Diving Into the Devine: The Church at The Ark
When The Church announced its summer 2017 North American tour, I was surprised the band was booked at The Ark. When I saw the group play in 2015, the long-running Australian rockers filled the large Fillmore venue in Silver Spring, Md., with loud, room-rumbling psychedelia. The intimate Ark and its acoustic-friendly acoustics might have to call in the remodelers after The Church is done blowing the roof off the place on Wednesday, June 28.
Led by prolific singer-bassist Steve Kilbey, The Church formed in Sydney, Australia, in 1980. While the group will forever be best known for its 1988 hit "Under the Milky Way," the band has survived lineup changes, record label problems, and a changing marketplace to continue producing smart, sonically compelling songs that reward close listening. (Kilby's numerous solo albums and collaborations fit that description, too.)
The Ark show kicks off The Church's North American tour, and my colleague Amanda Szot -- AADL's graphic designer -- bought a ticket as soon as they went on sale. We've talked about The Church many times, so we decided to create a Spotify playlist of our favorite songs -- including the lovely new single "New Century" -- and have a GChat about the band.
CP: Any memory of when you first heard "Under the Milky Way"? I don't recall my first time, but I do remember a Starfish poster up in our dorm room and thinking guitarist Marty-Willson Piper had the best hair.
AS: Nothing specific comes to mind, but I do remember being introduced to a lot of different music by my stepfather at the time -- I'm pretty sure that particular song was on the radio and I had the Starfish cassette at some point. I know that's always one of those songs that when I hear it on the radio a little wave of nostalgia washes over me. "Ohh, I loved that song." Still do.
That IS good hair. And the double hoops. Nice. And now I realize I've never seen a photo of him. He could have been one of the vampires in The Lost Boys.
CP: Ha, yes! He was a pretty man. It's amazing how common it is to hear "Milky Way" nearly 30 years later. I feel like it's always on in the grocery store -- whatever grocery store that may be. The Universal Grocery Store. It's comforting.
AS: The Universal Grocery Store playlist is really something. I'll hear something from Boz Scaggs and I'll be transported to being a tiny kid listening to my parents' music.
CP: Naturally, "Milky Way," the band's best-known song, was all but tossed off in a single sitting, via Wikipedia: "'Under the Milky Way' was written by Kilbey and Karin Jansson of Curious (Yellow).  Kilbey and Jansson had become friends in 1983 and lived together in Australia from 1986. Kilbey said, 'I smoked a joint and started playing the piano and she came in the room and we just made it up.'"
AS: Ha! I just read that earlier today, too. Sometimes the best stuff can be created so effortlessly.
CP: When I saw The Church play two years ago, I think they did "Milky Way" early in the set, just to get it out of the way -- not because they hate it (though they may) but because it's a softer song than most of what they were playing on that tour, which was heavy, psychedelic, and jammy. And I think Kilbey teased "Reptile" in a similar "All right, here you go, we'll play it so we can get on with the rest of the show."
I forgot "Milky Way" has a distorted bagpipe solo!
AS: Yes! the distorted bagpipe solo! According to Wikipedia: “...solo composed with an EBow on a Fender Jazzmaster, and recorded on a Synclavier, leading to a sound reminiscent of bagpipes.”
CP: Ah, good nugget. So, it's more like a Big Country bagpipe solo -- all guitar.
AS: BIG COUNTRY! That's another one of those Universal Grocery Store songs.
“Milky Way” was definitely my introduction to the band, and I've been listening to them a lot more within the past six months. After hearing more of the catalog, that song and “Reptile” definitely stand out as being different. They're certainly more accessible than many of the songs on other albums.
AS: Melkweg = Milky Way in Dutch. Via Wiki: “According to a press release issued with Starfish, the title is from an Amsterdam music and cultural venue, Melkweg (Dutch for "Milky Way"), which Kilbey used to frequent.”
CP: Oh, cool, didn't know that. I wonder if he lived there for a while? Marty Willson-Piper has been living in Sweden for years -- and never answered calls or emails to come back to Australia to record The Church's 25th studio LP, 2014's Further/Deeper, so they just hired another guitarist.
AS: Just ghosted on the band, then, eh?
CP: Pretty much! "Antenna" is another song from Starfish you chose for the playlist. It's a waltz with a strong chorus, and Kilbey's vocals kinda go into a Dylan thing sometimes, which I really like. He does that on a bunch of songs in this era.
AS: I had never thought of it as a waltz, but that makes perfect sense! I don't pretend to know much about music terminology, but it just seems to have different mini-movements within the song where it transitions to different moods. It's very lyrical and flowy. Plus, I tend to judge whether or not I like songs by how well they work to driving on a road trip. This one fits the bill for me.
Having seen the Church perform previously, what are you expecting to see at a venue like The Ark?
CP: I just moved back to area last September, so I haven't been to The Ark in 25 years -- and I'm not even sure the last time I went it was on Main Street. Geezer! I saw an Irish singer-songwriter there named Luka Bloom. That was for his first album, I think, which was in 1990 -- so, 27 years! I remember meeting him after the show and I asked him something dumb, like if he was the son of a famous Irish musician -- maybe Paddy Moloney of The Chieftans -- and he looked at young, uninformed me with empathy and said, "What? No." I swore I read it somewhere. "No, sorry. Really." I'm surprised he didn't rustle my hair and say, "Get the hell outta here, kid." Hey, there was no internet then to check my sources!
So, really, I'm not sure what to expect. Most of the acts The Ark books have strong acoustic foundations, but The Church were really emphasizing their rock 'n' roll side two years ago, and this tour isn't being advertised as being acoustic. So, I'm kinda expecting to have my hair parted by loud rock in an intimate folk venue. Can't wait!
AS: I've only been to The Ark once, maybe twice. I saw Orpheum Bell there a few years ago (one of my good college friends was in the lineup for a handful of years). Definitely the folk/Americana genre, so I'm also curious (and excited) to see The Church at that venue.
CP: Going back to "Starfish," I just read that Waddy Wachtel produced part of it. He was also behind the board for the next record, Gold Afternoon Fix, which I think nearly destroyed the band. Their label wanted a mega-hit record and was demanding to hear demos for all the songs, Wachtel brought all his mainstream-rock-production / hired ax-man sheen to the record, and the band's drummer split before the record was finished. But it produced one of the band's most melodically beautiful songs, "Metropolis," which is a song we both chose for the playlist. The bridge for that song is pretty much an anthem unto itself. I always belt out these lines in my loudest voice:
And it's only a day away
We could leave tonight
You could sleep along the way
Dream in black and white
AS: I've been listening to Gold Afternoon Fix a bit more recently, and “Metropolis” certainly is another song (like “Milky Way” or “Reptile”) that sets itself apart. The guitar tone and opening verse really catch my attention. And I just love the "circuses and elephants" phrase repeated in the chorus. The bridge is great.
CP: I remember liking Gold Afternoon Fix, but my interactions with albums by The Church really dropped off after this one. I'm pretty sure I've heard most of their records since then, and I've liked what I've revisited on Spotify, but I can't name songs off-hand from much of that era. I think this is as much due to my listening habits changing -- a lot of the 1990s was spent with dance music (first half) and jazz (second half). Also, the band seemed to dig its heels in and not worry about hit singles in the 1990s onward, so while the records might have been more under the popular radar, they likely work better as concentrated listening experiences versus records where you listen for the hits and endure the rest.
And even if I wanted to go back and listen to a lot of The Church's 1990s albums, I'd have to find them used; they don't appear to be on streaming services for the most part. And as we've noted, even their early discography is only available in dribs and drabs on popular streaming services, most likely due to the legal dispute they had with the U.S. label Second Motion, which reissued the first six Church LPs around 2010 when it put out the band's Untitled #23 record. But you can still buy the CDs and MP3s from Second Motion.
AS: Right. I think my tastes transitioned a bit while I was in college and I got sucked into the Dave Matthews Band vortex for most of it. I honestly don't even remember what I was listening to in the second half of the '90s. I recall getting introduced to bands like Soul Coughing and Medeski Martin & Wood.
Recently I've started returning to a lot of music from the early 80s and exploring parts of bands' catalogs I was previously unaware of. And yes, so very hard to find some of The Church’s catalog! I went looking for used copied of The Blurred Crusade and used CDs on Amazon are going for $60+ and used versions on Discogs are all in Europe and the UK.
I've not spent much time at all with the recent releases, but I listened to Further Deeper (2015) not too long ago.
CP: One of The Church's best albums is Heyday and it's not streaming anywhere. The LP's video for "Tantalized" was very important to a teenage CP. There was a UHF station out of Ann Arbor -- channel 31, maybe? -- that broadcast a video music program produced by Dearborn high schoolers. The show was called Back Porch Video and was produced by students in Russ Gibb's video and media production class at Dearborn High School. Gibb was a DJ, ran the Grande Ballroom, started the "Paul Is Dead" rumor, etc. He just let the kids play what they wanted: some of the hosts focused on new wave, others on MTV hits, others on hardcore punk -- which were often live videos recorded at Detroit venues. But Back Porch played the "Tantalized" video in 1986 and when I saw these handsome dudes wearing paisley-type buttondown shirts, I got myself to a thrift store ASAP and got me some of the same threads. The album cover for Heyday is full-on paisley paradise.
AS: That is a FANTASTIC story. Seeing that show on the UHF channel sounds like getting a sneak peak into another world. Heyday is another album I tried to find used, to no avail. (Here it is.)
CP: One of the great things about Heyday is the band sounds really loose and Kilbey's vocals are great. I think the songs came out of band jams more than just him sitting there writing them. I wonder if they approached Heyday this way because the previous album, Seance, had such a mannered sound, mostly because of that weird gated drum sound? But I do like how it sounds on "Electric Lash," especially the bits where the drum fills sound like a cheap machine gun.
AS: Right! That machine gun effect is pretty intense I do like the darker, atmospheric aspects to Seance, but the gated drum is really prevalent now that I know what it is and how they achieved that sound. Sometimes it's all I hear now, but I do still like the album quite a bit. “Travel by Thought” is really a trippy song on that album. Talk about a psychedelic rock song. I was listening to it in the car on the way home from work and when I arrived at my apartment I didn't remember any of the drive.
CP: The Church were pretty psychedelic when I saw them in 2015. Maybe we won’t remember our drives home after The Ark concert.
Amanda Szot is a graphic designer at AADL. Christopher Porter is a library technician and editor of Pulp.
The Church play The Ark, 314 S. Main St., Ann Arbor, on Wednesday, June 28; doors open at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $40-$99. Visit theark.org for tickets and more info.