Prior to their concert in Oakville, Ontario, I met with the members of the rock band Downhere, Jeremy Thiessen, Jason Germain, Marc Martel, and Glenn Lavender. One of Canada's greatest music success stories this decade, three of the members, Germain, Thiessen and Martel attended Briercrest Bible College together in Saskatchewan. They met Lavender, a Cambridge, Ontario, native while attending a World Vision Retreat in Florida.
Their song "Breaking Me Down" won a Dove Award in 2004. Just so you don't think all those hit songs by rockers come out of tragic experiences or heavy duty collaborative writing sessions, Lavender, the bassist recounts the origins of the song. "We were stuck in traffic in Chicago and I plugged my bass into the speakers in the van with my effects pedal and we just started doing stupid stuff for awhile and played the little riff that became the main part of one of the verses in that song. From there Marc did his magic and completed the song and took it to the next level."
All that being said, the group does focus its attention on lyrics that address hard hitting issues such as depression, death, or doubting God and whether or not he cares about what is happening to us.Germain who along with Martel are the lead vocalists say, "The real issues of Christianity are lived out in surrender to God, admitting where we have fallen and admitting where we are desperately in need. I think that is what we are trying to do with our music. I think sometimes that isolates us from the wide Christian radio (scene). I think there are certain songs they would never play on the radio that we don't necessarily need to be put on the radio but we would play the songs in our concerts. I guess a part of what's marketed to Christians is kind of this happy lifestyle and it's not a bad thing but it's not the whole picture. I think what we are trying to do is reach the people who have really felt personally that inconsistency that we are talking about. The Christian life appears in a lot of ways to be talked about (in terms of) joy, love, peace and the fruits of the spirit but where's the room for doubt? If I am experiencing these things does that make me not a Christian? "
Even the band's name, Downhere is reflective of dealing with tough issues. Germain says the name comes from a song the public has never heard, but deals with the issue of why bad things happen to good people. Basically, the song has a surrender sort of sense that we're down here and God has the picture figured out." Their first self titled album featured several songs like "Breathing In" and "Reconcile" which spoke to similar themes. Germain remembers, "We had two friends die on one weekend, in separate incidents. It started making us think about eternity." Songs like "Larger than Life" and from their 'So Much For Substitutes' album the song "Feels Like Winter" continued to challenge the comfy zone of Christian music. The latter was inspired by a friend of Martel's who was struggling with depression.
Martel says, "We always want our songs to give a voice, in particular to the corner person. The person who is dealing with something that feels that maybe they are not supposed to vocalize or anything like that. I think we want to be the band that deals with issues like doubt even about our faith in God. We've made a point of going to those places on purpose."
In the early days of that first album produced at the studios for Slyngshot Records, Leroy Harder, President and CEO recognized, "they had the same humility-wrapped ability that has brought them to where they are today. We knew from the first time we heard them sing, both individually as well as a duo, that they were called to international ministry. Their willingness to serve in the lowest of venues, to their confidence to rock the house with 4000 people convinced us that they were worth every bit of investment that we put into them."
After promoting that initial album for 1 ? years the band was approached by Word Records who heard some MP 3's of their songs from the group's website. They signed on with the label shortly after that.
For the most part Germain and Martel are the songwriters. "If you listen to a song usually the guy who is singing the melody or the main part of the song is the guy who wrote it," says Martel.
A lot of their fans may only see the glamour or supposed glamour of being in a rock band and never consider the sacrifices that are made. Thiessen, the drummer, tore up a knee while shooting baskets in a gym and continued to tour. At the time of this interview he was only six weeks away from getting married in Nashville. Lavender recounts, "We just did a little trip up in Michigan and Marc's voice was totally gone. He could hardly talk normal. Jason got sick so his voice was on the way out. These guys probably won't say so but we just go to work. We did the show. Maybe if we didn't tell the crowd they wouldn't have noticed a whole lot but I mean that's just something you've got to do when you are in a band. You can't show up and say sorry we're not feeling well." After thinking about it for a few seconds the band could only remember two cancelled concerts and that was due to being turned back at border crossings. They feel a strong commitment to the promoters and fans that often have been planning the concert for months.
In 2003 while on tour the band traveled with a camera man. They created a DVD, "While the World is Asleep", that provides a behind the scenes look at a band on tour. Lavender says, "It shows how tired and run down you get. We know at least one person who shows this DVD to prospective new bands. I don't know if he is trying to scare them from being on the road or what. It pretty much can do that."
How do the band members see themselves? Well for one they are just as humble as Leroy Harder remembers them. Martel talks about their success, "I think every time we hear one of our songs on the radio it's a surprise. I guess the melancholy nature of the artist just assumes for some reason the worst about their art. It's always a pleasant surprise. We're catching on. This is cool. This is good."
When Lavender meets people he always describes Downhere as, "a rock band and we play in a lot of churches." Martel chips in with, "We're a rock band that likes to roll." To which Germain adds, "We always say we are more modern rock, kind of pop, melody driven."
Writer: Joe Montague