Before his years of indie-rock songwriting and touring the world as the face of Sea Wolf, Alex Brown Church studied film at NYU. Since those college days, he’s kept himself quite busy, releasing four albums, recording a song for the audiobook of Augusten Burroughs’ A Wolf at the Table and writing an original track for The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Church talked to us about chord structure, the very first song he ever wrote, and the one word you will never hear him use.
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What inspired the name Sea Wolf?
It comes from the Jack London novel, The Sea-Wolf. Jack London was from the San Francisco bay and so am I. I liked the name and it just felt right because of the connection to my roots. Also it sounds adventurous, and I liked that.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Oh, the usuals. Lennon–McCartney, Morrisey–Marr, Paul Simon, Jonny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Stuart Murdoch, Bob Dylan. To name a few.
How would you describe your latest album, Old World Romance?
It’s a folk-tinged, melodic indie-rock record.
How would you compare it to your previous albums?
The first album, Leaves in the River, was kind of eclectic because it was essentially a best-of Sea Wolf’s first four years. I knew the songs were going to be quite varied, sort of split between quiet and loud songs, so I tried to create a thematic through-line with the lyrics. I recorded most of it myself, over a long period of time, so I had a lot of time to experiment and do a lot of the instrumentation myself.
White Water, White Bloom, the second album, was written and recorded in the span of a year. We recorded it in a studio in Omaha with a producer Mike Mogis. My live band was there with me because I wanted to include them and to capture the energy of the live show on the record. I wanted the record to feel bigger, more of a rock record than Leaves, which is how it turned out.
Old World Romance is a kind of return to the road that Leaves in the River was headed down, in that I did most of the recording myself over a long period of time, and had more time to spend on the instrumentation. I wanted the songs on ‘Romance’ to fall somewhere in between the quiet moments of ‘Leaves’ and the big rock sound of ‘White Water,’ and to have it feel like it was coming from me more, but to still have a bit of a band feel. I also wanted to do a few things differently, like play around with drum machine stuff, and not use any acoustic strings, which had been sort of key on the first two albums.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I started writing songs the summer after graduating from college. I think I’d be embarrassed to show any of them to anyone now. It wasn’t that they were bad–though some certainly were–mostly just that I was so naive and hadn’t a clue about how to write songs, play guitar, or sing. So there was a lot of exploring going on which lead to a lot of songs that are really out of character for me.
I’d say there were definitely some good songs there right from the beginning, but I didn’t have any sense of myself as a singer or songwriter, so it really took a while before I was able to identify what types of melodies and chords and keys suited me best. I think that sense of song-writing identity develops faster in some than others, and for me it took a long time. I think my lack of knowledge about music theory really slowed that development.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
I wrote my first song during the week I graduated from college. It was a very Beatle-esque song called “She Didn’t Complain” that featured a C7 chord, which I was really proud of. It’s actually pretty good for a first song. It still holds up. My college roommate, who was in a band, gave me a rudimentary pop structure to try: V1 CH1 V2 CH2 Bridge CH3. So I applied that structure and it worked. I was in film school at the time and I’d learned a lot about dramatic structure, so that tip from my friend really stuck with me. I started noticing other songs’ structures and I started writing more songs and using structures I’d heard in other songs. And I sort of saw songs as films, with a beginning, a middle and an end, with highs and lows in particular places, and turning points, and I played around with that as well. It was fun and a good exercise, I think.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
It’s been a while since I finished a song. It was probably something near the tail-end of the Old World Romance writing period. A little over a year and a half ago. I find it hard to write when I’m doing anything else, like recording or touring. I just need my space, physically and mentally, and when there’s a list of chores to do, or other people around, I just can’t get anything done. So I go in periods. Writing, recording, touring.
But I am back in a writing period now and I’ve got several started.
How do you go about writing songs?
It’s changed over the years. I used to sit down with an instrument and just fool around until I came up with something I liked, then I’d hum something along to it, hash it out a bit until I had at least a verse or a chorus Idea. Sometimes more. I call them ‘sketches’. I’d keep doing sketches until I found one that I was really excited about, and then I’d just stick to that one until it was a full song.
But I changed that up with Old World Romance. Now I come up with as many sketches as I can, pretty much every day, and record them all to my iPhone voice memos. Then every couple of weeks I’ll import them into iTunes, burn an mp3 disc of them and then drive around listening to them in my car. Then I’ll take note of all of the sketches that really jumped out at me and got me excited, and I’ll set to work on turning them into songs.
I do still do it the first way occasionally, because sometimes songs just come out that way and is good practice. But the new way has been far more productive.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
I think having new experiences is the most inspiring thing. Anything that sparks a new perspective, a new insight, a new idea. Travel, adventure, music, movies, art, people.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
“Kasper” is definitely a standout for me. It’s not so much that it’s a perfect melody or clever structure as much as I just love the way it makes me feel. It’s a song that I actually didn’t think was even good at first, but I forced myself to demo it out and then put it away and forgot about it for several weeks. When I finally listened to it again, it was with fresh ears, and it was like listening to for the first time. One of the hardest things as a songwriter/musician is judging your music objectively, the way you’d listen to anything else. So you never really know if what you’ve made is something that you would like if you hadn’t made it. My goal is to make music that I would love even if I hadn’t made it. And that’s how I felt when I heard “Kasper” again after putting it away for a while. It was a big lesson for me.
Are there any words you love or hate?
Not particularly, though I’m sure there are plenty that I’ll never use. Maybe “soul.” I’m pretty sure I’ll never use that word in a song.
The most annoying thing about songwriting is….
Wanting to always be writing a song, but to not actually always be writing a song.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
“Middle Distance Runner” from Leaves in the River is one that a lot of people have responded to in that way. It’s a quieter kind of love song that is simple and propulsive and pretty. It’s a song about guy who feels love deeply, but has trouble committing. I think a lot of people must have been either been that person, or been in a relationship with that person, because that song tends to resonate.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I haven’t for a while. I tried writing short stories in high school, and then did a lot of screenwriting in college and for a little bit after. I imagine I could get back into either one of these days. Music is the thing right now, though.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
There are a lot of perfect songs out there, really, but when I first started writing songs I was really into 60’s stuff, like the Beatles and the Kinks and the Zombies. To me, a perfect song is one that has a kind of symmetry to it, and melodies that flow effortlessly into one another, and that sounds like it was written in about ten minutes. Like it came out all at once. “Sunny Afternoon” by the Kinks is a good example.