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 fillers.
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.