State of grace 

Steve Kilbey’s voice has a bit of a rasp yet sounds ageless. It’s the morning after a Church show in Oregon, and the band’s singer is slow to come around. Dead air connects awkward first questions, detectable annoyances and terse responses.

Kilbey’s instantly recognizable timbre made him radio- and MTV-worthwhile for a fleeting moment in 1988 when, for kids across America, the Church’s “Under the Milky Way” redefined “guitar band.” Kilbey’s Aussie croon was a sexy ruin for little girls and hypersensitive melancholy for mopey pop fans. The hit was a fluke, certainly, but it proved the band necessary.

The Church occupied the florid space between radio rock weeds Bon Jovi and Whitesnake, and “Milky Way” — whose anomalous bagpipe break stomped anything Richie Sambora could muster with a Marshall stack and a dweedlely-dee guitar solo — demonstrated the sheer power of subtlety when it peaked inside the Billboard Top 30.

That was nearly 14 years ago. For a band so far removed from the land of It, time has proved that the Church’s tentacles reached far. The Church had broad influence, and great song-driven bands came in its wake, from Kitchens of Distinction to Spiritualized.

Caught ‘Unguarded’

Gin Blossoms, for example, would never have existed if not for the Church’s debut, Of Skins and Heart. Blossoms’ founder and hit-maker, the late Douglas Hopkins (“Hey Jealousy,” “Found Out About You”), always told me it was the video for “The Unguarded Moment” — which aired sporadically in the early days of MTV — that changed his definition of a pop band. The tune made Hopkins want to write songs.

When I mention the Gin Blossoms’ songwriter, the stilted Q&A session with Kilbey becomes actual dialogue.

“He liked the Church?” Kilbey asks. His voice is breathy, almost sullen. “I remember when he killed himself. Yeah, I remember. It was so very sad. So sad.”

Kilbey, the sentimentalist, is pop’s perennial man-boy whose buffer to the world has always been the Song and its remedy; a guy who’d pen lullabies to a Swedish girl in a vain attempt to win her. His yearning floated on comely Byrdsian modal melodies, on elegant ostinato. He was always misunderstood, always true. Here’s the man responsible for making adjectives “lush” and “shimmering” rockcrit phrases, long since hackneyed.

Yet Kilbey would disagree with the notion that pop sensitivity must be delivered on a cloud of subtlety and imagination, two components that built his Church — the very two components that have helped the band sustain a devoted international following.

Kilbey cites Nickelback — a nü-metal band of wretched proportion that couldn’t be further away from the Church in terms of musical grace — to make his point.

“I watched a Nickelback video the other day,” says Kilbey, with nary a trace of sarcasm. “I was watching it and after a while I actually tuned in to the lyrics. I thought at first it was about this existential angst or something … and I realized it was about a girl. It’s funny that it’s still just a love affair with some girl, but that it has caused this whole testosterone-driven outpouring of heavy-metal anger. Someone like me just retires to a dark room and writes a sensitive ballad, and some guy like him goes out and goes “woodadaodoooddfffdd” (imitates Nickelback singer’s Neanderthal nü-metalisms). It’s just funny.”

The death of creativity

The Church’s records — song-driven as they are — might as well be abstract expressionism so esoteric they all but defy exploitation in the mainstream media, with exception to the band’s late-’80s run that saw the album Starfish go gold.

Rapturously received by critics but scarcely recognized as the watershed that it was, the Church has managed to emerge after 22 years together with a certain elegance and dignity.

Attendance on the band’s current U.S. tour is up, but the idea of using a word like “timelessness” to describe the band’s longevity makes Kilbey laugh.

“Of all the things I’ve heard people in rock bands say they are trying to get — although timelessness is probably one of the most important and one of the most essential ones to achieve — I’ve never heard anyone actually say ‘Let’s be timeless!’”

What’s remarkable is how after more than two decades of playing together, the Church transcended classic-rock revivalism and the low road of nostalgic greatest-hits package tours.

The very idea of such a tour rankles the singer. “Occasionally some silly ideas like that [package tours] have been mentioned and I just go fucking nuts,” says Kilbey, his voice lifting. “Anybody who is stupid enough to ever mention that kind of thing in my presence, I reckon, deserves both barrels.”

Kilbey likens such lucrative nostalgic tripping as a sign of creative and spiritual death. The Church was never driven by the need to burp up chart hits.

“We’re old but we still are trying to improve,” Kilbey says, with an audible smile. “We still have the musical ambitions we used to have. We are not just grinding out a sleazy set in some fucking club in Blackpool.

“I mean, there’s nothing wrong with playing some old songs. It’s like the difference between a dead language and a living language. Latin is Latin, it’s never going to have any new words added to it.”

The Church was always about the juxtaposition, about displacement. At the band’s worst, songs were never-ending opiate trances weighed down with overtly opaque lyrics. At the band’s best, the tunes are simply singsong ache.

Listen to early Church records. Songs on The Blurred Crusade (1982) and Séance (1983), for example, hold up well, with Kilbey’s sleepy-eyed Jim Carroll/John Foxx croon, towering sing-along refrains and luxuriant arrangements. Blessed with the ability to transform longing into gleaming guitar lines, guitarists Marty Wilson-Piper and Peter Koppes created a landscape for Kilbey’s loping and poppy bass lines.

Of it’s nine-album Arista catalog, sadly only 1988’s Starfish remains in print. A sketchy best-of (Under the Milky Way: The Best of the Church) collection saw light a couple years ago. 1999 marked the release of Box of Birds, a lovely album of earnest dedications to songs the band adored growing up — from Mott the Hoople’s “All The Young Dudes” to Ultravox’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour.”

Back to the beginning

The Church returned in February with the aptly titled After Everything Now This, the 13th studio album and third on a “minor” label. The disc — recorded on three continents — is a dense mix of sparkle and intermittent light that quietly recalls the best elements of the earlier work. Critics the world over are frothy-mouthed, calling the record a return to form. It finds the band coming a full metaphorical circle.

“It’s so much more apparent to me now what I’m doing than it was then,” explains Kilbey, a man frequently labeled a shut-in, a misanthrope never happy with ties to the external world. “Then it was just a rush of hormones and sort of desire for all this stuff. Now I can articulate myself so much better with music …”

For Kilbey, the Church is an exercise that requires nothing beyond the purity of the music. He believes in the purity.

“In this world, although most people are eating at McDonald’s and Burger King, there’s always a few people that want to go to that little restaurant that serves nice food they actually cook themselves using fresh ingredients and love and care. Even though most people don’t want that … That’s where the Church comes in. We are not a huge fucking corporate concern. We love what we do … Especially in America, in each big city, there’s always 500 people that want to hear something that somebody cares about.

“I mean, birds sing in the trees. They’re not singing to fulfill (Arista founder) Clive Davis’ financial plan,” he continues, laughing. “The birds, all the animals, love the singing …”

It may take one a whole lifetime to arrive at a simple truth. Maybe that’s what life is all about. You don’t just accept the truth at face value; you have to actually live to learn the simplicity. That Zen-like idea is what the Church’s music trades on. That is why the band remains relevant when nobody but hardcore fans give a shit about it.

“You have things like family and love and peace, and happiness is really the best thing,” Kilbey explains. “It is better than cocaine and power and war and Satan all that. For me, I would rather listen to nice music and eat nice food. There are people out there that don’t. They want McDonald’s and Slayer. What can I say? That’s just the way is.”

The Church will perform Saturday, April 20, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward, Detroit, at 9 p.m.

Brian Smith is Metro Times’ music editor. E-mail him at bsmith@metrotimes.com

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