THIRTY-THREE THOUSAND PEOPLE PACK THE Astrodome for one band. What they’re about to see is a spiritual, energy-filled concert accompanied by a huge production — the kind of showmanship and special effects expected of huge stars. But the act that’s about to go on has no mainstream radio hit and no Buzz Clip on MTV. Nevertheless, when the Newsboys take the stage, they are pop-rock heroes to thousands of Christian music fans. With their recent signing to Virgin Records, that fanbase only has one way to grow.

Believe it or not, that record-breaking Houston performance last November was the first time singer Peter Furler fronted the Newsboys in America. He had been behind the drum set ever since the band formed in Australia about 12 years ago. But longtime frontman John James left the band last September, prompting Furler to Step Up To The Microphone (which, coincidentally, is the title of the band’s latest album).

“It was wild because that was the first stadium show we’d ever played,” Furler told POLLSTAR. “You had to take a golf cart to get to the dressing room!” The venue’s size was intimidating, to say the least. Plus, Furler had to accept the fact that acts like U2 and many of his heroes had performed at this huge venue. And his band was selling more tickets than most of them. “There was more people there than there was in the town that I grew up in!”

The Newsboys pull out all the stops when it comes to their live performance — huge props, a major light show, big video screens and “the evil drum riser” that goes about 18 feet into the air and turns upside down with two dueling drummers. Why such a huge production to spread their message? Because in the beginning, “the music we wrote was really bad,” Furler chuckled.

Basically, the band wanted to win over its audiences and if that wasn’t going to happen with the music, the guys would have to rely on their presentation. That was especially true in Australia, Furler said, “because if you didn’t put on the right show, you usually ended up with a Fosters bottle in your head, and that usually hurt.”

The band has since moved its base to Nashville, a place where Fosters is harder to find; not that the Newsboys need to duck bottles anymore. Their songwriting has improved quite a bit in 12 years, as is proved by their two gold albums and slew of major awards and nominations. But even though they no longer need an impressive production to win over audiences, they still try to outdo themselves on every tour.

The spectacular live show is surely one element that would explain the Newsboys’ expansive fanbase. But moreover, Furler attributes the band’s following to touring and building loyal relationships with promoters. “We’ve worked with some of them for 10 years now,” he said. “Some of the promoters we work with now are some of the biggest in any industry but when we met them, they were some of the smallest.” No matter how small, the Newsboys put their trust in those early promoters and stuck with them as the band grew. “We’re the sort of band that can get a crowd anywhere if the promoter knows what to do. So we’ve sort of been working with promoters that know us.”

Duncan Phillips

Furler said the Newsboys’ agent, Scott Huie at Vanguard Entertainment, has a tough job booking a Christian band. “You’ve got a lot more things to deal with than just a regular band, in the sense that we meet with youth group leaders and we do a lot of things a normal band wouldn’t do.” Not only that, but Huie has to move back and forth between the secular and non-secular industries. “One minute, he might be dealing with Jam Productions in Chicago and the next minute, he might be dealing with a big church group in Texas. So he’s got to be sensitive to both.”

The band took a step closer to the secular world of music when it signed with Virgin Records. Newsboys albums (all seven of them) were and still are distributed to Christian outlets via the Star Song label. So why sign with a major that isn’t exactly in the business of spreading the gospel?

“With the situation in the industry that we’re in, it’s hard for a lot of people to find our records,” Furler said. “[The Virgin deal is] something that can get our records out to Tower and Blockbuster. Our records weren’t in any of those stores. And so it is a chance for us maybe to get our message out.”

As it is, the Newsboys expend a considerable amount of energy spreading the good word. Their upcoming Step Up To The Microphone tour will serve as a major push to get young people involved in short-term mission trips arranged by Christian organizations Teen Mania and World Vision.

“With Teen Mania, the band has been on a few short-term mission trips and we’ve really found that it blew us away as a band — going over to another country and being in their environment, stepping out of your circle here with your air conditioning and your malls and your McDonald’s,” Furler said. “You’re changing people over there but coming back, it really felt that it changed our fans and changed us.”

The Newsboys are in the middle of their summer festival season and will begin the 120-city Step Up To The Microphone world tour in September.