SCHOOL DAYS: Christians & Lions benefit from not knowing what they can’t do.
In 2003, Ben Potrykus, then a freshman at Emerson College and the singer of the post-hardcore band the Receiving End of Sirens, made a decision that most aspiring musicians would call crazy: he turned down a major-label record deal to stay in school. “When Atlantic is giving you a piece of paper with a certain amount of money on it, there’s different reactions you can have,” he tells me when I sit down with him and the three members of his new band, Christians & Lions, at the Other Side Café to talk about their debut, More Songs for Dreamsleepers & the Very Awake. “I think my natural reaction, based on the influences that I had at the time and the situation I was in, was to say, ‘No, not right now.’ ”
He cites DIY exemplars Ian MacKaye and Steve Albini as two people who contributed to his view of the music industry. “I thought that art was more pure if it wasn’t associated with commercialism at all. There was no commodification of your music if you didn’t get in bed with big business. At the same time, it would be unfair to paint myself as this indie hero that was like ‘Fuck you’ to Atlantic and to major labels and everything because I also just wanted to stay in school.”
Potrykus says he hasn’t regretted the decision. And yet, “I’ve wondered what would’ve happened if I chose to do that, especially when I’m not feeling school or I’m like ‘Dammit, I don’t want to go to work today and serve coffee’ or whatever. But in the end I’m extremely happy that I made the decision to stay in school and finish that up because I feel like it gave me time to find out what I wanted to do musically and also get better at writing.”
The Receiving End of Sirens are doing quite well for themselves. But More Songs suggests that Potrykus made the right choice. Full of lyrical and musical subtleties, harmonic complexities, and formal surprises, the album has a maturity that belies both the band members’ ages (18-22) and the amount of time they existed in their current incarnation before recording (about one month). Ben says staying in school allowed him to take time to absorb myriad influences, all of which inform his songwriting, a sophisticated take on folk music that many would call literary. Given that he’s studying creative writing at Emerson, it makes sense that he cites Dada poetry, e.e. cummings, Fernando Pessoa, and B.H. Fairchild as readily as he does garage rock, the Beatles, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Devendra Banhart.
Ben (who plays guitar and sings), his younger brother Sam (who plays bass and sings), guitar/keys guy Matt Sisto, and drummer Chris Mara share roots in the suburban punk and ska scene of the late ’90s, all having played in bands since they were pre-teens. The genesis of C&L can be traced to an outfit called the Lido Venice that Ben, Sam, and Matt formed in early 2004 at about the same time Ben, Matt, and Chris moved to Braintree into the house the Potrykus brothers had grown up in. (Sam and the brothers’ parents had recently moved to Wareham.) Following the break-up of that band, Ben and Matt formed a “collaboration-based project where anyone could contribute” (as Matt puts it), calling it Christians & Lions. They released a two-song single on the New-York-by-way-of-Weymouth label ECA — a label Ben got to know during his TREOS days and the same label that put out More Songs.