The Church guitarist Peter Koppes concedes his public profile is lower than his bandmates. Having endured years of relative anonymity in The Church – and having twice decided to leave the band on account of a perceived lack of recognition in the composition and arrangement of Church songs – Koppes has addressed outstanding issues with bass player Steve Kilbey and guitarist Marty Willson-Piper. “It’s like a family, but not a marriage – marriages don’t usually last as long as The Church has been together,” Koppes explains. “These days we definitely have a lot more respect for each other.”
Koppes spent his teenage years in Canberra in the 1970s. In the early 1970s Canberra was in the midst of an upswing in the wake of Gough Whitlam’s election. “I found Canberra an interesting place,” Koppes remembers. “As I grew up I met some of the most interesting people. Canberra’s got some pretty interesting attributes – it’s got the highest rate of occultism, and the highest rate of adultery. It’s a quiet place, but with a seedy underbelly. I definitely enjoyed the perspective I got while I was there – it gave me a blank canvass from which to work.”
It was in Canberra that Koppes first met Steve Kilbey. Koppes was already adept at both guitar and drums; when Kilbey’s twin-drum glam rock band needed a replacement second drummer, Koppes was drafted in, switching subsequently to guitar. Through his guitar teacher father, Koppes was already learning some of the finer points of musical practice and theory that would eventually infuse The Church’s music. “I had a lesson from a guitarist in Galapagos Duck,” Koppes recalls. “He taught me about harmonies – he unlocked the reasons the behind tones and semi-tones.” Later on in The Church he would bend the rules of harmony. “You need to know the laws in order to break them – that’s what Thelonious Monk did with jazz.”
Armed with what he describes as an understanding of “the science of music”, Koppes moved to Sydney where he again teamed up with Kilbey. After witnessing a very early Church gig, Marty Willson-Piper joined, and with original drummer Richard Ploog, the first line-up of The Church was born. On the eve of the recording sessions for their first album, The Church actually broke up due to lack of money; the band’s publisher saved the day and that first record was completed. On the back of the hit single Almost With You, The Church found almost immediate success, appearing on Countdown – consistent with the industry modus operandi of the day. “We knew how critical it was to do Countdown,” Koppes admits. “But it did cause us some issues. It made our discerning audience suspicious of us being on there, and the industry was already suspicious of us because we weren’t interested in playing the industry game,” he says. “We hated the airtime that was given to other shit, so at least we got an airing.”
The Church headed off overseas, including an ill-fated tour supporting Duran Duran in the mid 1980s, the latter at that time at the peak of their Smash Hits fame. “We went over there expecting to support the Psychedelic Furs, but that tour was cancelled,” Koppes remembers. “Our record company paid £7000 to get on the Duran Duran tour. We played 40 minutes in front of an audience who didn’t want any support act, least of all us. They’d start off with that song Rio, and we’d try and get out of the venue before they’d start playing!” Koppes laughs. Four shows into the tour, and The Church decided to cut their losses and leave the tour.
By this time drugs had become a regular part of The Church’s intellectual and artistic processes; while Kilbey’s dalliance with heroin would culminate with his arrest in New York in the 1990s, Koppes’ own chemical experimentation was less subsuming. “I subscribe to the William Burroughs theory that you don’t have to keep taking them as you get older,” he figures. “I treat them as a sacrament. When we made Priest = Aura we were completely opiated – we were getting opium from fields in Tasmania, where it was being grown by US pharmaceutical companies.”
It was around this time that intra-band tensions saw Koppes leave the band. Koppes left prior to Blurred Crusade, only to be re-drafted back into The Church before an overseas tour. Koppes left again, returning for The Refo:mation album (which three members made under a different name) a few years later. “When I rejoined in 1998 I said I wouldn’t get kicked out again,” Koppes says. “I’ve been seen as the quiet member of the band, but I’ve looked after the business of the band. I also arranged a lot of that early music – the intro and outro of Unguarded Moment came from me.”
The Church’s induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame (complete with Steve Kilbey’s hilariously rambling thank you speech) has coincided with the band’s thirtieth anniversary. “We didn’t think the Hall of Fame thing would have any bearing on our career, but because it was televised a lot of people got to see it. Steve’s speech revealed his personality – he’s always been like that backstage. I think it revealed how interesting we actually are,” Koppes says.
THE CHURCH play The Thornbury Theatre on Friday December 17 and Sunday December 19 on their An Intimate Space tour (performing one song from each album over the last 30 years in reverse chronological order).
They also play a special Psychedelic Symphony anniversary Opera House show on April 10. Hot damn! EMI are also re-releasing the band’s back catalogue and they look all pretty and new.