That brilliant band of hard rocking Australians, New Zealanders and Americans, The NEWSBOYS, have been going through serious changes since the departure of frontman John James. Tony Cummings reports.
What do you think?" Peter Furler asks the small crowd gathered in the studio's control room. "Too much? Not enough? Is it 'demo love'?" 'Demo love' is the term the Newsboys' frontman/ songwriter/ producer uses as the gauge for a song's worthiness. Too much 'demo love' means not being open to innovation, too little means not trusting your instincts. On the Newsboys' new Star Song/Virgin album 'Step Up To The Microphone', it's just enough. '"Demo love' can be a real enemy, but we've made enough records now where it isn't, because if you've got enough, everyone else will love it too," Furler says.
'Step Up To The Microphone' speaks literally and figuratively to the band's present reality. Following the gold-selling success of 1996's 'Take Me To Your Leader' and 1994's 'Going Public', and their equally successful world tours, long-time Newsboys frontman John James decided to leave the band to pursue other interests, forcing Furler out from behind his drum kit and to the front of the stage as the band's lead singer, "It's like a cheeky way of saying both 'Let the chips fall where they may', and at the same time, for the fans and the youth group leaders and the like, showing them that on this record we've gone through a lot of self-examination," Furler says, "We've been thinking about, 'Why did Jesus die on the cross?' and, more importantly, 'Why do we believe what we believe?', 'Step Up To the Microphone' obviously means 'Make your statement,' but to me, it also means, 'What are you going to say when you get there?'."
Meanwhile, the rest of the band (guitarist Jody Davis, bassist Phil Joel, keyboardist Jeff Frankenstein and drummer Duncan Phillips) took it upon themselves to ratchet up their talents to produce the most complete and consistent Newsboys album ever. The result? A rich modern pop record, full of all the sound and fury of today, combined with the timeless message of the gospel and its impact on each of the Newsboys' lives. "For us, it wasn't a case of wanting to educate people, but more of wanting to show people what we've found out. I now have a deeper understanding of why 1 need the Gospel and the foundations of Christianity," Furler notes. "You know how two people can say the same thing, but when one person really believes it, it somehow doesn't matter if it's corny or crummy or not? When the other person doesn't really believe it, it kind of becomes a hunk of nothing.
"1 hope people get the originality, I hope they like the melodies and I hope they like the tracks. But I also hope people will see that we believe," Furler says. His bandmates hope for that same goal. "So many of these songs are reflections of what the band's been talking about and going through for the last two years, both good and bad," says Joel. "I think we've reached a happy medium in what we're talking about, saying things without being too obvious or too subtle." Phillips comments, "This album is so much more three dimensional than things we've done in the past. The lyrics have so much depth to them."
"I'm not a father, but these songs are like our kids," notes Frankenstein. "You nurture them, you watch them grow, you raise them up in the way they should go, and then when the album comes out, you release them out into the world." From the crunchy groove of "Woo Hoo" to the contemplative nature of "Always", 'Step Up To The Microphone' crackles with the energy of the Newsboys' renewed commitment to both art and message. Produced by Furler, the album allows all of the band's components their shot at making music that matters, from Joel's eclectic bass lines and additional vocals on tracks like "Woo Hoo" and the first single "Entertaining Angels" to Davis' fiery guitar work on songs like "Step Up To The Microphone" and "Deep End". From Frankenstein's attention to sonic detail on tracks like "Truth Be Known" and "Everybody Gets A Shot" to Phillips' driving percussion all over the album.
"When we first went into the studio, we didn't know what we were going to come out with," says Frankenstein. "But I think we've moved on from the last record in a way most people won't expect," echoes guitarist Davis. And Furler wouldn't have it any other way. "My role now is to make sure all of our strengths and weaknesses get pulled and pushed to the point where we become a really tough unit," he says. "My job is stepping out of the circle that the five of us are in, getting a good glance around, then stepping back in and saying, 'Okay, this is what I've seen,' as opposed to, 'This is what we're doing.'" Furler says with all of his bandmates1 talents, the options in the studio are virtually unlimited. "Jeff and Phil, both immensely talented guys. Jody, a fantastic guitar player and a wonderfully talented vocalist. Duncan, what a great rhythm sense and flair for percussion. They've all got a great melody sense, and sometimes it comes down to whoever's got the best one, wins."
And even in these electronica-driven days, where logarithmic waveforms counts as much as iambic pentameter, the melody's the thing. "You always have to protect the melody, and at the same time, really strive to make it worth protecting," Furler says. "It can't be cheap, and you have to have those elements around it that don't cheapen it or overrule it either." As with 'Step Up To The Microphone's sonics, the Newsboys' vocal approach has changed as well. Gone (for the most part) is the pop sheen of past efforts, and in its place is a bit more of a rough texture, as would befit a band who's members hail from places as diverse as Australia, New Zealand and Detroit. "Vocally this time we've tried to infuse it with a lot more character. We were less concerned about pitch, more concerned about character," Furler says. "It was a little bit of going, 'Sing how you talk,' but more of letting the character shine through. And most of the time, our character has an accent."
Along with the music of 'Step Up To The Microphone', the Newsboys hope to pass along a message to the fans, both new and established. This time out, it's the life-changing impact of short term mission work, something Furler says has struck home with him only very recently. "There are things in your life that are there, but somehow they blossom much later on. So often people have an experience or a talent that maybe was always there, but all of a sudden it becomes their life," he says. "That's what happened with me going on a short term missions trip. I was 18 years old when I took my first mission trip, more than a decade ago, and it's only been in the last two or three years that I sat down and realised that it really changed my life.
"Then the band went on a trip to Panama with Teen Mania, and what really blew me away was not so much what was happening to the people there or to the kids, but what was happening to us. We all had this great growth spiritually," Furler continues. "We want to encourage every kid that comes to our concerts to get involved in one of these trips, if only for the experience of stepping out of their circle and reaching somebody. Sometimes the best way to account for your faith is to realise that you can't, and breaking down those barriers of trying to talk to someone outside that circle about Christ is the only way you can."
Now that the hard part of making a record is over and done with, the Newsboys are ready to get out there and do the really hard part, playing this material the band have been living with for 18 months in front of a living, breathing entity known as an audience. And if it were up to Furler, it wouldn't always be a friendly one. "I get a kick out of a crowd that, for the first three or four songs, they don't like us. I get this real buzz because I know we're gonna get 'em. I know this because of what's going on behind me. It's not anything I'm doing, it's everything around me," he notes. "To me, it feels like we're going to get thrown into a washing machine and beaten around in the rinse cycle, and where we land is where we land. When it's all said and done, I hope we have integrity and it's something that doesn't taint or weaken the power of the cross. "If we can pass along what we've learned over the past two years to our fans, that would be huge. We want people to know that we don't want to be a band that has its own selfish motives in mind all the time. 'Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.' That's what's being taught to us all the time."
Furler is clearly missing John James. "I know this sounds funny but I think the most difficult thing wasn't making the record without him, he was around for quite a bit of the record even though he didn't sing on it. John has always been someone I have liked to have around because he's like a fan, when you show him a song I can see by his expression whether it's any good or not. I miss that. The comradeship and our friendship, it's still there but obviously he's in Australia and I'm here so I don't get to see him that much. But I talk to him once a week or two. I missed him the first few nights we toured Europe when we did out first shows without him. I thought about him every night before I walked on and I had a new appreciation for what he did do. But where I miss John most is probably waking up in the morning on the tour bus and expecting to see him coming out of his bunk, strolling out and cracking us all up, or getting on the bus at night and he's playing Nintendo or something. That's probably where I noticed it more, probably because we were close friends. It was more the friendship than it was the band. I hope that when we are 65 years old and the crowds have gone and the Gold records have gone we are all still friends and we will still keep doing stuff together."
Drummer Furler speaks with surprising candour about his singing ability. "I'm not really fond of my voice. I produced this new record, so as I produced it, it was tough because there are two guys in the band, Jody and Phil, who sing a lot better than I do. On the other side, I felt like I should take up lead vocals because 1 sang a lot in the past on the records. It kind of felt natural from the band's point of view. I had already been coming out and doing four or five songs in the set so I guess it was kind of natural that I came out the front. But it all happened so quickly, I am still spinning from it and we've done 30 shows. I am different to John; he was a very good frontman. It's different for me, every night it's a different night, the crowd's a different crowd and I can't go out there and say the same thing every night. I'm not good at public speaking yet. It's very easy to talk one-on-one but to talk to 8,000 people in an arena and share what you really want to share, that's an extra talent. So we are still waiting to see how I cope with that."
Furler has fond memories of the Newsboys gig at the 1997 Alliance Festival. "What I liked about Sheffield, the crowd were very polite, very understanding and it was a good show and I enjoyed playing. We didn't have our own sound system and our own light show, so in other words it was just to the music, and we didn't have hits to those people, we just had songs. In America we can kick into any one of our songs and everybody knows the words and they sing along and that makes it easy. But over in England, not many people knew much of our music which I found really refreshing. It was good to go out and take things at face value." Furler was soon enthusing about the British CCM scene. "The Worldwide Message Tribe, Delirious?, they're probably two of my favourite acts. The guys from Delirious? I couldn't speak more highly of, they're one of the greatest bands in Christian music."
The new Newsboys frontman is pleased the way the Newsboys are being marketed by mainstream company Virgin. "Virgin have been very good to us, a great company, very supportive. They just let us do what we do, we sound songs every now and then and they say 'Cool, we like it.' We see all different sides to the industry. There's the youth group leader, the church pastor, Virgin records. The day we had the Gold record party for 'Take Me To Your Leader', that afternoon I was in a meeting with Virgin Records. They were saying, 'It's a good record and we are glad it's gone Gold. Congratulations. But we don't want you to make that again.' They didn't have to convince me. I didn't want to make it. Anyway, we couldn't have made it again, as a band. We would have broken up as a band if we even tried to. Everybody was involved on the same level. If one of them wasn't there it wouldn't have been as good a record."
The Newsboys are now
heavily involved in encouraging young people to commit to short-term
missions. Says Jeff Frankenstein, "I was taken right out of my comfort
zone! Seeing first hand the terrible living conditions of the people
(in Panama) and how they could be fully content in a relationship with
Christ while being dirt poor made me feel quite spoiled. The trip
really changed my perspective on life in general. In the end, I think
it changed me just as much as anyone our team was able to reach."