For generations, musicians have moved to Los Angeles because they want to get famous, and they hope that being in close proximity to industry power brokers will expedite the process. But the goals motivating Alex Church, the multi-instrumentalist behind the brainy future-folk ensemble dubbed Sea Wolf, are more modest. Church, who immigrated to L.A. from Northern California via New York City, hasn't taken a vow of poverty. Still, he's more interested in making a decent living while pursuing his art than in opening a monstrous account at Superstar Bank and Trust — and the sight of fellow Angelenos eagerly joining the Hollywood rat race hasn't inspired him to run alongside them.
"If anything, I feel like that kind of thing turns me off, and I wind up pushing in the other direction — reacting against it," he says. "The commercial thing is just not something I'm interested in at all."
Such declarations shouldn't imply that Sea Wolf's recordings are inaccessible. Leaves in the River, the act's 2007 debut on the Dangerbird imprint, overflows with beguiling melodies, sensitive playing, strong arrangements and Church's distinctively scratchy vocals. Yet a pervasive melancholy hangs over his modified chanties and somber strum-alongs like a lowering sky that portends a downpour. Typical is the title cut, which tells the tale of a Halloween-themed romantic interlude haunted by the specter of death. Elsewhere, "Winter Windows" focuses on a character struggling to live in a world he never would have chosen, and "Middle Distance Runner" finds a lover pleading for affection even as he fears he won't be able to fully commit himself emotionally. As for "The Cold, the Dark and the Silence," the lovely, poignant tune's moniker speaks for itself.
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"It wasn't the happiest time for me when I was writing those songs," Church acknowledges. "I'd say I was in a dark mood, so it naturally came out that way." Even so, he's able to croon these compositions without immediately being transported back to the dour place from which they sprang. "I don't become like a Method actor up there," he notes, chuckling. "I don't really go back to old feelings. I just go with wherever I am at that moment."
Church got his start in Columbia, California, a preserved gold-rush town, before relocating with his family to Berkeley at age eight. He was already a budding musician by then, but a negative experience with that old spirit-crusher, violin lessons, nearly smothered his career in its crib. "I wanted to play bluegrass fiddle, and I was learning classical. And my mom wasn't really strict about me practicing or anything," he recalls, "so I just lost interest." He says he didn't pick up an instrument from his ninth year until his middle teens — and although he subsequently spent many of his free hours exploring music, he also fell for movies. "Remember My Own Private Idaho?" he asks of the 1991 Gus Van Sant feature co-starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as Portland street hustlers. "I really liked that film. I liked how creative it was. It was kind of the first arty film that I saw and connected to, and I realized there's a lot more to this film stuff than I thought."
His discovery, as well as a formative trip to Manhattan, inspired him to enroll at New York University's acclaimed film school. He speaks affectionately of his NYU stint and believes the knowledge he gained about narrative and design there have colored his music. "When I sit down to write a song, I don't necessarily think about it in terms of 'What story am I going to tell this time?'" he maintains. "But I certainly think I applied those lessons I learned in film school to my songwriting — at least in the beginning — in terms of learning how to structure something dramatically in a way that's engaging and keeps you going from the beginning to the end."
Upon graduation, many of Church's fellow students headed to L.A., eager to get into the movie business. He did so as well, but he kept another option open. "After New York, I knew I wanted to start a band and also try and work in film and see which one kind of panned out," he says. Within a week, music stepped to the fore in the form of Steven Scott and Brian Canning, two performers with whom Church promptly formed a group named Irving. The speed with which the ensemble developed, combined with his first taste of Hollywood cinema, made his decision about which path to follow a relatively simple one.
"I kind of explored the film thing a little bit," he says, referencing several gigs as a production assistant. "But I don't know; it became pretty clear to me that I was going to have a lot more control with music. To me, music was ultimately more satisfying, because there are far fewer people involved.
"You don't have to have a lot of money to start playing music, either," he goes on. "Not only do you need a lot of people in film, but it's also really expensive to get it going. I knew that I didn't want to do anything other than direct, and I knew my forte wasn't really being a shmoozer and getting money behind me. So I felt, all right, this is going to be too hard for me to get into. Music was much easier."
Of course, bands present their share of challenges, too. Church enjoyed working with Scott and Canning in Irving, which earned positive reviews and a cult following for recordings such as 2002's Good Morning Beautiful, partly produced by acclaimed popster Andy Paley. However, he wanted a forum solely devoted to his creations, and over a several-year span, he wrote a batch of them with a solo project in mind, albeit at a deliberate pace. "I'd say that songs come slowly for me. I don't know why, but I can't bring myself to finish something if I don't think it's amazing right away," he reveals with a laugh. "It's a little bit of a hangup, actually, and it's always a constant struggle for me to get over."
When he'd finally collected enough material, Church contributed to one last Irving album, 2006's winning Death in the Garden, Blood on the Flowers, and launched Sea Wolf, which teams him with a revolving musical cast. But he remains on good terms with Scott and Canning, who now play in a group called afternoons, and he's close with members of fellow critics' favorites Silversun Pickups, Earlimart and Let's Go Sailing, all of which are based, as he is, in the trendy L.A. enclave called Silver Lake. Together, these sonically disparate outfits formed the Ship Collective, a loose alliance that was intended "to sort of create our own scene, because Los Angeles is so spread out geographically." At this point, the Collective isn't really a going concern, but the sense of kinship it helped foster remains. "I rehearse in the same space as afternoons and Silversun Pickups and Let's Go Sailing — and two doors down is Earlimart's studio."
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Paying for upkeep on such a facility in an age of declining CD sales is difficult, particularly for an independent artist — so Church has taken advantage of his Los Angeles residency to shop some of his music to television. Thus far, his tunes have been heard on the Showtime series Dexter and Californication, as well as on a couple of TV ads he prefers not to mention. "People who see it will know, and the people who don't see it, great — I'd rather not tell them," he says. "But I haven't done, like, a McDonald's commercial or anything like that...
"Honestly, it's not something I feel that comfortable doing," he concedes. "In fact, I don't really like it. But with other bands doing it these days, like Wilco and Spoon and the Shins, it doesn't seem to be hurting their reputations." Besides, the cash he's earning in these venues means he won't have to compromise on what really matters: his songs. "If this is going to make it so I can just make music for the next two years," he says, "then it's worth it."
In other words, Church is willing to consort with Hollywood rats as long as he doesn't have to race them.
Visit Backbeat Online for more of our interview with Alex Church of Sea Wolf.