From Punk Rock Mogul to Unitarian Minister

Kill Rock Stars record label founder Slim Moon talks seminary, punk rock, and church people.

Slim Moon probably discovered your favorite band. As the founder and owner of Kill Rock Stars, a legendary indie record label from Olympia, Washington, Moon put out albums by Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill, Elliott Smith, the Decemberists, the Gossip, and Deerhoof. On paper, there is perhaps no greater candidate for the definition of hipper-than-thou indie rock mogul.

In reality, however, Moon is exceedingly unpretentious and, indeed, kind. Since giving up control of Kill Rock Stars (his wife, Portia Sabin, has run the label since 2007), Moon has been on a journey away from the underground music scene toward something that might surprise fans of his bands: ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister.

Like any good lover of rock, I was intrigued when I heard this. What leads a person from signing Riot Grrrl bands to preaching sermons at the First Unitarian Church of Portland (where Moon recently completed an internship)?

I spoke with Moon over Skype about how he found himself on this path.

slimmoon
Image courtesy of Slim Moon.

Could you talk a little bit about what you were doing with Kill Rock Stars and how your trajectory led you from there to where you are now?

My intention [with Kill Rock Stars] was to just put out spoken word records — but then I got talked into doing a compilation. One of the tracks on that album was with my friends Nirvana, and essentially they gave me the song just before they turned famous.

Our compilation came out and then their album came out a week or two after the compilation. They sold 10 million albums, but 25,000 people bought my compilation, which was enough to give me the seed money to put up more records and then from there, I just did that for 15 years.

I know that you started exploring spirituality while you were still doing the label, and eventually, you felt this calling towards the ministry. How did that transition come about?

When I was 10, my parents got divorced and my dad got sober and over the next few years, he really engaged not only with the meetings and the fellowship, he engaged with it really intellectually.

So he found some of the books that were credited as having influenced the writers of the Alcoholics Anonymous basic text, the big book. He read William James and a bunch of things, but I ended up reading his books.

The Varieties of Religious Experience was the first religious book I ever read. I was about 12 at that point. I read Surprised by Joy and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis before I read the Narnia books.

From that point on, I had an interest, but it — I guess the other thing I should say is I was raised completely unchurched. My parents didn’t go to church and only one of my four grandparents went to church.

Wow.

I know. I grew up thinking that that was normal and the church people were weird — and that was in Montana. Now I know that in a place like Montana, that was actually unusual.

So you had this experience of reading these books, but not really being a part of that kind of culture.

It was completely intellectual. When I was in my punk rock days, I had no religious practice and no spiritual practice whatsoever, but my best friend and I would argue with people all the time about anything. Any time anybody would say that religion is dumb or that atheism is the only rational standpoint, I would always argue in favor of religion or in favor of the existence of God, but it was just completely intellectual.

When I was 30, I went to rehab and got clean. I think that’s when a life of addiction or life of alcoholism is really starting to wear you out or cause a lot of problems in your life.

In the 12 Steps, the third step is making a decision to turn your life over to God and then say in the 10th step, you have a regular practice of prayer and meditation. From then on I leaned in and finally tried to figure out, Well, what does God mean in my life? What is God doing in my life and in the world?

The impetus that moved me from just 12 Steps over to church was that when I got to the 12th step which says, having had a spiritual awakening, we try to carry this, the message, to other [addicts] or whatever.

For me, when I worked that step a second time, I realized that having had a spiritual awakening, I couldn’t carry the message just to people who have the same problem as me. The only thing I could do in good conscience is carry the message to the world to whatever my limited capacity. I feel like I learned the message of transformation and grace that isn’t just applicable to people with compulsive chemical addictions.

Did you feel like the 12 Steps led pretty naturally to Unitarian Universalism because there are some commonalities?

The thing I love about Unitarian Universalism is that we can have theological diversity, and that’s something I love about 12 Steps. As it’s practiced, you can have Buddhists and Christians and Muslims and atheists and pagans still agree on the language where we say “higher power” as we understand it, and really help each with real, significant, meaningful spiritual concepts. Not just the generic support that you might give to a friend, but real spiritual support, and at its best, Unitarian Universalism can do that.

The other thing is, even though I said I have no church background, I have this tiny, tiny bit of church background. My grandmother had been raised Methodist, but when her youngest child went to college, he got involved with a Unitarian campus ministry, and so she went to the Unitarian church with him.

At the Methodist church, the women had to wash the dishes. She went to his Unitarian church and they used paper plates and threw out the dishes. She said, “Okay, I’m becoming a Unitarian.”

I never went to church with her — that was my father’s mother — but my mother knew about Unitarian church. She took me to Unitarian church like three times when I was 11, but that was enough that that was the closest thing I had to a tradition. When I decided to start going to church in my 40s that seemed like a logical place because I had good memories of it from when I was 11.

It’s really interesting that something so small like that can nudge you in a certain way.

Yeah.

album art
The 1991 compilation album released by Kill Rock Stars.

Where are you at in your studies and in your process of ordination? How do you envision things going after that? Is there a defined path?

If all goes on schedule, I will graduate from seminary in a year, and I will probably be ordained a little less than two years from now. There are sort of two kinds of Unitarian ministry: parish ministry and community ministry. I feel called to parish ministry, but I also think I have skills and interest in certain types of entrepreneurial community ministry, so I would have to say my formation and my discernment in that is not complete. I’m not sure exactly.

My next two years I’m going to be in internship at a church called the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which is an online church, and I’ll be doing worship, and I’ll also be doing podcasts. I’m really interested in new media. It’s not even that new anymore, but I’m really interested in that stuff, so it’ll be interesting to see how doing that for two years ends up affecting my sense of avocation.

I’ve heard you describe a calling, but was it as simple as just saying, “Hey, I’ve found this, the thing that really worked for me, I want to tell people about it,” or was there a mystical side to it?

Yeah. For me, I think it’s important to be able to not get caught up in language that divides us. So a lot of times when I preach, I won’t necessarily talk about God or whatever. Just put it in my own language by turning my will and my life over to the care of God, the proof for me — I guess this is mystical, but the proof to me of God working in my life is just how everything changed after that.

I had tried every single thing I could think of to change my habits and my mental afflictions and my sticking points and nothing I thought of worked. But when I said “yes” to that step, and I decided to do it to the best of my ability as honestly as I could, it really did change my life. And I’ve seen that happen over and over and over for people.

I have the highest respect for my atheist friends who say that they just can’t do that because they can’t see any proof, but I have also seen atheist friends of mine get talked into, “Why don’t you just act as if you believe in God and why don’t you just pray for a while just to see what happens?” and watch them experience changes in their life and in their perception that has caused them to go, “Wow, this thing I didn’t believe in is actually just inside me.” So I guess that’s kind of mystical.

I think so. For a lot of people, like me, there is a real connection between the arts or music and spirituality. Do you sense that in your own life, in what you did with Kill Rock Stars?

The thing is, I thought music was so important. I thought music was so healing and transformative that I wanted to give it to the world and giving it to the world was more important to me than moving up the job ladder or making more money or buying a car with my first middle-class income.

The thing is music touches us in a way that is beyond verbal. And to get really mystical, it’s like we’re made — it’s hard to figure out what evolutionary purpose our musicality serves, but we’re clearly made to really respond strongly to music.

Some of that is cultural, like I respond to different sounds than somebody who grew up in China, but it still seems universal that most humans are built to be very responsive to music. To me, that seems kind of mystical. I’m really interested in those things about humanity that don’t make sense evolutionarily.

Absolutely, yeah. I think of music, language, the idea of love, the idea of the worship — they seem superfluous to survival, right?

Any church, any kind of organized worship setting that I’ve ever experienced has involved some music. Whether it’s just the folks doing the worshipping, singing hymns, or whether there’s some music, whether there’s a choir or some musicians, it’s well known that music primes people to be open. And it’s a really important part of the worship experience for most folks, at least in the Western world.

I sometimes feel that certain kinds of music have gotten this reputation as being more holy than others, but that doesn’t really hold up if you think about it, right? Why is choral music more holy than drone minimalism?

To me, some music maybe opens people up more than others, but all music that continues to get made and has a listening audience clearly is opening people up to something that’s beyond words, and that just does seem mystical to me. Just the fact that you always have choirs in church is a strong testament to how important music is to spirituality.

Joel Heng Hartse
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