by Tracy Darlington
John Schlitt Interview
"I was a decent guy when I first started in music. I never drank, never did drugs. But because of peer pressure I caved and started doing lines of coke because everyone else was doing it. I wanted to fit in, to be just like all the others in the secular rock scene." --John Schlitt
John Schlitt is perhaps best known as the lead singer of Petra from 1986 until the band's retirement in 2005. He also released two solo albums in the 90's, Shake & Unfit for Swine.
Schlitt has recently teamed with Petra founder and guitarist Bob Hartman to release an album of acoustic worship songs.
John has recently released a third solo album called The Grafting.
Tracy: When did you first realize you wanted to be a musician?
John: I started singing when I was 5 in kiddie programs and such. I wouldn’t say I knew I WANTED to be in music at that point, naturally, but my mom tells me that I “had it” even at that young age. I would have to say that by the time I reached high school I knew music was in my future.
What artists or bands have had the most impact on you and your development as a musician?
I don’t think I really have any influences; I don’t try to be influenced by anyone. I try to have the music come from me or from circumstances naturally. I don’t try to sound like anybody – maybe to my detriment!
I wish I had been more into music and listened to others and learned their things – bits and pieces of other stuff. Maybe I could have progressed even further. But when I sing, I sing what feels right, knowing I haven’t tried to copy anybody. Maybe I am copying someone, but I don’t do it on purpose. There are a bunch of bands I enjoy and a bunch of singers that I think are great, but as far as influences, I don’t think I’d say that I have any.
What do you know now that you wish you'd known when you first started in music?
I'd have to go way back to the beginning of my professional music career... back in the '70s. What I wish I would have known then was that you DON'T have to follow the crowd. You don't have to do what everyone else is doing just to feel like you fit in.
I was a decent guy when I first started in music. I never drank, never did drugs. But because of peer pressure I caved and started doing lines of coke because everyone else was doing it. I wanted to fit in, to be just like all the others in the secular rock scene.
But if you know who you are in Christ, there's no need to do foolish things to gain other people's approval. If you're a child of God and a believer in Christ you already have the only approval that counts!
Why did you and Bob decide to record an album after Petra retired?
We really didn't decide to - it just sort of happened! We were invited to lead worship at a youth conference in Canada, so we had to arrange songs and music that the participants could sing along with. As we practiced these songs, Bob thought that it wouldn't be much harder to put together an album since we already had the arrangements. So we did!
What Bob and I are doing now has an acoustic flare with the emphasis on praise and worship, along with the older stuff of Petra. It’s a totally different ball game. We called ourselves II Guys from Petra because we knew that no matter what we did people were going to say “oh, that’s those two guys from Petra.” So we basically just call ourselves that!
Vertical Expressions is a collection of praise and worship songs that we believe are very popular all over the world. We chose these songs because we wanted to be an instrument of convenience. They’re not originals, but we tried to find the songs that would be the most popular all over the world. The album is more in the style of Bob & John, and if you like Petra you should like this!
Tell us about your 3rd solo album, and how does it differ from Shake and Unfit for Swine?
It's much different in the fact that musically and lyrically it's gone in a whole new direction. The album speaks on more adult-themed topics, such as adoption, divorce, taking care of third world children, among other important issues. I’m at a different place in my life than I was when Shake and Swine came out – that was more than 10 years ago (1995 & 1996). Naturally a person’s interest changes over the course of 10 years.
Musically, it's a definite departure from Swine! It's more in the edgy soft-rock vein, though there are elements and moments of rock included, as well as songs that have an adult contemporary feel. There’s also a sort of jazzy dance-type song that is pretty cool. You’ll definitely know the album is ME, but it’s just different enough that people who may not be familiar with Petra or my music will find it very new and refreshing.
What’s your favorite song on the project and why?
Oh, that's hard to say! I really, really love them all. But if I had to pick one, I would go with "The Grafting," which is the title track to the album. It's a very personal song to me, because I have two grandsons that are adopted by my oldest child and her husband.
And on a much greater scale - we are adopted children of God ONLY because He loved us so much that He grafted us into His family because of our faith in His son Jesus. In both scenarios my grandchildren and myself (and all believers) were made part of a family because of the actions of someone else - it was nothing we did to accomplish this.
What message do you hope people will come away with when they listen to the album?
I want them to know that no matter what happens in life the Lord knows about it, and ultimately He is in control of the situation. The album covers many of life's issues, and I want people to realize that in ever aspect of life, if you are in Christ, you do not have to fear the future nor dwell on the past.
We do have choices in life and we make those choices, knowing that we will reap either the benefits – or consequences – of those decisions. But in either case, the Lord is with us and will help us through if we stay with Him.
God's Word says that all things work for good to them that love Christ, who are called according to His purpose. That means that no matter how badly we mess up our lives, no matter how painful a circumstance we may be going through, the Lord will bring something good out of it. We may not see that good thing until years later, or we may never see it at all - because the good that comes may not even be for OUR benefit - it may be for someone else's benefit. The Lord PROMISES that good WILL come. So we need to trust in that. I hope people see that message in this album.
Out of all the albums you’ve recorded which one would you say is your number one favorite?
Oh boy... that's near impossible to pick just ONE! But as Petra, I would have to go with No Doubt, and actually the song “No Doubt” too. This song has probably become an underground classic for Petra. It's just a statement that says, “Hey! When fear starts getting to you - you just let it go, because with Jesus Christ there is no doubt about His love, there's no doubt about His promise, there's no doubt about His existence with you.”
As far as my solo projects: Shake was fun; it was more natural. It was sort of a combination of songs that I’ve had from a long time.
Unfit for Swine was an album where I was trying to do something that was foreign to me. We tried to do a music style that was foreign to me – more aggressive, more current, and it felt a little unnatural, but I really like some of the writing on this album. I think they’re excellent songs. It’s a shame that it wasn’t as well received as Shake.
Some people love Unfit and say Shake’s OK; they think Unfit was fantastic, and some say they like Shake better. I think that’s one of the reasons Shake sounded a little bit more like Petra than Unfit for Swine did. And once you’re plugged in that box, they go to that box for that one purpose and no other. And the ones that don’t like that box will never venture into it to see what you have.
The Grafting is another one of those “different” kinds of albums that you normally wouldn't associate with the lead singer of Petra. But again, it's an album that really is where I am at this stage in my life. I hope people will enjoy it!
Let's say you’re sitting across from someone who's not at all sure about this “Christianity thing.” What would you say to them?
I would tell them that they need to check it out. Investigate. No one can convince a person that Jesus is Lord - that is the Holy Spirit's job; we are just the vehicle through which He speaks.
If they have doubts about who and what Jesus is, they need to find out just who He is and why people believe in Him. If you were to go and buy a new car wouldn't you check out everything about the brand you are looking to purchase? How much more important is Jesus than a new car?
I would certainly share with them, tell the unsure person what I believe, and the reason why. I believe that Jesus is Lord; he is God and also human, who came to earth as a man to pay for our sins. If we believe in Him we have eternal life in heaven with the Creator of all the universe---forever.
What advice would you give to someone who is trying to reach their friends for Christ?
Lead them by example; SHOW them Christ by what you do, by what you say and how you act.
Petra has a song that has the lyrics "actions speak louder than words." Sometimes the things you do make more of an impression that what you say.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't talk about Christ. Of course we need to do that too, but you have to speak about Jesus at the times where the friend is open to it and ready to listen to it, otherwise they’ll just blow you off.
My wife was great at that. Before I was saved, she tried to tell me about the Lord. I didn't want to hear it, and told her so in no uncertain terms! But she kept at it, then laid back . . . came at me again, and backed off. That is the approach you need, especially if you're dealing with someone as stubborn as I was!
What's the biggest obstacle in your life God's helped you overcome?
I would have to say that for five years after becoming a Christian, I couldn't let go of the guilt from the past. I had blown it so bad as a singer in the secular world that I felt I could never sing again in public. I wouldn't even sing in the church choir! I could not take something (my voice) that brought so much pain and trouble onto myself and my family, and use it to sing and praise God. I just couldn't do it.
But a week before Bob (Hartman) called me to see if I was interested in auditioning for Petra, I was having these feelings of unworthiness as far as using my voice again, and the Lord spoke to me, saying "John - exactly WHICH one of your sins was greater than the blood of my Son?"
And it was like "Oh... oh man...." I came to realize that ALL my sins, all my wrongs, were washed away because of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. I didn't have to keep holding on to those - the Lord already removed them "as far as the east is from the west." I could put the past to rest, move on and be open to any opportunity to sing again.
If I hadn't had that “revelation”, I would have turned Bob down right from the start and never would have been a part of Petra.
In your opinion what makes an artist or band Christian?
The people that play music – what are they singing about and what is their philosophy in life? How do they act on and off stage? It’s not the music that dictates where they’re at, it’s their actions and reactions to life.
A secular artist that is out there just to satisfy his own needs and wants is fair game to the enemy (Satan). So yes – he’s the enemy’s tool. I guarantee the enemy is taking care of him very nicely, and in the long run he’s going to get chewed up like I was.
There’s one big difference between a Christian artist and a secular artist, and that is we have Jesus Christ. If we are a Christian band, we’re singing about the Lord and we’re using our talents – rock & roll or whatever style – to bring the message that we know the world needs to hear. Music is just another great tool, a powerful tool, to bring across a message that we believe in.
Now, the secular side is doing the same thing. They are bringing across a message they believe in, and that’s party, party, for tomorrow you may die. There is no depth; there is nothing but death there.
What has been your most memorable on-the-road story?
There are two, really.
There was a show in California we did with Josh McDowell where there were about 6,000 people in a venue with very wide aisles. After Josh gave the altar call at the end of the concert, there were so many that every aisle was packed with people wanting to come forward. We had to stop the concert, and I remember Josh turning around and looking at us (because we were standing behind him on stage) and going, “Oh my gosh – can you believe this?” That has always been etched in my mind; it was a very special time for me.
In 2005 we played in Argentina on our Farewell Tour for over 60,000 people in a football stadium at a revival. It was truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. There were 64,000 kids jumping up and down and praising the Lord together! Just to be a part of that was an amazing adventure.
Here's a funny on-the-road tale:
We were doing a festival in Sweden. There was a gigantic stage, and all of the equipment was underneath. The only thing they had on stage were monitor wedges. With our stage set-up, we never had monitor wedges for the very reason I’m going to tell you. I had these huge super-troopers (lights) shining in my eyes and they are so bright that they blind you. I backed up, and tripped over one of those speakers and fell flat on my behind in front of 6000 people on an empty stage! Nowhere to hide! I got up and was probably the most embarrassed I’ve ever been in my whole life. The band was laughing up a storm, so I had to laugh with them.
We would love to have an update on the other guys in Petra, especially Ronny Cates?
Well, Ronny is living in Florida. He actually played one date on our Farewell tour while we were in town . . . it was great! In our most current line-up, Greg is working in music/media at a church, and Paul is playing with another band. Of course you know Bob and I are going out as a duo known as "II Guys from Petra." The rest of the guys? I honestly don't see any of the guys on a regular basis, though I do hear from some of them every once in a while.
What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?
1. I'm really not a super-social guy when I'm off the road. I mean, when I'm at home I pretty much keep to myself. I guess that comes from being out and about with so many people for so much of my life, that when I'm home, I'm home, hanging with my wife, kids & grandkids.
2. I'm a talk radio junkie! While I'm working in my shop, I have the radio on all the time. The radio - and TV. I love to watch movies. I have a whole collection of DVDs that would make Blockbuster envious!
When you're not singing, what do you enjoy doing?
I'm into woodworking... making furniture, doing home improvements, that kind of thing. I have some examples of the pieces I've made on my website.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
An egg, some toast, and coffee, of course!
Three things always found in your refrigerator:
Diet Rite cola, peanuts (it keeps them fresher), and coffee (same thing - stays fresher in the fridge).
You're next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?
Nothing - because I hate Starbucks!
What's left unchecked in your "goals for life" list?
Getting into the mainstream music arena. As Petra I didn’t get into the crossover market - not to make more money, but that we weren't able to reach more unsaved people than we already did. Of course Petra is retired, so perhaps this goal may still come through as John Schlitt, soloist. We'll see what God has in mind!
What's currently in your CD player/iPod?
You'll laugh, but I really don't have anything in my player - other than my new solo album! And I don't have an iPod.... I DID, but my son swiped it. (Laughs.)
When was the last time you cried?
Boy... I'm not sure. I usually don't keep track of that sort of thing like women probably do! :)
I do have one time that I remember in particular, though. It was the night of Petra's last performance - Dec. 31, 2005. We had finished one show, and were going to do another show that same night to end our 33 years in this little church in Murphy, NC.
After the first performance, while the audience was still there, the church brought us back out on stage. They had a little presentation worked up, giving us books containing fan letters thanking us for our ministry and what it meant to them.
Then they brought out a lady who sang a very moving rendition of Ray Bolz' "Thank You." The audience joined in on the last chorus... and the whole place was teary-eyed … including me.
It was a very memorable moment.
Anything else you'd to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?
I have two things: to Christians – I want them to realize we have a living God and he is for real. He is alive and well, and He is with us. We have to be courageous with Him going before us in everything.
To the person
who doesn’t know Jesus Christ: you have the right to
know him. Right now, the Enemy – the world - is trying to steal that
away from you. You have the right to at least hear about the living God who
loves you and who has a plan for your life. Give yourself the chance and
find out what it’s all about.
Tracy Darlington is a freelance writer, and her work has appeared in Brio, Breakaway, YS, CCM Magazine, Insight, Susie Magazine, and other publications. She has interviewed countless Christian musicians including Rebecca St. James, Delirious, Newsboys, Leigh Nash, Barlowgirl, Krystal Meyers, Joy Williams, Pillar, Michelle Tumes, and many others. In her spare time she can be found riding horses or listening to music and sipping a Venti 3-shot sugar-free vanilla latte. Visit her online at her blog where she talks about Music, God, dogs and coffee. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.