Tony Cummings spoke to Mark Lee of veteran Southern rockers THIRD DAY
Third Day are, of course, a Christian rock institution and with 28 number one Christian radio hits and over seven million albums sold the band have little left to achieve. But they have clearly refused to rest on their laurels. Mac Powell (vocals), Mark Lee (guitar) and David Carr (drums) celebrated Third Day's 25th anniversary with the release of the back-to-their-roots album 'Revival', recorded at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Jesus Freak Hideout declared the band "have put out one of the best albums of their career" while Cross Rhythms called it "a gem of an album from a band at the top of their game." As well as releasing 'Revival' in 2017, the band's 25 year career was also celebrated with the publication of the book Hurt Road: The Music, The Memories And The Miles Between. In it the band's guitarist Mark Lee offered a vividly written memoir of a musical and spiritual journey. Overcoming the revelation that the guitarist-turned-author had already undertaken "between 50 to 75 interviews" to talk about his book, I grabbed at the chance to put my batch of questions to the Southern rock axeman.
Tony: How many interviews have you done for the book so far?
Mark: I'd guess I'm at around 50 to 75.
Tony: Was writing Hurt Road a long haul?
Mark: I've wanted to write a book for a long time, so I've had many false starts. For at least 10 years I'd write a first chapter and go, 'You know what? I don't really like that,' and I'd go back and try again. Finally, about three years ago we had a break in our touring schedule and my kids had just gone back to school, so I knew I had some time during the day. I was like, 'I'm going to sit down and just do this.' I wrote the first draft of the book fairly quickly - probably about two months. Then I went back and I've done about six rewrites of it. That was where the real writing and creativity happened. That first draft, maybe 20 percent stayed in the book. But what made it for me, where I could write and finish this thing, was a conversation I'd had with a friend of mine. We were talking about how young adult novels were all the rage. That first Harry Potter book, The Philosopher's Stone, was 76,233 words; so I said, 'I'm going to sit down and write 76,233 words, and I'm not going to care if it's good or not. When I've got that amount, then I'm done with this first draft, and I can go back and make it better.' Honestly, that was what made it possible for me to write the book. In that process of writing a book, even as bad as it was, that was me becoming an author; and having that author-high, I was able to go back and make it better.
Tony: It must help that you were writing a memoir and not an autobiography. With all the concerts and recording sessions, a full life story could be thousands of pages.
Mark: That's what I love about the memoir format. You're not telling every detail, you're just trying to find the pieces that fit to tell the story that you're trying to tell. I wanted to make sure that I talked about my faith journey. I did have some challenges. I had to talk about my accident and losing my father to cancer - that was at the heart of the book - and also the beginnings of Third Day. I felt it was very important to have that in there, so I could tell that story of how God took my lowest moments - when I got hit by the truck and I was out of school for so long, losing my father to cancer - and used them for good. As hard as those things were to live through, it took those things happening for me to be able to start playing guitar. I probably would've met up with Mac Powell anyway - we went to the same high school, we were in marching band together - but for us to start a band together wouldn't have happened had not the accidents and all those things happened. I felt like that was the heart of the story, how God took a couple of horrible events in my life and used those for his good.
Tony: I was interested in the band's realisation that you'd been wrong to sign a long-term contract with Gray Dot. How did you manage to get out of that?
Mark: You have asked a question that I haven't gotten yet, so well done, sir. Gray Dot were friends - they ran the Strand, which is the club out in Atlanta we played a lot - and they got caught up in the dilemma a lot of independent record companies have, where they don't have the infrastructure to be able to follow up success with a band. We were starting to tour heavily, all over the US, and we'd go to a bookstore to do a signing, and they were like, 'Sorry, we ran out of your CDs.' That frustration we had with them was what led us to start asking the question. We were all teenagers at the time and we skimmed the contract. It was a one-album deal with two options, and we thought that meant we had the option if we want to make more records, but it's the record company that has the option. I don't blame the Gray Dot people - we've stayed in touch through the years - but at that moment in time we saw the limitations: we were going to be stuck there if we stayed. We started asking around; we even thought about disbanding the group and start up a few months later under a different name. Touring around the country, I remember one show - I think I mentioned this in the book - we were with some youth pastors and they were like, 'Why don't you just pray and ask God for what you want in this situation.' So we prayed, 'God, we want to be on Reunion Records, because of these artists we're fans of - Rich Mullins, Michael W Smith, the Prayer Chain.' Not long after, we met up with the A&R guy, he introduced us to the president, and they all came out to a show. What ended up happening is they bought out our contract. Gray Dot actually kept going for a pretty good while after that, for probably another 10 years. They had some other indie bands. So that was what happened: Reunion bought the contract from Gray Dot.
Tony: Your mum said that musicians are weird, and you agreed. How are they weird?
Mark: Musicians live a completely different life. I was at a concert in Texas last night, talking to a guy who enjoyed the book, and he was like, 'It's assumed musicians are completely on different paths from everybody else, it's hard for someone with a regular nine-to-five job to relate. But your book, it's so relatable.' Musicians keep odd hours - stay up late, sleep late. For the first several years that I did this, my extended family would think that I was absolutely wealthy or that I was completely down on my luck, and they were like, 'Hey, buddy, let me give you $20.' We're not really wealthy and we're not down on our luck: it's somewhere between. We have this band that we started, and we're working really hard and touring, trying to make a living off of it. I think musicians look at the world a little differently. We have this oblique view of things - maybe a slightly different perspective so we can comment on things in our music - but at the end of the day we're all people. But I thought of that because literally that is what my mom said. I was going to quit school and be a musician, and she was like, 'No! Musicians are weird!'
Tony: In the field of Christian music, the big hit records are few and far between, and it's only when you get one that the pressure eases off. Was that true for Third Day?
Mark: I would absolutely agree with that. So many of the bands we were huge fans of when we started out - not Sixpence None The Richer, because they had a big hit, but the Choir, Prayer Chain, 77s - that's all we aspired to. I think I mentioned that in the book. We'd see friends of ours that would get a van, rent a trailer, and go off and do a show; I'd think, 'Man, that's what I want to do!' That was our goal. The first five years of our existence we were aspiring to that, and for the next five years we were living that out. It was that 'Offerings' album. It didn't sell extremely well, and we thought it was a throwaway album; then it had this slow build, and it was like a year later every week it was selling as well as it did that first week it came out. We were like, 'This is something really special.' Until 'Offerings' took off, we had figured that we would do music for five years or so, and then we'd hit a point where it wouldn't be practical anymore with wanting to have families or things - we'd go back to college or get a job, whatever we needed to do. But at that point we realised, 'This is something we can do.' I feel like that was the moment when we realised God had given us a platform and we needed to be responsible with that, be good stewards of what he'd given us. Around that same time was when we started getting involved with groups like Habitat For Humanity and World Vision. Any kind of attention that got placed on us, we wanted to share that and point out causes that deserved attention.
Tony: The modern worship movement had largely started in UK, and when Third Day released 'Offerings' we at Cross Rhythms didn't think of you as a worship band, so we wondered if this was something the Nashville suits had instructed you to do because worship music was selling.
Mark: From our very early days we were playing at youth events at churches. Even if we were just playing to a church youth group, we wanted to lead people into the presence of God and have that time of worship as part of the show. From our very earliest beginnings we never thought of that being different from the performance rock music. It was a seamless, natural thing we did. Our very first producer that did the first album, he had seen that we did that, and it was his idea that we should at some point do a strictly worship album to be able to capture that side of what we did. If there's any kind of legacy that Third Day has, the fact that we were able to blend the songs about life with the worship-kind of songs, and for it not to be a contradiction, that was something that we did before a lot of others. Delirious? did it as well: they put out 'Mezzamorphis' that was more of a rock thing, then they would go and do a straight worship kind of thing. Maybe I'm talking ourselves up, but we were among the first that did that.
Tony: Do you think the 'Revival' album stands up with your best work?
Mark: I do. Ask any of us, 'Time' would probably be everybody's favourite album. Then everybody's probably got a second favourite - I've always liked 'Wire' a lot; others have talked about 'Revelation' - and I think 'Revival' would fit in there as one of the top three albums we've done. A lot of it was the place that we have been in the last couple of years. We'd done 'Lead Us Back' - for the first time in about 10 years, a strictly worship album. We were very deliberate: the tried and true ways we record, we were like, 'We're not going to do that.' It seems like all the albums these days are made by kids with laptops, and since we're not kids - and we didn't want to figure out recording with a laptop - we hired a couple kids with laptops. We love that record we got as a result. This album, 'Revival', is a response to that: 'We did that, we showed we could do that; now let's do a record that's us being us.' So we set up in the studio there at Muscle Shoals, and I think there's something special about that place: so many legendary albums have been recorded there that from day one, downbeat on the first song, there was just this confidence. We were having fun. We weren't so worried about a single for the radio, we were just going to record the songs we had; and I feel like we had a solid batch of songs. We were pleased with the result. Hopefully as the listener interacts with the album they pick up on the fun we had.
Tony: I've been very interested in a prophecy made in 1990 at a day of fasting and prayer for Christian musicians that contemporary music would spearhead worldwide revival. I believe that's still to come, and in places like Colombia and India we're beginning to see the first signs.
Mark: You mention music being a big part of a move of God in those places, and I love that. I remember praying for revival in the late '90s with a group of pastors in Atlanta. We had this assumption it was going to start with music, and we were narrow-minded, or closed-off, assuming it was going to be from the kind of music we were doing or from our peer-groups. But to see God use music in these far-away places like Colombia and India, it's really cool to see him working; and it's always in a way you're never going to expect.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.