Admist the buzz of their new album and successful U.S. tour of the same name, the acclaimed Sydney, Australian-based church band Hillsong UNITED took some time out to speak to our own Ryan Barbee about their new record, Aftermath...
This interview took place on: 3/7/11.
JFH (Ryan Barbee): What were the things/events that lead up to creating Aftermath?
Well, I guess you know we came off a huge season working towards the I Heart Project and the film and so forth, and I think over the last few years a lot of the guys were heavily involved in United and were taking on more responsibilities with the life in the church in Sydney. And I'm obviously in a place of transition because I'm now moving to New York to help start a Hillsong there. So there's a lot going on and I think it kind of came time to work on a United project. We took a whole year off really doing something. And we had a bit of a soul search and talked to each other and said, "if we're gonna do this, as in United, and keep moving with it, what's it going to look like? And how prepared are we? ...Maybe to just ride on the coattails of what we've been doing for the last ten years or so or do we want to really take this thing forward?" And I think we collectively decided, "you know what? Let's throw ourselves into it like it's the first time we've ever done anything." I think sometimes we lose a lot of momentum and there's a lot going on in our world and at church and so forth. There's plenty happening and it's easy to sometimes take for granted the opportunity we have. And we decided to do the opposite and just throw ourselves into it.
JFH (Ryan): And I think that really paid off because you can tell there's a big difference between your previous albums and this one. You know it's very not necessarily… non-worshipful, but there's very much a transparency in the songs. But that's just my opinion.
Joel: Yeah! Definitely. I think for worship to be true it's gotta be honest. And we talked about that, you know, when it came to writing the songs. Especially the guys who are writing, in particular me, I wanted to be as honest and transparent as possible. You have to be. You can write a worship song that fits the criteria when it comes to the corporate setting, but at the end of the day even the songs, for me, that have meant the most to me and have resonated with most people's hearts around the world are the most honest songs that I've had to write and the ones that have been the most painstaking in process. That's certainly the case with this album.
JFH (Ryan): Absolutely. You're right! Usually everyone says that the one that reached me the most was the one that was declaring my depravity and His greatness. It's not just fluff, it's real stuff. Is that kind of the basis for "Aftermath" the song? Did it come out of brokenness?
Joel: Yeah. If you take Aftermath, I think the songs for me, there are a few songs, but you know the key songs for me that I wrote were "Take Heart" and "Aftermath," and I think they kind of both work together. Obviously "Take Heart" is based on the scripture John 16:33 which is to "Take Heart! For I have overcome the world!" And I guess the whole idea of Aftermath's setting was the state of the world that we're in. You know you don't have to look far to realize that the world's messed up. It doesn't matter where you're at in life or how long you've been on the Christian journey, your faith's filled with challenges and struggles and pain. You have to continually deal with the idea of fear and failure and shame. And some of these things we know that Jesus has overcome, but you still have to confront them. You know, day in and day out, that's the Christian journey. I think sometimes you know we get wrapped up in this idea that "I accepted Jesus; everything's now meant to be and it's amazing"… and sometimes it's not. And so, "Take Heart" took a long time to finish and I guess by the time I had finished it, I had nearly forgotten, even in my personal journey, experiences with friends and even myself dealing with certain things and with different struggles and whatnot. The song became one that was personal for me as well as for other people.
JFH (Ryan): Yeah, it's the thing that doesn't make sense but it makes sense in the Kingdom of Christ. When you released the album, it's kind of strange that it came out and all of a sudden you have stuff going on in New Zealand… It's really an album that can reach people in the moment they are in.
And, you know, "Aftermath"... I guess what's really made a lot sense for me out of just the gospel and the Christian life is just understanding the paradoxes that exist all the way through the Bible and actually the gospel itself… and it was a play on words. And I just love the picture, the God of the Universe, up on a cross that exchange that whole deal; it's such a beautiful picture and one that makes a lot of sense of who Jesus is.
Joel: Yeah, it's crazy, you know. I think it was interesting, we released the album and the day it was released on our national newspaper, it was literally called "The Aftermath Edition." Some really crazy stuff was happening in our country and I hope this album -- even the fact that it starts with "Take Heart," which was gonna be the last song on the album...
JFH (Ryan): Really?
Joel: Yeah. It was a last second thing, but we took the set list and it was already mastered, but we changed it around.
JFH (Ryan): You made a good choice.
Joel: Oh thank you. Yeah, it was just one of those things. Everything about this album was back to front. And that just kind of topped it off. I got quite a few emails and letters from people who were grateful for that song in the midst and in the timing of it. That kind of stuff you can't predict.
JFH (Ryan): Yeah! Now I know that your church is really involved with things involving justice and giving hope to the hopeless. What exactly does the Hillsong United team actually do when you go on tour, or even locally, what are you guys involved in in your city?
Joel: Our church, in Australia, its life blood is "Service." And our guys in our teams are heavily involved in everything from street teams to community care, getting involved practically. You know recently we had huge floods in our country and bush fires and you know many of our team are hands-on. From that level, you know people on our team are reaching lives going through personal crisis. And I love it. It's a real family. We obviously have done the I-Heart journey and on the back of that collectively trying to rally the Church around specific causes pertaining to specific injustices in the world and saying that it's not going away. We want that thread to run in and through everything that we do wherever we go. On this tour, we've had an incredible response with the food drive. Over 27,000 items now have been brought to the different events and distributed in each of the cities locally to different organizations working with those in need. And I love that. So it's just the case making sure that in everything we're doing we have the opportunity to be active as well as bring the song. It's working hand in hand; it's an amazing thing to be a part of. I think the wonderful thing is, as the world gets more and more used to it and technology becomes more available, you know it's been great being able to be involved in our church with certain ministries in other parts of the world. And to see change being brought into some dire circumstances!
JFH (Ryan): Yeah and you're moving to New York. Have you already moved there?
Joel: Yeah I just moved there now. I've been back in forth. In Dallas, then back there for church and then back down to Atlanta on Monday. It's really an exciting time, man! I'm having a blast.
JFH (Ryan): So do you have jet-lag still?
Joel: Haha. I'm not sure if it's jet-lag as much as it is bus-lag. But either way we're doing okay. We're surviving.
JFH (Ryan): I've gotta ask one stupid question… what's your favorite food on the road?
Joel: Well it just depends on where we are. I think I'm a big fan of sushi… but I did just finish a burrito. Something between Mexican and Japanese.
JFH (Ryan): So basically, fish is good?
Joel: Fish is good. Yeah, fish is good.
JFH (Ryan): I was gonna ask this earlier: "Across the Earth" was originally a two part project, correct?
Joel: Yeah that's right.
JFH (Ryan): Is there ever gonna be a second part or is Aftermath pretty much part two?
Joel: Yeah, well, it goes back to when we were planning the idea. It was originally going to be 4 separate EPs.
JFH (Ryan): 4 EPs? Wow.
Joel: Yeah. And they were color coded - you know, the four triangles red, green, blue, and yellow. And it was kind of out of our control, so we ended up putting the first two EPs together to make Across the Earth and we just kind of… didn't feel it… the idea just changed, it evolved into a new idea. Haha. But that happens, you know? So I understand there are people out there who are kind of expecting a new project but unfortunately... so apologies to anyone out there waiting for a second Across the Earth project.
JFH (Ryan): Haha. I can't imagine them freaking out too much, because you put out a better product this time anyway. Do you guys get inspired by certain types of music?
Joel: Oh, thanks. I think one of the things I love about our team is that it's quite diverse in a musical case. I can personally hear it when I hear Aftermath. I can hear some obvious references to other bands. I think bands for us… well I can't even think right. Personally, I'm constantly being inspired and we really challenge the guys to get out and listen to music. I'm a firm believer that all music comes from God. Not all of it is glorifying God, but I do believe that the gift comes from God. There's a lot to be gleaned even whether about it being used for its original purpose or not. We really encourage our guys to be open to old and new and more spectrums than what's just out there. For us, we love music. We're passionate about God and we want to use music to the best of our ability to connect people with God and I think sometimes when it comes to worship, we limit what can be done musically and be creative. We feel like we have to put the limit on somewhere and I guess with this project it was like, "Hang on. Let's just make an album that we love musically." It explores what's possible without becoming too self-indulgent in the musicality. I think the songs are still simple, but just brought more to life with different arrangements.
JFH (Ryan): Yeah. I think in worship leader circles, people tend to think "Hillsong's got the formula: the verse, the chorus, and the bridge" but in this one, you can sing along with it, but it's more creative than previous stuff.
Joel: Yeah. I appreciate that. It's a balance. The fact is when you are writing, you prepare. Primarily, we want to write songs, especially with our live projects, we want to write songs for the Church and connect people to God in a corporate setting. And in United, we definitely want to do that, and there's a corporate element to these songs, but when we're making this album, we were thinking about a kid on the subway with his iPod on, on his way to college and you know he can put this on wherever he's at and be transported. I imagine a bunch of kids on a road trip and putting this album on and the Spirit of God being in that car with them. We do a lot of travelling and everywhere we go we see people with their iPods on, but I love this idea of people understanding that God is with us. And I picture people walking in New York City, or wherever they are and being encouraged by the Spirit of God and yet still being able to sing them with thousands of other people in an arena or in a local church with just an acoustic guitar. That's everything for us. If people are able to do that through these songs, then we're stoked.
JFH (Ryan): Alright, I'm gonna ask you… you can choose not to answer, but what's your favorite song on the album and what's your least favorite song on the album?
Joel: Ha! My favorite song is… I don't know... well, it's… I really love "Rhythms of Grace." I think lyrically there's a real depth to it. It was written by a couple of young guys who haven't written a lot before and they're just great dudes. I know how hard they worked on this song and it's a song I think, in particular, people love to sing. So that's one of my favorites. And least favorite… uh… I don't know… one of mine. Haha! Well, you know you're gonna have favorites and so forth. You know, we had about twenty or thirty songs in the mix, some of the better ones we didn't finish and I feel that that's okay. "Take Heart" was meant to be on like two or three different projects but it wasn't finished.
JFH (Ryan): How long ago did you write it?
Joel: 2008, maybe. I finished it like two or three different times but it's a completely different song now. I think about that song on this project and even the timing of it with everything that's going on at the moment and just know God's sovereignty on that. And it's like that with other songs like that.
JFH (Ryan): Now, I know with worship it's kind of different, but is there ever a point where you get tired of playing the same song over and over again?
Joel: Haha! Um… I think any of the songs we're tired of playing we don't play anymore. You do get tired of playing certain songs, but you know even some of the older songs like, "All I Need is You," "Stand," "From the Inside Out" and "Mighty to Save," every single time we do those songs, in the moment, I can get tired of seeing it on a run sheet, but in the moment, we are singing those songs. I think there's a reason those songs have lasted and resonate with people. Honestly, I feel the same way every night when we sing "With Everything." I freak out, I cannot believe it. But that's God. There's something about being in that moment. Making that choice to be open to the Spirit.
JFH (Ryan): Awesome, man. Well, thanks for talking with me today. Any final words for our readers?
Joel: Everyone love everyone.
Hillsong UNITED's new album Aftermath is available now!