The Parachute Band, the Lads, Detour 180, Solace and many more excellent acts are demonstrating that New Zealand's Christian music scene has the potential to explode internationally. TONY CUMMINGS went there and filed this report.
There are still plenty of uninformed music fans who look no further than the UK and the USA in building their CD collections. But less blinkered enthusiasts have now grasped what the mainstream music industry has acknowledged for years - popular music is truly international and there are dozens of nations vying to turn their indigenous record industries into breeding grounds able to produce the occasional international recording star. New Zealand has long been acknowledged as one of these countries. It may be a nation with a population of less than four million and a record market where gold albums are awarded for 7,500 sales, but acts like Crowded House and the Datsuns have proven New Zealand is a fertile music biz territory. The New Zealand Christian music scene has enjoyed its own growth. The annual Christian music extravaganza the Parachute Festival has expanded spectacularly to become the biggest annual Christian music event outside the USA. The Christian radio stations Rhema and Life FM cover just about the whole of NZ's North and South Islands with Christian music. And, most impressively of all, just about every New Zealand record shop has a rack of CDs from which punters can select Audio Adrenaline, the Parachute Band and all the other new Christian releases side by side the big mainstream acts. Cross Rhythms journeyed to New Zealand earlier this year to talk to the musicians and behind-the-scenes figures responsible for the rise-and-rise of New Zealand Christian music.
As anyone in the NZ scene will tell you, the pivotal force in the whole Christian music field is Parachute. This Auckland-based ministry organises its enormous festival, its record label, its music publishers and even -in the ultimate in branding -New Zealand's most successful Christian music group The Parachute Band. Not that New Zealand music is a one trick pony. Zany pop rockers the Lads have enjoyed considerable success on American Christian radio, quite a phenomenon for a band who have still to visit the USA. Detour 180 are a brilliant new rock band whose single "She Walked In" got considerable MTV exposure in their homeland. And there's a fast growing list of New Zealand artistis with excellent CDs out in the marketplace - from the warm melodic rock of Colliding Traits, rapcore group Wash, trip hop dance act Elevator, punk band Pugface, acoustic singer/ songwriter Blaire Giles and the latest New Zealand act to get an international release and Cross Rhythms radio play, hip-hop team Royal Ruckus. All these acts, and dozens more, have played the Parachute Festival. It started at Otaki in 1987 (though then it was called Mainstage) and attracted 3,000 visitors. This year at Matamata's Totora Springs Christian Camp nearly 25,000 people came to Parachute to enjoy a lineup of international acts - TobyMac, Out Of Eden, Tree63, Superchic(k), Pillar and Andy Hunter as well as a slew of New Zealand's finest. Next year the Parachute Festival moves to a new location at Hamilton's Mystery Creek and stunningly, crowds of 40,000 are being predicted.
I spoke to the 41 year old director of Parachute Music, Mark de Jong, about the Parachute Festival and its pivotal role in developing NZ's Christian music. "Parachute was set up really because we saw the need to develop New Zealand artists. When we started there were very few artists that you could call in any way professional in sound or approach. It's just been gradual over the past 13 or 14 years and today there's a momentum that starts building. We've gone from a situation where we couldn't find enough artists to perform at our festival who could perform on an outdoor stage to a big crowd to a situation where now we would turn away about 100 New Zealand artists a year! And so this is creating a really healthy atmosphere and a few artists are now starting to develop and do well overseas. So there is this thing growing and all the bands are encouraging one another. I feel like it's exciting, but the challenge now is to keep bringing those top level of artists through to new levels and I think we can only do that when we expose them to an international marketplace where they go from a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond."
One act for whom this is beginning to happen is Detour 180. Originally called Detour (their name change necessitated by an American band with that moniker), the band were set to receive a major push in the UK by Fierce!/ Furious? but disappointingly had the release of their stunning self-titled album put back because of Fierce! 's current financial problems. But few people who have seen this impressive pop rock team doubt that they have what it takes. Commented Mark de Jong, "Detour have been one of the most encouraging things we've seen for years. A group of young guys; the leader/ producer of the band played with a Parachute band as a keyboarder for a while and then moved on to doing ound, because we needed a sound guy. He has been travelling around the world with us and during that time has been learning and picking up things and now has moved on to do this band. I see a band that's so far beyond its years in its experience that you think, 'Wow, these guys are in their early 20s, have got to this stage already. Where are they going to be in their late 20s? ' So I am very excited by that. And because they see how they've been mentored, they have a heart to mentor younger bands coming up as well, so the multiplication keeps going."
Earlier, I saw Detour 180 play a superlative set before an increasingly excited Parachute crowd with Adrian Robertson showing himself to be an impassioned and charismatic frontman while the band's ability to take the massive crowd from the good vibe rock of "She Walked In" to the anthemic worship of "Hallelujah" is remarkable. Singer Adrian Robertson commented, "We don't do music for music's sake, it's got purpose and we want to use it that way. Who we are and what we play is all about moving people, invading thought-processes. If we do that, we're achieving what we set out to do." A mile away musically from the Incubus/ Googoo Dolls-style rock of Detour 180 is the propulsive, trance-tinged music of Elevator. Having the unenviable task of following TobyMac on to the Parachute stage, the group displayed a compelling lead singer in Julia Vusitoh and a neat line in inventively programmed rhythms. Later Julia explained to me, "Our music has an electronic kind of pop rock groove but it's definitely got a worship vibe, a worship feel to it. One of our big aims when we play is to have moments when we feel God's presence there. We love to worship and people often worship to our music. Sometimes we just flow into worship from the performance and that to us is just brilliant." Elevator have an excellent album with an ironic title 'Music' (Elevator - Music. Geddit?)
Another New Zealand band with a fine album crying out for a British release are Colliding Traits. Lead singer Shannon Lamb admits that they're a difficult band to precisely classify. "We evolved out of a more acoustic approach to music. Now our sound has more electric guitars, but our music has got a lot of space in it, it's not all heavy. So there's room for the vocals to come through. When we first started people said we sounded like Jars Of Clay -we focussed on vocal harmonies. There is a lot of space in our music."
Colliding Traits' album, released by Massive Arts, is called 'The Perfect Thing'. Explained Shannon, "The perfect things is when God finally grabs you and takes hold of your life and you let him. That's what we felt was the perfect thing." The band saw an example of the Lord grabbing hold of an individual during the recording of their album. Shannon continued, "We were with our producer Darren Poole in the studio. He wasn't really a Christian and we were just sharing with him some of the things we were going through. Then we went to a food court, having a break from tracking, and God just came down and right there we were crying in the middle of the food court. We left there and wrote this song, it's pretty amazing. Even when I talk about it now I can feel it, you know. So it was a beginning in part of his life and now Darren is with us all the way. He's become our band's pastor and it's pretty incredible. Now he's producing Christian bands and taking them into the mainstream."
It's the spiritual heart of Parachute Festival and all the bands and musicians who participate in it which is clearly evident. I spoke to Gavin McCullough who has recently moved to New Zealand from South Africa where he'd been involved in Christian marketing and distribution with Serepta Music. Gavin now heads up Parachute Music. He commented, "I've been to Soul Survivor, I've been to the Flevo Festival in Holland, but I've never experienced anything like Parachute. I fully expected it to be a festival with a good few thousand angst-filled teenagers walking around trying to outdo each other with fashion, etc. But there was a real sense of family there, there were a lot of younger kids walking around with parents. They have programmes for young kids so if you're a parent with younger children you can take your kids there. Everyone was just so laid back and at ease. There wasn't a hard and heavy you've got to be seen to do this and that. People were really just relaxed and walking around, enjoying the programme and spending time with one another."
Gavin was also impressed with Parachute punters' famed acceptance of diverse musical styles. "On Sunday evening during the worship I was in the best seat in the house, just above the lighting tower. I was amazed how people went from a band like Tree63 which is hard, edgy worship, to The Parachute Band, which is more middle of the road, Hillsong, accessible worship, to Andy Hunter, which is something new for the New Zealand guys, it's just DJ worship, and our people were in that attitude of worship during all three sets. That absolutely blew my mind because people were worshipping God not because of the style of the music, but because they wanted to worship God. That was incredible. I can't remember ever seeing anything quite like that stylistic leap. The young people there clearly had the intention of worshipping God."
Of all the acts at Parachute 2002, it's The Parachute Band who have probably the warmest place in the affections of the crowd. In its early years at least, TPB was more a collective than a group. Their albums 'You Alone' (1997), 'Always And Forever' (1998), 'Adore' (1999), 'Love' (2001) and 'Amazing' (2002) have each collected gold discs in the New Zealand marketplace and have demonstrated that an eclectic musical style, taking in the smoothest easy listening to R& B styled grooves on original, and sometimes spine-tingling, worship songs, has gained a wide ranging audience. Worship leader and primary vocalist for the band, Libby Huirua, explained, "This is not a band in the normal sense - we are a group of friends who love music and love leading people in worship. The bottom line for us is building the Church and drawing people closer to Christ. It is so humbling to be used by God in this way."
The executive producer of The Parachute Band albums Mark de Jong commented, "There are a lot of great worship songs being written by New Zealanders and most of them are never heard or used by the wider Church. These albums are a great vehicle to expose kiwi songs internationally. Each year we collect literally hundreds of songs then choose the best ones that we feel capture the spirit of what God is doing in Aotearoa (New Zealand). We don't consider the musical reputation of the writer, we judge the song on it's own merits."
Judging from the international success of several of The Parachute Band's songs, their judgment is excellent. TPB's albums are released in the USA by Louisiana independent label Here To Him Music. Ryan Howard, president of Here To Him and attending his third Parachute Festival, spoke about the developing US following for The Parachute Band. "I think the biggest plus to what The Parachute Band have been able to do is the quality of their songs. The churches adopt them very easily and they learn the songs very easily; even a small amount of touring time, they've been over they've been received very well and continue to grow every week. I think The Parachute Band are on the verge of something really big internationally and in the US. The dates they're playing over in churches like Saddleback, Valley Community Church, Lakewood Church, Calvary Chapel, Fort Lauderdale, Willow Creek, these are 15,000 -25,000 member churches. They don't mess around when they bring people in, you've got to be a fairly serious player if you come into these churches. So just the response they've got from churches that size tells me we are one song away from being adopted that will take this band to the top."
Another group that Here To Him have been able to break in the hugely overcrowded American market is the Lads. Despite no touring in the US, the Lads' mixture of high octane punk-tinged energy and lyrics that range from the bizarre (their warning on the perils of cannibalism) to the incisive have gained them Christian radio turntable hits. Said Howard, "I'm not sure I've got my maths right, but at least between the last two record releases they had five top 10 rock songs. We've also managed to garner two songs on Dawson Creek, the television show, as well as recently having a phone call from Sony who wanted them to have it as part of their soundtrack. Actually, I've me with Sony Pictures Television on the way out coming through LA and they are very keen on doing some more stuff with the Lads, so we'll see how it goes."
Earlier I'd seen the Lads take a packed arena on a musical roller coaster ride with zaney quips, silly dances and, at the close, the huge throng joining in the memorable chorus "My best friend is the maker of the universe." As it turns out, it's the band's favourite song. Said lead singer Mark Millard, "My favourite song would be 'Creator' because I think it's a song that people are able to connect to. When people hear the song it just draws the attention away from the band and towards God. It's a real declaration song that God is awesome and people lock on to that. It's so exciting when you are a band to see people's attention being so focused on God during your concerts."
Among the numerous bands that impressed me at Parachute 2002 were Solace. Fronted by an exceptional singer/ songwriter Brian Platt, their guitar-driven rhythms have satisfyingly nuanced texture while the best of their songs are exceptional. The band's second album 'Send And Transmit' is a gem. I asked Brian what was his favourite song. "It's hard to say, I like them all. It's like which one of your children is your favourite one - all of them have meaning and significance to me. I guess the most popular one off the album is 'Angels', which I wrote when I was probably not feeling too great about myself. You know, sort of woe is me. But I was reminded of the Scripture that God sends his angels to watch over you and I kind of felt, and this is my own interpretation so excuse me, but in spite of myself and in spite of the way that I feel about myself God sets his angels to watch over me. And that song has obviously connected with people here in New Zealand."
There's going to be two Brian Platt songs on the new Parachute Band album. One is "Holding On". Commented Brian, "I can remember when I wrote that song. I got back from the Parachute Festival a couple of years back and was sitting at the piano, just me and God, and I really felt the sense of, 'Man, I just want to really hold on to you and remember the reasons why I'm doing what I'm doing in life. ' So many times we get caught up doing the stuff that we're doing, doing things for God, and we can forget the reason why we wanted to do it in the first place. So I guess it's just a bringing your focus back to him."
Brian is typical of many of the artists and behind the scenes workers contributing their all to New Zealand's Christian music scene. It's not a marketplace which, at the moment, will give many the chance to give up their day jobs. Even albums as excellent as Solace's 'Send And Transmit' and the Lads' 'Marvel' remain unreleased in the UK. But it retains within it such transparent creativity and zeal to give God the glory that would put many longer, bigger scenes to shame. I've got a feeling God will honour that.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.