When Australian indie rockers The Church first came to mainstream attention in the late 1980s, it was a time of splendid musical chaos.
Whitney Houston and Madonna shared the charts with Bon Jovi and Guns N’ Roses, George Michael had shed his Wham!-era teen idol persona, and the Smiths had broken up.
Grunge hadn’t quite left the garages of Seattle, but Sonic Youth, Jane’s Addiction and the Pixies were on the rise.
The Church fit right in with this wild and diverse soundscape. 1988’s “Starfish,” which spawned the hits “Under the Milky Way” and “Reptile,” was praised by fans and critics for its lush melodies, mystical overtones and introspective lyrics.
The Church today looks very little like the Church of 1988, but it abides, thanks to singer/songwriter and bassist Steve Kilbey.
“It’s a bit like the Cure, I guess — just Robert Smith now, isn’t it?” says Kilbey, speaking by phone on April 13 from his home on Australia’s Gold Coast. “That happens. Mark E. Smith, he once said, ‘if it’s me and your granny playing bongos, that’s The Fall.’ And I’ve sort of reached that stage now.”
Beatles, Bolan and Bowie
Born in England in 1957, Kilbey moved to Australia as a child. But it was an American singer who taught him to love music.
“This record by Frank Sinatra, called ‘Only the Lonely,’ had all these torch ballads of unrequited love, written by the best songwriters in the world at the time.”
The 5-year-old Kilbey loved all those “beautiful, sad songs” and their thoughtful lyrics. But by the time he was 9, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were rocking the musical landscape into a new era, and Kilbey was as enamored as “every other kid in the world.”
“I was influenced by all of that,” he recalls. “And then at age 16 to 18 I took to Marc Bolan and David Bowie — who were more than influences. They were more like obsessions . . . With Bolan and Bowie, it wasn’t just their music — it was everything about them.”
Going to Church
The Church came together as a trio in 1980 in Sydney, with Kilbey on bass, Peter Koppes on guitar and keyboards and Nick Ward on drums. They were joined by guitarist Marty Willson-Piper and recorded the band’s first album, 1980’s “Of Skins and Heart.” Shortly thereafter, Richard Ploog replaced Ward on drums, and it was this lineup that would first see commercial success.
“Of Skins and Heart” was re-released as “The Church” in 1982 and made a big splash in New Zealand and Sweden. Three more albums followed, garnering the band more fans and critical acclaim. Then came 1988’s “Starfish,” international mainstream success . . . and internal squabbling.
“It should have been a wonderful experience,” recalls Kilbey. “However, I mainly remember all the jostling for position in the band. As soon as we had success, everyone in the band was a superstar. We were all arguing and fighting with each other.”
By 1990, Ploog had left the band, while Koppes departed in 1992 (he would return in 1997) and Willson-Piper in 2013.
“I’m glad none of those people are in my life anymore, I’ll tell you that,” Kilbey says with perfect frankness. “I like the band I play with now a lot more.”
Today’s Church includes three guitarists — Jeffrey Cain (Remy Zero), Ian Haug (Powderfinger) and Ashley Naylor — plus Kilbey (vocals, guitar, bass and keyboards) and Tim Powles (drums). Most of this lineup will tour the United States in May, including a show at the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix on May 11. (Nick Meredith will stand in for drummer Powles, who is dealing with medical issues.)
The tour ends in Pasadena with an appearance at Cruel World, taking place at the Rose Bowl May 14 and May 15 and featuring Morrissey, Bauhaus, Echo and the Bunnymen, Violent Femmes and several other luminaries of the 1980s alt-rock and synth-pop scenes. For Kilbey, however, the music festival won’t be a highlight.
“They’ve got almost every . . . alt-rock band from the 1980s that they could get, and we’re just fortunately and unfortunately lumped in with all of that,” he says. “When I play there, I will be doing my best. But I’m looking forward more to the gigs where we play to our own audience who know and understand us rather than a bunch of people who probably are waiting for (expletive) Morrissey or something to come on.”
The Church may have been “lumped into” the ’80s indie sound, but Kilbey says that he has always been “battling the zeitgeist.”
“In the ’80s when people were trying to make me sound like the ’80s, I fought against that. Just like I don’t feel like I’m an Australian or an Englishman. … I like the feeling of not really belonging here. I think that’s a good thing, to have that ambiguity.”
Kilbey is anything but ambiguous about his love for the creative process. In a career that spans more than four decades, he has recorded dozens of albums — with the Church and other bands, solo and as a collaborator. As a songwriter, he as over 1,000 original compositions registered with the Australasian Performing Right Association, and in 2011 was inducted into the Australian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
Beyond music, Kilbey has published several books of poetry and a 2014 autobiography. His current project is a graphic novel about Carthaginian general Hannibal. And his pastel artwork was used to create the tarot card deck “Tarot of the Time Being.”
“I’ll have a go at anything having to do with the arts,” Kilbey says.
Renewed appreciation for music
Unsurprisingly, the multitalented artist had no trouble filling his time during the pandemic shutdowns. He played a lot of acoustic guitar, wrote songs and did shows on Instagram — one of the first musicians to do so.
“I found music to be a great solace during lockdown for almost two years,” he recalls. “I think a lot of people found that music was getting them through those hard times much better than anything else.”
He’s playing live once again with renewed vigor.
“The first time, when it was all over, playing to audiences, I was really happy to have an audience,” he explains. “And the audience was really happy to be able to be in an audience. The artists and the audiences have discovered how important it all is.”
Music festivals aside, Kilbey is very much looking forward to his upcoming tour.
“Of all the places in the world to play, America is the best. I’m not just saying that. Australian audiences are very skeptical. When (the Church) first got to America and people loved what we did, I was addicted to that — the audience willing you to succeed. I’m really looking forward to getting there, strapping on my bass and making some noise.”
An Evening with The Church
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 11
WHERE: Crescent Ballroom, 308 N. Second Avenue, Phoenix
COST: Tickets start at $37.50 for the 21 and older show