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Steve talks about pleasing themselves Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 December 2010
Steve talks to Inpress, looking back on his changing attitudes to music and The Church.

Inpress interviews Steve Kilbey

Hallowed ground Steve Kilbey from The Church chats with EJ Cartledge

Approaching 30 years of recording and performing, The Church show few signs of mellowing. If anything, the band is as prolific as ever and playing shows of great resonance and variety. Their latest album, Untitled #23, garnered almost career-high reviews, establishing yet again the credentials for what is becoming an extraordinary  body of work. Inpress caught up with lead singer and chief singer/songwriter Steve Kilbey on the eve of the band’s Melbourne show. As ever, he was expansive, candid and forthright.   

“It’s an affirmation for sure, and it’s always great to get a good review,” Kilbey says, when asked of the universally positive reaction to the new album. “But you can start looking the gift horse in the mouth and ask ‘why are we getting good reviews now? Is it that good a record, are we doing something different?’ You know, it’s going to be interesting for The Church to go into the studio and try to make another record like Untitled ‘cos we can’t put a finger on what it was that we just did. But you know if you try to please yourself, there are two motivations for that. One, it’s the easy and ordinary thing to do. The other is you’re like the Brian Jonestown Massacre and hey, let’s just please ourselves and who cares. If you’re trying to please a fat man in a suit, usually it goes wrong. And that applies especially for The Church. Not only do you not please the fat man you don’t please anyone else.”

There was a golden age for The Church in terms of commercial acceptance and one gets the feeling that Kilbey would welcome the opportunity to have this time over again. “We never did anything to please the suits per se,” he says, “but on Gold Afternoon Fix [the follow up to 1988’s world conquering Starfish] instead of just pleasing ourselves as  we’d done before and always did afterwards, we were writing with certain  parameters in mind…that it had to be a certain kind of music. I felt this enormous weight on my shoulders and I think how I responded was terrible, but perhaps understandable for anyone else who has been subjected to that pressure. I mean we were plucked out from this indie-cult thing and then given mainstream success and the system kind of clamps down on you and squeeze you into something rotten.  “Gold Afternoon Fix in hindsight is not a bad record, but The Church is not in the business of making ‘not bad’ records. It was like, at that moment in time, being in the ring with Cassius Clay and trying to land a ‘not bad’ punch! You need to king-hit him. We should have come out with a record for America and the world that was so unbelievable and weird and wild and all the things they were starting to dig about us. But what did we do? We turned around and conformed and played it safe.”

In an offhand and bemused manner, Kilbey acknowledges the cultural weight the band’s biggest hit Under The Milky Way has gathered since its release two decades ago. With the world at their feet, he admits they got it wrong and ‘that was it for The Church’.  Oddly, both critics and the band’s personnel agree that despite the misstep after Starfish, 1992’s Priest = Aura was an artistic triumph.   “Priest = Aura was too late,” says Kilbey. “I would just like to go back in time to 1990, release Priest = Aura and say this is what we did after Starfish. We may have lost some of our commercial appeal but we would have been a lot more effective and a lot more people would have heard us and not written us off. The other thing is that grunge came along at the very time that Priest = Aura was released. Nirvana had their ascension and it kind of cancelled us out. It’s funny, ‘cos I knew it at the time. I knew that as soon as we released that record it would be lost, but I believed it would have longevity. But we were in a tailspin by that stage anyway. Now it’s great to have a classic record up your sleeve nearly 20 years later but still not a lot of people have heard it. And after that we weirdly imploded.” And yet The Church has lingered on,  coughing and spluttering at times, to release some of the most seamless and  rich music of their career. Furthermore, Kilbey and comrades are revelling in every minute.

What brought on the turnabout? “Well you know,” Kilbey says, “a total transformation is not a bad thing. I’m amused at the different versions of me over the years, from the skinny, angular, distant and bored character of the 1980s to the bloated junkie struggling through the 1990s and now I spring up after ten years of yoga and swimming to have all of this energy and turn into a crazy old hippie. Finally, after the heroin haze has lifted, I discovered that I really love to play music. I really enjoy going bananas onstage these days and when the audience enjoys that and can see the humour it makes it so worthwhile. Look, it just doesn’t matter anymore; I’ve paid my dues and no one can judge me harshly anymore. But certainly in the earlier days that manifesto of being distant and icy probably hemmed us in.”

Asked about his way of writing and recording, Kilbey laughs and launches into some background tidbits of his fellow Churchmen. “I have an incredibly informal approach to music,” he says, “whereas Peter [Koppes – guitar] is forever talking about crotchets of bars and stanzas and god knows what. As soon as he launches into that I lose interest. So sometimes we sweat and sometimes it goes really easily. Tim [Powles – drummer and producer] have worked out a modus operandi to deal with huge chunks of The Church that works very well for us. The band has an approach whereby we’ll record loads of stuff and then Tim and I – with Tim doing most of the hands on stuff – will trim it down and treat it, get the others to overdub on it if necessary, and that has worked for us over time. At times, that process can be a real joy; sometimes Tim and I get on such a winning streak, yet at other times we talk and bicker and nothing seems to happen and I go home angry and frustrated. So it really is a mixture of those two outcomes all the time.” © Inpress 2009

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