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Steve talks about aging well as a band Print E-mail
Monday, 01 July 2002
Originally published in The Sunday Times from The Age (in Melbourne).  Written by Sally Fisher.

Groupies are chasing them and strangely some of them are now guys. The lead singer was in a drug bust and the whole band stormed out of a US radio station last month when asked to play one of their 80's hits live on air. And a recent brush with death haunts them still. The Church may be middle-aged and showing a bit of paunch, but they're still all rock 'n' roll cred.

"We're getting older but we're no nostalgia act," fumes frontman Steve Kilbey, 47, referring to his rejection of Unguarded Moment and Under the Milky Way as playable songs. These and a clutch of other Church classics made them a household name more than 20 years ago. It was a time when pop owed more to Molly Meldrum and tight denim than knowing your Stratocaster from your Telecaster.

Today they're in the middle of a world tour and promoting their 16th album.

"I get f---ing annoyed when people tell us to dwell on th old days. I pretty much excommunicate anyone from my circle if they say that," says Kilbey, speaking drowsily from a hotel room in Salt Lake City, Utah, on the US leg of their tour. He has just woken up. It's 3 pm and he's been napping. Middle age is like that. The band has been on the road for a few months promoting their latest album, After Everything...Now This.

"It's not that we're ashamed of our past, everything we do is based on development from that, it's a continual evolution and you have to move forward. We're just not interested in playing (the 80's music). There may be short-term gain but in the long term it's negative," he says, winding up as he wakes up.

Rock is littered with names who cracked it big but ran out of ideas, broke up or, worse, turned into bands playing tributes to themselves. Church comtemporaries of the 1980's who have all but vanished include PseudoEcho, The Models, Real Life, Dynamic Hepnotics, Icehouse, The Saints, and The Reels.

For the band, replaying golden oldies is insulting and creative suicide. And anyway, they'd never fit into their 1980's jeans, even if they tried. "I'm lucky that despite being well into my 40's I still have most of my hair. Twenty years ago I was very skinny. I weigh more now but am not hugely overweight. i don't have any debilitating health problems...yet," he says.

He reckons a fat rocker could be tolerated by fans, it just depends on the music and the performer's image. "I mean if Prince gets all fat and bloatedand came out singing Cream then that's not going to work. But look at Elton John, he's pretty thick around the middle. He could be totally toothless, fat and bald and he'd still be a celebrity."

"Now if we're talking New Order (who toured Australia last summer) who are showing a bit of middle-aged spread, then it's okay to be overweight and a rock star," Kilbey says.

He reckons the fans would tolerate even a bit more flab in the Church than they are showing now. "We could be Elton John's size I reckon," he speculates. "We haven't made our name on being sexually desirable young men but as a group making good music. And it's much better if you can grow old into your career. It's like being an AFL player who's finished at 40 compared to a golfer who's just getting going at the same age."

Tell that to the groupies. The band still attracts women offering sex, but intriguingly the hangers-on are men. Kilbey says these guys aren't offering a good time, they just want to be with a celebrity, to sneak a little of the aura, especially in the US. "Because we're not from America we're exotic. And being an entertainer here is a valid thing to do. People here treat you really well," he says.

According to Kilbey the audience reception for the band's acoustic tour has been good. reviews of the album have been glowing and despite being banned from the radio station they walked out on last month, college radio that plays alternative music has picked up After Everything...Now This. And The Church's sound is unmistakable, despite line-up changes, fights, and predictions the end was nigh. It's still stripped-bare guitar and lyrics that are a little too disturbing for the Top 40. It doesn't sell like it once did but they're playing for themselves.

"I wouldn't say there has been a huge change in our music, more of a continual evolution. And if the reviews are good, and for this album they've been brilliant, then we're doing something right, Kilbey says, adding they're picking up some new fans along the way, with shows in the US attracting people in the 20's, 30's, 40's and beyond. "But the average seems to be 30's."

The Church's sense of mortality was sharpened late last year when their Sydney-bound Quantas 767 was forced into an emergency landing. Only minutes after leaving Melbourne, the passengers heard a loud bang as one of the engines blew a hole in it's casing. For Kilbey the experience may as well have been yesterday. He has lost his tolerance for travel.

"This morning we were flying from Seattle to Salt Lake and I realise being in that plane, when I thought I was going to die, has left a scar on my psyche. I get strange feelings, even if I'm on a train, That something's wrong," he says.

Kilbey and co have spent their lives flying around the world as the band members are scattered around the globe. Marty Willson-Piper lives in New York, Peter Koppes and Tim Powles are in Sydney and Kilbey lives in Stockholm with his wife, Natalie, and the elder of his two sets of twin daughters. The other two live in America.

Being a dad has exposed his musical tastes in a new way. His elder daughters are 11-year-olds whose tastes turn to empowered black girl rappers and angry teen queen, Pink. Guitar-based music like The Church is dismissed as boring. "They're proud of what I do but they don't really like it. And when they play their CDs I say, just like my dad did, 'You call that music?' and 'Turn that down.' "

They have inherited his desire to perform and have already appeared on TV and in films in Sweden. "They have definitely caught the bug and I'd be surprised if they don't end up in showbiz somehow."

Touring in the 21st century is a simplified family affair compared to how The Church got around in the 1980's. Where they used to go by bus, they're now using planes -- and flying economy to save cash. They have no entourage, it's the band and guest performer David Lane. And because they've known each other so long, there's less bickering and griping.

Some of the experiences Kilbey probably wishes hadn't happened. In October 1999 the band was forced to play on in New York while the lead singer spent a night locked in a cell with 30 others. He was nabbed for trying to buy heroin on the street and ordered to clean subway carriages for a day. "A drug bust is something every aging rock star should have under his belt," he said at the time.

For better or worse all the band's experiences, seperately and as a group, have impacted on their music. "We must be a superior group to one that's playing some pub for the first time, but we don't have the same adrenalin, anger and enthusiasm we did. But having experience makes our improvisarion much better," he says.

In an industry where bust-ups are the norm, The Church -- with Kilbey and Willson-Piper as the remaining founding members -- persist as a band with cred despite their age. On a par with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and New Order. The ingredient behind their longevity is no secret.

"I read it recently, someone who has been together longer than we have said 'We haven't finished with each other yet' and that's how it is for us. We have shared so much, we're beyond friends, we're like brothers. And we haven't finished."

Sally Fisher


Transcribed by Holly

Last Updated ( Saturday, 02 April 2005 )
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