Because of publicity generated by a robust box-office performance, you probably know by now that the faith-based movie “I Can Only Imagine” was filmed in Oklahoma.
But the Oklahoma connection goes much deeper than that.
“I Can Only Imagine” was inspired by a hit single from the band MercyMe, which is scheduled to perform Friday, April 6, at the Mabee Center.
During a phone interview, MercyMe guitarist Mike Scheuchzer said the band was started in Oklahoma City. For about two years, band members lived (and recorded) in an OKC dwelling he playfully referred to as the “Romper Room.”
“The first place we ever lived was in an abandoned day care center,” Scheuchzer said.
How was it as a place to live?
“It was horrible,” he said, adding that trespassers had been using the abandoned facility as a bathroom.
Because the day care center was equipped with interior doors that opened above and below a midway point, band members had to be careful not to walk into a half-closed door if they woke up in the dark and wanted to go from one room to another.
Despite the negatives, Scheuchzer said he has a lot of great memories from the Romper Room era. He called it the “best time of our lives, for sure.”
“Honestly, back then it was all an adventure — for me, especially, because I was 19,” he said.
“It was my first time not living with my parents, so every day was an adventure. It didn’t matter how bad it truly was or how anybody else would have seen it as horribly uncomfortable. For me, it was, ‘Hey, this is new, I’ll try it.’ Would I wish it upon my kids? Probably not. But I learned a lot in that time.”
When Scheuchzer was asked about the Oklahoma City years, he began by saying, “The year was 1994,” as if he was narrating a behind-the-music story. And then he shared his version of the behind-the-music story. Tulsa is part of the story.
Scheuchzer grew up in Florida and met Texas-raised vocalist Bart Millard when Millard was in Florida to serve as a youth group intern. Scheuchzer said they were connected to keyboardist Jim Bryson through Tulsa-based mission organization Awe Star Ministries.
“Awe Star was definitely an integral part of the early days of MercyMe,” Scheuchzer said.
Shared experiences in a worship band planted a seed.
“They kind of joked around about being a band full time, and they felt like God was calling them to do it,” Scheuchzer said. “So Bart asked me if I wanted to move to Oklahoma City, and I laughed at him because I was about an hour from the beach and an hour from Mickey Mouse. But we just really thought, ‘God is calling us,’ and now, hindsight being what it is, I can totally see where maybe that was the right plan.”
Oklahoma City was the destination because Bryson’s parents were staffers at Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmond. Bryson had been in the area for a few years and was plugged into the region’s music scene, according to Scheuchzer.
“We pulled into Jim’s parents’ driveway while we were waiting for the day care center to be available,” Scheuchzer said. “Bart and I lived in a pop-up camper in their driveway for the first few weeks while Jim was inside with the air conditioning.”
Bryson was responsible for discovering the day care center, according to Scheuchzer.
“Jim being the deal-maker that he is, he found out that the owner was in China and was trying to sell it and he said, ‘Look, it’s really in disrepair and people have broken in and used it as a bathroom and if you let us live there, we will pay you rent and we will keep people from tearing it up and you just give us a month’s notice whenever you sell it.’ ”
The fledgling band had one roommate — a college student in need of cheap rent — who wasn’t in the group. Space was not an issue. Scheuchzer said the day care center had about 10 rooms (“all the privacy you could imagine”), and it was blessed with a parking lot instead of a driveway. “So we could have people over all the time, and there was never an issue of parking in the street or whatever.”
Scheuchzer said he thinks MercyMe’s first two independent records were recorded in a makeshift studio at the day care center. He said Bryson (who is no longer with the band) was knowledgeable and knew how to get good sounds out of bad equipment.
Was “the” song — “I Can Only Imagine” — ever played there? Scheuchzer said Millard had the song in his heart for a long time, but it didn’t come along until years after the band had left Oklahoma City.
“We wrote a lot of really bad songs for a lot of years trying to figure out how to be a band, playing them live and figuring out what worked and what didn’t work,” he said.
“We led a lot of worship in those times. We would do a lot of cover songs, but we tried to make them our own, revamp them into how we would play a song. ... And through that we really learned more and more about songwriting. By copying other peoples’ music, you become a pretty good musician. Over the years, we got better and better at writing our own songs.”
Scheuchzer said the band was encouraged to write original worship songs for a 1999 album. They came up with nine songs they thought were pretty good, but they needed a 10th because they felt like an album with less than 10 songs might qualify as a rip-off.
The 10th song was “I Can Only Imagine,” which had been inspired by the death of Millard’s father in 1991.
“I remember the first time he ever told me about it,” Scheuchzer said. “We were up late at night on the bus and had been trying to write songs or whatever. He was like, ‘Grab your guitar.’ So I’m playing acoustic guitar and I’m trying to make it like ‘Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ by U2, kind of that vibe. And he is like, no, it’s not the right sound.”
Not long afterward, Scheuchzer said Bryson was messing around on a piano and played a lick that caught Millard’s attention.
What was that? Hold on. Go back.
“And Bart started singing the melody exactly how he wanted it to be, so we all just started throwing in the chords behind him.”
“I Can Only Imagine” was re-recorded by MercyMe for a major label album in 2001 and became not only the best-selling Christian single of all time, but also a crossover hit.
Because Scheuchzer was present when the song was born, he was asked if he immediately knew, “Hey, we’ve got something here.”
“Not even a little bit,” he said.
“I think as a band, even Bart would have probably said that song was for him, and I think we all kind of felt that way. Even in the writing process there wasn’t an ‘all-in’ moment. Usually, we are all involved in writing a song, pitching in ideas. This one, he was like, ‘It needs to go this direction.’
“So we were just playing the parts that he was producing. From the get-go, we just kind of felt like this was Bart’s song. It’s obviously therapy for him to write this and to process through losing his dad. And in our live shows, we kind of treated it like that too. This is Bart’s thing. It’s kind of a little private deal. We’ll put it on the album just for him and his family, and it will mean something to them. (We thought) it’s not really something that fits leading worship or is really a concert song we would want to do, which just goes to show you we know nothing about music.”
A few months after “I Can Only Imagine” was recorded, MercyMe was at a camp in Missouri and a youth minister asked if the band could play the song. The guys in the band huddled in a back room and tried to refresh themselves on how to play the song because they hadn’t played it since recording it.
“We did it that night and have subsequently done it every night since,” Scheuchzer said.
The underdog song has gone on to become an underdog movie, making $17.1 million on its opening weekend.
“The next thing is it’s going to be the first song played on the moon,” Scheuchzer said, adding that the song seems to have nine lives and was re-recorded again for the movie.
Asked about the movie being filmed in Oklahoma, Scheuchzer said it was “pretty providential” that it was filmed in the state where the band got its start. He indicated the filmmakers chose Oklahoma before they were made aware that the band had Oklahoma City roots.
Does MercyMe have Tulsa history in addition to the Awe Star Ministry connection? “Other than we have always been treated like gold every time we come to Tulsa?” Scheuchzer said. “KXOJ has always been great to us. The good people of Tulsa, every time we come up there, we have amazing experiences in concert. It has been a while since we have been to Tulsa, so we are excited about coming back.”
In the past, whenever MercyMe returned to Oklahoma City for shows, Scheuchzer said guys in the band would rent a car and drive by the Romper Room.
“I think it’s actually a functioning day care now, which is really weird,” he said.
Truth: It probably was a functioning day care in 1994, too, except the “kids” — the guys in the band — were older.
“No doubt,” Scheuchzer said. “We literally used to have snowball fights inside. It’s snowing outside! Bring all the snow inside! It was like ‘Animal Party,’ except G-rated.”
Scheuchzer was asked if he meant to say “Animal House.”
“Yes, ‘Animal House,’ ” he said. “(Getting it wrong) just shows how pure I am.”