MercyMe plays Moncton on Saturday

Somewhere in Downtown Birmingham, Alabama, MercyMe drummer Robby Shaffer is wandering the streets.

Is he lost? Not necessarily. Such is the life of a traveling musician: waking up in a new city, doing interviews and just trying to get your bearings for the day ahead.

Formed in 1994, MercyMe has become one of Christian rock’s biggest success stories. With sales tallying more than 5 million units in the United States alone, along with five records that have reached the number one position on Billboard’s Top Christian Albums chart, MercyMe performs at Moncton Wesleyan Church’s Celebration Centre on Saturday evening.

While artists outside of the Christian music genre struggle to stay relevant on an almost monthly basis, the popularity of MercyMe has endured for 18 years now. Asked why he feels the group has been so fortunate to have received sustained support from their fans, Shaffer says that while the Christian music genre can be tough to break into, once a group has the support behind them, their fans remain faithful.

“I think our continuing popularity really comes down to two things,” Shaffer says. “Christian music fans are a very loyal bunch. If you win their hearts early in your career and are able to continue making music, they will stick around and support you. And because of that, we are continually trying to stay as relevant and current as possible.

“At the end of the day, we want to be proud of what we do but it is also important for us not to feel as though we are stagnant. We don’t want to feel as though we have to depend on copying ourselves to ensure future success. First and foremost, we want our music to stay fresh for our fans.”

Shaffer says a key component to staying fresh is staying on top of what is happening around the band in music these days. Stating that he and his bandmates are influenced by everyone from Death Cab For Cutie to Coldplay and Foo Fighters, Shaffer insists there are no limits or pre-conceived notions as to where their influences come from.

“We all listen to a little bit of everything but we each tend to follow the rule of really tuning in when we hear something that catches our attention. Really, a big part of this game is to learn from what others are doing while doing your best to stay current.”

Although there have been instances of Christian rock bands crossing over into the pop-rock mainstream (Jars of Clay, Switchfoot), those success stories seem to be too few and too far between. Shaffer acknowledges this, stating that many artists in the Christian genre have little in the way of desire to cater towards mainstream radio. The mainstream coming to them is a completely different story, however.

“I think that if anyone sat down and listened to a Christian radio station over the course of the day, they would probably feel as though they are hearing the same song over and over,” he says. “So to an extent, we have probably pigeonholed ourselves. Mainstream radio tends to see how far they can push the envelope with respect to racy lyrics and what not. Christian radio is focused almost entirely on the lyrics and the message contained in the song.

“I believe it would be safe to say that 99 per cent of the lyrics in Christian music are written from the heart or from life experiences and I think it is this that separates Christian music from country and rock. It is something that, as a lyricist, you know will touch people and that they will gain from it and possibly heal from it. People tend to stereotype Christian music in this respect but in my opinion, it is not a bad stereotype to have.”

MercyMe is gearing up for the late May release of its new album, The Hurt and The Healer. Shaffer says the past two years since their last record have been tough upon the band and as such, their lyrics reflect these challenges despite being set to some of the group’s most upbeat music of their career.

“The title track was written for our singer’s cousin who served as a firefighter in Dallas and was killed in the line of duty. It was such a tumultuous time because here we were mourning the loss of him while his family was going through the emotions of being very proud of him but alternately and understandably sad that they have lost him. He was the first firefighter killed in the line of duty in more than 18 years.

“The album is a reflection of these tragedies and hardships that the band has endured,” Shaffer says. “In the past, we have been a band that has done our fair share of power ballads but this upcoming record is at least 75 per cent upbeat. Lyrically though, it is a very deep record and very emotionally driven. It is about grace and forgiveness and knowing that God is by your side. Musically, the record is a bit of a change for us so we are very excited to see if people connect to these new songs.”

Article published in May 3, 2012 edition of the Times & Transcript