The Drum Media
17 September 1996
Interview by Michael Dwyer
October, 1992. 'Priest' equalled 'Aura', and Ambiguity played no part in the equation whatsoever as Steve Kilbey announced to a Western Australian audience what his band had spent the previous days concluding. "This is the last time we're ever ever ever ever going to play in Perth for the history of time and beyond,' were his precise words. Similar news was communicated on the remaining couple of east coast dates and, by the middle of that month, The Church were history.
"Hey, four years IS ever ever ever ever in the pop world, isn't it? Kilbey says with remarkable good humour when his famous last words are brought back to haunt him on the eve of The Church's 1996 reunion tour.
"I mean, Jesus Christ! If you say 'I categorically mean never,' that means one year. If you say 'never ever ever ever,' that means four. If you say 'that's it, I've retired, you'll never see me again,' that means five or six years!"
When the Church play Selinas this Friday night, four years it will be since Kilbey, Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes stood on the same stage. Always unstable, always volatile, the band's 1992 retirement was no surprise, just a disappointment given the rising quality of their work.
For many, including Steve Kilbey, 'Priest=Aura' remains a high point in the band's nine-album career. But the typically tense, shambolic and occasionally magic tour which followed left founding guitarist Koppes at the end of his rope- something about the taxman and a few outstanding creditors being higher in the wages queue.
Kilbey and Willson-Piper soldiered on to undertake 1994's inspired 'Sometime Anywhere' LP, and a subsequent acoustic tour of Australia and selected US ports. Koppes made a partial return for the recently-released 'Magician Among the Spirits,' which also found a stable fourth member in drummer Tim Powles (Divinyls, Rose Tattoo, Venetians). The obvious question arose and the answer came with a shrug: "Why not?"
So, are Greatest Hits in order, or what?
"Greatest HIT, you mean," Kilbey laughs dryly. "I would hope not. Christ, I would hope we wouldn't do that, even if we did have a greatest hits repertoire! For me, I wanna play the songs I enjoy playing and I hope they're the ones people wanna hear.
"I think at this stage it would be dishonest to play songs we don't want to play just because they might amuse the audience. I hope that we've gone onto another level and the audiences who come and see us understand that. We're not out to dazzle them or can them or be something that we're not."
"If we go through the motions, as they've probably seen us do in the past, doing things we don't want to do, it doesn't work out well. It's really ugly, and they can pick it. They know it, we know it, and it's ridiculous. I'm really gonna try and pull the best songs from all the periods."
That said, punters craving 'Unguarded Moment' are advised to save their breath ("it used to disturb me in 1981 when people called out for that one") but the glory days of 'Heyday' and 'Starfish' are likely to be amply revisited if the band's last few tours are any indication.
"As a live band that was a kind of peak for us," Kilbey says of the 1985-1988 period. "We had experience but we still had a lot of youthful exuberance. Haha! Those songs were written on the road, road tested and played and played and played even before they got onto an album. They're just a good bunch of songs."
Since their last live outing, a good bunch of the The Church's 1980s songs have been reissued on Glenn A. Baker's Raven label. The 17-track retrospective 'Almost Yesterday 1981-90' made a worthy attempt to join some significant dots, though Marty Willson-Piper expressed his reservations at the time."
"I doubt whether anyone could make a compilation people wouldn't complain about," is Kilbey's assessment. "I think it was an appropriate compilation really, an introduction record for people who might have missed what we were doing, the key points over those years."
"I guess you could have two compilations: the weird side and the straight side, but the people who are into the dark side would probably have the albums anyway."
"But I really want to do a good chunk of 'Priest=Aura' this time," he says, leaving the 80s behind. "And I think it would be a sad indictment of the zeitgeist if we couldn't manage anything of the last two albums. Peter's even suggesting songs that he wasn't involved in, so that's a good sign."
With the notable exception of its single, 'Comedown,' 'Magician Among the Spirits' continues 'Sometime Anywhere's' diversion away from the chiming guitar pop songs for which the Church are still best known. Lush production values, a handful of guest musicians and occasionally bombastic arrangements have progressively characterised the band's 90s albums as they pursue a decidedly studio-oriented evolution.
"When you've got your own recording studio (Karmic Hit in inner Sydney), making a record becomes a different thing," Kilbey says. "It doesn't have to have a lot of planning put into it, it can be an on-the-spot decision.
"Peter and I and Tim have already done a record called 'The Reformation.' We just started making a record for no apparent reason. It's a very spontaneous, improvised record, out of which has come these sort of weird structures. It's definitely songs and tunes and words and things, but it's a very spontaneous record."
Spontaneity is bound to play a major role on the forthcoming tour: seven dates in seven cities over nine days, but after four years in various fractured permutations.
"It's funny 'cause we haven't played for soooo long," Kilbey says. "It's never been this long! And I used to notice every time we hadn't played together for a year that when we got back together, we were completely different. Everyone was playing differently. I imagine we're gonna mutate in some weird way on this tour, especially with a drummer who hasn't played with us live before."
And what about the Church's near-legendary acquaintance with unpredictability? Is Steve Kilbey in a position to promise every show will be a winner this time out?
"Oh no, I think it's gonna be hit and miss," he says after a good, hard laugh. "It has to be! I hope there's more hit involved but with us, there's always the off-chance..."
The Church play Selinas with the Bhagavad Guitars, Glide and The Earthmen on Friday night.