Drummers In Arms: A Conversation With Joel Smallbone Of for King And Country
The Christmas season holds a very special place in the hearts of Joel and Luke Smallbone, the Grammy-award winning brothers who comprise for King and Country, one of the most successful Christian music groups in recent years.
The reason for their collective holiday reverence, however, isn’t limited to the celebration of the birth of Christ. For the brothers, two of seven children in a large family originally from Sydney, Australia, Christmas is also a reminder of the time when they leaned that “goodwill toward men” was more than just a phrase in the Bible — it was real.
Rewind back to 1991. The family’s father, a concert promoter, had lost a large sum of money in Australia, but was offered a job in Nashville, Tennessee, soon thereafter. Looking for greener pastures and fresh start, the family packed their bags and headed for the States, half a world away.
Things didn’t get any easier, though. The family was handed an immediate setback when the Nashville job went sour, leaving their father unemployed once again. Nearly penniless, the family did what they had to do to not only make ends meet, but simply survive.
“There we were, literally on the other side of the world, sleeping on beds made of clothes, raking leaves, mowing lawns,” Joel Smallbone recalled in a phone interview. “There were times when there was nothing else to do but sit in a circle as a family and pray.”
Ever the optimist even at the tender age of 7, Smallbone didn’t see being poor during the upcoming Christmas season as potentially being an issue.
“I remember Mom coming to me during our first Christmas in America and saying, ‘Hey, Santa Claus is probably only going to be able to bring you things from the dollar shop this year,’ ” he said. “And I remember looking at her with this sort of confused look, but also this sort of undying faith. I said, ‘Hey, Mom, I don’t think you understand. Santa Claus isn’t dictated by our financial situation. We’ll be fine. He’s going to show up.’ ”
Unbeknownst to the family, a first grade class in Nashville had learned of the Smallbones’ financial woes, and it was then that “goodwill toward men” came to life. The family was asked to make a list of what they needed and wanted for Christmas, and, just like that, all was well again.
“Needless to say, that first Christmas in America, we had more gifts from Santa than we’d ever experienced in our whole life,” Smallbone said in reflection. “It was a beautiful thing, and it was also this sort of reminder that, ‘Hey, we were going to be OK.’ ”
Indeed they were — and still are. The duo has gone on to sell millions of albums, performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live! The Today Show, The Tonight Show, and have had songs featured on the Emmys, Super Bowl, Sunday Night Football, and more.
Fresh off a intimate tour of smaller venues in support of their latest release, “Burn the Ships,” which dropped in October, the two-time Grammy award-winning duo will soon return to the big stage spotlight once again, this time on their “Little Drummer Boy — The Christmas Tour” extravaganza, which kicks off on Nov. 29 and includes a stop at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on Dec. 20.
ListenIowa spoke with Smallbone recently in an engaging interview on the upcoming tour, the struggles his family faced upon moving the to U.S. from Australia, and heeding the advice of the late, great Rev. Billy Graham.
What has the reception been like in the live setting to the new tunes from your latest album, “Burn the Ships”?
It’s been a bit preposterous. It’s been a few years since we released our last project, and in that time, the digital revolution in music has sort of caught on in a new way. A day or two after the album was released, we could look out into the audience (during a show) and could see people singing and celebrating the songs! It’s been really humbling. And I don’t want to say I checked out on the last album, but Luke was walking through a pretty serious illness, and starting a family, so I took it upon myself to take his story up on that record. But on the contrary, on this album, I think both of are deeply represented in the heartbeat of it. We made the decision that if there was a song that didn’t resonate; it slid off the record quickly. We wanted it to be an album of honesty.
No. The moment something felt filler or fabricated, we took it off.
You’re jumping off the “Burn the Ships” tour and right into a setting of a very different kind with “The Little Drummer Boy — The Christmas Tour.”
Yes! We love Christmas! We started this (for King and Country) in 2012, and I don’t know what we were thinking, but for whatever reason, halfway through our first tour, we thought we should do a Christmas tour. We didn’t have a Christmas album out, nothing. We just love Christmas so much. So we jammed ourselves into one of the churches in town and kind of did one of these Tuesday, hodgepodge Christmas rehearsals where we came up with the rendition of “Drummer Boy” that we’re still playing today, and a few other Christmas classics. The tour almost killed us because we were in a van and trailer and traveling the expanse of the U.S., but it was a magical tour. Since then — and I think this is our third consecutive year — we’ve been playing a Christmas tour. We’re kind of kids in lolly shop with this concept. That song has been one of the most impacting, in general, of any we’re released.
I think it’s so on the nose for us. Someone said to us the other day that we’re like “Braveheart” with an epic drumbeat. I think we have 20 drums onstage. We also released a live video last year that people really gravitated toward, and I think they love the concept of, “Here’s a bunch of fellas playing a bunch of drums, singing about a boy playing drums.” (laughs)
The live video, then, was kind of the impetus that prompted you to take this to this level.
It was. We put it on Facebook, and it had something like 10,000 shares per day. We didn’t anticipate it at all. This year, we’ve gone back in the studio to present a “re-wrapped” version of “Drummer Boy.” There are a lot of discussions going on right now about the tour and how to expand that story even more.
What will the setlist look like each night, then? Your material mixed with Christmas classics?
You know, I love stories. I love the live show, especially with what we do with eight of us onstage, and 43 instruments (in the show). It’s a very lively night. The classics will be there, no doubt, and we’ve written a few Christmas originals, which we love. And with “Burn The Ships” being so fresh, we’ll play a couple of songs from that, too.
So what was Christmas like for you and your brother growing up in Australia? Similar to what we know here?
It was actually strikingly different. First, because Australia is in the southern hemisphere, all the seasons are flipped (compared to the U.S.), so it’s the dead center of summer in Australia when it’s winter here. But, we have adopted a lot of the northern hemisphere songs and traditions, which was very confusing for a little boy growing up. (laughs) You’re singing songs like “Frosty the Snowman,” and you’re like, “Man, it’s 95 degrees outside.” And chestnuts roasting on an open fire sounds awful when what you really want to do is go to the beach and go for a swim. (laughs)
Did those experiences later come out in your songwriting in some form?
Oh, yeah. No doubt. I just became a United States citizen last year, so there’s a lot of social commentary in the new record, and asking questions about where we find ourselves as a nation. It’s a romantic record, too. Luke has been married for eight years, and I met my wife at his wedding. We’ve been married for five years. And it’s a very spiritual record as well. It’s a great time for us to be stepping into the Christmas season and this tour.
Being a United States citizen now, Joel, from your perspective, where do we stand as a people?
I don’t want to be the eternal optimist, but I think there’s a grand opportunity that lies before us. During one of the firsts songs we were writing for the record, someone from the record label sat us down and asked us what the sentiment of the record was. We were kind of right in the thick of things (as a country) at the time, and both Luke and I said that there’s a sentiment of joy in it (the album) that needs to be portrayed. Ironically, that was the first song we wrote (“joy”). But it’s not this kind of light-hearted, kitschy thing, but a moment-by-moment, banding together, choosing and searching for it thing. Someone said to me the other day, “What if we searched for joy the same way we searched for our misplaced phone?” I thought that was so right. I read a quote from Gandhi that goes, “Joy lies in the fight, in the attempt, in the suffering involved, not in the victory itself.” And I think that’s where we find ourselves as a nation. We’re in the fight, we’re in the suffering, but what if, in the midst of this, it could do the inverse, and rather than divide us and separate us, it could actually drive us toward each other. And that’s what I hope we can do as part of the arts. The arts have a profound way of impacting someone’s day and life. And I hope through the course of the tour, and the record, and our conversation, that we can be a part of what unites us.
You mentioned family earlier. You and Luke have proven that you’re not afraid to get out there and do the roadwork necessary to spread the message, whether it’s on your own, part of Winter Jam, or otherwise. Now that you’ve been doing it for years, is touring harder because you’re away from home and family for months at a time?
That’s interesting. With the first record, you’re just “yes” men. Every opportunity, every show, you’re going for it. The second record is kind of like, “Hey, can we do this? Will they like us the second time around?” It’s a bit of an insecure type of a thing. And the third one, the conversation with touring becomes, “How can we do it well? How can we be present? How can we not sacrifice being a good husband or father?” So that changes. And with the “Burn the Ships” tour, we played the smaller theaters intentionally. There’s an intimacy in the smaller rooms. We could go out and do the big bash of the tour in arenas, but we sort of pulled it back and wanted to connect on a deeper level with this music than we ever had. So the effort has been to serve the audience the best, be the best individuals this time around, and in that, you’re giving the best version of yourself.
You’re taking care of yourself better, is what you’re saying.
There’s a great story of when Billy Graham and Johnny Cash struck up a friendship. Billy said to Johnny, “Hey, one of the greatest things you can do for your audience is to have a good sleep every day before the show; it helps give the audience the best version of yourself.” And Johnny instituted that. Billy was a big part of Johnny becoming a more healthy variation of himself, and both Luke and I have taken that to heart. Even this morning, my wife was like, “When are we going to have our nap today?” (laughs) I feel like I’m an infant again. (laughs)
for King and Country “Little Drummer Boy — The Christmas Tour” Dates:
November 29* PNC Arena Raleigh, NC
November 30* Bojangles Coliseum Charlotte, NC
December 1* Santander Arena Reading, PA
December 2* EagleBank Arena Washington, D.C
December 6* Wolstein Center Cleveland, OH
December 7* Willow Creek Chicago, IL
December 8* Schottenstein Center Columbus, OH
December 9* Van Andel Arena Grand Rapids, MI
December 13* Germain Arena Fort Myers, FL
December 14* Amalie Arena Tampa, FL
December 15* Coral Sky Amphitheatre West Palm Beach, FL
December 16* Veterans Memorial Arena Jacksonville, FL
December 20** Wells Fargo Arena Des Moines, IA
December 21** Sprint Center Kansas City, MO
* w/ Zach Williams
** w/ Cory Asbury