Six albums after the band’s first pieces interlocked, Third Day has become the leader in its genre. The Atlanta-based rockers have accrued five gold albums, a platinum album, a platinum DVD, two Grammy’s and 23 of the Gospel Music Association's Dove Awards. Backing up the band's ascent, Billboard magazine noted the act is "not only one of the best Christian bands of the '90s but one of the best rock bands, period.” Third Day has clearly weathered the difficult climb from obscurity to success, but the band is hardly suffering from over-confidence or complacency. In fact, the band’s seventh album, Wire, addresses that very issue head-on. Rather than lean back in a figurative easy chair, Third Day challenged itself immensely, shaking up its direction and reasserting its place as a rock band of enormous depth and passion. After establishing a comfortable working relationship with Monroe Jones over several albums, the group brought in a new producer who had no history with the band members. They left a stylistic vein which had formed the basis for two of their last three albums. And they dug deep into their psyches while writing material for the project, yielding the most introspective album of their still-building career.
“This album is a lot more personal than anything that we’ve done,” vocalist Mac Powell reflects. “Yet also it’s universal enough in a sense that it’s going to reach out to different people in many different situations.” As a result, Third Day returns to the entertainment culture in 2004 with a renewed energy and attitude that makes them “a brand new band that just happens to have 10 years experience,” bass player Tai Anderson observes.
Wire plays off the excitement and sense of risk that that attitude represents. The title track hinges on the image of a circus acrobat, positioned above an audience spellbound by the unpredictability of the stunt.
“Everybody comes from miles around to see the spectacle of the guy on the tightrope,” notes guitarist Mark Lee, the song’s primary writer, “but in the back of their minds, if there’s not a chance that the guy’s gonna fall off the tightrope, then people aren’t gonna come. A lot of times with people placed in a position like we are, there’s some of that going on. In the newspaper on any given day, there are articles about these new artists or celebrities that are up and coming, and people love that story—they love the underdog. But once they get there, people also like to see them fall.”
With Wire, there is no fall for Third Day, only a step forward that draws from their own personal experiences as human beings and musicians. Several of the first songs written for the album—including “Billy Brown,” “San Angelo,” “Wire” and “RockStar”—touch on the thrills and the pitfalls of a job in the limelight.
The musical topics of the album represent the first of the challenges the group dealt with in bringing Wire to fruition. “It’s always a risk when you’re a musician and you start writing about being a musician,” Lee laughs. “There’s a fine line between writing it in a way that can be universal and writing it in a way that’s like, ‘Oh, woe is me, I’m on tour and miserable,’ where everybody’s like, ‘Well, I’ll take your job.’” Third Day faced that challenge successfully. On the surface, the songs reflect their own unique vocation. But on a deeper level, they deal less with the issues of a musician’s life than with topics such as risk, loneliness and struggle —themes that easily mirror the experiences and issues of fans in more traditional lines of work.
Expanding from those central songs, Wire’s material builds upon the issues the band’s members—each of whom is married with children—face in balancing their work with their families and spiritual lives. Songs such as “‘Til The Day I Die” and “I Believe” revolve around recommitment, a crucial piece of the puzzle in every successful long-term relationship, be it a marriage, or a friendship, which reflects the core of a rock band that hasn’t changed its lineup in more than nine years. Meanwhile, songs such as “Innocent,” “Blind” and “I Will Hold My Head High” reference the redemptive experience of the Christian faith that’s formed the basis for their career in a more obvious manner.
“On this record, we made a concerted effort to write songs that shared our faith in a way that was relevant to every man,” Mac Powell states.
“This is our most personal record,” Anderson affirms. “Because of that, the songs aren’t about big, sweeping principles. But being so personal probably makes it our deepest record spiritually.” Third Day took a great deal of time off during 2003, leading up to the making of Wire. It allowed the group to renew its long-term relationships at home, but the time away from the band reinvigorated their respect for Third Day, a separate entity that somehow transcends the individual members. “When the five of us get in a room together, there’s just something special there,” Lee says. “We each have something we bring to the table. There’ve been times we had to do things and one of us wasn’t there, and it just doesn’t feel right. There’s just something about the five guys that are in this, we were supposed to be together, and it’s been a cool thing.” They tested their resolve as a band with Wire in hooking up with producer Paul Ebersold, noted for his work with 3 Doors Down, Sister Hazel and Skillet. Laying the groundwork in Ebersold’s hometown of Memphis and finishing at a studio in Third Day’s hometown of Atlanta, they recorded the album with a different structure than they’ve used in the past. Each musician experienced more downtime than in previous sessions, putting even more focus on the album’s details. “This has been our most challenging record to make, without question,” Anderson confesses. “Everything took three times as long. We fought three times as long about every song. Paul created an environment where we were free to struggle, and everyone was free to argue and be passionate about their ideas. We feel like this is a great record, but it definitely came from the struggle, and really wrestling.”
In the process, Third Day backed away from the multiple stylistic directions it’s taken in its career to re-discover its initial motivations. After Powell and Lee first began working together in 1991, Anderson and Carr came on board in 1993. Guitarist Brad Avery completed the lineup in 1995, and the following year, Third Day released its self-titled debut. Over time, its releases have explored modern rock, techno sounds, Southern rock and even praise & worship music, with two worship albums—Offerings and Offerings II—going platinum and gold, respectively. Ebersold encouraged the band’s desire to return on Wire to an edgier sound, a Springsteen- and U2-inspired approach that focuses on energy and downplays frills. Ultimately, Third Day reconnected with its original spirit—the unfettered innocence that came with loading equipment in a van in the early years to play for an audience that might comprise a mere 20 people. “You don’t want to lose that initial garage band excitement that made it fun to begin with,” Carr reflects. “We don’t want to do this if it’s just about business and some level of success that will all go by the wayside someday. We want it to be fun. It’s always about connecting with fans. That’s why popular music is what it is—because the artist is presenting something and there are people going, ‘Man, we like that,’ and there’s a connection. That’s what it’s all about, and if that’s not happening, it’s better to go do something else.” It’s easy, as the band notes in “RockStar,” to get caught up in the glamour of the business. And Third Day has certainly felt that glamour, hobnobbing with superstars on the Grammy red carpet, and receiving major coverage in such media outlets as CNN, NBC’s “Today” show, Billboard, US magazine, CCM magazine, The Dallas Morning News, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Tennessean, The Minneapolis Star and The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Yet the guys are only now poised to fully experience the lofty goals they set for themselves when they originally dared to form a band that could play shows around their hometown. With the winning musical elements in Wire, the band fully expects the success it’s achieved in the Christian market will expand to the mainstream, as has happened in the past for such Christian artists as Amy Grant, Jars Of Clay, P.O.D. and Sixpence None The Richer.
Simply gunning for the big time is a risk in itself. Much as country, jazz, R&B or bluegrass purists have been known to criticize acts who command a mainstream audience, Christian artists have often come under fire for “selling out” when they bring their message to a larger community of people.
“We feel like for us, not going after it would be selling out,” Anderson counters. In fact, Third Day is chasing that bigger level of success not to gain the fame or glory that would come with it, but—in the spirit of Wire—to take yet another risk, standing firmly on the band’s faith and challenging both the church and American culture at large to consider its place in the world. Already, the group is heavily involved with DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa), relief organization World Vision, and Habitat For Humanity, and has participated in MTV’s Choose Or Lose campaign, encouraging young people to take an active role in their government—and their future. Following a recent trip overseas, the group has begun addressing the AIDS crisis in Africa during its concert appearances, knowing that that step alone is a major risk.
“It’s not a popular subject,” Anderson concedes. “There are going to be people who will be offended by that, but it’s the right thing to do. It’s what’s goin’ on in the world. There might be some people that walk away, but we feel like most of our audience consists of great people, and when they hear about this problem and know there’s something they can do about it, they’ll respond.”
Much like a new band, Third Day’s members still feel a can’t-miss solidarity and undying commitment for their lives, their bandmates and the highwire work that unifies them. The Wire album has them back on the road in 2004, playing such major venues as Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre, Atlanta’s Fox Theater and Portland’s Rose Garden. As their tour unfolds, Third Day will necessarily face downmany of the issues of a traveling band—the risk, the loneliness and the struggle — reconnecting with old fans who have their own experiences with those same issues, and making new fans who share the same concerns.
“We’re all passionate about our families,” Avery says. “We’re all passionate about our families, our fans, music and getting to travel and be out on the road. It’s the way we’re wired.”
The physical CD of Third Day's "Wire" album in a jewel case.