Saved By Grace

New Zealanders Saving Grace are here to set fire to your soul

Photo by Jeremy Saffer

In 2011, I went to California to attend Facedown Record’s Annual Facedown Fest. That weekend, I spent my nights sleeping in a venue in Chino called The Stronghold. I spent one night hanging out with one of Strike First Records’ newest bands, the New Zealand-based Saving Grace. At the time, the band was one of two faith-based bands from the country gaining notoriety in the states. The night they played was one of the best sets I saw all weekend.

Fast forward a few months, and the band moves over to Facedown and releases their label debut, The King is Coming. The record was one of the best of the year, mixing European influences from bands I had never heard of, such as Arkangel and Reprisal, while creating a foundation of sound from the styles Slayer, making it their own. The band stayed away from what was popular in the American Christian metalcore scene, laying the groundwork to bring back a classic hardcore sound that we haven’t heard in 20 years.

Now, three years later, the band is still paying an homage to ‘heavy’ with their upcoming release, The Urgency ,one of the best records Facedown has ever come out with. I believe it will set the pace not on just Christian metalcore for 2014, but for all metalcore for the rest of the year. This is a blueprint for the future of heavy music. Go behind-the-scenes with me as I talk to the guys that made it happen.

HM: It’s been three years since your last record. Talk about what is different in the band, including how The Urgency was written and recorded compared to The King Is Coming.
Nicholas Tautuhi: With The King is Coming, I took a different approach to how I wrote the lyrics. Typically, I would just write whatever, whenever. Whenever I got a thought about something I would just start writing. A lot of times when it came, it would be a song that related to my personal relationship with God or my life or something I encountered.

But with The King is Coming, it was not an introspective record in the slightest. It was about the way I saw the world and the way I felt we should be looking at the world as Christians, and, more accurately, as spiritual people.

But this time around – and I can’t speak for Vasely – but I was inspired by a traumatic event. Vasely and I witnessed a man in Auckland City – the city I live just outside of in New Zealand – I witnessed him trying to kill himself. He was on the foot path down the main road, slashing away at his wrists. It really shook me. It shook me to the absolute core. It made me question a lot of things about myself, and about the way I saw myself, and all those kinds of things.

It made me really start thinking about death and its inevitability, and the fact that so many people go through life without it being a motivating factor. Knowing this is the only time we get here, we need to use it well.

Maybe I have an abnormally proportionate focus on death, but I don’t know. I’ve gotten a lot of positivity out of it, and other people have as well. I let myself get stuck in that thought process, and I also let myself get angry, which is something I’ve tried not to do for a long time. There is quite a lot of anger on this album.

You have the Christian front and then you have the political front. I know you’ve written some stuff like that before, so with this record and because of that experience, was there anything else you had seen you wanted to address like you did on the last record?
Tautuhi: Well, legalism is a really big issue and it’s something I wrote about on this record. The first track on the album is called “+0”  (Plus Nothing). It’s basically about those who tell you that you can’t just be justified by Christ. You need to be justified by actions as well. I do understand that faith without works is dead. That’s true and it’s potent, but Christ crucified meant that it’s done, that’s everything finished. We cannot add to that. That was one point I really wanted to address. As far as these things go, that was kind of the one (I wanted to write about), except for one of the songs on the album, which is more about my views on vanity.

Sapunov: The lyrical content (of The Urgency) is definitely (an extension of subjects) we couldn’t have covered on The King is Coming. We wanted to make sure the whole writing process of The King is Coming was centered around our views on spirituality and, obviously, on the return of the Lord. We really wanted to remove as much personal stuff as possible from that record, and make it entirely about Him. With The Urgency, it’s mostly a dark record, I guess, one that encompasses a broad array of topics, including songs centered on death.

There are songs on this one that talk about difficult things like addiction to pornography… things we wanted to speak about without really worrying about what people are going to think; the lyrics are definitely angry and it’s a dark record. On this album, a lot of the content is really dark and it goes hand-in-hand with the aggression and the pace of the record itself. When we were writing it, the word “urgency” was on everybody’s mind. The word basically gave birth to the record, not only lyrically and spiritually, but musically as well. … I’m confident that people are going to find it quite refreshing and challenging in a lot of ways. There’s a song that Nick’s written about dealing with grief. It’s about someone really close to him that passed away years ago; his cousin. There’s definitely a whole bunch of stuff that we’ve written about – that thematically – definitely wouldn’t have made the cut for The King is Coming.

Musically, it sounds like you’re staying in the Arkangel, European hardcore and metalcore vein. How did you guys continue what you guys were doing on The King is Coming but not rewrite it musically?
Sapunov: I think this album, in general, is a culmination of everything we’ve done since we started. The European metalcore style has been part of the Saving Grace sound from early days on. I think we were always being much more heavily influenced by the likes of the European hardcore bands; American bands, too, in a lot of ways, but not 100 percent – definitely a lot of bands like Earth Crisis, Slayer and Pantera … But when it comes to the hardcore influence of Saving Grace, bands like Reprisal and Arkangel have definitely influenced the way we write our music. (The writing) kind of progressed from record-to-record. On The Urgency, I feel that, with the likes of Ross joining the band and George continuing to write songs, there’s so much diversity on the record, but it’s still very coherent and cohesive.

With the two songs we released so far, we wanted “1994” to be people’s first taste of the record, but by no means has everybody heard everything that’s on offer with the two songs that we’ve put out so far. “Ablaze,” as a single, is probably the most commercial and the most T.V. friendly song on the album to be honest, but  there is definitely a lot of brutal crazy stuff that we’ve done on this record that people are yet to hear.

What kind of death metal bands and influence worked for the sound on the record?
Tautuhi: George is definitely much more of a death metal guy than the rest of us, but we’ve all got a pretty good historical background with death metal. Pretty much all of our musical influences are secular. I don’t really listen to any Christian death metal, but there’s Immolation, Deicide, Misery Index and Dying Fetus. Another band I’ve been introduced to recently (by George) is the band called “Defeated Sanity.” Excellent band.

Sapunov: We’ve often been lumped into the “deathcore” category by people we don’t really know what they’re talking about. It’s just this certain aspect of our music that links us to that modern death metal sound, but that’s probably an inaccurate description of the heavier side of Saving Grace. … We’ve done a lot of fast stuff before; blast beats in certain parts of the songs, etc. On this record, however, it just feels like the metal songs are more metal and the hardcore songs are more hardcore. Everything that was done, was done with more intensity, which is awesome.

A lot of Christian bands, especially in the U.S., seem like they’re in this niche, playing music they started, where nobody really branches out into doing something different, especially bands that are bigger, the ones that have some touring popularity and have a number of records. Are the New Zealand and Australian Christian metal/hardcore scenes also stuck in that niche where they just carbon copy the bigger bands? Are New Zealand bands and Australian bands ripping off Saving Grace?
Sapunov: It’s hard to say. I know what you’re saying. But when we first started out and started playing shows in 2005, we were literally the only heavy Christian band in the country. There was a band called One Must Fall that we were influenced by and used to play shows with, but they pretty much broke up when we started. After that, we were it for a long time. A lot of the modern, heavy Christian bands that are in New Zealand, they grew up on Saving Grace – not that a lot of them sound like us all the time. I wish they sounded more like us, to be honest.  I guess a lot of them are influenced by the likes of For Today and Texas in July, that kind of sound. It’s really difficult for the younger generation to not replicate those kinds of bands because they grew up on that kind of stuff, rather than the metal/hardcore that we did. But yeah, it’s very much more like that. I don’t think that there are many bands that sound like us in modern Christian music period, let alone in New Zealand and Australia.

With recording The King is Coming and now recording The Urgency, what did you guys do different? I talked to Shane Ochsner last month from Everything in Slow Motion, and we talked about how he was in Hands on the recording of their last record, Give Me Rest. They did a bunch of crazy stuff, like use 16 microphones on a guitar. Did you do anything like that on The Urgency?
Sapunov: This time around, I guess we had the opportunity to use two really awesome recording studios, which we never had the privilege to do previously. We’d always done them with a good friend and a great engineer (Zorran Mendonsa), but they were always done at home, either at my house or in an apartment. We could comfortably live and work on the record at the same time, whereas this time we had much more of a strict time frame.

We also used a different engineer and producer. This time, we worked with Zack Ohren who flew out from the United States to New Zealand to do this record. The whole process was entirely different. We definitely got two use two incredible studios. One of them was in Wellington called Munki and that was a studio that we got to track the drums in, and then everything else was done in Parachute Studios in Auckland. That was awesome. It was a completely different process for all of us. But I think this record needed a fresh set of ears and it needed a new perspective and a change of scenery. Would you agree with me Nick?

Tautuhi: Yeah. I definitely agree.

What was it like recording The Urgency in such a short period of time? Was it pretty chaotic with the headache or did it go pretty smoothly?
Sapunov: It was definitely stressful. It was a stressful process, but it wasn’t an unenjoyable process. It was a lot less relaxed this time, but it was also a lot more organized, even if it was last minute. A lot of the things fell into place perfectly, whether that be song arrangements, vocal patterns, lyrics … The Lord’s always got a really cool way of making things fall into place for us into a timeframe that is never achievable.

You guys have been able to play in a lot of huge festivals in New Zealand and Australia. Then you guys come here and play Facedown Fest and you do a tour and some shows you’re playing for 30 kids a night. How is it being so big over there, and then coming over here and still trying to make your way as a band?
Tautuhi: I mean, we’ve always been a grassroots little band. When we tour in New Zealand, we play in little venues with no stages. At the end of the day, although we aren’t exactly (portrayed) like a hardcore band, when it comes down to it, we’re a hardcore band. We’re not rock stars. We don’t think we deserve anything that we don’t deserve. It’s not a big deal.

Coming (to California) to play Facedown Fest is nuts. That’s insane for us. The first time we played there in 2011, I think we played second. That was just madness. We just can’t believe it. We played New England Metal Hardcore festival just earlier this year. We played first. There were a handful people inside, but it doesn’t matter. We’re just happy to be out doing what we’re doing.

What is different about touring in the States compared to New Zealand?
Tautuhi: First of all, culturally, it’s worlds apart. I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to put your finger on it. It’s not home. I think for me, one of the major things that I find difficult about being in the States is just being that far away from home, knowing that getting home isn’t an easy thing to do. Where in New Zealand I can get home when I need to.  That’s probably the main difference for me. And the food, as well, we are quite spoiled in New Zealand as far as food goes, especially dairy. We got the best cheese in the world over here. I love it.

Although we do have cheap fast food restaurants like Del Taco.
Tautuhi: Del Taco is good. I agree with that. But I’d rather have a big bit of greasy fish and chips any day.

Sapunov: I think, culturally, it’s completely different. America is massive. It’s huge. We spend time in just certain cities that are pretty much bigger than our whole country. Obviously, the quality of things is completely different. The economy is entirely different, and then it varies from state to state. We understand that.

Coming over to America for us, the main difference I see is the way the youth feel completely isolated in a lot of ways. Everybody in America we spend any time with after the show or at the show, you speak to them and you kind of get a vibe for how they feel growing up. It feels like there’s so much pressure and there’s so much going on (in the States) because there’s so much happening entertainment-wise and social media-wise and everything. These kids are just bombarded, and a lot of them don’t really have a really strong sense of identity.

It’s really difficult to only spend a few hours in each city to try to and connect with people. When you hear that these kids are just really starving for a true sense of purpose, love and identity, I guess we feel that we’re commissioned to bring that to people the best we can through our music.

I believe that Saving Grace is more than just making heavy music and (obviously) singing about Jesus. It’s also about relationships and seeing the Lord change people’s lives. That’s difficult for me being in a place as big as America, travelling back-to-back every night, hours apart from each show. Seeing these disconnected people and starting new relationships that can be difficult to pick up, but thanks to things like social media – it allows me to stay in touch with a lot of people and continue to pray over them and encourage them and stuff – so that’s awesome.

You talked about how you see a lot of kids having identity problems and issues. Is that the same way over in New Zealand or is there something different in New Zealand that we’re missing in America?
Sapunov: Well, I don’t think you’re missing it. It just comes with being such a huge place and having a completely different political climate, as well. Over here, the culture is entirely different. There are a lot of broken families and there is a lot of social disconnection in New Zealand too, don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of that happening in every country. But in the States, it’s just on a much bigger scale. And I guess because we’re exposed to different types of people, naturally through this kind of music, it’s just more evident.

Tautuhi: Yeah, I mean, we probably have a slightly biased view on it all. … I was drawn to heavy music because I was – and still am – a broken mess. It’s not to say that everybody that listens to heavy music is. In my experience, the people that are drawn to it are generally that way to some degree or another. We do see that wherever we go, because, in New Zealand, we have the same things, but it seems a lot more vast in the States because of the size of the country.

What do you see different in the American Christian market compared to the New Zealand and maybe Australian and European Christian markets?
Sapunov: We don’t know much about the European market, but  in America, there’s a lot of “business” caught up in Christianity. There’s a lot of money tied up in it. It’s like a marketing business in a lot of ways. Even though we’ve been blessed to spend time with a lot of really genuine, awesome Christian bands and Christian people, you can tell there’s an underlying scent of money in Christian entertainment there.

Over here it’s not like that because our country is much less churched in a lot of ways. It gives us more of a platform and … we get to reach more people that are unsaved. I guess that’s one thing I can put out there: There’s a lot of money and a lot of not-entirely-honest agendas in Christian bands in America from what I can perceive.

Tautuhi: I can’t really comment on that because I don’t know much about it. I’m a little bit oblivious to that stuff. I just get angry when I see things that look more like a business, and I just want to start flipping tables over. I don’t know. I do have an opinion on it, but it sort of hasn’t been formulated because it’s all just a bunch of words in my head at this stage.

You guys made the Top 20 mainstream singles chart in New Zealand with the band’s first single. It’s kind of huge, I would think. In America it’s huge.
Sapunov: Yeah. Well, being on that chart for us is like the equivalent to a band debuting in the Billboard Top 200 on the general chart. It’s a big deal. We’re really stoked. … I’ve always been very transparent, honest and, I guess, cautious in a lot of ways about the things we do. I am always cautious with the way people perceive us, not because public perception is important to us, but because a) we represent Jesus, and b) we are also a hardcore band. We’re very adamant we will always remain true to where we started.

I think with every success and every door the Lord has opened for us, it’s been natural. It’s been genuine. People have kind of respected that. We have genuine respect from people in our home country, now, and abroad because people see us as a hard-working band that started from grassroots; (charting) was never in our initial ideals. We’ve been very careful to not get caught up.

Quite often, people come up to you at shows and say, “Oh, you guys are a huge band.” There’s a perception that we are a huge band, but we’re not. We’re just dudes. We’re the same people when we started. Like you said, we can come and play Fort Worth for 30-40 people, and we can play for festivals of a few thousand. That doesn’t change who we are. We are very grateful for every single opportunity, no matter how big or small. It’s a big part of the journey and a big part of the way that we will always be, hopefully.

I’d like to think those kinds of shows will continue to be a part of the touring cycle every year. I’d like to play in shows with no stage in a room with a crappy P.A. I actually prefer those shows over the festival shows a lot of the time.

In terms of getting caught up in the business and in the machine of Christian music, we are very far removed from that, aside from our dealings with Facedown Records (and Jason and Virginia who are some of the most genuine and incredible people we’ve ever met). We don’t have much to do with the Christian industry. Facedown, I think, are a prime example of a record label and a business that’s run so grounded in the kingdom. They can attribute to our success. They’re putting out great releases after all these years and still staying afloat in a climate, in an industry that’s so shaken right now. (That’s) because of the way they’ve honored the Lord with the way that they run their business. We are very honored and grateful to be associated with them. Along with the likes of Come & Live. Chad (Johnson) is an incredible person, and we have had a lot to do with them and their ministry over the last few years here in New Zealand. Just another prime example of kingdom-minded people who want to give back to this community and the world. Turning musicians into missionaries.

But when it comes to things like – I don’t really want to use a bad example here – but when we’re talking about things like Hillsong – a huge, big scale music Christian industry that has been in the life of Australia and now breaking into the United States on a big scale – we’re very far removed from that whole machine and we always will be.

There have been bands like yourself, For Today and Sleeping Giant that have really brought back being bold and outspoken in their faith. Why did you guys choose to be a band like that? When you guys first started, you were straight edge, but from a Christian perspective. What made you guys change your focus from being (straight edge) to more of a kingdom-minded band?
Tautuhi: Well, we weren’t a Christian, straight-edge band. We have always been identified as straight-edge guys, but at the beginning, there were only two straight-edge members and that has sort of fluctuated over the years. I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision to do what we’re doing. It all stemmed from the fact that Vasely and I spoke on the phone and said, “Hey, Let’s do a band. Let’s sing about God.” That was all we actually made a conscious decision to do.

I think the reason we’re doing it the way we are is because it’s the sort of people we are. I believe that if you’ve got something that has influenced your life positively, you owe it to the people around you to share it, whether they want to hear or not. People will have all the freedom in the world to say that they don’t want to listen to what we’re saying, and we’ll never hold it against them. But we were always just like, “Hey, this is who we are. This is what we’ve experienced,” and it always came through in the music.

Sapunov: It’s really important to note that, as far as the straight-edge thing goes, we’ve never been an “edge band”. We started out with two straight edge members. At one point, there were four of us and, obviously, we are a hardcore band and straight-edge for a lot of us is a part of our lives. We would also play with bands that have a lot of straight-edge members, or whatever it was, I dunno. I guess visually sometimes we can come across as a straight-edge band because we are X’d up at shows all the time and in our videos.

It’s also important to note that we never grew up on Christian music. We don’t really have a traditional Christian music background, let alone a Christian background in our personal lives. So when salvation experiences and our faith experiences started to come to fruit in our lives, it was a very foreign thing for both of us.

We grew up playing shows in different bands and that’s how we got to know each other. Nick and I, he used to play shows with my band for years and then we became friends. And then when those bands broke up, we both started to develop as Christians and we we’re like, “Yo, let’s do a heavy band, but let’s sing about God.” And to us that was really crazy, and taboo in a lot of ways.

Tautuhi: We only heard of a couple of Christian bands. We heard of Zao, Living Sacrifice, and Society’s Finest. Those sorts of bands are about all that we’d heard of at that stage. We’ve never had beef with any of that. We listened to a lot of satanic death metal, but we never really cared if a band were singing about God. We just liked heavy music.

Sapunov: It was just a natural progression, I guess, towards being more evangelical. Like Nick says, when you have this thing, that impacts your life so deeply. You owe it to others to share it. We’ve always been a band that’s very much all about our message.

Because let it be known: Touring internationally and doing everything we do requires a lot of sacrifice, especially when you have a family. Nick has a wife. I have a wife. Ross has a wife. He’s about to become a father. Being away from your family is extremely difficult, especially after nine years. I’ve been married to the band longer than I’ve been married to my wife.

The fact that we’re still doing this and leaving them to go on tour and speak to these kids is very much a tribute, and the fact that we believe 100 percent what we sing about. We still have the same convictions, and we want to share that message. Because, if it wasn’t for that message, I definitely wouldn’t still be doing this.

Tautuhi: I would’ve given up a long time if it was not for that reason.

There’s been a lot of controversy this year in the Christian scene; I don’t have to mention things that have happened in America. This has kind of put a bitter taste in a lot of people’s mouths about our culture.
Sapunov: I think what you’re touching on right now (are) the things that happened with bands like For Today and stuff. A lot of those guys are really close friends of ours. It’s difficult to comment without upsetting people. And this discussion is very tricky because everybody has different theological perspectives on certain issues and certain topics.

I think when you take a society or a culture or a scene like the heavy music scene, and you take the non-Christians, and then you throw something at them that they can use as a reason to basically fuel the hate campaign toward our faith… It’s very easy to start a fire very quickly.

I don’t think that a lot of the issues – like the way that homosexuals have been treated by modern day Christians – has much to do with a heavy band in America or even has anything to do with the music scene in general. I think, in perspective, we’re all as guilty as the next person about how we, as a whole, have treated people.

Let’s get something straight: There are things Jesus spoke about and things Jesus didn’t speak about. We are commissioned to do certain things, and we are commissioned to not do certain things. Sin is sin and we agree with that, but I think that there a lot of the things that have happened over the last couple of years that did not need to happen. There are a lot of things that can create hurt when taken out of context, or, dare I say it, discernment in many ways. I think the bottom line is that we’re called to love people.

We need to recognize that not a single one of us, no matter how well we know our Bible or how much we love Jesus, can change any other person. The Holy Spirit convicts and changes people’s lives. And it’s God Almighty that is responsible to convict people, whether it be through His word or through us.

I think a lot of times we can, as Christians and as people, run with the idea that we need to change people. We need to tell people how to live their lives. We need to convict people of sin. When it’s done outside of discernment – outside of the timing of the Holy Spirit – things start to fall apart. It’s been quite evident to us, even from this far away, to see that’s what’s happening in a lot of ways.

We’ve definitely felt the heat in a lot of ways over there as well. I’ve got a lot of close friends that bring that stuff up with me. A lot of people who aren’t saved that are in my circles constantly use certain bands and certain situations as a reference to basically say, “How can a loving God do this or that? Or see people like this and like that? “ but that’s always going to be the case. There are going to be people on a campaign to basically undo any good or positive public perception Christianity may gain in any amount of time. Overall, we are hated by the world, and we have been told that we will be. Does that make sense?

Yeah. From this record, The Urgency and The King is Coming, what are some of the memorable moments in the band and in your life that you’ve seen God use in miraculous ways?
Tautuhi: For me – last time we were in the States, actually – it was the very last day we were there. We were playing a show in Missouri. There was this kid there, was her name Sydney?

Sapunov: I think so.

Tautuhi: This girl, Sydney, she went over to our merch table and Vasely was there with George, our bass player. She started talking to them about how one of our songs had touched her life and how God worked through it and all that sort of thing. Vasely and George told me about this, and I really wanted to meet the girl because the song she was referring to was a song that I had written.

Anyway, I managed to catch up with her. She told me she had a hard time and this way and that way. I won’t go into details because it’s not my story. Anyway, she basically said she has lost the will to live, and someone had shown her our band. Then she finds our songs on YouTube and stuff. She found a song off our first full-length called “The Most Beautiful Promise”,which, lyrically, basically details the interaction between myself and Christ at the moment of my salvation. She listened to that song and she encountered God. He stepped into her life and He undid the damage. She said He melted her heart. She told me that song saved her life. But illustrated, it was God who saved her life through that song.

That just blew my mind and not just because of that. The fact she said that is amazing, but there’s also a background to that song. When I wrote that song, I was in the darkest place I’ve ever been. I was struggling with wanting to die. I wanted to kill myself when I wrote that song. I saw and I have seen, for the longest time, that time of my life to be a waste of time, as complete loss. When she came to me and told me God had given her a reason to live through that song, God said to me that the time has been redeemed. That is probably hands down the most powerful and life-changing moment I’ve had in this band. I can’t really think of anything that really comes close to that, for me, personally.

Sapunov: We’ve seen a whole heap of cool stuff happen in the supernatural, I guess, since we’ve been a band. Nick and I especially – as the founding members of the band, as the people who carry the faith of this band – we’ve always been really adamant to remain open and try and expose ourselves to as much kingdom stuff as possible. To try not to get caught up in just being a band, but remember we have a purpose, and the supernatural is very much natural.

Since we started touring, we’ve seen lots of stuff like healings. We’ve seen the weather change, numerous times, upon our command, in Jesus’s name, we’ve seen people delivered from all sorts of addiction and sinful grips in their life through prayer, through music and through worship. These countless things have happened … (things) people cannot deny. We’ve had some pretty incredible experiences, to say the least.

When people come up to you and they tell you – genuinely, you see it in their face – your music saved their life. When somebody comes up to tell you that a song you’ve written – whether they’ve been through grief or through pain or through just whatever and you’re in your house just scribbling on a piece of paper, that song – has touched somebody’s life on the other side of the world, and then God has used you in that way? That’s incomparable.

That to me, is the essence and the reason why we do what we do. That particular evening that Nick’s talking about – the girl at Rancho Cucamonga that shared that story – I was choked up. I was at the merch table, hearing the story. I was praying gratefully to the Lord, because moments like that you can never forget. There are memories that can sometimes blur into one, but there are certain experiences with certain people that change your life forever. It’s great. I just pray more and more for that stuff to happen. I want people to enjoy our band and to lose it in the pit just like the next guy, but at the end of the day I want this band to change people’s lives and I want Christ to come into people’s hearts through hearing these songs.

Saving Grace was posted on January 6, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by .