One decade and eight albums after its 1980 formation, long-running Australian combo the Church fell from American prominence just as quickly as it rose - not an unusual occurrence in pop music, sure. But Steve Kilbey, the band's good-natured, 51-year-old frontman, offers a rather unique explanation. "The way I see it, we were sort of struggling along, bubbling under; then we came along with Starfish and 'Under the Milky Way,'" Kilbey says from his home in Sydney on the eve of the group's monthlong tour of the States. "We had a lot of success in '88. We were like one of those wrestlers we've got the big guy down, he's on the floor, lying there groaning, and instead of going over there and fucking putting the boot on him, we jump up on the rope and look at the crowd and throw our arms in the air and go, 'Unnnnnggghhhhhuhhhhh! Ahh-woooooooooo!'
"We did that for two years," the singer-bassist continues, "and then we finally jumped back in the ring with a weak album [1990's Gold Afternoon Fix] that we'd forced out because the label wanted another Starfish. The big guy got up and went thhhbbbbbpppptt in the shape of grunge and sent us sprawling. By the time we came back with [1992's] Priest=Aura, which would have been our atomic piledriver, it was all over."
Commercially, perhaps, but that was hardly the end of the Church, which had spent the better part of the '80s developing a distinct style that sat somewhere between the jangle pop of R.E.M. and the vaguely psychedelic art rock of Echo and the Bunnymen. The foursome of Kilbey, guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper, and drummer Richard Ploog was as comfortable with convention as experimentation and frequently rammed the two together. (The instantly catchy "Milky Way," you might remember, sports a skronky bagpipe solo in the middle, where the guitar should be.)
After receding from the edge of superstardom, the Church spent the '90s toying with its sound, sometimes quite radically (incorporating prog, ambient, and electronic textures), and enduring loads of turmoil: Ploog was given the boot during the making of Gold Afternoon Fix, replaced by a drum machine and then a series of skinsmen; Koppes had a falling out with Willson-Piper and quit for a number of years; Kilbey and Willson-Piper, never the best of friends either, remained creative partners but were constantly at each others' throats; the band was dropped from labels, struggled to get distribution deals, and went broke; there were several hiatuses, though no official breakup, as the members pursued solo projects and worked with other bands.
All of this was exacerbated by heavy drug use. During a 1999 U.S. tour, the group's first in ages (by then, Koppes was back, and the band had a permanent drummer in Tim Powles), Kilbey got busted in New York City trying to buy heroin. Despite everything, the Church managed to put out half a dozen albums in the '90s and has released five more so far this decade; some have been brilliant, others lackluster. But they all have one thing in common they've been essentially ignored in America, where most people regard the band as a one-hit wonder (maybe two, if you count 1990's "Metropolis").
"There's those who really know us and understand us, and 'Under the Milky Way' isn't anything to them particularly," Kilbey says. "It's just a song from a long time ago; it's not the be-all and end-all. But then, like... we went to a radio station in Portland, Oregon, a few years ago, and they had initially told us, 'You can play a new one and an old one.' And we get in there and it turns out it wasn't a new one and an old one, it was just an old one, and the guy's going, 'Soooo... "Under the Milky Way," how did you feel when you wrote it? And what's it about?' And after the ninth question about the song, I was like, 'Hang on is this all we're gonna talk about?' and the guy went, 'Awww, you're touchy,' and I got really angry and stormed out.
"Where you intersect with people like that, you are a one-hit wonder. They don't care about some new record you just put out, and it's hard. It's very frustrating when they try to lay this trip on you, like, 'This is the only thing that you're gonna be known for, and this is gonna be chiseled on your gravestone,' and you've done like 20 albums and you've got all these other songs, these great new ones. But what can you do?"
Well, the Church can keep making terrific albums like the recently released Uninvited, Like the Clouds and hope for the best. Clouds' pleasures are many: Moody opener "Block" wraps thick guitar textures smoldering chord trails and chewy arpeggios around Kilbey's plangent tenor (which can be Bono-like, though less histrionic) and quasi-religious imagery for a sinister, seductive effect; "Unified Field," "Easy," and "Untoward" employ brisk 12-string strums and nimble beats to bright summer-pop ends; "She'll Come Back for You Tomorrow" sports a soulful guitar hook Hall & Oates would've killed for in '73; and "Pure Chance" slowly progresses through trip-hoppish psychedelia almost like a David Gilmour-fronted Portishead.
The Clouds recording sessions were, in usual Church fashion, marred by the occasional fit or meltdown, Kilbey notes he says the quartet "gets along, but not necessarily great," and admits they have real problems tolerating one another on the road. Kilbey chuckles that his iPod is usually set to deafening volumes to avoid listening to or talking to his bandmates. However, he insists, that long-standing antipathy doesn't extend to the stage.
"It's funny you can have a carload of tired, old musicians, irritable and hot and thirsty and completely annoyed and angry with each other and all the rest, but the moment you're playing the gig, it changes, it fucking changes, and the magic happens, and you're enveloped in this amazing feeling for two hours. Onstage, there's usually complete harmony between us."
Kilbey says the Church is especially energized by the current format of its live show. For the past year or so, the band has been performing entirely acoustically, adding new dimensions to its older material and, as the singer puts it, eliminating "the gulf of electricity and noise separating you from the people." Still, it's a surprising move, maybe even a bit of a gamble, for a band hopeful for a modest commercial renaissance in America to play acoustic sets in support of their most electric guitar-dense album in some time, perhaps ever.
"Yeah, it's a very typical thing for the Church to do," Kilbey laughs. "Just in case there was any chance of being successful, we wanna be sure to shoot ourselves in the foot! But what the Church is now isn't what we aspired to be in 1988, you know, play arenas, get bigger and bigger and bigger. These days, we've figured out a way to exist in our tiny part of the macrocosm there's no pressure on us, and we can do these little tours and put out albums, and there's people who've been with us for years and years and still like what we do, and that's incredible. Considering everything we've been through, we're very, very, very lucky." +
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.