Feature from the San Francisco Metro
J Church Switches Into Gear
Epicenter Zone is a punk rocker's dream house. Volunteers run a flat that supports a nonprofit record store, art gallery, record label and performance space. Fliers and photography are plastered on walls and ceilings; zines are scattered everywhere. It's located in a nondescript walk-up in San Francisco, but it could just as well be a vets hall in Sunnyvale or a converted garage in Palo Alto. The Bay Area punk scene has bred a vital clutch of such supportive hangouts for artists, musicians and misfits.
A show is jumping off tonight, and collective members are moving furniture and setting up the PA. The gig features J Church, a popular local trio named after a Muni line that runs through San Francisco's Mission District.
J Church is quickly gaining status as one of the best punk-pop groups around. Affable and adaptable, the trio can comfortably play both the regal Great American Music Hall and Berkeley's intimate Gilman Street club. All of which makes it that much more surprising that the band's Friday (Dec. 15) gig at the Los Gatos Teen Center marks its Santa Clara Valley debut.
The group's popularity in the South Bay is, so far, limited to an informed and mobile few. For one thing, San Jose has no all-ages collective like Epicenter or Gilman, and J Church is committed to all-ages shows. And last May, when the band ventured as far south as the Stanford Coffee House, as part of the Ear of the Dragon Tour, it was only because another gig had fallen through at the last minute. That its albums are hard to find doesn't help either; only two or three stores around the San Jose area carry J Church titles.
Singer/songwriter Lance Hahn traces his interest in music back to Hawaii, where he and his like-minded seventh- and eighth-grade friends read anarchist literature and joined No Business As Usual, an island collective that was a front for the indigenous Revolutionary Communist Party. Lance and his friends eventually got kicked out, but the experience fed their fascination with underground politics.
At Oahu's Kamehameha High School, Hahn formed Cringer, a punk band heavily influenced by Minor Threat and Crass. Cringer left the island to try out Los Angeles. After three years, Cringer moved to San Francisco and broke up. Hahn and bassist Gardner Pope formed J Church in 1992, and the band quickly released numerous singles, appeared on a score of compilations, and criss-crossed the U.S., Europe and Japan using its own Plane Ticket, Floors and Friends booking agency.
The band has released two albums recently, Arbor Vitae and a singles compilation, Nostalgic For Nothing. In 1996, J Church will embark on three U.S. tours, an English and European tour, and a jaunt to Australia and Japan. The current lineup of Hahn, Pope and drummer Reed Burgoyne has been in place since the fall of 1994. During one money-squandering trip to the U.K., legendary BBC DJ John Peel and Deceptive Records honcho Steve Lamacq (who broke Elastica worldwide) both expressed a liking to the band.
At the Epicenter show, the band performs its repertoire at a pace worthy of an Evelyn Wood speed-reading course. The arrangements careen with punk precision, yet they are driven by undeniably infectious pop hooks. Often, 90 seconds is all it takes for them to spin a noisy, heartfelt classic.
Burgoyne's trusty head-down drumming offsets Pope's ragged bass. Weaving together the styles are Hahn's supple, yet mercurial guitar work and pained vocals. Tracks from up and down the J Church discography rip by at a blinding pace: Lama Temple, Kathi and Katrina And Paul are grouped together. Why I Liked Bikini Kill, No Surprise and Yellow, Blue And Green follow.
J Church's strengths are expansive as a double-album sleeve. First there's the sonic horsepower of the three members. Then there's the songwriting. Each number conveys a specific mood, like pages ripped from a journal and set to music.
Hahn's lyrics can be emotionally wrought, as on My Favorite Place and If I'm Lonely, or irritated and observational, as on Guitar Center and Fascist Radio. On the minute-and-a-half Band You Love to Hate, Hahn sings with a brutal honesty that is both defiant and empowered about flagging values in the music business, a topic all too familiar to J Church.
When a 1994 SF Weekly article on the popularity of local punk intimated that J Church was ready to sign to a major label, it incited a minor revolt within the band's fan base. J Church is fiercely independent, but its members are not ruling out such a move.
"Instinctively, I don't like major labels," Hahn explains. "Then again, we've been treated badly by a lot of indie labels, too. For me, it's not just an indie vs. major argument anymore. We just like to go where we're treated better." The negative response of its fans left J Church pondering the motives of indie rock's self-appointed ethics police.
"The thing that really pisses me off is that everyone blames the bands for everything," Hahn opines. "They say, 'These bands all sold out because they did this tour or signed to this label.' These people have no idea what it's like to survive doing this. Most of the people who make these complaints are going to graduate from college, have their cush job, and they're writing comments from their parents' America Online account. They have no idea! Bands get screwed by indie labels, they get screwed by major labels, they get screwed by clubs everywhere."
J Church may rock lo-fi, but its web page [*] is anything but. A tour map, a discography, a family tree and a running list of every gig J Church has ever played make for interesting reading. The observations run from the despairing ("I remember us only getting $7 at the end of the night to split up between all the bands") to the astute ("While I do like the people of Olympia, I can't fucking figure out what they do all day long").
Then there's the case for Minot, N.D. "You wouldn't think so, but it's one of the greatest places to play," Hahn explains. "You get there, and it's a scary town. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, 250 of the coolest people will come and see you play. It's great because so many of our tours are based on making a big impression in New York or L.A. or Seattle, and really, at this point, I'm more interested in going back to Minot. It's less people, but more fun."
With Minot, N.D., conquered, the rest of the world awaits. For those worried about J Church getting taken to the cleaners, don't sweat. Hahn's background in anarchistic teachings prepared him well when he meets The Man. "Even if you have no interest in signing," he says, "it's worth it to go meet with them because at the end of the talk, they let you into the room with all the product, and you can have anything you want. Even though most of it sucks, you can always resell it."
Hahn, like his lyrics, is unrepentant. "They're destroying our music scene, so we can sell their CDs to do laundry," he says with a chuckle. "It's symbiotic in a sick way."
* The website referred to is Lance's original from around 1994, now long-gone.
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