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Steve talks about change in the band in 1984 Print E-mail
Friday, 14 September 1984
From RAM Sept. 14th 1984.

Constant in the face of change

Though their recorded output reflects a natural evolutionary process, The Church remain true to their original ideals... Scott Howlett asks Steve Kilbey to justify their continued existence, and finds Australia is no longer part of the plan.

Semantics is a subject close to the Church's -- and particularly songwriter Steve Kilbey's -- eloquently tortured heart(s). So let's examine the word 'constant'. The Oxford dictionary describes it as 'unmoved, resolute, faithful to) and unchanging', and it's a word the Church do not understand.

Through the course of three albums the Church's collective mood has changed. It could be said they metamorphosed further with each vinyl outing. Their debut, of Skins And Heart, was in essence a basic rock'n'roll album, and included the song that's hung over the band's heads to this day: The Unguarded Moment. The Blurred Crusade, the second Church LP, veered towards a more acoustic flavour -- verging on the spiritual -- and was as perilously close as the Church ever came to justifying widespread 'Byrds ripoff' allegations. 1983's Seance album could only described as an ethereal voyage into the lyrical unknown - "What the hell are they on about this time?" came the derisive cries from critics, and it was feared that Kilbey's use had painted itself into the ultimate obscurist corner.

Interspersed among the long-players were the more succinct glimpses - the double single, Too Fast For you/Tear It All Away, the fractured Sing Songs EP (perhaps the band's weakest vinyl link); then the recent Remote Luxury and Persia, and the latest clutch of new songs. Both document varying degrees of change, albeit less dramatic than the stylistic twists and turns that marked their albums. Are the Church -- and principally Steven Kilbey -- musical nomads? Are they visionaries without a vision? And is Kilbey some sort of modern-day John Donne? Who knows? The point is, they continue to change, forever in pursuit of an elusive idealism. Like the dog who hasn't found his true master, the Church keep searching for artistic solace. Or do they?

If we travel back to March 1982, it can been just what was expected of the Church. On the released of The Blurred Crusade, Stuart Coupe wrote in these pages: "The editor of Dolly magazine reckons they get more letters asking stories about the Church than any other Australian rock'n'roll band. They hold house records in Melbourne, and in terms of overseas, they're definitely one of the bands most-likely-to..."

Today the scenario differs. No longer witness to hordes of screaming nubiles and saturation coverage in the glossies. You don't see their videos on TV much, and radio airplay is similarly sporadic - the spectre of the first hit dogs their progress; The Unguarded Moment remains radio's reference point. Among the powers that be in the industry, the Church remain a band who promised much, delivered some and have now outlived their early potential. Let's face it, the Church don't mean too much in this country any more...

"Definitely, definitely," agrees Kilbey. "I'm of the same opinion, but every time I think that, the corpse is given another kick. I bet this EP (Persia) will jump into the charts and go to number 30 or number 25 and everyone will say, 'Hey, wait a minute, maybe it's still happening here', and then it will go away and everyone will forget about us again. "But yeah, it's all over. it's all over here, and I don't really care. I live here and make music for everyone. I mean, every musician makes music for everyone all over the world to listen to, presumably. If they don't like the music here, you go somewhere where you can do it. We certainly don't owe Australia any allegiances as far as music goes."

Down the yellow brick road they went, and as yet the Wizard has not been found to give the Church a pardon and overseas adulation. not from lack of trying, mind you. The band has had two American record companies, (Capitol and A&M), toured Europe briefly, and around May of this year signed with Warner Brothers in America and Carrere Records in Europe. Is the wizard to be found? What's happening overseas?

"An album will be coming out on the 27th of August," Kilbey announces casually. "It's Remote Luxury plus Persia put together as an album. England is doing the same thing."

How did Seance do in England? "Seance did really well. It was in the English independent charts for about three months, got pretty good reviews all round - some bad but mostly good."

What about the rest of Europe? "it's really hard to get details, but I would have to admit that it's fairly disappointing. But we're not with a fantastic record company and I'm not blaming them. They're quite bad really, quite inefficient and incommunicative. They (Carrere) just do what they like with the product."

What about Warners in America?
"They're the opposite. All really good people who actually like music."

Overseas touring?
"Nothing definite," says Kilbey. "if that record does well in America we'll go over, and if it doesn't, who knows if Warners will pay for us to or not?"

The Church could be perceived in any number of ways. They could be seen as a bunch of pretentious wimps, a 1960s reincarnation, a guitar-based pop band or a unit with obvious musical prowess to back up someof the most poignant and insightful lyrics to emerge in Australia's musical history.

"I don't really see it in those terms,"retorts Kilbey. "Being regarded and seen in the cosmic scheme of things or anything. This is a question that a lot of people get asked, and they all seem to be able to wriggle out of it - much to the disgust or disappointment of the journalist and the public; but it's very hard to answer it. I don't think many people think about it so much like that. I mean, how does Bob Dylan want himself to be seen? Who could answer that question? I don't think he could.

"I think we just want to be seen as a group playing some songs they hopefully enjoy." A constant point of debate with the Church -- or rather Steve Kilbey -- has centred on the lyrics of those songs. By their very content, they imply that Kilbey is either a poetic visionary or a soppy modern-day romantic. Take It's no Reason for example: "Marble skins turn human, people fade to grey / Put your head into my hands, we'll make them go away / As you're crying softly you won't ever be disturbed / Red on pink, the sun will sink/ have you even heard?"

Then again, it could be that they're all 'deep without a meaning', the line Kilbey sang in Unguarded Moment. The man certainly opened himself up for criticism when two years ago he told RAM he was the 'best songwriter in Australia'. How does Steve Kilbey now want to be seen in the role of songwiter?

"The same way the band is," Kilbey says. "I don't want people to think I'm ..."

The best songwriter in the world? "Well, I hope they do," he continues. "I'd be glad if someone does. If someone listens to us and says, "He's the best songwriter in the world,' then that would make me happy, but if they don't it doesn't matter. I've got a record collection of over 500 people, but I don't ever go in there and think this is my favourite record and this is my 53rd favourite record and this one is better than this. There's all kinds of things for different occasions. The Church is probably best for certain occasions, but for others there would be a lot of better things. "I'm not sure if I ever said I was the best songwriter to tell the truth. I've put up with that quote for a long time, but I'm not sure I actually said it. I probably did, but you say something and it hangs around your head for years. It's like having an argument with your mother and saying 'I hate you'; obviously you don't mean it, but you still say it."

Do you think people have looked too deeply into your songs?
"The ones that haven't got any pleasure out of them obviously have. The people who site down at their magazine and get sent a copy of one of our albums and tear everything out of the lyrics and make them look bad are obviously taking it too seriously. The people that enjoy it though...If someone enjoys taking a record home and taking the lyrics seriously, well that's one of the best things that could happen.

"There's too much of this 'How is it intended?' and 'how do you see ourself?' and not enough 'Do I actually like it?' I think this is all a symptom of 1984. Especially shows like Countdown where it's all like, 'This is number one here and this is number two here', it's making a football ladder out of what once were songs.

"You write songs for a lot of different reasons. I do them to be serious, I do them to have fun, I do them to make money and I do them because an album is coming up. I'm really happy with these new songs on Persia, but then again I always say that, so it's not very newsworthy."

So what's changed? Though there'd be those who'd lament the passing of the Church as imagery-driven rock'n'roll band through softer realms into poetry-soaked re-psychedelia and rambling points between, we're still left with the soar-and-jangle guitars, Kilbey's Keatsian consumptive's drone and Richard Ploog's stoically consistent percussive pulse. What's new are ex-Reel Craig Hooper's colour-injecting keyboards, resultant sparser and better arranged guitars, and fresh songwriting infusions - Marty Willson-Piper's terser, freer-melodic style parallels and complements Kilbey's occasionally dour melancholia to particular effect on his two contributions to the Church curriculum.

They may display a steadfast refusal to resist change, but has a once wildly successful rock'n'roll band become cast as a trendily indulgent bunch of eclectic dreamers?

"You want me to justify that to an imaginary person who holds those feelings and is ready this article, do you?" laughs Kilbey. So who said he was dour and serious?

"On the first album there were the pop songs and,what might be thought of as the pretentious and trendy stuff, and on the later records there's the pop songs and the other things. I think we've dabbled in everything all down the line. "It isn't a conscious thing to be trendy. I think it's really hard to be trendy, because by the very definition of being trendy you're always behind the trend. I don't think anyone could accuse us of jumping on a bandwagon. People said we'd jumped on the 60s bandwagon, but that's a pretty big bandwagon to jump on. Just about everyone's riding that bandwagon anyway. I don't think anyone could say we've ever copied any other band, 'cos we haven't. Maybe things like the Byrds or this or that, but I still think we're reasonably original as a group. "We're not like a lot of other bands around today whose mothers and fathers are very obvious -- the parent group of the group that's around at the time. The songs I wrote then and the songs I write now come out by accident -- there's never been any conscious decisions. If anything, we try and move away from what's trendy, what's inner-city, what's 'Cool'; ultimately there's limited mileage in that. Better to forget everything else that's happened and do something of your own."

Is Kilbey happy with the past? Is he proud of the Churchs' recorded output? Would there be anything he'd like to have changed?

"No, I'm not proud of all the things I've done...I'm not proud of a lot of live performances I've done. As far as the music goes, it's more a question of rating it as impartially as I can. There's stuff I really like and stuff that doesn't do much for me at all."

Like what?
"I really like that double single," avows Kilbey. "Whereas I don't particularly like Sing Songs and bits of Seance don't appeal to me very much at all.

What about Of Skins and Heart? "I don't really even think of it as the Church. I think of it as a bunch of guys making their first album and not knowing who they were."

It would appear the identity crisis is well past. With prospects and expectations high on both sides of the Atlantic for the Remote Luxury/Persia compilation, the Church may no longer need to continually resolve their public perception in Australia. Could be that constancy brings its own reward. Whatever country should take them to its heart...Maybe they have been here too long?

--Scott Howlett

Transcribed by Brian Smith and supplied by Jenny

Update 2010 to set interview date and fix typos.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 06 June 2010 )
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