Interview from Fracture zine #3

 

By Monk Dave.

Allied, Damaged Goods, Suspect Device, Broken Rekids, Crackle, Vagrant, Honest Don's Hardly Used Recordings, Rumblestrip, Startracks and Rugger Bugger are just a small selection of record labels that have put one or more releases by this vastly prolific band over the years, but things don't seem to be slowing down in any way, shape or form for them, so with four albums and over forty seven inches under their belts, now seemed as good a time as any to find out how things are going for J Church.

Lance Hahn, lead singer and political driving force behind this awesome power-punk trio gave us a call direct from the Honest Don's/ Fat Wreck Chords head office over in San Francisco at around 7pm (U.K. time) on the sixth of November, 1997 and let us have a rather interesting view into the life of his band and his current feelings towards such topics as the way the television media affects our lives, how people deal with poverty in different ways, and how music and books have shaped his life.

J Church were Lance, Gardner and Wade. J Church are Lance, Gardner and Reed.

Monk - So you've been around for quite a while now and, even so, you still seem to have ten times as many releases as any other band... why is this?

Lance - Yeah. I think that it just seems like we have that much stuff out. People get really confused because we try to licence our records, especially our old records as much as possible to other countries, just because the import prices are so high and you know, it's just ridiculous to pay ten dollars for a J Church single or thirty dollars for a J Church CD, so we try to licence stuff everywhere. For our first couple of albums and our early singles we have them licensed right now to England, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Australia, Japan, just so that it can get there cheaper. It may have different artwork, a different title or whatever, but it's basically the same songs, so when this stuff comes out people seem to think we have ten albums or something, but we've only got like four albums and a big batch of singles. They're essentially the same songs on all these different releases, but I think that people just get confused by all the things that we licence to other countries which is too bad because as a result you get people buying all these import records which are essentially the same songs and they end up paying these ridiculously high prices for them. People should just, uh, look at the song list! As I said the reason we do it that way is to get them cheaper to other countries. It's not like we're trying to repackage the same songs in the same country.

Monk - Has anyone ever written to you complaining that they bought the same record three times or whatever?

Lance - Well not really. I mean we've been really up front about that, and anybody who would care about that kind of thing that much gets our newsletter and in that, which we do like every four or five months, it has a complete breakdown of everything we have out and it tells people what songs are on what collection, and it tells people like, "okay if you live in the United States you don't need to buy this One because it's got the same songs that came out on this record", so anybody who would really care and bother to write to us about it would already know. So yeah, anyone that would really care can find out about it in our newsletter I suppose.

Monk - So with all these 'licensing deals' and all the touring you do and stuff like that is the band regularly generating enough income so as to not have to hold down full-time jobs or anything like that?

Lance - Well I mean there's not ever that much money in independent records overall. When we talk about licensing it's not like we're licensing to Sony or anything where we get, y'know, a $100,000 advance. If you include the whole licensing thing then our best selling record is probably about 13,000 copies, something like that. So over the course of a year, and between three band members, $14,000 isn't really that much when you think about it. We do all just about get by, but I think it has to do more with our touring than the records because I mean over the last year we've done three U.S. tours, two European tours and we're coming up on our second Japanese tour so... I moved into my new apartment over a year ago and I've only been there for five months! So yeah, I think it has more to do with the fact that when we go on the road we're usually able to at least make enough to get by between tours and then there's no really expenses for us individually while we're on tour because obviously it pays for the food, just getting by, and we can cover our rent while we're gone, so yeah, we're able to get by but it's hardly the 'rock' life!

Monk - What was the 13,000 selling one?

Lance - That was the Camels, Spilled Corona... thing, the first singles collection. The thing with that is there's an English version, a Swedish version, a Japanese version, an Australian version and a U.S. version obviously, and there's two different vinyl pressings, so overall, if you add up all the different licences then that's the best selling record.

Monk - So obviously you tour a lot... do you like that then, just going off, coming back home for a bit and then heading off again, or does it kind of get on your nerves after a while?

Lance - It's weird, I mean when you're on tour you're dying to go home, like after the third week you just want some privacy, but then it's always really weird when you do get back. For a lot of people it's really hard to adjust back home, especially after a long tour, because all the time you're thinking about home you're thinking about what home was like before you left. You know? When you come back two months later everything has changed and everybody's gotten on with their lives, like they're not where you were at and they're not at the same place they were, personally or whatever, when you left so I find it kind of hard to relate to people for the first few weeks at home. I tend to just sort of cocoon and avoid people for the first few weeks because it's not what you were expecting so there's this weird kind of depression or disappointment when you first get home. After a while anyway of being home you start to wonder when the next tour is going to be and when you're going to get to do something, especially when you're in a situation like us because we don't so a lot between tours except maybe work on songs or whatever business there is. It's just more interesting for us to be out playing, I mean we never play in San Francisco.
So it's weird because wherever you're at you end being in this kind of limbo, like when you're home you wanna be gone, but when you're out there you're kind of expecting something different at home so you wish you were there, but in the end either world is never exactly what you want. It's not really as horrible as all that, but when you're touring as consistently as we are that's roughly how it is.

Monk - Yeah, the grass is always greener on the other side! So is it kind of weird then trying to hold down friendships and like close relationships with people then?

Lance - I think it is. What's funny about that though is, as a result, my closest friends are people that don't live here. I have a handful of really close friends here but, I mean because I spend so much time in England I'm probably closer to people like Sean and Ben just because they kind of know what the life is like and I see them two or three times a year now at least, so we can always pick up our friendship from where it left off. It's not like here where you're all dealing with normal living situations and what have you, so it's different, but I mean five years ago, before we started touring so regularly I guess I had more of a normal life including friendships/ relationships or whatever. Now it's just a matter of dealing with it differently I suppose.

Monk - Do you feel like the more songs you write, the less you have left?

Lance - There was a time when I used to really worry about that but, uh, I think there's different approaches to being a songwriter attitude-wise and I think that there are people who think it's a completely random, artistic thing, which is a gift that they have and at some point maybe it will be taken away from them and won't have that inspiration or whatever, but I tend to think of it more as just a skill like any other working skill. It's not like this divine inspiration, it's more like something you work on and learn how to get better at. I used to be worried about but I'm not anymore because a lot of what I'm doing is just working on, uh this might sound kind of ridiculous, but it's no different to like working on a car or something. It's not like that is gonna go away, it's more like you're working on a skill, and hopefully you're getting better at it or at least you're learning how to do more of what you wanna do, so because of that I'm not really concerned about running out of songs or anything. The one thing I worry about is if I get sick of it, and that does happen, but that may not be such a bad thing because if I really got sick of it I would just move on to something else. I don't really see that happening sometime soon though, or maybe not even ever. So no, I'm not really worried about ever losing 'the muse'!

Monk - Do you ever wish to play other kinds of music though, like something that I suppose wouldn't be classed as punk rock?

Lance - Well, there have been different things. I have a lo-fi four track thing that I do called Cilantro which is just like me and occasionally other people doing some four-track, home recording type stuff and uh, because home recording stuff usually has no drums it's kind of a Sentridoh approach I guess. In some ways that makes it more experimental but it's just a different kind of music I guess. More, I hate to say 'folky', but it's not as aggro and not as rock oriented I guess. There's also been talk of me and the drummer, and one from this band Pee doing a country type thing but I mean these are all just side projects, just things to try out and not something that would ever become 'forefront' or replace like what J Church is doing.

Monk - So is this other stuff you do, is it like influenced by stuff you grew up with and we're exposed to in your childhood?

Lance - Well I come from Hawaii, and Hawaiian music is essentially heavily influenced by country, just with different types of tuning, so yeah, I've always sort of liked a lot of that type of stuff. I mean I don't like new country or anything like that, like I don't listen to Garth Brooks or anything like that, but that old stuff was something that my grandparents listened to or whatever, so obviously that's going to have some sort of sentimental value and some sort of nostalgic interest. That's why it's just a side project though and I realise that I'm just living through something that I'm loosely interested in and know it isn't really my main interest or creative outlet or whatever.

Monk - You seem to do well at getting your messages across in your music, but do you think it's likely that the lyrics/ words become so important to you that you'd maybe stop playing music altogether and do some kind of spoken word project; something like that?

Lance - No, just because first of all it's very, very rare that I've heard spoken word that I've actually enjoyed. The times that I have enjoyed it it's been someone like Hubert Selby who's essentially a really talented writer or novelist or whatever, and he was just reading passages from his writings. Spoken word to me seems to be in a kind of a vacuum, uh, that type of performance doesn't really move me at all. Maybe I just don't know enough about it, that's possible but I don't find it very interesting, and as far as being a serious writer I just don't think I have it in me. Songs are great for me because I can just spend sixteen lines writing about something and for me it's a lot easier when you have that kind of frame work to get your point across, because with writing it's a lot easier to get really long-winded and lose your timing or whatever and, just judging by the times when I have tried to write... I went to school for journalism and writing and I was gonna be a writer, and that's what I got my money to go to college for, was all for writing and stuff, but it's easier for me to write songs basically as it's something that I've done for so long, and it's something that I can really work on. But yeah, I just don't feel like I have that capability. Maybe at some point I could, but right now it's not something that I would even consider unless it was more focused around lyrics or, I don't know, it's just not something I feel I can really do and it's not anything that's going to happen sometime soon. It's too embarrassing!

Monk - It's like with a band like J Church I think that having a good tune kind of makes you take notice of the lyrics more anyway. You may learn something through reading the lyrics, but the interest comes from the tune first I think...

Lance - Yeah, I mean I try and combine those things a lot especially because I think it's so easy to write a generic, pop-punk tune with irrelevant lyrics, and I think it's more interesting when you can include heavier or sad or whatever, uh, deeper ideas within a poppy or catchy tune, like that kind of pop/ indie music or whatever. It has a different atmosphere when you're juxtaposing ideas rather than just going through the motions. That's what was always so terrible about a lot of the American pop of the '60's and '70's and '80's, you know, it was all just so manufactured, but when you combined different ideas, even if they're the most obvious then that's when you can create something a lot more abrasive I think. Not abrasive in a bad way, but abrasive in a way that makes people take notice.

Monk - Back to your touring a bit, have you ever been affected by visiting 'poorer' areas, like countries on mainland Europe, that have been drastically altered by war, etc?

Lance - Well I think I get affected more by the culture shock of being in different countries, like even when you go to Europe just to a grocery store or something you're instantly hit by culture shock. I mean I come from a very, very poor area, not even working class, uh, more like a peasant type area. Where I come from in Hawaii it's all immigrants, mostly, or families of immigrants that have liked worked in the sugar cane fields or pineapple fields for years and years and years. Where I lived it was a very bad gang neighbourhood, like there was several gangs, and also you'd go down the street and there was literally people who would get there water from the public utilities at the beach. It practically feels like a third world situation and you don't feel like you're part of the United States. When you live there you feel like you may as well be in the Philippines or whatever because, like you've got nothing to compare it to because you can't go to California when you live in Hawaii because there's the ocean, so I guess it doesn't affect me in the same way because I sort of feel like I come from that kind of a background. You know a lot of the United States is as poor and as depressed and as impoverished as anywhere else in the world, um, and that's one of the areas that I come from to be honest. It's just lucky that I was able to get out of there. I mean most of my friends are either in the Military or working in the fields or whatever, or dead to be honest, so I'm not affected in the same sense that most like upper-middle class white punk rock groups would be affected by seeing that kind of thing, uh, for me it's just like seeing how people deal with it differently to how people deal with it in Hawaii. It is interesting to me how in other places people become more politicised by it and actually do something, like you have the riots in England, or like what goes on in Northern Ireland or whatever. It's interesting how people deal with it, whereas in the States it's ended up being mostly just gang oriented.
There's no class consciousness about that kind of thing in the United States, um, that's possible because the United States is only 200 years old, but in the end I think it's more iterating to me than shocking I suppose.

Monk - The last time we spoke you were saying that you're currently living in one of the worst areas in San Francisco, uh, have you had any bad experiences since you got back from the UK?

Lance - It's really weird that you said that actually because, um, yeah in the few weeks that I've been back two things have happened. One not to me, but to someone right on my alley. Apparently someone got jumped by these druggie type people, like Crack heads, and I think it was some white guy who was going to some club, uh, there's a couple of dance clubs in the area, and on certain nights one of them is like the secret hip spot for underground drum and bass or whatever, and this guy got jumped and he got robbed, and they took all of his clothes! Anyway, he ran off, jumped in his car and came screeching down the alley, trying to run over the people that robbed him! That was a huge deal, like right outside my door. Then something real weird happened to me the other night, this guy like this total Crack head or whatever, uh, they always come up to you asking of you want something or whatever, which is not really a big deal to me because I live there and they know who I am and usually nothing comes of it, but this guy was like totally out of it and ended up following me to my apartment, and I literally had to kick him off my stairs to close the gate. Like I literally had to kick him hard enough to knock him onto the street. Luckily he was so out of it he just went off wandering down the street, and probably doesn't even remember where I live, and he didn't do anything after that, but yeah it was really weird because things always seem to happen in my neighbourhood, people get robbed or beaten or shot or whatever because it's a pretty big drug dealing gang type neighbourhood, but it seemed weird that it was something that close to me. That was really odd.

Monk - Have you ever though about getting out of there, finding somewhere nice and quiet by the beach?!

Lance - I could never afford it. The reason I live there is because, well right now San Francisco is the most expensive city in the entire United States to live, like it's more expensive than Manhattan so realistically unless you're able to pay like five or six hundred dollars a month rent, usually more actually, you're gonna have to live in a pretty gnarly area. Yeah, I'd love to move but it's just not likely. If I ever move it's just gonna be to another bad neighbourhood I suppose.

Monk - So how come it's so expensive there, like is it because of high insurance due to the earthquake threat or something?

Lance - It's just one of those things that happen. Certain cities become the hip place to live and it's just one of those phenomenons really. It's got nothing to do with anything that anyone can predict. It's just this phenomenon that's been talked about in the news for the last two years. Yeah, I couldn't tell you, I mean the experts can't even tell you really. It's just one of those things that happens because the currents in this country are just do random, economically or whatever, that suddenly San Francisco just exploded. I hope it's gonna taper off, although it's not like prices are gonna go down, ever, but I just hope it will all taper off at some point, and then hopefully the economy will catch up with it...

Monk - Obviously reading plays a pretty essential role in your life, but what are some of the most important things you've ever learned from books, do you think?

Lance - I know this is cheesy and I say this all the time, but The Revolution Of Everyday Life is probably the last book that really politically changed me, well partly changed me and partly I was into it because it was a political ideology which was saying something that I was sort of feeling. Before that my parents were hippies and left wing oriented, so even when I was like in eighth or ninth grade I was at least left wing leaning, ands by the time I was in school was interested in like anarchist politics, you know, partly because I was into Crass and all that, which was also very important to me, but like when you talk about anarchist politics it's such a huge field, and when you're not knowing what you're doing in school it's all very unspecific, so when I started reading The Revolution Of Everyday Life and other Situationist type books or whatever, that was more specifically defining what I was coming up with to a certain extent on my own.
That was the last one that really heavily changed me, and it's true that a lot of my initial interests came from records actually, but that's not where I developed my ideas because obviously you've gotta read books to learn more, but a lot of the initial inspiration came from, well first it was The Clash when London Calling came out and all that that's when I started caring about left wing politics, and then when Crass came out that's when I started getting into the anarcho stuff. These were things that were exciting to me, and then the more I read about it, the more I felt it was something I really believed in. It's weird because at first it's like a cult, you know, how you get into these things, but if it's an ideology that's based on free thinking and individuality within the community, etc. etc. it kind of deflects itself from being a cult type thing. I mean considering all the anarchists constantly bicker with each other and don't get along, it's hard to say it's even a movement! At this point though I read a lot of books which are collections of short stories and fiction and that sort of stuff, as well as the occasional political books. I also really like a lot of post Structuralism philosophy and that was probably the last thing that influenced me at all. After reading Simulations by Jean Baudrillard, who's a French philosopher, a lot of everything else has been just learning more about these same ideas, just building on that basic idea and getting deeper into it and opening up to newer ideas within this overall frame-work. So that's a lot of the stuff that is the most interesting to me now. Outside of that it's mostly like fiction like Mary Gateskill who is a writer who used to live here who writes a lot about, just really like sometimes very gritty stories about either being a prostitute or living on the street, or comparing that to being in horrible work situations or family relationships. She almost like a harder, more street-wise Raymond Carver kind of a writer. Those are the books that I've been looking up recently.

Monk - If you'd have been around at the time of, say, the Vietnam War do you think that you would have been pretty active, politically speaking?

Lance - I would hope so. Yeah, I would think so just because of whenever things do happen, here or wherever I like to think that I and the people around me are as involved as possible, be it the Gulf War, well the 'alleged' Gulf War, or the Rodney King riots or whatever. Everyone I know was in the middle of it, doing things... Y'know I don't go along with the overall left wing picture of San Francisco, as far as like whatever liberal and left wing politics there are here I don't particularly fit in there either, but I assume it would be the same no matter what generation I lived in, but I think that because of where I grew up and various things that happened throughout my life and just being a little more lucid about news and politics than a lot of other people are I would like to think that, yeah, I would definitely like to be... Actually in view of my background I probably would have been drafted, been forced to go to Vietnam and now I'd probably be dead!

Monk - So what do you think is the last big thing that really moved you and motivated you to react in some way?

Lance - Well lately it's been just an absolute frustration with watching television and watching world news, especially right now, the kind of media coverage there has been around like with the English nanny that allegedly killed that kid, and how that's being built up, the news about what's happening in Iraq, etc. Usually that kind of thing doesn't bother me but, uh, maybe it's because we had an election here yesterday, but it's like the news just becomes this weird machine during those time periods, and lately it's just been so sensational, and it's always bad. You know, television news is always horrendous here, but lately the line between that and talk show sensationalism is becoming just so undefined that it's just, uh, my latest bone I suppose.

Monk - Yeah, and the whole problem with the news nowadays is that it's just not entertaining to people unless it's bad, you know, which is the sickest thing about it. I presume the Louise Woodward trial is on TV around the clock over there...

Lance - Yeah, it's all just very confusing right now. For a long time I sort of felt like, with media or whatever, that I was totally separated from it and that I was so sick of it I could put it out of my mind or whatever, and not care about these things, but it now seems that if it affects enough people it inadvertently affects everyone’s life and you end up forgetting that you're still living, like you may be left wing or anarchist or whatever you are, but you're still living within this situation, this neo post capitalist frame-work that's basically what this country is about, and it affects everyone from the wealthiest wealthy to the homeless, really. I don't know, you try to ignore those things, well not so much try to ignore them but just try to get on with the more constructive things that you're doing and try to just not be affected by it, but you ultimately are because you have to deal with people.

Monk - It seems as though the planet is coming to some kind of a head, both on a geographical and social level, do you think that we are already at 'the beginning of the end', not really in any prophetic way, but just because the human race has done so much damage?

Lance - Well I don't believe in the Millennium and all that stuff. I think when people talk about the Millennium or whatever, the real thing to worry about is that there are enough people in powerful places with a lot of money that are mystic and religious in weird ways, and believe in the Millennium and believe in all this weird Christian voodoo type stuff, and even if it's not gonna happen, they want it to happen. They will usher it in, and try to create situations that would be predicted as far as mass destruction or whatever, y'know world economic decline and disasters and all this Military stuff. So there's people that believe in the Millennium, and whether it exists or not they're gonna help it happen and, just because these tend to be the most powerful people in the world, that's what I'd be more worried of than anything actually naturally coming to a head because I think that, just naturally, history just sort of rolls over on itself and things change. There's always this constant struggle that exists, but I don't think it's heading towards a 'millennium' or whatever...

Monk - But don't you like think there's a point where we're gonna get so technologically advanced that there will be nowhere else to go to, like nothing else to gain, and we'll simply blow ourselves up?

Lance - Not necessarily. I mean there's a part of me that would think that, but maybe I've just read too many books that talk of a cyber-future or something! I don't know, I think that the worst natural fear of advances in science and technology or whatever is the direct effect as far pollution, etc. etc. I think that when you talk about the fear of the cyber-techno future and everything, it has more to do with the people who are creating these kind of things and the reasons for why they're being made and how that affects us, you know? I think it has more to do with the fact that everywhere in the world there is capitalism and that countries continue to create useless goods that nobody really needs. That's the main fear I think. It's not necessarily the machinery or the science, it's the thinking that goes behind that and the reasoning as to why things are created I suppose.

Monk - So on a personal level how do you think that each and everyone of us can change the world for the better then?

Lance - I think it has more to do with your surroundings and where you live and how you treat other people, because I think that, uh, well I think the most you can do is set examples and live as correctly as you think you can, and be very open about that. It's more important to act as much as you can for the situation that is existing in front of you at every moment, and you can't be, you know, doing something and hoping that it will have an effect five years from now. Well sometimes that has to happen, but I think ultimately you have to be dealing with your own personal situations and with what's around you, and I think that affects people more so than any pamphlet or the reading of books or whatever. You deal with what's around you, and the cycle of economics or whatever is gonna affect people more than any political organisation. I don't think that things happen because people force them to happen, they happen because, uh, I mean when things change in this country is when people are directly affected by what's wrong with the current situation. A lot of people see it, and it affects a lot of people, but it's more when enough people are a step away from homelessness or are directly affected by starvation and poverty. That's when things in the overall political picture are gonna happen. It's more important to me to live as much as possible and as freely as you can, and knowing why you're doing it, and basically trying to educate yourself as much as possible because, whether it happens in our lifetime or in the next, it's that moment in history that's actually going to be affecting the overall global political picture, and it's more important for us personally to know what's going on and to affect the people around you and the next generation I suppose... That's partly why there's no slogans in our lyrics because you can't just throw random ideas at people, you know, you have to understand how it affects them personally. That's true for everyone, I mean I can go on about how I've read this book or that book, but the reason those books were so important to me are because they were probably what I was thinking anyway, but you've got to have an understanding, like be able to relate stuff in the books directly to something that's happened in your personal life for it to really mean anything to you, like anything that is going to have a lasting impression. The rest is just the icing on the cake...

 

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