The Newsboys might be considered the Van Halen of Christian music.
Van Halen is famously one of the few bands ever to replace one singer (David Lee Roth) with another of similar stature (Sammy Hagar) and not only survive the change, but go on to match, if not exceed, the success of the original edition.
In 2009, the Newsboys’ singer (and main songwriter) Peter Furler left the band, leaving the remaining trio of keyboardist/bassist Jeff Frankenstein, drummer Duncan Phillips and guitarist Jody Davis to pick up the pieces.
Like Van Halen, though, the Newsboys found a new vocalist in Michael Tait. whose credentials matched those the Newsboys had amassed during its initial 24 years. Over that span, the group from Queensland, Australia, won five Dove Awards (the Christian music industry’s equivalent of a Grammy) and released nine straight albums that all went top five on the Christian music chart (with four hitting No. 1).
Tait began his career in the Christian rap/pop trio DC Talk, which had three straight albums that topped one million copies sold – Free At Last (1992), Jesus Freak (1995) and Supernatural (1998). Those albums netted DC Talk three Grammy Awards and more than a dozen Dove Awards.
Still Frankenstein said the newly revamped group knew being able to sustain its success wasn’t a sure thing.
“I think whenever you change lead singers, it’s probably one of the hardest things that a band can do,” Frankenstein said in a late-December phone interview. “I think we knew we had about one year there where it was kind of like make it or break it. Either people are going to see it and they’re going to be like ‘Nah, that’s not as good’ or they’re going to be like ‘Wow, this is really cool. I like where this is going.’ ”
Fans were in the latter camp. When the new edition of the Newsboys released its first album together, Born Again, in 2010, it debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard magazine album chart, becoming the highest charting album in the Newsboys’ history.
Since then, the group’s momentum has only grown, with an even more successful 2011 album, God’s Not Dead, followed this past fall with the new studio CD, Restart.
One of the major reasons for the success, Frankenstein said, was a decision to look outside of the group for songwriting and production contributions. Furler had been the primary songwriter.
“It was kind of like a thing of hey, if someone’s going to come in and co-write with us and it’s going to make a better product, why wouldn’t you do that?” Frankenstein said. “I think it was a really good thing. Even if you look at bands like U2, (singer) Bono doesn’t sit there by himself and try to create an entire album by himself. He brings in Daniel Lanois and some of the most brilliant minds in the world to even make it greater than it ever could be. So kind of employing that strategy was very good for us.”
For Restart, the Newsboys set an ambitious goal – to create an album that would be different from anything in the group’s catalog, as well as Christian music as a whole.
“I think Christian music has changed a lot,” Frankenstein said. “A lot of the more successful records are worship records, which obviously there’s nothing wrong with that. We’ve done quite a bit of that style of music as well. But we just kind of felt like it would be great to make a statement and make a pop record that would be from a production standpoint on par with anything on the radio.”
Restart indeed has the glossy production quality one hears in albums by the Katy Perrys, Lady Gagas and Rihannas of the world. Songs like Fishers Of Men, That’s How You Change The World and the title track feature trademarks of top 40 pop – music built around synthesizers and computer-generated instrumentation, big synthetic beats and sugary vocal melodies. Those uptempo tracks are balanced by several ballads (We Believe, Enemy, One Word and That Home), the latter two of which in particular use organic instrumentation more than the rest of the CD.
Frankenstein said the Newsboys will feature most of Restart in its set on this year’s Winter Jam tour – a tour that features 10 Christian music acts for $10 at the door – when it stops Thursday, Feb. 13, at James Brown Arena.
“We decided to sit down a couple of months in advance and actually figure out a way to kind of combine songs together, almost more of a medley, (so) that we could play as many songs as we could in the amount of time (we have),” Frankenstein said.
“Because when you’re the last band on Winter Jam, when you’re the 10th band playing and people are tired, they’ve gotten their ears blown off and it’s 10 o’clock, you’ve got to come up with something that’s impressive at that point in the night. So we decided to keep it as entertaining and fast moving as possible.”
WINTER JAM 2014
WHAT: Winter Jam 2014, featuring Newsboys, Lecrae, Tenth Avenue North, Thousand Foot
Krutch, Plumb, NewSong, Colton Dixon, Love & The Outcome, Everfound, Derek Minor and speaker Nick Hall
WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 13; doors open at 6 p.m., show starts at 7 p.m.
WHERE: James Brown Arena, 601 Seventh St.
COST: $10 at the door
LEARN MORE: www.jamtour.com