25 Mar 2014 Comments 27

A message from John regarding Tree63:


Dear fans of Tree63


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.





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  • Allan Anderton

    Hi John - thanks for your honesty in this message. I didn't hear your interview with Gareth Cliff so I can't comment. But what I can say is that Tree63's music was very encouraging for me as a young Christian, and particularly the song you wrote called 'King' which is all about Jesus. We still sing that song in our Church and it has been a great encouragement to a lot of Christians. I just wanted to encourage you with that - God has used Tree63 to build his kingdom and I am very thankful for that.

    April 01, 2014 at 14:02pm - Comment
  • andrew Worrall

    Hi John. Whenever I hear your songs, when I play your CD's and Tree 63, I pray for you like you wont believe. There was confusion amongst Christians and fans of Tree 63. "John has turned his back on Christianity" was the message that was sent out. I was devastated to be honest, but things can be taken out of context and misunderstood, especially via the Grapevine.

    I am so glad that you are still "running the race". If anybody were to doubt whether you were/are a Christ follower, I would challenge them to listen very carefully to each word of the Tree 63 songs. They are so Holy Spirit inspired. It is so evident that when you wrote them that you were so plugged into God and his voice. the depth and profoundness of the words, can only be God inspired.

    I was traditional church member who was a Pharisee in looking for the faults of others and forgetting about my own. In that, I tried to find holes in the songs that you wrote but it actually changed me. they opened my eyes. I often use those words from the songs as prayers because they say everything for me. That with Psalms cant but help one see God and talk to him.

    Being a Christ follower isn't easy. If it was, everybody would be one. "Christians" can be the most beautiful loving people but they can also be the cruellest.

    I pray that God would continue to use you and give you strength to continue to run the race and not give up on Him.

    God bless you and your family and may Tree 63 continue to inspire and revive people.

    April 04, 2014 at 11:50am - Comment
  • Brent

    Thank you. As a fan of YOU and Tree 63 for many years, your thoughts are refreshing and real. You and I met once, in Nashville, in 2005, at Puckett's. I'm sure you remember.

    April 15, 2014 at 18:28pm - Comment
  • Randee

    Well said John. I love Tree63 and am glad to have Christian guys making good music that isn't in the mold of Christian music.

    April 17, 2014 at 22:22pm - Comment
  • Brian Law

    Great John! Glad to hear that you fought against the machine> Enjoyed your music so much! I am glad to hear you meant every word. Your lyrics have been precious to me for some time now. Yes, I am a Christian.

    April 18, 2014 at 00:59am - Comment
  • Brett P

    Thanks for clearing that up John!

    I first heard Tree63 at Sonfest in Lithgow, Australia in 2001 (I think). Tree63 is still a favourite of mine.

    I absolutely hear you in regard the glittering money-machine of the Christian "entertainment" industry.

    As I write, I'm living in Siberia with my wife and 4 kids as independent missionaries. We're here primarily to love people ("conversion" is not our job nor motivation). It's past midnight and I hear several drunk men singing and laughing in the street below, breaking bottles etc. Some of them will probably go home, beat their wives, hurt their children. Has the Christian pop industry motivated and entertained Christians enough for them to leave western comforts and join the fight? Probably not.

    There's a lot that makes me sad, yet a lot that also encourages me when I hear of Christ's followers breaking out of manufactured Christianity and looking for a real answer. These are the ones giving up their comforts and facing the real world head-on.

    Thanks for the legacy! I hope you find a new opportunity to share your heart the way you do best - with music!

    April 18, 2014 at 18:31pm - Comment
  • Phil Bledsoe

    I wish 'hard to believe' would have made it on to an album. I think it was a great reflection if where you were at the time and I often listen to it. Good job following up.

    April 22, 2014 at 16:35pm - Comment
  • 2tone

    I love you john! Miss ya a bunch! Stay strong and don't stop using your talents!!! Truly you are one of the greats I got to tour with. Would LOVE to spend more time with you, on the road or on the beach...come back to the states and let's hang and wonder at the mysteries of god!!!

    April 22, 2014 at 18:32pm - Comment
    • John Michell

      Legendary, man! Thanks for that! I appreciate your honesty and non-conformist attitude and outlook on life!
      And ja, for the record - Tree63 has got to be one of the greatest 'Made-in-SA's that has even gone famous!
      And as the cliche goes... Keep it REAL!!

      May 18, 2014 at 13:23pm - Comment
  • Shelley

    John~You've got a fantastic sound/voice/gift. Wherever you are Faith-wise, I still count Tree63 as one of my top, favorite, Christian bands. You are not the only one struggling to explain where you stand on "Christianity at large" issues and beliefs. We are all metamorphosing. We are trying to "walk the walk" and, frankly, it looks different for each person and a lot of people don't understand what they are seeing when they look at the path their neighbor is walking down. I'm glad you are still making music and exercising your gifts.

    April 24, 2014 at 03:25am - Comment
  • John Michell

    egendary, man! Thanks for that! I appreciate your honesty and non-conformist attitude and outlook on life!
    And ja, for the record - Tree63 has got to be one of the greatest 'Made-in-SA's that has even gone famous!
    And as the cliche goes... Keep it REAL!!

    May 18, 2014 at 13:34pm - Comment
  • Sean Lategan

    Hey man - shoh, I just want to say I respect you and that message so much. I'm a Catholic youth minister from Durban, now in Cape Town, and man, I think that Tree63 was the best "Christian" rock band out. I studied music at UKZN and can honestly say I love your music. I got to see you live on a school field in Durban some years ago when I first came to faith - I remember thinking "man, this guy has a gift" - Not just musically, but your charisma and energy. Thanks for everything Tree63 has meant to me. I must say, I sometimes get a lump in my throat when I listen to "I stand for You" in light of recent rumours. Your post above has helped that. May the God and father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, continue to bless and lead you to the fullness of truth on this confusing journey we call life. Peace brother. Sean

    May 23, 2014 at 22:49pm - Comment
  • Andy

    John, I've been closely following your journey. Played a few gigs opening for Tree63 many years back in SA. So glad to see you being open and honest and exploring your Christianity without compromise. It's not easy. Keep strong - you have supporters all over the world. And when the support seems far away, remember that you're playing for an audience of One. Also glad to see you having new musical experiences. And lastly so glad to hear of more Tree63 being a possibility. I still remember the first time I heard "King" - I NEEDED that album in a very deep way, instantly. It was a spiritual thing. A rock and roll thing. Rock on, John Ellis and Tree63.

    May 28, 2014 at 00:54am - Comment
  • Kris

    John, you're music has touched my life! I thank you for sticking it out as long as you have and writing songs that you are proud to stand behind. You're musicianship is second to none. I saw you in Toronto years ago and you lead worship covering some Delirious songs and Brenton Brown stuff. It was awesome! You stopped playing when things got too rowdy and I've always respected you for that! I was amazed at how great you guys were for being a three piece. Thank You for your time, effort & honesty! And for doing what you believe in.

    May 28, 2014 at 19:21pm - Comment
  • Brian Dotson

    So Jon - THANK YOU!!! Your music is and has been a constant in my life since the first album. I appreciate your frankness and willingness to say the obvious (well it should be obvious I think!)

    I do believe God is good but man, this place is a mess and sometimes (maybe often?) I'm a mess and oh, the questions that swirl in my head. I have a 7 year old son with a rare form of epilepsy, just buried my mom a few weeks back from cancer, am preparing to say goodbye to my dear mother-in-law (also cancer with only a few weeks left), and yeah... I'm a pastor. So thanks for offering something genuine - it is refreshing and encouraging to hear someone else talking in the same vein.

    May 31, 2014 at 03:18am - Comment
    • Daniel Mouton

      Hi John, by chance I thought of Tree 63 and thought I would google your name and wallah I come across this article. I'm really glad that I read this article and that God is stirring your hart again. A couple of friends always thought that God wouldn't just turn his back on you and that He would draw your heart back to Him again. Also been praying for you so great stuff. Looking forward to maybe another Tree 63 CD, but no pressure :)
      Lots of blessing boet!

      June 17, 2014 at 22:50pm - Comment
  • Jon Boulet

    I discovered Tree 63 in 1999 and became an immediate fan. I thought it was good music and I'm a lyrics guy. I remained an ardent fan, and then one day I realized, "hey, when's they're next album coming out?" Searching the web, I cam across the the interview in question, and walked away hurting and confused. I think the reason was that there had been such a untarnished recklessness in the faith of the first three albums that now felt suspect. Well, here I am in 2014 and I decide on a whim to play Tree63, and as I did, I felt so uncomfortable with what I was hearing and what I had read several years back. I thought, "it just doesn't make sense," and so I went back online only to find this article. I'm grateful to read your letter; I'm grateful for clarity. I thought it was holy and humble of you to do that.

    June 08, 2014 at 03:58am - Comment
  • Etienne

    I've been putting off writing my comments for a couple of months now, for other than most people here I am not going to be full of praise.

    Sure I love your music - like many 'others' I appreciated tree63 for an excellent rock band, irrespective of your beliefs, and apparently you would have preferred that. I can't help to wonder how things would have been different if you took the whole 'Christian' thing out of the mix ' say you made secular rock music from the start? Would you have been as successful / better / worse? Would you also have had problems with the money making music industry wanting to change you / take advantage of you? Would you have tried to stay 'true to yourself' or faked it for the audience / success?

    I have not heard this particular interview with Mr. Arrogant, but I've heard a previous one you had with him where he similarly put you on the spot / played you, and you were more submissive than a champion then as well'.why bump your head twice? So desperate for publicity?

    Like many others, I've had a love/hate relationship recently with our once beloved Tree63 head. Sometimes I still appreciate you and all your efforts and honesty. Sometimes I think you are self-centred. Sometimes I think you are short sighted. Sometimes I think you are too honest. Sometimes I think you are a hypocrite. Sometimes I think Miley (you) are trying to distance herself from Hannah (Christianity). Sometimes I think you just live for the moment. And sometimes I think you (still) want to change the world, but on your own terms, with your own (lacking) strategy, using your own platform.

    Maybe you did only get that single (Godly) window of opportunity 'but I truly hope that there are still more chapters to come for you and Tree63!

    June 20, 2014 at 23:21pm - Comment
  • Kyle

    John...Tree63 was my first favorite band and performed my first live rock concert in Phoenix, Az. I still listen to Your songs on a weekly basis while I work. I've prayed for you and the band for a while now, and never doubted the heart of your songs. Thank you for the honesty of your music as well as your blog posts... That alone is a testament to Jesus.
    Thanks again, John.

    June 22, 2014 at 20:31pm - Comment
  • Nula Johnson

    American Christianity has not divorced itself from the American Dream, and that value system has permeated the church and the contemporary christian music industry... the fact is that there is a world outside of America that is not as neatly "packaged' and not nearly as prosperous.... which Jesus is in that world? The I-am-so-blessed American version, or the bleeding Jew from Palestine as portrayed by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?

    June 24, 2014 at 10:33am - Comment
  • Chantelle Heyden

    I think Tree63 is one of the best bands ever to come out of South Africa. And one of the best Christian bands EVAH!!!!

    June 25, 2014 at 04:33am - Comment
  • stefan louw

    you sir are a true...poet. i know the industry is hard,especially on believers and sometimes they are the ones causing the pain, but from someone who enjoyed your music since the first time i saw you in 1997-ish touring with M.I.C in the Cape Town area you are appreciated bud! You and tree63 made being a christian teen bearable in a world that will never get it till they get Him. in the days when your South African choices were pretty much the "springbok nude girls" or "just jinger", you guys really gave me another, solid , option i could relate to. so thanks for that. Here of all places has always been one of my favourite tracks just for the space you created in the tune itself and then adding the lyrics just...painting with music. flippin "glitter" blew my mind when i heard it the first time. not that I have any influence what so ever on what you are about to record or do, but in a world who has heard the heaven rending falsetto of matt bellamy and heard the likes of muse this country is ready for one of our own amazing lyricists and formidable guitarist to write another heart felt rock album. BE YOURSELF MORE.its who He loves.peace bud and God bless.i hope you read this.

    August 05, 2014 at 23:11pm - Comment
  • Pavitra Leigh

    Dude. I love your explanation! :D Keep up the coolios lyrics (cuz I usually pay attention to lyrics first) and music.

    August 09, 2014 at 09:21am - Comment
  • G Jordan

    I was living on Long Island in 2001 or thereabouts when my American pastor (a former rastafarian) gave me a Tree63 album. I was fascinated to realize these guys were from my hometown of Durban and then I realized that the singer was the guy from a band I used to watch in Durban bars called Saint Legend (I think). I've been following John's career with interest since then. Very sorry to hear of the negative experiences in the US Christian music industry and I think I understand why he needed to get out of that environment. As an aside, that pastor who gave me that CD is now fighting Lymphoma. Prayers appreciated. Peace all.

    October 07, 2014 at 15:52pm - Comment