Tony Cummings quizzed Matt Hooper and Mark Stevens of ALM:UK about their new name and change of musical direction
The fact that Kingsway could recently compile an album of live worship tracks from Bradford's renowned Abundant Life Church under the name Lara Martin demonstrates how clearly the church's worship music has been associated in the past with Lara's Darlene Zschech-style vocals and compositions. But in 2010 everything has changed for the Bradford mega-church. A new lineup of core worship musicians, a new record label home and a fresher musical style which throws off any of the "Hillsong copyists" criticisms of old have all come together on the Integrity-Provident album 'Name Above All Names'. So it's only too appropriate that the Christian TV promoted church should decide now is the moment for their worship releases to have a new artist credit. Consequently, ALM:UK are now in the CD racks.
I spoke to ALM:UK's Matt Hooper and Mark Stevens and began by asking Matt about their new moniker. He responded, "There are a great many Abundant Life churches; maybe not so many in the UK, but certainly worldwide. So we were searching for something that was a smaller name, something that was shorter - especially as we've released in the US, we wanted something that denoted us as a British band. The album was released last week, though it's something that we kind of worked out for about a year or so."
Matt is pleased about the fresh musical direction of 'Name Above All Names'. "We definitely want to update the sound, keep it fresh, keep it interesting - not just relevant in the truth that's being sung, but also in the way that the music sounds, and making it an artistic experience. Every new project for us is a challenge and it's a great opportunity for us to try some new things and push forward. We've always been like that as a church and we've always wanted to keep that ethic at the heart of what we do. In order to be relevant you need to keep changing, to keep evolving and growing and that's absolutely crucial to what we do. The world is changing so fast, generations are coming through, and we just want to be relevant and get the good news of Jesus Christ to as many generations as we possibly can."
Matt explained how the band came to record a studio album and that with an American producer, Bernie Herms. He recounted, "Our senior associate pastor, Charlotte Gambill, met Natalie Grant, who's Bernie's wife, at a conference in the States, not really knowing who she was. They got on really well and found out later that she was a Grammy Award-winning singer. They visited us as a church, they came over to the Cherish conference three years ago. Bernie said he felt compelled to get involved and to help get the sound of what God was doing in Bradford into the world at large. So he began to help us arrange songs, going back and forth, helping us think about how to present songs in a different way. Myself, Mark and Jock James went out to Nashville in December and January and we did some recording out there, it was a fantastic experience. Bernie is just such a great artist in his own right, he's such a deep guy, and he really cares about what God is doing in Bradford. It's been such an incredible journey, because in our wildest dreams we couldn't have imagined, we couldn't have engineered it in the way that God engineered it. It just feels like God is up to something."
As well as Matt Hooper, ALM:UK contain two other much experienced worship leaders, Mark Stevens and Jock James, the latter having gained a considerable reputation for his work with Abundant Life's youth band RPM. Matt was anxious to emphasise that Jock's inclusion in ALM:UK didn't mean the end of RPM. He informed me, "Jock and Mike Harvey, who head up RPM, have just finished an EP, 'The Sound of Praise', which we're going to release at a youth conference, Rock Nations. It will have a limited press of 1500 copies, and it's wild."
One of the outstanding tracks on the new album is "My God Reigns" which Matt co-wrote with Jock James. Matt spoke about the song. "'My God Reigns' has been in the life of our church for maybe two and a half years. We wrote it as a team, although I kind of started the song off, really around the time when the financial crisis was beginning to bite. We were aware of many people who were facing hardships, foreclosures of business and real difficult times - and I was beginning to see the posture or the demeanour of our congregation change, they were starting to look fearful or frightful. I wanted to write something that put a declaration of faith in their mouths. The Bible says, 'I've never seen the righteous forsaken, nor his people begging bread'. God looks after his people: he doesn't just save us and leave us on our own, he saves us and sets us on the path of righteousness and helps us from one day after another to become more like him; he's a loving father and he cares for us. I wanted something that spoke of the goodness and the faithfulness of God. The chorus goes, 'His love will never fail me, he's ruling over all. In every situation, I know my God is great, and my God is over all.' Really very simple, not very cool, but just something that felt like we need to help people connect with this element of God's personality. It's one of those songs that, as a writer, I feel most closest to."
The title track of the album was co-written by Mark and Jock. Said Mark, who has been involved with all the Abundant Life projects since 2001's 'Divine Exchange', about the number, "It really is just a declaration of faith, declaring the fact that his name is above every name. When you live amongst the communities that we live amongst, you see a lot of people with their heads down and you see a lot of defeated people. If there's one thing that I desire to put in their heart, in their mouth, it's the fact that Christ is above all. It's like that song 'My God Reigns', kind of a similar theme that, 'Hey, you need to look to Christ and find out who he is. In him, you can overcome anything.'"
One of the hiccups in the history of the Abundant Life Church albums was the 'Divine Exchange' project of 2001 the sleeve of which made copious use of photos of Gareth Gates - then a member of the Abundant Life worship team, though not a lead singer on any of the songs, who before the album was released had been catapulted to national pop fame through the Pop Idol TV talent search - and subsequently turned his back on the church and Christianity. Mark commented, "One of our pastors here at the church still has contact with his family, and with Gareth, from time to time though very, very rarely now. I think he's just taken a different path. We pray for him, we wish him all the best, we love the guy - if I saw him tomorrow I'd only think the best towards him."
Returning to the present, Matt is excited that with the completion of 'Name Above All Names' ALM:UK will be a full on touring unit. "We will be touring from September onwards around America and different pockets of the world. That is part of our mandate, part of our calling as a church, to equip the local church all around the world. We thank God that he's given us that platform to be able to do that. We're very humbled by that, and at the same time incredibly excited about the possibilities that that holds. Not all the worship leaders will be touring, of course. One or two of us will stay at home in Bradford and minister here while the others are out. Things are very strong back here when one or two of us are out anyway. There are really strong worship leaders coming through in their own right in the church, and all is well and all is safe back at home."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.