A Life in Vinyl

Photo by the unknown snapperLance Hahn hasn't quite seen it all yet. But he's close. He's been deported four times. Been robbed three. He spent five days waiting to die in a San Francisco hospital room and then . . . didn't. ("I'm not afraid of death," he explains. "I'm afraid of painful death.") He leapt out his apartment window as a fire chewed through everything he owned in the world except his guitars—his master tapes, his record label, his demos for his next album.

Despite all that, his band J Church has played over 700 shows (and canceled only one, stuck in a Wisconsin snowstorm) and recorded around 200 songs for 45 different record labels, and in the 10 years since their first show, Hahn has stitched together one of the most consistent and comprehensive discographies in independent music. A stack of old J Church singles is part museum and part memoir, a catalog of subcultural specificities (Bikini Kill, Faye Wong, the Minutemen, the '75 Boston Red Sox) and social reportage not so far removed from Harry Smith's American folk music. This isn't a band; it's a life story put to vinyl.

"If I like something, it will influence me," says Hahn, whose current list of life-changing records runs from the Stones single he'd take baths with when he was eight to LPs by Crass and Albert Ayler. J Church "are just outside observers, really. We've never been a pop punk band or an emo band. I don't know why people think that. Well, I do know. But it's a cynical answer. From our perspective, I guess I worry that title dictates behavior."

But while critics once described J Church as pop-punk—justifiably, since guitarist-singer-only-original-member Hahn's songs do skew toward catchy power chords—they eventually switched to describing other pop-punk bands as J-Churchian, a convenient-if-unwieldy adjective for bands hoping to hijack a little of the commitment and personality that has kept Hahn and his band (this time around: Ben White, David DiDonato and Chris Pfeffer) vital and alive and productive for longer than all but the most stalwart institutions in independent music. After a slew of bands too poisonous to name here warped pop-punk into songs appropriate only for prom scenes in teensploitation movies, there wouldn't seem much point to writing sad songs for happy guitars. But Hahn abides. His stories about his hippie-childhood days in his native Hawaii make it seem like he's always been the gentle-but-principled iconoclast—he got kicked out of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade as a kid but still used to sweep through the Navy open houses at Pearl Harbor with plenty of anti-imperialism stickers—whether playing in a band or not. But his legendarily encyclopedic but disciplined tastes could have gotten him a professorship if only he'd been taking baths at eight with, say, James Joyce novels, and when he talks about pop or rock or punk—or politics or almost everything—he's not just talking about the first Ramones LP or a Chomsky reader. He's talking about generations of art, history (he's very into never-discussed successful anarchist experiments), social ebb-and-flow and the rawest fundamentals of modern life. In songs like "Imaginary Friends" off 2000's One Mississippi full-length, he describes a girl who "can make it to the store as it's part of her routine/[who] watches videos until they mix in with her dreams."

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In a J Church song, everything is reduced to its most potent base: pop means for the people, and punk means nothing is forbidden.

"When you think of your stereotypical anarcho punk band, you're still talking about a band that's fairly rigid in how they define themselves musically, aesthetically, [and] business-wise," Hahn says. "We really have no guidelines. We know why we're doing this so we don't need to shout a slogan or wear a patch to define who we are. That frees us up to do what we want and sing what we want."

The newest J Church project is a 15-minute micro-opera (like the Who's "A Quick One While He's Away," or the Subhumans' "Cradle To The Grave," says Hahn). Titled after the Situationist slogan, "Society Is a Carnivorous Flower" takes up an entire side of an album and isn't the kind of thing you write unless you know exactly why you want to do what you want to do. But like the Mekons—whose generation-long outsider career took them from shambling punk critique to woozy country and even a musical-of-sorts with Kathy Acker—or Pere Ubu or even the Fall (though much, much more polite), Hahn has found a method and a motive for his music that's so self-sufficient—so self-identified, even—that he's never going to have to do anything else.

"The band isn't a job for me. It's what I do," he says. "I mean, why wouldn't I want to keep writing songs and playing music? To stop J Church, I would have to get sick of music and I don't see that ever happening."

J Church Perform with Dfi, Storm the Tower and Knockout at Chain Reaction, 1652 W. Lincoln, Anaheim, (714) 635-6067. Sun., 7:30 p.m. $8. All ages.

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