Anthony Horan Interviews Steve Kilbey

From Melbourne's InPress

Sixteen years after their first record met public ears, The Church are still very much an entity, still relevant, and still releasing albums. Over recent years much has changed in the Church camp, yet the central core of the band - Steve Kilbey and Marty Willson-Piper - remains intact, and for many long-time fans that’s been enough. 1994’s epic double-disc album Sometime Anywhere was cut as a duo, and the band’s journey further and further from the Standard Rock Band ethic was documented therein, familiar pop-format songs being extended for as long as the mood required. It was to be the last album that The Church’s US label, Arista, would release from the band.

"They dropped us, because we weren’t selling enough records and we weren’t touring," states Steve Kilbey on the phone from Sydney. "It was quite a relief, actually. And we can do much better now, because what will happen with this album is that, because it’s on our own label, we’ll be exporting copies to America. We’re not releasing it over there, we’re just exporting them. And what isn’t a very large number of records for Arista is a large number of records for my label, so it’s good, we’re just keeping all the business for ourselves."

The new Church album, Magician Among The Spirits, is both an extension of the ideas posited on Sometime Anywhere and a rejection of them. The album, recorded last year, marks the return of Peter Koppes on guitar (he and the band parted company after 1992’s Priest=Aura tour) and in the case of the single, Comedown, a return to the glittering guitar pop of the band’s earlier work. Elsewhere the album travels into mystic instrumentals, freeform experimentation, and quiet reflection. It is, of course, compelling listening.

"This record’s on Deep Karma, which is another label we created," says Steve. "Marty didn’t want to be on Karmic Hit, because that’s my label, so we had to create a label that was his and mine, and that is Deep Karma. This album’s about a year old. We’d made a number of decisions after we lost our American deal. First of all, we didn’t want to record for any other labels, and the second one was that we didn’t want to do any more videos. So it was perfect to do it on our own label."

The refusal to make any more video clips for their singles is a direct reaction to the monetary wastefulness of the exercise, Steve says.

"I think videos are ridiculous, with very few exceptions. There are good videos, there have been videos that I’ve enjoyed, but with The Church we never seemed to get any control, and even if we did have it, no-one in the band’s especially visually gifted. I’m certainly not, I couldn’t direct a good video. So you put it in someone else’s hands, and they always let you down. Nobody really understands how The Church should be visually, least of all us. But we know it isn’t the way it usually ends up. We always just look like a bunch of drips, playing guitar, standing around with someone filming us. The idea of the rock video is just horrible. And they cost so much money. Ten to thirty grand is a very, very cheap Australian video. That’d get the catering on an American-made video - you won’t make a good video in America for under 100,000. You could buy yourself a studio for that, and make albums forever."

With that kind of outlay, it’s surprising that any artist with an eye on the figures could justify the expense.

"I don’t think it’s justifiable, and that’s why I’ve stopped. When we did our last video, for Two Places At Once, we went to Mexico, it cost a fortune, and probably never got played in Australia, except maybe for once on Rage. What’s the point in that?"

With Comedown, though, The Church have their best shot at the charts since the widely appreciated Reptile - the song, which was at various stages planned to be recorded by Stephen Cummings and Margot Smith, is the most simple, direct, and radio-friendly song that Steve Kilbey has written in years.

"It is kind of a radio song," he reflects. "Or it could be, in a fair world. But it certainly wasn’t deliberately intended as such. I’d love to have radio play, I’d love to have a hit, sell lots of records, go out with Helena Christiansen. But if it doesn’t happen, I’m not going to get upset about it. I’m not going to give up and think it’s the end. Because there are other things to life, there are other ways to gauge success that just those things."

The album’s opening track, aptly titled Welcome, sets an insistent groove in motion upon which Kilbey intones the names of people of note, from Harry Houdini to their former producer Gavin McKillop, and welcomes them to the record. Many reviews of the album have directly compared the song’s idea to that of The Beloved’s 1990 single Hello. Steve is distinctly unimpressed at the intimations, and insists that his song owes a debt to no-one but himself.

"All I’ve heard is The Beloved, The Beloved, The Beloved did that first. Well I’ve never fucking heard that song, I’ve never listened to the Beloved. What really gets me is that people are implying that a list of names, only one person can ever do that. So The Beloved apparently did it. Surely somebody else has done it before them. If you can write a song going ‘I miss my baby, I want my baby" a hundred times, then why is a list of names something that can only be done once. It’s weird, a lot of people in disparaging reviews jumped up on their high horses about The Beloved. They had nothing to do with it."

In a rare event for The Church, this album also contains a cover version - in this case, Steve Harley’s song Ritz.

"It’s a song that Marty and I have been doing for a long time acoustically, and both of us really love Steve Harley, especially the first two albums before he went bad. His first two albums were just amazing, and for anyone who likes The Church I’d very much recommend they try and find either The Human Menagerie, The Psychomodo, or the third album, which had Make Me Smile on it, though I don’t recommend that so much. But avoid anything after that like the plague. Cut your ears off rather than listen to them. But the first two albums are fantastic, they’re like these microcosmic worlds that he was living in, a world of courtesans and jesters and clowns, people living in this weird court. We’ve always loved those albums. That song is actually 22 years old, it came out in 1974."

The return of Peter Koppes to the Church fold has made many a fan happy, but the credit he receives on the album - "Special Guest Star" - implies that he’s not quite back in the band yet.

"It’s a funny thing, it’s a very fluid thing nowadays whether someone’s in the band or not," Steve muses. "He played on a few songs on this album, though not as many as he could have, and he’s doing the tour. I don’t know if that means he’s back in. But he and I have just made an album together, which is him and I and Tim - in fact, basically The Church without Marty [This is the album "The Reformation"]. So Peter and I are very closely connected at the moment. I hope that The Church does another album next year, and I hope Peter plays on it the whole way through, and I hope he writes some songs on it."

The upcoming national tour will see The Church playing as a full band for the first time since 1992, with studio drummer Tim Powles venturing out as a live band member, and with violinist Linda Neil possibly joining them. After so many years and so many tours, is Steve Kilbey looking forward to returning to the rock band dynamic?

"Yeah, I am. I’m not looking forward to rehearsals, but I’m looking forward to the shows. And this could - I know I’ve said this before - but this could seriously be the last time The Church play live as a band."

Actually, I think you said that definitively on the Priest=Aura tour.

"Well, it almost bloody well was. It looked like it for a while. But I’ve managed to get this together. Well, hopefully. But this really could be the last time. Actually, after ‘Heyday’ I was seriously thinking about packing it in. We’d just done this great album that hadn’t sold that well, we got dropped by Warner Brothers in America, and I thought, we maybe there’s no more life in this. And then we got the offer from Arista, made ‘Starfish’ and it did really well, and there was no way we were going to throw it in then. It’s just hard to tell. Some people really hate the fact that you keep on going, because rock music should be a short, ephemeral thing. Like a dragonfly living for more than one day - they only live for one day and rock bands are usually only together for a short time. And the best ones break up early and disappear. Or at least that’s the idea behind it."

Sixteen years is indeed a long, long time in terms of music; could Steve Kilbey possibly still be enjoying himself?

"Yeah, of course I am," he says firmly. "I hope that shows; I don’t think I could make a whole record if I wasn’t enjoying it to a certain extent. The thrill of writing a good song and executing it is just one of the best things there is."

[Copyright 1996 Anthony Horan.]

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