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I’m not sure of the exact date, but I do know it was 1995. I was working at a Mardel Christian Bookstore in Tulsa, Okla., at the time and we had a special guest dropping by that afternoon. It was a couple of guys from a new Atlanta-based band promoting their independent self-titled release on Gray Dot Records. They played a couple of acoustic numbers in the music department for three employees and a young father with his two sons.
I then took the two musicians to a coffee shop next door and we sat down for an interview that would eventually be printed by Seven Ball Magazine. Later that night, I watched them play at GUTS Church where I had first seen them perform a few months earlier. A few weeks later, I learned that they had signed a big record deal with Reunion Records. Things were happening for the good-natured Southern rock outfit with an evangelistic message.
In the 17 years since that first meeting, Third Day has sold over six million records, won 25 Dove Awards, won an American Music Award, four Grammy Awards and produced 17 #1 hit radio singles. The two guys I interviewed back in ’95 were lead singer Mac Powell and guitarist Mark Lee, both whom I’ve been fortunate to run into several times throughout the course of my writing and producing career. They’ve always been the same friendly, down-to-earth guys I remember way back when.
In this most recent opportunity, I talked to Lee who told me how the band stays creatively and spiritually fresh, how the business has changed since they first hit the road and what drives the band to serve and to encourage others to do the same:
Chad Bonham: For a band that’s been doing this for several years, what the secret to keeping everything fresh in spite of what has to at times seems like a grind?
Mark Lee: Just within the last couple of days, I read a cool commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. I’m doing online Christian Studies with Grand Canyon University and I’m having all these books thrown at me. I read the passage where Jesus talks about worrying about tomorrow because tomorrow will take care of itself. There’s so much wrapped up in that about worry and the future. Obviously God wants us to make plans and think about what we can do today that’s going to affect the future, but you can dwell on things in the future where you’re to the point of being worried about it. You can plan things but then you go beyond that, it becomes too much when you’re starting to worry about it. He tells us not to do that. Anyway, this commentary was talking about the Israelites and how God gave them manna everyday and it was always for that day. If they tried to keep it or use it again the next day, it would be spoiled and they couldn’t use it. That’s so much like our faith. God provides for us today. He gives us our daily bread. I think that speaks so much to us individually. And in our situation, we’ve been doing this for 20 years. It would be very easy to look back and say, “Look at these cool things we’ve done.” But that stuff doesn’t matter. We won a Dove Award for Group of the Year in 2002 and it was really fun at the time, but it doesn’t matter now. So we just have to focus on what God has for us today. That’s been the message that’s been on my heart. As far as keeping it fresh is concerned, if there was one secret, it’s just making every day count. God gives everyone the same amount of time (in the day) and you can make something out of it and redeem the time. I love that phrase. You can redeem the time. You can do some eternal things and invest that time and it’s going to return to you, or you can kind of sit around and do nothing. We’ve chosen to take the first route. And from a practical standpoint, when times get harder and things aren’t going quite as well, we have these friendships that go back so many years that we can fall back on. From a musical standpoint, it gets interesting when you put out a new album. You’re adding 10 songs to the 120 songs or so that you already have out there. You could easily go into a concert saying, “Well, people don’t want to hear the new songs. Let’s just do a ‘Greatest Hits’ set tonight,” but we feel like God’s got so much more he wants to do through us and through the new music we’re writing.
Bonham: Both the industry and the way information and media is disseminated has changed quite a bit since you guys first hit the scene. What advantages and/or challenges have those changes brought to the way the band operates today?
Lee: There are so many things wrapped up in that. On the industry side, when we first interviewed with you back in the mid-90s, people thought Christian rock was just for the kids. We can have these bands come in and play for the youth group, but when we want to have serious music to play on the radio, we’re going to choose more of the contemporary Christian music kind of thing. When we started, I felt like we were a part of this movement along with dcTalk, Audio Adrenaline, Jars of Clay, Newsboys, all these bands that were coming out at the time. The big change happened when they started to play that kind of music on the radio. The whole landscape has changed and Christian radio has gotten so big. We can tell the difference on the live side. If a market has a radio station playing the music, you can tell because the people are singing along with the songs. On the social media front, I think that for several years for us when we first started, we’d play a show for about 500 people and we could stand around behind the merch table and have a conversation and just hang out. But as our career grew, we got to the point where we couldn’t do that anymore. You’re playing to two or three thousand people and you can’t hang out with everybody after the show. It just doesn’t work. So for a few years, it was kind of frustrating. But with our website and our Internet presence, we’ve always tried to give our fans more than they would expect. We’ve invested a lot in our website and then the social media thing came along. So maybe I can’t stay and talk to everybody after the show, but if you ask me a legitimate question on Twitter, I probably will answer it. It’s a great thing that’s happening these days whereas there used to be such a disconnect between the creators of the content and the consumers. And now the lines have gotten so blurred and I think you’re going to see it happen even more with iTunes and Rhapsody and digital music. The only way social media has been a hindrance is that its easy to get roped in and spend too much time on it when you need to be doing other things. But I pretty much only see positive in it and we’ve been able to interact with fans at a level that we haven’t been able to do in a long time.
Bonham: From your vast catalog, what is the one song you never get tired of playing?
Lee: “I’ve Always Loved You” is a special one. It was fun to play when we first started. It was actually a little weird to play at first. It was from the Time record and before that we had the Conspiracy record, which was our foray into the modern rock world. We had songs like “Peace” and “You Make Me Mad.” We were playing “I’ve Always Loved You” before the album came out and so it was odd to throw in this song that was almost like an Eagles country song. So it was a little weird to play it at first. I don’t think our sound has really changed. Maybe we’ve learned to do it a little bit better over the years, but now “I’ve Always Loved You” is right at the core of what we do. It’s so fun to play that song live and I love the message. If I had one song that summed up what I wanted to share with people, it would be “I’ve Always Loved You.” We go through different seasons as a band and we have a lot of things we want to share with people, but I don’t think we really understand how much God loves us. He created the universe. He’s the Lord of Lords and King of Kings and all that, but He loves each one of us individually as his own children. I’m a parent myself now and I knowing what that love is like. To know that He loves me infinitely more than that is unfathomable. We can’t get that message across enough.
Bonham: How much of Move was inspired by your desire to see more people pick up the mantle of serving?
Lee: In 2001, we won the Dove Award for Artist of the Year, and we were asking ourselves, “What do we do with that?” People were looking at us as an example. So we prayed about it and asked God what to do and we felt led to this call to action for serving others. Whether you’re Third Day or another band or a church or an individual, we’ve all been given a platform. God has called us all to use our platform to address the injustices of the world and I think God puts something different on everyone’s heart. We did a tour with Max Lucado (in 2010) and it centered around World Vision. We got to do a Q&A with him every night and we always ended up talking about the story in Acts chapter 2 where tons of fire fell down from Heaven and everybody in that place spoke in different languages. He used that as an analogy for how we have different languages or different ways that we express ourselves. God has wired us all a little bit differently. If we all get involved in charities and ministries and organizations that we care about and are passionate about, a wide array of needs are going to be met. I loved that imagery. And that’s something we want to encourage our fans to do. Very early in our career, we got involved with World Vision. We did the Habitat (For Humanity) thing for a while. We’ve worked with the One Campaign, which points out extreme poverty around the world. We’ve worked with Invisible Children. There are different things we’ve done in different seasons, but World Vision has been the organization that we’ve partnered with the longest. Whether it’s the tsunami in Japan or Katrina here in the States, World Vision is already on the ground in these places and they are very quickly able to mobilize and meet needs wherever they are. It’s been amazing to see the level of service that they’ve been able to achieve and we’re really proud to be a part of what they’re doing. That’s the main thing we want to keep driving home with an album like Move and the song “Make Your Move.” Don’t sit on the sidelines and talk about it. Get your hands dirty and get involved in the great things God is doing all around you.
Stay up on the latest news from Third Day by visiting its official website HERE.