Exclusive Interview with Marc Martel of the Christian rock band Downhere and Winner of The Queen Extravaganza contest.
The Christian Post: Where did you develop this passion for music when you were younger and who did you dream to be?
Marc Martel: Definitely my passion for music came from my mom. She is a piano player and a choir director at my church. My earliest memories of music and just really loving the sound of music itself was her playing the piano for me and my brother and sister at night as we were falling asleep at night, and she'd play Beethoven to us and I think that's where it all started to me. I ended up taking piano lessons at a really young age, I took like years of piano lessons and I always loved to sing.
My biggest influences when I was a kid – I listened to a lot of top 40 radio, so whatever the big artists were so like the mid 80s. I think of artists like George Michaels, but my biggest influence at that age was probably Keith Green. His passion and his piano playing and his singer was something that I always wanted to strive toward.
CP: You're also in the band Downhere, when you guys started why was it important for you to come to the U.S. as Canadians and how did that whole process of getting signed work out for you?
Martel: We started our band in college, at a college called Briar Cliff College in Saskatchewan. None of us are actually from Saskatchewan, but we kind of all met there and started there. We got signed to a record label in Nashville in 2001 and before that all came about we were all just planning on moving to Toronto or something and trying to make the best of it there and staying in Canada.
We never saw it as kind of a thing to do, to move to the states and when we got that offer from this big record label in Nashville we thought “Well this is a door that either God was opening for us” and we were very careful about it and very prayerful about it and after eight months of negotiating to make sure it was really worth it for us, we moved down in 2001 and that's when we kind of went full time.
CP: Where does the name Downhere come from?
Martel: The name Downhere comes from a song I wrote after a friend of mine died in college and it was kind of the first time I was dealing with loss and you know real mortality and it was a song of how down here on Earth we don't have the big picture. We rarely know why things happen and why God allows certain things, but it's a song of faith that God is in control and has a purpose for everything that happens in our lives. As hard as it is to believe at certain times.
Later on when we were looking for a band name we thought we wanted something that had a lot of layers of meaning. The name also means just being down here. When Christ was down here and the example he set for us as a way of life and trying to emulate that as much as possible. We want our music to be a soundtrack for down here and obviously our world views are Biblically based and obviously that's where our music is centered on. So yeah, just being down here on Earth and trying to figure it out like everyone else.
CP: When did you guys finally start to feel established as a band?
Martel: The first year and a half in Nashville we actually all shared a four bedroom house and there were two married couples and three single guys trying to figure out how to live in community and learning to take care of the daily schedule, “Who's cooking what?” “Who's cleaning what?” That really was kind of a pressure cooker for us trying to figure out if this was going to work for us. That first year and a half we had to live together because we didn't have any money. I was making about $300 a month back then and we made it work and that's when we really gelled.
CP: Who pushed you to try out for this and what were your initial thoughts, what did you think would actually happen by you trying out?
Martel: The whole Queen thing came around in a really timely fashion. I was thinking about what I was going to do in 2012, our families were growing in the band and that's always been our first priority, so we planned to take some extra time off the road so the guys can be with their families.
My wife and I don't have kids yet so I figured “Well while we still have no kids I have the freedom to travel a little more than the other guys probably” and I figured, “Well instead of trying to get some other part-time jobs to supplement the loss of income from not being on the road, I'll look into singing with other bands or do some session work whatever it may be.”
Right around that time I got this email from a friend of mine here in Nashville. I pretty much got that email the day the Queen Extravaganza started in late September. I read the contest rules and the vision behind and seeing that it was an official thing put on by the band Queen themselves I thought, “It has never been my dream to be in a tribute band. I love to write my own music, I love what I do in Downhere and hope to keep doing it for a long time,” but just the timing of the whole thing and the fact that people have been telling me for years that I sound like Freddie Mercury, it just was kind of a no brainer for me.
I still had some self doubt about the thing and I haven't heard a lot of guys sing like Freddie Mercury, I know there's a few of them out there for sure, but I felt like I had a good chance of at least moving on to one of the vocalist spots. They were looking for three singers, so I thought I had a decent shot at it so I thought, “Well if I win this what is it going to mean for Downhere?” And at the time I really had no idea what it meant for Downhere and whether it was the potential of taking the place of Downhere. I had the video all ready to send and submit, I was sitting there on the couch next to my wife and I was like, “Yeah I don't know if I really want to do this. I love what I do, if I win this I don't know what to do with my band” and she's like “Marc, this is like cut out for you. This is a no brainer for you.”
And so I'd have to say that the final word went to my wife, and I listened to her, as a good husband should and here I am today with a new job, for next year.
CP: When you started getting viral feedback for the Youtube video, what were your first impressions of that?
Martel: A little bit of fear honestly, excitement obviously. I had no idea that was going to happen, you can't predict a viral video. It doesn't really happen to a lot of people. I submitted the video on the 21st of September, and the next morning I checked what the views were at and I remember specifically it was at 303 at like nine in the morning and I thought “Well that's about what I expected,” I honestly didn't expect much. That's about what a Downhere video gets.
Then in the afternoon, it's funny because it had exactly doubled in views. It was at 606 and I was like well that's kind of funny. Well this is going to be a small thing if I win, who even knows if they'll carry on with the whole Queen Extravaganza, maybe they are hoping for more views than that.
At the same time the contest had just started and maybe they haven't gotten the word out. I had no idea what was going on, and in the evening around 9 p.m.
I went to check and all of a sudden it was in the thousands and in the tens of thousands, I think it was around 18,000 views and I had noticed that the comments were coming in almost every second, and people were saying “Hey the Internet has arrived welcome to the Internet guy, dude you've gone viral” And I was like, “What does that even mean, viral video? Let’s see if this is really true, maybe it'll just spike after a few hours and then stop.”
Sure enough the next morning it was in the hundreds of thousands, and for probably the first week or two it was just really surreal all the attention I was getting. I mean people have told me I sound like Freddie Mercury for years and I didn't really think it was that big of a deal honestly. I thought “Well, I know there's other guys who can sound like Freddie Mercury, it's not terribly unique, sure I can do that, but what does it all really mean in the end?”
It caught on so crazy over the Internet, it surprised everybody, it was kind of an outer body experience. I keep telling people it's so weird being the one guy that can join in with everybody and say “Hey way to go this is so exciting for you, this is awesome.” It's kind of weirdly lonely in a way. Just being the center of attention in that way, it's a strange thing. I think I've seen enough people have their 15 minutes that I can sort of manage my 15 minutes of fame with it. I knew it would eventually die down, but it was sure fun while it lasted.
CP: How did it feel when you got the phone call from Ellen to go on her show?
Martel: That was crazy because a lot of the comments that were being left early on in the viral thing were saying we need to get this guy on Ellen. I didn't know my wife was such a big Ellen fan at the time, and I said 'Hey check out what this guy said, he said I should be on Ellen.' She freaked out and said 'What you're going to be on Ellen!' And was like, 'N o, no, no, he was saying that I should be on Ellen, there's a big difference.' But obviously I got the call from my manager a few days later saying I got Ellen.
Yeah that was kind of the next step up from that whole thing, it kind of made the whole thing real. Up until then it was just kind of people commenting on Youtube and videos, that was about it. The Ellen thing was the first real world, yeah this is changing my life. I'm going to actually go to L.A. and be on a television show, this is really crazy.
CP: What does your job entail and do you feel any pressure?
Martel: I feel really oddly well prepared for it. Being a professional musician with Downhere for 11 years now, I feel completely at home on stage. Obviously a lot of people are going to have expectations as far as my performance on stage whether I'm expected to emulate Freddie Mercury on stage. Which I don't think is expected of me from the Queen people. A lot of tribute bands have Freddie look a likes, even though a lot of people tell me I sort of look like him, you know they grow the mustache and wear the same costumes and all that and try to act like Freddie. I think it helps that I'm not expected to be Freddie Mercury, I think what they want of me is to sort of bring my own artistic self into this thing.
Obviously, I sound remarkably like him and that's definitely an advantage, I think people are going to always be critical when you're in the public eye like that. People are going to say whatever they want especially on Youtube where there is no accountability and complete anonymity. People have a chance and do take that chance to do and say whatever they want. That really doesn't bother me, I'm just excited to do something a little different than what I've done for the last decade or so. It's going to be a really fun time to branch out and play some other music that just so happens to be some of the greatest music ever recorded, so that doesn't hurt either.
CP: How long is this actual gig with Queen, and what happens when you are ready to do stuff with Downhere again?
Martel: I think so far what I know, the Queen thing is supposedly a three month tour in the middle of next year going possibly into the fall a bit, sort of playing it by ear as to how long they are taking this tour out on the road. It's going to depend on the success of it. Obviously touring is a lot harder than it used to be. Maybe do a test run in the beginning. They're really wise about it, I don't think anyone knows how long this Queen Extravaganza thing is going to be. My guess was temporary, which is great because Downhere is still planning to tour next year and we are going to be doing a second leg of the "Called Love Tour" with Aaron Schust and Jason Gray which was really successful last fall. We are already planning gigs for that in the spring, then Queen Extravaganza from then through the summer and the fall is kind of up in the air. All I can tell you now is that Downhere is definitely not breaking up. Still planning on recording some music sometime next year, that's pretty much all I can tell you at this point.
CP: What was your biggest rock star moment before any of this?
Martel: It's kind of funny to put it that way because we have been the anti-rock star band in a way. Even our biggest fans know this about us. They respect us as humans and don't objectify us. Our demeanor as musicians when we are on stage kind of squelches that desire for people to elevate. We've always managed to remain humble and down to Earth as much as possible when your job involves being under lights and people watching you.
Probably the biggest moment we've had as a band throughout the years was in 2006 when we played in Morocco which I believe was in front of 60,000 people. That was a very surreal moment just to see a sea of people in front of you. People that didn't even know our music at all, but I'm sure about 99.9 percent of them never heard a single Downhere song. But yeah just to play in front of that many people is mind boggling.
CP: What's your biggest failure?
Martel: I don't think I could point to one, there have been far too many of those to count. And everybody has their own idea of what a rock star moment would be and the antithesis of that might be sleeping on someone's floor because our promoter couldn't afford a hotel or a place with a spare bed. We've done that plenty of times. Breaking down on the side of the highway in your 15 passenger van is a lot of fun. Having to unload your gear on the side of the road because your trailer broke down. There's so many of those moments that I'm actually really thankful for because they have prepared me for the realities of what comes next.
I think I have some pretty good expectations. And the whole fame thing which I've tasted in a very small amount is a weird thing. Not that I think I'm really famous or anything like that, but just this small amount of attention I've gotten with this viral thing. Comparing myself to the ultimate rock star of today (Justin Bieber), I feel like all the things that have happened over the years and being around the other members of Downhere who really have their heads on straight, because of that I think it has helped me keep my head on straight and I can keep it in stride and really focus on what the important things are in all of this – my relationships first with my wife and God, and the people I come in contact with. The rock star thing is all kind of fluff.
CP: Last thoughts?
Martel: Finally I'd like to say I'm really excited for what's about to happen in 2012. There's a lot of questions as far as what it's going to look like. If you're a praying person, pray for me that I make good and wise decisions with all of it and be the representative of Christ I'm called, we are all called to be in situations. We’ll keep you posted as much as possible on my website, Marcmartelmusic.com, Downhere.com, come out to a show it'll be fun to see you.