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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
and off-roading with Gabriel Wilson of the
by Greg Adams
Working musicians are quick to deconstruct any romantic daydreams about life on the road, especially when they are in the middle of an unfamiliar upper Midwestern city or, conversely, when they are curled up on their own couch back home. Road weariness is a major hazard of the traveling rockersí profession, a heavy factor that musicians must weigh when they consider the burden or blessing of their mission.
The Rock N Roll Worship Circus is about to embark on their spring tour, which includes a number of dates with UK giants Delirious?. After being on the road for two years promoting both Welcome to the Rock N Roll Worship Circus and shortly thereafter, A Beautiful Glow, Circus lead man Gabriel Wilson admits the band is becoming more choosey about when and where they play.
I spoke with Wilson at two points during the last few months, the first this fall at coffee shop in Brooklyn Center, Minn., a few weeks into the _Beautiful Glow_ tour with Stereo Motion and Seventh Day Slumber, and then phone just after the turn of the new year when the Circus was on respite in their hometown of Longview, Washington. Heightened expectations and a concern for maintaining the Circusí true identity were weighing heavy on Wilsonís mind in both settings.
Friday, Oct. 17, 2003 : Brooklyn Center, Minn., just prior to the Beautiful Glow tour stop at Heart Alive
After buying me a hot chocolate and a cup of tea for himself, Wilson suggests we set up in a back corner of the coffee shop where a living room-style lamp illuminates two comfortable chairs. He curls up his legs and leads us in prayer before settling in to sip his hot tea. The interview glides along more like conversation than questioning. Wilson is a talker, an interviewers dream.
Greg Adams: In the liner notes for Big Star Logistics, which are a music fanaticís dream, by the way, you indicate that your main goal is to move Godís heart with your music. How can you tell that is working?
Gabriel Wilson: Thatís a really solid question ... and I honestly canít give you a concrete answer, except that I know that He is with us ... Gosh, this is a hard one. You nailed me with a zinger right away. ... I know that He is with us, and I know when this peace settles in the room, and thereís absolute silence, and people are mesmerized by the presence of God. I just go, ďMan, we did it.Ē
My mom always talks about that to me. She says, ďSon, realize that when you get up on stage, and the Lord decides Heís going to move, He fills that room with His presence. The only thing that has to do with you is just your obedience to do what Heís called you to do. Never take ownership of that; never think that thatís your thing.Ē Thatís what I get guided by now.
Adams: I just finished The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. Thereís a passage that reminded me of your music. An artist has died, and heís talking to one of the guiding spirits. The artist says he canít wait to paint heaven. The spirit explains, ďThe success of your painting [on earth] was that it enabled others to see glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself.Ē What aspects of heaven do you think youíve captured and are able to show other people through your music?
Wilson: Very few, and not enough. ďThe UndiscoveredĒ was a rare glimpse into heaven, but Scripture gave us that glimpse. More than anything, itís the feeling from that particular piece of art, that particular song that overtakes people as they hear it. They sense God in a way that they havenít before, almost like a fear of God. I think thatís the biggest aspect, for some reason, that weíve ever been able to convey. We hear that about ďScary Drifter,Ē ďThe Undiscovered,Ē even ďAll I Can DoĒ -- that same sort of awareness, the omnipresence and powerful nature of God. In fact, that may be the only thing, and all things probably stem from that -- that awesomeness of Gods love and his beauty and how overwhelming that is in our life. Iím very humbled that God would choose to do that, because weíre just singing songs.
There is this amazing power in prayer and worship. All the stuff that we bring into church with us, and all of the filters that we see the Lord through, and all the weird angles and mindsets and theologies just seem to strip away. The one common denominator is this beautiful, amazing, loving God. If thatís all they ever see when they see us, then, wow, thatís amazing.
Everything is rooted in who God is. Thatís what weíve been able to show people. Itís really not even us, itís just that weíve given him a vehicle for it. Weíve provided an atmosphere in which all the crap in our lives can melt away, and people have an opportunity just to lift their hands and praise the Lord and hear his voice, maybe.
And again, I donít know why God chooses us to do this, because he can do it with anybody. But I hear more often than not, ďThis is the only time this has ever happened in my life, and Iíve gone to so many other concerts, and Iíve been to so many churches.Ē I just go, ďWow.Ē For these people, why did God choose for that to happen with us?
Adams: For some people, worshipping live with the Circus is likely a mountaintop experience. What would you encourage them to do to carry that home and continue that?
Wilson: Iím amazed that it could be a mountaintop experience. If it was, I know itís the presence of God. Those things happen because thereís a lot of time taken for prayer during our set. They happen because people are choosing to interact with Christ.
People slow down when they come to our shows. They just stop and have to listen to Christ. I know that in my life, I can go, ďOh, Lord, speak to me,Ē and Iím doing other stuff, and itís about as empty as empty can get. And then thereís the times when I just slow down and stop. I say, Iím tired of fighting this, and I donít move until I know that I know Iím linking up, or like uploading to the Internet, or whatever. Itís just the weirdest thing but thereís this moment of connection that you have, this moment of interaction in faith with Christ thatís so crucial. It can be accessed anywhere at any time. Maybe weíre just making people aware of it, but itís not the Worship Circus. That moment usually happens when people pray at our shows. Or when theyíre choosing to say, ďIím going to really mean what I sing tonight,Ē or ďIím just going to sit here and listen to this music thatís wrapping around me, and Iím just going to talk to God and tell him how I feel.Ē Thatís that interaction and that mountaintop experience.
Iíve always seen mountaintop experiences as pretty scary. The road feels to me like the Valley of the Shadow of Death. To me its, ďThough I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will not fear, for you are with me.Ē Itís positive just to look around this Valley of the Shadow of Death and realize there are so many things that can overtake us and envelope us in this industry and this position that weíre in. Itís positive just to look around and go, ďOK, yeah, I wonít fear, because here You are with me here. You are! I just had to make sure.Ē Kind of like a kid whoís walking too far ahead of their parents and they look behind and realize, OK, dadís still here!
Adams: How has this tour compared to other tours, since this time youíre the headlining band? What sorts of things have changed for you?
Wilson: We have a lot of financial responsibility. For instance, nobody likes to talk about this, but if promoters flake out and weird things happen, weíre responsible financially for these other bands, and weíre the ones that take the hit. If everything goes amazingly well, and 2,000 people show up every night, then weíre the ones that stand to gain from it.
If we have a $2,500 show, which is about the average, it gets split up like this: $500 goes to the booking agent for his 20 percent fee. That leaves $2,000. Weíve got to pay Seventh Day Slumber $600 just so they can break even. That knocks us down to about $1,400. From there, we pay about $150 or $250 to Stereo Motion. After that, management gets their commission; that knocks us down to about $1,000. After managementís commission is our tithe. After our tithe, we can start paying for the bus lease, we can start paying payroll for our sound guys, payroll for us, payroll for our merch person. As long as everything goes OK, weíll break even. We wanted to do this so badly. Thatís kind of a scary position to be in.
The spiritual side of it all, even the natural side of stuff has been amazing! This is the fun-est tour weíve been on. The bands have zero rock star attitude. They are so easy to work with, and everybodyís in it to win. They just want to see lives changed.
A lot of times, we get asked to do altar calls, and Iím really horrible at it. My altar calls are not very compelling. Theyíre certainly not very inspiring, and they almost never work. I find that more people get saved when we donít do altar calls than when we do. Thereís an authentic salvation experience that can happen as people find the Lord. Iím better at that. But on this tour itís been really cool, because Seventh Day Slumber gives one heck of a mean altar call! Itís awesome! There have been so many kids getting saved! So Seventh Day Slumber does that, and that allows us to lead worship and people have found the Lord. So we say Stereo Motion will rock you, Seventh Day will lead you to the Lord, and then weíre going to lead worship afterward. Itís rad! Itís amazing.
But itís weird headlining your own tour, too. Iím amazed that weíre doing it. I donít think that we should be. Technically, by CCM standards, you donít want to headline your own tour until you can get a good 800 to 1,000 people there every night. We knew that we probably wouldnít get more than 300 to 500 a night, and thatís about what itís been. But we wanted to go do our own tour. Weíre like the ugly girl that never gets asked out on any dates. You know, Newsboys, Audio A, and Mercy Me weíre labelmates with Mercy Me, and we donít get invited to go out with them. But they love our band! Itís all management interplays and all these political moves. Everybody thinks that the Circus isnít right for their format, and maybe weíre not. So the ugly girl just decided to go ask her own dates out! Thatís the way it is for us. [Laughs.]
Itís weird that itís not a worship tour, and thatís a whole story in itself. Everybody has a tough time believing that what we do is actually lead worship. They have a tough time figuring out how it works. Maybe itís not for everybody. Iíve noticed that when we do go to lead worship in a mainstream venue, when there are other worship bands around, like a Chris Tomlin or somebody like that, typically people will hang back, especially when weíre not the headliner, because they know that in the next set thereís going to be something thatís really easy for them to latch on to. So theyíre not going to try real hard for us. It takes trust to be built up before you can ever lead anybody in worship, and I understand, because Iím the same way. So we thought, letís go out with some rock bands because it seems to be more effective. And it is. Who knew?
Adams: Are you playing mostly new material on this tour?
Wilson: We do half and half and this is the first time weíve ever run a set list, or at least a loose set list, because we have to with the video stuff. Off the new record we do ďBeautiful GlowĒ and ďLove ColourĒ The video interacts with the set. Itís not just video images that play in the background. The videos will talk right in the breaks of the songs. We wanted to make it a lot more than just a media-enhanced thing, we wanted it to be interactive with the set. It makes it pretty fun to do. I know that U2 did something like this with Zoo-TV, but a lot of kids have never seen anything like this before. They donít know quite what to do with it -- especially when it comes to Jesus footage. It bends their mind a lot.
Adams: What have you seen in your travels that gives you hope and strength for the current state and future state of the greater Body of Christ?
Wilson: Iíll go back about six months [to] playing church services and youth group services. Iíve been amazed. We go to a Calvary Chapel on the West Coast, and we go to a Baptist church in Texas, or another denomination in Michigan, and all of them are preaching the same message. They all take their own particular bent on it. Weíve been amazed at how week to week to week how many times weíll hear the same passage of scripture taught. I donít think itís because theyíre getting their sermons off the Internet. God is just speaking. He is talking to his bride. Itís slow-steering and slow-moving, and sometimes it takes a while to get culturally relevant, sometimes itís behind. But when it comes to things that arenít cultural, when it comes to things God is saying, Iím amazed at how close together they all turn -- like a flock of birds with one leader. Itís expanded my world view of the church. That gives me a lot of hope.
Adams: At my church, we have a Blessings Bowl, and during the offering, people can jot down the things they feel most blessed with. What would you put down as your blessings?
Wilson: My wife, Blurr, is a huge blessing. One of the biggest blessings I have is the people that I play with. Zurn has been the only drummer Iíve ever played with. Heís 40, and heís so rockiní, and he loves God. Heís like my spine. Heís the guy that when Iím too tired to lift up my arms, he lifts them up for me.
Iím really blessed to have Eric, too. I didnít realize this about him, but heís such a worshipper. Watch him tonight when he plays, youíll freak out.
Theyíre amazing, theyíre so humble. Theyíre my friends. I donít tour with business partners, I tour with friends, and I tour with my wife.
I feel really blessed to have my church. Considering how much time weíve spent on the road and how little weíve been home, our town has stayed extremely connected to us. Every time I go back, I donít feel disconnected at all. Iím very up-to-speed on everything because we get called and pursued so much. People are praying for us a lot, theyíre always making mention of what weíre doing. Those are my biggest blessings.
Iím a very relational person. I would even say the guy that I have working for us, Clint, who helps me road manage, he runs the house -- a great sound guy heís the hugest blessing in the world. I rely on him totally. Again, this is a friendship.
Adams: How long have you and Blurr been married?
Wilson: Five and a half years.
Adams: I know the road is a tough life. What has the road done for and to your relationship?
Wilson: It has caused us to build this inseparable bond. We donít do well having a day apart from each other. Iím so used to being with her. One time she flew home with Eric and Zurn while I mixed some tunes out in Nashville. Four days later I came home -- that was a really hard one. It just doesnít feel right.
On this tour, in order to break even, we can only have one hotel room every night that we have off, and contractually we have to give it to our driver. So Blurr and I sleep with everybody else every night. There is no moment alone. Then on days on, weíre driving through the night. So when do you have any privacy with your wife? Iím not even talking about sexual privacy -- even just the kind when youíre unwinding and talking to each other about things and ask, How are you doing? Where are you going to steal a moment away? Finding points of connection -- finding time to steal away with each other has been really challenging, especially on this tour.
Then if itís a van tour, then youíre driving in a van all day. I donít want to go there itís awful!
Sometimes you start to wonder how much of a marriage do we really have? Is it more like a friendship? Are you just one of the guys in the band, and am I just one of the guys in the band? Or is there something thatís way deeper? Weíve talked about that; what if she had to stop, because we had kids or just didnít want to play anymore? How would the marriage work then? Ultimately, though, our marriage is the better for it. It does get challenging, but any marriage is challenging; thatís the thing.
Fast forward several months to the beginning of 2004: January 14. Time to reconnect with Wilson to find out whatís in store for the Circus this spring
Adams: Give me a recap of how the tour went?
Wilson: In general, from the Beautiful Glow tour all the way to the six dates we did in Europe was the most fun Iíve had since the Circus started. Some of it was because we werenít in a van. [Laughs.] We got to rent a larger rig -- it wasnít a bus, but it was still much better than trying to sleep on a bench seat in a van.
It was nice doing the video show again. We started out doing that back in 2000, and just couldnít tour that, because it takes more people than our van can hold. It was great to use the technology and video imaging as a veil to hide behind [laughs] and let it overshadow us and take over sometimes. Where people like to be entertained by a band, they got to be entertained by these images instead.
The bands were wonderful to tour with. There was relatively no conflict. There was not a whole lot of ego. We were all just trying to work toward the same goal. Any differences we had were worked out really, really fast just for the sake of ministry. However, I will say that it was an eye-opening experience showing us again how much we donít feel like we fit in to whatís going on. Seventh Day Slumber is probably one of the most ministry-oriented bands in Christian music right now, and still it was always interesting to try and segue from a powerful rock show into a worship time and try to get people focused in that direction.
We have to play up the rock Ďní roll side of things in order to grab peopleís attention and then pull them into worship. Itís so different when you go to a venue where everybodyís there for one reason; to move the Lordís heart.
One of the fun-est shows that we had on the tour was the last show. Because of the routing, Seventh Day Slumber and Stereo Motion werenít able to make it, which we were really bummed out about, but it was a thousand-mile jaunt. It was weird to end the tour without them.
A guy on an acoustic guitar opened up for us with 20 minutes of normal, corporate worship songs. Then we went out and it was rad because everybody was already there, and it just continued.
Thatís no knock on Seventh Day or Stereo or anybody, but we fit in more with the acoustic worship leader guy than we do with these bands. Weíre a weak entertainment band. That could be a false perception, but the worship places are where we fit most.
Taking that and bringing it full circle into Europe was pretty interesting. It was really cool and made us want to be one of those bands thatís really huge in Europe and no-names in America. Europe is so stinkin cool! The culture is cool, and, I donít know how to describe it -- they just get it. We fit in there much better than we do in any part of the Midwest in the United States of America! [Laughs.] We played everything from Winter Wonder Rock, which is a Christian music festival in Holland, to a small coffeehouse in Ireland for about 50 people who were crammed into a place about the size of a normal master bedroom. We played in Switzerland in a couple of pubs, and that was an amazing time. There were probably only about four or five people saved at those shows, because there were only about 50 people at them. Still it was great, and youíre around people who really arenít saved, and it was actually easier in those environments to do what we did than even when were in front of a group of Christians who donít want to worship with us. We didnít have any expectation for anybody to participate, so we could just cut loose and go for it. If they didnít like us, then they just continued with their drinks and smoking and hanging out with their friends and using us as background music. There was no expectation for us. People were enthralled and were engaged well with us. It was a great experience. Then we went up and played a couple times at Christmas Rock Night in Germany. That was amazing. The biggest language barrier was there. I think there were fewer English speaking people in Germany than there were in the other European shows that we played. Interestingly enough, that was the most powerful times of worship that we had. It was cool.
Adams: So whatís been going on with you guys since then?
Wilson: We got back and ... [laughs] ... I donít know. We just got back and plugged back into church, and I realized how much Iíve missed it. Iíve reunited with my friends. I jumped back into the studio with Solo, my little brother, and weíve started producing together again. Weíd been away from each other for a whole year, and thatís the longest itís been since he was 8 years old! He and I are working in the studio.
Mostly Iíve hunkered down and tried to plug back into the stuff that makes me ME. I think everybody is. Zurns really loving spending time with his girls -- his wife and his two daughters.
Weíve been gone for two whole years! I feel like I lost two years of my life towards the ministry, because it certainly wasnít for money or anything else. [Laughs.] Are we ready to make that level of commitment again this year? The obvious answer was, No [Laughs.], absolutely not! You just canít keep running at this pace. So weíre thinking about how we can be smarter about touring. Where do we like to tour? Where do we not like to tour? Hasnít it just been stupid taking every gig that comes in rather than actually just going where our vision is welcomed and accepted? Now financial survival isnít the issue as much our own sanity and our spiritual survival. Weíve been praying a lot about when to start another record and how to start it and what to do on it.
Weíre not a very celebrated band by any means, but Iíve even gotten tired of us and even gotten tired of seeing magazine ads for us. I donít know if Iím just tired of us or what we do or peopleís perception of what we do. I need a break. Iím burned out. Itís not like I hate what we do, because I really love it!
The band really isnít playing a lot. We played on New Years Eve. Weíve continued to lead worship at the local churches here and churches around the Northwest. Weíll come in on Sundays for a normal morning service.
Itíll be me and Zurn and Blurr and The E, and weíll grab Solo and grab Soloís dad to play bass and Blurr will sing. Weíll grab a sax player or a keyboard guy -- whatever -- a whole bunch of people from our church just to plug them all in and reattach to be the church.
Itís not like leading worship has been the bummer as much as I think weíre burned out on the machine and on the grind of touring and playing the same old songs and begging people to worship with us. I got back in September before we started the Beautiful Glow tour, and I was already really tired. Zurn and I kept saying, ďMan, wouldnít it have been great if the spring was the start of the tour?Ē We were already exhausted in September. I was going, ďLord, I need vision. I need you to renew my vision.Ē
And the Lord said, ďIf you donít know where youíve gone, then go back to where you started from.Ē That was a really pointed word spoken directly to my heart. OK, where was that? Iím so far into this that I canít remember! [Laughs.]
Adams: So you guys are going to be pretty selective about tour dates this spring?
Wilson: Yeah, we are, for the spring. Our summer schedule is filling up like crazy, and it will be the most fun, Iím sure, and the most demanding summer schedule weíve had. But this spring, weíll just be playing on certain weekends. Solo and I are working on four or five different records so weíre plugging into different projects, getting our heads out of the Circus and more focused on other artists and building them up and helping them out and helping them find their sound. Solo and I are [finally] going to build our own studio. Weíve been collecting gear for quite a while. So many people ask us to produce, itís getting to the point that we can build our own room now. Heís building a new house, and weíre building a studio onto it. Itís pretty cool weíre very excited about that!
Go to www.worshipcircus.com to follow the RockíníRoll Circus on an on-going basis.