By John Cody
His music is featured on popular TV shows like Alias and Dawson Creek. He’s heard on video games for The Matrix and Black Hawk Down, and trailers for the films Tomb Raider 2 and The Matrix: Reloaded. Microsoft has credited him as one of three artists – alongside Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel – with creating “breakthrough experiences that are dramatically changing how consumers can enjoy entertainment on Windows-based PCs today.”
In addition to releasing two well received CDs, Andy Hunter is a popular DJ with a world wide fan base. In today’s post-modern world, he’s a decidedly media-friendly artist. He’s also a long time believer, with a deep faith informing all of his work.
He’ll be appearing in Vancouver in January as part of Remix 2006. I spoke to Hunter recently, and first asked him about his approach to DJ’ing.
“You’re mixing pieces of music together, sort of on top of each other, so there’s not really a break in the music. You’re creating this journey of music. What I’ve always done – from a Christian point of view – is use that for worship, for my own life and also for leading worship. Like a regular worship band would play music. It’s a lot like that, but using electronica music. I’ve got two turntables, CD players, and I’m choosing music that inspires me and speaks to me to worship God.”
The criteria to get on the turntable? Pretty much whatever inspires him, regardless of whether the original artist holds any sort of Christian world view.
“It’s just music. Sometimes I’ll go record shopping, and I’ll hear a piece of music that I’ll think is just beautiful. There’s something about that music that I feel God can speak to me through.” For the most part his choices consist of current releases, and falls under the banner of dance music, most of it instrumental and fairly obscure. One song he’s used on occasion that doesn’t meet that criteria is a live recording of U2 performing ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ from their Elevation tour.
“There was something on that recording that I found was heavily anointed. So I’ve used that even though it’s not dance. For me as a DJ that’s been a bit out of the box.” And the audience reaction? “That went amazingly well. At the time we were praying, we were interceding for an area, for people to come to know Jesus, and it just seemed with that song, that it was exactly what was needed.” He’s a longtime fan of the band. “I’m always amazed how God uses them, and again, He just breaks your box, because you know they’re not exactly clean living boys, and yet God is still very powerful and very real amongst them. I find that amazing.”
Asked what he’s listening to, he lists new albums by Goldfrapp, David Grey, Gorillaz and Coldplay “and just a few obscure electronic acts that I get singles and such.” He also mentions KT Tunstall as a new favorite, “she’s quite an up and coming artist out here. Sort of singer/songwriter, Suzanne Vega style.” Tunstall will be in Vancouver January 28 at Richards on Richards.
Hunter has worked with live musicians on occasion, and occasionally a VJ does graphics while he plays, but logistics dictate it’s easier to get one body on the plane than a whole band. “I’ve done some live stuff with a guitarist, vocalist and percussionist. Sometimes a painter as well, who will paint while I play. I’ve always wanted to go down the route of putting a live band together.”
He mentions Faithless, a British act that tour with a drummer, percussionist, bassist and guitarist. “They do the whole thing live. It’s just incredible. It’s just finding the time, and the money to put something like that together. I don’t think people would be prepared to pay for a whole band to fly over from the UK when you can just pay for one guy.”
While his appearances are divided between mainstream events and church sponsored functions, Hunter prefers to be identified as a mainstream artist: “It doesn’t necessarily have boundaries like the Christian music scene. A lot of the time it’s a lot of formula. In a box. I think the mainstream stuff is more free to be real. You can bring whatever message you want. Obviously sometimes that’s bad, but a lot of times it’s great.”
He emphasizes: “For me it’s totally about [this]: I need to be the best that I can be. I need to put out the best quality music, and hopefully inspire people across the board, whether they’re Christian or not. When people say I’ve got the ‘best Christian dance Cd,’ it’s because there’s not a lot to choose from, to be honest. A lot of stuff that is out there, some of it is quite shockingly bad.”
I asked if he was aware of other Christian DJs. “Quite a few. There’s some great DJs out there. There’s a guy called Dougie Ross who goes under the name Kubits, but he mainly does drum and bass, and he runs his own label, mainstream stuff. He’s a really cool dude, and he’s done some material for the Christian world.”
There’s a difference between the UK and US Electronica scene. “Over here it’s been huge for such a long time. When I’ve toured in America at some of the clubs it just seems a lot fresher to people. I think generally people – Americans and Canadians – seem a bit more excited, which is nice. They get excited by the music. We seem a bit spoiled over here.”
According to Hunter, incorporating DJs into church services is quite common in the UK, but the idea has yet to catch on here. Ten years ago the venerable Cornerstone festival was hosting all-night raves, but for the most part the church here is slow to accept the form.
Hunter has performed at high profile mainstream events around the world, and a number of major Christian festivals, including Flevo, Greenbelt, and Cornerstone. These often boast audiences in the tens of thousands. Ironically, the gig that brings on the nerves is a decidedly smaller affair. And closer to home.
Home is Mumbles, a fishing town off the south coast of Wales. Occasionally he leads worship for a small church there. “It’s one of the most nerve wracking gigs I ever do. We’re friends with one of the leaders of the church. Occasionally, he says ‘why don’t you come and lead worship in the morning?’ So I set up all my turntables and kind of do what I do, and it’s always really good. They don’t necessarily dance, but what it does is create a lot of room for people to worship. I do offer some direction, but for the most part it’s a really laid back church.”
Misconceptions come from both sides. “With the mainstream it’s just them getting their head ’round what I actually do, my faith, and ‘what’s a Christian doing in a club?’ That sort of stuff. But I’ve had nothing but great conversations and respect.”
Sometimes church members ask the same questions. Initially, he was met with outright fear and anger. “A fair bit. Not so much nowadays. I’ve been doing it for about 11 years. I used to get some brutal comments about leading people to hell.” Much of this is reminiscent of the church’s struggle with incorporating drums and electric guitars into worship during the sixties and seventies. “People are uncomfortable with change, or they’re uncomfortable with something different. And I think some people just jump to the conclusion when they’re uncomfortable that it’s evil.”
When young people hear this style of music in the church it immediately connects with them. Hunter agrees that was the case 50 years ago with rock ‘n’ roll, and punk in the 1970s.
“There’s always been a history of music coming into the church where it connects with people because that’s the culture at the time. The church sometimes is very scared of that because it’s change and all that. I would like the church not to be so one dimensional, where it’s just one style of music. I’m not saying that dance music should come in and that be it. Let it just be part of the palate of choice because we’re in exciting times where there’s so much culture and so much music diversity. The people are into different stuff, and I’d like the church to reflect that as well in it’s art. So it’s not just a folk singer with a band, or a rock band.”
As with the music, there are differences between the UK and US church scenes. Back in the early 1980s, U2 were shocked to discover how politicized the American church had become, and how assumptions were made when they publicly declared themselves believers. Twenty five years on, not a lot has changed.
“I’m just surprised by the largeness of churches. In the US it’s good to be seen to go to church. It’s good for business. It’s almost part of the culture; even if you don’t believe, you could still go to church. Whereas over here it’s still very much a country where you only go if you’re a real believer, because it’s not cool to go to church, and it’s not good for business, and it’s not good to be seen to go to church. So over here I think the church is full of people who really believe the message, who are on fire for God, whereas over there I think there’s a lot of pew fillers.
“I’m always surprised as well about the money that’s involved in some of these churches. It’s incredible. You meet the pastor or the leader of the church and he’s got this big throne in his office before he goes out to tell his message to the people and that’s a bit of an eye opener. Just a different culture to be in. Saying that, I’ve met some amazing people over there and seen some amazing churches.”
Hunter says he never felt more like an outsider than during the last presidential election. “The whole Bush and Kerry thing, I had to keep my mouth shut, to be honest. It’s quite a shock.”
Regarding Christian Bush supporters, he says: “It’s like [they believe] God wants him in. It’s almost like you were frowned upon if you said he was a scary bloke. If you had your own opinion they would almost laugh. I even met some people who felt that their mission that year was to get young people to vote for Bush. That’s what they really felt God was telling them to do. Maybe he did, I just don’t know. But I get scared off by stuff like that.”
Unlike most electronica acts, Hunter doesn’t incorporate samples into his recordings. “It’s all original compositions – all the beats are written originally. I’m totally aware of what I want to say and what kind of atmosphere I want to build through each track, what God’s saying, and where the track is inspired from scripturally. Finding a sample from another song would never really fit. Obviously when I play live I use other people’s dance music that speaks to me as well.”
Hunter grew up in a home where faith was prominent. “I used to hate going to church when I was a kid, because the church I went to was so boring, it just didn’t relate. I always believed there was a God, but it was kind of pie in the sky stuff. Then we moved house, and we moved church, and the new church just had so much reality about it. It actually explained what it was to be a Christian – I’m so grateful that I’ve always had a belief there, it’s never been difficult for me, it’s always been solid.
“I left school – I quit all my ‘A’ levels and my exams and worked for a PA company pushing boxes and worked as a roadie, fix-it man, and lighting. We did gigs for people like The Wonderstuff and Suede.”
In 1992 he became involved with the UK organization New Generation Music and Missions (NGM), http://www.ngm.org.uk/ a faith-based community specializing in church planting with an emphasis on media and music. Working with ministry bands as a sound and lighting engineer, Hunter was initially based in Bristol, where the drum ‘n’ bass scene was then emerging, and found himself at the epicenter of the new form. While helping plant churches it became clear that many of the students preferred dance music. The days of acoustic guitar led worship were long gone, and necessity being the mother of invention, he became a DJ. In 1996 the ministry helped him set up a club in Britain, where his skills blossomed, quickly gaining mainstream recognition.
As the DJ culture is a fairly recent development, I wondered what he would have been doing had he been born 25 years earlier: “I’d probably be more on the technical side. I played guitar and things like that, but I never advanced into a band or anything, I always went down the sound engineering route, and writing and things like that. I reckon I’d be more on that side, maybe in the studio doing production.”
In 2002 Hunter’s debut disc, Exodus was released to the Christian marketplace on Sparrow, and mainstream through Nettwerk. Incorporating drum ‘n’ bass, progressive house, ambient, trance and harder edged dance music, the disc was well received, with ‘Go’ and ‘The Wonders of You’ both garnering airplay. Rollingstone.com named the disc “one of the year’s ultimate sensory experiences” and it received similar raves in DJ Times and Mixer Magazine. ‘Go’ was nominated for a Dove award (Christian music industry’s version of Grammy Awards) in ‘Modern Rock Recorded Song of the Year’- even though it’s not really a rock song.
Over the last four years Hunter has enjoyed an ongoing relationship with Microsoft. Working closely with the company, he’s involved in cutting edge technology. “With Microsoft we did a download of ‘Go’ in 5.1 [a digital surround sound format] from Exodus. I think it was something like 100,000 downloads in 10 days We’ve done a few other 5.1’s, one of ‘Open My Eyes’ which Microsoft used for a big presentation in L.A. in their media centres with Bill Gates. We’ve just finished a 5.1 mix of ‘Come On.’ They were filming it in High Definition [a new higher quality version of video]. We did that in Seattle. I’m sure being that it’s in HD it will get some airplay at some point.”
He performed opening night at the Midem conference at Cannes, France for the company last summer, and recently met legendary hip hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash at a DJ summit the company sponsored in Seattle. “Microsoft wanted me to be a bridge between them and the DJs. So I kicked off the whole summit with a little talk on technology, and what Microsoft were up to, to try and envision the DJs. We showed them ‘Go’ in 5.1. Grandmaster Flash was blown away. We got off chatting for a couple of days, and then he said we’ve got to work together on some gigs and stuff like that.”
Hunter has his own studio for tracking. “It’s different from a band – it’s almost like you’re producing as soon as you start. It normally takes a couple of months per track to get it right. I’ll start, normally with an inspired idea. Something that speaks or that I’ve felt God telling me, or a bit of scripture. Then I’ll capture that kind of idea in a feeling of a song, I’ll start to write the drum beat and a feel, start to get the mood right, and start to build it up, do the arrangement.
“And when it gets near the time of doing the record I’ll go to Nashville with all my parts and work with a producer called Tedd T. He’s just a genius. On the last record we brought an electric guitarist and bass player. We did a string quartet, lots of different vocalists, live drums and things like that. My studio’s just a small studio and I can pull people in but would cost me a lot more, so I do it all in Nashville.”
His latest album, Life, was released last summer and quickly went into the top ten (#6) downloads on iTunes. Like Exodus it’s a decidedly high energy outing. The track ‘Alive’ samples his baby son’s in utero heartbeat. The child has just turned two, and I asked Hunter if he’d realized it was his own heart on the disc. “Not yet. But he likes the music. He dances up and down. I actually started that track, [with the heartbeat], cause that’s kind of what inspired it.”
Marketed as an EP, at 44 minutes the disc actually runs longer than many full-length releases. With the reduced price tag, the label hopes to capture a larger audience. “People would far rather spend $10 on something they weren’t sure of than maybe a full price album. That was the idea behind it.”
The disc began in a vision. “The whole thing was birthed out of a time I had with God, and during that time I had a picture of this wasteland and as I stood there I saw on the horizon a figure that was obviously Jesus, and beneath his feet the grass would grow, and life would come to this wasteland. My prayer was for him to run to me, to run across this wasteland, to bring this beautiful, colourful life. What that vision was all about was the nations that I was visiting.
“As I played in an area, whether it was with a church or whether it was in a club, my prayer would be for God to bring his life, and bring his color to the wastelands of that nation, to the people. I had that vision about four or five years ago. Since then, it’s also certainly been about my own life and bringing His life to me as well. All those tracks were written out of that vision.”
On the CD’s credits he thanks the popular Brit comedies Little Britain, The Office, and Phoenix Nights. Hunter was excited to discuss those shows during the interview, confirming, as he’s claimed, that “it’s not like I’m Mr. Serious Spiritual Guy.” Nice to know that his vision of all good things from God can include the lilies of the field, and the brilliance of Ricky Gervais, too.
© John Cody 2006