Some bands turn to rock music as an escape, a refuge from the pressures and torments of the real world. For others - and this batch includes the vast majority of what passes for hard rock on mainstream radio and MTV these days - it’s a platform for airing frustration, a soapbox for venting anger and demons. “I hurt,” they scream or bark out in bursts of rap. “Share my pain, feel my fury.”
Against this tide of escapist rage, the five young men of PAX217 offer a fresh perspective. Their music is as tight a fusion of metal and hip-hop rhythms as anything on the radio today, but their message is what hits home the hardest. And it hits not like a hail of grievances, but rather as a positive instrument for change, for hope. It’s a message aptly summed up in a single word, which is appropriately the name of the band’s second album on ForeFront Records: Engage.
“Most of the time when you think of the word ‘engage,’ you think of going to battle or going to war,” says 24 year-old lead singer and songwriter Dave Tosti. “But there’s a bunch of different definitions for it, and one of them is ‘to attract and hold the attention of, to win over and involve, to interlock or mesh with someone.’ As a band and as people, we’re called to embrace other people’s lives, and that’s what Engage is about. It’s about us recognizing the fact that we can affect other people’s lives by telling our stories, sharing what God’s done and giving people the ability to hope.”
Remarkably, that’s the same goal Tosti had for PAX217 when he first founded the Los Angeles-based group (originally under the simpler moniker PAX, after the Latin word for “peace”) nine years ago, when he was only 15. “I think the vision we set forth with from day one is still there,” he says. “We want to engage as many people as we can. We don’t care who we play for – whether it’s 12 year-old kids or 60 year-old granddads. We want to impact people’s lives.”
Of course, like its name, the band’s sound has evolved over the years. “If it doesn’t progress, it will die,” Tosti notes pointedly. Originally a casual weekend diversion for Tosti and a handful of other school friends, PAX217 began to gel into a focused, professional outfit when guitarist Jesse Craig came on board as a full-time member and the band recorded its first album for ForeFront, 2000’s Two Seventeen. Shortly after the album’s completion, before hitting the road to support it, DJ Bobby Duran (“Bobbito the Chef,” after his passion for cooking both on stage and in the kitchen), joined the fold. The band also includes bassist Josh Auer and drummer Aaron “Skwid” Tosti – Dave’s younger brother, who will graduate from high school the month Engage releases. The result is a sound at once both right in step with modern rock and several bold steps away in every direction, encompassing metal, rap, melodic power pop and even, on the standout love song “Move On This,” reggae. “We enjoy all those styles of music, because we’re about all people and celebrating as many people as we can,” says Tosti.
The multi-genre, multi-cultural mélange has helped the band reach out to a broad cross-section of fans, making PAX217 feel at home whether performing at Christian rock festivals or in front of New York City’s hardcore punks, and even a handful of dates on the Warped Tour. “We just feel that we’ve been called to play music for anyone, anywhere – white, brown or black, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist,” says Duran. “That’s been the whole theme of Engage – telling your stories to the world, and letting your actions speak loud through the music and interacting with people at shows.”
Kicking off with the exuberant lead single “Tonight,” Engage is a testament to everything PAX217 is about, wants to be and has to say. Tosti says the song is “about being all I can to be an example of love to the world.” But like the rest of the songs on the album, the medium of “Tonight” is every bit as powerful as the message. “‘Tonight’ is a fun, energetic and explosive song that we just like to rock,” says Duran. “We love to play shows where people are able to use all their energy and just go crazy. We feed off that.” The same unbridled rush comes through in the spiritual call to arms issued on the title track and the fierce vocal exchange between Tosti and Duran on “PSA,” a searing “public service announcement” that hammers home its message with single-minded, riff-raging intensity: “Our purpose is to serve and not to be served…Let go.”
“I think overall when someone listens to the record, quite a few of the songs are like prayers,” muses Tosti. “I’ll talk about everything from being loved on this record to losing someone that you love, having someone close to you being molested as a kid and feeling the pain of that, a lot of different topics. I just try to look at it all through a lens of how God might want me to see things. It’s a challenge. I call myself a Christian, but I wake up everyday and do stuff where I fail, and that’s the kind of reality that this record is about.”
Nowhere does that challenge come more to light than in the song “What Is Love,” in which Tosti wrestles with his anger towards the man who sexually abused his wife when she was a child, and struggles to reconcile the unspeakable act with the bigger picture. “I meet kids at our shows who’ve gone through the same thing, and I feel the pain of my wife going through that situation when she was a kid,” he says. “But at the same time all that anger comes out, I still know that God can heal us. My wife’s not a bitter person – God has really made a work of her life because of it, and allowed her to share positively with so many people about that experience.”
Putting the message of the album into actions, the band has initiated a remarkable outreach program called The Engage Project. Tosti explains, “I got the idea just by looking around my neighborhood and realizing there are so many ways we could shine light into people’s lives. Basically, it’s a way to get people involved in helping people, about letting your actions speak louder than words. It could be donating clothes to a shelter, buying a Christmas tree for a needy family or taking a kid to a baseball game. At our shows, we’re going to ask people to join The Engage Project. All they have to do is sign up and tell us their story within 60 days and we’ll put it up on our web site (PAX217.com). It’s a great way to get our fans involved in helping others and making a difference in our world.” People interested in this idea can read more details at TheEngageProject.com or ForeFrontRecords.com.
“We want to get involved in people’s lives without being political or doing anything that’s going to benefit us. Everybody can relate to wanting to be loved. That’s the bottom line. We must engage people to make a difference.”