Thursday, July 3, 1997
Ah, the mystery that is Iona. A band based in Great Britain with five albums distributed throughout the United States by Forefront Records. This impressive discography may make them the best distributed, unknown Christian performers in today's music scene. Joanna Hogg's luminous, lilting voice soaring over a rich tapestry of electronic and ancient instruments makes Iona compelling to even the casual listener. Interspersed among the songs she sings are jazz/rock/folk-influenced instrumentals that never slip into the directionless mush of softer fare. Celebrating the spiritual heritage the English speaking world owes to the British Isles, their artistry makes the ancient, dusty past alive and relevant to ahistorical, post-modernists. Together since 1988, Iona made their North American debut in 1994 at that most obscure and select of Christian music festivals, Cornerstone. They returned this summer for their third appearance.
Iona's van actually arrived on the grounds of Cornerstone Festival 24 hours and 5 minutes later than our interview was originally scheduled. A hang-up in customs delayed their departure from England for a day. They made a special detour by the press tent to pick us up, and the sixteen passenger van, cargo trailer in tow, threaded its way through the one-way road around the exhibition and seminar tents, the art gallery and food vendors, along the winding back road that led to the main stage. After five years of attending Cornerstone Festival, it was the first time I'd ridden in a motorized vehicle this far back into the farm. A light rain settled the dust as Shari Lloyd and I made small talk with the night's headliners, trying to determine their mental and physical condition after a transatlantic flight and a five-hour car ride.
Down the final steep grade to the back of Main Stage, the rain developed into something much more serious, reminding the band members --Dave Bainbridge who produces Iona and plays keyboards and guitar, singer and keyboardist Joanna Hogg, Troy Donockley who plays pipes, whistles and guitars, percussionist Terl Bryant, and bassist Phil Barker--that June was the wettest month in all of recorded English meteorological history. They were happy to stay in their van with us and discuss the current state of Iona before setting up for their first U.S. concert this year.
Tollbooth - Tell us about your new live record.
Bainbridge - One of the reasons for doing the album was that it was just myself, Joanne, and Fitz when we did the first album. We didn't have a regular rhythm section or anything, although Terl played on the album. Iona has become very much a band since then. We've had time to develop the material and I think the tracks from the first album are much more developed and exciting on the live album.
Donockley - There was also demand from the fans for a live album. Everywhere we went, people were asking for it. The studio albums didn't give, getting back to the development thing, a full picture.
Hogg - We also simply were not in a position to start work on another studio album. And that wasn't going to be the case for maybe another year. By doing the live album, we were able to sort of fill what would otherwise have been a long gap between studio albums.
Tollbooth - What was the recording process?
Bainbridge - We had five digital eight-track recorders linked up so we had forty tracks, and we organized three concerts one right after the other and just recorded everything that happened, backstage too. The idea was just to capture the excitement and everything of the live performance. I wasn't really concerned about little mistakes, but more about capturing the atmosphere. Actually mixing the album only took something like four days, which is substantially quicker than any of the studio albums. We just accepted the sound as it was during the concert.
Tollbooth - What goes on in the studio that makes the process longer?
Hogg - I think when we go into the studio we haven't always formed, in our own minds, how the song is going to end up sounding. We spend some time in the studio trying something out and then deciding not to do it that way. By the time we come to touring with something, we've learned it. We've developed how we play it, and we feel comfortable with it. Some of the tracks on the live album are quite different from the original studio versions because they've developed since we did them in the studio; we've tried out different arrangements, different instrumentation, and tried to vary it a bit.
Tollbooth - Your studio albums are all concept pieces. Did you have a broader structure to your two-CD set?
Hogg - It was just meant to be a good representation of all the albums that we've done, plus some new material that we hadn't previously recorded.
Tollbooth - There's a larger modern Celtic/British folk scene we're beginning to discover in America; River Dance is doing very well here, with TV specials on PBS and what not. How do you fit into the larger modern Celtic folk music scene?
Donockley - That stuff's been kind of bubbling under for years. It's only now that it's hit the mainstream. But it's nothing like what we do.
Bainbridge - Yeah, I think Riverdance is like a fusion of styles drawing heavily on the traditional music of folk singing. Some of the music we do, particularly because of Troy's background, has got traditional folk influences, but other people in the band bring influences from the different musical genres.
Tollbooth - Which are?
Bryant - Rock from the seventies. There's a great deal of influence there because of our age and when we grew up.
Bainbridge - There's also the pop side to it, as well, song writing.
Tollbooth -Where do you generally play?
Bainbridge - Most of the tours we do are in the U. K. or in Europe, Germany in particular, and Holland.
Tollbooth - What sort of audiences do you play to over there?
Hogg - More of the mainstream venues now, although we still get a lot of the Christian audience coming to those gigs. But you also hope to get a mixture, an audience of people that are new to the music and who come along because it's a concert in that particular venue.
Bainbridge - The venues shouldn't be threatening to people that are not Christians because the music certainly isn't. We don't want to put people off who are interested in seeing the band just because we're playing in a church, which we do occasionally.
Tollbooth - What can your fans in America do to support Iona, so we can see more of you?
Hogg - Well, because we're all such happy family people at home, we hate to be away for long tours and basically refuse to do them. The best way for us is to play to as many people as possible in the shortest space of time--to do biggish concerts. Then, of course, promoters need to be sure they've got a big enough audience to justify putting on a concert in a venue that holds two or three thousand people.
Bryant - The history of rock 'n' roll hasn't had a great deal of respect for the family, and I think it's really important for us to bear that in mind. People have said to us, "We could make things work if you'd come and do six or eight weeks over here." Maybe that's good in terms of selling more records, but it wouldn't be good for our family lives. It's really as simple as that.
Bainbridge - The band is a lot more pigeon-holed as a Christian music band in America than in England where it's just perceived as a band doing ministry music as well. It's great to play things like Cornerstone, which is a fantastic festival, but I think sometimes playing the church gigs might be not hitting the audience we'd really like to hear the message.
In America, it's possible to be a Christian artist, and make quite a good living at it. You can go around and play at festivals, and never actually play to any people who aren't Christians. But there isn't that option, really, in England.
Donockley - You sometimes get the feeling that, because we're seen as a Christian band, and if we do strictly Christian gigs, that the audience are only there because we're a Christian band, and they'll like whatever we do, because we're a Christian band. That does actually happen.
Hogg - There are a lot of churches, even at home, who put on a concert for a Christian band, and they tell everybody to come and support them. It's not a case of come if you like the music; it's come and support the bands. So you get these audiences who don't really want to be there.
Bryant - Mums and dads and aunts and uncles.
Donockley - And because it is so pigeon-holed and sectarianized, the quality control is nonexistent; people just accept it, no matter how bad it is. "Yeah, yeah, they're good!" When chances are, they might be atrociously awful. So it's important for us to reach as many people as possible.
Tollbooth - Is live music an important part of entertainment life in Great Britain and Europe?
Bryant - It's not, actually.
Barker - Depending where you go, you get more people to concerts. In the north of England, I'd say you generally get more people going out to see bands than the south, especially in London, where there are so many venues and so many bands.
Donockley - On a Sunday afternoon, every pub you go into will have a live band in it.
Tollbooth - That's a lot of music. Here, it's satellite dishes and cable T.V.
Hogg - That's why, you see, we've grown so slowly in America. We've so little in the way of video material for that media. I think in the States, it would certainly help add numbers to our audience if we had some video material. We have one, in seven years!
Tollbooth - We also have so few radio stations that play this type of music.
Bainbridge - The radio stations over here pretty much pigeon-hole different types of music. Our record company has asked for more cuts that are "radio-friendly" for American Christian radio.
Donockley - And guess what we say to them. (laughs)
Bainbridge - We just want to write music.
Our interview concluded with the ending of the rain as the band dispersed to set up for their evening headlining show. The mystery of Iona may be why they've enjoyed such success while remaining committed to artistic integrity and personal balance. Or perhaps the mystery is why more bands don't follow their example.
Interviewed by Linda