In Conversation With the Church’s Steve Kilbey
It's February 1988, and the radio is flooded with Tiffany, Cher and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. The future of internet pranks rests in the hands of young Rick Astley, whose single "Never Gonna Give You Up" verges on the Top 10.
It's a strange time for an arty band from Australia to break in America, but that's what happened. The band's single, "Under the Milky Way," cracked the Top 40 in the States and provided a glimmer of hope to the post-punks and neo-psychedelics forced to suffer through endless spins of George Michael and Richard Marx.
What we didn't know was that the Church were no overnight success. Founded in 1980 by bassist/singer Steve Kilbey and guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper, the band already had four albums to their credit prior to 1988's Starfish. During that time, they'd done very well in their native Australia as well as Europe. America was late to the Church's party, but better late than never.
The ensuing years bear the hallmarks of your basic "Behind the Music" band documentary: Lineup changes, solo albums, breakups, makeups, and addictions, but the music remained remarkable throughout. Now in their 35th year, the Church are back with Further/Deeper, a stunning album well-deserving of its spot in the band's discography. They're back on the road, too, kicking off a North American tour in Ontario on August 7, 2015 that wraps up a month later in Los Angeles.
Frontman Steve Kilbey recently spoke with us from Sydney, Australia. He's an engaging conversationalist -- funny, energetic and generous. Just be sure to speak up: 35 years of rock and roll can be rough on a guy's ears.
We hear you guys are coming over for a tour.
We are coming to America. We are doing a few dates on our own and we are doing a whole bunch of dates with the Psychedelic Furs.
That’s a great bill. How did that come about?
When we were playing in New York three or four months ago, I met with my manager. He said, "Wow, this tour is going really well. What we need is you guys to come back and have a nice double bill."
I said, "Yeah, that's true," and he said, "Who would you like to tour with?"
I said, "Oh, I don't know. Psychedelic Furs?" And he went, "Oh, I think I can arrange that one." About three weeks later, it was on.
Are you friends with Richard Butler and the Furs, or did you just feel like your styles would be a good match?
I met them once a long time ago, and I know Tim [Butler, Psychedelic Furs bassist] a little bit. I will be disappointed if Richard and I don't become friends-- we've got a lot in common. We're both painters as well as musicians.
I also think that it's a really good match. I think people that like the Furs would like the Church and vice versa. I think their fans won't be pissed off with us and our fans won't be pissed with them. I think, maybe it's a chance we can both impress some different people.
Your new album, Further/Deeper, is a really great piece of work. I was surprised that longtime guitarist Mary Willson-Piper isn’t on the record. How did that come about?
Marty never came back to the Church. We had a break, and then he never came back, and he never gave us any explanation. I kept asking him, “What are you doing, what are you doing? We want to make an album,” and he never got back to me. In the meantime, I found a patron who said he would finance this album, so I had the money. I gave Marty a deadline, and he never responded.
Tell us a little about your new guitarist.
We asked Ian Haug from Powderfinger, who was like a really big band in Australia. They disbanded a couple of years ago. I'd known Ian a little bit and I knew he wanted to keep on playing. I asked him to join and he accepted and we went in and started making the album. Ian just fit in perfectly. He was just a great guy to work with, and he inspired the rest of the band. We really started looking at what we were doing -- what we could change, and what could be improved. It was really a great process.
It's nice getting a little fresh blood in now and then isn't it?
Definitely, you can never underestimate that. I think the Church had gotten stagnant. I don't in any way blame this on Marty, but our last recording session we had not really come up with anything. We were kind of locked into some kind of old routine. As soon as Ian joined, the songs just kind of started flowing out again. So, fresh blood you can never underestimate it.
The Church’s music is so textural that it's interesting to me that Ian could just slot in like that.
I don't know what I'd imagined would happen, but he did just slot in. It could have gone wrong in so many ways. There were so many possibilities that he wouldn't have understood the way that we write, the way that we put things together. He just sort of jumped in there immediately. The first day, the first 10 minutes, we were off and running. He just kind of understood the process and he became part of the texture.
You guys have been around for 35 years and 20-plus albums, but for some you are forever stuck in Starfish. Is that frustrating?
There are lots of people in America that are our fans, who don't expect Starfish. Sometimes when we do “Under the Milky Way” there is almost a groan, like “Aw, no.” Starfish is just another album to them. It's an album they like, but it's not the main thing. [On the last tour] People were actually saying they were disappointed we weren't doing more stuff off our new album.
Then, I guess, there's the greater public unwashed Philistines -- in America they don't know who we are. The only thing they know is Starfish, or “Milky Way,” or they don't know Starfish, they only know “Milky Way.”
Never the twain really meets at our shows. When we do “Under the Milky Way,” it's just another song in the set.
Is that right?
Really it is, yeah. We're not one hit wonders. I think after 35 years, and like 24 or 25 albums, our fans don't just want to hear that one song. I think the American audiences are even less inclined to want to hear “Under the Milky Way” than they are in Australia.
In Australia, the song is monstrous. People don't know who I am, or the Church, but they know that song. There's been loads of cover versions, and they use it on Talent Quest and in tourist campaigns, and all kinds of things. The song has kind of taken on its own mojo in Australia far more than it has anywhere else. In America, it doesn't mean so much.
In your memoir, Something Quite Peculiar, you say that you’re in your eccentric uncle phase. What’s that all about?
I was invited to this sort of second rate Australian music award thing where they wanted me to give an award. The next day, the reviews said, ”Steve Kilbey was like a mad uncle gate crashing a 21st birthday party.” I like that description. That's exactly what I am now: I'm a mad uncle, a mad grandfather.
The years have not sort of diminished my eccentricities and my sort of nuttiness, I suppose. Now that I'm older I can completely embrace that. I was thinking about this the other day. I was walking down the street, and this guy was walking the other way with his three-year-old kid. The kid says, "Well, hello," to me. I stopped and went, "Well, hello, how are you?" The dad stood there at like a distance, and me and the kid had about a five minute conversation. I don't know who they were.
I was thinking, “Wow, that's the kind of stuff you can do when you're 60.” When I was 30, when I was walking down the road and some kid says hello to me, I might have gone “Hello kid” and kept on walking. When you’re sort of an old guy, you've got license to sort of do whatever you like. You know what I mean?
I'm living that up to the hilt and doing whatever I like. On stage, I say whatever I like. If there is a white elephant in the room, I say there is a white elephant in the room. One of the minor luxuries of getting old and decrepit is you can do this stuff. All of the bad stuff -- you have to accept all of that -- but there are a few small benefits that come with being kind of well on in years, I think.
I can drop the act. I don't have to pretend to be the sort of frozen, new world man anymore. I can just be a sort of mad uncle. When the mad uncle comes to dinner, you don't know what he's going to f----ng do.
Did you feel earlier in your career like you had to project a certain persona?
Yeah. When we started, I had all these ideas of how I was going to be. I was going to be like a cross between all of my favorite rock stars. I was a bit of David Bowie, and a bit of John Foxx, and a bit of this, and a bit of that -- aloof, and hard to reach and all of this sort of thing. As the years pass and after all the things you go through, you sort of go, “F--- that, I don't need that anymore. That's not who I am anymore.”
I am my own man. I'm not adhering to any rules anymore. The people are really responding to that. On stage, we are a lot more powerful after having let go of all of those things of what we thought we were and just letting it be.
You're kind of getting rid of that fourth wall between you and the audience.
It's destroyed, I've shattered it. I saw an old fan write, sadly, the other day on Facebook, “Sometimes I wish Steve was just like he used to be,” because all of these people were going, “Wow, Steve is really cutting loose.” There was one little voice of dissent.
We just got a review from a show we did a major festival in Australia. It said that in the whole festival I had more swagger and sway than anybody else. I was kind of pleased with that. When I jump up on stage, I'm living it up to the hilt. I'm just doing whatever I feel.
Neil Young recently pulled his music off of all streaming sites because he says the sound quality is poor and he doesn’t want his music represented that way. Your music seems like a good candidate for that -- for really being damaged by being compressed so much. Do you have any thoughts on that? Do you even care as long as people are listening?
The whole thing is really compounded for me because I have massive hearing damage. I'm now at a stage where I can no longer tell the difference. I'm amazed Neil Young's ears are good enough for him to be able to hear the difference. I wouldn't know the difference between an MP3, the worst, most degradable MP3 you can imagine, and something coming off a pristine 24 track analog tape through a Neve console.
To me, it's a moot point. I just have to go along with what other people say. I wish people could hear our music in its most pristine form off a great big thick piece of vinyl. Virgin vinyl obviously is the best way to hear it. I can't tell anymore. I've sort of sacrificed my ears for rock and roll.
It's sad isn't it? It's like an artist who's going blind. I've been playing in bands since I was 16. That's 44 years that I've been hammering my ears. I've got industrial-strength hearing damage.
Have you always painted as well as making music?
No, I haven't always painted. I started painting about 15, 16 years ago.
Is there a correlation there?
No, no, that would have been good, wouldn't it? If I could say, “Yeah, I saw my ears going so I just sort of jumped on a new art form.” But, my eyes are going too. I'm as blind as a bat. I'm as deaf as a post. I don't smell very well, either. All I've got left is my touch. I need a new art form which is just touching things. I don't know how I'm going to make a living out of that.
I think sculpture is where we are going next.
Were you involved in the design of the new album’s cover?
Yeah, a friend of mine is a photographer of minutia. He takes pictures of tiny things. He sent me this picture, he was playing around with these drops and I thought that this is just great. These kind of drops of water. Yeah, it was kind of my idea.
Is there any intention with that cover of being anything other than a drop of water? One can see a cross...
You turn it on your side and you've got kind of a Gnostic cross.
Yeah, that's exactly where I was going.
Yeah, I'm really into it. I'm into Gnosticism. I'm into esoterica, and sort of I'm into Sufism. You know I'm into the esoteric brands of different religions. If we can allude to that stuff, then all the better.
That's always been kind of a thread running through your music, hasn't it?
Always has been. We've always been alluding to sort of religions and spirituality. It's all in there. There's sort of -- it's a big hodgepodge of everything you can think of. So, sex, drugs, rock and roll and religion.