When THE CHURCH sing "you hold onto their essence like a parachute" in their new LP, they could almost be referring to their sense of depth and quality.
"AND EXPERIENCE IT AS THE PAST..."
Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the 18th century master, one told of the king who summoned his counsellor. "I have read in the stars," he said, "that all who eat of the next harvest will be driven mad. What shall we do?" The counsellor advised that he and the king should eat the previous year's dwindling food supplies and let the population eat the tainted stuff.
"I dont wish to remain lucid in the midst of a people gone mad," replied the king, "so we shall all enter madness together. When the world is in a state of delirium, it is senseless to watch from the outside: the mad will think that we too, are mad."
"AND THEN TO BABYLON"
Years later, Steve Kilbey will - totally unconnected - write a song which goes:
The king had something changed within him
I should have told him no....
I wish that you could see us now
We don't possess a single empty tear
Or furrowed brow...
I can't change any of you
I can't change myself
The man had something strange about him
You should have let me know - "Columbus"
One of Rabbi Nachman's last wishes was "make my tales into prayers'. Steve Kilbey probably wouldn't even know the works of the good Rabbi, but no other contemporary Australian songwriter has so lovingly turned such tales into cinematic displays. Poor melancholy baby! Yet, by stirring up the sanity and wisdom of the past, he somehow turns those picturesque phrases into statements of modern day sadness. Kilbey's characters tend to live on the edge of experience; through them, we are revealed our own seals of madness (and uniqueness).
On the Church's haunting new LP Heyday, a lot of the song titles and characters seek more into the distant past than before...the desert dust of "Myrrh", the spiritual instrumental "Happy Hunting Grounds"... "Roman" with its loving memories of satyrs and battlecries, "Youth Worshipper", about those ancient remedies by emperors to preserve fast fading beauty...
In a subtle way there seems to be a concept throughout. But, then again, paradoxically, there isn't. Steve Kilbey is hardly the one to shed any light.
"In retrospect, when we'd finished the album, we realised there was some sort of concept although there wasn't a conscious effort to have one," says Kilbey at his home in Sydney.
"A lot of the numbers are credited to Church, and that's because a lot of them came together from jam sessions, and the lyrcis came after that. In fact, a lot of the tracks were just known as "Jam No 1" and "Jam No 2" when we were working on the album. The track 'Columbus' came together simply because we were in Columbus, Ohio, at the time and we decided to call it that for the sake of convenience, and somehow the title remained."
"Happy Hunting Grounds" was another jam, which seemed to have a Red Indian quality. By strange coincidence I'd been reading a book on the Indians' called "Astral Plain".
"AND WE TALK ABOUT THE WAY PEOPLE TREAT US BACK THERE"
How can you be so invisible?
Give me the nerves o see - Myrrh
As they'd say in the B-movies, "what we have here is a failure to communicate". In their own quiet way The Church have seen themselves carrying on a mission of their own. The dragons! The inept bookers! The managers! Eye-patched critics! The trendies! They had great regard for their own music, were quite happily arrogant about it and didn't care too much who knew it. Or how many toes they stepped on.
Like most Australians, I'd thought "Unguarded Moment" (gosh, was that really five years ago?) was a catchy piece of single, but the first LP was promising, if patchy. Blurred Crusade was good, but the last couple of things like Seance and Persia were pretty ho-hum. In fact, they could quite easily have broken up in this country, and not had too many people flinging themselves in despair out of windows. It wasn't until 18 months ago, when I did a quickie through the US and Europe where, by coincidence, I virtually followed in their wake, that I began to realise just how much dust these hombres kicked up overseas. At the NewYork Ritz they drew a packed house an caused such a furore that they gained an American manager that very night. MTV started to pick up on their videos, Seance and Persia sold well at the British and Europe import shops. American magazine Creem hailed them as the best band of the 80's, an over-the-top analysis that was also shared by Melody Maker's German Correspondent. US teen magazines impart knowledge about their fave colour and which kind of breakfast cereal makes them break out in acne.
It's a pity the Church got lumped into that whole REM/Green on Red/Rain Parade psychedelic rave-up, simply because The Church had been going much earlier. But then, it wasn't exactly bad company either.
"In LA we play to 1000 people and get ecstatic reactions, and in New York we play to 1000 people and get ecstatic reactions," says guitarist Martin Willson-Piper. "In Minneapolis we also played to 1000 people a the coolest club, went to a record shop and signed 250 autographs. These people had been ueueing up outside the shop for hours, and they just CLAPPED when we walked in!"
Then the punch-line.
"It would NEVER happen in Australia."
Followed by a confession.
"But in Pittsburgh, we only pulled 50 people and that's the way it is in America. You're almost megastars in one state, and across the border you're nobodies. In America we et the sort of ecsatic responses that in Australia we'd get only at the Tivoli in Sydney or The Club in Melbourne.
"Sometimes we'll ply the sort of shows where in Australia they'd appreciate it but there'd be a 'so, big deal' after it, while in America the crowds would have torn the place apart. Maybe it's because Australia is such a reasonably comfortable country. If you live in Liverpool where there's very little of anything, you'd really go out and work at enjoying yourself when you went out for the night.
"If you're not on Countdown, then people think you've broken up, and a lot of people thought about The Church. I mean, who'd ever think that?" (The last statement delivered with a perfectly straight quizzical face).
Marty Willson-Piper is a tall, good looking lad wih a penchant for leather jackets and trousers, swinging gypsy ear-rings and scarves. After The Church sacked its last manager some years ago, he took over the accounts. He and his Swedish girlfriend Ann commute between Sydney and Stockholm, where they have a flat. Marty loves the atmosphere there, and the fact it's one of the two cities (the other being London) where guys also make the effort to dress smartly. Over Christmas, the pair were in Stockholm and then flew to Wales to spend some time with Marty's parents who live in a picturesque village near the west coast. In February Marty flies back to Sydney to start rehearsals with the rest of the band, before they take off on a semi-world tour (starting in Australia) to promote their excellent new Heyday album.
If The Church was obviously more appreciated overseas, why hang around here?
"It is a strange situation, I suppose, that when Melody Maker was calling us the band of the '80s, and another American magazine said we made the best album for '83, while in Australia we seemed almost like a dartboard for three years. "But now I think people here are actually listening to the albums, when before they seemed to be more hung up on the way we looked, as if that was ever important."
Yes, but why stay in Australia?
"Financial reasons, really. In Australia you can make money, or break even, when you tour. In Europe, you're in debt just by the simple process of getting into a plane and going there! "That first tour of England we lost money, and when we toured American in 1984, we lost a lot of money. But it's the way to get to people, and we're going to be doing a lot of that during 1986."
A few years ago The Church almost split up because they worked themselves into the ground, the way all good Australian bands are supposed to (unless, of course, you die of a drug overdose, by which you get 10 extra points). Now they're looking after themselves (with NY entrepeneur Michael Lembo co-ordinating their overseas activities) and Willson-Piper insists the band's in a much better shape for it.
"I let their promises bind me
I let seductive logic blind me
I embraced a machine, I went through the routine
And I hid from the people who were trying to find me " - "Tantalized"
So, does Marty handle the business side himself, or does the band pitch in? "No, because I subscribe to the theory that too many cooks spoil the broth. When I do it all myself - from paying the road crew to dealing with the (booking) agency, to picking up the money (from the promoter) at the end of the night - then I know what the right hand is doing and what the left hand is doing. "I mean, why would I want Peter or anybody else to help me, 'cos I'd only be wondering what somebody else's hand is doing." Had he been particularly good at mathematics at school?
"No, I was quite bad at it, actually, I was more an English language and history student. But you don't really need a degree in complicated equations to work out what goes in the In column and the Out column.It's so easy, and Im absolutely astounded that some of the people we had working for us couldn't get it right before!"
"ALL MY LIFE SPENT SEARCHING FOR PROWESS"
Until now, The Church's overseas record company situation has been something of a fiasco. Their first LP was released in America in 1982 on Capitol. The label had heard "Unguarded Moment" and thought it was onto to a hit. They edited a minute out of it without the band's consent and put it out with no promotion except for 10 religious slogans that had nothing to do with The Church. The single bombed, the album bombed, and The Church were drop-kicked out of Capitol. Blurred Crusade and Sing-Songs were not issued in the US either, neither was Seance. They sold hot on the import charts, though. In the meantime, their European connections were a mish-mash of labels, all who released what they liked whenever they liked. Who needs promotion and co-ordination when someone's a genius and far away as Australia? Come on!
Finally, in 1986, we have a situation where The Church are, as always, on EMI in Australia and Warner Brothers in America and Europe. The first WB LP for them was Remote Luxury, which was, in effect, made up of tracks from the Persia and Remote Luxury EPs. In short, there's been very little sense of continuity of Church records internationally - a drag for a band whose lifestyle is international and whose lyrics have always been global in vision. But now, Heyday will virtually be released simultaneously through the world. In other words, there will be a co-ordinated attack for the first time on the public's sense. And, as Michael Morris pointed out in last wek's preview of the elpee, i's te best LP they could launch themselves with. Every track is self contained, there's not a weak link, although the first single, "Already Yesterday" was the wrong choice for a single (they should go with "Columbus", which Kilbey says could well be the first single off the elpee). It's an album that I play repeatedly - something which I've never done with their other records.
Three factors contribute to why Heyday is such a fine LP.
(1) through the early part of '85 The Church spent their time away from each other. Steve was in Sydney, Marty in Stockholm, while Richard Ploog lived in tents in Jamaica and Thailand. If they needed time to reassess if they needed The Church in their lives, this was the time. More than anytime, there was a focus of emotional attachment to the band and to each other. There's an intensity, a strength, in the playing on the LP that's irresistible.
(2)they had such a stockpile of songs (80 to be exact). When you have the (remote) luxury of being able to choose out of so many songs, you're moving away from square one already.
(3) replacing John Bee with Englishman Peter Walsh, fresh from his conquests with Simple Minds, as producer.
Steve: "He was much younger than I thought he'd be."
Marty: "He was a creative catalyst for sure, and he was most helpful in the arrangement area. I mean, in the past I've never been sure just what a producer does. I know they get paid a lot of money, but when people asked me what a producer did, I had to tell them I didn't quite know.'
"I couldn't believe it when Peter came into the rehearsal studios for 10 days, before we went into the studios. Wha-a-a-t? He developed a real understanding of what we were trying to do, and he'd offer great ideas on what songs to drop, what to develop, how to make something more dynamic."
Steve: "Peter's very mild and good natured, which is great when you're recording because there's always tensions when you record. With Peter, he's half producer and half psychiatrist! If I thought I couldn't do something, he'd say "I think you can do it" and talk you into it. There's a sense of warmth on the LP which he had a lot to do with.
"The one thing I want to emphasise is that Peter insisted that the instrumentation be as natural - the strings and brass we used are not synthesisers, but the real thing. We had a 10-piece string section, an 8-piece horn section and a great arranger called Tony Ansell who worked to perfection."
I tell Steve that Heyday feels like the pieces falling, that the next one (as long as it is done with Walsh again) could be a killer.
"Yes, I'm looking forward to the next one already," he smiled. "When Peter went back to London I drove him to the airport and the last thing I said to him was "this isn't the time to ask, but will you do the next one" and he said "nothing would please me more."
"EMERALD HAUNT IN OVERDRIVE"
When Steve Kilbey was growing up in Canberra, every week he'd pick up his pay packet and go to an improt shop run by friends, and buy about 10 albums. He'd buy Be Bop Deluxe, Can, Cockney Rebel, Jobritha... and when good albums were scarce, even Hall & Oates (pre-bland out).
As he'd tell one American interviewer: "I sort of lived in my own little world. This was in Canberra - I lived in my own little world and used to spend most of my time just listening to the records and talking to people who liked the same music as I did. It didn't occur to me that I was in Australia.
In the late 70's, Kilbey's tastes remained unheralded classics - Television, Big Star, John Cale, Nick Kent & The Subterraneans. In the meantime, MWP was eagerly devouring records by German experimentalists Can and its offshoots. "I still buy their stuff. In 1982 when we were in Germany, I met Holger Czukay, and it was such a thrill. I mean, he's about 50 and quite old, but you look at this guy and think 'woooh', 'cos you were really liking his stuff when you were 16 and he's influenced everybody from Bowie an Eno to Scattered Order. "I listen a lot to that experimental German music, it's part of my nature to like music which is experimental."
As The Church will tell you time and time again, they're well aware of what a good band they are and what a great chemistry they have... and too bad if anybody disagrees.
"People ask you what it feels having all these journos hail you as the Band of the 80's... the thing is, you've got to know what they're comparing you to. Now, the guy at Creem, when he said that, was comparing us to the schmaltz that you find at the top of the charts, and he found depth and quality in Church's music.
"I like a hell of a lot of bands, and there are a lot of bands I don't like, and a man like that knows his bands. What I've always liked about Church's music is thatit not only has depth but it's also executed well. I mean, we can play.... and a lot of bands that have depth can't play. But we can.
"What i want to know is, what happened to that huge album buying market of the '70s? They're probably now 35, sitting in pubs with a pint, wondering what to do with the albums they listened to, and I'm not aiming for them, but a new generation of similarly-inclined buyers, the ones who're educated about music.
"The problem is that record buyers today are so susceptible to hype and promotion. People would rather listen to a promotional campaign on TV than a moving piece of music. It becomes a bit much when clever men in grey suits start pushing things down your throat. You can choke or swallow, and people just prefer to swallow.
"In a lot of ways, the fact that Church are still around after all these years making records is some sort of evidence that maybe we have contributed to crowds appreciating quality music. We have not nudged an inch from our bottom line of quality, and yet there are aspects of the album which are melodic and almost commercial without us trying to be."
And why do The Church keep maintaining they are not influenced by the '60's?
"How the f--k can we be, when I wasn't even listening - or I don't remember listening - to music then. I was listening to stuff like Steve Harley and Be Bop Deluxe, who have those essential features that people keep telling us came from the '60's. I mean, Peter can't even remember the '70s, he was too young for that, even!"
Do you think touring heavily and adopting a high profile in the USA and Europe is the best way to educate people that they're not another REM ripoff?
"Well, anyone who thinks The Church are influenced by REM is an uninformed idiot."
People still think that, dammit, that's my point. How are Church going to offset that?
"I think there were aspects about REM that Church don't have and vice versa. I've got a picture of REM's bassplayer holding copy of our first album, maybe we can use that as a promotional campaign (laughs heartily).
"I think one listen to Heyday should put those comparisons down, because Heyday is absolutely nothing like Fables of Reconstruction. You can only explain in interviews that we were not influenced by REM, that we were doing this a long time ago, and also explain that what we're all doing wasn't a case of influencing each other, but each doing the same parallel thing by coincidence."
And if that doesn't work?
He shrugs, exasperated. "Well, people like Lloyd Cole and The Smiths have been compared that way to REM and it hasn't hurt them any."
"YOU CAN LIVE LIKE A KING ON A THRONE OF TEARS"
Call it occupational hazard, but I must confess I succumbed to what is known a "hack sensationalism". Try for the gossip, the sensationalist angle, nudge nudge, wink wink.
Usually, personality/musical/religious/ideological difference between band members erupt into swathing swipes at others, the interviewee's huff and puff sounds almost drowned out by the hack scribbling down the juicy morsels on his/her shorthand pad. (I tape all my interviews, as a matter of course).
Back in the early '80s when Steve was shooting his mouth off in the rock press and getting himself and The Church slagged to high heaven as a result, I ask Marty with as much casualness as I can muster, how did the other three members react?
Marty doesn't bait, the bastard.
Staring at me evenly he says, "Well, everybody has their ups and downs, the band's gone through so many changes. When you're living so close together and getting involved in everybody's emotional extremes. We're still here, we've got the same ideals as when we started out, and we're still aware there's a special chemistry at work."
Yes, but how has his relationship with Kilbey changed through the years?
"I dont think of things as changing," he hedges, much to my irritation. "Things follow a line, in double circles, and you connect sometimes. It's a case of swinging in and out, and each finding a happy medium."
He talks about the "invisible thread" that kept the four in spiritual touch when they were flung to the four corners of the Earth last year.
However, the hack, sulking because he's got no juicy copy, refuses to follow it up.
Marty laughs silently to himself.
"ALL THAT GLITTERED HAD ME MESMERISED"
I ask Steve why the lyrics tend to be so 'historical' in concept. He says maybe it was because he's been reading a lot. He's not quite sure why. I ask why the lyrics are so religious - had he gone through some emotional up heaval or religious turnabout?
"I think it's spiritual without being religious. I think there's a very strong difference there.
"The four of us have gone through some experiences together and apart. But basically, we've been trying to change from being material-obsessed people to something nicer. It's an ongoing process."
"Sue thanks, yep, I think Steve Kilbey and I agree it was one of the better ones. We did it in a Japanese restaurant, and we just clicked. Steve can sometimes be aloof from journalists but this time it happened"
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