Formed way back in the early 70s, hard rock band Petra was instrumental in creating the entire genre of Christian rock. Through relentless touring and strong word of mouth, they built a massive following that managed to fly under the radar of most rock fans. A Christian band was assumed to be sub-par in the early 80s, but Petra had a run of great AOR albums such as Never Say Die (1981), More Power To Ya (1982), and Not Of This World (1983) that stood up to their contemporaries such as REO Speedwagon, Journey, and Toto. Powerhouse vocalist Greg X. Volz departed in 1985, yet the band reaching greater heights of success with former Head East vocalist John Schlitt. Over 20 albums later it all came to an end in 2005. Yet the calling returned, and a lineup of Petra with Greg from the early 80s recently reformed to perform concerts as Classic Petra. Classic Petra is currently in the middle of a short run of dates that take them from Texas to Canada to Florida within a two week span. I had the chance to speak with Bob Hartman, the founding guitarist and sole member of Petra for the band’s entire 40 year existence, as they were about to embark on these dates. Bob has a unique perspective on the rock business and many remarkable stories. Don’t miss your chance to see Classic Petra live this Thursday, October 25 in Brooklyn Center at the Living World Christian Center.
Twin Cities Metal: When the band started out in the early 70s, were there any Christian rock bands that you could model yourself after at that time?
Bob Hartman: We knew that there were a couple, but we had never really seen them. So as far as modeling after them, I would say no. It was pretty much new ground for us. One thing that helped was that we were part of a ministry in Fort Wayne, that’s where we began, and they had all the top Christians artists at that time coming through regularly. They weren’t rock, but we got to see a lot of what they did in concert – how they used music, and how they blended music with what they had to say, so that was good. There wasn’t a Christian rock business at all. It was mostly Christian artists playing in churches. Of course there’s a lot of that today, but back in those days I don’t think it was that prevalent because contemporary was still a new thing and some churches shied away from anything contemporary. We were in a situation where our church was not that way, and we often had concerts in the main sanctuary of our church as opposed to a coffeehouse.
TCM: There’s an insert with my copy of Not Of This World that listed the album’s tour dates – you were booked solid for 10 straight months in the US and Europe. Bands from the 70s and 80s that released albums, like you did, every 9–12 months during brief breaks in touring usually burnt out quickly and were gone. What enabled Petra to survive those types of rigors, even without major label support during that time?
BH: Well that’s an interesting question, I’ve never been asked that before. That was a very exciting time for Petra because things were just growing exponentially. The Not Of This World was a real turning point. We had done the More Power To Ya tour, which really started off fairly small and got bigger and bigger as it went along. But when Not Of This World came along things exploded. Where we might have had hundreds come see us on the More Power To Ya tour, suddenly the next time we had thousands. It was quite a lot to keep up with. It was just phenomenal growth, and it was very, very exciting.
TCM: In arranging those types of massive tours you did in the early and mid 80s, was there an existing network of venues or a concert circuit for Christian bands at that time, or were you creating all this as you went along?
BH: That’s a good question because we did something back then that I don’t really think could be done today because of the way things have changed. There were a lot of Christian promoters who had promoted a lot of Christian concerts, but without much success. They were very gun-shy. We began to develop what we knew worked. I believe on the Not Of This World tour, most of what we did we booked ourselves. We set out and said, “Here’s the route we want to take during these weeks and months, so let’s start calling venues and see what we can book.” We would book the venue, then contact the local promoter and say, “We want to pay you to help us with this concert.” So the promoter had no liability and they were going to make money. They were going to get paid for their work, and they thought it was the greatest thing in the world. Some of the concerts took off so well, and they wanted to be a bigger part of it. That was a very new thing. We took all the risk because we thought we could draw. So we would plot out a course and go on it.
TCM: Were you ever offered tours to support larger secular bands if only you would tone down your message of faith? Would you have considered it if those opportunities came about?
BH: It’s hard to speak about what we would have thought back then. We probably would have said, “We don’t need to do that because we’re gaining fans from what we’re doing now.” If it works you don’t fix it. Why would we want to do that when it was working so well just being who we are? The fans were finding us and the music by word of mouth and radio. Let me say that things were different at the church level back then as well. We had great cooperation with churches when we would go into cities, and that was another key part to making it work.
TCM: Petra recorded many great albums under tight time constraints – did you generally write on the road or in the studio?
BH: It was unbelievable when I look at it now because it was tour, write, record, then tour, write, record. I didn’t write very well on the road. I might have worked on a few ideas, but most of the time when I went to write I just locked myself away and started writing. That was how it was done. I felt like there was a gun at my head the whole time. If there were songs that had to be written so that we could go in the studio, it was pretty hectic.
TCM: Not surprisingly, the music changed between many styles of rock over the course of over 20 albums. Is it possible for there to be one album that best represents what you think Petra should sound like?
BH: Well you know, I think the band evolved into different ideas, and, of course, the producer had a lot to do with direction and how the final thing sounded. I’ll give you an example. The difference between Not Of This World and Beat The System was quite big. Beat The System was mostly done on a Fairlight, one of the first digital recording sampler machines. It had a sequencer built into it, and you could record things into it, bring them back, and sequence parts to it – it was one of the very first. To tell you how old it was, it was 8 bit – of course, CDs are 16 bit. Most recording today is done at 96 or better. For its time is was quite a piece of technology and it gave Beat The System a totally different slant. That album had a big electronic sound as opposed to a lot of the other albums. That was the most different album that we had done and may even still be the most different album that we’ve done. I really like that album, and like the songs on that album and how it turned out.
TCM: Was it difficult to recreate those songs live?
BH: John Lawry, our keyboard player, actually bought a Fairlight and we brought it out with us on the road. So we had all the sounds (laughs).
Promotional flyer for the Beat The System tour and ticker stub from their September 26, 1985 concert at McElroy Auditorium in Waterloo, Iowa (inset)
TCM: I saw the band on the Beat The System tour in Waterloo, Iowa. The local newspaper account said there were 2,000 people there. Knowing now how the industry operates, it seems amazing that with no mainstream attention or radio play, a band built up through touring could come through a small market and pull that kind of crowd.
BH: We’d go through some cities and draw 8,000–10,000 people. I don't’ even remember what it’s called now, but we reported to the ticket tracking agency and we were making the charts on that alongside all the other secular acts. That’s how a lot of people learned about Petra outside of Christian music. Also, when we would come into town we would often advertise on the local rock station. They wouldn’t play our music, but they would play our ad that we paid for. You could hear our music on the ad and it would fit their format, and we got a lot of people to learn who we were even though they didn’t listen to Christian music.
Review of the September 25, 1985 concert published in the Waterloo Courier (click to read larger image)
TCM: When Greg Volz left the band in 1985, how many singers did you audition before you selected John Schlitt?
BH: None (laughs). We just asked John, that was it. He turned out to be God’s guy. There’s a whole story behind that. I definitely look back at it now and believe that it was God because of the way it came together – the way it came together in his life and the way it came together for us. When we had the need, he was ready. He wouldn’t have been ready even a year before that. He had not sung for five years. He knew nothing about the Christian music business and that was a real plus. He was fresh and excited and was very, very thankful to be able to sing for something he truly believed in.
TCM: In announcing the band’s end in 2005, did you and John feel that Petra had simply run its course or did you simply need a break for a while?
BH: We felt that it had pretty much run its course. It was very hard for us to tour in the U.S., things had changes so drastically in Christian music. We still had a lot of fans, but being able to reach those fans, keeping it up, and doing only that for a living became pretty impossible. We thought this is the time to put it down. But some things have happened lately where that band, our internal name is “Farewell Petra”, has actually done some concerts. In September we were down in Brazil and had some great concerts there. Earlier in the year we went over to Europe and played in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and that was really great. We had a lot of fun and the fans really liked it. It always crosses your mind that maybe you should have kept going. But there has been a trend over the years that we have done better and better outside of the U.S., and worse and worse inside of the U.S. I don’t know what it is and why it is, but if you look at who is out there right now, all the old rock bands, anyone that had a name back in the 70s, 80s, or 90s, they’re out there touring and doing well. It doesn’t work that way for Christian music. With Classic Petra we’re drawing fans from those days and their families, but it’s still not anything great. We hope to do well wherever we go and we do better in some places than others. To give you an example of how odd this is, we’re doing this run that’s bringing us to the Twin Cities and I don’t know how well the concert is selling there, but in Canada we sold out the venues weeks ago. Just being that much outside the U.S. made all the difference, I guess (laughs).
TCM: How did the reunion with Greg and other band members from the 80s come about? Had you kept in touch with everyone throughout the years?
BH: Yeah, but not a whole lot. We had lost track of where Mark Kelly, our bass player, was and I can’t remember exactly how we tracked him down. But it was funny to find out that he lived very near Greg. He was the hardest one to track down. John Lawry has a studio business, so he’s been busy with that for years. Greg had been most in touch with Louie, and Greg would call me every now and then. Everybody was up for this idea of getting the old band back together so we did it.
TCM: Although you’ve previously stated that the Greg’s departure in 1985 was due to differences in business decisions of the band – were these related to touring and promotional expenses or other issues such as royalties and writing credits? Were there any hard feelings or other personal issues that had to be resolved?
BH: No, to the question of royalties or writing credits. It was more about the direction of the band and how to run our business. The issues amongst members after 25 years were minimal enough to where we could come back together and do this, but that’s not to say that there’s not a little baggage. We had to work through that, and everyone has to keep their head on straight.
TCM: How did the band decide upon the tracks to re-record for Back To The Rock? Was it mutual agreement or did each band member have his choice of 2 or 3 songs?
BH: Everybody made a list, we compared them, and we took the ones most voted on. Our lists were all really similar. It was great to have a chance to redo something. Whenever I would listen to the old stuff I would think, “Oh boy, that could’ve sounded so much better if we had done this or that.”
TCM: Is there an entire album you’d like to re-record, either because you’re disappointed with how the album sounds or to bring to it a more modern sound?
BH: Not a whole album, no, just individual tracks. I would hear a song and think the guitar sounded pretty thin, or didn’t like the tone of it. For me, of course, it was usually with the guitar and the drums. The drums in those days were recorded in a much different way than they are today, they’re often much more ambient today in rock music whereas on the albums they sounded very tight and small.
TCM: Are there many leftover or unfinished songs written when Greg was in the band that you’ve thought about releasing as demos or recording today with Greg?
BH: No, there’s not (laughs). We never had any extra songs. Well, I shouldn’t say never I may have one but I can’t think of it. For the most part we would do everything we could to write enough to record. Today what a lot of bands do is they’ll come in with 50 songs and cull them down to the 10 or 12 best. We never had that luxury. It was always, “Do we have enough time to get 10 songs together?”
1985 Petra interview published in the Waterloo Courier (click to read larger image)
TCM: More Power To Ya and This Means War! were both recently reissued with bonus tracks – are their plans for others?
BH: I’ll have to look at that, I’m not sure where those tracks came from. That’s up to the record company. Those two albums being re-released was a decision by the record company, I think they might have digitally remastered them. That’s what record companies do, they try to repackage them every way they can.
TCM: By billing the 80s version of Petra as Classic Petra, this suggests future activity with John fronting the band. Are there plans to tour or record again with John at the same time?
BH: There are no direct plans yet, but we have had inquiries about doing just that. I would welcome that, I would love that.
TCM: Is there anything left for Petra to accomplish or are you mainly having fun with the band now?
BH: Pretty much just going out and having fun. I don’t think that we can reinvent the wheel, but we can go out and play a lot of songs that are very important to people, that people still love, and have a great time doing it. As long as we’re not in America we can draw a big crowd (laughs). I don’t mean not anything, but it’s just not like it is in other countries. When we went to Brazil we had 6,000 the first night and a couple thousand the second night.
TCM: With the music industry in a death spiral and bands much more dependent on touring and merchandise, do you think it’s possible for young Christian bands to survive and grow like you did in the current state of the industry?
BH: I could never say it would be impossible, but I would think it would be very discouraging. Album sales have gone down and down and releases have gone to electronic formats, and it’s just not the same as it was in any way, shape, or form. The albums we did in the early 80s were really concept albums in a lot of ways. They usually had some kind of central theme to them, and that was where the artistry came out, I think, in being able to do that and say something to our audience with the entire album. Whereas today it’s really only about individual songs. I don’t really know how to put it all into words, but that has changed. Today it’s a lot harder for bands, but in some ways it’s easier. We didn’t have Facebook and webpages when we were starting out. The Information Age has brought about many new ways for promotion for new bands. There are more ways than ever for a new band to be heard, but I have a hard time seeing something grow as quickly as we grew even with all that.
TCM: Spreading the Lord’s message has always an important part of Petra – what is your opinion of many current Christian rock and metal bands that embrace being tagged as a Christian band yet don’t try to spread the message either through their lyrics or other means of communication?
BH: I think that not everyone is called into ministry, and they’re giving a Christian witness in some way, philosophically, in their songs although they might not use the name of Jesus often they have Christian themes or a Christian worldview about what they’re singing about and I think that’s a good, healthy thing. It’s good for people to understand that being Christian is not something that you can put into a pigeonhole. As Christians we have thoughts about politics, world events, and things like that that can be shared in songs.
TCM: Many people my age grew up as Christians, but now fail to see the church’s relevance to their lives without rejecting their beliefs. What is your message to people that feel this way?
BH: I would say keep looking, don’t give up looking. It’s important for us to be in Fellowship with other Believers. I know how important that is for me. When we moved to where we live now about four years ago, we found a great church and it’s been a great thing for us as a family. My wife and I are now doing the music at church, and that’s been really rewarding and fun, just a great experience. I think in some ways this is more of a problem of the church, than it is with the Believers. I don’t know what the answer is and how to fix it, but I would have to say keep looking because there might be something that fits you more than you think there would be out there.
TCM: Is there anything else you’d like to add for your fans?
BH: We are looking forward to being back there in the Twin Cities, it’s been a long time. We hope that people will hear about the concert, come out, see what we’re doing and maybe reminisce a little bit with some of those older songs. We also have a couple of new songs, too. I want to also thank you for your interest!