Peter Koppes is reclining against the foot of his unmade Minneapolis hotel bed when he finally comes up with a name for what the Church does. Contemporary Intelligent Rock, he calls it. Yeah, Marty Willson-Piper agrees, and amends the emphasis a little: Contemporary Intelligent Rock. The designation may be unduly precious, but you don't have to buy into the Church guitarists' implicit elitism to see that the recent success of bands like theirs does indeed portend something new. For years the college/alternative rock scene has been small-scale and notoriously cultish; now a growing cadre of bands are stepping forward from its ranks into the mainstream, and beginning to change what the mainstream sounds like.
These days even the most calcified AOR stations are playing U2, REM and the Church, and the breadth of their exposure is uniting a lot of previously isolated audiences. Consider some of the T-shirts that popped up in the crowd at a recent Church show: New Order, INXS, Echo and the Bunnymen, XTC, the Cure, OMD, U2, Sisters of Mercy, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Love and Rockets, Depeche Mode--college/alternative mavens one and all. It looked like post-punk's coming out party; as if to seal the symbolism of the event, the winners of my impromptu T-shirt-counting contest were two bookends of the whole post-1976 odyssey to date, Johnny Rotten and REM.
"I think the Church can straddle the sort of gothic doom-and-gloom bands as well as a lot of other things," acknowledges Steve Kilbey, the band's bassist, singer, lyricist and semi-grudging mouthpiece. "Our audience can like those bands, like us, and like Dire Straits as well. Though when I see some of the T-shirts at these shows, I sometimes think, 'God, how could they like these bands and like us too?' But they do."
Kilbey gives some measure of credit to REM for preparing American audiences to accept the Church's brand of guitar rock. "It must have helped," he says, "although I don't see any great similarity between them and us, aside from the fact that someone in REM has got a Rickenbacker and someone in our band has got a Rickenbacker. But I think REM did open the door for a few people who might have been considered too left-of-field."
Somebody certainly opened the door, because by mid-June the Church had a Top 30 single ("Under the MIlky Way") and a Top 40 album (Starfish), and the audience at their live shows was expanding to include many who'd first heard the band when "Milky Way" debuted on AOR and CHR radio. Granted, we're not talking Bon Jovi numbers here, but it's still a quantum leap forward for a band that's labored in semi-obscurity since the beginning of this decade, releasing five previous albums in their native Australia (only two of which got released in America) and playing to near-empty halls in many parts of the world.
Is sudden success disquieting? Have they been on the outside so long that coming in feels perversely like a betrayal (the Paul Westerberg perplex)? "Not for one miserable second! Never! Anybody who thinks that's negative is ridiculous," declaims Willson-Piper. Kilbey is more taciturn on the matter of success: "It's nothing. It hasn't made me happy, it hasn't made me sad, it hasn't daunted me. It's as hollow as I thought it would be--though it's much nicer to play to a full house than an empty house."
Maybe the reason Kilbey is so unfazed by it all is that he devotes a lot of time and energy to insulating himself from it. The last track on Starfish, an album in which the theme of travel figures prominently, is called "Hotel Womb," and at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre he spat out one line with particular ferocity: "Goddammitall, I wish I was back in my hotel womb!" Come on--is touring that emotionally traumatic? "Well, I like playing live, but I don't like touring. It's a very disturbing experience in all the ways people can imagine.
"Especially for sensitive chaps like us." He manages a self-deprecating smirk at this, which is about as emotionally unguarded--regarding his music, himself, anything--as Kilbey is likely to get in an interview. "I eventually don't want to do any more interviews," he says. "I think that will add a lot of mystery when we make a record. And people like a good mystery. The more they can find out, the less they enjoy it."
Accordingly, Kilbey doesn't want to talk about what he and the others were doing before they formed the Church. He won't even say how old he is. "I'm a surrealist," he pronounces at one point. "I'm anti-logic. As a private individual I'm interested in having some money, because I'd like to live in a nice house and drive a big car and all that. But as far as discussing it, it's not part of my persona, you know?" For someone who claims little interest in self-marketing and even less in self-mythology, that's a pretty arch formulation, but so far as Kilbey is concerned it probably all serves the end of keeping an aura of mystery around the Church's music.
"We try to go for that shiver-up-the-spine feeling, that sort of otherworldly thing--uplifting, sadly triumphant. It's so hard to put into words. If you could do that, you'd have a blueprint for doing it. But it's a very nebulous thing, and it won't be pinned down. All you can do is take a song you've written and say, yeah, this does it, or no, this doesn't.
"I just want that feeling. I don't know what that feeling is. It's like saying to a cigarette smoker, 'Why do you smoke?' It's just that hit you get. Some records give me that hit, and others don't. I can say, 'Well, I like intelligence, melody, good lyrics, good playing, originality'--but maybe Joe Smith's record has got all those elements and I still don't like it. Music is this intangible thing. I don't think anyone's attempted to work out why music makes us feel good. And it'll be a sorry day when they do find out that it stimulates some chemical here that in turn stimulates...I don't want to know about that."
After some consideration, he adds, "My lyrics aren't nonsense, but I think there's something between nonsense and statement, and most people don't explore that area. It's very important to rationalize our whole existence, because we're not just day-to-day creatures. There's something else going on. I don't know what it is; I have no more idea than anybody else. But that's what my lyrics try to come to terms with."
Philosophy of art aside, Kilbey's reticence also reflects a lifelong, passionate and generally very private connection to rock music. As a kid, he says, "I lived in my own world, which was a world created by rock'n'roll music, and records. I didn't matter a fuck to me where I was; all I wanted to do was get down to the import record shop and get the latest record by so-and-so. Then I'd come home, shut my bedroom door, and listen to it until I could write my own song to imitate it.
"I only hung around with people who liked the same kind of music that I liked. And there weren't that many of them. We thought we were a real avant-garde clique. So it didn't matter to me that I was in Canberra, which is the capital of Australia and about as inspiring as Ottawa or Washington or something. All I wanted was that record player and that record shop. Everything else was totally irrelevant.
"Rock'n'roll was all I cared about, and if somebody didn't like the music I did, then I wasn't interested in them. I still think music is a very important reference point for friends. I have friends that I'd hate otherwise, but we like the same music, and that's where we intersect."
And with the people who don't share his musical passions, "I'm not Mr. Popularity," Kilbey concedes. "It's hard to maintain friendships doing this. You go away for six months and then come back, and it's like, I've just toured the world and done this and that, and my record is at this place on the American charts. And these people are saying, we've painted our bedroom green and got a new cat. So you tend to drift away, and people think, well, he's a pretty stuck up guy. And you're thinking, they're pretty dull."
As far as describing the Church's musical signature, suffice to say that if Phil Spector's was a wall-of-sound, the Church's on Starfish might best be called a nice-hot-bath-of-sound. And that's not a putdown. The Church have been working toward that sound ever since Of Skins and Heart, their 1981 debut. But at the time, says Kilbey, he wasn't so much inspired to pursue something as to trash something. "I hated all the stuff that was happening, and it made us want to do the Church even harder and stronger. I didn't like new wave--all the sort of goofy , jerky things that were happening around the turn of the decade. I don't want to point fingers, because those bands are all broken up and gone now. But we wanted to do something that had substance and soul to it, and strike a blow for guitars again."
The Church was a critics'-choice band from the beginning, and they quickly built a following in their native Australia. But despite a sizable American cult built over the years, Starfish is their first bona fide hit here. Which is one reason why Arista is their third American label in as many albums. "There was a pressure from our point of view [to produce a hit this time]," admits guitarist Peter Koppes, "though not from the record company's. They were willing to wait for two records to build up this band."
But no one is disappointed by the gradualness of the Church's climb. Kilbey calls it an outright blessing, in fact. "It didn't seem like it at the time, but now that I look back I can see that if this had happened on the first record, several members of the band would be dead, and the others would be in an asylum. My ego would have burst; I would have done every drug under the sun and done all the other naughty things one shouldn't do. My next record would have been terrible, and I would probably be in a clinic outside Los Angeles now.
"But the way it's happened, I've paced myself. That stuff doesn't bother me. Sometimes I walk onstage and there's a big crowd and they roar and I think, 'Great!' My ego gets a rush. But I'm just an average sort of guy who happened to get lucky strumming a guitar. I think anyone who does this and thinks anything else is a fucking idiot. Elvis Presley was an ordinary guy. Sting is an ordinary guy. Maybe they're particularly talented, but you should never believe your own publicity, your own myth. When that starts happening, it's dangerous."
Their gradual ascent has held other benefits, too. Because the Church was known as a band with a small but doggedly loyal following, the CD-only label Rykodisc was willing to sign three of its four members--Kilbey, Willson-Piper and Koppes--to solo deals. It's an unconventional arrangement to say the least, but since it was cut before the band signed with Arista, Arista will have to grin and bear it. As a result, everyone in the band save drummer Richard Ploog has a new solo CD out at the same time as the album.
"It's funny that some people say, 'Ah, look at all these solo projects--their days are numbered,'" says Willson-Piper. "In fact it holds the band together. Nobody's got any reason to leave now. Nobody's frustrated creatively."
"Everyone says it must have taken guts to stick together all these years," Kilbey offers later. "But what else could we do? I think it was almost cowardice to stay together. I mean, if you break up your band, you have to start all over with another one. We were just like the guy at the roulette wheel who stands there and keeps betting on number 13. Eventually it's gonna come up."
The list of gear Steve Kilbey used on Starfish is short and sweet: "I had a Fender Coronado bass, a Gallien-Krueger amplifier and an SVT cabinet. And that's it." Guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper swear they can't remember any particulars about their guitars. "They're Rickenbackers," says Willson-Piper. "But Peter and I have custom guitars that were assembled from components of two different models--what do you call those?" Mutants, Marty.
In the Church's live show, some of Willson-Piper's most memorable solos are on his custom Rickenbacker electric 12-string. Both guitarists use Vox AC-30 amps. Richard Ploog plays D.W. drums and Paiste cymbals.