May 27, 2013
By Peter Munro
Australian Christian bands are on cloud nine at the moment, with high-charting albums and plenty of worshipping fans.
Christians rock in Toowoomba
Thousands of young Christians descended on Toowoomba in April for Easterfest, which bills itself as Australia’s largest Christian music festival.
Video – Demon Hunter
Storm the Gates of Hell is the fourth studio album by American Christian heavy metal band Demon Hunter, in which they rage and roar about broken teeth and iron fists, the wrath of God, holy days and hearts soaked in gasoline. The title track calls on the listener to “raise your glass to death” and “stand before your final day, choke on every line you pray”. It’s stirring stuff for fans from within the church and beyond. The US Navy Seal who claims to have “blasted bin Laden” said recently he was wearing a Demon Hunter patch when he pulled the trigger on the terrorist leader.
Members of the Seattle metal band look like you might expect, with crew cuts, bushy beards and wardrobes in several shades of black. But to promote Storm the Gates of Hell, which was released in 2007, they posed for photographs in white clerical collars. Lead singer Ryan Clark, the actual son of a preacher man, has the word “fear” tattooed on the fingers of his right hand and “hope” on the left. Drummer Tim “Yogi” Watts has a tattoo of the Bible inked into his arm and “calm down” inscribed between his knuckles. [See TATTOOS – MAKING THEIR MARK – post on this site)
When Watts, 35, is annoyed he uses words like “butt hole” instead of swearing. While speaking to a crowd of young Christian head-bangers at Easterfest, Australia’s largest Christian music festival, he recalls the time he saw a girl thrown about the mosh pit with her nose thoroughly smashed but a beatific smile across her bloody face. “I’m in constant communication with the Lord,” he says. “I know this is what I was supposed to do.” At Easterfest, that means raising hell for Jesus. Also performing over the Easter long weekend in Toowoomba, 1 1/2 hours’ drive west of Brisbane, are pop artists, hip-hop homies, boy bands, jazz bands, funk bands, gospel singers, indie acts and instrumentalists. The town and nearby Darling Downs area are big notches in south-east Queens-land’s Bible belt, and home to various churches, religious cults and the Cobb & Co Museum.
Rocking it: the lead singer of Demon Hunter.
The line-up of more than 200 artists at Easterfest shows how far contemporary Christian music has moved from the organ and church choir. This year’s headline act is 2013 Grammy-award-winning rapper Lecrae, who stands on a stage on Easter Sunday in his big-brimmed cap and baggy shorts to preach to his “light-skinned cousins” that “things are not always as they seem”.
Filling the three-day festival’s big tops, cafes and clubs are more than 20,000 lovers of God and godly music. Smaller Christian music festivals in NSW and Victoria, such as Black Stump and Forest Edge, also attract crowds in the thousands.
Some Christian artists are also scoring mainstream success on music charts, commercial radio and reality-TV shows Australian Idol and The Voice. Their sound is loud, lively, big on Jesus and, increasingly, big business.
Songs of praise … (from left) Alexi Collins of Sydney band Tigertown at Easterfest, and American Christian rapper Lecrae.
In the US in January, singer-songwriter/worship leader Chris Tomlin became the second Christian artist since last September to top the Billboard music chart. Back in 2008, Christian metalcore band As I Lay Dying was nominated for a Grammy – unfortunately, its front man, the heavily tattooed Tim Lambesis, was this month charged with allegedly trying to hire a hit man to kill his wife.
In Australia, the Hillsong megachurch has sold more than 13 million worship albums. In March, the latest Hillsong album topped the Australian charts (their second No. 1), knocking off Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and entered the US Billboard chart at No. 5.
Driving such success are the growing ranks of the young and faithful. On Good Friday, they gather en masse in Toowoomba’s Queens Park, buying rubber wrist bands saying, “Many are called, few are chosen.” Out back, in The Jesus Tent of the Supernatural, Reverend Dr Edgar Mayer is healing the afflicted of chronic back pain, skin disease and demonic possession.
Rock my soul … (from left) Ryan Clark, lead singer of Demon Hunter; a worshipping crowd at Easterfest.
Six paramedics are on hand at the Demon Hunter gig, in case of religious stupor. The big top smells of cut grass and teenage boys. The lead-up act is Melbourne Christian metal band Mortification, whose lead singer, Steve Rowe, rails against self-obsession and music piracy.
The members of Demon Hunter are huddled in a circle off-stage, their arms around each other and heads bowed in prayer. Later, I spy a short girl in a low-cut singlet, with dark, shiny hair and her eyes closed in some kind of ecstasy, as lead singer Clark, 33, hollers about religious redemption.
In an open tent nearby, about 100 people are watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ on a big screen, including a young man dressed as Pikachu. As Jesus is nailed to the cross, a man in the crowd puts his hand to his mouth in shock and several young women start weeping. In the corner of the tent, volunteers serve organic chai tea.
Outside Easterfest’s soaring entrance tent, young basketball players shoot three-pointers for Jesus. “Arms in the sky if you’re feeling really fly,” calls a cheery young Christian as I enter.
Inside, merchandise stores sell albums and T-shirts, $4 wooden crosses made by leprosy sufferers from Chiang Mai and spray-on crucifix tattoos. A bookstall boasts titles such as Refuting Evolution and Alien Intrusion.
By the Divine Doughnuts stand – where the Good Friday special is “coconut bounty” – is a Telstra booth selling online music subscriptions. Officious young people wearing “Chaplain” lanyards queue for coffee and the bands’ PR managers have names like Hope and Grace.
At a question-and-answer session, a member of indie band Tigertown, which has featured on Triple J Unearthed, assures the crowd that God loves them no matter what. “He just loves you, even if you’re untalented and not smart.”
Performers must adhere to a code of conduct that they dress “decently” and abstain from alcohol, illicit drugs and profanity. “Five or six years ago there was a situation where one of the young bands felt it appropriate to spend time with some groupies after their show,” says organiser Dave Schenk. “That band never played at Easterfest again.”
On the main stage on Easter Sunday, thousands of people sway in the pelting rain with their eyes closed and arms thrust to the sky in salute to the Lord as a singer repeats the word “Jesus” over and over. In industry slang, I am told, such songs are known derisively as JPMs, or “Jesus’ Per Minute”, where artists repeatedly reference the son of God to boost sales.
The irredeemably cheery lyrics are attractive to young people. Contemporary Christian music is more sophisticated than the “happy clappy” songs of the 1960s and ’70s, but the themes are the same: life is good, you are special, God is terribly busy and important yet is looking out for you.
Smiling and crying near the stage is Chantelle Wilks, 24, her body shaking, her hands clenched and her mascara running. “I just love our Dad, He is so good. When I think how amazing He is it moves me to cry because He is so beautiful.”
Excuse me, I say, did you just call God “Dad”?
“I also call him Poppa,” Wilks says. “He’s not like our earthly father. He is Poppa, He is Daddy, He is good and all He has is good stuff for us.” Wilks wears a leather jacket hoody over a T-shirt with the slogan, “I am a warrior.”
On stage, the singer is promising “to take back all the enemy has stolen”. “There’s an army rising up,” he tells the crowd. “We are the revolution.”
Interfaith expert Gary Bouma, a professor of sociology at Monash University and an Anglican priest, ties the popularity of such music to the growth in evangelical or “charismatic worship” churches. “Presbyterians say, ‘Come and hear a lecture about the church’; Pentecostals say, ‘Come and meet God’. I sometimes describe it as aerobic Christianity: you are going to come out feeling better,” says Bouma.
“It is an opportunity to perform, it’s an opportunity to jam with your friend … I think the whole guilt-trip thing in Protestantism and Catholicism is so unpalatable people walk away from it now; it doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t make sense.”
Pentecostal congregations grew about 30 per cent in the decade to 2006, according to the National Church Life Survey, largely on a groundswell of young believers. In 2011, the survey found, 46 per cent of practising Pentecostals were aged 20-39, compared with 15 per cent of practising Catholics and 20 per cent of practising Anglicans.
Standing on the median strip of Toowoomba’s main drag with a megaphone is Dave Wenig, warning passers-by against the temptations of rock music. “I believe it’s devil’s music,” he says.
“I believe the devil uses that to make people do things they wouldn’t do.”
But in Queens Park, an eager crowd of young worshippers is listening to Melbourne-based pop rock band Evermore under the Big Top, while rain buckets down from the heavens. The audience stands in the mud and sings along. “You’re the best singers we’ve ever had, for real,” says keyboard player Peter Hume. Band members and brothers Peter, 27, and Jon, 29, are the sons of a youth pastor from New Zealand. They are lean and polite and their band is sufficiently popular to open for US singer Pink during her recent tours in Australia and Europe.
We sit down for an interview in the Easterfest performers’ “green room”, by the bain-marie.
“All love songs take on an element of worship, whether it’s worshipping a girl or money,” Peter says. “Previous generations believed you had to be bad to make good music – that doesn’t exist any more.”
Jon says many people underestimate the need of teenagers to believe in something bigger than themselves. “Sometimes our culture thinks all they care about is Facebook and getting drunk,” he says. “But I think there are a lot of kids out there who ask big questions and want big answers.”
He recalls watching audiences clamour to be close to Pink, who is “almost like their saviour”.
“We all naturally want to look up to someone or something,” he says. “I guess in our society today those people are musicians, like Gods in a way.”
Christian musicians make up about 3 per cent of the music industry, according to the Australasian Performing Right Association. But this counts only those artists who nominate “gospel” as their chosen genre.
Christian record label chief and booking agent Zenon Els, of Encounter Presents – which organises tours by Christian musicians – reckons Christian albums make up about 10 per cent of total sales. “You can’t make a living off that at the moment,” he says.
Complicating matters further is the fact that many popular contemporary artists – such as Mumford & Sons, U2, Justin Bieber and local bands Tigertown, Evermore and New Empire – profess strong Christian beliefs but studiously avoid the “Christian music” label, in part to maximise their mainstream appeal.
Indeed, while Evermore’s lyrics make veiled references to metaphorical long roads, guiding lights and the great unknown, their JPM count is conspicuously low.
Rock band New Empire, whose new video single Relight the Fire has had more than one million views on YouTube, holds a secret gig in a cafe during Easterfest that attracts so many fans the band can’t fit in the door.
A week or so later, I meet lead singer Jeremy Fowler in a small studio in Kingsway Community Church, in an industrial park in Sydney’s south, where he is recording the band’s third album.
He has blond hair; torn, stone-washed jeans and hi-tops, no socks.
New Empire’s song One Heart/Million Voices was heard by millions of Australians last year, when it became the official anthem for Channel Nine’s London Olympics Games coverage. In July and August, the band will again tour the US as part of the Vans Warped Tour.
Fowler, 27, sees himself as a musical missionary of sorts. “I feel like we have been called to be a light in the mainstream,” he says. “On the Vans tour we saw all the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
For us that’s kind of where we feel like we’re needed a lot. One thing Jesus said was ‘Who needs a doctor, the healthy or the sick?’”
Temptation comes in many forms: corporeal and financial. “There is a constant tension between faith and business,” Fowler says. “We need to make a living to survive. If I want a song to go to radio then I’ll make sure it’s not longer than four minutes, because radio just won’t play it.”
We talk about JPMs and how mainstream pop songs are churned out like cans in a factory. I ask him to make up some mock Christian lyrics on the spot, which hit all the right cliches for commercial appeal. He comes up with: “Jesus, I give you my whole life, I surrender all to you, have your way in me.”
That sounds almost pornographic, I say.
“Yeah, that’s a different way of looking at it,” replies Fowler. “But obviously we’re talking about the heart here, not the genitalia.”
Hillsong is among the most successful music factories in Australia. The church has released almost 60 albums since 1988, more than half of which have gone gold. In 2011, the church’s operating revenue increased 5.6 per cent to $67.8 million – a spokesman won’t say how much of that moola came from album sales.
More than 30,000 people attend weekly services across Hillsong’s seven main Australian “campuses” in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. On a recent Sunday afternoon, I attend a service at the church’s headquarters within the sprawling Norwest Business Park in north-west Sydney. Six people greet me at the front of the auditorium, so many I don’t know where to look.
On the stage inside, two organists, four guitarists and at least half a dozen singers are bouncing about on a stage while chanting: “Victory! Victory! Conquered death, set me free.”
A pastor jogs up to the crowd of more than 3000 worshippers and says: “Is everyone excited to be in the house of God tonight.” It’s a statement, rather than a question. Everyone is very excited to be in the auditorium, which, with its tiered seating, big screens and bank of television cameras, is closer to an entertainment centre than a church.
Between songs, black buckets that look like flowerpots from Bunnings (which has an outlet nearby, praise the Lord!), are passed along the rows of seats to collect tithes. Senior pastor Brian Houston, who has a surprisingly strained voice for a preacher, stands on the edge of the stage to defend Hillsong against accusations it cares more for megachurches than the poor. The afternoon service ends with another singalong to “Victory! Victory!”, as if the battle might have been lost somewhere along the way.
The church has cleverly matched its musical offerings to several key demographics. I meet the church’s music producer, Steve McPherson, at a coffee-shop outlet near the chapel so he can run me through them: Hillsong Kids, which he says sounds like Hi-5 or the Wiggles; new band Young and Free, which has a pop or dance sound for the tween market; and Hillsong United, which is louder, edgier, grungier, for late teens and 20-somethings.
Hillsong International Leadership College produces a continual stream of new singers, songwriters, sound recorders and camera operators. The music is largely repetitive and reductive, but then so are most popular tunes. The songs remind me, not unpleasantly, of shopping centres: bright and shiny and consumer friendly. The repetition of lyrics makes them easy to remember and recite. The vocal range is middle-of-the-road, which helps many people sing along.
Macquarie University associate professor Mark Evans, author of Open Up the Doors: Music in the Modern Church, says such worship music is typically risk-averse. “It’s massive, one of the biggest music markets in the world,” he says.
“But in a musical sense it gets very samey, very quickly. Church music, if you go back centuries, used to be the height of musical culture. Now songs are structured the same way: verse, chorus, verse, chorus.”
Christian lyrics tend to be less about social justice issues than the artist’s personal relationship with God, Evans says. Steve McPherson calls this “vertical music” – a personal appeal from a man to God (“horizontal music”, by contrast, is one man telling another man about God). “We actually try to write as many vertical lyrics as we can so that the individual standing in church actually gets to have a moment in worship,” McPherson says.
Hillsong lyrics are vetted by a pastor for theological correctness before release. Listening to Hillsong United’s No. 1 album Zion, I count 25 mentions of love, 15 of the heart or hearts, 13 of Jesus and nine of hope. The word “sin”, by my reckoning, is mentioned only twice. The music is unashamedly positive, rousing and, as I discovered, quite good to jog to.
“The largest live music scene in Australia is the church,” says McPherson. “There are by far more musicians playing in churches than there are in pubs and clubs every weekend.”
Mark Evans argues the “Hillsong sound” – “bright, contemporary, victorious Christianity” – has crossed geographical and theological borders around the world, meaning it plays well in churches of any denomination or location. Indeed, it’s difficult to distinguish the music produced by Hillsong from other local megachurches such as Planetshakers, in Melbourne, and C3, in Sydney’s north.
In a sound studio at the main c3 campus in Oxford Falls, I meet the church’s music director Ryan Smith and singer Dan Korocz, who give me a short lesson in constructing a contemporary worship song.
“That’s probably one of the hardest things in the world,” Smith says. “We might come up with a theme – ‘God’s unconditional love’ is a classic example. Then we start with a chorus.”
Smith strums his guitar in the key of F and sings in a soft voice: “Unconditional, unconditional, You have saved me, You have loved me.”
Korocz joins in: “Your love is relentless, Your love, uh, uh, uh, uuuhhhhh, love is relentless.” Then Smith: “Love is amaaaazing.”
Rhyming words always help, he says. “A lot of people are quite ‘Christian-ese’ about it, where you use words like ‘mercy’, ‘consecration’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘crucifixion’ .”
What rhymes with crucifixion, I ask? They think for a while.
“If it was crucifixion, you could rhyme it with ‘His love we’re in’ ,” Smith replies, finally.
“Or ‘salvation’,” Korocz adds.
This article originally appeared in Good Weekend. Like Good Weekend on Facebook to get regular updates on upcoming stories and events – http://www.facebook.com/GoodWeekendMagazine