I've thought hard about how to word this statement, and ever since Black Monday (which is how I'd describe my Monday morning interrogation on Gareth Cliff's 5fm show), I've been writing and deleting and rewriting this. There are many differing viewpoints on what was said by me on air about the nature of tree63, and so ultimately the best way to address thevery broad spectrum of expectations is to do a little Q & A with Myself. So here goes:
Q: Did you say on air that Tree63 was never a Christian band?
A: No, I tried to make the age-old distinction between a band full of Christians and a 'Christian' band. It's a thorny issue that's been raging since the very first idea of Christian-themed pop music ever surfaced, and any band that has sung about spiritual things in the secular arena (Stryper, U2, Kula Shaker, Delirious?, Switchfoot, Tree63 etc) has had to field those questions. It can come across as splitting hairs, which is ironic for a bald man to do. As I said on air and in recent interviews, tree63 did not begin life as a Christian band. As a brand-new believer in 1996, I had no idea that the genre of 'Christian' music (which of course is almost exclusively an American invention) even existed. I was just a young rock n roll guy who started writing about spiritual things, because that's where my life was at the time. Tree63 did not begin life in the context of modern Evangelical Christianity and did not spring out of one particular church. It began when 3 young rock musicians, newly interested in 'this Jesus guy', got together to make big loud rock music. What happened in the following years to that band is a long, involved and often heartbreaking story, but essentially Tree63, as 'Christian' as it became, was primarily a rock band singing about Jesus, not a church band with a missional agenda and music as second-thought.
Q: Did you say on air that you were only getting back together in April for the money, and that you were in fact only ever in it for the money?
A: Yes I did. Undeniable. A wry joke, badly timed. Anyone who has ever known me or Tree63 will always have been aware that Tree63 made concerted efforts to play down the fact that financial reward was part and parcel of being involved in the music industry. It was just never a motivating factor for starting a band like this. I actually broke the band up regularly in the early years, even after we recorded the '63' album. Tree63 could very easily have become, and very nearly became, a run-of-the-mill money-making machine, but that's not what motivated me, as a young idealistic Christian, to start singing pop songs about Jesus. In fact, in those early heady days, Christianity was certainly the least popular religion you could choose to make a pop music fortune out of! I'm attracted to the rejected, austere Jesus, not the gold-plated Mercedes Jesus. To be honest, Tree63 was never one of those bands that made money, really. Our overheads, living and working in a foreign country, were enormous, and we never quite made the grade. If we had eventually done what we were encouraged to do and 'play nice', we possibly could have made comfortable American lives for ourselves, but that just required too many personal and ethical sacrifices for me personally, and I am where I am now: joking on air about being 'in it for the money'.
Q: So are you in it for the money?
No. Of course not. It's laughable to suggest that the guy who threw away his big chance to make a fortune by singing unpopularly about Jesus would now, many years later, be motivated by money. Laughable, but not everyone is laughing, and I see how my crass statement can be misinterpreted, and I'm sorry for saying that. In a world where Christian culture generates so many millions of dollars, it'd be refreshing to hear about an artist or a band that wasn't motivated by making a living off entertaining Christians. Well, Tree63 was that band, and in fact as soon as it became obvious that that's all we were ever really going to be able to achieve, it was time for me to move on. Which I did.
Q: Based on what you said in a notorious 2010 interview, and some of the things you alluded to in your on-air interview, are you in fact still a Christian?
A: I'm aware that all Tree63 fans want to hear me say is a resounding 'YES!!' accompanied by air-pumps and triumphant shouting, and that most people think you can answer a simple 'yes' or 'no' to that question, but I'm unfortunately not one of those people. Do I believe in God? Yes. Do I believe Jesus was the 'son of God'? Yes. Do I believe in everything all Christians believe? No, of course not; hardly any two Christians believe exactly the same thing. That's why there are now denominations where there used to be just one all-encompassing Catholic Church. Do I follow Jesus' example? Absolutely. Do I sometimes doubt? Of course; you cannot not doubt, it's essential to a life of faith, this side of eternity. Am I a 'Christian'? For the sake of clarity, I'd say yes, although that's an interesting question if you consider that 'Christianity' as a belief-system only began to coalesce decades, and in some cases centuries, after Jesus' death. That would suggest, of course, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has famously argued, that Jesus wasn't actually a 'Christian' either. I'm far more interested in these issues than whether or not Mother Theresa actually believed in the God she was serving (it turned out she battled all her life with that tricky question, by the way), but for the sake of simplicity, I've answered 'yes' enough to qualify me as a 'Christian'.
Q: So, is Tree63 a 'Christian' band, or were you just faking it?
A: Tree63 never faked a single thing. In that sense, I'm a poor showbiz entertainer: I can't do it if I can't feel it. If I'm depressed or ill as I walk onstage (which I often was in America), I struggle to hide it and pretend everything's awesome hallelujah. All of the songs I wrote for Tree63 attest to that: look closely at the rather bleak lyrics for songs like 'Here Of All Places' or 'Almighty Silence' and you'll see a troubled man wrestling with the hard realities of existence and trying to squeeze them into 3 minute pop songs. Our record company in America never liked songs like that; they don't make for a cheerfully marketable Christian band. I don't buy that whitewash theology of 'life is hard but God is good'; life on earth is absurdly harsh, and we as humans need to cling with all our might to our mysterious, unseen God if we're going to try and make sense of anything. That's what I've always believed, it's right there in the Tree63 lyrics ('I Stand For You', anyone?), and it shouldn't come as a surprise to any Tree63 fan, unless you think we were just that band that sang 'Blessed Be The Name'. I didn't even write that song! Did you know that? If you all knew the music industry shenanigans that went on behind the scenes to even get me to agree to record that version, you might slightly raise your eyebrows. Thankfully, Matt Redman meant every word of that song too. Tree63 stood up time and again to the pressure of a well-oiled multi-million dollar industrial machine. We fought and lost, but we fought anyway. Precisely because of what I believed about God and eternity and what things should look like as opposed to what things currently look like. And that is why, Tree63 fans, it is so easy to make casual jokes about 'doing it for the money' in the secular media: because it is so obviously untrue. So yes, Tree63 was a 'Christian' band!
Q: Why are you proposing to play together again in South Africa again, after so many years?
A: Tree63 is dormant and all but disbanded. The only thing is, we never officially broke up. It just fizzled out. The band has an undeniable legacy and a notable body of work (6 studio albums' worth) and yet is routinely ignored by the mainstream South African music industry. It's almost as if Tree63's international music industry achievements never happened. I wouldn't necessarily mind that, except for the fact that Tree63's success was hard-won and cost a lot of people a lot of their best years. It was also achieved almost entirely before the concept of social media even existed; Tree63 stopped the year Facebook took off. We couldn't update fans, we got in a van and drove across America and played in front of them. For years. The fact that we weren't living a clichéd rock n roll lifestyle and that we singing about Jesus to Christians doesn't even vaguely negate our success. It's a worthy achievement for three guys from the relative backwater of Durban, South Africa. Wouldn't you agree? I'm fiercely proud of what we accomplished. It felt like time to own Tree63's legacy again, to just celebrate it, and as it happened, 2014 is the year Splashy Fen celebrates its own legacy within the context of South African music, it's 25th anniversary. Just nice synergy. Tree63 played at Splashy many times, and no-one really cared if we were Christian or not. We were also a good band, and that fact gets lost a lot in situations like this where it's identity in pop culture becomes a bigger talking point than whether or not it was ever actually any good.
So there are some answers for you all. I don't know if I've necessarily addressed all the concerns, but I've tried to. Thankfully, it's turned out to be a bit of a storm in a tea-cup; although I fielded some outrageously hate-filled invective from Christians on social media, I also received many kind messages from people who found the humour amusing, and even more from people who couldn't have cared less either way and just wanted to retweet the picture of Gareth Cliff and the guy from Tree63.
That being said, I'm sorry. I profoundly and profusely apologize to all those who were angered, insulted, confused and disappointed by what you heard me say. Gareth is a highly opinionated aggressive atheist with a score to settle with all religious types. You don't walk into his lion's den without your tongue very firmly in your cheek. Those of you who think that I was the naive victim of a sly Inquisitor and that I 'got played' might not be aware that I've known Gareth for years and that we've had many off-air, off-colour jousts about atheism vs belief. That being said, I took the in-joke too far, I missed an opportunity to say what it was that Tree63 was all about, and I let many of you down. I'm sorry.
Be assured, Tree63 fans: I always meant every word on every song that ever ended up on a Tree63 record. I still do. I'm deathly proud of Tree63, and if you were too, you still can be.
Please accept my apology. I will endeavor not to let you down again.
Very pleased to be using brand new guitar effects pedals from TC Electronic, courtesy of Martin Thomas at Prosound in Johannesburg. I've added the Ditto, the mini-Polytune and the mini Hall Of Fame reverb to a new board built by Brent Quinton in Durban. These pedals sounds, features and compact size are game-changers!
Performing songs like "Get You", "Soon There Will Be More Of Us" and "Bush Telegraph" live for the first time, John took the stage with talented Durban musicians Andy Turrell on drums and Brent Quinton on bass, at The Red Door in Pietermaritzburg on Tuesday night.
John will play his first live gig in over a year at next week's first 2014 meeting of the Maritzburg Music Club (MMC), held as always at the Red Door in Pietermaritzburg, KZN. Tickets are R30 at the door.
Nelson Mandela's passing reminds those of us who care about the future of South Africa that we've lost more than just a national icon. We've lost our way, and we lost it years before he died. Protest songs are just songs, but they're important in a modern democracy. I've collected all of my songs about South Africa into one exclusive digital album, and all 9 of these songs are free until Mandela is buried on Sunday. That's right, free. Will they change South Africa? No. Will they change your mind? Hopefully. Here's "Protest Songs":http://johnellis.bandcamp.com/album/protest-songs