Out of Obscurity: The Church’s American Triumph

Steve Kilbey is walking down Hollywood Boulevard, taking in the grease and sleaze and, very probably, marveling at the sheer volume of decadence that populates the street.

Large signs advertise “totally nude women” as aspiring rock gods with towering hair swagger past numerous wig shops – too many hair extensions and not enough common sense.

Then, emanating from the midst of all of this surreal American sin, the Australian hears an eerily familiar sound wafting from the doorway of an adult bookstore. It’s a lush sort of sound — not like all of the harsh disco one usually hears pulsating out of these places.

It’s something quite peculiar, indeed.

Kilbey approaches cautiously, then blinks confused, and peers in amidst the porn tapes and “marital aids” as he recognizes the gentle strumming sounds of “Under the Milky Way.”

For a moment, Kilbey wallows in the strangeness of it all.

“At the time, I thought, ‘Wow, I really have made it,'” Kilbey confesses, adding, “It was on Miami Vice also. I was watching that one night, and ‘Milky Way’ came on, and I thought, ‘I’m really penetrating all of the bastions of American success here.’ But, it’s really only a fleeting thing, you know. It’s not really that important.”

While an adult bookstore might seem an unlikely setting for Kilbey to encounter his first hit single, the Church’s rise to pop stardom hasn’t exactly followed a predictable series of events. After five exceptional albums that received little or no wide-scale notoriety in the United States (two of the albums weren’t even released domestically until after the success of ‘Milky Way’), the Church finally scored with an unlikely single. Certainly, the Church has managed to accomplish something very few alternative bands have in achieving mainstream success on their own terms.

Church guitarist Marty Willson-Piper still marvels at the song that finally brought the band into the mainstream.

“It was so great to have our first hit with ‘Milky Way’ because the song was so us. It obviously wasn’t just a commercial song with a catchy little hook, but a really great song. It was so Church, and it was so great, yet it was also accessible to people who didn’t really know what the Church was.”

Kilbey, however, attributes the band’s success to more than a little luck.

“‘Under the Milky Way’ just seemed to be the right song at the right time, and a lot of people — right across the board, from college to other formats — embraced that song very warmly. It was a big surprise to me because that song was certainly never written with the intention of ‘this is the big one.’ Everything kind of synchronized very nicely and very luckily for us.”

Thanks largely to the hit status of “Milky Way,” Starfish managed to succeed where brilliant records like Seance and Blurred Crusade failed.

Willson-Piper theorizes that the success of Starfish was due, in part, to several factors.

“We had a history of having made good records and having written good songs. People were always treating us as if they were waiting for us to finally become successful because we always had a certain high standard for our songs. That’s one of the best things about the Church; we’ve always been very concerned with avoiding cliches and trying not to just cater to accessible or commercial markets. A classic song is the only thing we would want to involve ourselves in. Of course, it doesn’t always come out like that, but that was the intention all of the time — that, plus the fact that we got out of Australia to make Starfish. I think we had a kind of lazy attitude over there. Although we’d made some pretty lush records, Starfish was the first one that really had a bite.”

While Starfish resembled other Church records of the past, the manner in which they were recorded was a marked departure for the group. It was the first Church record to be recorded outside of their native Australia, and it also marked the pairing of the group with a rather unlikely producer — ’70s arch-villain Waddy Wachtell. The name alone conjures images of tremendous sideburns, white suits, and the bloated, self-indulgent Southern California music scene of the mid-70s. Strangely, however, Wachtell proved to be just the right man for the job.”

“There’s not a lot you can do with the Church,” Kilbey notes. “We’re stubborn little bastards, and we’re getting a bit long in the tooth, so we’re not going to change for anybody. I don’t care if Phil Spector came and wanted to make an album with us. We’re basically going to remain much the same. Whatever producer works with us, it’s basically a matter of fine-tuning and getting the best performances out of us rather than changing us around because we’re just going to do the same thing.”

Following the unexpected success of Starfish and one of the longest recording layoffs in the band’s history (due in part to a nine-month world tour), the group has just completed its seventh studio album. Like Starfish, the latest Church album, Gold Afternoon Fix, was recorded in Los Angeles with Wachtel.”

“I think that Waddy got a performance out of us that has been difficult for other producers to get out of us in the past,” Willson-Piper admits.

“He’s actually a very organic sort of guy when it comes to production. He wants a lot of authenticity in what you do, in the songs, and in the feel of your recording. That’s why he’s Keith Richards’ second guitarist because he has this kind of authenticity in the way he expresses his ideas and in his playing. He’s very real, and he recognizes when a song isn’t working. That’s an important role to play because the band gets involved in the song itself, and the producer generally gets involved in the arrangement of it and what the song should do, but Waddy gets involved in the soul of the song. Unless it kind of makes his hair stand on end, he isn’t interested in continuing with the recording.”

Despite the success the band had with Wachtell, there still seem to be some questions regarding the producer’s occasionally limited musical vocabulary. At one point during the Starfish sessions, Kilbey complained that the band was trying to capture a Tom Verlaine-like guitar sound, and Wachtell had never heard of Verlaine.”

“Funny enough, after doing a tour with Tom Verlaine, I don’t think he knows who Waddy Wachtell is, so touche,” Kilbey quips, adding, “I don’t think it really matters. Waddy isn’t exactly the type to go home and listen to the Sisters of Mercy and the Pixies at the end of the day. I think what we’re trying to get out of him is ability. He can hear a bum note 10 miles away. He knows when you’re singing well, and he has a very good chordal sense. The band can take care of all of the credibility-type things, like knowing what’s cool and what’s not cool, and then Waddy can come in and work on the sound. That’s where Waddy comes in, getting a good sound — on the new album, particularly, with the singing.”

With the question of Wachtell’s credibility put to rest, the Church may find themselves answering more questions about their rather curious new album title.

“A lot of people automatically assume that Gold Afternoon Fix is a bit druggy,” Kilbey observes.

“It’s interesting because I was sitting down watching TV in America one day, and a man came on, and I said, ‘Now here comes the gold afternoon fix,’ which means setting the price of gold overnight. I wrote it down with my list of possible titles, and Marty absolutely flipped over it, which is strange because the day before, he was telling me about how he didn’t like the way I always had things about money in my songs.

“Waddy thought it was funny in the drug-related sense. I know a lot of people who are immediately going to assume it’s got something to do with drugs. I think it’s going to be funny when they find out what the real meaning of the title is since it’s so absolutely establishment. There’s a real amusing kind of dichotomy there that justifies us calling the album that. I now look at it as a good album to listen to on a golden afternoon.”

Now that the Church has finally reached the masses with its music, they are confronted with the burden of the increased expectations mainstream success often brings. Unlike most bands who face an inordinate amount of pressure attempting to repeat the success of their first hit record with each subsequent release, the Church continues to do what comes naturally.

“I think the worst thing you can do is try to chase what you think people want to hear or chase what you think is the current sound or what you did last time around,” Kilbey notes.

Willson-Piper elaborates by explaining, “The new fans, who I’d call the ‘post-Starfish fans,’ are going to be happy with whatever the band puts out because they don’t really know what to expect. The ‘pre-Starfish fans’ are hard to impress because they know the history of the band, and they know every little turn we’ve made. I don’t think they need to worry because the Church can’t help but make Church-sounding records. It’s in the chemistry of the group. We can’t do anything else. We can’t seem to get away from that. There are a lot of strong personalities in this group, hence all of the solo projects. When Steve, Peter, and I get together, it’s a very strong creative sort of direction in which we all know where we’re going. That in itself leads to the writing of songs that I think will keep both the post- and pre-Starfish fans happy.”

Perhaps more difficult for the Church than dealing with their newfound success is working around the geographical distance that physically separates the members of the band. Because Willson-Piper lives in Sweden and the remaining members of the Church reside in Australia, the Church spends most of its time apart.

“It sounds peculiar, but it actually works quite well,” Willson-Piper says. “We’re not really the kind of group that plays every Saturday night. We can organize in advance what we’re going to do. March, the record comes out; April, we do a tour; June, we’re in Japan, etc. It’s very much a series of planning decisions. Not being in the same city doesn’t really interfere with our work. This way, we have lots of time to spend with our families, and we can work on our solo projects.”

The individual members of the Church seem to be making the most of their free time. Willson-Piper has just released his third solo album, Rhyme, on Rykodisc; Kilbey has recently released two records: his third solo record, The Slow Crack, has finally received its domestic release, in addition to the Hexproject recorded with Game Theory member Dennette Thayer. And Peter Koppes’ second solo album has just come out on TVT Records.

In addition to his musical activity, Kilbey continues to extend his work beyond the boundaries of the recording studio. He has started work on a novel and has completed work on a booklet similar to the one that accompanied his first solo album, Earthed.

While many bands weaken and eventually break up over the solo aspirations of individual members, the Church actually seems to work more coherently as a unit because of the various solo projects.

“Funny about that,” Willson-Piper remarks. “If the band didn’t do solo projects, we would have already split up.”

Kilbey explains, “The Church is a huge compromise between the members and the producers and the manager of Arista. There’s a lot of compromising going on. When you do your solo projects, you just kind of do anything you like. It’s healthy, as long as you don’t expect too much. I don’t expect albums to sell too many copies. It’s just sort of a way of saying, ‘This is what I do on my own. This is what I’m like when I’m not compromising all of the time.'”

Willson-Piper plans to take his solo songs on the road with a tour of the United States sometime in early 1990. Kilbey, however, dismisses the idea of doing a similar tour himself.

“Marty’s good at the solo thing. My songs are just not the sort of songs that you stand there and play with an acoustic guitar. I’m not geared to that sort of thing. Touring with the Church is enough for me. I don’t want to run around with an acoustic guitar doing a Bob Dylan sort of trip. It doesn’t appeal to me.”

When the Church finally does tour again, sometime after the release of Gold Afternoon Fix, it will most certainly be more limited in scope than the exhaustive nine-month trek that followed Starfish.

In fact, Kilbey fears there is a chance that the band’s touring may be severely limited by an unexpected health problem.

“I’ve had a preliminary hearing test, and I have a bit of hearing damage,” Kilbey explains. “If my hearing turns out to be really shot, I’m not going to tour at all. If I go to a specialist and he says, ‘You can’t play anymore,’ I’m going to listen to him. It might be some sort of compromise where we do a limited tour, but I do have a permanent ringing in my ear that is starting to worry me. I’m not going to do a grueling nine-month tour like we did last time. It’s an occupational hazard, I suppose.”

Between the solo projects and working together as a unit, the Church is definitely the most prolific pop band on the scene today. Counting solo albums and side projects, the band members have been responsible for the release of 16 albums in under ten years. Barring Kilbey’s complete loss of hearing, there doesn’t seem to be any sign that the Church will slow down in the near future. As the group nears its tenth anniversary, they seem to be going stronger than ever.

Willson-Piper seems optimistic about the band’s future. When asked how long the Church will continue, he replies, “The question is not how long we’re going to stay together, but it’s reverse of that. After hearing our new record, I have absolutely no fear of being in the Church.”

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