THE CHURCH ENIGMA
By Ed St. John.
Church's early goals were simple. "When we started out we were just four teenagers who didn't know much, " recalls singer Steve Kilbey. "We certainly couldn't play our instruments very well. We just wanted to have fun, go out, and meet girls."
This year marks the 12th anniversary for the Sydney band, making them one of the longest surviving outfits still working in Australia today. In the intervening years they have released seven albums and three EPs, selling almost 2 million records (mainly in Europe and America). The band members - particularly Kilbey and guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Wilson-Piper - have also engaged in a dazzling array of sideline projects, including solo albums, production work and songwriting projects. They've always stood well to the left of centre with their dreamy, often surreal music, but they've also demonstrated a knack for writing occasional hit records. Its a fragile and unusual combination, but it appears to work.
"For most of our career we've just basically drifted along being relatively unsuccessful and randomly making records," says Kilbey. "We probably would have gone on like that if we hadn't recorded an album called Starfish that went and sold a lot of copies in America."
Starfish, released in 1988, was a major world-wide hit thanks to the classic single Under the Milky Way. The albums unexpected success had a negative effect on the band's equilibrium, however, and the follow-up album (1990's Gold Afternoon Fix) was far less potent. "I'd always imagined that success would bring a certain freedom," says Kilbey, "but all it did was to bring more pressure. Suddenly I had all these people whispering in my ear. We started having meetings with hundreds of big-name producers, and then we finally went and made a record that took far too long and was laboured over too much. "It was a very ordinary Church-by-the-numbers record that we then had to spend two years travelling around the world promoting. By the time we finished I'd had plenty of time to think about things and figure out what we wanted to do."
The Church has spent most of the past six months recording their latest offering in Sydney. The album carries a typically bizarre title, Priest Aura, and features some of the best music this enigmatic band has recorded. "With this album we felt as if the constraints had been cut. We went back to playing the way we wanted to play," says Kilbey. "The title of the album is basically a nonsense thing. I was in Spain, and I was signing an autograph for a girl when I saw what I though was Priest Aura written in her exercise book. I don't think it said that, but the words just stuck. "It turned into a bit of a joke while we were making the album, and then we reached a point where it was the only thing the album could be called."
Kilbey, who writes all of the Church's lyrics, cheerfully admits that not all his lyrics make absolute sense. As a lyricist, he's more than comfortable with pulling strange ideas out of the air without too much concious thought. "I'm like a conductor for nonsense - but I might add that I think there is often meaning in nonsense. If someone said they found my lyrics incredibly meaningful they'd be just as right as someone who said they were utter garbage. They'd both be right."
With a new drummer, American Jay Dee Daugherty, The Church are gearing up for a busy 1992 involving extensive promotional work and a tour planned for July. If the music on Priest Aura is anything to go by, the band may yet get another stab at lucrative international success. "I think what's happening at this point in the band's history is that we've really learnt how to play and how to improvise. Football teams can't stay together for 12 years because people retire or get injured all the time, but a band can stay together and just get better and better."