These veteran sonic trippers want you to take a leap of faith
The Church don't care if you read any further. In fact, these Australian gods of guitar-thunder pop have specifically requested that their fans skip over this story. Oh, it's nothing personal. They just happen to think that music journalism is an absolute crock.
"The whole thing is meaningless," declares Steven Kilbey. "It can't mean anything because it's writing about things that don't mean anything in the first place." He means "things" like melodies and lyrics; Kilbey is the Church's bassist, lead singer and principal songwriter.
"Ninety-nine percent of all articles demystify something that you like," he continues, warming to his subject. "It's funny: You get people who like really obscure music because nobody's fucking written about it and stripped away everything from it. What can we possibly say that can enhance the record? It's not like building a house or designing a bridge or making bread. All we can do now is detract."
Welcome to the wild and wonderfully out-of-whack world of the Church. The pleasure, apparently was all mine.
"I don't think people should know what we're like," Kilbey insists. "Nothing's worse than finding out 'what they're like.' Surely, what they're like should be 100 percent expressed in the music and what they're like outside of that is gossip or eavesdropping. The more information you have about the Church, I think, the less likely you are to appreciate our new record. 'Cause if it just falls out of the blue, then it exists on its own terms, and describes itself and is alluring to itself. The more you know about us -- where we live and who's got children and how much money we've got and what our attitudes are toward homosexuals -- it starts to limit the interpretation of the record, it really does."
"You may as well shut that tape recorder off," says guitarist Peter Koppes with a grin, "and just come on holiday with us."
Well, I did and I didn't. For the record: The Church are all in their early 30s. Guitarist Marty Willson-Piper lives in Sweden with his wife and daughter, guitarist Peter Koppes and his family live in Australia, as does Steve Kilbey. Longtime drummer Richard Ploog was given the boot somewhere in between the conclusion of Gold Afternoon Fix last year and the Church's world tour; for the moment, he's been replaced (and then some) by J.D. Daugherty. Like any mid-level-and-climbing band, the Church aren't rich: They bitch about money all the time, half-seriously. Despite Steve and Marty's macho joke-cracking on the tour bus, their attitudes toward homosexuals are no doubt just as liberal as their attitudes toward everybody but journalists.
But buried deep in Steve Kilbey's anti interpretation diatribe are some clues to understanding the Church and the nearly spiritual appeal of their timelessly psychedelic music. Get past his defensive zeal and you begin to sense the resolve and creativity that's kept this band going -- and growing -- for more than 10 years, through three U.S. major-label deals, several managers, various marketing schemes and now myriad solo offshoots.
"To me, the analogy is like this," says Kilbey. "A magician does an amazing trick and everyone in the audience says, 'I wish I knew how that trick was done.' It's natural for people to want to know how the trick was done. But imagine if there was an interview where the magician said, 'Yeah, well, there was half a girl showing in one side of the box and half a girl showing in the other, so it just looked like I was sawing her in half!'"
"There's not going to be anyone at his next gig," says Peter Koppes, chuckling again. Kilbey is not amused, though. "So if we try and explain what we're all about," he continues, "we're like the magician explaining his trick." He's beginning to get exasperated. "Quite frankly, we go into a room and we make it up 'cause it sounds good and I just write down the first thing that comes to mind, anything because it sounds good. THERE'S REALLY NOTHING MORE YOU CAN SAY!"
"It's a doodle, really," volunteers Marty Willson-Piper. "A doodle that leads to something else and that leads to something else . . . you balance it until it gets to a point where you say, 'Well, that's enough.' The Church only exist on a musical level. We don't exist on a message level."
"Our music is totally hedonistic," says Kilbey, accompanied by the vigorously affirmative headshaking of his bandmates. "It exists only to be enjoyed. There's no aftershock or attempt to change the world or people's thinking. I'm not doing this for Australian Rock. I'm not doing this so the wars will stop. I'm not doing this so Ethiopians will get fed. I hope those things happen, but I'm not doing this for anything else other than the fact that I enjoy it, and I hope other people enjoy listening to it."
"And it seems like there's something wrong with that!" notes Willson-Piper, incredulously. "It's really great to go onstage and play guitar or whatever it is: People enjoy us, we enjoy each other, we enjoy writing the songs together and working 'em out, making 'em happen and having dynamics and EXPLODING into the chorus three-quarters of the way through a set on the eighth song . . . people come back and say, 'I really love the way you did that' Why isn't that reason enough?"
"Simple pleasure is the most important thing," Kilbey interjects. "The sun shining on an open field on a nice day is more important than Pythagorean fuckin' theory. The sun shining on an open field means more than the collected works of western literature over the last 10,000 years."
"That's really true," says the band's bus driver, between burly gusts of laughter. We've been driving past open fields all afternoon, en route from Germany to a concert in Amsterdam; before the interview, I gawked out the window at passing tulip patches and windmills while everybody else reads books or magazines.
"You don't eat a pizza and then go back to the chef and say, 'But what did this pizza mean,' do you?" continues Kilbey. "Why can't music be like that?"
"But if you have such a spiritual feeling about the sun coming up," counters Peter Koppes, "eventually it creates superstition. The Aztecs went and killed people every day, made sacrifices to ensure that the sun would come up the next morning. And scientists used Pythagorean theorems to figure out that the sun coming up every day isn't as important as the earth revolving. Maybe some interpretation is interesting, after you've enjoyed the music."
"I don't know. . . that doesn't mean fuck-all to a bear," Kilbey snaps back. "I think music eliminates the human rational thing and goes to the animal part."
Superstition is what fuels the Church, and what makes them a great rock 'n' roll band. Stubbornness and insularity have kept them afloat throughout the turbulent '80s; over the past 10 years they've honed a consistent musical vision while ignoring any and all outside influences. The Church are so steadfastly true to themselves, so resolutely un-trendy that they can seem like hippie throwbacks --or hopeless squares to the uninitiated.
At the same time, none of their seven albums sound especially nostalgic. The Church have always employed the sonic tools of the late '60s, but with their own distinct touch and a consistent, post-punk sense of purpose. The endless, dense guitar 'n' amp permutations transmit cosmic melodies, and the dreamy, atmospheric verses linger amid the feedback; at this point, the Church have musical tripping down to a science.
Gold Afternoon Fix is probably the most well rounded and sharply focused portrait of the group to date. The vocal contributions by Willson-Piper ("Russian Autumn Heart") and Koppes ("Transient") are as strong as any of Kilbey's numbers, and the riffing guitars span the bright CD spectrum. Kilbey's singing seems more impassioned, and his lyrics are slightly less impressionistic (or impenetrable) than before. The throbbing pulse of "You're Still Beautiful, Baby" underscores the pity and disgust of the lyrics; it's both the catchiest and the most concrete song the Church have ever done.
All that said, Gold Afternoon Fix itself probably won't win all that many new converts for the Church; their records have always seemed incidental, even though they don't all sound the same. There's something about hearing this group perform live -- an elusive but crucial quality -- that just can't be captured in a recording studio.
"We have a name for it," Peter Koppes explains a while later. "We call it gusto. Gusto sorta enters the atmosphere and it's not what Marty's playing and it's not what I'm playing. Something just pops in, and it's not just a drone. Sometimes you'll hear rhythmic things -- violins doing stabs! That's how our style evolved. Gusto happened accidentally, it kept recurring and we kept looking for it. A lot of the keyboard lines and violins and orchestral things that we'll use in the studio are just something that's been evoked by the guitar combination anyway.
"We've dropped some of that jingle-jangle thing," Peter admits. Interestingly, the ringing, Byrdsian chimes of the 1984 Remote Luxury album are the very thing that introduced, and endeared, the Church to a rabid American cult "A lot of other bands jumped on it; they do cyclic arpeggios on the guitar and it becomes very bland. That sound was associated with us and R.E.M., so we've dropped it for a more syncopated, reactive thing between the guitars.
"But people keep trying to apply that lead-and-rhythm guitar distinction to us: They still ask, 'Who's the lead guitar player?' Despite the incredible demystification of music these days, people can't seem to think of a group as a democracy. The way we play guitars, it's almost like a complement of rhythms --or at least that's what we've tried to develop."
"The Church has become this situation where we concentrate on the chemistry," Marty Willson-Piper reckons when cornered. "There's this chemical three-way thing that happens between us. We work on working together, you know? Rather than trying to convince each other of our own ideas, we try to find an area that we all like, so we can create this sum-of-parts, where the parts could only be created together."
Steve Kilbey describes the Church's unique working relationship in metaphoric terms. "It's like in Sweden, where they've got people building cars in little groups. They build cars the way they want to build them rather than on an assembly line. People taking pride in their work, rather than a big boss saying, 'You put on the windshield wipers.' That's the way the Church works. The Cure works that way now too; they all write songs together. After a few years, it has to be that way. Three people can dream up better stuff than one person. The Cure," he continues, "are far bigger in America than the Church, and I think Robert Smith doesn't give a fuck about the charts or commerciality. He just goes in and does the stuff that falls out of his head accidentally . . . and people love it!
"I think what's going to happen is sometime in the future, somehow, the world is going to pass through all its problems, most people will enjoy a total leisure society and that'll be great because once more everyone will have money and everyone will be comfortable and there will be solar power and abundance for everybody and people will only work if they want to and that's going to free up the musicians to make the music that they want to make and eliminate the need for Milli Vanilli and all that kind of thing."
Sure, Steve Kilbey actually believes that fantasy. The Church are true believers in the hippie ethic; they've got the fanatic, unshakable convictions of disciples old enough to remember the '60s but too young to have participated. They've also stumbled onto something rare and precious -- rock's mystical power of transport -- and they don't want to risk losing it. Talk too much about the magic, and it might evaporate. Trying to tell a stranger about rock 'n' roll is still a tough one.
Maybe Kilbey is right about the words to the Church's songs not meaning anything, too. The deliciously physical onslaught of Marty's and Peter's guitars erased the language barrier at the Amsterdam show, and the audience was swept up by it: Everybody seemed glazed, appreciative -- and straight! J.D. Daugherty's drumming, subtle but muscular, pushed Kilbey's bass playing and added a rock 'n' roll punch --something that Church proceedings have lacked in the past. The band's disciplined frenzy is a marvel to watch: their concerts' inexorable pacing can be breathtaking. Repeatedly, the music builds to a climax and then gradually subsides; each song seems to begin where the previous one left off, gradually elevating the level of intensity but never quite reaching a peak.
The payoff came during the second encore: ka-boom, followed by a mind- dissolving free-form dialogue between the two guitarists. Buzzing, beautifully distorted sounds hung in the air for long minutes after the Church had left the stage. The teenaged couple seated next to me erupted in delirious, enthusiastic conversation, gesturing like mad and even playing a little air guitar. I don't speak a word of Dutch, but I know what they were saying: "I wish I knew how that trick was done."