Doing It Live: Interviews With Musicians On The Road

Doing It Live: The Body, A Choir And A Church

  • Chrissy Wolpert leads the Assembly of Light Choir, a rotating cast of 20 female vocalists, as it performs with The Body, a doom-metal band, on June 24 at St.Stephen's Episcopal church in Washington, D.C.
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    Chrissy Wolpert leads the Assembly of Light Choir, a rotating cast of 20 female vocalists, as it performs with The Body, a doom-metal band, on June 24 at St.Stephen's Episcopal church in Washington, D.C.
    Photos by Tucker Walsh/NPR
  • Singers from the Assembly of Light Choir hold hands as they prepare for their performance later that evening.
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    Singers from the Assembly of Light Choir hold hands as they prepare for their performance later that evening.
  • Guitarist Garrett Underwood (left) and drummer Joshy Brettell from the D.C. death-doom metal band Ilsa chill in their van before heading into St. Stephen's for their evening performance.
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    Guitarist Garrett Underwood (left) and drummer Joshy Brettell from the D.C. death-doom metal band Ilsa chill in their van before heading into St. Stephen's for their evening performance.
  • Isaac Jones, guitarist for Braveyoung, unpacks a tympani before the band's performance.
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    Isaac Jones, guitarist for Braveyoung, unpacks a tympani before the band's performance.
  • Lee Burford (right), drummer for The Body, and Zac Jones, drummer for Braveyoung, look at a painting in the St. Stephen's sanctuary.
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    Lee Burford (right), drummer for The Body, and Zac Jones, drummer for Braveyoung, look at a painting in the St. Stephen's sanctuary.
  • Tatyana Yanishevsky (center) rehearses with the Assembly of Light Choir.
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    Tatyana Yanishevsky (center) rehearses with the Assembly of Light Choir.
  • The sanctuary of St. Stephen's church, through The Body's bass drum.
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    The sanctuary of St. Stephen's church, through The Body's bass drum.
  • The classical-leaning post-rock band Braveyoung opens for The Body.
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    The classical-leaning post-rock band Braveyoung opens for The Body.
  • Concert organizer Beck Levy (right) stamps an attendee's hand at the church entrance.
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    Concert organizer Beck Levy (right) stamps an attendee's hand at the church entrance.
  • With Orion on vocals, Ilsa ended the evening with some crusty death-doom metal.
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    With Orion on vocals, Ilsa ended the evening with some crusty death-doom metal.
  • Jenufa Kent (center, hand on chest) of Vienna, Va., watches her daughter, Natalja, perform with the choir.
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    Jenufa Kent (center, hand on chest) of Vienna, Va., watches her daughter, Natalja, perform with the choir.
  • The Body's Buford and guitarist Chip King perform as the choir looks on.
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    The Body's Buford and guitarist Chip King perform as the choir looks on.
  • Wolpert leads the choir in song.
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    Wolpert leads the choir in song.
  • Attendees watch the choir from the balcony.
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    Attendees watch the choir from the balcony.
  • Just as they entered through the center of the church singing, the members of the Assembly of Light Choir walk back to end the performance.
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    Just as they entered through the center of the church singing, the members of the Assembly of Light Choir walk back to end the performance.
  • Caitlin Johnston of Providence, R.I., hugs Wolpert after their performance.
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    Caitlin Johnston of Providence, R.I., hugs Wolpert after their performance.

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On Friday, June 24, The Body — usually a duo from Providence, R.I. — filled St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., with bodies, equipment and sound. The band packed three massive speaker cabinets, Lee Buford's equally massive-sounding drums that looked like something out of a Mario Bros. game, and a 14-member all-female choir into the church's sanctuary, and still, guitarist Chip King screamed louder than all of it ... without a microphone. All the Waters of the Earth Turn to Blood, which made my top ten albums of 2010, is a sludgy, noisy doom-metal record that thrives on volume, but I wasn't quite prepared for the bone-rattling decibels when I first saw The Body this past spring on a tour with Whitehorse. But on a week and a half-long tour that just wrapped up on Sunday, the Providence, R.I.-based duo was joined by the Assembly of Light Choir — a rotating cast of roughly 20 women with varying levels of vocal experience that sang two tracks on the album — in a collaborative performance.

I had the opportunity to see two of these shows one night after the other. First, in the modestly contemporary St. Stephen's church not too far from my home, which NPR photo intern Tucker Walsh captures beautifully in the photo essay above. Between the natural, but not too boomy reverb of the sanctuary and sitting in pews with an audience that likely had not been to church in who-knows-how-long, the performance was nearly a religious experience. Then I took a bus up to New York City to see the performance with almost double the choir at Le Poisson Rouge.

In the back of St. Stephens while opening band Braveyoung sound checked (local D.C. death-doom Ilsa closed the evening), I asked guitarist Chip King about how a band like The Body not only hooked up with the Assembly of Light Choir, but also what it's like to tour with so many moving parts. We also veered into a discussion about corporate-sponsored metal shows and "life branding."

How did The Body end up working with the Assembly of Light Choir?

We were starting to work on the record and [Choir leader] Chrissy [Wolpert] had been playing with the idea of starting a choir. She's a phenomenal vocalist and schooled in music. It coincided that the choir was starting as we started on the record.

We're doing the tour together to get them out there because what they're doing is totally awesome. And if we can help them by coming with us, it maybe starts to pay them back for all they've done for us, you know?

What's it like to travel with 16 people?

Oh, it's awesome. They have three cars because [the members of the choir] didn't want to have one, big vehicle. It's been cool because people have friends in cities that we've been to. People can take their time, it's not always a hassle to get everyone moving. And everyone's friends — I don't think anyone doesn't really get along.

This is such a conceptual tour and it's only about a week and a half. Is that as about as long as you think you could sustain this tour financially and perhaps physically?

Personally, no. We go on tours quite a bit longer than this. I think in terms of the choir and the amount of time to take off work for as many people there are — 14 in this case — not everyone can prioritize that. But for us, it's normal, because we've prioritized that in life, in general. And financially, it hasn't been bad. Stuff's been selling well, like the choir has shirts and tapes. Merchandizing has been good.

Is that how you're mostly making money from this tour? Do you have guarantees?

In some cases we do have guarantees. A lot of times, it's only about enough to fill a gas tank one time. It's hard to rely on that. Without having stuff to sell would be very hard to manage a tour.

What's the first thing that you look for when you go to a new city?

Good restaurants or sometimes a good comic book store.

I don't know that we have a comic book store in D.C.

Every town's got a good one. A lot of times we know people in the towns, so we just hook up with friends, you know, chill out.

What's the best advice you ever got from a tour mate?

Never pass up a chance to go swimmin'.

I was just bemoaning the fact the other day that there are not really any swimming holes in D.C.

That's a bummer. We went two times in Florida in the same day. And it was totally crucial to the success of the day.

What do you look for when you get to a venue?

We play so many different kinds of places. As long as people are accommodating and open to what we're doing...

Have you ever played a venue as spacious as St. Stephens?

We just played the Braddock Library Theater in Braddock, right outside of Pittsburgh. It's an old theater and it's really beautiful. While playing, the sound was so good, you know, like a place that's engineered for sound to carry in a certain way. It's not often you get to play in a place like this, so it's kind of a treat.

What do you watch or listen to on the road?

[Drummer] Lee [Buford] watches a lot of Netflix on his telephone. I listen to a lot of George Harrison, Electric Light Orchestra, some oldies, we've been rockin' the Phil Spector box set. Listened to some Megadeth today. We also listened to some Gucci Mane yesterday.

Do have day jobs apart from The Body?

At the moment, I do not, but Lee owns and operates a screen-printing business with our friend Stephen who Lee plays with in Dead Times. I kinda catch-as-catch-can right now. It's hard to procure and maintain a job when we're traveling so much. It's like, "Oh, can I have a job and leave immediately?" In the long run, probably a little happier for it.

How much of your total income comes from touring?

When we come home, if we have money to split up at the end of the tour, it's not much. I live pretty meagerly.

So you don't come back from a tour in the black?

Very slightly in the black sometimes. It'll be like, "Oh, we made a hundred bucks. Awesome!" Usually, when we do make money, we just put it into buying more stuff for next time, fixing the van up, or fixing equipment.

With each tour, do you learn how to use your money differently?

Somewhat. We pay for food and necessities on tour out of the money we're getting on tour, so we're not dipping into our personal money as some bands would. It's only two of us.

You guys played Scion Rock Fest back in March, a festival sponsored by the car company. What's your opinion on Scion Rock Fest and the "life branding" they've taken on in the metal and heavy music world? There's a push and pull of opinion and I've seen some convincing arguments on both sides.

As far as the fest itself goes, we were asked and they offered us a good amount of money to make what was essentially a really long drive out of the way. It was enough money to cover our trip to L.A. and back. Everyone was treated with a lot of respect. We talked to people who had done [Scion-sponsored concerts] before, like our friends from Rwake and Thou. They had nothing really bad to say. We got nothing but good vibes. I was surprised at the lack of — I thought there would be a lot more Scion advertisement going on and there wasn't.

I got to see a bunch of bands that I wanted to see basically for free and the whole show was free for whoever came. I don't understand how that's gonna sell cars. Most of the people at the show were 15 year-old L.A. thrash kids. It's a pretty good way to see a show.

And you know those 15 year-old kids are being turned onto a lot of metal they probably haven't heard before.

It's just curious to me because I think about a grindcore band somewhat based here in D.C. called Magrudergrind. Scion paid to put them in a studio and they released an EP that was given out for free. And there was this blowback about it in the grindcore community, which felt a little ridiculous, because here's this band being given an opportunity to do something that they'd normally have to pay thousands of dollars to do.

Well, after Scion Fest, we were picking up where we left off on tour. Denver was our next show. We got a few messages from people and punk bands that were older saying, "Are you guys getting weird attention? Are people talking s—- about you having played Scion Fest?" I just wrote back, "Honestly, it doesn't matter to me." It's strange to be associated with a branding label. I'm going not going to buy the DVD or something. I don't know. I'm also not in the market to buy a car. [Laughs.]

There are resources being funneled from something larger to support metal. I don't know if there's some kind of tax write-off to support the arts, which is just as good a use of funds to me.

I mean, that's the way that it used to be. You used to have benefactors and patrons. That hasn't really existed in music in I don't know how long. Some of the finest art has been created because someone saw a piece that spoke to them and said, "I want to give you money to do what you do."

Scion is like the modern-day Medici family. [Laughs.] It's like, we're going to play a free show and they're gonna give us a chunk of money that's going to pay to drive to L.A. in the middle of the winter and then drive back. It gave a little cushion for the rest of our trip, which still had a month to go. The drawbacks were nil. We don't have to worry about cash for the next few weeks.

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