Alex Brown Church is Sea Wolf, and Sea Wolf is usually a band, except when it’s just Alex in his Los Angeles studio, writing songs. He lives in a compound that once was a Masonic Lodge, now divided into loft units, right on Eagle Rock Boulevard, a highway that runs through the Glassell Park district in northeast L.A. A sort of urban oasis, the compound features a garden courtyard with a BBQ and picnic bench and plenty of room for his young son to scamper around. Being Los Angeles, the days are usually sunny and lately it’s been scary-dry, socked into a drought. A taco truck is conveniently parked a stone’s throw away.
Sea Wolf is known for his mix of folk/rock/ genres and a propensity for inventive melodies and smart lyrics. On stage he plays with intensity, usually with a band, but sometimes solo. There is a definite California tinge to his music, perhaps in its lack of irony. The listener feels she is hearing a message straight from the heart, and there is an intimacy in the way he puts across a song, the sense that his voice is going directly into your ear.
Alex Brown Church was raised in an outdoorsy family, with lots of hiking and camping in the picture, and he likes to escape into the Sierras with his wife and son in the summer. Early life was spent in a gold rush town in Northern California, followed by a stint in France where he went to school as a child, then adolescence in Berkeley, home of the Free Speech movement. He claims his was not an especially musical household, and he didn’t get around to playing guitar until he was a young man, living in New York City and going to Film School. He’s a visual writer, fashioned by those years studying film structure, paying attention to creating a vivid setting and dramatic structure in his songs.
These days he’s spending countless hours in the recording studio putting together his sixth album. Let’s check in and see how it’s going:
Ann: Can you tell us about your early musical influences?
Alex: I started writing songs in the late 90’s, so the Indie-rock giants of that time were a big influence – Neutral Milk Hotel, Pavement, Cat Power, Belle & Sebastian, Elliot Smith, Yo La Tengo. Those kinds of bands mixed with a lot of Beatles. A lot of the Beatles. Also Leonard Cohen, The Kinks, Rolling Stones , The Velvet Underground, The Smiths and The Cure.
Ann: I sense from your lyrics that you are a reader. What do you read and how does what you read inspire or stir up your language?
Alex: I’ll probably never tackle Ulysses, but I do read, and I do like to read and I always have. I read mostly fiction, novels and occasionally, non-fiction. I might pull imagery from what I read, or sometimes (though probably less often), a kind of prose style that strikes me. Usually that influence comes out in a couple of lines, rather than a whole song.
Ann: Would you say that you have an overall project in your music, a project that all the songs and albums are somehow part of? If so, what might that be?
Alex: Sea Wolf isn’t a conceptual exploration of a particular thing, or something with a preconceived story arc, if that’s what you’re getting at. Sea Wolf sprang from an epiphany of sorts about what it was that I wanted to do and express musically. What it is, has developed and evolved over time and I expect it to continue like that. I tend to be attracted by certain themes and imagery and sounds, so maybe that comes through on all the albums in a way that connects them.
Ann: What is your discipline/process of writing the songs? Do you write in intense bursts, or do you sit down every day, hell or high water?
Alex: Intense bursts definitely happen, but I also need to sit down every day because you never know when something good will come out. I block out a chunk of time to write, because it takes a while to get in a groove, and once you are in that groove you don’t want to be interrupted. I don’t write when touring or promoting an album, so once the touring cycle for an album ends, I sit down and clear my calendar for a year to write and make another record.
Ann: Do you have a sense of where the songs come from?
Alex: Hard to say. Often, when a song comes, it’ll feel like the most natural and easy and obvious thing in the world. But that feeling, that sense of it all being so clear, is always fleeting. So you just have to be ready to get as much down as you can while you are in that space.
Ann: You have a gift for melody. This is relatively rare. What other melodic artists do you admire?
Alex: Thank you! This is difficult to narrow down because my favorite music is all melodic. Of contemporary acts, I think Vampire Weekend is the first name that comes to mind as being melodically great. I was a big studier of the Beatles when I first began writing songs, and they still hold sway over me in that area and remain the gold standard. I also appreciate the melodies in songs from the golden age of musicals and early jazz standards.
Ann: How have the songs changed from first album to current work? What remains consistent in your vision?
Alex: Well, I’m older (he’s 40) and in a different place in my life now, so lyrically I’m probably singing about different kinds of things, or at least from a different perspective. Musically, each album has sounded a bit different from the one that preceded it, because I’m always wanting to do something new and explore new territory, discovering new sounds and ideas and outgrowing old ones. I’ve come to a place now where I’m wanting to embrace all the stuff I like, as disparate as it may be, and find a way to get it all to fit together.
Ann: How do you stir up habits of writing, so that you don’t fall into rhythms that have become too familiar to you?
Alex: Anytime I’m bored it’s a sign to do something else. Sometimes just picking up a different guitar, or creating a beat on the computer, or coming up with an interesting keyboard sound, or even doing something like rearranging the studio will open up a new door for me and switch things around in my head. But more often than not, taking a break, going on a trip, getting out of the routine and out into the world is the best thing to do.
Ann: If you had to categorize your music by genre, what term would you use?
Alex: Indie would be the genre you’d find Sea Wolf under in iTunes, and I’m cool with that.
Ann: You’ve said that you are not a ‘singer-songwriter’. I’m curious as to why you shirk that label.
Alex: I think it depends on what someone has in mind when they say ‘singer-songwriter’, because I don’t identify with the ‘sensitive guy with acoustic guitar’ genre, which is what I think of when I think of ‘singer-songwriter’, and I generally dislike that kind of music. On the other hand, guys like Sufjan Stevens and Father John Misty could probably fall under the ‘singer-songwriter’ label, and I’d be fine with being in whatever category they are in, because, like myself, those guys do a lot more than stand there with an acoustic guitar singing sad love songs. But maybe I’m not doing myself any favors in shirking that label, because I know that people who listen to that kind of music do like Sea Wolf, and after all, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and David Bowie and Elliot smith are all ‘singer-songwriters’ and they’re pretty badass.
Ann: For many years, you played/wrote with the Indie-rock band, Irving, in California. Did you get restless and want to make a different kind of music? What led you to forming the persona of Sea Wolf?
Alex: Irving was the first band I was in, and I learned to write songs, sing, and play while I was in that band. It was so much fun, and having other guys to collaborate with and share the excitement of being in a band together was incredible. But I eventually grew into myself as a songwriter and singer and realized I wanted to do different music, and I didn’t want to have to compromise any more. Sea Wolf, especially at the beginning, was very much about getting to the core of what it was that I wanted to do, and finding empowerment in that experience.
Ann: Any words on the business side of music?
Alex: Unless you are Radiohead I do think that record labels are still very valuable. These days anyone can release their own music, globally, but whether or not it will get any attention still comes down to the network of people who are working the record. Putting out records requires a ton of work and artists should be spending their time making records and playing shows.
Ann: You’ve had tasty success in having your songs picked up for commercials, movie soundtracks etc. This seems pretty great, cash in hand, and musicians need to earn a living. Yet at the same time, your personal work is being used to ‘sell’ a product. Thoughts on this process and how you feel about it?
Alex: I come from the 1990’s indie rock school of thought which was very much that licensing songs to commercials was a form of selling out. All of that’s changed now, and I’m thankful to have mostly gotten over that notion, and thankful that most listeners have, too. People discover music in lots of different ways now, even from commercials and movies, and it’s known that we artists have to pay our bills given that people don’t buy records anymore. I do still cringe a little when I hear my music in a commercial, because it’s so personal to me, but most Sea Wolf fans’ response is ‘Hey, that’s Sea Wolf! Cool!’
Ann: What music do you pay attention to and how has this changed over the years?
Alex: The landscape of popular music has changed, and so has the music that I’ve paid attention to. I do keep up on what’s happening and new, as I always have, though I’m less likely to spend a significant amount of time with an album or artist that doesn’t grab me right away. I think that’s due to the way we listen to music nowadays, through streaming sites like Spotify. There’s so much music at your fingertips now, and you’re not paying for it individually, so there’s no sense of commitment that goes along with buying an album. If you don’t like something the first time, rather than give it a week, listening to it in your car, you just never listen to it again.
Ann: What’s new in the process of writing and recording the new album currently in the works?
Alex: I took a lot more time developing this record than usual. The writing took the longest (compared to albums in the past) and I think it’s because I was feeling more ambitious for this record and (thus) had a higher bar to contend with. Whether or not it will show, who knows, because a lot of times you are just satisfying yourself, and listeners often would’ve been cool with, or even preferred, the stuff that didn’t make the cut. This album is less smoothed out than the last (Old World Romance) and I think that was partially due to Cedarsmoke’s influence (a crowd-funded non-official Sea Wolf record). That record was done very quickly and I liked how human and rough it feels. I want to bring some of that into this album, and yet to also have a bit of the more polished and grand touches of Old World Romance.
Ann Ireland’s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.