the church were recently inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. On the evening of the ceremony, the band’s lead singer, Steve Kilbey, stole the show with a rambling and hilarious 30 minute speech that even managed to prompt Tina Arena to heckle from the floor. At the conclusion of Kilbey’s show-stealing performance, Marty Willson-Piper – the man largely responsible for the band’s signature ethereal, chiming 12-string guitar sound – mock-chided his colleague for destroying the mystique they had worked assiduously at developing over their 30 year career. As for the award itself, Willson-Piper is gracious but wary; “Awards are a funny thing. The problem with awards is in the end they have no bearing on what you do creatively. I mean it’s great someone has come along and said ‘you are worthy’ and it’s nice to have people show their appreciation. But it has no bearing on what you do.”
Walking ever more delicately around the subject the guitarist concludes, “You don’t want to be ungrateful but you can’t really incorporate it into your work. The thing with awards is you just have to treat them with a healthy distance. You just say ‘thank you for bestowing the honour upon me’ and just leave it at that. It has nothing to do with how you move on as a band.”
And they have been doing plenty of moving on over the last 30 years. Willson-Piper joined Kilbey and guitarist Peter Koppes in a lineup that would eventually morph into the church in early 1980. Little under a year later they scored their first major radio hit with the pysch-pop jangle mini-anthem The Unguarded Moment. As the decade wore on, the dream-pop neo-psychedelia scene, of which the church are widely regarded as one of the most influential flag bearers, even secured its own media friendly label – Paisley Underground. Then there’s the ghostly Under The Milky Way (from 1988’s Starfish) – a song that kicked down many a door internationally and was recently voted by The Age newspaper as the best Australian song of the last 21 years.
For a band with such a nigh-on unimpeachable legacy, you could probably forgive them for dwelling on the past and perhaps even allow a surrender to the now drearily inevitable ‘play the whole album all the way through’ thing. For Willson-Piper and co. that’s on the agenda. “No it’s not, really. That’s the thing we have to be careful of; things like that they tend to suggest. And it’s just like the Hall of Fame thing, when you get honoured at a thing like that it’s like a full stop, it means it’s the end. And it’s not really. We’ve continued making records since we started and we’ve never stopped.”
Yet for all these years of activity, critical adulation, commercial success and touring, life in a Hall of Fame band isn’t as financially rewarding as you’d expect. Statues and industry votes don’t pay the electricity bills. “No, not particularly. Everybody’s always hurting for money. It’s an expensive world we live in and I find that everyone’s trying to find ways to pay bills… to buy that CD… to go out to dinner … to go to the movies and even buying your kids a present and eating! People think that bands like us run around flush, just because we’ve been around for a few years.”
For the current 30th anniversary tour, the band decided on a small scale, acoustic approach eschewing larger plugged-in theatre shows. Each show will be a reverse overview of their career where they play a song from each album in reverse chronological order from the last album all the way through to the beginning. Willson-Piper is happy with this compromise. “It’s a cool thing and it’s a good overview without it being too bombastic and self-aggrandizing. We just felt a low-key version of what we had done over the years is the best approach.”
This approach means we’ll be getting a unique perspective on how the band themselves see their place in the recent history of Australian rock, and you’ll also get at least one song from the oft-criticised – especially by the band themselves – Gold Afternoon Fix, the 1990 album that represented the church’s big chance to capitalise onStarfish’s international success and also saw the departure of drummer Richard Ploog and the arrival of drum machines. Willson-Piper is currently writing the liner notes for the album’s pending re-release and fronts up to the challenge.
“It’s gonna be a difficult one to write because it was the album where Richard parted ways with the band and it sounds like a drum machine and it really ruins the songs – all you can hear is that stupid drum machine which is so frustrating and I don’t know how the hell we let it happen. Whether Richard was going to be in the band or not is another issue… but you know why didn’t we get another drummer? Why were we doing it with a drum machine? For all the sadness of Richard not being in the band and whatever the reasons were is irrelevant. The point is if he wasn’t going to be in the band why didn’t we get another drummer? Why did we substitute him with a crap drum machine? So that is always eternally disappointing for us that it ended up being that way.” So in a few weeks time when the church play at Tilley’s, come see them kick the boot into drum machine once and for all.”