The ferry ride from Burlington to Plattsburgh isn’t a journey you want to make with folks who can’t hold up their end of a conversation — especially not in an overloaded 1986 Dodge Ram slant-six conversion van that has floor-to-ceiling fake-wood paneling, shag carpets, pictures of naked chicks from low-grade porn mags behind the sun visors, a Gibson SG-shaped air freshener hanging from the rearview, and no air conditioning. Voluntarily traveling in a vehicle of this ilk requires the utmost faith in its cargo. In this case, the cargo is an entire stage set’s worth of amps, guitars and drums and four gangly rock musicians. I, the mildly nervous music writer in attendance, am putting my faith in Chuch.
I’m tagging along with the band to their gig across the lake on a muggy Friday evening in late May. Though based in Burlington, the hard-rocking, country-tinged Chuch — self-described as “denim-fueled speed Western” — have spent most of their time on the road since forming about three years ago. Tonight’s show is the last before a rare hometown appearance at Nectar’s. And I’m about to get a taste of the all-too-harsh realities of touring.
The bandmates — brothers Noah Crowther, 30, and Justin Crowther, 25; Matt Hayes, 29; and Chad “Chitter” Hammaker, 30 — turn out to be worthy conversationalists. On the way to Platts- burgh we cover a variety of topics, from marriage and relationships to life on the road and pickpocket strippers in Mexico. You know, typical musician small talk.
We arrive on the doorstep of Olive Ridley’s shortly before 8 p.m. On a night like this one, downtown Burlington would be teeming with pleasure-seekers. But the Queen City’s neighbor to the west is eerily quiet: Storefronts are dark and foreboding. Desolate street corners and sidewalks look like sets for an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
According to guitarist/pedal-steel player Hayes, that’s par for the course. “This town doesn’t really get hopping until after midnight,” he says. Noting amused skepticism on the face of bass player Noah Crowther, Hayes smirks and adds, “If it does at all.” I make a note to watch for tumbleweeds.
From the outside, Olive Ridley’s is unassuming. As we disembark, clown car-style, I notice a small sign hanging above the front door; it’s the only indication that the plain, single-story building houses a commercial establishment, much less a nightclub hosting national touring bands. “When we play Plattsburgh, we typically play at Monopole, which is kind of a hole in the wall,” Hayes explains. “There’s not really even a stage, but we usually draw a decent crowd, and the people that run the place are great.” Eyeing this venue’s unadorned brick façade, he muses, “I’m not really sure what to make of this place.”
We pull the van around to a side door and begin the laborious process of loading in a succession of battle-scarred black cases. And, lo and behold, the club is beautiful — a proverbial diamond in the rough. Professional lighting rigs illuminate a large stage that opens onto a hardwood dance floor. A handsome bar is stocked with top-shelf booze and a pretty, blonde barmaid. A couple of electronic dartboards and a pool table line the far wall. The place is decorated with posters from monumental rock shows — Bob Dylan and Van Morrison in Montréal. Pearl Jam, Nirvana and The Red Hot Chili Peppers in San Francisco. So far, so good.
According to Hayes, though, the true measure of a club is its commodes. “We played this dive in Texas that was just disgusting,” he gripes. “There was literally shit on the walls and maggots on the floor. Turned out to be one of the worst gigs we’ve ever played. I’m not sure we even got paid. You can tell a lot about a place by its bathroom.” If that’s true, we’re in for a good night: The restrooms at Olive Ridley’s are spacious and immaculate, with plenty of hand soap and towels. “That’s super-sweet,” says Hayes with a smile.
The band sets up on stage, gradually transforming the patch cords, guitars, drums and PA gear into something resembling a rock band. No longer needed, I stroll through the club, past a self-serve popcorn machine and into the adjoining restaurant. The contrast to the club is striking; this room is brightly lit and looks like somewhere you’d bring the kids. Flat-screen TVs offer up various sporting events in every corner. A few locals sit at the end of the bar chatting with yet another attractive young bartender. I belly up and order a Bud.
A few moments later, the familiar strains of a sound check penetrate the walls — overdriven guitars, trebly bass and under-mixed vocals — temporarily drowning out a new Jack Johnson song on the pub stereo. I down my beer, order another and make my way back into the club.
It’s loud. Really loud.
Two young women are having an animated conversation in the center of the room, eyeing the band and gesturing toward the stage. The band is limping through a new song that’s obviously still in the works. Hayes and bassist Noah Crowther exchange frustrated looks and seem completely out of sync, while lead guitarist Hammaker and drummer Justin Crowther look on anxiously.
I wander over to the ladies and attempt to introduce myself over the din of distorted guitars and pounding drums. If the club fills up, bodies will dampen the volume. If not, I’ll be wishing I’d brought earplugs.
Leah Konecny, 29, seems distracted but introduces herself as Chuch’s manager and booking agent. The band stops midway through the song to regroup, and Konecny shouts instructions at the stage: “Matt, your guitar is way too loud and your pedal steel needs to come up! The bass has too much high end, and I can’t hear the vocals.” All business, the band members make the necessary adjustments.
They try the song again, and the difference is startling. Konecny’s suggestions were spot-on: Though the volume is still borderline painful, the mix is perfect, and the band runs the new tune flawlessly. I find myself so engaged in the quartet’s interplay that, though it’s only a sound check, I applaud at the song’s rollicking finish.
Chuch’s brand of metal-tainted rockabilly is a perfect soundtrack for a night of hard drinkin’, and I’m happy to oblige. The resulting evening is a swirling, boozy blur of Hunter S. Thompson proportions.
It’s common for a band to draw energy from its crowd — not always of the positive variety. Ridley’s isn’t even close to filling up. As the band tears ferociously through its first few songs, the polite applause from the sparse crowd would be comical in contrast, if it weren’t so obviously unsettling to the players. Test-driving their new tune in front of this “audience” proves nearly fatal, and leads to a restart — the musical equivalent of defibrillator paddles.
For the most part, Chuch takes it in stride. Hayes snaps off self-deprecating one-liners between songs, trying to build what rapport he can with the pensive crowd. Credit their professionalism for their efforts to play as though this is a hugely important gig, which it’s not. Unfortunately, bravado falls prey to the inevitable let-down: Though the band never completely stalls out, it’s clearly not their best night.
During a set break I venture outside, passing a middle-aged couple who are dry-humping on a pool table — while, it appears, awaiting their turn at electro-darts. Through a side door, I overhear a young man and woman arguing heatedly about whether the guy did or did not pay for his new Chuch CD. From the sheepish look on his face, I guess not. Karma’s such a bitch.
Near the front door, a hideously inebriated frat boy is threatening to beat up an equally plastered sexagenarian, who seems to have loosed some choice words regarding the perceived virtue of the frat boy’s mother.
The situation resolves itself boringly, without fisticuffs, so I stroll through town in search of a convenience store where I can reload on smokes. It’s just before 2 a.m. — closing time — by the time I get back to Ridley’s, and the band is bidding a sarcastic farewell to the remaining stragglers — all seven of them. Being in no condition to offer assistance as the guys hastily break down their equipment, I stumble outdoors toward the van.
Back in the relatively safe confines of the Chuch-mobile, we head for Burlington. The rockers are noticeably ragged after a hard night — and, frankly, so am I. Hayes pilots and I ride shotgun. Hammaker and Crowther-the-elder cozy up in the back seat. Crowther-the-younger wisely chooses to make the trip home with his girlfriend and Konecny in a separate car.
Chuch has seen many nights like this in their beloved van. They’ve put tens of thousands of miles on the vehicle over the past three years, touring the East Coast several times and even venturing into the deep South in the middle of August — again, with no AC.
Chuch has played not just clubs but festivals, from the Gathering of the Vibes in Connecticut to the High Sierra Music Festival in California. “Anything you think might have happened in this van probably has,” says Hayes. “We’ve run into things, living and otherwise. We’ve piled 15 people in the back after shows, to go party. We’ve pulled up to gigs and had entire cases of empty beer bottles fall to the ground when we open the doors. This van’s seen it all.”
The title of the band’s debut album, Four Tall, refers to a commonplace, thrifty sleeping arrangement on the road. Sacrificing more traditional accommodations for necessities such as food and beer, the members often sleep sitting straight up in the van — or “four tall.” Stories from the road also play an important role in Chuch’s recent follow-up, Juarez. In fact, there’s a story behind that title.
On a rare off-night during last year’s West Coast swing, Chuch found themselves in El Paso, Texas, with nothing to do. Like thousands of red-blooded American boys-of-all-ages before them, they headed to Juarez, Mexico, to absorb some local “culture.” Or, as Hayes dubs it, “the freak show.” In Juarez they searched — in vain — for a certain donkey show, and they had a run-in with a pair of Artful Dodger strippers.
“That night really stuck in our minds as the point in the trip where everyone got to unwind,” says Hayes, reluctant to delve too deep into the issue of just how, exactly, the girls snagged his wallet. “The neat thing about it is that no matter what happens for the rest of our time playing, later down the road I can look back on that record — both records — and it’ll put a smile on my face. We’ll always remember that.”
Juarez tells other touring tales, too. For manager Konecny, the song
“Tumbleweed” recalls “the only time on the entire tour that they let me drive the van,” she relates. “We were going to Reno, and — seriously, it was not my fault — all of a sudden the wind gusted to, like, 120,000 miles an hour and we were swerving all over the place. It was a dust storm, and there were these tumbleweeds blowing everywhere. I laugh every time I hear Noah sing that song, but I kinda almost killed the band.”
Hayes offers another perspective: “That song is really kind of the story of the tour. To me, a lot of our songs are really about the times in between, when we’re trying to get to the next town. It’s also those times that I think stick with us the most.”
Perhaps even more than the music they play, it’s shared experiences like those in Juarez — and Plattsburgh — that make Chuch the unique band of brothers they are. Even their unusual name stems from fraternal camaraderie. “We’re always kinda fucking around in this weird way that only really makes sense to us, and we had this running joke about an overweight female dump-truck driver nicknamed Chuch,” explains Noah Crowther. He adds an alternative etymology: “Sometimes we’ll say, referring to our last names, that Chuch is two Cs and two Hs, brought together by you.” Justin Crowther chimes in, “Chuch is also Italian for idiot.”
It takes a lot to endure the hardships of the road, from claustrophobic, all-night van rides after lackluster gigs to lengthy separations from loved ones. (Hayes and Noah Crowther both recently got married.) You might even say it requires a type of familial idiocy acquired through trial by fire. Growing up together in rural Pennsylvania probably helped. Members of the band started moving to Vermont nearly eight years ago; they cite their desire to be in a small town but exposed to a lively arts culture. Though Chuch is known for plying its trade all over the country, shows such as the one in Plattsburgh are, sadly, not unusual. “To say that we don’t have those kinds of nights from time to time would be a lie,” laments Hayes.
Many bands wouldn’t commit themselves to the strain of touring without some form of remuneration. Yet no member of Chuch has ever seen a dime, nor has their manager. “We invest everything back into the band,” explains Hayes. “If we decided to split it up, it’d probably be a nice chunk of change, but we also probably wouldn’t be able to do the things we’re doing.”
It’s one of many smart moves the band has made. Perhaps the wisest choice was not to grind it out in Burlington before hitting the road. Says Hayes, “We made the decision from the start that if we were going to do this, we were going to really do it. If it doesn’t pan out, so be it, but we’ll be able to say that we gave it our best shot.”
Shortly after their first gig at Nectar’s, Chuch approached the club’s booking agent at the time, Alex Chaykin. “We weren’t even really sure what we were asking for, but we knew that we had no idea how to talk to club owners,” Noah Crowther recalls. Chaykin responded favorably and began using Chuch to trade gigs with bands and clubs all over the East Coast.
Within months of their Burlington debut, Chuch was booked to play at the jam-tacular Gathering of the Vibes — an odd festival for a heavy-rock band. They spent most of that summer on the road, gathering a significant out-of-state following, and have followed that pattern ever since. Still, it’s the hometown gigs that seem to excite — and, perhaps, unnerve — the band the most.
“There’s no guarantee that we’ll pack Nectar’s or Higher Ground when we’re here,” says Hayes. “It’s weird, because this is where we’re from. It would definitely be easier to do what we do living in another place, but this is home, so it’s always a cool feeling to see familiar faces in the crowd.”
The night after the Plattsburgh debacle, Chuch does pack Nectar’s, and it’s a classic performance. “That felt great, especially after last night,” says Hayes, beaming. Local Chuch fan Josh Waldman concurs: “They rocked. Chitter revitalizes the term axe-man — Motorhead-style.”
It’s a great homecoming for a group that doesn’t always feel like a hometown band. “I always wish we had a bigger following here,” concedes Hayes, “but it was great to see people come out and have a good time.”
While that sentiment applies to every show Chuch plays, it has special resonance at Burlington performances. When the band members talk about sidestepping the local proving grounds, they show mild remorse but not real regret. “I know plenty of people who are really happy just playing in town,” says Hayes. “That was never as appealing to us, though we do love playing here. We just had to do it our way.”
As long as Chuch keeps doing it their way, there will be no record deals or management contracts. There is no end-game or exit strategy. The band will call it quits on their timetable, as well. “If at some point we’re not happy doing this, we’ll stop,” says Hayes. “We’re family first and a band second.”