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Steve talks to Michael Dwyer about Church history, drugs and new songs Print E-mail
Friday, 03 May 2002

Originally published at http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/05/03/1019441424773.html

 

Born again
By Michael Dwyer
May 3 2002

When some Hollywood dream-weaver like Oliver Stone finally gets around to making a rock'n'roll biopic about the Church, the gripping opening scene is there on a plate.

We begin with a familiar, portentous aerial shot of a teeming metropolis by night and the words "New York City, 1999". As the sirens fade we cut to the grimy bowels of a police lock-up, where Steve Kilbey (Robert Downey jun ... no, wait, Johnny Depp is prettier) is being bundled into a cell crowded with dangerous-looking black dudes.

"What are you in for, limey?" one of them snarls.

"I'm a lifer," Kilbey replies enigmatically, his head resting against the bars.

Cut to a dingy band room on the other side of town. Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes (Daniel Day Lewis and Jeff Goldblum, respectively) are looking anxiously at their watches when the door bursts open. It's the venue manager - a resonant cameo from Debbie Harry.


"Hey, Aussies. Your singer just called. He's in the slammer for buying heroin down on Avenue B. And your asses are due on stage in five minutes."

The ominous chiming of two shimmering electric guitars rises on the soundtrack - it's one of those euphoric, slow-building Church gems like, say, Tear It All Away. Drummer Tim Powles (Gary Oldman) emerges from the dunny. "You heard the lady," he barks, taping up his hands. "The show must go on. Let's rock."

The bass and drums kick in. The music is swelling as we flash back to the prison cell. A huge dude in a Snoop Dogg sweater is offering Kilbey a crack pipe, but we don't see whether he takes it or not; the camera has zoomed in to his deep, dark eyes, where we see lights. Is he dreaming? Is he tapping into a higher power? Is he astral-travelling? Is he on drugs? Are we?

The camera slowly pulls out again as the intro's jangling crescendo breaks like a box of wind chimes falling down the stairs. We see the Church live on stage, just like they've been, it seems, since the beginning of time. Kilbey leans in to the microphone for the first line - "People say to see is to believe". A new timeline flashes on to the screen. "Sydney, 1980."

Yes, it's been that long, and Steve Kilbey's much-publicised drug bust of '99 was just another low in the most dynamic rollercoaster ride in Australian rock history. Drugs. Fights. Walkouts. Firings. Arrests. Corporate bungles. Dud gigs. Swedish girlfriends. Paisley shirts. What a long, strange trip it's been.

According to many critics in Australia, Europe and the US, the band's latest LP, After Everything Now This, is an artistic rebirth of four-star proportions. In truth, by some miracle, this institution never died in the first place.

"No, the Church never actually died - but it was in a coma for a while and there was some talk about switching off the machine," Steve Kilbey says from a hotel room in Los Angeles, where the band are yet again playing to full houses.

"And to follow that analogy, I'd say that we're out of bed and walking around the garden of the hospital at the moment. We're trying to get discharged and back into the way things were, but what we don't realise is that while we were under, someone removed all of our youth.

"I said to Marty the other day, as we get older and older the walk-up is gonna get smaller and smaller - meaning older fans tend to buy tickets ahead of time (rather than walking up on the night). He said, 'Pretty soon we're not gonna have a walk-up, we'll have a hobble-up'."

Kilbey laughs, but he sounds genuinely pained. The hollow bravado of the ageing rock star isn't his style. This is a guy whose roots lie in the beautiful, swaggering conceits of the '70s glam era, when rock was all about the first, arrogant blush of youth - live fast, die young, leave a corpse as gorgeous as Ziggy Stardust.

When he first played with Peter Koppes in a Canberra band called Precious Little in the mid-'70s, Kilbey had no Bono-esque illusions about making his 11th album some time in the next century - and that's not counting a respectable catalogue of solo releases, the latest being last year's Dabble.

"I don't think being in a band for 22 years is anything to celebrate. When I was 18, 19, if someone had said, 'Hey, I like this band, they've been around for 20 years and they're all in their 40s', I would've been the first to say, 'Well, that's wrong for a start'."

Kilbey is so old, he says, he doesn't even want to say how old he is. "Put it this way. It's like a car. It's great that it's still going after 22 years, but when it's time to sell it to somebody, it's not the kind of thing you should harp on about, you know what I mean?"

OK, let's wind back the odometer on this baby for a moment. What does Grandaddy K remember about that gig in April 1980, the first where Willson-Piper stepped in to add his lustrous tones to Kilbey and Koppes' more established chemistry?

"I think the sign out front said the Crunch," Kilbey recalls. "But I remember three gigs later we were supporting Mi-Sex at the Family Inn in Rydalmere (in outer Sydney), and for the first time in my musical career I realised, 'Hang on a minute, the audience are actually listening to this song - almost hanging off it'. I thought, 'We've actually got a chance here'.

"After having been in bands since I was 15 or 16, playing millions of gigs, it was the first time I'd ever seen an audience listening. Back then I was looking forward to getting down to Melbourne to play. I thought if we could just do that, that would be all my dreams come true."

Kilbey had cut his teeth in standard '70s cover bands such as Baby Grand, who made their bread and butter playing Lou Reed and David Bowie numbers for Canberra school dances. His private poetic scribblings were inspired by the metaphysical poets as much as the trippy rock of early Pink Floyd and Cockney Rebel.

His arty, atmospheric aspirations weren't exactly in style as punk and disco raged and the golden era of Oz pub rock dawned. But in some respects, he was well ahead of the game.

"I had a four-track reel-to-reel tape machine in 1977, one of the first ones in Australia made for doing home recording stuff. I was spending all my energy on that, and I think that helped when I got into a big studio with a band, because I had a few recording tricks up my sleeve."

Sure enough, the Church had a moderate hit with their second single of 1981, The Unguarded Moment, one of numerous subsequent radio staples the band steadfastly refuse to play today. With their lush second album, The Blurred Crusade, they began attracting the label "psychedelic" to account for the swirling, layered, dreamlike feel of songs such as When You Were Mine and Almost With You.

"I never liked new wave and new romantic," Kilbey says. "The way we reacted to that was to go back to something that was really unfashionable, and that was psychedelic, for want of a better word. I think we overemphasised that by wearing paisley shirts, as if to say, 'This is what we stand for'. Then of course we got roped into the so-called Paisley Underground movement of 1982 and '83, the Hoodoo Gurus and all that."

Kilbey's distaste is more than evident. Call him haughty, but he's never felt anything but disdain for most of his contemporaries. The Angels, Steve? INXS? Icehouse, for goodness sake?

"No. No. No. Loathed all those bands. Loathed the whole Oz rock thing. All those people kinda died out, didn't they? I hated all that. And nothing against Australia, but I hated the idea that our music was about Australia or about any country, because it was supposed to be about a feeling."

And, oh, what a feeling. Whether we're talking about a natural high or a chemically assisted one has always been a question at the forefront of Church mythology. To some extent, Kilbey's mind-expanding adventures are a matter of public record. His ongoing gift for rambling lyrics replete with fantastic, tangential imagery supports the possibility he still may not pass muster for the 2004 Olympics.

"The whole thing with drugs," he qualifies soberly, "is you get your inspiration and you pay the price. When you first start taking a drug it might give you a bit of inspiration, but after a while it's just another hassle - with the exception of pot. Marijuana is the only drug that seems to consistently aid creativity, to me. All the rest of 'em are damaging.

"Certainly, cocaine's the worst. Coke really damages your muse. I dunno if heroin damages your muse, but it certainly puts you in a position where you've got too many other things to worry about besides writing a song. I don't recommend it," he concludes with palpable bitterness.

The Church's internal machinations have always been mysterious, to say the least, but it's tempting to conclude that someone was on drugs around 1990, when they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the US. Under the Milky Way was a top-30 hit there, leading to sales above half a million for their Starfish LP of 1988. It's crucial follow-up, Gold Afternoon Fix, was a disaster.

And still the Church powered on under the chartbusters' radar, releasing a quiet masterpiece in '92's Priest = Aura, retaining a substantial worldwide cult audience and then blossoming as a live band with the addition of new drummer and taskmaster Tim Powles in 1996.

But, hey, this kind of retrospective talk tries Kilbey's patience. As anyone who's seen a Church concert since then will attest, dwelling on the past is anathema to the band's purpose. Despite a catalogue that's regularly recycled into dazzling greatest-hits collections, their latest album is always their greatest joy.

"Our live set at the moment is so '98-onwards weighted," Kilbey says proudly. "There's one song from '84, one from '86, a couple from '88, but most of it is new. So much new stuff has come in that all the old stuff has gone out the window.

"It's like the constitution of a government - it has to keep on evolving. Once you freeze everything it becomes this dead language, like Latin. It can never change. Nothing can be added or taken away. I want the Church to be a dynamic thing, and if we're still around in 10 years' time, hopefully we won't be doing any of these f---ing songs. Look at a great band like the Who. They're like a revival act. It must be just horrible."

After Everything Now This began to take shape a couple of years ago in Sweden, where Kilbey lives with his second wife and his second set of twin girls (Eve and Aurora joined Elektra and Miranda in 1999), the album later transferred to Sydney, where more songs were recorded and Powles tinkered with the results at length.

Like Hologram of Baal before it, it's another heady trip of multi-textured guitars, slow-burning hooks and weird tales about the Virgin Mary appearing to small children and "Night Friends" sliding through mirrors. Creepy but nice. Apart from the terminally hip UK critics' circle, the disc has garnered the band's best reviews in a decade and has transferred with characteristic elegance to the concert stage.

"I like what's happening now," Kilbey says simply. "The American shows have been really well attended and people love it when we play songs off the new album. It's not like they're going, 'Oh, play Reptile you bastards' - which we don't play any more," he adds for the record.

"I've always wondered if it makes any difference if you make a good album. I thought maybe you could just get right past it and nothing you did would make any difference. Apparently, if you make a reasonable album you'll get some kind of response."

After all these years at the mercy of the fickle winds of pop fashion, Steve Kilbey sounds genuinely mystified that success can be that simple. Don't be too surprised if they do it again next year.

The Church play at the Athenaeum Theatre, city, on Sunday night.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 28 December 2004 )
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