How The Church’s Steve Kil­bey solved his per­son­nel prob­lem

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Noel Men­gel

Steve Kil­bey had a prob­lem. He solved it the way he of­ten ap­proaches life, with pure in­stinct. It took less than a minute. It had been four years since the last Church al­bum, the long­est gap be­tween new re­leases in a ca­reer that stretched back to the band’s 1980 de­but, Of Skins And Heart. And gui­tarist Marty Will­son-Piper, ar­guably the mem­ber of the band most pop­u­lar with the Church faith­ful, had re­turned to Swe­den and wasn’t re­spond­ing to Kil­bey’s at­tempts to contact him.

Tur­moil is noth­ing new to The Church and the quar­tet al­ways rea­soned that fric­tion was an es­sen­tial part of what kept them mov­ing for­ward, kept them rein­vent­ing their mu­sic and kept them rel­e­vant. To many fans, Will­son-Piper was as cru­cial to the band as Kil­bey and its other found­ing mem­ber, gui­tarist Pete Koppes. Even Koppes, who first played with Kil­bey in a glam band called Pre­cious Lit­tle in Canberra in 1973, had bailed out of The Church on oc­ca­sion, but Will­son-Piper had been there on ev­ery Church record­ing, per­se­ver­ing through man­age­ment trou­bles, Kil­bey’s heroin pe­riod in the 90s, and cel­e­brat­ing the tri­umphs too.

Yet in 2014 The Church still stands, al­beit mi­nus one of its foun­da­tion pil­lars, Will­son-Piper. And Kil­bey, tak­ing a break from re­hears­ing the new band lineup in Bris­bane, fit, trim and look­ing much younger than his 60 years, is bub­bling with ex­cite­ment – not about the band’s con­sid­er­able past, but its fu­ture. He ex­plains: “Marty wasn’t kicked out or asked to leave. He went to Swe­den and when I started writ­ing to him to say let’s make a new al­bum, he didn’t even write back. I tried to contact him by ev­ery known means and he didn’t re­ply, so we say he is ‘un­avail­able’.”

Kil­bey found him­self dis­cussing a re­place­ment for Will­son-Piper with Tim Powles, a New Zealan­der who joined The Church 20 years ago and, as drum­mer, pro­ducer and ground­ing force, has played an in­te­gral role in the band’s sur­vival. “When we re­alised Marty wasn’t go­ing to get back to us I said to Tim, we have to find some­one with stature,” Kil­bey re­calls. “He has to have his own trip, he can’t be some weedy lit­tle guy com­ing in to play gui­tar. It has to be some­body with ex­pe­ri­ence and grav­i­tas.”

Eas­ier said than done. Un­til a friend of Kil­bey’s sug­gested ex-Pow­derfin­ger gui­tarist Ian Haug, a mas­sive fan of The Church since his teenage years: “As soon as she said that, I was on the phone to him.”

Haug con­firms the story. “I had just been to the fu­neral of Bris­bane roadie Steph Popoff [the for­mer pro­duc­tion man­ager for the John But­ler Trio died last year]. It was be­tween the ser­vice and the wake and I was driv­ing by my­self, try­ing to process it all, feel­ing very sad. The phone rang and it was Kil­bey. He didn’t even say hello. He said, ‘If I asked you to join The Church, what would you say?’ I said, ‘I would prob­a­bly say yes.’ He



said, ‘Okay, see ya.’ I was left stuck in traf­fic go­ing, ‘What the f..k was that?’

“I never would have vi­su­alised join­ing The Church; it was the last thing I would have thought was a pos­si­bil­ity, but as soon as it did be­come a pos­si­bil­ity it just re­ally seemed to work.”

Haug, 44, a found­ing mem­ber of Pow­derfin­ger, had fought hard to pre­vent the band break­ing up. The day be­fore they played their last show in home­town Bris­bane in Oc­to­ber 2010, he told me: “I want to make mu­sic un­til the day I die. I don’t nec­es­sar­ily ex­pect it to be at the level that the Fin­gers have achieved.”

Any work­ing mu­si­cian knows that to be part of a high-pro­file band is rather like cap­tur­ing light­ning in a bot­tle. Very few peo­ple man­age it twice. “I tried to be a peace­bro­ker in Pow­derfin­ger for a long time,” Haug says of the fray­ing re­la­tion­ships that led to the band’s demise. “I can’t be­lieve it’s been four years since our last show. It feels good to let it go.”

Kil­bey and Koppes met Haug at his Air­lock record­ing studio, in Bris­bane’s north-west, last Septem­ber to see if sparks could fly. Haug and Koppes both sensed that Kil­bey’s hunch was right. That day they wrote a song called Mi­ami, now an eight-minute epic on the new studio al­bum, Fur­ther/Deeper, the band’s 21st. The Church’s work method is dif­fer­ent from that of most bands, and has been since 1986, when the band started shar­ing song­writ­ing cred­its rather than de­not­ing Kil­bey as the main writer. No-one brings pre­pared songs to the ta­ble. They get to­gether with their in­stru­ments and a blank slate and see what hap­pens, record­ing as they go. Kil­bey then adds lyrics and melodies to those im­pro­vised pieces.

In November 2013, when it was of­fi­cially an­nounced that Haug was join­ing The Church, there was a di­vided so­cial me­dia re­sponse. Some long­time fans won­dered how Haug, from a main­stream rock ’n’ roll band, would gel with the more at­mo­spheric ex­plo­rations of their he­roes. The sub­text was: Pow­derfin­ger were pop­u­lar and it’s hard to be cool when you’re pop­u­lar. The Church de­fine cool. How will that work?

Un­fazed, Haug loaded gui­tars and amps into his car and headed to Syd­ney to record with his new band. Ev­ery­one was ready for the next phase. In five days, they wrote more than 20 songs. Sud­denly, they had an al­bum. “Ian’s en­thu­si­asm re-en­er­gised the rest of us,” Kil­bey says. “I’m not blam­ing Marty for this, but a cer­tain cyn­i­cism and scep­ti­cism was shat­tered when Ian joined the band. Be­fore I might have gone, ‘Oh, no’. Now I would go, ‘Let’s try it’. Ev­ery­one joined in that new­found ex­plo­ration.

“Ian’s all over this record; he’s the prime mover be­hind a lot of the songs. He was al­ways there with his gui­tar strapped on, [sug­gest­ing] ‘What about this?’, over­dub af­ter over­dub. It’s very in­spir­ing to be part of that.”

As all long­time fans of the band know, ev­ery Church al­bum is dif­fer­ent, yet ev­ery Church al­bum also sounds just like The Church. It’s some­thing they’ve had right from the start, an orig­i­nal sound that comes not just through Kil­bey’s voice but from the com­bi­na­tion of his po­etic lyrics, the use of chim­ing, open strings on elec­tric gui­tars, and an el­e­ment of mys­tery and am­bi­gu­ity that no-one can quite put a fin­ger on.

The Church are not a sin­gles band. Even their best-known early songs, Un­guarded Mo­ment and Al­most With You, weren’t ma­jor hits. But there is some­thing in their mu­sic that re­wards lis­ten­ers, keeps them play­ing the al­bums and dis­cov­er­ing some­thing fresh in them years af­ter the event.

Haug’s view as the new boy is in­struc­tive. “It’s strange,” he says. “None of it is like, ‘Let’s do the Church thing here.’ It just hap­pens. They might even say, you shouldn’t do that, it’s too ‘old’ Church. I would say, don’t be scared of it; that’s why peo­ple like you.”

For his part, Haug was pre­pared for a di­vided re­sponse from fans. Play­ing in a huge band like Pow­derfin­ger also gave him a thick skin, since the more suc­cess­ful you are, the more haters you at­tract. “I’m not try­ing to be Marty – he was one of my favourite guitarists when I was grow­ing up, and I cer­tainly don’t want to repli­cate ev­ery­thing he did,” Haug says.

Is the band’s im­age as moody and in­scrutable out­siders dis­pelled once in­side the tent, I wonder? “It is fairly ac­cu­rate,” Haug says. “They are all so into what they do, they are artists, and they are all quite ec­cen­tric in their own way. But we get along re­ally well. They have a lot of his­tory and if they start talk­ing about stuff, the heavy times from the past, I go and make my­self a cup of tea. It’s not my place to take sides on any­thing.” Ah yes, those heavy times. For some­one who is usu­ally pinned as enig­matic in any old press clip­ping on the band, Peter Koppes is al­ways a forth­right and ar­tic­u­late in­ter­view sub­ject. On the morn­ing we meet, he is first to ar­rive at re­hearsal. His ex­cite­ment at what he is hear­ing is




pal­pa­ble. “It is blow­ing us away,” Koppes says, straight off. So much for in­scrutable. These days, Koppes lives on the Sun­shine Coast. He learned so much about the pit­falls of the mu­sic busi­ness as a mem­ber of The Church that he now teaches the sub­ject at Nam­bour TAFE. Koppes, 58, and Kil­bey have played mu­sic to­gether for most of the past 40 years, since they were 19 and 20, re­spec­tively. Kil­bey tells me Koppes is the best mu­si­cian in the band. He is a nat­u­ral at any­thing he picks up, from drums to bass and key­boards, and the de­tail of his work on gui­tars is a vi­tal in­gre­di­ent in The Church.

He has also left the band a few times. The first was af­ter The Blurred Cru­sade al­bum in 1982. Later, he and Will­son-Piper threat­ened to leave if the band didn’t start co-writ­ing songs in­stead of Kil­bey tak­ing most of the cred­its. Koppes left be­fore the Some­time Any­where al­bum was recorded in 1994, but soon re­turned. He men­tions that he has al­ways been the band’s “watch­dog” in busi­ness mat­ters. Some­times he would come home from a US tour and have to sign on for the dole to sup­port his young fam­ily. That tends to fo­cus the mind. For a time Tim Powles man­aged the band, then handed over re­spon­si­bil­ity to Will­son-Piper. While the lat­ter main­tains his si­lence, it’s clear that the stress of manag­ing The Church while also be­ing a mem­ber of the band led to the frac­ture. The Church’s mu­sic has al­ways had a psy­che­delic el­e­ment, and Kil­bey has long been open about his drug use. He has been a regular mar­i­juana user for decades but in the early ’90s started us­ing heroin. His des­cent into ad­dic­tion is de­tailed in Bris­bane writer An­drew McMillen’s re­cent book, Talk­ing Smack. He says he stopped us­ing the drug in 2002. Ac­cord­ing to Koppes, “The rea­son a lot of artists take heroin is it helps them con­tain their ner­vous­ness and ex­cite­ment at be­ing in this busi­ness. I don’t want to rec­om­mend it to any­one be­cause it’s like al­co­hol, [in the sense that] most peo­ple mis­use drugs.”

Of his own tu­mul­tuous ex­pe­ri­ences with the band, he says: “Most peo­ple, if they don’t have fric­tion, they don’t learn a lot. There was al­ways fric­tion in the band and I al­ways thought of it as a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Be­ing re­warded with such an amaz­ing new band and the chem­istry we have now, I feel vin­di­cated for be­ing as tol­er­ant as I could be un­der the cir­cum­stances of that fric­tion you get from ar­tis­ti­cally pas­sion­ate peo­ple.”

At re­hearsal, I sit and watch as the band starts work­ing their way into a song called Lau­rel Canyon, from the new al­bum. You start to get a sense of how The Church works. Koppes and Haug with their ar­se­nals of ef­fects ped­als, never look­ing at each other but lis­ten­ing in­tently; Powles at the back on his kit, keep­ing watch. As a drum­mer he is ab­so­lutely rock solid but he’s also part mu­si­cal direc­tor, part ship’s cap­tain. He keeps The Church on course, fair wind or foul.

“All those years when Steve was strug­gling per­son­ally, I be­came the cen­tral point in hold­ing things to­gether,” Powles says. “When we started get­ting record deals again, it was me go­ing to the out­side world say­ing, ‘Steve says no’. I could see we were gain­ing strength by not do­ing the things that were ex­pected of us by the in­dus­try. Now Steve is re­laxed, he’s made peace with the past and knows what it means to him, and we are lov­ing the art, we can say yes.”

Powles, 54, is cer­tain that 2011’s Fu­ture Past Per­fect tour was a turn­ing point. “That’s the best re­ceived tour we’ve done in Amer­ica by a mile. We were blown away by the re­sponse, peo­ple say­ing, ‘That show was in my top ten’. Then we lost Marty, so we were in a spot where we not only had to top what we did as a live band but make a bet­ter record than Un­ti­tled [the last al­bum].

“We don’t want to be one of those bands that just fiz­zles out. We know rock ’n’ roll’s not sup­posed to do this. Steve’s head­ing into his six­ties. I know there are a few bands still do­ing it but they are re­ly­ing heav­ily on their back cat­a­logue. We are, pos­si­bly stupidly, ob­sessed with what we are do­ing now. With Ian com­ing into the band, we had to make some­thing that we loved so much that it went be­yond any ex­pec­ta­tions of what it was be­fore.” The Church might not throw com­pli­ments around, but I give Kil­bey one. I tell him he looks well. “I haven’t smoked a lot of cig­a­rettes, I don’t drink a lot of booze, I don’t eat meat, and for the past 15 years, no mat­ter what hap­pens, I’m down at the pool do­ing my laps, and then an hour of yoga,” he says. “I don’t think hard drugs are the worst thing you can do, although they can kill you very quickly. But a life of booze and eat­ing meat …”

The songs keep flow­ing. At last count, Kil­bey has 750 orig­i­nal songs reg­is­tered with Aus­tralian copy­right agency APRA, which cer­tainly puts him near the head of the class for pro­duc­tiv­ity among Aus­tralian song­writ­ers. “I’m not say­ing quan­tity is qual­ity,” he says. “Just be­cause I’ve writ­ten that many songs doesn’t mean any­thing. But imag­ine if you were hav­ing an op­er­a­tion on your brain and a 60-year-old sur­geon walked into the theatre. You would think, I’m in safe hands. He’s been do­ing this all his life and he’s very good at it.

“I think I have be­come very good at pulling lyrics and melodies out of the air. Melodies weren’t al­ways my strong point; on a lot of The Church’s early records the melodies weren’t as elab­o­rate as what I’m do­ing now. In the last few years, I think I am tapping into some­thing. We write a piece of mu­sic, I go out­side for ten min­utes and the words and melodies just come out of nowhere. It’s like I’m tapping into the col­lec­tive hu­man sub­con­scious.”

He clicks his fin­gers. Just like that. Fur ther Deeper ( MGM Dis­tri­bu­tion) is re­leased Oct 17. The Church play the al­bum at the Old Mu­seum, Bris­bane, Nov 1 (tick­ets on sale at old­mu­ from Oct 17).

Clois­tered … Haug ( front) re­hearses with The Church ahead of the re­lease of the band’s new al­bum; ( be­low) the ’90s in­car­na­tion (L-R): Kil­bey, Will­son-Piper, Powles, Koppes.

Prayer an­swered … New boy Ian Haug ( far right) with the rest of The Church ( from far left): Peter Koppes, Steve Kil­bey and Tim Powles.

Pho­tog­ra­phy David Kelly

Creative process … Church leader Steve Kil­bey pre­pares a set list ( left), and ( be­low) the tools of a song­writer.

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