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The Metaphysics of Innocence Print E-mail
Wednesday, 15 January 1986

A perceptive interview with Steve from 1986, talking about recording Heyday, and how rock lyrics don't have to be dumb. From RAM #275, Jan. 15, 1986 (thanks, Mike F.!)

The Metaphysics of Innocence

metaphysics - n. the branch of philosophy that investigates principles of reality transcending those of any particular science, traditionally including cosmology and ontology; all speculative philosophy.

The Church are poised to lodge in the minds and hearts of far more than their strangely limited local following, with the release of their fourth full-length LP, Heyday, early in '86. (Their five-year output has also included three mini albums and a string of singles.) Here Steve Kilbey reflects and refracts through a hall of mirrors that extends from his youthful days miming the Beatles in front of one. About to step through another with the rest of the Church as they take on American and Europe, Kilbey tells Guy Allenby he owes it all to purity, innocence, books, yoga and ... spirulina.


It was the right place. You could tell by the garbage bin. Outside Steve Klibey's house was a plastic one decorated with all manner of writings, drawings and scrawlings, and on the lid was a large paisly motif. Inside blared George Harrison.

Inside the house, that is.

“Apple juice?" Ta. Steve spoons a teaspoon of spirulina powder into his gloss as small talk drifts from our common Canberra links towards the matter at hand - the new album, and the new Church. The Church have always been the quintessentially cosmic band. They shun direct links with the 60s, but jangly guitars and vaguely surreal yrics lead to inevitable comparisons with the current American revival of both the music and mores of that era.

Still, the Church are different. Not only have they blazed a trail garnering little but deserved credit, but their special blend of textured guitars, droning poet vocals and oblique lyrical suggestion portrays a beauty and sadness only hinted at by other vaguely similar bands; and sadly lost, for the most part, on local audiences. Somehow (thankfully), they've survived the rigours and knocks of an industry that seeks its identity in monolithic pub-rock. They’ve trudged the world in search of more welcoming ears; suffered management and record company troubles, and occasional lapses of musical direction; but they've built a solid, ever growing, loyal following across the globe and created a new album with which to attract new converts and confound the disbelievers.

Heyday, to be released in January, marks a major turning point in the Church’s career. With record company support and an overseas groundswell of appreciation, their confidence and application have resulted in a record with all the emotion of previous work, but also a power and coherence that they at other times lacked.

“I think," says Kilbey, "we were selling ourselves short on the other albums. We were doing songs of mine I don't think we should have been doing - we were rushing things. And then with this album, for the first time in ages, we said, ‘let’s really try our hardest.’ This time we've spent a lot of time making qualitative decisions, thinking about every note that’s laid down and thinking about the songs and going over and over them to improve them. I spent a lat of time on the lyrics and a lot of time singing them, and I think it shows - shows that we really tried hard."

For the first time, they've worked as a team - with Peter Walsh as coach. Producer Walsh (Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream, Heaven 17) followed the whole project through -from rehearsals and pre-production - where previously Bob Clearmountain (The Blurred Crusade, Of Skins And Heart) and Nick Launay (Seance) only really mixed the albums. And this time, instead of Kilbey writing nearly all of the material, Heyday has been a for more collaborative effort.

“The whole band wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics afterwards, so we just took the best ones. Peter Walsh made the final decision from rehearsals as to which songs we were going to record. Walsh twiddled the knobs. Obviously we were making suggestions - I was making suggestions about how we wanted things to be. It was a group effort, I suppose. He wasn’t an absolute tyrant, but he had his hands on the controls - not us.

“Heyday took two months to make - about a month of pre-production - which was really just jamming at White Room (rehearsal studio) in Surry Hills, and then about a month in the studio after that. It was expensive."

And is Steve confident that the investment will pay out?

"No, I’m not confident. It was the best thing we could do at the time, and we did it . . _ and l’m really hopirtwnoole will like it and I hope it sells and enables us to do another one etcetera etcetera."

EMI have already picked up their option on another album, if the Church want to do it, but to my ears this is the one that will break it for them - radio willing. Undoubtedly their disappointing sales have had more to do with lack of airplay than an absence of pop sensibility. “You've got three or four people who don't like the Church at the major stations - not don't like us, but don't consider our sort of music ‘suitable' for their radio station. But you've got Triple Jay, George Wayne and people ike that who counter the scales by playing us a lot, doing interviews, giving us a plug . . .

“I made a lot of mistakes - business mistakes - being nasty to people. If I meet a boorish person doing something they shouldn't be doin in any situation, rightly or wrongly, l’ve always been rude to them or ignore them - I make sarcastic remarks and things like that . . . When I first got into the band I started doing it naturally, trusting my luck, thinking I won’t need these people - thinking I was on this trajectory (he points up), and it got to the stage where everything I did was miscontrued.

“We’re all supposed to feel like we're part of this one big Australian Music Industry. You hear things like ‘I hate all the bands and I hate all the promoters, but I love this industry’ - as if it's this thing which has taken on a life of its own. Anyway, they cut me down to size and they did a good job."

 Regardless of the pitfalls and setbacks, somehow they've kept going, riding through the bad luck. The Church are nothing if not determined - dogged, even.
 
 “We've had strokes of good luck, too. We iust keep seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and keep on following it. There have been times when people have felt like giving in, but I think it’s the some with anything you do - good times or bad times, you have to follow it through to its logical conclusion. I don't think I’ve felt it’s time to give up on the band, I don't think the other guys have either . . . We've always felt like, ‘Let's try something different, let’s keep going’.
 
“I have this feeling that we’re going to be a little more succegsgul than we are now - I think things are going to get better for us.” As songwriter, Steve has enjoyed the royalties trickling in where at times the rest of the band have not been quite so well off. Now with a collaborative effort, it seems that the whole band can look forward to making a living - where at their lowest ebbs in the post, the dole was a frequent means of recourse. “Actually l’ve iust signed a publishing deal which will  me comfortable for a couple of ears. We’re all now in the position of not having to worry too much about money - we're relatively secure. I know you’re supposed to starve for your art, but when you've got people depending on you . . .

“We've get a new manager and a new publishing comrany, and we're fairly independt of having to think about making mega-hit records. Thinking about making hit records leads to inferior product, as witnessed by a few bands in Australia this year. They turn their back on their previous body of work - not naming' anyone, but saying, ‘let’s put on leather jackets.’ And that’s cool, there’s nothing wrong with that either, but with me, writing the kind of music I like writing makes me happy where having lots of money wouldn't."

Does mega-stardom appeal in any form?

"It’d be nice."

Why?

“Just to see what it’s like. But to be realistic, I don't think it’s going to happen - so it’s not something I spend a lot of time craving. It’d be nice to fly, it’d be nice to breathe underwater, but those things aren’t likely to happen and there’s just as much likelihood l’II fly as be a mega-successful rock star."

But wouldn't success on the level, say, of REM be feasible? "Well, yeah, l‘d like to do that. `That's more feasible, they're not what we'd really call ‘stars’. I think we're as good as they are . I think there's a possibility we could do something like that."

UNFORTUNATELY, or perhaps luckily, the Church haven’t been lumped into the category that encompasses R.E.M., the Long Ryders, Rain Parade, the Replacements or any of their lesser-known American contemporaries. Besides, the Church are Australian, not American, yet their music has a polish and obvious commercial edge which makes their bein overlooked on other levels an the more baffling.

“Why have we been overlooked by the public of the world? I don't know - when we've played there (America), it isn't like we were being overlooked because we were gettin fairly good attendances. In England, in London, we could probably pull a pretty decent crowd and our records are doing moderately well. I don't know what it is, really. But if you play in New York to 2,000 people who go absolutely bananas and give you three encores, how do we let people in Australia know that’s happening? Do people in Australia care that that’s happening? Because on that level we've sort of already arrived - we are a revered  in America that sells moderately well."

A criticism that is often levelled at the band, and often cited as the reason for their lock of consolidation, is the perceived gap between recorded and live work. And some would say Steve Kilbey simply can't sing . . .

“Sure, there are certain songs we can’t play live. I'm in the unfortunate position of not knowing what we’re like live. Some nights I think we transcend live what we've ever done on record. Other nights the records are better. We've never tried to recreate the records live." And singing? “I’d actually go as far as to say I probably can’t sing. But in the studio I can. You listen to the record - I did 99 percent of the vocals on that record. The real trouble is I need to sing very quietly to properly sing, and to play live you can’t do that. You have to sort of bellow your words.” “I had to force myself to sit down with cassettes and listen to them over and over again until something started happening . . I was reading a few interesting books at the time which did give me a little help.

“I think there’s alot more going on in the world than meets the eye. Not that the Church has any answers at all. The Church is merely one of a million doors in this world, and the Church is only a very small clumsy door, but I hope people open it up and think about it and think about a few metaphysical questions.”

Kilbey communicates with a refreshing honesty and sincerity -with a spoken sense of both, unfortunately cheapened by the written word and born not out of naivete but experience. His world is one of questioning. But what has that got to do with rock’n’roll?

“I refuse to be told by critics or anyone involved with music that it can’t deal with cosmic things, that you can’t try for something really good, that you have to write to the accepted ideal of pop music - about boy meets girl. I don’t see why rock music can’t explore all kinds of situations and conjure up all kinds of emotions, and I see myself as . . . You know, if it were a hundred years ago I’d be trying to write poetry, to explore these things.

“I’m not trying to say I know anything, I’m iust saying I think that what a poet or an artist or a musician does can be significant . . . even a rock musician, when rock music is the lowest common denominator of all art forms. Rock music is the easiest anyone can get involved in. Anyone can buy a portastudio and drum machine and make pop music. There’s no mystery, there’s nothing clever about it. But even within this very basic framework, I don’t see why one should be forced and limited by contemporaries or critics to write about boy-meets-girl or dancing on Saturday night at the disco. I don‘t see why it has to be about that . . . “The 1980s is a very money-oriented era, where everything is very matter-of-fact. You see it in the way that people dress - people wear sort of functional baggy pants and gym shoes and their little sweaters with boring messages written on them that everyone wears. I see that perhaps the Church and other bands like the Church, whether it’s R.E.M. or Echo & the Bunnymen are just these sort of . . . it’s just showing some other side of the coin, that perhaps there is more to our whole existence, more to humans than just sort of making money, bringing home the bacon and that type of thing, and I refuse to be told that I can’t step outside this boundary - that once Elvis Presley sang Jailhouse Rock and Heartbreak Hotel and that 30 years later Steve Kilbey is a fucking pretentious wimp because he wants to write about Jesus Christ or Columbus or any of the multiplicity of subjects that are available to a thinking human being.

“There are lots of very horrible bands, especially in America, that sing about blowing up teacher and getting in a Chevy and driving over the speed limit and getting drunk. And songs that are endless odes to how wonderful rock music is, but without saying why . . . I mean, what’s so great about being able to turn up a guitar at full volume and rock till you drop? There’s nothing inherently or intrinsically clever about that, and I think that anything that is anti-thought -which I think those songs are - is bad.”

What does motivate Steve Kilbey? “I write songs because I get a lot of pleasure out of writing a song, putting it on a record and someone enjoying it. It just seems a normal thing to do to me. You start out doing these things . . . When I was eight years old, I had a plastic guitar and I used to stand in the lounge room at home and put on Beatles records and pretend I was playing it. You don’t question all these whys and wherefores, you don’t think about ego-gratification and stylistic devices and marketing . . . All these things are iust the debris you start collecting behind you. As you pick up momentum you realise that it isn’t just standing on stage and playing guitar, it’s all these other fucking things that you don’t really want to know about; and I’m the same, I want to shrug off my responsibilities and I don’t want to have to think about all this economic, logistic stuff. It’s just something I do, and I’d like it to be as pure and innocent as it was all those years ago when I was miming to the Beatles."

So Steve Kilbey has grown up. Exit the young cynic - enter the aware, artistic, mature human being . . .

“I think I’m like everyone else. Whatever mood I get up in on that day . . . today I got up and felt really happy, tomorrow I could get up and feel awful. As opposed to meeting someone every day and seeing them go through their moods. Someone reads an interview with someone else and they’re a cynic for six months, until they read the next one. I did some deep meditation, I did some yoga and then I did some relaxation last night and I really woke up and felt good today.”

So, the secret is out . . _ Kilbey has been meditating since 1977 and took up yoga studies this year - initially to ease a bad back. “It’s paying dividends in every respect, I think. The lyrics have improved, and |’ve started reading books again. I hadn’t been reading books for a long time. The lyrics owe a little to this, and to a lot of other minor discoveries I’ve been making."

This quietly modest Kilbey cuts an entirely different figure from the shallow, arrogant loudmouth he was portrayed as in the days of that first rush of success. But he maintains he was never a cynic - merely playing the part on occasions was little more than a self-conscious defence mechanism. It’s a reflection of his new-found confidence that the Church appear destined to break through on foreign soil, whilst they continue to be unjustly ignored in local terms. With an influential American management base, the final irony could mean that the Church will attain international denomination and retain a loyal cult faith at home. One can only wonder at the logic of such a fate.

It wasn’t until I passed the paisley bin on the way out that I remembered the burning question that had remain unasked, and unanswered.

What the hell is spirulina, and where can I get some?

- Guy Allenby

Last Updated ( Thursday, 11 November 2010 )
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