Mike Rimmer flew to Belfast to talk to the passionate and thought-provoking leader of the JOHNNY PARKS BAND
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But what happens when that's what you're being told you should be doing by a record label or a music publisher? I wonder how Parks balanced that up? That must cause a tension! "Well I think it does," he admits, "it does cause a tension and you can't get away from that. I think what I do is, we write songs as a band and we pre-produce the songs as a band and we work them all out as a band. We're geeky about it, you know! We're purists about it. Because we're all music fans first and foremost; we're diehard music fans. We buy music, we go to gigs, we read about music, we talk about music; and when we rehearse songs they go through six or seven evolutions and changes and versions before we're happy with them. So we're purist about it to a degree. And so once we get them to that stage then we'll talk to the record company. We'll want to work a song up to a stage where we feel happy with it and then present it because I think if we were to present it prior to that then the danger is you come up with something that you're just not that happy with. Now to be fair I think there's still people who work in the industry side of things who are very passionate about music and listen to loads of music and love music, AND want to push the envelope. We've been fortunate that we've worked with some people who've been like that; who want to stretch things a little bit. Even with this last album we were very fortunate because our A&R guy was saying to us that we could do our own thing to a degree and push the boundaries back, but there's still, coupled with that, an expectation that songs need to be written in a certain way to make them more presentable to the Church. And so it is a tension. We debate this regularly in the band. We talk it through a lot in the band about creative freedom versus accessibility and the economics of it, but personally speaking, my energy nosedives when it comes to talking about economics and accessibility and all that stuff. My frustration increases."
Johnny's past recordings, 'Nomads Welcome' (independent, 2000), 'Close To You: Live At Manafest' (Emerge, 2001) and 'Almighty Sound' (Survivor, 2004), were credited solely to Johnny, but the 'Break The Silence' project has the billing the Johnny Parks Band. Explains the songsmith, "There are a couple of things that feel important to us. We've always been and done the 'band' thing with our songwriting and production. The process has always been about producing and recording as a band in order to create subtle musical nuances that communicate God. We believe God speaks through the music and not just the words and when you rehearse and play regularly with the same bunch of people, there is more opportunity to facilitate this. That's why the band is important. Also, we believe in team, family, ownership, relationships and we want to build something that lasts. I think we are all committed to being a part of something rather than just doing our own thing so it felt important to us to make this shift with the new album."
The lineup of the Johnny Parks Band is an impressive one. David "Hambo" Hamilton is the group's lead guitarist. Says Johnny, "Hambo has lots of musical experience with other bands. He is a great player and has fantastic taste. He appreciates great music and is fairly unique in what he brings. Also, he has a lovely heart and is great fun. His wife Bo (Claire Hamilton) plays keys and does vocals. Bo has lots of musical experience with bands but also is classically trained and is a music teacher. She also has fantastic taste in music and offers a lot to our sound in terms of texture. She originally just sang with the band until we discovered that she was grade eight on the ivories!"
Matt Weir is the drummer with the band. He's been with them for about a year. Explains Johnny, "I met him after our last drummer became ill and Matt stepped in. He has been doing really well and is mega keen. Our bass player Paul Ireland is the newest member of the band and has been with us for about eight weeks. He's slotted in really well. He's very enthused about what we are doing and wants to give it 100 per cent. He really feels like part of the team." As well as the playing members of the Johnny Parks Band, "the team" also includes Andy Doug who helps with bookings, Ding who does the band's sound, Colin and Elaine who handle merchandise and TG and Robin Mark who, in the words of Johnny, "give me advice and support about the way forward."
In our chat I observe that passion is very important to Parks! He agrees. "It's funny you say that because I don't think about it that often but I'm thinking at the moment of last night when we were leading the worship in church and I suppose in hindsight, now that you've said that, it felt very passionate in terms of wanting to engage with the heavens and engage with people and call something out. I think I've got to a stage in my life where I've started to accept that I'm not created to write songs that are 'safe' songs that are accessible to the Church. I've started to accept that there is something on me which is about interrupting norms that aren't necessarily healthy and good for us and wanting to break the silence. That is why the album is called 'Break The Silence', because it's very connected to wanting to disturb the patterns that we all operate in unconsciously in terms of how we treat each other, in terms of how we're spending our money and all that sort of stuff which aren't good for us or the world, and I feel very passionate about that. And when we play live I think there's something which is just about, 'Let's get free in this room! Let's get past all the stuff that chains us down and holds us down and discover other options and other alternatives that can introduce God into our lives.' So when we play live I tend to go through moments where I feel like I really want to grab hold of people, you know, and want to engage them in a way that shakes something and unsettles something. Not in a discouraging way at all but it's almost like new life can't come unless something else gets disturbed. It's like, 'Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies. . .' And I think for us we really want to unsettle ourselves and the people around us in order to find new life."
So is he saying that deep down, Johnny is basically a bit of an iconoclast? "I think so. I don't know why!" he laughs. "I've got an extra-double portion of that." I observe that the problem of being an iconoclast is that in a church or Christian music industry setting, which is very stuck in its ways, it's very difficult to do that. When Parks is leading worship he wants people to go along with him and if he's busy tearing things down he might be shooting sacred cows that people cherish. So that must cause difficulties in the way that he operates. "Course it does, but I suppose I'm not afraid of that and I feel like I need to accept that in me rather than try and pretend or force myself into something that I don't feel comfortable with. These are the values in some sense that I have been given and this is the job, or the role, that I'm here to fulfil and there's no point in trying to do something else. So it brings with it difficulty and it brings with it sometimes frustration and all that stuff but that's my bag and I've got to live with it. It doesn't make me afraid of it all the time. Sometimes I'm afraid of it but not all the time."
He continues, "If I was doing this to make money I wouldn't be doing it the way I'm doing it now; I would change everything. And if I was doing this for everyone to pat me on the back and give me big hugs and tell me how great I am I wouldn't be doing it like this, because that doesn't always happen either. Sometimes it happens, which is great, and you need it, but not all the time. I don't feel like I'm doing it for that, I feel like I'm doing this for another reason. And as a band we're doing this because we really want to see life! I want change in my life, more than anything! I want change in my society more than anything! I want goodness in this world more than anything! And if that means that the songs that we do have to unsettle something first of all then I'm all for that. I'm completely all for that. And that's my passion, to try and mess with things a little bit in a way, to discover new options, dig things up, in order to find the other stuff that exists for us; the little nuggets, the little gems, the little treasures of God that we need to discover in order to find new meaning in our lives."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.
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