'Onward' and Upward with Martinsburg's Christian Lopez

Jun 17, 2016

Since the show began almost two years ago, A Change of Tune has highlighted some of the best up-and-coming artists out of these West Virginia hills with podcast-y chats ranging from Bishops to The Sea The Sea, Rozwell Kid to New God and beyond.

But those interviews have been a bit infrequent, and since West Virginia Day is coming up (not to mention A Change of Tune’s second birthday), we thought we’d do something special: 30 days, 30 brand new #WVmusic interviews that range from Morgantown alt-rockers and Parkersburg singer-songwriters to West Virginia music venues and regional artist management and beyond, all of which contribute to this state’s wild and wonderful music scene.

And today, we are chatting with Martinsburg native Christian Lopez, frontman for the up-and-coming Americana outfit named the Christian Lopez Band. From playing bars in the Eastern Panhandle and appearing on American Idol to being recognized by Rolling Stone magazine and performing on NPR's Mountain Stage with Larry Groce, this young West Virginian has accomplished quite a lot in 21 years. And those are just some of the topics we brought up in our Charleston studios during this #WVmusic chat.

Christian Lopez Band's newest release is Onward. The band recently contributed to Amazon's Songs of Summer playlist with an exclusive cover of King Harvest's "Dancing in the Moonlight." Catch the band's free show at Live on the Levee on June 17, or see them on tour later this summer.

Hear more #WVmusic on A Change of Tune, airing Saturday nights at 10 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. And for more #WVmusic chats, make sure to go to wvpublic.org/wvmusic and subscribe to our RSS / podcast feeds!

Interview Highlights

On getting started into music:

My mom was a music teacher. She taught show choir, choir, and piano. She studied opera, all that kind of stuff. She taught all of us kids piano starting at 5. From there, we all went our own direction. I started guitar at 9, and then tried to learn as many string instruments from there. My mom definitely came in and started me young, then my dad came in and guided me in the right direction with taste. He gave me his record collection. I think it was a good combo. I had two music-loving parents. 

My brother and I actually had a classic rock cover band until I was like 14. It was called The Lix. I swear. We did that for years. We did the local talent show, played a lot of garages, had the cops called on us a few times. We played Foreigner, Ozzy, AC/DC. We played so much AC/DC, it was ridiculous. I still find so many people tagging me in photos of me making ridiculous faces on-stage, and it’s because of my AC/DC upbringing. Angus Young was a huge face-making inspiration to me, and I don’t think I’ll be able to shake it.

Christian Lopez was born and raised in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
Credit Allen Clark Photography

On transitioning from classic rock to Americana:

I became a fan of The Band when I was around 15- or 16-years-old. That was kind of the first introduction to me of that world.  It was when I went to my uncle’s house one day to help him move some stuff. He had The Avett Brothers playing on his TV, and they were playing “Talk on Indolence.” And they were just rocking so hard, harder than I think I ever rocked, with just a banjo, acoustic guitar, and stand up bass. It was an eye opener, something I’d never seen. I didn’t even own an acoustic guitar, I only had an electric guitar. I had a B.C. Rich Warlock, which is like a Viking-looking axe of a guitar.

That was the day I was like, “Wow, you can make as much energy as I’m making over here, but with this acoustic setup. And you can make it even more crazy and energetic.” I just thought I’d give it a shot, and I loved it and stuck with it. I bought an acoustic guitar and just kept playing, kept listening. I eventually discovered the classic country I love today. 

On his first live performances:

I started doing open mics when I was like 16 or 17 in the Martinsburg area and Shepherdstown. That was kind of the birthplace, Shepherdstown. There’s a little place there called the Blue Moon Café, and they had an open mic every Wednesday. There wouldn’t be many people, and I would go every week. I started going by myself, playing my favorite songs on acoustic, play my 3 and watch everyone else. I eventually started bringing percussionists with me, met other musicians, brought them with me, and I slowly started to introduce my own songs. Every now and then, I’ll still stop by the Blue Moon.

On venues in and around West Virginia:

There’s not too many venues in our neck of the Eastern Panhandle worlds. We probably did the most gigs in northern Virginia. We played a lot in Winchester, Virginia. We had a monthly gig at a place called Piccadilly’s, which was a big kind of frat bar with guys in their Oakley’s and khaki shirts. It’s not me, but they had this big boat stage. We would play four hours every time we were there. We loved it because we’d get to play, and it was awesome, and people would get drunk and dance all night long. But we could also stuff our face with brew pub food. We played a ton of the bars. We did our due.

It wasn’t until later that we’d play the Shepherdstown Opera House. Actually last year, when we did our release show, we just took an old building in downtown Shepherdstown that was a real estate office. We cleared it out and put the show in there.

On playing in Charleston:

Playing in Charleston was new for me. The Eastern Panhandle is such a region of its own. Some of my family lives down here in Charleston, so we come down to Charleston as much as we can. It wasn’t until later that we really started to play in Charleston. I think the first place we played down here was Sam’s Uptown Café. We did The Blue Parrot. We did The Boulevard Tavern and The Empty Glass multiple times. We did all the Charleston bars. I think June 17’s Live on the Levee is going to be a new “check” on that list for us as well.

On his first full-length record Onward:

Christian Lopez Band's debut album is Onward, out now on Blaster Records.
Credit Courtesy of the artist

I had signed with a label in Nashville called Blaster Records, which was an independent label, but kind of a mainstream country label. We made an EP, and the producer we were using was Dave Cobb. We sat down with Dave about making this EP, just to kind of give it a test run with the producer and the label. As soon as that was released, they decided we should just jump in and make the full record. It was soon. And the next month, we were in there recording. It was 2014.

Ten days in the studio, Dave brought in his preferred rhythm section, and they really put some great stuff all over these tracks. Dave’s really hands on and together, we’d tear these songs apart and put them back together and play it all live. That’s where the magic happens: just doing something like that. We made it happen.

On being named Rolling Stone’s Best Newcomer of Americana Fest 2015:

I was over the moon. I remember the morning I had that link sent to me by my manager. I was sitting on the couch, watching TV. I had always dreamed of seeing something like that under the Rolling Stone headline. So as fast as I could, I shared it with everybody.

I remember it was a crazy show at that Americana Fest. We only got five songs. It was at the High Watt. It was specifically a showcase for the agency that was booking us, so they had a bunch of great acts. A band called Great Peacock, Corb Lund, and a couple others. It was a great line-up. And we got five songs, but three songs in, I’ve already broken all of my guitars, all the strings have popped. That usually happens, but usually that fast. And it was the last two songs, and I’m yelling into the crowd that I need a guitar. So the guitarist from Great Peacock gave me his late ‘60s D-28, tuned down a whole step, so I had to put a capo on it just to play in standard tuning. So we rocked out the last two songs as hard as we could. We winged it, but it was so much fun.

On his NPR Mountain Stage with Larry Groce debut:

Christian Lopez Band made its Mountain Stage debut during this fall 2015 show.
Credit Brian Blauser/Mountain Stage

It has obviously had a strong impact on the music scene in West Virginia. It’s a checkpoint for artists. I guess I realized it one day when we pulled up a list of artists I was getting into at the time, and they had all said Mountain Stage for things they had done. So I said, “How did they do that? And how can they do that?” So it was amazing news when I heard we were going to play Mountain Stage.

On the key to touring successfully:

I think the key to touring successfully is a good touring band. A band you get along with guys that you don’t mind being on the road with for months at a time. Actually, most of the time, it’s been the stinky musicians who have been the best on the road [laughing]. But you set up. You play. You rock out as hard as you can. And then you get back in the car to go to the next one. They’re your buddies, your friends. And you’re having a great time. That’s definitely the key.

Music featured in this #WVmusic chat:

Christian Lopez- “This Romance”

Christian Lopez Band- "Amiss"

Christian Lopez Band- “Will I See You Again”

Christian Lopez Band- “Dancing in the Moonlight” (Amazon exclusive)