from: Cross Rhythms Issue 46 (August/September 1998)
author: Tony Cummings (UK)
»» A CASE OF 'DEMO LOVE'
That brilliant band of hard rocking Australians, New
Zealanders and Americans, the NEWSBOYS, have been going through serious
changes since the departure of frontman John James. Tony Cummings reports.
NEW LINE UP: The Newsboys
"I was taken right out of my comfort zone! Seeing first hand the
terrible living conditions of the people (in Panama), and how they could
be fully content in a relationship with Christ while being dirt poor
made me feel quite spoiled."
"What do you think?" Peter Furler asks the small crowd
gathered in the studio's control room. "Too much? Not enough? Is
it 'demo love'?" 'Demo love' is the term the Newsboys' frontman/songwriter/producer
uses as the gauge for a song's worthiness. Too much 'demo love' means
not being open to innovation, too little means not trusting your instincts.
On the Newsboys' new Star Song/Virgin album 'Step Up To The Microphone',
it's just enough. "'Demo love' can be a real enemy, but we've made
enough records now where it isn't, because if you've got enough, everyone
else will love it too," Furler says.
'Step Up To The Microphone' speaks literally and figuratively to the
band's present reality. Following the gold-selling success of 1996's
'Take Me To Your Leader' and 1994's 'Going Public', and their equally
successful world tours, long-time Newsboys frontman John James decided
to leave the band to pursue other interests, forcing Furler out from
behind his drum kit and to the front of the stage as the band's lead
singer. "It's like a cheeky way of saying both 'Let the chips fall
where they may', and at the same time, for the fans and the youth group
leaders and the like, showing them that on this record we've gone through
a lot of self-examination," Furler says. "We've been thinking
about, 'Why did Jesus die on the cross?' and, more importantly, 'Why
do we believe what we believe?'. 'Step Up To the Microphone' obviously
means 'Make your statement,' but to me, it also means, 'What are you
going to say when you get there?'."
Meanwhile, the rest of the band (guitarist Jody Davis, bassist Phil
Joel, keyboardist Jeff Frankenstein and drummer Duncan Phillips) took
it upon themselves to ratchet up their talents to produce the most complete
and consistent Newsboys album ever. The result? A rich modern pop record,
full of all the sound and fury of today, combined with the timeless
message of the gospel and its impact on each of the Newsboys' lives.
"For us, it wasn't a case of wanting to educate people, but more
of wanting to show people what we've found out. I now have a deeper
understanding of why I need the Gospel and the foundations of Christianity,"
Furler notes. "You know how two people can say the same thing,
but when one person really believes it, it somehow doesn't matter if
it's corny or crummy or not? When the other person doesn't really believe
it, it kind of becomes a hunk of nothing.
"I hope people get the originality, I hope they like the melodies
and I hope they like the tracks. But I also hope people will see that
we believe," Furler says. His bandmates hope for that same goal.
"So many of these songs are reflections of what the band's been
talking about and going through for the last two years, both good and
bad," says Joel. "I think we've reached a happy medium in
what we're talking about, saying things without being too obvious or
too subtle." Phillips comments, "This album is so much more
three dimensional than things we've done in the past. The lyrics have
so much depth to them."
"I'm not a father, but these songs are like our kids," notes
Frankenstein. "You nurture them, you watch them grow, you raise
them up in the way they should go, and then when the album comes out,
you release them out into the world." From the crunchy groove of
"Woo Hoo" to the contemplative nature of "Always",
'Step Up To The Microphone' crackles with the energy of the Newsboys'
renewed commitment to both art and message. Produced by Furler, the
album allows all of the band's components their shot at making music
that matters, from Joel's eclectic bass lines and additional vocals
on tracks like "Woo Hoo" and the first single "Entertaining
Angels" to Davis' fiery guitar work on songs like "Step Up
To The Microphone" and "Deep End". From Frankenstein's
attention to sonic detail on tracks like "Truth Be Known"
and "Everybody Gets A Shot" to Phillips' driving percussion
all over the album.
"When we first went into the studio, we didn't know what we were
going to come out with," says Frankenstein. "But I think we've
moved on from the last record in a way most people won't expect,"
echoes guitarist Davis. And Furler wouldn't have it any other way. "My
role now is to make sure all of our strengths and weaknesses get pulled
and pushed to the point where we become a really tough unit," he
says. "My job is stepping out of the circle that the five of us
are in, getting a good glance around, then stepping back in and saying,
'Okay, this is what I've seen,' as opposed to, 'This is what we're doing.'"
Furler says with all of his bandmates' talents, the options in the studio
are virtually unlimited. "Jeff and Phil, both immensely talented
guys. Jody, a fantastic guitar player and a wonderfully talented vocalist.
Duncan, what a great rhythm sense and flair for percussion. They've
all got a great melody sense, and sometimes it comes down to whoever's
got the best one, wins."
And even in these electronica-driven days, where logarithmic waveforms
counts as much as iambic pentameter, the melody's the thing. "You
always have to protect the melody, and at the same time, really strive
to make it worth protecting," Furler says. "It can't be cheap,
and you have to have those elements around it that don't cheapen it
or overrule it either." As with 'Step Up To The Microphone's sonics,
the Newsboys' vocal approach has changed as well. Gone (for the most
part) is the pop sheen of past efforts, and in its place is a bit more
of a rough texture, as would befit a band who's members hail from places
as diverse as Australia, New Zealand and Detroit. "Vocally this
time we've tried to infuse it with a lot more character. We were less
concerned about pitch, more concerned about character," Furler
says. "It was a little bit of going, 'Sing how you talk,' but more
of letting the character shine through. And most of the time, our character
has an accent."
Along with the music of 'Step Up To The Microphone', the Newsboys hope
to pass along a message to the fans, both new and established. This
time out, it's the life-changing impact of short term mission work,
something Furler says has struck home with him only very recently. "There
are things in your life that are there, but somehow they blossom much
later on. So often people have an experience or a talent that maybe
was always there, but all of a sudden it
becomes their life," he says. "That's what happened with me
going on a short term missions trip. I was 18 years old when I took
my first mission trip, more than a decade ago, and it's only been in
the last two or three years that I sat down and realised that it really
changed my life.
"Then the band went on a trip to Panama with Teen Mania, and what
really blew me away was not so much what was happening to the people
there or to the kids, but what was happening to us. We all had this
great growth spiritually," Furler continues. "We want to encourage
every kid that comes to our concerts to get involved in one of these
trips, if only for the experience of stepping out of their circle and
reaching somebody. Sometimes the best way to account for your faith
is to realise that you can't, and breaking down those barriers of trying
to talk to someone outside that circle about Christ is the only way
Now that the hard part of making a record is over and done with, the
Newsboys are ready to get out there and do the really hard part, playing
this material the band have been living with for 18 months in front
of a living, breathing entity known as an audience. And if it were up
to Furler, it wouldn't always be a friendly one. "I get a kick
out of a crowd that, for the first three or four songs, they don't like
us. I get this real buzz because I know we're gonna get 'em. I know
this because of what's going on behind me. It's not anything I'm doing,
it's everything around me," he notes. "To me, it feels like
we're going to get thrown into a washing machine and beaten around in
the rinse cycle, and where we land is where we land. When it's all said
and done, I hope we have integrity and it's something that doesn't taint
or weaken the power of the cross. "If we can pass along what we've
learned over the past two years to our fans, that would be huge. We
want people to know that we don't want to be a band that has its own
selfish motives in mind all the time. 'Seek ye first the Kingdom of
God.' That's what's being taught to us all the time."
Furler is clearly missing John James. "I know this sounds funny
but I think the most difficult thing wasn't making the record without
him, he was around for quite a bit of the record even though he didn't
sing on it. John has always been someone I have liked to have around
because he's like a fan, when you show him a song I can see by his expression
whether it's any good or not. I miss that. The comradeship and our friendship,
it's still there but obviously he's in Australia and I'm here so I don't
get to see him that much. But I talk to him once a week or two. I missed
him the first few nights we toured Europe when we did out first shows
without him. I thought about him every night before I walked on and
I had a new appreciation for what he did do. But where I miss John most
is probably waking up in the morning on the tour bus and expecting to
see him coming out of his bunk, strolling out and cracking us all up,
or getting on the bus at night and he's playing Nintendo or something.
That's probably where I noticed it more, probably because we were close
friends. It was more the friendship than it was the band. I hope that
when we are 65 years old and the crowds have gone and the Gold records
have gone we are all still friends and we will still keep doing stuff
Drummer Furler speaks with surprising candour about his singing ability.
"I'm not really fond of my voice. I produced this new record, so
as I produced it, it was tough because there are two guys in the band,
Jody and Phil, who sing a lot better than I do. On the other side, I
felt like I should take up lead vocals because I sang a lot in the past
on the records. It kind of felt natural from the band's point of view.
I had already been coming out and doing four or five songs in the set
so I guess it was kind of natural that I came out the front. But it
all happened so quickly, I am still spinning from it and we've done
30 shows. I am different to John, he was a very good frontman. It's
different for me, every night it's a different night, the crowd's a
different crowd and I can't go out there and say the same thing every
night. I'm not good at public speaking yet. It's very easy to talk one-on-one
but to talk to 8,000 people in an arena and share what you really want
to share, that's an extra talent. So we are still waiting to see how
I cope with that."
Furler has fond memories of the Newsboys gig at the 1997 Alliance Festival.
"What I liked about Sheffield, the crowd were very polite, very
understanding and it was a good show and I enjoyed playing. We didn't
have our own sound system and our own light show, so in other words
it was just to the music, and we didn't have hits to those people, we
just had songs. In America we can kick into any one of our songs and
everybody knows the words and they sing along and that makes it easy.
But over in England, not many people knew much of our music which I
found really refreshing. It was good to go out and take things at face
value." Furler was soon enthusing about the British CCM scene.
"The World Wide Message Tribe, Delirious?, they're probably two
of my favourite acts. The guys from Delirious? I couldn't speak more
highly of, they're one of the greatest bands in Christian music."
The new Newsboys frontman is pleased the way the Newsboys are being
marketed by mainstream company Virgin. "Virgin have been very good
to us, a great company, very supportive. They just let us do what we
do, we sound songs every now and then and they say 'Cool, we like it.'
We see all different sides to the industry. There's the youth group
leader, the church pastor, Virgin records. The day we had the Gold record
party for 'Take Me To Your Leader', that afternoon I was in a meeting
with Virgin Records. They were saying, 'It's a good record and we are
glad it's gone Gold. Congratulations. But we don't want you to make
again.' They didn't have to convince me. I didn't want to make it. Anyway,
we couldn't have made it again, as a band. We would have broken up as
a band if we even tried to. Everybody was involved on the same level.
If one of them wasn't there it wouldn't have been as good a record."
The Newsboys are now heavily involved in encouraging young people to
commit to short term missions. Says Jeff Frankenstein, "I was taken
right out of my comfort zone! Seeing first hand the terrible living
conditions of the people (in Panama) and how they could be fully content
in a relationship with Christ while being dirt poor made me feel quite
spoiled. The trip really changed my perspective on life in general.
In the end, I think it changed me just as much as anyone our team was
able to reach."
Tony Cummings is the editor of Cross Rhtyhms magazine and acknowledges
use of an interview Peter Furler did with Jan Willem Vink in Nashville.
Cross Rhythms 6, June/July 1991
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