This essay appeared previously in NewCity.
The Church debuted with Of Skin and Heart (known worldwide as The Church) in 1981. The Australian foursome never fit neatly into the then-thriving new wave movement; while guitarist Marty Willson-Piper’s jangling guitars bore some sonic connection with the American West Coast’s so-called “Paisley Underground” movement, the band’s moody, minor key air and the impressionistic lyrics from bassist and primary vocalist Steve Kilbey set the band apart from the pack.
The Church reached its high-water commercial mark in the late 1980s; Starfish (1988) included the group’s most well-known tune, the soaring yet melancholy ‘Under the Milky Way.” And though today Kilbey all but disowns it, 1990’s Gold Afternoon Fix is nearly Starfish’s equal in every way: consistently strong songwriting, musicianship and vocals.
Subsequent releases failed to capitalize on the commercial success of those records, but The Church pressed on, continuing to create high quality music embraced by its worldwide fan base. Contrasting with the group’s knack for writing concise pop tunes, The Church also embarked on a series of epic-length works, issuing them either as bonus discs (the hour-long Bastard Universe included with 1988’s Hologram of Baal) or self-released albums (2004’s Jammed).
The Church’s personnel has been remarkably consistent since its inception 38 years ago. Founding members Kilbey and Peter Koppes (guitar) remain with the group, and drummer Tim Powles has been with the band since 1994. There was a period during which The Church was down to a duo (Kilbey and Willson-Piper made the superb Sometime Anywhere with Powles as a session player), but even then, the band’s signature sound came through.
In circumstances that were never fully explained, Willson-Piper left the band in 2013, continuing with a creatively fruitful solo career he had begun in 1987. For his part, Kilbey, too, has maintained a creative life alongside his endeavors with The Church; to date he has released more than 16 solo albums. After Willson-Piper’s departure, Powderfinger guitarist and songwriter Ian Haug joined the band. Though Kilbey pens all of The Church’s (deepply evocative and rarely straightforward) lyrics, for many years now all of the band’s music has been credited to all members.
The Church has embarked on several retrospective projects like its current Starfish 30th Anniversary Tour, taking the opportunity to explore its massive back catalog (25 studio albums and counting), but the band has never been one to rest on its reputation; 2014’s Further/Deeper and Man Woman Life Death Infinity (2017) are as musically effective as anything the group recorded during its commercial heyday. Though through the band’s long history there has been occasional talk of disbanding, today The Church continues strong and artistically valid as ever, with no end (nor need for end) in sight.