Underground Greats: J Church

I learned a lot listening to J Church.  That a song doesn’t have to be a certain length or really be anything more than an idea.  Sometimes a dumb idea can work if you believe it will.  That writing a good song usually involves telling a story.  That you don’t have to be a great singer for a song to be good.  I also totally ripped off his guitar playing style.

J Church was formed by Lance Hahn and Gardner Maxam, with Lance being the only consistent member until his death in 2007.  The two had previously played in a band called Cringer, that started in Hawaii, moved to LA and then San Francisco.  J Church was based in San Francisco, and 0named after a San Francisco Muni line, before they would move to Austin, TX, where they would remain for the rest of their time.

I don’t know what in particular I liked so much about Lance Hahn’s songs, maybe it was just that they were bookish and emotional, but not emotional in the same way every time.  Sometimes they were sad, like having friends move away:

Sometimes they were exhuberent

He was always doing something different

I don’t know if there was ever a real difference in my mind between Cringer and J Church, except that I managed to collect every Cringer record*, but didn’t even try to buy every J Church record.  Lance was incredibly prolific.

Both bands were, like most underground punk bands in that era, a very political band.  Probably the best known song by them was Bomb:

I’ve never known how to feel about this song.  It’s a brilliant portrait of the human tragedy of terrorism.  But I feel like it’s just a bit too sympathetic.

So what do you when you can’t take it no more?
Conceal a time bomb in the heart of a department store

Well, no I don’t do that.  I once read his explanation of the song, but I can’t remember it now, and it’s probably not anywhere on the internet.  It’s funny to think back to how much information I used to have to store in my head.  And how much was passed around word-of-mouth.  At any rate, I can’t remember whether I agreed with his explanation of the song or whether I thought he was just making excuses for giving people a line like:

The bomb is in a briefcase aimed against the bourgeois state

to sing along to.  I strongly suspect he was just making excuses.

This song is a great example of my long held belief that the people most able to accurately skewer liberal phoniness is other liberals

You should have known when you met him at the party,
He was the kind of guy that would have an extra copy,
Of ‘The Hundredth Monkey’ sitting so prominently,
On his bookshelf made of milkcrates,
Made of milkcrates, made of milkcrates

Hahahaha, still makes giggle.

I liked My Favorite Place because it made me realize that as a songwriter, even the dumbest hook could work if you sold it:

1+1!

2+2!

3+3!

4+4!

What the?  Seriously.

Lance’s guitar style was also hugely influential for me.  He’s just basically playing scales, but sometimes that’s all you need.  I definitely play more major scales than blues scale solos and that’s on account of Lance.

And if you stick around for the last tune on this record, you get Nighttime- a sweet little acoustic song about a paraplegic friend.  I think.

Everything that’s old, is new again

I’ve always liked that line.

I got to meet Lance Hahn once, in Japan.  J Church was playing at my friend’s club.  I had a chance to talk to him, being the only American at that small club made that fairly easy.  He was a really nice guy.  I should have told him how much I admired his music, having been a fan for at least ten years by that time, but really we just made small talk.  I bought a t-shirt.

I was wearing that same shirt a few years later waiting in line to use the restroom at a club in San Diego and a guy walks buy and says

“Oh J Church, they were great, Lance Hahn RIP man”

“What?”

“You didn’t know?”

“Nah man.  Fuck, that ruins my night”

He walked away.  I kind of felt bad about that later, cause this guy probably wasn’t trying to ruin my night, but it was irrevocably ruined.  I hate to end this post on a bummer, but I miss Lance.

 

*At one point I had all of them except for one- a split 7″ with some random band whose name I can’t remember.  I finally saw it listed in a catalog for some random record seller in the Midwest.  I put $3 in the mail and waited.  I waited so long that I had completely forgot about it when it arrived in the mail, one year later.    When I moved to Japan I got rid of all my records, if anyone still has all my Cringer records, it’s my brother, but I doubt he has held onto them.

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