The Newsboys are as high-profile as it gets right now for The Phantom Tollbooth. They've been performing and recording in the United States for ten years, and while they weren't very good at first, making every mistake possible including secretly using music and vocal "tracks" in their shows, they've succeeded. That success is bankable; the current tour has one million dollars invested in the production.
Interest in the Newsboys among CCM's intelligentsia began two-and-a-half albums ago when the band started collaborating with writer/producer Steve Taylor, moving away from the synthetic glitz of electronics into more conventional guitar-based rock. Their message benefited from Taylor's incisive word play and the Newsboys' mission brought focus and clarity to Taylor's silliness. As we learned during an interview with band members Phil Joel and Jeff Frankenstein, the Newsboys are not simply Steve Taylor clones, but an autonomous group of individuals with their own idea of purpose, fun, and the future.
Tollbooth - Let's start out talking a little bit about the tour. How is it going?
Frankenstein - It's been unbelievable. This has by far been the best tour we've ever had, as far as attendance. Our show was always pretty psycho, and this is the show we've wanted to do but never really had the budget or the time to put together. We've been able to just put all these crazy ideas into one show.
Joel - We've managed to have a lot more production. We actually ride down on these things; there are the lights on the bottom that spin around, and they look like space ships coming down.
Frankenstein - There were a lot of technical things in the show that we weren't used to dealing with--video and all kinds of stuff. We only had three or four days of pre-production, and we hadn't even done a whole show with all the new stuff. For the first show, we just went out there and winged it! Ever since then, we've been getting into the groove. There is a lot of timing involved between the video and the guys playing; it gets pretty crazy.
Tollbooth - You said you are touring all the time. What accommodations to normal life do you make on your tour to make things a normal as possible for you?
Frankenstein - It's kind of weird because for us touring has become normal life. I've been in the band over three years now, and we've been on the road almost the whole time.
Joel - We've got bikes.
Frankenstein - We take out bicycles, dirt bikes, whenever we have a day off, and ride in some forest out there somewhere. Thankfully, we're all really good friends in the band. If we didn't have that, it would make it really hard, but fortunately, everyone in the band gets along; we're all accountable to each other and have a good relationship. With six of us, you can always hang out with someone different every day. If we were a three-piece, we'd probably get sick of each other a lot quicker.
Tollbooth - Aren't you all at the stage where you are starting families? Do you have homes?
Joel - Kinda. Yeah, we have homes. Our lead singer John has a little girl who's three. Our manager, Wiz, who has been with the band right from the beginning, has got two children. We're all married now except Jeff.
Tollbooth - How long do you travel at a stretch?
Frankenstein - The way we like to do it is go out Thursday through Sunday, or Thursday through Monday, and then have a couple days off. But in the fall, we were out pretty much three months straight; and so far this year, we've been out pretty much straight. But starting right now, we're doing weekends again, so we can have a couple days at home, a few days to work on the album and spend time with the family, and whatever.
Joel - We're starting to write. We have a studio on the road with us, and that gets brought in every day. We're just jamming out tunes and getting ideas and formulating the flavor of the next record now. We're definitely looking at making a bigger record the next time out, and hopefully it'll dwarf the success of this record, which has just gone gold.
Tollbooth - Is Steve Taylor going to be producer again?
Joel - We don't know. We're not really that far enough down the track to be looking in that direction yet.
Tollbooth - You are obviously creating new ideas and laying them down.
Joel - Yeah, that's how it's been with every Newsboy record. Steve has come in, in the past, towards the end of the record. We'll just see how these songs turn out.
Tollbooth - And pass it along to Steve for an additional verse or two as you have need?
Frankenstein - We haven't written any lyrics for the new album yet.
Joel - Possibly. We may finish all the songs, but we can't say. It's still up in the air.
Tollbooth - You mentioned video in your show. I wanted to ask a little about your movie, Down Under The Big Top.
Joel - We spent a few weeks last year filming a movie that Steve Taylor had written with the help of the band. It's just a Monkees type thing. I don't know how to describe it.
Frankenstein - We just wanted to do something different. Every band puts out their video package, and it's always: "OK, here's the band backstage, here are the band's videos"; it's all the same. We asked, what could we do that would be different?
Joel - Especially in Christian music, you spend thousand of dollars, but you never get to see it. There are no video shows out there that are really catering to who we need to be catering to. We took the opportunity to do something a little more intellectual and put money that would otherwise be spent on three videos and stretched that into a movie.
Joel - I don't know if anybody likes it .(laughs)
Frankenstein - We're convinced that it's not very well liked.(laughs)
Joel - Our parents like it.
Frankenstein - It's good, we really love it. If you're a fan of the band, you totally dig it; if you don't really know the band, there are so many inside jokes that it's hard to get.
Joel - And because we're not movie makers, I think we made it a little too personal. The jokes are kind of subtle, very similar to the way we relate to each other. I think people expect us to be different than that. Maybe we're disappointing in real life. (laughs)
Tollbooth - Did you follow the script closely, or was there a lot of improvisation?
Joel - A lot of both.
Frankenstein - It's really weird making a film because they only shoot about fifteen seconds, you say one line, and then they take twenty minutes to change the camera angle and do all this crazy stuff. We'd think of things, so right while being filmed I'd say, "Oh, we need to do this!" and change the script. We didn't know what in the world it was going to look like until they started editing. We did the whole thing in one week of eighteen-hour days.
Joel - We'd love to make another one, but we don't thing anyone is going to take the risk and give us the money.
Tollbooth - So how did it feel to go from being a bass player to the star of your own movie?
Frankenstein - I don't think we took it very seriously! (laughs)
Tollbooth - OK. The ministry end of things. Since your reputation has always been that you are very ministry oriented, now that you're so successful, are you still any good at it? Is ministry still important to you? Are you satisfied with how you are able to relate to people in youth groups? Do you think other bands are as good at it as the Newsboys?
Joel - Yeah, it's always a stretch to be more relateable, and we can never rest on what we've done before. We really need to seek God and be in touch with him and know how we can relate what He wants to our audiences. That's always changing.
To ask if we do it better than other bands, I think all bands are called to do different things. I see some bands that are doing some really powerful things, and they're not saying a word from stage about their faith, other than through their lyrics. Somehow, there is just power in their music, and there is authority. We have a lot of that, but we also feel led to speak what we have to share. The face of ministry is always changing. It's got to, because the culture is changing, unfortunately quicker than we change. It's always a challenge, and to say that we're good at it? I don't know. We just do what we feel God wants us to do and hope that that's good enough.
Tollbooth - How important is it to stay current, and how far are you willing to go with that?
Joel - It doesn't mean we have to go get extra piercings and tattoos to be relevant. It's more understanding culture.
Frankenstein - It's just being in touch with the fans, just seeing where they're at. It's really hard because the bigger things get for us, the harder it is to stay in touch. Success builds a humongous wall between us and the fans. You can't just go out and talk to people because all of a sudden, there's a hundred, two hundred kids. There's no more personal contact, but we try and do whatever we can to stay in touch. Because we live this life on the road that is so far removed from what our audience lives, it's a constant effort to try to stay in touch with where they're at and just be accessible. That's where we learn how can we relate, how can we give them something from us.
Joel -There's always the temptation in this industry to stroke the Christian ego from the stage--get the cheers at the right time and say the right words and catch phrases--and maybe you'll sell an extra T-shirt or two. To be quite honest, we could do that. We could be the masters of that, if we wanted to be. That is a temptation, and to be perfectly honest with you, Newsboys have done a piece of that themselves. It's not to say it's wrong, because most of the time those things that do stir something up in the basic Christian community are true. But sometimes we need to go deeper than that. We need to encourage ourselves to take our eyes off our little sub-culture and look outward a little more. That's always the challenge from stage, to reach that happy medium. We do see our live show as being somewhat of a church service and, in church, we do jump up and down and get excited when we hear truth; but at the same time, church is a time for quiet contemplation, and it's also a time when we have our eyes taken off ourselves and put to where they should be, and that's on God. From there, our eyes get put onto our neighbors.
Frankenstein - On this tour, what we've tried to do is encourage kids to let their lives speak for what Christianity is. Instead of coming to a show here and bashing the crowd over the head with the Bible, we're just encouraging our fans to be real. Just be a real person, let Christ be real in you, and let other people see that. When Jesus comes, he stands at the door and knocks. It's up to you to let him in, He doesn't bash the door down. Our message on this tour has just been let your life speak. If you can do that, it's a lot more real than just having a spiel.
Joel -Really, our job is we're just musicians. That's the guts of it. We're just musicians, and our passion lies with music.
All we're thinking about is the new record. The band is a lot deeper; we're older, and we're seeing things that we wouldn't have seen five years ago. It's time to move on and start feeding our fans a little more meat. We're feeling it's time for us to maybe take our eyes a little bit off the church and put them onto what the church should be looking at.
Frankenstein - We're at a point where we could probably repeat the same formula as what we did on the last one,
Joel -and sell a half-million, but ..
Frankenstein - But if you want to go to that next step, if you want to do something that's long lasting, you have to keep growing. Unfortunately, it gets harder and harder every time. We're not stressing about the new album, but it seems like there's a lot more pressure on us to deliver something great.
I think there's going to be a lot more experimentation on this record. We're looking for something thick in the sound. If you listen to Not Ashamed, even though it's five years old now, something about the mix was just big and fat. There were things happening everywhere, and I think that's what we're looking for. Not that sound at all, but that kind of mix, where everything's going on. I think there's like 96 tracks of music on most of those songs. That's what we want to get on this one--just start experimenting and throw in sounds that nobody's really heard, yet.
Joel - We're seriously getting into some freaked-out gear. We've got some really cool things that we don't even show people, old vintage stuff that hasn't been around for a long time. Obviously, we're a pop band. That's what we do, so it's going to be well-crafted pop.
Tollbooth - We drove out from Chicago today and listened to U2's Pop. They're part of the Euro-pop scene and are going in a really different direction, into the techno, the drum & bass style. Do you have an interest in following that trend?
Joel - No, but it's definitely time for us to make our Joshua Tree, if you like, or Achtung Baby, whichever you prefer as being U2's big record. We're looking at this next record as being the big one for us.