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The Highest Priests: Excellent Priest=Aura interview with Steve. Print E-mail
Saturday, 25 April 1992

A really major interview with Steve: Dino Scatena talks to Steve about GAF vs Priest = Aura, maturing as musicians, being an "artist", writing lyrics quickly, creativity and drugs. I think this interview shows a lot of insight into Steve's thoughts circa 1992.

 

 Juke April 25 1992.

The Highest Priests

At long last they've come up with an album that even Steve Kilbey likes! Even more, he thinks it's everything The Church should ever be. Dino Scatena picks up the tab.

The Church has released a new album. It is called Priest=Aura.

The journey begins with long, wavering strings. They whisper to you, invite you to enter the mystical unknown.

In a few moments, your world explodes in colour and beauty: time becomes muddled, irrelevant. You float through lands of fantasy, meander through kaleidoscopic states of consciousness and emotion.

The trip ends without warning, throwing your hazy mind back into the lifeless, colourless real world; your soul left craving for more.

"It's late night music," suggests one of residents, Steve Kilbey, "It's rainy days. It's a day when you wake up and it's really overcast and you're on your own any you're lying in bed and you go and put a record on. It's that kind of record. It's a record late at night on a hot summer night when you put the headphones on and have a glass of red wine or something. That's kind of what it's meant for."

Steve Kilbey has a content soul. After years of travelling and searching, he believes The Church is close to finding its destination. "Finally we got it right or we're starting to get it really right," he says. "I was thinking that maybe if everybody stayed together as long as we have, they'd finally make an album that they all really liked. Most of them don't stick around that long. it was a good thing for us to do."

Part of the euphoria regarding Priest = Aura has a direct relation to the misery surrounding Gold Afternoon Fix, an album the band now wishes had never come into existence. "I think you're always reacting against your last album and I really think that Gold Afternoon Fix... All I hope is that Gold Afternoon Fix didn't put poeple off buying this one. This should have been the record that came out after Starfish. If it had been, things would have been a lot better for us than releasing a record like Gold Afternoon Fix.
"It was just a totally Identi-Kit record. It was just a group being a group saying, 'We're this group. Let's be this group *being* that group'. There's nothing clever about that. Whereas with this record, it's just loose and free and I think there's some really nice things on there.
"There's been some reviews from the United States saying it's not as good as Gold Afternoon Fix and I just can't believe anyone could say that because one of the records is mechanical and ordinary - people who know how to do something doing it - and this one is really likt what improvisation is all about between musicians who are supposed to have some sort of empathy with each other.
"And that is what this record is really all about: the music that we wrote. The lyrics and the words and stuff are secondary to the music. They're really just sketches on top of the music. But I think the important thing is the way we all played together."

According to Steve, the years leading to the creation of Priest = Aura have seen The Church mature from a pop group to a creative unit of musicians with like musical aspirations. "A lot of people don't appreciate this concept," he says. "A lot of groups start off not just as the music that they play, they start off as this little football team for people to barrack for [SC Translation: support/root for] and to have a certain look that no-one else has, to hate all other groups and have this idea of world-domination and that they're a gang. Do you know what I mean? They all have to believe and say the same things and all wake up in bed at the same time. You know that sort of thing?
"And that's what we were. And we were really good at that. We were really good at that. We were one of the best one's when we first started at having this concept of that's what a group should be.
"Somewhere along the line - as I say, by the very dint of sticking to it - we stopped being that and actually became musicians. Like, even though it's only electric guitars and bass and drums and stuff, were still quite expressive.
"Some of the music that we're actually making now - and we're all in our thirties and we should be good at it by now - is really quite good music for music's own sake. Forget any of the ideology or what sort of shirts we wear or what we look like or what we've said to the press or anything like that. Of the actual music, some of it is really quite good.
"So this strange thing's happened as where we no longer live this hot band ideology blah-blah-blah: we're just musicians. That's all I am now. That's what I'm enjoying doing is actually making music. And here we are, we're all musicians and I think we've made this really quite musical album. We've hinted at it before - parts of Heyday and Starfish sort of hinted at what we could do - and I think this album, if we keep making albums together, is a kind of a beginning of how musical we can actually be."

If life=time and time = space and space = sublime and human = race ("Aura") what does The Church equal?

"What does The Church equal? Um, I don't know. I'll have to think for a long time before I come up with a glib answer for that. But I'm glad you've asked me because somebody else will and by that time I'll have a really snappy answer."

In many interviews with you, interviewers insist on re-diagnosing the past. In context to what you're doing now, how do you view that? Is it all forgotten?
"How do you view *your* past? How do you view what you were doing 12 years ago? How connected to it do you feel? Was that you? Was that the same person sitting here now? Could you justify the things you did and said? Why you did them? Could you?
"I don't know why I'm supposed to have some more sort of historical grasp on my own past than most people have on theirs. If you sat down and started talking to most people about what they were feeling four or five years ago - let alone 10, 12 years ago - ti's so hard to remember.
"I didn't know at the time that we could make music like this. I didn't know we'd turn into this. I didn't know we'd become musicians. You don't know what's going to happen. I didn't even think we were going to stay together.
"So, the past to me is just as much a blur as most people's past is to them. Especially when concerned by motives. Why did I...? I can't remember what happened - I can give you a pretty good history of what happened - but why it happened?...that's really hard to say."

Let's jump into the recent past for a moment. "On "You're Still Beautiful" there's a reference and thematic connection to Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. Do the opening lines of that novel ("The artist is the creator of beautiful things. to reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim") capture your vision of what art should be?

"I guess so. I mean, gee, it's really hard for a guy who's in a rock group to sit comfortably with quotes like that. I can't. You know what I mean? Like, if you think that's true, that's very flattering but it's a very lofty ideal. All those words in that language does not fit with rock music. Do you know what I mean?"

Does it fit with you?

"I appreciate what he's saying but I can't...We're talking about a quote from a book by Oscar Wilde who's one of the greatest English writers, a very classic book that's been around for a hundred years. It's really presumptuous and embarrassing when people in rock groups say, 'Yeah, that fits me, man. That's what I'm all about. I'm an artist,' or 'I'm doing this,' and 'I'm doing that'.
"If you think that and you want to write it or if anybody else does, but I sort of have to beg humility. I don't know. All I know is that I want to create beautiful music. I don't know if that art or if I'm an artist or if I'm just a workman who wants to work on something and create something which is a fine example of his craft."

I thought it was taken for granted that you are an artist...

"I don't know. Artist. That's a really funny word. There's a few words that, after a while, you really have to think carefully about before you want adopt them. One of them is 'artist' and another one is 'poet'. There's a few of them. It's something that's said about you but you can't say it yourself. And if people say it to you, you have to say 'I don't know'.
"If you really are an artist, you wouldn't ever say to anyone, 'I'm an artist'. And if you really were a poet, you'd *never* say to anyone 'I'm a poet'. It's just this unspoken thing. So, I don't know. I don't know. Say whatever. (Laughs) I mean, I think it's fantastic if someone thinks I'm an artist: it's an absolutely fantastic and flattering thing. But I don't think that myself and it's just something you have to allow other people to make up their minds about. Don't you think?"

We're discussing a very fine point here...
"But it's an important one."

It goes back to the quote about the artist being a creator of beauty. You're a creator of beautiful things, beautiful music...
"Oh, thanks."

Let's extend on this a bit in terms of the artist concealing himself from the art which seems to be what you like to do: present the art without the stamp of Steve Kilbey...

"Oh yeah. totally. Totally. Very much. That's a very good quote. I will definitely draw a parallel beween that and what I do. Definitely.
"That's a very interesting thing. Most of rock music is based on this thing of you knowing who is singing, you know all about him, he's a famous guy and he gets all over the world and he's got a flat in Hong Kong. You know what I mean? All this kind of stuff. And when he sings - or she sings - that's really all behind it: this is him doing this and this is how he lives his life and this is his philosophy and this is what he looks like and this is what his whole cult represents."
"What I'd like to do or am in the process of actually doing is making records which, for all intents and purposes, have just fallen out of the sky. The people behind them are totally irrelevant as in their political beliefs or what they look like or what mode of fashion they follow. Yeah, so the person behind what's being created becomes totally irrelevant.
"A bit like a painting. You go to a gallery and see a painting: you don't know what the artist looks like or what his philosophy is. That would be fantastic to do and hopefully achieve that over the years that this early idea of what I was or The Church fades away and we just become these anonymous musicians. And to make a living out of that and still be successful would be fantastic."

You've looked quite the same over the, say, past five years - facially and the way you present yourself - and you seem to go to some trouble to present yourself the same. is that to make the way you look incidental?
"I guess the way I look or anybody looks is a personal preference. It honestly didn't have anything to do with the group. I don't know. I just guess this is the way I should be. Image is just totally irrelevant to me."

As an artist, do you require any sort of feedback from your audience?
"Every compliment that you get is really good. you don't only exist by making money. I think you really exist by people complimenting you on what you do. It's really nice to have people who are interested in what you do and have comments and interpretations and questions. It's a great thing. You'd have to be an idiot not to enjoy that."

Alternatively, withdrawing yourself as the artist from your work, would you still be happy working in a vacuum and not getting any of that feedback?
"You'd stil get it, you know? You'd still bump into people or maybe you'd still do concerts occasionally and meet people there. I think you'd get a general feeling of what's coming back to you."

To theorise, with the benefit of hindsight, would you approach the music industry differently if you were starting afresh now?"
"I don't know. it's so hard to say. I think the way I did it was an interesting thing. It was kind of always fun, all the way down the line."

Steve Kilbey's lyrics are unique. Soft, incidental images, cautious not to interrupt the flow of mother music. He tells us he never spends more than half an hour on the words. Is he telling us the truth?

"A lot of people say, 'Oh, you write your words really quick!'. Maybe I shouldn't be honest about it and say, 'Yeah, i think about them for weeks'? But how else do you imagine it would happen? Do you think people would sit there for a long time writing lyrics? Do you think they go back and keep changing it and changing it and changing it?
"well, having been doing it a long time and spending your whole life thinking about writing lyrics and making music, you would expect some results, you'd expect you'd start getting good at it. So, I see it like that. Rather than sort of a real talent, I see it more as something that I've really put a lot of thought into. I've been thinking about lyrics my whole life, ever since I was a small, small, small kid. Thinking about music and lyrics and how lyrics worked.
"Even at the age of three and four, thinking, 'Now, this guy who's actually singing this, is he saying in this song that this actually happened to him or is he just saying I'm a singer singing this song?'. Thinking about them in this concept of where you actually place yourself in context to the actual words that you're singing.
"At this advanced juncture in the journey, I'm not surprised that, yeah, I can write good lyrics, but I don't think that's a wonderful gift. I just think it's as you would expect someone who's worked a long time at something would be able to do. That's how I feel about it."

Let's talk about creativity and drugs. How do you generally view the use of mind altering substances as part of the creative process. Are they like controlled creative experiments?
"In one way I guess people justify it that way. In another way, it's probably just pure hedonism."

Have you experimented with different things for different records? Do you do it that way?
"Well...(Pause) Let me put it this way. I think anybody who has ever dabbled in taking drugs will be able to hear our albums and probably have a good guess if there was any mind altering things being used, which ones they were. It's quite obvious and uusually gets a mention or two on the record.
"But I'm a father of two. I don't take drugs. It's illegal.

If you did, would you fear the prospect of addiction?
"If I took drugs, would I fear the prospect of addiction? (Pause) idon't know. I don't know what you mean."

It's a possiblity, isn't it?
"If you take drugs, you get addicted to them?"

[SC: I'm guessing Steve's answers to those two questions were in a joking tone.]

There's a possiblity of that happening.
"Oh, yeah. How could I deny that? I'm not a doctor, I don't know. yeah, of course if you continue to take anything - alcohol, cigarettes or any type of drug - for too long, you'll become addicted to it. Or dependent on it at least.
"That's true. That's part of the risk you run. it's like, if you drive a car, if you drive it long enough and fast enough, eventually oyou'll have an accident. You know, it's the ...it's illegal to take drugs, okay? Who am I to stand up against the law. I don't take drugs. I'm not going to talk about it.
"It's a risk you run. You don't get something for nothing. if you want to run the risk, I think that should be the individual's choice and not the government's choice. If people want to experiment with changing their consciousness, I think they should have the right to do that."

I don't want to press the point but I need to ask one more question in reference to this. Do you think writing from the heart is made easier or more difficult with the drugs? Does altering your mind make the writing an intellectual process?

"I think if you're trying to make music to incorporate all kinds of feelings, then you want to be...
"Just like an actor when he plays the role of an angry man has to feel some anger, I thin you have to feel what you're writing about to a certain extent and I think mind altering substances can help you feel different ways and put you in different mood so you can write music based on those feelings.
"There's a legacy of musicians taking drugs. It's gone on from the early jazz musicians and blues musicians , right through all the decades. It will go on forever. It's the nature of the game. It's beauty and the beast. It helps some people write beautiful music. It destroys other people . Some do both. Some are destroyed by it and still write good music as they go down. Others don't write good music on or off it."

The alternative singles chart in this issue of Juke showed "Ripple", the single from Priest=Aura, at number 4.

Transcribed by Brian Smith

 

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