I was blessed to have a few minutes with Chris Quilala (Pronounced: Key’ – La’ – La) of Jesus Culture. He’s such a down to earth guy, I felt like I was talking with an old friend just catching up on some time that passed by.
[CM] I was reading in your bio that you’ve been a part of Jesus Culture since you were 14. Is that correct?
[Chris Quilala] Yeah! It started out of our youth group. I started playing drums, and then I started leading worship a year or two later.
[CM] What an experience! So many people just dream of sitting under the leadership of Jesus Culture, and it’s been a part of your growing up. Tell me about that experience.
[Chris] Yeah, so it was at Bethel Church in Redding, CA. I was homeschooled, so for me, it was really easy to be around a lot more. I was always at the church. I was there almost every day. My parents worked there doing maintenance and my mom was a preschool teacher there. I was always in the youth group hanging out with our youth pastor, who is now our lead pastor, Banning Liebscher. (We just started a church in Sacramento two years ago.) When Banning was my youth pastor, he was like a spiritual big brother to me. So, for me, I was always around, and I told my mom that I wanted to play drums at the age of 12 and she signed me up for lessons a week later. I slowly just started playing at different things at the church. The first thing I played drums for…I was 13 and it was for a singles group! It was all 30 and 40 year old singles! So, I played drums there a few times and I just had the desire to be a part of what God was doing, and because I was homeschooled, I was really available.
It wasn’t until I was 14 that I really had an encounter with God at a youth camp with our youth group. We went away to the coast, and I remember during worship…it may have been the first time I lifted my hands, and I felt God’s presence so strong and His love and it felt like electricity going through my body. It was scary and overwhelming, but at the same time, I just felt how real He was. I remember my dad at that same camp (who pretty much raised himself on the streets of San Francisco – he pretty much grew up without parents and just had a real hard sort of upbringing.) He had been cooking in the kitchen, and I remember him coming out of the kitchen and he was kneeling on the floor and weeping during a song about God’s love. So, for me at a young age, I saw the power of worship and what happens when we worship and God shows up in response to our worship, and that was what I wanted to give my life to. After that, I just made myself available for as much as I could.
[Chris] I started to drum when I was 12, and when I was 13, my mom had an old guitar in the closet that had no name on it and I decided I wanted to play it. At the time, Vineyard Music had charts that showed you how to play the chords, so that’s how I learned how to play acoustic. I still have not had any kind of formal guitar lessons, I just taught myself, and some worship leader friends like Brian Johnson taught me some stuff… so that all started when I was 13.
After starting on the drums, I just fell in love with music. I stopped playing sports. I was playing soccer a lot and I just kind of stopped all of that stuff and put all my attention toward music. I really don’t know how my neighbors put up with it! We lived in a small house and the houses were really close, and I just played drums all day long to different artists. I was somewhat self-taught on the drums as well.
[CM] When did songwriting come into the picture?
[Chris] Oh, it’s been a journey for sure. I think I wrote my first song when I was about 16. I remember sitting in our house, grabbing the guitar, and I just wrote a song just sort of on the spot and in the moment. It was really simple…I think it might have changed keys and I didn’t even know it! From there, I started interning in the youth group when I was 19, and remember setting time aside once or twice a week to write songs, and then I would lead them at youth group to sort of try them out. But, it was more in the last three or four years that I really dove into songwriting. The last two years in particular, I’ve written more songs than I probably have in my entire life! A huge part of that is partly the season I have been in, and also I’ve connected with a lot of amazing songwriters. So, for me, co-writing has really helped pull out a lot of these songs.
[CM] When you co-write is it mostly within the Jesus Culture family, or are you writing with others?
[Chris] I’ve met with a bunch of amazing people in Nashville. For me, relationship is huge. There have been co-writes that I’ve been on that just did not feel like a natural fit, but there’s also been a really good friend, Josh Silverberg, in Nashville. He’s written a lot for the CCM world, but he has a huge heart for worship music. So, he and I have really connected. He was just at my house last week and we wrote maybe 12 songs in four days.
[CM] As you are writing, where do you find your inspiration?
[Chris] I think it comes, for me, from a lot of different places. Two years ago, my wife and I lost our son. He was still-born in December of 2014. I share it in context of the song “Miracles.” We believed that God would do a miracle and bring him back to life. So for me, to worship is just proclaiming the truth of Who God is despite our circumstances, because He doesn’t change, you know? So, for me, I had to write these songs that remind me of Who God is and keep my focus on eternity. I think it really helped me through, and it still does. His birthday is coming up this Saturday. It’s never easy, but I will say that worship and keeping the truth of Who God is and the truth that God is faithful and kind…keeping those truths in front of me has translated into me writing songs because I needed to sing.
A lot of songs will come from life experience. And I think it’s really important as songwriters that we write where we want to see the church in 10-15 years. We need to start singing about that now, because it’s amazing how much music and lyric and what we sing and declare shapes our mindset and ultimately transforms our culture. We’ve seen that in the secular mainstream music with artists like the Beatles and such. I think it’s important for us as worship leaders to lead the way in that. So I try to think, what are some concrete truths that the church may not be walking in yet that we need to sing and point ourselves toward.
So, I draw a lot of inspiration from Scripture, life experience, and from my pastor as well.
[Chris] The vision is really that I want people to encounter God through this album. Again, the songs came from a very personal place because of the season I’ve been in, but I just hope and pray that people would connect to God in their own way and that wherever they are at in life, that they would experience God’s hope and His goodness and that God is really championing them…He is for them. So, for me, I found a lot of inspiration writing these songs and, again, pointing myself to the truths that are declared in them, and so I pray that it would do the same for others. To put out my own album feels pretty vulnerable. The Jesus Culture albums are sort of a collaborative effort. We put it out and it’s like… if it does well or not, it’s like, “We gave it our best shot.” But, putting something out that has your own name on it feels definitely more personal and raw.
I just wanted to try something different. Musically, it’s a lot different. I feel like I could have just played it safe and done something similar to what I’ve done in the past and that people were familiar with me doing, but I just really wanted to do something that really felt true to the season that I’m in. I’m really excited about it.
[CM] I have been hitting repeat mostly on “Because of Your Love.” As a worship leader playing acoustic guitar, I really see this song as approachable.
[Chris] Yeah, we even put out some acoustic versions of some of the songs on video with Worship Together. That’s good to hear. That’s always the tension with writing worship music…you want the church to be able to hear it, or listen and be able to say, “Hey, we can do that at church, or small group or something.”
[CM] Have you led any of these songs in a corporate worship setting?
[Chris] I have not yet. You know, we’ve been traveling a ton. With Jesus Culture, we put out our Let It Echo album in January. So, we’ve been doing a lot of those songs. And then, we just got off our busy tour season. I’m sure I’ll start leading some of these when we get a chance to.
[Chris] Um…that’s a tough one to answer. I think we feel connected to them all. I think Come Away, for us, was one that we felt really attached to. The conference itself was very life changing…that’s where we recorded that album. For us, we always look back at that one as having a sentimental value. More recently, the Let It Echo album was the first time we recorded an album as a church. We moved and started our church, and a year later we recorded that album. A lot of the songs came out of us just doing life together…lots of highs and lows, and a lot of those songs came from what felt like community and a lot of personal and corporate stuff that we walked together through as a family, so those that was a very special album.
[CM] Did you have a worship role model growing up?
[Chris] Yeah, for me, Delirious – Martin Smith was a HUGE influence. Kevin Prosh, back in the day…mainly his drummer when I was playing drums, his music really inspired me. Really, Martin Smith and Matt Redman…I could keep going…just a lot of amazing fathers in worship I would say. I’ve had the privilege of leading along side of Martin Smith a lot lately, and he’s become a really good friend. It just feels a bit surreal. I remember someone asking me years ago when I was playing drums… “If you could play for anyone, who would it be?” And, I was like, “Hands down, Martin Smith!” Who would have thought…fast forward, I’d get to lead alongside him?
[CM] One more question, and it’s about your gear. Your father-in-law works for Martin Guitars. What is your guitar of choice?
[Chris] I got myself a 000-18, and I love it! The body size just feels right. I put a K&K Trinity preamp in it. It’s got a mic and a pickup, and I can blend the two of those. So, for me, that felt like a good fit. I love it! A lot of my friends got a similar body size as well…through my father-in-law!