Mike Rimmer quizzed Elias Dummer and Eric Fusiler about the radical worship aggregation THE CITY HARMONIC
Occasionally, I hear new music and get a rush of blood to the head as what is coming out of the speakers thrills me and fills me with hope. This is particularly true of modern worship which, to my ears at least, has over the last five years come to sound increasingly stylised and creatively moribund. But not so with the pioneering band from Hamilton, Ontario, The City Harmonic now getting a big push in the UK through Kingsway who've released the EP 'Introducing The City Harmonic'. When I heard the pre-release download in November it had me hurriedly emailing their publicist and insisting on an interview even though the UK release wasn't scheduled until mid January! And so it is that on American Thanksgiving Day (Canadians have their thanksgiving on a different date) I am on the phone to pianist/singer Elias Dummer and bassist Eric Fusiler to find out more about this most inspiring of bands.
Dummer begins by explaining the band's base. "Hamilton is a steel town so in its own way it's a bit of a gritty place. I grew up in a place in the downtown core for most of my life. There's some interesting statistics, something like 25% of children in Hamilton live below what's classified as the poverty line. It's a town with its own set of challenges. As a musician it's interesting because over the last few years, I'd say, a few things have happened. One thing is that the Church has developed this really cool movement called Tru-City which is a partnering of smaller churches across denominations, across traditions who really want to work together for the good of the city."
He continues, "And the other thing is that the Arts Community here has really taken off in a huge way. People are moving from bigger cities like Toronto just to open up art studios in the downtown core. It's seen a huge shift here like the hipster movement. You know what that's like in the UK, but over here it sort of seems to be, seems to feel like Grand Central sometimes. You can't throw a stick without hitting a studio! Eric lives directly above a coffee shop where there is something like a dozen or two dozen art studios on his street, within two blocks."
Faith was what was really driving them. Dummer grew up in a small Baptist church and managed to create a bit of a stir in the local high school when he was a teenager. He remembers, "When I was a teenager my parents split and I was going through a rough patch and got involved with a youth pastor there, who really invested heavily in my own life and the life of our small fledgling youth group, which never really exploded but continued to stay passionate in the ways of discipleship. When I was in high school I started a little Christian group that the Principal shut down, and of course it exploded and a bunch of people came to Christ. It was just little things that God used to make big things happen. That's sort of what I've seen so far in my life anyway."
Faith and music intersected at this time too. Dummer explains, "I started leading worship when I was 12 or 13 at my little church because the options were not very many. There was this young guy who had me help him out a little bit, and gave me a shot at it, so I started doing it with youth group, started writing songs then and it's been quite the evolution really of how one idea takes you to the next."
On the local scene Dummer had been playing in a ska band and guitarist Aaron Powell had been playing in a punk band. Bassist Eric Fusiler explains some history. "We had been in other bands and recorded an album called 'Hope Is Born Again' under the name Elias and that six piece band fizzled out. Three of us from that band decided we still wanted to make music so we took a little bit of a break and wrote some music and out of that the sound was changing. We set out intentionally to say that we were okay with the music we were making previously but we really wanted to be intentional about the kind of music that we were going to start to make. The sound was changing purposely and the lyrics were getting more purposed, it felt more natural to who we were, so we renamed it and The City Harmonic came up after an extensive process of trying to name it. The City Harmonic EP we recorded ourselves, a limited release here, but the wider release is virtually the same disc but with one added song. It became clear as we writing new songs that we were going to have rename the band. We set out to find the most accurate name that we could. Tru-City played a big role. The idea of a harmonic city is really appealing to us, it is part of our longing and deep seated hope that will come about when Christ returns and we get to be a part of that now. That's an emotional quality in a lot of our songs. The name is really a reflection of that longing."
So why form a worship band at this point in his life when he's been in other types of bands before this? Dummer's response calls for a redefining of what we understand about the nature of worship bands. The City Harmonic are definitely a new breed of band and if people can grab hold of what they're doing, it could lead to a whole new wave of bands. Dummer shares, "One thing about The City Harmonic is that we are writing worship music but we are not so concerned with what that definition means. For us worship takes place whether you are singing a song or not. It's the moment by moment choices you make. It's the attitude you carry with you. It's your life posture rather than just your physical posture. And so as a band we are writing worship songs but hopefully doing so because it's a natural thing for us. There's this whole Celtic thing I love that says 'milking the cow is holy', and so for us not all of the songs that we do might come across as what might immediately be considered worship music but that's absolutely our intent. So in a respect we've made a worship band but we are also really just a band who happens to write worship songs."
For me, I always think of worship bands or worship leaders as those who are writing songs that can be used for the sung worship portion of a Sunday service. So, this is a whole new approach to worship. I have always understood that worship is a lifestyle and is about the choices we make in daily life rather than just the singing of songs. It feels like The City Harmonic are taking this thought to a new place. So can their songs be used in corporate worship? "Certainly I think they could be," Dummer responds. "I'm in this tiny little church plant where two Sundays ago we sang part of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' and 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' by U2. So what we consider congregational intent is helpful but at the same time that when you break it down to rules like that you start to create systems that become dry. Just the same as those systems that spawned the modern worship movement. So we have to be careful not to create tiny boxes. So our thing as a band is that we hope and pray there is a bigger sandbox for all the worship leaders to play in. I don't intend to replace anything. I think all those things are good. I think it's just that we need a broader view. So I hope we can contribute to that if nothing else."
Behind the scenes in the modern worship movement there are worship leaders, song writers and publishers throwing their resources into trying to create worldwide hit songs that will be sung in churches in New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa and America. There is a certain amount of machinery that is whirring and spinning to make this happen and it can add pressure for those trying to write songs. It feels as though the band are pushing against this to a degree. Dummer comments, "I spent a long time as a worship songwriter writing songs that I liked but they weren't really a reflection of the music I liked or listened to. They weren't necessarily a reflection of the music I would go out and buy. You literally put out an album and go, I wouldn't pay for this! So at one point we said why are we doing this? God made us us, and there's a lot of other us's out there, why don't we just make music that we love and is worshipful? I mean, you go and see U2 in concert, but people aren't singing along with a U2 song because it was written in a specific key and has a certain kind of melody that would be easy to pick up. They are singing along because they are moved. They are singing along because the music is powerful even when there are no words. And so for us it is the idea of getting together with people and writing music that we love and we love to sing rather than music that is intentionally designed to be easy or palatable but people pick up on that and it moves them. They are moved to sing even if it's a bit straining. I hope that's the case every time we play but maybe it won't always be but that's what we aspire to do really."
Perhaps the centrepiece of the debut EP is the song "Manifesto" with its uplifting vibe and mob of voices singing. Dummer remembers the origins, "Hilariously this song really just started out with the piano hook. I was sitting down playing scales and came up with that and thought that sounds like fun. Then I took it to the guys and started jamming it out. The lyrics, we really felt like it was this rousing tune once we started playing it so we wanted to try and capture the heart if we could and maybe simplify to some respects the Nicene Creed. The Lord's Prayer has always been something powerful for me so we wanted to figure out something that captured the common ground and I think that's important to us. It's the idea that in the end we all come together, we're a part of one body regardless of our tradition or background. So I think finding that sense of common ground is important in a day when people make too big a deal about denominations and their differences rather than remembering the common thing that we work towards. [That perspective] is informed by seeing churches in Hamilton working together."
So what about the sense of community the band are trying to create through their music? There is more to this band than standing on a stage singing some songs and hoping people will sing along with them. Dummer shares, "There's this article I wrote that's sort of gotten about a little now. I think at the end of the day we have to be careful as worship leaders not to..." He hesitates as he gathers his thoughts, "There's this language about worshiping and performing that worship leaders use and churches pick up on it and make a big deal that this person is performing or that person is worshiping and I guess in some ways the days of that language are done. And the reason is that we stand on a stage and play instruments and people who are not musicians don't pick up on everything that is going on. And the reason that we go to a Coldplay show or something is because we are given hints as to what's going on in the music as well as enjoying the moment. So as a band we worship, that's our intent, it's our life, it's what we go out to do but at the same time we think it's important to encourage people to feel involved in that moment. It's a blast. Rather than seeing the idea of vertical worship as being something strictly vertical that we also have in that, the horizontal plane.
"It's about caring for the person in the back row and trying to help them engage and trying to help them feel like part of the moment. That is for me an act of worship, just as much as if I were to close my eyes and bow my knees and sing hallelujah for half an hour, and we do both of those things. I guess we are just trying to make it as communal as possible, to enjoy each other's company on stage and so it may look at a surface glance like a show. And in some ways it is, but only because we really just hope that the thing that we are working towards is the same thing everyone is working towards which is that all of us in the room are able to have a good time and engage God and feel God and really just meet with God and have him engage with us on that level. You have people who go to a really big show of a band who make no claim to be Christian and they say 'I really met God in there', so obviously there is something about God that is far above our rules and systems that we build up. So for us, we are going to go out and do the thing that we feel God is calling us to do and hope that we can connect with people in doing so."
The passion to connect with people is firmly rooted in their experiences in Hamilton, helping the city's church community to forge stronger links in a united purpose. The band are creating a soundtrack for that to happen and yet it's also a message that will work in any city in the world. It's something that is written deep in the heart of God that the barriers between people need to come down. Fusiler explains, "It's a huge part of who we are and part of the reason we went with the band name is that we believe that this is something that is meant to be everywhere. I believe it is the call of Christians to spend your life serving God and that it benefits everyone around you. So for us that means engaging people in this communal corporate worship and it actually means that we are getting our hands dirty and pitching in and helping out in our churches locally and doing whatever we can to deal with the poverty problems that are here. I work in a church in the North End of Hamilton which is notorious for having one of the highest child poverty rates in the city, even higher than the average across the city. It's a pretty heavy thing being in amongst that but we really believe it's our joy and hope and to spread the hope that we have in Christ in that way and that's a universal concept that is a biblical concept that all Christians are called to."
Fusiler continues, "That message is universal in every city that we come across. Each local church, depending on the neighbourhood, is going to look different, so the way that we go about serving and the way that we work to see the Gospel take root physically and spiritually and emotionally really does need to look different based on the city and based on neighbourhood and all that. It's a universal concept that takes a lot of work to figure out locally."
Already there are other bands who are doing something similar in terms of their understanding of community and worship, particularly Agents Of Future and Rend Collective Experiment and this is one Canadian band whose desire is to inspire people to think about these things and open their eyes to the issues. "That's our hope," says Fusiler. "That's one of our biggest passions. That's what we are hoping to do with our music. It's a huge humbling call but we certainly believe it is part of our calling."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.