Can you turn a love song into a Christian song just by changing “baby” to “Jesus”?
The members of the low-fi folk trio Eustace the Dragon – Jessica Arnold, along with husband and wife Danny and Amanda Churchill -- sit around a table on the patio of Sweeney’s in St. Paul and try and answer the question while talking about their upcoming full-length album Glad Friends.
To be clear, Eustace the Dragon is not a Christian rock band -- although they did meet through church. In 2007 Arnold moved to the Twin Cities from Oklahoma and began dating a friend of Danny’s. She led the music at a St. Paul Mennonite church where Danny also performed, and they found they clicked musically. The two started a cover band called Matchy Matchy and found themselves hanging out and playing with friends on porches. It wasn’t until they were invited to play a conference in Colorado that they realized they could do something more.
“After we performed at this conference, we had people say to us, ‘If you’re playing so well, you should be writing your own stuff. You clearly have something to say,’” says Arnold. “We came back home really inspired and wrote a song together. When we felt we had enough for a full set, we had Amanda sing harmonies. Right away we knew she was what we needed and have been playing together ever since.”
The three started recording, singing in three-part harmony over dense productions. Recreating those productions live proved difficult, so the three of them performed in a less complex, more straightforward setting.
When it came time to record Glad Friends, the band asked Jeremiah Satterthwaite and Peter Miller of We Are the Willows to produce. The producers had seen Eustace the Dragon play live with their simple setup, and expected to be done within a couple of weeks. Instead, the recording process stretched out over nine months before it finally wrapped up last September at the Churchills’ cabin-like home studio.
“It was interesting because we have so much going on in the songs,” Arnold elaborates. “Pete is a minimalist and thought we would be as well, because our live shows are just us three. He would ask, ‘Do we need this part? How do the parts interact?’ That was great perspective.”
Miller brought in instruments the Dragons had never before used, like a wurlitzer, and encouraged them to use electric guitar. Producers and musicians traded ideas back and forth, giving the process a feeling of hanging out on the back porch late into a summer night.
To narrow down what they wanted on the LP, they wrote down every song title they had ever written, and wound up including some songs that date back to when Danny and Jessica first began writing together. “We intentionally asked if we had something new to say with these songs,” Danny explains. “We wanted fresh new perspectives, but we wanted to stay true to our sound. Jess and I write the songs, and Amanda gives feedback on the lyrics and arrangements. Then Jess is the brains behind all of the harmonies. She takes the songs at their simplest and then layers it and gives it the Dragon magic. We all contribute to each other’s songs.”
Their single “Fall Like Men” superimposes harmony over instrumentation, the melody taking precedence over the lyrics. It’s a song that fits into itself perfectly, ebbing and flowing as it should, beginning and ending exactly where you’d like it to.
Eustace the Dragon’s album release show Thursday at Icehouse will bring the trio’s complex harmonies to life with the addition of five back up singers (Julie Thoreen, Jess Nelson, Liz Akhavan, and sisters, Hannah and Evalyn Tjoflat) as well as Andrew Thoreen on bass, William Samsel on electric guitar, and Peter Miller on drums.
Glad Friends touches on many religious and spiritual themes, but the trio balks at calling Eustace the Dragon a Christian rock band. “We never identified as Christian music,” Danny declares. “We do write songs about God and our friends and family and things happening in our lives, but we don’t write Christian music.”
“I don’t like to go to a show where it’s a bunch of Christians -- it’s weird,” Jessica adds. “I think it’s important not to create that kind of atmosphere. It’s prohibitive. It can be a turnoff before you get to express what you want to communicate. I’m only writing if I’m inspired. We want to be inspired, and I want to inspire other people.”
Eustace the Dragon
With: Sister Species and Humbird
When: 9:30 p.m. Thurs. Sept. 28
Tickets: 21+; $8/$10; more info here