Mike Rimmer met up with Tre Sheppard, the American-born, Northern Ireland-based frontman of rockers ONEHUNDREDHOURS.
It's been more than two years since Onehundredhours released the excellent 'Stronger Than My Heart'. In that time the band have won hundreds of new fans through their gigging, engaged in a high profile tour with Daniel Bedingfield and singer Tre Sheppard has become a popular speaker on the Christian youth circuit. But they have taken their time to record a follow up. Good things come to those who wait and 'As Sure As the Stars' builds on the success of their previous release and is packed with the usual passionate anthemic mix of faith, hope and rock'n'roll that we've come to expect.
I'm talking one on one with Sheppard at the Passion '07 event in Stoke a couple of months before the album is released to the public. It's an exhausted Sheppard who greets me, still smiling but on the very edge of his physical and mental resources. His wife Tori is making sure that he's going to be okay and later pops back to make sure he gets something to eat before he goes on the stage to play. The new album was completed at 6am the previous day so it isn't surprising that Sheppard is exhausted.
We begin talking about the songwriting for the album. "I didn't write this album," he insists, "I wrote this album with the band. Tori and I have often written the songs and come to the band and been like, 'Oh, here's an idea for it.' Instead for this record we got in a room together, we prayed, we turned up all our amps and then we recorded what happened. And in that way I think that the songs are really much stronger because it's not just like, 'Well here's the three chords I know', because Mark Prentice, my bass player, knows a lot more chords." He laughs, "So I think this really helped!"
Listening to the album, it's very much business as usual for the band and everything that makes The Hours great is in place. "It's funny," admits Sheppard, "I was thinking about it the other day. I love being in a rock'n'roll band. Onehundredhours will always be a rock'n'roll band. But I think for us it is always about: what else is there to a rock'n'roll band? Hopefully there's a lot more to the picture than just some rock'n'roll, you know? The faith and hope side of it probably come out more on 'As Sure As The Stars' than anything we've ever done. 'Stronger Than My Heart' was all about being in the dark and trying to find God."
It's true that 'As Sure As The Stars' is a far happier album and it strongly reflects the spiritual place that Sheppard has reached. He explains, "This is a record about what we found down there in the dark. At the bottom of it all we found love and that's what this record is about. There are moments of just ecstatic stuff from that perspective."
I ask about "Remember" since that seems to be a song that reflects a new perspective. "This song started as a little ballad that Tori had been writing," he explains. "She wanted it to be like a little piano ballad and wasn't even sure it was a Onehundredhours song. And me and the boys took it and just mugged it into submission into a rock anthem, as we do, sadly, often!" He laughs, "Basically 'Remember' just talks about being in a dark place and then basically the chorus says, 'But then I remember you, and everything that you've done for me/And then I remember that when you died on the cross, it was you who remembered me.' And it's just this sort of thing. The end of the song goes into this big thing of, 'Hallelujah! You've remembered me.' I think 'Stronger Than My Heart' was all about me going, 'Have you forgotten me?' And 'As Sure As The Stars', to be honest with you, is just the whole band going, 'Thank goodness you remembered me!' It's been a wonderful, wonderful year: a wonderful ride. The best year; of just really finding hope."
People might find it hard to believe but during the period when Tre wrote and recorded 'Stronger Than My Heart', he was battling depression. He explains, "I believe in big things. I believe in changing the world and I think sometimes when you're that kind of person and you're wired that way it can come with the dark side of it as well, where the world can look so dark you think nothing will ever change. And to be honest with you, I'd lost a couple of really close friends. One of my very best friends I lost to cancer and I struggled immensely with that, but I had no place to put it. I spoke at his funeral, got on the plane the next morning and flew to America and did a tour. When I took enough of a break to actually start writing some songs, man, all the grief, all the exhaustion, and all the constant public life thing and just the wearying of it all hit me. I had a hard time getting out of bed some mornings. Paul Baker, my drummer, bless him, he'd come over and wake me up sometimes in the morning and just take me out for a walk to make sure that I was okay. It was such a dark time. We'd go to the studios, it's the middle of January, it's freezing, we're recording at The Factory, our place, totally freezing all the time! And I'm in there and, I don't know, just having a hard time holding it together for most days. So that's really a lot of what was going on during "Stronger Than My Heart", it was a real battle."
So does he still struggle with depression? He responds, "Well one of the reasons for the move to Northern Ireland is that. The sea is very good. I have the seasonal affected thing, you know where during the summers everything seems wonderful but during the winters I have to wake up and go, 'Life is going to be okay!'" He laughs and continues, "That's been a big profound change. And I think also just really realising that. . . I mean, I'm still so awkward about talking about it."
In Christian circles, there's a stigma attached to depression because it's felt that as a Christian we're not meant to get depressed. Tre thinks that should change. He shares, "But actually it's just going, 'Look, this is my wiring, I came with this.' Actually admitting it, to be honest with you. One of the most powerful things through 'Stronger Than My Heart' was sitting with my friends and going, 'I've got a problem. I feel sad all the time.' And them going, 'What?! But you're the one who gave hope to us!' And I'm going, 'Well sometimes it's fake and I can't be fake. I'm not fake and I'm not a plastic person, and my dark place. . . this is it! I am broken.' And I have to say it, even just facing it and going, 'I have a problem. I struggle with this. This is a battle.' It gave me so much of a step forward to see the way out."
So what has he learned in the process? "I recognise now that if I don't sleep," he shares, "and we eat poorly, and I'm on tour for 24 hours a day, and I'm always in front of people, and there's that expectation that I have all the answers, and I can deliver and I will say the right thing at the right time; I just don't buy that anymore. I've never really bought into the pedestal thing around me sometimes, it's just, I don't buy it. I know the real me, and thank God so does my wife and my best friends in the band and mostly, so does God. I think that I've found a real grace in the midst of that, and these have been good days. I don't want to get all funny here but I guess if there are people reading this who are battling with depression and battling with feeling like everything doesn't work and you think it's just because of sin or something, sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's because you need a good night's sleep or you need to see some sunshine, or maybe there's some changes you can make in the way that you live that can have a profound affect."
Sometimes depression is simply a chemical or lack of chemical and taking a tablet restores the balance. The church doesn't get upset when someone breaks their leg and their leg is in plaster but an antidepressant can be seen as a big taboo. "I guess in a way I kind of went through that period as well," Tre explains, "of just going: well, if I need to take antidepressants I'll take 'em! But getting to that point; it took me forever to even get to the point that that was even an option, you know? Now I've been blessed that I haven't had to go that route but I have friends who have, and I feel like there is such a stigma for them. In a way they feel so embarrassed about it and I'm kind of like, 'Dude, I have to take this thyroid pill every day! No one puts a stigma to that. Just make sure I take the pill. That way I don't freak out!' That's the way life's supposed to happen. It's not bad you know; we all have things that we come with. We live in a fallen world; these are parts of the picture."
Tre continues, "So yeah, I think for me one of the biggest things is just living by the sea. Even during the worst of the Northern Irish winter, just being able to walk down and see the sea and man, the wind and the spray hitting you in the face! There's something about being alive; you remember why it's so wonderful. And of course, for me the best thing is just time with my kids, you know? Kids are a great antidepressant!"
In the past year, Tre and Tori have relocated to Ireland which might seem to be a strange move but has actually been the start of a fresh season for the Sheppard family. "I live in a little town in Northern Ireland, on the very north coast. The population during most of the year is about 20 people!" He laughs, "In the summer it swells to about 50,000 or more. Loads of people show up. It's a little surf town just outside Coleraine, which is the northernmost big town in Northern Ireland. It's magical man, I have to say!"
The move wasn't simply a case of a geographical change but instead it was a huge change in lifestyle and approach to life. Tre explains, "For me and Tori, for the first time in our marriage we have our own place. We have a real small little four-bedroom place. We've been living in a two-bedroom flat for the past 10 years or so, so it's a huge change for us, you know? We just felt like we had to make a change. That as people who have a bit of a public life thing and a ministry going on, we just thought: you know what? Our ministry; I don't want it to become plastic. And man, you can just get so tired and you're so used to people expecting you to come up with the goods in a way, and I just can't do it man. I cannot be plastic, it's just not in my make-up. I'm not saying that other people do that, I'm just saying that was where I was. I think we just went, 'What can we do?'"
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