Q&A: Peter Koppes of The Church
Still buzzing from their induction into the Australian Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the positive reception to their new release, "Untitled #23," the Church have begun work on their 24th album, writing songs that pick up where the last one left off.
"We started rehearsals [for Australia and U.S. tours] and then we started to write," said guitarist Peter Koppes, who noted the new songs are in the vein of the current album, released in the fall of 2009. "'Untitled #23' was a stylistic leap, a sign of maturity. I like to think of it as a jazz album. It definitely has jazz influences as I've been studying jazz theory and trying to weave in rules to abide by. I'm talking the Burt Bacharach jazz style, a vocal jazz style, rather than instrumental. I'd say 'Untitled #23' is unprecedented in our history."
The Church, one of those bands that has kicked around for 30 years and is known to casual listeners for a single song, "Under the Milky Way," has found several ways to integrate their catalog in new settings. They have done recent acoustic tours of the U.S. and Down Under, and in April they will perform with a symphony orchestral. Beginning Feb. 2, they will tour the United States and perform three albums, "Untitled #23," 1988's "Starfish" and 1992's "Priest=Aura," from start to finish. Concurrently, Second Motion Records is rereleasing the Church's early albums.
Koppes, who started working with Church frontman-bassist Steve Kilbey when they were teenagers, discussed the upcoming Future Past Perfect tour and the hurdles that go with a project like this.
SoundSpike: As you prepare for this, are you finding that the material feels different? I would imagine "Under the Milky Way" has had a prominent place in the Church's sets for two decades and now its lodged in about two-thirds of the way through the evening. At least you have a great song, "Hotel Womb," to close the shows.
Peter Koppes: We've never done this before. We were reticent at first because we had followed the model the Beatles created with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the idea that you could record some songs and never be expected to perform them live. After "Sgt. Pepper" came out, albums outsold singles and that's a platform we have clung to. Having to perform an entire album -- it's exciting. The Cure had the album "Trilogy" where they performed three of their albums ("Pornography," "Disintegration" and "Bloodflowers"), and we thought it was an interesting approach. Instead of the same old concert dynamic, it's more like an orchestral presentation. You get more of a structure from start to finish rather than an attempt to knock people's socks off. I'm looking forward to it and I don't want to do an encore. Try to break that cliche.
"Untitled #23" is a much airier and mellow album than "Starfish." Why combine these two and, of all the band's other albums, why "Priest+Aura"?
The obvious things is the nostalgia, though we're told that sometimes people don't want their memories spoiled. We had a bigger audience when we did "Starfish," and a lot of those people don't know that we're still making records and perhaps they'll enjoy "Untitled #23." It's possible that this music, different as it is from "Starfish," might suit them. Once we knew we would do the two albums we thought, "Why not do a third, have no support act and make a full night of it?" "Priest=Aura" was the obvious choice from an artistic point of view. We thought about "Blurred Crusade," "Heyday" -- maybe next tour -- but "Priest=Aura" was a big turning point in terms of style for the band.
"Priest=Aura" was also the first time every member of the band received songwriting credits on all the songs. Up to then Steve Kilbey was credited with most of them. Was that a paperwork issue or did the band change the way you wrote?
Before "Heyday," there was only enough income to support Steve. It was very expensive to make a record. From the start, though, we all contributed to the songs, brought very competent musicianship and we wrote together. We deserved to share [in the songwriting income].
But you left the band after "Priest=Aura," only to return a few years later. What happened?
There was a lot of friction in the band -- personality conflicts with different parts of the band and management -- and I didn't want to be a part of that. Not to take away from the band's music, but I was making a lot of contributions [and not getting paid sufficiently]. I had a lot to do with the arrangements and mixing the album with Bob Clearmountain -- that's the sort of confidence the band had in me. Some of the personality irritants were enough to [drive me out]. I thought we had a great album in "Priest=Aura," but I had my own band (the Well) so I was quite happy musically. I'm really passive and did not want to confront anyone. If I asked managers about the business I'd get knocked for it. When I left, no one asked me why , which tells you something about [the lack of confrontation].
In the United States, at least, the Church became known once you signed with Arista Records, which was doing really well with Whitney Houston and Taylor Dayne at the time. Everything else you have done has been on an independent label. What was the thinking at the time you went with a major?
Arista had confidence in us to sign us. You cannot just equate [Arista chief] Clive Davis with pop. As the head of Columbia he supported Bob Dylan and kept him signed when he wasn't selling any albums, and when we came to Arista they had signed Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith. There was a keen artistic approach there. It was a very supportive label.
Back in the late 1980s, fans in the States were just learning who the Church were, and suddenly all of you had solo albums coming out at the same time. That seemed crazy.
Steve had his second solo album and Marty [Wilson-Piper] had "Art Attack," and Rykodisc came to me so I put together a collection of demos that were released as "Manchild & Myth." Mine got reviewed in Billboard, which shocked them a bit.
Was there a sense that you had solo ideas that would not work within the Church?
We've always done things outside the Church. Do you know about the Reformation? Steve and I created some music [in 1996/97] that had a different style, it had the Reformation style. There are so many [side stories] to the Church that someone should write them all down someday.
But while you have continued to do solo records over the last dozen years or so and played in a psychedelic-era covers band, the Church has remained steady.
I won't leave. I'll get kicked out next time. Everybody in the band knows how creatively strong we are together and we still have fights over the albums, but we know we have to make concessions.
Does that effect the band when you tour?
We're all older. We're not going out to the carpark to do cocaine at the end of the night. Young people might. But why re-create the past? It's quite exciting to look at [playing three albums straight through] as a new form rather than an attempt to capture the mood of our younger days. We'll see if it holds up -- without the stage diving or head banging. I think it will hold its own on an artistic level.
2 - Los Angeles, CA - El Rey Theatre
4 - San Francisco, CA - Great American Music Hall
7, 8 - Seattle, WA - Triple Door
11 - Chicago, IL - Park West
13 - Alexandria, VA - The Birchmere
15 - Philadelphia, PA - The Trocadero
16 - New York, NY - Highline Ballroom
17 - New York, NY - B.B. King's
18 - Foxboro, MA - Showcase Live
21 - Greenville, SC - The Handlebar
22 - Atlanta, GA - Variety Playhouse