Gardner said. “Changing the perception on what is corny or too cliche was a lighthearted, fun challenge.”

Hearing Gardner describe his own music as corny may not seem like a good thing, but he only sees it as a positive.

“Everything is corny for a time and everything is not corny for a time,” he explains. “Kind of like the idea that all things are permissible. Nothing is off the table when it comes to our music, even corniness.”

But it wasn’t just a fun, cheesy sound the band was seeking after. Even lyrically, the band gave themselves permission and the freedom to have fun making nonsensical lyrics.

Take “Forever Again,” for example. Sonically, the song is incredibly joyful. But taking a closer listen to the lyrics, you can audiably hear Gardner’s joy in singing the line, “you’re living and it’s awesome.”

“It’s like the silliest lyric ever,” Gardner says. “But it also could mean so much if you just shifted your mind on it. And that became the one through-line on the album: What is fun? What makes us smile? What makes us think, ‘that’s actually ridiculous’? And then we went in on that as hard as we could.”

The album is a noticeable departure from the band’s deeply emotional discography. But after a handful of albums wrestling with hope, identity, faith, family — all things Gardner has never had a problem talking about — he wanted to focus on something lighter. Something that fans could breathe in with ease.

“There’s a sort of pressure valve release in a lot of these songs,” Gardner said, “where it’s just very free and communal. We experienced a lot of joy making this record, and it’s fun to listen to these songs and tangibly hear it.”

That’s not to say there hasn’t been joy in previous records. There’s pockets of it here and there, mixed in with philosophical wonderings (Zeal), lament (The Beauty Between), or even raw conversations between Gardner and God (Beyond Control). But the band has been known to create music for Christians in the middle of a fight. Fans who are wrestling with faith and hope to come out on the other side in one piece.

It’s a feeling Gardner resonates with all too well.

“I don’t think my friends walk around and think, ‘Oh, Chad is just so hopeful,’” he admits. “I think I actually have an intensity to me and, there’s a sharpness to the way that I view myself and the world.”

Underneath the exterior, though, is the joy and hope that appears in Kings Kaleidoscope’s music. It shapes Gardner’s ultimate worldview, so why wouldn’t it shape his work?

“It doesn’t surprise me when I write a song full of surrender and a very hopeful outlook,” he said. “That’s just what I long for. It’s probably the deepest desire of my heart: for the gospel to be real, and for Christ to feel more alive and true in me than anything else in the world. It’s for me to feel like my existence is on purpose and beautiful.

“It’s sort of inevitable that the music is going to end up there because it’s what I want more than anything else in the world,” he continues. “But it’s a choice, too. Life is so hard, and I’ve gone through so much in my life up to this point that I can’t imagine just sitting with it with no hope on the other side of it.”

Gardner knows firsthand how difficult life can be, but he’s also discovered the joy and peace that can only come from following after God. It’s not an easy view to balance, but it is an honest one.

Perhaps his earnestness is what helped Kings Kaleidoscope to earn a dedicated fan base. Fans resonate with the band’s music on a deep level, whether the songs they listen to are about fighting for hope or rejoicing in salvation.

It’s definitely why Gardner doesn’t regret leaking his album a week early. “These songs are the pockets of joy that we had together while everybody was sort of at home facing their demons the last couple of years,” he said. “And I know we weren’t the only ones feeling that way who needed a reminder of joy and hope.”

That doesn’t mean it was an easy decision to make, Gardner clarifies. Because to him, Kings Kaleidoscope is not simply a group of multi-talented musicians. The fans are just as much a part of the group as the members themselves.

“We have a great, almost cult-like thing going with all of our fans, and they’re just so diehard,” Gardner explained. “So we thought, why not take care of them before we take care of a music chart statistic?”

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