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Peter Koppes: Australia’s Cinematic Master Of The Guitar

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Peter Koppes is a founding member of one of Australia’s finest rock bands, The Church. Over the course of their 31 year career, the group has experienced their fair share of ups and downs. One thing that has never wavered however, is their dedication to the music. To this end, in addition to his work with the band, Koppes has recorded two EPs and five albums of solo material, and is presently hard at work on his sixth.

The recent two-disc Misty Heights & Cloudy Myths collects 33 tracks of Koppes’ solo work, and serves as a handy introduction to some of his best material. The music is of a much more personal nature than his collaborative efforts with The Church. One thing that is immediately noticeable is the incredible variety of atmospheres and textures that inform these songs.

What I found striking was just how suitable so many of his recordings seem to be for use in television and film. When asked about this this, Koppes says, “my publishers have always asked me to send my instrumentals in to be presented that way, which is something I am finally beginning to do.”

His instrumentals would definitely do the trick. Take “Grasshrooms” for instance. Described as “a testament of the ingredients alluded to by the title, especially the crossing over chromatic movement in the middle section,” it is fairly trippy, but not in an off-putting way. Koppes’ pop sensibilities are far too deeply ingrained for anything like that to ever happen.

More to the point would be the cinematic quality of songs such as “Caravan” and “Arabia” off the Water Rites album. The time he spent in Morocco in 1978 apparently had a lasting effect on him. Both of these tracks exude a haunting whiff of Middle Eastern intrigue. In fact, nearly everything on Water Rites has a larger than life element that practically cries out to be paired with celluloid.

It came as no surprise when Koppes finally owned up to the fact that he has scored a number of student films for friends over the years. The commission he is most proud of though is for the original theme of the Australian TV show Media Watch.

What he seems most excited about today is a new guitar device he has been using, which apparently is very similar to the one Neil Young employs on his latest album Le Noise.  “It is a special harmonizing effect that produces something of an orchestral sound,” says Koppes. “I am using it in a very folk-music direction, and adding this modern guitar/orchestra sound to it. It sounds something like a Mellotron, in fact.”

Koppes’ devotion to music has been a nearly life-long pursuit. In addition to guitar, he plays bass, drums, piano, mandolin, and is now learning bass recorder. He is also teaching music on a one-on-one basis, which seems to give him a great deal of joy. “It is one of the most beautiful things I have done,” he says, “teaching music to children.”

Even with The Church off the road for the moment, he is still gigging. His most recent “show” was as his kindergarten-aged son’s school, where he performed Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’N Roll” for a rapt audience of youngsters.

This is not to imply that he has lost his interest in more adult oriented music. He plays drums for Psychedelia, a side band. They stick to small gigs in and around his hometown in Australia, playing a mix of classic psyschedelic music such as the legendary phased-out “The Real Thing” by Russell Morris, a huge Aussie hit in 1969.

It was songs like those that prompted Peter and Steve Kilbey to form their first band in 1974. They called themselves Precious Little, and were something of a glam-rock affair. But psychedelic music was never far away from Koppes’ mind, as evidenced by his continuing development of a guitar sound that added much more to the music than simply notes and chords.

I have been a fan of Koppes’ since first hearing “The Unguarded Moment” on the local college radio station way back in 1982. His playing is incredibly expressive, and is an essential component of their sound. While The Church are anything but a “formula” band, their music is by definition collaborative. This is one of the reasons why many of us are such fans of his solo material; it allows him complete freedom to indulge a virtually unlimited sonic palette.

Maybe Hollywood will one day take notice of this. Based on his huge body of work over the past 31 years, I think Koppes could have an extraordinary second career making music for television or film. For now though, we have Misty Heights & Cloudy Memories. It is a fantastic glimpse into the musical soul of one of Australia’s finest musicians. And its remarkable Technicolor qualities are designed to take you just about anywhere you wish to go.

Whether Koppes is eventually accepted by the Hollywood film community or not, he is living well on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. Between kindergarten gigs, small shows with Psychedelia, and teaching guitar to young students, he appears a happy man. Of course if all else fails, he can always go back to The Church, who are second only to AC/DC as musical ambassadors from the land down under.

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About Greg Barbrick