With a worldwide gross of over $61 million, the movie, God’s Not Dead has taken the film industry by storm. The movie featured Newsboys singing their hit single, “God’s Not Dead.” As a result, the single has been certified GOLD by the RIAA, selling more than 140,000 tracks in the past 5 months.
We sat down with Duncan Phillips, Newsboys drummer, for an inside look at the band, the music, and the film’s success.
Dan: Duncan, talk to me about some of the influence that you're seeing from the movie, God's Not Dead and the amazing success that's been having.
Duncan: About a year and a half ago, Pure Flix came to us ... maybe even longer than that now. They said, "Look, we love that song. We love the theme of the song. We're doing a movie right now. We'd like to bring the two together and make a movie called, God's Not Dead." We're like, "Yeah, fine. No problem." We get things thrown at us all the time, as you might expect.
About a year and a half ago, we were in the middle of a tour somewhere in Texas and we've been kind of learning our lines… but not really. I thought there was going to be [only] a couple of red cameras. We get through the door of the tour bus, 7 a.m. is the call [time] which is early for us, and they have 50 people on deck. They've got their own catering. There's vehicles everywhere. There's cameras in the air. I'm like, "Oh my gosh guys… we're in trouble. We better go back and brush up on our lines!"
It started out in about 800 theaters nationwide. I think it's up to about 2,000 theaters now, but the impact has been great and varied. I think one of the reasons why is [because] it's a subject that a lot of kids in high school or college can really relate to. It's a very liberal culture out there. It's very hedonistic. It's humanistic and 20 [or] 30 years ago, [they started] taking God out of school. Now, of course, they don't even acknowledge that there is a God. Well, we're smarter than that. We've got science, but science tells us that there is no God. [That] couldn't be further from the truth.
It really is quite wicked when you look into it, but I think a lot of Christian kids [are] going to college and they're dealing with it on a daily basis. I think what [the movie has] done more than anything, is [that it has] really helped to empower kids who are in those situations to be able to come back with a legitimate answer and a response to the atheist agenda.
There [are] a lot of intelligent people. I don't say they're necessarily smart, but there [are] a lot of very intelligent people that have decided to become atheists… maybe because of a past hurt or [they know] if they recognized that there is someone greater than themselves, then they [would] have to wrestle with that… The agenda is basically [that] we have evolved [and] we've come so far as human beings… that we [have become] our own god. That's a very fallible position, because then you're answerable to no one. Basically, you can do what you want to do. [There is] a spirit that goes along with it… a very anti-Christ spirit with the whole agenda. It's a very interesting time we live in, that's for sure.
Dan: Yeah, it's interesting. I think part of the appeal of your song is the overt nature of the title, the song, and the movie, God's Not Dead. You're not tap dancing around anything. That leads me into the success of your current single that's out, the song, “We Believe.” Can you tell me a little bit about where that song came from and how it got to be where it is now?
Duncan: Well, we love the song, “We Believe.” Michael Tait always says that if Billy Graham was to sing a song, it probably would have been a song very much like “We Believe,” because it's very short. It's sharp. It's to the point… My feeling [is] that you can be direct in what you say, but you can say it in a way of love, and I think that's what [the song] “We Believe” does. It's not [pointing] the finger, saying “You are going to hell if you don't act like this.” It's saying “This is what we believe. We believe we found the answer, and this is the way.”
At the rehearsal space, I'd well up every time, because when you hear those songs and lyrics go over the crowd, over microphones and over [the] PA, it's a very powerful, sobering moment. We're playing [“We Believe”] live in the set every night. It's just this incredibly poignant moment in the set [when] people stand up, raise their hands, and just sing to the heavens, “This is what I believe.” Even at interviews, I'll well up… talking about the song, simply because it goes so deep for me.
Dan: You've also now set a challenge out for me to try to make you cry at some point in this interview.
Duncan: That can happen. I'm definitely a crier for sure.
Dan: Obviously, it's resonating with people. Sometimes these things are cyclical and I think we're in a season now of wanting to stand up and be accountable for our faith. I think that's the power of “God's Not Dead” and “We Believe.”
You guys are in a really unique position right now… the movie has brought life back to the God's Not Dead record and then you have your current single on the radio. Has your band ever experienced anything like this before?
Duncan: We've had moments like this, but I don't think there's ever been a moment in the band's history where we've had a prior record stomping all over the latest.
Duncan: I was just talking to someone earlier today [about] their impressions. I'm a numbers guy. I love numbers. We just got off Winter Jam… and over a three-month period of time, we [were] playing for nearly 600,000 people, which is amazing. The biggest, most attended tour in the first quarter, four years in a row. But [the first] two or three weekends of the movie, 5.5 million people [saw the] movie. If you're talking about clout, or impressions, or the perfection of the branding, it can take a band five [or] 10 years to have that many impressions, but we put in a 12 [to] 16-hour day, one and a half years ago. It's almost like the inertia has caught up and the weight is pushing the notoriety and the perception of the band to greater heights than it's ever been before.
We've had 26 number one hits. We've had a lot of number one hits over the years but [the God’s Not Dead single] has been the quickest advancing [song] in Newsboys history to date, because it's a creed. It's an anthem. It's something that when people sing it, it resonates deep within their soul and their spirit. That's the power of a wonderful song. That's the power of a great song. That's why we decided to take our hands off and allow [other] songwriters [to work on it]. Just because you're in a band doesn't mean you're a great songwriter.
I know we want to own everything. We want to write our own songs, and that's great if you're an amazing songwriter, but we were average songwriters. We definitely had our moments writing a great song, but I think we came to the realization that we were better at being a band. We're better at getting out there [and] playing a live show. That's where Newsboys shine. There [are] people out there [whose] craft is to write songs. We realize that and recognize that.
Dan: Can you tell me a little bit about that process that changed from writing songs to finding songs? Do you have somebody who brings songs to you? Are you guys actively looking yourself? What's that moment when you go yeah, that's a Newsboys song?
Duncan: Well, I think it's everything. It's a process, man. I think for the Restart record, we looked at about 70 or 80 songs, a lot of them great songs. They just [were not] “Newsboys.” There's a definite theme [for] Newsboys. There's definitely a sound. We have grown that sound.
Although we've dabbled in songs like “We Believe,” “It is You,” “He Reigns”… I think Newsboys really [does] shine as a pop band. I grew up loving the music of the 80s and I think you just want to go back to your first love in music. I love pop music. I love the three and a half minute pop song. I think the Restart record [is] probably the best pop record Newsboys has ever made. I'm very, very proud of that record.
Dan: You're one of the most entertaining drummers to watch. I think that you somehow bring the audience to you and we feel the music. Can you explain what happens?
Duncan: I never thought, as a drummer, that I should be invisible. I always told [the band] “I'm in this band, so why not perform just as much as the lead singer?” I wanted people to feel that they could do it. I wanted people to go, “Man, that guy is having the best time of his life.”
A part of it really has come out of this feeling of thank you, Jesus that I still can do this. Literally, it's a joy of the Lord when you get something taken away or nearly taken away that's precious to you, or something that you believe is God-given and he gives it back to you tenfold, the joy and the appreciation and the gratitude that comes out of that is unspeakable. You look at some video footage of five years ago [and] I probably wasn't quite as energetic because I was [thinking] “Well, maybe this is winding down.”
Sometimes change is painful, but when you come out the other side you can look back and then you go, “Oh, now I get it.” I think the change with Michael was necessary. I think it was a Godsend. At the time, it didn't feel like it though.
I think when [most people are] in the middle of something, they [ask] “Where [are you] God? You turned your back from me.” No, he hasn't. He's just building your backbone. He's just taking you somewhere. A lot of times we pray, “God, take me further, take me to the next level.” You know what? The next level is painful. It hurts.
Birthing is painful and somehow as we look at that we think God can't be in [it]. I've never believed that. Whenever we've had problems, I've always tried to [ask], “Where is God in this whole thing?” When Peter left and Michael came on, as bleak as it looked, I knew down deep that this is a God moment and the best was yet to come. [It] was a little faith statement at that time because we hadn't recorded Born Again. We hadn't recorded God's Not Dead. We hadn't recorded Restart. We've been with [the band] for a couple of decades. [I was thinking], “I have a wife and a young family. I've got a mortgage to pay.” All the practical things that people forget sometimes. It's not just [my] career-- it's my livelihood. It's how I put food on the table. When it was looking like it was going to go belly up, my whole world on every level-- physically, financially, spiritually… was absolutely drained, and so was the band. We were spent, but I think sometimes that's where God needs us to be to really turn [it] around.
It gives me great confidence, saying that I really believe the best is yet to come. It's more than a wish. [When I] look [at] what he's done over the last five years, [I think], “Oh my gosh, what can He do in the next five years? Where can He [take] this thing in the next five years?” The sky is the limit. I really believe that.
Hopefully, that encourages every other person, every other band that's come up behind us, because they see Newsboys do it. That's one of my biggest hopes in the industry… to encourage all those bands, all those artists coming up behind us, that it can be done. You can have a long, fruitful career in Christian music.