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The Church - A Musical Narnia Print E-mail
Wednesday, 02 May 2007

A fun and interesting with Steve, by Miika Jalonen, originally posted at


HUOM. Suomenkielinen versio tulossa!


The Church have started their European tour about a week ago, having already played Budapest, Vienna, Zagreb, Belgrade and Prague. According to web reports, they've been astonishingly good, far better than a "forgotten" band should be. And why wouldn't they? Unlike many contemporaries, The Church have remained as relevant as ever. Needless to say, instead of platitudes like album sales we're talking about the latitudes and longitudes that matter - exploring new musical horizons and travelling in space and time like only The Church can.


But it hasn't gone all too smoothly on the tour, as band leader and renaissance man Steve Kilbey has reported in his painfully honest blog. Disappointing crowds, technical difficulties of every possible kind, sinister border guards...the lot. No wonder Kilbey looks worn down and a bit melancholy, sitting on a sofa in the back room of the famous Quasimodo Club. However, more revealing (and relieving!) is the familiar, almost mesmerising spark in his eyes. He may call himself a washed up rocker, but Mr. Kilbey is still very much on top of the game, as the wit & charm of his answers easily proves.


I have to start with a little story. Back in 1994, when I was just a boy, you were on the acoustic tour in Finland and I was supposed to see you in Tampere. But then my girlfriend got ill and I didn't come. It would be romantic to say it was because I was tending for her but I was very young and just didn't have the guts to come alone. And I truly thought that I would never get to make it right.


- Aww. Actually I remember Tampere. I can still see the club with my eyes!

I'm a bit nervous too, because there's always a risk in meeting your childhood heroes. What if I act like a fool? What if they don't live up to the expectations? 

- Well, if they don't, you just go and write a nasty article.

It has become a cliche to say that The Church are underappreciated. But how does it really feel, in a way, to operate in the shadows, be almost like a secret society?


- We'd rather it was a bit different than it is. But what can you do? You just gotta play the hand you've got.We've been going a long time, 27 years, so it's quite a long run and we can't really complain too much. Obviously, we would like to have more people knowing about us and buying our records. But you can't think about that, you just gotta move on.

More importantly, it's ultra-rare, almost unheard of, that a band well into its third decade comes up with new exciting material as a rule. What's your secret?

- Our secret is always trying to have a high standard for ourselves. Also, we aren't succesful anymore, so we have no pressure to be anything. It dosn't matter whether we are commercial or make strange records, because we sell the same amount anyway. We still love it all. I love playing just as much as when I was young. I don't mind playing old songs, but I can't keep from writing new material. It's the bit that's most fun really. That's about it. As I said, we're not big enough to anybody put pressure on us, so we're left alone to do our own thing.

Paradoxically, that's the part of the game that you win, if such a banal word can be used. Cause you never painted yourselves in the corner or turned into some parody-jukebox.


- Are you sure? You might change your mind after you've seen us today! Nah...It's like, after thirty years it's almost like final family business. Imagine a bunch of guys who've been making shoes for years and years. That's what we're known for, we make very good shoes. The Church make very good music. We can't do the other stuff. This is all we can do. This is who we have to be. And we're all so critical of the band and each other that as soon as someone starts getting a bit populist, we kinda jump on him. In the band we're sort of fiercely artistic. 

It's first class irony, that nowadays music is almost about everything else than following ones muse.


- Yes, that is an irony. Look at the fifties. It was a very grim time. There were beatniks and jazz, but no rock. And then the sixties happened, the 70's, the 80's. And now we're on a trough. Maybe in ten or twenty years' time people start undestanding what it's all about. Music, beauty, turning people on and all this stuff that's popular now - boy bands, rap - will go away. In a way I think these moods swing in and out of the time. So that you have to look at centuries to get a real picture. Look at The Romans - some of the culture really embraced art. And then the barbarians had no liking whatsoever. In The Renaissance period everyone suddenly became aware of music and art and then The Victorian era squashed it again. We might be unfortunate that in rock terms we're in a bit of a dip. But it might come out of it.

If you could be any fictional character ever created, who would it be?


- I think I would've wanted to be one of the children that went to Narnia. When I read those books I was SO disappointed that you couldn't really do those things. It made me feel so frustrated that we have to live in this mundane world. And that's what The Church have attempted to create; a sort of a musical Narnia. So when people put us on they can go to this other world for a while.

I'm more of a Tolkien's man myself, but I totally understand your point.

- I love his books too.

What's your favourite myth?


- Well you know what, I have read the great Finnish, what's it called...?



- Yeah, I've read it...

Tolkien did too! Actually he even used it as one source for the elven languages...

- I bet he did. That's amazing. I kinda like the Norse myths also. I'm really into Loki as a character, his trouble and mischief. Especially when he arranged the arrow and gave it to the blind god who Balder. All those carryings on. I could really relate to that. 

What about the most cliched rock star thing that you ever did?


-  Oh god, I've done them all. Let me see. Well, back in the beginning of our career I got mobbed by screaming girls outside a big concert in Melbourne. I was buried under a hundred girls and I was panicking, I thought I was gonna suffocate. They were just pulling me apart, it was just terrible. 

Perhaps a little bit flattering too?

- No! I felt ridiculous and it was embarrassing. I was truly worried. You wouldn't want it!

Can you name the strangest source of inspiration for a song that you ever got?

- Me and my brother Russell were riding the nineties very soft and we had a book with us called Out The Junction. And when we ran out of lines we just opened up the book and pulled a line out. And it was years later that someone wrote to me and said that there's some lines of your songs in this book... But they were good lines! "Tiny drops of water glistened on her black fur". What a great line for a song! 

What about the best rumour that you've heard about yourself?


- I heard a rumour that I was going out with Jennifer Aniston...

The story goes that a long long time ago you had a shortlist of names that you picked The Church from. Do you remember any other names?


- I do. The Satin Odyssey, of course. And it was going to be The Church Of Man, not just The Church.

If The Church were sports, what sports would the band be?

- What sport?! Now that's an interesting question. We would be a sport that hardly anybody does. Something like javelin know what I mean? Something that everybody kind of likes, but nobody does or watches much.

kilbey.jpgActually javelin is THE sport that we Finns have been excelling on in The Olympics and The World Championships for a long time. But maybe this was pure coincidence...

- (laughs)

What's the best guitar tandem in the world, if - naturally - Marty and Peter are not counted?

- I'd have to say Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd.

From Television fame.


- Mind you, John Lennon and George Harrison were quite good too.


If Marty and Peter's playing styles were animals, what would they be?

- Marty would be something wild and erratic like a jaguar. And Peter's more sort of a dolphin.

In fact, when I was making these questions I thought that Marty and his Rickenbacker were like Dirty Harry and Magnum .45, so that image fit with your answer quite nicely. Anyway, what's the most Spinal Tap moment of your career?


- I remember that once we played a gig in America in the middle of winter. During the gig I came running off the stage and it was hot as anything, I was covered in sweat. Next I saw a door, opened it and was suddenly standing in the side of the theater, it was snowing and about minus five degrees. But, the door was closed, it was a fire exit and nobody even knew I was there. By the time I got back inside, the crowd were very angry and some of them had left. And my hair was frozen.

Could you describe the elements that define the Church to you?

- Integrity.

Which is a very misused word!


- I think integrity means kind of considering the people who buy your record and not just dishing them up anything. People expect something good from us and we're gonna fucking give them something good. To me, that's all the integrity you need. Not to treat them like idiots but to make the kind of record that you demand to hear yourself. I can immediately hear from an album if someone just writes any old words and any old chord progressions. I want a bit of thought and originality. That is the thing!

One of the most fascinating things I've ever heard about music is that once Prince said that his best album is reserved to private use.

- (laughs) Really?

I don't know if he lied, but you too have written hundreds of songs that haven't been released. Would you like to put out a, let's say, ten cd box retrospective in the future? Are there any surprises in the catalogue, different styles, embarrassing secrets even?


- Of unreleased stuff? Not really. There are no unreleased songs. I have pieces of music that I could put lyrics on top. But no songs. 

The Church have had a problem with the lack of creativity. Especially in the late 80's you recorded and released a couple of albums in the same time that it takes Axl Rose to fire a producer. What do you think about the tendency that bands release records every five years until the former one has been milked out?


- I think whatever works for you. If that works for them, do it.

I find it hard to believe that deep inside anyone could want that.


- It's naive to think that a band who's earning a billion dollars a year and playing huge stadiums would think that they've gotta come up with new material. Of course they're going to milk it. I don't know. I'm not in that position but I hope that I'd still want to release an album every couple of years. But they would suppress you. 

(stands up to stretch his legs - and sighs)

- Axl Rose...I don't think he really knows what he's doing. Otherwise it wouldn't have taken that long to do it.

On the other hand, maybe Guns'N Roses was a bad example, because at least they've been able to create a myth out of the whole thing. 

- Yeah.

I just read a recent Nick Drake biography and came up with an interesting piece of information. Because Drake's Pink Moon was used in a Volkswagen Cabrio commercial, which became quite famous in its own right. However, Dann wrote in the book that at first Under The Milky Way was supposed to be the tune, but - quote - "no clearance for the use could be found". Did you know this?


- I knew it, but that's not what we were told. They had chosen Under The Milky Way but I heard that at the last moment someone heard Pink Moon and everybody went aah and they changed the song. I hope it went that and not the other way. 

I don't want to dwell on this commercial angle too long, but could you even imagine working with a major company again, given the scars from The Arista period?

- Sure. I can imagine anything. 

What would you do differently this time?


- Take as much money as I could, use a really good studio, stay in a good hotel... I don't know, I don't really know what I'm doing, I'm just a musician. All these other things are so random. Next year we could be on our own label, but it could be, if someone would be interested, we would go for it. Anything can happen.

As a band you've survived Reagan, the fall of The Soviet Union, Berlin wall, music styles have gone full cycles... To an outsider, the band seem a tighter unit now than ever. How much is this due to Tim, the new guy of ten years, who in a way reinvigorated you? Is he like D'Artagnan and you the world-weary musketeers? 

- Something like that.

Which is which, then?


- Haha, I don't know. When he came in, he gave us new energy and a different way of looking at things. He's been a great asset.

We live an information society, which basically means that we're drowned by it. But - and this could be one of the best things about The Church - your music doesn't intrude or push itself almost violently on the listener unlike most of the radio trite. Moreover, on Uninvited Like The Clouds there's all new playfulness and sparkle in the eye. How come?


- I think we just started to enjoy ourselver. It wasn't any more deliberate than that. Personally I've got a lot of other things out of the way. I'm not busy chasing women or drugs anymore, so I can enjoy what I'm doing. It's a thing that has helped those albums have a bit more sparkle and humor. And the more they get like that the more we enjoy, which is a good cycle basically.

The nasty side of the information overload is that a hopeless need to explain everything has become a kind of safety measure for everything. Almost if there could be nothing scarier than a thing with loose ends. What do you think about all this? Should every Church-album be labeled with kind of a parental advisory sticker that says: if you want one truth only, it's not here?


- I think songs escape this whole question. You're allowed to do anything in a song, people accept that as a given. You don't have to say whether they are fact or fiction or truth or lie. Or a mixture of all of those things. And it's a good thing. Music can be anything.

In the foreword of Earthed you wrote that "The magic is fading from this world. Logic and rules replace the spells." - and that was almost twenty years ago! At the same you said in a Bucketful of Brains interview, that people are still interested in more than matter-of-fact things.  In a way, both things may still be true at the same time. But sadly, on the magic side of things the ones that gain success are often something in the vein of Da Vinci Code...and...(a long pause)


- Well, what's your question?

Um, a valid point. 


- (laughs) It was a good leading though!


Yes, I have to gather myself here for a sec. Now that I look at my papers, I have almost a full page of text left, but - perhaps unsurprisingly, given the occasion - it seems to be open-ended, flow of conscience. So perhaps it wasn't a question at all. 

- You crazy Finnish guy, you just had to say it.


Perhaps this was a sign that we should call it quits. The only thing I can think of asking is this: Germany being the quinessential meat country, have you been able to find anything to eat?


- I only just got here, but I reckon I will. In Berlin it's probably easy, but the smaller towns can be a challenge. I truly like Berlin. You might think I wouldn't, but I really do


Like Kilbey hints, later in the evening The Church play a generous amount of older material, excluding only the problem and drug-fuelled 90's. But a jukebox they're not. The foursome play with such grace and intensity that a bunch of lazy chart-toppers should be around learning a lesson. Highlights include Peter Koppes sung Never Before, majestic Grind that tops the album version any day and a total surprise, a lovely cover of Hounds Of Love by the divine Kate Bush, which is as close to seeing Kate live as anything. During the soundcheck, Marty Willson-Piper has been extremely upset by the mixing, but he channels his frustration into furious guitar wizardry. And Tim Powles is one of the most dynamic drummers in rock today. Of  course, the newer songs roam in a more jammed, ambient and spacey territory, but also some of the classics have been given new blood with different arrangements and soundscapes

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