"They dropped us, because we werenít selling enough records and we werenít touring," states Steve Kilbey on the phone from Sydney. "It was quite a relief, actually. And we can do much better now, because what will happen with this album is that, because itís on our own label, weíll be exporting copies to America. Weíre not releasing it over there, weíre just exporting them. And what isnít a very large number of records for Arista is a large number of records for my label, so itís good, weíre just keeping all the business for ourselves."
The new Church album, Magician Among The Spirits, is both an extension of the ideas posited on Sometime Anywhere and a rejection of them. The album, recorded last year, marks the return of Peter Koppes on guitar (he and the band parted company after 1992ís Priest=Aura tour) and in the case of the single, Comedown, a return to the glittering guitar pop of the bandís earlier work. Elsewhere the album travels into mystic instrumentals, freeform experimentation, and quiet reflection. It is, of course, compelling listening.
"This recordís on Deep Karma, which is another label we created," says Steve. "Marty didnít want to be on Karmic Hit, because thatís my label, so we had to create a label that was his and mine, and that is Deep Karma. This albumís about a year old. Weíd made a number of decisions after we lost our American deal. First of all, we didnít want to record for any other labels, and the second one was that we didnít want to do any more videos. So it was perfect to do it on our own label."
The refusal to make any more video clips for their singles is a direct reaction to the monetary wastefulness of the exercise, Steve says.
"I think videos are ridiculous, with very few exceptions. There are good videos, there have been videos that Iíve enjoyed, but with The Church we never seemed to get any control, and even if we did have it, no-one in the bandís especially visually gifted. Iím certainly not, I couldnít direct a good video. So you put it in someone elseís hands, and they always let you down. Nobody really understands how The Church should be visually, least of all us. But we know it isnít the way it usually ends up. We always just look like a bunch of drips, playing guitar, standing around with someone filming us. The idea of the rock video is just horrible. And they cost so much money. Ten to thirty grand is a very, very cheap Australian video. Thatíd get the catering on an American-made video - you wonít make a good video in America for under 100,000. You could buy yourself a studio for that, and make albums forever."
With that kind of outlay, itís surprising that any artist with an eye on the figures could justify the expense.
"I donít think itís justifiable, and thatís why Iíve stopped. When we did our last video, for Two Places At Once, we went to Mexico, it cost a fortune, and probably never got played in Australia, except maybe for once on Rage. Whatís the point in that?"
With Comedown, though, The Church have their best shot at the charts since the widely appreciated Reptile - the song, which was at various stages planned to be recorded by Stephen Cummings and Margot Smith, is the most simple, direct, and radio-friendly song that Steve Kilbey has written in years.
"It is kind of a radio song," he reflects. "Or it could be, in a fair world. But it certainly wasnít deliberately intended as such. Iíd love to have radio play, Iíd love to have a hit, sell lots of records, go out with Helena Christiansen. But if it doesnít happen, Iím not going to get upset about it. Iím not going to give up and think itís the end. Because there are other things to life, there are other ways to gauge success that just those things."
The albumís opening track, aptly titled Welcome, sets an insistent groove in motion upon which Kilbey intones the names of people of note, from Harry Houdini to their former producer Gavin McKillop, and welcomes them to the record. Many reviews of the album have directly compared the songís idea to that of The Belovedís 1990 single Hello. Steve is distinctly unimpressed at the intimations, and insists that his song owes a debt to no-one but himself.
"All Iíve heard is The Beloved, The Beloved, The Beloved did that first. Well Iíve never fucking heard that song, Iíve never listened to the Beloved. What really gets me is that people are implying that a list of names, only one person can ever do that. So The Beloved apparently did it. Surely somebody else has done it before them. If you can write a song going ĎI miss my baby, I want my baby" a hundred times, then why is a list of names something that can only be done once. Itís weird, a lot of people in disparaging reviews jumped up on their high horses about The Beloved. They had nothing to do with it."
In a rare event for The Church, this album also contains a cover version - in this case, Steve Harleyís song Ritz.
"Itís a song that Marty and I have been doing for a long time acoustically, and both of us really love Steve Harley, especially the first two albums before he went bad. His first two albums were just amazing, and for anyone who likes The Church Iíd very much recommend they try and find either The Human Menagerie, The Psychomodo, or the third album, which had Make Me Smile on it, though I donít recommend that so much. But avoid anything after that like the plague. Cut your ears off rather than listen to them. But the first two albums are fantastic, theyíre like these microcosmic worlds that he was living in, a world of courtesans and jesters and clowns, people living in this weird court. Weíve always loved those albums. That song is actually 22 years old, it came out in 1974."
The return of Peter Koppes to the Church fold has made many a fan happy, but the credit he receives on the album - "Special Guest Star" - implies that heís not quite back in the band yet.
"Itís a funny thing, itís a very fluid thing nowadays whether someoneís in the band or not," Steve muses. "He played on a few songs on this album, though not as many as he could have, and heís doing the tour. I donít know if that means heís back in. But he and I have just made an album together, which is him and I and Tim - in fact, basically The Church without Marty [This is the album "The Reformation"]. So Peter and I are very closely connected at the moment. I hope that The Church does another album next year, and I hope Peter plays on it the whole way through, and I hope he writes some songs on it."
The upcoming national tour will see The Church playing as a full band for the first time since 1992, with studio drummer Tim Powles venturing out as a live band member, and with violinist Linda Neil possibly joining them. After so many years and so many tours, is Steve Kilbey looking forward to returning to the rock band dynamic?
"Yeah, I am. Iím not looking forward to rehearsals, but Iím looking forward to the shows. And this could - I know Iíve said this before - but this could seriously be the last time The Church play live as a band."
Actually, I think you said that definitively on the Priest=Aura tour.
"Well, it almost bloody well was. It looked like it for a while. But Iíve managed to get this together. Well, hopefully. But this really could be the last time. Actually, after ĎHeydayí I was seriously thinking about packing it in. Weíd just done this great album that hadnít sold that well, we got dropped by Warner Brothers in America, and I thought, we maybe thereís no more life in this. And then we got the offer from Arista, made ĎStarfishí and it did really well, and there was no way we were going to throw it in then. Itís just hard to tell. Some people really hate the fact that you keep on going, because rock music should be a short, ephemeral thing. Like a dragonfly living for more than one day - they only live for one day and rock bands are usually only together for a short time. And the best ones break up early and disappear. Or at least thatís the idea behind it."
Sixteen years is indeed a long, long time in terms of music; could Steve Kilbey possibly still be enjoying himself?
"Yeah, of course I am," he says firmly. "I hope that shows; I donít think I could make a whole record if I wasnít enjoying it to a certain extent. The thrill of writing a good song and executing it is just one of the best things there is."
[Copyright 1996 Anthony Horan.]