INTERVIEW: The Church | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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In the grand pantheon of Australian musicians, Steve Kilbey is pure royalty; he is an artist in the truest sense of the form, for whom the term ‘prolific’ does very little justice. It’s  unsurprising that The Church, the group he has fronted for nearly 40 years, remain one of the most singular and dynamic bands that the country has ever produced. The music they have produced remains timeless (good luck finding a record from 1982 that sounds as pure and bold as The Blurred Crusade) and utterly unique; a radical evolution on the experimental rock and psychedelia that preceded them. Man Woman Life Death Infinity, released last October, is a quintessential Church record, with the quartet continuing to push their sound into new territory, their trademark duelling guitars remaining a force of nature.

A multi-instrumentalist and professional musician since the age of 17, Kilbey is as dynamic and engaging in conversation as he is in song, as we discussed the new record, the creative process, and his relentless fight to maintain his creative control and integrity in an era when music was in thrall to the plasticity of the 80s.

While re-reading Something Quite Peculiar [Kilbey’s eye-openingly brilliant 2014 memoir], I was taken aback at how much Kilbey really had to fight to get to where he is now. Coming from a part of Australia where there was no music industry, Kilbey was in two bands that nearly touched success, he then had to move to London and then Sydney in order to finally bring The Church to fruition. Does he feel that without all that persistence and lessons learned, The Church would still be going as strongly as they are today?

“It’s really hard being in that wilderness, feeling like every door is locked and it’s like ‘no you can’t do a gig until you’ve got a record out, and you can’t get a record out until you’ve done a gig’, and ‘nobody’s interested’.” Kilbey says. “I was writing all these songs and no-one wanted to hear them and I was banging my head on a wall and it was hard. But I was always convinced, I had this feeling of manifest destiny, ‘I’m gonna be a musician’, I knew I wasn’t going to be the biggest rockstar in the world but I knew I could eke a living out of it. I was always convinced I had a right to something, and I was sort-of kicking against the pricks right from the word ‘go’.  People would tell me ‘you’ll never be able to fuckin’ play bass guitar’ and you’ll never be able to write a decent song’. Whenever somebody tells me I can’t do something it becomes the one thing I want to do.”

The book also reminded me of how much he fought against the English press despite being rather popular here, and especially popular in America. “I remember all my bad reviews [whenever I see one I think] ‘be very careful, I’ll be quoting that until I die!’ The whole English press turned against us and they still won’t write about us. We’ve got the odd guy like you here and there, but the mainstream English press will not go: ‘Here’s a band that so many huge bands, at one stage or another, such as Radiohead, The Smiths and The Killers, have said they were influenced by us. Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke met Mike Joyce at one of our gigs! There’s a lot of bands who have cracked our sound and some, like Brandon Flowers, play our songs and acknowledge us. Some however, have never mentioned us at all. But that’s alright, you know, The Church nicked a load of stuff from Be Bop Deluxe, and I always mention that but nobody ever prints it. You know, [Be Bop Deluxe’s guitarist] Bill Nelson’s a guy who wrote hit records and never even got any royalties. We’ve been ploughing our own furrow for thirty-seven years and England’s been ignoring us and who fuckin’ cares. I don’t.”

Whenever somebody tells me I can’t do something it becomes the one thing I want to do

When I first discovered The Church’s music, I was amazed at how timeless it was, given how synonymous eighties music is with being over-produced and rather ‘plastic’. The band’s English record label famously paid a hefty sum to have them support Duran Duran, which Kilbey then forced them to abandon after four dates. It seems the band were consciously rejecting the zeitgeist of the eighties. “It’s easy to look back and go, ‘yeah, I was fighting the zeitgeist’, especially when all those stupid fucking bands were doing that [Steve vocalises a brilliantly apt pisstake of Level 42]. In 1981 a guy at EMI grabbed me and showed me Spandau Ballet and said ‘If you don’t get like that you’ll be out of this business in one year’. When you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to tell what’s going on. I just knew it was so fuckin’ hard getting my own way; every idea I had, there was someone saying ‘well, you can’t do that’, but what gave me my training in my ability was spending those three or four years with the four-track. So… when I finally got in the studio, I knew what I wanted, and nobody could say to me: ‘no, you can’t do that’ because I’d go ‘yeah, I’ll show you how you can do it’. I was stubborn and determined because it was such a battle through the 80s. Record labels are like women, they go: ‘here’s a bloke with long hair and holes in his jeans, he’s a hippie, he smokes pot, he surfs’ and they’re just taking him and trying to turn him into Simon Le Bon. Why? Why not just go and get another Simon Le Bon. Why should they take us and try and change us into something else? We were always fighting the zeitgeist. If only I’d known at the time what was really going on, it would’ve made life easier, but I felt like I was on the wrong planet, like, people saying ‘You should be like Culture Club.’ What the fuck!”

That reactionary element of the band’s music is what keeps it so fresh for fans. “[It’s because] we are classicists: We take after Beatles, Bowie, Dylan, Stones, Byrds, Bolan, that’s us! We have classic values, we make classic music, we long for the Golden Age, and we’re not interested in the shit that happened in the 1980s.”

A particular highlight in their canon, 1992’s Priest = Aura was such a grand release, so sprawling and unique at a time where every label was hungry for grunge. “Everybody thought I could write a hit but I deliberately wasn’t. And it wasn’t necessarily that, it was just that I couldn’t do anything else, that’s all we could do. If I’d known how to write a fuckin’ hit… Of course I would’ve wanted to! And be a millionaire and swan around airports with models, but instead we just ploughed on doing our thing, and we’d come in and out of fashion all the time. Priest = Aura came out just as grunge was kicking in and nobody was interested in such widescreen music, they just wanted Pearl Jam… we’re often in the right place at the wrong time.”

The band have always been ahead of the curve. “We were always ahead and behind at the same time, because we’re classicists. My favourite song is fuckin’ Strawberry Fields Forever, and I’m always trying to write that song or Ziggy Stardust and all my favourite songs over and over, so I guess we’ve stayed old and new at the same time.”

I’m curious after so many years how Kilbey feels the band’s your creative process has evolved over time. “I let everything just happen [now]. Whatever I’m doing, whatever I’m working on, I let everything flow. And I don’t try and impose my will and expectations on it anymore, and that way I suppose we come up with things that I’m not expecting. Say, whereas, The Blurred Crusade, that was me turning up and saying ‘here’s a bunch of songs I’ve written: You’ll play this, it’s gonna be like this, and really the only thing that really had any leeway was the guitar solos, but everything else I had planned out. This album’s kind of the opposite of that. I go in and I have no idea what we’re gonna do or what sort of album we’re gonna make’.

Kilbey originally opted to meticulously sculpt his songs on one of Australia’s first four-track recorders, a method which allowed him to push songs into their definitive form, liberated from the constraints of chord sheets and the imagination. “That thing reached its peak with Séance where, in a complete act of megalomania I wrote everything and planned everything… that has a certain cohesion, but I was happy when I relinquished the controls on [1986’s] Heyday, when I went ‘hey! These guys are better guitar players than I am and can come up with better stuff than I can’ and we started writing as a band, and I think I enjoy the songs we write as a band much more than the songs we wrote on our own.”

The process of writing MWLDI was rooted in what Kilbey estimates as being around 40-50 sketches of songs that the band jammed on, which they finely-tuned into ten songs between the studios of guitarist Ian Haug and drummer Tim Powles. The result is an album that upholds The Church’s tradition of creating albums which boldly push their sound into new frontiers. Whilst many bands, at this stage in their career, phone in half-arsed efforts in order to satisfy demand, The Church operate on a far higher level, and are still capable of weaving songs that refuse to be boring. Opener Another Century provides quintessential evidence of this. “I’m very enamoured with [it, and] I think it’s one of the best songs we’ve ever done, for the chordal movements and the feeling and the sound alone. It took us ages to mix it and find the perfect feel. I kept on saying that I wanted it to sound like Je t’aime moi non plus. For that song alone I feel that the record deserves its existence.”

The Church play Newcastle’s O2 Academy on Tuesday 19th June.



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