For Australian psychedelic-rock band The Church, the anthemic song "Anchorage" may be atypically straightforward, both musically and lyrically: "Darkness returning / my torch keeps on burning ..." But as a restatement of purpose, "Anchorage," from the band's recent album Untitled #23, can be seen as definitive: For 30 years, The Church has carried its torch through the ups and downs of success and rejection, and come out with nothing less than a legendary oeuvre, as adored by Church fans as it is ignored by the mainstream biz that once embraced it.
"If we ran out of steam, we wouldn't be able to look at each other," says guitarist Peter Koppes. "If we didn't feel we were achieving something artistically, we couldn't look each other in the eye. But on [Untitled #23], I think it's borne out something very mature, both musically -- in terms of harmony, especially -- and in passion. We're not complacent, and I think we feel vindicated that we can achieve something artistic after all these years together."
In 1988, the pop-music world learned The Church's name, as the sweeping chords of "Under the Milky Way" moved from 120 Minutes to daytime MTV airplay, and The Church from "cult heroes" to "one-hit wonders" in the eyes of the music press. That hit persists: Since its use in the 2001 film Donnie Darko, everyone from Kill Hannah to Rick Springfield has covered the tune. (A jazz-piano version has recently garnered plays on WDUQ -- what's more, it's not half bad.)
But by that point, The Church was already five albums and seven years into its career. The foundation of a sound that would take shape over three decades was fully formed: bassist Steve Kilbey's trippy words shrouded in Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper's double-guitar approach, with drummers Richard Ploog and now Tim Powles similarly balancing moody atmospherics with straight-ahead rock.
When The Church formed, on Australia's west coast, in 1980, the region's music scene was booming, but not with '60s-inspired psychedelic rock. To today's post-post-punks, the era is renowned for spawning the likes of Nick Cave, The Saints and old Church colleagues The Go-Betweens. But being the paisley outsiders in an exploding black-clad music scene may have helped The Church become the litany of self-motivated dichotomies it is to this day.
The band still flirts with mainstream recognition, while maintaining an obsessive underground cult status. It holds a substantial major-label back catalog, yet manages complete control of its artistic output to great success -- Australian Rolling Stone gave Untitled #23 five stars, suggesting it may be the band's best work to date.
And despite never having "made it big" like some contemporaries (notably U2), the band has never fallen the other direction, either. Through a combination of 30 years of financial acumen and an adoring fan base, The Church still manages to make a living by simply being The Church.
"We always took our financial feasibility very seriously," says Koppes, noting that the band also made good decisions about whom to work with. "That's an important reason that we've survived as a band. To their credit, [our labels] never pushed us for another 'Milky Way.' I think they knew that wasn't going to happen!"
Even for rock 'n' roll, fans of The Church are an odd lot: nostalgic '80s New Wavers and crystal-reading New Agers, post-punks and computer nerds-turned-executives. After a recent festival appearance in Australia, the band has seen an influx of young fans born after "Milky Way."
"What I'm really enjoying is that we're relating to a new group of people and not just the people who've followed us," says Koppes. "Although, I suppose most of those aren't still following us, or the albums would still be going gold!"
It's just those long-time fans, however, that the band's current 30th-anniversary tour is expressly aimed at in its conceptual format. The band will play at least one song from each album, in reverse chronological order, all acoustically. To Koppes, the tour is a chance to remind the band members that they've succeeded at creating a body of work that stands the test of time -- just as the band itself has.
"Recently we've had to re-record some songs [exactly as originally played] for these Guitar Hero and Rock Band games -- which was a strange nostalgic experience," says Koppes. "We've always had the feeling we were creating music that we'd still be able to listen to as we matured. And I think we can."
The Church 30th Anniversary Acoustic Tour 8 p.m. Mon., April 19 (doors at 7 p.m.). Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. $35 (includes free Deadman's Hand EP). 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com
- The big three-oh: The Church