Nathan Cox and Tony Cummings report on the SEVENTY SEVENS' unexpected return with a blues gospel album

The Seventy Sevens
The Seventy Sevens

Edgy rock band, the Seventy Sevens are still going strong after years of extreme cult following. The band, who have gone through more line-up changes than the Sugababes in their 20 year history, last year released their 11th studio album 'Holy Ghost Building'. The band now consists of Michael Roe (vocals and guitar), Mark Harmon (bass) and Bruce Spencer (drums). Front man and guitarist Mike Roe recently spoke to Cross Rhythms about the new album, touring and their enclave of hugely committed fans.

For those not aware of the Seventy Sevens' proud history, here are some very brief insights into the band.

The band's big opportunity came when they signed to Island, but only one week after their album 'The Seventy Sevens' was released, Island released U2's 'The Joshua Tree' meaning most of the Island employees went on the road with the more successful U2 and left the Seventy Sevens with very little promotion for their album. Many agree that if it had not been for the release of 'The Joshua Tree' the Seventy Sevens self titled album, which is arguably the bands best work, would not have been so overlooked.

Mark Allen Powell wrote in the Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Christian Music of the Seventy Sevens, "[They] are typically regarded as one of the two or three best Christian rock bands of all time," before adding ".the fans they have are intensely, even maniacally, loyal."

When asked by Cross Rhythms' Mike Rimmer about the kind of supporters the Seventy Sevens have, Mike Roe said, "People are kind of rejects from the church community and rejects from the pop community - people who didn't really fit in, because that's the way I always felt. I never felt that I fitted into either world very well." Yet today the band rely heavily on their core supporters to keep the name Seventy Sevens alive. Mike Roe explained the group's modus operandi, "Mostly I end up calling people. I get a couple of people - agents or friends - to start calling fans at random. 'Hey, we want to come to your town and we want you to do a show'. And they're so flattered that we called them they actually make themselves broke in order to do it. And at the end of two weeks we have a little tour and a bit of money until about a month later when we make those calls again!"

In 2008 drummer Bruce Spencer suddenly called Mike Roe to say the group should record an album of early blues gospel and hillbilly gospel songs. At the time, Spencer was backing up Jackie Greene, a rising star in the Americana scene, and had fallen in love with ancient roots music. The call sent Roe on a quest to find classic songs, bringing the band into the studio to record 'Holy Ghost Building'.

Mike told HM magazine about the preparation for the album. "I put together a cassette with as many of these songs as I thought would be good to do, and we set up the band live in a large warehouse studio downtown. We had two different sets of drums, depending on what the vibe was, so that we could all play live. I'd put on the cassette and say, 'Alright, check this song out.' The minute we heard one we liked, we'd say, 'Alright. Got it,' and we'd go sit down and just record it in one go. We'd keep doing a few takes until we felt like we got it, and then we'd move on."

Mike continued, "So, the concept of recording live on the fly with songs that we either barely knew or had never heard before. . . this was something that really appealed to me because I love working that way. If I were in comedy or acting, I would be in improv theatre and doing it like that, because that's where I really work best. And, this also is the same way that Elvis Presley recorded his material in the '50s. Either he or the producer would bring in a stack of singles that had been submitted by songwriters or they were old songs that Elvis knew. They'd say, 'Let's do this,' and they'd work it up on the fly and record it and that would be the record. It would go out just like that. So, for me, it was like coming full circle - not only with our band, but just in the whole approach to record making in rock and roll and everything."

The Seventy Sevens have long been blues aficionados (they recorded Washington Phillips' classic "Denomination Blues" on their 1983 'Ping Pong Over The Abyss' debut). Mike Roe spoke about 'Holy Ghost Building' to Stan Friedman at Christianity Today, "I think that out of all the things we tried, this is the one that sounds the most primal. It's the thing I understand the best. There are other influences in there. When I was in high school there was the blues explosion. A lot of these songs I had never heard. I found them during my research period. It was a great learning experience, and it was a reliving of the past at the same time, so there was fresh, new feelings in it. It wasn't just rehashing something I knew so we couldn't put feeling into it. I was being challenged all the time."

One of the most unusual tracks on the album is Skip James' "He's A Mighty Good Leader" performed in waltz time. Said Roe, "That was Bruce [Spencer]'s idea. I was content to just take the easy way out and do it the way Skip James did it, which was almost like a black hillbilly thing, but Bruce would have none of that. He said, 'Why don't we try it like a slow waltz thing.' I found that it was a magical place for it, and it's not anything someone else would have done. I found out later that Beck recorded that song, and he did it a lot closer to Skip James original version - only worse. He didn't even bother to tune his guitar for it." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.