Alex Brown Church knows about yearning to return to where you started. His latest Sea Wolf record, Old World Romance, is not only about going home, it is a product of recovery: data recovery.
"I began writing the record in earnest in January, 2011," Church said. "By October of that year, all the songs had been written and demoed. The way I intended to do this record was that I would demo all the songs with the intention of actually keeping the demo track. So in November, I'm like great, all the songs are written, I'm going to spend the next few months recording all these songs, the record should be done early 2012.
"I get the band together – fly Joey, the drummer, down from Portland – we're all in my studio space, which is sort of, like, Sea Wolf epicenter," he said. "And I inadvertently knocked the hard drive off the desk with my guitar."
One can picture the scene: the band is jammed into a tiny studio. They're five minutes into recording a new song. Church is looking at his bassist, the bassist is watching the drummer, everything is gelling and in the throes of creativity, he wheels around: smack, thud, crunch. Sick.
"All year I'd been like, 'I really need to get a backup. I should get a backup. I need to be backing this up.' But I've never ever had an issue, you know, in all the years I've been a musician I'd never lost a hard drive or whatever, so it's just like, lazy," Church laughed. "If I was an engineer by profession, I would have backed it up, but I'm just a songwriter, I'm like, 'Whatever.' I go to turn it on and it's just dead. Everything I'd recorded – ten months worth of work. I'm like, 'I'm not gonna panic, I'm gonna send it to one of those data recovery places.'"
"I send it in. It takes a month for them to get it back to me and they say it's going to be $3,000 – a lot of money. It's my whole record, I've gotta do it. And they're like, 'We can't guarantee that all of it's going to be there.' They get it back to me and there's maybe five percent that's usable. I ended up essentially having to redo everything," he explained. "Luckily, I'd made mp3s of all the demos, so I had references, but I had to just re-record everything. So beginning of 2012, the first three months was spent just re-recording everything that I'd lost. And there's a lot stuff that's just never gonna feel the same as when I first wrote the song. It was a tedious, really horrible process."
One could imagine that, as a songwriter, such an album has the potential to become a Frankenstein's monster, a Golem – one must cobble it back together and try to infuse it with energy, to make it breathe again. Such a loss has the potential to haunt an artist – when Hemingway's first wife, Hadley, tried to surprise him by bringing all his files of short stories so that he could write while on vacation, she lost the suitcase at a train station. Ernest was never able to recover them – and never forgave her for trying to help him. They were divorced shortly thereafter.
But Church has managed to resurrect the original record, and maybe improve it. Either way, he owns it: "I took these songs past the place that they were on the demoes. I feel like I was able to get them into a new, exciting place. I'm happy with it now."
Old World Romance is a textured, slow-driving, gorgeous listen. The lead track, "Old Friend," sounds like walking off into the west; "Miracle Cure" and "Whirpool" are songs for the moment you realize you have been called to fight a lost cause.
"What happens more than anything on this album – there's no acoustic strings, which was always an element of the first two records, so take those away and you kind of notice everything else a little bit more," Church explained. "I wrote a lot of the songs for drum machine; some songs are more drum machine-heavy than others. I feel like those are the elements that give this record its character."
"I'd just returned full time to California after being away for three years in Montreal," he said. "I was going through various adjustments coming back home, reconnecting with friends and family. It's like suddenly I was here and getting used to being in once place. I think I wasn't sure where I wanted to live for a long time and once I came back, it appeared to me that I belong here."
For Church, it is less about telling the story of coming home, and more of evoking the images inherent to driving back across a continent.
"I always imagine myself in the song, whether or not it's something that actually happened to me. A lot of people ask me about the storytelling aspect of my songs. I have that, but I've never really been interested in telling somebody else's story. I always put myself into it so that it has more of a personal feel," he revealed. "The music that I like to listen to – it's less about the lyrics for me than it is the emotional exchange. It's not an intellectual feeling. I'm just trying to get to and project that visceral feeling."
And for the next record? Lesson learned.
"I've got several hard drives and a backup program."