Sea Wolf aren’t the kind of band that Rolling Stone writes about to prove that they’re still with it, years after Pitchfork breaks them. There are no Twitter-induced frenzies when the band appear, no photos of coked-out parties on Perez Hilton, no regrettable interviews on Stereogum. Sea Wolf aren’t a buzz band, and that’s just fine with main singer/songwriter Alex Brown Church.
After all, there’s a lot to be said for not being written about everywhere. One, you can keep making music that’s sincere, whether or not people are talking about it. Two, you don’t have to be confined to people’s labels of what your music sounds like. Third, you can reinvent yourself constantly.
And maybe Church is grateful for all these things. He was the bassist of Los Angeles’ once-up-and-coming indie-pop darlings Irving, but he left the band when he realized he wasn’t a good fit. It was a valuable experience nonetheless; Church said it helped him find his voice.
Post-Irving, Sea Wolf (a tribute to Jack London’s novella of the same name) developed slowly. Church started writing solo songs as Sea Wolf, initially locking himself into a room and writing nonstop, drawing inspiration from heroes Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. (“They’re my default mode,” he says.) After drawing some friends together, he kick-started his solo career by performing in hipster venues around Los Angeles. Soon after, he recorded a celebrated acoustic set of heartfelt pop songs on an EP titled Get to the River Before It Runs Too Low.
Church’s melodic folk songs fuse a classical, literary sense of imagery with emotional themes all his own. Church always liked Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot’s poetry—“Classic iconic imagery,” he explains—and these were themes he explored for both his debut, Leaves In the River, and his most recent release, White Water, White Bloom.
Now that Church is touring to support White Water, he has a better handle on the musical process, he says. These songs are different from previous Sea Wolf releases mostly because of the lyrics’ very concrete imagery. Almost all of it was written in his girlfriend’s kitchen in Montreal. Though “it just happened to be the place I had to be at,” he says, it had a clear effect on his writing.
“Being in a new place always gives you a renewed sense of awareness in your surroundings. . . . Especially the part that plays in your lyrics,” he says. “When you’re at home, you kind of stop seeing things.”
That explains much of the physical imagery in White Water’s songs: snow, geese, rivers and dead trees.
Does Southern California give him the same visual inspiration? “No, not at all,” Church says, laughing. “It’s too warm!”
Still, there are traces of Los Angeles in White Water. The set’s overall feel has a warm, swoony vibe to it—perfect for lazy days on the beach or driving around freeways.
Church listened to a lot of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young while making the album, he says, as well as Bob Dylan. “Lot of times, I just get inspired by this or that band, and it shows up in parts of my songs, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” he says. Though there isn’t a glaring example of Dylan’s influence, Church gives a few clues: “There’s a song in White Water called ‘The Trader’—it’s my Bob Dylan song that I patterned after ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.’ It doesn’t sound anything like that song, but the idea is that the verse repeats over and over.”
It helps, too, that his hometown is the hub of the movie industry. Last year, Sea Wolf had a song in the Twilight Saga: New Moon soundtrack. The indie-rock compilation had a slew of other great acts on it, including Grizzly Bear and Thom Yorke. “The woman who put the music together for the film was a fan of Sea Wolf and contacted our label. We had an extra song recorded, and it happened to fit perfectly,” Church says. It gave his work a notable boost—not to mention cred with the teeny-bopper set. Well, kind of.
“I see some Twilighters at our shows, but not really,” he says. “I mean, we also play rooms that are 18- or 21-and over.”
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Not that any of that really matters. Whether Church is playing at sold-out concert halls or recording music in a studio, he says, he’s really only happy when creating new music. “Nothing quite feels like finishing new songs. That’s pure and creative. That’s what I do. If I couldn’t do anything else, I’d just be writing songs.”
Sea Wolf perform at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Tues., 9 p.m. $13. 21+.
This article appeared in print as "Sea Wolf Sing Affable Songs: Alex Brown Church doesn’t need to be in a buzz band. He just wants to write music."