Matt Hammitt vividly remembers the turning point in recording the new Sanctus Real album, "The Face of Love," due for release Tuesday.
The Dove Award-winning Christian rock band from Toledo had been struggling to get something going in the studio amid an onslaught of difficulties, both individually and as a band.
It was almost exactly a year ago that producer Christopher Stevens sat down with the band - singer-guitarist Hammitt, guitarist Chris Rohman, drummer Mark Graalman, and bassist Steve Goodrum - in a temporary studio in the garage of his Nashville home.
"It was so hot in that garage the first session," Rohman recalled in a recent interview. "We go in there and we don't have the songs, we don't know what we're doing, we're stressed, he's stressed, and it's like 90 degrees in the studio. Nobody wanted to be there."
Stevens just started playing the chords to a song Sanctus Real had written for the new CD. The tune ended up as the first new single, "I'm Not Alright," but that's not the way the song started out.
"The original lyric was, 'I'll Be Alright,' " Hammitt said. "It was that generic, 'I'll be OK' kind of song."
As Stevens continued to play the chords, Hammitt said he changed the lyrics to reflect what he was really feeling: "You know what? I'm not all right. ... We're not going to lie. We're not going to try to sit here and try to sugarcoat what's happening right now or say something because it sounds good. I'm not all right. And it feels really good to say it. I'm broken inside."
The new lyrics came straight from the heart, venting the pain that had wracked him and his colleagues over the last few months. It didn't fit the mold for typical Christian music, but it was real. It was emotional. It was honest.
The song reflected the struggles that began in early 2005, when Graalman left the road early to be home for the birth of his first child.
On the day that his son Benjamin was born at Toledo Hospital, Graalman's father was on the next floor being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died eight weeks later.
"I think what makes it especially sad for me," Graalman said, "not just that he was young, he was only 47, and it was completely unexpected, but just the fact that it was right at that time. It was his first grandchild, and he was super excited it was a boy. All the plans he already made for his new grandson. It was extremely tough to deal with that."
He stayed home through his father's illness, but the rest of the band had to go back on the road. "That's how we pay the bills," Graalman said.
Meanwhile, Hammitt's grandmother also became terminally ill and was admitted to the same hospice as Graalman's father.
"Matt got home from the road just in time for his grandmother's funeral," Graalman said. "And then, after that, Steve left the band."
Goodrum told his colleagues that he wanted to quit the band and pursue other, unspecified, areas of ministry, then abruptly moved to Las Vegas.
"I think we could have handled it if it had been spread out over time," Hammitt said. "But how many times does so much come at you all at once? I think there was a point where we just felt hopeless. You have a fill-in drummer on the road. Your best friend is home and his dad is dying of cancer. My grandma's dying. Two guys in the band are gone and it's just me and Chris on the road. We're trying to make a decision about a bass player without Mark being there. ...
"Just to find the time to think about everything, just trying to wrap our heads around everything that was going on, and to try to go out and headline a show every night was really hard," Hammitt said.
The fill-in drummer barely had time to rehearse with the band, Hammitt said, and was "messing up every night" in concert.
That string of troubles made the members of Sanctus Real wonder, for the first time, if after 10 years of hard work and dedication, it was time to break up.
Hammitt said he figured Graalman might need to stay home and help take care of his mother and newborn son.
And how would the band be able to find a new bass player, especially since it was on the road so much?
There also were underlying pressures to produce a third album for Sparrow Records, the world's largest Christian music label, before the public forgot about "Fight the Tide."
That CD, released in June, 2004, yielded three songs that topped the Christian charts and earned Sanctus Real its first Dove Award for 2005 Modern Rock Album of the Year.
"I'm thinking, 'If we don't get started on this record, we're going to lose the momentum that we got going and everything's going to trail off from there,'" Hammitt said. "Are we going to go in and make a record because we have to, and just bomb our third record? Maybe this band is not going to be what I thought it would be. Maybe it's going to be over. Those were the thoughts that were going through my head."
The whirlwind of emotions, the angst and the questions and the doubts, were painful and undeniable despite the band members' strong personal faith and spiritual foundation.
But it was that faith in God that the musicians credit for helping them pull through the storms.
"In the midst of all that, we believe that Mark's dad went to be with the Lord, which is sad he's passed away but we find joy in that, as well as my grandmother," Hammitt said. "With Steve leaving the band, we actually brought on a bass player, Dan Gartley, who's technically, I hate to say this, but is technically a better bass player, more musical, more 'in the pocket.' He knows a lot of things and his personality meshes very, very well with ours. I think he was the link that this band really needed. So God used that situation to bring somebody to us that makes us a better band.
"And then everything we went through, getting through it together, trusting God, watching God work it out, watching everything fall into place, and on top of that, making what we think is the best record we've ever done, has just really proven to us that God can take anything and use it for his good," Hammitt said.
That day he poured his heart into "I'm Not Alright," the momentum in the studio began to shift.
"Everything changed after that," Rohman said.
"When we started letting those things come out," Hammitt said, "It was like, at that moment, 'OK, here we go. We can do this. We can write this stuff and find a clear, simple way to sing about it.'"
"I'm Not Alright" was a unanimous choice by the band members to be the first single from "The Face of Love" because of its musical sophistication and gut-wrenching honesty.
"I think we all knew it was the kind of song that had a message people could relate to. Everybody, at any given point in their life, is going through something," Hammitt said. "That's life. Always a new challenge. As soon as we think we've got the one thing down, a roof caves in. You just never know what's going to happen."
Sparrow Records thought highly enough of the single that it budgeted $40,000 for a music video, four times the amount it had spent on any video Sanctus Real had previously recorded.
"It was filmed in Lancaster, Calif., northeast of Hollywood," Hammitt said, "and we spent 12 straight hours taping it, from sunrise to sunset, out in a complete desert with all these Joshua trees. We're still dumping sand out of our [guitar effects] pedals."
The group has made one more change in the last few months, bringing aboard a fifth member, 23-year-old guitarist Pete Prevost of Bakersfield, Calif.
At the moment, Prevost is an unofficial member of Sanctus Real, but Graalman, Rohman, and Hammitt said it's just a matter of time before he officially joins the band. (Gartley was on his honeymoon in Florida during the interview.)
The band members had been discussing the possibility of adding another musician to the lineup, although they were not making an all-out effort to do so, when a friend recommended they invite Prevost to try out.
"As soon as the standby light went out on his amp and he hit that first chord, Chris and I just kind of looked at each other," Hammitt said.
"It was what was missing," Rohman said.
"He has great tone," Hammitt added. "For some reason, 99 out of 100 guitar players have bad tone. But with Pete, the tone was perfect. It just fit."
Off the stage, Sanctus Real has another addition to the family: Hammitt and his wife, Sarah, became parents last month with the birth of a daughter, Emmerson Mae.
Sanctus Real will celebrate the release of its new disc with a party at 7 p.m. Saturday in the vacant Cathedral of Praise building, 5225 Alexis Rd. The Afters and Mainstay open; tickets are $12. Information: 419-389-0893 or online at www.sanctusreal.com.
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6154.