Aussie band the Church strikes a sacred chord in the heart of Tucson musicians | Tucson Sounds
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Aussie band the Church strikes a sacred chord in the heart of Tucson musicians

weekend music

The beauty (and curse) of being a music fan is discovering that one band that means the world to you, but that no one else seems to quite get. It’s a little bit like being in a secret society. While explaining the band to outsiders can be an exercise in futility, catching a glimpse of a familiar band logo on a t-shirt or recognizing a quote from a song lyric means you are in the company of a fellow traveler, a like-minded soul, someone else who speaks your language. 

Some bands are more prone to this phenomenon than others. The weird, esoteric bands who almost, but never make it on to the charts. Or the ones that do but then fall through the cracks, because they won’t or can’t adapt to music industry whims. This makes such bands all the more precious to their possibly small but inevitably loyal fan bases. And that’s where this story begins.

This is a local music story about a band from Australia.

For this reporter, it all began with a local radio show. The "New Music Test Department" with Susie Dunn aired every Sunday at 7 p.m. on KLPX FM back in the late 1980s and your humble neighborhood music scribe listened religiously, falling in love with bands like Big Audio Dynamite, the Mighty Lemon Drops, INXS, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians in that tiny window between the weekend and the looming school week. 

One night, while listening to the Test Department, your trusty columnist encountered a song that was even stranger than the existing strangeness that was all the aforementioned jangly post-punk. This song was mythic and haunting and cryptic. It was gorgeous, and weird, and it absolutely sparkled. It was called “Under the Milky Way” by an Australian band with the quasi-religious name the Church. 

A few months later, yours truly came into possession of a copy of the album from whence the song came, "Starfish." That cassette became well-worn in the course of a year or so, though the band’s previous albums were, at the time, difficult to find and the follow-up release, "Gold Afternoon Fix," seemed, to an overly critical 15-year-old’s mind, a bit underwhelming in comparison, especially coming as it did on the heels of the beginning of this reporter’s lifelong love of all things Bowie. Thus temporarily ended a tiny youthful love affair with the Church, until years later when your humble scribe met her soon to be musical and domestic partner, one Mario Cordova.

Mario Cordova (musician, amateur rock historian, guy most likely to be asked to track down waffles or avocados for members of the Church): "From the moment I first heard the Church in 1986 I was transfixed. I could tell immediately that the band were intelligent, elegant, yet raw at the same time. But there was also a deep spirituality to them, a kind of mysticism that I'm not really ever sure I had heard in rock music before.”

“A good example of this is that on most of their records there is at least one song that references reincarnation, specifically between lovers  finding each other again. Steve Kilbey is a songwriter, singer, bassist, guitarist and keyboardist as well as being a painter and, as I see it, the best damn poet on the planet.”

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“As much as I love Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen,  I will take Kilbey over them any day.”

“The band’s early records were very controlled, not polished, but restrained. There was an emotional detachment, a distance from the subject. Live, though, they were a powerhouse of a band. They often had a raw, sloppy, and even primal energy to them. They understood that the studio and the stage are two very different places.”

“For me, the combination of Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper was untouchable. This was not a typical lead guitar and rhythm guitar combo, but a symbiotic beast, a two-headed monster where it was often impossible to tell who was doing what.”

“Marty hasn't played with them since 2012 but replacing him with Ian Haug of Powderfinger was a move that could not have been more perfect. Ian is very different from Marty but he and Peter read each other so well and to be honest I think they are better now than ever before. Tim Powles joined the band in 1994 not just as drummer but record producer and in an odd way stray-cat wrangler.Nobody keeps this band more focused than Tim. Joining them on this tour is guitarist and keyboard player Jeffrey Cain, formerly of another band I just adore, Remy Zero.”

“Ultimately the thing I find most rewarding about being a Church fan is that unlike so many of their peers and contemporaries they have never become just a nostalgia act. The refuse to cater to the zeitgeist and only seem to do  what interests them, fallout be damned.”

“I'm very lucky in that over the last couple of decades, I have had a chance to meet my idols and build a personal friendship of sorts. I have worked for them in small ways, hung out with them and talked for hours and even jammed with them once.”

“The people in this band are as great as the music is, and I am proud to call them an inspiration, my friends and other than the Beatles my all-time favorite band.”

Verbose as he can be on the subject, Cordova is not the only local musician/uber-fan devoted to this band. Musician and KMKR DJ Andrew Gardner has never been shy about Kilbey and Co.’s influence on the sound of his own band La Cerca, while guitarist and vocalist Jeremy Michael Cashman channeled his adoration of the band into a gorgeous tribute performance at 2017’s Great Cover Up. 

More local Church enthusiasts came out of the woodwork for Steve Kilbey’s duo performance last year with keyboardist Amanda Kramer (Psychedelic Furs) as well as for an impromptu house party thrown for former Church guitarist Marty Willson-Piper, which was quickly dubbed the “Party Willson-Piper.” 

When Willson-Piper was searching for a host that could put up a traveling jangle-pop legend and his new bride for the night, whilst hosting a last minute pop-up concert for a couple dozen long lost friends, the obvious choice was Dennis “Spyder” Rhodes. The Tucson drummer, DJ and walking encyclopedia of post-punk and '80s era college rock was possibly the first person in Tucson to own the Church’s first couple of records. He also once played drums in a band that was literally called the Host. 

Spyder Rhodes (musician, DJ, mensch):“At a very young and tender age, I experienced the unexpected great fortune of hearing music that was immediately and inexplicably exquisite. A band had somehow, transported my mind and heart to a place I had never been before. Jingles, jangles and hypnotic melodies mesmerized me right away, punctuated with a poetry that was profound, and could stand on its own. It was a magic that has haunted me ever since and transformed my view of rock and roll forever. That band is appropriately named the Church, and will always be my favorite band of all time.”

With two pretty fascinating “coming to Jesus” stories about the Church under her belt, your humble scribe set out to document the stories of all local (and a couple of not local) fans of the Church on the eve of the band’s first visit to Tucson in over a dozen years.

Ted Prezelski (writer and TucsonSentinel.com soccer scribe, City Council aide, Downtown Radio DJ): “Years ago I saw the Church at the Rialto. Steve Kilbey joked about maybe playing Skrappy's, which at the time was due south of the Rialto. Since then, Skrappy's moved over to 191 Toole and shut down. A new venue opened there, named for the address.”

Tom Prezelski (Politician, blogger, and the one Prezelski brother with a ponytail): “When I was in elected politics, I wanted 'Spark' to be my entrance song if I was ever in need of one. I know this is sacrilege because the song was not written or sung by Kilbey. This may be why it is one of the few Church tunes that sound like it was recorded during daylight hours. It is a sincere anthem of optimism without the saccharine platitudes that characterize most such songs. I think Steve Kilbey would probably agree.”

Josh Levine (musician and music writer): "The Church are big for me. Their guitar echoes are like Shakespeare for the language of rock. This is kind of embarrassing but my first band played this house show in high school, our only show. We played Church covers and we were actually called MilkyWay.”

Brian Mock (DJ Bobby Fischer on KMKR’s On The Record):“I first encountered the Australian psychedelic dream pop band the Church, like most Americans my age, when I saw the video for 'Under The Milky Way' on MTV’s 120 Minutes in 1988. I was immediately interested. I should quickly add that I’m not often immediately interested. But I was. I hadn’t heard of them before, but could tell they had been around for a while; they didn’t seem like rookies or one-hit wonders. A couple of my buddies immediately went out and picked up 'Starfish' (which 'Under The Milky Way' was on) as well as their first record, 'Of Skins and Heart.' To be honest, I didn’t really dig those albums. The aforementioned buddies played the hell out of that 'Of Skins and Heart' album, but I thought it was too of-its-time and just kinda lame; I hated it (and still do). 'Starfish' seemed more interesting, but sounded pretty slow. Not poppy, but spread out. Not bad, but kinda boring, at first. In the meantime, I decided to keep looking.” 

“I guess it wasn’t too long after seeing that video that I caught an interview with guitarists (and occasional singers) Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes on MTV where MPW was ranting about how it’s annoying that people only know that one song, while they have a whole back catalog of records. Something about that endeared me to them. Like, do your homework! This band probably has a bunch of killer songs! Don’t be lame and know only the radio hit!”

“Thus, I made my way to Wherehouse Records near the Paradise Valley Mall and scanned the Church section of cassette tapes. What’s this one with the paisley shirts and rug on the front? Looks interesting. I should buy this. I did. Whoa. I immediately took to 1985’s 'Heyday' ('Starfish'’s predecessor). Not only did it prove to be everything that was great and interesting about all of their early albums up to that point, but it also proved to be helpful in providing an historical context for 'Starfish.' And, as with just about all of their records, I generally have no idea what Steve Kilbey (bassist, singer, and main songwriter) is singing about. But it sounds like he knows, and it sounds really interesting and clever and poetic. That’s good enough for these ears!”

“I must have blasted that 'Heyday' tape countless times while driving around the greater Phoenix area during the summer of 1988 looking for ditches and pools to skate. While 'Heyday' is both a daytime and nighttime record, 'Starfish,' on the other hand, is very much a nighttime record. Here’s how I know: In like 1991 or something, I was driving overnight to San Diego so I could make an 8mm short film for my community college Film 101 class, in the form of a music video for my teenage hardcore band (Do you think I wrote the name of the song in the sand at the beach and then filmed the tide coming up to wash it away? Of course I did!) Anyway, in the middle of the desert night, I popped in 'Starfish'  and instantly that record made sense and revealed itself to me. In almost total darkness, save for the occasional oncoming headlights and, the moon and stars above, 'Starfish' was the perfect soundtrack. You can obtain the same experience by shutting off all the lights and chilling out on the couch, too, I have found. You just have to let the album do the driving and go along for the ride.” 

“Fun Fact: Greg Kuehn, who played keyboards on 'Starfish,' was (and still is) the keyboardist in punk rock band TSOL in the early '80s. That’s kinda kooky, right?”

“It’s unfortunate that now, give or take 30 albums later, to most people who are not total Church-heads, 'Under The Milky Way' is still the only song by the band that’s familiar; from your co-worker who used to be into “alternative” music and danced at the Fineline Tucson in the late '80s, to psych/garage rockers who seem to be contractually obligated to point out that they prefer the more obscure Aussie bands (Saints, Scientists, et al.) to the Church as if one couldn’t just appreciate the merits of both”

”It’s always perplexed me to no end that these folks seem to dismiss the Church for having a radio/video hit while not acknowledging that most of the rest of their recorded output is still pretty much obscure!”

”Thus, the Church has forever been relegated to being too mainstream and not cool enough for music nerds, yet too obscure for the mainstream. While MTV got them on the map, it also sorta pigeon-holed them to one-hit wonder status in the long run, anyway (the same fate came of the mighty Midnight Oil, fellow Aussies whose first 5 records are also equally great, but largely unknown. If you don’t agree with that, you just haven’t listened to those records). The fact that Kilbey and Koppes are still at it (as is Willson-Piper, who went solo a little while back) is a kind of success in its own right, regardless. “

“'Heyday'is still my personal favorite, but 'Starfish' is probably their best overall record. And in the years since it came out, it has grown on me with every listen. That’s the psychedelic and dreamy aspect of the band that often seems to get overlooked and underappreciated. If they were a straight-ahead rock band, records like 'Starfish' would sound dated. But it doesn’t. The Church’s records still stand up, however many years later. Except for' Of Skins and Heart.' That record is still lame. Long live 'Starfish'!”

Jeremy Michael Cashman (musician): “Back in my Minneapolis days, my good friend Sean and I would alternate sides of the stage over many a show, often at (Minneapolis venue) First Avenue. One show it'd be Marty Willson-Piper's  side. Then the next show would belong to (Church guitarist) Peter Koppes's side. We would, on occasion, stand in the middle to enjoy the front and center greatness of Steve Kilbey."

“Being a guitar player, both of these guys brought wonderful textures to light, each in their own style. Marty always seemed to keep the dry 'you must notice me’ tone and Peter could blow through like a wave on stage. I never tire of that blend live or on record. I believe this approaching Tucson show marks my turn to give Ian Haug (who replaced Willson-Piper) the love and stand in his line of fire.”

“I adore Steve Kilbey's lyrics. I don't even know what they mean much of the time but maybe he doesn't either. or perhaps he reserves the right to attach or assign meaning to them later. Steve’s bass playing is one of those things I catch myself trying to channel quite often when I am tinkering in my little homespun room making a song.”

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“The final time I saw them at First Avenue was around the release of their stunning album 'After Everything Now This' in 2002. The front silver screen was showing images of old Japanese wrestling in front of the stage prior to their coming on. My buddy and I bought those large oil can type Foster’s beers and settled in. This was a 'Marty' side on this occasion. While the silver screen began lifting, Steve's deep bass on 'Radiance' smacked us in the chest and we looked at each other and grinned having already gotten our monies' worth.”

Robert Dean Lurie (Phoenix music writer):“When I discovered the music of the Church in my early teens, I felt the shock of recognition. Here was a landscape and a poetic sensibility that I recognized as my own, but amplified, smartened up, dressed in guitars and melody and turned back on me like a sonic mirror. It altered the trajectory of my life. Or, more accurately, it affirmed where I needed to go.”

“We Church fans are holy fools divorced from reality, burning up to be in the presence of our beloved, which is not the people in the Church at all, but rather the transcendent music that flows through them and to us. I grieve for people who don't have something like this in their lives.”

Murrey Gellman (musician): “MTV, of all places, first turned me on to this band. Sitting in Yuma in 1983 up late on cheap LSD and $1.99 a six pack Fed Mart beer. Here comes that dreamy jangly dark pop tune 'Unguarded Moment.' Next day I bought the self-titled U.S. press of their first LP.

John Booth (Tucson Church fan): “Overplayed? Perhaps, but the first time I heard 'Under the Milky Way,' I felt like I was... and it’s happened again every time since. The entire album does the same, each a story told through tonal atmosphere and well-chosen words.”

Kristoffer Hoaglund (Phoenix musician):“In the 1980s and 90s, the Phoenix area had a good AM Alternative station, KUKQ. The station became would my main source of new bands, and a big part in getting through day by day. I was just entering high school, feeling like I did not belong and had very little interest in belonging.”

“One March afternoon I returned from school and was in the yard planting sunflower seeds, listening to KUKQ when 'Ripple' hits the airwaves. My older brother had already picked up 'The Blurred Crusade,' and I actually had heard 'Ripple' several times before this. But, this particular afternoon it hit so perfectly with how I was feeling in life, the dark mood, but beautiful atmosphere of the music. The contradictory lyrics to who/what is the main subject of the song, along with the changes in music sections. I'm not certain, but it may have even been the album version this play. At that point, not only did the Church shoot to the top of the collecting list for my music budget, but I knew I was a fan for life. A quest began. Studio albums, EPs. Single, solo and side projects! It definitely kept my busy a few years, and I loved all of it and still do.”

Ryan Grimm (Tucson Church fan): "While in college I was in one of those fandom stages of seeking something new, anything new, but not from here in the States. I bought 'Heyday.' It was possible to wear out a CD. I did it. 'Heyday' transported me mentally and emotionally. The Church are probably the only band I’ve stuck with; always eager for the new stuff-never tiring from the old. I’m also probably one of the few who believes 'Gold Afternoon Fix' was a lot better than so many give it credit for. Steve Kilbey likes it better than he lets on. Of that I’m convinced.

The Church visits Tucson on Thursday at 8 p.m. at 191 Toole, with a set that will include a track-by-track live recreation of the band's 1988 breakthrough record, "Starfish."

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Anthony Collins

Steve Kilbey of the Church

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