Feature from the Austin American-Statesman

Just looking for a little good luck
by Joe Gross, December 2002

He's an awfully nice guy, and it seems a little cruel to say, but the evidence is overwhelming, so you just have to lay it out there:

Lance Hahn is bad luck.

Fortunately, the 35-year-old leader of the pop-punk band J Church bursts out laughing at the idea. "Yeah, people should just give me a wide berth," he says from the back room of UT-area record store Sound Exchange, where he works one of his several day jobs.

Three years ago, Hahn almost died. After spending most of the '90s without medical insurance and never bothering to go to the doctor, he went to the hospital thinking he had bronchitis and wound up being admitted with malignant hypertension. His heart had become so enlarged that the doctors at San Francisco General Hospital thought he was pretty much finished. "I pulled out of it, but it was pretty close," Hahn says.

Hahn moved to Austin in '99, when his partner, Liberty Lidz, enrolled in grad school at UT. He began to establish a life here, broken up by flights to San Francisco to see his cardiologist and his band, which was still based in California.

Then his apartment burned down this summer. "I just saw flames going by my window," Hahn says. "I thought it was just firecrackers, since it was near the Fourth of July. Then I found myself having to jump out the window."

Destroyed: all of the materials belonging to his record label, Honey Bear. Gone: the only remaining draft of a book he was working on. Up in smoke: about $40,000 worth of possessions.

"We lost pretty much everything," he says. "A few four-tracks, three computers, all the CD burners, plus all of our clothing, all of Liberty's school books and about 5,000 records. The only reason my guitars were OK is because Gibson makes very, very good cases."

Of course, with Hahn's luck, he didn't have renter's insurance. "It's so expensive in California we didn't think to get it, but renter's insurance is amazingly cheap in Austin. It would have covered almost everything, too." He sighs.

But Hahn is well-liked. Not only did Austin bands put together a benefit, there were fund-raisers in Japan, England, New York and San Francisco. "I think there was something in Luxembourg also," Hahn says. He doesn't seem to be kidding. "I keep getting these checks in the mail from these shows. At first, I felt a little awkward about accepting cash, but people wanted to help."

Hahn managed to miss his own benefit show, as he had been rehospitalized with an allergic reaction to some ear medication that reacted with his heart like an amphetamine. "I hope people didn't think I was a (jerk) for not showing up at my own benefit," he laughs.It was at this show that local punk band the Rise were robbed of more than $17,000 worth of equipment.

Tonight, Hahn will do well by those who have done well by him, and play a benefit for the Rise. It will be the debut show for the first Austin incarnation of J Church. "Our SF drummer had another kid, and flying back and forth just became financially impossible," he says. "So I'm the only one who's always in the band." This version includes guitarist Dave Didonato, who also performs as the one-man art-metal band Goliath DFI, and drummer Chris Pfeffer, who was most recently in Employer, Employee and Severed Heads of State. Which means J Church is now a metal band playing pop punk. But not for long.

"I think we're going to debut a new song at this show that's 18 minutes long with something like eight or nine parts, so it won't be boring. . . Commercial suicide has always worked in J Church's favor. Our last album (2000's One Mississippi) was supposed to be short, hard pop songs. So we made a 28-song gatefold sleeve double-album with piano songs. I had to lie to the label about it until we turned in the tapes. But they were very cool with it."

More recently, J Church released Palestine, a collection of demos and slightly unfinished songs that date from 1997. "This record is essentially a benefit for the fire," Hahn says.

The title just seemed like a good idea at the time. "It's a word no one says anymore," Hahn says. "Language has a lot to do with people's objectivity, and this is a case in point. Then again, I could have just as easily called this album 'Refusenik,' " after the Israeli soldiers who have become conscientious objectors.

The songs are mostly what Hahn describes as "these personal Raymond Carver-esque anecdotes. We were surrounded (in the San Francisco punk scene) by these anarchist punk bands, which I liked, but I had nothing to add to what they were about. So I went in the other direction." Songs like The Star Hotel and The State of Things are melancholic, fuzzy pop, triumphant only in their sadness. There are also jazzier moments: Sam Rivers shouts out the horn-playing legend, while saxophonist Archie Shepp's Blase gets a rocking workover.

As albums of underbaked material go, Palestine has the good fortune to hold up from start to finish. Let's hope Hahn's luck holds out this evening.


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