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Steve speaks to Creem, includes summary of record companies up to '88 Print E-mail
Friday, 01 January 1988
From Creem, circa 1988

Let Us Pray for the Church
by Steve Peters

Steve Kilbey is sitting quietly in a spacious hotel suite overlooking
Hollywood Boulevard. The bassist and lead singer of the Church, Australia's
most understated rock band, looks fatigued, his arms drawn close to his sides
and his back against the diffused sunlight that drifts through the hotel
window. Since writers are so keen on symbolism, I could interpret this as a
sign of Kilbey's preference for the dark, brooding atmosphere that dominates
much of the Church's music. Or maybe he is symbolically turning his back on
the glitzy decadence that accompanies success in this ugly city. Far more
likely, however, is that he just flopped down into the nearest available


Over the past eight years, the Church -- Kilbey, guitarists Marty Willson-
Piper and Peter Koppes, and drummer Richard Ploog -- have released five superb
albums, none of which have made a dent on anything besides the college charts
in America. Their records are wistful and melodic, with Kilbey's plaintive
vocals providing the perfect complement to the band's lush, textural

The Church bridge the best elements of '60s and '80s rock; you might hear
hints of English psychedelia in the melodies, or perhaps some Byrds-influenced
12-string guitar courtesy of Willson-Piper, but their sound is anything but
dated. They've often been described as psychedelic -- not in a derivative way,
like the diligent recreations of L.A's Paisley Underground bands or the
tongue-in-cheek homages of the Dukes of Stratosphear, but in a relaxing,
almost hypnotic sense -- an ethereal wash of guitars, bass, drums and vocals
that alternately massages and gently assaults the listener's ears. They've
also been compared to R.E.M. in the States (much to Kilbey's dismay), though
they were playing the Australian club circuit before R.E.M. guitaris
t Peter Buck toughed out his first A minor chord, and besides oblique lyrics
and certain melodic qualities the only obvious parallel I can draw is Buck and
Willson-Piper's fondness for Rickenbacker guitars.

They aren't necessarily a gloomy or overly-depressing lot (no Morrissey-styled
self-pitying or obsessive death fixation here), yet even their most upbeat
numbers seem to be ensconced in a vague shroud of melancholy -- kind of like
that gray, cloudy afternoon when some small part of you looks forward to a
little rain after a few too many sunny days.

Incidentally, their new album, Starfish is one of the best records you're
likely to hear in 1988.


Unfortunately, in this God-fearing country of ours, the Church have fallen
prey to a horrible malady that probably first reared its ignorant head when
Decca Records neglected to sign the Beatles in 1962 -- the dreaded Major Label
Corporate Mentality.

Capitol Records released their 1980 Australian debut domestically in 1982
 promptly dropped them. A pair of brilliant albums (The Blurred Crusade and
 Seance) followed, but since the band was between American label deals at the
 time, neither record was released here.

Things were looking up again when Warner Bros. signed them and released two
Australian EPs as a single album titled Remote Luxury in 1984. The follow up
album, Heyday, sold a respectable 60,000 copies, but that figure wasn't
respectable enough for the mighty Warner Bros. -- they also dropped the band .

"We didn't sell enough records," Kilbey explains matter-of-factly, aware that
artistic growth usually needs to be coupled with plenty of units shipped to
maintain a deal with the majors in this country. "It was obvious that sooner
or later some accountant was gonna say 'We don't need this.' It's business,
isn't it? The accountants aren't sitting there going 'These guys write good
lyrics,' or 'Listen to this guitar solo.' It just didn't make money."

In the two years between the release of Heyday and Starfish, Kilbey released a
terrific solo album of odds and ends he had recorded over the years (released
domestically on Enigma as Unearthed) and published a book of his writings in
Australia. Meanwhile, the Church were faced with the grim prospect of
releasing an album without a deal in America for the third time in their


The band's unlikely messiah turned out to be Arista Records, home of Whitney
 Houston and destined to go down in history as The Label That Finally Broke
 The Grateful Dead. "Our manager was sitting in New York one day," Kilbey
 recalls, "and Arista rang up and said 'We want to sign the Church,' and we
 said 'Alright.'" While the deal has given the band yet another shot in the
 States, Kilbey has learned to hedge his optimism. "You know," he says, "if
 this album doesn't do very well, I wouldn't at all be surprised if we get the
 royal boot.

"I don't spend a lot of time thinking about that sort of stuff, 'cause you
just get crazy," he continues. "I just feel it's up to me to make an album and
give it to the record company. I know a lot of good musicians who haven't even
made a record, who never got out of playing in their bedroom for one reason or
another, so I sort of count my blessings. If I get to make a record and come
here and tour and sell 60,000 copies, that's OK. Anything better is just icing
on the cake."

Mighty modest of ya, Steve, but it seems that with the proper promotional push
the Church could achieve great success in America. R.E.M. (who might never
have gotten past Reckoning had they the Church's label history) recently
proved that there's definitely a growing market for alternative music in this
country . . .

"I know what you mean," Kilbey says. "I don't know. I'm kind of a perverse
enough individual to sort of enjoy being a best-kept secret. It certainly
makes the people who do like you more fanatical. But to me, whatever's gonna
happen is gonna happen.  If people finally discover us with this album, it'll
be nice, but if they don't, I'm not going to go home and spend the rest of my
life going 'I coulda been a contender.' There's a lot of great records that
never made it. Just because your music's subjectively good, or a few critics
think it's good, doesn't mean that the general, salivating hordes are going to
embrace it. What we're doing is fairly low-key. It's fairly obscure and
subtle, and I'm not really expecting to be that successful with it at all."


Starfish is, in many ways, the Church's most accessible effort yet. It's much
more straightforward than Heyday, which featured decorative horn and string
flourishes that didn't really fit in with the group's usual style. Since
Kilbey tends to be his own harshest critic ("I just want to make the best
album I can, which I don't think we really ever do"), I asked him if he thinks
the new record approaches what he would consider a good representation of the

"They always say yes, don't they? 'It's our best album, the new album's the
best.'" He smiles. "Actually, I think the ratio's better on this one. I think
we've got more good tracks than we've ever had before. We wanted it to be more
like the way we play live. Most of the songs are all guitars, bass and drums
laid down at the same time, with hardly any overdubs. We wanted to get that
more live feel, be cause I thought Heyday was a bit ornamental."

Starfish is also probably the least psychedelic record the band has released
to date, though Kilbey says that wasn't intentional.

"If people are talking about psychedelia as far as meaning sort of mind-
expanding, surrealistic and weird and wonderful, yeah, well I'd like to be
that," he says. "If they mean are we gonna come on with pudding bowl haircuts
and sing songs about Strawberry Fields and all that kind of revivalism, I just
don't want to know about it. I mean, in the beginning, we did wear paisley
shirts (and also on the cover of Heyday, as an in-joke most American fans
didn't get) and all that sort of stuff. It was sort of saying 'We stand for
these old values.' Then suddenly this whole thing happened where people were
adopting the whole Paisley Underground. It was like, 'Let's wear paisley
shirts, have pudding bowl haircuts and Roger McGuinn glasses,' and very
 few of them ever attempted to wrestle with the whole of what psychedelia was
all about.

"The last thing I want to be is looked upon as some kind of pseudo-'60s relic.
I would imagine someone who hears this new album for the first time and
doesn't know anything about the Church, I doubt whether the word psychedelic
would even come into it at all."

Does he ever worry that the darker aspects of the Church's music might turn
off potential fans?

"It's funny," he offers, "you sort of analyze it to a certain extent -- I
mean, I think I'm a fairly articulate person, but after a while all I can say
is that's just what I like to do. I was down in this rock shop here the other
day, and you look through one whole section that's all groups like Bones and
Dust and Suicidal Maniacs and We Kill Our Mothers, and you look at all the
songs, it's all 'Vomiting In Hell,' and it's just so one-dimensional. Then
there's a whole lot of other records like 'Dancing On The Ceiling' and 'We're
Happy' and 'Isn't The World Great?' I think what I want to get into in the
Church is kind of more multi-dimensional than that, so the tune might sound
happy and then the lyrics might be more brooding and haunting than that, or
have a few conflicting emotions in the whole thing."


"I was just thinking the other day that 'Milky Way' (the first single from
Starfish) -- that song, that whole croon, the lyrics and everything about that
song, is a direct reflection of the fact that when I was three or four years
old and my parents first moved to Australia, from England, we were very, very
poor. I had one record, which was Frank Sinatra's Only The Lonely, and the
whole album was all these songs about love lost, but the lyrics were
incredibly surrealistic. If people now were writing lyrics like the lyrics
that are on this album, guys like you would be tripping out and saying 'This
is it, this blows so-and-so out the window.' Very weird, strange kind of
lyrics, and very clever. I used to sit there and listen to this, and sin
ce it was the only album I had, I heard it over and over and over, and it was
my first exposure to music. I used to say 'Why is he saying that? That's very
weird and creepy.' So as I grew up, I always thought pop music to be this
weird, creepy sound, kind of like a loneliness and isolation thing, and I
think that, so many years later, it's come out in this song! 'Milky Way' is
sort of like my attempt to write a song which, in another time and place, I
would have liked to have seen on this Only The Lonely album. That was the real
initial thing that got me interested in music and words.

"To me, the sort of art that I enjoy, not just in music but in films, ballet,
whatever, is the surrealist kind of things -- stuff that's very open to
interpretation, stuff that comes from the subconscious, stuff that's sort of
weird and strange and fascinating . . . I think there's room for people like
me to be sort of more escapist.'


So there you have it. Hopefully the Church will sell lots of records and make
their new label so proud that they'll release The Blurred Crusade and Seance
on a specially-priced double album and help the band get the recognition they
deserve and the MTV generation will dance merrily in the streets to the
strains of "Is This Where You Live" or "North South East West." Or maybe
they'll be one of those bands that doesn't get their just due until a decade
after their demise, when they've picked up enough cool underground fans over
the years to prompt America's Only Rock 'N' Roll Magazine to stick 'em on the
cover a la the Velvets. Either way, Kilbey honestly doesn't care.

"To me, it just doesn't matter," he says convincingly. "I want to see the
 album do well, but I'm just not going to spend a lot of time thinking about
 CHR crossover charts and all that sort of stuff. It's just all this
 artificial sort of packaging and categorizing, putting music under ladders
 and adding up the points and all of this sort of stuff. Music's got nothing
 to do with that. Music's this sort of, this thing that makes people feel
 good. There's no real logical reason why music makes you feel good, it just
 does. And that's what the Church has always tried to do . .  . make music
 that makes people feel good."

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