Singer Seth Church's cool, detached croon recalls Television's Tom Verlaine as it surfs a rubbery bass riff and jagged guitar jangle on a catchy little track that harks back to new wave's New York nexus. "Rule of Thumb" opens with a couple of crossed metaphors culminating in a bitten tongue—"every time that the angels strum"—suggestive of Elvis Costello's early problem with shoe-stealing cherubs. Church concludes the opening verse with hard-bitten relational wisdom: "Selfishness might make me numb/ but it sure does help you when the heartache comes."
It then launches into one of the best choruses I've heard all year: "We have our own brand of supremacy/ Calling it facial symmetry/ Well, give me liberty or give me satellite TV/ When everything keeps you pacified/ It don't mean that much to me." It's the kind of sentiment born to be sung by thousand-large crowds drinking appropriately down-market beer. While I don't think the solo is anything to write home about, the break ends wonderfully, a whimsical, light-hearted strum building into shouts of "All right!" Rarely have I heard something so fun, energetic and smart from a relatively new, unsigned regional act.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Tell me about the circumstances of writing "Rule of Thumb."
SETH CHURCH: I wrote it in 2000. I remember it well. I wrote it over two days. The first day I wrote the verse parts, and the second day I wrote the chorus parts. I was in Chapel Hill at the time. I was thinking about a Country Joe McDonald song called "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die." It's interesting to me that he was writing about such a serious and powerful subject matter but there was a lively, effervescent melody behind that. It's one of the more interesting things about music to me, that you can have a paradoxical relationship between the lyrics and the music. "Rule of Thumb" was like that, and it's still one of the favorite ones I've written over the years, even thought it's about eight years old right now.
I love the first line of the chorus.
It was a social commentary. Like I said, it was written over the course of two days, and the chorus part was written the second day. I was sitting back and observing some things going on in Chapel Hill in particular, but America in general. I was thinking about the fascination with celebrity. ... Celebrity and looks, superficial things seem to give people status and prestige in our American society. People are afforded these things because of the way they look more or less, and I wanted to comment on that. I think it's the job of artists to point out situations in society and bring them into the light. Not to take myself too seriously, but that was what I was thinking.
There's also a nice line about being "too tired to be this young." Were you feeling dragged down by this?
Well, the part that I wrote during the first day, the first lyrics are written about a personal situation. I was going through a relationship. In Instant Jones' songs, there's a personal aspect and a social commentary, and that one kind of has both.
The vocals here remind me a lot of Tom Verlaine.
That's interesting you say that. My friend, Nathan the guitar player, is a big Television fan, and he turned me onto those guys, though I didn't know about Television at the time I wrote this song. But looking back, I can see the similarities. I heard a lot of Talking Heads. I think those guys are similar.
What other influences do you have on your writing?
I listen to a lot of Doors music. The song "Rule of Thumb," in particular, I wrote the day after I got back from an Old 97's concert at the Cat's Cradle. I like the way he had a song that said, "I'll stomp a mudhole in your heart" [from "Bel Air"], and I've heard "I'll stomp a mudhole in your ass" before. But I thought that was pretty cool, and it evolved from that. I like to take a cliché, like "I know you like the back of my hand," and twist it a little, like "I know you like the back of my tongue." Same sort of idea. So the Old 97's, and the writing of Leonard Cohen, had a lot of influence on my lyrics.
How were you in Chapel Hill? Were you going to school there?
I took some classes there. I never graduated. I also owned a catering business there. That's what I was doing there in 2000, running my catering business.
How did you get together with Instant Jones and end up in Burlington, N.C.?
Most of the guys are natives to Burlington. We met at an open jam. There's a bar here called Brewballs, and every Sunday all the local musicians get together and have an impromptu jam session. It's really fun. It's been going on for years now. And it's kind of a hub of the music scene here in Alamance County. All the local musicians have been there at one time or another. It's a good place to meet and mingle. That's where the guys in Instant Jones met.
How long ago was that?
I would say a year and a half ago since we started playing together. All the songs I've written under the moniker of Instant Jones. I've had that moniker for years.
You're planning to do some recording?
Yeah, we've been playing a lot of live shows over the year, and it kind of culminated in a tour we did recently, where we played in some of the bigger cities up north—New York, especially. At this time, we've decided to focus on getting a good recording done. So we're looking for a studio and a producer to work with right now.
Instant Jones plays Local 506 Monday, Aug. 18, at 9:30 p.m. with Jokes & Jokes & Jokes. Admission is free.