Once they were toted as a dance unit, now their sound is nearer Erasure-style pop rock. Mike Rimmer spoke to America's Joey Belville, the man behind THE ECHOING GREEN.
It's funny the first impressions you can gain from answerphone messages left on your machine. In the process of the transatlantic trek to secure an interview with the intrepid Joey Belville, he leaves a variety of apologetic, loud and humourous messages on my machine. Eventually, when we do get to talk I find him a mixture of intelligence, sensitivity and wit, just like his music. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised.
Live, The Echoing Green are a five piece but in the studio, Joey is a more solitary soul. "In the studio it's pretty much just me, being that it's mostly electronic you'd have too many cooks in the kitchen kind of thing." And the enigmatic name for the band? Joey explains, "The Echoing Green" actually was a poem from William Blake and it was from his Songs Of Innocence And Experience. It wasn't so much that that poem in itself was so epic or life moving, I just really liked his work. And I liked that poem so I decided to use the name. Basically, if you try and put it into a spiritual reference you can really look at it in a couple of different ways. If you relate it to the poem the Echoing Green was a place where I would say the prime of life occurred. Where the kids played and where sport was seen. It was a place where the real vivaciousness of life happened and that's really a place you don't really live until you come to know Jesus. So basically The Echoing Green is a place you can get your salvation, a place where you really live. That's the way I like to look at it."
Best known in this country for the title song of his debut album. "Defend Your Joy", and a liking for '8()'s British synth pop sounds, Joey's new album has a more polished, slightly harder sound with plenty of guitars. Comparisons with Erasure abound but does this annoy him? He manages to resist a snarl! "Yeah, I'll be honest it really does. I think a lot of it is because when people think of synthesized music they automatically think of Erasure. I was a lot more into Depeche Mode in high school. But first off Erasure doesn't make use of too many guitars and second off Andy Bell is a lot more of a soulful singer than I am. And third off I would like to think of myself as a bit more masculine." He laughs.
Joey didn't get serious about God until he was in college. "I didn't give my life to the Lord until I hit rock bottom in college and I really realised there's got to be something more to this. I kept looking at God as this faceless deity in the sky and never fathomed the possibility of having a personal relationship. I never had a problem with drugs or anything like that but at college there were a lot of parties and bad things in relationships and just a general secular lifestyle. All these things I tried to find some kind of satisfaction from. And I couldn't find it. To me none of them would last and that's what really made me realise that I needed something else."
Joey's journey into music started at the age of 12 when he learnt to play the trombone! Not very rock'n'roll but good enough to get Joey into music college! He remembers, "I had these professors who were really hard core about it. 'Do you want to be the best trombone player? We really want to teach you if you want to be the best.' But I was like, 'I don't want to be the best, I want to learn some other instruments.' I just happened to play that best but I played some drums in high school and I just wanted to learn a bit of everything."
With release of the brilliant 'Hope Springs Eternal', I ask whether there was a particular theme that ran through his music. Joey replies, "I sing a lot about healing and not necessarily physical healing, but just a wholeness and a spiritual healing that can only come through Christ. In America we got people looking for that through all different kinds of ways. Whether they're hugging the trees or whether they're looking in crystals or things like that. People are looking for something spiritual to fix their lives and I'm just trying to offer the true answer in song. And just because my background is really kind of shady with some of the things I've been through and some of the abusive situations I just feel that God's called me to write music addressed to the broken hearted and the broken in spirit and just relate to them and show them a solution."
Joey continues to describe how he found comfort when his mother died when he was seven years old. "This was something that really threw a monkey wrench into my life. I didn't know the Lord at the time but I think the part that bummed me out about losing my mum was that I actually got to know her. If I didn't get to know her at least I could blame all my problems on this idea of a mother but it didn't work out like that and I actually missed her. It didn't really hit me until I was a teenager. Things didn't work out with me and my father and I just wound up going to this boys' home. Before I went in there my dad was a horse jockey so he was moving around a lot so I had to live with other people to keep my schools down to about three a year. So I wound up in some abusive situations and when I got to this boys' home I was really resentful because these kind of things that happen to me are supposed to happen to other people.
"But this stuff was happening to me and I was very angry and it wasn't until I came to know the Lord that I came to know I was very angry at the Lord. I was like, 'Where were you when I needed you?' Then the Lord showed me the 23rd Psalm where it says though I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, you were with me kind of thing. And I had misinterpreted that verse for the longest time. I always thought that if I gave my life to the Lord that my life would be this bed of roses. But that verse doesn't say that. It's basically a written guarantee that you will go through hard times but that he. will be with you. When I looked at it like that and realised how it all worked out for the good that's what made the whole difference in my life."
On 'Hope Springs Eternal', part of Joey's story is remembered in the song "Ambler", the name of the town where he was born. He describes it: "It's a little town in Pennsylvania and it's also the same town where my mother died and basically when I wrote that song the Lord really blessed me with it. I was going through all that stuff and putting close to it in my life, just finishing that chapter of my life with that song. When I first wrote it I was like, 'Lord, no one else is going to get this song. It's too personal, it's going to go over everyone's head,' and that's when I felt like the Lord tell me I was wrong. He said none of us are strangers to pain and loss.
"I think we all have our own personal little Ambler that we have to deal with. For me Ambler is what I call that little place in our hearts where we shove the pain of the bad things that have happened to us. It doesn't have to be a story like mine, it could be anything, anything that has upset us or that has hurt us. That we haven't maybe told anyone about or haven't dealt with, but it's that thing that we hide away in our hearts thinking that it's going to go away but it really doesn't. Until you bring that stuff before the Lord and until you seek counsel and find a friend or something and start praying about those things you're going to be stranded in that little town Ambler. You are going to be stranded in that little desolate place in your heart where all these things have been shoved to hide and really they just grow there, they don't disappear."
Despite the hardships that life has brought, Joey continues to make music that celebrates life. He suggests, "I never make any apologies for music that's happy. I think nowadays it's not very trendy to make music that makes you smile. It's very trendy to make music that has a little bit of angst. To me it's a ministry enough in itself to be able to put a smile on somebody's face. I don't think it's bubble gum, I think it's very happy and there's nothing wrong with smiling and jumping up and down like a freak."
Talking about freaks and making music which isn't cheesy but a lot of fun, I confront Joey with his remixing work on Sweet Jazz Popeye's 'Disco Praise'. He enjoyed working on the project. "That was a really fun CD to do because this was a live band and they just wanted to do old school disco. It was really fun to do. It's disco man! It's pretty funny, it's really retro. It's like almost too retro for me."
Aaaah! There speaks a confirmed '80s guy - Joey prefers those sounds even though his mixing work brings him into contact with a variety of bands and styles. 'Hope Springs Eternal' takes those influences and synthesizes them into a fresh pop approach that deserves wider appreciation. Perhaps it's only when the band play Britain that people will sit up and take notice.
So far the nearest Joey's come is a trip to Prague to film the video for "Oxygen". He describes the trip: "It was a lot of fun in the Czech Republic. I'd never been overseas before. I think in America, even though you talk about other places and other countries, unless you go there it's very easy to be narrow minded and think that okay, we're here in America and this is it! It's the only flavour. But when I got off the plane it was like, 'Whoah! There's a whole other world out there.' And I really enjoyed it. If I could have stayed longer I would, it was so beautiful. All the structures were very old..." Here we'll leave Joey as he waxes lyrical about how even the back alley slums of Prague had a beauty and dignity he'd not seen before.
From the streets of Ambler to the streets of Prague and CD players across the world, Joey Belville and his band The Echoing Green have achieved something special - happy, catchy pop music with a message of hope that God restores lives. 'Hope Springs Eternal' indeed!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.