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In depth interview with Steve Print E-mail
Saturday, 26 February 2011

Bill Kopp has done an excellent in depth interview with Steve. You can read the original, and see the rest of Bill's work, at his site, www.billkopp.com

 

Australian foursome The Church are something of an institution in their native country, and throughout their thirty-plus years together they have enjoyed worldwide success as well. Their commercial apex was undoubtedly the hit single “Under the Milky Way” from the 1988 album Starfish, but every one of their twenty-three albums has its high points. A perennial critics’ darling, the band has mounted tours both acoustic and electric. Their early 2011 US tour took them to the southeast, and I spoke with Steve Kilbey (bass, vocals, lyrics) about the current tour, the band’s longevity and much more. Here’s part one of our conversation.


Bill Kopp: After nearly two dozen studio albums with The Church, how would you say your music has changed?

Steve Kilbey: I’d say we had a certain artistic goal when we started, and I think that goal has remained. But I think the way that we sort of achieve that goal – or attempt to achieve that goal – has kind of changed a bit, though not completely. So I think there’s a real continuity going right back to the first album. Our goal is to have interesting lyrics and interesting guitar parts that weren’t just one guy playing chords and the other guy playing the lead solo. We like interweaving guitar parts. And we want to have songs that are about unusual things, and that – within the parameters of rock music – do unusual things and conjure up different kinds of feelings. We’re still pretty much the same band, just with a lot more experience. We’ve got a lot more tricks under our belt.


BK: The Greenville SC date is the only one on the current tour slated as an acoustic show. Does reinterpreting the songs from your albums as live acoustic numbers present any particular challenges?

SK: Oh, yeah. We’ve stripped away all that noise. You can make a lot of noise on an electric guitar, and a pounding drum kit can cover up a lot of errors. So this is exposing the songs for what they really are. It’s a bit like taking a film back to being a play. You’re taking all of the electric and electronic effects out of the picture, and presenting the bare bones of what the music and the dialogue is. And I think that there are a lot of electric songs that wouldn’t stand up to this treatment. Though the songs that we reinterpret are the ones that have got a pretty sound musical skeleton, you know what I mean?

BK: Yes. Because some of them are built — at least in part — around riffs. Do those riffs translate in the acoustic idiom, or do you give new arrangements to the songs, emphasizing other elements?

SK: Well, that’s something I’m always interested in: How do riffs sound played on the acoustic guitar? And the answer is, half the time it sounds bloody awful. And the other half of the time – if you can get a kind of new thing into it – it can sound really good. So with these songs that we’re reinterpreting, some of them do actually indeed keep the electric riff, which becomes an acoustic riff. Or in some cases it changes onto another instrument. We do the song “Reptile,” but the riff is now played on a jazzy piano instead of a frenetic electric guitar with a lot of echo. Sometimes the riff is the very cornerstone of the song, and it reappears. Other times we find that the riff is disposable; we’ll do a song that has a famous riff, but the riff’s no longer there.


BK: I imagine there are a few “deep album cuts” that you’ve either never done live, or at least haven’t done in years. Does digging out some of these older songs bring back memories for you? Is there any feeling for you of sort of rediscovering some of your earlier work?

SK: Absolutely. After thirty years of playing these songs, I’m still rediscovering things I put into the lyrics. I’m standing there singing the song thirty years later, thinking, “God; I thought this was a random song I wrote. Now it’s coming true!” Which is one of the lines in one of the songs (“Mistress”) we’ll be playing: “Everything is going wrong / All my songs are coming true.” It must be terrible being Bob Dylan lying down at 2am. He can’t get to sleep, all those fucking songs…all those songs all biting him on the arse. All those words coming into his head. Because that sure happens to me. All my songs — all the words — are sort of re-presenting themselves, and going, “This is what you really meant.” We’ll be playing onstage somewhere like Greenville, and I’ll go, “Jesus Christ! I’ve been playing this song for years, and now finally I know what it means!”

Sometimes I marvel, and sometimes I’m disappointed by how simplistic we used to be. And sometimes I marvel at how on one particular day we created a piece of music that I know we couldn’t have done at any other time. We might have used a certain chord progression that I think is quite clever. I really do like going back and looking at our old songs. You know, we’ve never written rubbishy, throwaway songs; every song has at least one redeeming quality about it. Some have more than two. So it’s fun to go back, get some old ones out, have a look at them and kind of reorganize them.

BK: You mentioned your lyrics. Some critics have observed that your lyrics are — the word they sometimes use is impressionistic. Whether one accepts that or not, I am guessing that one of two things is at work here. Either (a) the lyrics have a specific meaning to you, and it’s merely oblique to some listeners, or (b) you craft your lyrics in such a way that leaves it up to listener to sort of take what they will from them. How would you characterize it?

SK: Okay, what I would say is that my lyrics are impressionistic, and that “b” is definitely the answer. The lyrics are written for me and for the listener to be able to create a world. It’s kind of like I’m writing a book, but I’m only giving you very vague hints of the story in the background. Because of the music — and because of my voice and everything else that comes with the record — when you hear the song, if you close your eyes and think about it, you will find yourself involved in an adventure.


I used to have a terrible job during school holidays, and I’d go home and put my favorite T. Rex album on, close my bedroom door, lie down on the bed. And as soon as that record started up, its world would open up to me. It’s like now when kids come home and get on their computer, and they’re in some world. Running ‘round shooting people or whatever they’re doing. In my world, Marc Bolan did that. It was like one of those films where you can choose the ending. So I found that this was the absolute best form of entertainment: to have music that sets up the situation for you. The song is vague enough for you to sort of flesh it out in the way you want, but it’s specific enough to keep directing you. So that’s definitely what my lyrics are supposed to do.

BK: As opposed to leading the listener around by the nose. Or the ear, as it were.

There’s no leading the listener around by the nose. Most of what’s in there is a springboard for you to jump into a swimming pool of your own design and populate it with your life, your characters. Or you can take mine. Or you can mix them all up. It’s like a dream.

BK: I bought your solo album Earthed some twenty years ago. Your solo albums are — to my ears — complimentary to your work with The Church, yet different. When you compose songs, do you often start with a specific destination in mind, as in, “This one’s for the band, that one’s for a solo release” or does it develop differently?

SK: Usually when The Church write a song we’re all together. We’re there, we pick up our instruments, we jam around. Usually I’ll go, “Yeah, I like this, I like that.” We work on a piece of music, and then when the piece is finished, I’ll put lyrics on it. It never happens that people come along and say, “Here’s my song, and the Church should play it.” That’s kind of been banished. We overhauled our constitution and we realized that was a point of potential revolution. So that scenario was excluded. So now in our amended constitution, all songs must be written by the band. No individual may contribute individual songs to the band. Otherwise, if we didn’t have that clause, I would come along and say, “This is this great fucking song I’ve written,” and they’d go, “Oh, we don’t like that.” And I’d go, “You don’t like this song? Fuck you! I’m leaving!” Or someone else would do that. So we’ve nipped that in the bud.

We’d seen it happen. Because the band constitution had been that I was the dictator. I’d say, “Here is my song. You will play it.” And lo, they played it. But halfway through, the early democracy snuck in where I asked, “What would it be like if we all wrote songs?” And verily, it was good. We all did like writing songs together. Still the old way remained; “Under the Milky Way” was one of the last ones ever, strangely enough. This was much to the frustration of Arista; they kept saying, “Write another ‘Under the Milky Way,’” and I’d say, “Under our new constitution, all songs now have to be written by the band.”

You have to think of these things if you want a band to last thirty years. You have to figure out ways you can do things. For example, me and Marty [Willson-Piper], if we have a really nasty argument, one of us will drop a nuclear bomb on the other, which will mean there will be no more band. So Marty and I, to a certain extent, have learned not to have really nasty arguments. If we feel one coming on, we both sort of go, “Ahem…” and we walk away. Whereas me and Peter [Koppes], we — like two countries — can have a really nasty argument, and then at the end we go, “Oh well,” and walk away. And we’re okay. You’ve got to figure all the ins and outs of how your band works as time goes on, so you don’t push people in the wrong direction.

And it also works to protect me. In the constitution, one of the other guys could turn up with a hopeless fucking song that nobody wants to play. And we can say, “Sorry. It’s not a band song.” So it’s a very good way to run a band, I think.

 Bill Kopp: Your band The Church has gone in a number of different directions over the years; in addition to acoustic renderings of your songs, album-long improvisations like “Bastard Universe,” the covers album A Box of Birds. In all of these cases I get the sense that the band heads down these paths not to pander to any sort of fan demand, but rather because you simply find it interesting to do so. Is that an accurate observation?

Steve Kilbey: Absolutely. We’re a rock band; we’re a curious band. We love the past: we love the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Dylan and David Bowie and Marc Bolan and all the rest of ‘em. But we also love to jam, we love short songs, we love Pink Floyd, we love some electronic music. We love folk music, we love the Byrds. So we love everything, and everything’s in there. Peter is a huge Jimi Hendrix fan. He loves the blues, and he loves classic pop songs and the chord progressions in them. Marty loves prog rock! He loves Yes, Genesis and all that stuff. He [laughs] likes songs that are forty minutes long in 9/8 time. And then there’s Tim [Powles]; he’s a drummer, so he’s weird again. He looks at things from the point of view of time. But he’s also a producer, so he likes interesting, unusual qualities in his music that no one would ever think of. And then you’ve got me and all the things I like.

So you throw all of us in together, and we still have a huge enthusiasm for rock music and all that came after The Beatles. And we’ve got an endless recipe for doing odd things. Totally commercial three-minute things to long, rolling, messy epics. Covering other people’s songs, and having people cover our songs. Everything we can possibly do within this format, we will want to do.

BK: On a personal note, I’ve got between eight and nine thousand albums…

SK: Wow. A maniac! You’re an obsessive man. Oh, my god. Why didn’t they warn me?

BK: …and over the years there have only been two or three albums that I have bought on vinyl and cassette and compact disc. Gold Afternoon Fix is one of those.

SK: Oh, my god. That’s the album that I…this is interesting. Now, you’re not going to take offense to this, because you’re an intelligent man. That is my least favorite Church album of all Church albums.

BK: Really?! Why is that?

SK: I think it’s a classic case. We had made this album Starfish, and it was a big success. We had been struggling up to that point, and our struggle had brought cohesion to the band. We had incredible cohesion between us because we were struggling against failure. Suddenly we were successful. We were like that wrestler who’s got his opponent down on the mat; the opponent’s just lying there. Some of the crowd are cheering, and some are jeering. So he stands up and he walks around showing off his muscles and stuff. Suddenly when he turns ‘round to deliver the killer blow, the opponent has stood up and turned into grunge rock! And completely wiped him out. That’s what happened with us.


That album…to suddenly be quite successful, we very temporarily lost our mojo, I reckon. I mean, other members of the band will say, “Oh, no; that’s a great album. I don’t know why he doesn’t like it; some great fucking songs on there.” But to me, at the very best it was treading water.

I mean, this is the thing: The Church are a great band, and I am a great lyricist. Even on a very mediocre day, we will do something pretty good. We never sink below a certain standard. And Gold Afternoon Fix is an example of that: it did not sink below a certain standard. There are some good songs on there, there are some tricky chord progressions, there are some interesting guitar flourishes and neat lyrics. Some good effects. But overall, it’s a disappointment. It should have been our killer blow; we should have turned around and fucking nailed the world, nailed America with the absolute epitome of all that we were good at. And instead we just kind of came out with that. We needed to drum up something extraordinary, and we drummed up something that was kind of, “yeah, alright.” There are people who really do love it. There are people for whom that was exactly what they wanted. I don’t deny them that, and I’m really happy that people like anything I do. But certainly – to me – it’s our most disappointing album.

BK: From a fan’s standpoint, sometimes it has to do with when the music hits them in their particular lives.

SK: That’s right.

BK: Perhaps coincidentally, and perhaps not, there’s song on the album called “Disappointment.”  

SK: Yes, there is. Strangely enough, a lot of Americans would find it hard to understand when I would say this, but my specialty is writing songs about disappointment and disillusionment. Not depressive subjects; not the sorts of things that make you go cut your veins open. Not stuff about the devil, and killing your mother and father. More about that idea John Lennon flirted with, that feeling of – how I’ve often felt – being slightly estranged from this world, of suddenly finding myself alone somewhere. And it’s not entirely unpleasant.


I’m walking along the beach on my own, my woman’s left me and things are looking bad. It’s a grey afternoon and it’s just starting to rain. But I also find some incredible comfort in it. It’s very hard to put your finger on it, but that’s the songs that I write. That’s where I connect with the world, trying to describe these mixed emotions. I don’t write songs about being righteously happy; I don’t write songs about being furiously angry, and I don’t write songs about being manically depressed. I write songs about very, very subtle things.

That is one thing about Gold Afternoon Fix; it did have some subtle emotions on there. A song like “City,” when it’s over, it’s like, was the guy happy about all that or was he kind of detached? Like John Lennon in “Strawberry Fields Forever.”  At the end of the whole song, you get this feeling of incredible, weary detachment.

BK: Yes.

SK: And nobody up to then — as far as I knew — wrote songs about weary detachment. That wasn’t the sort of something that anybody had tried to consider. And in the spirit of that, each Church song describes some sort of subtle feeling. And Gold Afternoon Fix is very much like that; it’s a very subtle album. It’s hard to say what mood you’ll be left in when it’s over. So in that way, you could revisit it a lot, and listen to it; you’re never quite sure. When I think about it, the albums that I love always leave me feeling not-quite-sure. “I think I’ll have to listen to that again!” And some albums, I’ve been doing that for forty years. Sticking it on again just to try and find exactly what’s going on.


BK: Those records continue to reveal their charms on repeated listening. The best work that The Church has done is especially effective at setting a mood, of being especially evocative of a particular feel, whatever that feel happens to be. Even though the songs are varied in lyrical content, arrangement and whatnot, on each album they all seem to hang together in a cohesive way, rather than being merely a collection of the last dozen songs you guys wrote. Is that sort of hanging-together concept something that’s important and worked at, or is it simply a happy coincidence?

SK: It’s a happy coincidence. What happens is this: imagine you’ve got four craftsmen. They’re going to make a box with ten pieces in it. Their raw material arrives, and they have twenty or thirty pieces; they keep working and working and working. Eventually they have ten pieces. And because they’re such good craftsmen — they’ve been around for more than thirty years, so they know what they’re doing – eventually they polish these ten pieces, and chuck them in the box in some fairly random order. But when the customer arrives and opens the box, he’s quite delighted. Because by that stage the pieces will make some kind of sense. That’s the nature of it, and it’s also the kind of ambiguity that’s sort of built into the whole thing.

There is no — and there never has been a – guiding master plan, a vision for the whole thing on an album. It’s always been, take out a sketch pad, scribble scribble scribble, and eventually the outline of a horse starts to appear. And eventually you go, “Okay, I’ll go with that.” And you start working on a horse. That’s what The Church has always done, in musical terms.


BK: For the dates on this tour, you’ve announced ahead of time exactly what the set list will be: first, Untitled #23, then Priest = Aura, then Starfish

SK: Wait, you’re coming to see the acoustic show, in Greenville?

BK: Yes…

SK: The acoustic show is not the “three albums” show. I hope people realize that. For some reason – some economic reason – we couldn’t bring the three-album show to Greenville. We don’t have time to reinterpret — we couldn’t possibly – all those songs. So what we’re actually playing – and gee, I hope I’m not going to put anybody off – we’re doing our “An Intimate Space” show. It’s a show we’re doing in America and Australia this year. We’re working backwards from our latest album, one song off each album through to our very first album, which is where we’re going to stop. That one’s a tried-and-true success; everybody likes that show. There was some problem with Greenville, getting the equipment there, or from that show to the next, or something like that. I’m not sure what it was, but there was some reason we couldn’t do the electric show. But somebody said “We could do the acoustic show.” So we’ll go forward through the past to our first album.


BK: On these other dates, when you do the three album set, does that sort of take the mystery out of things, making the evening somehow predictable? Or will you somehow work some surprises into the mix?

SK: I am going to be struggling so hard to play all these songs, it will be a mystery if I can get through it or not! And the surprise will be if I actually do. I’ve got to deal with being able to do it, first. I reckon the songs will provide plenty of surprises. I can feel it happening at rehearsal.

BK: The band has been together for more than thirty years.  The string of albums The Church has released over the last decade — whether reinterpreting older material or serving up new songs — they’ve gotten strongly positive reviews. After this tour, what’s next for the band?

SK: We’re doing the Sydney Opera House with a symphony orchestra. We’ll film and record it for possible release; it’s going to be a documentary. But after that, I don’t know. Because there’s not really much you can do after something like that, except maybe landing on the moon!

Last Updated ( Sunday, 27 February 2011 )
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