Smalltown Poets: Poetry in motion

Thursday 10th November 2005

There have been all kinds of moves and changes for Atlanta's pop rock purveyors SMALLTOWN POETS. Mike Rimmer spoke to the band's Michael Johnston.

Smalltown Poets: Poetry in motion

Okay, I have to confess that I am more than a little confused. It could be the pressure of interviewing so many artists in too short a space of time that all their stories blur together. I'm at Gospel Music Week sitting in my suite high up in the Renaissance Hotel entertaining Michael Johnston. My first question has just knocked the leader of the Smalltown Poets off balance. I don't know how it happened. 'It's Later Than It's Ever Been' is the band's latest release and somehow I got it into my head that his band were splitting up and this was their farewell album. That idea pops up in the first thing I say to him: "Am I interviewing you at the wrong end of your career?!" is what pops out of my mouth. Johnston looks surprised and answers my question with a question, "What? Am I done? Is it over? Did somebody forget to tell me? Maybe it is over and nobody told me!"

But no, the rumours of this band's demise are very much exaggerated or perhaps just made up by your correspondent! The band recorded their latest release at the end of 2004 and are still healthy and active. They are one of the few rock bands who emerged in the mid '90s to have survived. Though fellow Atlanta residents Third Day are still doing well and so are Skillet, many others have fallen by the wayside. Johnston comments, "We still had songs in us and really wanted to make a record, especially where we could have the creative licence of doing it all ourselves. So it's something we decided to keep moving forward on."

Smalltown Poets changed labels and this seems to have unleashed a new enthusiasm and creativity. "It was bittersweet in a way," reports Johnston. "Not much bitter, we loved the folks at Ardent/Forefront; made some great relationships with people there that we still have, and we love the people. But a change of perspective did help. With BEC, they just said, 'Make the record you guys want to make.' They honestly gave us full creative licence. They didn't have any input. It was sort of scary. For a bit we were like, 'Are you SURE you don't want to tell us anything about what you'd like to hear?' But it was really cool and it made us try harder I think to go the extra mile to really make the best record we could make because they believed in us."

The process of recording was also very different to normal. Instead of having a few weeks solid in the studio to record the whole thing, the band would record when they wanted and sometimes have a gaps of a fortnight between sessions. Michael explains, "When we wanted to work on the music we just came and worked on it. It was an interesting dynamic. I don't think any of us had recorded that way before but it enabled us to live with some of the songs and let some of the ideas breathe. We were writing, I was writing and re-writing lyrics until the last day of recording."

I'm eager to discover the story behind my favourite song on the album, "The Truth Is Out". Johnston is a little embarrassed: "It's kind of silly probably.but for so many years, in philosophical circles, we've just been hearing that truth doesn't matter. They say that truth is out of fashion. So I guess it just hit me one day that I could take that and spin it around. If anything, I want the lyrics that I write to point towards the Bible. The fact of the matter is that God loves us so much that he's given his truth, he's given us what matters to him. One of the best ways to find that out is to read the Bible, to read God's story of how he revealed himself to people. The truth IS out there and if we let that come into our lives, if we'll - like the Bible says - 'hide it in our hearts and let it renew out minds,' then that's how we're going to get to know the authentic way to live our lives."

I interviewed Johnston when the Smalltown Poets' self-titled debut was released in 1997. Of course, back than it was a very different line up and only Johnston himself remains in the group. I wonder how things have changed for the band (current line up Michael Johnston, vocals, Troy Stains on guitars, Alex Peterson on bass and Matt Goodman on drums) since the early days? What, for instance, was the band's original ambition? "Actually, we probably would have said total world domination was our vision with the release of the first record.tongue-in-cheek! Just because I've always said, 'Set your goals really high.' But I think it's pretty much the same. It's probably matured and evolved a little bit as I think good visions do, but the biggest thing that drives me is, I just want to make the best and the most of the opportunities that God gives me. I want to do the best that I can do with those opportunities, with the gifts and with the things that God has blessed me with."

He continues, "I think that may still sound a little vague but maybe that's why it's still with me so many years after the release of the first record. Because when I look at the Bible and I look at the things that Jesus really asks of us, it's 'get out there and do something with the life that you've been given.' It starts with giving those things back to God. I think doing your best at something and realising that you're doing it unto the Lord - that lets your whole life be worship. Hopefully that makes everything that you do more meaningful."

'It's Later Than It's Ever Been' does mark a fresh stylistic approach to the band. There are some new sounds on the album. How have their long term fans taken it? Michael shares, "Everything that I've heard has been, 'This is the best Smalltown Poets music ever.' Which is not to say that they don't still like some of the original charm of earlier songs and any of the meaningful things they left, but even from guys that were in the band, they're kind of jealous! Because they're like, 'That's the best thing that's had the Smalltown Poets' name on it!' I hesitate to say that because it kind of sounds odd but that's the feedback that we've been getting."

I wonder what the band have left to achieve spiritually? "That's a BIG question! You know what? It started out with honesty and I think 'honesty' is still the watchword for me and hopefully for us. We want to be honest with God, honest with ourselves and honest with the people who come to our music and who hopefully get something meaningful from the music. We just want to be honest. The music, a lot of times, is just a window into some of our experiences in life and the way that we view life. I think as long as we continue writing about that, we'll stay true to our spiritual aims. And then when life takes us in different directions, it's just being honest about that. Hopefully that will be meaningful to people as well." CR

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.

Reader Comments

Posted by Nate Gilbert in Seneca Falls, NY @ 01:43 on Oct 29 2006

I pray that God continues to direct this band. I can sense his leading and blessing in the music and lyrics. This interview does a great job of showing Michael Johnston's heart to honor God. Thanks Smalltown Poets for the great music and thanks God for your work in their lives.

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

Add your comment

We welcome your opinions but libellous and abusive comments are not allowed.

We are committed to protecting your privacy. By clicking 'Send comment' you consent to Cross Rhythms storing and processing your personal data. For more information about how we care for your data please see our privacy policy.