Virtually There: A Conversation with Dave Frey of Sidewalk Prophets

In March, contemporary Christian artists Sidewalk Prophets came face to face with the novel Covid-19 virus and its resulting pandemic that sent the world into a tailspin from which we have yet to recover.

Quarantines and restrictions on large gatherings resulted in the shutdown of music venues and tours, including a big, previously-scheduled summer jaunt across the States for the Prophets. Yes, they could still release music, but in this new era of streaming services and limited physical product sales as a source of revenue, it simply no longer pays the bills. As it is, touring keeps the proverbial lights on.

The Nashville-based Prophets found themselves at a very ominous crossroad. It was a scary time, said founding member Dave Frey. It still is, he confided. The group has a brand new album (“The Things That Got Us Here,” Curb Records) to promote, and a living to make.

“We should be playing festivals, and sweating, and doing those things you do in the summer as a band,” Frey said in a recent interview with ListenIowa. “But now the brakes are on, so we’ve been just trying to make it, be creative, pay everybody, and still get to do what we’ve been called to do.”

That means trying to make lemonade out of lemons. Fortunately, thanks to band manager Ben McDonald, that’s exactly what is happening.

“As soon as we lost our first show, Ben, who started the band with me, was like, ‘We gotta figure something out, because I don’t know when — or if — touring is going to happen this year,’ ” Frey said. “I thought he was crazy, but here we are in August and things like the Giants and the Jets are cancelling having fans in the stands for their football games. (laughs) This is crazy.”

McDonald’s idea was that of sending the band on a “virtual tour.” The concept was unique: If they were scheduled to play a certain city, they would — without actually being there. Instead, the band is playing live at a venue in Nashville and streaming the show to their fans in each respective city. It’s still live; it’s still raw; and it’s still a concert specifically tailored for each city, including right here in Des Moines on Aug. 22.

For now, this is the new normal.

Frey spoke to ListenIowa about the virtual tour “stop” in Des Moines, life during the pandemic, and the joys of being a dad.

Give us an idea of just how much has the pandemic has affected the band.
Touring is 80 percent of what you make in a year, so when that shuts down, it’s impossible to function on 20 percent of what you used to have. We had to get creative.

How so?
Our manager, Ben, went and talked to a lot of studios, who aren’t doing much, too, because of Covid, and he found a big production agency that offered to host us at their facility. I drive up to the studio (in Nashville) on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays when we have shows.

Which allows you to still play live for your audiences.
Yes. We’re going to Des Moines. And Oklahoma City. And Green Bay. What happens is, you get a ticket, which is a “pay what you can” format, to get into the show. We found that that’s something that has resonated with people. People are struggling. If you’re somebody who wants to come to a Sidewalk Prophets show but has no money, we want you to be there. So we have that system. If you can afford $20, great. If you can afford $10, or nothing, that’s great. Just come.

Do you personalize the show in some way?
We tailor the show to whatever city we’re “in.” That way it feels like we’re there. We don’t hold back on quality, and we play the show we would have had we been there in person. A guy filmed some 3-D things we use, and it was great. You get those old red and blue glasses and you feel like, “Wow, this is really unique and cool.” You don’t have to have them to watch the show, though. It’s just for a couple of songs. It does enhance the show, though. We also have a chat feature with our fans so we can interact with them, make Zoom calls, and also let them vote on one of the songs they want us to play. We also have a V.I.P. hangout before we play where we play a game and have question and answer time. All of these are things we would be doing out on the road. We’re just trying to make it as community driven as possible to remind people that we’re here together and in this together.

Is playing live in front of cameras more nerve-wracking then in front of a real audience?
Not really. We want it to be live. I apologize to the city of St. Louis because that was a rough show. (laughs) I forgot the second half of the first verse of a song, but we laughed about it. And I’m a Cubs fans, so when we did that show, I really razzed them about how much I hate the Cardinals. (laughs) Just had some fun. It helps it set it apart from different things.

Was this concept a difficult sell to the rest of the guys?
It really wasn’t. We have some incredible bandmates. It almost seems like a “mad” thing to do. I mean, a live show and virtual tour? What are you talking about? But Ben is just a visionary, and said we have to do it. Our keyboard player is an incredible graphic design guy, so he got to work on the video content that is behind us while we play. Me and the bass player started putting the set together. He was running through what we could do musically, like there can’t be the “I sing, then you sing” element, and whatnot. But we just went gung-ho. And the people have been tuning in. The hardest part is that we had to it really quickly, so on the marketing side of things, it’s kind of hard for people to know how to do it and what’s going on. We’re finding that partnering with radio stations in the city and whatnot has really been helpful in getting people to realize that they can still go to a show.

Playing devil’s advocate, what if people really like this and think, “Why would I ever go to a live performance in the future when I can have all this in the comfort of my living room?”
I think it’s the same thing that Major League Baseball came up against when they decided to put the games on TV with no fans. There’s just something about being there. There’s something about going to a movie theater. I love movies. I like watching things at my house, but I want to be at these places. It’s that element. There’s nothing like a concert. If you told me today that Billy Joel was playing at Nissan Arena or I could watch him live at Nissan Arena, I would still go there. If it was safe. (laughs) It’s like “Hamilton.” I watched it on Disney+ and thought it was amazing. I was front row and it was great. But now I want to go and actually see it in person. It’s that same element. There’s that itch. I gotta go.

You mentioned the new album earlier, “The Things That Got Us Here.” So what did “get you here?”
(laughs) I’m so proud of that record. We wanted it to be organic and for people to hear it and drive to it. Nobody takes an album and just drives. Don’t skip songs, just drive. I feel like this record is about all the things that got me to this moment. You better believe that 2020 is one of those things. Unbeknownst to us, this record would be released during a pandemic. “Real To Me” echoes the heartbreak of the broken engagement I had when I was young, and my parents divorced. All those things are in it. But God showed up mightily in the middle of all that. There’s another song called “You Were There,” that literally is my autobiography. The first line says, “In the third grade musical, I played the outlaw brother of Jesse James, and you were cheering.” And it’s true. I played Frank James — who’s way cooler than Jesse anyway — and God was there then, too. What got us here are the collection of the good times and the bad. There are times in life when things are worst, and there are times when they are best. There’s a whole lotta life in the middle. I think this record speaks to all of those moments. Life is a big, long journey. All the trials, and the questions, they bring us closer to God, and closer to the moment we are in right now. All these things make up our story, and we hope this album is a reflection of that journey.

Have these past few months changed you personally?
I actually found a big blessing in it. My wife and I had our first child in May, so not being on the road, we spent the month together before he was born. Now that he’s here, I’m in the “zone,” trying my best to be a good teammate. (laughs) As a band, it’s been tough. We lost a lot of our shows. But it’s been kind of fun to be able to come home and be dad and husband each night. Definitely different. I wouldn’t have chosen for it to happen this way, but it’s been a unique and awesome season in that regard, to be able to be home.

If I talk to you again in 12 months, what do you think we’ll have learned from all this?
I think we’ll have learned that nothing is out of God’s hands. We’ll have solidified the fact that he is still in control, and will have done that by realizing that we’re still alive and breathing and able to move forward. I think a year from now, I think we’ll say, “I don’t know if things will ever be the same, or normal again, but I’m grateful for a lot of things that happened during that time.” Time with the family, having to be creative. Sometimes when you’re forced to have that creativity, it can bring out the best in people.

The Sidewalk Prophets in Des Moines, Aug. 22
The Sidewalk Prophets “Virtual Tour” includes:
Only one ticket is needed for entire household to view the show.
Free admission, fans just need to register for a ticket (all shows start 7pm local time), also a $19.99 Out of Radius ticket and $29.99 VIP Ticket
Eye popping 3D (will need glasses to see 3D elements, but can still enjoy the show without 3D)
High definition complete multimedia experience that will set new expectations for creativity
Tour utilizing a new radius checking system / will grant ticket access to those who live in zip code radius of each market.
Those who are out of radius have the chance to purchase an “out of radius” pass, or a season pass to view all live stream events.
— For additional information, visit https://virtualtours.greatbigfamilyproductions.com/desmoines-ia-tickets/.
Tickets will be available via Sidewalkprophets.com