I was invited to check out the final show of the Aloft Live concert series, for KING & COUNTRY at the downtown Denver Aloft hotel. I received invitations to previous Aloft Live shows (Christian Burghardt, The Veronicas, Michelle Chamuel) but wasn’t able to make it out for those. This time around the hotel smartly offered a “staycation” night in addition to the opportunity to interview the band. I accepted, arriving on Tuesday afternoon and entering the lobby around 3pm to the sounds of the band’s soundcheck.
|for KING & COUNTRY|
I checked in, dropped off my bags in my room, and headed out to dinner with a friend.
In preparing for the show & interview, I checked out the band’s back catalogue on Spotify and found anthemic Christian pop. Sometimes felt like the new “hey-ho” folk and Coldplay at other times. Not music that I typically gravitate to, but it’s well-produced and enjoyable.
I met up with my Aloft Hotel contact at the W XYZ lobby bar and watched the space fill with a young crowd, more in the teen range than college age. The majority were women and girls, possibly because – let’s face it – Joel and Luke Smallbone are good looking men.
Soon we were off to the basement green room to chat with Luke & Joel. After some small talk about Colorado (Luke told me that “I’ve often said to my wife, if there was a place that, in another world where we could live – ’cause I’m never gonna probably live in Colorado – it doesn’t get a whole lot better than this.”), I got to find out about *their* “older brother” and sister, how their parents encouraged them, and Stryper.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length)
Sam: So, the name of my blog is “Your Older Brother’s music blog” because there’s the idea that everybody had that cool older brother – or sister – I have an older sister. Keeping that in mind, who were your “older brothers?”
Luke: For me, there’s seven kids in our family, and, though Joel is my older brother, my next oldest brother, Ben…I was in the 7th grade and he was a senior in high school, and I would always ride with him pretty much everywhere we went. I was fairly tall for my age and I would like to think mature, so I would hang out with a lot of his friends. What you don’t realize is, when you drive in a car, what do you listen to? You listen to the radio. So, a lot of the bands that he liked, he would go “Man, have you heard this song?” and you’re driving along and you’re like “Oh, man, that *is* a cool song!” So a lot of that music that may have been before my time, I fell in love with.
Joel: Vertical Horizon…
Luke: Vertical Horizon, yeah! Goo Goo Dolls were right around there…
Joel: “Yellow” from Coldplay…
Luke: Yeah! And he was the guy that was introducing me to all this good, quality, cool music. And that’s a lot of my memories, of him taking me – since he could drive and I couldn’t – and he would either take me to a friend’s place or out with him and we would listen to whatever he was listening to, and that was the cool music at the time.
Sam: Joel, what about you?
Joel: Well, Ben is actually a film director. Luke and I have always done music together, Ben and I have always done film work together. Ever since we were teenagers, we would gallivant around in the back hills, shooting war films and that sort of thing. We would always come to this point where we would need to put music underneath it, so we really studied theatrical scores. Last of the Mohicans was one of our go-to’s. Jurassic Park, you know. And the deeper I got into music, the more I leaned into theatrical scores because I loved this idea of this beautiful emotion not tied to a lyric. You’re just *feeling* these melodies. And so even your older brother taking the Goo Goo Dolls, the Vertical Horizons, the Coldplays, and then taking these theatrical score moments and putting them into for KING & COUNTRY. You’ll see a little bit tonight, but usually more when we do a full show. You have the tubular bells and the concert drums and the cello and the orchestra cymbals and the timpanis… We keep incorporating more and more bits and pieces from the classic symphonic sound.
Sam: That’s amazing that he influenced you so much but in different ways. So of the music that you knew – you (Luke) from the pop stuff, and you (Joel) from the symphonic stuff – what of that music influences you now? Or does it?
Luke: I’ve got two little boys, and it’s funny when you play music to young kids, you can see how they absorb it. Will they ever remember the music that I’m playing to them now? Probably not. But it influences their likes and dislikes. I think back to when I was in middle school, listening to that music, and the melodies of Goo Goo Dolls, and though Vertical Horizon only had that one album that was ridiculously popular, I don’t think you can ever really put a pulse on how much that influences your lyric taste or your melodic taste. One of the early artists that we loved when we first moved to America was Seal. And if you listen to some of Seal’s really early stuff, “Kiss From A Rose,” some of those, there’s tons of harmonies. I’ve sung my whole life, I have people ask all the time “When did you learn to sing?” and it’s either you sing or you don’t sing. But nobody ever taught me how to sing harmony. Nobody ever taught me how to do all these things. It came from somewhere, and I don’t know where. Sometimes I look at that type of music as being the thing that, whether you know it or not, certainly impacts the music you write and create.
Joel: Recently, the theatrical scores – TRON: Legacy, Batman – that influence is still carried on. And like Luke said, you just don’t know. We’re not ones to set out to listen to something and try to emulate it. But in appreciating music… – U2 has always been a great inspiration. I had the chance to go to Madison Square Garden about a month ago and I got the lifelong dream of getting to meet Bono for about five minutes and go to the show and see how they merge melody with spirituality with causes, and it’s masterful. It’s very rare that I cry at shows, but some of those *moments*…they just hit you in the heart. So those things, you inevitably – even a month ago – I came away from that with, not that I want to steal this moment, but the way that they crafted that was really stunning.
Sam: Yeah, it helps develop your craft in playing to audiences.
Luke: Because you long for those moments. You hope to hear that people come to your shows – and though the makeup of that emotional moment might be totally different, you’re trying to design moments in your shows that you feel like that. I remember seeing U2 years ago on their 360 tour, and you do have those moments where you go “I don’t wanna copy that, what they’re doing, but let me look and pay attention to how they orchestrated that.” Because our bands sound nothing alike, but music is still a common thread. You’ve still got melodies and you’ve got lyrics.
Joel: I think there’s… Not to go real dramatic with it, but there’s a life principle in that. If you can build and there’s that competition and there’s that conviction, and we all take these things, whether it’s personally, whether it’s work-wise, whether it’s relationally, we take these things and we all compound on it and it makes humanity stronger. I think it’s a beautiful thing. We get in the way of that sometimes.
Sam: It’s like being in a band or making mixtapes for people. When you’re crafting a setlist, when you’re crafting a mixtape, if you’re doing it with intention, you’re doing it to have that impact on people and build it. You start out with the banger or the hit, or something that gets people’s attention, and then you might go into something that jams out a little bit…. Do you find yourselves doing that, or after seeing U2, do you feel like – even though this is a short set – do you find yourselves being a little more conscious of it? Or, working in film, have you always been conscious of it?
Luke: I would say, from the get-go, we’ve always been conscious of it.
Joel: There’s another layer to it, as well. Our older sister was an artist for many years, and we traveled with her as teenagers, so we got to see firsthand. Dad, who manages us, he managed her and we kind of joke (but we’re mostly serious) that he needed cheap labour. And we were homeschooled, so it was like the Australian version of the Von Trapp family! We were out there, all together – stage managing, running lights, background vocals, spotlight – you name it, we did it. So we got to see, we got to learn the craft, got to see the set list come together, got to see the impact of music. Got to see all these great things, and so yeah, I think there’s always been – I would call it “intent.” There was always, from the inception of the song, the purpose of the song, to what we do, where we move onstage, why we do it, what we play, what we say, there is a very…y’know, we’re not meanderers. You’ll see tonight, it’s kind of, for better or for worse, it’s pretty intentional.
Sam: You mentioned your brother, and your sister, and now your dad. What did your parents do to encourage this lifestyle? Because…
Luke: It’s not normal!
Sam: No, it’s not normal, but it’s great!
Luke: When we were kids, my parents were really really good at saying “Well, what do you like?” Before music, it was sports for me. I played a lot of tennis, so my parents…I don’t know how much money they spent on tennis lessons for me. And they just opened up to whatever your interests were. So then as I got more into music, they bought me a drum set for Christmas one year. And that was the beginning. It’s funny, I remember thinking later on in high school, “Man, I spent all this time playing drums, but I never was in a band.” I used to just go down & play by myself, and I used to *love* it when I could jam with somebody, but I never really did. And I was like “What a waste of time.” Little did I know that what we do now as for KING & COUNTRY is very drum-centric. There’s this influx of rhythm that comes from really early on, when my parents said “What are you interested in?” And drums so happened to be one of those things, so they provided a way for me to explore that.
I think, as I said, having little kids, what I’ve realized is what you do when you’re really young really influences the pattern of the rest of your life. And I think for all kids – myself included – it’s very important to allow them to explore. To allow them to figure out: Do they love sports, do they not? Do they love music, do they not? And to see if they’ve got any talent there. Like my parents did, they nudged there. They said “Well, you’re pretty good at that, why don’t you continue to explore that?” And it just so happens to be now, as a man, those things that I explored at a very young age that my parents allowed us to explore, happen to be the things that I technically do for a living.
Sam: I think you’ll actually be surprised at the music that your kids listen to now that you play, because my oldest is 17 and I remember getting in the car and we’d start to drive and she’d ask for “Bored walking on the boardwalk” which is the first line of a song from a band called The Promise Ring, a song called “Jersey Shore.” And we still listen to it now and it’s this communal thing. One of our favorite artists as a family is a guy named Matt Wertz…
Luke & Joel: Yeah!
Sam: He just came through here, actually, to the Soiled Dove…
Luke: What a good guy, right?
Sam: Yeah! *Great* guy. We bought tickets for my birthday – my birthday present from my wife was tickets for us to go see him. They were only $22 apiece, but we were right there in front. It was a fantastic show. But that started because I was building a playlist in 2007 for a trip we took to South Carolina, and he’s got a song called “Carolina.” I found that and put it on the tape and we’ve just loved him ever since. And so it’s just grown into this family thing.
Luke: Music has this ability…you remember where you were and what you were doing a lot of times because of music. Part of the reason why it’s so hard for artists to create hit after hit after hit is because you fall in love once, and that first love with whatever album it might be, will always be your favorite. You might still like that music, but you’ll always compare it to that first time that you fell in love with it, and you remember exactly where you were, you remember what you were doing, you remember that part of your life. And that’s what’s so cool about music, is we get to be a part of creating those moments for other people. That’s the humbling, fun process.
Sam: So, what’s one of those “falling in love” moments that you remember? For me, it was The Police. We took a vacation to Hawai’i, and I had their first record, I remember walking on the beach, listening to Outlandos d’Amour over and over and over. What are some of those for you?
Joel: For me, I was about 4 or 5, in Australia, in Sydney, and Dad was a concert promoter at that time. He’d bring bands and artists over to Australia from America and there was this old rock band called Stryper. (laughing) Yellow & Black Attack, To Hell With The Devil…and they had these terrible, really elaborate colorful record covers…
Luke: And the lyrics were so outrageous! (laughing)
Joel: And I remember, one of my first memories is sitting cross-leg in the living room on the floor with the record playing and just staring at their cover with an ambulance or shotguns or uzis, whatever it was. I don’t think we’ve taken a lot of that into for KING & COUNTRY. (both laugh)
Sam: My uncle Jon Scott was a record promoter, so he’d send us Elton John records. I remember Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy had a gatefold with a comic book in the middle. And I remember doing the same thing, listening and looking. And sometimes not even listening to the record but just looking at it and being, like, “What’s going on?”
Luke: What a great idea.
Sam: So what about for you?
Luke: For me…this isn’t my first, but one that I will forever remember. I was in high school, I loved sports, and I tore my ACL my junior year of high school playing basketball. And I had a lot of my identity wrapped up in sports, and so I had to go through rehab and all that. Switchfoot had just released an album called The Beautiful Letdown. It’s still one of those things that, though I like their later stuff, I can’t ever get over how good that one album was. And that was what I rehabbed to, was that album. So ever time I hear those songs, I go back to driving to the rehab place, I go through all those memories. Even if critics were to say they released a better album, there will never be a better album for me. Because all of those lyrics seemed to really collide with my situation of trying to rehab my knee. It’s just one that I will always remember as being that sweet, sweet moment.
It was cool to have this type of discussion about music, because a lot of times people are asking about “how did you get started,” the normal stuff, and just yesterday I had an interview that I was totally unprepared for. I didn’t realize until I was walking into it that it was an hour interview, asking about every song on our album and the stories behind them. It was cool in a roundabout way, because it wasn’t the normal stuff, and I said to the guy after we finished, I said “You know, it’s so funny, when you start talking about music and why you wrote that lyric and why you wrote that song or why you love that album or whatever, different stories come up that you’re not aware of, because the focus of the question is on something entirely different.” For better or worse, we get pretty good at answering “Tell me about this” and we’ve figured out a way for that story to be engaging, but I also have answered that question 60 times prior. So when you talk about stuff like this, music and what made us fall in love with music originally, it’s fun, because that’s where it all started.
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