Tony Cummings updates the story of the Australian rock worship phenomenon HILLSONG UNITED
Cross Rhythms wrote about Hillsong United in 2007 and attempted to document their convoluted history since their emergence from Sydney's Hillsong megachurch in the '90s. Since that time the aggregation fronted by Joel Houston - the son of Hillsong's pastor Brian Houston - have gone from strength to strength. The live compilation 'The iHeart Revolution: With Hearts As One' (2008), the live 'Tear Down The Walls: Across The Earth' (2009) and the studio album 'Aftermath' (2011) have all been huge sellers with 'Tear Down The Walls: Across The Earth' and 'Aftermath' making Australia's mainstream album chart ('TDTW' at number 22 and 'Aftermath' at four) and both making number one on America's Christian album chart. Joel spoke to Jesusfreakhideout about what led up to the recording of 'Aftermath'.
"Well, I guess you know we came off a huge season working towards the 'iHeart' project and the film and so forth, and I think over the last few years a lot of the guys were heavily involved in United and were taking on more responsibilities with the life in the church in Sydney. And I'm obviously in a place of transition because I'm now moving to New York to help start a Hillsong there. So there's a lot going on and I think it kind of came time to work on a United project. We took a whole year off really doing something. And we had a bit of a soul search and talked to each other and said, 'If we're gonna do this, as in United, and keep moving with it, what's it going to look like? And how prepared are we? ...Maybe to just ride on the coattails of what we've been doing for the last 10 years or so or do we want to really take this thing forward?' And I think we collectively decided, 'You know what? Let's throw ourselves into it like it's the first time we've ever done anything.' I think sometimes we lose a lot of momentum and there's a lot going on in our world and at church and so forth. There's plenty happening and it's easy to sometimes take for granted the opportunity we have. We decided to do the opposite and just throw ourselves into it."
'Aftermath' starts with the song "Take Heart", a chillout kind of soaking song very different from the band's usual bombastic anthemic starters. Joel told NewReleaseTuesday website about the song's origins. "That was the first song we had for this album. We kind of started writing it a couple years ago, in the aftermath of the GFC [global financial crisis], when a lot of people were doomsday-ing. The song sat on the shelf for awhile, but when we began working on the album, I thought it would be the last song - a pretty epic ending. 'Go' seemed like the natural place to start. I guess everything about this album is back to front - the album artwork, this whole symbolism of the paradoxical nature of the Kingdom of God. And so all of a sudden this light bulb went off, and I thought we needed to start with 'Take Heart'. It's a beautiful place to start.
"It's natural to look at our circumstances, our own life, our misgivings, failures and insufficiencies and to be discouraged by them. This album is really hopeful back to front. Jesus says, 'In this life you will have trouble, but take heart I have overcome the world.' Once we've established the fact that Jesus conquered all our fears, our failures and our tears on the cross, we live in a different kind of aftermath. Then we're ready to 'Go'. When we showed the 'powers that be' for lack of a better word, they thought it was very interesting and listed out the pros and the cons. I thought the cons were the best part, so we went with it. I'm glad we're not doing the same thing we've always done."
'Aftermath' is only Hillsong United's second studio album. How difficult was it for the band to capture the live worship ambience in the sterile atmosphere of a recording studio? "It's always, I suppose, the unknown factor. Many of the songs on this album were untried (in the congregation) before we recorded them. We recorded quite a few songs; we were working on 30 different ideas. Even with some of the songs we went with, we were unsure how they'd translate into the live setting. Our whole intention in songwriting was to articulate our heart's cry for worship in this day and age. Every single one of the songs we've brought to the congregation has been taking off. We have a quiet confidence about it, I suppose, because all along our expression of worship is true, and you can never underestimate what can work in a corporate worship setting when it comes to music. I've been to all kinds of rock concerts where people are screaming bands' songs at the top of their lungs; all humanity has a natural instinct to worship. Why box that in with the Church? It'll be good; I'm really looking forward to getting on this tour next week to see how the songs really fly."
Joel admits that Hillsong United takes some of its musical influences from non-Christian bands. He said, "Personally, I'm constantly being inspired and we really challenge the guys to get out and listen to music. I'm a firm believer that all music comes from God. Not all of it is glorifying God, but I do believe that the gift comes from God. There's a lot to be gleaned even whether about it being used for its original purpose or not. We really encourage our guys to be open to old and new and more spectrums than what's just out there. For us, we love music. We're passionate about God and we want to use music to the best of our ability to connect people with God and I think sometimes when it comes to worship, we limit what can be done musically and be creative. We feel like we have to put the limit on somewhere and I guess with this project it was like, 'Hang on. Let's just make an album that we love musically.' It explores what's possible without becoming too self-indulgent in the musicality. I think the songs are still simple, but just brought more to life with different arrangements. There's a corporate [worship] element to these songs, but when we were making this album, we were thinking about a kid on the subway with his iPod on, on his way to college and you know he can put this on wherever he's at and be transported. I imagine a bunch of kids on a road trip and putting this album on and the Spirit of God being in that car with them. We do a lot of travelling and everywhere we go we see people with their iPods on, but I love this idea of people understanding that God is with us. And I picture people walking in New York City, or wherever they are and being encouraged by the Spirit of God and yet still being able to sing them with thousands of other people in an arena or in a local church with just an acoustic guitar. That's everything for us. If people are able to do that through these songs, then we're stoked."
One of the pleasing things about 'Aftermath' is the return of Hillsong United's seminal worship leader and songsmith Marty Sampson who after his marriage in November 2006 stepped down from regular recording and touring with the group. Marty is singing lead on 'Aftermath''s title track. Said Joel, "Marty was a huge part of the United journey, and we've remained very close friends. He's done some different things over the last few years, but Marty's always around. He hasn't necessarily been involved in leading worship and so forth - by his own choice - but he's still a part of the church. When we started working on this project, it just felt like a bit of a rebirth for United in a sense. I don't know how to explain it. We went in with the attitude like we were doing it for the first time. We gave it our very best, treating it like it was our one and only project.
"Marty was floating around the studio a bit, and I asked him, 'What do you think about singing a song?' I showed him 'Aftermath' and he said he'd love to sing it. He really brought that song to life. He's always had such an incredible heart for people and for God. You hear it in the way he sings. For me, it's a personal thing. We've been great mates for a long time, and I don't know I'd be doing what I'm doing if not for our friendship and the partnership we've had since the early days."
Joel was asked whether, with the continually shifting personnel of Hillsong United, the band's vision has changed down the years? "I don't think our vision's changed. It's certainly grown in scope, and it's evolved in some ways. Our heart in the early days was to write songs for our youth ministry to connect our friends who didn't know Jesus and friends who did, and do it in our own way - breaking the rules, doing it in a way that seemed right. That hasn't changed. The platform has changed and increased. It's interesting we're called United. I didn't see that at the time, but the opportunity we have is to unify the Church to lift the name of Jesus and to express our worship in a way that would mobilise us. I look back on these videos of us years and years ago and remember what God was doing in our lives and our church at that time. In prayer meetings we'd cry out to God with this naiveté, genuinely believing God would use us to change the world. It brings back the fondest memories. It's beautiful. There's something about staying planted, keeping your course and doing whatever it takes. God does the rest. He opens up doors you never imagined. I love it, and I don't want it to stop because I've come so far, and I feel there's so much more to be done."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.