For those who've been listening since the beginning, it seems somewhat astonishing that The Church has now been an entity for some seventeen years. Most of their contemporaries are long gone; those that remain are shadows of their former innovations and glories. Yet somehow, time and fashion never caught up with The Church, who have remained essential and relevant throughout their long time as a band. Sure, the chart hits aren't there any more, but that's the point - rather than chase a form of success that means repeating oneself ad nauseum, The Church have explored tangents, spurious ideas, cinematic visions and trance-like meanderings with wild abandon, and those still listening have found much to be excited about. All this looks likely to come to an end this week, when The Church play a show in Melbourne that could very well be their last.
Steve Kilbey's terrace house in the inner Sydney suburb of Rozelle isn't hard to miss - a large "SOLD" sign blocks the front window, and gives the first indication that some changes are in the air. Sitting in his sparsely furnished lounge room, Kilbey acknowledges that we're here to talk about the upcoming tour, but is happy to look back on his band's long career, his air of tired resignation colouring much of the conversation. Despite his penchant in recent years for declaring his band to be on the verge of ending, it's hard to escape the impression that this time things seem to be heading towards a natural conclusion.
"I think this could very easily be the last Church album ever," Kilbey says matter-of-factly. "I've sold my house, and I'm moving to Sweden - I'll semi-retire and just bring my daughters up, because they're a handful, and they're too much for their mother. So I'm just going to go over and be in Sweden. It's funny, I met Greg Macainsh in about 1981, and he said that he felt like he'd given all he had to give. And I thought, that's strange, how can you say that? But now I kind of feel that way - especially with the live thing, I've done it and I've done it and I've done it, and I don't feel there's much to be achieved by me going out with a bass guitar and playing Church numbers any more. I mean, I'm looking forward to doing these two, and I think they're going to be good shows. But you get to the point where you want to do something else - I'd really like to do more film soundtracks. So there's only the two gigs; there's not really anything for us to do in Australia except play Sydney and Melbourne. We're about to do the album, so we thought maybe we'd write some songs and try them out on the road - well, at the two gigs, anyway."
The intervening time since 1996's exploratory Magician Among The Spirits album has seen a typically large amount of activity from Kilbey, with the release of an expanded version of his superb Narcosis EP, and an instrumental project call Gilt Trip, both on a small independent label; more recently, there was a record under the name The Reformation ("We had some time to kill, so me and Peter and Tim made a record over about three weeks. We just went into the studio, wrote some songs and recorded them.") With the Church book still open, another album was always a likely thing - and, as Kilbey says, the Reformation record was almost a Church album in itself.
"It's just whoever's there working on the songs at the time. If Marty had been there, I guess it would have been a Church album. But it's the same philosophy for me every time - whatever happens on the day, that's the record." After such a long time being the most visible quarter of The Church, was it sad for Kilbey to make the decision to fold the band? "No. I've done it, and there's no point in doing it over and over. This feels a bit like a tired old rocker having a whinge, and I know how I would have felt reading this if someone was saying it 17 years ago when I first started, but I feel like no matter what I do know, no matter how good it is, it's not going to get the attention and respect that it deserves.
That's the nature of rock music - people get caught up with a certain person, and then they focus on something else. It's like Bob Dylan - even if he made an incredible album these days, it won't make any difference, because no-one's going to listen to it. That's what's happened to me in Australia, and no matter what I do, I don't feel like I can achieve anything."
The infamous "use-by date" is being applied here, presumably...
"Yeah, pretty much, yeah. And there's no-one actually saying that - it's just something that happens, and you're kicking against the pricks trying to change it. I'd rather go out with a bit of grace... and I don't think we've got much choice. What else could we do? When it's over, it's over, you just have to accept that - and like a poker game or a relationship, you've got to know when to get out. The hard thing to swallow is that I think our next album could easily be as good as anything else we've ever done. And just because of the climate, it doesn't have much of a chance."
Kilbey is, of course, not the only artist suffering such treatment at the hands of a musical climate that allows most artists only a couple of albums' worth of fame before putting them out to pasture. He's openly (and understandably) bitter about the situation in which he finds himself, regardless. When asked if the move to Sweden means a retirement from music altogether, Kilbey answers quickly, then hesitates.
"No... well... I'm not actively pursuing anything, but if somebody wants me to do something, if something finds me, I'll do it. But I'm not out there desperately trying to get a gig or anything."
At the time of our conversation, The Church had not yet regrouped for rehearsals, and consequently had not yet decided on the songs to be played on this week's mini-tour. The last Church show in Melbourne, an electrifying set that played like a virtual Greatest Hits, enraptured the audience - something which Kilbey is well aware of.
"We play whatever songs sound good when we start rehearsing. That wasn't the intention, for that show to be like that. When we started playing, that bunch of songs sounded best, probably because they're the ones we always play. I think we're better off to play those ones and sound good than to try the more esoteric ones and have them not really work. And seeing as this will probably be the last, it might not be, I don't want to say it's definitely the last time, but it's probably going to be the last time for a long time that The Church will play in Australia, at least for a couple of years. So I think we'd probably be better off doing the songs most people want to hear."
While that last statement implies that Kilbey isn't quite ready to completely close the book on The Church, this time - unlike other occasions when it's been implied that the band will fold - there does seem to be both an element of finality about proceedings, and a desire to go out with as large a bang as possible, both on stage and on record. We may very well see The Church play again, but circumstances make the possibility less likely from now on. Maybe it's time for Steve Kilbey to write a book about the whole trip...
"I've thought about that," he says, "but in a way... I think it's best left as it is, the mystery of it. But a lot of stuff happened. I've gotten to see a lot of things and hear a lot of things and do a lot of things I never thought I could do in this life. When we first started out we were lugging our own gear out of the back of a cab, up the stairs to play to a small crowd. Some of the things that have happened while we've been on tour, places we've stayed, people we've met, things we've done...it's been incredible."