Like most things that occur for the band, dance-noise duo Church Fire chalks up the connection made to its new record label, Black Box Tapes, to chance.
"It was like everything that happens to us — luck and serendipity and unearned privilege," says vocalist Shannon Webber. "Hard work is part of it, yes, but to be honest, with stuff like that, we don't really know what we're doing." She points at the music gear set up around the room in the basement home studio she shares with partner, musician and composer David Samuelson, and says, "We do hard work here, but when it comes to the business of our music..." Samuelson finishes Webber's sentence, "...we're complete Huckleberrys."
Far from being the bumbling novices they claim to be, the duo has joined forces with Black Box Tapes, a venerable label run by Tim Holland, aka Sole. Through Black Box Tapes, Holland will release Church Fire's latest full-length album, Pussy Blood, this Friday, June 17. The shy musicians' "good luck" opportunity to work with Holland and his experimental cassette-tape-centric label happened when the pair played a show with the rapper's own project, WHITENOISE. Again, the artists claim it was the merely the great sound system at venue Syntax Physic Opera that made Church Fire come across as good enough for Holland to want to put out their album.
But the truth is, sound system, serendipity or not, Church Fire is just fucking good. Pussy Blood is the first release that's been able to accurately capture just how radical their music is in both composition and lyricism. Live, Webber tears at the air while screaming into the mike from behind a wild mess of cables, cords and musical machinery; Samuelson is always right by her side, hidden beneath a shroud as he pushes the bassy beats and searing synthetic sounds out for her voice to land on. The music they make is simultaneously danceable and dark, and now they have a record that matches the tangible, kinetic energy of Church Fire's live shows.
A few factors led to the band's evolution on wax. For one, Webber and Samuelson were able to work together in real time to create it. "On our first full-length we did, Shannon was working full-time and I was working part-time, so I ended up working on a lot of it by myself," says Samuelson. "It wasn't as collaborative from the beginning. This time around, we were sitting here together, doing the mixing and production. That made all the difference in the world. Instead of me failing on my own, it was us in the process together."
Another crucial part of Pussy Blood's inception was what Church Fire again describes as chance: Sound engineer Brad Smalling of Evergroove Studio saw the duo open for noise-art marching band Itchy-O this past New Year's Eve. Immediately he reached out and wanted to work on their recordings. The two spent a day going track-by-track through the record with Smalling, who offered what they saw as some much-needed outside criticism. From there, they took the album back home and went to work with Smalling's sonic changes and track recommendations. He later mastered Pussy Blood, as well.
The final move that made Church Fire's album come through with the kind of clarity it needed was something more personal, something less about the music and more about the people making it. Together, Webber and Samuelson decided to get sober and take music-making to the level they knew it deserved.
"Being partners, we could encourage each other to be destructive and drink our asses off," says Samuelson. "That's fun and everything, but it was also a really easy excuse — if one of us wanted to work and the other wanted to drink, we would just drink. I think we definitely recognized that we had to make a clear decision to not drink and support each other."
"A theme in this album is 'work' — dealing with the fact that we have jobs," says Webber. "For me, I've always worked; since I was fifteen, it's just been about taking care of myself. I was never going to be at the mercy of anyone else — especially a dude — and I was going to take care of myself no matter what. When David graduated from college with a degree in composition, he took a year off. But then, at a point, he wanted to be an equal partner and needed to go back to work."
Sharing sobriety and a reinforced work ethic helped Webber and Samuelson get to where they wanted to be with Pussy Blood — a place where they were proud of every aspect of the record. A mix of brand-new songs, older tracks that had been played live and later shelved, and a few reworked favorites from the current set list, the album is a fresh collection examining where duo is right now. Working with Holland and Black Box Tapes only brightened the future of an album they had been working on for almost two years.
"It's an honor to work with someone with a real clarity of vision and the commitment Tim has," says Webber. "Also, the flair he has — he's a lot of fun. Tim is lighthearted and insouciant, but still super into the serious shit and always has something to say. That's something that we ourselves like embodying — like, let's be really serious and morose in a fun and dancey way."
Church Fire also collaborated with friend, musician, venue booker and cassette-tape record label co-owner herself, Madeline Johnston, who did the cover art for Pussy Blood. And as for the full-length's title, Samuelson and Webber come through with multiple meanings.
"The title is like a celebration of no babies!" Samuelson says with a laugh. He pulls back a bit — "Also, we're Church Fire — to us, religious power and authority is built on the cornerstone of misogyny. We're celebrating the very thing that religion demonizes and casts out."
Webber continues the thought: "Pussy blood is a powerful thing, even just the words; people have strong feelings about the word 'pussy.' For us, very selfishly or individually, pussy blood is a celebration that we're 'no babies' — but knowing the roots of oppression that have been built on fear and hatred of something that is really powerful for women. It's a very individual and secret power. If everybody celebrated it, we would be in a better place."
"We don't want to be too overtly political, but some of the things that inspire me as a writer are about reclaiming that power and holding it up," shares Webber. "This isn't just 'women'; it doesn't make you a 'real woman' just because you have pussy blood. It's a symbol."
Check out all ten tracks of Church Fire's upcoming album right now via Bandcamp; a pre-order of the limited-edition cassette tape from Black Box Tapes is also available, and downloadable tracks will be available this Friday, June 17, with Pussy Blood's official release. Catch Church Fire live this Thursday, June 16, at 6 p.m. on the rooftop of MCA Denver for the museum's B-Side Music Thursdays program. The duo will share the bill with Mirror Fears and promises some never-before-heard live collaborations with its musical friend and real-life roommate.
Church Fire will also part of this year's Westword Music Showcase, performing at 1:35 p.m. on the rooftop stage at Vinyl. Playing the daylong festival for the third year in a row, the two are excited for old friends and new fans alike to catch their set at a gathering where the emphasis is on getting Denver crowds in front of local acts they may not know about — yet.
"I like being in a place where people can just walk by. You're not a destination, you're just where a person might happen to land," says Webber of the unique opportunity of the showcase's organized and welcome chaos. "Having the opportunity to be stumbled upon is actually a huge benefit and a privilege. That's an invaluable experience."
Church Fire performs on Thursday, June 16, at 6 p.m. on MCA Denver's rooftop.