Interview: MercyMe guitarist Mike Scheuchzer talks making life-changing music and the band's new album 'Lifer'
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“I was 19 when we started this band and I’ve been able to do this literally more than half my life,” MercyMe guitarist Mike Scheuchzer told AXS in a recent exclusive phone interview. “To be able to provide for my family and do what I love to do with my best friends, it’s amazing God’s allowed us to go this long. Then on top of that, to be at a point where people still get excited when we release new music, it’s overwhelming.”

People are definitely excited about MercyMe’s ninth studio album, Lifer, which dropped March 31 via Fair Trade and debuted atop the Billboard Top Christian Albums Chart. Fans and critics alike are embracing it fiercely and the Grammy-nominated, multiple Dove Award-winning band couldn’t be happier.

The internationally-renowned Christian rockers earned unparalleled acclaim as crossover artists when their breakout single “I Can Only Imagine” hit mainstream radio and garnered mainstream chart success, including hitting the Top 10 on Billboard’s US Adult Contemporary Chart.

Lifer follows suit, debuting at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 chart. Meanwhile, the album’s soul-stirring lead single “Even If,” helped MercyMe capture its twelfth chart-topper on Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs Chart. It also topped the Billboard Christian AC Indicator and Soft AC Chart, while hitting No. 3 on Christian Airplay.

What is the secret to this Texas-native, Nashville-based, Grammy-nominated band’s continued success in the ever-changing music industry? One only has to soak in the strong praise and worship vibe at a MercyMe concert to understand the tight spiritual connection the band has forged with its fans.

Music is a powerful thing. The importance of the impact MercyMe songs make on listeners – from a single person to a crowd of thousands – is not lost on Scheuchzer and his bandmates Bart Millard (lead vocals), Robby Shaffer (drums), Nathan Cochran (bass) and Barry Graul (guitars).

“The fact a three-minute song can change someone’s life is amazing,” Scheuchzer said, “and even the fact the power that’s in music to attach itself to a memory from my childhood, like when I hear a song from the ‘80s or whatever it is. That God can take something like that and literally carry somebody through a time of loss of a loved one or carry somebody through a life-threatening disease or living with a chronic disease that won’t go away this side of heaven--it’s amazing. It’s absolutely humbling.”

MercyMe’s YouTube and Twitter accounts are flooded with messages of thanks for the way the band has inspired and changed lives with their songs. When asked which artists and bands inspire and lift them up, Scheuchzer noted Bart Millard was recently “blown away” by the craftsmanship of a recent John Mayer show.

He added, “It’s literally everything from the heaviest rock music to jazz. I can’t pick out any one thing. I think anything that’s done really well and really draws out emotion is what we’re kind of drawn to as a band.”

As for guitar heroes, Scheuchzer named U2 guitarist, The Edge, as one of his all-time favorites and offered further praise of Mayer. “I do love John Mayer. In modern music, where there’s not a whole lot of guitar going on, I love that he plays the blues. He’s very counterculture to music these days,” he said. “The guy who plays the guitar with Sturgill Simpson is phenomenal. I could watch YouTube videos of that guy all day long. Across the board, rock and roll, country, anybody who’s doing it well, wearing themselves out into it, I’m a fan of and anyone who’s doing something a little different.”

The charismatic guitarist is a dedicated family man who credits his wife, Abby, for her steadfast support along the band’s winding road. She took care of the house and kids while he was gone for long periods for about 12 of their nearly 15 years of marriage.

MercyMe decided to slow down touring to spend more time with their families and Scheuchzer is happy with the shift. He said, “We’ve slowed down on how much we’re doing and I’ve been able to give my wife a little more time. Not just to step away but to do the things she wants to do and has dreamed of doing. She’s a woman of amazing vision. So, to get to watch some of that come to fruition is pretty awesome.”

Lifer is a joyful collection of songs that affirm a believer’s victory in Christ. It also carries a resounding message of hope. We discussed MercyMe’s evolution in the gap between their 2014 Grammy-nominated album Welcome to the New and the band’s vision for the new record.

Scheuchzer feels Lifer is a natural progression from Welcome to the New, which focuses on God’s grace poured out on us because of the Gospel. He noted, “Righteous acts don’t save us. We are heirs to the throne of Christ and it’s not something we have to work towards. It’s a free gift and it’s awesome.”

Lifer is ultimately about living out life embracing that gift. Scheuchzer said, “It’s just a practice of trusting in Him and realizing because of what Christ did on the cross, we win in every situation. It’s not like we win over our competitors and oh guys, we’re right and you’re wrong. We are placed on the winning team because of Christ, because of what He did. We’re victorious and the Bible says we are already placed in the heavenlies. It talks about it being past tense for those who trust in God. So, it’s like we have a foot here on Earth and a foot in heaven. So that’s where we’re trying to live now and what this record is about.”

Part of MercyMe’s international appeal, is many songs from their extensive catalog meet people right where they’re at in life, in happy and sad times. Lifer’s debut single, “Even If,” marks a prime example. It talks about maintaining hope in God even if we don’t get the answers we seek. Millard’s anguish and struggle in coping with his son’s diabetes inspired this chart-topping, honest, and vulnerable track.

“We wanted an album that was talking about the victory we have in Christ. So, it was hard to not be joyful. But, to leave it at ‘Oh everything is happy because of Jesus’ would be cheapening the Gospel for sure,” Scheuchzer said. “Because, yeah, you trusted Jesus and your relationship with God is covered and all good, and nothing changes that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t still live in a fallen world and things happen. That, even though I’m a believer and I’m trusting in Christ, it doesn’t mean I’m not going to make mistakes that are gonna explode and leave shrapnel all over my life.”

“So, sometimes that ‘even if’ is something I’ve done and caused myself, he continued. “Sometimes that ‘even if’ is something I have no control over; whether it’s sickness or the death of a loved one or whatever. We felt like we had to tell that type of story too and that even in those times God is unchanging, He is still faithful. He’s our only hope.”

MercyMe partnered with Cracker Barrel to release a 13-track deluxe version of Lifer which is available at over 640 Cracker Barrel locations. It features three bonus tracks: “A Little Hope,” “Sing,” and “His Eye Is On The Sparrow., that further the band’s message of a lifelong commitment to their beliefs. Filled with positive, uplifting lyrics, along with energetic beats and soaring melodies, Lifer – a “logical next chapter” according to the band – delivers the massive hits MercyMe is known for.

Lifer is about how our faith is a part of us; a constant reminder of home. MercyMe has been touring for 23 years and Cracker Barrel has literally been a ‘constant reminder of home’ no matter where the road takes us,” said the band’s Bart Millard in a press statement. “We wanted Cracker Barrel to be set apart from just another place to buy our album. It's a unique opportunity, so we wanted to make a unique project.”

“Sing” was notably recorded during the making of their 2006 album, Coming Up to Breathe, at Abbey Road Studios in London. The London Symphony Orchestra added strings to the melodically rich song, which speaks of God singing comfort over us, like a lullaby, when we need it. Beatles influences are peppered throughout MercyMe’s catalog, so this recording session meant a lot to the band.

“Bart jumped on a microphone and we were told it was on some Beatles recordings as like a drum mic or something,” Scheuchzer said. “Elvis sang on this microphone. Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin sang on this microphone. They tracked it live with the orchestra and it was a really cool moment in our musical career. That’s rare for any artist, let alone a Christian artist who lives in the U.S. To get to be a part of that was really fun.”

MercyMe kicks off a nationwide tour on April 21 in Albuquerque with guests Hawk Nelson and Micah Tyler. They’re excited to do some West Coast shows, which they haven’t done in a while. Scheuchzer will also stretch his musical wings by switching off between guitars and keys on some of the songs.

When asked what he’s most looking forward to about touring, Scheuchzer expressed his excitement about interacting with fans and getting their reactions to the new songs.

He said, “It’s so much fun to be with the people who are literally feeding my family and who support us and have for 23 years. They give us the gift of life– almost literally and emotionally, bring us to life. We get to play songs live and hear the stories about how songs have impacted people and meant anything to them, whether it’s their kids dancing and laughing to something silly we did on YouTube or a song carrying them through a time of pain and suffering. We love playing live.”

Lifer is available for purchase and streaming on all digital platforms. The 13-track deluxe Cracker Barrel Music Spotlight edition is available nationwide at Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores.

Follow @MercyMe on Twitter and Facebook. Visit MercyMe’s website for tour information and stay tuned to AXS for MercyMe updates.