ON HALLOWEEN NIGHT
WITH THE CHURCH LADIES
BY CORY FRYE
All Hallow’s Eve ain’t typically for sanctification, but at least one group will raise a holy noise: a bluesy, slinky smolder that belong solely to a single Corvallis sextet, the Church Ladies — you know, the band.
Their sultry sounds descend at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31, with a Halloween-themed Zoom show at the Whiteside Theatre, 361 SW Madison Ave., Corvallis. Admission is free with a suggestion donation. The band predicts a helluva costume party (pumpkins abound) with a pair of new songs in a three-camera presentation they promise to employ to its fullest. For more information, visit https://bit.ly/2TxN9HJ.
The celebration carries special meaning for the Church Ladies, which initially rose three Halloweens ago when vocalist/saxophonist Hannah Stuwe — herewith known as the illustrious Hannah Hex — and guitarist Devon Cash were Oregon State University students tapped for a friend’s party. First, however, they needed an actual group. So, with only two weeks before showtime, they got to work, relying primarily on Hex’s OSU jazz ensemble connections. “I scalped a few musicians from there,” she said.
A roughly eight-piece group took form and, minus the usual subsequent roster changes, perseveres to this day with its initial nucleus of Hex, Cash, baritone sax man Lane Thompson, and bassist Tucker Gibbons, who flits into the Hax/Cash MVN interview session with a friendly hello and easy banter. (Drummer Ava Schnoll and trombonist Carl Britton now comprise the remainder of the incomparable six-piece.)
But Hex and Cash enjoy a bond that extends even further — long before college, back to preschool. They’ve seemingly never not known each other or played music together. Cash started as a young bassist, then gravitated towards classical guitar as an OSU sophomore. “I ended up taken with that,” he said. “I branched out into the troubadour/folk style before settling into what I do now.”
Hex picked up the saxophone as a sudden sophomore multi-instrumentalist at Sisters High School, which she attended with Cash, graduating in 2015. (Cash graduated a year earlier.) “It’s a very small school with a small band program in particular,” Hex said. “The only way to make things work was to double on multiple instruments. I played flute initially, and I had a band director who said, ‘I’m going to need you to play saxophone, too,’ so I did. I realized a couple of days ago that I’ve been playing saxophone specifically for eight years now, which is crazy to me.”
(Interestingly, despite their musical proclivities, neither majored in the form. Hex graduated from OSU in 2019 with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, laughing, “That’s a funny thing to say in a music interview.” Cash’s field of study: computer science. “It wound up being a default option,” he said.)
Gibbons has an equally lengthy relationship with his instrument of choice, becoming a bassist 13 years ago as a middle-school student in Palo Alto, California. His friends formed a joke band with joke songs, but Gibbons found nothing funny about his four-stringed weapon. “I fell in love with it very quickly and I couldn’t put it down,” he said. “I’ve been in quite a few groups since then, but Church Ladies is by far my favorite. The people, the music we make, and the atmosphere are important.”
And oh, that glorious atmosphere. The Church Ladies boast highly proficient prodigies gifted to their fingerprints, all well-schooled in precision jazz, rock — every color tone in the palette. Their songs, scripted primarily by Hex and Cash, waft into the collective, where they’re woven into ample extended constructions by the band’s instrumental acuity.
Like everyone else, the group has contended with other atmospheres since March. A once-full calendar went dead in the wake of the coronavirus, beginning with a March 14 showcase at Corvallis’ The Chapel that never went down. An April attempt at an EP was scotched. But members choose to view this fallow time as somewhat optimal for retrospection and exploration.
“I feel like it’s moved in two different directions, from my perspective,” Gibbons said. “There have definitely been aspects of it that have killed creativity, with day-to-day life being a lot more difficult and anxiety-inducing. On the other hand, I’ll be able to go downstairs and play day after day because I’m always here. Bur it flips back and forth. There’s definitely a sense of ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve been on my couch for so long that it doesn’t matter how much time I have for my instrument,’ as well as ‘Wow! I have so much time for my instrument!’”
“We definitely didn’t have any shows for the longest time,” Hex said. “We ended up canceling a lot of shows from March to now, which was a bummer. But we had to do the responsible thing and not put people in those situations.”
“It’s been a good opportunity to practice, though,” Cash added.
Let’s talk a little about your songwriting process. “Never Say You’re Wrong” is this bluesy, slinky number. And I don’t think I’ve heard “I’ve put up with your bullshit way too long” delivered so sweetly.
Hannah Hex: That makes me feel really good, thank you. (laughs) “Never Say You’re Wrong” was one of the songs I wrote and brought to the group. I had this vision for it that we never really hit. My vision for it was “Nobody ever likes to say they’re wrong,” myself included. Just anybody. I wanted more verses in it, to have different people bring in their personal experiences. Originally, the song stayed in that low style it is in the beginning all the way through until one time in practice, we were joking around: “What if we played it really fast?” (laughs)
Devon Cash: I started playing it way too fast and way too complicated as a joke. Then everyone went, “Wait, now, hold on.” (laughs)
Tucker Gibbons: There might be something there.
HH: It was totally collaborative.
In “Mary,” how did you know that the trumpet deserved a solo, along with the sax and other instruments? How do you determine the order of the solos?
DC: It comes down to whoever wants to take it. If we decide that something doesn’t fit or isn’t right for some reason, we break it up and decide as a unit which way we want to go. That doesn’t happen very often.
TG: Typically, most songs, especially with “Mary,” we sort-of try people soloing on it. At this point, everyone’s good at it. We’ve switched up members a little bit since that recording, so the instrumentation on those solos is now a little different. Especially with “Mary” is when we probably have the widest variety. It depends on what we’re throwing in there for that particular performance.
HH: I would say every single one of us has a different style of soloing. And sometimes those styles are better-suited to different songs. It’s a self-selecting process. If someone wants to solo, it’s because their style works well with that song.
How did the Church Ladies come upon its sound?
DC: To be honest, there’s never really been a plan.
HH: There’s never really been a vision. Devon and I do the majority of the songwriting and definitely have our styles. Whenever we bring something to the group, it’s never fully fleshed out. We kind of take an idea and run with it from there. Everyone in the group has such different experiences and styles that it’s just a melting pot of everyone’s influences, which is really fun, really cool. The things Devon and I bring to the group never turn out the way we thought they would or the way we’d originally intended.
What was the impetus for starting the band?
DC: Wanting to play music together. We had all been in various jazz bands.
HH: I’ve had a lot of experiences as a woman instrumentalist, and jazz is kind of a boys’ club. A lot of women instrumentalists in jazz will tell you that. It was nice to create a space that was welcoming where I felt comfortable in.
So if there’s not a space for you, creating it is one way to get it.