Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

What fans of the Church pray for: Three albums, live

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Here's one for the fellow fanboys: I caught up with Peter Koppes, guitarist for Australia band the Church (fair-weather fans know them for 1988's hit "Under the Milky Way," serious fans know them for the fantastic 1992 album "Priest = Aura"), who was in northeast Australia still reeling from January's massive floods there. "A wall of water six yards high moved through the countryside," he said. "There were bull sharks swimming on the streets of downtown Brisbane."

Meanwhile, he was in Sydney rehearsing for the band's 30th anniversary tour, which arrives in Chicago this weekend -- a show in which the band will play not one, not two but three of its albums in their entirety: their latest, 2009's experimental "Untitled No. 23"; the aforementioned "Priest = Aura"; and the album that brought them to the attention of Americans, 1988's "Starfish."

THE CHURCH
• 8 p.m. Feb. 11
• Park West, 322 W. Armitage
• Tickets: $32.50, (800) 514-ETIX, jamusa.com

Q. How are the rehearsals? Some of this is material you've not played on stage.
A. Yeah, we're trying to remember songs we haven't played in a long time. Some haven't been plucked since they were recorded 20 years ago. "Priest = Aura" works out nicely. The fans regard that as our artistic peak, and we would agree.

Q. That album never toured the States, right?
A. Correct. I kind of left the band after that record. I had my own band, and everyone was a bit distracted.

Q. You've left the band a few times.
A. Including several times that were never publicized. I left in 1982 after the second album. There were some grievances on a personal level. After three months, I came back on the road. Everyone seemed to get on better. Around "Heyday" [the fourth album, 1986] I was going to leave again. Songwriting was the only way to generate money; the money from the records went to making more records. So if you weren't a writer, you couldn't make any money. I just couldn't afford to be in the band. I had a young family. "Heyday" wound up being an album of co-writes -- and it launched the band in a new direction, a good thing. But we still had the personal grievances.

Q. How did that affect what the band created?
A. By getting angry, you spoil the muse. We're messengers. Every songwriter will tell you that, from Dylan to Keith Richards; he talks about this in his new book. You're a messenger. The ideas are coming from somewhere else. You can upset that by being destructive in your relationships. If everybody's happy within reason, than we're headed in the right direction.

Q. How often does that actually happen?
A. We have a musical alliance. On a personal level, there's a lot of difference of opinion. We just did a Rolling Stone feature in Australia, and the guy said, "You don't seem to agree on anything." We said, "We just stay together to see if we'll agree on something one day."

Q. Everyone's doing the album-in-concert gimmick now. You're playing three. Heavens, why?
A. Because we're always very afraid of being the nostalgia act. We've been invited to do some of those nostalgia tours, with a bunch of bands from the '80s, but we felt we're different from those bands. Echo & the Bunnymen and the Psychedelic Furs, we love those bands. More than U2 and R.E.M., really. We thought we deserved to be as successful as U2 and R.E.M. Maybe we didn't play the game the way those bands did.

Q. Is Steve [Kilbey, the Church's lead singer] a front man of that caliber?
A. Did you see his speech at the ARIA [Australian music hall of fame induction last fall]? He surprised everyone who didn't know he had it in him to be a raconteur and a frontman personality. He's totally like what you have in U2 and R.E.M., but he's limited by having to play an instrument at the same time. He certainly is a character.

Q. Not that you've suffered greatly. You've made a lot of music, and consistently, for years and years.
A. We're lucky, we have an American patron who subsidizes our activities.

Q. Who's that?
A. He's a professor of marketing [at Dartmouth], a brand consultant, Kevin Keller. He wrote a textbook on brand management. We told him, "We're going to give you a bad rep." [Laughs.] The last 10 years, he's underwritten our activities so we can take risks.

Q. Sweet deal.
A. It's like the old days of music patrons. We've been able to hold our head up.

Q. So how did you select these particular three albums to perform?
A. Well, obviously "Starfish" is an easy one because that's the most popular. It's the reason why a lot of people might want to come out and see us. The other one, "Priest," is regarded as an artistic highlight and has this dark mystery about it. We all love it. It's a great juxtaposition against the most popular album. Then the new album is getting five-star reviews, and it'll give people who love the band from the past a chance to witness where we are now. ... The Cure did three albums once in a trilogy set. Cheap Trick used to do two albums, I think. It's either self-indulgent or quite brilliant.

Q. When it comes time in the set to play "Under the Milky Way," does it feel like a blessing or a curse?
A. You know, when we first did a "Starfish" tour, Richard [Ploog, former Church drummer] was a highly excitable chap. He played that very fast. It's quite a fast song. We thought it was a novelty song. We recorded it as a bit of a joke. We didn't rehearse it with the other material. Steve wrote it on piano as a crooning kind of song for Frank Sinatra. It was to be sold to someone else to do. Our manager said he liked it and we should do it. ... So we recorded it and put those backwards bagpipes on it and had a good laugh at that. Then I tried to hide the backwards bagpipes with some E-bow guitar. It was treated very irreverently, and still to this day it's a novelty.

Q. You've moved into some very interesting, creative music. Is it really amusing as a novelty to come out for the requisite "Milky Way" encore?
A. Steve resents it more. Steve is a staunch artist in the mold of Lou Reed. He's not a compromiser. He's a genius, but a grumpy genius. He's come around now and let it go a bit, but he resents that his whole career has wound up responsible to one song. He has that genius autism. As much as we've tried to convince him that there's a certain ideal point where it can be a crowd-pleaser and not feel like it's compromising his artistic stance -- he's only recently begun coming to terms with that.

Q. The Church is often described as psychedelic. What does that term mean to you, and do you think it applies?
A. It's a tag we readily embrace. I love it. They call it art-rock, or they did. Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Church are the foremost psychedelic bands in the world. We're doing a concert this April with an orchestra at the Sydney Opera House and calling it "A Psychedelic Symphony." We haven't even decided on the material yet. It sounded good. But it made me realize we still embrace that psychedelic theme, that idea of using physical elements to reach the other side. Mind expanding, that's the definition of psychedelia. In our case, Steve says our lyrics are deep without meaning. He's not trying to be profound but hoping that something profound emerges from his dabbling in word combinations. Dylan on "Highway 61" -- he was throwing together words to create something greater than the norm. We're not a narrative band, certainly. Pink Floyd sort of did that, bu then the more social comments started coming from Roger Waters. The Beatles on "Sgt. Pepper's." I think we've taken that legacy and embraced it rather than just being a pop band. On the new album, we've taken it into jazz, of all things.

Q. Did I hear you've been playing a Smashing Pumpkins song?
A. We've been playing "Disarm," yeah. Billy Corgan's from Chicago, right? He always said he'd come visit us. He did a cover of "Reptile" at an outdoor festival in Australia. We thought we'd try this, and people like it. People think Steve sings it better than Billy, but don't tell him that.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on February 10, 2011 10:00 AM.

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