In mid-December 1996, an un-named band got up onstage at a band festival on Durban’s North Beach with no intentions other than to play the five songs they knew and get off. By the end of the fifth song, things had changed....
Tree63 began life as an experiment, when John Ellis phoned Darryl Swart in late- 1996 to talk about life, faith and rock ‘n roll. Darryl had just left his band, Durban’s infamous What She Said, and John, after years of banging his head against the brick wall of the South African music industry with St Legend and then with his own projects, had just completed his studies at Durban’s University of Natal.
The two, thoroughly disillusioned and looking for an opportunity to make a difference, decided to get together for a cathartic jam session. John roped in Scoop, a friend of his, on bass guitar, and six hours of rehearsal later they were up onstage at the North Beach festival, a festival put together, as it so happened, by Darryl’s good friend Martin Engel. After the initial and unexpected success of that first live appearance, the band, not taking things that seriously at all and still un-named, resumed jamming in early 1997, rehearsing the songs that John was writing at the time. A few more live appearances in Durban later and the band began to realise that something special was happening. Soon, they had a name at last : “Tree”. And more songs. An album’s worth, at least. The goal at that point became to record this new sound that Tree was forging, for the sake of posterity, and then break up. John, unconvinced that his spiritual convictions could co-exist with a rock n’ roll band, decided to travel, and Tree’s fate was sealed.
In April 1997, work began on the album at Martin Engel’s Dog Ears Studios in Westville, South Africa. Self-produced, it contained twelve songs that formed the basis of their live show, including the original versions of “Look What You’ve Done”, “Joy” and “Worldwide”. A few months later, 1000 copies of Tree’s debut album “Overflow” were pressed and packaged, the album was launched , 5fm were playing the first single, “Glitter”.... and Tree broke up. Or so they thought.In early 1998, Tree tentatively reconvened after a change of heart from John. A national South African tour supporting local heroes MIC, as well as a trip to Europe, started the ball rolling, and in July of that year, Tree traveled to the UK to make its debut at the Soul Survivor festival. The support from the UK crowds was nothing less than incredible, and Tree started looking more like something worth pursuing.
Tree returned to South Africa armed with a record deal with Survivor Records. Work began in April 1999 on the follow-up record, “63”. Recorded at Northwind Recording in Kloof, just outside Durban, the album contained what would prove to be Tree’s first national radio hits, as well as the material that eventually attracted US record companies. Released in July 1999 in the UK, and in December of that year in South Africa, the album proved that Tree did indeed have something special to offer. Unreservedly rock n’ roll, yet fresh and compelling, and unabashed about its spiritual message and Christian convictions, the award-winning album spawned the hits “A Million Lights”, “Stumbling Stone” and “Treasure” (#2, #1 and #1 respectively on South African mainstream Top 40 charts).
In early 2000, the band, having moved Martin Engel from band manager to bass player, met up with the head of InPop Records, a US label based out of Nashville, and traveled to the States for the first time in June of that year to discuss and finalise a deal. In October 2000, Tree63 (the band’s name now incorporating its “63” identity) released its American debut. At the time, the band had already embarked on its first US tour, supporting US gold-selling Sonic Flood. The self-titled US release, an American-friendly “greatest hits” of some of the best material off “Overflow” and “63”, went on to receive a Dove Award in 2001 for Rock Album of the Year , and the first two singles, “Treasure” (originally off “63”) and “Look What You’ve Done” (originally off “Overflow”) both went to #1 on The US CHR charts in 2001. After a successful first trip to Australia early in the year, Tree63 spent 2001 on tour in the States, supporting Rebecca St James and later appearing for the first time at most of the US summer festivals. Then, a “proper” South African tour in early 2002 that saw the band selling out all the venues they played was followed by the next phase in Tree63’s increasingly- tumultuous history. Martin decided to pursue other interests after two full years in the band, and Tree63 was once again on hiatus while John re-grouped. With new manager Andy Skarda on board, Tree63 were once again back in the studio in mid-2002 to begin the follow-up to 1999’s “63”. Recorded at Northwind Recording, “The Life and Times of Absolute Truth” was released on October 22 2002 on InPop Records, the first record of new Tree63 material in over three years. By this stage, John and Darryl had been joined by old friend Daniel Ornellas, a Capetonian already well-known in South Africa for fronting Naked Lyric in the late ‘90’s.
Tree63 spent the Fall of 2002 on tour in the US, traveling as part of Festival Con Dios along with Audio Adrenaline, Toby Mac, MercyMe, Out of Eden, Pillar and The Benjamin Gate, and ended that amazing year with a huge New Year’s Eve show at the world-renowned Sun City Superbowl in South Africa, along with SA bands Cutting Jade and Wonderboom. 2003 began with the news that “The Life & Times”’s first single, ‘No Words’, had reached the #1 position on the Australian Christian charts. Another trip out to Oz, as well as the band’s first appearance at New Zealand’s Parachute Festival, preceded Tree63’s 2003 South African tour, which was followed by an unforgettable headline slot at Splashy Fen. The band went into hibernation while the birth of John and Tracy’s son Liam took precedence, and in early May everyone uprooted again to move indefinitely to the US. Meanwhile, another sea-change: after seven years’ worth of loyalty and committment, Darryl finally felt it was time to move on, and he played his last show with Tree63 on the beach where it all started: the band flew back to SA to appear for the third consecutive year at the Mr Price Pro (this time in the rain), and Darryl remained behind when the band returned to the US. He was providentially replaced by another South African, Thinus Odendaal, and the band spent the rest of 2003 on the road somewhere in the U.S. 2003’s big news was a return to the studio for Tree63 for what would become the band’s fourth full-length record. The band spent October and November simultaneously working on “The Answer To The Question” and finishing off on ShoutFest 2003 alongside Tait, Zoe Girl and Aussie buddies Detour180.
Recording for the first time entirely in the US, the band were done in late November when it was decided to add a cover of Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name”, making it the first time a song by someone other than John made it onto a Tree63 record. The album was released in early March 2004 after a few months of considerable radio interest in the album’s first two singles, “Blessed Be Your Name” and the record’s title track, to rave reviews. Even while this was happening, Tree63 were still enjoying Top 10 status on 5fm’s Top40 back home in SA with that region’s third “Life & Times” single, “It’s All About To Change”. The future? Who can tell? Tree63 is God’s idea, and He will write the end of this story!