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The Past, Present & Future Of The Church: An Interview With Peter Koppes
Ned Raggett , February 7th, 2011 09:18

Guitarist and founding member of The Church, Peter Koppes, talks to Ned Raggett about new material, shows at the Sydney Opera house and more

When Peter Koppes reflects on how The Church – the Australian band that has survived near-breakups, the after-effects of unexpected fame and the vagaries of a changing industry to mark 30 years and more of music together – keeps itself feeling fresh and inspired, his thoughts are considered and reflective. It's not surprising, perhaps, given all that time spent on music whether it's with the band, on his own or in some other partnership. On the phone, his voice is conversational and understated rather than loudly calling for attention. It's almost the sound of the band itself: present, but never overbearing or inescapable.

"We have a great variety of styles within our music. It's more adventurous than just being a pop song," he says. "An album like [1985's] Heyday had a general theme, but there are threads within those styles that pop up in different songs in different albums. Every time we go out on tour, we choose different songs to play. It's a bit like a perfume... sometimes we get sick of it, but we might enjoy it again another day. It's also like how you don't listen to records for 10 years, then put them on and revel in them again. We still really appreciate it, just not all the same time."

Koppes speaks after what was a full 2010 for himself and The Church. They embarked on a series of tours around the world that served as both a career overview and a chance to explore acoustic reworkings of songs old and new which were featured on two separate albums, 2004's El Momento Descuidado and 2007's El Momento Siguiente. They're returning to the US, briefly, for a full electric follow-up tour in February in a 'play the classic album straight through' style series of dates – except they're not doing one album, but three, under the tour name Future, Past, Perfect which will combine their last regular studio album, 2009's Untitled #23, with 1992's Priest=Aura and 1988's Starfish. "We'd been thinking a lot of bands had been doing these kind of 'favorite albums' performances," notes Koppes, "and we thought in some ways that it shouldn't hinge on one album. We've avoided the nostalgia emphasis in our acts because we've been continually working, pursuing our musical explorations. Many of our fans have been loyal with us, though some fans that liked us around Starfish aren't aware that we're still active making records, like Untitled #23.

"We thought maybe we should do a range rather than just one album – Starfish would be good for those with a nostalgic feeling, to enjoy the music they know and like. But we thought we should expose them to the new album as well – over time a lot of people think that there's not good enough quality of music around or their tastes grow more sophisticated. So they might enjoy the development we've had."

The development Koppes speaks of is audible in the range of releases that the band has released in the past few years. If anything, as time has passed The Church have grown more varied with their work. They're still recognizably the same band that recorded songs like 'The Unguarded Moment', 'Almost With You' and what remains their signature hit, 'Under the Milky Way', but ever since the group fully gathered itself back together in the late 90s, the partnership of Koppes, Steve Kilbey and Marty Willson-Piper, along with (comparatively) new drummer and regular producer Tim Powles, have become something of a juggernaut. Regular albums have jostled not only with the acoustic efforts but releases of instrumental studio jams and explorations, as well as the slew of solo and side projects that individual members have pursued.

Meanwhile, those regular studio albums themselves, including such excellent efforts as 2003's Forget Yourself and 2006's Uninvited, Like The Clouds, have showcased a changing series of approaches to the rich, textured sonic approach that helped put The Church on the map. From widely differing arrangements to lyrics that balance between the completely cryptic and the intensely personal, Koppes feels it's an approach that, precisely because it aims to challenge the group's own expectations, takes a while to get used to. "The way I see it is that the music we create together is a embroidery of melodies. It's been traditionally this mixture, and that's why we don't have a lead guitar – they can be rhythmic melodies instead or entwining harmonies. Plus there's increasingly a jazz sensibility more than on the previous records," he says.

"I've been studying that more and bringing that to the party, if you like. When it comes to Untitled #23, there are people who really like 'Space Saviour' which is a three chord song but does have some unusual harmonies, where 'Pangaea' or 'Happenstance' have a much more laid back, mature feeling. When we've played on tour in recent years, people often seem to say how much they liked the last album before it more than the new one! So we might find on this tour they might have learned to love it – perhaps it takes time for it to be absorbed."

For many fans, the most exciting prospect of the tour is the inclusion of Priest=Aura, an album which has taken on something close to a mythic aspect (especially with Koppes deciding to formally leave the band for some time after its release). But the series of extremely moody, unsettled songs featured throughout, including such masterpieces of melodramatic tension as 'Swan Lake', 'The Disillusionist' and 'Chaos' ended up having a huge cachet among devoted listeners – an appeal that Koppes and the band are well aware of.

He says: "Priest... is when The Church reached the limits of our creativity... a new style. The fans who have been loyal to the band for the longest time think it's an artistic highlight. But we've all been open about that period as well, especially about the struggles with heroin then. The album does have a dark aura about it as a result, but it is romantic, the nature of Priest.... It was very significant, it brought the band to a key point, yet it was a high price to pay. But our fans have regarded it so highly since, and that's a big reason why we're doing the three albums, something more just an emphasis on one album."

In April, the band will also be doing a separate one-off date at the Sydney Opera House with the George Ellis Orchestra. The band recently made a memorable first appearance there, with an orchestra in tow, for their induction into the Australian Recording Industry Association Hall of Fame, but Koppes says that that was only for a couple of songs, rather than whatever might result in a few months from now. "We got to experience the machinations of a live orchestra," he notes with a soft laugh. "Those kind of musicians performing with us and working with a conductor, getting a taste for that style, as well getting ideas of how electric we should be. The Opera House is acoustically perfect so we had to think about electrification carefully. For April, we haven't settled on approach and songs just yet, but we always launch into things and we seem to be lucky. It will be a different approach. It won't be just a big band, specifically."

Looking to the future, Koppes also touches briefly on recordings already down for a new album, which he likens to a "new Untitled 23... it's going to have that level of richness in the music". One number will feature him on keyboard - something he describes as "a novelty compared to what we normally sound like" - while he claims another has more energy than Heyday's 'Tantalized', which was one of their most rushed and frenetic songs from their earliest years. Despite numerous bootlegs and circulated recordings, though, no official live album or video is as yet on the horizon. "We've almost done it a few times," he explains. "We've done repeated tours in America with filming but never had the right footage or sound to achieve what we want – and we've got loads of footage now! No one has got the time and money to sit down and properly assess and edit it, though I've tried to keep track of it all this time."

There's also further thoughts on that key issue of the band keeping their creative and collective energies up after so much time passed, Koppes again noting that it can sometimes be hard, but still with good rewards to be found. "Any songwriter has to manifest a fertile environment working – that's a product of many things," he says. "You might find your muse in relationships or them falling apart, you might find it in working with different people, thinking of things. I find doing those projects gives me ideas for the next one.

"I was a bit dissatisfied with being in a band... it felt a bit claustrophobic, when I first left after [1982's] The Blurred Crusade. When I left again in 1992, it was a product of the same problems – musically we were always very creative, but I wasn't happy, and wondering if it was me holding them back. But a few years later after I appeared a bit on [1996's] Magician Among The Spirits, Steve, Tim and I made the Refo:mation album as a studio project and then I continued on from there on another full Church album, [1998's] Hologram Of Baal.

"Looking back on all those changes, we realized with other people it's enjoyable but as a band we have a fierce creativity, that we enjoy working creatively with each other," he concludes. "We find each other interesting people who don't necessarily agree on everything personally, but who do ideologically, dealing with the world."

The Church’s Future, Past, Perfect tour is currently in America and continues through the month. Further information about the tour can be found at the official Church site.