Mike Rimmer flew to Belfast to meet up with an exciting new rock worship band who go by the name of BLUETREE.
I've flown into Belfast and one of the things I've come to do was talk to Bluetree. Even though they were in the process of recording their first album when I met up with them, the buzz they were creating in Northern Ireland had already reached my ears. A friend of the band's drives me to Christian Fellowship Church, the home of Robin Mark, Brian Houston and some of the members of Bluetree.
I squeeze into a tiny studio control room with singer Aaron Boyd, DJ Peter Kernoghan and guitarist Rick Bleakley while the band play me a very rough mix of what will become the opening cut on 'Greater Things'. I am immediately impressed but realise I know nothing about this band so we start chatting.
"Bluetree was born out of a frustration," explains Aaron. "I was frustrated with the idea that worship is only to do with your heart. I don't really agree with that. It's bigger than just your heart attitude towards something. Like the idea that music can be secondary and as long as you love Jesus, that's fine! I don't think that's right."
At that time Aaron was playing with Rick and they were leading worship in church together and so they pulled a few guys together and the core of Bluetree was formed. The original drummer was subsequently replaced by Peter Comfort and DJ Peter Kernoghan was later added but the band's core played their first gig at a worship event and quickly started creating a manifesto for what they wanted to do. "We strive for musical excellence," Aaron shares. "We want to have community as well. We want to love each other more than anything and from that, let stuff grow out of that community.'
Aaron explains where the name of the band came from. "Bluetree stands for
standing out. The whole concept of that is that, if you're walking
through a forest, everything you look around at is pretty much going
to be green; green trees, brown branches, brown bark: you know, that
kind of thing? But if you saw this tree that was bright blue and
everything about it - leaves, branches, bark - was blue, it would
stand out and you would stand and look at it and take notice of it. As
Christians, Jesus Christ has called us to be salt, be light, in this
world and really make a difference. So we want to go around and
inspire kids to stand out whether that is in church or school."
The band are probably best known in Northern Ireland for playing at the Mannafest event which was established by Youth For Christ in Belfast and has been going on since the '80s. It happens monthly in the Ulster Hall which when it's not being refurbished is one of the city's largest venues. It places the band at the heart of a city wide youth movement, as Rick points out. "There's just a real new awakening with Mannafest now with a core of young people whose attitude is 'Okay, let's come, worship Jesus flat-out once a month, and let's go away and affect our communities. Let's go away and affect our schools. Let's go away and affect our churches. Let's try and do things in the community. Let's try and break some social walls down.'
"So for us as a band it's a real privilege to play there. We've been playing there for the last two years and it's been a real journey for us and them through worship. There were times where we thought, 'Oh, maybe they're not ready for really serious worship!' But we were proved completely wrong. There's these 13 and 14-year-old kids who are just longing to worship Jesus flat-out. It's a privilege to stand on that stage and see a thousand kids worshipping Jesus and giving everything they have to God. So for us as a band, it's been a blessing and it's just something that we really enjoy doing."
One of the key tracks on the album is "God Of This City" from which the phrase 'Greater Things' which gives the album its title is taken. I ask Aaron about the song and as he recalls the circumstances his voice breaks and he begins to cry, still moved by the events he's describing. "There's a couple from Carrickfergus, Ian and Leslie, and they moved out to Thailand to a place called Pattaya. We got asked to go and be part of an event called Pattaya Praise. Pattaya is a seaside town/resort place, and physically, it looks to be like the darkest place you'll ever go to. And spiritually, it is THE darkest place we have ever been to. You just feel the evil. You just feel the enemy all over that place. It's a very small place; in Northern Ireland we have a coastal town called Bangor and it's very much like that. But in that small area there are 30,000 prostitutes and that figure excludes kids and excludes anything that's outside of the range of, say 18-30, and who are female. You probably hear of ladyboys and all those kinds of things? It's got a ladyboy community and all this kind of stuff, and 90 or 95 percent of Thailand's income comes from the sex industry."
Aaron continues, "Part of what we were asked to do was to go out and be part of an event which runs for four or five days. It had things like 24/7 worship and prayer and social action going on helping the people who clean the streets every morning. We played in a school and ministered in an orphanage and tried to get a heart for that city. As a band we were getting cold feet because we had four days in Bangkok to start, and in those four days it was great. We'd be quite hyperactive, and it was flat-out, four days; not an hour was lost to sleep in those four days. On the Sunday we managed to play in one church and it was brilliant, but we wanted more. And then when we got to Pattaya we kind of felt like: okay, we're going to a school one day, two-days rest, we're gonna go to somewhere else; two-days rest, we're gonna go to somewhere else - we were there for nine days. So we chucked out the idea and we said, 'If you can get us anywhere else to play, anywhere, we want to play. We just want to do what we do in the middle of somewhere and just go head-on into it."
Aaron explains what happened next. "There was a bar called The Climax Bar - on a street that's about 10 metres wide, it's a kilometre long and it's filled with everything you can physically imagine. And I promise you, as a red-blooded male, to keep your head in the right place you've got to look down at the ground and walk down that street and pray because it is just so in your face. People hit you with menus about everything, flashing lights, just everything you can imagine goes on in that place. You see kids as young as eight, nine, 10, just selling themselves, you know?! You see 60-year-old guys walking down the street with two 13 or 14-year-old girls. Forget about the Christian thing, you just get raging! You properly get raging when you see that happening, you know?!"
He pauses to compose himself and continues, "But we got the chance to play in this bar, a two-hour worship set in this bar. I don't think the people in the bar spoke a word of English but we basically got to go in. The deal was that we play and we bring a following of people with us; so we're there, set up, really good gear! Amazing drums, the biggest drum kit you've ever seen in your life. I walk in and my dream amp is sitting there! Walk in and Rick's big Mesa Boogie stack sitting there! I was like, 'Woah!' So we all set up and there was like 20 Christians all standing in front of us, and the deal was we play, they buy lots of drinks, alright? I don't think the place has ever sold so much Coke in its whole life in one night!"
He laughs and describes the scene, "So all the Christians are all sugared off their heads on Coke.that's Coca-Cola by that way! The drink! And we got to play for two hours. And just the way the band set up, we like using loops, and at one point I just started singing out. I started singing "Greater Things", something along those lines, almost prophesying over the city. And without going into the band dynamics, slowly this groove emerged from this thing. And long story short; we walked out of that Climax Bar with pretty much a nailed song, as strange as that sounds. Then we were on the way home. We were all. . .it was that tumbleweed silence, you know? It was like, 'What actually just happened in that time?!' It was one of the most powerful worship experiences we've ever had. I actually remember looking out, and you're looking down a wee alleyway, into the street, and it was just 50 or 60 probably British tourists and they're just sitting there listening going, 'What is this all about?' Coming from The Climax Bar which is pretty much a strip club. Just, here we are singing about Jesus in the middle of this. You've got a German guy who's completely wrote off, with a prostitute on each arm and he is just like your Number One Fan! It was one of the most random experiences but it was a God thing, God was there."
'Greater Things' is definitely going to be putting the band on the map since its blend of worship, rock and electronica is an infectious mix. The six piece recorded the album with American producer Paul Mills, spending a week in Dublin and a week in Belfast. Pete Kernoghan explains that the band were very excited to be recording. He remembers, "It's just really funny when we went into the control room after being in the booth laying down a whole band take. We'd go in and Paul hits the 'Make Big Button', you know?! So there's massive speakers in this studio and then he just bangs out what we've just played and we're all sitting looking at each other going. . . 'Is that us?! Did we just play that?!' It was this sort of shock-excitement thing. And to be able to hear that and be like, 'Oh wow, that's pretty amazing!' in our limited minds, it's just like, 'Wow!' You know? But to put it all on an album and to put stuff that Aaron's poured his heart into, we've all poured our heart into, over the past two years; to put that all down on a CD, it's exciting but it's also a really vulnerable time as well. We're just saying, 'This is our heart.' And on the CD: this is our heart for worship. This is our heart for God. This is our heart for our city. And these are the things that we've been going through as a band over the past two years. So there's this real excitement and there's this vulnerability. It's just an amazing experience. It's just the whole thing."
In Dublin, the band used Windmill Lane Studios, the favourite spot for U2 to record. Rick enjoyed the experience, "I'm the studio geek," he confesses, "and I run a wee studio here in our church so I'd done a wee bit of research. Before that time we were really flummoxed as to how we were going to get this whole thing done. We'd been really fortunate to run into Paul Mills via Robin Mark, who goes to our church. He'd come into our little studio to do some vocal work, and so we met Paul and decided that he was going to be our producer, and that was definitely a God-ordained appointment. But then there was the actual logistics of getting this album down. So we went to a friend of mine and I was asking about gear and stuff and how we can hire all this stuff that we need for our album, and the price was getting higher and higher and higher and higher. He made the suggestion of phoning Windmill Lane; he happened to know the guy who owns it - who happens to be one Van Morrison. So he organised, through Van Morrison's company, to get into this studio. That was just another God-ordained appointment, getting into that Windmill Lane Studio. And then we found out all about its history, and standing in the place where all those U2 albums were made. . ." Aaron interrupts helpfully, "And Kylie Minogue!" before Rick continues, "And the Spice Girls and people like that. So yeah, the history of the place. . . But I sort of think that God came down on that place and made a bit of history that time as well with us. As Pete sort of hinted at, when we were recording in there we came into the control booth and we felt like, 'This actually feels like nothing to do with us whatsoever.' It felt like, 'That's not my guitar part,' 'Those loops don't sound like they did.' Something happened between the live room and the control room, you know? And so, let's just see what happens."
At this stage, the band remain unsigned and perhaps that's how it will stay. Aaron shares their approach, "The set up of our band is that we want to stay completely independent. I'm not dissing record companies or anything like that but record companies tend to have a lot of sway in how your finished product sounds. Style wise, we have complete creative control. Apart from Paul Mills chippin' in stuff this album is us. So as a band we're gonna own everything ourselves. We're gonna publish everything ourselves. We're gonna fund everything ourselves. We're gonna do everything ourselves. The face of the music industry is changing and that's because of things like iTunes, online distribution, all those kinds of things, and as a band you don't need to be tied up in the industry-standard record deal. Ultimately it makes it a lot harder for a band, especially with six guys and a manager, to try and live and do it fulltime. I'm not saying that it's impossible but it ultimately makes it harder."
Rather naughtily I suggest the band could get rid of the 'dead wood' and sack the DJ. Pete laughs while Aaron agrees with me, "Absolutely! I know! That's right! Just replace him with a nice machine, yeah!" Pete engages in a mock pout and says "I'm hurt! Hurt!" Ultimately Aaron defends the DJ, "I know that's a joke but, Petey Kernoghan; at the start we blatantly said to Pete, 'Pete, you CAN buy a machine that will do your job.' Straight down the line, you know? But the beauty about Pete is that he's a worshipper first and foremost, and he loves to worship. So when Pete's deejaying, if you just had a machine you're not going to see anything, it's not going to impact you. And part of it as a band is that we actually feel a bit of a prophetic edge, and whenever things happen it's infinitely easier if Pete Kernoghan and Pete Comfort, our drummer, work really well together because they can talk to each other. I suppose that is a conversation in itself but they basically can communicate with each other on stage. And maybe if I go off at a certain angle, what starts to happen behind me and alongside me is just fascinating. That's how "God Of This City" came around, and to develop that can only be done with a person. That was a God thing."
As I'm driven to the airport, I wonder whether in Bluetree, I have stumbled across one of the great bands of this generation. It is only weeks later when I hear the stunning final mix of their debut album that I am sure I have.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.