In one of the most painfully truthful interviews ever given by a Christian music artist, one-time member of the NEWSBOYS John James spoke in depth to Mike Rimmer.
It's 1995 and in High Wycombe the Alliance "summer showcase" is in full flow bringing together a mixture of British and American acts. For a journalist like myself, it's an ideal opportunity to meet and interview a pile of bands and I'm wandering around the backstage area in the afternoon before the gig while the bands are soundchecking. PFR, Iona, 65dBA, The Worldwide Message Tribe, re:fresh and Hydro are all there waiting for their moment to set up and over in a corner are The Newsboys. Their singer John James is sat on a chair joking with his band mates when I dare to interrupt them. "Excuse me, are you John James," I ask politely. "Who wants to know?" comes the growled response.
Frankly the interview is a disaster. The press room is above the hall and every beat and synth driven groove of the Tribe's soundcheck fills the room where we're chatting ruining my recording. John won't get serious and seems content to answer my questions with flip and jokey comments. Frustrated, I close the interview and hang around for the gig. The Newsboys really go for it. As it turned out though, things weren't right with the Newsboys. Within a year an announcement was made that John James was leaving the group to return to Australia to be involved in local church ministry. It was James and Pete Furler who had formed The News, the band from which the Newsboys originated, in the mid '80s. After some local success, James, Furler and manager Wes Campbell had emigrated to the USA and, after an uncertain start (the 'Read All About It' album for Refuge) the Newsboys had gone on to CCM stardom. For their frontman to quit seemed a major blow though as it turned out Furler switching from drums for the vocal mic brought the Newsboys even more success. But what of John James? The silence down the years from the one-time CCM star James has been deafening. And so it came to pass that in October 2006 I found myself at a barbecue in a Brisbane park. It was just a few families and singles having fellowship and it was the embryonic beginnings of a new church in the city. The pastor of His Church was going to be singer David Evans, known in the UK for his ministry at the Cross Rhythms festival. David was sitting laughing while teasing another of the church's leaders, John James.
As is the fashion when musicians get together, they were swapping war stories from days on the road. Even recently when they've been ministering together things haven't always gone smoothly in the churches where they have presented a mixture of music, preaching and honesty for the churched and unchurched to experience. Always the journalist, I asked John for a few general comments about his time with the band. He said, "I feel really blessed. We started here in Australia. Just a bunch of guys - dreams, hopes, aspirations. Uneducated but passionate. We started this band here and looking back, I remember the thrill and the excitement. I think a lot of people wish that they could taste and experience life in a successful band and it's pretty amazing to be on stage in front of tens of thousands of people. An arena filled with people. The excitement! The electricity! Hearing people bellow out in one crescendo an anthem. Singing every lyric of every one of your songs. It's like you're this conductor standing on the edge of the stage just conducting this huge crowd and taking them on a journey throughout the night. It was the most incredible experience."
He continued, "With the Newsboys, we were fortunate enough to be a part of doing some huge concerts. My last tour with the band was the Take Me To Your Leader Tour. That was one of the most successful tours that year in America, Christian or secular. It was a massive tour. At that time we were signed with Virgin Records and distributing secular in the US and so often the Virgin guys would have their reps and different guys come out to our concerts and they were blown away. I don't know what they expected. They knew it was a religious/Christian band. We were obviously the only Christian band, so to speak, on their label."
John got animated just thinking about it and chuckled as he said, "Mate, I don't know what they expected; to come out and see a bunch of guys in long flowing gowns wearing sandals and beads and chanting on a stage, dancing and singing 'Cum By Yah'? But they'd come out and see this massive production. The most incredible show. The spectacular. The multi-media. The antics. And arenas filled with people. I mean it was powerful for them! It was really exciting for me to be a part of something so big. To experience it."
I had a flashback of their Take Me To Your Leader tour performances and what struck me was the way that John and the band created pop music events that were certainly entertaining, but did they lose sight of the ministry amongst all the hi-tech production elements? "I think we were always passionate about the ministry," he replied, "but I think as we evolved and things changed maybe the focus began to shift to some degree in regards to our blatancy of how we articulated that on stage. We were very passionate about the entertainment side. We always were, whether we were in front of 10 people or 10,000 people or 100,000 people, we never ever took the stage and didn't give a 110 per cent. We wanted people to go away feeling, if they paid 20 dollars for a ticket they got a hundred-dollar ticket show. We always did our best to captivate people. Take them on a journey. Maybe the way we delivered the simplicity of the Gospel changed like you said as we became more 'successful'. Maybe in some areas we gained a lot? Maybe in some areas we lost something too?"
From his time with the band, it is certainly true that he sang lead on some of the band's most classic recordings. John agreed, "Yeah, there was 'Shine' and I think 'Take Me To Your Leader' and 'Not Ashamed'. It's like they've become classic songs. And sometimes to be honest, if it wasn't for the sake of the people like yourselves that are interested in doing an interview with me or sometimes people coming up and still asking for an autograph or I'm asked to speak somewhere and tell my story, it's almost seems like such a world ago now. I almost have to pinch myself and say, alright, yeah that's right. I WAS in a band! Oh yeah that's right, we DID do that! But some of these songs, yeah you're right, they've been sort of placed in Christian music history now as being 'classic Newsboys songs'. I feel pretty fortunate that I was a part of it." So could he still sing "Shine" now if I played the karaoke version of it - would he know the words? "Nah!" he laughed, "I had trouble remembering the words when I was IN the band let alone seven and a half years later!"
Our chat was going well so I asked John about whether he'd be willing to record an in-depth interview about his time in the Newsboys and also to talk honestly about why he had left. He was reluctant to go public with the details and I didn't think the interview would happen. So my wife Pippa and I drove north towards what they call the Sunshine Coast. It's certainly well named because even in Australian springtime it was warmer than a British summer. We stopped off at Australia Zoo, established by the late Steve Irwin, where I learnt how to avoid being eaten by a crocodile! (Don't go near the water!). As a tropical rainstorm thundered and rain struck the roof of the car with a sound akin to a drum kit being thrown down a flight of stairs, we headed up the wonderfully named Bruce Highway towards the resort of Mooloolaba as a beautiful double rainbow lit the sky.
The Newsboys got their start on the Sunshine Coast where they made a name for themselves on the local music scene. John James still lives there and another phone call led to us meeting for a coffee. The hotel where I stayed was across the road from a packed beach and I settled into a coffee shop to read, drink and wait for John to arrive on a sunny Friday morning. We talked for about an hour where, off the record, I asked a lot of searching questions and John shared what he was willing to talk about in a recorded interview and what he'd prefer to keep private. There are some things which he prefers to keep quiet about, believing that it would be unhelpful to speak about them in public. I promised to respect his wishes so that what you are reading are simply the confessions of a man who made plenty of mistakes, has been to the brink and been rescued by a faithful God. John James has chosen to tell his own story and to let others tell theirs, if they choose to.
Being in a hugely successful band clearly had its own pressures for John. As he admitted to me, by the end of his time in the Newsboys John's Christian life was shattered. "It didn't happen overnight," he explained. "You've gotta understand. You've got a bunch of young guys that one moment we're tanning on the beach in Mooloolaba and some years later we're in one of the biggest Christian bands around. The success, the fame, the money, the screaming girls, the autographs. It's like, how do you deal with that? How do you process that? You're in this schizophrenic lifestyle where you're surrounded by thousands of fans that are wanting to touch the very sweat that falls from your brow. They're wanting your autograph. They're wanting to reach out and grab you. And then I'm meant to come home and make the transition from this surreal, schizophrenic, adrenaline-packed lifestyle to come home to be a dad and a father and a husband. And I found that after a period of time I wasn't able to make that transition back to normality of lifestyle. There wasn't anyone mentoring or helping me to deal with this, mentally or emotionally. It's like you've got people that surround you and help you to become successful but no-one really mentored us in regards of how to keep our heads in check. I don't care who you are, you put ANYBODY in that sort of environment for long enough and unless you have countermeasures to help you process and deal with that, man it's gonna mess you up big time! And over a period of time it began to take it's toll. Only in little things. It doesn't happen overnight. Maybe a value dropped here. A standard lowered here. But it began to eventually take its toll on my marriage - the pressure of it."
He continued, "I remember when it started. I'd come home off the road sometimes and find my wife crying. I tolerated it for a while. I remember one day I came home and I was just so fed up. She was weeping and I'm like, 'Woman, be quiet! What's your problem? We've gained the whole world! Your only stress in life is: "How many pairs of shoes should I buy today?" We've gained everything!' But my wife could see something much bigger than the success, the fame, the money, the position, the career. She saw our marriage starting to erode and fall apart. My wife is the sort of person who when she stood at that altar and said, 'I do', 'Till death do us part', she believed that. And now she's seeing us starting to drift apart. I was starting to become very isolated. You're surrounded by thousands of people but you're really lonely and you become very insular and very isolated and it really started to take its toll. Our marriage began to spiral downhill, dramatically. Slowly at first but then as time went by it began to go faster and faster and faster."
It was at this point that John began to take solace in alcohol. "I think for myself, I worked HARD. We concerted HARD. We toured HARD. But I also played hard. And for me alcohol was an escape. Obviously it wasn't something that was public knowledge. I justified it as it helped me to process and deal with the pressure. Now whether that was a crutch or not, I think after a while it became the dependency, where I needed that constantly. And eventually it really started to take a grip in my heart and my life to the point where the alcohol was a serious problem. It's amazing how you can be in front of so many people but we do such a great job of hiding what's really going on. We become masters of hiding the truth. Why? Because we have an image to uphold. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars creating this allure, this perception of perfection. And the last thing we want people to know is that we're actually just real people who deal with real problems."
He continued, "But we found ourselves thrust into this position because we're 'pop stars'. You never see people who are plumbers or gardeners or accountants. 'Wow can we have your autograph?!' But we happen to be in an environment, as artists, as musicians, where we're put on pedestals because of who we are. It's a crazy, crazy lifestyle. But I did a fantastic job of hiding that and masking that. It's almost like you become very sneaky. You don't mean it to happen, it's a gradual process, but eventually you have to come to the realisation that you have an addiction. A real addiction. And yeah it really took its toll on my life and my marriage. I got to a place that at one stage where I was drinking a carton or two of alcohol a day. That's a lot! I got to a stage where in the mornings for breakfast I'd have two six-packs! So by lunchtime I was just totally intoxicated. And this went on every day."
This obviously began to take its toll on life in the band. Did he ever go on stage whilst drunk? "You know what? As terrible as it sounds and actually I'm ashamed of that, I did, yes. Nobody would have guessed. You can be surrounded by so many people but you're still very protected. I think it got to the point where it was becoming such a problem and my marriage was really starting to fall apart so I confided in the band about how severe it was. They were totally blown away. Especially Peter. I remember the night we were in the studio recording some vocals. We'd cut all the music for the 'Step Up To The Microphone' album and I was about to record the vocals for 'Entertaining Angels'. I confided in Pete and started to open up, telling some of the stuff that was going on in my marriage. And he was just blown away. I don't think he really understood how he could deal with that. It was pretty devastating for the band because they didn't know how to deal with it either."