When the Church brings its show to a close at the Great American Music Hall on Friday night — or, more likely, Saturday morning — the seminal alt-rock band from Australia will have played nearly three hours of music from a trio of records from its extensive discography. No small feat for a bunch of guys in their 50s.
"It's quite an undertaking for the band and for the audience," says frontman Steve Kilbey on the phone from Sydney, noting that the night will include two intermissions. "The audience is going to have to be patient to sit through all this music, and they're going to really have to be into it. If we can pull it off, I think it would be incredible."
Dubbed Future Past Perfect, the tour finds the Church playing 1988's Starfish, 1992's Priest=Aura, and 2009's Untitled #23 in their entirety, in reverse chronological order. Especially impressive is that not only has the band never played an album from front to back, this undertaking is forcing the guys to dust off 10 songs they've never performed live.
Kilbey says his bandmates dreamed up the tour, which is making its way around the U.S., the country where the Church has always felt the most love. Starfish, with its straightforward pop songs — and featuring the timeless hit, "Under The Milky Way" — was chosen because it's the band's most popular album, while Priest=Aura never had a supporting tour in the States due to poor sales and reviews. (Both are being reissued as part of a back catalog project that began last year.) Not wanting to come off looking like a nostalgia act, the band is opening the evening with its most recent album, Untitled #23. When pressed, Kilbey picks Priest=Aura as his favorite Church record.
"Although I have misgivings about some parts of it, and some of the '90s-type sounds," he clarifies. "It's our most concept-like album. We came to America to do the interviews for Priest=Aura, and Nirvana had just exploded, and that's all anybody was interested in. No one was interested in our art-rock album at the time."
Even with business down during most of the '90s, the Church carried on (for a time without guitarist Peter Koppes), sticking to its guns and ignoring the fads that came and went. Eventually things began to turn around, and last year, amid its 30th anniversary, the band was inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association Hall Of Fame. Along the way, the Church inadvertently discovered the secret to rock 'n' roll longevity, at least for a band that can't afford a $40,000-a-month therapist: settling into that sweet spot where you're popular enough to make a living, but never reach the level of fame where expectations and demands can crush even the most strong-willed group. It also helps that they're still inspired by each other as musicians.
"Even though we don't necessarily love each other as people that much, we love to play with each other," says Kilbey. "When we pick up our instruments and start playing, we're still excited by what we can do together. Just in the last two years we've kind of refocused, re-intensified, and the band has become a lot better."
It seems like it might be a challenge trying to capture the essence of albums made so long ago, especially one like Priest=Aura, whose hazy, atmospheric sounds were designed with the assistance of opiates. But Kilbey — who was arrested in New York in 1999 for trying to buy heroin but has since kicked his habit — says returning to that album hasn't been difficult.
"I think I might have actually pulled some good out of it when I first got into taking opiates," he says. "Before it completely knocked me out of action, which didn't take very long, I had this revelation that I wanted to produce that feeling with music. I think Priest=Aura is a good way for people to experience it without actually having to go and mess with the stuff."
The group promises to do faithful renditions of all the songs, but considering that Kilbey says he's been genuinely surprised by some of the things he's uncovered in his past, it seems unlikely that he and his bandmates will just be going through the motions.
"Some of it is very simplistic, and I think, 'Is that the best you could come up with?'" he says. "Especially in the lyrical department. Other bits seem quite complex, and I'm sort of amazed that we did it. We're still aiming to reproduce the feeling of the song — if you'd seen it in 1988 and you come and see it now in 2011, we haven't gone off course. We're not going to be doing schmaltzy versions. We're not going to be doing long bluesy versions. We're trying to be pretty authentic with it."