The Church haven't really broken the surface in England, but they're increasingly serious business elsewhere. Russel Brown joins them on the road in Spain.
The Church's tour manager sits in his Madrid hotel room surrounded by information technology - laptop computer, portable fax & telephone. He is getting stress.
"I got three hours," he says glancing at his watch, "to send through the rider for the American tour. Its ugly guys, real ugly."
Stewart Ross is a first division American tour manager. He has worked with Tom Waits and George Benson and can tell you the Springsteen family gossip. But not right now - halfway through The Church's European Tour in support of their new album, 'Gold Afternoon Fix', he's trying to arrange the future.
Although they've nearly really broken the surface in this country, The Church are increasingly serious business in the States. Their last album 'Starfish' spent time in the top 40 & the new album has sold a quarter of a million in its first week of release.
Since forming to support a mates band in a pub in Sydney, they've effectively broken up twice, three of the bands have made solo albums and last year drummer Richard Ploog finally went over the top in Brazil and started distributing his kit amongst the audience.
It was a way of saying goodbye (although he wasn't asked to leave until later), and his place has been taken by JD Daugherty, a longtime member of Patti Smith's band.
The Church are Australian, but not very. Lead singer and bassist Steve Kilbey and guitarist Marty Wilson-Piper were both born in Britain, and guitarist Peter Koppes is the son of first generation Greek immigrants.
Marty actually lived in Madrid for a time and speaks tolerable Spanish - very handy for their record company here, where they're more popular than anywhere else in Europe. Outside the hotel, five hours before showtime, crowds are beginning to form in front of the venue next door.
The Church as they'll tell you used to be shit live. A formless rock jangle that bore little resemblance to their recorded work, which from 1982's 'The Unguarded Moment' single on has thrown up a string of gems. They used to look faintly embarrassed at being on stage.
But these days with JD on the drumstool, they conjure up a warm thick noise of a quality that sometimes threatens to overwhelm the songs. Kilbey's straight up basslines hold down the middle while two guitarists tear of strips of flashy, melodic feedback on either side. Despite Marty's half ironic foot-on-the-monitor stuff, there's not a lot of angle on The Church - just that rich, precise harmonic ooze.
The youthful Madrid crowd loves it and the band respond with their best gig of the tour. "You're the best audience in the world," says a delighted Kilbey. "And I wouldn't say that if it wasn't true!" And being Steve Kilbey, you can be assured that he wouldn't.
The Church's non-fashion musical solidity has probably limited their appeal to British audiences. But this very day a live review has been faxed through from the enthusiastic but dodgily-written House-Party 'zine, Rave. The author relates having a fine old time at The Church's London Town & Country Club gig before heading off to an energy bash. He suggests the new single 'Metropolis', could stand a dance remix by "Oakey" or Weatherall or Richie Rich.
It's not as bizzare as it sounds - the thickness of texture and the pulse in their sound would work nicely into the current indie-dance vogue. And they were doing the paisley 'n' acid thang when it was distinctly unfashionable. Kilbeys admission to Sounds' Jane Garcia that he once took acid and had had a groovy time looking at his paisley shirt collection has, to his considerable embarassment, followed The Church around the world for years.
Kilbey seems to have the type of character that only led singers( and songwriters) seem to possess - spiky and quick, a sort of likable smart ass bastard. It's a personal counterpoint to the occaisionally wooly romanticism of his songs and the band that plays them.
The vagaries of the British music scene fascinate him, as does the UK music press. He seems to have an opinion on most things and a theory about the rest. He expresses doubts about Inspiral Carpets and organises a debate on The House Of Love which spawns an uncontrolable running joke about dear old Chadders.
"Has anyone got a tape of the new House Of Love album ?", he says suddenly, some time after the conversation has petered out. "I think I feel my Guy Chadwick stage coming on....lets see.....'The Beatles and The Stones...suck the marrow from my bones.'"
Kilbey thinks the HOL sound a bit like The Church, but you get the impression that if the two singers met it'd be mind games at forty paces. The two bands are currenty leapfrogging each other round Spain's bigger concert halls.
By the time we get to Valencias Arena Auditorium, Stewart is tearing out what is left of his hair over the incompetence of the local promoter.
"Another promoter on my shit list." he growls. These American manager types love saying stuff like that. Some time later Kilbey sits down for a plate of paella and some questions. Like for instance, does the album's opening track 'Pharoah', with the lines about "all the people who are selling me" express a personal viewpoint on the industry that employs him?
"Well that song's actually about a Pharoah, a wrinkled old Pharoah who's been dead for thousands of years and gets wheeled out of his tomb, trying somehow to create an unholy amalgam between that image and the poor old rock star getting wheeled out of his tour bus.It wasn't totally personal, to a certain extent it is, but I think there's something really boring about something that only works on one level"
You do seem to regard the "Biz" as a weird and strange thing.
"I think any thinking person does. It's a phenomenal thing - incredibly silly, incredibly exciting, incredibly phoney...so it is an interesting subject. You have this dichotomy between knowing what the business is like and trying to make your music as honestly as possible."
Is it hard to keep your integrity together on a tour?
"Well to be a musician these days you have to be a million things at once. You can't just get up the stage and strum a guitar and sing - you've got to be a diplomat, a businessman, a ligger and a smoocher, and you've got to be young forever and charismatic. You have to work with the crew, with the record company people and journalists. And if you fall down in one respect, you'll get crucified."
What effect have the breaks for solo projects had on the band?
"I think they've made us stronger particularily for Marty and Peter because they get the chance to sing and dictate the musical direction. Its like a marriage where you can go of and play around and come back - and in our case we all come back with renewed enthusiasm."
You seem to have formed into a real sound now - as opposed to the early days.
"We were young then. The horrible thing about The Church was that we got a record deal and had an album out before we could really play together. In the studio we could do it - live none of us knew what we were doing. Mind you I think The Church of seven years ago would probably go down a storm in some club in Manchester right now - well they might love it. I think we might be too musicianly to go down well in England now."
So how do you feel about dear old Blighty, given that you're Big in America?
"Englands always been funny - I don't know why I should worry about the press so much. We always get the snide reviews and treatment, so to me it's like....I know this is really invoking the horrible thing we shouldn't talk about, but we sell more records in one subburb of LA than we do in the whole on England. Its not to say I don't appreciate the audience, but England has long ceased to be a priority for The Church."
"One thing that really pisses me off is that every time we play in London we go down a storm and the next week the review says, Oh, it was full of Australians. As if everywhere we go there are little pockets of Australians who we draw like a magnet and they come along to our gigs and give the impression that we're actually popular - it's an insult."
That night at the Arena, The Church shake their heads at an even younger crowd than the previous night's(and a bigger one than the House Of Love drew at the same venue) They don't play quite as well and slip sometimes into the edgelessness that isn't quite The Church at its best.