Tony Cummings went to Bradford's Abundant Life Church to speak to RPM's Jock James.
The June release by Authentic Music of RPM's 'I Surrender All' proclaims something that young people attending Bradford's mega church Abundant Life Church have known for ages: the worship collective who go by the RPM moniker are up there with the finest rock worship aggregations. Recorded live during a steamy night of full tilt praise in the hugely impressive Abundant Life building, 'I Surrender All' was mixed by Sam Gibson (the New Zealander who mixed Delirious?' last album) and has the same high charged, rock guitar drive of Martin Smith & Co. A pivotal figure in RPM's development has been singer/guitarist Jonathan 'Jock' James. It was while he was at university in Bradford that Jock first attended a service at Abundant Life. Jock had already shown a musical inclination, having learnt piano as a child and even playing trombone in a jazz band. He explained, "Coming to university I took up the guitar. I really just had a heart for worship and not only that but seeing people connect to God through worship, especially young people because at the age of 16 that's what I'd seen. I'd seen young people connecting to God in worship and it so impacted my life that I joined the team here, playing the guitar. As you are faithful with little God gives you more, and as I just served and was part of the team here. I started leading worship amongst the student group that we had at the time. We'd meet together, pray together, just get the guitar out and praise God together. It was really simple. Matt Redman had produced some great songs by then. Plus as a Christian I grew up with Noel Richards, he was playing at the event when I got saved, so I listened to quite a lot of his stuff."
I asked Jock how the collective of musicians and worship leaders now known as RPM came about. "RPM formed probably about five or six years ago now. It initially came from a dream in the heart of Steve Gambill who's the director of Rock Nations which is the young people's ministry here at Abundant Life Church. Steve's a great musician who'd always had a heart as I had to reach young people through worship. He said, 'You know, why don't you get involved in what we have now?' which at the time was a handful of people who at best could play once every three months - that's the level we were at. I remember him saying to me, 'I want us to encounter God through worship, I want us to have praise and worship every week, every Friday.' I remember thinking, 'Oh my life, that's going to take a lot of work!' And it did. But it ignited a dream in my heart as well. So we set to work, practising a couple of hours every week and playing on a Friday night. At first all we could do was play the same three songs every Friday night! Steve said, 'I'm not bothered. When you learn a new song, fantastic, but until you do, we're just going to keep doing the same three songs, just to build the team and get it into the culture of our young people.' When we started and we were pretty bad, but you've got to start somewhere. As it grew and picked up momentum, more people joined. The young people who joined the team early on, four or five years down the line of practising every day and getting committed to the team are fantastic musicians now."
Asked who precisely plays in RPM, Jock explained that there's no simple answer to that question. "It changes all the time because we're not an exclusive band, we're a ministry that's serving the church. So when new young people come through the ranks, getting saved or joining the church, we want to get them plugged in. Some of the guys have been in it since the start, five or six years, some of them have been here a year, two years, and then behind that as well we have so many other musicians coming through who are getting ready to move into RPM."
There is a stunning amount of worship ministry going on at Abundant Life. As well as the full on adult band headed up by Lara Martin and Mark Stevens, playing at two meetings on a Sunday morning and one on a Sunday night, Abundant also runs five conferences a year where the band plays. Each year of course Abundant Life also produce a top quality live worship album. Then there are meetings for three to five year olds that have their own band, another for 11 to 14 year olds and the Friday nights and Rock Nations events with RPM. RPM's first recording was a seven-song EP recorded in October 2004 called 'RPM Live'. Jock explained, "It was a taster really to introduce people to RPM and Rock Nations and what we are doing here in Bradford. The thing that we always found exciting was, because we're not a band, because we're a ministry and the music and the songs are representing what's happening here in Bradford, it is unique. You can't say it sounds like person A or it sounds like person B because really it doesn't, it has its own unique sound and - I know I'm jumping forward - but the new album is a progression of that. We are producing a unique sound here."
Jock warmed to his task as he described that momentous night in October 2005 when 'I Surrender All' was recorded and filmed. "The sole purpose of the night was to just see young people from all over the country, and some came from Europe, get together and worship God. It was, 'Let's experience and encounter God together and do it with these new songs.' I said to the guys on the night, 'We want to get all the passion that's in this room, all the excitement, all the joy, all the hope - everything that is our culture, everything that we are as young people in God and try and cram it all onto the CD. We don't just want to tuck ourselves away in a studio and record some nice songs, we want this to be real, we want it to be a worship experience.' I think that there is a great mix of influences in the sound. I think we really want to push the boundaries and make this music credible. We want to make a resource that young people can say to their mates, 'This is what I'm into, have a listen to this,' and not be embarrassed or ashamed about it. We want to make it fresh and relevant. Obviously it's so important that the worship is connecting people with God and they're encountering God, but the package around that, the musical package we want to stay as diverse as we can, be as challenging as we can with that as well. So we've got rap going on mixed in with the real rocky feel, we've some sort of more indie coming through it as well so there's a whole mix of sounds there."
The songs on 'I Surrender All' are the culmination of considerable creative effort. One or two though came easy. Commented Jock, "Sometimes you can get a song and you just write it and there you go, great it's a finished article. Sometimes though it can take a long time to finish a song. There's a song called 'Whatever The Cost' on the EP and that took me the best part of two years to finish. So when you get to the end of it, it's been an epic journey just to write the thing!"
'I Surrender All' was produced by a team consisting of Jock, Dan Brummitt, Mark Stevens, Lara Martin and Steve Gambill. Jock could vividly recall when he first hear it over the studio monitors. "When we brought up the first mix a big smile just came across my face. I thought, 'Oh yes, here we go! This sounds huge!' I think fat was the word that I used at the time. It's just a big meaty recording, there's so much presence in it but it so captured the passion and the worship on the night. One of the first songs we actually mixed was 'Father's Heart'. I remember sitting at the mixing desk when we'd finished mixing it. You know you get involved in all the picky things but at the end you say, 'Okay, fresh ears, let's put it on and see what we think.' So I sat down on my wheelie chair in front of the mixing desk with two massive speakers either side of me and I just listened. By the chorus, I was in tears. The presence of God that I could feel on that song was just there. I remembered the story behind the song which is all about the prodigal son - it doesn't matter where we've been or what we've done in the past, God always wants to welcome us home. As I thought about that and listened to it I just started crying. That made me really, really excited and as we started moving on with the project and started doing some of the more rocky numbers, the excitement increased. The last track on the album called 'Live God Loud' is just so heavy and full on, I remember that we just cranked it up in the studio and were all pogo-ing, the three of us dancing round the studio, slam dancing into each other 'cos it just sounded so full on, it just makes you want to move."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.