Here’s the second half of the Whole Notes conversation with Australian worship band Hillsong United:
Chad Bonham: Does the heart cry of the band’s message change from project to project or has it stayed consistent since the beginning?
Joel Houston: I think God is seasonal. I think He reveals Himself bit by bit, piece by piece, revelation upon revelation. The main thing is always the main thing and the focus always needs to be Jesus, but as simple as that sounds sometimes it’s really easy to get away from that and try to search for something deeper or search for something more meaningful or more trendy. It is Jesus, always will be Jesus. At the end of the day, that’s the main thing—His message. But within that, I think there’s fresh revelation. I think with every project, there are certain songs that come together. It’s not like we go, “Okay this album here is going to be about the paradoxical nature of the cross and the way in which the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth,” you know that kind of thing, so we’re going to write songs to that end. We didn’t do that. It was like, “Let’s just write songs. Let’s write music. Let’s talk about what God is talking to us about.” And these songs started coming out with similar themes and all of the sudden there’s these different puzzle pieces and then the centerpiece drops. “Okay, hang on. I think I know what this is going to be about.” Right now we’re thinking about the next project. We were thinking about Aftermath probably 18 months in advance, praying about it, thinking about it. It wasn’t until probably two months after our first deadline (laughs) that it really started to cement. That’s God. He’s drawing us to Himself. It’s a process of stepping in, stepping in, trusting, trying to dig deeper until it’s like, “I get it now.”
Bonham: How important is it for the band to stay musically relevant?
Jad Gillies: If you love music, you’re going to listen to music. You’re going to find fresh, unifying, new things that inspire you. You’re going to find things that challenge the way you think about music and the way you think about creating it as well. We’re not trying to be trendy. We’re trying to inspire ourselves to be creative I guess. Styles and trends come and go just like in fashion. If you love food, you’re going to eat food. If you love music, you’re going to listen to it and you’ll feed off it. God created the Earth so He’s a creative master. When He’s at work, that’s when the freshness happens. We have similar tastes but there are a lot of things that are different and they all come together. Some of us will hate something and others will love it. We’re not trying to be trendy for fashion’s sake. It’s more for love of what God’s given us to do. We want to do that to the best of our ability.
Bonham: Do you feel a responsibility to strive for excellence?
Houston: When we go into a new project, it’s like, “What’s worked for us in the past?” There might be a certain chord structure or you can play the guitar a certain way. Guitar right is doing this. Guitar left is doing that. It’s going to work. People will like it. So when we go into a project it’s like, “Let’s put that in a box. We’re not going to do that. Now, what can we do?” I just think that’s part of creativity whether it’s art or anything else. I think God breathes creativity on everybody whether it’s sanctified or not. I think there’s something to be gleaned from all creativity. We are consumers of good music and love it, listen to it, glean from it. There’s definitely a choice within ourselves to press forward, especially with United, not for the sake of being cool or being cutting edge, but actually even just for us because I get bored. I don’t want to play the same songs we played four years ago. And even on this tour, we’re doing some older songs but we’re adding a fresh layer to them.
Gillies: If we keep doing what works because it works, we’ll end up being the ones that end up sounding like 20 years ago. That’s just how it is. And it’s fun to push the boundary a little bit.
Houston: I like going into a project and doing a song, not knowing if it’s going to work. That’s the best feeling. A song like “Take Heart.” I didn’t know if it was going to work. It might not be a song that’s going to work in church but they’re songs that I just feel like we’ve got to sing. Then we do the songs and people are singing them and people are worshipping God. And I’m like, “Okay, whew!” for one. But also, I shouldn’t be surprised because one of the things we’re amazed at is when people put God’s creativity in a box based on what works and what doesn’t work. If the heart is pure and right, there’s no end to what we can do creatively to express that.
Bonham: How do you make sure that you maintain a spirit of worship in an atmosphere that might be just as conducive to performance?
Houston: It is every night we step out and we’ve got a whole lot of different people there. We were just talking about this before. You’ve got people who are super fans and people who you feel are there for the wrong reasons, but they’re just excited because maybe they haven’t seen an expression like this before. And we want to do everything with excellence not just for the sake of excellence but because if we’re going to do something we might as well do it the best we can. That’s one of our mottos. Why should it be bad? Not that it’s awesome, but we want to do the best we know how as long as it’s to the glory of God and helping people connect with God.
It’s been really clear to me that our prayer for this project is that when people listen to it they have a greater sense that God is with them wherever they are. To me, that’s the message for now. We have a revelation of who Jesus is and His grace for our lives and for other people, and our mission is to love others the same way He loved us. We want them to have an understanding that as the church, we’re called to truly be light in dark places; not just a beautiful Christian metaphor, but the reality of that and how it looks. But the only way to do that is by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and by understanding that Jesus died and rose again and it’s not just a fairy tale. It doesn’t just mean that one day we get to be with God in Heaven. It actually is about the fact that His Spirit is now with us and that we’re empowered to live lives that actively see His Kingdom established here on Earth. He’s with us. So whether you’re in a schoolyard and you’re the only Christian in your school, that sense of understanding that God is with you in that moment to me is all you need. For me, I couldn’t do life without that understanding. I’ve been a Christian my whole life. I’ve known God my whole life and I still find myself in places where I’m like, “How am I supposed to do this?” Then I’m like, “Hang on. God, if You are who You say You are and You are with me right now, then greater is He who is in me than he who’s in the world.” I’m going to believe that. I’m going to stand firm and press on. I’m going to keep making the tough choices and I’m going to pick up my cross and carry it daily, not because I can do it by myself but because God is with me and He’s amazing. That’s the spirit when we do these nights. When we start, I just want to get through the first five songs. Because once you get to that place, all the layers start breaking down. All the people there thinking, “Are these guys for real” or the people there who are going, “You’re amazing! I want to get a photo!” all the layers start breaking down and the Spirit of God starts to work. Our prayer every night—and I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t feel like this happens every night—is that people walk out these doors with a greater understanding and revelation that Christ is with them right here, right now in their situation and in their circumstance. And that’s it.
Click HERE for part 1 of this interview with Hillsong United.
Check out a the video version of this interview HERE.
You can also keep up with the band’s latest news by visiting the official website HERE.