“When you’re young, your candle burns ( if you’re lucky ) pretty hot. You punch your friends in the shoulder cause it’s fun. Pain is still (also if you’re lucky) a theoretical and playful venture. We wanted to rock hard. We set our sights on it and we felt like it was necessary to make a good band. We were childhood friends and brothers. We also didn’t want to let each other down. That made us try harder.” – Jet
To sit here and explain Sam Black Church, one of the most influential and deadly live acts in Boston’s rich (to say the least) history of heavy music, would fall far short of doing the band justice. Let’s just say it is 12 days out (as I write this) on the $15,000 needed to help fund filmmaker and urban punk poet Duncan Wilder Johnson‘s Leave Behind A Groove In The Earth and I am more than honored just to be helping promote the fucking thing. Sam Black, there are just no words. The following piece discusses the film, the SBC legacy and much more. I can’t believe I talked to Jet and Duncan about the film. I am almost kind of star struck just to email with the dude who sang on Let in Life. I’ve interviewed Moby, Jane’s Addiction, Slayer (to name a few) and here I am like…”wow, it’s JET!!!” (gushing)
#SamBlackChurch We’ve raised $9,415 so far! THANK YOU! We’ve got 12 days to come up with another $5,585! – DWJ via Twitter
The near-complete documentary, which also includes cameos from my good rasta buddy/favorite guitar hero Dr. Know of Bad Brains (seriously, I just and Christmas dinner with that dude) and Neil of Clutch, to name a few.
This is sociology, people. If you care about the evolution of true hardcore, you need to help get this film finished! So close to the goal and it is all or nothing time!
Duncan Wilder Johnson: When I was a kid, Sam Black Church was this phenomenon happening around me. I grew up in Central Massachusetts and first saw them open for The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Murphy’s Law at EM Lowes (now known as the Palladium) in Worcester, MA. I was captivated. The drummer played faster than anything I had ever heard. These were what are now commonly known as blast beats, but I had not heard them before this particular day. The bass player had this mini afro and he banged his head side to side really fast as if to nod “no” as furiously as possible. The guitar player had long hair! Long fucking hair? I thought this was hardcore? You know, shaved heads and shit. Nope, not this guy. He had long hair and facial hair like Lemmy from Motorhead. The music was dirty as hell and just pummeled you. I was bewildered, awestruck, and confused. Occasionally, the guitar player would grunt what I supposed was a backing vocal? It just sounded like “UHH” and “OHH” here and there. Nothing was really discernable.
Then the singer came out in a black leather jacket, black kung fu pants, and wrestling sneakers. Wrestling sneakers? Not Doc Martins. Not Combats Boots. Not Chuck Taylors. Fucking wrestling sneakers. He stared, wide eyed and frightened. Then he let out this nasal-like shriek with melody! No screaming like you would think from a Hardcore band, melody! Yet, I didn’t understand any of the words. I didn’t know if they were political or straight edge or anything. Next thing I knew the singer shed the leather jacket and he was shirtless. He climbed on top of the 12-foot speakers on the side of the stage, raised his arms, let out a howl, leaped into the air, brought his toes to his palms, landed perfectly, and kept singing. Then they were done and I didn’t really know what the hell I just saw. Now, these guys played every weekend in New England during my adolescence and early 20’s. They were always there. 15, 16, 17, on until I was 23. I saw them probably 30 times. They were the craziest, tightest, hardest, most interesting band I ever saw. As far as I was concerned that was how Hardcore and Metal was supposed to be performed. No one could rock as hard as Sam Black Church. That’s why when I had my own bands, I tried to kill it as hard as they did. If I didn’t, I’d just be phoning it in. They set the bar so high. To not at least attempt to reach that bar would mean I wasn’t really giving it my all. When I was 23, I signed to Wonderdrug Records. Not too long after that I took a job working for Wonderdrug, being the number 2 guy there. Ken taught me everything I know about the music business. I was so honored to be on the same label as TREE, Honkeyball, Scissorfight, 6L6, and of course Sam Black. SBC called it a day not soon after Ken put out my Heavy Metal Spoken Word record. It was kind of heart breaking, the end of an era. They stopped playing for a variety of reasons: the scene changed, those dudes grew up and started having families, marriages, mortgages and what not. Their deal with Geffen had fallen through (more on that when the film comes out). It just seemed like it was a good time to stop and so they did.
Jet: When you’re young, your candle burns ( if you’re lucky ) pretty hot. You punch your friends in the shoulder cause it’s fun. Pain is still (also if you’re lucky) a theoretical and playful venture. We wanted to rock hard. We set our sights on it and we felt like it was necessary to make a good band. We were childhood friends and brothers. We also didn’t want to let each other down. That made us try harder. In a show, you would try things for effect and because you were adrenalized. I remember wanting to sing a section of song with the microphone in my mouth while hanging from the metal girders at a show in Salisbury Beach. The microphone went into my mouth, I jumped to reach the girders, and caught a charge of electricity through my face and down to my legs. It was not sustainable. I tried to continue singing, but my teeth (fillings) flared and the pain won. No one in the audience knew-that was ok, and it just made me more willing to try harder. Duncan’s efforts have been such an awesome gift. No one but he could have pulled it off, and it’s been executed with drive, vision, and passion.
Duncan Wilder Johnson: One of my bands was called Kill It All Away. It was a two-piece with Eman Pacheco. He and I co-wrote all the material and Tim Waltner recorded it. For the one and only EP that we made, we asked some of our favorite singers to do cameos on different songs. Keith Smith from C60 did a track. Eman’s brother Chico did a track. As did Jonah Jenkins from Only Living Witness. Jet did the first tune on the record with us. While recording, he said to me, “You know what would be cool? If we got all the guys in a recording studio and we just drank beer and told stories.” As an SBC nerd I thought that would be awesome, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it wasn’t an audio project. It was a video project. I went to Mass Art from 1995-1999. One of the things I learned there was that the medium had to fit the idea. Apocalypse Now would not work as a painting. It had to be a film. Similar with this idea. A drunken interview wouldn’t do Sam Black Church justice. I wanted it to be a narrative, a testament to their music, their shows, and ultimately that time. That time is gone and it’s not like that anymore. Sure there are still hardcore bands and there is still a scene in New England, but many of those clubs and people are gone, moved on, and almost forgotten. I want the film to serve as a document; a chronicle of what was an amazing time and an amazing band.
Jet: Sam Black Church, West Virginia is a beautiful, remote town where Ben, jr and I grew up. The joke here is that there are more dead in sam black than living. Graveyards abound. I’m an afterschool administrator and work with little kids (K-5) when they get out of school. It’s a profoundly rewarding teaching experience which I have never looked away from. Kids rule and I think I (still) have the energy to reach them. After school is over kids want to rage. I have to steer and hone their energies. It’s a good job, and I’m glad I found it.
Duncan Wilder Johnson: I love all their records, but for me the ultimate Sam Black Church record is their purple EP. Technically, I think it’s called Sam Black Church self titled. It just has their logo on the front with a purple background. It’s five songs: Infernal Machine, The Way We Were, Den Of Iniquity, Big Barbeque, and Disco Inferno. As soon as I hear the recording I get nostalgic. I feel 17 again, like I’m driving around in my brown Cutlass in 1994, blasting that shit on a cassette that’s a dub of a dub of dub, so the tape hiss is almost as loud as the music. The grooves on that record still cause me to freak out 20 years later.
Morgan Y. Evans: I personally always thought of Sam Black Church as the heirs of Bad Brains in turns of the spastic but tight and professional live energy combined with pure chaos/adrenaline. What was it about the honesty of what they were doing and the intensity that you think still resonates all these years later? There were other great bands from that time period. Clutch is still around, thank God. But some other good bands like Tree or Thorn or Deadbolt don’t get as much love. But regardless, I often think of SBC as the Boston band that epitomized that region’s hardcore for me the most, besides Blood For Blood. But SBC were like, world changing.
Duncan Wilder Johnson: I’m not really sure why they still resonated all these years later. I can only say that for myself there are certain bands and certain records that never faded into the abyss of time. Namely those were Overcast, Fugazi, Slayer, Black Sabbath, and Sam Black Church. So for me these bands never went away. Bad Brains Cro-Mags, and Slayer influenced SBC. I heard SBC before I heard Bad Brains. So, although I saw and understood the connection, SBC was way more Metal to me than Bad Brains. Bad Brains were the first Hardcore band that Jet ever saw, so as an initial influence that carried on into his own work. I was a huge TREE fan, but I never heard Thorn or Deadbolt, so I have to look them up. As far as a band epitomizing the Boston sound, there were too many bands up here to say that only one band did it. We had Only Living Witness, The F.U.’s, Gang Green, SSD, Jerry’s Kids, DYS, Overcast, and Toxic Narcotic to name a very small fraction of the talent up here; bands from different eras with different sounds. It would take me years to go through all of them and talk about what they mean to me, and our community.
MYE: Yeah, SSD. For sure. Speaking of the Brains, on a side note (related to Jet), Dr. Know of Bad Brains was producing my old band DIVEST I sang for in 2003 and we did an album Ghost Town Reckoning with him. It’s on Bandcamp. I remember being in the vocal booth and Doc told me to enunciate, which I thought was hysterical given H.R.’s most prominent style. But Doc was right that it worked for my voice and I needed to be myself, not that I was trying to be anything other vocally. And then I also thought about SBC and Jet and how cool it was that, in my mind, SBC were like the live continuation of that kind of fire vocally that H.R. brought, and it was cool because Jet WAS being himself but was also spastic and political. And those crazy harmonies on “Light The Needfire” still give me goosebumps!
Jet: The Bosstones show (note: a 2013 House of Blues gig where SBC just came back and performed live after ages) reaffirmed all of our beliefs of why we started a band, why we play like we do and why the fans come back. It was humbling to hear the stories of people who saw us long ago, and what it meant to them. Very rewarding. Those common experiences we share seem to gain importance as time moves on. Sorry if That’s corny, just the way it is. In college I was surrounded by classical vocal talents. I had no ability to sing like that – nor did I want to. Seeing as I had no vocal experience, and that the genre we had chosen to play was full of screamers, I tried to honor both tone and grit. The songs sounded more interesting with some melody, as apposed to all yells. Our harmonies, few and far between, are simple minor third relationships, evil enough but cool sounding over chainsaw guitar. As far as weirdness in my style, I just did what I could to be unique and learned control and intonation later. Thanks so much for the interest…. Playing the Bosstones gig got this old man off the couch again and I’m glad for it.
Duncan Wilder Johnson: When most people think of Boston they think history, colleges, and great hospitals. I want people to think, “Boston is about history, colleges, great hospitals, and a killer music scene with an incredibly rich history. One of my main goals in life is to keep making Art. Sometimes that’s music and a band. Sometimes that’s comedy and spoken word and story telling. Sometimes that’s fine art photography. This film is kind of combination of all of those disciplines. I went to Art school for photography, performance, and media. I used what I knew about story telling, music, and photography to make this film. I had to figure out a lot of stuff on the fly as well. I never made a real film before. I just said, “I’m doing this,” eight years ago and kept at it. I figured out Final Cut Pro, ways to store massive amounts of media, and I had to ask for a lot of help. Once this fundraising portion is complete, it’s back to the final edits. My friend Megan, who’s a TV producer, is helping with the final post-production. I’ve got my friend Rob mastering the audio and I got a lawyer (never had to do that before) to help with getting everything cleared. The cool thing is that all these people are familiar with the music. When I tracked down the lawyer, she was like, “Sam Black Church? Really!? No way!” Long story short: Leave Behind A Groove In The Earth is the next project in what I hope will be a lifetime of projects.
Photos courtesy of Duncan Wilder Johnson and Sam Black Church’s personal collections (thanks so much, dudes!). Crazy TV stills are from new England Cable News in the 90’s. Word up! -MYE