TCB Exclusive: Newsboys' Duncan Phillips Talks "God's Not Dead 2" & Challenges Of Recording New Album

Helping define the sound of Christian music for more than two decades, Newsboys continue to sell out venues across the country. Comprised of lead vocalist Michael Tait, Duncan Phillips (drums), Jody Davis (guitar) and Jeff Frankenstein (keys), the band has sold more than 8 million units, amassing eight Gold certifications, 33 #1 radio hits, four GRAMMY nominations, two American Music Award nominations and multiple Dove Awards. “God’s Not Dead,” Newsboys’ chart-topping, Platinum-certified single, inspired Pure Flix's 2014 hit film of the same name. The theme of "God's Not Dead 2," "Guilty," is also featured on Newsboys’ FairTrade Services debut recording, Love Riot. Their critically-acclaimed new album recently debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart and Top Alternative Albums chart, along with topping numerous other national charts, marking one of the biggest sales weeks for a Christian artist to date this year. The Newsboys are currently showcasing hits from their unparalleled career and new studio recording on the final leg of their “We Believe…God’s Not Dead” Tour. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Duncan and talk about the band's role in "God's Not Dead 2" and the challenges they faced in recording the new album.

First off, we have to talk to you about the newly released “God’s Not Dead 2” movie! We saw that you traveled to Hollywood and Nashville for the movie premieres. What was that whole acting experience like? And, how cool is it that “Guilty” is the theme song for the movie?
It’s a real trip because we are not actors. And you can tell from our second movie that we are still not actors. It’s really fun to be a part of something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Pure Flix came to us and said they loved the song and wanted to try to rewrite their first movie based on the song to make sense with it. So they wrote the first movie, and we just had no idea the scope – no one knew. We thought it would be like most CCM movies that would go straight to DVD. So we didn’t take it seriously. First day of shooting and we hadn’t learned our lines. Then we got there and saw it was a full movie set. We went back to the bus and realized we had to learn our lines. So for the second movie, we learned our lines ahead. It’s a cool movement, and it’s something where I think the subject matter is so poignant to where we are today within our culture. One of the biggest things people say to us is ‘don’t stop.’ They are feeling the momentum of this thing and it’s encouraging them. And if I can inspire anyone in their faith, I’m stoked. So this gives people the opportunity to go to a neutral venue, like a theater, and they can be proud of their faith. And I think if nothing else, it’s made people who are Christians very proud of their stance and their faith. I’m hoping that people will go see it if they’re on the fence or unsure. If you don’t know why you believe what you believe, there are a lot of very smart atheists out there who could talk you out of your faith. So I think this movie has helped to encourage people to find out why they believe what they believe.

Thinking back to when you were filming and then when you watched the finished project, was there a particular scene or moment that was really powerful for you?
Knowing that I didn’t mess it up as much as I thought I did was great! [Laughs.] I think the moment we had with the character Amy in her dressing room, where she was attacking us on her faith, and we end up praying for her. I think that was a very emotional moment. That prayer was real. And she’s in the second movie as well. I love her character because she’s someone who is very hardened. And I don’t want to give too much away but her character is affected by the Gospel, which is very exciting.

We have to say congratulations on the release of the new record. Love Riot, as you know, debuted at #1 on Nielsen SoundScan’s Christian Digital Albums chart; #1 on iTunes’ Christian Top Albums chart; and in the Top 10 on iTunes’ overall Top Albums chart. 
It’s exciting! I think when you’ve been around for as long as we have that I still don’t get tired of accolades because we are still very proud of what we do and we’ve sunk our whole lives into this thing. And to still get those accolades, not that it means anything in terms of eternity, but right now it’s a nice encouragement that we’re still here and doing well. It’s a nice acknowledgement that hard work and dedication and God saying ‘well done, good and faithful servant’.

This was your first project with FairTrade Services. In addition to the label change, how else was the recording of this album different than previous releases?
Well the great thing with FairTrade is we have known Jeff Mosley and the crew for a long time. We have a relationship that goes back, and I think when you work with people in the label business you are either like-minded or you’re not. And I know a lot of people, young artists in particular, who get into a deal where they end up finding out three records later that it works in the label’s favor and not theirs. And having the relationship with Jeff Mosley and FairTrade, there is mutual respect. They love us and we love them. And that combined passion for what we do is going to be a great time. We have the band and the label moving in the same direction. And that’s a very powerful position to be in. We want to go out and preach the Gospel; we have a valid point of view that we want to get across that the world is not hearing because culture is screaming so loudly the other way. We just want to get out and be heard.

Which track from the album was the first one that you really identified with and said "this has to go on the record!"?
I’m a pop guy. “Crazy” was my first initial ‘that has got to go on the record.’ It’s a smash hit. “Children of God” is another one, written by a good friend of ours. And then “Love Riot” – they are all just great songs! We are playing 5 songs right now off the new record, which rarely happens. When you have a new record, you normally put in 1 or 2 songs, since no one knows them yet. But playing 5 from this record is an indication of its strength. I think we will probably end up adding another couple, simply because they are just so good. You want to honor the past, which a lot of people want to hear songs that remind them, but going forward you want to play as many songs as you can off your latest project to let people know your latest sound. So it’s very hard to get a 90-minute set together from over 18 records.

Were there any songs that were particularly challenging to write or record?
We really went outside our comfort zone. We know many producers in Nashville and have great relationships with them. But what we did this time – we went to the West Coast and worked with Mark Needham, who works with more pop acts, because we wanted to stretch. There’s a phrase ‘no pain, no gain.’ We didn’t have a previous relationship with him, so he ended up pulling stuff out of the band that we might not have gotten. But because of his perspective, he ended up pulling us up and pulling stuff out of us that we didn’t know was there. Even Michael would call me while he was doing vocals because he was out of his comfort zone and had less say than we would have had in Nashville. Michael would then call me after listening to the vocal track and say it’s the best he’s ever heard. So it was a lot of that because we were out of our comfort zone. Human beings tend to strive for comfort, what is easy and the less stress. But that’s not how you grow. If you want to build a muscle, you have to put it under stress and strain to grow. And that’s what we did for this record. And I think it’s the best we’ve done – the best songs we’ve ever recorded. I was more challenged on this record than on any we’ve ever done. So from the pressure we were put under, we end up owning all of this new stuff. And now my repertoire ends up being expanded and Michael’s repertoire ends up being expanded. He becomes a better vocalist, and I become a better drummer, a more rounded drummer.

You guys just recently wrapped up this year’s massive “Rock & Worship Roadshow” tour, and now here you are on the spring leg of the “We Believe…God’s Not Dead” Tour. How do you keep refreshed and centered show after show?
I love it. If I have too much time off, then I start to feel antsy because we work so hard to be where we are. So when I have time off, I feel like I’m losing traction. And I know it is stupid; I’ve got to have those times of rest. But 2 or 3 weeks is enough for me. That’s how I’m built though. We have most of the month of May off this year, which is big for us, so I’ve got to do it for me and my family. And I know it’s important, but there’s a part of me that hates it. When you’re doing 3-4 shows a week, you get this live snap that only comes out of playing shows. You can’t duplicate it with practice. And I feel like I lose a little bit of that, but I do get it back once I start playing shows again. It’s just like running and working out, if you take 3-4 days off, it’s harder to do that same amount you used to because your body wants to fight. It’s the same with playing live shows. Your body doesn’t respond the way you want it to after having a month off.