Ian Rushbury asks Chris Church “how can a former metalhead make possibly the best pop-rock album of 2021?” And why he crossed Joan Jett off his Christmas card list…
The great thing about “I Don’t Hear a Single” is that the majority (if not the entirety…) of the contributors don’t seem to give a good goddamn about what actually constitutes P*w*r P*p. Which for a blog that talks quite a lot about P*w*r P*p, is very refreshing. While the tastemakers and uber-pundits on the zillions of social media sites which specialise in squabbling, argue until their mummies make them stop, about whether the first Kiss album is P*w*r P*p or not, IDHAS is too busy finding great music in any genre. Like Chris Church, for instance.
Unless you’re hip enough to have heard of him prior to his last album Backwards Compatible, Church is probably a new name to you. The aforementioned Backwards Compatible album really should be in your top ten albums of last year, if you’re a fan of guitar-based music. The follow up, 2021’s brilliant Game Dirt, I’m confident enough to predict, should be in your top five for this year.
I really needed to know whether you could be a bonafide P*w*r P*p guitar hero and still hang on to your credibility. And although I didn’t actually ask him that outright, I’m pretty sure that in this case, we can agree that the answer is a resounding “hell yeah!”
Game Dirt is a lot less full-on Backwards Compatible – was that intentional?
"I suppose so. I put a lot of effort into Backwards Compatible. I’m grateful to the friends who helped me make it and having those musicians along is a big part of the sound. I felt like I was sort of on a mission to make a record that sat firmly between hard rock and pop and from my perspective, it was a success.
I love that record, but it came out right when the pandemic hit full-on and the fun it was designed to represent seemed immediately hollowed out a bit because the world pretty much shut down. That was a bit deflating, but there was nothing I could do about it and I’m not the type to whine about my stupid songs not getting enough attention while people all over the world are sick and dying.
I guess I should have known better than to make an album with that much positivity and hope. Haha. So, I had to just let it go. After a while, I decided to make an album completely on my own, with no expectations, just to see if sparks would fly. At that point, I dug in and let the next group of songs find me and Game Dirt started coming into focus.
Does your past in hard rock bands, influenced by UFO, AC/DC and Judas Priest help with your songwriting? Does it inform your approach at all?
"Definitely. As I said, there is a middle ground between melodic heavy rock and power pop that I have always loved. I called it “heavy melody” and even wrote a little piece for a magazine. Loving the music of UFO or Billy Squier as well as Cheap Trick and The Knack always just seemed natural to me, but some folks seem to get twisted about keeping their distinctions sacred. That fascinated me for a minute and definitely influenced Backwards Compatible.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why so many power poppers won’t allow themselves to enjoy “Photograph” or “Strutter”, or maybe they do and just don’t want to admit it. Who cares, it isn’t a big deal. But it is quantifiably true that there are many great hard rock songs with all the criteria of what Power Pop is supposed to be on a purely musical level that gets overlooked or dismissed simply because of the volume of the guitars…or the hair and makeup.
The same Beatles-ey ethics of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, guitar solo, chorus…it’s all there in some of the catchiest hard rock songs and often a lot more fun in my opinion. Anyway, I don’t mean to be prickly about it. I just want to like everything I can like and there’s plenty to like there. That’s a big part of what Backwards Compatible was supposed to represent.
On the Backwards Compatible cover, there’s a character sporting a Def Leppard Tour T-Shirt. Did Leppard change your life?
"Not exactly, but I love a lot of their stuff, even more with the passing of time. Even though my R.E.M. and Replacements–based indie rock mentality seemed to undercut it, I’ve always known that there is an undeniable power in that Pyromania record, and I don’t feel that its popularity was a fluke.
It’s too heavy for pop, and too pop for heavy, if one were trying to seem cool…but it’s impossible to resist if one were looking for equal parts melody and heaviness. 1983 seemed about right when I thought about Backwards Compatible and the Def Leppard of that year were blowing everyone away, so the shirt seemed like a perfect representation as part of the album art."
When you were in Flat Earth, what was it like opening for Kansas, Kings X, Blue Oyster Cult, The Kinks, Peter Frampton, and more?
"On one hand, it was a total thrill. On the other, we were so unprepared. We could have used a lot of that to our advantage if we’d had management. It was so bad that, due to a printing error, our first CD didn’t even include any contact information! Scott Cornette, my long time best bud and musical collaborator, was the band’s segue into all that because he was a DJ - not a guy wearing headphones getting paid to hit play in a club, but an on-air personality for a popular radio station. Any of these bands who came through the region that needed an opening band would call people Scott knew, who would then call him.
We opened for a pretty wide array of bigger names across the spectrum of rock music, including Toad The Wet Sprocket, Billy Squier, King’s X, and more, in addition to the ones you mentioned. As for the shows, Scott is an amazing guitarist and my late great brother Mike was one of the best drummers I’ve ever heard, much less played with, so my job was pretty much just to try and hang in there as we got the job done on stage.
We always had a great response for an opening band, but not necessarily from all the artists, or their crews. The only artist for whom we opened that was really unpleasant was Joan Jett. She came out during our measly opening band excuse for a sound check to menacingly tell us that the bubble gum and water bottles lying on the drum riser were not to be touched or even looked at. I remember my brother pretty much telling her to f*** off, and her not liking our attitude at all! At the time it was absolutely frightening, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Heady times."
The opening track on Game Dirt, “Learn” seems (to me) to be a deliberate attempt to wrong-footing the listener. Is it there to ring the changes between this album and Backwards Compatible?
"I didn’t plan that, but I get it. It was the last song I wrote for the record and it was one of those rare ones that come into your brain almost fully formed. I knocked it out and though I was already at a point where almost everything else was done, it just felt to me like it belonged.
I tend to do that a lot, get almost finished with an album and then another song pops out. Sometimes the new song doesn’t exactly fit. I thought “Learn” sounded pretty good alongside everything else, but it revealed itself pretty quickly that it definitely needed to come first in the song order."
Many tracks on Game Dirt, like “Gravity” and “Fall” are incredibly wistful. Was lockdown making you introspective?
"I really don’t know. I try not to examine where songs come from too much. I think there’s a wistful quality to every album I’ve ever done, even the two albums I’ve done with my progressive metal band Däng. We made two albums [Tartarus: The Darkest Realm and Monstrum ExMachina] where all my lyrics were about the darkest Greek mythology hell, but I tried to give each character pathos and empathy as much as possible.
Trying to find and convey the sadness within the stories of feared Gods or horrifying beasts is actually great fun for me. There’s also a lot of tongue-in-cheek humour, but the point is that wistful is probably always going to be an adjective that would apply to my music.
My Pop Rock isn’t often what could be called chipper or carefree and even my more experimental stuff can also contain longing and regret…probably mostly for the listener, but I digress. As for the pandemic itself, it’s too much for me to think about with all the hardships it has caused, including just being able to communicate and share information without so-called leaders trying to divide everyone. A tough time for humans.
My wife Lori and I both lost our jobs, but have since found new ones and are ok. We both threw ourselves into creative projects, as she has produced a lovely record by our friend Ben Gibbs, which happened concurrent to Game Dirt. I can’t wait for people to be able to hear Ben’s album. I had a great time contributing and absolutely love what those two have come up with for his music. I guess the moral is to keep working and shit usually works itself out. Even that sounds wistful, doesn’t it?"
There’s a Country Rock feel to tracks like “Learn,” “Lost,” “Smile,” and “Know.” Does that go with the territory or are you a closet Blackberry Smoke fan?
"I’ve never listened to a single note of Blackberry Smoke, but I do love a lot of country-rock music. I didn’t feel like it directly influenced me until around 2000 or so, with Drive By Truckers, Ryan Adams, early Wilco, Joe Henry and a few other things, but I’ve always loved the great country influences in the music of the Rolling Stones, Faces and other mostly British bands. I love the occasional countryish songs from Elvis Costello, Rockpile and Squeeze, to name a few. That UK filter just seems to do something to a country song that makes it work for me."
There’s a lot of different guitar styles on Game Dirt – who are your favourite/most influential players?
"That is something I could talk about all day, Ian. As for a favourite, and depending on the day of course, the discussion would include Steve Howe, Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Zappa, all brilliant and diverse, but neither of whom ends up directly influencing my music to a large degree. As for the favourites of mine whose styles do seem to creep into my approach, I’d have to say, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page [especially on my harder-rocking riffs], Joni Mitchell and Rick Neilsen all could be pointed to as guitarists I’ve…well, ripped off.
For Game Dirt, though, my biggest guitar influence was Keith Richards. That’s evidenced in no small way by the fact that, for the first time ever, I used his famous 5 string open tuning on several of the songs. Funny thing is, when that tuning is done on a guitar, one usually leaves off the bottom E or 6th [highest] string. I was playing my Telecaster one day and the B or 5th string broke. On a whim, I decided to try that tuning even though there was a gap where the B string should have been.
For some reason, it clicked with me. The degree of difficulty presented a challenge I didn’t even know I needed. Every time I listen to the solos on ‘Trying’, ‘Smile’ or ‘Learn’ it gives me a sneaky little misanthropic thrill. Stubborn, willful, kinda dumb, that says it all. Reminds me of Nick Lowe’s line from ‘Born Fighter”, where he says, “how I hate it on a plate”. And speaking of guitar, how about those solos in that song? Fantastic!"
You’re a one-man band on Game Dirt. Was this Lockdown enforced or by choice?
"I would admit that the lockdown gave me time to try things I might not normally have had time to try, but I always intended Game Dirt to be an album I did totally on my own. After the good fortune of having so many great guests helping me out on my last album Backwards Compatible, I just felt the urge to do something looser.
I started out with the directive of trying to somehow musically match how I feel about the mental image of my hero Todd Rundgren’s ‘Something / Anything’ inner sleeve picture, the one where he’s standing with his back to the camera looking out a window, arms raised triumphantly. I had that album opened up on the desk beside my workspace the whole time and measured almost every take I recorded in my mind to whether it made me feel the way I imagine Todd feeling in that moment or not.
I love playing a song in my head on the drums, all from memory, with no click track and then building it. It’s definitely sloppy, especially considering I’m not a good drummer, but I think it’s charming to record like that in this digitized age. I’ve done it before, but it felt like a new thing somehow with this album.
As a matter of fact, there’s another album where I played everything myself that was mostly recorded years ago that has been sweetened with brand new backing vocals by the amazing Lindsay Murray, which will see the light of day sometime soon. I guess I’ll end this by saying stay tuned for that!"