With Mullum Music Festival in its seventh year and the lineup announcement happening this week, everyone is talking about headline act The Church, Australia’s unrivalled rock legends, pioneers of the jangly guitar, inspiration for countless acts to follow, and to this day forging new ground in their continual creative evolution.
With five-star rave reviews for their 2011 album, a standing ovation at A Day on the Green, the boys welcome Powderfinger bass player Ian Hogue to the fold with a brand-new album due out in October and a select number of national performances, including Mullum Music Festival.
Peter Koppes is The Church guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, music academic and of course founding member. Koppes actually credits Poinciana Cafe owners Kevin and Karin Oxford for seeding the idea that created this highly acclaimed musical outfit.
‘Kevin Oxford started the band,’ says Peter, ‘I was mixing a band and had lights and a PA and a truck; in fact I was mixing for Karin’s brothers band. Kevin used to do the markets with Steve Kilbey and he said why don’t you start a band. So the starting rights belong to Kevin, who has a cafe in Mullumbimby!’
Koppes is a true artist, unconventional, passionate, uncompromising. For him it’s been and continues to be a rollicking adventure on the road less travelled.
‘Every minute I have spent in music has been a wonderful journey.
I believe it’s ceremonial; it’s the only way we can touch god. Years ago I became a member of the theosophical societies. One of their expert lecturers who comes around was telling us about the second level of heaven. I asked him once could I take songs to the other side? And without flinching he said Yes.’
For Koppes, songwriting is not just a creative pursuit, it’s an exacting science. A lecturer at the University of Technology in Queensland, Koppes credits a lot of The Church’s difficult and unusual compositions to a deeper understanding and implementation of pure music theory.
‘When you start talking about songwriting you have a can of worms! If you believe the Greeks, then music is the ultimate art form – it is the science of harmonisation.
‘We are DNA ingrained with the scale that Pythagoras discovered; he put a line out and worked out that there were 12 octaves – there are such close associations with quantum physics – and without knowing it a lot of composers have been doing maths!
‘Music is right in that dreamy part of maths, because you have these 12 intervals where you can put in different arrangements; they call it the Diatonic progression of chords. Blues came along and messed with it and put minor over major, and at the time it was called an abomination!’
As a songwriter, a guitarist and a lover of musical theory Koppes explains the genius of the Beatles.
‘The Beatles took the blues back to classical – of course it was slightly tarnished classical with a blues 7th; they took the minor 7th back into classical and left the other ones out – they made the music a lot more ‘majory’. John Lennon had an intuitive and great mind to assimilate this mathematical information and patterns.
‘I think that is why they were such a phenomenon; they had classical structures with slight jazz. They took the risks and went forward with songs that most people would have dumped. Most other competing bands in the UK would get someone else to complete their songs; most other people had session musicians to help them finish their songs!’
Koppes believes that true songwriting skill lies in a musician’s ability to finish a song.
‘We made a joke about our new album,’ says Koppes. ‘We wanted to make Abbey Road meets Dark Side of the Moon. Our the working title was Dark Side of Abbey Moon!’
Koppes talks of Kilbey’s genius in the same way he speaks of John Lennon.
‘Steve Kilbey is a musical genius and an intuitive creative genius without being theoretical. I am the theoretical one. I did a lesson with George Golla from Galapagos Duck a long time ago. In half an hour he laid out the dionetic progression and I got it. For most people it’s enough to know there is a science to help them.’
Koppes describes songwriting using metaphor.
‘As a songwriter I say to people, just open the door on the first idea and it’s a matter of taking a footstep in the right direction.
‘People ask how do you know when the song is finished. I say, when there is nothing left that irritates you!
In The Church we have such complex arrangements because we can understand the theory of it.’
In explaining, Koppes tells the story of Under the Milky Way, a Kilby composition originally written on piano as a Frank Sinatra-style song to be sold to a crooner. Fortunately management knew a good thing when they heard it and insisted it become part of The Church repertoire.
‘I played a wrong note in the solo at the end and it ended up being the right note: it was a special minor. When other people play that song they go to play it the way it should be played and miss the wrong note so it never sounds quite right!’
As for Unguarded Moment?
‘Steve’s wife, who was mine at one time, says she wrote that song with him! They got on a keyboard and knocked it out. He says it was just a 60s riff, a mixture of Needles and Pins and When You Walk in the Room. When the drummer put his vocal – that high refrain in the chorus – we played it back and we knew we had a hit. We hadn’t played that in a long time, but we do these days; it’s too over-emphasised not to!’
For Koppes, the shows he enjoys doing with The Church now are not straight rock shows ‘where you kick off all the things you have to do with all the rock endings. I like to play with a bit of virtuosity. We always loved Pink Floyd. There were some people that have called us the modern Pink Floyd! We are getting more courageous at presenting music that is more intense.’
As for the new album due out in October, Koppes believes, ‘music is like a conversation. Marty left, he didn’t say why, he just went, and we thought how are we going to do this, but Ian Hogue from Powderfinger replaced him and it’s a different conversation now, but we are all very excited about this new album and what we are playing.’
‘Ian Hogue has a sense of privilege in the best sense of the word – he was in a band that had to have five number-one albums inside this country. He’s come into the fold. Powderfinger loves The Church. We’ve be one of his favourite bands, and we are a musician’s band after all. Radiohead are aware of our structure, and someone said to me that Tom York based some of his music structure on The Church.
‘We deserve to blow our trumpet after our lack of success! Ian is a magnificent addition to our guitar work and musicianship. He wasn’t intimidated by us because he has his own platform of success and we have our own platform of respect. He’d lost his band and we’d lost our guitarist and thought we could never replace him, but then realised that with Ian there was an explosion of ideas!
‘This music we are making now is more foot tapping! The Church has always been a heady band, but now there is a joyousness – Steve is even singing falsetto!’
The Church headline Mullum Music Festival, alongside US sensation Hurray for the Riff Raff, Harry James Angus Band, Saskwatch, Husky, The Bombay Royale, Mia Dyson, Nai Palm, Kim Churchill and over 70 more acts. November 20–23, with tickets available on www.mullummusicfestival.com or on the hotline 6684 6195.