A loved one diagnosed with cancer. Another killed in a car wreck. A parent gone too soon. During the making and subsequent release of 2004’s "Undone" (INO), it seemed to be bad news on top of bad news for the guys in MercyMe. They’ve become a sort of poster band for loss, heralded by their signature, culture-impacting ballad, “I Can Only Imagine,” and its sequel, “Homesick.”
But life’s different now. Though some struggles remain, it’s spring, both spiritually and literally, on the day we meet up in Dallas near the band’s home in Greenville, Texas. Guitarist Mike Scheuchzer says that “after all those things, right now it seems everything’s pretty good. [Front man Bart Millard’s] father-in-law is still having some health problems, but it seems like they can come up for air right now. And I think that comes across on the record.”
With the success of their first three albums (selling four million copies and counting), the band has earned the right to stretch a little on its newest, and the guys are eager to talk about making it. The difference is instantly noticeable but measured. It’s an evolution and extension of their first three albums but not a huge departure.
Returning to Their Roots
“We were a rock band when we first started,” Millard says, “and finally everything lined up” to do an edgier record. “The label was saying, ‘Here’s your chance. Everything’s going a little heavier these days.’ The best quote from the label in the middle of mixing was when Jeff [Moseley, INO’s president] said, ‘Hey, maybe the guitars need to be a little hotter.’ And we said, ‘Yes!’” [Laughs]
The result, Scheuchzer says, is “fun music. I think we’ve captured who MercyMe is live better on this record than we have in the past. It’s a little more organic.” He says being away and having nearly a month to focus solely on recording spurred their creativity.
Having had a respite from the road, they’re eager to get to play the new material live. Scheuchzer says, “As men you feel like you’re supposed to be doing something to support the family and be working, and, for us, our [touring] is that. So we’re kind of itching to get back to work. We have the greatest job in the world.”
“We’re able to tour for the love of it,” says Millard. Most artists depend on touring for income, seeing little money from CD sales. But MercyMe’s record deal is different: “We’re more in a partnership. Our biggest risk was the first record ["Almost There"]. We paid for the budget, and they [INO] paid for the marketing.” The album’s wild success has allowed the band to cover future recordings and splurge a little on its shows.
“We’re able to put more into [concert] production – video screens or whatever. We take great pride in putting on a great show,” says Millard. “Our motto is, ‘We ain’t jumpin’, so you might as well watch something else.’”
The members of MercyMe may love touring; but given the choice, there’s nothing like the haven of home. Though they could be kickin’ it in Christian music’s mecca, Nashville, they’ve remained 600 miles to its west in Texas, staying focused on family and away from “The Biz.” As we sit down, Scheuchzer quickly informs me that “every one of us would rather be at home playing with our kids” than doing a photo shoot – or an interview. Nice.
For the Love of Sam
Millard says he spends as much time as he can with his three kids. Though life’s calmed down quite a bit, it’s not all been easy. Sam, his 4-year-old son, was diagnosed two years ago with diabetes. “I think the one blessing from all of that is that you have no choice but to be involved. In every aspect, Sam is a huge part of my life,” says Millard.
Part of the challenge is a strictly regimented schedule of meals and snacks, blood sugar checks and insulin injections – a lot for a 4-year-old and his parents. “You get up and check his blood sugar. If he’s low, he gets 15 grams of carbs (usually candy); and you wait 15 minutes and see if he’s normal, which is about 150 for his age. Anything below 80, it’s low, and he gets candy. You’re trying to get it above 80 and below 300. If it’s high, you give him a shot.”
That process continues all day, with scheduled snacks mid-morning and afternoon, meals of precisely 45 carbs and careful checks of his blood sugar. He also gets shots in the morning, midday and evening. “He gets at least three [shots] a day. And it doesn’t stop there. At midnight we check him, and at 3 [a.m.] we check him. Every night,” he says.
Those requirements make it hard for him to try out new foods. “If he takes a bite and doesn’t like it, you’ve got to figure a way to count what he’s eaten; and it’s got to be spot on. Anything can be fixed with insulin, but you’re trying to avoid that as much as possible.” To that end, Millard says he’s learned the number of carbs in just about everything.
Scheuchzer got to experience this all first hand. “Mike and his wife had all the band kids at their house. He said he wanted to learn how to take care of Sam,” Millard explains. “We came out at dinner and gave him his shot because they weren’t sure about that.”
“Every few hours I’d call and say, ‘You’ve gotta check him.’ And all through the night, he’d do it; and it broke Mike’s heart ... he had no idea. Most people have no idea how much diabetes consumes your life. He called me in the morning, and Sam was low [during] the night; and Mike had to wake him up and give him four little Sweet Tart things. And he goes, ‘Man, I just started crying. He was deep asleep and had to wake up and eat.’
“There are some times it hits you hard,” Millard continues. “There are some times we have to do 10-20 finger pricks a day. He’s used to it now – he’ll tell us which finger he wants. It was hard at first. It was a wrestling match every time. We call it our ‘new normal’ now.”
Though this taxing process is now normal, “you have those days when you get angry at God and say ‘Why him?’ Shannon [Bart’s wife] has her days when I’m on the road.” Sam’s condition is further complicated when he gets sick. “When Sam has a cold, it’s like pneumonia for someone else. You have to fight the symptoms of being sick, but you have to watch his blood sugar as well. You’re on the phone constantly with the doctor, and he can end up in the ER. And it’s for the rest of his life unless there’s a cure.”
The Art of Adoption
As with Millard, much of Scheuchzer’s down time is focused on his expanding family. He and his wife already have a 16-month-old and are beginning the process of international adoption. “We’re finishing up paperwork this week, and then it’ll be in the hands of the adoption agency and Kazakhstan. We felt like the biggest need was international – physically and spiritually.”
The process is complicated: “They assign us a child and send us a picture and/or a video. We take that into a specialist to make sure he or she is developing properly. We’ll approve or deny it. And then we’ll wait a couple of months, and they say, ‘You’re traveling in two weeks.’” “Traveling” means moving to Kazakhstan, wedged between China and Russia, for four to six weeks.
“It’s cool the way God laid it all out. We’d decided this and visited a new church in Greenville, and the guy who taught Sunday school was talking about his experience in Kazakhstan.” The man’s whole family had served in missions there and invited the Scheuchzers over to share their experiences. “We were kicking ourselves, like, ‘Can you believe this?’ We’re really excited about how God brought it all together.”
After they decided on Kazakhstan, Scheuchzer says, “We found out it was the most expensive place to adopt from. I would have thought that would have made me more nervous, but it seemed to confirm it for me and gave me a peace knowing that God’s going to make it happen in His timing. God adopts us; it’s a beautiful picture,” he says, of being “able to rescue someone from a bad situation – especially a child.”
Texans “R” Us
Small-town living has helped keep the members of the band close. Greenville is an hour from Dallas, and there’s not a lot to do in the town of 20,000. Millard plays golf – and the guys are all semi-rabid baseball fans. They’ve even worked out a deal to do some charity shows in exchange for a suite at the Texas Rangers’ home in Arlington.
Bryson, for his part, sucked the band into his interest in NASCAR: “I’m a fan, some say ‘stalker.’” He collects memorabilia, and he also admits to sneaking into the pit for a race.
When quizzed on the appeal of watching cars go around and around over and over again, Bryson says, animatedly, “Everyone says that until they go to one. But when they come by at that speed, and you hear the rumble ... and they play the National Anthem and a fighter jet squadron goes ove r... it’s not like a ballgame.”
"We’re kind of NASCAR fans by default. Five of us hated it until Jim drug us into it,” Millard laughs. He says they became fans after they performed at a chapel service “to make Jim’s dream come true. We razz Jim more than anyone on the planet,” says Millard, “but, fortunately, he can take it. Keyboard players have to be made fun of.
“We’re like brothers,” Millard continues. “By the end of every tour, we get sick of each other, but I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else. I’ve heard stories about other bands that just kind of work together and aren’t really close. We’re incredibly close. We’ve done this for nearly 12 years.”
He rattles off the band’s members like he’s talking about family: “Barry [Graul, guitarist] and Mike I see almost every day. Jim [Bryson, keyboardist] lives out in the country – Little House on the Prairie. Robby [Shaffer, drummer] lives in Dallas, and I talk to him on the phone every day. Nathan [Cochran, bassist] kinda goes off and does the family thing.
“Someone asked me the other day when I had ‘alone time,’” recalls Millard. “And I said, ‘Alone time’? The way my wife sees it, when I go to New York for a meeting, that’s my free day. There’s no day off, and I’m not bitter about it. On a day like today, when we’re working, to my wife, that’s a free day. She’s like, ‘Enjoy it.’ [Laughs] When you’re gone as much as we are ... when I’m at home, I’m with family. Steven Curtis [Chapman] calls it ‘re-entry’ when you get off the road and get back into the system, back into the schedule.”
Even off the road, he has plenty to do. Aside from Simple Records, Millard is planning a second solo album of roots/Americana-flavored hymns to follow "Hymned No. 1." Plus there’s that golf score to work on.
Keeping It Relational
In talking about the band members’ various ventures, it becomes clear that “family” extends to the crew around them as well. The band seems to look for people to invest in.
Scheuchzer says their merchandise guy “wasn’t a merch guy when we hired him. He was just a good hang – and an athlete [who lowers their golf score considerably]. Our stage manager hadn’t set foot on stage when we met him – didn’t know how to tune a guitar. But we taught him.
“You wouldn’t think that would be a good hire, but he was such a good guy and had such a great heart for ministry and was a hard worker and was willing to learn.” While MercyMe’s off the road, he’s out with Third Day putting to use the skills he’s learned with Millard and Co.
“There are so many bands out there that are better bands, better musicians, that it was fitting for us to hire a pretty motley crew to fill these slots for us and to make them part of our family,” says Scheuchzer. “I think that’s what we’re supposed to do as Christians – invest in people,” following the model of discipleship Jesus walks out in the Gospels.
So where do they go from here? Oddly, Millard says, “On this one, we just want to sell enough records to do it again, to change it again. For us, when you change one thing, it seems like you’ve changed everything. I have friends who’ve said, ‘The album is great – it’s edgier, but it’s not a huge departure. It still sounds like MercyMe.’ This is us telling the label that we want to take the chance; and if it works, they’ll follow our lead. I don’t know that I’d want to reinvent ourselves much from where we are right now. I’m happy with the way things are going.”
© 2006 CCM Magazine. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Click here to subscribe.