Fueled by Chaos, Church Fire Burns Bright

Church Fire will play an outdoor stage at the Westword Music Showcase.
Church Fire will play an outdoor stage at the Westword Music Showcase. Katie Langley
Brooding electronic-dance-music duo Church Fire, which will play the main stage at the Westword Music Showcase, isn’t widely known outside of Denver’s underground music circles — at least not yet.

For the past four years, the two musicians who make up the band have not been particularly focused on advancing their careers, selling records or playing big venues. But among their growing fan base, Church Fire is widely recognized as one of the most consistently compelling acts anywhere.

The outfit’s brand of EDM isn’t tied to any commercial genre. The musicians’ performance style, which can be confrontational, often has more to do with punk rock and performance art than it does with conventional club music.

The name Church Fire, which the pair adopted four years ago, sums up the burning ecstasy of the music — a godless religious experience — far better than its original moniker, Sewing Buttons on Ice Cream.

Some bands launch with a business plan, but not Church Fire. It has evolved organically, devoid of careerist calculations that might have sent a similarly talented band skyrocketing toward national acclaim. And while it would be easy to argue that the musicians’ lack of professional ambition has held them back, it has also afforded them room to grow their talents, perfect their sound, experiment with new material and garner respect in the local community. In other words, Church Fire is slowly growing on its own terms.

The project is fronted by vocalist Shannon Webber, an un-ignorable force of nature who often appears to be channeling spirits rather than simply singing from her own heart.

“I feel like when I perform, something takes me over. I completely lose myself,” says Webber, who honed her frenzied style in her former band, the political punk trio Dangerous Nonsense. That frenetic spirit was missing at first in Church Fire.

On the band’s self-titled debut, from 2013, Webber struggled to stay in control of her vocals. She’d traded in her raw energy for musical discipline.

“You can hear on our first album that I was careful and effortful,” she says. “I’m uncomfortable listening to that album, because I can hear effort more than real feeling.”

By 2014, things had turned around, and Webber reconnected with the energy she had once tapped.

“I’m not an awesome singer. I’m really theatrical, and I have personality; I’m an actress, almost. I have feeling more than accuracy. So I had to learn to own that more and recognize it as my strength instead of trying so hard to be something that I’m not.”

Webber’s collaborator, keyboardist David Samuelson, who often conceals his face behind a mask, played in progressive art-rock band Bangtel before going to school for music, where he studied classical and jazz. Church Fire’s frenzied performances represent a break from his traditional training, though he brings a mind for musical structure to the project.

Webber says that Samuelson is the “church” and that she is the “fire” in the mix: Samuelson establishes the reliable beats while she freely follows and directs the emotional energy.

“It has the element of chaos involved, and it’s a little different every time we play. That makes it fun to play,” Samuelson says.

Church Fire is almost as chaotic in its booking strategy. The musicians rarely turn down a chance to perform — even to their own detriment. But their relentless schedule also means that the prolific songwriters can quickly test new material in a live setting and, if it doesn’t work, toss it out.

It also provides opportunities to rub shoulders with other musicians and be exposed to new influences. The lyrics of the Milk BlossomsHarmony Rose have inspired Webber, and her own powerful vocals and poetic sensibilities have been tapped by the industrial band Echo Beds and hip-hop artists Sole, Extra Kool and Time.
IDM artist Solypsis recently produced a seven-track remix of “Every Toss a Tightening,” from Church Fire’s 2016 album, Pussy Blood, pulling out the industrial and ambient potential of the song.

These collaborations and encounters with peers help Church Fire connect to the larger world through art, as well as being a spiritual exercise devoid of traditional religion and steeped in the ecstasy of music.

“There’s a human muscle of spirituality and of belief, and that’s something I’ve shut off myself, responding to oppressive religion,” says Webber. “But coming into our identity as a band has been an exercise in engaging with the luminous.”

For Church Fire, performing is “trying to have a religious experience,” Samuelson elaborates. “People who say they believe in God because they have to believe in something bigger than themselves — everything is bigger than your individual self. Your own body is doing things you don’t know about. Me working with Shannon is bigger than myself.”

He calls music a “magic drug that makes you feel transcendent or something.”

As for the day-in-day-out work of packing up gear, promoting shows and performing, he describes it as unpaid work. “But we keep doing it,” Samuelson says, “because watching people play and playing ourselves, we get those kinds of religious experiences.”

Church Fire, Westword Music Showcase, Saturday, June 24, Golden Triangle,
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.