Tony Cummings charts the history of one of America's best selling Christian hard rock bands, PILLAR
Pillar, the hard rocking Tulsa, Oklahoma-based band, emerged at the tail end of the 20th century and over the years have delivered some pretty successful album, even overcoming a major label let down. Pillar's latest CD 'For The Love Of The Game' will be released in the US on 26th February. The editor of America's HM magazine, Doug Van Pelt, nailed the group's development down the years. "Pillar has honed its own game to a steady, high polish. There's been a progression through the years, from rap-rock, to super-tight, melodic songs that continue to demand respect. Pilar has the ability to rock two generations: one that grew up on Kiss and Motley Crue anthems, and younger rockers growing up on bands like Linkin Park today. 'For The Love Of The Game' begs for an arena-sized crowd. . . as well as an arena-sized stack of speakers!"
The band - Rob Beckley (vocals), Noah Henson (guitar), Michael 'Kalel' Wittig (bass) and Lester Estelle (drums) - are equally enthusiastic about their new album, and their role as rock 'n' roll musicianaries. Said the band's lead singer Rob Beckley, "We love what we get to do. We get to play rock 'n' roll for a living. We get to see lives changed. We have a renewed love and focus. With that in mind, making 'For The Love Of The Game' was very fun, and very fluent; it just came out. We went into the studio knowing what the album was going to be called and we were able to carry the vision through. We wanted to have a positive, bright, fun sounding record. That was our intent from the beginning. We trust that as people hear this record, God will use it to change lives. That's the ultimate fuel for our fire. When someone tells us, 'your music changed my marriage, or brought me closer to God,' that's when we know God is using our music, and that's what it's all about to us."
'For The Love Of The Game' was recorded at Lakeside Studios in Knoxville, Tennessee and produced by Travis Wyrick (Disciple, P.O.D.), the man at the controls on the band's most successful albums of the past. The first single from 'For The Love Of The Game' is the title track, which is already getting major US Christian rock radio play. One track on the album Pillar are particularly proud of is "Turn It Up". Said Beckley, "It's a tribute to Christian music. Every lyric in that song is an album title or song title from another Christian band, with the exception of two lines. All in all, there are 34 bands represented in that song; bands whose songs have influenced us and impacted us. In preparation for writing and recording 'For The Love Of The Game', I listened to a whole lot of Christian music. Prior to Pillar, I didn't know the Christian music world existed. Over the last year, I've fully come to understand just how well the Christian music world is established. In today's music market, Christian bands are starting to set musical standards. Band like Underoath, for example, are really making a huge impact on the music scene, and that is really cool to me. I want people to know that we are a Christian band. We are proud of who we are."
Pillar began in 1998 in Hayes, Kansas with the line up of Beckley (vocals), Travis Jenkins (guitar), Kalel (bass) and Brad Noone (drums). The band's raucous rapcore fused to an in-your-face Christian message immediately found favour on the Texas club scene and their independent albums 'Metamorphosis (1999) and 'Original Superman' (2000) further increased their underground following. Christian magazine 7Ball put them at the number seven spot of a '25 Best Unsigned Bands Of 2000' list while HM magazine went further with readers voting them Number One Best New Band Of 2000. That year also saw Pillar land a deal with Flicker Records, the label owned by Audio Adrenaline members Mark Stuart, Bob Herdman and Will McGinness. The group/label marriage proved an instant success with the band's Flicker debut 'Above' gaining them a number one Christian rock radio hit with "Open Your Eyes" and number two hits with "Live For Him" and "Original Superman". Even more remarkable was 'Above' winning the Best Hard Rock Album Of The Year Award at the 2001 Doves. CCM loved 'Above' although one hard music purist writing in HM magazine referred to it as a "cringe-inducing 311/Bizkit clone". Despite such OTT put downs, 2000 was the year the band had arrived on CCM bigtime. With Noah Henson replacing Jenkins, Pillar toured the US incessantly including Winter Jam, Festival Con Dios Tour (which earned the band national press attention via the 'Jesus Rocks' cover story in Newsweek magazine) and Skillet's 'Alien Youth' tour.
The group's next album 'Fireproof' was a creative tour de force. Although still showing hints of Linkin Park and Incubus, Pillar's ability to blend monstrous hooks with thunderous beats was bringing something fresh to the increasingly stylised rapcore sound. "We did everything we possibly could to prepare for that album coming out," said Kalel, whose nickname rings in honour of Superman's Kryptonian birth name. "We had a good feeling about it and we knew 'Fireproof' was a strong song. Our drummer at the time, Brad Noone, said, 'If this song isn't a hit, there's nothing more we can do.' We felt really confident about it."
Rob Beckley told CCM magazine, "We wrote 'Fireproof' on September 11  in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in a youth room in some church with the TVs going all morning long. I already had the lyrics done, so it wasn't an influence; that was just the day we happened to write the music. When we finished it, we knew the song was going to be awesome. And with that, it sort of eased some of the tension in writing the rest of the album." At the time of the album's release, Beckley said, "I became a Christian right before we started Pillar, so the message was blatantly forward at the beginning. Now that I've matured in my faith, I feel like I've been able to scale back the intensity level, saying things in a really cool middle ground without compromising the lyrics."
'Fireproof's lyrics included exhortations to throw out past baggage ("Hindsight"), replace a shy faith stance with boldness ("A Shame") and convince fence-sitters to make a firm commitment ("Just To Get By"). Amongst the unexpected guests on the Wyrick-produced project was rapper KJ-52 on "Stay Up" while the band's new guitarist Noah Israel brought a whole new dynamic to the group's sound. Beckley told HM magazine, "Our old guitar player was really, really 311-influenced. That was his big thing. He really liked 311 a lot. And none of us were as into that. And so it was like we were trying to pull him away from that. But we still had that sound. Once we kind of found our niche, we did get away from that a little bit. And this album - we spent more time on it, recording-wise and the songwriting. Israel's just a great guitar player and the stuff that he wrote, we would just - everybody reflected their own thing. We're really collaborative with the writing and stuff, and Israel will come up with something cool, and Brad will be like, 'No, Dude, do this.' And he'll point with his drumstick to the frets and say, 'No, no, do this one.' And then it's cool. We have a lot of fights, but it's cool, because I think that we all write well together, and have fun together. And then it was just - everybody stepped it up another level."
In March 2003 a press release announced, "In an effort to take the hugely successful rock quartet Pillar to a new level, Flicker Records and MCA Records/Universal Music Group have partnered to generate more exposure in the mainstream marketplace. After more than a year of being courted by several major label heavyweights, Pillar and Flicker inked a deal with MCA for a four album deal."
'Fireproof' in its original form sold 100,000 plus, gained number one Christian rock hits with "Echelon" and "Fireproof" and picked up the Dove award for Hard Music Album Of The Year. Now with MCA money behind them the entire project was remixed by Mudrock (Godsmack) and Rick Costey (Rage Against The Machine). The remixed single of "Fireproof" made it to number 39 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and the album reached number six on the publication's Heatseekers retail chart. Fittingly, the band picked up some publicity in magazines, including Rolling Stone and Hit Parader and found themselves opening for some of modern rock's heaviest hitters. Kalel told CCM magazine, "We got to do some cool shows with Korn, with Sevendust, another one with Trapt and some mainstream festivals. We got just enough mainstream exposure to stick our foot in and see what it was like. But we've never talked like, 'Hey, we're gonna go mainstream and do this or that.' We just kind of did what we do - go play our shows and go through the doors that opened up."
But even after tacking another 100,000 units or so onto the sales total for 'Fireproof', Pillar fell victim to the realities of the red-in-tooth-and-claw music business when MCA was dissolved into parent company Universal Music Group. The band were shuffled onto the roster of Geffen Records, where Pillar were virtually anonymous. Kalel remembered ruefully, "When we got to Geffen there was nobody there who knew what Pillar was or even cared."
In the midst of the corporate disarray, Pillar continued to go out on the road. Remembered Rob, "When we were doing the release week with MCA we did four in-stores in two days: Tulsa, Wichita, Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio. At a couple of those shows, they wanted us to play and we couldn't do a rock set because they wanted us to play indoors. So we had to do acoustic sets, and somehow we pulled it off. We taped it with a cheesy home video camera and I did this little video clip, put it on our website and our fans just loved it. They told us we should record an acoustic album. We started brainstorming because we knew we weren't going to be able to even get into a recording mode until December or January. So in September we made the decision to pull out the stops and when we were going in to record 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' [for 'In The Name Of Love: Artists United For Africa', the multi-artist benefit/U2 tribute album], we also decided to do an acoustic track of 'Further From Myself' and see how it turned out."
Recording acoustically evolved into a live show in Tulsa, Oklahoma with the band themselves organising set design, to lighting, to filming/recording and the resulting EP 'Broken Down' kept the fans happy while they endeavoured to disengage from the corporate grip of Geffen Records. As Rob Beckley told Christian Music Today, "Our manager flew out there to meet with them, and they were used to having managers suck up to them, saying, 'Please, don't drop us.' Our manager said, 'We want off your label because you're not doing anything.' So they let us go. It happened to be the best thing in the world. We became free agents, we got a new deal with Flicker that was good for everybody."
In the latter months of 2003 Pillar went into the studio to begin work on 'Where Do We Go From Here', the first album they were to record with drummer Estelle. Rob told CCM magazine, "Everybody was asking us if we were nervous because 'Fireproof' was so good and did what it did. I really wasn't nervous about the music because I knew it was going to come together. Noah was writing some really good stuff, Mike had some really cool bass lines, and Lester just brings a whole new groove to the band. They all had some great things, but I was a little stressed. How am I going to write? I was dreading it because I was a little nervous about trying to come up with ideas to finish songs. But we got in the studio and, in thinking about all the things we had been through, they'd just appear. I'd come up with a melody or an idea for the lyrics, and they'd just fit."
One of the best, and most courageous, songs on 'Where Do We Go From
Here' was "Dirty Little Secrets". In an interview with Christian Music
Today Rob explained the origins of the song. "We have a couple of
friends in California that run a website called xxxchurch.com [a site
that helps Christians break free from pornography]. When they first
started, 'Dirty Little Secrets" was one of their catchphrases. I love
what they're doing. So we took that phrase and I wrote the lyrics with
the stuff they do in mind. The song is about pornography addiction.
The topic itself isn't talked about enough, and it's so admirable to
take that stand. In my past, pornography was a big problem and now as
a band all of us have accountability software in our computers, which
anybody can download from their website. The whole key in the topic of
Church and pornography addiction is accountability, man. Just being
open to talk about it and say, 'Man, I got 43 junk e-mails the other
day. I was doing good deleting them, but I got to the last one and I
opened it up and ended up looking at all these websites.' Just be
loving and say, 'Let's ask God to forgive you for that and move on.'
It's a topic that needs to be talked about lovingly and forgivingly. A
couple years ago at a Promise Keepers event, there was a call for all
men that dabbled in pornography, whether Internet or magazines, in the
last seven days, to raise their hands, and 80% of the men responded.
The only reason I feel so open to talk about it is that we've hidden
it for so long. It's started to consume so many people."
'Where Do We Go From Here' became another major Christian radio hit with "Bring Me Down" making the number one spot and the accompanying music video receiving airplay on both FUSE TV and MTV2. In 2005 Flicker released 'The Reckoning' which showed Pillar were clearly diversifying their sound. Rob Beckley told journalist Chad Bowar, "In terms of who we are and how we've done things we've always been a very diverse band. We've always tried to put in mellow stuff and heavy stuff and everything in between. On this particular album the spectrum has been broadened a bit. The heavies are a little heavier and the ballads are a little prettier."
Asked about the album's title, Rob explained it came from the band's desire to have a reckoning with themselves. He said, "We've been doing this for nine years, and to branch out a little further we had to do things we'd never done before. It's like my dad says, 'If you want what you've never had, you've got to do what you've never done.' So for us it was taking some chances and having a new beginning, a new start. The cool thing about it is that we did a lot of writing over a year's period. So there are a lot of different things that went into the emotions of the record and the stories. On past albums I've dealt mostly with my own personal things. This record branches out a little bit with stories I heard from other people that touched me. There's not one underlying thing that captures the whole album; it was spread out over a period of time."
Songs included the punk-flavoured "Sometimes", the frantic rock of "Tragedy" and the album's first single "Everything", which Beckley explained was a challenge, asking, "Are you willing to give up all of yourself?" The song "Awake" was inspired by a dream Beckley had about Heaven, and was an unrelenting rock track that the singer told Christian Retailing magazine was a testament to the talents of his bandmates. "It's every dynamic basically in one song. It shows the musicianship of the guys, what they're capable of. It's so much more than just a good hook."
As Pillar's growing legion of fans await the release of 'For The Love Of The Game' through Integrity Provident one thing we can be sure about, it will go for the spiritual jugular even though it won't please those embarrassed by songwriter Beckley's "Christian zealotry" and "bumper sticker theology" (to pluck more unfortunate phrases from that OTT HM article from 2002) but neither will it delight those fundamentalist critics who believe that to be Christian music it's got to name Jesus Christ and ideally include direct quotes from Scripture. In 2004 in an interview with Dena Ross, Rob spelt out his attitude towards Christian involvement in music. "I play music, that's my career and what I believe is obviously going to shine through a little bit. But I can praise God with my lifestyle and not necessarily just my music. And a lot of people have these viewpoints that you have to speak in this way and you have to use King James dialect when you talk and all your lyrics should speak about Jesus and praises to him and what he did. Well, why can't I just speak that in my life and be thankful? I don't have to make a public announcement that I'm thankful for what God has given me. I can personally thank him before I go on stage every day. I don't have to publicly announce every time I go on stage that I thank God for my talent and this is why I'm here. That's between me and him. My impact on people's lives can be backstage with people like Korn. We used to hang out and talk with them all day."
Rob continued, "I believe we can make an impact on people one-on-one
and if more people would have that attitude more people would be
impacted. Because if I do it from stage, I'm going to turn off as many
people as I turn on. The people who get turned on by it, they'll be
pumped up for a day and then it will kind of fade away, because
there's no substance there. If I was one-on-one talking to someone
about what's happened to me or encouraging them, they're going to have
more of an intimate encounter with God than they would at a big
concert - where I could tell people to jump and they jump and [tell
people to] scream and they scream and then [I say], 'OK, now everybody
come down here and accept Jesus.' It's kind of trite when you think
I think your band is more appealing to people who don't want to hear 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus'. The lyrics are obviously spiritually-based, but it's not so in-your-face. Some people can take it for face value as just good, hard music and some people can look into the lyrics and find something more there.
Exactly. That's what we want. We want to challenge people to think - even Christians - about why you believe what you believe. You can't just say it. You have to know why you believe it."