Inspiring Harmony With Rock Music
Christian Rock music began making huge leaps in the late Ď90s with artists like Switchfoot, Jars Of Clay, Audio Adrenaline, Wakefield, and Michael W. Smith making their mark in the Arts with songs that touch peoples lives. Their fan base was established while playing for audiences at church fairs, youth groups, and retreats. Their do-it-yourself approach and humble grassroots beginnings won them respect in their communities and acquired them airplay on commercial and satellite radio stations worldwide.
Australiaís Christian rock band Alabaster Box comes from such grassroots beginnings and have generated a stir worldwide among music fans from Australia to America. Originally from the Gold Coast, the band members Naarah Seagrott on lead vocals, her husband Brett Seagrott on lead guitar, Matt Smallbone on bass, Sam Hatch on rhythm guitar, Joshua Brown on keyboards, and Matthew Swan on drums, are touring through the States in support of their third independent release, Love On The Radio.
They recently opened for Michael W. Smith and have played a number of music festivals this summer, including Faithfest in Iowa, Youthfest in Ohio, and Ichthus in Kentucky. They made an appearance on Nashvilleís TV show ďThe RevolutionĒ and have received positive feedback from fans, which has propelled them forward. Their music DVD Live At Ripley Road, taped at their concert in Ipswich, Australia, along with their CDs are being sold through their website and at Parable Christian stores across North America. Their DVD tells their story, who they are and where they come from along with behind the scenes and on stage footage taken from their worldwide tour.
The bandís music, a modern pop/rock blend of guitar-based melodies, harmonizing rhythm sections and inspirational lyrics have been warmly received by Australians, New Zealanders, Britons, and Americans alike. The bandís passion to perform live has enabled them to reach people on a personal level and to write songs that touch their audiencesí lives. The members of Alabaster Box are making melodies that inspire people to see each other in a positive way and to make harmony with the world around them.
AB's bass guitarist, Matt Smallbone, spoke to me about his own musical background and the band's goal to inspire today's youth towards harmony and to have a positive self-image that will keep them well-grounded.
[Susan Frances] How old you were you when you first started playing music?
Matt Smallbone From ages six to ten years old, I was taking piano lessons, but back then I was more interested in playing cricket than in playing piano in school.
[Susan Frances] Did you take music lessons in school or have private tutoring or were you self-taught?
Matt Smallbone I took music lessons all through elementary school. I learned the basics. It wasnít until I took up the bass guitar in the eighth grade that I began to enjoy playing enough to put down cricket and concentrate on my playing. I started by playing in a bush dance band with my father. Bush dance music is kind of like square dancing in America. My dad was my mentor. He taught me how to play the acoustic guitar. I am self-taught on the bass guitar. I also learned from other bass players by watching how they played. It gives you so many more options in your playing when you learn what other bass players do. It makes you more versatile.
[Susan Frances] What are some of the benefits of practicing?
Matt Smallbone Practicing helps you to develop a natural ability to play, which is important. You learn other arrangements outside of music lessons, which makes you progress in your playing and able to do more things to make a song better. This is why a lot of high school bands donít work out because they donít practice. You have to practice outside of lessons. Itís why the drummer gets left behind. His timing is off. Itís important to practice as a band so everyone is in time with each other and to get a good tight sound when you perform live.
[Susan Frances] Who were some of your early musical influences?
Matt Smallbone My influences are Van Halen, Steve Vai, and DC Talk from America. The shredding guitars of the Ď80s rockers influenced me a lot and the songs I heard on the radio.
[Susan Frances] How did the band meet?
Matt Smallbone We are all pastorís kids so we all grew up playing in church youth groups. The band started with Naarah and Brett. I joined Alabaster Box after they made their first album. They needed a bass player to tour with them, and Iíve been in the band since their first tour.
[Susan Frances] How did Alabaster Box get the name for the band?
Matt Smallbone The name Alabaster Box comes from the Book of Matthew in the Bible (Chapter 25, verse 26). If you saw ďJesus Christ Superstar,Ē there is a woman in the movie, Mary, who comes to Jesus (on Holy Thursday) with a jar of expensive perfume in her hands and pours the perfume on his forehead. That jar is called an Alabaster Box. It symbolizes something that is very precious to a person, something that is very dear to them. She took the best of what she had and gave it to Jesus. That is what Alabaster Box is about, giving the best of what we have to our audience. Like the woman who gave the best that she had to Jesus, Alabaster Box tries to do the same for their audience.
[Susan Frances] What was Alabaster Boxís first rehearsal like?
Matt Smallbone There was no rehearsal for me. I started playing with them straight away when they went on tour. I saw them perform in a youth group and they asked me if I wanted to play.
[Susan Frances] As far as the songwriting process goes, is it a group effort with other songwriters or does one person solely write the songs?
Matt Smallbone One person will write an entire song and then everyone in the band will add on their parts. Everyone is a co-writer in that we all kind of throw in our opinions into a song. We all have different thoughts about how a song should go. We try to get our parts right and stay out of each otherís way. We layer the parts in the studio and the best ideas come forward. A song usually starts out on an acoustic guitar with just the chord and vocals, or like in the song ďThereís Hope,Ē it starts with a piano and a melody. There are all different kinds of ways to start a song. We all come in with bits and pieces for a song and then add our own parts to the song and the best ideas are recorded.
[Susan Frances] What are some of the themes in your songs?
Matt Smallbone Some themes are love saves the day, we write positive lyrics about day to day life experiences and about seeing how humanity needs to take care of each other. We try to write lyrics that people can relate to and feel good about when they hear them.
[Susan Frances] How long does it take to compose a song?
Matt Smallbone It is always different. Some take a few days, others a few months. We donít set a deadline for the songs. Naarah is becoming quite prolific at writing lyrics. She can whip up a song in no time at all.
[Susan Frances] What are some lessons you have learned playing with other musicians?
Matt Smallbone Itís important to sound tight when playing with other musicians. Before Alabaster Box, I played in my cousinís band, Rebecca St. James. I was 19 when I took a year off from college to play in her band. We played at festivals, church fairs and youth groups. I toured with them in the States. They are a Christian band. Once we played at a Battle of the Bands and so many things went wrong. My amplifier didnít work, the guitar was out of tune, the timing on the drums was off; it makes you feel so exposed when you play live. It is really important for the musicians to sound tight in a band.
[Susan Frances] What college did you attend?
Matt Smallbone I got a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences degree from the University of Queensland.
[Susan Frances] What makes a song good for you to play?
Matt Smallbone We try to write a good melody with good hooks that stick in peopleís heads. Lyrics are icing on the cake. You can take a pretty melody and ruin it with stupid lyrics. The lyrics should complement the melody so people will remember the song. For instance, in the song ĎThereís Hope,í the lyrics are about an aching heart. The words make the melody more appealing to people and sticks in peopleís minds.
[Susan Frances] When you enter the studio, what do you look for with regard to sound?
Matt Smallbone As a bass player, I try to make my right hand connect with the right foot of our drummerís kick pedal so it is timed to get that fat bass sound. When I practice, I make certain to learn his kick patterns so my right hand will strike the chord to match his kick.
[Susan Frances] What was the experience of producing your album like?
Matt Smallbone Producing your own album is very stressful. The producerís opinion counts. We use a democratic decision-making process in the studio. We have been together for five years. It is important to adjudicate, which can be tricky when working with each other. You want to respect each otherís opinions and input. You want to enjoy your time spent in the studio, put your ideas down and make your own work.
[Susan Frances] What are the names of your albums? Were they all self-produced?
Matt Smallbone Alabaster Box was the first album, then Main Attraction and our last album was Love on the Radio. All are self-produced and released on our own label. We released the albums independently of a record label, which has its benefits. It is a better deal for us. The downside is that we donít have access to a lot of money like bands signed to a major label do, but we can decide on the kind of album we want and tour schedule we want.
[Susan Frances] What do you hope to communicate with your music? What does it mean to you?
Matt Smallbone We care about giving people a good time. We try to communicate that to people with our music. People want more than to hear great music. They want to have a good time. They want to feel something when they come to a show. They could spend $10 on a movie like ďLord of the Rings,Ē which was an excellent movie, or spend it on one of our shows. We have to show them that itís worth the $10 to come see an Alabaster Box show over a movie. We are competing with other entertainment out there so we need to have more than just good music. We need to make the audience join in the music and be a part of the show.
[Susan Frances] How does the medium of music videos relate to your music?
Matt Smallbone Music videos are secondary to what we do. There are not many opportunities in Australia for rock bands. We rely on paid TV and cable television to us. We donít really think about music videos. The song is first for us and how it will work live. We do over two hundred shows a year, so for us the live shows are what matters most and how we gain fans.
[Susan Frances] You have a DVD called Live at Ripley Road. How did the DVD come together?
Matt Smallbone The DVD came together because we needed to put down something about us between our last album, Love on the Radio, and our next album, which we plan on recording later this year. Right now we are in the process of writing songs for our next album, but we needed to bring out something in between our last album and our next one.
The 2004 tour went really well for us and we wanted to show it. A friend of mine is a video director, and we hired a camera crew who shot the footage for the DVD. It was released by Ebenezer films. It was something new for us, and we had positive feedback from fans. We wanted the DVD to introduce the band to people. There is live footage from our shows, interviews with the band, and a special section for girls where Naarah talks about the youth club she started called Godís Little Rocker. The club is important to the band and the DVD shows people what Godís Little Rocker is about and what we are like. It allowed us to be personal with our fans.
[Susan Frances] What are some the things that have changed in your life since you entered the music business?
Matt Smallbone Not too much. The hardest part is having to leave your family for several days or weeks while on the road. In one day we had to travel from Brisbane to Perth, which is about the same distance as going from New York to LA, and then we had to drive back to Brisbane. Touring is what challenging. Being in several places in a certain amount of time can be very hard physically and hard on our families, but we try to have fun. We play a lot of cricket.
[Susan Frances] What is the most important lesson you have learned about playing live in front of people?
Matt Smallbone We are there to entertain. Our focus is on what the crowd wants, not on how fast our drummer can play. People donít want to see that. They want to laugh, cry, and feel good at a live show. We try to connect with our audience. A lot of thought goes into our live shows. There are times when we feel like there was so much more we could have done to get our audience involved. We tour a lot. We do two hundred shows a year, so we spend most of our time on the road or playing live.
[Susan Frances] What would you tell someone to get them to pick up an instrument and start playing?
Matt Smallbone Make sure you do well in high school because you donít know how it is going to go with music. Have something to fall back on because you never know with music if you are going make it. Making music is a nice way to fill in the hours on a morning. Itís a nice thing to be able to do. Itís creates real joy for you and for others. It helps you to form camaraderie with your fellow musicians. Itís good to have a go at it. Youíll have a great time doing it.
The younger you start, the easier it is going to be for you. You never know how people will receive your music so you just have to do it. Make the songs your own. Everyone hears something different in the band; it just depends on the person listening to us play. You have to play like you want to and hope that people will like the best that comes out of you when you give it to them.
Success is coming to Alabaster Box one step at a time and the band is savoring every moment as it is given to them. It is Alabaster Boxís upbeat nature and harmonizing abilities that make fans love them. Their uncorrupted sense of music inspires positive feelings in people. It might be old book maxims that they follow, but with a freshness and a modern rock sound. They are sensitive to each other and their audience and they play with their hearts on their sleeves. Itís their egos which stay down to earth and their music that lifts people up.
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