Toby Thomas Churchill: Death
A few months ago Toby Thomas Churchill released his first solo album and exposed his musical soul through an array of catchy tunes.
With a title like “Death,” and cover art of a horse set in a red background, it is interesting that the actual CD itself is light blue. Maybe it is a reflection of the dark undertones in Churchill’s music set against lighter chords that border on a razors edge of disturbing pop.
I asked Churchill how he decided on the name “Death” for his first solo album
“Because the title "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" was already taken,” he joked.
“My Rock ‘N’ Roll Moves” opens the CD and blows in Churchill’s lyrics, “I don’t know how much longer, I can do my contrived rock and roll blues, they make me wanna die. I don’t wanna do the splits on that stage again, because no one does, the splits in real life.”
Toby Churchill has been singing around the Twin Ports since he was in his late teens and most recently has fronted The Alrights. After singing on all those stages he finally gets to unleash his own sound and have it be his own.
I asked Churchill what made this the right time to do a solo project instead of one with the band.
“I would say it was a combination of things,” Churchill said. “There were issues between The Alrights and the label, long story short, those issues kept us from being able to record in the time frame we wanted. I'm not even sure anymore who or what really caused these issues, though it kept us from ever truly getting any major momentum going. But, here I was, dying to create an album, and, with every passing year, feeling myself leaning more towards the avant-garde, and away from a more traditional indie rock thing. I think this album probably straddles the line. To finish the thought, I'd say it's unlikely that I would again participate in the making of anything in the way of an indie rock record. The rest of the world is doing a great job on that, they don't need any help from me. Which, isn't to say I'm necessarily done creating with the boys in The Alrights, who knows what sort of silliness awaits the three of us.”
On the CD Churchill is joined by an array of local musicians and even his child Lennon appears in the liner notes. From Sara Softich to his Alrights bandmates Chad Amborn and Danny Cosgrove, “Death” has a variety of styles and something for everyone.
“It wasn't tough,” Churchill said of getting people to join him on the project. “They were receptive, if I thought they wouldn't have been, I wouldn't have asked. As far as Sara and the 10 other people who participated, I threatened their families.”
“My Rock ‘N’ Roll Moves” as an opener is minimal with Churchill singing and playing the guitar without much behind him. The title sounds a bit like a comeback to “Moves Like Jagger,” but Churchill has his own moves now.
At Beaner’s Central last weekend Churchill played many hits off his first solo album, and “Moves” opened his set. With an acoustic guitar crudely fashioned into electric by taping over the center hole he stood up in front of the crowd and exposed his soul.
“Playing solo is a bit lonely,” Churchill said in comparison to performing with The Alrights. “Even when I have folks playing as a backing band it still sort of feels that way. Maybe if I did it a lot more it would feel more like a thing.”
On “Happenstances” Churchill sings, “Oh how I try not to die.” Then he explains in great detail how he attempts to tell his body, “An improvisational biological dance freedom and chaotic subatomic predetermined happenstances.”
I asked Churchill about his fascination with science in his music.
“I love science, empirical data is powerful,” he said. “It's so precise, so sterile and serious. But I think in the case of track two on the record, "Happenstances", it works well to show the limitations. Science, like anything, including religion and spirituality, (in my mind, anyway) falls short when it comes to the only question we really wish we could answer: “What becomes of us when we die?”. A question that makes amateurs of scientists and priests alike. In that sense, our relationship to science is like, "well, I'll be dead soon... hey, while I'm waiting, let's look at my stuff."’
“She’s My Mum” has cool guitar and a Cake or Sublime tone complimented by horns. The horns were played by Alex Nordehn and David Adams. The “What I Got” flares have a more eerie feeling in “Mum,” and some darkness creeps in. There is even a slightly chilling organ chiming in the background giving the song a feeling that Bradley Knoll was dug up and this was a New Orleans marching band parading though an old French graveyard in Louisiana.
I asked Churchill if the Sublime feel was on purpose or just by chance.
“No, no. "She's My Mum" is beautiful. The following track, "Two Brothers" is sublime,” he said. “That was a philosophy joke for you there. Which, at first, is what I thought you meant. So, that probably tells you how far the music group Sublime was from my mind when I wrote it. But, now that you say that, I can kind of hear it. A couple people mentioned too that the riff is close to a Jose Gonzalez song. I hear that as well. Stupid world, filled with other music.”
“Two Brothers” comes next and has a steady beat held together by clapping. Churchill’s voice feels layered to reflect the depth of his relationship with his brother. In the liner notes he dedicated the album to his wife, mother, son, and his brother.
“Pink Floyd” is amazing as a band and as a song on this CD. Churchill talks about how Pink Floyd was his father’s favorite band and how they can speak with each other through the music. It is another of the more minimal songs, but with lyrics like, “He does appear with “Wish You Were Here”… Oh lord I know that it’s foolish and dumb, but I swear we’re talking in “Comfortably Numb.”
Toby sings about his father much like John Lennon would sing about his mother, as both dealt with the loss of a parent through their music. There is a sensitivity that is shared with the listener through songs containing so much depth.
“You know, it's funny, I never intend to talk about or elude to my father's death,” Churchill said. “But I always look back at my work and see it directly or indirectly touching every bit of it. I was fifteen, so, you know, the pain was exquisite, as they say. But I'm always very cautious when approaching it directly. So a contrivance is necessary. Thus, the Pink Floyd business. What was your question again? Yes, Pink Floyd was his favorite band. Stupid world filled with ska horns and dying people.”
“Illegal” comes next on the CD and sends us back to the 1950s and Buddy Holly mixed with a dash of The Violent Femmes. Churchill sings at light speed about how everything a girl wants to do is illegal. It’s loose and catchy, and was even better live due to a funny bit of improvisation.
“American Pie,” “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” and “Still Come Find You” by Churchill all have something in common; they have great sections of whistling. “Come Find You” again features Amborn on drums. “If Jesus thinks your fine but I get left behind, well I will still come find you.” There is Elvis hidden somewhere in this song singing about being lonesome, but Churchill uses strings and other accents to update the sound. The whistling completes the song and ties it all together.
“I've heard the "Beatles" thing, but never the others,” Churchill said. “I do sometimes pretend the ghost of Elvis lives in my house. Me and my wife will be trying to figure something out and I'll call out "Elvis?... Ellllvisss?!" You know, to get his take. My wife rolls her eyes. As far as tying it together, I'm not sure. I'm just glad when someone thinks it is, because then it gets me thinking maybe they're right. Even the whistling.”
“Hurry To The Past” has a slow plucking guitar reminiscent of soft classical Christmas music or more reverent tones. It is intrinsically melodic, and it gives the listener an inner blanket of warmth. It moves right into the next song “Belong” quickly, but seamlessly. Churchill is often known as a songwriter, but the guitar playing shows how great of a musician he is.
“‘Hurry to the Past’ was actually written to elongate the following track ‘Belong,’ because I was using it for this still frame illustration video I was making with an artist friend of mine. I needed like another minute. I think that is the only time I've ever done something like that. But, it works, I think,” Churchill said.
My wife loves “Winter March” and how it begins quiet and builds the entire way through. It is artistic and cannot be described in words. It is a song you just need to listen to in order to understand. There is everything in the song, and yet it is disturbing, in a way that pushes the listener to feel emotions of darkness. There is a Faust like quality, with repetitive lyrics and drumming. “Into the winter of life I take my body... Where I go to next just can’t be proved.”
“Let’s Do It Again” comes next and is shockingly light following “Winter March”. Sara Softich wrote the violin for this song and gives it plucky resolve, explaining the joys of calling in sick to work- again and again. After it marches, it has a dance tone that swings through and makes you wanna move. It is danceable and light, straying far from the heavier side of “Winter March.” I suppose with the dark comes the light.
Go to http://tobythomaschurchill.bandcamp.com/album/death to hear the CD.