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The band talks about Priest=Aura Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 April 1992
 Publisher:  Pulse Magazine (USA)
     Issue:  ?
      Date:  Apr, 1992

      By Harold DeMuir

"I think the best songs work from a contradiction of emotions.  It's an
old trick: you sing a sad song in a happy voice or you sing a happy
song in a sad voice. That's why it's more scary to see a clown coming
towards you carrying a hand grenade."
  - Steve Kilbey

The Church is a funny band. Simultaneously unassuming down- to- earth
guys and spoiled petulant artistes, the Australian combo has always
operated by its own rules and been governed by its own quixotic
standards, independent of prevailing pop fashions and often in direct
opposition to conventional career wisdom The band members call
frustrate journalists attempting to pry into (and thus demystify) the
group's inner workings, and they call annoy the corporate handlers
entrusted to translate their mercurial appeal into marketing terms.
But it's the Church's unwavering fidelity to its own unpredictable muse
that makes the band special.  And that stalwart sensibility has
undoubtedly played a big part in what's kept the group intact and
moving forward over 12 years' worth of label changes, management shake-
ups and the like.

"We're all committed to this thing that we've often failed at but that
we're always struggling to maintain- just to be the Church and not sway
with every passing wind," says bassist/ vocalist/ lyricist Steve
Kilbey. "We have our own set of values, but I don't know if it's ally
of the public's business what the internal manifesto of the Church
actually is. Who knows what the Modern Jazz Quartet's manifesto was? It
doesn't matter, and I think the Church is kind of moving into that
realm. If after 12 years we still need to explain why we're the best
fuckin' band in the world then obviously we've missed the boat."

Sitting in an upmarket health-food restaurant in New York's East
Village, just after New Year's, the Church- bassist/ vocalist/ lyricist
Kilbey, guitarists Marty Willson-piper and Peter Koppes, and new
drummer Jay Dee Daugherty-- isn't exactly forthcoming with the straight
dope on the period of disenchantment and rebellion that fueled the
band's new album, Priest = Aura (its eighth overall and third for

Kilbey's reluctance to spill the gory details isn't such a big deal
since all you need to know of the story is contained on Priest = Aura,
which plays like what it is- a decisive reaction against the
disciplined studio precision of the band's first two Arista efforts,
the 1988 commercial breakthrough Starfish, and 1990's tense underrated
Gold Afternoon Fix. While both of those albums (recorded in L.A.  with
American muso types behind the production console) were solid,
exhilarating discs, their immaculate structures neglected the dreamy
atmospherics and mind- expanding musical flights that were a key
element of the group's original appeal. Where those discs seemed
designed to make the Church understandable to outsiders, the 14-song,
74-minute Priest = Aura recaptures the organic free- flying spirit of
exploration that's the band's most distinctive feature.

"We don't know what's so radical about this album," Kilbey says.
"People use words like self- indulgent, but if self- indulgence is a
matter of doing the things you want to do and making the kind of music
you want to make, then I guess that's what this record is."

"It's still a mystery to us," adds Koppes. "in some ways this is the
wildest record we've ever done, and in other ways it's really laid-back
and peaceful. It's a very subtle record for us; it's got a real
confident sense of restraint about it, and a special atmosphere that
tickles the senses.  We really wanted to stretch the parameters of the
Church and we had to fight for that freedom."

Indeed, Priest = Aura's resolutely arty stance is the product of the
chronically restless band's disenchantment  with the career niche it
had settle into with Starfish's U.S.  success. After parting (not
amicably) with its longtime American management, the band determined to
record its next album in Australia without the intrusion of an outside
producer (though coproducer/ engineer Gavin MacKillop was brought in to
handle the technical end).

"What it boiled down to," Kilbey says, "was that we wanted to be able
to go with our instincts, with no big guy in control saying, 'Don't do
that.' We're all big and old and ugly enough to control our own
records; we don't need anybody to hold our hands."

Willson-Piper agrees that the new freedom allowed the band to venture
into strange and wonderful places that were more- or- less off- limits
on the last two albums. "This album is us taking chances and being
random about things, which is how we usually get our best stuff. The
important thing is that we were free to blindly go for it, with no one
there to tell us that we couldn't."

While Priest = Aura's music concentrates largely on layered, keyboard-
heavy atmospherics rather than the traditional dual-guitar flights, the
ambiguously impressionistic lyrics of such numbers as "Aura," "Lustre"
and "Chaos" return Kilbey to the dreamily melancholic scenarios
prevalent in the band's pre-Arista work, while others like "Ripple,"
"Swan Lake" and the subtly venomous "The Disillusionist" carry the
sinister thematic underpinnings that began to emerge on Gold Afternoon

"It's just general strangeness, really," says Kilbey. "The lyrics on
this album are pretty stream-of-consciousness, but the feelings are
real. I think the best songs work from a contradiction of emotions.
It's an old trick; you sing a sad song in a happy voice or you sing a
happy song in a sad voice. That's why it's more scary to see a clown
coming towards you carrying a hand grenade."

Priest = Aura finds Kilbey once again writing and singing all the lyrics
himself, whereas Starfish and Gold Afternoon Fix each featured
Willson-Piper and Koppes writing and singing the lyrics to one song
apiece. "I don't think it's necessary for Peter or I to sing a song
just because we can," Willson-Piper says. "There's nothing wrong with
me singing a song on a Church record and there's nothing wrong with me
not singing a song on a Church record. But now that we've got solo
albums out, it doesn't seem as important, and it seems contradictory to
the band's attempts to specialize in a certain place."

The new album is also the Church's first without original drummer
Richard Ploog, whose alleged personal indulgences reached a critical
mass sometime during Gold Afternoon Fix's birth cycle.  Though Ploog
participated in writing that album's songs, he wasn't together enough
to record many of his parts, and the band reluctantly replaced him with
a drum machine for much of the sessions.  After a probationary one-year
leave of absence (during which Daugherty manned the drum seat on tour)
failed to improve the situation, Ploog was permanently relieved of his

"It was a necessary evil," Willson- Piper says of the split. "It wasn't
comfortable, and there are certainly emotional attachments, but it had
to happen. In the end, the group's progress was more important than
some invisible honorary membership that wasn't going anywhere."

Daugherty comes to the band with an impeccable resume that includes
work with such Church faves as Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine. "Jay Dee
had quite a bit of influence on this album," states Kilbey. "He
actually wrote a lot of bass and keyboard lines as well as the drum

"He's a really powerful drummer, but he's also got a great sense of
restraint," Koppes says of his new bandmate. "He's great live; he paces
himself really well, and he doesn't expend his energy unwisely."

Like many post-punk guitar combos that emerged in the early '80s, the
Sydney-spawned Church started life mining a plethora of psychedelic
'60s influences, but quickly arrived at a more distinctive and personal
approach that bore no allegiance to Paisley nostalgia. The band's 1981
debut LP, Of Skins and Heart (first released in the U.S.  with
different tracks, as The Church), featured gorgeous guitar textures and
biting lyrical imagery that showed the foursome's artistic agenda to be
quite different from most of their jangly contemporaries. The
subsequent Burred Crusade and Seance further staked out a consistent
vision, but didn't see U.S.  release until Arista picked up the band's
album catalog in late '88.

The Church returned to the U.S.  market with Warner Bros.' release of
the spotty Remote Luxury (actually a coupling of two Australian EPs) in
1984.  While that album hinted that the band was running out of steam,
1986's breathtaking Heyday was a resounding return to form. By that
time, the quartet had matured into an impressive live act, propelled by
the unpredictable excursions of Willson-Piper and Koppes- elusive
quality that the band's never quite captured on record.

Heyday also marked the adoption of a collective songwriting policy,
with most of the music originating in communal jam sessions. "It's very
silly, like children in a playground," Koppes explains. "It starts as
an amorphous mess, and someone will just happen to be mucking around on
an instrument or think of a ridiculous idea that might actually work.
Intuition and accident still plays a big part in what we do, and that's
what's beautiful about it.  You never feel like you're working, so you
never feel the pressure to come up with something. That's a really
great frame of mind to be in, just letting something create itself.
We've got a pretty good success rate, and if something doesn't happen
we don't stay with it."

As the Church has become more collaborative and democratic musically,
Kilbey, Koppes and Willson-Piper have maintained busy extracurricular
careers. Kilbey has issued four increasingly accomplished home-recorded
solo albums (as well as a recent Australia-only EP, Narcosis), plus two
discs with Hex (a now- defunct collaboration with ex-Game Theory
singer/guitarist Donnette Thayer) and one with Jack Frost (an ongoing
partnership with former Go-Between Grant Mclennan); he's also planning
to record an album with Shayne Carter of Straightjacket Fits. Koppes
has released four solo efforts, and recently formed a side band called
the Well. Willson-Piper conspicuous workaholic, even in this company-
has released three pop- crafted solo discs, and recently coproduced and
cowrote a Swedish album, Hidden Treasures for his wife, Ann Carlberger;
he also recently took up membership as sole guitarist and main
songwriter for the English combo All About Eve, with whom he recorded
an album, Touched by Jesus. Daugherty continues to work on various
session projects, and remains Patti Smith's drummer of choice.

"The Church," Willson-Piper offers, "is like an understanding wife who
lets her husband go off and have affairs because she realizes that
that's the way to keep the relationship growing. Every time we come
back to the Church it's with a new set of experiences and influences,
so in a way it's a different band every time we come back to it. The
music's stronger than the geography."

Still, with Kilbey and Koppes residing in Australia, the Liverpool-
born Willson-Piper based in Stockholm and Daugherty living in New York,
and the four balancing the Church with outside projects, it seems a
logistical marvel that the band still manages to get an album and tour
done every two years.

"It could have been a problem at on time," says Kilbey, "but we're a
little too old for that now. When you start a band you've got the
all-for-one thing, and then after a while everybody starts thinking
about expressing themselves more. And if you manage to get through that
phase, you realize, 'I like these guys, they like me, we make good
music together, so why stop?' The Church isn't a big monolithic thing
that we've chained ourselves to; it's something that we do because we
enjoy it."

They all admit that the Church's internal chemistry has always been a
volatile one. In fact, the band has broken up at least once, and a
road- weary Willson-Piper briefly quit after Heyday. Still, all insist
that the Church's future feels stable, regardless of public response to
the ostensibly uncommercial Priest = Aura.

"I think it could go either way," says Kilbey. "They could love it,
they could hate it, they could ignore it. It's a confusing record, and
none of us really know what to make of it. We're just gonna have to
wait for it to unfold; it's usually that way with our records. If the
60,000 people who bought Heyday like it, then what will the other
340,000 who bought Starfish think?"

"It remains to be seen whether it will be commercially successful,"
says Willson-Piper "but it's already a success for us, because we did
what we anted to do."

Kilbey, whose solo output includes the all-instrumental Earthed as well
as a volume of written verse, expresses a desire to make an
all-instrumental Church album at some point in the future, adding that
he'd like the band to finish another album before the year is out. "I
think it would be good not to wait two years between albums this time,"
he says. "I know it will be quite different to this record- I don't
know how, but it bloody well would be.

"It's a horrible fact," Kilbey concludes, "that we're basically just a
bunch of musicians, and that what we're doing is basically very selfish
and hedonistic. The Church is just the name for a group of musicians
who get together every two years or so to make a record. It's not a
gang, it's not a philosophy, it's not a manifesto. It's something that
exists mainly in musical terms. The fact that we've gotten this far by
staying true to our instincts proves that we're doing the right thing,
and were going to stick with that."


Here's another one from '92.  It's about 4 pages long.  I'm heading off
to Orlando/Tampa (smirk, gloat) for about 10 days, ... try to have fun
without me!
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