Australian psychedelic rock band, formed in Sydney in March 1980 by Steve Kilbey, Peter Koppes and Nick Ward. A month later, Marty Willson-Piper, originally from Liverpool, United Kingdom, witnessed one of their gigs and met Kilbey afterwards. That same night he was invited to join the band on guitar, establishing the classic two guitar formation.
The band’s debut album, ‘Of Skins and Heart’, was recorded late in 1980, produced by Gilbey and mixed by Bob Clearmountain. Seven of the nine tracks were written solely by Kilbey and two co-written with others. The first single, ‘She Never Said’, was released in November, but did not chart. At the start of 1981, Ward was replaced on drums by Richard Ploog. He was recruited by their manager, Michael Chugg, after hearing of his reputation in Adelaide. Ploog’s arrival established The Church’s first stable line-up. The second single ‘The Unguarded Moment’ reached number 22 on the Australian Kent Music Report Singles Chart, while Of Skins and Heart went gold, achieving the same position on the related Albums Chart. To promote their releases, the band undertook their first national tour.
The second album, ‘The Blurred Crusade’, was issued in March 1982 and was both produced and mixed by Bob Clearmountain. The album peaked at No. 10 and its first single, ‘Almost With You’ resulted in a second Top 30 hit, peaking at No. 21. The Church undertook a second Australian tour, while Carrere released the album in Europe, generating enough sales for them to tour there in October.
In May 1983, the band released their third album, ‘Seance’, co-produced by The Church and engineer John Bee (Hoodoo Gurus, Icehouse, The Divinyls), which peaked at No. 18.
Foregoing a full album, the band released two EPs in 1984, ‘Remote Luxury’ in March and ‘Persia’ in August, but only in Australia and New Zealand. The band’s trademark guitar sound was complemented by the keyboards of guest musicians Davey Ray Moor (from The Crystal Set, which included Kilbey’s brother Russell) and Craig Hooper (from The Reels), who joined as an auxiliary member. Hooper soon left to form The Mullanes.
The Church seemed to reach a nadir in 1984. Unable to repeat the commercial success of the first two albums, there was a perception that their creativity was declining. The start of 1985 was quiet for the band as members spent time apart in Stockholm, Sydney and Jamaica. The Church reconvened at Studios 301 in mid 1985 to work on their next album, ‘Heyday’, with British producer/engineer Peter Walsh (Simple Minds, Scott Walker, Peter Gabriel). Released in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the US, the album was warmly received. In Australia it peaked at No. 19, and appeared on the U.S. Billboard 200. A promotional tour started in April 1986, with concerts both at home and abroad. Unexpectedly, Willson-Piper suddenly quit mid-tour after rising in-band tensions and on 10 July, The Church performed as a three-piece in Hamburg, Germany. Willson-Piper returned within a week after Kilbey agreed that future releases would contain more group efforts.
Despite the charged atmosphere and warm press, low sales for the album’s singles in Australia prompted EMI to drop them. Since the band had greater sales overseas than in Australia, they decided to record in a studio abroad and opted for a four-album deal with U.S. label Arista Records in 1987. For Australian releases they signed with Mushroom Records.
Recording sessions in Los Angeles, with producers Waddy Wachtel (Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Robbie Williams) and Greg Ladanyi (Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac), followed. Under pressure from the producers, Kilbey took vocal lessons, an experience he later regarded as valuable. The album ‘Starfish’ (1988) found its way into the mainstream, marking a new worldwide commercial peak for the band. It reached No. 11 in Australia and Top 50 in the US. The single ‘Under The Milky Way’ became a worldwide hit. The Church promoted Starfish with a nine-month tour before they returned to the studio for a follow-up.
While the prior sessions were tense, these were volatile. Already unenthusiastic about the forced pairing, there was the stress of having to create another hit album, and this took its toll. All members were outspoken about the role that drugs played in The Church’s creative process, but drummer Richard Ploog began to retreat further into his own habit, as pressure increased. The number of attempted studio takes spiralled and Ploog’s relationship with Kilbey deteriorated. Eventually Ploog’s isolation led to exclusion and his drum tracks were replaced by rigid, but meter-perfect, programmed drums on all but three tracks. He left the band after the sessions.
The resulting album, ‘Gold Afternoon Fix’, while different from its predecessor, reached No.12 on the ARIA Albums Chart. The band, particularly Kilbey, would later dismiss the album as “lousy”, “hashed together” and “hideous”, although many of the songs have since become fixtures in the band’s setlists.
‘Priest=Aura’, titled from Kilbey’s misreading of a Spanish fan’s English vocabulary notes (‘priest’ = ‘cura’), contains fourteen songs, many over six minutes long, and was their longest album yet at 65 minutes. Upon its release in March 1992, the album was given a mixed reception. It peaked in the ARIA Top 30, but reviews were varied, with some critical and others uncertain how to react. The band only went on a limited tour, confined to Australia, as Kilbey prepared for the birth of his twin daughters with Karin Jansson.
Adding to the decline in The Church’s outlook was the announcement of Koppes’ departure. His decision reflected two main factors: that the band had earned nothing for the two-week tour of Australia, and that he felt shut out of the creative process – a long-standing complaint that stretched back at least as far as ‘Seance’, if not further. Despite a completely sold-out tour, increasing personality conflicts within the band, especially with Willson-Piper, and frustration over their lack of success had made the situation intolerable. Despite its muted reception at the time of release, Priest=Aura is considered by both the band and fan base to be an artistic high point.
Despite the loss of Koppes, Arista decided to stand by their contract and back another Church album and so Kilbey and Willson-Piper began to write new material. When it became clear that Daugherty would not be returning to the fold either, the remaining two took the opportunity to approach their music from new perspectives, abandoning their long-established roles and stylistic elements in favour of experimentation, spontaneity and electronica. The resulting album, ‘Sometime Anywhere’, released in May 1994, was generally well received and peaked in the Top 30. Sales, however, were paltry. With another commercially unsuccessful album on their hands, Arista did not renew The Church’s contract and pulled financial support for a tour. Ambitious plans to stage full electric shows were scaled back, leaving Kilbey and Willson-Piper with only a short run of acoustic gigs as a duo.
Following the commercial failure of their next album, ‘Magician Among the Spirits’, released on the Deep Karma label, the members of The Church turned their attention to other projects and Willson-Piper left Australia again in order to collaborate with other artists and write new solo material. Group tensions within The Church proper were still simmering, however. More than anyone else, it was new drummer Tim Powles who tried to alleviate the outstanding disagreements. While Koppes and Willson-Piper had already had differences for some time, Kilbey and Willson-Piper’s relationship was also strained by recent problems. Kilbey declared that the end was nigh: after a final, worthy swan song, with the working title ‘Au Revoir Por Favor’, the Church would be put to rest. The four agreed to play a string of farewell concerts around Australia, which turned out to be extremely successful. The roaring success of the intended “final concert” in Sydney put a quick end to talk of the band’s demise.
The results of the new recording sessions saw a return to the band’s roots: the material was once again based around Koppes and Willson-Piper’s guitar interplay. Also, for the first time, the band completely produced itself, under Powles’ aegis. Released under a new contract with UK independent label Cooking Vinyl, the album ‘Hologram Of Baal’ was distributed in the U.S. by Thirsty Ear. The reformed and rejuvenated band went on their first fully electric tour of the U.S., Australia and Europe in many years.
In 2001, ‘Under the Milky Way’ was featured in the film Donnie Darko, helping to raise the band’s profile once again. However, recording for their next album turned out to be painstakingly slow, due to numerous side projects and simple geography. With Kilbey now living in Sweden, Willson-Piper in England and the others in Australia, the bandmates met across several separate sessions. Partially recorded in both Sweden, NYC and Australia, the resulting ‘After Everything Now This’, released in January 2002, saw a focus on the softer elements of the band, with responsibility for production and final mixing again by Powles. The album achieved the biggest international success for The Church in almost ten years. The band became more prolific and released a new album almost every year.
In February 2009 the band began the build-up to their next major studio album with the ‘Coffee Hounds’ EP, which featured the original, non-album composition ‘The Coffee Song’ and a cover version of Hounds Of Love. The following month they released the Pangaea EP, which title track would also be on the upcoming album, ‘Untitled #23’.
In February 2010 the band announced that they would be celebrating their 30th anniversary with an acoustic tour entitled ‘An Intimate Space’. In a unique programme, the band chose one song from each of their many albums and performed them in reverse chronological order.
On 27 October 2010 The Church were inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Hall of Fame by media commentator George Negus, while young pop singer Washington performed ‘The Unguarded Moment’. After their acceptance speech, the band performed ‘Under the Milky Way’ and ‘Tantalized’.
In November and December 2012, The Church played a major series of concerts across Australia and New Zealand, together with Simple Minds, Devo and Models.
In March 2013 there were the outward signs of internal problems in the band, when Steve Kilbey issued a series of statements which indicated that he was considering leaving The Church due to a dispute over royalty payments. Then, later in the year, Kilbey announced on the band’s Facebook page that Marty Willson-Piper would not be returning and had been replaced by former Powderfinger guitarist Ian Haug. Kilbey explained that Willson-Piper was “not available” for the recording of a new album and subsequent touring, and praised Haug as “a brilliant guitarist”. In early October 2014, Kilbey explained that Willson-Piper was not asked to leave the band, but that he had simply not replied to the various attempts made to contact him (Willson-Piper had relocated to Sweden).
Entitled ‘Further/Deeper’, the Church’s 24th studio album was released in October 2014. The band performed the album in its entirety during the ‘Further/Deeper’ tours of Australia, then headed to North America and Europe.
2017 brought the recording and release of The Church’s 25th album, ‘Man Woman Life Death Infinity’. It was released in October. The band toured North America in September and October before returning home to Australia for a string of dates in November and December.