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Sonics magazine talks to Peter about lots of good stuff around Gold Afternoon Fix. Print E-mail
Friday, 01 June 1990

New Gold Dreams
John Watson
Sonics magazine, June 1990

The Church: down-to-earth chaps who go through the same hassles being in a band that everyone else does. Surely not the same colourfully shirted chaps who've airily wandered the paths of metaphysical pop these last ten years, you ask? The same.

No bull. If you're on of those who dismisses the Church as a bunch of pseduo-poets, then think again. Better still have lunch with Peter Koppes. It would be difficult to imagine a person less inclined to call a spade a digging implement than their guitarist, and for some reason that came as a pleasant surprise. He was frank, he was forthright and he was full of great stories about spending a decade on one of this country's most fascinating musical roller-coasters.

Let's fact it, they do have a reputation for being, shall we say, difficult. The kind of people record company executives call 'creative' with a slight shake of their head. They've done it their way, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but the point is they're still doing it. Their new album Gold Afternoon Fix looks set to outstrip the considerable success of Starfish both here and overseas. It's a record which mines the same ground as most of their work but which continues to unearth paydirt. Koppes was more than willing to reveal how it was made - as you'll see later on, but let's go back...way back. In the beginning there was...

"A Hammond organ. It was the first instrument I ever took an interest in. See, my father was a musician and he had all sorts of instruments lyaing around the house - vibraphones, guitars, piano accordions - and although I'd kind of dabbled with some of them i wasn't until this guy left his Hammond at our house while he went oversea that I really got into playing music. This would have been when I was about 11. I just couldn't stop playing that thing until he came back and of course then the organ disappeared. My father coudn't afford to buy me one and there wasn't space for one either so he offered to buy me something else. In typical adolescent realiation I said 'well I want a drum kit' (laughs)! Then much to my dismay my father would come home from work and take out his frustration on my drum kit so that backfired!"

So you started off with guitar as your third instrument?

"Yes. I didn't start playing guitar until a year after I started playing drums - I had a 12-string and it hurt my hands too much. It got to a crucial point the year I left school when I met Steve (Kilbey - Church bassist/singer). It's a funny how this happened - a long story but funny I think. I drove a friend of mine who was also a drummer to an audition for this band of Steve's. They already had a drummer who hadn't been told he was 'leaving'. So my friend is auditioning and this other guy turned up - the rest of the band felt really bad so they said to this guy 'oh, we've decided we're going to have two drummers' which they did when my friend joined the band. Now I liked the rehearsal room they were using so I started rehearsing there with my band which I was playing guitar in, and one day my band and Steve's band were double-booked.

"While everyone was arguing about what to do, I just started playing something on our drummer's kit and Steve really liked it. So his band decided to kick out the drummer that was going to get kicked out in the first place and get me in as their second drummer! I thought 'why not?'. But when the durmmer kicked out, his best friend, who was the singer, also left so STeve started having to sing. That band was called Precious LIttle. Then Steve decided he just wanted to sing so we got a new bass player factions started happening and that ended up with this bass play and our guitarist splitting off, so I moved from being the second drummer to being the guitarist and Steve went back to playing bass - that was a band called Baby Grade ... Then I left and went travelling 'round the world and when I came back in 1989 I got back together with STeve and in 1980 we started the Church."

Where did Marty Willson-Piper (their other guitarist) come from - please don't say he was a drummer too!

"No. He arrived backstage at our fourth gig in Sydney and he look so good that when he told us he played guitar we invited him to join the band (laughs). We had two four-tracks and we were demoing all our songs on them. Actually we did the backing tracks for them at this tiny little studio in Sussex Lane called Rhinoceros (now, of course, one of Australia' most illustrious recording complexes). We paid for that session with an office chair somebody had left in my car while I was helping them move house - that's how little Rhinoceros was back then. It was very meagre stuff. We were only eating potatoes at that stage too.

"Anyway, Marty did some playing on those demos and they attracted the attention of Chris Gilbey (now a music publisher whose roster includes INXS and John Mellencamp). He came to one of Marty's first rehearsals with the band and signed us on the strength of that. He put us into rehearsal for a month, which we really needed and paid for some demos which ended up on our first record (Of Skins And Heart). Come to think of it we did all that stuff without even owning a guitar tuner - you look back now and wonder how you did it !"

The band actually split up before that album even came out didn't it?

"Sort of. We were actually supposed to do what would have been Marty's second gig with us as our audition for Gilbey, but we had to blow it 'cause it would have cost us too much money. So the drummer left.
"Things were kind of on hold for a week or so until Giley said he'd come to a rehearsal and the drummer rejoined - he ended up being replaced after that first album anyway of course. We've broken up and reformed ever since (laughs)."

'Church to split' rumours have certainly done the rounds many times over the years - how many times have you actually split?

"Well, the rumours of it have occured more often than the reality that's for sure. I actually left the band after we recorded Blurred Crusade. Then they said 'there's no band to promote the album and it'll just disappear into obscurity' so I decided to just do that one Australian tour.  During that tour it was never mentioned that I'd left so I ended up just staying. But over the years we've only really split up twice although members have left three times, including this current one."

Richrd Ploog (long-time drummer) has been replaced by Jay Dee Daugherty from Patti Smith's band. What happened?

"We like to say that he forcibly removed himself. He partook in a bit of violence which is a criterion for leaving the band we reckon. We need our hands (grins) ! It's like a family split really so who knows what's going to happen. He was part of writing the material on this album so for the immediate future he's still part of the things. It's not a subject which I can discuss because we can't even agree within the band - between each other - about what happened."

YOu say he was part of the writing process. That's changed a lot over teh years hasn't it? It's much more collaborative now.

"Well, we've never really sat down and formulated a policy but things are certainly more group efforts now than they used to be. To some extent though it's always been that way, it's just that the Tin Pan Alley system of publishing credits doesn't allow arrangements, middle eights, outro's or solos. It's a real dilemma when you think about it. It's a very common complaint which you hear in bands and a lot of bands break up because of it.
"The people who might have been selfish often end up regretting it; Roger Water (Pink Floyd) might be a good case in point. WE've now come to an agreement where there's 50 percent for the lyrics and the melody and 50 percent for the music. Anyone who's there when the music is written shares that 50 per cent but the person who writes the melody and lyrics can't also get a share of the music." [Brian notes: That would seem to be aimed at Steve Kilbey, who writes the lyrics and presumably the melody he sings, for almost all Church songs. If he got more than half the proceeds that wouldn't leave much for the other three.]

Do you also write songs in studios now or do you build them up by playing together at rehearsal?
"We used to think that the old ghetto blaster was the best way to record songwriting because it had its own compressed selection of prominent sounds. The whole Heyday album was written onto a Walkman which we played back by holding a mic up to it and pumping it through the PA. Now the fidelity was horrid but anything that could survive that had to be good!

"We'd jam out an idea - as soon as someone would have an idea we'd just hit 'record' and go with it, none of this 'hang on, put some more floor tom in my headphones' and no worry about tape either. As soon as you ran out of ideas you could rewin it, sit back, roll a joint and listen to what you've just done. Then you'd go back and pick the bits you wanted to work with - sort of the cut-and-paste method."

Using that approach, as you did with Heyday, you actually recorded the songs without knowing what the melody or lyrics wold be, correct?

"Uh-huh. It was amazing that EMI would let us go into the studio and only record backing tracks. It was just totally beds and if you've got that base to work from then you can't go wrong. In fact Stee often said that he found no alternative to the melody he used. Myabe there's a mathematical thing to it 'cause with all the countermelodies Marty and I play, and with Steve's running bass lines, there's limited possibilities or what the vocal can actually do and still fit with that.

"When it came to Starfish we had a few lyrics before we started. But then we went to the hotshot American producers and they said 'where's the vocals?' and Steve goes 'I don't want to write anything until I know what the backing will be'. They went 'what!!!'. So we ended up appeasing them a bit.

There was a lot of friction between your producers on that record (west coast US supersessioneers Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi) and the band wasn't there?

"Yes. Sure. Without going into too many details, these guys came fom a certain background and they were working with this band from Australia who were well outside that form. They hadn't heard of our favourite band - hadn't even HEARD of them. It was actually Greg who liked us to start with, and he'd done Boys Of Summer with Don Henley and Mike Campbell which was one of my favourite commercial radio songs that year so we were into using him too. It was Greg who talked Waddy into doing Starfish so I guess it's sort of strange that we're working only with Waddy now on this new record.

"To be honest we wanted to try someone else this time but the record company wouldn't be in it because the people we wanted didn't really have a track record. Actually we wanted to use John Paul Jones - we liked some of the sound he was pulling on things like the Mission album, but they wanted us to use Scott Litt, who'd done a bunch of things including REM and Paul Kelly and we didn't want that. So they said 'well if we don't get this sorted out you won't get a record out this year' and we really wanted a record out so we figured we know we can work with Waddy. We know what we're in for and it should be better this time."

So was the writing process different this time from the one we were talking about earlier?

"We recorded about 45 songs for this record - demoed them on an eight-track at Fat Boy studios in Sydney. After we'd sent all the gear off to America for the recording we wrote another three on the stuff we still had back here and two of those ended up on the album - Terra Nova Cain and Transient. Some of the strangest things lead to writing songs so it's hard to say exactly what the process is. When we wrote Tantalized, for instance, I was playing drums, Marty was playing guitar and Richard was rolling a joint (laughs). Of course we all collaborated later on  but that's where the germ of the idea came rom. With Transient I was playing bass, Steve was playing the sampler and Marty had his 12-string lined into the desk just 'cause that was all we had left. Sometimes a great song can come from someone playing an acoustic guitar or sometimes it can come from an amazing drum beat or from a sampled sound. I think that's why we're so prolific as writers because we have so many starting points."

You've introduced some other different sounds onto this record. What's that on, Monday Morning? A mandolin? A capo?

"Hmmm, should I give this away?"

Hell yeah!

"Okay then. Here's an exclusive for Sonics readers (laughs). What we always did in the past was half-speed the tape machine and then play along with that dirge so that when you speeded it back it sounded like a mandolin. We had some real battles with our American producers over that in the past and they ended up bringing in a mandolin player in spite of our grievances. On this album we played a 12-string above the 12th fret but with the E string open. THe tuning of a guitar is the same as a mandolin excpe tthat a mandolin has an E string which is lower than the G and B, so by playing a 12-string above the 12th fret and droning that high E you get a similar sound, tuning-wise, but it's richer and fuller. It doesn't sound so much like you're on a gondola in Venice."

While you're giving away secrets, what's that bizarre sounds at the very start of the record that leads into Pharoah?
"IT's a thing called the 'wing'. I think the inspiration came from playing a saw. Waddy saw this woman on TV playing sort of crosscut saw which she'd be cut all the teeth off, because she kept hurting herself to them I guess! It makes a real eerie sound. She has this large bin full of water and a balloon about two foot in diameter which was floater inside the bin. She lay the saw across the balloon, put these rods through it and then played it with rubber mallets and a violin bow!'.

Let's get onto something less bizarre. The guitars sounds on this record seem particularly full. How you reproduced them on stage?

'Marty and I both run stereo so that helps. He uses two Vox's but I use a Vox or two Leslie speaker boxes which I power with the preamps they made in the 60's. They are reasonabily common, even in Australia, which surprised me because I thought it would be a real battle to find them. Since my first instrument was a Hammond organ, this means that I've now found my nirvana (laughs). I've always tried to play a guitar so it sounded like an organ. See, with a keyboard you can hold down some keys while playing others. Droning strings on a guitar gets  a similar effect but by adding the Leslie you get the swirling, Hendixing, distorted sound which gets even closer to that  keyboard effect.

'The other reason that I started using a Leslie is that it works at a lower volume. -Steve has lost some of his hearing through years of playing and I was also tired of seeing the front rows at our gigs with their ears bleeding. With the Leslies the only things with bleeding cars are the mice inside (laughs). I'm determinated to use them. Sound guys won't look at 'em. Roadies don't want to carry them around, but I've been really defiant about it. Even Waddy tried to get around it. Anyway, that's the sound which everyone went out and bought a chorus pedal to try and simulate'.

What about guitars-wise?

"I've got a Strat, a Jazzmaster and a Roger McGuinn 12 string which I borrow off Marty. I've got also a '59 Tele which I got really cheap in the US. It's been refinished and they don't like that over there so you can picked them up real cheap. I never liked Tele's actually; they keep feeding back on stage but I've just had the pick-ups waxed so I'll see if that helps.

"Marty's still stricking with his Rickenbackers. I've lost count how many he's got but I know he lost three of them last year. One of them got destroyed on stage. You know how he throws them offstage to his guitar roadie at the end of a song? Well, Marty figured he'd let the roadie get his own back and Marty said to him: ' throw it to me' . The roadie did, but he had his foot on the guitar's lead so it only got half way across the stage and then smashed.

"Steve's still using the Fender Colorado bass. In fact, he bought two more of them recently. They look pretty strange, like a Japanese copy, but I think they're got lovely semi-acoustic sound - like a Hofner Beatle bass. Steve always did like Paul McCartney's style of bass playing so maybe that's got something to do with it.

"It's funny really. Marty and I have had quite a turn - around  in our guitar-playing over the years. The only 12-string part on this record is mine, on Grind. It used to be that I did the solos but Marty does most of them these days. See, that's what happens when you come up with a good rhythm -you're stuck with it (laughs). I've only just realised that you can use two overdrives togheter so I've bought an extra overdrive pedal for those big chords. I used to be really conservative about those sorts of things but not anymore. Just wait until the next album!"


Transcribed by Brian Smith and  Yessica Almaza

Last Updated ( Sunday, 20 March 2005 )
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