For as long as she can remember, Shannon Webber has been hell-bent on revolution.
“In college, I was incredibly radicalized,” she says. “I was in college during 9/11, and I was getting a political science degree and also studying sociology. I was like that my whole life, but on campus, we had Peace Camp, and I was sleeping in a tent protesting the Iraq War and stuff like that. Just kind of lived and breathed this social, cultural and political critique constantly. I was just like, ‘Fuck, no,’ all the time.”
Webber’s attitude and commentary continue to this day, and both come out in her incendiary band, Church Fire. While she may no longer be sleeping in tents to prove points, Webber and bandmate David Samuelson have been performing their strident and fierce, danceable electro-fury since 2012. While the political message can sometimes be shrouded by overblown vocal effects and stunning stage performances, Church Fire comes off as defiant and socially charged merely by existing.
“I think so many of us need — and I have to say 'us,' because I don't think that's just women — I really think it’s all of us that need to see a woman who is fucking angry, ugly and aggressive and not scared," says Webber. "I think especially the ugliness, almost, more than anything. Like, we just need to see and feel it, and I need to be it. I'm better at being angry than pretty.”
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Webber’s obstinate approach to art and the world around her has always been prevalent in Church Fire’s music and has earned the bandmates respect from Denver’s underground music community. Their hard work and initiative has allowed them to cross over into mainstream consciousness and finds them about to release their third full-length album, summer camp doom diary, at a December 29 show at the hi-dive with fellow revolutionary stalwarts Wheelchair Sports Camp, the Milk Blossoms and Mirror Fears.
The album’s title comprises a concept of sorts and is a nod to the musical dichotomy presented by Church Fire: danceable and fun electro grooves supplied by Samuelson coupled with crushingly eerie vocals from Webber. It conjures a young person at summer camp trying desperately to fit in during the day, and then later, alone in a bunk, giving in to the doom and despair they're really feeling.
While Webber has a background in classical music and is a natural in the part of a celebrated musician, the thought of fronting a band never occurred to her until she was hit with a bolt of social inspiration.
A college friend, Sara Miller, had always admired her perspective and was constantly trying to get Webber to start a band with her. Despite living in the same house where Samuelson’s band practiced, Webber wasn't interested — until she discovered she had something to say.
“I was reading “Cunt,” by Inga Muscio, while riding the bus, and there was this piece that was very triggering," Webber explains. "I had been working in rape crisis for so many years, and something about reading that book in that environment inspired me. I got home, and David's band was practicing in the basement, and I just sat down and wrote a song. It's called 'Trigger,' and it's all about rape culture. Then I called Sara and told her, ‘Okay I'm ready; I have a song.’ When the band started, it was her on her drums and me fucking rap-rocking.”
Miller and Webber formed the duo Dangerous Nonsense and performed together for about three years. It marked the beginning of Webber’s musical journey and established much of the ethos that Church Fire still follows.
“[Dangerous Nonsense] wanted to be that hero for that angsty thirteen-year-old girl who just needed some bitch to be scary and mad,” says Webber. “We were also very opposed to traditional form. All of our songs were driven by my lyrics. It was all just like, ‘What does Shannon want to scream about today?’"
After a few years, Webber, now immersed in band culture and still finding her voice, and Samuelson, who continued to play in bands and experiment in noise and electronic genres, began to discuss the possibility of playing together. Friends since high school and admirers of each other's work, they decided to form a band, originally called Sew Buttons on Ice Cream, in 2009. That act became Church Fire in 2012.
“I had never done electronic music before,” Samuelson says. “When I was in high school, I did classical and jazz, and then I had played in rock bands. I wanted to have control over it and try a new kind of music for another challenge. When the band started, we tried to recruit Sara [Miller] to play drums for us, and we got some of the guys from my band to play, but ultimately we decided to just to do the duo.”
“Honestly, they just couldn't make it to practice all the time,” Webber jokes.
Armed with a mission and an emerging sound, the two began playing shows wherever they could. Without a deep knowledge of the Denver scene, they played largely at dive bars around the city before their community found them.
“We played the same dive bars over and over and over,” Webber recalls. “We started to gain followers, because we were constantly playing out. One night we played the Gypsy House basement, and we met Patrick Urn from Morlox, and Don White. They introduced us to the world of underground experimental electronic music.”
Both Urn and White had deep roots in a scene that Church Fire had been largely unaware of at that point. It opened up a new world for the band.
“Meeting Patrick and working with him had a huge impact on us,” Webber says. “He opened our eyes to the world of MIDI-syncing and new approaches to electronic-music composition. He's a champion in underground experimental electronic-music scenes in every city he's lived in, and he introduced us to a community that would inspire us, challenge us and expand our approach to our art.”
Urn helped Church Fire garner a spot on the Electro Trash festival that year, as well as regular appearances at Rhinoceropolis. Finding a community away from Denver’s dive bars inspired Church Fire to take new creative risks and gave the act a more appreciative audience. Samuelson and Webber now had a home that cultivated every creative inclination they had.
“It did help to aesthetically find our footing, to meet the kids who were doing similar stuff,” Samuelson says.
Church Fire began to venture outside of Denver, finding similar supportive scenes in places like Ann Arbor, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and even Stockholm, where they performed in 2018 as part of the first European Titwrench festival — a music festival that was created in Denver in 2009. The musicians found they had an impact people wherever they went.
“After one of our shows in France, someone came up and was crying and said, ‘Oh, my God; I needed that so much,’ Webber remembers. “I was like, 'What is missing from her life? What is this prescribed reality that you've been told that you need to expect this set of behavior that watching me just being a fucking weirdo over here is so earth-shattering?'”
Knowing the personal impact they've had on people in the DIY scene makes it that much more crushing for Webber and Samuelson to watch that community come under attack and crumble over the past few years. The city shut down Rhinoceropolis and its sister venue, Glob, in 2016, and despite endless efforts to bring the venue back up to code, it has yet to reopen; the garage venue Backspace shut down in 2017 after the landlord decided to develop the property.
“Some of this community is so tight-knit, and these people are like brothers and sisters who grew up together,” Webber says. “They've been really inviting, but I've always felt a little bit on the periphery of it, because I just show up to play shows. Some of these people live it every day. People are losing their homes, and they're losing their lives. It's absolutely devastating.”
“Honestly, I don't feel like the DIY scene has recovered,” Samuelson says. “It was the best thing about living [in Denver], in my opinion. I know people find a way, and there will still be house shows, but they come and go. There's nothing like that anymore, unfortunately. Backspace was amazing. We discovered Backspace the last year of its existence.”
The situation just serves to ignite Church Fire, which puts all of its ire into performances and now summer camp doom diary.
“The lyrics are like deep-tissue toxic release," Webber says. "It's like when you get a massage, and they rub it all out, and then you're fucking sick because it just seeped out everywhere, and you have really concentrated areas of corruption, and it seeps out into everything, and then you hope the body's stable to withstand the disease. Are we going to be able to withstand the disease that's seeping through us?”
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While Church Fire's music continues to be cathartic for many listeners, Samuelson says there is more to be done.
“It's not enough, And it's also so tedious to be a band that's mad about politics this year. Who gives a shit? Other things need to happen,” he says. “What we're exploring, obviously, is things that are much bigger than music and art. We're not going to change the world with just what we're doing.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Shannon Webber's last name and misidentified her first band's name. We regret the error.