- Interview by Thief12 (Carlo Giovannetti)
John Lawry is an American musician and producer known for being Petra's keyboardist from 1984 to 1994. Lawry joined the band after playing with the Joe English Band and remained with the band during what most people consider to be their most successful period. During that time, the band won 3 Grammy Awards and numerous Dove Awards.
Lawry left the band in 1994 to dedicate more time to his family and his career as a record producer and engineer. However, he has remained close to Petra, collaborating with former singer Greg X. Volz and current singer John Schlitt in several projects. From 2010 to 2012, he rejoined Petra founder Bob Hartman and Volz to play as Classic Petra, and in 2013 officially rejoined Petra. He is also currently collaborating again with Volz and a few former Petra members in a project called CPR.
Petrapedia interviewed Lawry to know about his life and career, as well as his experience with Petra. The following session of questions and answers was done via Facebook Messenger. The interview was posted on December 8, 2016.
Petrapedia: Hey, John. Hope you're doing good. Let's speak a bit about your childhood and youth. I've read that you were born in Japan and later adopted by an American family. How and when did you find out about this?
John Lawry: Hello. Actually I was an abandoned orphan in Japan. I was rescued by missionaries and taken to a mission home in Japan. I was 6 years old when I was adopted to the US, so I always knew. I had to learn how to speak in English.
PP: Wow, that part I didn't know.
JL: Two young sailors would come by the orphanage at Christmas to give the kids presents. They saw I was mixed race, Amer-asian. They contacted a couple in Michigan and said "If you adopt this boy, we will pay for the adoption". So two young men paid for everything. That had to be a sacrifice financially for them.
PP: So they weren't even government people or from the orphanage. They just went up and called.
JL: They were two brothers. I found out their last name was Walker, but that's all I know. I'm sure they were Christians because they were involved in helping and blessing that orphanage in Sasebo, Japan.
PP: That's amazing. What a blessing. I suppose this is something typical with adopted children, but have you felt any curiosity about your biological family?
JL: Yes, I'm curious if I have brothers and sisters. I did have my Japanese paperwork translated. I guess they found me on the street, guessed my age, and then I was taken to the orphanage. God's hand was on me at a very young age.
PP: That's mind blowing. So you grew up in the town of Millington, Michigan, I understand. Were your parents looking to adopt?
JL: That is where my parents lived when the Walker Brothers contacted them. They had already adopted a boy and were excited to get another son. We are only six months apart and were very close growing up. Then my parents adopted a girl a couple of years later from the same orphanage, but that time they paid for it.
PP: Three lives that have been blessed by them.
JL: Also I wanted to do the same thing. My oldest son was adopted from an orphanage in Seoul, Korea. He was 4 years old. We had to learn a little Korean to communicate with him. Then Nick was adopted from a crisis pregnancy at 3 weeks old.
PP: How old are they now?
JL: Jeremy is 35, Nick is 24.
PP: So you were adopted at 6 years old, and I read in the Guide to Petra website that you learned to play the accordion at 9. How did you become interested in music?
JL: My parents said that when I arrived from Japan, I would tune pop bottles with water and play melodies. So they decided to get me music lessons. I think I was nine when I started getting formal music lessons.
PP: Pop bottles? That's cool; unique and cool!
JL: Yup. Probably something that the kids did in Japan in a worn, torn, poverty enviroment.
PP: What instruments do you play, other than keyboards and the accordion?
JL: I played trumpet, then euphonium in high school and college. Also I studied classical guitar in college for awhile. Actually, after seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, I wanted to start a band. I was actually the guitar player back then, but we could never find a keyboard player. I knew how to play keyboards and somehow just fell sideways back into playing keyboards.
PP: And which instrument do you prefer to play?
JL: I'm only a keyboard player these days. I left the pursuit of the guitar many, many years ago. I instead ended up getting into electronics, then computers.
PP: I saw an interview you recorded with John Schlitt and Greg X. Volz, I think it was for the Farewell DVD, where you said you had a "major moment with God" and then you decided to follow Him. What can you tell us about that moment?
JL: I grew up in a Christian family, and at 11 years old gave my heart to the Lord. I never walked it completely until in my early twenties. I felt hopeless and lost; something seemed missing in my life. I felt alone and broken many times and I started reading the Bible. It gave me peace and strength encouragement. Finally, I started pursuing Jesus and my life changed. I never planned on being in Christian music. I was just pursuing God and trying to listen to him as best as I could at that time.
PP: That's the best course of action.
JL: Absolutely. I'm way past any expectations that I had in my life.
PP: Were you in many bands before that moment?
JL: It's funny. I've been in bands since 14 years of age, but I've been in very few bands.
PP: That's good! Stable guy, hehe
JL: I guess so. The boring, nerdy keyboard player :)
PP: And how was it that you came to be with Petra?
JL: Well, I was playing on some record in Michigan when I got a call from Nashville. A record label wanted me to come down and do some recording for them. So I came down, first day there, I get a knock on the door of the place I was staying in and a guy is at the door. He says "Hi, my name is Joe English, I'm here to pick you up for your session today". We started at 10 a.m. and at lunch, he asked me to move down to Nashville and join his band. Way beyond my expectations.
Anyway, when we were getting ready to start the Joe English Band, a friend of ours, Scott Roley, needed a band to back him up for a weekend Christian concert. Joe and I said we'd do it but our guitar player was still in New York and he was assembling other members. So someone mentioned Bob Hartman. We met, practiced, and played that weekend.
After moving down here, while in the Joe English Band, I was friends with [Petra keyboardist] John Slick. So when I'd see them on the road, we would visit. Also, one of Louie [Weaver]'s best friends was Paul Brannon, who ended up playing in the Joe English Band.
PP: Really? Didn't know you knew Slick.
JL: Yes, we were friends. I think he's a great player and I enjoyed the times we would hang out. So anyway, when he was leaving, everyone knew me and they asked if I would go out and fill in on some shows; and when I did they asked me to join. I was under contract with Joe, so I talked to him and prayed "Lord, if this is where you want me, keep the door open". He did. I talked to Joe, he was excited for me because Petra's career was going forward, and Joe's at that time wasn't. What was great is Joe's band ended on tour opening up for us, so I could hang with them :) It was awesome.
PP: After you joined, how did you approach playing Petra's old tracks? Considering that John had his own style, did you find it challenging as a musician to follow him? Any pressure?
JL: Well, I adjusted, but no pressure. Stylistically, I'm more improvisational. My roots in college were classical and also jazz, including big band and 6 piece jazz ensemble, plus 20th century theory.
PP: Now that I know you knew Slick, did you ever talk to him about his departure?
JL: I don't know the history there. He actually e-mailed me when he heard the Back to the Rock project and said he really liked it.
PP: Glad to read that.
JL: I don't think because people aren't in bands anymore they can't be friends. We are all God's children with the callings God has given each of us. I'm really good friends with [former singers] Greg X. [Volz] and John [Schlitt]. Yesterday I worked on a Greg X. Christmas song. Tomorrow, I'm working on the John Schlitt radio show.
PP: You guys work a lot together! That's great.
JL: I work a lot with John [Schlitt] here in Nashville, backing tracks, editing, etc. with him; plus of course, we go out and play as Petra. And Greg and I went out as Classic Petra. Now Greg and I are in a band called CPR. I've been busy working on the CPR CD. I've had Louie [Weaver] in and the drums are recorded. We have a basic track to work with. Now with the drums locked in, I'll go back and rebuild everything from there.
PP: I have a couple of questions about CPR, so let's jump to that. What can you tell us about that project? Who came up with the idea?
JL: Actually, we've been wanting to do this for awhile. And recently, thanks to Louie, a person helped fund the endeavor. I'm producing it, and I'm really excited about it. It's great having Ronny [Cates] in the band too, and Greg is singing fantastic.
PP: What will you be playing?
JL: It's Petra songs on this project, then the next CD will be originals.
PP: What Petra songs are you playing? Can it be revealed?
JL: I'm keeping that a secret for now :)
PP: Ok, I'll keep my eyes and ears open. So how would you describe the overall experience of playing with Petra, for those 10 years?
JL: Wow, that was just a blur in my mind. It was a very busy time, we ended up on the road a lot. I started wanting to be home more and started working more in the studio.
PP: That's why you decided to leave the band?
JL: I think it was several reasons, including missing my sons growing up. I didn't leave adversarial to the band. It wasn't one of those 'I hate the band' leaving deals at all. That's why John Schlitt, Bob Hartman, and I have remained friends.
PP: Most of your years with the band were with the same core, Ronny [Cates], [John] Schlitt, [Bob] Hartman and Louie [Weaver]. Did you guys had good chemistry? I mean, it shows, but from your point of view?
JL: Absolutely. Those were the top of the mountain experiences. I wish I could've appreciated it more. When you're going that fast, it's hard to slow down and enjoy it :)
PP: And how would you describe the recording process with the band? How collaborative was it?
JL: I would say the band is a lot more collaborative now. [Back then] we hired producers and trusted them to give us the record we wanted. I thought [producers] John and Dino Elefante did a great job. I also enjoyed the six months I was in the Jay Sekulow Band with John Elefante and John Schiltt. It was a blast. Unfortunately, I couldn't keep doing it with my schedule. It was great hanging with the both of them.
PP: You brought up how collaborative the band is now. Do you guys have any plans of releasing new music?
PP: They seem to be really into the band, Greg and Cristian. That I can testify to.
JL: They are both awesome and very talented guys. Cristian does a lot of studio drumming and I use Greg Bailey often on cello in my projects.
PP: One question that's been biting me for a while, who came up with the idea of the "Jesus Loves You" solo?
JL: Actually, I had purchased a Fairlight; it was the first sampling keyboard. I decided to record my son Jeremy saying "I love you, baby", etc. Then I had my wife Stefanie record some things for me, samples of her saying "Praise the Lord", "I love you", and "Jesus loves you!". At soundcheck on the road, I would load those so I could hear my family and also hear the words of encouragement.
One afternoon at sound check, I was playing Stefanie's sample, "Jesus Loves You", and something clicked. I started writing a song with just the voice sample. The road crew started going "Wow, that's cool". Later that night, it was my first time live that I played it to an audience. I believe it was a God thing. He used it to let people know how much Jesus loves them, how much He loves you and me.
PP: I know your favorite song is "Prayer", but what if you had to choose one favorite Petra album?
JL: It's tough. I like certain things about each of them. That's why when people ask me favorite songs, etc. it's hard for me to give them a definitive answer.
PP: As a member of Petra, if you had to choose a defining moment, a moment where you thought "Wow! we are blessed", which one would it be?
JL: I think when we did a concert with Josh McDowell. When he gave the invitations, so many people came forward. It was humbling, emtional, spiritual, incredible.
PP: On the other hand, if they asked you a particularly tough moment with the band, which one would it be?
JL: I think, for me it was one of the videos for the Beyond Belief film. We had flown into Miami for the filming and concert. I had recently purchased two expensive keyboard samplers and had sampled a large library of multi-stack keyboards; put a lot of work into it, plus mounted all of it in a special rack. We flew to Miami, the rack never showed up and was stolen. Because the road crew left the baggage claim area, I couldn't claim it was missing. I lost $10,000 worth of equipment.
Worst of all, we were playing a live concert that night. I didn't have sounds, racks, everything I had prepared, so we rented equipment. I had to play and survive. It was a real challenge, especially a live taping. We never did get the equipment back.
PP: I can imagine the producers weren't happy, not to mention you.
JL: Well they really didn't notice. I think it was more my personal frustration and disappointment losing the equipment and all of the work. The band said it sounded great and were very encouraging. I believe that is when you have to be a pro. You leave the negative things off stage and go up there and do your best for God and for the fans.
PP: After you left, how did you feel "passing the torch" to Jim Cooper?
JL: Great. He was my keyboard tech. I gave him all of my sounds and he would set up a rig off stage and practiced each night along side of us. Stefanie and I used to call him our third son :) Jim and I were very close. I'm proud of what he has accomplished. We don't see each other very often now, but I still consider him a good friend.
PP: So a bit of a tough question then, how did you feel when he parted ways with Petra?
JL: I wasn't keeping tabs at that time, but I believe God had other things Jim was being called to.
PP: And he continued to collaborate with Petra in other facets, which is great.
PP: Who invited you to play at the Farewell concert?
JL: Actually that's a funny story. I believe the manager had called me, but it was never confirmed. I was busy working in the studio two days before the concert when they were asking when I was going to be there for the taping. I said "Ha!". So it was a scramble getting prepared, because I was actually in the studio working on another project which I couldn't stop either. I wish I would've had more time but that's the way it goes.
PP: Ahh, I thought it went great. Loved your appearance.
JL: Thanks! I was rushed. I like to be prepared
PP: A couple of questions about Classic Petra. You've said you remained friends with Greg [Volz] and Bob [Hartman], so I suppose it was natural for you to decide to get together, but how did that came to be?
JL: Actually, I got a call from Greg X. [Volz]. He was wanting to see if we could do something. I've worked on several of Greg's projects and we are buddies, so we've kept in touch all through the years and have worked together on a lot of things.
So I was asked to produce the [Back to the Rock] project. Actually, Greg X. and Bob were probably some of the easiest people I've ever worked with on that project. What I really love is working in the studio. I loved producing Back to the Rock because I love the guys and love the songs. I though there was good chemistry there.
PP: And what happened to Classic Petra? Why did you stopped touring?
JL: Honestly, it's tough with different schedules and jobs to keep it going. People still have their jobs and the concerts have to fit between them, including me in the studio. Plus touring is expensive and it takes money to support touring.
PP: And why did you decide to rejoin Petra in 2013?
JL: Well, John Schlitt and I were playing in the Jay Sekulow Band, and John one day goes "Hey buddy, wanna come out and play with us again?" and that's how it started. But actually Bob, John, Greg [Bailey], and I had done another concert in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I believe back in 2008 or 2009.
Plus John Schlitt's wife, Dorla, and my wife Stefanie are very close friends too, so I see them more than anybody. Actually, John and I are getting together tomorrow for lunch before working on his radio show.
PP: That's great. So other than CPR, what other projects are you working on now?
JL: Well, there are a few other things under wraps that will be announced next year :) One of these days I would like to do my own project, but that's on the back burner right now.
PP: That's fun that you brought that up. I have to admit I didn't know you released a couple of solo albums.
JL: Most people don't know that :)
PP: So before we started chatting I actually listened to a song, "Media Alert". Why haven't you recorded more solo projects? Is it the time?
JL: Yes, I work in the studio to pay my bills which means working on other people's projects. Working on your own stuff requires budget, prep, distribution, etc. That's the life of a solo artist which is something I haven't been, at least to a successful degree.
Media Alert was created and recorded over my garage on a very limited budget. As to my more jazz instrumental album, Excursions, that album I'm playing everything on the project because there was no money for it. It was just a labor of love.
PP: I saw that one but couldn't find any song to listen to. Saw it was limited distribution.
JL: Actually it was the first phone card CD, with a code for phone time. A friend asked me to help him do it, without a budget of course. I wrote the songs and recorded it in two weeks. It is spontaneous; maybe not perfect, but honest.
I am using my mobile keyboard to do a lot of guitar solos, like a [Joe] Satriani-type approach. Not saying I'm Satriani, but more of a mobile guitar/keyboard approach. Actually, one song I tried to be more like Carlos Santana too. It was back in '97.
PP: Do you have any favorite equipment to play live with?
JL: Well, I love my Korg Kronos; that is my work horse. Then I have my LN4 mobile Lync with a Yamaha module. I custom-make my own patches to cover as much as I can on those two keyboards. I have them under 50 pounds apiece so I can fly them international or in the US without problems or overages. Usually the venue supplies a weighted keyboard and a double tier stand.
PP: What music do you listen in your free time?
JL: All kinds, but a lot of time I just need to rest the eyes and mind. I'm a full time studio engineer so when I get out of here I like to chill. I usually watch FOX News.
PP: That was actually my next question, any hobbies?
JL: These days, get to bed early, get up early. My hobby is music.
PP: That's great when you can say your work is your hobby. Not many people can say that, unfortunately.
JL: I don't work I play :) I know, i love what I do
PP: This has been a great chat, John. I really appreciate it your time. I wish you the best in your life and career.
JL: Blessings and Merry Christmas! I don't have a career, I just have a mission :) Goodnight!
|Bill Glover · John Lawry|