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Peter talks about the band in 2011 Print E-mail
Thursday, 10 February 2011

Lucid Culture interviews Peter about the band, the three-album shows, his equipment and touring, among other topics. Good stuff!

Originally published at https://lucidculture.wordpress.com/tag/peter-koppes-interview/

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Peter Koppes’ rich, darkly majestic lead lines, fiery riffage and judicious jangle alongside Rickenbacker guitarist Marty Willson-Piper’s incisive clang and frontman Steve Kilbey’s melodic bass have been a defining component of the Australian art-rockers sound for the better part of the band’s thirty-year history. The Church are currently on US tour, with stops in New York at the Highline Ballroom on February 16 and at B.B. King’s on the 17th. With his thousand-yard stare onstage, Koppes projects a restless intensity; offstage, his unselfconscious warmth and stinging wit come as a welcome surprise. With some rockers, trying to get their opinion is like pulling teeth. Not this guy:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: I understand that on this tour, you’re doing three of your classic albums – Starfish, from 1988; Priest = Aura, from 1991, and Untitled #23, from 2009, at each show. The buzz on the west coast where you are now is that you’re doing them in reverse chronological order – is that the same way you’ll be doing them in New York?

Peter Koppes: Yes. I thought in some ways that Priest = Aura would be a great culmination of the three album set. But funny enough, with the earlier albums in the later part of the set, you have a trajectory. In a live peformance, you have to have a climax, you have to knock the socks off the audience.

LCC: So are you doing the songs on the albums one after the other, as they appear?

PK: Yes. We’ve really never done anything like this – the Cure have, Trilogy, which I particularly enjoyed actually. Doing Untitled #23 first is like being our own support act. That leaves the nostalgia aspect to look forward to.

LCC: I actually think your idea of Priest = Aura to finish the night would send everybody home on a high note…

PK: Having Priest = Aura in the set is the artistic high point, the overlooked, monumental masterpiece of the band. So many of the songs are timeless – lyrically, they have as much resonance as they did when the album came out. The Disillusionist, for example. We were recording the album during the first Iraq war: all the images of the Kuwait bombing were a feeling for us at the time that still resonates throughout it…But then when we come back for Starfish we have an encore. You know, you have to have a reverie, and then a wake…

LCC: That’s an awful lot of songs. I’ve seen you jam out so many of your songs in concert over the years: is the jam aspect going to be constrained by the sheer volume of material?

PK: No. We jam Chaos; there’s the interlude on Destination where we improvise, and Hotel Womb, and Reptile – we take those a bit further just to push the dynamic. So that aspect of our show won’t completely change.

LCC: On recent tours you’ve been doing some pretty radical reinventions of your older songs, even some of the iconic ones, Under the Milky Way, Unguarded Moment, etcetera. Are there going to be moments where you’re playing piano, Steve is playing your Strat and Marty is playing bass, or are you going to stick with pretty much assigned roles?

PK: We try to maintain our particular instruments that we play on the albums. But on another tangent, we’ve freed up Steve from playing bass on some of the more intricately worded songs – on The Disillusionist, for example – so that he can carry the lyrics. Remember, Steve started out like that, as a lead singer without an instrument, in a band called Baby Grand in Canberra that I was in. We’re just trying to maximize the best possibilities for the band. There are other times where I play the keyboard because that was my part on the record, where Steve typically plays guitar. On Anchorage, Marty uses my guitar: I play both basses on the song on the record; now we have our roadie playing the other bass and the assistant manager onstage singing as well!

LCC: The most recent show of yours I saw was Irving Plaza in 07 I think, with a concert harpist sitting in. Anyone else along with you for the tour?

PK: Craig Wilson – he’s like having two extra people in the band, keyboards and guitar – he’s become a bit of a star, playing both at the same time sometimes.

LCC: How does he do it? Tapping the frets?

PK: He puts the pedal on and frets the chord and plays the keyboard at the same time.

LCC: How did you find this guy?

PK: Our drummer had a band he was producing, Astreetlightsong, and he’s the lead singer actually.

LCC: You have Tim Powles on drums. Steve has gone on record as saying he’s the best drummer you’ve ever had, do you agree?

PK: Tim Powles is one of the most important members of the band we’ve ever had. He managed the band with his wife’s production company at a time when we were trying to start up again. He’s a producer – he and I produced the “return” albums, Hologram of Baal, After Everything Now This, and so on. He’s also doing the upcoming show at Sydney Opera House, with the orchestra, which is really getting to be complicated, I was just on the phone about it before you called…

LCC: You’re playing with a full orchestra? I hope you’re recording that!

PK: We are, actually. It’s not the complete ensemble, with eight double basses, but we will have two double basses, a string quartet and a horn section.

LCC: Your shows on this tour, from what I understand, are routinely selling out. For a thirty-year-old band touring without a new album, unless you’re U2 or the Police doing a final tour, you realize that this is unheard of in America these days! Rock tours are tanking left and right: at Irving Plaza, where you’ve played a couple of times here in New York, cancellations seem to outnumber actual shows…

PK: I hadn’t realized how bad the economy is here. The response to the tour has really helped us – it’s an expensive tour, with all the extra personnel playing, and these sit-down venues…I’ve always said, “Lie by fashion, die by fashion.” We have a legacy of thirty years of playing music that hasn’t necessarily kowtowed to commercial markets…MTV seemed to think that their idea of music was better than our idea of music – and look who’s still around! I don’t think MTV should be allowed to do music awards!

LCC: MTV still has music awards? I haven’t watched MTV in ages.

PK: They are the barometer for what’s most wrong with combining music and business together…

LCC: How’s the merch table doing? Will you have any left by the time you get to New York?

PK: Believe it nor, we’ve doubled the amount of merch being bought. I think substance is style – that’s always been my motto. Style is vacuous and empty. Someone I know the other day said that fashion is infinite: it’s never complete, the beauty of is is that is always evolving. Music should be evolving too. I think that if somebody buys one of our t-shirts in a way that’s a statement that they share that kind of view…

LCC: As you may know, we have a daily gimmick around here to help draw traffic from around the web. These days we’re counting down the 1000 best albums of all time, and before that we did the 666 best songs. And we decided that the greatest song of all time was Destination by the Church. I think it deserves that because it captures the state of humanity in our time and place more perfectly, more poetically than any other song. Where do you think Destination fits in your catalog – is it one you take a measure of pride in, or is it just another song for you?

PK: That’s great. We don’t haggle about comments like that! I’m impressed that you would choose that one, it’s got a very progressive edge, more than a simple pop song. Musically and lyrically, it definitely was inspired. And Steve would agree.

LCC: Can I ask you how you get that amazing, eerie, sustained guitar tone? What kind of rig are you using onstage these days?

PK: I use Black Star amps with a Vox guitar amp, which has like an inimitable sound that’s kind of midrangy. For awhile I was doing Marshalls and things like that. I’ve found out how to replicate the sound out of the Leslie speaker boxes that I used to have on tour. The roadies didn’t like carrying them! So I reverted to Marshalls; now I have a couple of Black Stars for bottom and top – some are actually handwired like the old Voxes. The sound I get apart from a mix of overdrives is from a Leslie replicator pedal.

LCC: You mean one of those Boss boxes you can get at a guitar store?

PK: That’s the one. The big-part sound of the Church that sounds like a keyboard pedal is actually a harmonizer combined with a reverb unit. You know the horn part on Crash/Ride, on the Beside Yourself album? For that I put an ebow through this device. There are places on the records where I play the bass, the guitar and replicate an actual orchestra.

LCC: Does that mean that your music is going in a more complicated direction?

PK: Jazz is where we’re heading now, in a Burt Bacharach sense…

LCC: In terms of rhythm? Odd time signatures?

PK: Not so much odd time signatures but harmony. It’s a natural progression, we’re not the only band to have done it. For example, Hendrix used to use a flat 5 chord that was definitely jazz. He learned it from Eddie Kramer, who engineered all those records. Eddie Kramer was a jazz keyboard player – Hendrix heard it, copied it for Purple Haze, Voodoo Chile…likewise, Neil Young, on Cinnamon Girl with the double drop D chord changes the rest of the chords to jazz chords…that’s why we did the Pangaea ep. There were some songs that came out of the Untitled #23 session that didn’t gel with the album, with their jazzy aspects; they’re only on the double vinyl version of the album.

LCC: How have the relationships in the band changed over the years? There have been some rocky periods – how is the chemistry these days?

PK: The band is a bunch of vectors and energies, and directions change, individuals as well. For example, Marty runs the business of the band now so he’s much more broadminded about why certain things are good to do for the greater picture. Everybody has to compromise to a certain extent, and Steve to his credit has realized that. If you remember the hall of fame speech that he made in Australia recently, he’s gone from being aloof to a sort of master of ceremonies!

The Church play Highline Ballroom on February 16 at 7 PM and B.B. King’s on the 17th. Tickets are still available as/of today.

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