Things Are Looking Up
Local Trio New Rock Church of Fire Has Come a Long Way From Basement Jams
By Alex Baldinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2008
What's in a name? Plenty, especially for an unsigned rock trio trying to stand out in a city where new bands come and go faster than they can build a MySpace page.
So bravo, New Rock Church of Fire, for choosing a band name that, if nothing else, makes people say, "Wow, that sounds epic."
With so much turnover in the Washington music scene, that's no small accomplishment. "When you go into the bathrooms at all these clubs, and you see all the stickers, and you see the band names, and the band names, and the band names -- that's why I like ours, because it's kind of absurd," says Floyd York, the group's guitarist.
Musically, however, there's nothing absurd about New Rock Church of Fire, whose surprisingly polished debut, "Of the Wild," shows a desire to be taken seriously. The Alexandria residents will take a major step in that direction Saturday when they play their first show at the 9:30 club.
"We wanted to do the 9:30 club, just like we wanted to do a stadium show," says bass player Mitchell West. "It's not like it's something we ever thought would be a reality."
That's because the band began as something of a joke. The trio of T.C. Williams High School grads -- York, West and drummer Trae Lamond -- returned to the area after college and were catching up at a house party in late 2005. That night, they were riffing on theoretically "epic" names for rock bands when they concocted New Rock Church of Fire.
"It's named after a horse we won a lot of money on," Lamond deadpans, refusing to shed any further light on the origins of the name.
Starting a band became an excuse for the three suburban 20-somethings to hang out on Thursday nights. They would write songs while working through a case of beer. By summer 2006, they were booked to play at the Velvet Lounge, but they lacked seriousness, West says, treating the gig as if they were still goofing around in their practice basement; this was still a joke to them, and the sound engineer almost refused to mike them.
They were at a crossroads: Keep up the joke and never leave the basement, or buckle down and see where things go.
"With each show, we'd come back the next time having learned some sort of something. Each show we'd kind of said we need to be better performers, or we can't just stand there and look nervous," West says. "Or we can't get really, really drunk before we play."
With newfound professionalism ("We don't really drink that much anymore," West adds), they played more shows and moved up through the area's music clubs. By late last year, they had an album's worth of material to release. They turned their basement recordings over to producers Ben Green and Jay Littleton for mastering.
"They listened to them and said, 'Guys, this sucks. The songs are there, but the recordings are horrible. Let's restart,' " West says. They recorded the songs from scratch, analyzing every note in a process that opened the band's eyes to the intricacies of writing and recording.
After more than a year of tweaking, the result is "Of the Wild," an album that doesn't sound like the work of an unsigned band and first-time production duo.
The angular guitar riffs on "The Sword" and "On Salisbury Plain" recall a strong Brit-rock influence reminiscent of Bloc Party's "Helicopter," while the rhythm section's frenetic gallop on "Predator" and "Castle of Fire" sounds like vintage Def Leppard or Muse. Elements of surf rock make an appearance on "Death Truck," while the acoustic two-step of "Fig Tree" owes its flavor to Johnny Cash.
Lyrically, the band is clearly still having fun. On "Laces Out," the call-and-response chorus includes the phrase, "It's not snowflake!" Fans of "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" will get the joke. Other lyrics sound like plotlines from Monty Python movies.
"It's all about juxtaposing the awesome and the ridiculous," Lamond says.
Because of the presence of the word "church" in its name, the band consciously veers away from certain lyrical subjects. "Evangelical preachers will ask us to be their friends on MySpace. I think we are wrong for them," West says.
Having full-time day jobs hasn't stopped the band members from dreaming about signing with a label or, at the very least, booking a string of shows on the road. While playing the 9:30 club is certainly a big step, the band hopes it's only the first of many. "We never saw us getting as far as we already have, and I don't think we're very far at this point," York says. "We're realizing that there might be a potential to do better things, and so now we just have to see where that potential goes."