Alex Church of Sea Wolf, who’s profiled in the January 10 Westword, is a critic’s favorite for a couple of very good reasons: His music is consistently intelligent, and so are his conversations, as he demonstrates in the following Q&A.
Church chats about the time he spent at the acclaimed film school at New York University, and the ways in which his early love of film and music related to each other; the aspect of storytelling in his work; his move to Southern California, where he decided to cast his lot with music and leave film behind; his current relationship with the members of Irving, the group in which he made his name prior to launching Sea Wolf; some details about the often dark, atmospheric tunes on Leaves in the River, Sea Wolf’s debut; his relationship with Earlimart, Silversun Pickups and other groups based in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles, and the question of whether he is or isn’t part of a scene; and his internal struggle over selling his songs for use in TV series and (especially) commercials.
A heads-up: Don’t expect to hear Sea Wolf pitching for a burger joint associated with golden arches.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you from originally?
Alex Church: Originally I’m from Northern California. I grew up in a small town called Columbia, California, and then I lived in Berkeley as well.
WW: Where is Columbia in relation to the Bay Area?
AC: It’s about a two and a half hour drive directly east of the Bay Area. It’s kind of in the mountains, the Sierras. It’s actually a state park – a preserved gold-rush town. I lived there until I was eight, and then we moved to Berkeley, and I was there until I was eighteen.
WW: I understand that you attended NYU film school. There are lots of great film schools in California. Why did you choose NYU?
AC: I just wanted to live in New York for a while. I think when I was maybe sixteen and visited New York, I feel in love with it and decided that’s where I wanted to go. It had to do with wanting to be in New York more than anything.
WW: Was film or music your first love? Or where they intertwined in a way that’s hard to separate?
AC: If I go way back, I’d say music, because I wanted to play music ever since I was seven years old. I played violin for a year when I was, like, nine, and then I didn’t actually pick up an instrument again until I was sixteen or seventeen.
WW: Did the violin-lesson experience something that put you off music for a while?
AC: It did. I wanted to play bluegrass fiddle, and I was learning classical. So I couldn’t connect to what I was doing at all. And my mom wasn’t really strict about me practicing or anything. She didn’t force me to do it. So I just lost interest. But I would say music was my early love. But in high school or something, I started to really like film, and that’s when I started to play music again. So it’s hard to say. Do with that what you will.
WW: Was there a film or a filmmaker that really inspired you during that period?
AC: I wasn’t exposed to too much stuff in high school film-wise. But remember My Own Private Idaho? 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. I remember that film sticking out for me in high school.
WW: In NYU, did they allow you to explore those less commercial areas? Or were they always trying to point you toward the mainstream?
AC: Oh no, we studied both. We were taught to appreciate all different types of film at NYU.
WW: What kinds of films did you start out making? Were they narrative?
AC: I definitely have more of a narrative bent in general. I’m more of a story person than anything. I didn’t do any films after school, but in school, most of the films we did were sort of exercises. They were all kind of based on assignments that we had. I never got to the point where I felt like I had my own voice in filmmaking. That actually came with music.
WW: You mentioned the storytelling aspect, which is very clear in the music as well. Did you find that this quality translated well to both mediums?
AC: Yeah, absolutely. 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? Because not all the songs I write are like that. Some songs are less linear. 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.
WW: When you left New York, did you head back to Southern California? Or did you go back to Northern California first?
AC: I went to Southern California. 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. I had a lot of friends from NYU who were moving to L.A. for film, and I also knew people from the Bay Area who I knew growing up who were down here as well. It was much cheaper back then – and it is still now. It’s inexpensive compared to New York. So I just felt it would be easier for me to start out here after college than there. So I came here, doing both, actually. And within a week after moving to Los Angeles, I met the guys who I went on to form Irving with. They had both just moved down here as well from the San Francisco Bay Area. So we immediately had this connection. So pretty much as soon as I got to Los Angeles, the music took off. It seemed like that was what I should focus on when I got here.
WW: Along the way, did you get a chance to explore film at all? Or has that been set aside, at least for the past few years?
AC: It’s definitely been set aside for the past five or six years, but when I first moved out here, I was still interested in it, and I did production assistant work – which is pretty good work for a musician, because you get paid fairly well and you don’t have to work that often. You have a lot of time to spend with your music. But it was also good for me to get to see what the film world was all about. So I kind of explored the film thing a little bit. 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.
WW: I wanted to ask you about that. If you believe in the auteur theory, the director is the author of a film – but there are a lot of other people who are involved from a pure technical standpoint. Did you feel that your ideas got into music more directly than it did with film?
AC: Definitely. And you don’t have to have a lot of money to start playing music, either. 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 schmoozer and getting money behind me. So I felt, all right, this is going to be too hard for me to get into. And music was much easier. It was pretty obvious to me that music is what I should do for now.
WW: Various Sea Wolf articles that I’ve read are unclear about your status in Irving. Are you still a member of Irving? And is Irving still a going concern?
AC: I left Irving a year ago. I don’t know why there’s that confusion. I think people don’t really read the bio thoroughly. They just kind of skim through it, and then they write disinformation, and people get confused.
WW: You’re right. Some articles say one thing, and some of them say something else. And of course, you’re on the most recent Irving album, which didn’t come out that long ago…
AC: Right. But I left Irving a year ago, at the end of 2006, to pursue Sea Wolf fulltime. And that band – they’re kind of on hiatus. All the guys that were in Irving beside myself have started another band called afternoons with a few other people. I think they’re a seven- or eight-piece. They’re pursuing that right now, recording. And we’re all still good friends. Actually, afternoons is opening for Sea Wolf. We’re playing the L.A. Natural History Museum in the beginning of January, and they’re going to open for us.
WW: What’s the music sound like?
AC: Actually, I haven’t heard that much of the music yet, and I haven’t seen them play. They’ve only had a few shows, and I’ve been out on the road with Sea Wolf pretty much every time. Brian [Canning] and Steven [Scott] sing. They’re also the main singers in Irving. It sounds like Irving, but there’s a bit more stuff going on. There’s a female choir that’s part of the group, so female vocals in the background, and there’s a lot of electronics as well. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s kind of like a big, full pop ensemble. It’s pretty complex.
WW: I’ve read that the Sea Wolf songs developed over a period of years. Did you work on the songs over that time, going back and refining them? Or did they come in a piecemeal fashion?
AC: I don’t know. I’d record a song and then move on to another song, and then I’d write three more songs, and I’d record them. I didn’t go back to songs so much after I’d recorded them to do something else to them.
WW: As a songwriter, would you describe yourself as prolific? Or would you say that songs come slowly for you?
AC: 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 (laughs). It’s a little bit of a hang-up, actually, and it’s always a constant struggle for me to get over. The result is, it takes a while for me to write songs. And right now, with Sea Wolf touring so much, it’s hard for me to find the time. I really need the head space. I need to get into a routine to be able to get into the writing, which I haven’t been able to do so much.
WW: Given your background, I had film references in mind – and to me, the disc has a cinematic feel that causes a listener to picture images while listening. Is that something you consciously set out to achieve? Or is it a happy side effect of a good song?
AC: I definitely don’t sit down and say, “I’m going to make this visually stimulating.” But that’s what I tend to be attracted to. When I write, the final product often ends up that way, because that’s what appeals to me the most. I don’t sit down and try to do that, but that’s just what happens as I write.
WW: There are a lot of dark themes on album – literally in the song “The Cold, the Dark and the Silence.” Is that also something that appeals to you? Or is it coincidental that many of the songs draw from those qualities and characteristics?
AC: I’d say a little bit of both for that record. It wasn’t the happiest time for me when I was writing these songs. I’d say I was in a dark mood, so it naturally came out that way. But that song “The Cold, the Dark and the Silence” is about fear, and those things – cold, dark and silence – are things people tend to fear. So for me, a lot of the dark elements were about tackling those things that were happening with me that particular time. I think that’s why it came out that way.
WW: A lot of songwriters who take on those kinds of subjects talk about how healthy it is for them to get those emotions out. But I always wonder if, when they’re out on the road touring, those songs take them back to those darker times. How does it work with you?
AC: It doesn’t take me back to those times. I know what you mean, because you’re not always feeling that way. But when I sing those songs, I guess for about three and a half minutes, I’m in the song, but I kind of put whatever frustrations I’m having at the time into the song when I’m singing it. I don’t think about what I wrote the song about when I sing them. I’m often singing the song and conjuring up whatever emotions I’m happening to have at that particular time.
WW: It’s not as if the song is a Waybac machine, where you wind up in that same old place. They live and evolve.
AC: No, I don’t become like a method actor up there (laughs). I guess in a way, I do. But I don’t really go back to old feelings. I just go with wherever I am at that moment.
WW: I understand that you’re close to a number of other bands based in Silverlake – Earlimart and Silversun Pickups. Do you consider yourself part of a scene? Or do you like to go your own way?
AC: I don’t consider myself part of a scene. But I have friends who are in these other bands. For me, a scene is something where everybody is borrowing from each other, competing against each other, and I don’t really feel that way very much. I love my friends and I love their bands, but they do very different stuff than I do. But we had this thing called The Ship Collective, which is essentially a group of bands that included Irving and Earlimart and Silversun Pickups and Great Northern and now Sea Wolf. The idea behind it was – it was to sort of create our own scene, because Los Angeles is so spread out geographically. And it also kind of carries over socially – it’s spread out that way, too. It doesn’t feel like there’s a center here, so it doesn’t feel like there’s a scene. So we all kind of tried to form our own thing by calling it The Ship. But The Ship’s kind of fallen apart. Everybody’s kind of gone their own way. But the thing is, I rehearse in the same space as afternoons and Silversun Pickups, and Let’s Go Sailing – and two doors down is Earlimart’s studio. So I guess in a way, we’re part of a scene. I don’t know.
WW: It sounds as if it’s as much about support and camaraderie as a musical link between everyone.
AC: That’s exactly what it is. Earlimart is very different from Irving, which is very different from Sea Wolf, which is very different from Silversun Pickups. We’re all pretty different. It’s more about, we’re all friends, and we respect and relate to each other as musicians.
WW: There’s a perception among people outside Los Angeles that because L.A. is a center of the music business, or at least a major hub, that all the musicians are trying to come up with the most commercial sound they possibly can. That’s obviously not what you’re doing: You clearly put creativity first. But does your proximity to the music industry have any impact on you? Or are you able to keep that out of your mind when you’re making your music?
AC: It definitely doesn’t have an impact on me creatively, with my music. If anything, I feel like that kind of thing turns me off and I wind up pushing in the other direction – reacting against it. So when it comes to the creative aspect, I definitely don’t feel it rubs off on me. The commercial thing is just not something I’m interested in at all. I really try and resist consciously trying to come up with a sound. I’d rather just kind of be in the moment and have whatever comes out come out when I write. But the benefit of being in Los Angeles, because the music industry’s here, I think it’s a lot easier to make money as a musician. Because my label’s been very supportive. They kind of think like a major label. They’re definitely an indie label, but they’re extremely supportive creatively, and they let me do whatever I want, but at the same time, they also think like a major label, and they’re not afraid to spend money.
WW: That’s very rare these days.
AC: It is. They’re an amazing label. I feel really lucky to be with them. And then, also, there are a lot of people here who have a lot of experience in the music industry, like my manager, who’s amazing. He’s helped me out so much. And then Los Angeles is also the center of the film and television world, and that’s kind of how indie bands make money these days. A lot of bands, that’s a big source of income for them – getting things on commercials and television shows and what not. So there are all those benefits in Los Angeles. Having people around who are very experienced in music, and taking whatever it is you do and help you make a living doing it.
WW: Have you explored getting your music into films and television shows?
AC: Yeah. I wouldn’t say I’ve explored it, but I’ve done it a few times, yes. Honestly, it’s not something I feel that comfortable doing. 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. As long as it’s something that doesn’t contradict your beliefs and enables you to continue making your art the way you want to make it, I feel like more power to you if that’s what you want to do.
WW: The whole industry has changed in that way. Bands can’t count on getting radio airplay, so commercials or TV series may be the best way a group can get its song heard.
AC: That’s true. You take Feist, for example, who did that iPod Nano commercial. Apparently, it kind of blew her up way more. It was like a really great thing for her in terms of exposure.
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WW: What projects has your music been in?
AC: I’ve had a couple of TV shows. I had a song in that song Dexter on Showtime, and also Californication, which is on Showtime as well. And I actually just did two commercials (laughs). I’m okay with TV shows, like Dexter and Californication, where they’re actually pretty good shows. But the commercial thing is like, I’m just doing it for the money – but if this is going to make it so I can just make music for the next two years, then it’s worth it.
WW: You’re not mentioning the products…
AC: It’s nothing embarrassing, but I’d rather not have people be waiting for it. You’ll probably figure it out. I feel like, people who see it will know, and the people who don’t see it, great: I’d rather not tell them. But I haven’t done, like, a McDonald’s commercial or anything like that…