The Phantom Tollbooth

Ronan "Rojo" Johnston of Emmaus
Noyes Cultural Arts Center
Evanston, Illinois
May 5, 1997
By Linda T. Stonehocker
Photos by Shari Lloyd

The message on my answering machine sounded desperate. "Linda, you've got to help me turn out an audience! I've got fourteen people, including a baby, headed this way. They're a band from Ireland called Emmaus. Their U.S. booking agent did them dirty and now they're touring hand-to-mouth in a twenty-year-old Winnebago that's about to break down at any minute! The thing is, they're really good musicians, about to make it really big, if they can just survive long enough to be noticed." Welcome to the "All Over the World Tour."

When we walked up to the venue, there she was, The Mother Bubba Ship-an aged monster of an RV missing several bars in the front grill, with a large equipment trailer in tow. The passenger's side had two-by-fours bolted to it for structural reinforcement, and a young lady was hanging baby cloths to dry on a cord strung across the back.

Lilting Irish accents directed the set-up inside the auditorium. On stage, next to his keyboard, setting up mics for four singers in front of a percussion rack that included a much-dented garbage can and several brake disks, was Ronan "Rojo" Johnston, the mastermind behind this rollingcaravan. He left his pre-show responsibilities to sit down and introduce himself and the band/community Emmaus. As he explained his background, it became clear why this tour wasn't quite the crazy idea it first appeared to be.

"Basically, my background is I write music for MTV, I do music for TV, film, and sound. I was signed with Warner Brothers, did a tour of the States twice with a band called the Black Velvet Band. We supported 10,000 Maniacs and various other people like that. So I've done the secular thing before, and I really feel that it has great value in the sense that in the secular world they do it so well. My real desire for a Christian band is to do it as well, with as much cutting edge.

"For this tour, we say it's like the Partridge Family. This is like having a community on the road. There's fourteen of us, eight in the band, and six more people with us-two people who are wives, one of who is crewing and one is just looking after the baby. We've also got a driver, manager, and
soundman. That obviously changes the whole feel of what we're like because it's not very rock 'n roll when you have a baby with you. It's very domestic and similar to what we're like at home with our little community of fifty people.

"There were certainly ego moments in my previous experiences touring, but there was also terrible, terrible isolation and great loneliness. This is definitely a much, much better way to do it. We know each other really well. We've really only started this rock 'n' roll thing for two years, but the community has been building for ten."

Rojo couched all his answers in such spiritual terms, I wondered if this is a musical tour or a mission trip. "Well you know, it's a rock 'n' roll tour, but the Lord has spoken to us and given us the sense that it's really a mission trip. Although it was set up as a music tour and everything about it has the externals of rock 'n roll, the Lord just seemed to want it to be more."

Shortly after arriving in the U.S., Emmaus shopped for a distribution deal in Nashville, Tennessee during the Gospel Music Association's annual convention. Known as "GMA Week," this perennial event gathers virtually everyone involved in the Christian music industry.

"It was very interesting for us to come to G.M.A. First of all, being from outside the culture, it wasn't intimidating to us because it didn't mean anything to us. We didn't know any of the bands, we didn't know any of the acts, and we weren't aware of any of the people except people atthe very, very top who've already crossed over.

"We found the whole G.M.A. thing a bit of a circus, to be honest, and we were glad to be away from it, in the end. But having said that, we found amazing things going on and met so many cool people who really love Jesus, who are doing really good things. What really got my heart was seeing a lot of young kids, eighteen or nineteen years of age, just signed, just in the door, and they were so intimidated by that experience. We tried our hardest to reach them."

Emmaus came away from Nashville with exactly what they were seeking-U.S. Distribution. "We were looking for distribution rather than anything else. Basically, we're distributed by a Christian label here, a secular label at home, but we have our own record label which means we're in control. It suits us better. We don't really want to be too beholden at this stage. For instance, if the Lord should say, "Off you go on missions, go to Africa," the record company can't turn around to you and say, "No, we've got a tour for the next two years." I'd put up with that from a secular label, I can't really put up with it from a Christian label. They're supposed to be listening to the Lord, and I sometimes wonder if they do."

We touched briefly on their music, a blend of europop and alternative rock with occasional excursions into acappella praise and worship by their coed singers. "They call it slightly alternative here but, to me, it's just real rock 'n roll. People have said, 'You have a certain Celtic feel to what you do,' but I can't hear it. Compared to Iona, we don't, but compared to something else, we probably do."

Writing Christian lyrics has proven to be challenging for this MTV Europe employee. "A secular band has more tools. They can key into the despair, and they can key into the rage and the anger and all the rest. It's not to say that we can't take those elements, but we have to find a way through it; and sometimes that can be kind of alienating. That's the biggest problem that Christian musicians have. Their subject matter is simply alienating to the widest group, even when they're being subtle. I think songs that have too much hope can feel saccharine to the vast majority of people, so we have to be very careful.

"A relationship with Jesus allows a huge breadth of emotion, as witnessed by the Psalms, but there's a kind of a rigidity within contemporary Christian music that will not allow for anything but smiley, happy people. That's not fair. Well, mind you, we're from outside it anyway, so it doesn't really matter. And we're not really looking to succeed in that particular market.

Despite their fatigue, tight funds, and worn out vehicle, Rojo had total confidence that the grace that had brought them safe thus far would surely lead them home. "To do a tour like this might actually have been the very best thing we could do because we do many small venues and really bond with the audience. We become everyone's favorite secret. There's no splash, there's no hype, there's no nothing, and already there's this buzz everywhere we've been.

"We put everybody onto our Email list, and we fire out touring news. There's been a tremendous networking going on our behalf by other people who really liked what we did. So in a way, the Lord had a plan, which was kind of separate from what our plan was. Although we've been beset by a number of disasters along the way to do with the gigs, the RV, and some financial stuff that we were a little bit messed around on, God has seen us through. We've been trying to be faithful and pray, and He's been very good. We have plummeted to the depths, and we have risen to the heights. It's been a merry roller coaster these last three weeks."


The "All Over the World Tour" sojourned another two and a half months in the U.S. before returning to Ireland. New friends and supporters helped out, and The Mother Bubba Ship held up, thanks to a continuous stream of new parts and duct tape. Click here for the band's own account of their misadventures and triumphs.

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