In Britain, the phenomenon of Christian music hasn't really taken off the way it has in the US. Tight government restrictions meant that until recently such a thing as Christian radio was illegal, and so many of the main support structures were never introduced. That isn't to say there is no CCM "scene." There is, it's just much smaller than that in America. Because of this, many more Christian musicians have opted for the harder side of things and have set themselves up playing the country's mainstream pubs and clubs, searching for recognition the hard way. Operating like this has both upsides and downsides. Christian audiences are more receptive and usually politer than that in a mainstream club, but working for recognition in this way exposes bands to more competition and leads to a tighter sound and hopefully more creativity.
One such band is Flow, five Christians who have only belatedly begun to receive recognition within the Christian marketplace through a distribution deal with ICC Records, and who are determined to stick it out in the mainstream. I began by asking the band about this.
"I don't feel that comfortable with the CCM scene, in the UK at least, as it's so insular. I feel that we're working much more effectively when we play at mainstream venues and events. I know that Flow could be very popular among Christians, and we are asked to play at Christian events large and small, but our target audience is not just Christians and their friends," contributed Daren, the band's bass player who has been involved in Christian music in several forms for many years now, most noticeably in the now deceased "The Electric Revival."
"We feel that the Christian "scene" isn't where God wants the band to be, or, to be honest, where we want to be. Although there is obviously some good music produced within the CCM scene and I think we could get by quite-nicely-thank-you-very-much playing "Christian" gigs, it's not the band's vision. We appear to be getting respect in the mainstream, and I think the music stands up on its own merit. If we can be a positive influence in that arena and share something of what we believe, then that's how we'd like to move forward," is guitarist Harv's point of view. The band members have been successful in this so far--they don't preach or really share much while on stage, but they are always available after gigs to talk with the audience. Singer Ness informed me that they have had good responses from promoters who have noticed something positive in the band's manner.
The band has recently begun to mature in terms of stage presence. Its tight guitar-pop sound is very dense with two guitars (sometimes three) on top of the obvious bass and drums rhythm section, with Ness Hodge's distinctive vocals adding a strong emotional touch to the sound. Ness's decision to leave has therefore thrust the band into a time of uncertainty as a replacement is sought. Why make this decision at this time, I wondered?
"It's not that I decided to leave now, but a decision I made some time ago," was Ness's immediate reply, while Harv added that, "She'd told the rest of us before last Christmas and offered to remain with us until we had her replacement ready or until the end of this summer, because she didn't particularly want to go into the next school year and still be in the band."
The band also asked me to add that they are still seeking a replacement for Ness and that any confident female vocalists who are committed Christians and are willing to live in the Reading/Oxford area of the UK are invited to apply. When not with the band, the members all have day jobs, although they'd love to go full-time when things are more stable. Daren (bass and backing vocals) is a software engineer while Prod (guitar and backing vocals) is an architect. Harv (guitar) is a translator for the foreign office, and Ness (vocals) and Bono (drums), a married couple, are both teachers.
I asked how the band went about writing its songs. "We all submit ideas, maybe bits of music or sets of lyrics, and it's usually Prod who does the initial work of making it more like a complete song. He'll then bring this back to us at a practice and we'll pull it around and add other ideas and have a few arguments until it's finished," Harv informed me. Daren had this to add: "Some songs come together really quickly, like "Shiner," which we play live regularly. Others take ages and go through several re-writes or re-workings before they're ready. Some have taken literally years and, no, we won't tell you which ones!"
As can perhaps be told from their approach to the Christian music industry, the band isn't called to any particular "ministry." I asked Prod why the band was formed. "Well, it was a development from the previous band (Albuquerque). We were in a band because that's what we wanted to do, to make great music and hopefully find other people who like it, and put across some of the values and beliefs we have. And we wanted Flow to be better than what had gone before."
Also, the band's name wasn't chosen for any particularly deep reason, although I had trouble getting a straight reason from the band. "It's an ABBA-like combination of the first letters of the original members' middle names," was Bono's first suggestion although Harv refuted this saying, "He's lying. Ness wanted to name the band after her favourite Gladiator, Wolf, but the others were so strongly opposed that they chose the exact reverse." I heard from a more reliable source that the name was chosen simply because it was a name with a good feel.
Flow has recorded a number of songs, with a demo tape early on followed by a six-track EP, Shiner, and a full length album, Sense. The band has also recorded a few more songs for a Radio One (Britain's most prominent pop music radio station) compilation. Since these latest tracks aren't available yet, I decided it would be simpler to ask the band about Sense. I started by asking the band which songs represented them best. "Of course, the obvious cop-out answer would be to say that they all do--those are the songs that were the strongest at the time the album was recorded, and they give a good cross-section of the styles of songs we have, and the subjects we deal with. If we had just a few songs to choose though, what would they be? "Climb," definitely, as that's almost become our signature tune," answered Daren while Harv suggested "Star," "Limelighter," and "Climb." Prod agreed with this but added, "All the rest are rubbish." I know that that claim would be refuted by almost every listener to this album, which has yet to receive bad press.
Due to the lack of Christian radio in Britain and the fact that the band isn't big enough to receive much recognition in the mainstream, I wondered what the process was for releasing songs to radio. "ICC sends out the whole album to radio stations with an information sheet, which suggests a couple of tracks that they think would be suitable for the station or program," Harv informed me. The main radio station that the band's played on is called "United Christian Broadcasters," a station broadcast via satellite. We're pleased that the songs are getting played and being heard by people who've not heard of us before," was Daren's response when I asked how successful the album had been here.
I decided to finish by asking the band how the sound has developed over time (perhaps hoping for a glimpse of the future). "The sound has gotten harder-edged and more poppy. Our songwriting has gotten stronger. We play more solidly than we used to early on, which is inevitable I hope, and Ness has become an [even] better singer," Harv told me while Daren added that, "I've seen the songwriting get more focused and concise. Some of the older songs rambled a bit, but now we're better with lyrics and can make the point we want in fewer words."
Vocalist problems aside, the future for Flow is bright. After a good summer and an excellent performance at Greenbelt '97, the doors to many of the country's top indie clubs are opening for them. The band's web site can be found at: http://web.ukonline.co.uk/flow/, and they can be e-mailed at: email@example.com
By James Stewart