John Schlitt interview
By: Josh Renaud
Sept. 11, 2003
The effort to get the interviews has taken quite a bit of time, especially the interview with John. Thankfully everything worked out. John and I had a great conversation about the new album, John's relationship with former band members, Petra's ministry, and other stuff.
After you finish reading the interview, share your thoughts about it on the Petra Rocks The World messageboard.
Josh: I've heard some good reports coming from people who have attended recent Petra shows. Can you tell me about Paul Simmons?
John: I would love to. First of all, I want to say something about Justin Johnson, the drummer we had been using the past 3-4 months. He's an excellent guy, a good drummer, and he worked his tail off for us. We appreciate him very much, I pray that his talents will be used with someone. We just really felt deep down that he wasn't the right guy for us.
So we kept looking and kept looking. After the third tryout of several drummers, Paul came into the picture. Really, I would say that he's absolutely the perfect person for us. There were so many different characteristics that we were looking for and he fit them all. He's been a total blessing. His testimony is amazing and you all will hear it as time goes on. It's just been a real, real blessing. He's doing amazing work for us and he's very, very excited about being with Petra. I see this as a very long-term-type relationship, which I'm happy about.
So he's played several shows with you now?
Well, he's only played two shows: two separate shows at Disney, and then we just finished a recording session at TBN, which will be aired soon. It was for a See You at the Pole rally. It was great, a lot of fun.
What kind of unique qualities does he bring to the band? What excited you guys about him?
I think probably the most exciting thing was HIS excitement about being in a Christian band. This is a man who has been playing in a secular group for a long, long time. He's been playing since he was 16 years old. He played with Black Oak Arkansas for many years. He's still a fairly young guy, from our standpoint. After he became a Christian, he started to feel heavier and heavier about the situation he was playing in. He's absolutely thrilled to be able to be in a band like Petra.
And when folks come to see you guys live, what can they expect to see in his performance, and also in the whole concert experience?
I think you'll see one of the happiest bands you've seen in a long time. Playing the new stuff now has just been a real thrill. It's becoming more and more fun as we become more familiar with it. Our style has really gotten back to the basics, more than I thought we would. We still play some of the older stuff that's very important. We don't want to ignore the classics. But on the other hand, the new stuff is cooking so well that we're just having a lot of fun with it. I think what you'll see is an excitement factor that is very sincere intertwined with the joy of being on stage.
And how have people been responding to the new songs when you play them live?
Very well. You can tell that there are some people who already have the record because they're already familiar with the songs. That's really neat since the album's only been out about three weeks. That's been a real joy for us. And the people who've never heard it before, they're saying "Wow, that's cool!" It's been received very well.
I know that J&H has been doing pretty well on the website ChristianRock.net, which lets people request songs. So their playlist is more open than a regular radio station's might be. Do you know how the two singles are doing on radio?
We've had a real uphill battle — Petra has always had to battle, the last three or four records. I don't really feel like we are on the "everybody loves us" roll call here. But I tell you what, both singles have been sneaking in. It's one of those "Well, I'm not sure if we're gonna play it, but I'll listen to it again." It's that hesitance where I think they believe it's a good record, but it's Petra. They think "I don't know if we're supposed to do that."
But it's coming around. We always knew it was gonna take a while. This record is not one of those records that's going to go away. We expected that it would take a while, a little longer than most people. But that's okay, I'm happy with the results as they've been so far. We'll see.
Are you guys planning to put together a big fall or spring tour? What can we expect in that vein?
It all depends on how the record does. It depends on the interest of — not the people, but the promoters. We would love to be able to do a fall tour, but I think the record came out too late. We're still not quite sure about that yet. Spring tour, absolutely. But again, there has to be a request, there has to be interest. If there is no interest from the promoters, it's hard to do a tour. We work together with those people.
And a lot of that interest is generated by how well the songs do on radio?
It's generated by radio or by people who start contacting local promoters.
For instance, Disney. We were there this year because they invited us last year since it was the 20th anniversary. The crowd reaction to us at our performance was so amazing to Disney that they basically hired us for the next year right on the spot. Hopefully that will happen again for next year.
It's one of thsoe things where there has to an interest — either fans saying to the promoters "Come on, let's bring Petra. My gosh, we haven't seen them in a while"; or airplay, where the promoter says "You know what, I think these guys would bring in a lot of people at a concert."
Earlier you mentioned the energy and excitement you guys have about playing the new songs. There have been a few other changes — as you said, you're getting "back to basics." How has Bob being back in the mix changed things?
When you have the leads that are exactly as they were on the record, that's really cool. Bob came back and on the first day we started rehearsing, it was so different hearing all those little key licks that you've forgotten because the other guitar players didn't deem them important or didn't play that way. Bob's got his own way of playing. Man, just hearing those again was very refreshing.
Tell me about putting the album together, working with Peter Furler and Bob. How was this album different from some of the ones you've done in the past, like "Revival"?
Well, "Revival" was an album where we were just sort of told what to do. We appreciated it, but on the other hand you don't, because you'd like to put a little bit more into it of your own ideas. It was a case of having a new record company and they believed they knew exactly what we needed to do. We appreciated that they had an idea. It was sort of a specialty record, and that's what they wanted us to do. It was like "Okay, we're not sure if that's exactly the route we should go." But they really believed in it, and when it was finished, we were very excited about it and we're glad that they had us do it.
This record, on the other hand, was more thanks to the Petheads and a lot of people sending emails in to the record company saying "Come on, Petra needs to rock!" It was pretty neat. Inpop finally said "Yeah, you know what, we think so too."
One of the smartest things they did was say "Bob, you do what you do. Write those songs that you're used to writing. Don't try to write like this or try to be like that. Just be you." I think that's the smartest thing anybody's done in a long, long time. Just starting from that fresh idea — (laughing) although it's not — it was very cool to see Bob get back into his element. People encouraged him. He finally got some encouragement instead of "Oh no no, that's old fashioned." I watched how refreshed and excited he was. The fact of being back in the band was an extra edge. He knew he'd have to be supporting those songs on the road.
I really thought it was cool being able to sing the way I wanted to sing. Just everything together. Pete (Furler) came in and played amazing drums and really brought fresh ideas. I think it was a 1-2-3 punch.
Tell me about Peter Furler and the way he produced the album. You guys have worked with several producers over the years. What did he bring that was fresh and creative? How was he different from the others you've worked with before?
You know, I was never in the same studio with him ever, which was very different for me. The only time I worked with Pete directly was when we were doing some vocal ad-libs and touch-ups. That was totally foreign to me. I appreciate it because he was basically saying "Bob, John, your demos were so cool, just do what you did on the demos." So we did. Bob and I basically did the vocals — Bob was at the board recording it, and I did my thing.
That was very refreshing because Pete said "Just do it." That made the record very honest. I think that's one of the reasons people like it. It's a very honest rock record.
I remember several years ago when you were with Word Records and the "floating period" afterward where you were between record companies, you told me several times that you really wanted to rock again, but you couldn't find somebody who wanted to do that. You had done albums like "Double Take" and the others that were more toned down. What kind of vision does Inpop have for you guys? How has your working relationship been with them?
I think our relationship with them is very good. I think they have more vision for us than we do [for ourselves]. Pete made comments like "John, I think this is the first of at least five records from you all." And I'm thinking "Five records? Okay, sounds good to me!" Bob and I are just sort of one record a time. We don't even try to figure out what's happening next. But that's always been our way. Each record we have been very concentrated on that one record and then we would see where God would take us. I think Inpop has a very positive attitude toward Petra.
And that's a big change from before, having a record company that believes in you.
Yeah, I tell you what, it's a real comforting time. It's comforting to know the record company has a vision. Word had a vision for a while, but as time passed, personnel changed. They started drifting into a different mindset as far as the kind of music they wanted to have, and we didn't fit anymore. It's not that they ignored us, it just didn't feel like they really knew what to do with us. I think Inpop is a young company, fresh, run by a bunch of imaginative guys and ladies. It's been nice.
When you were talking with Peter Furler and Inpop about the future of Petra, did you agree to record a certain number of albums for them, or is it a one-album-at-a-time thing?
With Inpop, they've always struck me as being off the cuff, taking things a step at a time. We've always been that way, too. We have no exaggerated expectations. Seriously, many people have said "Petra, why are you still around?" Well, the truth is, because we're supposed to be. But on the other hand, we're not planning 10 years from now. In our stage of existence, we have to take it a step at a time. To have a multi-album deal, I don't think that would be wise for us or for them. We have to take it a step at a time, a year at a time, and see where it takes us.
The song "Jekyll & Hyde" is included on the Festival Con Dios CD, but Petra is not part of that tour lineup right now. Has there been any talk about sometime in the future touring with Festival Con Dios?
Yeah, there's always been talk. It's funny, Festival Con Dios is run by major guys in our record company, but they still don't see… financially their value for us has not been enough. We can't afford to do it. They made an offer, but financially we couldn't do it. That's one of the reasons our song was on the CD. They figured we would join the tour. But we can't pay to play. We'd love to be on that festival, but we have to do it where we can afford to buy groceries.
Along those same lines, at the beginning of this year, you guys performed with Ron Luce and and his TeenMania ministry. Are you still working with them? Are there any plans to do shows in the future?
No. It fell through. I think TeenMania is a great organization, but I think they're looking for that newest, youngest type of thing and we don't fit that scheme. We're okay with that. I think they're looking for a different kind of band than us, and I'm totally fine with that. We gave it a shot and it just didn't seem to work. If there ever is a time where they feel we can do it, we'd do it in a heartbeat. But until that time, there's no need to force it.
Let's talk about you personally for a second. You've done a lot of work on a solo album that's been on hold for a while…
For a LONG while!
Has there been any progress on getting it closer to releasing?
My partner, the one who is left of the three, every once in a while calls me and says "John, we've got this. We're almost ready." It's really out of my hands.
I can't concentrate on it much because Petra takes up so much of my time and it's such a focus. Right now, I don't think Petra can afford a solo album from me, because every time I do a solo record, everyone assumes I quit the band. I don't know why it's so tough for people to fathom the idea of having two separate ministries, but it caused complications the last two records I did.
I would love to have my third solo record come out. I wish it had come out two years ago. It's just sort of sitting there. I think one of the songs from that record was put on a different record recently, a compilation of different singers. I don't know what it's called, but they took one of my songs that was gonna be on my solo record and put it on this other record. I don't know the name, but I'm sure if you investigated, you could probably find it.
Indeed, I know what it is!
Oh, okay, I thought so!
It's called "Welcome to the Revolution" and it's the Liberty n' Justice album.
Oh, well what song of mine is on there?
"It's About Love," I'm pretty sure.
Oh, okay, cool!
Actually, I was going to ask you about that project because Greg X. Volz also has a song on that project.
Yeah. A lot of Petra fans are really excited because it's you, and Greg, and there's a whole bunch of other people like Jamie Rowe. Some Petra fans have wondered if, some time in the future, Petra might consider doing sort of what Stryper is doing — they're reuniting. There are folks who wonder if Petra would ever do a super-concert, where you bring back various people who have been part of Petra over the 30 years of your ministry.
Oh my gosh, it WOULD be a super-concert. It'd have to be a three day affair to bring everybody in! You know, never say never, but I don't really see it. For instance, if you're talking about me and Greg (Volz) singing on the same stage, no way. I can't believe it would ever happen. I love Greg, don't get me wrong. We're friends. But because of circumstances of the past, I don't think Greg would ever be on the stage with Petra again. I'm not trying to build anything into that. I just think that the relationship between Petra and Greg is not one that would be conducive to playing on the same stage again.
Others? I don't know, it's hard to tell. I'd love to play with John Lawry again. That'd be great. Ronnie? I miss him. Oh my gosh, the bands I've had together for the last 7 years have been great bands. It would be fun to have everybody back together again. Mark Kelly, my gosh, he was the first bass player I ever played with Petra. He was a neat guy. It's hard to tell.
Do you keep in touch with the guys like Kevin (Brandow) and Pete (Orta) and some of them?
I stay in touch with Pete more than I stay in touch with anyone else. Pete calls me about once a month to see how I'm doing. It's good to hear how he's doing.
I hear about Kevin from all our mutual friends. For some reason, I've got his number, I just never call him and he's got mine and never calls me. But listen, Kevin was an excellent guitar player and a great singer. He's a very busy boy, and so am I. It's just that kind of thing.
Lonnie (Chapin), I try to keep an eye on him. He and his brother are doing really good with Tait. I run into them on the road once in a while, and that's fun.
Then there's several other guys who weren't quite in the band as long as those characters who were great guys. For instance, Quentin (Gibson). Good guitar player, good guy, a hard worker. I know that he's on the road now with his band. But it's real hard to keep in contact with all those guys. If I called them all up, I'd never have time to do anything (laughs).
I interviewed Bob recently and he was talking with me about when you guys were in the early stages of discussing touring without a keyboard player. He told me that when you first heard the idea, you were dead-set against it.
Yes, yes I was.
But over time, obviously that changed. Tell me about the process of deciding that and how it's been in concert playing those classic songs without the keyboards.
Well, I tell you what, it's very different, but it's sort of cool. We're constantly told "You've got to do something different." A criticism of Petra is that it's the same-old, same-old. We've been doing this for 30 years. Show me any band that's been doing this 30 years and sooner or later you're going to be doing stuff like you did before.
Anyway, we started talking about basically a three-piece band with a singer. I'm not into that. I've never been into that. For me to be part of a band like that was very strange. I was against it. I was like "Guys, come on, that's not Petra."
But man, after Bob started showing me the parts… for instance, on Creed, that's a definite keyboard song. He came up with some very cool sounds and a cool arrangement. And I decided I could handle that. We started doing all these songs that I considered very keyboard-oriented, and he proved to me that this is fresh and new and it sounds cool. It's a good idea. People were saying "Petra can't exist without a keyboard player." But I tell you what, spend one night with us at a show, and you'll walk away believers.
You guys have a new website and the new album is out. What else can we look forward to in the future? Are there plans to revive the fan club or anything along those lines?
Good question. I think we're taking it a step at a time. We've concentrated so much on getting the band together, the right people. I think we've found that.
It's a step at a time. The website is really not together yet, we're not happy with it yet. There's so much you can do with a website, we just haven't had a chance to get it all together yet. Once we get that together, then we start working on the next step.
The fan club thing? That'd be great. But I tell you what, as far as I'm concerned, we've got some of the best fans already in these radical people on the internet, known as our "Petheads." There are few bands that have that kind of loyalty and help. A fan club is not necessarily our top priority, because I think we've already naturally got one.
Tell me about the fruits of the ministry. What are you seeing out on the road or when you're doing interviews? What is the continuing fruit of Petra's ministry?
I think there's a lot of different things Petra adds to the table. First, we're synonymous with Christian rock. The word Petra is almost synonymous with Christian rock. It's the kind of "Christian" that is very definitely Christian. We put the ministry first and the music comes second. The music is important because it's the tool that brings across the ministry.
It's hard for us to explain to folks how we function. The truth is that it's like a Christian plummer. He carries two badges. The first badge is Christian (and the second is being a plummer). Being a Christian puts you in the spotlight every time. The world, the non-believers, will keep an eye on you to justify not being a Christian after every mistake you make. It's an important badge, and I think we've always tried to carry the badge sincerely. Not meaning we're perfect, trust me, we fail every day. But we very much understand the ministry of a Christian rock band is very important on-stage and off.
When we do interviews and stuff, we get a chance to give our testimony and explain what Jesus Christ has done in our lives and what He means to us. It's just an avenue. Because Petra is world-renowned, we get to go all over the world — South America, Korea, Europe, India — and do interviews if nothing else. We get to talk about Jesus Christ. How many people will read those? How many people will watch TV when we're on the air?
It's one of those things where once you've developed a name like Petra, it's hard to give it up, because it is so recognizable and it opens doors for us to testify about Jesus Christ.
Speaking of opening doors, help me get into your mind as you guys prepared to go to India. How did you prepare? There are Christians there, but they are a minority.
Believe it or not, but the minority factor — and that's exactly what I thought, that it's all Muslim or Buddha — actually, unofficially, it's almost one-third Christian. It may even be more than that. Your parents have to declare your faith when you're born. There's nobody that will say they're Christian, because then they'll be left out of everything. They have no rights. So unofficially, there are probably more Christians in India than in some countries in Europe. But we didn't know that when we first got there.
We had a lady come and meet with us to tell us the traditions of the Indians — don't do this, don't do that. Do you shake hands, do you knock? A lot of things you can't afford to take for granted. You might make a gesture that's friendly in the U.S. but in India it's a gigantic insult. We tried to be prepared there.
But man, when you go into a culture that you didn't ever think you'd ever be able to be a part of, it was an eye-opener. But I tell you, once we got there, it was no different than any where else in the world. It was fun. I enjoyed India probably more than I've enjoyed a lot of other countries I looked forward to going to.
I still get emails from people in India who want to get in touch with you guys or want to know when you're coming back. Do you get regular communication from people who were affected by those concerts?
You know, I try not to do that. You know me. I don't know much about the internet. I'm a pretty private person, so I don't try to go out of my way to get in touch with people. The only time I know about it is when someone gives me a letter or email and says "You gotta read this."
And we do get a lot, and not just from India. Again, all over the world, people are so gracious to let us know how Petra's ministry has affected their lives. Whenever I get a letter or someone comes up to me and says "You don't know what you've done," I look at them and say, "You telling me that was exactly what I needed to hear right now." That's how I always think when I read a letter that's real encouraging. God wanted me to read that right then. That's how I always look at it.
I want to thank you for taking time to talk with me.
Listen buddy, thanks for taking the time to put this together. I'm sure it will be fantastic. Right now, we need to get the word out and let people know that we've got this new record. They need to know this new Petra band is kicking.
You know, I'm trying to do something with some of the other folks who run Petra websites. We're trying to work together to encourage people to tell their friends about "Jekyll & Hyde" and to call their radio stations.
Listen, when you asked me about the radio play, I'm not trying to spew sour grapes here. Actually, the interest in this record has been really good, compared to the last three or four. Well with "Revival," there was some interest. There were a few stations that said "This is good" and gave it a shot. This album, there are a LOT more people giving it a shot, but there's still some hardcores out there that don't like us, for whatever reason. We must have ticked them off sometime. But you know what, keep praying.
Our last number one single, which was way back, was "We Need Jesus." It was No. 1 everywhere in the country. There were two or three stations that said "We're never gonna play it." But finally they had to because it was No. 1 on every chart that existed, so they finally had to play it. You gotta remember there are people like that out there. I guess after you've been around as long as Petra has, you're gonna make some enemies. I don't know why or how, but it's gonna happen. We just have to overcome that and say "Thank you Lord, you have a plan."
Personally, it's been a little frustrating for me here in St. Louis, which is close to your old stomping grounds. We have two Christian radio stations that are trying to reach this market, and they're both AC stations. When you bring up Petra to them, the first thing they say is "They're too hard for us" or "They don't fit the mold of what we're trying to do." There's a lot of built-up things there.
Listen, you've got to understand in the career of Petra, we've always been the outsider. The only difference between then and now is that back then we were the king of the castle, so they couldn't ignore us. Now we're not king of the castle and all these excuses can be used and they're effective, where before they weren't. You know, the old "they're too hard for us" or "they don't fit our mold." (laughs) No, we don't, we don't fit their mold, especially AC. Although I think the song that's out right now on AC is a really cool song, and I can't believe that every station's not playing it.
I think there has to be a buzz before these stations will… remember, we're synonymous with Christian rock. And in the Christian mindset, I don't care how open you are, there's still that idea that "rock and roll is evil." They may not say it, but… What's funny is that we're probably one of the mellower rockers in the scheme of things for Christian rock now. Again, once you wear that badge, there's positive things to it and negative. If you mention Petra to someone, even if they've never listened to us, they say "Oh, that's scary." We just have to keep on keepin' on.
Keep on their case. Say, "Have you listened to the song? Exactly what do you mean? Do you have just a certain little box you decided God's music can only fit in?" Start rattling their cages.
Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me.
Any time, any time.
Now that you've finished reading the interview, talk about it with other Petra fans on the Petra Rocks The World messageboard.