Christian band MercyMe set for Pittsburgh stop on 25th anniversary tour
MercyMe’s current tour may be billed as a 25th anniversary outing, but the popular Christian rock-pop band isn’t being all that nostalgic when it comes to the choice of songs in the set list.
“We actually had that discussion early on about kind of how much looking back we wanted to do,” bassist Nathan Cochran explains in a recent phone interview. “We certainly do touch on songs we think people want to hear or know from us, for sure. But we really have been weighing heavily on our last two records, ‘Welcome to the New’ and ‘Lifer.’”
MercyMe, along with Crowder, brings its Imagine Nation Tour to PIttsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena Oct. 4.
At a crossroad
Those two recent albums, released in 2014 and 2017 respectively, came after a period when the band, which had been releasing albums since 1995, came to a major crossroad.
“Before we made ‘Welcome to the New,’ we went through a season of really, really trying to decide if we were going to keep doing this, and honestly had never really been to that place before,” Cochran says. “All of us in one way or another were struggling, trying to figure out why we were still doing this (band), if we wanted to still do it, you know, are our families hanging on by a thread? Are our families, are they thriving? We had a lot of questions to ask. Going into making that record, we kind of decided we were going to throw away what we thought peoples’ expectations of us were and try to make a record that we wanted to make. It came out as ‘Welcome to the New.’
“For some of us, it was kind of a watershed moment,” he adds. “(Singer/main songwriter) Bart (Millard) talks quite a bit about coming to terms with some things that he believed and kind of, part of the richness of that season for us is we weren’t all at the same place. Bart had kind of come to a realization of what grace really meant. For me personally, I had already been to that place. So we had these great discussions, where we would kind of look at each other and say ‘You really didn’t already believe that?’ It brought up a lot of discussions amongst us individually, which turned into a great, honest record, is what we were trying to do with it.”
The current tour, which stops at PPG Paints Arena on Friday and was preceded by the release in March 2018 of a greatest hits album (the group also released a best-of album, “10,” in 2009), comes at a time when MercyMe has gained renewed notoriety for a 2018 movie featuring Millard, “I Can Only Imagine.”
The film is named after the band’s early 2000s hit single and tells the story of the inspirations behind the song, which Millard wrote at age 19, after the death of his father, who had gone from being an abusive parent to living a life of faith. This transition helped Millard grow close to his father before he passed.
The song “I Can Only Imagine” was released on the 2001 MercyMe album, “Almost There,” and went on to win the 2002 Dove song of the year award before crossing over to mainstream pop in 2003, reaching No. 5 on “Billboard” magazine’s Adult Contemporary singles chart on its way to amassing sales of more than 1 million copies. The “Almost There” album eventually topped 2 million copies sold. Today, “I Can Only Imagine” remains MercyMe’s signature song and the movie has introduced a whole new audience to that hit tune and the band itself.
The emergence of new fans was a key reason MercyMe, which also includes guitarists Michael John Scheuchzer and Barry Graul and drummer Robby Shaffer, decided to release the hits album, “I Can Only Imagine: The Very Best of MercyMe.” It includes both the original version and the newly recorded movie version of “I Can Only Imagine,” along with 11 other hit singles from across the group’s career.
“It kind of felt like we needed maybe an easy way for people who didn’t know much about us to kind of have one easy place to go to discover things about us,” Cochran said. “So it felt like doing a best of or greatest hits was a good idea. We honestly never, we don’t like the idea of doing those kinds of records. We kind of feel like when you do that you’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re on our way out. Here are our greatest hits. Thanks for listening.’ But it made sense to do it this time.
“There are a lot of people that hadn’t paid attention to what we were doing for the last few years that all of a sudden said ‘Hey, I remember those guys. Let’s go check them out again,’” he added, noting that MercyMe has started work on a new studio album. “So all these things that we had been building over the last three years and with the last two records, I think some people finally caught up with us because of the movie.”