The sermons are longer and there's a bit more dust on the hymnals, but the flying buttresses that support the Church are strong as ever. The band's eleventh release, Hologram of Baal, hits stores this week, and it's a familiar ride through the shimmering, mesmerizing universe that's home to the lonely voice of singer/bassist Steve Kilbey and some of the most underrated dueling guitars this side of Television.
Baal marks the return of six-stringer Peter Koppes, and the trademark interplay between him and guitarist Marty Willson-Piper is not the least bit tarnished by his five-year sabbatical (He's done spot work on Church albums since, but his last proper collaboration was '92's Priest=Aura.)
For nearly twenty years, this Australian-Anglo conglomerate has put out records that have alternately landed them in the Billboard Top 40 and completely ostracized mainstream listeners. To wit, the first 7,500 buyers of Baal get a bonus disc called Bastard Universe that contains a four-part, 79-minute improvisational jam. Break out the bong!
But if you ask Willson-Piper what's wrong with music today, he'll gladly proffer his opinion that there's far too much compromise -- and that the Church's unyielding stance is precisely why the band has survived through myriad member-changes, label switches, distribution problems and seismic shifts in popular music.
"In true Church style, instead of trying to come back and making a commercial record, we make a sort of semi-obscure one," Willson-Piper says with discernable confidence. He's phoning from his hotel room in San Francisco, where the Church are gearing up to headline a show at the Fillmore. "I've got this theory that as soon as you start catering for anybody else you're in serious trouble. You can't make records for your profile; you have to make records for your heart. When we go in to record, we're not sitting around thinking about radio airplay, journalists and fans."
That's the kind of attitude that gets paid a good deal of lip service in the music industry, but one that often won't keep a band in their label's good graces. But Willson-Piper insists he's never caved in to the guys with cigars who might plead with him to churn out another "Under the Milky Way." Nothing about the Church's process or product, he points out, is scripted.
"The demo process [whereby bands develop material through recording] is an interesting process for slick, sleek music perhaps, but all the spontaneity can disappear very quickly if you do it like that," the guitarist relates. "I mean, listen to a Stones record these days. It's so kind of like worked out that it just doesn't have any meaning.
"When we record, it's a matter of we meet, we jam about, we put the tape recorder on, and we figure out some basic arrangement to the song and we record it. The lyrics and melodies are written after we've recorded the music."
Indeed, the cult guitar hero believes that today's music, in addition to lacking spontaneity, might also lack staying power. His thoughts on the matter won't necessarily go over well with hipperati.
"If you think that things like the Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy are the future of music, then just go back through your last twenty-five years of Rolling Stone and look at what everyone predicted was going to be big and wasn't. And when I say 'big' I don't mean successful for four or five years -- or financially or commercially successful -- I mean things that actually really mean something. Of course, it's all opinion and none of it really matters," he clarifies, "but I think there's a tendency toward 'if you don't get into something immediately then it's not worth listening to.'" Which brings the thirty-nine-year-old musician to the subject of Courtney Love.
"If Hole's new single didn't have that catchy bit in it [sings: 'When I wake up in my make-up'...], then people wouldn't be listening to it. If they'd written a song which was kind of interesting -- I mean, I kind of like that new single; it's cool -- but if they'd written a song that didn't have a catchy bit in it, everyone would be saying they're over, which is ridiculous."
A good point, but what if no one listens to the Church's new record because it takes time to get under the skin? Is that something that worries Willson-Piper?
"If you're going to listen to the Church and you don't expect it to take a couple listens," he says, "you're listening to the wrong band."
JOE ROSENTHAL (September 25, 1998)