For a man who compares his band's beginnings to those of Aphrodite, the Greek love goddess who sprang fully formed from the sea, Steve Kilbey doesn't seem to appreciate a good myth. At least not one about his own love life.
"WHAT? WHERE'S THIS? Where's . . . WHAT'S THIS?" the Church's lead singer and lyricist sputtered in a recent interview, upon hearing the contents of a press release about the band -- one he hadn't been privileged to see in advance.
The release had said that "Kilbey finds most waking hours an endurance test"; for him, it went on, love means "the jarring clang of a rusty mattress spring heading toward an empty climax."
"I don't feel that way about love!" Kilbey objected, when he could speak again. "There aren't a lot of love songs on our albums anyway. I just don't know how someone extrapolated that out of it all . . . I'll tell you what, someone's going to get their butt kicked over that."
Forgive Kilbey for feeling misunderstood. In some ways, that is the story of the Church -- a group that has been making records for 14 years and been affixed, pinned and wriggling, to at least that many positions in the grand taxonomy of rock. The Church is another Smiths, Kilbey has been told. Or R.E.M. Or maybe the Byrds.
The truth is, "we're nothing like any of those guys," he insists. "I just don't know where they see it."
With "Sometime Anywhere," the Australian band's ninth album, he may have his best chance yet to prove it. The record -- essentially a duo project of Kilbey and guitarist Marty Willson-Piper, the sole remaining members of the original Church -- is an engaging and label-defying collection that touches on Middle Eastern music, Beach Boyslike harmonies, dance pop, trance pop and the band's more familiar brand of elegant melancholy. The two will give a taste of the album's sound when they appear Saturday at the 91X-FM Sunfest at SDSU's Open Air Theater, along with a zillion other bands. The performance is part of the Church's acoustic minitour.
"Unplugged," you might call it. Just don't call it that around Kilbey.
"I'm really sick of that word, `unplugged,' " he says -- then for good measure intones, "The Church unplugged!" in his best impression of an unctuous American disc jockey.
The OAT show will be about the biggest venue of this swing, and among the most conventional. "Last night we played in a tiny bar to about 60 people," says Kilbey, speaking from Memphis, Tenn. "Tomorrow night we're playing to about 1,000 people in a really big club. And then the day after that we're in a Laundromat in Seattle."
To an expression of skepticism about the acoustics for such a gig, he acknowledged, "I hope no one's got the spin dryer on during the quiet parts."
Kilbey's deadpan wit belies the often somber sound of the Church. "We're kind of serious guys," he allows, and it's evident in the searching strains of Willson-Piper's guitar and in the Hemingway pensiveness of Kilbey's story-lyrics, sung with a world-weary languor. Kilbey weaves tales of sad events on distant shores, of mythical characters trapped in mortal binds. We raked old Poseidon over the coals / Shook his shells, shaved his shoals, he sang on one track from 1992's "Priest=Aura." Mostly, the Church's music calls to mind those gray, unsettled moments between fair weather and storm; it's music to brood by. That tends to make Church records less than Top 40 radio-ready (though at its beginnings the band had a far more pop-driven, Beatlesque sound). But over time, the Church has built an audience. Its biggest commercial success in this country was 1988's "Starfish" album, which spawned the atmospheric hit "Under the Milky Way." The follow-up album, 1990's "Gold Afternoon Fix," scored a minor hit in the mandolin-accented "Metropolis," but Kilbey calls that album disappointing, a victim of overproduction: "It's perfect, and it's boring."
The band's last album, "Priest=Aura," sold poorly; it was an artisticsuccess, says Kilbey, but nevertheless "had failure stamped all over it." Kilbey has a much better feeling about "Sometime Anywhere." Part of the reason for its more open, adventurous sound, he says, is the departure of longtime guitarist Peter Koppes, a "very traditional sort of musician" who "wasn't into a lot of experimentation." His exit left Kilbey and Willson-Piper free to explore what Kilbey terms the strong creative tension between the pair, who from the start have been the core of the Church. Their co-producing of the album (with Dare Mason) also left the two freer to indulge a few whims.
"Everything on the album is incredibly random," Kilbey says. When he felt like strumming a banjo, Kilbey didn't have to dicker with producers; he just picked one up and played it, conjuring the Turkish-textured instrumental "Eastern." "Sometime Anywhere" also contains the pair's first duet, "2 Places at Once," with its Beach Boys-derived harmonies. Elsewhere, the percussive "Lost My Touch" borrows from rap, while the gorgeous, flamenco-filigreed "Loveblind" is a classic Kilbey narrative, a surreal detective tale about a "man who has no face."
Kilbey and Willson-Piper are now both fathers, now both in their 30s ("I'm so old I don't have to say how old I am anymore," Kilbey asserts). For the Church, these two are the last True Believers. But they won't give it up anytime soon -- not while Kilbey still has stories to tell, myths to mine; not while Willson-Piper still has a few soul-searing riffs to lay down.
"I think we'll be doing this when we're old guys," Kilbey muses. "You know, you go and see some old jazz bands, those guys are all 60 and 70. I don't see any reason why we can't continue doing that. We won't be wobbling around in Spandex pants and beer guts, but we want to be musicians until the day we go."
DATEBOOK Sunfest, featuring the Violent Femmes, the Church, the Rollins Band, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Frente! and Green Day. 4 p.m. Sunday. SDSU's Open Air Theatre. Sold out.
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