Phillip Hirvela for Beanbag
Interview carried out by email between late September and mid-October, 1999
By Eric Daams
"Beanbag is four normal guys brought together by God to play music." This simple description of the latest Australian act to crash onto mainstream Christian music presents a strong sense of humility before God.
Simple, however, is not the kind of description you use for Beanbag after a listen to their music. Self-described as "intense, hard, loud, groove based rap/rock/heavyfunk...mixed with the occasional melodic but weird/sweet moods," Beanbag takes after such secular bands as Korn, Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine but they are not just another rap-core band.
Bassist Phillip Hirvela (hereafter known as Hirvy), elaborates on each band member's unique taste in music. "Hunz (Van Vliet, vocals) is into styles ranging from electronica to female vocal artists such as Tori Amos and Sarah McLaughlan. Phil (Usher, drums) likes indie-pop, 60's (e.g. Beach Boys), Beatles, jazz to classical music. Michael (Mullins, guitars) listens to artists such as The Cure to the Chilli Peppers, Soundgarten and the Tea Party. I (Hirvy) like to listen to Funk (e.g. Jamiroquai, Chilli Peppers), Ben Harper, Living Color." This diversity of styles is felt throughout Free Signal, Beanbag's full-length debut on InPop Records. The album is all over the place, jumping from aggressive rapping, to hip-hop, to funk and then electronica. On first listen, this creates a feeling of confusion: Hold on a sec, I thought Beanbag was rap-core?
InPop Records sent the band to several major US festivals (including Cornerstone), where the crowds were incredibly receptive. "They were awesome. We really weren't under any pressure to do well, because no one had heard of us, but we had really good responses from many people. At one particular festival called "Spirit Song," we played before Petra and the Newsboys...we were a last minute addition so no one even knew we were playing. Anyway, lots of the crowd started getting into our music. Afterwards, we were having some dinner backstage and a festival official told us that people were lining up to get autographs and we were really blown away to see heaps of young people getting us to sign their shirts, shorts, hats, books, etc."
Those who witnessed one of Beanbag's performances during July got a taste of what fans in Australia have known for a couple of years now--Beanbag (like fellow Aussies, the Newsboys) know how to impact an audience. As lead vocalist Hunz Van Vliet states on their website, "Kids learn things about you from your songs, especially when they see you perform live. They see an honesty and realness to what you're saying, and because of this they really open up to you when you talk to them after shows. These are the times you can really impact someone in a personal way, just by being who you are."
Beanbag was formed about 4 years ago. Drummer Phil Usher joined the band a year later. Hirvy adds in tongue-and-check, "We also had a violinist." Before Free Signal, they had already released a nationally acclaimed 7-song EP, Guttersnipe, in late June of '98. For those who own Guttersnipe, Hirvy assures that the band hasn't undergone any major style changes. "Some of the newer songs are a bit more melodic but still intense. We've also got a bit of electronica, some Indian tablas (drums) and upright bass. We've always written music with groove in mind, so the new stuff is still old Beanbag, but with some new sounds and more melodic intensity."
After their signing to InPop Records--a signing which came about when Dale Bray, a co-founder of the new record label, saw potential in the band--Beanbag immediately entered Sunshine Studios in Brisbane to record some new songs. "The recording took about 14 days to complete so we didn't get a chance to take our time with (it), although we spent a lot of time on pre-production which is always important. I guess if we had more time to record, we could have had the choice to relax a bit more. We worked very fast." They included five songs off Guttersnipe, and added a couple of remixes. The album was produced by Mark McElligott (who produced for well-known Australian band Powderfinger). Despite the lack of time, Free Signal presents top-notch production. It doesn't overdo the glitz and glamour that the term 'electronica' might suggest. There's lots of distortion, lots of fat guitars, and lots of head-bangin' hip-hop/rap grooves.
They will be playing on the Newsboys '00 Spring tour. I asked Hirvy how he thought this would work--the Newsboys' music is, after all, a totally different cup of tea than Beanbag's. "I know that we'll be different to anything that a Newsboys crowd has heard before but we're not really worried about that. We feel really blessed to be going on a tour as big as this. We just want to do the best that we can and make the crowds feel a part of our show."
Beanbag's future is already looking promising, with their first single, 'Whiplash,' storming up CCM charts. 'Face I Paint' scored a spot on HM magazine's bi-monthly music sampler. They've already opened for MXPX and Jars of Clay, among others. Their success, however, has not been limited to the Christian music scene. 'Whiplash' will also be featured on ESPN & ESPN 2's shows, '2000 Winter X Games Classic White Out I & II. The show will air 7 times on each channel between late December and mid-January.
With all this already going for them, what do Beanbag hope Free Signal will accomplish? "We hope that our album can reach as many young people in the world to show them what we are about in terms of heavy/hard music. Our vision is to give an alternative message to what most of the youth in this world listen to (Korn, Marylin Manson, Limp Bizkit, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, etc.)."
The album does present a strong 'alternative message' to what's on the secular market. Hirvy explains the meaning of the title track. "'Free Signal' is about the messages or signals God gives us. Basically God talks to us to help us day to day and we have the choice to listen or ignore. God's voice/love is the main reason we have life and when you choose to listen to God you're heading in the right direction." 'Free Signal' is one of several songs that present a strong message of hope. Another is 'Whiplash.'" ""Whiplash" is a song about God's never ending love for us, meaning that his hand is holding on to us even though sometimes we fall. We want to tell people that if they are struggling in life and they ask God for help, then He will not let go of those who call upon Him."
Hirvy let me know of some
of the plans they have got for the future. "We'll be touring in the States
throughout the middle of next year for about 7 months, and we might be
working on recording a new album at the end of 2000 hopefully to be released
in 2001." Meanwhile, fans of Korn, Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine
will undoubtedly have 'Whiplash' playing at volume 10 (while they sigh
and wonder why it won't go to 11), with the infectious line "Jesus will
never let you go!", blasting through their eardrums.