Newsboys, like Van Halen, thrive with new lead singer

02/21/2014 12:00 AM

02/25/2014 1:05 PM

The Newsboys might be considered the Van Halen of Christian music. Van Halen is one of the few bands ever to replace one singer (David Lee Roth) with another singer (Sammy Hagar) and not only survive the change, but go on to match, if not exceed, the success of the original.

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. Michael Tait joined the group. Since it was founded in 1980s, the group from Queensland, Australia, has won five Dove Awards (the Christian music industry’s equivalent of a Grammy) and released nine straight albums that all went Top 5 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 was anything but 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 recent 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 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.” This past fall, the band released “Restart.” One of the major reasons for the success, Frankenstein said, can be traced to a key decision made after Tait joined the group. Initially, Furler had indicated that while he would no longer tour with the Newsboys, he would continue to write and produce songs for the group.

That didn’t happen.

“Peter and all of us are still friends to this day,” Frankenstein said. “We still got together and hung out, had dinner together. Everything was on really good terms. I think he (Peter) just felt that it was best, after seeing what was happening, it was best if he just got out of the way a little bit. I think that’s kind of what happened. It was nothing personal.”

Instead, the group members decided to look outside of the group for songwriting and production contributions. As a result, while Tait has had co-writing credits on some songs, the group’s three post-Furler albums have featured extensive involvement from outside songwriters and producers.

“It was just a different mentality and it really freed up everybody to be themselves, in so many different ways. That was cool. I think it was a really good thing,” Frankenstein said.

“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, something that could stand up with any pop music, but still carry that power of a gospel message.

“And it involved a lot of songwriting, a lot of people, a lot of mixes, a lot of meticulous analyzing of things,” he said. “I’m not saying that we totally accomplished that goal, but I think it’s a great pop record.”

Frankenstein isn’t overstating the effort that went into “Restart.” Work on the album spanned two years and many of the songs involved three or more writers. The main songwriter/producers on the album – Joshua Silverberg, Christopher Stevens and David Garcia – had not previously worked with the Newsboys.

The time and effort paid off. “Restart” 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. Frankenstein said the Newsboys will feature most of the songs from “Restart” in its 45-minute headlining set on this year’s Winter Jam tour – a package tour that features 10 Christian music acts.

“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, ” he said.

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