The Church with co-producer Ted Howard (seated)

Iconic Australian band THE CHURCH has just released their 26th album and it’s titled Man, Woman, Life, Death, Infinity. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips spoke to the band’s drummer, engineer, and co-producer Tim Powles (aka Bandit) about the creation of the album and in particular, Tim goes into great detail about his drum parts for us.

In a music business which has become so transient, fad-focussed and harder to make a buck, the idea of sustaining a long recording career for most artists is an improbable dream. It makes the recent release of iconic Australian band The Church’s 26th album, Man, Woman, Life, Death, Infinity an even more remarkable achievement. For nearly four decades, the Steve Kilbey-led ethereal rock band has continued to create high quality, interesting and engaging music without ever catering to trends or anyone else’s creative needs bar their own. In the 80’s, while bands like INXS, Men at Work and LRB might have been making headlines for their massive global record sales, The Church with their innovative brand of dream-pop were helping to pioneer a new genre of music, along with other influential acts such as The Cocteau Twins, The Cure and Echo and The Bunnymen. Original band members Marty Willson Piper and Richard Ploog may have moved on but the current line-up, which includes Kilbey, Peter Koppes, drummer/producer Tim Powles and ex-Powderfinger guitarist Ian Haug, seems intent on enhancing rather than just sustaining the band’s legacy, particularly in regard to their live performances.

One of the main reasons why this band remains so enthusiastic about creating music together is that the two newest members, Powles (who has now been with the band for over 20 years) and Haug originally came to The Church as massive fans. Powles has vivid memories of his first encounters with the band and the vibrant Australian music scene when he relocated here from New Zealand in the 1980s.
“I had the chance to be flown to Australia to join a NZ band who were in Sydney,” he recalls. “I went with it and suddenly my life changed. I remember arriving and hearing The Choirboys, Mi-Sex Flowers, The Church and The Angels all on the radio in the first couple of weeks. I was working nights as a loader at venues and got this massive and fast indoctrination into the Australian live music scene. It was crazy and I was just trying to get my head around it. I just realised that everyone was either in a choir or a church or an angel and I did not get how that married up with the rock thing. The first vinyl I bought in Australia was The Church album Blurred Crusade. I was living out near Gladesville and I was walking past The Bayview Tavern one night and I looked in and from the outside I saw The Church on stage and made a mental note to check them out. It was the end of ’82. I got the vinyl and thrashed it, loved everything about it. I’m really into patterns and around that time I auditioned for a band called The Venetians and ended up with a strange parallel existence with the Church because we often got paired up with them to do dates. Then one of my best friends Aaron Chugg, our sound guy at the time, who passed away a few years ago, he ended up doing front of house for the Church. Then someone in the band had given our singer Rik a cassette tape of the Church album Heyday and we just thrashed it on that tour, playing it all the time in the rental van. We’d go and see them if we weren’t on the road with them because Aaron was mixing sound. I really liked them but live I thought they could be a bit hit and miss. They didn’t always do what the band has subsequently learned to do through sheer time and experience. Now I think one of our assets is that we have the assumed ability to transcend and that’s the word that we use. We have portals in songs where we don’t necessarily go to the same place every time but we know we generally go into a mood or feel. It’s kind of unspoken really. We never talk about it but it’s really unique to this band and when it happens, it is really amazing. So yes, I was always a huge fan of the band and I have also done a decent amount of work with Steve outside of the band. We made a lot of records together, shared a studio for 8 years. In particular I do have a very strong creative connection to Steve.”

Tim Powles

Another reason for The Church’s ongoing vitality is that they don’t burden themselves with fixed formulas in regard to the way they create music. Their writing and recording modus operandi is flexible … the method for creating one album might not be the same for the next. This was very much the case with producing the new album, Man, Woman, Life, Death, Infinity. In the past there has been a large improvisational element to the band’s songwriting, with ideas emerging out of jams rather than beginning with fully formed song ideas, which was not the case this time.
“The most important thing about us making a record is that everyone can be there on the first day, it’s like … what are we going to do?” says Tim as he begins to explain the band’s creative process. “Then when we get there, we just start and by the nature of the people in the band … the stuff we’ve been doing outside of the band combines to take us on a journey somewhere. We do a bit of instrument swapping in the studio, quite a bit actually. Ninety percent of the music is jammed up and around 60 percent of the jams would stay as the bed tracks. Then over the top of that Steve would traditionally write tracks. Over most of the albums, generally there would be a point right at the end of the process where Steve would sit down and jam up something vocally very quickly. Usually the first thing that came up was what ended up being the song. He just has a gift for retrospectively making something sound like the music was there before, usually feeding off something either consciously or sub-consciously that was in there. That was the way that we did it. On the last record in particular Further Deeper, I actually took it to another level myself because I felt like we needed to have a particularly strong record to survive the lineup change with Marty Willson-Piper’s departure. Further Deeper was a heavy record, emotionally heavy musically and quite saturated on all levels. That’s the first record where I have gone back and re-cut drum tracks after the whole thing was almost done. I did that on 5 tracks, quite spontaneously one day. I just happened to have some drums in the car.”

Ian, Tim and Peter

Guitarist Ian Haug was surprised to discover how much improvisation was involved in the writing process when he joined the band in 2013, assuming that there would be a more traditional or organised approach to the songwriting. So it was at Ian’s suggestion that this time, they set aside some time to structured some song ideas.
“Ian was possibly a little bit at sea on Further Deeper. He didn’t fully realise that we did what we did, he thought there would be more organised writing. So for this one, he said why don’t we do a little more organised writing, so we agreed to do two writing sessions where we would sketch some things out and choose from that what we might work on as opposed to essentially making it up as we went. So we did that, we did two weeks of prep. We knocked up about 40 pieces or ideas and agreed to convene in May at Rancom Street Studios with long-time collaborator/engineer Ted Howard in the co-producer chair and make something of those sketches. What was really different this time was that we didn’t do any jamming from a place of nowhere, so it was like one stage further up the chain. We spent a day just listening and talking through it and everyone had bits and pieces on the demos that they particularly liked. The other point of difference with this record was that as we were working on the beds, the sketches had already been prepped. Steve would do a lot of the vocals just standing in the control room and they’d become the essence of the songs or became the songs. Also the engineer Ted and I made a decision to keep a very simple vocal recording set up, just monitoring through control room speakers, no headphones, and Ted did a microphone shoot-out and chose an SM7 through a Neve pre with a Distressor as the record chain. We had that set up from the word go so that if Steve wanted to patch any vocals or change lyrics, we could use exactly the same situation. The recording part of things was a lot more direct. I think we were also all keen to have a record which could fit onto vinyl easy … side one, side two … with the ten songs. I think there’s maybe a little more cohesion on this record too. We find out what our records are after we have made them. It’s not like we were in there going this is a great record, it was more like … this is our concept, we’re going to stick to it and then we see what we get when we come out.”

There are some interesting percussive ideas provided by Tim Powles on Man, Woman, Life, Death, Infinity, especially on the track Undersea. It would be easy to assume that the beats emerged out of many hours of experimentation. However, like everything about this band, it would be foolish to assume anything.
“That’s actually my first take … my only take of that song,” states Tim to my surprise. “Every drum track on the record has a different and pretty interesting story behind it. That drum track is from what used to be the laundry in my studio. We call it the laundry or the white witch room because it used to have a washing machine, a dryer, a fridge and a sink, this was before it was a properly built studio. I used to use those things as ambient chambers but now the room has a slightly different sense of ambience. When we were doing the writing session at my place, we worked on Undersea and the sketch was based around a sitar part Steve was playing. It’s got an interesting number of beats in the bar here and there and it changes a bit. I helped record that, we were working on Logic X and Ted Howard (co-producer) was there engineering and I said let’s use this template of what Steve was doing and let me go and play over that. I had an old doona there and had these old bulldog stationery clips and I had it pegged over certain drums and cymbals for that retro dead sound and I pretty much pulled it over everything. I did one pass, which was this drum melodic reaction to what I’d heard. I had two snare drums in there, the one that ended up in the chorus bit was a Mapex brass snare they made for me a long time ago. We didn’t really spend a lot of time on it, we just recorded it, one pass, thinking we’d come back later. Peter’s part from that single take survived too. When we went to Rancom Street, I said that there were certain songs where I really loved what I did and to be honest, I am only going to be doing a duplicate of that. I said if you think we can improve on it, that’s great but if it is just a facsimile of what I’ve done, then I want to leave this. We weren’t sure how that song would go live but we have a pretty mad film clip to go with it, so we put it in the live set in America and it has grown beyond the record into something really psychedelic. It’s kind of quirky and psychedelic on the record but live it has become mantric.”

After 37 years in the business and a couple of lineup changes, The Church’s live shows have developed to a point where Tim believes they are performing better now than ever before. Advances in technology have also made things possible that weren’t a consideration back in the band’s formative years, adding an extra dimension to the band’s sound. I wondered if the new album translated easily to the band’s current stage set up or if they had needed to make adjustments in relation to their gear?
“Everyone has a different way of doing it,” Tim explains. “Peter Koppes in particular works hard in the studio on his patches. He writes everything down and he has a lot of analogue stuff to remember. He uses exactly the same gear and he’ll duplicate it live. He has always been very symphony minded and orchestral about what part in the ensemble he is playing and what sound goes with it. Whereas Ian came from a band who were very simple in terms of effects and ambience and he’s exploring a new palette. He has a ridiculously hi-tech guitar rig, not so much with the amps but in the front end. It’s all true bypass and I think his pedalboard makes Johnny Greenwood’s look small. So live, Ian will do similar to the record but a little different. On the track Undersea that we’ve been talking about, he plays the sitar part live. On that song live, Peter plays his part, I play mine but I also play electronics. There’s a sub pulse which goes all the way through and I actually take my left foot across and play double bass drum. I play the pulse thing most of it with my left foot on the trigger pedal and the regular bass drum part with my right. Steve just sings on that one live and Jeffrey Cain (Remy Zero-USA), who is our new 5th live member plays the pianos and some acoustic. We try to be as authentic as possible and guitar wise that is easy because of what I said about Peter. The sounds become synonymous with the songs and they are sounds he generated, so he has always thought ahead about what he is going to do live. When I came to the band in ’93 and started working with the band as a producer and engineer, Peter and I spent a lot of time developing the ambient side of his sound. He was already a long way into that but we did a lot of work with the Leslies and shimmering harmonisers into cascading trails of multi-taps and reverbs but then it become a pad, so it sounded like an orchestra. He was doing that in his own way, a long time before it became easy to do it in a box with one switch. Everyone has the Eventide shimmer or whatever, where you get the harmonised notes up an octave and you can choose. It’s interesting because he is now trying to find a line between doing it the easy way and still preserving his own slightly more granular tones.”

Tim Powles has never been a traditionalist when it comes to the use of percussion. He’s always had a fascination for artists that combine the use of machines with rock music … 80’s synth rock acts and more recently, modern hip hop acts. He’s owned drum machines since first hearing artists such as Peter Gabriel, Joy Division and Yello and on the new Church album, Tim has taken his implementation of electronics to a new level.
“It’s always been there for me but when I first joined the Church it disappeared because apart from a couple of songs, generally it was fairly organic and I just left that part of what I do behind for a bit.” he says. “Then I brought it back in briefly with the extra record that we did with Parallel Universe, which was a remix record using loops and things. But as a producer, I had been working with all sorts of people on things, so my studio kits have always had samples and triggers and drum replacement going through speakers for years. I never really did much of that with The Church until we got to Further Deeper. Then with that album, I set up triggers off kick drums and snare drums and started using electronic kick drums mixed in with everything else and then took it to the live situation. On this record I took things to a new level, where when we were doing the writing, I decided I was not going to do any of the writing with a real drum kit. I thought I’d just bring my sample pad. Then when we started at Ian’s studio, he said I have my son’s TD-1 Roland Kit downstairs, did I want to use that? I said yeah, that will save me sticking my triggers and extra things into my SPDX sample pad. So we got Hugo’s TD-1 up there on the first day. The cable from the phone socket out … was broken so just the left side out … went into my Allen & Heath console and I mixed in a couple of live microphones into my own mixer and chucked a bit of reverb on. Essentially we had a mono drum line for that whole session. I was mainly using presets but I had a USB for the TD-1 and I ran it into my laptop and put some SoftTube Heartbeat sounds across the top of it. I think I did a couple where I played along to a loop running off my laptop at the same time but again, that all went down mixed together.”

“We kept two drum tracks from that session. When we came to the sessions at my place, we took a similar approach. On the one hand you have a song like Undersea, which was a kit covered in a doona in the laundry, which I also used for Dark Waltz, the last track on the record. Then you go to a track like In Your Fog, which is a mix of samples from a Roland TD-25 and my SPDX as well and a live snare with an open mic. There may have been an overhead too. So the drum track from Dark Waltz is my demo writing track and it’s a total hybrid. There were no rules on the record. The first track on the album, Another Century is a 7 mic set up by Ted in the small room at Rancom Street with all real drums except the kick drum, which was 50/50. I had a trigger running on the kick drum and I used the Ashdown amp running and I’d feed different things through them and mic them up and blend it. I am particularly happy that the album was made that way because it is kinda where my head is at and it certainly brings something fresh to the record.”

The Church begin their national tour on November 16 in Adelaide running through until early December. They will then consider tours to Europe and America. The album Man Woman Life Death Infinity is available both digitally and on vinyl now


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