The Church interview
FORTUNE FAVOURS THE COURAGEOUS
(UN MOMENTO DESCUIDADO WITH THE CHURCH)
Beachland Ballroom - Cleveland, Ohio
August 17, 2006
The phone rang as Shaz & I were running around stuffing spaghetti in our mouths and fixing mascara. It was The Church's manager, Tiare Helberg, granting last minute permission to do an interview before their gig at The Beachland that night. I had no idea how I was going to pull this off since the person in charge of the portable digital recorder at WRUW had pissed off to India or something and no one else seemed to have access to the equipment. So, after explaining the situation I decided to use my phone. A choice I wouldn't have made with any other alternative, but hell if I was going to say ‘no' to this. "Your phone?" she laughed, "Ha ha, OK, that's very rock n' roll. See you in half an hour."
The guys were very gracious despite this technical hindrance, especially Peter Koppes, and I got my interview with him and Steve Kilbey mainly. First order of business included sincere thanks for choosing to play the real-deal-Venue in Cleveland as opposed to say the other less-than-authentic-franchised-McVenue in town. "The Beachland Ballroom is the stuff of daily legends." I had to say, "You guys deserve nothing less."
Kilbey was not surprisingly protective of his private time, fiercely, as any artist who explores the sensitive depths as much as he does needs to. It's less than ideal for all concerned to do this sort of thing an hour before a show as it is, but to interrupt the painting, drawing and blogging that he's doing on top of everything else on this tour was borderline incredulous. He has been in creative high gear producing beautiful self portraits and portraits of the band in an exquisite set of cards as well as the album cover for Uninvited, Like The Clouds. A fantastic mythical homage to his bandmates, whom he obviously respects and loves deeply, however ambivalent that may be.
In Australia people asked, "So, is Kilbey still completely up himself?" A familiar ring to the question coming from the land of the 'tall poppy syndrome'. "Of course he is," I told them, feeling like a kind of cultural interpreter, "how else could he have survived all this time and kept writing great music? The guy's sporting bad-tempered spiritual armour down to his daks. No problem. Shine on you crazy poppy, I say."
The basement band room was noisy with industrial fans so we looked for a quieter spot in the retail shop. An avid fan following the band from NY city immediately accosted them. So, no matter where we turned there was going to be a fan of some description to contend with. And once Marty realised his surrounds, he went from record to magazine to clothes rack like a kid in a candy store. He picked up a copy of a 1960s LIFE with the cover story "Does LSD kill?" Turning it over, he laughs at the full page Marlboro ad on the back and says, "Yeah right, look at this. LSD might have killed a few people right, but what about cigarettes, ha! Those bloody things have killed millions and they still do, eh." We went back to the noisy band room leaving Marty in retro-utopia. He seemed so happy.
When things finally got underway it was kinda like Norman Gunston meets the psychedelic electricians of all time wielding a toy microphone. For you Yanks who don't know who that is, Norman Gunston was a character played by Australian comedian Gary McDonald who used to interview celebs, royalty, politicians and the like, sporting the sweatiest comb-over ever and bits of toilet tissue stuck to shaving nicks all over his face. Very professional indeed.
We talked about the current tour mainly and the decision to do it 'acoustically', with chairs set up at every venue. "We want people to sit and really listen to the music." Kilbey said, "You don't want to take your girlfriend to a gig where everyone is standing, screaming, pushing and sweaty. You can't really listen properly to what we're trying to do with the music when it's like that."
Well, sometimes that's a really good date if you ask me, but it was obvious to see what he meant during the show itself. It was yet another way amongst many to appreciate the magic and mastery The Church create on stage. And by the end of the night everyone was standing, screaming, pushing and sweaty, dancing, demanding a third encore and pounding the foldback, floor and stage quite elatedly anyway. The best of both worlds. Who'd a thunk acoustic could be so intimately loud?
Despite the short tight schedule of a 5 week tour, that they were hoping would be more like 4 weeks, this was also the first time the band played the South. Peter Koppes said, "New Orleans and so many of those places are still totally devastated, it was terrible to see, over a year after all the natural and political disasters, and it's still such a mess, but the audiences in those places were absolutely fantastic. We'll definitely go there again."
Time was running out unfortunately and there was regrettably little more than a minute to say ‘hello' to drummer of 14 years, the amazing and versatile, Tim Powles.
The gig that night was phenomenal. Anyone put off by this being plugged as an 'acoustic' tour has duped themselves out of the experience of a lifetime.
These guys have artistically blossomed individually and collectively for mutual benefit with a kind of musical maturity rarely heard these days in Rock/Pop outfits. They are more akin to Eastern musicians who reach the zenith of their abilities with age. And they've maintained a special brand of creative integrity every step of the way while taking big risks at the same time. Amazing enough for any mortal, let alone individuals who really don't care that much for each other personally these days. The Church are truly a living working example of what tolerance/ adaptability/ maturity can achieve creatively when putting up with that irritating grain of sand.
Uninvited, Like The Clouds is full of multi-coloured pearls and serves to elevate this outfit to the higher recognition they deserve, still firmly outside the mainstream of course, all while taking the biggest risks of their career no less, but real Church fans wouldn't have it any other way. In a perfect world ticking on perfect justice, The Church would already be enjoying the notoriety and largesse of say, Pink Floyd. In the world we wake up to every day however, the growing pains persist. Perhaps that's why the music they make relates so aptly to life as most of us know it.
Notable performances must be mentioned also from one-man-extravaganza Rob Dickinson, formerly of The Catherine Wheel, who opened the show, and Davida Milkes of Buzzkill Romantics, who stage managed and rocked out on keyboard & guitar with The Church. It was obvious why they were chosen to take part.
The interview recording was unfortunately unusable on this occasion as the industrial fans at full tilt on a hot August night in the Beachland's basement overpowered the conversation completely. They just don't make toy microphones like they used to, I guess. And the wizardry required to polish that kind of turd simply doesn't exist.
I wrote to Tiare again, and thanked her for facilitating and permitting the interview, told her what happened and asked for a phone recording when I could do it from the station. She agreed, so I got my arse on the next bus, and spent the whole day working out how to do the board for phone recording etc. Ah, the good old 90 degree learning curve. We'd all still be living in the trees without it.
It was 5.55pm and Studio B was booked for live mixing by a senior programmer at 6pm. Basically, it doesn't matter if you're talking to Jimi Hendrix in another universe, with no seniority, priority or ity of any ilk, you have to get out at 6pm.
So, I kept ringing until I finally got through to Marty. Tiare woke Peter up from a nap, we talked for about 15 minutes as the door in the studio kept slamming and the chair was being pulled out from under me...
(I didn't have time to think about where I wanted to kick that son of a bitch, especially after I found out that: A. His guest had not arrived yet; and B. He knew who I was talking to)
But the following conversation with the generous and somewhat sleepy Peter Koppes managed to take place in spite of all that.
MD "Hi Peter, I'm sorry if someone had to wake you up for this."
PK "That's cool."
MD "I really appreciate you talking to me at The Beachland last Thursday, unfortunately the recording is unusable unless there's some wizardry available that can polish a turd like that, but I don't think there is."
PK "Ha ha, that's OK."
MD "By the way that was one of the most phenomenal gigs I've ever seen. Thanks for coming to our town, it's been a long time between drinks and we've missed you. It was great to hear your acoustic stuff with so many different instruments as well, like your mandolin is magnificent."
PK "Yeah, it's a beautiful sounding instrument, the mandolin, isn't it. It's very powerful. There used to be mandolin orchestras around the turn of the century apparently, there's all kinds of them you know, bass mandolins and everything, it's quite amazing."
MD "Well, it's definitely a Church instrument now, you've made it that way."
PK "It occurs in a lot of bands, ya know. Led Zeppelin, The Faces."
MD "That's true."
PK "Yeah, but it does belong in The Church as well, doesn't it, ha."
MD "Now this tour of your new release, Uninvited, Like The Clouds, is for only 5 weeks in the US, is that right?"
PK "Yeah, well we tried to get it for 4 weeks, but there was an extra date. We don't like to tour for more than 4 weeks at a time if we can."
MD "Your US tour finishes tonight. Where are you off to next?"
PK "Sydney, we're doing an electric tour of Australia in September and October."
MD "Great, I know some people who'll definitely be at some of those shows."
MD "Did this tour start with the Manchester Lane gig in Melbourne last May when you were giving out the Tin Mine CD?"
PK "You could say that, but we've been playing acoustically since around November 2005. There was an album launch at The Spiegeltent I think around then, not sure about all the dates, but we've been doing it for awhile now and the acoustic thing has really evolved."
MD "It certainly has at this stage. Now, one thing I did want to ask you, Peter, is of the 20 some albums you've done with The Church in 26 or so years, which effort are you personally the happiest with?"
PK "I don't really think of it in terms of albums generally, but in terms of really saying something, I'd probably say Priest=Aura is the one I'm quite proud of. Yeah, I just think it's a very strong album, just as Starfish is a very strong album too, and Heyday was obviously the pivotal album that shows us as a writing band and that's still a popular album, but Priest and more so the later albums are really a testament of maturity that I'm quite pleased with, it's important music."
"Reformation is also an important one, I don't know if you've heard of it, but Steve and Tim and I did a studio album before I came back to the band. We were able to just use the studio and approach the music without a pre-conceived style to uphold, which was very liberating, and alot of the sounds are quite rich. That one really kick-started the ‘new' Church sound that came about in Hologram of Baal. I don't know if they're great albums, but I can tell you that there's really important music on them, ya know. I think the older stuff is good, but the more important music we've made is by far in the newer stuff."
"Now this may sound arrogant, but the music that has been around for about the last 8 years hasn't been that striking, I don't think. You know what I mean? Nothing has been revolutionary and it could have been. Everybody was waiting for the next big thing, and yeah there was Coldplay, who really nailed that U2-ish pop thing, but the revolution never really happened. Maybe I'm not explaining this very well, but I think that there really could have been a revolution musically through that time."
"Unfortunately the legacy of older musicians producing good music, people who've been around as long as us, people who are as old as us, is just bad. You know what I mean? Now, we feel that we have been revolutionary, for our own sake, and compared to the music that's been around for the last 8 years, we feel our music is a real testament to maturity, ya know, in an era of predominantly facile, insincere, just bad music. But we compare ourselves more to Eastern musicians who at 45 years of age or so can hit their peak."
MD "Exactly, and the gig last week at The Beachland was proof of that. You could really see the artistry of the individual and the collective just blossoming phenomenally between you guys. And that's as best an understatement as I can offer."
PK "But there's the other part of that too, ya know, we can still make really tight sounding records too, but we're very casual at the same time."
MD "Yeah, I know. You make it look so easy, ha."
PK "Well, we're really pretty rough too, ya know, we're still quite adventurous and reckless with each other in order to maintain that creative spirit. Like we never play the set the same from night to night. We're constantly looking to amuse ourselves as musicians by taking these big risks, which sometimes can be very dangerous, sometimes we make mistakes, ya know. But as they say, ‘fortune favours the courageous', and we've proven that to ourselves, that we are pretty courageous musically. It also keeps us artistically interested in what we do."
MD "Well, we're all grateful that you do take those risks, and most of your fan base has complete faith in the things that you create in taking those risks. You certainly haven't been taking it easy creatively and the results are absolutely wonderful."
PK "Hmm yeah, people often take years to get into our new albums, they're still saying they really like the last one, they're still listening to it. For like the last 8 years that's happened. They generally take a year to pick up on a new album because it takes them awhile to get into it. Maybe because we extend ourselves a little too much sometimes with each record, but that's the way it comes out, ya know. We're always looking for new things."
MD "Yeah, well that's great and it doesn't seem like too much to me. Now, believe it or not, I'm about to be kicked out of here, the chair is being pulled out from under me as I speak, which is too bad because I'd love to keep talking and I wanted to ask about your association if any with the late great Grant McLennan of The Go-Betweens, amongst other things."
PK "I didn't know him really, but he was a gentleman."
MD "Thank you so much, Peter, I really appreciate your time at the last minute. You are a wonderful human being and a magnificent musician. We certainly look forward to the next time you guys can make it over here."
PK "OK, look forward to coming again and seeing you again, too."
In closing, 2006 is the year to see The Church live and Uninvited, Like The Clouds is the next important work in a long line to hear, repeatedly, for at least a year.
Until the next unguarded moment.
Devoted to this faith,