LES MOIR spoke at length to Tony Cummings about the 10 years of Survivor Records and Les' fascinating life in Christian music.
The release of the 'Ten' album celebrating 10 years of (very) successful business for Survivor Records has shone the spotlight on what has become the most important roster of contemporary worship leaders ever assembled by a British record company. But it has also brought renewed interest in a seminal behind-the-scenes figure who not only was the founding father of Survivor Records but down the years has served the UK Christian music scene as a musician, record producer and today A&R manager, Les Moir. I spoke to this quietly spoken man about his life in Christian music at the Cross Rhythms office. We began, appropriately enough, by talking about the birth of Survivor Records. "I was A&R manager for Kingsway Music and I was running around at different events. In fact, I was at an event called New Wine playing bass guitar for Bryn Hawarth, which was a treat. After the main celebration we went down to the youth venue which was called New Wine Youth and that was held in a cow shed in Shepton Mallett. Mike Pilavachi was looking after New Wine Youth. A young 16 year old Matt Redman was leading worship and the Cutting Edge band - which of course was is the early days of Delirious? - were also there. I could sense there was a new thing that God was doing with the youth. So I went back to the guys at Kingsway and told them about what I felt and asked them if they would release me to help develop this whole thing with youth worship. They eventually said yes and we started a new label called Survivor, which was set up as a worship label for a new generation."
Les went into more detail as to what exactly he saw which was radically fresh in the youth worship he encountered. "I'd been to many, many Christian festivals and events and they'd been more arts based. I was involved with the American worship leader Kevin Prosch at that time and he would help me see things as well. We were there at the early days of Soul Survivor. It was a revelation - I hadn't been to a festival where they had worship and teaching and ministry, but also had club venues and concert venues, all the normal things that kids would like when they are away. Basically the attention of the festival was not drawn to a person or an artist but to God. With that expression came new songs. So I just wanted to document those songs and record those songs and get them out to a wider audience."
Despite the name the Soul Survivor event didn't own or indeed have any control over Survivor Records. Instead the label was a subsidiary of Eastbourne-based Kingsway Music who through the '70s and '80s had evolved from being a general CCM company to one targeted exclusively at worship music and in the process had brought their Songs Of Fellowship series and worship leaders and songwriters like Graham Kendrick and Noel Richards to national prominence. The first release on Survivor was 'Because Of You' by a young songwriter and worship leader from Brighton, Paul Oakley. In fact, at the time of its release in 1996 Oakley had not yet played at Soul Survivor.
Survivor's second release was 1996's 'Soul Survivor Live' and the third Matt Redman's 'The Friendship And The Fear'. Over 10 years the Survivor label grew from strength to strength. Today's 'Ten' compilation reflects that growth. Said Les, "Without being too arrogant we've really sought to be like the soundtrack for this move of God with the youth. Just lovely things, like Matt Redman's first song which kind of reached the whole church, 'I Will Offer My Life'. You look back to that song, and then you see since 1991 just how far things have come and he's still there writing amazing songs for the Church. Also when you consider the first year of Soul Survivor Festival, 1,600 people were there. In 2006 there were 25,000! I love the journey and so it was a delight to be able to compile the 'Ten' CDs. And the good news is it's only £10.00! As well as the more successful recordings there are some highlights in there people might have missed. There's a Beth Redman song called 'This Love': 'Deeper than I have ever known' is the first line and this is just a beautiful recording. There's a Newday album which was released last year. Matt led worship at Notts County Stadium and he did 'Dancing Generation' there and the whole place was jumping!"
When Christian Marketplace asked Les whether he felt he had a mentoring role with the young worship musicians he said he "felt more like an older brother than a father." He continued, "I was talking with Pete Greig about the handover of responsibility to the next generation in the Church, and he said that where this has really happened well is within the worshipping community. People like Graham Kendrick, Noel Richards, Chris Bowater, Dave Fellingham, Dave Bilbrough and Bryn Haworth have really done an amazing job of fathering, encouraging and releasing these younger guys. I remember when Noel was at Spring Harvest and had Martin Smith with him playing and leading alongside. Matt had guitar lessons from Bryn and others also got involved with Noel's worship forum. Just getting together and learning from the older guys was a real blessing."
An important offshoot of Survivor is its Emerge series of mini-albums where young up and coming worship leaders/composers are given the chance to show their creative metal. Some of the artists in the series (Onehundredhours, Vicky Beeching, Johnny Parks) have gone on to bigger things (ie, full length albums) while with others (Simon Brading for instance) it seems only a matter of time. Les spoke about the role of the series. "Emerge is about the emerging worship leaders and songwriters coming through. Basically, the vision of Survivor has been to release the next generation. Unfortunately the Christian music mindset has always been that you record an album. Because Christian radio isn't huge, people don't think 'singles'. In the mainstream when people first start recording they would begin with two or three singles, because they usually only have two or three good songs anyway. In Christian music, we have for the last 20 years always recorded albums. The Emerge series offers seven tracks for £6.99. I feel it's been a great way to teach young musicians and give them studio experience. And it works in introducing the public to exciting new talent. You know what it's like. You go into a shop and there's hundreds of CDs and so you buy the CDs of people you know. People won't risk £12.00 on a new artist unless they know them very well. But with the Emerge series, there is more potential that people will investigate a young worship leader."
I asked this man who's been at the very heart of the rise in contemporary worship whether the bemusing spectacle of American record labels transparently jumping on the modern worship bandwagon irritated him. He replied, "No, I don't get too upset about it. I think that in the US the industry sometimes treats worship a bit like a fad, where people did jump on the wagon. What happened in England was that there was this time in contemporary Christian music when heart motives weren't right. So it's almost like the Lord had to purify that. It was like everyone came back, as Matt's song, 'To The Heart Of Worship'. I believe now out of a heart of worship new creativity is coming. I just think when people worship God their hearts become purer. Unfortunately the American scene has become an industry and the wonderful thing about the UK is that the Christian music scene is still a community. If anyone does rip anyone off or even show hints of that kind of motive then people are not shy to come and challenge them on it. We are close enough together like a community to challenge each other and be honest with each other. Whereas in America it seems different. So I think we can look at America and we can learn and take the good bits and also learn from the things that we don't think are so good."
Les Moir is more, much more, than a man behind a desk in an Eastbourne office. Born in Scotland, he grew up in a Christian home and from early youth was involved in music. He explained, "My parents were actually Salvation Army officers and so I was brought up in the Salvation Army. I went to six primary schools, did the whole Salvation Army officers kids' thing and so since I was five I've been playing music. Like any Salvationist as soon as you can walk there's a trumpet stuck in your mouth and you know, you learn music. So I grew up in that and was totally involved in music. When I was 13 I was given a guitar and used to play in all these different groups. I was actually in a band called Saband that played at Greenbelt and different places."
Saband recorded some cassette releases in 1978 but Les assured me they were "well hidden". He continued his potted history. "What happened was I was working in a mainstream recording studio called Sounds Aquarium, just off Carnaby Street in London. Great experience. I worked with a guy called Jonathan Hodge who was one of the main jingle writers in Britain at the time. He wrote "Lipsmackingpepsicola", all those big jingles. I got the opportunity to work with some of the best session musicians in Britain. So I was very thankful for that opportunity. When I just turned 21 I saw an advert in Buzz magazine for a recording engineer with experience wanted by ICC Studios. I tried to run away from that but eventually I ended up at ICC Studios. Helmut Kaufman interviewed me and he insisted that I go away and hear from God. I heard and he gave me the job. I relocated to Eastbourne and I was right in the middle of Christian music. I arrived at ICC Studios and within a couple of weeks I was recording Graham Kendrick's first worship album, which was called 'Jesus Stand Among Us'; so again just an amazing time to be around there. The Christian scene obviously wasn't very big and I had worked with all these session players, great musicians, in the studio in London. Then what happened, I would be working with people like Paul Field and they would say to me 'can you suggest someone' or 'we need to find a drummer'. I would say 'well what about Graham Jarvis' or people like that. I would start booking people for the sessions and then the people would know me and so I would talk to them on behalf of the producer and so I got into co-production. then production. I played bass guitar and so I would end up playing bass guitar on the sessions as well."
After a year and a half at ICC Les and friend, guitarist Neil Costello, decided to go freelance and tour for a couple of weeks with John Pantry (the British CCM singer who is today a radio presenter with London's Premier Radio. Remembered Les, "It was just about a week before we left for that tour and I had a 'phone call from a guy called Ken Janz who is the leader of a band called Deliverance. He asked me if I would consider playing bass in this band. They were the Delirious? of their day in Germany. I said I would love to and he said well when can you be in Germany and I said I would be in Germany next week. Neil and I went there and eventually Neil also got an audition. So Neil and I joined Deliverance and we toured Europe for over a year. We made two records there. They were a mainstream band but everybody in the band were Christians; so we had a mainstream deal. It was great experience."
Back at ICC Les produced a wide range of Christian albums (down the years he's handled everything from gospel (Maxine & The Majestics) to pop (Phil & John). But it was with the folk roots man turned worship leader Graham Kendrick that he had his greatest success. "Well, I actually produced 10 albums for Graham. I was living in Eastbourne and working freelance. ICC was at one end of the town and Kingsway was at the other and I became the middle man who would run between the record company, go and record the album and bring the master tape back to the record company. Eastbourne was quite an unusual place to be, being a rock and roll musician, but I worked with those two companies to make a living."
In 1987 Les was a member of a short lived CCM band Trade Secret. But despite being crammed with talent including his friend Neil Costello, Neil's soon to be wife Julie Moon and keyboard player Mal Pope, Trade Secret's one album for Kingsway label Edge didn't sell. What was selling though were Kendrick's worship albums. Les toured with Kendrick as well as producing him. Gradually the music of the worship leader began to take on a distinctly gospel flavour. Les has fond memories of his years as a Kendrick sideman. "It was ministry. Also we had an incredible band. You know that thing in Samuel about the prophets, it was like that. There was myself and a guy called Raul D'Oliveira on horn, Martin Neil on drums, Stephen Thompson on piano, Noel Robinson on guitar - it was a delight." And about Graham's move to a more gospel sound? "Well, Graham said to me that every time he turned around there was another black person in it! I think I was up to so much stuff, bringing the whole black and white thing together. There was definitely a gifting that I think really blessed the Church and was missing, especially with worship. Graham's early stuff was quite straight folk and so I felt that the addition of guys like Steve Thompson and Doug Williams, it all added to the sparkle. And Graham loved it, he was blessed by it."
In 1992 Les joined Kingsway as A&R manager. Les admitted that boss John Pac eased him in gently to his new duties. "John had been a musician and a record producer so he really helped me through that, as in he didn't rein me in too quickly. If you look at many people when they make that transition from being a record producer to A&R, which a lot of people do, it's very transitional. There are certain people that it's too much of a shock but John didn't want me in the office too much. He wanted me in the studio with the musicians. He wanted me just being out and about. So my strength was really that I was out and about and I would come into the office and say this is what's going on. But John really helped me. The only scary thing was every Monday morning we used to have a prayer meeting at Kingsway and when I first joined I walked into this prayer meeting and I was the only man without a tie on! So that was more scary than the desk!"
In 1996 Kingsway launched Survivor Records. Les admitted that because of the name some believers assume the label is owned by Soul Survivor. "Many people think that Survivor is part of that. Our heart has been to partner with all the youth movements. In fact, our first release was by Paul Oakley who was doing the youth worship for the Re.vive part of Stoneleigh." I asked Les how Survivor's association with America's Passion events and sixsteprecords developed. "Basically we knew Chris Tomlin and we knew Louie and Shelly Giglio and probably what brought it very close was that Matt Redman was to have his albums distributed in America through sixsteps and so that kind of consolidated things. Three years ago we did Matt's 'Facedown' album and that was the first album distributed by sixsteprecords. Matt was doing a lot of the Passion events so it was a natural progression to that. Then what happened was that Passion and sixsteps were coming into England through the EMI CMG label which was distributed by Kingsway. But we all felt that sixstepsrecords would sit better with Survivor."
Another recent development for Survivor Records has been the launch of OTR Records. With releases by The 29th Chapter, BlushUK, The Watchman and others it's already gaining a reputation for cutting edge music with an evangelistic thrust. Les was quite candid when he admitted, "OTR came about after Andy Hawthorne challenged me! It's a label that is not all about worship. It's not about Church. Andy and I went through stuff and he talked to me about the ministry that was happening through The Message and through BlushUK and The Tribe and all those guys. The thing for me was I was so focused on Survivor. In a way I didn't want to mess up Survivor. People know, come to Survivor, it's worship for a new generation. But I could see what the guys were doing, incredible evangelism, and so we wanted to support that. We started OTR. OTR is short for Outreach, and we began to support bands involved in schools work and club work. It's been great and we really enjoyed it. Some of my favourite albums have really been on OTR and even projects like the new GreenJade single 'With Gunz Down' has the potential to really impact society. Then there's The 29th Chapter who are coming through, so strong now. In the early '90s we had The Wades. I see The 29th Chapter just taking up that baton."
I finished our chat by asking this vastly experienced muso-turned-exec what was his greatest pleasure in his years at Survivor. "Well, I've been very proud of the worship leaders. I can see they are just now training up the next generation. Jesus said go and make disciples and so I am thrilled to see these worship leaders training up the next generation. I've been blessed to watch Matt with Simon Brading, Tim Hughes with Ben Cantelon. They are bringing through the next guys. I am so blessed to see that! I just want to see that carry on."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.