John Ellis shared some of the recent developments for Tree63.
The last time I saw Tree, it was in a freezing cold sports hall in Holland where they played the Winter Wonder Rock festival and there wasn't even a hint of the fact they were headed towards recording an album as incredible as 'The Life And Times Of Absolute Truth'. The band have been going through a number of changes and have now emerged with a freshness and enthusiasm which is to be admired. In the summer of 2002, I spent time with the band backstage at another festival, this time in Stockton on Tees.
It's been three and a half years since the '63' album was released and
since then the band have gone through a manager and two bass players
(is there some sort of 'Spinal Tap' curse on the bass player slot in
this band?) and finally released a new album! John reflects, "July
1999. It's ridiculously long isn't it?! Three years." Oh yeah, and
somewhere along the line the number 63 got attached to the end of
Tree63, as they are now called, got their name because an American punk band called Tree were already out there and then some record company bod Stateside picked up their last CD and thought the band were called Tree63! But isn't that a bit of a stupid name? "Tree 63?" John counters. "It rhymes though so come on!"
Other changes include the exit of Scoop who played bass with the band up to the '63' album who was replaced by their then manager Martin Engel who then left the band at the end of 2001 without ever playing on any of their recordings! John explains, "He decided it was time to move on. Which he did and we maintained our friendships, so it's great!" I am now met by their new bass player who greets me with, "You don't remember me do you?" I hate it when this happens but he does look spookily familiar. Hmmm... Racking the Rimmer memory banks I trace him to a Cross Rhythms festival a few years ago. I bluff! "Yes, I interviewed you at the festival...um...you were in a great band with your sister...erm..." Now I think I am doing well until I am challenged to name the band! Rats! I am stumped. Thankfully at that moment the band's manager walks past and discretely drops the name Naked Lyric in my ear and I am rescued! Daniel Ornellas has fitted straight into the band both temperamentally and musically. His playing on the new album is superb.
The band have been through their struggles since the '63' album. Although it's fair to say that in the years that I have known John, being in Tree has constantly been a challenge and there have often been times when he's wondered whether keeping the band has still been in God's will. There have been times when he's laid it down. It's something that he seems to keep submitting back to God. He's adamant, "You have to, otherwise it becomes a case of taking it out of his hands and saying, 'Right God, thanks for the career. I'll see you in 50 years!'...which is pointless! Again, if at the end of these interviews he said to me 'Right, that's it!', it's a case of 'Okay'. I've got to be obedient because it's better. But it hasn't been an easy road for us for whatever reason. I've found myself often wishing that it was. There's been wonderful times, but you want to enjoy it for a period of time without going from crisis to crisis. You just think 'God, what next?!' Band members, dodgy managers and all these kinds of things are coming in and out of your life. The thing is, truth is something valuable to a lot of people, and some unscrupulous people want to come in and try to abuse that, which is a very natural, worldly reaction to it. We often found ourselves the victim of unscrupulous meanness. So we've had to work through it all."
The band have a new manager called Andy. There had been rumours that John had spent a bit of time travelling around America undoing some of the damage done by the work of their previous manager, trying to talk to promoters and rebuild broken relationships. John responds, "I obviously have to be very careful with what I say because there is truth behind all of those things. And if I'm seen to be saying things from my own lips, then obviously that makes me responsible. But the bottom line is that there has been some damage and it's been a case of rebuilding bridges that need to be built. So it has been a case of damage control for the last year, which was quite tiring. You want to go forward but people are saying, 'We love the band and we'd like to work with you but, unless the situation is resolved, we can't. We're taking our hands off you.' We found ourselves with very few friends left and we had to make some decisions, which we did. And now it's all systems go. I mean, Tree is a live act. We get up and play on stage, we don't just make albums. If you can't get up on stage because there're problems, you need to go and sort those things out and make a way. This year's been a bit of a make-a-way year. But it seems to have yielded God results and here we are sitting and talking about the new album."
Ah yes, the new album. 'The Life And Times Of Absolute Truth'. A better Christian rock album you'll struggle to find in 2003. This is Tree63 for the new millennium, a new sound, a new energy and a new attitude. One of the popular myths about the band is that they're a worship band. As the main songwriter, John explains how he feels about it, "Tree 63 is essentially mirroring my walk with Christ. So on one album, I'm a brand new Christian singing "Don't Close Your Eyes". The next album, I'm into worship and I'm singing "A Million Lights". This album, I'm in a new place. I look six years down the line and I'm looking at other things...frustration with Church, or looking at the dry times, when God leaves you alone to work something out on your own, or something like that. That was a theme on the last album, but even more so now."
He continues, "A song like "All Because" for example, is a song where I'm looking around myself and I've got to be honest, that there are times when to be a Christian, it is actually very difficult to sustain your walk with God. At the end of the day, everything that I am, and am today, all my achievements and successes, is all because of God. That's something that's undeniable. But you don't have to be in a worship band to sing that kind of song. I think it's maturing. It's maturing past the point of being labeled as a 'worship band' or CCM. At the end of the day, I find myself coming out and explaining I'm a Christian who is singing songs about God and lots of people like the songs, and some of them aren't Christians! Some of them who are Christians find their way to God through them, and some of them who aren't Christians are finding the same thing. It's a wonderful mix!"
Lyrically John has always honestly expressed his own heart in songs. s Sometimes he's been hurting and at other times celebrating. He shares, "I never consciously sat down and said, 'Right, I need to write a congregational worship song.' People who know Tree will know by now that what I'm singing is not a contrived thing, it's really what I mean at that particular time. It's a snapshot of where I am right there. There's worship in every song. Every song on this new album is about Jesus, it's undeniable. But I haven't mentioned him lyrically once. There's no Jesus, or God, or Lord, unlike the last album. But this is a more special album than that one I believe, because it's further on down the road. So it's interesting."
And it rocks! Tree63 like you've never heard them but also there are enough introspective, quieter moments to send the goose bumps down your spine. Chatting to John on a summer afternoon, it's the first time he's talked to a journalist about the album and in Stockton, I am still three months away from getting a copy of the CD! However I am already intrigued by the album title. 'The Life And Times Of Absolute Truth'. John is going to have plenty of people wondering about that in the months to come but for now I am the first to ask the question. "I think it's one of those things I'm going to be able to answer in about two years!" He pauses to think, "Right now, it's a phrase that popped into my head a while back and I wrote it down. It just seemed to not go away and made sense. It's quite an interesting title, it's quite provocative. I'm very concerned with truth. I think Christians generally should be very concerned with it. Because I've realised all the lies that are out there, and all the lies that are brought into you as a non-Christian. One of the few things that drew me to Jesus was the fact that there IS a standard of truth in this world. CS Lewis talks about it within Christianity...it IS a law of the universe. It's set, which means it's something to go back to and say, 'Look, here's the truth.' It's something that everyone else in the world will deny vehemently and say, 'Oh well, if it's truth for you,' and I'm saying, 'No, there's no such thing as 'truth' for you and 'truth' for me. There IS an absolute, and it's something that I'll defend to my death!"
He continues passionately, "Unfortunately nowadays, everything is relative. Absolute truth is considered a non-entity. And here are a group of funny looking people standing up for it! It may have died in your mind, but it's actually unkillable, it's immortal. It's not going to die! But what does it look like now? It IS there but, what does it look like now? What is it perceived to be on MTV, VH1 or whatever? So I think that's kind of some way towards the answer. I don't know exactly what it actually means, the meaning could change over a period of time, but somewhere now I'm saying, 'Tree63 is about absolute truth and I'm not ashamed to stand for it!' Modern bands and modern culture push an image that says, 'Don't bother asking. Just eat, drink and be merry! Tomorrow's another day. Who cares?' There is that pointlessness and meaninglessness to this life that scared the hell of out me literally, when I wasn't a Christian! It had me running...searching, asking, 'Where is the truth?!...There it is!...Jesus!' I feel that's what Tree stands for and I'd love opportunities to take that beyond the border of the Church. But people don't want to hear the message, and they'll drink themselves out of a place of being able to pursue it. That's an interesting place to be for Tree. How do we present the message and still let them know that part of being a Christian is to have fun! It's a very tight rope we're going to be walking!"