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Building a Mystery 

Churchbuilder's blend of synthpop and silliness is a curious hit in Akron and elsewhere.

Churchbuilder: Akron's leader in synthpop noodling and deranged fan mail. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Churchbuilder: Akron's leader in synthpop noodling and deranged fan mail.
Akron isn't quite as callused as Cleveland; nor is its downtown as girdled by homely industrial sprawl. But there's a reason Alcoholics Anonymous started there. The same Rust Belt restlessness that has long driven many of Cleveland's finest acts is palpable in this town.

The difference is, that discontent has often spurred Cleveland bands to make music as hard-featured as their surroundings. In Akron, however, that frustration has long been manifested in a playful progressiveness found in artists from Devo to Tin Huey to the Waitresses. And now, to the synthpop outfit Churchbuilder.

"You can't take yourself seriously when you're from a town like Akron, because you spend all your time making fun of it to be entertained," says Churchbuilder guitarist and vocalist Patrick Carney. "When you grow up here, you have to have a hobby, and you have to know how to make things fun that aren't supposed to be fun."

Like indie rock. It seems like the last time that broad phylum of music had a good laugh was on its way to the bank in the mid-'90s, when the post-Nirvana boom made major labels salivate over every other scraggy-haired rocker with more 'tude than talent. Since then, the scene has forgotten how to smile.

"I think the Chicago scene is what ruined it," Carney says. "The Chicago scene was based around academic nerds that didn't move. They played awesome music, but it was like being in a lecture hall, and that's how the show was, like you were being lectured to by a dude with delay pedals. There was a while where every single show I went to, it was the same thing: 12,000 people onstage, playing delayed guitar and smoking hashish. It was fucking lame."

"If you go see a band and they're up there, and they won't even look at the audience the whole time they're playing, it's so infuriating," says Churchbuilder drummer B.J. Barbieri. "When we go up there, we make 'em happy."

It's hard not to grin while listening to Churchbuilder's buoyant synthpop. With chirping Casios; lush, tropical vocals; and a rollicking backbeat that's equally frisky and funky, the band's sound is akin to inhaling a new-wave whippit. Coming together two years ago, Churchbuilder -- rounded out by Denise Grollmus on vocals and keyboard, Erin Carracher on synth, and Gabe Fulbimer on Moog -- dropped its porous-sounding debut, Pretty Darling, last year. Though poorly recorded, the blissed-out Pixie Stick of pop was enough to gain the band a small but fervent following.

"We charted in this weird town, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania," says Carney. "We charted at No. 1 for two months. I was thinking like 'It's Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and we're called Churchbuilder; maybe they thought we're a religious band.' We get that a lot. People think we're a Christian rock band, but our name derives from the movie The Eyes of Tammy Faye. They interview this guy who's like a total pedophile creep who built [the Bakkers'] amusement park, and it says 'Churchbuilder' under his name. For some strange reason, we thought it was a good name."

Which makes perfect nonsense, as most everything about this band is strange in its own peculiar way.

"We get the most retarded fan mail of all time," Carney says. "We get shit from 13-year-old girls in the Philippines. They write, like 'You guys are so cooooool,' with like, 12,000 o's. We got an e-mail from Ted Raimi, who's [director] Sam Raimi's brother. He wrote us over the summer. We were watching this movie last week called Ice Cream Man, some really bad horror movie, and there was a trailer for this movie Skinner, and it said, 'Directed by and featuring Ted Raimi.' I was like 'Shit, that's gotta be him.' So we e-mailed him back, and he's like 'Yeah, I'm in the new Spider-Man movie, and I'm a real big fan of yours.' Just knowing that people are actually listening to your record is cool."

And no doubt more folks will be listening, once Churchbuilder's upcoming "Microdancer" EP comes out in May. Not nearly as sparse as the band's debut, "Microdancer" brings some heft and much more substantial songwriting to the fold. And speaking of heft, there's Churchbuilder's plans for the future.

"We want to make a concept record," Carney says with tongue in cheek. "We want to do a double-live, plus a concept record. One of my favorite records is Jailbreak by Thin Lizzy, just because of the concept, the paragraph on the back that lets you know they're escaping from a future jail. We want to do a record kind of like that. I'm not really sure what our concept is yet."

"It's about what would happen if they crossed computers with plants," Barbieri says. "A computer vine goes throughout the world, and it's slowly taking over."

"It's kind of like Wolverine 153," Carney adds. "A little less Berserker fury, a little more Sabretooth, you know."

Uh, not really, but that hardly seems to matter with these dudes. Lost in their own weird, wired dimension, this band is oblivious to convention.

"We want to get into no-fi," Carney says. "You know those plastic strips, like He-Man had one, and you'd pull it out and he'd talk? We want to record a whole record like that. So, that's what we're doing. If we didn't put a different spin on things, we would hate ourselves."

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