Chris Church is one of those unsung musical heroes. You'll discover his background in the interview. He's firmly in the Power Pop crowd, but really his songs have greater depth than your average Power Pop initial comparison. Think Chris Price!
Limitations Of Source Tape was in my Top 10 albums of last year here. If I was compiling that End Of Year Chart now, it would be higher. The album is a corker. Pop Rock at it's very best.
Here Mick Dillingham talks to Chris Church about his career and influences.
North Carolina’s Chris Church has been ploughing the same fertile guitar driven, hook filled powerpop field as Matthew Sweet and Tommy Keene for nigh on twenty years. With a brilliant new album Limitations Of Source Tape now upon us his always impressive creative abilities show no sign of dimming at all.
Melodic memorable songs, beautifully realised are at the heart of his music with strong veins of classic Todd Rundgren sparkling throughout. Despite all these convenient comparisons as with all truly great talents Chris Church’s unmistakable individual take on the genre is the one thing that shines brightest of all.
The highest compliment you could pay to his new album is to say it sounds like Chris Church and that says it all because that’s a guarantee of quality par excellence second to none. Time to sit down with this good man and talk about his career so far.
What are your earliest memories of first getting into music?
I guess my early fascination with fingers plucking steel was brought on by hearing Bobby Fuller Four's "I Fought The Law". I also must admit being drawn to the finger-picking folky sound of John Denver and James Taylor albums my folks had. It was all about guitar for me. Always.
Which music artists first made you sit up and take notice?
On my own, discovering Frampton Comes Alive at thirteen was earth shaking for me. I went from there quickly to Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult and Be Bop Deluxe. My first few albums also included Kansas, Van Halen, Foghat and Starz. I was mostly into hard rock and some fairly heady stuff. Somehow I just knew, even at a young age, that melody and hooks mattered a lot to me.
When did you start playing an instrument?
I was eleven. It was not very good for quite some time. I used to lock myself in my room as soon as I got home from school to try to practice. No lessons, still don't read music. Around age thirteen, I could suddenly change chords quickly enough to complete a song.
"Can't Get Enough" by Bad Company comes to mind. It was about that time when my brother Mike got a drum kit. We made quite a racket. We did improve but I wouldn't say that happened quickly. My poor parents........
When did you start writing songs?
When I was eighteen. The first one I remember writing was actually not nearly as bad as many others that followed. It was called "Going Through The Motions", a Cheap Trick-influenced song with no bridge, but a decent chorus about dating a "good" girl in high school. You can probably fill in the blanks there.
Were you in any early bands?
Yes, the first band was a hard rock cover band called Sabre. A very good, very tight band. I was seventeen and we played a lot, had some good and bad gigs in our region. I learned a lot about things, but what stuck with me and influenced me artistically was the song building knowledge I got from playing rhythm guitar on all those Priest, UFO, Queen and AC/DC songs.
It wasn't long before I felt I needed to try to write my own songs. I was the new kid, I had no say and the set list was very regimented. Not yet being an artist, that was just as much a confusing time as it was fun.
Talk about the first album Auralollipop
That was a project I put together to capture the existence of my first three original bands and some of the early songs that I'd begun writing. The band I was in called The Jones was a good alternative pop rock band with my late great brother Mike Church and a bassist named John Green, who at that time was the best songwriter I had met.
We got pretty good and our set list grew to over fifty songs, most of them originals. At one point we entered a regional band competition that was kind of a big deal at the time. It was set up impressively at a popular club and judged by outsiders who had some supposed pedigree and knew nothing of our local norm. The norm pretty much consisted of exclusively cover bands, not creating or giving venues much of a reason to support much originality.
The fifteen or so other bands in the competition were pretty much all cover bands. We did our own stuff and won the competition...but never got our prizes. It was an eye opening experience to see how we got plenty of divisive flack from certain other bands' members, but in retrospect, that was apropos for that time and place. Almost no one from our area in small town western North Carolina understood us. We wore our oddness as a badge of honour for over two years and called it a day.
After this band fizzled I switched to bass and my brother and I teamed up with my college buddy (now lifelong best friend) Scott Cornette, who had been writing some very complicated and just plain weird progressive hard rock things on guitar. I had endured a personal tragedy in that time, was fairly checked out for that period and the period of The Jones' existence.
With this band, Flat Earth, I dove into extremely personal and ponderous lyrics, but we all wanted to play and co-wrote the weirdest things we could. Flat Earth were a very tight band, largely because of my brother's advanced drumming skills and the odd time signatures that we incorporated and performed at a pretty high level.
Scott had worked in radio and built connections that got us a gig opening for Billy Squier, then Joan Jett and before we knew it we were opening big shows for Kansas, Kings X, Blue Oyster Cult, The Kinks, Peter Frampton and more.
We did absolutely nothing to capitalise on whatever momentum we may have had. There was very little focus on any goal, no management and our first CD was printed with the manufacturing error of leaving our address out of the liner notes. No one could have reached us had they even tried!
From Flat Earth, I was drawn into the Power Pop / Alt Rock band Junkflower, which I actually played in concurrently. We gigged quite a bit in a very active college town scene in the 90s. Being in both bands simultaneously was exhausting, but provided some amazing memories and playing guitar and writing some pop rock riffs in a band where I was not the singer was a good experience for me.
So yeah, "Auralollipop" was an attempt to capture a bit of a whirlwind time and to not only catch myself up, but also clear the deck for the next phase.
Goodbye Blue Monday
"Goodbye Blue Monday" (title inspired by my favourite novel "Breakfast Of Champions" by Kurt Vonnegut) was directly influenced by my "holy grail" moment sometime mid 90s. The music of The Posies, Sloan, Teenage Fanclub and a few other bands converged in my psyche to reveal what is still my favourite way to present a song, melodic pop rock with loud guitars.
The band was me, my brother, and a bassist named Keith Suddreth, who is also sadly no longer with us. There were a few good ones on that record, but the lyric writing was not quite there yet to some degree. I saw a copy of the CD for sale on Amazon for something like 80 dollars the other day. Believe me, it's not worth anything close to that amount!
Your Own Chosen Speed
This album was self-released, recorded on seven working tracks of an eight track reel tape machine at a very prolific point for me. I made a lot of records in the little Sweathouse of a studio that my brother and I created in my house's spare bedroom.
All of this album was just me with Mike on drums and though it sounds a bit rough and is by no means perfect, I do still like all the songs on it. I guess this is probably the first good album I ever made. I remember being very happy to see a positive review in a cool magazine called Amplifier that called it "a rare thrill in this digitized age." It was.more like a guy who doesn't know a lot about gear or producing, but don't tell them that.
During that period I was also able to release recordings by Chalky (A Power Pop duo with John Hawkins), Jack Sabbath (23 song Bizarro Guided By Voices meets Zappa album) and Frank Burns (Grungy Alt Rock Vinyl EP with Jimi Robison, the other guitarist from Junkflower), to name a few. I didn't sleep much for the last few years of the Nineties.
Let The Echo Decide
This one is okay with me. I had definitely progressed as a songwriter, but looking back on it, the album probably could have used a bit of editing. The band for this record was called Automatic Pilots and I got my buddy Scott Cornette back into the fold on guitar, with brother Mike on drums and a bassist named Rick Sumpter.
Scott also employed his valuable skills behind the console as engineer at this point, a partnership that remains since. This includes his responsibility for a lot of the sound of our Heavy Rock Band, Dang.
Not what I'd call a real fun experience, as tension came from things like stylistic musical differences, weird gigs, proximity issues and having to record in several different places. Although it possibly could have been a shorter album, it doesn't make me cringe too much. There are some good tunes here, a few that I feel are some of my best.
The Heartbreaks You Embrace
So, the first version of this recording was to be called "Your Sun Is About To Shine". There are versions of the CD from a label in Chicago that are in circulation. For several reasons, I had gotten out of the contract, but some copies of that version leaked out anyway. To anyone who may have one, I didn't sanction or make a dime off those.
So, after some time goes by, the record is altered slightly and a new version of this CD called "The Heartbreaks You Embrace" was released in 2009 by a label that quickly folded and no longer exists, including the complete dissolution of their website.
Basically, a decent album became a ghost. Too bad, it sounds professional, it was recorded at a lovely studio called Epiphonic, which was built inside an old church and is mixed well. It also features a range of extremely good players, including Chad Davis from black metal legends Hour Of 13 and world-class Dobro player Jaret Carter.
The record was born out of a bad breakup, so the overall wistfulness and the Alt Country touches sitting in with my Pop Rock melodic tendencies may have made this an uneasy listening experience for some, I don't know.
It wasn't exactly marketed or distributed and was barely available even then. I still like it and have just released it digitally with some bonus tracks on my Bandcamp page under the title, "The Heartbreaks You Embrace - Revisited". It's free, of course. Just wanted to get it out there...and off me.
Tell us about your brother
My brother and I were friends who did a lot together. We sometimes got along, sometimes not, like brothers do. This was evidenced musically by the fact that even though he didn't like playing a lot of my songs and complained or shut off sometimes, he stuck with me and did it anyway.
Most of my music is Pop Rock based and he much preferred Progressive Rock and spent lots of time emulating Neil Peart of Rush in his drumming. He could have joined any band, but turned down several chances to play with other people so he could play music with me, as we had been doing since our early teens.
He was amazing. A very good competitive cyclist, a creative and talented carpenter, a perfectionist in any project he undertook. A handful to be sure, but a hilarious, unforgettable guy and his contributions to the overall sound of my music are vast and very special to me. I wish he were here to argue with me right now.
Onto the latest album Limitations Of Source Tape
The recording of "Limitations Of Source Tape" began in my basement, with drummer John Hawkins (of past collaborations Chalky and Junkflower) and of his own continuing musical project The Yancys. We played together live with my wife, Lori, doing the initial engineering and production.
My final touches and Lori's co-production and co-mixing began a bit later with Scott Cornette at his house. I had never allowed others to completely take the production and mixing choices out of my hands before on a record. However, I felt strongly about a new approach and insisted they do it while I cooked meals for them in Scott's kitchen.
I couldn't be more pleased with the results. I gave them the tracks and they built them, more decisively and in far less time than I would have been able to do it.
Were there songs you didn’t use?
No, actually this was another first for me. I knew which fourteen songs to use. They fit and I never doubted that. Lori and Scott didn't always completely agree. For a brief period Spyderpop Records wanted to trim it down but I insisted. It always just felt like this batch of songs belonged together. It's over fifty minutes long, but always seems shorter when I've listened to it, which is a good thing.
What are your favourites on the record?
I honestly like every song on the album and I definitely can't say that about every other one I've done. Some of my favourite moments are what some of the others did, like Lori's Glockenspiel or "Rockenspiel" as we call it for example. I won't forget how she coached John and me to keep speeding up for the end of "Perfecto" with her arms flailing in increasingly wacky motions.
Also, I was very lucky to have Scott and Charles Shoemake contribute a few truly great guitar solos. Scott's work on "I Can Feel The Echo" is profoundly excellent and Charles's chiming perfect solo on "Pollyanna's Going Dark" are two big highlights for me. I am fortunate to have the help of some good friends on this project and I truly appreciate the fact that their contributions made it a better record.
How does the song writing process work with you, where do you lyrical ideas come from?
The song writing process has come to me in just about every way over the years. There have been a few that just landed completely as a fully formed idea, which take only minutes to finish. That's rare, of course, but it has happened. Most often, my process entails recording riffs or chord ideas and going back to them later to work on, somewhat like a puzzle.
Lyrical ideas can come from just about anything. I have written some ridiculously bad lyrics and sometimes on purpose. It's not really unusual for me to rewrite an entire song if I really like the music. The words need to fit the mood of the music and I believe it's up to the artist to know when and whether that happens.
Are you slow or prolific?
I was extremely prolific when I was younger. I am much slower than I used to be. Some of that is laziness, but some of it is that I actually do edit and revisit things now before just throwing it out there into the world.
What would you say were your biggest influences?
If I had to narrow it way down, my biggest musical influences are probably Bob Dylan, for setting the bar on writing lyrics. Todd Rundgren for his beautiful genius melodies and completely fearless approach. Townshend, Page and Buckingham (to name a few) for the guitardation and the entire genre of what could loosely be called Power Pop.
There are so many songs to love, to be absolutely obsessed with, that you only want to hear and nothing else 25 times in a row and I'm still finding more, both the occasional new ones and the nuggets I've missed before and find a thrill in discovering.
I'll never ever get tired of "Tonight" by the Raspberries. It's everything. One two three FOWAH! That song contains all that excites me about the entire prospect of enjoying or creating art. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I mean it and I don't ever want to hear myself trying to explain that. I just want to know it and believe it.
You can listen to Limitations Of Source Tape on the Spyderpop Site here. You can buy the album there or at Kool Kat here. You can download the album at CD Baby here.
Chris Church's Bandcamp site features plenty of his archive here. You can download from there, much of it is free.