Chris Gethard is the host of the cult underground talk show The Chris Gethard Show and the host of the hit podcast Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People. He’s also been seen on shows like Broad City, The Office, Louie, Bored to Death, Conan and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, as well as in the movies The Other Guys and The Heat. He wrote a book called A Bad Idea I’m About to Do, and the title story was featured on This American Life. His first album, My Comedy Album, is available on Don Giovanni Records.
This article’s a bit long, but I beg you: read until the end. You may be the only person who can help. You’re going to read about a band you probably haven’t thought about in a while, or maybe you’ve never even heard of. But you’re also going to read about a modern-day grail quest I’m enacting on behalf of an acquaintance named Fid who should be an outright friend.
I’m a fan of a punk band from the ’90s/early ’00s called J Church. Currently, I have five full-length releases from them on my phone. Five albums by one band is a decent chunk of MBs. I don’t think too many people would argue that point. Five albums? Solid fan. Since the mid-’90s, I have said that J Church is one of my favorite bands. I stand by this today.
That being said, I haven’t heard the large majority of J Church’s songs. This is because there are too many J Church songs. Even the most ardent J Church fans, of whom there are admittedly few, would probably say that if the band had one Achilles’ heel, it’s that they put out way too much stuff.
According to Wikipedia, there are twenty-four full-length J Church releases when you consider albums, singles collections, splits and miscellaneous releases. And Wikipedia makes a note of pointing out that this is only a partial discography. Even a comprehensive and crowd-sourced site hedges its bets when claiming to sum up J Church’s work. The fact that there’s an active disclaimer on Wikipedia means that literally the entire world has access to edit the information at hand and not one person has been able to post with certainty, “I am certain that this is the entire discography.” Twenty-four full-length releases is way too many full-length releases, and there may in fact be more than twenty-four.
Guitarist and vocalist Lance Hahn was aware his band put out too many releases. He once said, “A lot of people write trying to keep track of all the records we put out. Even I can’t remember.” He said that in 1995, when the band had been around for three years. They released music for twelve more years.
My guess is that a lot of people who liked punk in the ’90s are reading this and thinking, “Oh, yeah I heard a few of their songs.” I bet even more people are like, “I always used to see that band’s name around.” They were one of those bands. You knew of them, you heard them occasionally, you respected them, but not everyone went out of their way for them.
When I was a kid, here’s the types of things a punk teen in New Jersey heard about J Church: “They’re this band from San Francisco.” “They put out tons of stuff.” “They’re a pop punk band. No, they’re a sort of emo hardcore band. No, they’re kind of crossing into indie rock.” “They’re kind of political. Sometimes.” “They’re friends with Jawbreaker, but Jawbreaker is much more successful.” “They’re friends with Crimpshrine, but something about Crimpshrine seems cooler and artsier.” “The guy writes for Maximum Rocknroll.” “Every band has a split seven-inch with J Church.” “The guy has the worst luck ever, his house burned down and he has a kidney disease.”
In the fanzine-driven pre-Internet punk scene, you often heard about bands from far away through individual sentences such as those. Random tidbits floated through. Those tidbits don’t fan the flames of real fandom in any way. But I fell hard down a J Church rabbit hole, and throughout my life occasionally meet another random person who has as well. Why do some people think way too hard about a band that was good but never quite great, and that flooded the market with an indecipherable amount of product?
I think at the end of the day, J Church was their front man. And Lance Hahn, simply put, was really accessible and really nice. I found this out personally when Lance Hahn messaged me on Friendster (yup) out of the blue once. He saw that I had listed J Church as a favorite band, so he thanked me. He also went through my profile and saw that I worked at a magazine called Weird NJ at the time and told me that he was a fan of it. That’s a level of fan service that’s pretty remarkable. “I’m glad you like my band. I like your underground magazine about ghosts and haunted trees in America’s most mocked state.” Most front men don’t get that specific, and they certainly don’t spend time sending the fan mail on Friendster. They let it come to them. Lance was ego-free and wanted to let me know as an individual that he appreciated my support.
And what I’ve come to find is that this is not uncommon when it comes to Hahn. There aren’t millions of hardcore J Church devotees, but most of the ones I’ve met seem to have had actual personal interactions at some point with Lance. Almost always, when another J Church fan and I realize we’re interacting, a sentence is said by both of us: “I met him a few times.”
Lance looked for any simple way to connect with people who had a desire to connect with him. He was even ahead of the blogging curve, putting out a newsletter called It’s a Living But It’s Not a Life that he mailed out to people and also posted on the Internet. (You can still read them here.) It read like a diary, because it was basically the diary of a slightly-less-than-boring man’s life. Reviews of movies he’d seen and books he read. His opinions on pop culture and politics. Updates on his kidney disease. His thoughts on what it was like when his house burned down. Before Twitter, before personal branding, before any of it, Lance made it easy for his fans to know him. Not for his fans to feel like they knew him — for them to really know him. I only met him face-to-face one time. I gave him some Weird NJ issues for the van and he thanked me. Never talked to him again. Still, when he passed away about a decade ago, I felt it in a personal way.
My hardcore J Church obsession locked in from about 1998 to 2001, when I was extremely depressed. All I really listened to was the Smiths’ entire catalogue, Love is Dead by the Mr. T Experience, the first Servotron album and, perhaps, more than any of those, Nostalgic for Nothing (1995) by J Church. It’s still my favorite release of theirs. It’s poppy but garage-y and loose and the songs are witty and heartfelt and not all that political. That’s my J Church wheelhouse. I also really dig the two albums they did on Honest Don’s, though many J Church fans tell me that I am completely wrong for that since Honest Don’s was a subsidiary of Fat Wreck Chords, and that was for some reason bizarre for J Church in the scene politics around the turn of the century. Many J Church fans are also fiercely passionate about insisting to me that their earlier, punkier stuff is the true J Church. By “many J Church fans,” I mean “a small handful of people I’ve encountered spread out over many years.” Most people could not care less about what era of J Church I, or anyone else, identify with the most.
That being said, the biggest J Church fan I’ve ever met lived directly across the street from me when I was at my most depressed, and we wouldn’t become friends until fifteen years later.
New Brunswick, New Jersey, has always had a thriving punk scene, but I didn’t really partake when I was there. Once they knocked down the Melody Bar, once the record stores like Cheap Thrills closed, I just didn’t know where to go to lock in on stuff. And as mentioned, I got super depressed. Like, dangerously so. For me, I just needed to survive those years. I wasn’t looking to hang out at shows. I wasn’t looking for friends. Nineteen ninety-eight through 2002 were bad years for me. Not being melodramatic, but they just were. College isn’t easy for all of us, and sensitive sad kids should maybe avoid gigantic state schools, especially in New Jersey. You live and you learn.
Anyway, cut to present day and it turns out my wife and a bunch of our friends are all pals with this dude named Fid. I was aware of Fid during my time at Rutgers — he was definitely a mainstay of the New Brunswick punk world. I knew who he was, but I don’t think we had any conversations in the entire four years I was there.
I know Fid now, and Fid’s a really good dude. He’s funny. Passionate about the things he loves. Wears his heart on his sleeve. A really good guy.
Fid has been playing guitar lately for my wife’s band the Unlovables, and one night while he was practicing at my house, I found out that he’s also obsessed with J Church. Way more than I am. When he talks about J Church, Fid’s eyes glaze over, he gets a little manic, and he just goes someplace else that’s clearly more important to him. It’s that perfect combination of endearing and concerning that overly passionate music fans tend to fall into sometimes.
I also discovered that Fid lived at the corner of Somerset and Plum Streets during my junior year of college. This is notable because I lived at the same exact corner. Turns out I was able to see his house from my bedroom window. And we never even knew each other. Right in the same window when I was as dangerously depressed as I’ve ever been, I was living directly across the street from a guy with whom, at the very least, I would have had something to talk about. If he and I had met, and figured out we love the same band that very few other people give a shit about, it probably would have ultimately not changed a thing. But who knows? Maybe we would have been pals, and maybe that would have made a few of my really bad nights a little better.
I could have had a friend. If I put myself out there, if I tried a little harder, if I wasn’t so closed off, things could have been easier for me back then. And if I turned to the music scene like I did in high school, this guy was right across the street. I missed the boat.
One night Fid was at my place practicing Unlovables songs with my wife. When he was done playing guitar, Fid and I got to talking more about J Church. And I found out that he’s not just another J Church fan — I might argue that Fid is one of the biggest J Church fans on earth.
Turns out, Fid owns every single J Church release — except for one. This is insane. I can’t stress enough that they put out a comical number of split seven-inches, and he has every single one. Plus every full-length. And every not-split seven-inch. He even owns all the small-run stuff Lance inexplicably put out under the name Cilantro. Every. Single. Thing.
And as he told me this, a pained look crossed his face. He was happy to be talking about J Church, but worry lines were setting in around his eyes, and his passionate talk was occasionally peppered with frustrated sighs and head shakes. I asked him what was the matter.
“Like I said,” Fid reminded me. “I have every release except for one. I don’t even need to own it. That’s impossible. But I just want to hear that fucking song.”
And this is where you come in.
From the perspective of a far away fan, the happiest thing that happened to Lance Hahn was that Beck hired him as his touring guitarist in 1994 and brought him all over the world. This was rad. It made me feel good. Like, here’s this dude with a great band no one seems to really care about as much as they deserve, who has notoriously bad luck — and publicly so. And here’s this super cool artist that the mainstream loves and that the underground respects, who is recognizing his talents and wants him on board. It was so cool to see. Again, he felt personal to me. I was happy for him.
Lance Hahn also ran a tiny record label called Honey Bear from 1994 until the mid-2000s. It was mostly J Church stuff and friends’ bands. He also did a fan club series where he’d put out seven-inches, usually splits with a few bands. He’d print one hundred copies of each of these releases. If I remember right, there was a subscription system to get these, and I missed out on it. I was not one of the first one hundred subscribers and do not own any of these releases.
Fid, apparently, tracked them all down. Except for one: We Are Bacteria, which from what I can tell was released in either 1994 or ’95. It’s very hard to find information about, and it features the one J Church song Fid has never heard: “The Creep Is Back.”
There is currently one copy of this seven-inch for sale on eBay. The asking price is $1,200.
So the obvious question: “How in the fuck is a random J Church seven-inch selling for more than one thousand dollars in 2016?”
It relates to the other artists on this split.
Besides “The Creep Is Back,” the album features two songs by a band called Phantom Pregnancies. I don’t know anything about Phantom Pregnancies, but when I Googled “Phantom Pregnancies Band” the first thing that came up is a site called “Forgotten ’90s bands.” For the purpose of this article, that’s all we need to know.
The other two songs are by an artist named Mr. Hansen. And as you might be able to easily surmise based on the nature of their touring relationship, Mr. Hansen is in actuality Beck (Hansen, which is why it is easy to figure out).
We Are Bacteria is the most sought after, most valuable, and hardest to find J Church release. It is also, apparently, the most rare Beck release. (I have to assume it is also the most rare Phantom Pregnancies release.) And, not surprisingly, there are Beck obsessives in this world and they have driven up the price range of this seven-inch into the thousands.
“But wait, I thought you said $1,200. That’s not technically thousands.”
Well the $1,200 one is cheap. One went a few years back for more than five thousand dollars.
Even the most diehard J Church fan is not spending five grand on a seven-inch. Actually this would probably make Lance happy to hear, as so many of his early lyrics were about class conflict and the workingman. One of his poppiest songs is about working in a cannery, appropriately titled “At the Cannery,” which was first released in 1995 but I own on a super dope-looking picture disc released in 1997. It’s about working in a cannery and features the line, “The working class aren’t asking any questions,” but I promise you that it’s catchy and you can dance to it.
As far as I can tell, the J Church cut from this seven-inch does not exist on the Internet. Fid has looked — hard. I went and looked as hard as I know how. There are broken links out there. There are message board posts out there from people looking to find it. But the song doesn’t seem to actually exist. I am a technological idiot, so there is definitely a world in which someone reads this and ten minutes later is like, “Hey Gethard, all you needed to do was go to this one FTP and here it is. You are an idiot.” I agree. I am an idiot when it comes to this stuff. I hope that’s true and that this quest is not as mythological as I’ve made it in my mind. I hope you can find the song.
Because that is why I come to you, the public, today. I have a few simple questions:
Are you one of the one hundred owners of We Are Bacteria? If so, would you be willing to use your turntable to rip an MP3 and send it to me so my friend Fid can spear his great white whale and hear this song? If you don’t have one of those fancy turntables that makes MP3s, you could just record it on a phone and send it over. Seriously. He just wants to hear it. He’s a really good guy, and if he gets hit by a bus and never gets to hear this song, I think it would be a huge bummer.
Are you someone who knows how to go to those illegal sections of the World Wide Web that I am too dumb/too scared to go to? If so, can you check if a song called “The Creep Is Back” by J Church is floating around out there? Again, if you can send it that would be great; I want my friend Fid to hear it. I know it would mean a lot to him.
If you fit either of those descriptions, please send an audio file of “THE CREEP IS BACK” by J CHURCH to me at email@example.com. I will pass it on to Fid and you will have done your part to help a guy I know hear a song he’s always wanted to hear in act that is ultimately meaningless but is just kind of a cool thing to do.
I also think it’s worth mentioning: not all J Church songs are good. There are whole albums that I think aren’t so hot, and they’re probably my second favorite band of all time. There was just so much stuff to wade through. The good stuff was great, but all J Church fans know there was also a lot of bad stuff. So we can all be honest: a song by a band as inconsistent as J Church titled “The Creep Is Back” is almost definitely not going to be a great song, or even a particularly good one. That’s not the point. It’s about completism, not quality.
Why am I doing this? There’s a part of me that thinks it’s just bizarre and funny that J Church has a $1,200 record. There’s a part of me that thinks even in facetious fashion it’s a good thing to remind the world about Lance Hahn almost a decade after his death, because he was underappreciated in his day and, all jokes aside, it would be a shame if someone as talented and prolific and as dedicated to positive contributions to his community as he tried to be was forgotten.
But really, it’s this: in college I almost had a friend. I bet it would have been a good thing in my life to have this friend. And it’s fifteen long years later and things are a lot better now, but I feel like if I can find this song and get it to Fid, it will wake up the part of me that loved this band when I was a sad kid, and will help him hear the only song he’s never heard by his favorite band, and maybe things can come full circle.
You don’t often get second chances on friendships, and it’s even more rare to be able to accomplish something that might fill in a fifteen-year blank. I have a chance to do that, and I bet it would help me put some things to bed.
“The Creep Is Back,” indeed.
PS – Don’t even get me started on another J Church mystery Fid and I have long discussed: Who was longtime J Church bassist Gardner Maxam, and why are there literally no traces of him on the Internet today? How can you have put out that many punk records in the ’90s and have a name that specific, but manage to not exist in the virtual world? He’s the ghost of ’90s punk, a phantom, the Keyzer Sose of the seven-inch era — to Fid and me, at least, and I’m sure to about half a dozen other J Church fans.
UPDATE: Several people sent Chris the song in question. Thanks to them all! Now, here is Fid listening to the long-lost track with some of his friends…