The Church is an Australian rock band formed in Sydney in 1980 . Initially associated with New Wave and the neo-psychedelic sound of the mid 1980s, their music later became more reminiscent of “prog rock,” featuring long instrumental jams and complex guitar interplay.
The Church’s debut album, Of Skins and Heart (1981), earned them their first radio hit “The Unguarded Moment”. They were signed to major labels in Australia, Europe and the United States. However, the U.S. label was dissatisfied with their second album and dropped the band without releasing the album. This put a dent in their commercial success, but they made a comeback in 1988, with the album Starfish and the American Top 40 hit “Under the Milky Way”. Subsequently commercial success proved elusive, however, and the band weathered several line-up changes in the 1990s. The last decade has seen them settle on their current lineup, which features the original three founding members, plus drummer Tim Powles.
The Church has undergone several line-up changes over the years. The core members of Steve Kilbey, Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes have basically gone unaltered, save for the brief departure of Koppes in the mid-1990s. The current members are: Steve Kilbey, bass and lead vocals; Marty Willson-Piper, guitar; Peter Koppes, guitar; Tim Powles, drums. Previous members include: Nick Ward, drums (1980-1981); Richard Ploog, drums (1981-1990); Craig Hooper, keyboards on Persia (1984); Jay Dee Daugherty, drums (1990-1993).
From the early 1970s, Steve Kilbey and Peter Koppes had played in several glam rock bands in Canberra, Australia. In April 1980 they formed a three-piece with Nick Ward on drums and began performing. After Marty Willson-Piper (hailing from Liverpool) joined them, they took the name The Church. Allegedly, the name was chosen largely because it was unclaimed, but later allusions to the band’s spiritual interests by Kilbey hint that it was less coincidental. At the time, only Koppes was a fully-proficient musician. Kilbey was an erratic bass player and Willson-Piper was still searching for his style on guitar.
A four-song demo was soon recorded. Thanks to contacts from Kilbey’s former band, Baby Grande, they were able to send the tape to Australian record label, ATV Northern. The song, “Chrome Injury”, particularly attracted the attention of publisher Chris Gilbey. Chris had recently formed a record production company in association with EMI Records in Australia and had resurrected the Parlophone label as his label. Chris went to a rehearsal of the band and subsequently helped shape the band’s sound by buying Marty Willson-Piper a twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar, and by equipping Peter Koppes with an Echolette tape delay. These helped bring out the musical direction of the two guitarists in the band complementing the vocal and bass style of Steve Kilbey. The band’s first record contract quickly followed, but, of the four songs on the original demo, only “Chrome Injury” was later included on an official release.
Their debut album, Of Skins and Heart, was recorded late in 1980, produced by Chris Gilbey and mixed by Bob Clearmountain. Almost all tracks were written by Steve Kilbey. The first single (and studio debut for the band) was “She Never Said,” which was released in Australia in November 1980. It went largely unnoticed, however, due to its release during the Christmas season. A second single, “The Unguarded Moment,” was released alongside the album in March 1981, but initially only in Australia. This single garnered greater success, appearing on the charts, where it reached Number 22. Thanks to this publicity, the band went on their first national tour.
By the time of the album’s release, drummer Nick Ward had already been replaced by Adelaide native Richard Ploog. The arrangement was made by the band’s manager, after hearing of Ploog’s reputation in his local music scene. Ploog’s arrival established the Church’s first stable lineup.
The first songs that the new line-up with Ploog recorded were not released on a full album, but instead as a five-track double single. Among these tracks was “Tear It All Away,” which showed a development towards more elaborate guitar structures and what is often regarded as “the typical Church sound.” The release also contained “Sisters”, the first collectively-written song by the band.
Released in March 1982, the second album, The Blurred Crusade, was stylistically more complex than the band’s debut and widely considered a more consistent and sophisticated work. The first single, “Almost With You”, resulted in a second hit for the band, climbing to Number 21 in the Australian charts. It has since become one of the band’s trademark songs.
Due to this renewed success, the Church went on a second Australian tour. Carrere released the album in Europe as well, bringing in enough sales to convince the band to tour there for the first time. But Capitol, the band’s American label, declined to release The Blurred Crusade and demanded the band write more radio-friendly material. A batch of five demos passed on following another recording session left Capitol even less impressed, and they dropped the band. Rather than see those songs disappear into record company vaults, Steve Kilbey pushed to have them released, resulting in November 1982’s Sing-songs EP. Compared to The Blurred Crusade, the EP was recorded and mixed quickly and sparsely. Public reception was cool and it went largely unnoticed. Quickly deleted from the catalog, it became a highly sought collector’s item (until its re-release on CD in 2001, nearly two decades later).
The Church released their third and first self-produced album, Seance, in May 1983. The album made somewhat more use of keyboards and synthesizers than previous releases, and the accompanying live shows included a guest keyboardist, Melbourne-based session player Dean Walliss. Seance featured a richer, more atmospheric Church with notable highlights like “Now I Wonder Why” and “Fly.” All the same, the album sold poorly, being considered dark and cryptic, and the general public seemed to lose interest in the band. Critics in Europe and the United States liked the album, however, with Creem Magazine hailing them as “one of the best in the world.”
Seance was still largely dominated by Kilbey’s songwriting. Some 20 songs were put together on his home four-track for the album but Kilbey also encouraged band members to present their own material. It was becoming obvious that music oriented around one personality would create resentment in the band. In the end though, only one band composition made the album - the experimental “Travel by Thought.” Kilbey and Willson-Piper had co-written another track, “10,000 Miles”, but the record label rejected its inclusion. Kilbey was subsequently upset by the label’s interference, finding the track essential to the set. The song was instead later included on the successor release, Remote Luxury.
Foregoing a full album, in 1984 the band released two EPs, Remote Luxury and Persia, both only in Australia and New Zealand. Neither was particularly successful commercially. Again, almost all tracks were written by Kilbey, but compared to Seance, the atmosphere was lighter and less gloomy. Persia had the band’s trademark guitar sound complemented by the keyboards of guest musicians Davey Ray Moor and Craig Hooper. Stand-outs like “No Explanation” and “Violet Town” featured a relaxed, even summer-like atmosphere. Remote Luxury featured “Maybe These Boys”, one of the Church’s most unusual tracks. Done as a sort of parody of the American country genre, it was nonetheless dominated by unexpectedly heavy synth arrangements and largely seen as a failure by both fans and the band.
Internationally these two EPs were repackaged as a single album titled Remote Luxury. Its release in the United States (on Warner Bros.) was the first since the band’s debut (though The Blurred Crusade and Seance had sold well on import). Due to the interest raised in the U.S., the band did their first tour there in October and November 1984.
As a whole the band felt it had reached a sort of nadir in 1984. Unable to repeat the success of the first two albums, there was some perception that their creativity was dying down. Kilbey was later quoted: “I think we released a few dud records that weren’t as good as they should have been. After The Blurred Crusade, the band was just drifting along in a sea of apathy. I was writing not-so-good songs and the band wasn’t playing them very well, so everyone’s enthusiasm just waned.”
After the perceived necessary hiatus, the band reconvened in Studio 301 to commence work on their next album. Unlike previous works that heavily bore Kilbey’s stamp, the resulting recordings were largely a group affair. Released in January 1986, Heyday rang with the vibrancy of a band that had regained its confidence and creativity. Produced by Englishman Peter Walsh, the recordings brought in a new stylistic element with the addition of strings and horns, creating a warm, organic sound. These qualities, combined with the collective, jam-based songwriting, made the album title an appropriate choice.
Released in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the United States, the album was warmly received by fans. A promotional tour took off in April 1986, with concerts both at home and abroad. Unexpectedly for fans, Marty Willson-Piper suddenly quit mid-tour after rising in-band tensions. A three-piece Church perform in Hamburg, but fortunately Willson-Piper returned within a week.
Unfortunately, despite the charged atmosphere and warm press, low sales for the album in Australia prompted EMI to drop the band. Plans for a double live album called Bootleg were quickly scrapped. The Church now found themselves in an awkward situation where they saw greater success overseas than in Australia. The band had long hoped to record in the fresh atmosphere of a studio abroad. Now, no longer bound to EMI, the opportunity came. After eyeing numerous other offers, the band opted to sign a contract for four albums with U.S. record label Arista Records in 1987.
The next recording sessions found the band in the thoroughly new surroundings of Los Angeles. Paired up with producers Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi, the environment was somewhat of a new challenge for the band. Used to following a more relaxed routine in the studio, the Church suddenly had to adjust to a thoroughly different approach.
Kilbey stated that, “It was Australian hippies versus West Coast guys who know the way they like to do things. We were a bit more undisciplined than they would have liked.”
Personality clashes became inevitable as the two sides bickered over guitar sounds, song structures and work ethic alike. Despite these conflicts, the results seemed promising. Under pressure from the producers, Kilbey began to take vocal lessons, an experience that he came to regard as valuable in hindsight. Wachtel and Ladanyi found promise in the songs, particularly “Under the Milky Way,” which they focused on as a potential single from early on.
Life in Los Angeles came as a shock as well, and its influence filtered into the session. With the band feeling out of place, the stresses of a major American city energized the songs. Largely recorded live after four weeks of grueling rehearsal, Starfish focused on capturing the band’s core sound. Bright, spacious and uncluttered, the recording was a great departure from the layered orchestrations of Heyday. The intention was to make it as “live” and dynamic an album as possible, which was achieved to a measured extent. Although the band found the results bare and simplistic, the reception they would come to receive would be unlike any they’d had before.
Released in February of 1988, Starfish soon found its way into the mainstream, propelled by the single “Under the Milky Way.” Although never perceived as an intentional “hit” by Kilbey (who wrote it with Karin Jansson), it “just seemed to be the right song at the right time.” The warmth of the melancholic melody shone through on the twelve-string-based progression, accented solely with keyboards and electric guitar. A near-five-minute music video received respectable airtime on major music video television channels, which in turn made available to a wider audience The Church’s unique style.
Whatever the formula for success, it worked, and the band suddenly was thrust into the spotlight as the single climbed the charts. As their name began to appear across the music industry, the Church embarked on a nine-month world tour. The effects (and stresses) of their newfound success would not be solely positive, as time would later reveal.
After an extraordinarily exhausting tour, the Church returned to the studio to craft a follow-up to Starfish. With one gold album now under their belt, there was mounting pressure from Arista to create another. The band had been negotiating over bringing in former Led Zeppelin keyboardist and bassist John Paul Jones, who had recently built a reputation as a sophisticated producer. Despite enthusiasm by all four members, company and management vetoed the option. To reproduce Starfish’s success, the Church would record in Los Angeles with Waddy Wachtel once again.
While the last recording sessions were tense, the next were to prove poisonous. Already unenthusiastic about the forced pairing, the band now had the double stress of needing to create another hit album. From the start, the musical angle was very different. While Starfish focused on a raw, live sound, the new recordings employed the more ambient aspects of piano, acoustic guitars and keyboards. On some tracks, the music was punctuated by clanging metal, rustling wind or sharp, industrial sounds, however, the conflicting undercurrents were all there. “Metropolis” had a commercial, but typical Church ring, while the bleak “Pharaoh” concealed thinly veiled barbs at the stifling music industry surrounding the band. Resigning tones dominated in some songs (“Monday Morning,” “Disappointment”), while tinges of nostalgia filtered through others like “Fading Away” and “Laughing.”
The external demand for perfection was bound to take its toll somewhere. The breaking point came to be centered on drummer Richard Ploog. All members were fairly outspoken about the creative role that drugs played in the Church’s creative process. Ploog, however, began to retreat further into his own habit as the pressure increased. As recording takes numbered into multiple double digits, his relationship with Kilbey rapidly deteriorated - only accentuated by Wachtel’s demands for a consistently reliable tempo. In time, his isolation led to exclusion, and his drum tracks were sampled out and replaced by a rigid, but meter-perfect drum machine. Initially intended to last for a year, his “temporarily excommunicated” status eventually turned out to be permanent.
The final result, Gold Afternoon Fix, was heavily backed by a marketing and promotion campaign by Arista. The band went on tour for almost two years, hiring Patti Smith’s drummer, Jay Dee Daugherty, to replace Ploog. Despite the company push, the album spawned only minor hits, with the singles “Metropolis” and “You’re Still Beautiful”. Sales fell noticeably short of Starfish’s, as strong commercial pressure and private affairs left their mark. The band - and particularly Kilbey - would later go on to dismiss the album as “lousy,” “hashed together” and “hideous.” The mega-release that would catapult the band to superstardom was not to be.
After the dust had settled following the Gold Afternoon Fix misadventure and subsequent tour, the Church returned to their old haunts at Sydney’s Studio 301 to commence work on their next album. Jay Dee Daugherty’s jazz-like approach on drums brought a fresh change, with his contributions extending to keyboards and other instruments. Marty Willson-Piper, having recently worked with All About Eve, had expanded his own sound as well.
By the end of about three months, the album was essentially finished. Oddly dubbed Priest=Aura (from Kilbey’s misreading of a Spanish fan’s English vocabulary notes - priest = cura), it stood as a milestone in the band’s career. Composed of some fourteen songs, many over six minutes long, its dimensions surpassed all previous Church releases. With song concepts derived from cryptic, one-word working titles (an idea originally developed by Willson-Piper), the lyrics leaned towards the abstract and esoteric. Sonically, the music was comprised of countless layers, courtesy of the numerous guitar overdubs and rich production. The interplay between Koppes and Willson-Piper dominated throughout, especially on tracks such as “Ripple,” “Kings,” and the epic, aptly-titled “Chaos.”
Upon its release Priest=Aura (1982) was given a mixed reception. Reviews were varied, but often critical, with many people uncertain how to react to the album. Unlike Gold Afternoon Fix, which was supported by a steady marketing campaign, Priest=Aura saw little active promotion and thus largely dropped below the radar in a climate newly changed by the emergence of grunge and mainstream alternative. Sales were lackluster and the band went on only a limited tour. Further adding to the decline was the announcement by Koppes of his departure. Despite a completely sold-out tour, increasing personality conflicts within the band (especially with Willson-Piper) and frustration over the band’s lack of success made the situation intolerable. Although considered by both the band and fan base to be an artistic climax, Priest=Aura marked the end of the Church’s commercial achievement.
With their future as a unit now uncertain, the members took time off to focus on other projects. No longer tied to his longtime band, Koppes began to spend his energy establishing a solo career with his new group, the Well (including former Church drummer Richard Ploog). Kilbey turned his attention towards another collaboration with Grant McLennan (of The Go-Betweens) and Willson-Piper returned to the studio with All About Eve to record what was to become Ultraviolet.
Despite the loss of Koppes, Arista stood by their contract commitment to the band and backed another recording session. Upon finishing their side projects, Kilbey and Willson-Piper decided to meet again and write new material. Initial attempts to recreate “the Church sound” with Jay Dee Daugherty bore little result, and it became clear that Daugherty had no intention of staying on as a permanent member. Parting ways with him after the fruitless sessions, the remaining two began to approach their music from a different angle. Abandoning the long-established roles and stylistic elements of the Church, Kilbey and Willson-Piper started a creative process more based in experimentation, spontaneity and electronica.
Hiring on additional musicians and bringing in Willson-Piper’s childhood friend Andy Mason to produce, the two expanded into hitherto uncharted waters for the band. Song structure was freer, with each musician playing multiple tracks on various instruments, to be cut down and refined as pieces later. The two likened the approach to a sculptor’s creative process, gradually taking shape as work went on. New Zealand drummer Tim Powles was also hired for the sessions, after having already played on Kilbey and McLennan’s second Jack Frost project. Although considered temporary at the time, Powles would later be a consequential addition to the band.
The resulting album, Sometime Anywhere, was generally well-received, although somewhat shocking to some longtime fans. Gone were the guitar-based soundscapes, replaced instead by Eastern tinges, electronic effects and experimental fusion. Sales, however, were paltry and the first single, “Two Places at Once”, went nowhere. Promotion fell flat as Arista saw no commercial promise in the release. With yet another consecutive flop on their hands, Arista refused to renew the Church’s contract and pulled financial support for a tour. Ambitious plans to have fully accompanied, electric shows were quickly scaled back by Kilbey and Willson-Piper to a short run of acoustic gigs as a duo.
Without a recording deal, the Church’s future looked even bleaker. Regardless of the absence of a contract, Kilbey and Willson-Piper began work on new recordings in 1995. Although under the concept of a two-man project, the new material saw input from drummer Powles and hired violinist Linda Neil. Renewed contact between Kilbey and Koppes led to the latter agreeing to guest on several songs - a welcome surprise for fans later. Simon Polinski, known for his work with Aboriginal band Yothu Yindi, was drafted in to produce the sessions, leading to a sound more akin to an ambient project. The music saw a return to guitar-based material, this time infused with definite kraut-rock and art rock influences. A fifteen-minute atmospheric piece dominated the sessions, featuring split Kilbey and Willson-Piper vocals (as previously done on “Two Places at Once”). Additional contributions by the Utungan Percussionists added a new, primal aspect to several songs.
The album was released on the band’s own Deep Karma label with the evocative title Magician Among the Spirits (inspired by the fifteen-minute, epic title track). Due to financial constraints, the band had to arrange outside distribution for markets in North America and Europe. This limitation almost doomed the album from the beginning, but worse events were to come. Within a short time, the U.S. distributor went bankrupt, leaving the band stripped of its earnings from North American sales. For a band already on shaky foundations, this was nearly the death knell. Comments by Kilbey in May of that year summed up the situation: “There’s no immediate future for The Church . . . . We don’t really have a label. We’re owed lots and lots of money and we’re broke. We’re trying to pursue lawyers to get our money back. Marty and I aren’t having any communication. There’s no one really managing us so . . . that could have been the last record.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kilbey later went on to disown Magician Among the Spirits as “a load of tripe.” Though now viewed largely as a transitional album, it received mixed reviews by the fan base, despite the guitar rock hook of its single, “Comedown”. The album also showed a re-emerging band, with Powles now adopted more as a full-time member and Koppes dabbling with the group again. Nevertheless, the circumstances following the album’s release unfortunately led to perhaps the lowest point of the band’s career.
As after Koppes’ departure in 1992, the band members turned their attention to outside projects in 1996 and 1997. Willson-Piper saw collaborations with Brix Smith (The Fall), Adult Net, Linda Perry (4 Non Blondes) and Cinerama, while also beginning a side project with ex-All About Eve bandmates (titled Seeing Stars) and writing new solo material. Kilbey wrote the score for Australian film Blackrock and recorded an ambient, instrumental album, Gilt Trip, with brother Russell P. Kilbey. In the absence of any new work as The Church, Kilbey, Powles and Koppes spent some studio time together as well. The resulting material - released under the guise of The Refo:mation (initially The Reformation, but altered upon Powles’ request) as a courtesy to Willson-Piper - was largely put together in a few quick recording sessions. Loose in feel, but richly atmospheric, the eccentrically-titled Pharmakoi/Distance-Crunching Honchos With Echo Units saw a greater focus on concise, guitar-dominated songs, rather than the uncontrolled experimentation of Magician Among the Spirits.
Group tensions for the Church proper were still simmering, however. More than anyone else, it was new drummer Tim Powles that tried to alleviate the outstanding disagreements. While Koppes and Willson-Piper had already had differences for some time, Kilbey and Willson-Piper’s relationship was also strained from recent problems. Kilbey began to declare a formal, impending end to the band. Despite this, the four agreed to play a string of fully-electric concerts around Australia, which were extremely successful. The roaring success of the intended “final concert” in Sydney put a quick end to talk concerning the band’s demise.
The results of new recording sessions saw a return to the band’s roots. Incorporating ‘70s influences as well as ambient, radio effects, the material was thoroughly based around Koppes and Willson-Piper’s guitar interplay. For the first time also, the band completely produced itself (under Powles’ aegis). Originally given the name Bastard Universe, the forthcoming album was retitled Hologram of Baal (from the Canaanite god). Released under a new contract with UK independent Cooking Vinyl, the album was distributed in the U.S. under agreement with Thirsty Ear. A limited edition of the album featured a bonus disc with a nearly 80-minute, continuous jam.
The newly rejuvenated (and reformed) band went on their first fully electric tour of the U.S., Australia and Europe in years. A plan to release a live album called Bag of Bones was put into motion and then later cancelled. Instead, a collection of cover songs was recorded, shedding light on the band’s influences. A Box of Birds (1999) arrived less than a year after Hologram of Baal and contained an unusual selection of songs from Ultravox and Iggy Pop to The Monkees and Neil Young. The insert to the CD was designed as interchangeable, with ten separate sleeve designs created by fans. As with Hologram of Baal, a tour followed the album’s release.
Recordings for a follow-up album turned out to be painstakingly slow due to numerous side projects and simple geography (with Kilbey in Sweden, Willson-Piper in England and the others in Australia). While taking time off in between to focus on solo efforts and other engagements (including a brief reunion with All About Eve for Willson-Piper), the bandmates met across several separate sessions. Partially recorded in both Sweden and Australia, the resulting After Everything Now This in January of 2002 saw a focus on the softer elements of the band. With only three obvious “rock” tracks out of ten, calm soundscapes predominated. A diverse range of guitar effects with accents of piano and acoustic guitar made for a moody atmosphere. The successive world tour had the band in a more subtle setting as well, with most tracks performed primarily acoustic alongside guest David Lane on piano.
Fans would not wait long again for another group release - by late 2002, a double-disc compilation called Parallel Universe hit stores. Unique among the band’s catalog, the first disc, subtitled Mixture, featured a reshuffled, remixed version of the After Everything Now This album, the result of Tim Powles’ collaboration with Sydney musicians. The second disc was an added bonus, compiled from the remaining songs of the After Everything Now This recording sessions.
Around the time of Parallel Universe’s release, the Church returned to the studio to record another album. Rather than fleshing the songs out over a long, gradual process, the band decided to keep the music as close to the original jam-based material as possible. Stylistically, this made for a much rawer sound, primarily recorded live and with minimal overdubs. As had become routine since Sometime Anywhere, songs saw numerous instrument changes between members, with Powles playing guitar on “Sealine” and Willson-Piper switching to drums on “Maya”. Released in Australia in October 2003 (and in the U.S. in February 2004), Forget Yourself met strong support from both fans and critics, with many hailing its fresh, monumental sound.
The prolific nature of the band continued throughout 2004. Under the guidance of manager Kevin Lane Keller - an American fan and marketing professor that had been working with them since 2001 - the Church began capitalizing on the advantages offered by the Internet and independent music industry. Following up on Hologram of Baal’s bonus, the band released the first of a planned series of jam session CDs, Jammed, through its website in September. A collection of outtakes from the Forget Yourself sessions followed soon after, with the tongue-in-cheek title Beside Yourself.
Within only about a month’s time, yet another album followed. This time, the band decided to revisit past material in an all-acoustic setting, along with the inclusion of several new songs. A number of the older songs saw radical transformations. For the first time in years, they also performed “The Unguarded Moment” (albeit in strongly-modified form), an early hit from which they had long distanced themselves. As a nod to the song’s reappearance, they titled the album El Momento Descuidado - a rough Spanish translation of its name. A short all-acoustic tour followed the release in late 2004, and the album itself was eventually nominated in 2005 for “Best Adult Contemporary Album” in the Australian ARIA Awards.
In March 2006, the band performed “Under the Milky Way” as part of the 2006 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony. A new studio album, Uninvited, Like the Clouds, was released on April 17, 2006.