The crowd snaking toward the House of Blues at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas looks a little out of place—as out of place as the band about to hit the stage. Christian rockers Third Day have drawn their usual fans tonight, a churchgoing throng who aren’t exactly hell-bent on getting their Rat Pack on after the show. No, these folks are just relieved that—in the midst of Sin City—the band waiting for them inside is about to unleash a little faith with its power-chord-drenched anthems.
It’s a safe bet that few of the casino regulars strewn—scotch in hand—about the slots and blackjack tables could pick Third Day out of a lineup. Still, the group is one of the most successful ever to come out of Georgia, with three Grammy® Awards and a string of gold and platinum albums. These righteous rockers—who formed in Marietta in the early 1990s—are still growing their audience after 12-plus years and 7 million records sold.
Even more impressive, Third Day has accomplished all of this without mainstream secular exposure. Despite albums including Wire and Wherever You Are that have landed in the Top 20 of Billboard’s Top 200 chart, a high profile tour sponsorship with Chevy and and several appearances on the Tonight Show, the band, along with groups like Switchfoot and Jars of Clay ((both appearing with Third Day this fall on the Music Builds tour), is part of a large subset of the music business that accounts for more than half-a-billion dollars in sales annually and is distinguished not by style or sound but by worldview.
Third Day’s home base of Atlanta—buckle of the Bible belt—is Christian music’s second biggest market, so while the band’s label and management reside a few hours up the road in Nashville, it’s no surprise that Third Day hasn’t strayed far from Georgia’s capital. And they’re not alone: A-list Christian-rock act Casting Crowns also live in Atlanta, worship leader Chris Tomlin just moved to town to start a church with Passion Ministries/Sixsteps Records founder Louie Giglio, and singer/songwriters Aaron Shust and Laura Story—as well as worship leaders Kristian Stanfill, Steve Fee and Matt Redman—all call the ATL home, making Third Day part of a thriving scene.
An Immaculate Conception
Third Day began as a scraggly, Jesus-loving Southern-rock outfit alongside a pair of other Georgia bands that would break onto the national scene in the ’90s, The Waiting and Smalltown Poets (then called Villanelle). Third Day signed to indie Gray Dot Records in 1995, had its first album picked up by Christian label Reunion the following year, and was off to the races. The band’s self-titled Reunion debut sold in the hundreds of thousands and scored several #1 singles at various Christian-radio formats.
In 1997, Reunion was acquired by pop label Zomba, and the band made its first attempt to cross into mainstream rock with the sonically crisp Conspiracy No. 5. Since then, Third Day has alternated between trying to ford the mainstream (Conspiracy and Wire) and refocusing on its core church fans (the rest of its albums, especially the worship-oriented Offerings projects). The band’s 10th studio album, Revelation, released this past July, is its latest attempt at reaching beyond the confines of the Christian market. In this regard, the record has been hugely successful, debuting at #6 on Billboard’s album chart.
This feat didn’t escape the notice of Bob Lefsetz, music-industry vet and trash-talking blogger, who mused, “What kind of crazy f—d up world do we live in where the religious music business knows better than the mainstream? This is artist development. There’s been no scorched-earth marketing, no desire to reach Buddhists and Muslims, just a focus on the core. Third Day has a career.”
“Our last record did really well,” acknowledges bassist Tai Anderson. “It was our fastest selling gold record and won a Grammy. The conventional wisdom would be, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” But the band, now a foursome, decided it was high time to shake things up.
The band’s road to Revelation was rocky one. This year, Third Day parted ways with longtime guitarist Brad Avery, and left behind Creative Trust, the management firm it’s been with its whole career. The band also recorded in L.A. with producer-of-the-moment Howard Benson, who’s responsible for hits by Daughtry, Gavin DeGraw, Flyleaf and P.O.D.
“To get a bigger, more energetic sound,” Anderson says, “you normally add more parts—guitar parts or whatever. But [Benson] stripped it down. Then everything counts more; everything has to be better. We needed someone outside of ourselves who we could trust to make that happen.”
The band has learned, over the years, that if it gives “people just what they want, they’re going to resent us for it,” as Anderson puts it.
“There’s such a fine balance—of wanting to be who you are and trying to stretch who you are musically,” says lead vocalist and chief lyricist Mac Powell. “Even as a fan, when James Taylor or Bruce Springsteen comes out with a record, I want to hear a James Taylor or Bruce Springsteen record. But it’s got to be a little different so you can say, ‘I haven’t heard this before.’ We try to do that.”
Anderson paraphrases U2 frontman Bono: “He says that when they’re working on records, good is the enemy of great. You can just get [too] comfortable. … We proposed from the beginning of this project that we want a new statement of who we are. We wanted to be uncomfortable.”
With Benson, Third Day got its wish. “We’ve always made our records here in Georgia at Southern Tracks, our favorite studio,” Anderson says. “But Howard said, ‘I work in L.A.—deal with it.’”
“We were like a new band for Howard,” Powell says. “He liked us, but he didn’t have in his mind, ‘Well, here’s Third Day, I’m gonna give them some room, they deserve to have their say.’ It was not fun at all, but it was great [for us]; we knew it was going to make us stronger and better. But the first few weeks were really hard. … We thought, ‘how can we get out of this?’ And, even a few weeks in, we thought, ‘we’ll never do this again.’ But by the end of it, we couldn’t wait to make another record with Howard.”
Benson brought a few friends with him to the sessions, including Chris Daughtry, Flyleaf vocalist Lacy Mosely and steel guitar monster Robert Randolph, who all guest on the record. With these heavyweights around (and with the pressure Benson put on the Third Day to help them crank out a diamond), making Revelation first challenged, then reaffirmed, the band’s faith in its abilities. “The big threat producers hold over bands is that they’ll bring in studio musicians to fix it,” says Anderson. “We said, ‘but our fans love this band.’ He said, ‘No, they don’t—they don’t care.’ He’ll throw out these big names, and you start to feel like, ‘hey, I’m not good enough’—I thought I was never going to be able to play good enough to meet his standards. But then when we did, it ended up being really encouraging.”
“He pushed us in a way that no producer has,” says drummer David Carr, “more in terms of song selection and figuring out what was a good song. In the end, my take is that it’s by far the best album we’ve ever made.”
The band gives a lot of the credit to Benson, who not only tightened up the music, but offered a fresh perspective. “We worked with a producer who wasn’t a Christian [Benson is Jewish] and didn’t come from the CCM world,” says Powell. “He wasn’t going to let us get away with lyrics that were clichéd and only speaking to a Christian audience.”
Revelation’s album’s standouts include “Run to You,” which Carr describes as a 6/8 rock song with Lacy Mosely guesting, and “I Will Always Be True” which he calls “Springsteen-esque.” “There are a couple of songs on it that seem to be about clichéd things,” says Powell, referencing “Born Again.” “But when you listen to them, they take you in a different direction.”
Keeping the Faith
The sense of achievement the band feels about its new album is as much about weathering the past year as it is about the music. “We’ve made a couple of huge decisions … that dramatically changed the band,” says Powell.
“Two years ago,” Carr elaborates, “we started to look for some new direction with management to help us [pinpoint] what our dreams were, redefine them and go get them. It wasn’t a slight on our old management. We just needed some new fire under us to move us forward. … It seemed like we were going to start fizzling out.”
To avoid such a fate, the band turned to Red Light Management, whose clients include Dave Matthews Band, Alanis Morissette, Carly Simon and Good Charlotte. The company has recently signed several artists with roots in the Christian world: Switchfoot, Robert Randolph and screamo band Underoath.
The great thing about Red Light,” says Carr, “is that we’ve got so many people involved. We have access to every one of them. Coran Capshaw, the top guy—I can call him right now, and he’d answer his phone. Even though we’re this Christian band and a lot of the world doesn’t know who we are, they treat us like we’re the only [band] they manage.”
While the members of Third Day are eager to talk up their new management, they’re a bit more reticent about discussing Avery’s departure. “It’s the hardest move we’ve ever made as a band,” says Carr. “We’re trying to not say too much about it, without sounding like it was some sneaky thing. It was a parting of ways that culminated from several years of feeling like we were diverging a little bit in terms of our ideas, and the direction we wanted to go in.”
Powell’s answer is equally vague: “We’d reached a place where we needed to move on—musically, and in other ways. A lot of times when friends have disagreements, everyone wants the best for the band, but we may see that in different ways. Making this record helped us realize, finally, that we were going in different directions.” Avery’s departure came about a month after the Revelation sessions wrapped. Still, Powell praises his former bandmate’s contributions: “What he played on the record is just incredible,” he says. So far, the band has not replaced Avery.
Jesus Went Down to Georgia
You can’t talk to Third Day without two subjects coming up: Jesus and Georgia. “Just being from Georgia, we’re part of a great tradition,” Anderson says. “Look at what The Black Crowes are doing, or R.E.M. or the Indigo Girls. Look back at [Little Richard], or Brendan O’Brien’s influence [O’Brien is Springsteen’s current producer of choice and also mixed Third Day’s Wire album]. There’s a great music tradition in Georgia.
“All the time, bands go to Nashville first, hook up with a Nashville producer and end up sounding the same. With Bruce and Bon Jovi, you know they’re from New Jersey; with U2, you know they’re from Dublin. Hopefully, for us, people hear that, too.”
“A lot of people move to Nashville because they’re trying to get started,” says Powell. “We kind of went the opposite way.” When the labels came calling, “we were too busy to move. By the time we started getting on the road, we were getting married, and it didn’t make sense to move our wives away from their families and friends and churches.
“I don’t think Georgia gets the credit it deserves for its music scene,” Powell continues. “There’s a great history of gospel music, contemporary Christian music, Southern rock, country, Americana. … That’s definitely been an influence on us.”
Working On a Building
Third Day’s upcoming tour with Christian-rock giants Switchfoot and Jars of Clay, and soulful secular artist Robert Randolph (whose sacred-steel playing has roots in the church), hits both sheds and arenas this fall on its 23-city run. “We were thinking about doing a Christian music festival … up in Tennessee,” Anderson says. “Our new management participated in Bonnaroo, and we were looking at bands coming from [a Christian] perspective—but not necessarily labeled “CCM”—all coming together for a cause. We got to the point where it was getting too late to pull together a festival, so our management came back and said, ‘What about making this a tour?’”
Proceeds from the tour will benefit Habitat for Humanity, the famous Georgia-based charity that builds houses for low-income families in the U.S. and abroad. This isn’t Third Day’s first time partnering with Habitat. The band’s 2001 tour donated one dollar per ticket sold to the charity, completely funding three new homes in the U.S. and about 10 overseas, where the money goes further.
The band has learned from its past experience with Habitat, honing the process along the way. “The one negative [of the previous tour] was that only in three of the 60 cities we played was money going back into that city,” Anderson says. This time, they’re using the same dollar-a-ticket model, but the money from each show will go to local projects, allowing people to directly impact their community. Talk about “love thy neighbor.”
Anderson says that the tour is making an effort to promote Habitat to the evangelical community and beyond. The bands have allowed the organization to have reps at each venue to promote local, hands-on volunteer opportunities, and the musicians will all participate in Habitat building projects throughout the tour, as schedules permit. “We get to be a great ambassador [of] the church,” says Anderson, who took a weeklong Habitat trip to South Africa with former president Jimmy Carter in 2003. These philanthropic partnerships with organizations like Habitat are the rule rather than the exception in the Christian market: Most major tours partner in some way with a mission or charity organization. It’s one of the many reasons Powell is unapologetic about the band’s Christian identity.
“We can’t change who we are at this point,” he says, laughing. “It’s out there. If anyone hears our music and likes it, hopefully they won’t be put off by what we talk about in concert. I was reading from Paul last night, where he talks [in 1 Corinthians 9] about being all things to all people. We try to do that.”