By: Kevin Lozano Via The Pitch 2017
Less than 48 hours after the election, a crowd slowly filtered into a 109-year-old Gothic Revival church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. They were there to see Natalie Mering, the wry folk singer-songwriter who performs as Weyes Blood, but show organizer Brian Sweeny wasn’t sure there’d be much of a crowd given the circumstances. But by the time Mering started her set with an off-color Hillary Clinton joke, people were crammed in the pews, spilling out the aisles, hugging the corners and walls. Cutting through the initially uncomfortable laughter was a growing warmth. For some of us that night, Ambient Church provided a place to put our concerned minds aside, even if just temporarily.
This restorative sort of reaction is precisely Sweeny’s hope. Since starting the series last summer, he has invited musicians who make, in his words, “meditative, devotional, and minimal” music to perform at churches around Brooklyn (mainly Greenpoint’s Park Church Co-Op and Brooklyn Heights’ First Unitarian Church at the moment). “Devotional music” can run a gamut of genres, touching on everything from Huerco S’s gauzy house beats to Caroline Polachek’s sound art experiments to Julianna Barwick’s hypnotic vocals, the latter seeming both towering and tranquil during her Ambient Church show back in February (as seen below).
Sweeny makes sure each show is a full-bodied, sensorial experience. For him, that’s all about managing a vibe—which means his tall, scruffy frame is often seen pacing up and down the aisles, waving lit sticks of incense and palo santo to make sure the smell is just so. (He’s also likely to hug you the first time you meet him, which is as about a full-bodied experience as they come.) He invites visual artists, like designer Eric Epstein (who’s worked with Chairlift and Delorean), to create elaborate light shows and projections specific for each space and show, essentially turning these churches into stained-glass planetariums. These details can make Ambient Church shows feel extremely theatrical—far more than a typical DIY show.
Sweeny found refuge at those kinds of shows after moving to New York from Burlington, Vermont, eight years ago. He’d come here on a whim, after his high school friend, Deer Tick’s John McCauley, needed someone to sublet his apartment while he was touring. From there, Sweeny hopped around transient home-venues like Surreal Estate and Market Hotel, living with dozens of “freaks with taste” at a time. They introduced him to electronic music, yoga, and New Age philosophy, all clearly informing Ambient Church. The idea started to form after he and a few friends from Market Hotel turned their rooftop yoga party into a brick and mortar venue called the Body Actualized Center (BAC), located at 143 Troutman St. in Brooklyn until its closure in 2014 (due to ballooning rent and neighborhood complaints).
When Sweeny was running the BAC, he and his cohorts lived by a philosophy of “healthy hedonism,” in which indulgence could coexist within a mindful lifestyle. At the sweaty techno shows they hosted, you could buy elixirs at the bar for “vibe improvement” (usually kombucha, though sometimes a mysterious concoction whose effects were not unlike alcohol). There were yoga classes in the afternoons, workshops on herbal healing, and discussions related to the occult—a trifecta that reasonably made the place the source of some skepticism, though they were hardly the most sordid aspects. Sweeny once referred to the Body Actualized Center as a “New Age sex cult,” and indeed they held events like a 56-hour sleepover where, during a tantric healing session, BAC yoga teacher Amy Jenkins projectile orgasmed on a crowd.
Where the BAC catered to rather specific interests, Ambient Church “draws a more general crowd to experimental music because it’s a spectacle—like being immersed in this spaceship,” Sweeny says. He would rather call these events “community experiences” (and never “concerts”), where, he believes, “large groups of people can focus on channeling something greater than themselves.” Sweeny studied community development at the University of Vermont, so even though he doesn’t use his degree formally, he views his work as in a similar spirit.
Why people all over aren’t organizing more secular performances at churches—discovering what beauty lurks right in their neighborhoods even if they aren’t religious—remains a mystery to Sweeny. He says it’s as easy as picking up the phone and asking who minds the calendar there. “Churches are specifically designed to be acoustically and architecturally beautiful, but they’re the least utilized venues,” he says. “There’s an event every Sunday, but for the most part it’s empty. I don’t want to just use a venue. It’s like it’s commodified then. People go there, they pay the price, they know what they’re going to see.” Sweeny hopes to use as many churches around New York City as he can, his dream being to book something special at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the fourth largest church in the entire world.
For practical reasons, churches also make great venues in these mercurial times. DIY spaces like Brooklyn’s 285 Kent and Glasslands were shuttered by the pressures of the real estate market earlier in the decade, while others including Denver’s Rhinoceropolis and L.A.’s Non Plus Ultra have closed over safety concerns, police/fire department attention, and landlord disputes. Churches are neighborhood hubs that local law enforcement are likely to leave alone—perhaps the last sanctuaries in heavily policed cities. Running these kinds of shows is not without its costs and concerns, of course. Renting out the First Unitarian can cost upwards of $600, plus A/V rentals day-of (instead of a traditional venue’s built-in system). “It’s definitely not a cash cow,” he says, but at least everyone gets paid and his passion project is now monetarily sustainable.
In the past, Sweeny would refer to the BAC as a temporary autonomous zone—a kind of space where the event-goers could change and make their own. In a way, that’s what he’s doing with churches around Brooklyn, helping others to activate sacred buildings in alternative, but equally spiritual, ways. That idea may not seem radical these days—church shows aren’t a new thing, and Sweeny himself saw the potential of First Unitarian after attending events there thrown by Issue Project Room—but even a half-century ago, the image would have seemed like something out of a science fiction novel. Still, Sweeny maintains, “I think the people who designed and built these buildings, brick by brick, in the 1800s would be delighted to see how they are being used now.”