Sunday, March 9, 2008

Another retrospective interview... or, introspective retroview

The other day I received an "interview by email" which may be published in an upcoming issue of "Maximum Rock'n'Roll" magazine. MRR is nearing it's 500th issue. The Church Police were featured in issue #1 so I've been asked to give an update on what's happened since then. Here are the answers I submitted... we'll see what makes it past the editors desk when the magazine gets printed.

1. First off, could you give a bit of history about the band- How and when did you form?

I first met Tim and Bruce when we were all enrolled in a creative writing class at DVC. I think that's mentioned in the MRR article where I got mocked for wearing red pants. I had bought a guitar a year or two before that and spent time figuring out how to play it in my bedroom. Bruce played keyboards and we got together so that he could help me learn a bit of music. That led to a band called the Maroons, with Bruce on organ, me on guitar, a girl named Ba Powell on bass and Tim on a real small and crummy drum kit. Tim knew Eric Lundmark through Bruce, I think. Bruce and Eric were from Concord, Tim and I were from Walnut Creek. That right there accounts for the creative tensions and irreconcilable differences within the band, a cultural rift which ultimately sealed our doom.

Tim and Eric got together one day and wrote a bunch of lyrics. I guess they get ultimate credit for starting the band. They chose the name "Church Police" which came from a Monty Python skit. Either that same day or the next, they came over to my dad's house in Walnut Creek where The Maroons would hang out and practice in the cellar, this dank little underground cavern which provided decent sound insulation. This was 1980 when there was no punk scene even imaginable in Contra Costa County suburbia. The sounds we were making were very alien to that environment at the time.

Tim and Eric showed me their lyrics so we went down into the cellar and I banged out some very elemental riffs on my guitar. Eric played the drums and Tim sang. Our first bass player was also named Dave, he was Eric's friend. I think the songs we created that day account for about 75% of the material that the Church Police ever performed. Songs like "The Oven Is My Friend," "Life Is Fun," "Robots," "Gourmet Cooking," "Rock and Roll Bank Account," "Holidays" and "Church Attack" were all pretty much the work of a fall afternoon. We added a few other songs later, but it was mostly one burst of creativity that set us in motion. Originally Bruce had nothing to do with the band - in fact, Eric really didn't want Bruce in the band at all but had to accept it because his friend Dave couldn't play as well and Bruce had a bass amp so that sealed the deal. The "other" Dave stuck with the band for awhile playing harmonica and toy saxophone but once we got loud, he couldn't be heard in all the noise and felt dumb being up there on stage so he became our #1 roadie and fan. Bruce and Eric ignored their personal incompatibility enough to eventually forge a decent rhythm section which made my string mangling hackery on guitar at least tolerable, if not acceptable.
Why were no records released?

We were just too inept and couldn't get our act together. We did the one studio session at Bay Sound that has served us well for the number of records we've gotten out of it, I guess. But we never had much money, our equipment was usually in shambles and there was no managerial figure or anyone else to oversee us and get something organized. By the end of 1982, relationships between Bruce and the other three of us deteriorated and my personal living situation in San Francisco fell apart. Not only that, I was going through a bit of a psychic meltdown - too many drugs, the death of one of my best friends and other internal personal conflicts, I'll just leave it at that. So I came to the end of my pursuit, my fantasy really, of being a full-time rocker. I moved on to my dad's sailboat docked at a marina in Oakland for awhile, then he and I decided to go on an epic sailing adventure down the coast and to Central America. I only made it to Catalina Island, then I decided to bail and hitchhiked across the southern USA from Los Angeles to Texas. After doing that for awhile, I moved back to Grand Rapids MI, my hometown. I experienced a religious conversion and got married. Shortly after my wedding, my wife and I moved out to the Bay Area for a few years. I reconnected very briefly with some of my old friends in the scene, but my life had changed, we had a kid a year into our marriage and twins two years after that, which led us to move back to Grand Rapids again just to have a manageable cost of living.

What happened to the band?

Basically, the whole thing was just too unstable and chaotic. I think the actual break-up happened one evening when Bruce told us that he was no longer willing to drive our equipment around to shows. That was pretty much the deal-breaker right there - it just didn't seem like any of us were willing or able to keep it going. We were having a hell of a time finding a rehearsal space - I remember looking at some abandoned beer vats where a bunch of punk kids were living and hanging out but nothing came of that. Bruce's decision messed things up because it was our most reliable way to get our amps and drums from the suburbs to the city. I also think he was tired of the screw-ups that the rest of us had become and his musical tastes were moving in other directions too.

What recordings were made?

We did that one session at Bay Sound Studios, produced and engineered by Kevin Army. I like that recording because it is all just one take of us playing live going right onto the tape, no overdubs, just Kevin tweaking knobs, dropping instruments in and out right on the fly, which I think made the recording more interesting than if it had just been played straight. We did each song only once. It was practically like having a live show recorded because we only had like one hour or so of studio time. It was like, rush in, set up, plug in, play, then get the hell out of there before the meter flipped over to charge us an extra dollar. I had to use a really cheap crappy pawn shop guitar because my good one had been stolen when I lived upstairs from Big Al's strip club on Broadway. (One of several sad stories I could relate from the time I spent living in The City while trying to make it in the music biz.) Which explains the horrendous feedback and gnarly texture of my guitar sound. Plus I recall being more drunk than I should have been. But that's what it is!

We also did an early demo at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill where our instruments were plugged directly into the mixing board - no amps. Only the drums were mic'ed. It made for a weird and unrepresentative sound but that resulted in the tape that made its way to Bruce Loose and led to us having our short moment in the spotlight in the SF punk scene circa 1981-82.
Besides those two sessions, there were a few shows that got recorded and also a few practices caught on cassette. If those tapes exist, Bruce would be the guy who has them. It's a shame really. I would have loved to have had one more shot at making a studio recording but that's not how the story went down.

2. Most people know the name Church Police from "The Oven is My Friend", which is one of the standouts on the heavily stacked Not So Quiet on the Western Front compilation. How did that come about? What kind of response did you receive from that- I assume it was the most widespread distribution the band received.

We were asked either by Tim Yohanon or one of his representatives to contribute a song for this double album comp that they had in mind to put out, and we were pretty happy to be a part of it. I think TOIMF is the song that they had in mind but I didn't necessarily think of that song as our "anthem" or "first single" or "best thing we ever did." It's really the most ridiculously simple song in the world to play. I basically hit the two bottom strings on my guitar, sliding my finger up one fret every four strums, until I get to where the neck meets the body, then I freak out and generate noise and feedback for half a minute, then I do this monster stomp thing, one-two-three-four over and over and that's about it on the guitar, but it turned into a pretty decent little slam dance tune I guess. Tim's lyrics were demented... you'll have to ask him about the inspiration for that. But yeah, I think as a "signature tune" goes, I'm good with it. I thought from the first time I heard "Not So Quiet" that our track stood out just because it was different from most everything else on the comp - loose, sloppy, funny without necessarily trying to be. A perfect capture of the mutations taking place at the time out in shopping mall territory.

Have you heard the Sebadoh cover of the song?

I have. A guy from Israel (I think he was a teenager at the time) tracked me down on the internet several years ago and sent me an mp3 along with a link to some French fanzine that did a photo essay on TOIMF. I've really enjoyed the occasional random connection that I have with Church Police fans from places far away from the SF Bay Area. But I think Sebadoh kind of messed up their version. It struck me as too histrionic - like the guy overdid the screaming part or something. I wouldn't mind getting a piece of that royalty check, now that you mention it.

3. I noticed you had put a copy of the interview from MRR #1 online. How does it feel to read an interview with yourself from 25 or so years ago?

It's pretty cool. I have a lot of old journals and crap that I wrote from that time so that part of my life is pretty well documented for my own recollections. But it's a different kind of memory trigger when your words are in print in an old magazine.

I recently came into contact with Eric Bradner, the guy who interviewed us, through MySpace. Eric and I are both listed as "friends" of Flipper on the band's page. For such a short-lived band, I think it's great that we made issue #1 of Maximum Rock and Roll. And there was a fan letter written about us in issue #2. And of course we were in issue #0, the one that came with the album...

How did your plans to be a bum work out?

Well I did actually hitchhike from LA to Houston in the aftermath of my failed sailing trip in early 1983, so I can cross that ambition off my list. But after a couple months of that, I settled down and went straight. I'm a father of four, a social worker by profession, married for over 23 years, got a house and two cats and a respectable standing in society. But I still nurture my inner bum when others aren't looking.

Are you surprised that MRR is still published?

To be honest, I haven't read many issues since those few that we were featured in. I respect their perseverance and what they've accomplished. I think the punk community has grown into an institution and the magazine meets the needs and interests of a vibrant community. I think I still retain a fair amount of the punk mindset even though my presentation is a lot more conventional and middle-class.

3. Your sound definitely shows the influence of Flipper, and I know you played with them quite a bit. Was the comparatively slug like pace of both bands warmly received amidst your faster contemporaries?

No, we encountered a lot of hostility and resentment. On the one hand, our musicianship, mine especially, was an obvious and deserving target of criticism. I never took any lessons and really never learned to more than a few proper chords. Sometimes I would even forget the simple sequences I'd worked out. Really anyone as limited as I was musically had little business getting up on stage but that didn't stop me at the time. We challenged what were already becoming the conventionalities of hardcore thrash and skinhead music. I know Eric wanted to do more in that direction but I was never able to pull it off. And I never really felt the need to emulate that sound. The Ramones, Black Flag and Circle Jerks were all doing that hard fast stuff better than I ever would and why bother sounding like a lame imitation of that?

I honestly think that we should not be seen as being derivative of Flipper's sound - we had our sound before we'd ever seen them perform. In fact, the first night that Bruce Loose came out and danced around and made a big scene at one of our early Sound of Music shows, I didn't even know who he was, but I just noticed some dude in the audience was really getting into our music. It wasn't until after the show that Tim told me who that dude was. I think that Flipper and us had similar influences, and I think they were better at what they did than we were. We both liked Public Image Ltd. and seeing Flipper open for them at some south-of-Market warehouse was my first Flipper show, though I wasn't particularly impressed by them at the time and I think that was even before I was in a band.

I liked PiL's percussive style of guitar playing and the heavy bass and drums. I liked the early Gang of Four sound (Entertainment!) Wire's Pink Flag was in that mix of influences too. Don't get me wrong, I loved Flipper once I got more into the S.F. club scene and really enjoyed their shows and the massiveness of their sound, but I don't think it was really a copycat thing on my part at all. At least, I could never approximate what Ted did on the guitar, in my opinion.

Did you go over better with more a open-minded audience, say at the Throbbing Gristle gig you played?

I don't think the Throbbing Gristle audience got us much better than the standard Mab or On Broadway crowd. It's kind of hard to answer this question - outside of a few friends and the occasional stranger who'd rush up to express his appreciation of our gig, I don't really know what kind of effect we had on the audience. The people who I know liked us enjoyed the defiance and arrogance of our shows, I think. Our concerts were as much about anarchic performance statements - like occupying the stage refusing to get off until they would shut down the power on us, or dragging junk in from the alleys like spring mattresses or dehydrated milk and turning them into stage props. Even in a self-consciously rebellious and unconventional punk scene, I think we broke rules and transgressed expectations in ways that a few enjoyed and a few found truly offensive. But we were never sick or pretentious. No animals were harmed in our performance and we always did our best to have honest fun... because Life Is Fun, you know?

I know we pissed off a lot of the weekend warrior, "let's party in the City" trendy types. Which is what I considered most of the crowds to consist of when we played the clubs on Broadway. It's hard to get your girlfriend drunk and in the mood when a bunch of suburban teenage misfits are blasting your eardrums with atonal feedback chaos and sonic explosions from a dislodged reverb coil! The SoM crowds and kids at the other assorted odd gigs we played were just art weirdos like us who probably took the whole thing for granted.

Were you familiar with the Subterranean Records scene at the time?

No I was never really that close to the record-making business side of things. Wish I was.

What other bands did you consider like-minded contemporaries?

Animal Things were the first local Bay Area band that I got to know and love, and they helped connect us to Flipper. Peter Accident and Gaga Din were other Contra Costa bands that we hung out with. Pariah, Ray Lujan's band. They had nice equipment that their parents bought them. There was a guy named Dave Jones who stood by us and helped us a lot. He had a short-lived band called the Wild Boys but I don't think they ever did anything. I wonder whatever happened to him... A band from New York named Arsenal, we got along pretty well with them for awhile. And I have to mention my friends Joe Nitzberg and Julie and Joyce Jackson. They were suburbanite kids who formed a goofy little band called Yawn Moan Sigh. A fun and funny bunch. I'd love to reconnect with them.

But musically, we were kind of in our own little world. Of course it remains a great pleasure to this day to say that I used to hang out with Flipper back in 81, 82, and had casual run-ins with Biafra and Black Flag here and there, stuff like that. But we were always a bit detached from the social aspects of the scene it seems to me.

4. I've been to Walnut Creek and some of the surrounding areas, and it certainly feels removed from San Francisco and even Berkeley and Oakland. Do you feel this isolation from the city was essential to the sound and ideas behind Church Police?

Yeah, I think our overt suburbanness made us distinctive from other bands, especially at that time. We never really tried to fit into any of the stylistic templates of the era - no "uniforms" or punk haircuts or anything like that. Our look was kind of a proto-grunge I suppose... flannel shirts and jeans, tennis shoes. Tim would wear khakis more than jeans though. What came through our music and live shows was a fair amount of anger lashing itself out at the world - we liked having crazy fun and breaking the boundaries of what entertainment was supposed to be about at our gigs, but it's hard to deny that we were directing a lot of hostility toward our audience, sometimes toward the other bands on the bill (just about any band who seemed too serious about trying to "make it") and especially the club managers who exploited the bands but were vital to giving us our creative outlet.

5. Lyrically the Church Police material I have heard seems to veer from abstract to the mundane. The MRR #1 interview and your journal bits hint at your (Dave and Tim) literary aspirations (both producing and consuming). Where were you coming from at the time? You seem to have sidestepped blatant political posturing of many hardcore bands from the same era- was this a conscious decision?

I didn't write too many lyrics except for a couple of our later songs which never got recorded. Tim and I were both interested in literary counter-culture - Kerouac, Burroughs, surrealism, Joyce, the Song of Maldoror, Philip K. Dick, Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, stuff like that. In some ways we were probably too clever for our own good... we bit off more than we could chew in a sense. Eric wrote some pro-anarchy songs and was probably the most sincere about that kind of stuff of any of us. I think we avoided the standard anti-Reagan "don't send me to El Salvador" stuff because it was obviously already being done. And whether its fair criticism or not, bands like The Crass seemed kind of humorless and too self-important to hold my interest at the time. I liked more humor, satire, goofiness I guess. I didn't feel like I had the grand political statement to give or the right to give it in any case.

6. Looking back on the band and the do-it-yourself scene that you were a part of, how has it affected where you are in 2008? Are you still playing music or writing at all?

No, I don't do music, mainly due to lack of talent. There are other things I do much better. I keep a blog and maintain an email list that discusses religion, politics and cultural stuff. I get involved in some local political and social activism. I'm part of a group that produces a local public access TV show each month. I work with kids who've been abused and neglected, trying to help them stay out of trouble, work through their problems and get back on track again. That's something I feel good about doing with my life.

A few years ago two of my sons had some interest in starting a band but didn't stick much with it. I fiddled around with their guitar, but I don't feel the same fire to want to make music that I did in my teens. Back then it offered a hope and a direction to focus myself... sort of. Now I have plenty of other stuff to do that keeps me busy and I'm OK with that. I wish we could have kept the band together a bit longer, or at least that we would have made better use of the time when we were together. But it's not like I'm gnawing at the emptiness within because I got out of the music game before I could make it really pay off for me. It's a satisfying part of my personal story and history, and with the recent release of some of our old recordings, and prospects of maybe some more on the way in the near future, I don't feel like it's completely done and over with either. I would even be open to reuniting the band for some kind of show or recording or just the experience of it if we could work out the logistics. But it might just be a daydream. I'm okay with it either way.


julieunplugged said...

Good gravy, this is one of the most delightful interviews I've read in a long time.

I basically hit the two bottom strings on my guitar, sliding my finger up one fret every four strums, until I get to where the neck meets the body, then I freak out and generate noise and feedback for half a minute, then I do this monster stomp thing, one-two-three-four over and over and that's about it on the guitar, but it turned into a pretty decent little slam dance tune I guess.

Now that is good writing! The whole thing. Your story is so transparent and energizing. Great look at who you were and how it shaped who you are.

Joyce J said...

Dude, I wasn't in that band w/joe & julie. Rod Dorse was the other one. Also, you still owe me forty bucks.