Sea Wolf: "Even Good Reviews Can Bum Me Out"
Indie rock band Sea Wolf is getting ready to wrap up a lengthy tour in support of their new release, Old World Romance. The third full-length offering from the group founded and orchestrated by California native Alex Brown Church veers a bit from their previous endeavors. The folk elements that previously stood out are less noticeable now than the sharp and prominent drum beats that embrace the band's rock and pop edges.
Not lost are Church's reflective lyrics delivered with both sweetness and rasp, easily inspiring hazy daydreams and wishes for thunderstorms as his range ebbs and flows. As a whole, Old World Romance is luscious and driving; tracks like "In Nothing" and "Old Friend" aren't easily forgettable. We got a chance to talk with Alex to hear more about this new release and what to expect from Wednesday's show at Crescent Ballroom.
Up on the Sun: For everyone who isn't a Sea Wolf stalker, tell us a little about your musical history.
Alex Brown Church: I kind of started playing the bass in high school. I wasn't in any sort of musical family or anything. I just always knew I wanted to play music but I didn't have anyone mentoring me in that direction or anything.
Were you playing with other people right off the bat? I took lessons my senior year of high school and played a little bit with other people -- mostly on my own, though. I went to NYU for film school after that and continued playing bass in college.
I played with people here and there but was mostly focused on my film studies. At the time my roommate was the singer of a band, and he started showing me some guitar chords, and I started learning to play the acoustic guitar and began singing a bit. By the time I finished college, I started to write songs.
Did you stay in NYC after college? No. I moved to Los Angeles from there; I'm originally from Berkeley. Shortly after moving there, I met a couple of guys and we went on to form Irving. That lasted for eight years and was kind of an Elephant 6, Neutral Milk Hotel type of indie pop band.
Eventually I wanted to start my own thing; it just took me a little time to figure out what that was. When I got an idea, I started a side project which went on to become Sea Wolf. I began writing for Sea Wolf in the early 2000s.
When did you start playing live Sea Wolf shows? I worked on the writing for a while and in 2004 came up with the name and started playing shows. The first couple of years I played one show a year and just kept writing and recording. In 2006, I was serious enough to start sending stuff out to labels. I got a manager and became more aggressive about the project.
How did that aggressiveness pay off? By the end of that year I signed with Dangerbird Records, and the next year saw the release of the debut EP and the first album. Sea Wolf was meant to be a band from the beginning, but some of the people I was working with were already fulltime members of other bands, so I decided that Sea Wolf should just be me and I would have other players come and go.
Since you're the driving force, what's the Sea Wolf songwriting process? I write the songs and do the bulk of arranging for each song. But, I'm not a drummer, cellist, etc., and there are just things that other musicians are better at than I am. I'll write some keyboard parts or melodic lines, but there's a certain point in a song where I feel like I've done everything I can do, and then I have people come in and contribute.
So you're comfortable with external input? I let the musicians and producers do their thing, and then they usually come to me for feedback, and that's when I'll give my input.
What's the live show lineup look like? I currently have a full band, live. I have done tours by myself but those are rare - Sea Wolf is meant to be a band. We used to travel with a cellist and it was a six piece but now it's five.
There aren't really strings on the new album so it felt appropriate to do something representative of where the sound is at right now. The drummer and keyboardist, Joey Ficken and Lisa Fendelander, have been playing with me since shortly after the first album came out. They also played on the second and latest releases, so they're as close to being full-time band members as they can get. We have a new guitarist and bassist who have been playing with us for about a year.
What's different about this new record? The recording is different from the second record, perhaps, because I recorded it and produced it myself as opposed to having a producer involved in the studio.
After the jump: "Even good reviews can sometimes bum me out." I think that affected the results, my ear. I was able to spend more time writing guitar parts and keyboard parts and things I didn't have as much time to do on the second record. I think that made a big difference -- that recording process culminating in a bit of a different sound.
That's how I recorded the first one, so it's probably more similar to that recording. So the process wasn't anything dramatically different than things I've done before. With the sound, though, there's always been a bit of an acoustic, string, and sort of folk element to Sea Wolf, and I feel like this album steps away from that a little bit. There are still songs with acoustic guitar at the center, but at the same time there's no electronic drums and synth strings; it's more leaning toward indie rock.
The beats are really prominent on Old World Romance, but not distracting. I wrote a lot of the songs to drum machine beats. I did that to inspire some difference in my songwriting process. Sometimes, I will fall into the same rhythmic guitar patterns, so I'd program different drum beats to work with and that helped get me out of the box. I would say 90 percent of the drums on this record were written by me, which wasn't the case previously.
Joey, our drummer, came in toward the end of this process and got things tightened up or shifted here and there but a lot of the drums were written by me and I had those beats going while writing, so I'm sure that's why they are so prominent on Old World Romance.
What were you listening to while writing this new one? I don't like to have other people's music stuck in my head while I'm writing. I went through a long stretch of not listening to much -- or when I did, I just stuck with old records or classical.
What's rocking your world lately? Prior to recording Old World Romance, I would have to say that my favorite record of the last five years was High Violet by the National. And now I'm really enjoying Animal Collective a lot and the new Phoenix record. I really like melodic rock music.
Who do you get compared to? I worked with Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes on the second album, and I think I may have gotten some Bright Eyes comparisons. I don't know if it was the singing or what, but I really try to avoid reading reviews.
Even good reviews can sometimes bum me out because I don't necessarily agree with some of the comparisons. People tend to compare to what they know, so it's always different.
What can we expect from the live show? Is it lively? Yeah, definitely. We are a little more intense and energetic live than you might think from the records, though when I did the second record, I really tried to make it reflect the energy of our live performances. We do a good job of reproducing our sound live and we definitely have a really good time.
This tour ends soon. What are you up to next? We are on the tail end of a big tour -- Phoenix is the third-to-last stop. I have officially fulfilled my label contract, so before I do another contract, I want to do a project that I self-release. I'm going to do a Kickstarter to fund a release, and I hope to launch that around the beginning of July.
It will be a more experimental, stripped-down project. I want to do it in a relatively short amount of time and put it out as a special unofficial in-between-albums, album. So, that's what I'm going to start working on as soon as I get home.
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