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Nice and techy Tim Powles interview Print E-mail
Sunday, 03 March 2013

Originally published at Spire Focus. Tim talks about the work he's done for the band and some of the other acts that he works with. Busy guy!

The task presented before me is as daunting as it is exciting: an interview with Aria Hall Of Fame inductee Tim Powles; drummer for iconic Australian rock band The Church. The nerves are running riot as I patiently wait at the gate of the gorgeous Sirromet Wineries, where the band is performing as part of A Day On The Green with The Models, Devo and Simple Minds. It takes some bribing and pleading at three checkpoints to finally track down Tim, and together we find an outdoor setting in the sun for a pre-show chat over dinner.

 

First impressions are of an extremely busy man, but also quite calm, methodic and humble. My structured questions are quickly put aside, an informal chat opens with Tim's appraisal of the other drummers on the bill. "We are all very different drummers on this stage today, but each is great is his own way. I'm glad I could get you in to see the backstage area, to meet the other guys and see what it's all about."

Tim's career with The Church has been long and prosperous. Becoming a member eighteen years ago, he has recorded twice as many albums with the band as any of their previous drummers. Asked how he approached the drum parts from the older material when it came to his first tour, Tim answers "I was a big fan of The Church before I even met the guys. (1982's) Blurred Crusade was one of my favourite albums - I think it's the first piece of vinyl I owned. I loved the drumming, and basically just tried to replicate it live. I could see the problems with the band live though - playing too fast with this garage-band vibe. I brought another whole level of being solid to it."

Through click tracks? "Yeah a little, here and there, just where we needed to. I could've done it more. When we played the Opera House (with the University of Sydney Symphony Orchestra) I used the click a lot. For the triple album gig last year I had the whole set mapped out to clicks, with backing tracks running. The Church doesn't really play to the drummer like a conventional band. The live show is more fluid and sort of rolls around a lot, and I have to undo a lot of my drumming and play more like rolling-down-the-middle-of-it kind of thing. The songs can be very bendy." And that's where clicks come into it? "It can do. The band is getting a lot better at it. When I first joined the band it wouldn't have, but I've changed my style a lot since then, too. I'm always working out how to fit into the band, as it's not really a drummer's band."

Sensing his love for the tech talk, I ask Tim to fill me in on his live audio set-up.

"My set-up is quite unique. I drop a boundary mike under the kit - which I use for a bit more monitoring for myself - and I take a split of my vocal mike and feed that in over the top. So I have my kit and my vocal on top of the stereo mix that comes in. The mix is exactly the band as I see it from the kit, with a bit of reverb in the audience mike - it's a fantastic sound. I need it in this band."

Tim indicates that his love for the nuances of sound are fuelled by a passion for producing, a career that began the same time as his drumming. "I did a Venetians record with UK producer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven (The Jam, Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker) and I started learning from him. His assistants were Steve Lily-White and Nick Launey, and it was just like a playground, all of us learning from Vic. There I was, only two years over from New Zealand, signed to Festival Records and making an album in the UK. It was amazing. I was also doing live audio and producing friends' bands, so I really got to know a lot about sound."

Spacejunk Studios, a production house in Sydney, is owned and run by Tim, and described as his 'playhouse'. "I peaked with my producing around 1999 when I started getting a lot of bands on Triple J radio. Around that period I had five to six songs on their hottest 100. I was really good at reinventing people, with artists coming to me for a bit of attitude and quirkiness. Lately I've been working with Hammock, an amazing band from USA. I dropped off the last Church tour in the USA and worked on an album with them. I'm really looking forward to finishing it, it's just being able to find the time…" Time seems like a commodity you don't have a lot of? "Yeah. I did an album with Iota about four years ago, an amazing musician, and I haven't had time to mix it. Also the Opera House thing is sitting at home waiting for me to mix. I ran the whole show; easily the biggest thing I have ever done."

With showtime approaching, we delve back into Tim's drumming, and where it all started. "I never really had a lot of lessons but I had one book I worked on constantly. It was a coordination book full of simple exercises, not so much paradiddles but more left and right coordination, and always flip and lead with the left and do every limb back against each other." (Tim showcases this in the set's opening track Metropolis, playing the tambourine with his left hand and using his right hand on the ride and snare.) "I'm not a very conventional drummer. I don't like drums that sound like everybody else's drums. My snares are always tuned a bit different. I guess I just want to have my own thing. I was never a great technician, so I always went for style over tricks. If I sit down long enough I can pretty much do anything I want within reason, but it hasn't been a priority for me to be a great drummer. I just happen to be good enough to play for this band, but I don't walk around as a drummer. That's the last thing I think I am."

We pause briefly as I'm introduced to frontman Steve Kilbey and the chat moves to the wonderful Starling album that both of them worked on together this year. Back to Tim, I ask if he practices drumming regularly. "I haven't had a practice regime since I was seventeen. I'm not slack, it's just that my interests lie elsewhere. I'm a musician overall, and I play other instruments well enough to make records. On previous records we have all swapped around during the recording process. Forget Yourself, for example, I played lead guitar for three songs and Marty (guitarist) played drums. All the guys in the band play drums except for Steve. I play piano and keys a lot, and I run samples at gigs of tremolo that I recorded. We don't necessarily credit it that way on the records though." He pauses, then adds "I guess I'm more into the whole thing - I'm a big picture guy. There are times on tour where I think I really enjoy this, I should just maybe stick to being a drummer. But then I come home and get excited about music as a whole, and tend to ditch the drums, sometimes for months at a time."

The rest of the band are milling around, while Tim fills me in on their latest adventures. "We've been playing side shows to these festival gigs. Recently we did a run of three gigs in a row, playing nearly five hours of different material. We did two 55 minute sets at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne, with only one hit as a tease. The next night we did a private party, playing two completely different 55 minute sets. Then at A Day On The Green gig the following day we did six songs, four of them singles. So basically over the three gigs we played a lot of different stuff." I guess you can do that when you have a back catalogue of twenty-six albums to choose from?! "Yeah. The material was spread evenly over the albums. I didn't push it, that's just how it worked out. If you had a chance to flick through the entire back catalogue, you will find the material is so eclectic, but still with a common theme. I was really blown away by that when I was sorting through the material for the sideshows."

The Church's latest album, 2009's Untitled #23, has been heralded as some of their finest work to date (receiving five stars in Rolling Stone), an extraordinary achievement for a band thirty years young. "When we did the Opera House show we played nearly half of our current album in the set and it was accepted. We also played the latest album as part of our triple classic album shows, and it went down alongside the other two records really well. We have dropped a few albums that weren't quite cohesive in the past, but this record has been accepted as a classic."

Given the success of the current album and the renewed vigour the band is showing in their live performances, the obvious question is what's next for Tim and The Church? "Yeah. Going into next year the big question is do we even bother staying together. It's been the longest gap between albums, and we had a break after we went off and got inducted into the Hall Of Fame. We have kind of done everything that we wanted, and older bands aren't supposed to get younger and more exciting right? Truth is, we have actually gotten better. It's really odd. We still have a huge profile overseas as well as at home. The bad press is still there - we haven't always behaved well - but that doesn't really bother us." Tim grins as I ask how the band is getting along these days. "It's a bumpy ride in this band, but it's good in that it makes the band a real band and an interesting band full of characters. We are really proud of the 'yes's and the 'no's along the way. It does sometimes get in the way of the music a bit, and saps your energy, but we tend to behave reasonably well in each others company at the moment."

With this last comment Tim joins the other Church members in preparing for the gig. "Make sure you go out and listen to the front of house mix" he suggests to me, with the importance of good sound still high on his agenda. "The onstage sound hasn't got any of the drums in the mix." After some banter with his tech about where to put his drink bottles so they won't get knocked over (apparently nowhere the tech mused) I ask Tim what he looks for in a band when considering them for his studio. He pauses pensively and replies "I'm just a sucker for songs that mean something."

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