NRT's Bill Lurwick catches up with Newsboys' drummer Duncan Phillips, talking about the new album, Born Again, the new lead singer and the staying power of the band.
Genesis, Petra, Van Halen. They all did it. Many legendary acts have introduced a new lead singer amidst their career without missing a beat. So when Newsboys announced that dc Talk vocalist Michael Tait would take over for exiting front man Peter Furler--after a natural period of surprise--the band and its fans alike began to relish the positives and possibilities of this fresh start. And all signs would point to a phrase loaded with creative and spiritual significance that has become the title of Newsboys’ 2010 album, Born Again, which released June 8, 2010.
Of course, Tait hardly needs an introduction. While newsboys charted 25 No. 1 pop hits, sold six million records, and helped Christian music gain mainstream acceptance, dc Talk was doing the same with GRAMMY-winning sets like Free at Last and Jesus Freak. Combining the strengths of these two groups now is clearly good reason for excitement.
“I can’t believe Michael was available,” says drummer Duncan Phillips of the soulful dreadlocked rocker. “His vocal range and style allow Newsboys to musically explore avenues we haven’t in the past.”
“Tait is great for us because he’s a real team player and brings a lot of enthusiasm to the mix of personalities,” explains guitarist Jody Davis, who also feels a sense of rebirth, having rejoined newsboys in 2009 following an earlier ten-year membership.
“We’re all getting a new lease on life from this,” believes keyboardist Jeff Frankenstein. “The core of the band—-myself, Jody, and Duncan-—is reunited. We all first joined at the same time. And now we get to work with Mike, an amazing singer. It’s providential. Looking back, I couldn’t see things happening any other way.”
NRT's Bill Lurwick chatted with drummer Duncan Phillips about life in the born-again Newsboys, including the frontman switch and the new album.
So let's talk about Born Again. There's been quite a lot of anticipation and curiosity around this release. Are you sensing it as well?
Well, it’s arguably, in my mind, one of the best records that Newsboys has ever released. I’ve been with the band for nearly two decades now and recorded many records, and I think this one for me is probably one of my favorites.
On this record we really chased the art rather than just say, “Well, we are the Newsboys and we can write all our own songs.” I think with this one we just said, “Look, we don’t care who writes the song. We just know that it’s gotta to be great.”
One of our songs came from Atlanta. There are some big pop song writers down there in Atlanta. So, we’ve really wanted it to be the best kind of collaborative effort that we could put together. We knew that with Michael coming on board, we had to make a statement. Of course, Michael coming on board is a big statement in itself, but we knew this record had to be great.
It had to be because if it was just as good as the others, we felt people would have said, “Well, okay. They’re alright, but they’re just trying to extend their careers." Our mindset was not like that at all. Our mindset was that this is a brand new version of Newsboys. This is Newsboys 2.0.
A lot of people say, “Well, you’ve had so many changes.” Well, myself, Jeff Frankenstein and Jody Davis have been a part of this thing for just a little under two decades. As far as the core of the band, the core sound of the band, it has remained the same for nearly two decades. So we’re very proud of that of course. I don’t think many bands get to have a career for two decades.
We’re very blessed and very fortunate to be in the position that we are now. This record is probably the most modern, the most current sounding record that the Newsboys has ever done. Although saying that, obviously it’s still definitely Newsboys.
When Mike came on board, was it refreshing to be a band again? Like you said, it's Newsboys 2.0. How does it keep happening?
Well, I think if you’re a man of faith you believe in God. I believe God has had His hand on this thing ever since I started. I remember when I first saw the band play, 25-plus years ago. I wasn’t there right at the beginning, but I remember thinking to myself the hand of God was on this thing and I really don’t think that’s changed.
For whatever reason, when our Creator does bless something or smiles on something, He doesn’t take it back for the most part.
I’m convinced that Jeff Frankenstein is the genius behind the group--besides you, of course. What do you think?
[Laughs.] I think Jeff Frankenstein and Jody Davis are both geniuses in their own right, but they get none of the props. It’s the more flamboyant ones maybe like Michael and myself who are the noisier ones. We’re the more extroverts. We seem to get a little bit more of the props for the most part, but I’m telling you the Newsboys have the depth of talent that goes way beyond just the lead singer or just the drummer.
There’s a depth especially within this record that we could not have obtained without guys like Jody and Jeff. So, they don’t seem to get much credit, but I’m telling you man, they’re such a vital part of what we do that it wouldn’t be the same without them. I totally agree with you. They’re both geniuses.
Let’s talk about some of the songs that are on Born Again, and about the process of choosing songs for the album. How does the whole thing work?
Well, obviously the songs have to be great, number one. As I said before, we didn’t care who wrote it. I don’t care if my grandmother wrote it; as long as it was great, we put it on the record. We really wanted to do this because we wanted it to be really fresh and there’s so many great songwriters out there. I think maybe our songwriting style got a little stale, for lack of a better term.
You can definitely tell all that’s moved forward. Structurally and musically, the Newsboys sound is still there. It’s just an updated version of that.
Talk about some of the songs on the project. Can you first talk about the song, “Impossible?”
Well, “Impossible” is probably one of my faves. This song was written by a team down in Atlanta that've had quite a few top 10 or even No. 1 top hits. So they had this song and it was kind of a love song, but it didn’t quite fit us. We really loved the song though and we knew that Michael could sing it really well. That was definitely one where we really wanted to [demonstrate] Michael’s singing ability.
Before, we were probably a little bit more linear in our vocals, but when we brought Michael over, we wanted to push him. Not only did we want to push ourselves, but I know on this record that Michael was pushed. He said more than he’s ever been. It’s a new thing for us, but the way Michael sings it, it’s almost like the song was written for him.
So, we made a few tweaks here and there. We made a few lyrical changes and I’m very proud. It could be one of those songs that become people's fave after they buy the record. They’ll buy the record because of “Born Again” or “One Shot” or “When the Boys Light Up” or something like that, but then once they get the record and listen to it, “Impossible” could come that “track nine.” For me, that was always my thing; when you bought a record back in the day, you bought it for the hit song, but then track nine became your favorite.
Absolutely, and that’s the way it is with great projects. No throwaways on there.
The thing is, I really hope people do buy the record rather than just buy singles. I know it’s become very much in style and fashion and vogue to just buy singles, but I really feel that the listener ends up missing out on some of the finer parts of a record. I know especially these days the kids are so single-driven, and there are even a lot of artists now that aren’t releasing albums. They’re releasing singles to radio and I can understand why they’re doing it; why go and put all this money and effort into writing 10 songs when people are only going to buy one or two and if they don’t buy the album, you’re not going to get paid on them anyway. So, what’s the point?
I also think you're losing some of the art in the process as well, aren’t you?
Absolutely, because every song is not necessarily a radio-friendly hit song. Like I just mentioned, it can be a song like “Impossible” or whatever it might be that is something that fits more comfortably at the back of a record. Once you go a little bit deeper into the project and you pull that track eight, track nine, track ten. It happens to me all the time. They become your favorite songs because they go a little deeper. They’re maybe not quite so radio friendly, but they become your favorites.
A whole new generation is going to get hooked into what you guys are doing.
We played Winter Jam this year and it was such a pivotal thing for us to do because I think our demographic had been getting a little older. I think from all the research, the biggest demographic was 35 to 45, which is fine. That’s great. These are the people that first started with the Newsboys when they were kids and now they’re 20 years older. That’s absolutely fine, but what they’re seeing now in their market research is there’s been a huge swing, a huge turnaround from that 35-45, now to 18-25.
It’s such a big swing in the last nine months. It’s really stunning. It’s been this huge kind of turnaround. We have a fan base that’s been around with us for two whole decades and now we've had this huge kind of infusion of new blood or new excitement--new buzz--whatever you want to call it.
So, now all these kids that kind of knew us, but weren’t really into us are experiencing the Newsboys. The great thing now is I believe that we’ll keep the 35 to 45 year-olds. They’ll want to bring their teenage kids to see the Newsboys and they can both party with the Newsboys. So, I think it puts us in an incredibly strong position going forward.
On tour, it appears the spinning drum kits are back.
You know what? We’re working on it. We’ve got some other goodies we’ve been working on feverishly as well. It’s brand new technology for Newsboys. If you know anything about the history of the band, you know that we love theatrics. We love the art and now, for the first time ever, we’re going to release a new production that I know absolutely and definitely has never been used in our industry before and very, very seldom in a mainstream market. It’s looking a lot more like a MTV award show rather than if you played with cans and smoke and all that stuff. If you play in the day or if you have wind or anything like that, you don’t have a show, but with this new LED technology it doesn’t matter when you play. You don’t need any smoke. It can be windy. The wind just blows through this stuff.
Now, I know you guys are heading to Baja here again soon. You’re partnering up with Teen Mania once again. Talk about that a little bit.
That’s something all the band's incredibly passionate about. When we used to go down to Baja some years ago, we used to go down riding motorcycles. We saw this incredible need and we just got started getting engaged down there and inquiring about how we could help. We actually met a guy down there called Baja Bob. An awesome guy. Absolute nutcase, but I think sometimes God uses nutcases to do His work, and this guy is amazing.
He is a salt of the Earth, rubber hits the road kind of a guy. He goes down there and for many years has worked with the people in Baja and we wanted to know how we could empower him. So, through the branding of Newsboys we partnered with Teen Mania and Global Expeditions to go down there. We’re going to go down there with 2,000 kids and build over 200 to 300 homes. We're building an entire community!
We’ve got permission from the government. We’ve got all the clearances. We’re going to build a hospital, a school and a fully powered church. So, not only is it faith driven, but we’re going to put a roof over people’s heads, food in their bellies and we’re going to establish it all around a faith driven society.
So, it’s really stunning for us. We’ve been doing this for a long time and I think you start to think about your legacy as your getting older. I just want this to be a part of our legacy. Our music will live on forever, hopefully, or for as long as we’re around. But we want to leverage a brand and use what we do to the fullest-—to make people aware and go down on missions trips, to build something there that will actually change people’s eternities.
If you just look at someone and say, “You need Christ,” they may know that, but it’s in the way that we say it that matters. Sometimes it can be the very act of putting a roof over someone’s head and food in their bellies that can actually make them very receptive to what you have to say. It’s a little harder that way. It’s tougher. It’s a lot more work. A lot more effort. I believe that’s what we’re called to do. I think if we can, we should. I think that’s what we’re called to do. We’ve been very blessed with so many things over the years.
Now, does that mean I’m going to go 100 percent, into full time missionary work? No, it doesn’t, but what it means is I’m going to still remain and do what I believe I’ve been called to do, but if I can help in any form or fashion, if I can direct people to do that and even if it’s just from the point of awareness of what’s going on down there, come down with us. We’re going to be there. We’re not tradesmen, but we’re going to take some time out of our time.
Don’t talk to me about being busy. You have no idea. I have a wife, three children and I’m in a rock band that travels all over the world all year long. You’re not, for one second, saying that you're too busy because I could come back and give you ten busy arguments. But we need to take ourselves out of our situations for a little bit of time, and nine times out of ten you come back more blessed than the people you’re working with down there. It’s an incredible win-win.
Well, we wish you guys the best, as always. Born Again is a tremendous project. Best of traveling mercies to you guys on the road and always a pleasure, Duncan. Thanks for spending time with us, man.
Well, thank you so much.
Bill Lurwick, the voice of NewReleaseTuesday.com's weekly New Christian Music Podcast, has been in radio since 1989 and is currently heard on KJIL in Dodge City, KS.
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