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Stage Buzz Q&A: The Church

| October 8, 2018

Australian psychedelic rockers The Church have been consistently fascinating for an astonishing 38 years. In 2013, the band began a new chapter by enlisting former Powderfinger guitarist Ian Haug alongside founding guitarist Peter Koppes, veteran drummer Tim Powles, and bassist-frontman Steve Kilbey. The lineup has produced strong work, including 2017’s Man Woman Life Death Infinity. In 2018, however, The Church returns to celebrate an early milestone. The band’s fifth album, Starfish, arrived in 1988, captivating American radio with the dreamy “Under the Milky Way” and sinewy “Reptile.” Kilbey spoke with IE from his home near Sydney before departing Australia’s spring weather for fall climates in the northern hemisphere. The Church perform Starfish and more at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall on October 17.

IE: You’ve always seemed to be focused on pursuing new work, without significant interest in your past. Is this anniversary tour a good thing from your perspective?

Steve Kilbey: It’s like Father’s Day or St. Valentine’s Day – some good stuff and some bad stuff. I think celebrating anniversaries is anathema to rock and roll, which was invented to be about the moment. It’s a flimsy construct, but the good outweighs the bad. I think Starfish is a good album to play in its entirety. Some people will be taken back to their teenage youth, and that’s what they want.

IE: Do you think steady fans who’ve seen The Church year after year might be as excited to hear ­fresh favorites like “Undersea” or “Submarine” as casual fans might be about “Reptile?”

S.K.: I read an interview with Lou Reed once. He said, “I see my whole career as a body of work. I started the Velvet Underground, and here I am – he was talking about Coney Island Baby – where everything fits with everything else. I can take a song from any part I like.” I don’t think the songs on Starfish are inherently better or worse than songs that came before or after them. I like the idea of playing our whole set to a brand-new fan and defying him to tell the difference. “Right, we’ll start with ‘Aura,’ then play ‘Myrrh,’ then ‘Toy Head,’ then ‘Almost With You’ followed by something from Hologram of Baal, and so on, and see if he could say which era he thinks they’re from.

IE: I was listening to “Another Century,” which arrived shortly into the current US presidency. One line reminded me of “Ricochet” from 20 years ago. The lyrics are impressionistic but include passing references to resisting tyrants. You’re not a political writer, but does the news cycle enter your songs?

S.K.: If you write songs about current affairs, what happens in two years? Billy Bragg made a career of singing anti-Margaret Thatcher songs. The moment Thatcher’s gone, do those songs still have purpose? I would tend to steer away from current events, but if mentioning a tyrant adds extra pizzazz and people think I’m singing about Donald Trump, I’m all for people seeing it how they want.

IE: It doesn’t bother you when people miss your intention?

S.K.: There’s no wrong – that’s the thing. If someone comes up to me and says, “To me, ‘Under the Milky Way’ is about the death of my budgerigar [parakeet]. That’s what I think of when I listen to it, and that’s what gets me through,” I go, “Okay, then that’s what it is.” If someone says, “I think it means the Australian sky at night,” I go, “Good on ya.” If someone asks, “Is that about Milky Way Bar in Amsterdam where people smoke hash?” I say, “Definitely.” Somewhere, a small voice inside me would say, “That isn’t what I had in mind when I was writing it,” but songs are supposed to be open-ended invitations for you to create your own adventure.

The Church appears at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, on Wednesday, October 17.

– Jeff Elbel

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