Local Current Blog

Toby Thomas Churchill: ‘Pop music can be a serious art form’

Photo courtesy of Toby Thomas Churchill

So here’s a conundrum I’ve been mulling over lately: With so much hype all around us, and with the internet shoving one item after another down our throats with the promise that they are each the craziest, all-time best things that we absolutely must click on right now, what are we supposed to do when we actually really, truly like something?

It feels overwrought to say that the new album from Toby Thomas Churchill, Where is My Rumspringa Darling?, is one of the best I’ve heard this year. It feels over-the-top to say that he’s one of the most underrated songwriters in Minnesota. And it feels positively ridiculous to gush about how he’s crafted an irresistible collection of psychedelic pop songs that will turn your serotonin levels all the way up and have you screaming for more. Because you’ve heard all that before. And you have every right to start rolling your eyes when someone talks in such superlatives. But what’s a blogger to do, darling, when it all turns out to be true?

There are layers upon layers to Churchill’s new record—which is the second solo album he’s recorded after spending a decade with beloved Duluth power-pop band the Alrights—and it’s hard to resist digging in and pulling out comparisons from to era of pop music or another. One minute there is the lonely garage-rock crooning of John Lennon, and it’s followed by the playful subversiveness of the Flaming Lips, the extraterrestrial synth beats of Of Montreal, and the sexy electro-funk of modern artists like Tickle Torture. But the comparisons all fall short because Churchill has also established such a strong voice of his own that the entire album sounds like it’s undeniably his. As I learned after speaking to him recently, the many exploratory sounds on Where is My Rumspringa Darling? are merely the product of the past two decades Churchill has spent studying, consuming, digesting, and creating pop music. At this point, I think it’s safe to say he has the process mastered.

I caught up with Churchill by telephone earlier this week to talk about the excellent Where is My Rumspringa Darling? and his pair of upcoming album-release shows, which take place on Saturday night in his hometown of Duluth and later this month at Icehouse.

Andrea Swensson: Tell me about your background. How long have you lived in Duluth?

Toby Thomas Churchill: I was born and raised in Duluth, so all my life.

What were your first introductions to music? Did you have musical parents?

I did not have musical parents—other than, as the old joke goes, my dad played the radio amazingly well. It was his instrument of choice. I always had an affinity toward music and art in general, I don’t know why, and then when I was about 15 my dad had passed away and I inherited his CD collection. Amongst those were the Beatles’ records. And I’d already known about John Lennon and his solo stuff, and obviously I knew the dozen ubiquitous Beatles hits, but to dive in and really listen to the records from Sgt. Pepper’s on was life-changing for me. I kind of recognized that, oh, pop music can be a serious art form, and I realized that that’s what I wanted to do, to try to become a songwriter, play in bands, and whatever.

Were you already playing instruments at that point?

Yeah, I was playing guitar, off and on. And at that time, when I discovered the Beatles—and of course other stuff, too, along with it—I made the observation that I was never going to be a guitar virtuoso. It was just evident. And so I leaned immediately towards songwriting. Frankly, I wanted to master that. So that’s kind of the way I went.

On the new album, are you playing multiple instruments?

Yeah, I’m doing most of the stuff. I basically write all the parts. There’s a couple of songs where I had a drummer come in and play, and even some of that stuff was just doubled over what I was already doing. And actually, like on the song “Football Sex,” which ends up being probably my favorite song on the record, it was really just this kind of Casio-style Omnichord beat, and [the band] actually did some rehearsals just getting to know the songs, because they’d be backing me—Ryan Lovanmade and James Everest and Ben Durrant. And they recorded it, and Ben, who was engineering the record, said, “You should listen to the stuff we put over the top of Football Sex,'” and I was kind of wary of it. But then I heard these massive drums over the top of it and I realized that that was awesome. And actually at that point, when I heard the playbacks I realized that I wanted everything to kind of strive to hit that bar. So I actually had a couple of songs that I had written prior that I just kind of shelved. Then I started the rest of the record with the approach that I’m going to write for the studio, to try to make these kind of big musical impressions.

Can you explain more about an Omnichord, and what that adds to the sound?

It’s basically an electro-autoharp. I’m not sure when they made them—like, ’70s, ’80s? I’m not much of a gear junkie. I think most musicians are, I’m not. But it seems really cheap, and somebody who wasn’t a musician or didn’t have a keen eye might disregard it as a child’s toy or something. But you play this thing and the tones are just amazing, so I kind of went nutty with that thing and ended up using it on like half the songs on the record.

Can you tell me about the title of the record?

Where is My Rumspringa Darling? It’s sort of like the tagline to a midlife crisis. And I imagine that midlife crisis could actually occur in someone’s teen years, really, or your 20s or your 30s—just the idea of, is that sort of it for me? Have I bought into the suburban dream—or nightmare, as I call it—and that’s the story? So it’s that longing, the heart still is burning to have experience and uncertainty after you’ve sort of settled down.

Do you feel like you can find that kind of freedom through music?

Yeah, I mean I have to. I don’t know what else I would do. If it wasn’t for being an artist, maybe I’d try my hand at bank robbery, I don’t know. I think it really helps keep me stable. And I’ve been doing it so long that at this point it’s inertia. I don’t know how long I will continue to be an artist, I would hope my whole life, but who knows. At this point it certainly feels like I’ve been doing it for so long that I don’t have any other skills that I can really offer the world.

When you sent me the new album you said something that I found really interesting: You said you felt like you were taking some risks with the lyrics of these songs, and that you’re saying things that you weren’t sure you could say.

There was a moment in about half the tunes where I had to kind of step back, whether it was me saying it to myself, or me asking Ben or my wife: “Can I say this?” There were certain moments. And I think for just about every one of ’em, maybe save one, I ended up using it. Because I started getting into the idea of, well, what’s the difference? I might as well just go for it. And I always want to be careful that I’m not saying something for my own self-absorbed shock value-type reasoning. I wanted to use it if it seemed appropriate, artistically. And I would often find that it did.

Speaking of the way that you write your lyrics, I want to talk about the way you transition between literal phrases, metaphorical, and then almost nonsensical phrases. What’s your process for writing?

Well I usually start with a concept, something I’m trying to say. And what I’m ultimately trying to do is I’m trying to get the listener to sort of re-calibrate in their mind, temporarily, how they feel about a subject or concept that is very well-trodden. So the way to do that is I try to think of unique ways to talk about that subject that maybe I haven’t heard before, using some dark humor, using metaphor, certainly using a tongue-in-cheek approach. And sometimes, if I feel it’s appropriate, I will kind of give that left jab of more of a literal, straightforward lyric. And you know, it’s something that I’ve been doing for a very long time and I do feel very confident about that tool, about that skill. A lot of the stuff that might seem sort of filler, or secondary line, is very likely a line that I took time on shaping, right down to every word.

Tell me about collaborating with Dosh on the last track.

You know, I wish the story was a little more exciting, but basically Dosh and Ben Durrant, who engineered and co-produced the record, are friends and have worked together on several occasions. And I was like, cool, let’s do that! I definitely think he’s a talented fellow, and so it was kind of a no-brainer to have him come in on something. And actually, the song I picked for him was, just to see what would happen, the least likely tune that one would think Dosh would belong on. So I put him on the only song that’s just kind of a straight-up acoustic little song. I thought it would be neat just to see what he could do, and the only direction I gave him was that I want it to be evident that these are loops. I actually wasn’t there when he recorded or anything, but when I heard the playback I was just very excited. It was worth reaching out and trying to get him to come along and do a tune.

And you’re sharing the bill with him for the release party. Do you think you’ll perform together at all?

Yeah, I think he’ll probably play on that song, and maybe we’ll get him in on another song or two as well. And we have a show booked on Sunday, November 30 at Icehouse, I’m going to go ahead and call that my Minneapolis CD-release, so he will be present at that as well.