How can we miss The Church when they won't go away?
By Jim Sullivan
The Boston Globe, October 30, 1998

The Church has been a buzz band at least twice in its nearly two decades of life. The first time was when the young Australians scored in their native country with their first album, and especially the jangly, emotionally expressive hit Unguarded Moment in 1980. (They later had success in the United States with the same song on a differently packaged debut album.) The second time, the Church hit the epicenter of the pre-grunge alt-rock world with the dreamy single Under the Milky Way from the Starfish album in 1988.

There have been other albums, but, no real Church presence to speak of for eight years. ''It was never meant to be that long,'' sighs singer-songwriter-bassist Steve Kilbey, on the phone from Minneapolis. ''Although, touring the US isn't all there is to life. (Guitarist) Marty (Willson-Piper) and I did a bit of stuff, just the two of us playing acoustic guitar around the world and the band did a bit of work in Australia.''

Kilbey says the band, which includes guitarist Peter Koppes and new-ish drummer Tim Powles, found its confidence ebbing, as hassles with management and record labels took their toll. ''People talked us into staying together,'' he says, ''because they thought we were a good band.''

The group is back with its 11th album, Hologram of Baal, a new release on Thirsty Ear (which contains a bonus all instrumental disc Bastard Universe).

''It's back to the bars,'' says Kilbey, whose band played theaters during the Starfish tour. But Kilbey doesn't discuss this downsizing with bitterness. He says it's hard to remember getting any pleasure from the success of Starfish on the road. ''We were on tour the whole year so there was never any time to sit back and (savor) it, and it didn't do me any good career-wise. Everybody wants you to be bigger than U2.''

Did he want that?

''No, never. We're not that sort of band. The nature of what we do limits it. You put out a book of poetry, you know it's not going to sell as much as a Hollywood porno novel. What we do has limits built in.

At any rate, the Church has always been an ambitious pop band. ''I hope we're not a pop band after all this time,'' says Kilbey. ''We do some pop songs, I guess, but I hope we push the boundaries a little bit more than that.''

Indeed, they do. The Church has long had a dreamy, meditative sound: a swirl of celestial guitars, a melancholic tone, a mid-tempo pace, a mix of light and dark shades. Kilbey explains how the 80-minute space-trucking Bastard Universe CD was done. ''We put a DAT in the DAT machine and we started playing and playing and playing ... after about 80 minutes someone walked upstairs and turned the machine off. Someone said that it makes Pink Floyd's Echoes (an album side-length space-rock jam from the early '70s) look like a Ramones song.'' On both the bonus disc and Baal the Church create a spatial ''widescreen'' effect. You tend to hear the Church's music as you might watch a beautifully filmed movie unfold. Could the Church be compared to any filmmaker?

''Oh God,'' says Kilbey, with a laugh, ''that's a bit grandiose, isn't it?'' But he takes the bait: ''Cecil B. DeMille. I like that bigger-than-Ben Hur feeling, you know.

''It's not a happy record,'' Kilbey adds. The moody Church has never been mistaken for shiny happy people. Even Unguarded Moment, a song Kilbey has long despised, is centered around the nagging notion of failing to find inspiration.

''There's always that paradox with the Church,'' says Kilbey. ''Sad music can make you happy; whereas happy music doesn't always make you happy. I think it is a bit like watching a film, this album. Like our other albums, too. You go through bits of happiness and light-heartedness, bits of melancholy. I think it finishes on kind of an up note.''

''We've tried to bring a bit of literature and history to pop and rock music,'' says Kilbey. ''A lot of people didn't appreciate that, especially in the early days, 'cause there is this school of thought that rock music should be about girls and cars.''

Is the Church a spiritual band?

''Well, we try to be,'' says Kilbey. ''We try personally and musically to incorporate that. I think music can sometimes get you to places where you might not have been before. We don't have a defined spiritual life.

Kilbey says that on the best nights, the Church feel that spiritual warmth on stage. ''We played Vancouver the other night,'' he says, ''and we got high from playing. We got higher and higher, it was like a real multiplication thing. The band is getting better than it ever was, and (that feeling) is getting more and more common now.

Thanks to Mark Pyskoty for sending this in!

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