If Only
By James Stewart

The growth of a band can be a curious and difficult thing. Moving from the initial enthusiasm--through the tough periods of working on arrangements and disagreements about musical direction, to the point where the band works as a unit on stage, in the rehearsal rooms, and in the recording studio--is a journey that comparatively few bands manage to navigate. I have been privileged to watch the growth of a U.K.-based band called If Only as they moved through these stages, to the point where their debut album It's All Gone Very Orange has now been released and they are becoming increasingly in demand as a live band. I recently met up with the band members to look back over the past few years and this development process.

The current line-up of Sam Hargreaves (lyrics, music, vocals, guitars), Nic O'Brien (vocals), Maff Gaylard (bass), and Ray Driscoll (drums) has been together for a few years now, but in the past the band has had various other members. I asked Sam how the group started and developed. "In '93 we went to Spring Harvest as a youth group. We'd already gotten fired up to do something for God but we weren't really sure what. We recognised music as a relevant art form that we could use to communicate. So we started to get together a few of our own songs and some praise choruses and stuff. 

"At first we were pretty bad but people encouraged us and helped us and basically we learned our instruments as we went along. I'd only been playing guitar for about six months and the drummer had never played before, but we muddled through. We went through a lot of line-up changes as people who weren't really committed dropped out out, and eventually it was down to four. We changed bass players in August '96 and really haven't looked back since then."

Since changing bass players, the band certainly have developed a lot, and recording an album helped them to become more focussed. "Recording the album helped us nail down the arrangements of songs and encouraged us to practice so that we could pull it off. Vision wise, it gave us something to promote and something to send to prospective gig organisers, although we had the vision for evangelism way before the album. It made us feel a bit more like a real band and tested our faith (and patience) as we waited for the finance and all the silly little details."

As If Only often seem to talk of being a ministry-based band, I asked how they would define that ministry. "Ministry is a difficult word.  I see a ministry band as one who makes the gospel its priority and sees all efforts, whether that be rehearsal, travelling, or expense being put in for the sake of the gospel, not for the sake of fame, fortune, or musical greatness. Basically, the gospel is the point.  Practically, this means a ministry band must, by definition, make the gospel of Christ's death and resurrection clear to its audience. A ministry band has to strive to live a life which is honoring to God and must make time for people to talk to them and be prayed for after gigs. A ministry band must follow God's lead in all aspects of its life."

This is a fairly controversial area, and the band and I have often discussed whether Christian musicians are required to preach the gospel wherever they play. I asked Sam whether he thought that all bands made up of Christians have to be "ministry bands". "No, not necessarily. Being a musician is not a calling; being an evangelist is.  If you are called as an evangelist and you use music for that calling, then you are a ministry band. But being a musician can be a job, so not all Christian musicians must minister in their gigs. They may evangelize in a different way.  A good example is a session musician who makes his living out of playing but doesn't blantantly share the gospel. My biggest problem is with non-ministry bands who are not called to evangelize but use the Christian market as an easy way of breaking into the music scene.  They shouldn't be booked for outreach gigs, though those gigs are easy."

Being in ministry requires some sort of pastoral oversight and the band has this in the form of Chris Wood, who was one of the driving forces behind the band in the early days, and who encouraged the members to be more critical about their music. Chris also introduced them to respected Christian music manager Dave Williams of Meltdown Records (Dave has been involved with bands such as Gethsemane Rose and Seventh Angel). Meltdown runs an annual conference for fans of more alternative styles of music, with live shows from a few of the top British alternative bands and a couple of American speakers, as well as seminars and instrumental teaching sessions. Last year the featured Americans were Dan Fritz (Johnny Q Public) and Doug Van Pelt who gave If Only's album a very positive review in HM. There are rumours of a Metldown USA. Watch this space.

Musically, the band has a wide range of influences, some obvious, others not so. Nic is very influenced by female-fronted groups, from the Cranberries to Garbage; Ray listens to a variety of bands; Sam is very fond of Sixpence None the Richer, and he and Maff are big fans of Marillion and King's X. The biggest influence, though, is Radiohead, and it is this group which unites the band. With regard to influences, Sam has often said that he thinks it is important that a songwriter listen to as wide a variety of music as possible.

With If Only's album receiving positive coverage, especially in the U.S., and the band's live reputation growing, I asked where they saw the future taking them. Sam had the final word: "If we stay together as a band, I'd like to see us in more pubs and secular venues, and I wouldn't mind going overseas as foreigners can have a big impact. I quite fancy recording a tape which we can give away free, with a song from It's All Gone Very Orange, a new track, a couple of acoustic tracks, and maybe Nic's testimony at the end."