AT THIS SUMMER'S Doe Bay Festival, held on Orcas Island in the stunningly beautiful San Juan Archipelago off the coast of Northwest Washington, Drew Grow and the Pastors' Wives turned in a knockout set for the second year running. In the late afternoon sun, with a few guests including Kelli Schaefer and the Portland Cello Project, the quartet delivered an impassioned testimony that stood head-and-shoulders above the mellow folk-rock that made up the bulk of the festival's lineup.
It was the culmination of a transitional period for the Pastors' Wives, which saw the release of four singles over the past year and a solidification of the band's lineup. One of those singles, "Company," is a rusted, bloodied dirge, while another, "Bon Voyage Hymn," sounds like a tent revival; B-side "Friendly Fire" is a gorgeous country-gothic ballad of fragility and redemption. Now with the release of their self-titled full-length album—a selection from the singles and some new tracks—the band is poised to take Grow's rough-throated indie gospel to the next level.
"The idea of doing the singles was to try to invigorate the process leading up to the record," says Grow. "The way a lot of bands operate is to make a record, and that is like the 'record cycle.' You play it for two years and then you're so sick of it you want to die. At the end of that, you somehow start summoning some creativity to try to write the new album. We wanted to do something that would keep us working as we went, and that would invigorate the shows and us along the way."
The Pastors' Wives include Jeremiah Hayden on drums, Kris Doty on bass, and Seth Schaper on keyboards and percussion, but it wasn't until earlier this year that everyone became a full-time member. Grow, Hayden, and Schaper had played as a three-piece for a while, then Doty joined after moving to Portland. But shortly after that, Schaper got married and decided to bow out of the group. "So we played as a three-piece, but it was just not as great as the four-piece," explains Grow. Following a somewhat lackluster gig in January, Grow approached his bandmates. "I was just like, 'You know, guys, I don't want to do this. Is it cool if I just tell Seth that he has to play in our band?' We met him at Pine State Biscuits on Belmont, and he was like, 'I want to play, I want to play in the band.' I was like, 'Well, we want you, too!' and it was a big love-fest."
An energetic and visually distinct performer, Schaper—also of electro-dance duo the Beauty—has been a Pastor's Wife ever since, with the exception of one show in July, while he was out of town. For that gig, the Wives—stripped of their mascot and cheerleader—decided to play with audience expectation. Some of their songs were reinvented as electronica bleeps and bloops, while others were performed wearing choir robes. For the finale, the band stripped down to their underwear onstage. The whole show was an experiment, and the band is still debating whether it was a successful one.
As theatrical as that show may have been, it's a better indicator of the band's desire for music to transcend its trappings, for it to approach a kind of spiritual level. And the dirty gospel sound of the group stems directly out of each member's religious upbringing. (They've long since separated themselves and, more importantly, their music, from the church).
But the gospel overtones of the Pastors' Wives' music can't be ignored. "I come to it honestly because of my background," says Grow. "I grew up in this holy roller church tent revival, with camp meetings when I was young—falling asleep in my mom's lap while people are prophesying and all this crazy stuff: super-long musical, uproarious, ecstatic experiences. So I come by it honestly. [Our music] is quite iconoclastic but strangely reverent too, and it's using a lot of the same emotion. But it's doing it in this way that diverges in any number of ways.
"Gospel is kind of funny because it's taboo on so many different levels," he continues. "Nobody wants to touch anything religious, especially music, for obvious reasons. But also, it's intensely amazing and so inspiring. For four kids in Portland to kind of dig into that, it's like... I don't think we would have tried if it weren't true to who we were and where we came from. This is the kind of music that is kind of in us to make. It just feels right. We love that ecstatic, crazy thing."