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Great interview with Steve from 1992 Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 April 1992

I really liked this interview with Steve from Australian Rolling Stone, April 1992.  He stands up strongly for his lyrics and music, and talks a little about how Gold Afternoon Fix got off track. His comments on how rock'n'roll should stay dangerous and not be filled with vague optimism are especially interesting.

 

Steve Kilbey
The Rolling Stone Interview by John O’Donnell

STEVE KILBEY IS SITTING IN A SPARE ROOM ON the third floor of the nondescript, dishevelled terrace building in Sydney’s Surry Hills that he’s recently purchased and turned into a small recording studio. He’s taking time out from co-writing and producing tracks with Canadian singer/songstress, Mae Moore, to do the “silly stuff," as he puts it, promoting the latest Church album Priest = Aura.  Halfway through the interview Diana Murray, a Promotions Manager for Mushroom records, interrupts to show Kilbey eight potential pieces of artwork to consider for the jacket of the band’s insidious new single, “Ripple”. Kilbey immediately opens the choice to Murray and myself and when I offer an opinion Kilbey says ‘okay, we’ll do that,’ and the matter is sealed. The process takes all of fifteen seconds and perfectly distills Kilbey’s approach to the music business. Everything apart from being in the studio or on stage is a distraction, and Kilbey is continually minimising these distractions. “I really have a desire to eliminate middle men,” he says later. “Because by their very nature they’re not creative. They’re just raking in a percentage usually and diluting, at the very best, what you’re trying to do.” It’s twelve years since the Church emerged with their distinctive, Byrdsy guitar arpeggios underpinning Kilbey’s droning dreamscapes, a breath of fresh folk-rock air in a new romantic wasteland. And if they’ve had their highs (Th Blurred Crusade, Seance, Starfish) and lows (Persia, Gold Afternoon Fix) they’ve never been less than interesting.

Over their first three albums Kilbey established himself as the band’s figurehead, an idiosyncratic singer/songwriter and music industry enfant terrible. Since then the Church has developed into a true band, with Marty Willson-Piper and  Peter Koppes co-writing most of the tracks on the band’s last four albums,  and Kilbey ever-retreating from the spotlight - and this holy trio have established suitably diverse solo careers: Willson-Piper with the albums In Reflection and Rhyme and most recently when he signed on as a defacto member of the English guitar-based outfit All About Eve. In 1991, Koppes formed The Well which he fronts and recrrded on the EP iridescence, which came after two previous solo discs, Manchild & Myth and From the Well.

Kilbey, meanwhile, has carved a niche for himself as singer/songwriter/collaborator in his own right, and more recently for his production work with Melbourne singer-songwriter Margot Smith and Mae Moore. His solo catalogue has twisted from the pop-based Unearthed and The Slow Crack to the ambient textures of Earthed and the just released Narcosis, and the sprawling, indulgent double album Remindlessness. Perhaps most significantly, in 1990 he began a continuing collaboration with former Go-Between Grant McLennan under the moniker Jack Frost. The duo’s self-ititled album was a tangent-jumping mini-masterpiece that drew critical raves worldwide and brought a new dimension to each of the songwriters’ considerable canons.

Despite the many hats the band members have acquired, the Church as a unit has never been stronger. They cracked the U.S. charts in 1988 with Starfish and the brilliant “Under The Milky Way,” and while they lost drummer Richard Ploog and recorded the disappointing Gold Aftemoon Fix in the fallout of this success, the band pulled together its disparate forces, annointed legendary American drummer J.D. Daugherty as permanent member and in mid-1991 re-convened to record.

In light of the band’s dissatisfaction with Gold Afternoon Fix, the Church are more determined than ever to pursue their own star, to which the fiercely idiosyncratic Priest = Aura testifies. “I’m not ever going to work with a producer again,” Kilbey spits venomously when discussing Gold Afternoon Fix. “I’m never again making a record for anybody else except me.”

If Kilbey dislikes negotiating business, he is equally proud of Priest = Aura and elaborative and amiable when drawn into discussing it. Barefoot, slightly bleary-eyed after a long studio session and with a bottle of apple and blackcurrant juice for sustenance Kilbey brought his distinctive urbane bohemia to anything put before him the day before he left for a rare vacation, a week away with longtime partner Karin Jansson and their recently- arrived twin daughters, Elektra and Miranda.

It seems more than a little unique the way the Church is able to exist, constantly moving between your personal projects and those of the band. There must be very little ego involved.

I think when you’ve been together as long as we twelve years, that’s all been well and truly ironed out. I think the last major argument we had was in 1986 and ever since then it’s been really easy.

Was the essential change the Church made in arriving at this balance the change that you had to make from leader and self-confessed tyrant to someone more accommodating and encouraging of the others?

Well I was the guy who had the idea of what the Church should be, this musical idea I wanted to see through, and it just had to e done that way and that worked out for the first three albums. I mean everyone was really young, when we started; Richard was eighteen, Marty was twenty-two, I was twenty-five, Pete was twenty-four. None of us had really been in the studio before and there was only room for one person at that stage. I was writing the songs and making those musical decisions, those guys came up with what they were playing, I don’t take anything away from them. I just think it was a natural process. On Heyday it just became a natural thing to have everybody write, for it to become a group in the true sense. I wanted that, they wanted it. It wasn’t like I was locked in a tower with them saying “We won’t let you come out until you hand over the reins of the group.”

So how do you approach all of your different projects. ls the Church still the priority?

I think the Church is still some kind of priority over everything else. It’s just normally like this month you’re going to do this and next month you’re going to do that. And whatever you’re doing just put your best into it, it’s not like you’re saving ideas for one or the other. Like if I was working with Mae (Moore) and all of a sudden I came up with a completely revolutionary new concept for recording guitars I’d use it there and then. I wouldn’t save it for myself or the Church.

Do you listen to Marty 's or Peter’s albums?

No I don’t. I might listen to it once maybe, but like I haven’t listened to All About Eve.

How does the dynamic work then when you come together and he the Church again?

I think what the Church does is quite accidental, it’s just what we happen to write or play on that day.

Like l gather that with ‘Priest = Aura’ Marty was less involved than he would normally be?

Well, he played his guitar parts and lefi, because he had some other commitment. He normally doesn’t hang around while I’m doing the vocals, but maybe, yeah. It’s hard to say, he was certainly there writing with us for a month before we started.

But essentially  someone has commitments elsewhere you can ride with it?

Yeah. I mean whoever’s there at the time, that’ll be the Church, as far as I’m concerned. If no-one turns up I’ll be the Church on my own.

Your solo stuff and your production work strikes me as substantially and quite intentionally different from the Church. ls that how you approach it?

I don’t know, I’m just a musician and I make a lot of music, making music is the way I relax. The Church do an album every two years and when that’s happening I do as much as I can towards that; I write the best that I can and play the best I can. And when the Church is inactive I find other avenues, whether that’s stuff on my own, or producing, or co-writing.

What do you look for in the Church, because it would appear that ‘Starfish' and ‘Gold Afternoon Fix’ were very conscious attempts at cracking it internationally?

I tell you what, Starfish really wasn’t. To us we were just making another one of our albums that was probably going to sell three copies. And then with Gold Afternoon Fix something strange happened in the way it was approached; people tried to get involved, saying ‘you guys should write some hits.’

Did you listen to their advice?

Not really. But things just got a little bit out of control, where it all became a bit contrived. I don‘t particularly like that record, I don’t take anything away from anybody who does. You’re constantly plotting your course. You’re not going straight ahead, you’re going a bit this way then that way, and Kilbey gestures to the right and then we're getting back in the middle with this album and maybe pulling over to the left.

So do you regret ‘Gold Aftemoon Fix. ’

I just don’t think it’s a very good album. Yeah, I regret it. I don’t think it was a very good album, from the nuts and bolts, right up to the upholstery and everything. It was a shame, I wish (Priest=Aura) had been the album that came after Starfish.

“Pharaoh” the first track on ‘Gold Afternoon Fix’ starts with the lyrics “Hi to all the people who are selling me/Here’s one straight from the factory ” It sounds like a nasty cynical comment on the whole process.

Yeah, I guess it was. I mean for the first time in our lives we were making demos. We’ve never fucking made demos before and suddenly we were in this position where there was the guy who was managing us and some people at Arista were saying, ‘We want to hear what you’re going to do next.’ So instead of the Church wandering into the studio with just some jams we’d made up, which is what we’ve always done, suddenly we’re in this position of having to provide demo tapes of songs that were going to be our next album and it was strange. I guess that record resulted from that situation and it’s hideous, it’s terrible that that ever happened.

How did you let it happen?

Well there were other things happening in my life at the time, I was making Remindlessness, which was very naughty. I was running home every night from the Church, thinking ‘oh god, that’s dreadful and I was making this really strange, twisted record that I was really into having a good time with I m just really disappointed because I was some one who pretty much stuck to my guns and had done what I wanted through thick and thin, and the rest of the band had. And then finally at that stage of the game, after having success with “Under the Milky Way” and Starfish, which is supposed to free you, there we were making an album that ended up like that. But still I would have to take more blame than anybody else for letting that happen

Looking at some of your recent lyrics at would appear that you have a dilemma about whether you want commercial success or not?

Oh yeah, I do want success Having a hit record and making some money is a lot of fun There’s also a lot of silly stuff that comes with it, but that’s just part of it
[The first column on Page 3 of this article photocopied badly, so I’m guessing the odd word here and there. Apologies if anything bad happens.]

For instance on Starfish “The guys with the brains are all bitter and vain/The guys with the luck get the bimbos and bucks” from “North South East West and “The pursuit of adulation is your butter and your bread/lt’s an exquisite corpse and its lips are red/ and its teeth are glistening” from “Lost” - suggest you come to ?? with trepidation. And “The Disillusionist” off ’Priest’ also takes an acerbic look at the pop phenomenon.

Well presumably you write songs about your life. You have to take things out of your own life I think that not a lot of people are really honest what it is like to be in a group or to be in the industry They won’t write about the drugs or the groupies and the disillusion and the ugly side of it. And in a lot of my songs, especially stuff off Remindlessness, I do write about that. I think all’s fair in love and war and you should write about everything. You can’t write about love affairs forever.

Over twelve years, are you now better at dealing with “the silly stuff”?.

In fact I’ve gone right off it. I just went if York and the shaking hands and kissing babies really got me down. The aim of the game now for me, is to get out of doing most of that stuff and be a musician, behind the scenes and make music. Very few people are musicians and and personalities; I’ve got no desire to be a personality.

You did initially, right?

Oh, in the early days I wanted to be a guy who was on TV and did interviews and talked about himself and all of that. And I ?? (did?) that and somewhere along the way I fell in love with music more and more and had less time for that whole silly thing of being a multi-media personality. You can’t be honest. You can’t go on ?? or the Steve Vizard Show and say what you really think.

Since the Church began, the videoclip (music video) has risen to the extent where it’s now perhaps the main marketing tool. What’s your attitude?

[From here on I’m losing approximately the first two words per line...]

I think they’re horrible. I hate making them, I hate watching them. Music was made to be listened to and I’m really anti this Vegas entertainment thing that’s crept in. I...Paula Abdul, that’s not music, that’s [??]. It’s all the stuff that I thought the initial ...happened in the Sixties with the Beatles was supposed to wipe out.

Rock has these bursts where it breaks free, like punk rock, and then the fucking business ropes it in and slowly turns it back into Tin Pan Alley entertainment and I fucking hate entertainment. Entertainment’s for people with empty heads. Music is for listening to, it’s something really spiritual.

Critics have always focused on your lyrics, and often unfavourably. What’s your attitude to lyrics; how important are they? and how do you rate yours?

I think my lyrics are pretty good, actually. I think lyrics are very important and I think my lyrics,....genre, are quite good. I certainly try and make them interesting.

Do you look back at certain songs and wish you’d .... y minutes on them?

...don’t ever have regrets about them.

[And we’re into column 2, so the photocopy issue is passed.]

Though at times they’ve been attacked as being nonsense?

I could never see what was wrong with that. I suppose it just isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, and that’s fair enough. You know, one man’s pretentiousness is another man’s esoteric delight. And (Sydney Morning Herald critic) Lynden Barber might cringe at my pretentious, spaced, tripped-out lyrics while somebody else is saying ‘hey this is great, someone’s writing about something kind of interesting or surrealistic.’ To me surrealism isn’t a dirty word. To somebody else, just saying it’s surrealistic is like saying that’s crap. Some of it’s just like ‘bebopaloobopbamboom or whatever it is, like ‘I got a girl called Mary whose chest is very hairy’ 'That’s an aspect of rock and roll, it’s just' the first thing you make up. It’s absolutely absurd to think that a pop song should have any obligation to be anything at all. It’s just a fucking song.

Your recent work, particularly with the Church and Jack Frost, suggests a real more away from this surrealism? You can read much of it very literally

You can, it’s true. Maybe l’ve just got better. Maybe when I started out I was writing too much flowery, romantic, sappy stuff, that’s quite possible. Was Grant McLennan an influence in this change? Yeah, he kept a rein on it. I’d say, ‘Pie in the sky/flying through the dreams,’ and he’d say ‘Come on Steve, you can’t write that, I don’t want that.’ But on the other hand I think maybe I rescued Grant from going the way of his predilections. I think that is what a collaboration is all about, from what l do and he does the idea is to pull some new thing out. I really learnt a lot from Grant making that record, and after working with him, he hasn’t lost any of his mystique.

Drugs have always been part of the Church’s mystique, the aesthetic and the lyrics, has that been a conscious thing? I’ll have to preface this by saying that this is a very dodgy thing to talk about, because after all it’s illegal.

But you’ve often admitted to its...presence.

Well, it’s hard, if everybody who did drugs was honest we’d have more chance of doing something about the draconian laws. I think people have a right to change their consciousness. I like to change my consciousness. I like to make music using...I might be talking about beer,
I’m not saying what it is, I think people always have. I’m not encouraging anyone to take drugs, but we’re adults, we like to change our consciousness.

You never shred away from the imagery; most recently you’ve called your latest disc “Narcosir” and on ‘Priest = Aura’ the song “Swan Lake” mentions hash and “Aura” mentions opium...

Well, it’s a true thing. I know that. I don’t think it should be glamorised, but everyone I know takes drugs of some description and I think it deserves to be in the songs, it’s a fact of life. It’s a controlling factor. It’s part of the problems and pleasures of modern life.

Do you care about how you’re perceived personally? The Church here, and you in particular  have had a reputation with the media and elements of the industry for being arrogant or difficult.

Arrogant because we wouldn’t go along with their beer drinking antics? Arrogant because I can put three four-syllable words together coherently in a sentence?

Do you think you’re arrogant?

Not particularly, no. Maybe I was once, but it was a character I was playing. When I first started off I really thought the Australian music business needed some kind of nasty intelligence or a bit of rude- ness and arrogance, a bit of controversy, 'cause it’s always been made up of this good ol’, ‘gee he’s a nice bloke’ club. I thought it’d be great to have this character who was cold and rude and who kept throwing tantrums and doing all that stuff; not anything very original. I mean, I got it all out of the NME. So it was fun for a while, then it became tiresome. Now there’s still guys saying ‘oh, he’s a really difficult, rude guy,’ and I haven’t been that for so long.

You recently said something about Daryl Braithwaite; being sick of people making responsible music.

Well I was just reading a review of his album. Nothing against him personally honestly. But that type of music that the Farnhams, the Braithwaites and all those guys make, it’s a certain kind of responsible middle-age, middle-class music isn’t it? The lyrics are full of this kind of very non-specific optimism: ‘The world can be better/You’re the voice, if we all get together and stand up we can change the world.’ Well that just absolutely makes me sick. Not the sentiment, but the fakeness of it. The diference is they sell a zillion recotds and I sell three. But me and lots of other people deliberately exist to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from that kind of thing.

Has having children mellowed you?

I don’t think people in rock bands should talk about having children, 'cause you always come out with the same old cliches. My children don’t have anything to do with rock & roll; they certainly won’t be making any appearance on my records.

You don’t write warmer; more caring lyrics now?

No! I don’t think rock & roll is about writing warm and caring lyrics for your family. I think rock & roll is the wild card. I think it’s about sexuality and drugs and nastiness and triumph and defeat and depression and ecstasy. I don’t think it’s about ‘I want a good home for my kids.’ I get very disappointed when rock & roll turns into this mundane, neighbourhood watch type concern.
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