Tony Cummings quizzed Ken Riley and Gav Richardson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne rockers YFRIDAY
It's always a fascinating thing to witness the steady creative development of any band. Cross Rhythms have been writing about Newcastle-upon-Tyne's Yfriday since their earliest days as an independent act and down the years the rock worship team fronted by Ken Riley have steadily upped their game progressing from the raw but passionate 'Rainmaker' (1999), to the transitional 'Open' (2001), the challenging 'Revolution' (2003), the anthemic 'Universal' (2006) and the live worship project 'The Universal Broadcast' (2008). Now with 'Great & Glorious', the band's first album recorded at Hereford's Chapel Lane Studios with New Zealand-born producer Sam Gibson the band have finally delivered an album with the production sheen and the depth of songwriting to establish Yfriday even in the crowded American contemporary worship marketplace. A big plus in the band's recent history has been Ken Riley's huge international worship hit, co-written with Brenton Brown and recorded by Chris Tomlin, "Everlasting God".
I met up with Ken Riley and the band's keyboard player Gav Richards at the Cross Rhythms office. I started by asking about the award-winning "Everlasting God". Has its huge success changed Ken's life? Presumably it has brought Ken a great deal of money? He answered, "I wouldn't say it's brought me a lot of money. It's brought me some money. It's changed things in that, even though my walk with God is exactly the same, people do view me slightly differently. It almost produces some credibility. Why? Because a lot of people like to sing a song. It's an interesting thing. [The success of "Everlasting God"] hasn't changed my relationship with my wife; it hasn't changed my relationship with God, or with the boys in the band, or with my friends. Having said that, it's a nice that a song that I've had a hand in has become this worldwide thing that a lot of people sing. The role of any Christian songwriter is to glorify God. If people are connecting with the Lord through 'Everlasting God' that makes me a happy man. Eternally, one day it will be nice to meet people who sang that song."
I asked Ken and Gav how they deal with the peculiar phenomenon of being famous, at least within a small subcultural pond, as a member of a rock band. Doesn't that pull against their desire to be transparent ministers of Christ? Responded Gav, "[It's a bit odd when people say] 'he's Gav Richards from Yfriday.' It's what I do but it's certainly not who I am. There's a heck of a lot more to Gav Richards than Gav Richards from Yfriday. There's so much more. And the same for Ken. It's not Ken who wrote 'Everlasting God' or Ken who's in Yfriday. There are so many facets to our characters. It's just a small part of what we do."
Continued Ken, "If people were going to put me on a pedestal I'd walk out of here now and quit. My job here is to set people up for eternity, not to set up me for this lifetime. I want to encourage every young Christian musician out there that if they put God first they've got a chance of having something that's worthwhile. If they're doing it for their own glory and for fame and fortune my advice would be to go away and find some way to get yourself on TV. Don't go into Christian music."
I asked Ken to recount for me the circumstances that led up to the writing of "Everlasting God". "We brought out our 'Revolution' album and I think Brenton had listened to it. I was a good friend of Brenton's wife, Jude. He'd listened to a track called 'Rise', which was the opening track, picked up the telephone and said, 'Ken, I think this is world class. Can we get together to write a song?' I said, 'Sure we can.' I bought a train ticket with about the last 70 quid that I had to my name and jumped on a train to London. Sat in a railway station for two hours waiting for Brenton to get up - Brenton was suffering from ME, still is to a certain extent. We got together, we chatted through some stuff. The Scripture from Isaiah 40 about everlasting God on which the song is based - Brenton was hanging on to that like a lifeline. He was believing God's promise that his strength would rise, that he would fly on wings like eagles'. We sat down together, sang 'Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord.' I sang back to him 'Our God, you reign forever.' That happened very quickly. It was an interesting process. Brenton would work for about 20 minutes then he'd go and lie down for the same length of time. I think the popularity of the song came because it is something that has depth and has an integrity coming out of real spiritual experience and not something that was written to be successful. I could go into so much about Brenton; he's an amazing guy. I've had emails from Brenton that have led me into worship, telling me about his life. I don't think there's much more to say other than we got together to write a song but actually we had an encounter with God together and people pick that up when they sing the song. It's not just a superficial thing."
So, I asked, how did the song get picked up by Chris Tomlin? "He was on tour with Matt Redman. On the tour bus Chris said to Matt, 'There must be some good songs in the UK at this moment in time,' and Matt said, 'Yes, there's this,' and sang him the song with the guitar on his lap. The story goes that on a Passion tour Matt walked into the arena and Chris already had the band playing 'Everlasting God' in the sound check so it connected straightaway. Someone like Chris is not only a great songwriter but even though he might be pitched 50,000 songs a year for his albums he can somehow recognise some songs that have something about them."
Our conversation turned to 'Great & Glorious'. How was it working with Sam Gibson (Pearl Jam, Crowded House)? Said Ken, "He's a great engineer. We produced it together and I just have a lot of respect for him. We love Neil Costello; we did a number of albums with Neil. Neil is just like a big brother to me, when we get together it's a real joy. Sam brought something new to the band."
Gav talked about how much he enjoyed recording at Chapel Lane. "It was great. We recorded our last album up in Newcastle in a church where we just set up a few rooms and everything and we got a great sound, working with Nathan Dantzler; I really enjoyed that. But it was different again going down to Chapel Lane. When we were we found out Chapel Lane and Rob Andrews had an amazing Christian music history which I wasn't aware of until then." Added Ken, "Before the first note or beat was recorded we asked Rob to come in and pray with us in the control room. He carries something, that man."
The technical end of things was exciting for Gav too. He said, "I love engineering so I learnt a heck of a lot from Sam - geeky things like where he puts microphones and how he records drums. Also there was a nice big grand piano so I was loving that because on the song 'You Are Great' I got to play on a real grand piano for the first time on a Yfriday album. Rather selfishly then that's one of my favourites on the album. The other is 'Creation', a song with some fantastic synths which I never thought I would be allowed to play in a million years on a Yfriday album. But I got them in there."
Like several songs on 'Great & Glorious', "You Are Great" was a co-write between Ken Riley and Andy Neve. Commented Ken, "My goodness, I have never cried my way through a song write before! Andy's a great songwriter. He wrote one of Shirley Bassey's hits called 'Thank You For The Years'. He's called The Doc, was a director at PRS for a while and he writes tons and tons of TV music. A great Christian guy. The verse was already written and we did the chorus together in the studio at Andy's place. I finished the lyric on the train on the way home, crying my eyes out with my arms in the air in this train carriage. People must have thought I was crazy."
The lyric pinpoints how the contemporary Church's engagement with God is often superficial. As the lyric says, "We've only touched the shallows of your deep." Said Ken with considerable passion, "We're talking about the great Almighty God, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The Bible talks about how we get a glimpse of his glory at this point in time. My goodness there's so much more than many of us have grasped. Eternity's not going to be this boring place. Eternity's going to be this place of development and excitement, of companionship with God. That lyric talks about all sufficient and powerful and yet he longs - he doesn't need anything, He doesn't need anyone. He's fully pre-existent, complete within the godhead and yet our God longs to share eternity with people like me. And you. And Gav. And the rest of the people who are reading this article. If we could get our heads round that - that God who created everything, who could snap everything out with a blink of his eye longs to share an eternal relationship with you. That's incredible."
Isn't the difficulty, I asked, that sometimes we evangelicals are better at talking about relationship as a theological truth than experiencing relationship as a day by day encounter? "Yes it is," agreed Ken. "I experience my relationship with my wife and I can also tell you about my relationship with my wife. All I can say is that I experience a relationship with God in whatever form that takes. We had a really good chat last night about a few things. Our God's a deep God and he can take a lot of things. We're allowed to talk to him quite straight. We're allowed to wrestle with him like Jacob did. We're allowed to challenge him on things. I was reading that Philip Yancey book on prayer which I found amazing. God wants to wrestle with us in prayer. We don't come to God with a wish list but at the same time we don't say, 'Okay, God, whatever you will.' Actually we're somewhere in the middle. 'We accept your will, God, but I am going to wrestle with you and take you on about those things you promised us.'"
Possibly the most ambitious lyric Ken Riley has ever penned is the co-write with Matt Redman, "You Spoke", which takes the listener on a pretty amazing journey. God speaking light into being at creation, the Wise Men following the star which led them to Jesus and on to God's glory being the only light. I suggested that this was an extraordinarily sophisticated concept to cram into a three or four minute pop song. Laughingly Ken responded, "It's not only a sophisticated concept, the syllables of the lines are pretty short and actually to get that much theology into a song took us a while! I have to say Matt is a genius. I stayed down at Matt's and I learned a lot about working lyrics that day."
Ken continued, "We played through a few ideas and we talked and said it feels like a light song - feels like a song about God's light. How we came to that conclusion I have no idea. However, it seemed quite interesting that history, mystery, eternity - Matt came up with that line. We'd just left something called the Christian Songwriters' Consultation Group. We get together once a year, a lot of songwriters, people that others would recognise, and one of the last things as we left that conference was 'Let's go out and tell the stories of God.' I went down to Matt's. We got together to start writing the song and the lines came out of Matt Redman's mouth in one fell swoop: 'They followed the star/Your guiding light that led them to you/Led them to life.' It's pretty profound. I remember going, 'Matt, type it in!'"
I suggested that "You Spoke" should be played to all those ministers of a certain age who lambaste modern worship songs for being light on theology. But isn't it true that there are far too many modern songs whose lyrics don't get much beyond "I love you Jesus"? Ken agreed. "He's not my boyfriend, He's my God. The love that I have for Him is completely different to the love I have for my wife. Unfortunately some modern worship songs are banal declarations of love. Not only that, such songs can really isolate guys from our churches. A lot of guys can sing and put their arms in the air at a rugby game but to pour out real intimacy in a public meeting is difficult for a lot of guys. What we end up doing is isolating them from actively being able to take part in worship. So actually singing about God in all his majesty, singing about the great truths of Scripture is really important. We have such an amazing heritage in terms of hymns and our great writers like Wesley, Newton, Crosby, etc, etc, surely we owe it to our modern church to fill our songs with correct theology?"
I asked Ken about his song "There On The Cross". Did he ever feel frustration in trying to communicate the centrality of the Gospel when until the Spirit's illumination comes, images of crucifixion and resurrection remain pretty incomprehensible to modern man? How are they going to make any sense to the bloke I meet in the pub? Replied Ken unexpectedly, "That's kind of the point isn't it? That it doesn't make much sense. I think if the guy in the pub understood it all he could then be a bit blasé and say, 'Yeah, whatever, I get that.' We have to communicate it in a way that there is a mystery about it. There still is a mystery about the cross. Do you fully understand it?"
Of course not, I admitted. Ken continued, "I have an understanding that Scripture has revealed, that theology has revealed. Do we really fully understand it? No. So surely we need to keep a bit of mystery. In our modern culture a guy meets a girl in a pub and within half an hour there's no mystery left. Our God's got so much mystery it's going to last for the whole of eternity. It's great that he's mysterious, wonderful, enigmatic, whatever you want to say. Great that the Gospel has a bit of mystery, yet it can meet people where they are. Let's not dumb down the Gospel message so that the bloke in the pub thinks he can understand it after a 30 second conversation. Let's give him enough food for thought to go and follow it and get to where he gets to with God."
Yet another of the finely crafted songs on 'Great & Glorious' is the track clearly not written for congregational worship, "You Will Not Steal Our Children" which Ken wrote with Martin Smith. Ken explained the song's genesis. "It was an idea that sprung from nowhere. I was driving in my car one day with my son next to me. I had a chorus, a different chorus but something similar to what was finally used, but it had this terrible tune to it, a really trite, frisky tune. I finished all of the lyric but knew that the melody wasn't right. I bumped into Martin at an event we did together called The Stand at the NEC and said, 'Martin, I've got this song that's driving me mad. I know it's great but it's not great.' I told him the lyric and I remember his mouth dropping and his eyes opening wide. He said, 'You've got to send me that lyric.' So I sent him the lyric and we got together about two weeks later. He'd done a lot of the melody by that point. I got into a room at Martin's place and probably within an hour the song was finished. Tweaked a couple of bits probably when I got home but it was a God-inspired thing. When I stumbled across the passage in the Bible where Moses is before Pharaoh saying 'Let my people go' I knew I had it at that point. I knew I had that lyric. We can sing it to whatever we feel would be out to take our children. For me, it's a declaration on behalf of my kids and the poor kids around the world who are sold into slavery."
Our conversation turned to revival and what precisely we thought that emotive term encapsulated. Ken told us a story. "I had the pleasure a few years ago of spending some time with three Ugandan pastors - they weren't young guys, they'd lived through the Idi Amin years. There's an area in Uganda that is nicknamed the Whispering Forests and what used to happen there was while the church and a lot of the people in the country were being really oppressed by the regime people would disappear into these forests on their own. Church meetings were banned. You would go through the forest and you would hear the sound of whispering. It would be people on their own praying and praying and praying. The country was in such a desperate state that the only thing people could do was pray. Now, what happened? Idi Amin's regime was wiped out, there was a bit of a revival. Then the Whispering Forests went silent and Uganda got a new dictator. He was worse than Idi Amin, destroyed more things. The Whispering Forests then became active again. This time the pastors didn't forget. When that dictator was eventually deposed they then said never again will we fall into this luxurious lifestyle of not needing to pray to our God. Uganda, in African terms, now has the fastest growing economy, a Christian Prime Minister, a lot of Christian politicians; they had a dedication to the great Yahweh God in a stadium to say we are a Christian nation. That may be revival."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.