We found for KING & COUNTRY in the middle of a bit of a whirlwind. Fresh off an appearance on the “Today Show,” the band was poised to perform at Winter Jam’s biggest venue in a few hours, the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. This was also the night before the Grammy Awards show, where the band (from the next tour stop in Nashville) would learn they had won two Grammys.
Despite the chaotic schedule, brothers Joel and Luke Smallbone were in good spirits, and when our scheduled interview room was still occupied by a TV taping, we just found a bench on an arena concourse and chatted like old friends. We started with an update on the splash for KING & COUNTRY is making on the national scene.
TSO: I saw your performance on the “Today Show.” Tell us a bit about that experience.
Luke: It was great. What they don’t tell you is you have to get up at 3:00 in the morning! They use those rooms for so many things, we had to set up for sound check then tear it all down so they could use the space for something else. Then we set it all back up. We got it down, though.
Joel: And it’s not a big space at all. Everybody’s right there, the crew and everyone.
TSO: And congratulations on the Grammy nominations. Are you going?
Luke: Unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to go. The event is tomorrow, and Winter Jam will be in Nashville. Winter Jam picked the craziest weekend to do the two busiest shows – Atlanta and Nashville – and then for us we did three days in New York and will have done four Winter Jam shows; and we’ve got the Grammys and New York, so it’s been an absolutely crazy week for us.
TSO: A few years ago I was covering Winter Jam on a Grammy night, and TobyMac won a Grammy that night. He was onstage when he won, and someone announced the award. It was a neat experience for him; he couldn’t be there, but at least he was among friends and got to have his own little celebration.
Joel: If there’s one place and one show I’d want to keep me from being at the Grammys, it would be Nashville, particularly since we live there now.
TSO: How long have you lived in Nashville?
Joel: The first time we came to Nashville was in the ’90s. Luke and I are two of seven kids. Dad had been offered a job over here so we moved halfway around the world, and here we are.
TSO: I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but what’s the biggest contrast between Australia and the U.S.?
Luke: For one thing, in Australia 90% of the people live on the coast. The other thing that’s interesting is that there are only about 5% Christians in Australia. The thought in America that a small church is 500 people…that’s a huge, huge church in Australia. Churches of the size of, say, Hillsong are few and far between — that’s the biggest church in Australia. The cultures are also very different. America is very accepting of pretty much everything. In Australia, there are very nice people, but they are lost individuals, most of them. It’s very polarizing.
TSO: How often do you get back there?
Joel: We’ve actually never officially played a show in Australia as for King & Country. We were down there years ago when we were still an independent duo, and we played a concert at one of the festivals, but we didn’t have any music that was released. I am going back soon with my wife. It’s our one year, seven month anniversary today.
TSO: Do people know that Rebecca [St. James] is your sister?
Joel: More so than not, people are shocked. We didn’t necessarily make a big deal about it when we started out. We didn’t want to be stepping on her shoestrings by any means, and we didn’t want the industry to feel like we were going to be given a pass just because we’d grown up around our sister. We’d certainly tell people if they’d ask, but it was just something we did not talk about all the time. Now it’s like legend. People will say, “I heard a rumor….” Like last night, I was signing and there were several people who would go, “So who is your sister?” And there would be two people, and one would say to the other, “I was right! I told you!”
TSO: What does she think of all this?
Luke: She’s pretty removed from all of this. She’s a mum; she’s living in California being a wife and mother.
TSO: On this tour, are you fairly independent of the other bands, or are there times when everybody hangs out together?
Joel: We’ve not been on many tours like this. I don’t think there are tours like this to compare to, but I think it’s very collaborative. You play for 15 minutes and then you have 23 hours and 45 minutes of just being together.
A lot of times we share facilities, and they’ll put two or three bands together. Mealtimes are a big time when we all see each other. And even during the show, there are moments when a band will have other bands up. We come up during Skillet’s set. There’s a real sense that we’re in this together. It was the same thing three years ago. They have a wonderful man by the name of [Road Pastor] Bobby Joiner who is the glue that holds everyone together spiritually on the road. We have church together on Sunday and the whole deal.
TSO: Is your 15 minutes on stage going well?
Luke: “Fifteen minutes of fury” is what I like to call it. Usually when you’re doing your own show you get through the first 15 minutes and you’re thinking, Alright, good, we’re just getting going. That’s when you’re walking off stage here. Here, you’re on stage and it’s go-go-go from the first beat.
Joel: We just finished a full tour, and we played for like an hour-and-a-half. It was a wonderful experience. People showed up in droves, and it was spectacular in some ways. But we took that 90 minutes or so and really compressed it. We have these lasers and streamers, and you don’t save it until the end of the show. We just kick off with it. We also kick off the night. The official countdown begins, the lights go off, and we go.
TSO: Are there any bands on the tour you didn’t know that you’ve particularly enjoyed meeting?
Luke: We’ve never toured with Family Force 5 before. Most of the other bands, just because of previous touring, we’ve toured with them before. We did Winter Jam three years ago, so Building 429 was on that; Skillet, Blanca, you get to know a lot of different people. FF5 are the ones we didn’t know that well. It’s been a lot of fun to see who those guys are. Even though we’re from very different genres and very different music, I think we have some similar thoughts behind things. It’s been cool. It’s like Skillet, Family Force 5, and ourselves, we look at the stage in a similar way of detail. Each of our shows is very different, but we would probably approach the way that we do music in a similar fashion.
TSO: So you do, what, four songs?
Luke: We do four songs.
Joel: We do include a partial one.
TSO: You should just do a massive medley of all your songs!
Joel: Fifteen minutes is a weird spot. Because in ten minutes, you can only do three songs; and with 20 minutes you can get away with doing five songs, full versions, and talk a bit. We bit off more than we could chew when we started the tour. We tried to do five songs, and after a couple of nights, we cut one and shifted some songs.
TSO: What happens if you go over?
Luke: Well, we don’t! The truth is, we press play on a computer and a click track keeps scrolling in our ear monitors. So when you’re talking it says, “20, 19, …” always in your ear.
Joel: if you hear me talking very quickly tonight, it’s because of that.
Luke: He sounds like an auctioneer at that point.
The 2015 Winter Jam Tour Spectacular features Skillet, Jeremy Camp, Francesca Battistelli, Building 429, Family Force 5, NewSong, for KING & COUNTRY, speaker Tony Nolan and a Pre-Jam Party with Blanca, About A Mile and VERIDIA. The tour continues through the end of March, with no tickets required, only $10 at the door. Visit www.jamtour.com for more info and a full list of dates and cities.