Duncan Phillips of Newsboys

by Dan MacIntosh

Newsboys have become an institution in Christian music. Since forming in Australia, and later migrating to Nashville, this band is already on its third lead singer: Michael Tait, formerly of DC Talk. However, no matter who might be leading the ship, this enthusiastic, praise and worship-oriented rock-pop act has consistently created popular, quality Christian music.

Duncan Phillips has been with the band since its inception, 1985. He's seen it all, both the good and the bad, and took a few minutes to talk about highlights of the past, and plans for the future.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): We've got about ten minutes, I think, so let's get right to it. This interview is going to be for a site called Songfacts, and we're all about songs and songwriting. So we have some information on the site about your songs, but there are some songs we don't really have a whole lot of information. So I wanted to talk about them.

Duncan Phillips: Great, excellent.

Songfacts: My favorite song by the Newsboys is "I Am Free." When I'm traveling home and I want to crank something up and sing it at the top of my lungs, that's usually the one.

Phillips: Yeah.

Songfacts: So what can you tell me about how you feel about that song and is it one that you still enjoy playing live?

Phillips: You know, we actually don't play that song live anymore. I think the new sound of the band now moving forward with the Born Again record, and now with the God's Not Dead record, there are so many great songs to choose from. But unfortunately, some songs get canned. You only get a specific amount of time to play every night. But "I Am Free" was a great moment in the band's history. I remember when we first heard it and we first recorded it, it was just like, Oh my gosh, it's something. Because there's a real energy to that song. It has a good tempo to it, it really moves along. And the great thing about it is that it's a great anthem that most people can really get behind and sing. So if you can have a great groove, a great beat that makes people want to dance and then have a great anthem behind it, I think it's a very powerful combination. "I Am Free" to me was definitely a very historical moment in the band's history. It's a great song, I really did enjoy playing it live, that's for sure.

Songfacts: Do you still play "You Are My King (Amazing Love)"?

Phillips: No. These are songs we haven't played in a little while now. And they're all great songs. The good thing with recording 17 records is that you have this incredible catalogue to choose from. And I know that most bands, whenever you do a record, your emphasis is on that new record for the most part. Obviously, you still want to play songs that people want to hear. But we get get an hour, hour and a quarter to play. We're not like U2, they play for 2 1/2 hours. I don't know why we don't. But for some reason we don't. I don't know whether our fans can't handle the music that long. But we usually have a set, typically at the longest, one-twenty. So you've only got 13, 14 songs at the most that you can put together.

But what I'd really like to do one day is take out one or two less support acts and do a longer set. I'd love to be able to do a two-hour set, like a lot of mainstream acts do and just see if people can resonate with that. Our shows are pretty action packed, they're very exciting and we've got crowds on their feet for most of it. So I don't know whether people can handle that for two hours. (Laughing) I don't know if I could handle it for two hours. So you do have to choose where you are at that moment in time, and unfortunately some of the great songs of the past do get left behind. It's sad, but true.

Songfacts: If you were to name your favorite songs that you play these days, what would you say are the ones you like best and why?

Phillips: Without being weird, I think some of my most favorite parts have been ones from Born Again. I mean, there's a reason behind it. We really feel like we have been born again on so many levels. We feel very rejuvenated. We feel like we were faced with the demise of the band at one point, and we all now have come out the other side of the scene with a new version of Newsboys, and we just have a huge feeling of gratitude that we still get to do what we love to do and still get to do what we're called to do. So the newer stuff for me holds a very special place in my heart, because it's the start of a new beginning. And that's always very exciting.

So when I play "Born Again" and I play "The Miracles," when I play "Save Your Life," it's like, yeah, we have been saved, we've been given another chance - a second chance to do this thing. But then, of course, looking back some of my fondest memories is "Spirit Thing," is "Reality," is "It is You," is "Step Up To the Microphone." All these - even "Not Ashamed." I mean, when the Not Ashamed record first came out, that was another very historical monumental time in our career, because we went from selling 20-30,000 records from the prior records to selling a quarter of a million copies of the Not Ashamed record. Of course, there's "Shine" and "Breakfast," we've had probably the most notorious - for want of a better term - hits of our career, and we still play those songs. They're called career songs. They're songs that you probably have to play for the rest of your lives. And that's great. I feel very privileged that we do have those songs that we still get to play.

We've had a very exciting, long career, which is rare in our industry. But I think looking forward, hearing the songs that we're demoing right now, and I think with Michael (Tait), it really gives us an opportunity to explore musical avenues that we may not have done before in the past to looking forward now, the future looks incredibly bright. I really, truly believe that the best is yet to come for Newsboys.

Songfacts: Is Michael writing with Peter (Furler)?

Phillips: Peter doesn't have anything to do with the band at all. We thought that he might at one point. But Peter left about three years ago now. And we thought that it might be a great idea for him to be involved, but he really wanted to just say, "Goodbye, I'm done, I've had enough." So with the Born Again record, it ends up being a total different bunch of writers. I know Michael wrote some songs with the new team of writers that we had. But saying that, it's been the same core band for 18 years: myself, Jeff Frankenstein and Jody Davis have been in the band for 18 years now. So as far as the core of the band, it's remained the same. These lead singers you can't trust. (Laughing)

Songfacts: One of the bonus tracks that I really like from the last album is the one that you did with Israel Houghton.

Phillips: Oh yeah, what song was that now?

Songfacts: It was "I'll Remember You."

Phillips: Yeah. And that was real fun, too. Because Israel is a good mate of ours, we've known him for many years. He's actually gone to my home church. So that was a real nice collaboration where I know his crowd is really quite different from ours, so it was really nice to bring that side into what Newsboys do. Because I think Newsboys at our core we're a pop band. I've always been a sucker for a 3 1/2 minute pop song. So to bring Israel and his flavor into that song was definitely a special moment.

Songfacts: Do you ever think about working with him again, making music together?

Phillips: I don't know. I think we had a lot of fun with Israel this time and if the song would lend itself to that and if he can do that again, I'm sure we would.

Songfacts: What can you tell me about the God's Not Dead album as far as what you like about it so far?

Phillips: It has 7 worship covers on it and 5 brand new songs that the Newsboys have recorded. So we're very, very excited about that. I think it's worship stuff, but it's done very Newsboys style. It's done very pop. Yes, it is a worship record and songs that people know in church - some for years, some not quite so long. But they were some of our favorite songs. You know, some songs I hear in church and I'm like, "Man, I wouldn't play that that way. I'd do it this way." And that gave us an opportunity to put our flair and our flavor on those songs. And we didn't wuss out on production. To me, a lot of worship music sounds very much the same - it's very vanilla, for want of a better term. I'm not knocking anyone, but Newsboys with our pop-rock kind of flavor, we really put that tilt on these worship songs, and I'm very, very proud of this record. It's a great record.

Saying that, we are working on new stuff. Some of the new stuff probably has a little bit more of a pop flair to it, and it'll probably be more like Born Again stylistically, but even more pop. At our core, we're just a quirky pop band. But I think the kind of stuff we're recording now will resonate with a broader spectrum of people.

Songfacts: What is your favorite new song on the album, and what is your favorite worship song on it?

Phillips: There's a song called "The King is Coming," which is an incredible rock/pop/worship anthem. I'm very excited about that song, and we've been playing it out already, so much fun. People have really connected with it.

And there's a song called "God's Not Dead, He's Roaring like a Lion." And that song, to me, really sums up our faith. Being a culture where for the most part people are humanistic, very narcissistic, we don't need God, there is no God, he's dead. Well, this is really a slap in that face. It's a very sobering statement. I think it's an anthem that a lot of Christians are going to be able to gather around. But you know what? Culture might be saying this, but I don't believe that. We don't believe that God is dead. We believe he's very much alive and he's roaring like a lion, seeking out his beloved. So it's a very exciting kind of anthem-istic counterculture statement of a record that I really believe our fans will be able to get around and support. It's very exciting.

Songfacts: Are those songs that you wrote?

Phillips: "God's Not Dead (Like a Lion)" was actually written by Daniel Bashta, and he's a music guy that's written some great songs over the years. But that was one song in particular that really resonated with Newsboys. "The King is Coming" is a Newsboys song. As an artist, you tend to get a little more excited about the songs you wrote.

Songfacts: Fantastic. It's good to hear how enthusiastic you are. We had a chance to talk once before, and you haven't changed a bit.

Phillips: I never do. Because I think when you do, you lose that passion, that excitement for what you do - you might as well pack up and go home. No one wants to see a brooding dark musician up on stage doing his thing. That's not the way I feel. And part of my personality, I just want to have fun with what I do. I love what I do, I believe I'm called to it. And playing drums, it's very primal, it's very testosterone driven, and it works for me. When I was a young teenager, I just loved the way that playing drums made me feel, and I still get to do that. I just want to show people that faith is fun, that I'm having a blast. I think a lot of times when people see you having a blast, they end up having a good time, too.

We spoke with Duncan Phillips on November 10, 2011. For more, check out newsboys.com.
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Comments: 4

  • Paul Bleeker from Newton, IaI think your audience could handle 2 hours of playing so you can play songs like "I Am Free" and "You Are My King". They are classics that never grow old.
  • Tracy from MichiganAll your music I think plays an important role in society. I guess I'm just wired, things just round ( hit ) me differently. Music holdhc82s a story or an experience of some sort for me. I can hear my excitements, pains and troubles and sometimes I connect them with or other people around me. My life is filled with music almost 24 - 7. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself on stage and in words. I'm sorry if I missed something I'm really not a big reader I do better listening. Your ministry is apprecieated. If there's anything I can do let me know ill keep you in my prayers (it doesn't have to be up front, next to or extremely personal) I'm not pushy or invasive I just want o give back to you a little you put out so much of yourselves. You can leave me on the outskirts if you want. Prayer if you need it families are important( some families are in route the knocked around a lot that's why god told me to pray em ). The ones already together and the ones building into one : ). The devil likes to play a lot.
  • Tammy from WyomingThe Newsboys new album is great! We were on the Music Boat and were able to see them perform God's Not Dead live and it was fantastic! Duncan is an awesome drummer! My 5yr old son loves the chorus of God's Not Dead and sings it all the time. I can't wait to see the Newsboys live again!
  • Jasmin from GermanyGreat - they have been one of the most successful bands among christian bands, and have produced quite a good load of fun songs - worship can also be fun, right? That being said, it was interesting to hear Phillips mention good old songs, even if they can't play them anymore (what is up with those meager one and a quarter hour concerts??? Booo!), and interesting to see in the interview how the band has evolved. The christian music scene is very much ignored by mainstream media, so kudos to Songfacts for making this interview happen!
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