Thursday 23rd March 2006

John Ellis of South African rock band TREE63 spoke to Tony Cummings about live recording, Matt Redman and the marketing of worship music.


It seems only yesterday (actually it was 2003) that Cross Rhythms was gushing wildly about the Tree63 album 'The Life And Times Of Absolute Truth' and publishing an interview with the South African rockers boldly asserting they didn't want to be considered a praise and worship band. An awful lot has changed since then. 'The Life And times Of Absolute Truth' flopped and the band have gone on to have big hits in America's modern worship marketplace. In fact, such was the US radio success of the band's rendition of Matt Redman's "Blessed Be Your Name" (released on Tree63's 'The Answer To The Question' album) that many American church goers think the song is a Tree63 original. But success is success however it comes and with Tree63 now established on the US circuit as a big name band, the group are reaping the rewards of their high profile with the release of their latest album 'Worship Vol 1: I Stand For You'.

I caught up with the band's singer, composer and founder member John Ellis as he was literally packing suitcases at his Johannesburg home prior to another lengthy tour of the USA. I began by asking John what was the thinking behind making Tree63's latest album a mixture of studio and live concert tracks. He responded, "Well, 'Worship Vol 1' didn't start life as 'Worship Vol1'. It actually began as a studio album proper. Then at some point during that process it became pretty apparent that we weren't going to have enough time to do a whole record. But there was still a need to put something out so the next best scenario was this kind of 'Rattle And Hum' kind of concept for know, bits of live stuff and old things and new things all on one record."

The live tracks were recorded in September 2005 during the 'Restored' tour. John admitted, "Most of the tour was geared towards getting all the test levels and stuff for the recordings done. By the time we actually got to be on stage recording on the last few days of that tour there was lots of adrenalin and lots of expectancy for the process. So the only problem was we found that when we got to recording, most of the joy and the spontaneity that comes with playing live suddenly flicked out the window because we were all sort of tip-toeing around the live recording process. So it was an interesting experience - we haven't recorded like that before, live, and the tour itself was amazing, up until that point."

John continued, "What we tried to do was find a creative way to make this album more than it looks like on paper. Tree63 is one of those odd bands that can do all these different things so it's got a bit of an identity crisis. On one level we're leading worship and on another level we're just a rock band singing about Jesus. It's become quite a strange thing to see which of those multi facetted things Tree63 is. So this was an opportunity just to make sure that the people who are familiar with Tree63's worship experience are taken care of on one particular record from start to finish. Plus there was definitely a record company push towards making, especially American, fans aware of some of the older Tree63 hits that they might not know. That's why there are live versions of 'Treasure' and 'Joy' and 'Kingdom' on there. 'Worship Volume 1' obviously hints at there being volume 2 and 3 in the future. And also this particular album was kind of built up around the song 'I Stand For You'. So in the future volumes 2 and 3 will also have a theme. That's the concept. But I think Tree63 is more a case of trying to find ways not to have to diddle fans out of money for the same songs they own already."

Long time Tree63 fans have seen the band grow slowly but steadily since their emergence (as Tree) in 1998 with the album 'Overflow'. That, and the '63' (1999) album saw the band find a growing UK audience where festival appearances, particularly at Soul Survivor. Their gaining UK reputation eventually brought them to the attention of the US scene. In 2003 the band, sporting their new moniker, recorded their scintillating studio album 'The Life And Times Of Absolute Truth'. With its dazzling production work from Jon and Nic Fairclough and breathtaking songs from John Ellis which with ruthless honesty explore the human condition and our need for the transcendent it remains, in Tree63's opinion as well as Cross Rhythms, their finest work. But it didn't sell!

Commented John, "'The Life And Times' subject is a long standing kind of sore point for Tree63. To us it was the next logical conclusion after the '63' thing. But it seemed to polarise people and we lost a lot of ground in the States over that record. In a similar way to what Delirious? experienced with 'Mezzamorphis' which I still think is the best Christian album of all time. I think it was such a spiritual album, full of Jesus and every song's about him. Yet people in the States just could not understand how we could have gone from a worship song like 'Treasure' to singing the songs on 'Life And Times'. The 'Life And Times' album was very successful in South Africa. But even in the UK Kingsway Music weren't too sure what to do with 'Life And Times'. So when we come to play it - we played at Greenbelt in 2005 - 'Life And Times' wasn't even on the merchandise table! It's just quite sad for us because we are so proud of that album."

What, I wondered, was John's personal favourite Tree63 song? "I think the song that to me encapsulates everything I have been through and have become and want to say with music is the very last song on the 'Life And Times' album, 'How Did I Sleep'. I like it on so many different levels: creatively, musically, spiritually, whatever. That's just a huge part of who I am." And what about Tree63 fans' favourite? "As far as the song that people would most identify with Tree63 I think would probably be a toss up between 'Joy' and 'Treasure', 'Treasure' having been a big hit in the US and here in South Africa. But then again, it's hard because there are so many songs that have come since then that are equally strong candidates for the canon of Tree63. I'd like to say obviously that the most recent one would be my best but up 'til now I think 'Treasure' is the one. Also obviously in the States a huge amount of fans only know us for 'Blessed Be Your Name', which isn't even my song!"

I asked John how the Matt Redman connection began. "Matt and I have been friends for many years now. He was in at the top end of Tree63's existence, 1997, and he's remained a faithful friend. We just love him and he's such a good guy. We've recorded, obviously, 'Blessed Be Your Name' and I've played on a lot of Matt's records. Plus I've played live with him. It's just the general relationship that's kept going over these years. I had been in the UK with Matt at Abbey Road in August and very soon after that he was in the US to begin the Chris Tomlin tour. I knew he was in Atlanta when we were finishing our version of his song, which I'd played on already on Matt's 'Facedown' album the year before. I phoned him in Atlanta and said, 'Matt, last minute idea, what if we emailed you a copy of the song "Nothing But The Blood" and you get your vocals on it and email it back to us?' Which he did and suddenly Matt Redman was guesting on a Tree record!"

Playing on the album was drummer Bobby Blazier. But now the band's original drummer Darryl Swart has returned to Tree63 after a lengthy sabbatical away so that with bass player Daniel Ornellas the band are thankfully once back to their best ever line-up. I finished my chat with John by asking him about that old interview when he said he didn't want Tree63 to be known as a praise and worship band. "The problem is the way praise and worship is marketed, particularly in the USA. Unfortunately, Americans have a wonderful way of turning things into marketing trends. Around the time we got to the States finally in about 2000, 2001 or so Sonicflood had pretty much invented the modern worship category in the shops. As you walk into music shops there's this modern worship that was pretty much Sonicflood's invention. And immediately we were lumped into that same category. They didn't know what to do with this band that sounded like it was from Europe but it was singing about Jesus but in this non-conventional way. So it became modern worship. And I'm one of those people who hate trends. I immediately said, 'Well, Tree is anything but a praise and worship band.' But of course there's so much of what worship is that Tree is about and it's hard to deny that after all the years. So we've had to say if you want to categorise it in that way fair enough. Because we do like to lead worship and we are worshippers. It's quite a hard thing to talk about, you know, because you're trying to deny categories at the same time and embrace them at other times." 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 Hannelie in Witbank South Africa @ 07:36 on Apr 30 2012

Can some one contact me please - Im desperately looking for the Worship Volume 1 - I stand for you cd

082 7899 579

Posted by Jully in Philippines @ 12:36 on May 27 2008

The lyrics of the songs really touching deep in my soul. It magnifies my Savior and I could feel God's glory in it. God bless Tree63. To God be the glory of ur lyf. I hope you could perform here in our country

Posted by Franco de Ridder in Centurion SA @ 19:50 on Jan 30 2008

Tree63 is the best gospel band I have ever heard in my life. The best song is "You only" and "Blessed be Your name"

Posted by Emma Penn in Glasgow, Kentucky @ 19:00 on Dec 15 2007

I luv u!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by claudia van Straaten in sa @ 20:43 on Aug 26 2007

im not really into this music...but i gotta say that each time i listen to it i get so stoked with the lyrics...there is so much truth in what is being said and what i love the most is that they really give God glory in their music...which sadly alot of christian bands have lots the heart of today...keep saving em souls;)

Posted by Andrew Cheshire in CV, CA @ 06:54 on Jul 23 2007

I'm a rock singer, and I feel very stupid--I was like totally under the impression that 63 was the only album...
*slap face*
But as a singer, I can't listen to music without listening to the quality of the vocals, and I gotta say, though John Ellis is not the BEST singer out there (Bryan Duncan), he is totally my favorite singer! His voice is absolutely incredible, it has such a great sound and it's exactly the same range as mine, so if I were not a poor garage band singer trying to scratch my way through Bible college, I would totally cover all of Tree63's songs I've ever heard... which is, I guess, ten... I only have that one album... I think I'm about to make a rather large investment...

Posted by Anna Clune in Lauren's NY @ 01:38 on Jun 11 2007

I LOVE Tree63!!! I went to see them last night! Franklin Graham was preaching! Tree63 YOUR THE BEST!!! Oh and I thought you should know this: About 600 people received christ last night. Praise God.

Posted by Riaan @ 12:32 on Dec 19 2006

John Ellis / Tree63 = PERSEVERANCE, don't ever give give guys can't help but be trend setters so don't hate it too much. Jesus was quite the trend setter himself (you can't deny it) There are those GOOD TRENDS in life that we all need!-----GREAT article.

Posted by Neutronic in South africa @ 21:16 on Sep 28 2006

i've been a huge fan of tree63's for many years they make me proud of my country. John is a amazing artist and songwriter. I would like to thank them for their great passionate music ... u guys are the best....c ya Neutronic

Posted by Ezra in US @ 19:10 on Jul 18 2006

I think it's very sad that Life and Times didn't sell...I'm from the US and I absolutely love that album, it is by far the best Tree63 album ever, and in my opinion the best Christian rock album ever conceived! It's so full of spirit, passion, worship, and creativity...I'm never bored when listening to Life and Times!

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

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