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Robert Lurie talks about his Kilbey biography Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 September 2005
Robert Lurie has written the first biography of Steve Kilbey, and in this interview with Wilmington area magazine "Avenue", he talks about the project with editor Brian Tucker.

It was during Robert Lurie's first summer in Wilmington as a graduate student that he charged a fifteen hundred dollar plane ticket to his credit card, flying to Australia attempting to interview a singer for a band that has long since fallen off the Billboard charts.

Lurie landed outside Sydney, Australia not knowing a soul. he'd only maintained minimal e-mail contact with singer Steve Kilbey in addition to the reclusive singer's brother: John Kilbey.  Over a month long stay, Lurie would get to know Kilbey as someone other than the drug-addled singer he'd opened for at a club in London back in 1998. Kilbey would eventually open up to Lurie about his past and be insistent about making the book truthful. In turn Lurie would return home with literary gold to mine for his graduate school thesis and book project.

Born in California, Lurie grew up in Minneapolis. Being a musician Lurie was drawn to the Athens music scene in the early nineties and completed undergraduate studies at the University of Georgia in 1998.

"Music is a big force in my life," he says, having recorded and released his own music over the years. after graduating with an English degree he taught high school for two years in South Georgia, citing the experience as difficult.

"I taught an age group I don't ever want to deal with again," he says. After attending a reading by Philip Gerard in Georgia, Lurie stuck around to talk. Gerard suggested UNCW (University of North Carolina at Wilmington) if Lurie wanted to pursue an MFA (Master of Fine Arts)in writing. It was that conversation that brought Lurie to Wilmington.

He knew that the school had notable writers and it was also a close move. he was also able to get a teaching assistants position working alongside a creative writing professor. During his second year he taught two classes. At many schools, teaching assistants only teach composition but at UNCW teaching assistants get to teach creative writing courses. Students in the Master of Fine Arts Program are required to compete a thesis prior to graduation where it is reviewed by a thesis committee. Most MFA programs are three year programs and students take introductory writing courses in addition to classes in and outside of their chosen genre. Lurie applied to UNCW knowing his genre in advance: non-fiction. A large percentage of theses by non-fiction students are memoirs.

"They start with their own stories and move outward," Lurie says. But Lurie didn't want to write a straight memoir. First there was a false start with a biography on singer Robyn Hitchcock.

"I couldn't go the distance with Hitchcock," he says.

He eventually decided on The Church, his favorite band after The Beatles. A fan since thirteen, Lurie found himself returning to the band as an idea for the project.

In the first year a graduate student has time to think about the final project for graduating. In the second year the student then submits a proposal for the final thesis. During the third year a rough draft is submitted to the thesis committee for evaluation, wherein questions are asked about the choices the student made and so on. Then the student revises a few months prior to graduation. Upon graduation, the thesis is bound and a copy is kept on campus. Most theses are around 200 pages. Lurie's thesis/book is between 300 - 400 pages. He is taking an additional semester to complete the project given its length and subject matter and will also be teaching three composition classes.

In regards to the thesis process, Lurie feels it would be beneficial to get a student started earlier. Some students come into the program with an idea while others wait until the last few months to start. All said, Lurie feels the MFA program helped him as a writer to find his voice.

"The MFA program is good for writers. It helped refine me as a writer," he says. "but choosing a thesis adviser is crucial. if you don't match up it could be disastrous."

During some classes Lurie workshopped sections of the book which culminated in plenty of feedback. One suggestion was for Lurie to include himself in the book as a character since he was such a big fan. This idea is a relatively new literary device, most notable in the book "Dutch", about former president Ronald Reagan. Althought that book was met with criticism, Lurie went with the idea, drawing significant influence from the novel's style.

"It allowed me to be more creative. Dutch is a source of problems for a lot of people," he says. "Lots of people hate it but a lot of English majors like it as experimental literature." For his book Lurie also begins with a disclaimer in the foreword and believes that without the existence of Dutch, his book "would have been more conservative."

Work on the book as a graduate student has been a different experience versus working on it alone. Lurie sees the pros and cons of the experience in relation to the book.

"The workshop experience is very weird - there's 15 people writing critiques of a section of your book," he says. "It's hit or miss because you could take the wrong advice."

With every critique, there's a different point of view giving advice on what to remove or add to the book. And students also come up with ideas and see things that a writer does not. "Who else are you going to get to read your work in progress," he says, "Your mom? Your poor suffering best friend?"

Workshopping something means getting barraged with varied opinions about what to do with your book. There's plentiful advice from numerous people. but even with all the support, Lurie sees something positive in the process, especially growing as a writer.

"I had the idea for a while, well before I had the skill to do a book about them," he confesses. In May of 1994, Lurie mailed a hand-written letter to steve Kilbey about doing a biography. He never heard anything back.

"That was probably a good thing," Lurie laughs, "it would have been a bad book."

Lurie was certain that his professors wouldn't be keen on his thesis idea. He was surprised to find they were supportive and gave approval. Knowing he'd spend nearly three years working on the project he was relieved. He knew that another writer had attempted to write a book before on the band and failed.

"The band didn't want to participate on the writer's book," he says. Given that, Lurie decided to focus on the singer more than the band itself.

Some responses to writing a biography on a band, a band that is relatively obscure today, have been mixed, even jaded. Lurie explains that a few times he's heard, why write about him, or The Church? Lurie's response is appropriately simple.

"Whatever." Lurie isn't fazed, couldn't really care. It's his interest, his passion for the idea. It isn't for them.

He quickly adds to response, "You don't have to read the thing." For Lurie, he was both positive and negative about his subject.

"Even if he is a jerk, he's interesting enough to do a book," Lurie says. "I chose a subject that was of interest to me and wanted to learn more about." He also chose a subject that he'd met years before.

Lurie had met Steve Kilbey in the context of playing music. In 1997, after graduating from the University of Georgia, he completed a CD of music, some lo-fi and experimental compositions. He e-mailed a rep for a club in London where Kilbey was doing a show. Lurie asked about opening for Kilbey and mailed a CD. Feeling weird the next day, Lurie tried to put what he'd done out of mind. Some time passed and the rep called and asked him to come and open for Kilbey.

"I couldn't believe it," Lurie says. "I was going to open for my hero."

Lurie purchased a five hundred dollar plane ticket to perform at a show that would garner only a hundred dollars. But what should have been a true experience for Lurie as a fan and as a performing musician took a gloomy turn.

"I thought he was a jerk after meeting him," Lurie says. What he didn't know at the time was that Kilbey was a junkie. The experience was a let down, leaving Lurie wishing he hadn't met Kilbey.

Lurie returned to Georgia where he continued playing music and covered local shows for a magazine called Flagpole. He still attended shows by The Church when they came through but avoided the singer and interviewed other members of the band, like drummer Tim Powles.

Even though Lurie was familiar with his subject there was still research to do. A lot of research. Lurie read tons of interviews, articles, song lyrics and two books written by Kilbey. He researched the period in the context of where the band is from and the era of music, looking at the band's contemporaries (the go betweens, INXS, Midnight Oil) and listened to sound files from a website where the site master shared an archive of material that rivaled the Library of Congress.

The Church found fame quickly in 1981, then fell to indie rock status in a short span of time. Prior to their U.S. acclaim in 1988 with the album "Starfish" and hit single 'Under the Milky Way', The Church was considered washed up in Australia by the music press. Like many musicians before them, The Church had to leave home to get noticed again.

"Once they became famous, they lived in a world we'll never understand," Lurie says.

They were a band that flirted with fame, while consistently making tantalizing music. Lurie isn't concerned solely with crafting a biography full of salacious stories and drug fueled lifestyles, one can read 'Hammer of the Gods' or 'The Dirt" for that. Not that The Church didn't fall prey to drugs and fame, but Lurie wants to dig deeper, believing that the band are a good role model for musicians-to-be.

"It's interesting what kept the band together to make music through it all," Lurie says. "I was interested in the all-consuming desire to keep making music. The tenacious adherence to the muse that is music"

The Church fell away around the arrival of grunge music. They went from the status of Grammy winner to a band having a hit on the college charts. It became a cycle of being successful and then having to start over gain, then successful again. The church were like the John Travolta of rock music. [Note: Rob and I think the author meant to point out the initial fame in Australia, fading away a little, fame in America again, then fading once more. They never won a Grammy.]

The Internet was indispensable, sites such as shadowcabinet.net and Hotelwomb.com provided a bulk of information to direct Lurie along the way.

"This book wouldn't have happened without the Internet, meeting people via certain fan sites for the band. Lurie met someone on the Internet who gave him Kilbey's e-mail address, something Lurie believed he would never have gotten on his own, and he had tried for a long time.

Lurie sat on Kilbey's e-mail address for three months, eventually sending one about doing a biography on the singer. Lurie, attempting to play it safe, reassured Kilbey about his position on the the issue of drugs in the book.

Kilbey sent a two line e-mail back to Lurie giving his blessing on the book, stating:

"It's your thesis. Write whatever the fuck you want about drugs."

Lurie also met someone on the Internet who had collected CDs of music from every tour the band embarked on from the early 1980's to the present. Lurie wanted a representative sample of music from each tour. After promising them a copy of his finished book, Lurie received a large box of CDs.

"It was interesting to write along to the music," he says.  "I have all this research and I can listen to volumes of the band's music history as I go. One year the guitarist quit, so I got to hear them as a trio."

But Lurie's research would take him far beyond the Internet. It would result in the urge to take a chance, a huge leap of faith. Lurie flew to Australia not just for source material, but because he was afraid Kilbey might back out. At worst, Lurie would have just done an unauthorized book; there are many produced on famous people this way.

Lurie found cheap flat for that month he'd stay in Australia. He didn't know anyone.

"I was pretty lonely there," he says. "I didn't know if I had more than three hours with Kilbey to interview him."

But Lurie had one saving grace. He had been in contact more with Kilbey's brother John. Lurie's first meeting with Kilbey was at a songwriting workshop at the Bondi Pavilion where students sat in with professional songwriters. Lurie went not expecting to actually meet Kilbey, just his brother John. Lurie was admittedly a little star struck at first. But Kilbey was in a mischievous mood, teasing Lurie and calling him The Biographer throughout the day.

"Is the tape recorder running in your mind?" Kilbey would ask.

Through the course of the workshop the songwriters passed around a guitar, each discussing a song they'd perform. The students did this as well. John suggested that Lurie play something. He chose a tune he'd written entitled 'Cathedral.'

Kilbey told the students that Lurie wasn't a student there for the workshop but was a musician and asked him about his song and lyrics. Lurie found a creative acceptance through the workshop and sense of fatherly approval from Kilbey.

But the grad student found himself walking around a lot, around Sydney, in his down time. The first half of the month in Australia, he was alone a lot, feeling like he was "losing his mind". But Kilbey gave him longer and longer interviews, sometimes as long as four hours. Understandably, Kilbey was hesitant of the process, of the research, but it also took Lurie a long time to not be nervous around Kilbey. In time Kilbey warmed to Lurie and the reality of the book, to the point that Lurie was essentially 'on call' for interviewing.

At times Lurie found himself agreeing with Kilbey, perhaps coincidentally or it was the fan coming out. But Kilbey would insist on the truth, not a love letter to his past that glossed over events.

"Just because I'm participating with you on this, " Kilbey once interrupted, "doesn't mean I want a fucking 'Yes Man.'"

Lurie concurs. "Kilbey would rather the book say that he's an asshole but the music is beautiful."

It was also a relief that the singer made sure not to influence Lurie's take on the story or the book's tone.

"I want you to do the book your way and be honest," Kilbey would say. "It's always a let down when you meet your hero."

Kilbey was only reluctant about discussing his relationships, specifically his first wife. He was very guarded about that, but was open to discuss his own abuse (Kilbey was arrested in 1999). There were those around Kilbey who told Lurie to 'tip-toe around the drug stuff' when interviewing. But Kilbey had been clean for the last four years and was very open about discussing that part of his life.

Life was like this; Lurie would go from doing really intense and lengthy interviews to then spending a lot time alone. To break the cycle, he would visit a little surf town (Byron Bay) nearby and stay at a hostel.

"A vacation from my vacation," he jokes, There would be days that Lurie would go without talking to people and then suddenly be surrounded by them. the final half of that month long stay turned out to be the most enjoyable. The Church played a three night gig while he was there and then performed an impromptu show just for fans, several of which Lurie corresponded with over the Internet while researching to the book. Fans of the Church had travelled from around the world for the three night's of shows and Lurie was one of them. Suddenly he was not so alone anymore.

Lurie will be sending a copy to Kilbey after graduation for his own interest and factual clarification. Kilbey told Lurie he didn't want to read anything until completion. The experience of interviewing and getting to know Kilbey changed Lurie's opinion of the singer. Lurie went from thinking of Kilbey as 'self obsessed jerk' to a warm and giving man. Lurie also did phone interviews once back in the U.S.

"Don't send me anything negative to read. Until you're done," Kilbey would say. "I want to retain objectivity." Lurie would talk with Kilbey around eleven at night while in Australia it was sometime after lunch there.

Lurie plans to shop the book for publication after graduating. He has titled it No Certainty attached.

Last July, Lurie went to CD Alley to pick up the new chuch CD, el momento descuidado. When Lurie placed the disc on the counter the clerk was surprised, enthusastic about him purchasing it [Brian: I've lost track of how many record-shop clerks I've met that are Church fans.] The clerk was a fan too and they talked a few moments. From Australia to downtown Wilmington, after so many years, music still has strength to live and travel beyond walls and borders.

-- Article by Brian Tucker, editor of Avenue magazine

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