When Tim Bruns and Mike Morter came together with the other members of Churchill — drummer Joe Richmond, bassist Tyler Rima and pianist/vocalist Bethany Kelly — their goals were rather humble: They just wanted to play at the hi-dive and then eventually make music for a living. "Right away," says Morter, "when we first started the band, we had six-month and twelve-month goals. It was setting that precedent right away that made us achieve."
And achieve they have. Less than a month ago, Churchill secured a major-label recording deal with A&M/Octone Records, an imprint that's home to acts like Maroon 5 and Hollywood Undead, and sold out the first of two nights at the Bluebird Theater. As enviable and admirable as these feats are, the group is working toward realizing its next goal.
"Even things like moving up venues — playing the Ogden instead of the Bluebird — still feels big to me," Kelly admits. "Every time that we do it, we write things down that seem impossible. We're really ambitious.... Sometimes I still have a small-band mentality. We're five kids from Denver. We're still really excited when people come and watch us play."
Churchill, with You Me and Apollo and JJ Matott and the Arctic, 8 p.m. Saturday, September 29 (sold out); with Barcelona and Navy, 8 p.m. Sunday, September 30, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $10-$15, 888-929-7849.
In the past two years, more and more people have made it a point to come and see Churchill play. Following the release of its first full-length album, Happy/Sad, in 2011, which was funded largely through a successful Kickstarter campaign, the group took first prize in KTCL's annual Hometown for the Holidays promotion for the catchy ballad "Change," the title tune from its subsequent EP, released in March.
Fittingly enough, change has been a constant for this band, which has grown by leaps and bounds since Morter and Bruns first started playing music together and formed what eventually became Churchill (the name came from a whiskey concoction the two used to make at their college in Virginia). "We were playing music that the five of us as a whole liked," Bruns recalls, adding that they initially set out to make a local impact among friends and peers. "It's been transforming into what it is now for the past three or four years."
In the early days, the members of Churchill would come together in brainstorming sessions that took a cue from any good business retreat: They gave their creative objectives a final and tangible form in ink and paper. "It's helped us be really unified in our purpose," insists Bruns. "It makes it a lot easier to stay close and move forward if we all have the mindset. When we started the band, our goal was to do this for a living. Those goals have been huge."
The process of sitting down, setting goals and working together to achieve them is clearly a tradition that's paid off in myriad ways for the young band, including the chance to get its music out to a much larger audience through A&M/Octone.
In meetings with label representatives in New York, the bandmembers' committed, do-it-yourself approach to their craft stood out. That appeal was partly rooted in the fact that, with the input of Richmond wearing dual hats as drummer and engineer, they had crafted their own albums and designed the sound dynamic of Change.
"The first time the label met with us," Richmond remembers, "I told them that I'd produced it and we did it all in-house. They were shocked. Because they want to release the EP as it is — not re-released, not remastered — we got pre-approved to self-produce the rest of our first record. I feel like that's a pretty rare thing."
Perhaps so, but it's not hard to see why. The Change EP is exceptional, combining classical cues in Kelly's piano, folk contours in Morter's mandolin, and indie balladry in songs like "Sing Out Your Love" and "Ark in a Flood," tunes driven by Bruns's lead vocals and guitar work. That diversity will figure into the band's freshman release with its new label; in fact, the five songs from the EP will be included as part of the full-length release. "They're pushing this EP," Rima says. "We're going to finish the record as soon as possible and release the second half of it next year. That wasn't the plan, but after a lot of talks with the label, they felt it was the best thing to do."
But while the deal is clearly a windfall, it's just as much a means to an end — "The record deal," notes Bruns, "felt like the best way to accomplish other goals" — as winning Hometown for the Holidays, which is what truly got the ball rolling. From there, the band's momentum just continued to build, with stints opening for the Fray — with whom the outfit was already connected through Richmond, who worked in the Fray's Thornton studio, where Churchill also recorded — in addition to performing on the main stage at this year's Westword Music Showcase.
"A big part of where our band is and what we've been able to do is actually due to that specific competition," Richmond points out, adding that the bandmembers first submitted to the contest after completing their freshman EP in 2009. "The first year, we got in the top three. We went from being nobody to being actually able to play some shows."
But it was winning the top honors with "Change" — an eerie and ethereal complaint driven by Kelly's haunting vocals, Richmond's explosive drums and Morter's understated mandolin lines — that propelled Churchill to the next level. "After we won," Richmond recalls, "they started testing it on the radio. They put it in rotation in March or April, right after we did our CD-release show at the Bluebird."
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The band returns to the Bluebird this weekend for two back-to-back gigs, one of which is already sold out. "We'd had a hold at the Bluebird for the second night, but I don't think any of us expected to actually sell it out [the first night]," Bruns admits. "It happened so much faster than any of us expected before we had to add the second night."
With any luck, if not this time, then in the not-too-distant future, the group will be able to add two sold-out nights at the Bluebird to its growing list of accomplishments. And while they're at it, a certain bassist has some aspirations of his own that he'd like to see through.
"I've always used the band goal list to get me to new places that I've never been before," Rima explains. "Mine this year was to play a show internationally, play some concerts outside of the United States. There's a desire to grow the band, but from a personal perspective, there's the desire to see new places and experience new cultures."
Before any of that happens, though, there are still some items left on Churchill's initial list of goals — a roster spelled out in marker on a rough sheet of paper — that are unchecked, namely fervent wishes to someday headline a certain hallowed venue in the foothills. The humble ambitions obviously remain.