Steve Kilbey Talks To Scott Howlett

September 1996 X-Press Interview

The Church, remarkably one of Australia's longest-standing bands, will mount the stage (proper) for the first time in five years when the group, now united with Peter Koppes, starts its national tour in Perth on Saturday, September 28. [Note: According to my info they end the tour in Perth on that date.]

In this age of acoustic performances and unplugged concept nights, the lead singer of the band, Steve Kilbey, says it will be the first time he has played an electric bass guitar in all that time.

The Church is promoting its new album, Magician Among the Spirits, the band's ninth studio album. A mixed bag of songs and moods, the album will not scale the charts as the band's most successful album, Starfish, did, but it goes a long way in demonstrating the songwriter's steadfast insistence over the years to make music that is interesting to 'him', not music that Kilbey thinks might or might not have commercial appeal.

Kilbey has often shot himself in the commercial foot since the band emerged in 1980. After the outstanding singles success of The Unguarded Moment on the band's debut album, Of Skins and Heart and Amlomst With You on the follow up album, The Blurred Crusade, Kilbey took the unusual step of releasing a four track EP, Sing Songs, as opposed to releasing album number three. [Note: In another interview Richard Ploog said this was originally a demo which the record company released before the band had a chance to re-record it.]

In today's climate, such a move would be considered quite normal. In the early 1980s, however, it was seen as a radical and commercially suicidal move in the all too conservative Australian music industry. Sticking to his guns, Kilbey decided to release the band's third album, Seance, when he was ready. Predictably, it was a chart failure. Kilbey thought it was good.

It set the Canberra-raised singer apart from the rest of the pack - it still does.

The X-Press interview was held down the line to Steve Kilbey in Sydney.

Just as your new album was to be released, you announced to your manager that you'd be taking a two week holiday to see your family in Sweden, which I thought was pretty strange timing. Why did you go then?

"Typical isn't it. I guess it was the same theory used by the record company when they started getting the single Comedown out just when the radio stations stopped playing the song on their networks. You know, good work".

Backtracking just a second, your last album Sometime Anywhere, was the first to simply feature you and Marty. It was recorded very differently to your other albums and failed to achieve significant chart success. Based on how you judge your albums, how do you think it was received in general?

"Pretty good, I think, pretty well. No complaints. I got pretty good reviews and sold okay so, yeah, I've got no complaints there".

Just to refamiliarise with that album, I had another listen to it just last night and like a lot of your work, it doesn't sound dated, does it?

"It doesn't? Well, nice of you to say".

Why does it stand up over time do you think?

"Well, it wasn't really fashionable to start with so I think thats why it doesn't date. Its like a pair of jeans, you know. Like if you have something that is really high fashion this year, guaranteed next year its going to look ridiculous. But if you have something the is not in the fashion stream at all, it can't really go out of fashion. I think thats like The Church: we're not really sort of a current band and nor have we ever really been. At the time we came out, the sort of music we were playing wasn't really what was hip. And we've just kind of gone on our own course while all these other things have happened and developed and bloomed and faded we've just kept on going".

Do you feel a sense of pride about that or do you stay together out of a sense of belligerence?

"Well... its not really either of those. We've just sort of never broken up. Its like saying to someone 'What's the secret of not dying?' He'd say 'I just keep on living'. So I guess we've just kept on going - we've just never broken up".

But you did break up in sense. The band is now just you and Marty (Willson-Piper)...

(Sounding a bit irritated) "No, but Peter's coming back and will resume his position as a third of the writing with The Church and being just as important as Marty".

Why did he leave in the first place?

"He'd had enough" (Kilbey sounds annoyed). "He'd had enough, he was tired of it. What really broke the camel's back was we did this tour (the Priest = Aura tour) and it completely sold out. Sold out every night. And then we finish and there was no money and (for Peter) it was 'Why am I doing this?' and he'd just had enough. And I think he thought he could make some headway as a solo artist, but I don't think that happened to the extent that he wanted it to".

How come there wasn't any money after the tour?

"There just wasn't. There were costs and there was some tax to be paid out of it from a previous debt and by the time it was divvied up, there was no money left for the players".

Priest = Aura was another album thats stood the test of time. Is it a personal favourite?

"Ah! Priest = Aura is definitely my favourite Church record, still is. I think its... I don't know... the one that really pulled it together. I think it was just a really optimum album. I think its got a really beautiful sound, I think all of the songs are good, its got this feeling all the way through. I just think its a great album".

Some would suggest Starfish would be one of your favourites, given that it was the most commercially successful Church album ever and that it also received very good critical reaction? How do you feel about that one?

"Uh.. I can't really listen to it and enjoy it in the same way that I enjoy Priest = Aura and sonically, its very inferior" (he says with disdain). "I mean, its a very simple album, Starfish, I mean I don't think it was great production. It was kind of a bit flat and there's nothing much going on, but you listen to Priest = Aura and there is so much happening there, y'know? ... Starfish could have been a great album, but I think the production and mixing... well, I just think the songs on that album are strong enough to push on through that and really songs are the most important thing, but I think the way it was mixed was very disappointing".

For your entire career, you've been someone who's really lent more weight on the quality of work as opposed to the copies sold, but to someone not at all interested in music you could say, well here's one album, Starfish, and this other one, Priest = Aura, the first one sold for arguments sake 200,000 and the other 30,000 which is better, there's only one answer. What do you think?

"I mean, Christ, they're just two different aspects which people are continually trying to reconcile... the fact that its business and the fact that its art. And you've continually got this battle between people trying to make good music and people working in companies trying to sell lots of product. And occasionally you get it right, like Starfish. We were just trying to make a great record and it sold lots of copies. But we have never tried to make records that would sell lots of copies because it wouldn't work for us. If I thought I could write a record that would sell a million copies, I would do it. Make no mistake, I would do it. But that doesn't work. And the times I've tried to do that I've seen it fail so dismally and where not only has it not sold, people didn't like it. You're going to say 'Which record was that?', but I'm not going to answer".

Which record was that?

"I don't think there is any point for us to try and write something thats going to sell a lot of copies, so we just plough our furrow endlessly and maybe, you know, the tide of commercial success will come our way again. But it won't because we changed things, and it'll just be because of coincidence".

There's not many that do it, write for themselves - many who've said it, but not so many who have conciously shifted towards the adult rock market and sold out to a certain extent, certainly after the commercial success you've had sporadically over the past 15 years?

"Yeah, well, as I said, if I could I would" (laughs). "So its just inability. I mean, if you could sit down and write a million selling album every time, why wouldn't you do it? Even if it was crap? But seeing as I can't do that, my second option is to try and make really beautiful music, all of the interesting music".

Having said that, on recent Church albums there has always been one song on it that has not only stood out as a single, but also sounded very different from the rest of the songs: Comedown on the current album, Metropolis on Gold Afternoon Fix. Isn't that an attempt to write a bit of a single?

"No, there is a difference between saying, 'I think this is a catchy song, I think this should be a single' than going 'Oh, man, if I write this song I can be playing in an arena this year'".

Comedown is quite radically different from the rest of the album though. Its the only radio friendly song isn't it?

"But most of people in the straight world would still consider Comedown probably to be left of centre anyway, but that was conceived and written as a single, I must admit, but I don't think its a blatant commercial cop-up".

On Sometime Anywhere you and Marty recorded your parts seperately: Marty would bring his bits in and you brought your bits in and melded them together. Was the new album recorded in much the same way?

"No, this one was recorded with a drummer so it had to be pretty much live-ish. It had to be written and recorded at the same time".

Have you changed the way you have recorded The Church's album's as you've gone along?

"Yes, yes, I have. As it stands, I've gone completely back to the live feeling when it comes to recording. In fact, Peter Koppes, Tim Powles and I have just recorded an album called The Reformation, which is so live its unbelievable. You know, its really live-ish in the studio, recorded as it was happening and I think it sounds fantastic for that. And I've completely reacted against albums which are painstakingly put together with computers and stuff, because I don't think they have any feeling".

So how does the recording process with the new Church record compare to any other in the inventory?

"Well, its far more spontaneous than anything we've done before, but probably most like the first album and then it'd get to that ridiculous thing where the whole band would record something then the producers would take it all away and then build it up again".

Like Seance?

"Seance was more fucked up because of the mix".

It was quite lush.

"Yeah, but the drums were really brittle. I think with Remote Luxury (EP) and Gold Afternoon Fix and to a certain extent, Starfish, what happened there was you'd do a great take and the producers would take it all away and say 'Now we have to record again' and you'd say, 'Why, its great?' and they'd say 'Yeah, but we want to, you know, get everything recorded on its own' for some stupid reason. Its the complete opposite of what you want with a band, what you want with a band is everything all together. Like, you know, some people might be in a situation where a band is recording live in the studio and they might complain about, you know, 'Oh well you got the drums spilling into the bass mic'. Well whats wrong with that? That's what you get live. Live, you get everything spilling over into everything else. It should be all mixed up into one groovy rocket, not four things completely separate operating in their own discreet way".

When you think of The Church and you go through all the albums and EPs you've released you realise it a pretty prolific career, given that this is your 10th studio album in 16 years. Moreover, you've got your solo career, producing role and a new project with Reformation. Why so busy with so many things?

"Well, when you think about its not all that much in a total of 16 years...I could have done a lot more. I could have done more. I mean, I spent a lot of time not doing anything. You know, I just write a lot of songs and I don't know, its kind of like the studio is my natural environment. Like, even before The Church I used to spend all of my time in my four-track studio and a studio isn't a strange place to me, its where I like to be, where I like doing things. I'm always dreaming up new ideas. There's always other things to do. Not that any of my other side projects have ever done anything commercially. They've every single one of them not done very well. But that doesn't discourage me. As long as I keep dreaming up new songs I'll be recording".

You say that the studio is your natural environment and you've mentioned many time in the past year your reluctance to tour, especially a long tour. How do you feel about playing live on the eve of your Australian tour?

"I think I overdosed on love in the early years, I remember once in 1981 going into my manager's office and he showed me the list of gigs I'd be playing in the next six months and I started crying. I literally started weeping, because I looked down the schedule and saw three days off. And I saw up and down the (Hume) highway, up and down the highway. And it was like six months of my life was mapped out for me. I know why Prince Charles goes crazy... three days off in six months. We just played so much, so often, that I think I got burnt out from playing live".

"Now, because I haven't played live for a long time, I'm really looking forward to this. This is really going to be an event. This isn't going to be like four old weary blokes, you know, 'Oh, no, we've got to do it'. This is like people who really want to do it. Because we haven't played since 1992. I haven't played an electric bass on stage for four years. I want to make some noise".

Many thanks to Natasha for transcribing this article !

Return to 1996 Press Cuttings