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Steve talks about American fans and Heyday Print E-mail
Wednesday, 16 July 1986

The Aquarian

July 16, 1986

-----

?There?s Too Much Ugly music In The World: I Want To Do Something That?s Trembling On The Brink Of Ecstasy?

AN INTERVIEW WITH

Steve Kilbey of THE CHURCH

By Harold DeMuir


?I met a journalist in Melbourne the other night who said, ?You were very fragrant tonight,? and I thought that was a great term, like what happens when you?re acid tripping and your senses start to overlap. I like the idea that he would think that our music has a smell, and that the smell is fragrant.?


So says Steve Kilbey, singer, bassist and main writer of the underappreciated and often misunderstood Australian quartet, The Church. Though mainstream America has yet to embrace the group (which maintains an enviable level of popularity at home), The Church?s stateside following is increasing steadily, spurred on by the foursome?s impressive live sets and by the dreamlike clarity of their current album, Heyday, which contains some of the band?s most affecting music ever.


Kilbey, guitarist Peter Koppes and drummer Nick Ward formed the Church in Sydney in 1980, joined soon afterward by a second guitarist, Englishman Marty Willson-Piper. The group?s second single, ?The Unguarded Moment.? was a top 20 hit in Australia and was included on their debut album, Of Skins And Heart. That lp was quietly released in the U.S., with some alterations, by Capitol as The Church. By any name, the disc was mostly ignored in the States and The Church?s next two albums, The Blurred Crusade and Seance (both with drummer Richard Ploog), went unreleased here.


The Church finally found another willing U.S. label in Warner Brothers, who signed the band and released the lp Remote Luxury (a compilation of the contents of two Australian eps) in 1984. A subsequent tour of American clubs convinced the band that there was, indeed, an audience here for The Church.


The Church has spent much of 1986 touring in support of Heyday--so much touring, in fact, that Marty Willson-Piper felt the need to announce his departure from the band in England a few weeks back. After a couple of days AWOL, the guitarist returned and the tour continued as planned, with only one gig having been canceled. Barring any more unforeseen circumstances, The Church will be back in the States and performing at The Ritz in New York on July 19.


Harold DeMuir: Why did you title this album Heyday?


Steve Kilbey: Heyday was a word that I had never really thought about, and then people started using the word when they talked about The Church, saying, ?Do you remember back in their heyday when they did this?? I thought, wait a minute, y heyday?s gone past and I didn?t even notice! I started thinking about the word heyday, and how it?s something that you can only see after it?s past.


I?m pretty happy with this album. Looking back on it, Remote Luxury wasn?t such a good album--it wasn?t really an album, it was two eps slung together. Remote Luxury was a bit disjointed; it wasn?t really The Church, and it wasn?t really what we wanted to do, or what we were doing live. Part of that record was made at a time when we were going through a bit of the doldrums, and I?d really like to forget that one.


We had gone through a period where we didn?t have a label in America, and we were being released in England on a label that I don?t think was very sympathetic to what we were doing. It was getting to the stage where it didn?t look like there was much point in carrying on. There was no light at the end of the tunnel, and everybody was pretty fed-up with the band, I think. When we made the first half of Remote Luxury, I don?t think anyone was trying very much, and we weren?t very selective about what to record.


Do you think the band would have broken up if the Warner Bros. deal hadn?t come along?


Yeah, I think so. The words ?let?s break up? were never actually uttered, but there wouldn?t have been much point in carrying on. And then when we toured America in late ?84, we got some really good reactions. We kind of reassessed the whole thing, and everyone was suddenly interested in it again. It was a bit like a marriage that?s been revitalized. And when we were making Heyday, we sort of said, ?Hey, let?s really put a lot into it this time, and see what we can do if we try.?


Did you approach making Heyday differently than your other records?


This album was written live by the entire band, as opposed to me writing it in my home studio and then bringing the demo along. This time, we wrote the music by sort of locking ourselves in a room together and playing for two weeks. There?d been one or two songs on some of the other albums that the whole band had written together, and I thought it was time that everyone sort of shouldered the responsibility.


We finished all the backing tracks, and then I took all the cassettes home, and sat down at the kitchen table and listened to them on a little cassette player. I listened to it over and over again, and thought, what?s this music saying to me, what?s it describing, what does it need? Generally, I?d get a title first, then I?d get the first line, and it would unfold gradually. I wouldn?t have written any of the lyrics I wrote if I hadn?t had the music to start with. I used to write the lyrics first and then the music, but I think music can inspire lyrics more than lyrics can inspire music.


If I?d written these songs by myself, I don?t think the record would have been as good. I don?t think that the old system was working for us, because after a while, the demos became God--the drums on the record had to be like the drum machine on the demo, and I had to sing it the way I sang it on the demo. it was just silly, so I don?t want to do the demo thing again.


But two of the songs on Heyday were demo songs that I wrote on my own--?Youth Worshipper? and ?Disenchanted.? And I?m still writing songs on my own, and hopefully I still can have a few of my own songs on the next Church record as well. I try and write songs in every different way possible. I think you have to try everything, and trick things out of yourself.


Does everyone in the band seem to be feeling more positive about things now?


Yeah. It?s hard to say why. I think we had just become bored with ourselves, and when we did this album we became interested in ourselves again. I think we just sort of rediscovered ourselves, and realized that we weren?t such a bad band.


We?ve been together six years now, and for the first two or three years everything went well. In the middle two years, we slumped a bit--our records weren?t so good, and our live appearances weren?t so good. We reassessed ourselves, and everyone in the band said, okay, we?re gonna try from now on. When everyone tried, it made it easier for everyone else, and it became the opposite of a vicious circle--a benign circle, I suppose, where good things led to more good things.


Do you have any definite ideas about the next Church lp?


I can sort of hear how it should be... I can conceptualize it, but not with words....


I?m really looking forward to the next one. I?d really like to do a double album, Every time I tell our manager, he says, ?No one does double albums anymore.? But I?d really like to do one, and explore the instrumental side of the band--the ebbing, the flowing and the climax. When we play live, we go into these extended jam-type things, but we never seem to get round to doing it on record, because you?ve only got 20 minutes a side.


Do you write many songs that aren?t appropriate for The Church?


Oh yeah, I?ve got lots of things. I did a solo single last year in Australia, which was just three tracks that were totally unsuitable for The Church, and I?ll probably be doing more things like that in the future. No one in the band seemed to mind that much--I got a few jokes about it from other members, but no one was resentful.


Anyone in the band can do anything they want, really, as long as it?s not when The Church is supposed to be doing something. Richard plays with lots of underground bands in Sydney--I don?t know if you?ve heard of them, but he?s played with a band called The Beasts of Bourbon and another one called Salamander Jim. Both Martin and I played with a group called The Subterraneans, which was a sort of loose collection of Sydney musicians.


How do you feel about the U.S.?


Just on a personal level, I really like the audiences here, because they?re the best audiences we?ve ever played to. They?re very enthusiastic, and they give a lot back, and spur you on to play better.


As far as the rest of it?s concerned, all I ever see of it is getting on and off a bus. All the individuals I?ve met here seem like really nice people, but I guess there?s a lot of crime and things happening. Everyone I?ve met in New York has been friendly, and yet I sit at home in Sydney and read the paper, that five people were murdered here, or someone shot someone... It?s hard to make up your mind about what is really going on. I like it and I hate it here.


What do you think your American fans are like?


They aren?t what I imagine Van Halen?s fans to be like, and we don?t seem to get gum-chewing Madonna fans. We seem to get people who feel a bit dispossessed; introspective-type people rather than noisy, demonstrative people. That?s also the sort of people we get in Australia.


The idea of selling massive amounts of records is something that?s alien to the actual music, but it?s a very big factor in the musicians? lives--including yours, I assume.


It is. We?re not unique in knowing that if this record doesn?t do well, we may not get a chance to do another one. You have to keep some kind of balance in mind, but we really try not to let that interfere with what we?re doing. I?m comfortable anyway; I don?t really need any more money, and I don?t really care for money that much anyway. As far as I?m concerned, as long as we?re selling enough to keep our record deals happening, I?ll be happy. And I think the rest of the band feels roughly the same way.


We?re in a lucky position in a way, because EMI--who we?re with in Australia--and Warner Bros. seem to like the records we make, and maybe that will counter the fact that we don?t sell so many. I might be wrong--we might get dropped like a stone if this one doesn?t do well. I really try not to think about this kind of stuff very much, to tell the truth. I just try to live day by day, and do whatever I can. If they drop us or if the record goes to Number One, I?m gonna try to keep a level head about the whole thing.


We?re certainly not gonna make a record that we don?t like to try and sell more. I often meet people who say, ?I?m really gonna sell out and make a horrible record, so I can get rich enough to make the records I really want to make,? which I think is sort of a funny philosophy. If that record doesn?t sell, you can alienate the original people who liked you, and you?ll end up selling less.


I can?t believe that we fell on our feet and got a record company that seems prepared to develop us. The fact that we make nice music seems to be important to them, rather than just how many records we sell. I think that?s a wonderful thing in this day and age; with most companies, if you?re not shifting mega-units, forget it.


I just try and remain as naive as I can, and just play and write songs and let the rest of it go to hell. It?s very easy to stick your head in the sand and say, ?I don?t? care about advances, or my visa, or who?s buying my airline ticket, or who?s paying for this tour. Just tell me where to be and I?ll go there, and I don?t want to know about anything else.?


A lot of artists feel the need to be in control of, or at least aware of, the business aspects of their careers, to keep themselves from being taken advantage of...


Well, I think your brain?s like a computer, and there?s only so many bytes in it. And if you fill it up with too much worrying about this and that, then the music?s gonna get squeezed and squeezed, and eventually it?s gonna get kicked right off the end of the queue. Everyone goes on about what a wonderful businessman Mick Jagger is, and how he?s got all his deals down, but he makes awful records these days, so what?s the point?


I just don?t care about business. The reason I started making music, and the reason I was inspired, was because I like music. I had no idea what a publisher was, or what an advance was, or negative passive research or any of that stuff. I?ve had managers that I trust, I?ve had managers that I haven?t trusted, and I?ve had good deals and bad deals. But I still don?t want to know about it, as much as I can get away with not knowing about it, because I?m trying to do something else. I just try to let the music come through as purely as it can.


The band?s second and third albums, The Blurred Crusade and Seance, weren?t released in the U.S. At this point, would you want them released here?


Yeah! Warners has the rights to those records, and I?d really like it if they released them as a cheap double package. I think it would be really good, because there were some okay things on those records, and it?s a shame that people can?t get them if they want them.


We were signed to Capitol here for the first record, and then they didn?t want to release Blurred Crusade, because they didn?t know what to do with us. They passed, and no one else was interested, and no one was interested in Seance either.


And then Karin Berg, who works for Warner Bros., got into us and found that we were unsigned, and here we are. Warners have got the options on those records, so I imagine that if we stayed with Warners and did a record that did really well, they?d go back and reissue them. They?ve already bought the rights to them, so it wouldn?t cost them much to release them.


The Blurred Crusade we did with (producer) Bob Clearmountain, and that was a very soft, luxurious album. That was our most popular album in Australia; in fact, they recently had a poll in Australia?s top pop magazine and Blurred Crusade was voted the all-time favorite album. That was good, but on the other hand that album?s been a bit of an albatross. Because with everything we would do, people would say, ?Oh, it?s not as good as Blurred Crusade.? And then when Heyday came out, people were saying it was as good as The Blurred Crusade. So we still haven?t gotten rid of it.


And Seance was a very dense, sad, sort of harsh record. It?s a bit weird. I think those records would be an interesting double package for people who are into Heyday; I don?t think they?d be disappointed.


A lot of American observers seem to regard The Church as part of a wave of ?60s-influenced Australian groups. Do you see it that way?


No, I don?t. First of all, we?re not part of a wave, because we were the first ones anywhere in the world, as far as I know, doing this thing, with the jangly 12 strings--not including the bands in the ?60s. At the time we started, it was all Human League and stuff like that.


And we?re not that ?60s-influenced anymore. We just try to take the best from all periods; there?s lots of ?70s in what we do, and lots of ?80s. We sort of influence ourselves now, because we know what our sound is, and we apply that thinking to what we do. I don?t sit at home listening to Revolver every night, thinking, ?Wow, we should sound more like this.?


Are you pretty much aware of The Church?s musical parameters now?


I think we?re gonna break out of all of our parameters on this next record, but it?s nice to know what they are before you break out of them... I?ve decided that I just want to make some really beautiful music because there?s too much ugly music in the world. I want to do a whole double album of unbearably beautiful music. The very antithesis of Nick Cave and the whole I?m-down-in-the-swamp-with-a-bottle-of-whiskey thing. I want to do the very opposite of that; I want to do something that?s sort of trembling on the brink of ecstasy.


Sometimes when we play live, we hit these peaks, and I?ve been thinking that this is what I want to do on our next record. When we play live, we?re a lot more souped-up than we are on the records, and it?s a lot more energetic. It?s hard to tell, because you can?t know how people in the audience are perceiving it, but I think that we sometimes reach these transcendental peaks on stage which we?ve never even come close to on record. I don?t know if we can get them on record, but I?d really like to try.


But the studio and the live stage are very different mediums. Don?t you think it might be foolish to try and capture those live moments on record?


Maybe, but we?ve got to try.


It seems like The Church are popular enough at home to make a comfortable living off the Australian circuit for quite a while.


Oh yeah. We could probably go on doing it for the next 10 years.


So why bother to put records out in the U.S.?


Because I want to play to people who really want to hear us, instead of someone who?s come along because they know there?s gonna be a big crowd there. And I think that these are people here who want to hear us play. In Australia, there?s a lot of bread-and-butter gigs that you have to do to survive financially, so sometimes you play for people who aren?t very interested. I?m getting into hippie cliches here, but you really need the other people to feed you energy to keep doing it.


I don?t think we?ve got a message as such, but I think listening to us play for an hour and a half probably makes some people feel really good. Like a doctor that likes to cure people, I like to go around the world making a certain type of person feel good for an hour and a half.


How would you describe the internal political structure of The Church?


Nonexistent. We?re four scruffy individuals who argue about the things we want to do. Often we argue and it?s left unresolved, and someone else makes a decision for us. I guess in an extreme case I have the final say, but I?m certainly not the leader of the band. I?m only the leader of the band when things go wrong--then it?s ?Blame Kilbey.? I think everyone?s got a fairly equal say.


Do you think The Church presents any particular sort of image?


Yeah, we do have an image, but I?m not sure just what it is. I don?t know about here, but we definitely have an image in Australia. As much as I hate to say it, in Australia I am a character. I get on the front pages of magazines, and some people think what I say is notable.


Do you like that?


Yes and no. It might as well be me as anybody else. I never say any harmful things, and I don?t encourage people to go out and take heroin or commit crimes. But I think it?s a shame that people look to pop stars for inspiration--I mean, I did, but... They should look to the great saints and get the real thing, rather than some diluted thing coming through some guy who plays guitar.


How important do you think pop music is?


When I was growing up, it was the most important thing. If I met a kid at school, it didn?t matter what color he was or what religion he was. It was, ?Have you heard of King Crimson?,? or something like that. And if the answer was yes, then he was my friend. Which, looking back on it, is pretty silly.


I don?t know about any other country, but in Australia there?s a lot of semi-illiterate people that don?t have access, or don?t know that they have access to plays and art galleries and libraries and books of poetry. And pop music is the only art form that those people ever come in contact with, and some of it?s good and some of it?s bad.


So, in that sense, pop music is important, because otherwise those people?s lives would be totally bereft of any kind of poetry or music at all--other than watching TV or something like that.


Then doesn?t pop music help perpetuate a situation where the average person doesn?t feel the need to investigate other art forms?


Well, yes and no. Because I get people writing to me saying, ?I didn?t know what such and such a word meant, so I looked it up in the dictionary.? Or, ?I noticed that you quoted this book in an interview, so I went out and bought it and read it.?


It?s bad in a way that they?re following what somebody else says, but it?s still better than nothing. I think it?s a good thing if people get vaguely interested in art or poetry, or if it inspires some 14-year-old kid who lives in the western suburbs of Sydney and doesn?t have a hope of ever getting a job. If that kid buys a record by The Church or Echo and the Bunnymen or The Rain Parade or whatever, and he?s inspired to write his own poetry or get his own guitar, it?s a good thing.


Any particular thoughts about The Church?s future?


Well, as I said, this record could bomb and Warner Bros. could say, ?We love you, do another one.? Or it might bomb and they might say, ?That?s it boys, you?ve had your two chances, goodbye.? We?re signed with EMI to do at least another album in Australia... We?re all extremely good friends, and we all like what we?re doing. If the opportunities keep presenting themselves, we?ll take them.


I try not to live too much inn the future. I think if you live in the future, the logical extension is to go right forward thinking about the future until the day you die. I think the great mistake of mankind is to live in the past or live in the future. I think you?ve just got to think about what?s happening today. My cat at home sits on the table, and he doesn?t think about what happened 10 minutes ago or what?s gonna happen in 10 minutes? time; he?s just enjoying lying in the sun right now.


Even if humans are happy at the moment, it?s in their nature to worry that it?s going to end. They?re either thinking about the happiness that they had last night or the happiness they?re gonna have tonight or the bad things that are coming, instead of coping with what?s actually going on now.


I don?t want to keep projecting into the future, and I don?t want to keep thinking, ?What?s gonna happen if this record bombs?? The future doesn?t matter, and the past doesn?t matter. What?s happening now matters.


If you were given one minute of time on American television, to deliver any message you wanted, what would you tell people?


I would tell them to turn their televisions off, stop smoking cigarettes, and enjoy themselves.


And buy Heyday?


I wouldn?t mind if they did, but I don?t think that?s the most important thing for them to do.

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