The righteous Alternative Champs
The Righteous Gemstones, the latest HBO show from the folks who brought Kenny Powers to life, is set around a Charleston mega-church empire, starring John Goodman as the patriarchal pastor, Eli Gemstone, with creator Danny McBride and Adam Devine as sons Jesse and Kelvin.
The Gemstones get help spreading the song of salvation thanks to Tears of David, the Gemstone Salvation Center Church Band: also known around these parts as the Alternative Champs (or ‘the Champs’ amongst friends).
When not blasting tunes about Cherie Berry, elevator queen of North Carolina, or pursuing their quest of “a never-ending tour of Charlotte,” the Champs have been spending time writing a new record and making an appearance on the new HBO comedy.
Guitarist Rick Randall, the Winstoner amongst the group, rocks a keytar for the show. “We’ve written inappropriate gospel songs and have performed dressed as angels before, but never pretended to be a church band,” he said of their prior experience. For the show, the group features an extra member: Rough House Pictures co-founder, Jody Hill, on guitar. “We had to teach him our songs just before each shot,” Randall said, “otherwise, most of our scenes are us playing, or sitting on stage reacting to sermons.”
The show may be the Champs’ first time as a church band, but it’s not their first tango with the UNCSA bawdy boys in Rough House Pictures, the team behind Carolina-based comedies Eastbound and Down, Vice Principals, and the most recent Halloween reboot, now filming in Wilmington.
“We wrote songs for the Halloween (2018) movie and Gemstones was their next project,” Randall mused on how the Champs came into the role. “And I guess since we’re known for putting on nutty shows where we dress up like everything–from tennis players to cult members–they figured we’d have no trouble being a mega-church band.”
“When you do songs for a major HBO show, it’s like a big game of telephone,” Randall explained of songwriting demands. “One guy has one thing in mind, but then it gets translated to another person, and so on,” he added, “sometimes it takes a few rounds before you actually figure out what they want.” But Randall welcomed the challenge.
“Early on, show executives were still trying to figure out what kind of music they were going for, and told us to check out old PTL Club songs from the 1970s,” Randall noted of the Champs sonic inspiration behind Tears of David, initially taking cues from the excess-evangelical-era of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. “But later, they sort of zeroed in on more modern Christian, wanna-be-hipster music,” he added.
Ultimately, the Champs pulled together a catalog of around 20 songs. “Each one is different,” Randall said. Gospel, boy bands, U2–no genre went unturned. “After the dust settled, we ended up with about six-to-eight making it in the show, not including the commercial jingle we wrote for advertising.”
As for acting chops, “we just pretended to perform, mostly, it wasn’t really acting,” Randall insisted, noting the small background nature of their role. But even small parts carry big responsibilities. “It’s weird at first,” he admitted, “being afraid you’re going to wreck a scene, and John Goodman is going to hate you for it.”
But the Champs settled in. “We did a trippy laser intro number during the Easter sermon that was pretty cool,” Randall recalled. “I play this fancy keytar with little light-up buttons and laser lights beaming overhead.”
“But the most fun scene during filming was one where they shot us pretending to set up our equipment,” he added, “I was totally goofing off thinking it was a practice take–smelling all the microphones and doing other dumb stuff and then they yelled, ‘Cut! Ok, we got it.’”
Randall hopes that scene makes the final cut. As far as the final product goes, the Champs are just regular members of the audience. “Our bigger scenes don’t happen until episode six or seven,” Randall noted, “I’ve been watching it like everybody else.”
Local viewing parties helped celebrate the series premiere back in August. One with Randall at Monstercade in Winston-Salem, and the other, with Champs’ drummer, Dave Massi, and singer, Mike Mitschele, at the Visulite Theatre in Charlotte.
“It’s pretty funny to think of a few million people watching you and hearing your songs,” Randall said. “Hopefully, we don’t look like too big of dorks,” he added. “But, also, maybe that’s the point.”
Episode six of the Righteous Gemstones airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.
Katei Cranford is a Triad music nerd who hosts the Tuesday Tour Report, a radio show that runs like a mixtape of bands touring N.C. the following week, 5-7 p.m. on WUAG 103.1fm.