Alex Brown Church, a former Berkeley resident now living in LA, has released three albums under his alias Sea Wolf.
In the midst of a national tour to support the latest Sea Wolf album, Old World Romance, We caught up with Church to chat about returning to the Bay Area, Jack London and writing a song for Augusten Burroughs. Sea Wolf performs at the Great American Music Hall May 21st.
You are getting ready to embark on a nationwide tour, is there any place your especially excited about playing?
Actually, Great American Music Hall. I’ve played there before but never headlined, and I grew up in Berkeley so it will be nice to return home. Also Bonnaroo, we’re really excited to play that festival.
Who are you most excited to see and share the stage with?
I’m excited to see the National and Animal Collective. We’ll be there Thursday and Friday so I don’t know what bands we’ll be able to see. We’re playing the ZZ Top stage, which is kind of funny.
Your last album, Old World Romance, seems to have a coming of age, JD Salinger type of feel to it. Songs like “Old Friend” and “Dear Fellow Traveler” suggest a sort of personal transition. What was your inspiration for this album?
That’s definitely an astute observation. I had just moved back to California after being in Montreal for three years. Over those three years I was also touring a lot, and wasn’t really home much. I came back to California and had a lot of down time. We didn’t tour for two years and during that time I was writing so I was kind of coming back home and I wrote the record in my studio in LA.
The things that came up for me showed on the record; connecting with old friends and family members, coming back to a life I left and reconnecting to it, dealing with new perspectives and tying up loose ends. That was the headspace I was in.
About transition, for some reason that’s the most interesting subject matter for me and most my records address that. The first album, Leaves in the River, is about seasons. For me, when I write, it’s about transition and change and growth, physically and mentally.
It seems like you experimented more on your latest album compared to your previous albums.
Yeah, I wrote a lot of the songs to programmed drums beats that I programmed in this 80’s drum machine. I wanted to deviate from my normal style and play to beats that challenged me to play something different. When I demoed the songs, I realized that I liked the way the drums sounded and it ended up becoming a part of the album.
I also use to use a lot of acoustic string arrangements, but for this album I didn’t want those. I wanted to shy away from the traditional folk style and explore new stuff. As far as maturity, I feel like I’ve just matured personally and now I’m much more seasoned. The challenge is to do something that breaks the mold but still feels genuine and makes sense with the artist. For me, I feel like my favorite bands are the ones that evolve.
You attended film school in New York, has this helped you with song writing—creating imagery and environments for songs to exist?
Absolutely. Growing up as a kid, another thing I aspired to do was be a writer of novels. My high school English teacher gave me that great advice, “show don’t tell,” and for me it clicked that you have to paint a picture in people’s minds. When you write screenplays you’re telling people what to visualize, so that definitely helped. There are also elements in my lyrics that are linear and poetic, but that background has definitely influenced the writing for sure.
How was your experience writing a song for Augusten Burroughs’ novel, “A Wolf at the Table”?
It was cool. He approached me with this idea that he wanted to have different artists write songs that were inspired by the book. It’s actually part of the audio version of the book, and it’s like this bonus track. The assignment was to write something inspired by the book. It could be anything.
The book inspired some feelings and reflections of my own life, so I decided to write a song about the things the book brought up for me. In the end, he was really happy with the song and I feel good about it, but I was nervous because it’s such an odd thing to do. I was nervous it wouldn’t meet his expectations.
Speaking of novels, your band name, Sea Wolf, is inspired by Jack London’s novel “The Sea Wolf.” Does the protagonist, Humphrey Van Weyden, reflect you or your musical journey?
For one, I just really liked the name, but it also had these connotations to where I’m from: the history of the Bay Area and Jack London being a sort of folk hero in Northern California. There was a lot of stuff outside of music that I was going through at that time. I had a unique childhood and had issues I was dealing with, so for me Sea Wolf was an emblem of empowerment.
It was taking charge of my destiny and accepting my own strengths and weaknesses, and championing both through the music as well as reaching back from where I was from and events from my past. The genesis of Sea Wolf resembled the transformation the character goes through. It was kind of more instinctual at that point. At the time it felt totally magical and right.