One of the best ways to get some insight about a band is to ask where its name came from. And the story behind the Churchills, who perform Saturday, August 19, at Triumph Brewing Company in Princeton, is wild. A few years ago, West Windsor native Bart Schoudel (who was Walter Matthau’s assistant during the filming of “I.Q” here in 1994) and fellow bandmate Ron Haney were visiting London, where they had played a couple of shows, and they were killing a couple of hours early in the morning before having to hop their plane back to the United States.
“This is 100 percent true,” Schoudel says. “We were arrested in front of Winston Churchill’s house. We were walking through Hyde Park, and we saw a sign that said Churchill had lived there. We had to ‘go’ so we hopped a little fence and peed in some bushes. Unfortunately for us, it was on a street where all of these embassies were, and there had been an IRA terrorist bombing, and security had been heightened. So we were separated and interrogated for a few hours, and, needless to say, we missed the plane. So we figured there would be no better name for the new band than the Churchills.”
You may have heard the Churchills’ music and not even known it was them — the band has concocted an exciting indie-pop sound that has made impressions on film and television audiences. Since 2000, when the band formed, the Churchills’ music has appeared on several films and television shows, including “ER,” “Spin City” (on which the band appeared in person three times), “Scrubs,” “Third Watch,” MTV’s “8th and Ocean,” and Rebecca Romijn’s new show on the WB, “Pepper Dennis.” What’s more, the actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler, daughter Meadow on “The Sopranos,” has been seen on the show wearing Churchills’ T-shirts.
But the Churchills don’t necessarily want to be known as the band whose music is always on TV. “For us it is really about the music,” Schoudel says. “TV and film is just a vehicle to get it out there. There are so many great bands out there that you are fighting against just for a chance to be heard. The Internet is amazing, really helpful in this, but it also makes the competition much stiffer.”
Nevertheless, the Churchills’ affinity with the televised or filmed image is neither coincidence nor accident. The two founding members of the group, Schoudel and Haney, met in 2000 when they worked on the film “Sleepers,” which was filming in Brooklyn. Schoudel was a production staffer and Haney worked in wardrobe. “We had both been searching for someone to write with,” he says. “When you spend 17 hours a day with someone you learn a lot about them.”
Schoudel graduated from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Communications in 1998 with a degree in film and television. His introduction to film came partly due to luck and partly due to Schoudel’s own initiative. In 1994 when the film “I.Q.” was being made on the campus of Princeton University, Schoudel introduced himself to the producers. “I walked into the office — what an idiot I must have been — and said I wanted to be part of the production. They told me that they were only hiring people who had experience from New York and Los Angeles. So I figured I’d never hear from them again. Two weeks later I get this call from a production coordinator. They needed someone to be Walter Matthau’s assistant.”
So Schoudel spent several weeks driving Matthau around Princeton and its environs, helping the venerated old actor shop, taking him to Atlantic City and the Jersey Shore and basically taking care of him. “He was an incredible guy, down to earth and hilarious,” says Schoudel.
Schoudel, 29, is the son of an IBM executive (Jim) and a realtor (Pat). He says he had a “sheltered” childhood. “West Windsor was a good place to grow up,” he says. “I lived in a nice neighborhood. I can’t complain.”
Remarkably, Schoudel says he had never even seen New York, just a short train ride away, until after he graduated from high school. “It was just this horrible place that everyone talked about, this place where horrible things happened,” he says. “Of course, the first chance I got to move there, I did.” He now lives in Brooklyn.
It was as a youth that Schoudel began playing music. “My (older) brother had rented a guitar from Farrington Music in Princeton,” he says. “They used to have this deal where you could rent a guitar for $10 for three months. I used to go into his room and mess around with it. He had an old Mel Bay book of chords and that’s how I started playing guitar.”
He became a bassist after one of the bands he was in after college needed a bass player. “I switched to bass and liked it more than I did the guitar,” he says. “But I still write on guitar.”
The band says on their web site, www.thechurchills.net, that they are really looking forward to their August 19 gig at Triumph, where they also played in May. “We are in the process of making this great spot our home base, providing they’ll have us. It is a fun vibe and we’ll play anything and everything that night. Requests are granted.”
After graduating from college, Schoudel began working in film and television in New York. His connections from his movie production work as well as his college studies made it possible for him to survive in film and TV, he says. Meanwhile, Haney was also working in the industry.
The band, which also includes Jed Higgerson on guitar and Tom Cottone on drums, got its first break as far as TV production goes when Schoudel, who was working as a staffer on “Spin City,” was hanging out with the show’s writers and put some of the band’s cuts on in the writers’ room. Star Michael J. Fox heard the songs and said he wanted to put the band on the show. (Another area native, Richard Kind, who was raised in Yardley and whose father owned LaVake Jewelers on Nassau Street, also appeared on the show.)
The Churchills appeared on three episodes of the show, including one where they portrayed a street band. “This Disease Brings Me To My Knees,” the song they played, had a deeper meaning for Fox, says Schoudel. “At that time, he had not told anyone he had Parkinson’s. After that, it became clear to us why he loved the song so much.”
Haney, especially, sought out film and TV producers to whom to pitch the Churchills’ music. At the time, the group had been signed to Universal Records, with whom it recorded one CD, but it was not pleased with the results. “It was the typical major label story,” says Schoudel, who cites a lack of promotional push and the perception that the band was being generally neglected by the record company.
Now that the Churchills are independent and own their own publishing rights and record company (Near Records), they are also attractive to music supervisors from TV shows. “It cuts out a lot of the middlemen, who don’t need to be there,” Schoudel says, adding that he and Raney are now doing music full time and are no longer working in the film business. “Our relationship with the TV/film business now is getting our music placed. A lot of people don’t know this, but sometimes shows are still being edited the day before they air. We’ll get a call from them, asking if they can use this song or that song on the air, and the next day, we’re on the air.”
The Churchills, Saturday, August 19, 10:30 p.m., Triumph Brewing Company, 138 Nassau Street, $5. 609-924-7855.