With their intriguing, though somewhat confusing name, the Bristol-based band steve are set to hit the big time after years of grassroots toiling. Tony Cummings got their story.
There's an identifiable pattern in Britain's Christian music scene. A band forms, toughs it out for a few years gigging in a mixture of Christian missions and mainstream toilets, recording an independent release or two, and eventually gets signed by a record label (usually an American one). That pattern of dues-paying-to-contract-signing has been repeated once more with Bristol-based pop rockers steve whose new album for EMI Christian Music Group's ForeFront Records is further testament that good things come to those who wait. The band, originally based in Wales and originally named Bleach, were formed in 1995 with the nucleus of vocalist Neil Wilson, guitarist Lee Able and bassist Rees. Then drummer Nathan Evans in 1998. EPs got the band airplay on Cross Rhythms radio but it was their tireless gigging under the wise oversight of NGM which saw steve develop into the premier league team of pop rock gospellers they are today.
NGM (originally New Generation Ministries) has played a pivotal role in the development of Christian music ministry in Britain. The Bristol-based ministry, formed by Ray and Nancy Goudie - originally members of '80s pop gospellers Heartbeat - has been the epicentre of a huge amount of ministry, arranging schools missions and concerts. Their vision has been to plant new shapes of church for the emerging culture and pushing boundaries in new creative expressions of worship, using DJs, etc. And now, with the building of the breathtaking Caedmon Complex, NGM has become a premier means of giving training to musicians, dancers, deejays and ministry workers. Without NGM and its Engage Management offshoot tirelessly working behind the scenes, it's doubtful if steve would have lasted the pace to secure their EMI recording contract. Now with the band's tinglingly fresh album 'Falling Down' about to hit Britain's Christian retailers and tours planned for both the UK and USA, things are definitely moving up to a new level for the group.
As the group sprawled around the coffee machine at UCB's Stoke-on-Trent headquarters, I readied my first question fully aware that it was no good asking the band about the origins of their name - the band mischievously give a different explanation every time a hack asks the obvious. Instead, I took Click Track Number 2 and asked about the new album. Said Lee, "We've been working on the album since February. All the songs are a collaboration of all our writing over the last two years. Most of the songs have been gigged. Towards the end of the album we wrote two tracks which we haven't gigged yet. Although we've been playing the songs over the last two years, we have revisited some of the ideas, there's a freshness to them even though we did record 'Falling Down1 on an EP over a year ago. The way we've recorded it and some of the new dynamics are enough to make it interesting still to a listener who's already heard it before."
Bassist Rees is adamant that the band have moved on from their original Britpop sound. "Britpop is a phrase we could have aligned ourselves with a few years ago when Britpop existed. Anyone who was in the scene of playing guitar music when the word Britpop was around didn't really like the word because it kind of pigeonholed people. Now I suppose we describe ourselves as a guitar rock band with poppy melodies, good vocal harmonies with an element of technology, sampling. So don't pigeonhole us. Don't you dare!"
The album, brimming over with radio friendly hooks, guitar attack and the kind of audio dynamics budget productions can only dream about, was produced by Sam Gibson. Explained Lee, "Sam is from New Zealand and is a Christian. One of the things we were praying for was for a producer who had experience of being in the mainstream. He hasn't really done any Christian production or work, he learnt his craft through a mainstream kind of way and that was one of the things we wanted. A lot of the music we listen to and we've learnt from is from the mainstream. We were basically praying for that. Through the record company networking and through contacts we got to meet this guy Sam Gibson. He's had experience with artists like Natalie Imbruglia, the lead singer of Crowded House, Neil Finn. Basically he's got some experience and he came over in February and started the album with us. It was also fantastic to be able to work with Alan Branch who co-produced 'Falling Down', 'M', 'Smile' and 'Zealous Core'. Alan lives in London and although a Christian has had many, many years of experience of working with mainstream artists such as Blur and Bjork.
"It was recorded in three different places, the first place was Rockfield, which is a classic studio in Monmouth. When we first got there we realised that where the table tennis was, because they had those sorts of facilities, Queen had recorded 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. So we were in the place of rock and it was a really cool experience. We did the drums there. We also used Chapel Lane studio in Hereford and were really excited to be able to use the new D'na studios at NGM's Caedmon Complex in Thornbury."
The decidedly intricate percussive power of 'Falling Down1 is one of the most immediate things about the album. Drummer Nathan explained how the album got its particular rhythmic sound: "We have lots of drum samples, we use loads of loops. Me and Rees, who's the bass player, our name together is the Nacho Brothers, that's our technology production name, we create all the loops and stuff to go underneath the guitars and everything like that. My favourite track to play is probably 'My Ever My AH'. It's quite complicated, it's got a real good groove in the verse and then it goes to a bigger feel in the chorus with big torn fills and so it's good for me, I can really get into it."
One of singer Neil's favourite songs on the album is "Smile". He
commented, "Our whole heart when we first got signed was, lord, we
don't want to blow it. We don't want to sign five, 10 years of our
life away to something you
don't want us to be doing. We want you to be pleased with us.' 'Smile' is literally a song saying, lord, I don't want to let you down. I want to know you smile on who we are and what we are doing.' And for people, wherever their walks with life may be, a song that they can say to God, 'I don't want to blow it. I want to be in the centre of your will."
Neil continued emphasising how the songs on Falling Down' were free of religious jargon. "We were trying to be poetic in some ways, not to use some of the jargon we've been brought up with, trying to reshape some things in a new way. 'Zealous Core' just talks about being passionate, what we're passionate about as a band when we play and when we are off stage. What the lyrics describe is our passion for the Gospel. 'My Ever My AH' came from Psalm 89.1 was reading some of the David psalms and was very impressed with how he wrote and what he wrote and just wanted to make a modern day psalm the way we naturally write lyrics, so it's just basically a praise song.
"We usually play 'Falling Down' at the end of a gig. It's just one of those songs where you invite the Holy Spirit to come and fall down. It's about that experience of asking God in the still place with him, 'God, will you come be with me?' and sometimes God will come quietly and sometimes it will feel like falling down underneath a waterfall sort of thing."
Neil concluded by musing on how the band's songwriting had changed
down the years: "The way we've written songs now I think have matured
as we've grown up. Some of us are not as young as we used to be and
our audience has grown up a little bit as well so that the songs
probably fit better, and people would understand them a bit better,
for a student age. We play in local venues in Bristol. For years we've
been trying to push the pub culture type of thing and been playing the
songs hoping the Holy Spirit would turn up and do some wacky stuff.
We've been pushing that door for quite a few years and doing demos and
also leading worship at conferences, events. We've been putting our
feet in both fields and as a band we are passionate to see the
presence of God released wherever we play, whether in a pub, a concert
or Christian event."