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Steve speaks about the band staying together, mediocrity, ambiguity, post GAF Print E-mail
Saturday, 04 May 1991
This is an excellent and revealing interview with Steve from May 1991 with Michael Dwyer for Juke magazine. It was given to me by Jenny (last name, Jenny?) at the Ft.Lauderdale show where we met.

A Momentary Lapse of Dream Time

The white Rolls Royce slides to a halt at the end of a long leafy gravel drive.

I turn in slow motion to thank the driver but the car glides noiselessly off and I don't even glimpse his face. Distant, half-imagined chattering voices beckon me inside a towering white mansion, the flutter of wings just out of view leading the way.
The sun is unusually  bright here. Everything is in soft focus, the whole day slightly over-exposed.
Inside, a vast room with a highly polished wooden floor. It reflects doves fluttering high overhead as long, white curtains billow in the breeze through tall, open windows. In the centre of the room an antique white telephone stands on a a lace-covered table, the receiver off the hook invitingly. I move over in a daze, pick it up and a soft, familiar voice whispers...
"This is Steve Kilbey. You may ask your first question now..."

The daydream retreats as the taxi pulls up in front of an unexceptional terrace house in inner-city Sydney.

I'm trying to decipher extremely odd phrases scratched in letraset onto the chipped front door frame when the door opens and there stands poet and pop star, artiste and idol Steve Kilbey. He's barefoot, wearing a cream long-sleeve shirt and blue jeans.

What's more, despite his messianic facial growth, he's apparently human.
"What paper do you write for?' he asks dispassionately as we file past a front room strewn with cushions and decorated with colourful face masks of assorted styles and cultures.
I explain I've just arrived on a plane from Perth.
"That's a long way to come."
"Well, you're a pretty special guy."
"That's true," he greets my witty icebreaker with the deadpan immodesty that launched a thousand headlines.
A secluded and lushly vegetated back porch, two high-backed cane chairs and chilled spring water from heavy crystal wine glasses and we're rolling. Here's hoping we both loosen up a little before I get to the more searching questions. On this afternoon at least, Steve Kilbey seems every bit the endlessly searching and tortured spiritualist I always hoped he was...

Let's start with the new album of rarities and B-sides, A Quick Smoke At Spots. Is there any particular reason why you're in retrospective mode at the moment?

"Actually Mushrom have wanted to put this album out for ages and it always seemed the wrong time to do it. They rang me up and said they'd like to put it out to coincide with this tour.
"I don't even know which tracks have come out and which ones haven't. Some of them have been B-sides in America, some haven't. In Holland they released a five or six-track free EP which came with Starfish, the sort of stuff wehere we've just checked into various studios and written and demoed songs that were never intended for anything really. Mushroom have got hold of 16 of them and said 'well, might as well put it out now and close off that chapter'.
"Unfortunately there are a couple of tracks The Church did which were probably the best things we ever did, at a studio in Holland, and then they were lost. Arista just lost the tapes altogether, and I'd be very anxious to see those on record. But the things on this one...it's a real 'buyer beware' situation and I've said that on the liner notes. It's not Dark Side of the Moon."

You seem to have a tendency to be sort of completist about your work, releaseing all your home recordings, all your less formulated work. Why is that? I suspect it's not for commercial reasons 'cause they're hardly chartbusters.
"No, just for the same reason that Picasso or Dali or someone - not that I'm comparing myself to them - release their sketchbooks. There are ideas there that have some merit and some people may be interesting in hearing them even though they're not full-blown studio things that cost a lot to do. Some people like that kind of thing."

I read about 10 years' worth of Steve Kilbey interviews yesterday and one thing that struck me was an extraordinary confidence about what you were doing, regardless of your level of 'success'. Was that genuine conviction or a media snow job?
"I just look around and see how fucking dismally mediocre everone else is and think, well, I'm dismally mediocre too, but not as dismally mediocre as all them."

You really think you're dismally mediocre?
"I'm always disappointed by what I do, but I have this idea that keeps me going that one day I'm going to write this really amazing piece of music that continues to elude me. It's kind of a whip that keeps me going.
"Especially when The Church came out 1980), I mean, who was there? The Angels and The Radiators and just as far as the eye could see it was dismal mediocrity. I'm only confident by default. I'm sure there must be someone out there who can write that piece of music."

So to harp on that famous quote to Juke ten years ago where you called yourself "Australia's greatest songwriter", you werent putting yourself on a pedastal so much as seeing yourself as the best of a bad bunch?
"It's funny because that came true and every time juke RAM had a readers' poll, who do they vote for? SK! what can I say? If nothing else it was an interesting example of how if you come out and say something, people believe it."

Yeah, that is interesting. In retrospect it almost looks like you were an incredibly good media manipulator from the outset.
"Well, I'll tell you what. Most people grew up studying text books. I grew up studying Melody Maker, Creem and NME and figuring out how they did it.
"What I didn't take into account was that at the time - and I'm not pissing in your pocket - the people writing in most of those magazines were incredibly stupid. I thought I'd come out with this great witty spiel about me being this egotistical pop star and then there'd be guys who'd lap it up. But in those days it was a very dour, serious, leftover-from-the-70s sort of crowd and it never quite came out the way I wanted it to."

The turnaround was when you stopped doing interviews because you said it was "demystifying" what you were doing. that mystery strikes me as being incredibly important to the The Church.
"Oh, it is. I'd really like not to do interviews because I think if you discuss your music all you can hope to do is demystify it. You can't clarify something that was never meant to be seen in clarity.
"I've got a book in my room, Seven Types Of Ambiguity, which I constantly refer to. You spend all your life working on ambiguity and people like it and the first thing you do is sit down and do 500 interviews explaining exactly what the ambiguity is all about."

You mean specifics like "What is the Unguarded Moment?"
"No, just the ambiguity in the music. The music The Church makes and I make is not really happy or sad, it's not really gothic or punk, it happily hangs somewhere on its own where some people seem to enjoy it. I feel that by attempting to explain it, it can't posibly do it much good."

One quote I liked a lot from an old interview you did with RAM said (paraphrasing) "what we try to do is put people in a certain mood and let their subconscious do the talking". Do you stand by that?
"Yes, definitely. That's my whole thing, it always has been, being sort of a travel agent.
"The records are loaded with things that will appeal to something in your subconscious. You do all the work, I don't. I just make the suggestions and people enjoy it because I say "night" in a song and they see the specific night and all the things that are happening. Then they turn around and attribute that to me! That's one of the strange things that happens."

Do you equate the subconscious with the spiritual?
"Yeah, kind of...I guess I'm a bit mixed up but the subconscious and/or the spiritual ...I'm not really sure..."

But you are aiming at a transcendental kind of experience with your music?
"Yeah. Another much bandied-about quote is Andre Briton's famous 'Beauty must be convulsive or not at all' and yeah, what I try to do is something transcendental and something marvellous and something beautiful. I have often failed in the attempt but that's what I'm trying to get at.
"I want people to listen to this music. I don't want them to tap their foot and go "gee, this is a nice tune. it makes me happy," because there's plenty of people doing that. I'm trying to describe something that's indescribable".

At this point Kilbey's girlfriend Kaarin, notably pregnant, comes downstairs into the white skylit room just inside. She gives me a smile, the first one of those I've seen since I paid the cab driver.

Kilbey makes no secret that interviews are a duty rather than a pleasure and even though today's dialogue is easy, even enthusiastic at times, there is a distinct sense that he has grave things on his mind that are his alone to bear. Now anyone can have a bummer of a day but the sombre tone of this particular afternoon confirms, to me, the deeply pensive and sensitive artist Kilbey's work has always so strongly suggested. I suddenly find this revelation curiously elating.

There's a question in your book of poetry, Earthed, that I want to turn around and pose to you: "I want to know what yardstick you use to differentiate a dream from that which is cynically called a reality". Do you differentiate?
"Yeah, I guess when I wake up and go "oh, it was just a dream". I can sit here for ages and bore you with 'am I am man dreaming I'm a butterfly or am I a butterfly dreaming I'm a man" type stuff, but I think that only applies during a dream. I think what i was trying to say  was "how do you know when you're dreaming?"

So to take, for example, a drug-induced state, are you  suggesting that that reality is as legitimate as what most people call reality?
"Yeah, I think so, yeah. If this is it...(looks around, gives an exasperated 'augh!') if this is all there is, then you can have it as far as I'm concerned."

Church songs don't necessarily have their feet on the ground, do they?
"Never. In fact if we have a song with its feet on the ground there's a good chance I'm gonna hate it. I think a lot of the songs on the last album had their feet on the ground somehow. "Metropolis' seemed to well and truly have its feet on the ground. it seemed too sensible.
"I'm not making music to be sensible. I'm looking something I know I'm not going to find until I drop dead.
"In the meantime it just seems to be that playing guitar and  certain combinations of words and sounds seem to unlock something. You turn around and it's gone, but that brief flash, that's the thrill of it."

Do you still practice transcendental meditation?
"Very occasionally. I've sort of lost touch with all that stuff a bit, just through working too hard and taking lots of drugs, believing my own myth...
"I highly recommend it to anybody but at the moment it just doesn't seem to work for me because I'm just too stressed out."

Are drugs still an important part of your creative process.
"Yep. (leans into tape recorder and adopts cautionary tone) I don't recommend any children should try them."

Kilbey seems instantaneously uncomfortable at this point, so I don't venture into specifics.
Before I'd set the tape rolling, half an hour back, I'd casually apologised for being slightly late: "I've just been to Mushroom," I mumbled.
"what? You've just dropped some mushrooms!?" he started with equal parts surprise and delight.
"No, no, Mushroom Records," I'd laughed. He seemed a touch disappointed.

Okay, leaving the esoterics behind for a minute...
"well I like the esoterics, much more than 'what do I think of Peter's solo album?"

I'm not going to ask you anything like that, but I do want to ask you about The Church as a live band. At various times you've expressed frustration about the limitations of playing live. what are your feelings now?

"Umm...I guess I've reconciled myself to the fact that we're four blokes making a noise and we're never gonna achieve the kind of subtlety and delicacy that I would like to."

I'm surprised that's not a question of technology. In the early days it seems the problem was you with a very subtle delivery having to shout into a microphone. Can't you be overcome?
"I was talking to Andrew Eldritch (sisters of mercy) about this and he has the same problem. He (whispers) sings like this and even if you've got the best foldback in the world it isn't going to be responsive because you've got all that other noise happening and it's not geared for someone singing quietly.
"Unfortunately that trick of having a loud band and quiet singer realy only works in the studio. And I've come to realise over the years that at least there's a excitement and a sense of the occasion when we play live. I can say "all right, there ain't gonna be much subtley but there'll be a lots of excitement. You substitute one for the other."

There's always been an edge at a Church gig, to me, almost of contempt for the audience...
"No. No, I don't agree with that. I have never treated an audience with contempt, never. I've never said anything contemptuous and I've never felt contemptuous. I think that's a mistake. it's like when you meet someone who's shy and you think they're being stand-offish.
"I always feel incredibly humble every time I play. I feel very honoured that anyone's come to see us play at all."

But you're acutely aware, aren't you, of the contrast between expressing your art and having mass appeal. I thought maybe you felt playing live was debasing what you were aiming to do.
"No, I've always thought with The church that the optimum thing for us to do was to go onstage and play our songs with no argy-bargy, no audience participation. If I was going along to see The Church, I wouldn't want somone to come on and say (adopts Cockney accent) 'Howdjer feel, Perth?! Perth! Put your 'ands together...anyone 'aving a birthday?'
"It's not  that kind of thing. our songs aren't concerned with "let's smash down the walls and achieve something', they're kind of introspective songs where you leave people alone to enjoy them. If between each song there was this incredibly stupid patter it would dimish the whole thing. People might walk out thinking 'isn't he a nice bloke', but it would ruin the effect of the whole thing.
"You don't go and see Macbeth performed and in between the acts the actors come out and chat to the audience and have a cup of tea.

In the past 10 years that I've been seeing the band live, the only constant inclusion has been "You Took".
"Yeah, but that's about to go."

Really? last time i saw you I thought that was as exciting as ever, probably the highlight of the gig.
"Yeah? Probably is, i guess. We've kept it because it always had that great instrumental workout which I always thought was the best thing about The Church.
"I feel the best thing about The Church is not going onstage and playing 12 four-minute songs: verse chorus verse chorus, ten second guitar solo, two choruses and out, goodnight. I felt the best thing about us was when we sort of extended out and played pieces that grew and subsided, built up, reached crescendos. 'You Took' was a really good vehicle for that."

It's nothing to do with the fact that the phrase, "The Blurred Crusade" is an astoundingly good metaphor for what The Church is doing?
(Pause) Nuh. Nuh, I don't think so, maybe that had a little bit to do with it but the main thing was the music, not the lyrics."

Gold Afternoon Fix opens with the line "Hi to all the people who are selling me". Are you becoming more cynical about the way you're operating?
"Oh yeah, sure You can say anything you like on a record, you can start it off with 'Hi baby let's fuck', you can start a record with 'Go home and shoot your parents'. Nothing's sacred anymore. nothing's shocking.
"Ironically Arista records (their international label) is the best record company I've ever had an probably the best record company in the world for me, so it wasn't really directed at them. I'm not even sure who it was directed at."

I took it as directed at record company, media, even retail...anyone who's making money out of what you do.
"No I don't begrudge them that. We all support each other. I dunno, it was just a shotgun blast and you don't know who you're gonna hit."

Are reviews still important to you? Do you still collect them?
"Yeah I do. I like reviews and when I make a record I always think 'it'll be interesting to see what they make of this'. It's funny, I get a hundred good ones then I get one bad one and I sit there and pore over every word.

Does it intrigue you who likes The Church and why? "Who are these people and why have i struck a chord with them?"
"I suppose in a way I like the anonymity of the whole thing. I usually get pretty embarrassed when i meet people who like the band a lot. I knod of know what sort of person likes The Church, I know who I'm reaching out to."

You've hinted you're not exactly thrilled with Gold Afternoon fix or A Quick Smoke at spots, how do you feel about Jack Frost?
"Well there you go, you can trust what I say because I don't always says everything I do is marvellous, but I think Jack Frost is marvellous, I really do. I think it's a really marvellous album."

Is the partership with Grant mcLennan (ex-go Betweens) likely to be be ongoing?
"Yep. We've already started work on another album." [Ed. the album was "Snow Job"]

Is that a prolific partership?
"Oh yeah. A couple of months ago we got together and wrote about 10 songs in one night. When we get together we really knock songs out as quick as we like."

Tell me about your relationship with the other members of The Church. You're not friends, are you?
"Yeah, we are friends actually, pretty good friends. It's had its ups and downs but Christ! 11 years! over 11 years! I can't see how you could have an 11-year relationship with any other bunch of people and not at some stage have arguments and fights."

Could you make a Church soundalike record without Peter and Marty?
"Oh easily, yeah."

Does it bother you that's it's that formulaic?
"Um...it isn't formulaic, it's just that I would have the ability to imitate. I know how it's done. They couldn't do it because they can't sing like me, but I can do it because I used to write all the songs; I can write Church songs and I can play the guitars. I don't play the guitars quite like them but I can do it sufficiently so no one would know the difference."

Do you think about a future without the church?
"I don't see any reason for it to end unless it becomes some kind of grotesque thing...
"I think we have to move beyond...somehow we have to make the jump from being a pop group to being a modern jazz quartet, kind of thing. I don't want to pretend we're four 20 year olds going around the world rocking and a-rolling 'cause that's not what it is.
"If we can maintain some kind of integrity and we can mature as musicians and keep being friends, if the music still excites everybody then I think we'll stay together. I really do."

I remember at the time of Seance (1983) you were quoted as saying "this one's got to work, if this doens't I don't think there's a future for the band at all". Obviously it didn't work, not in commercial termsn, but you've come quite a long way since then...
(laughs) Yeah, there was always a glimmer of hope that kept us going.
"I remember when Marty walked out in Germany , he and I had a big argument and he walked out, the band was going nowhere and nothing was happening. Well, the next day i was packing my bags and someone rang from America and said Heyday had just gone in the American charts at 150 or something. I twas like "Oh no, why doesn't the corpse lie down!?'. Always, whenever we were thinking of packing it in, something would happen that kept it going."

Considering your recent success and the incredible storms you've weathered, it seems like nothing can stop you.
"Seems like we'll stay together now, yeah. I dunno why it means so much.
"The ironic thing is a long as there's a new Church album, what you do yourself can never be recognizsed. This is one of the paradoxes I've mentioned to the other guys in the band. None of us can ever be successful as long as The Church is around. I could make the most wonderful album in the the world and nothing will happen becaus it isn't called The Church. As soon as The Church is actually gone, maybe it'll have a chance.
"I dunno. it's a blessing and a curse."

As he sees me to the door, Kilbey asks if Jack Frost was favourably-reviewed in Perth (where I'm based), and appears satisfied when I answer in the affirmative.
"I'm not very popular in Perth at the moment," he adds, recalling an incident where a snubbed church fan wrote to the local music press to complain. I vaguely remember the letter, and reassure him with a dismissive chuckle. Hell hath no fury like a fan scorned and all that; but he's obviously sensitive enough, even to this paltry criticism, to have remembered the affair.

No Rolls Royce in the offing, I ask for direction to the nearest bus stop and trudge off, my fantastic,Church-fuelled imaginings about this Steve Kilbey character strangely vindicated.

"See you in Perth," he calls after me.

I turn around but he's not there.

--Michael Dwyer, Juke magazine May 4 1991, pg 13&14
Submitted by Jenny, who cooks very, very expensive chips for IBM!
Transcribed by Brian Smith

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