Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Tags: rock, indie
As Sea Wolf, Alex Brown Church has kept us ensnared in his world of gorgeously lush and longingly moody tales of gypsies, wolves, foggy coastlines, redwood forests, metropolitan nightscapes and precarious loves since his 2007 debut. With his new album Old World Romance, released in September on Dangerbird Records, Church continues the story, delving into new territory.
An NYU film school graduate, and northern California native, Church has always taken the auteur’s approach to Sea Wolf, infusing his lyrics and imagery with his experiences from the romantic grandeur of the West to the old school classicism of the East. But while the scenes he paints in his songs reflect his dual penchants for dramatic natural landscapes and the headiness of urban life, under the surface they are most often about periods of change.
It was one of those periods that brought Church back to California to write and record Old World Romance, the third Sea Wolf album. While not confined to the concept of "home”, it is in many respects a homecoming album, its creation coming after the songwriter returned to his artistic base after three momentous years away.
“Some significant things happened for me while I was living in Montreal, but life happens all the time to all of us,” Church says. “A lot of the album is about facing realities, reconnecting with who you are. And a lot of that came from this complete sense of rediscovery of where I’m from — not so much L.A., but the West Coast in general. I felt a resurgence. I felt like this is where I belong.”
Ensconced in his home studio for the first time since he worked on his first Sea Wolf album, Leaves in the River, which was completed in Seattle with producer Phil Ek, Church was able to refine his craft, and readdress his old way of writing and recording. Mostly on his own, on his own time, with his live bandmates contributing here and there over the course of a year and a half.
“I spent a lot more time tinkering and writing more of the instrumentation myself again,” Church says, noting the change in dynamic from his sophomore album, 2009’s White Water, White Bloom, which was written in Montreal but recorded with the full band in Omaha with producer Mike Mogis. “I felt like I’d learned enough to be able to self-produce,”
“I wanted this album to be more straightforward, more melodic, with simpler song structures. Much of it came down to my getting out of my own way," he explains. "I wanted it to feel uncalculated.”
Those qualities are evident in the beautiful simplicity of the single “Old Friend,” the wistful optimism of “Changing Seasons” and the brisk missives “Dear Fellow Traveller” and “In Nothing.” Church’s DIY approach to Old World Romance even allowed him to push his own boundaries, leaning away from the indie-folk instrumentation of his previous releases toward a new rhythmic electronic underpinning, perhaps most exemplified in the shimmering song “Kasper.”
The ethos that created Old World Romance was fostered in Church’s childhood. As part of an non-traditional family of builders with a profound appreciation of travel, adventure and the arts, Church spent his early years in the woodsy environs of Columbia, Calif., then lived in a tent in the French countryside for a year — taking time out to travel Europe — before his family finally settled in Berkeley.
In the Bay Area, Church’s passion for music gravitated toward hip-hop and indie-rock, while his enthusiasm for writing and film grew. His artistic discipline solidified, however, during his time in New York — his NYU film studies and the influence and ambition of the city itself would profoundly inform Church as a musician.
His interests in film and music brought him to Los Angeles, where he soon befriended Brian Canning and Steven Scott, who would become his bandmates in the indie-rock outfit Irving. By the time Irving released its second album in 2006, though, Church was restless. He turned his attention to the music project he’d been working on in the background — Sea Wolf, named for the Jack London epic.
Not long after, he bowed out of Irving and Sea Wolf was signed to Dangerbird Records, which introduced its new artist by releasing the EP Get to the River Before it Runs Too Low in 2007. The single “You’re a Wolf” ushered Sea Wolf into the world with aplomb, quickly capturing the attention of radio and the blogosphere,.
Besides his three albums, Sea Wolf contributed the tune “Song of the Magpie” to the audio book for author Augusten Burroughs’ A Wolf at the Table. Burroughs had asked Church to read the book and respond with an original song.
It’s all part of a remarkable run that has seen Church carve out a niche as a distinctive voice whose orchestrated allegories provide an antidote to the over-thought and overwrought. On Old World Romance the songwriter’s meditations are as unvarnished as ever, exuding the kind of melancholy that begets clarity that begets hope.
“We’re at a weird place in popular music where people are just recycling things, so I think it really just comes down to individual voices. Being back in Los Angeles, surrounded by other artists and friends and in the comfort zone of my own studio, has let me work toward being as clear as possible with my own voice. I felt inspired and rejuvenated, and I hope the album evokes that too.”