The Church
Some Certainty
by Stephen Slaybaugh

When the Church scored a top 40 hit in the U.S. in 1988 with “Under the Milky Way,” the lead single from Starfish, the Australian foursome was well into their career and already on their sixth album. In a time before “modern rock” radio had really taken hold, the song’s success may have been an anomaly, but the Church had been recording material just as gilded since 1981.

As such, even after the song dropped out of rotation and Arista subsequently lost interest in releasing their records (following 1994’s Sometime Anywhere), the Church never relented. Now two decades later, the band remains as prolific as ever, releasing a record (or two) every couple of years. While the ’90s saw the band abandoning some of the Byrdian shimmer that’s long been their calling card for sonic explorations further afield, in recent years they’ve returned to a sound more akin to their earlier years, though with definite modifications. The Church recently released Untitled #23, which despite its title, by my count is their 19th album, though the band may be counting some other releases. Songs like “Deadman’s Hand” and “Happenstance” may point to the band’s past, but they are also indications of a band still with creative itches needing to be scratched.

I caught up with guitarist Marty Willson-Piper by phone last week as the Church was about to embark on a month-long tour of the States.

Are you surprised by the longevity of the Church?

Marty Willson-Piper: I’m surprised when I compare it to everybody else, I suppose.

Yeah, one of the things that strikes me is that there are bands who are your contemporaries and bands younger than you who’ve already broken up and are now getting back together, and meanwhile you’ve managed to sustain all these years.

MWP: Maybe we’re after different things, you know? I want to have a band with great musical chemistry that continues to work together and explores things between each other. We’ve managed to do that.

But you’ve also done a lot of other things, from working with the Saints to solo projects. Is it that chemistry that keeps you coming back to this band?

MWP: Oh yeah! You put us in a room and we have an unspoken understanding musically—and that’s a special relationship. I guess there’s lots of people who have it in different ways: songwriting teams, musicians who have a musical chemistry. Sonic Youth have it. When Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo, when they get into a room and they go “duh duh duh duh duh, dah dah dah dah, deh deh deh deh”—it’s Sonic Youth! That’s chemistry man! Nobody can just go into a room and do that unless there’s some kind of magic happening, and that magic is to be held onto at all costs! You know? That’s the world we want to live in, a world of magic, where special things happen as a result of the relationship between people. That’s what love is, you know what I’m saying? That’s what you’re after as a human on the planet: situations that create magic for you to be immersed in and create ecstasy. As soon as you’ve executed that between each other from a creative point of view, then it’s expressing it to the world and sharing it with them. And that’s a fantastic thing!

So when you set out to make a record, is there even much talking involved, as far as putting some concept together, or do you just get together and see what happens?

MWP: What happens is... I have a theory that each record we make is a reaction to the last one. And that’s kind of what the Beatles did. Revolver was a reaction to Rubber Soul, and Sgt. Pepper’s was a reaction to Revolver, and the White Album was a reaction to Sgt. Pepper’s. And you have to, you have to react to your own creativity, otherwise you end up repeating yourself in a bad way. What seems like a good idea once repeated too many times becomes old hat to everybody. The amazing thing about Picasso was that not only was he able to transcend himself, but he could thematically create something where he repeated himself and expressed himself equally through the repeat performances of his own work, which is just incredible. I once went to see the Weeping Women exhibition, where he just painted hundreds of pictures of weeping women, and each one had some kind of magnificence to it.

That creative core of people... I think it should be compulsory. People should be given the opportunity to see if they have it or given the opportunity to be exposed to it, to appreciate it in the people that do and be happy that it’s there. Because what is life without art? I mean, really what is it?

It’s pretty dull.

MWP: That’s right. For me, great films, great paintings, great music, great books, great articles, great thinkers—they’re what makes the world go round. And everything else, the infrastructure—and I guess this a very liberal attitude—is there to help them create this beauty and thoughtfulness for the world to exist around. Because what else is there? I mean, I guess there’s sport, and the passion of sport and winning and competing.

There’s also the pursuit of money, which is the complete opposite.

MWP: Yeah, but people, if they think they’re arty and creative, have to be careful not to forget that sport is another kind of beautiful, passionate creativity. When you see Magic Johnson or Wayne Gretzky... I don’t follow basketball or hockey—I don’t care at all about those two sports—but I’m aware of the passion and creativity and the skills of these people. I follow English football, and there’s a few people in bands, like the Cure, that follow football. It’s another part of being English, and just because you’re in a creative situation doesn’t mean you don’t support your local football team, which in my case is Liverpool. When I see Liverpool play, I feel that same thing about them. I see their creativity; I don’t see a bunch of rich sportsmen. It’s full of passionate, creative, technically brilliant, amazing people, who are killing it for their fans. And it’s the same with music.

You were talking about each record being a reaction to the last one. How would you characterize this album reacting to the one prior?

MWP: It’s funny because you think something is left-of-center until you hear something more left-of-center. You think something is very red until you see something that’s redder, and then it looks dull. And that’s the case with this record, it’s more dark than the last record. The last record (El Momento Siguiente) sounds positively fluffy compared to this one, but when you listen to that record on its own, it has a lot of thought provoking songs. There’s a couple lighter, up-tempo songs, like “Pure Chance,” which is a really introspective song. But next to Untitled #23, it doesn’t feel like that. Untitled #23 feels like a dense, obscure, thick stew. The other thing is that, though it has that left-of-center thing about it, it’s incredibly melodic.

It seemed like for awhile in the ’90s you were getting more experimental and further afield from what had become the signature Church sound. But now it seems like you’ve returned to it. Was it a matter of getting those things out of your system?

MWP: As each year goes by and each record comes along, each band member is in his own personal state. The world’s moved on and his relationships are different—somebody has a child, somebody moves to America—and everyone is acting as a reaction to their own situation. All those personalities that we become affect the direction in which we go as a result of working with each other as well.

I’ve become a lot more involved in the management of the band—the logistics, the art design, the t-shirts, the “not making bad decisions”—as well as being guitarist and bass player and singer and songwriter. I’m trying to be all things to make this cottage industry, arty project work. Steve’s (singer and bassist Steve Kilbey) got five daughters so he ain’t going to be running around thinking about the budget for the album. Peter (guitarist Peter Koppes) teaches guitar; Tim (drummer Tim Powles) produces—we all have different things that we contribute and different experiences of the day that lead us to approaching all our records in very reactionary ways to our situation as well as to the music we know we’ve already made.

We don’t aspire to pop, as such. It doesn’t seem to make any sense to us. What do catchy tunes do for the Church, really? We’re not getting on the radio. The teenagers aren’t buying our records, so what we need to do is be interesting. And that doesn’t mean obscure—it means interesting! We can be a rock band; we can be an introspective band. We jam like crazy while at the same time we have very solid parts in all the songs. We’re a very interesting mixture of things all rolled into one. We’re like space-rock, psychedelic, pop, folk, progressive, indie, ’60, ’70s, ’80, ’90s, 21st century rock & roll.

I started listening to you with Heyday and the success of “Under the Milky Way” came as a total surprise to me; songs like that didn’t get played on American radio back then. Were you as shocked?

MWP: Yeah, it was a miracle! But that little miracle of the Church having a hit in America is the reason we are able to continue now with our exploratory music. It put us on the map, and it’s hard to get on the map at all. What it meant is that people became aware of us, heard that song, liked us, and dug further. Some people went, “Ah, it’s kind of weird for me, man. I’m just not interested.” And other people went, “My god, what an interesting band! I love this group!” Hopefully there’s three to seven hundred people in every city in America that feel that way. But bring it on, let it be seven to fifteen hundred people who are interested in our more contemporary albums and our ability to make interesting music in the 21st century. The only people who ever think of us an ’80s band are the ignorant. If you’re ignorant, the Church are an ’80s band. Sure, carry on.

Yeah, I sometimes see these one-hit wonder shows on VH1 and have seen you flash across the screen—that must be incredibly frustrating.

MWP: Oh yeah, but it doesn’t matter. None of it matters! It doesn’t matter what anybody says or thinks as long as you’ve got somebody who allows you to be able to continue to do what you think you want to do—enough people to allow you to do that—and enough energy and passion and ideas in the band itself to continue on its journey. That is it. And when journalists like you come along and say, “Hey, I like the band. Cool, you made a great new record and here’s a good review,” then that all helps. But of course, at the same time, some journalists come along and give us a stupid review of the album, just because they’re ignorant. But most people have been really amazing with this album.

Well, it’s a good record.

MWP: Yeah, it is a good record. But since when is Hologram of Baal not a good record? Since when is Uninvited, Like the Clouds not a good record? Since when is After Everything Now This not a good record? It’s a different kind of good record, this one. It’s captured some kind of thing, but they’re all good records.

You mentioned the record being dark, and it struck me that way as well. Is there any reason for that?

MWP: Sonically dark, yeah. It’s just intense and dense.

But I thought the imagery in the lyrics was dark as well.

MWP: Yeah, but Steve’s always written lyrics like that! Sometime the backdrop of the music is different than the words he writes. As I say, it depends on what everyone is going through at the moment, and as the main lyricist in the band, his experiences become the music. Steve did a great job singing on this record, with melodic ideas that are out of this world. But everyone did great on this record.

You mentioned the cottage industry aspect of the band. The record is being released by a label here, but you guys are releasing it yourselves in both England and Australia?

MWP: We’re going through Cargo in England, and we’re going through Second Motion in America, but we basically license our music. We have our own label called Unorthodox Records. We just try to do everything ourselves. We do the design, we make it, we do the t-shirts. We make it as good as we can on all fronts and try not to order 7,000 t-shirts of the wrong design in the wrong size, in the same way we try not to make a shit record full of filler.

It seems like you’re more prolific than ever before, both in terms of how often the Church put out records and all the other things people in the band are involved in...

MWP: We have tons of unreleased material from this last record as well. And we have more music in the can ready to go, pretty much. It is just a matter of how many hours there are in a day to do everything. I’m English, but I live most of the time in America these days. The rest of the guys live in Australia. Do you know what it’s like to get an Australian band on the road in the USA? Visas, start-up costs, hotels, wages, air tickets, getting the road crew we want to take with us—the cost of all that is huge! And it just takes so much to organize it, and it’s just me and Tiare (Helberg), our tour manager and my girlfriend, who do it. We are the machine.

Can you tell me more about this Shriek project?

MWP: Jeff Vandermeer, who is a science fiction writer out of Florida, is a fan and had written a book and wanted to do a promo video for it using the music of the Church. So we jammed some stuff and sent it to him, and he did a 12-minute film. Then when he put out the paperback version of the book, he wanted to put the CD with it. It wasn’t enough music so Steve and Tim went into the studio and looked at the jams we had, increased the music to 40 minutes, and Steve read from the book on it. It was just a cool art project based on this guy’s book.

The answer to this is probably pretty obvious, but is there any reason at this point the Church would ever stop?

MWP: No, not unless someone drops off their perch.