A quick look at the tour itinerary of For King & Country is a good indication of how quickly this sibling duo of Luke and Joel Smallbone has risen through the ranks of the Christian music scene.
The group’s headlining shows are either in large theaters or arenas, such as 1st Bank Center in Broomfield on April 7. In the mean time, For King & Country will wrap up a stint headlining Winter Jam, Christian music’s leading annual package tour in early April. Luke Smallbone says he and his brother are very appreciative of their success and want to make sure it doesn’t change who they are or their goals as people.
“We’re very thankful for the opportunities we’ve obviously been presented,” he says. “But I think there’s a responsibility when things seemingly go your way. What do you do with that? Are you going to end up changing who you are or are you going to continue on with the mission you started out in music. … We want to be people that are generous, that are humble, and we want to be character-filled people. And that’s our goal when we go out on any tour.”
Luke Smallbone, in fact, credits the duo’s two previous outings on the Winter Jam tour — in 2012 and 2015 — with playing a part in the upward trajectory of their career.
“We have a lot of thanks to give Winter Jam because Winter Jam was our first-ever tour that Joel and I did back in 2012,” Luke says. “For Winter Jam to be the first tour, which [it] was — there’s not too many tours where you can get in front of 500,000 people to kind of launch our career was a tremendous feat. I mean, it was an amazing experience. Because of that, I think Winter Jam will always hold a special place in our hearts.”
Chances are the feeling is mutual with Winter Jam’s organizers, as well as concert promoters from coast to coast. In For King & Country, they have booked a group whose two full-length albums — Crave (2012) and Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong. (2014) — each went top five on Billboard magazine’s Christian albums chart, while notching three top-five Christian music singles. The Smallbone brothers topped off those achievements last year by winning the Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Album for Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong.
Luke’s perspective on the Grammy win provides a good insight into the humility he tries to bring to For King & Country.
“I want to be somebody that tries not to take them (awards) seriously at all, other than it’s people coming alongside of you saying ‘Hey, we’re proud of what you’re doing. We encourage you. Keep up the good work.’ I think that’s the best aspect of an award,” he says.
“We’re very, very grateful for it,” Luke says of the Grammy. “But it doesn’t alter the reason why we got into music. The reason why we got into music is because we believe there’s hope in music, and we believe music can alter somebody’s day and can alter somebody’s life.”
The Smallbones’ path into music seems logical enough, considering the background of some of their family members. Born in Sydney, Australia, their father (a concert promoter/artist manager), moved the family to Nashville in 1991.
In high school, the brothers sang backup for their older sister, the well-known Christian music singer and author Rebecca St. James. And after graduating high school, they decided to form their own group, releasing a debut EP, A Tale of Two Towns, in 2008 before getting signed by Warner Music Group.
With the label deal in hand, the Smallbones chose the band name For King & Country and in 2011 released a second EP, a self-titled effort. A single from that release, “Busted Heart (Hold On To Me”) became a breakthrough single, reaching number three on Billboard’s Christian singles chart.
This paved the way for the Crave album, a second top-10 single in “The Proof of Your Love,” and then a setback for Luke Smallbone.
On tour in summer 2013, he contracted ulcerative colitis and eventually landed in the hospital when the disease grew serious. Luke takes a good deal of the blame for the way is health deteriorated.
“I got diagnosed Halloween of 2012 with colitis. I didn’t take it that seriously at the time,” he says. “I just kind of thought, ‘Hey, I need to just tough it out and I’ll be OK.’ And the reason I got so sick was because I didn’t listen to probably myself, knowing that gee, my body’s freaking out here. I need to kind of calm down a little bit. So I got really, really sick and the doctors were all like freaking out. I mean, it was a mess. And many times, doctors were saying, ‘You should be in a hospital right now,’ and you had other people say, ‘Hey, people don’t die of colitis. They die of their heart stopping because they’ve lost so much weight.’ And then I was sitting there at 125 pounds as a 6-foot-4-inch man. So you deal with a lot.”
Luke eventually recovered, and For King & Country’s popularity only accelerated when Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong. arrived in September 2014. Two singles from the album — “Fix My Eyes” and “Shoulders” — went top-five on Billboard’s Christian Songs chart, paving the way to the current tour headlining Winter Jam. But Luke says his battle with colitis made him appreciate and understand that being a husband and father have to be his first priorities in life.
His colitis saga inspired the song, “Without You,” a duet with wife, Courtney. It’s one of several epic ballads (“Shoulders” and “No Turning Back” are among the others) on the album. Other tunes, such as “Fix My Eyes,” the title track and “Priceless” rock harder, but have the kinds of soaring vocal melodies and huge instrumentation (often with orchestral flourishes) that have inspired comparisons to anthemic rockers like Coldplay and U2. Luke feels the second album solidified and amplified the sound he and his brother crafted on Crave.
“I like emotive music. I like music that moves me, so the music and the lyrics need to be in synch to do that,” Luke says. “And sometimes I think maybe that’s what developed a lot in Run Wild is we found out the things that move us.
“We felt like we kind of came into a stride on the second album and kind of understood, ‘Hey, this is what we like. This is what we don’t like. And this is type of music that we’re going to do our best to create,’” he says.
Now the Smallbone brothers, who tour with a five-piece band, will try to inject as much life as possible into their live show, augmenting the music and message with a good deal of visual production.
“One of the things I always talk about is the shows these days need to be as entertaining as possible,” Luke says. “The people that you’re playing for have entertainment in their pockets. They have it on their phones. It’s around everywhere. So if you’re going to leave them with a message, if you’re going to leave them with something, you’ve got to get their attention. So our hope is all the different things that we have going on will draw attention to the purpose and the mission behind what we’re doing and the messages we’re going to share.”
On the Bill: For King & Country. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 7, 1st Bank Center, 11450 Broomfield Lane, Broomfield, 303-410-8497.