|Joey Belville of The Echoing
By Linda Stonehocker and Shari Lloyd
The big complaint that old rockers have with electronic music is its lack of warmth. Sure you can dance to it, but machine operators whose personalities mimic the instruments replaces the humanity of good ol' rock 'n' roll. The Echoing Green's creator, Joey Belville, is bridging this chasm. On a stage where conventional rock instruments and musicians crowd the deceptively small sound machines, he warmly greets the audience and urges each to introduce himself after the show. When the beat cranks up, it isn't long until he gets everyone, even the computer geeks, moving to the music. His invitation to his dear friends to party, to join in celebrating the joy of the Lord is irresistible.
Belville earned his smiling, compassionate persona the hard way. Most young people complain of a terrible home life. He actually lived it. At age eight, the death of his mother cost him the last buffer between a normal childhood and his father's nomadic career as a racehorse jockey. He changed schools fourteen times before admission to a Christian institution for "troubled boys" in high school where his conversion to Christianity started to counter the ill effects of his trauma-packed childhood.
He discovered his means of artistic expression through music in college, but this nine-year veteran of the Christian recording industry has yet to see a similar triumph for his recordings. His first album, Defend Your Joy, was recorded in 1992 for Blond Vinyl, but the record company's precarious financial status prior to declaring bankruptcy prevented its release. In 1994, Frontline Records bought The Echoing Green contract and introduced him to the world. Aurora, a remix project, and Hope Springs Eternal quickly followed, fulfilling his contractual obligations just before Frontline went out of business.
Now signed to 5 Minute Walk Records, The Echoing Green kicked off its first tour with the label the night Shari Lloyd and Linda Stonehocker spoke with Joey. He isn't a great interviewee. He is so friendly that conversations rapidly degenerate into the chit-chat of dear friends, even with those he's only just met. Still, it is a fun and lively world that this veteran musician inhabits and invites us into. We begin by hearing the story of the worst professional gig of all time.
Tollbooth - A cake-walk?
Belville - A cake-walk.
Tollbooth - A real cake-walk with cake?
Belville - A real cake-walk with cake.
Tollbooth - A cake-walk with live entertainment.
Belville - Yeah. It was just a bad, really bad scene. I look at it like it was a gift from God because no matter how bad any other show after that seems, it was always better than the cake-walk.
Tollbooth - What was wrong with it?
Belville - I'd just recorded the Defend Your Joy album, and a youth pastor of a friend of mine had a fundraiser to raise money for the children's ministry. A very noble cause, a really cool thing, right? They wanted to bring in a band to help them get people there for their cake-walk. Well, I met with the sound guy the day before, and the New Mexico state fairground was maybe ten miles away. He says, "When we get the sound up, they're going to hear us at the fairgrounds." And I was like, "Well, alright, okay."
They had been playing us quite a bit on the Christian radio station. I expected they would use our name to help promote their cake-walk to bring people in and raise money for their thing. They didn't do that at all, not even a flyer. It was just announced in their church, and nobody came but people from their church.
We get there, and the "big sound system" was two little speakers on a stick. (Laughs). It was scorching hot, and we're on this flattop with a little tarp over us to keep the sun off, and then there's another tent where the cake-walk's happening.
Okay, time for concert, right? I'm ready, we're set. Do the concert, we're just going to make the best of it, you know, praise the Lord. So we get up there, and the organizer gives me this cup. I said, "What's this for?" She says, "Here are the numbers." I said, "Numbers for what?" (Laughs) She told me, "You have to stop in the middle of each song and call these numbers out." I said, "You're joking?" She said, "Oh no, you're doing the cake-walk!" So there I was singing, "Defend your joy--number 33, number 33." No one was there to see us. No one even knew who we were! There was no crowd in front of us; they all stayed in the tent. I'm trying to talk about a song, and they're all shouting, "Call 16...call 24."
We were supposed to be paid on a love offering basis. I thought, well at least we might get a little something so we can go to the movies this weekend or something. I finished and went to the youth pastor lady; and I was just about to tell her that that was our show and now might be a good time to call for a love offering. As soon as I shook her hand, her husband jumped up and said, "Let's give the Echoing Green a hand--they played absolutely for free!. And if you guys really like 'em, we might just bring 'em back next year." (Laughs)
I couldn't believe that happened. But the cool thing is, like I said, no matter what kind of show, no matter if only two people show up, it does not make a difference...any show rocks over the cake-walk show. That was a blessing in disguise from the Lord. And I can look at every show we have as just something beautiful and wonderful, because it could have been a lot worse.
Tollbooth - What projects are you currently involved in?
Belville - I do a lot of remixes on the side for an underground synthpop label called A Different Drum. They're just on the Internet. I remix bands from Sweden and other places. It's so funny because a lot of times they don't sound too good. First off, a lot of these foreign bands don't have the best command of the English language, and then singing on pitch is another story. So I have to try to work magic to make it sound good and put this cool beat under it.
I'm also doing Science Fiction II, the Electronica Project. That's an altogether different project than my self-titled project for 5 Minute Walk. It's going to be pretty much all songs. 80% of my fans say, "Gosh, we really love Hope Springs Eternal. But the other 20% want the synthpop back, the more mellower pop, pretty melodies, a little more 80's-esque, kind of just minimal synthpop. This CD will go out pretty much to all non-Christians. To me it's really important as an outreach. That will come under the Echoing Green name, but it's picked up by A Different Drum label. It will be distributed in Germany by Oktober Records.
Speaking of Europe, I shot a video last spring, "Oxygen," in Prague for 5 Minute Walk. That was the highlight of my spring, going to another country. I'd never been to Europe. That was just amazing and beautiful.
Mainly I've been making this new record for Five Minute Walk. It is going to be self-titled. It's going to be really different. You'll still be able to tell it's an Echoing Green record, but it sounds nothing like Hope Springs Eternal. I didn't pull a Mad at the World and go heavier on guitars; I actually pretty much ditched the guitars on this record. I'm not ticked off enough to do music like a Prodigy. I'm just not mad enough, I can't do it. But the big sounding beats production is definitely a big part of this record. It's a full-on dance record, but not dance in the same old boring way. It's got a lot of substance to it, and a lot of attention was paid to detail. I have a live sitar on the album. The pastor of my church just happens to play sitar really well.
Tollbooth - Who else is helping you out on this record?
Belville - I hooked up with Jerome Fontamillas from Fold Zandura. He's just a cool cat. "We've been friends for a long time. Jerome has been on tour with me before. He played keyboards for me when I toured with Joy Electric. We called that the "Disaster Tour," because that was when everything was flooding. We'd show up and find out, "The venue's gone!" (Laughs)
Tollbooth - At least it wasn't a cake-walk.
Belville - Exactly. These guys in a band called Deep Sky are also contributing. They've done remixes for me in the past. They're on a secular label called Fragrant. They did the theme song for MTV's techno show called Ant, and I grew up with the main guy in the band.
Tollbooth - Did you know a change in sound was going to be necessary to go somewhere with Five Minute Walk?
Belville - Yes, I did. This was kind of a prerequisite and not a bad one. We thought about changing the name and starting over from scratch. But what's the use of changing the name if you have to say "formerly known as" all the time? This album is self-titled because I think it describes the new Echoing Green direction.
I always like to change my sound a little. I want the writing to be recognizable, but I want the production to always be different. It had to be a full-on different kind of record.
You'll still be able to read the lyrics and listen to the song and say, "That's Joey." And the songs will be able to stand alone with an acoustic guitar. It's great that kids can say, "Hey, you guys jam," but it's more important to me when people say, "that touched me." That part of The Echoing Green is still in the record.
Tollbooth - Do you think it is simply the nature of dance to keep evolving and the sound to keep changing?
Belville - Yes, it definitely is. I couldn't release Aurora or Defend Your Joy now, no way. Even Hope Springs Eternal is getting dated; you always have to move with the style. The big challenge for me is, because it's dance music, it's very easy to overlook it and say this music has no personal substance. It's just beat and production, and it makes you feel good, and you jump up and down, and that's it. Just because of the nature of the music, that's something I'll always be up against. That's why I always try extra hard so a listener can dig into the music and still find something. I own records that are really cool to dance to or really cool to have when you're working out, or just on in the background, but you would never kick back and pop them on with headphones. I want a record that will do both. I want it to be just as interesting to listen to as to move to.
You know what? I'm just having a really good time with life right now, I just have to tell you that.
Tollbooth - Good. Why do you say that?
Belville - I'm a pretty happy person. I wasn't always a happy person, but God's brought me through a lot. This year has been a very exciting one for me. Signing to Five Minute Walk is obviously a big transition and a big step up from where I used to be, but it's been a really big personal year for me in that I've grown up a lot. I am probably the most happily married man on earth. I love my wife more than anything. And it's cool that my job is to be a kid.
Tollbooth - Play at your work?
Belville - Yeah, but I'm starting to realize that I'm an adult now (laughs). I'm going to explore some different themes lyrically than what I've been writing. I've done the healing thing, and I will always have little touches of that in my music, but I'm going to try to go a little different now. The really cool thing about my marriage is that I don't really have the big need to sing songs like "Ambler" anymore, because all that time that I had felt was lost has been restored to me with my marriage and my wife. This was God's present to me.
Everything makes me laugh. I make me laugh. I just can't be real serious. It's a ministry enough to be able to make someone smile. If I did that by making someone laugh, or whatever, then I did something good, in my mind.
Tollbooth - And now, life is good?
Belville - Life is really, really good. It surprises me. Sometimes it's not so good, but lately it's been really good.
But you know what the weird thing to me is? The weird thing to me is that my songs are very serious. It's not that my humorous self is some kind of facade or something, because it's not, but I think the music is actually my chance to kind of bare my soul a little bit. Every song I write sings to me first. Each song is about something that God has brought me through, and usually the song got written when I was going through something just awful.
I'm not making lots of money. It's still an adventure to figure out how I'm paying the rent at the end of this month, but it's not really why I do this. I used to let myself be influenced into thinking that maybe I was wrong. Success is having a number one CCM single and opening up for the Newsboys. Then I woke up and said, "No way. That sucks. I don't want to do that."
I want to be that tape that someone gives to their friend who's bumming out. And that friend writes me and says, "Hey, it did something for me." Or when I get a letter from someone's parents. . . I got a letter from someone's mom saying, "I don't really put my nose into what my kids listen to, but one day I decided to go check out their tapes, and they had your tape in there, and I just want to thank you for being a part of my child's life." I've gotten letters from people who were going to commit suicide and someone gave them my tape--"My wife left me, it was over, I was ready to give it up. Someone gave me your tape, and I've been having this song on repeat for so long." What do you say to that? That's very humbling. That reminds me that I am so out of control of this music. I have such a higher responsibility, and I have to be a good steward of this stuff because God does so much with it. It just reminds me of how I can't mock it.
Tollbooth - What is the secret to your live shows? Why are they so different from other dance bands?
Belville - What I like to do at every show, especially a show where there's a lot of fans, is to let them know that I'm there with them personally. I'm not there to perform for them in the sense of "Hey, watch me." It's more like, "Hey, I'm here to share with you guys and hang out and make you feel part of this cool thing that's happening."
Tollbooth - I know. You get all the computer geeks dancing.
Belville - That's a challenge.
Tollbooth - I was in shock to find myself jumping with you!
Belville - That is so cool. Well, I'm kind of a geek, too, you know what I mean? The only difference is that I dye my hair and jump around. That's kind of a challenge, though, because everyone just likes to be real intelligent and kick back and just kind of watch it and evaluate it. If I can get someone to get out of that and just let go, I did something cool.
The cool thing is I have my die-hard fans, which are largely Internet-based. My mailing list is out of control. It's great. I like that. I like the fact that I have friends that support everything The Echoing Green does. Sure, you can call them fans, but I honestly like to call them friends. I like to talk to people, I like to make myself accessible. I'm not a rock star by any means. I wish was cooler, but I'm just not. (Laughter)
Tollbooth - That's the coolest cool of all.
Belville - I'm hoping that's the case. The fact that I'm not cool will hopefully make me cool.