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Steve speaks with Sound and Image magazine Print E-mail
Monday, 01 June 1992
 This interview is copied from Sound & Image magazine July/August (1992).

SI: Can you remember your earliest musical influences ?

SK: The first record I sent my father out to buy for me was Under The Boardwalk by the Rolling Stones. The first album I bought was It's Too Easy by The Easybeats. Fantastic ! Every song a hit. Then, when I was 11 years old, my father took me to the Albert Hall in Canberra. He'd bought me a front-row ticket and the bill turned out to be MPD Ltd, Bobbie & Laurie , Normie Rowe, with The Easybeats heading the bill. Little Stevie doing his leapfrogging-over-the-band trick, throwing drumsticks into he audience, girls screaming. I thought, "I've got to get into this !" Even before this I remember riding my bike through the alleyways between houses in the Canberra suburbs and there was this guy opening up the case of an electric guitar. I'd never seen an electric guitar and there was this plush velvet case lining this white and silver precision instrument. I still feel like this when I open a guitar case. I still remember my first gig. I was off work for three days leading up to it. Just worried sick - vomiting for days. Before the gig I had 100 weeds. But after that - no worries.

SI: Do you play keyboards on stage or just bass ? Just bass. I've got a Galleon - Kruger 7 to 800 Watts and ... well a great big heavy cabinet full of speakers. In 1973 I bought a six string Fender bass. Someone said to me the other day, 'give me a look at your baritone guitar', and that's what it is. I'd often plinked around with it and recorded with it occasionally but never really treated it as a bass through an amp, with the band. But the other day, I had lent all my other basses out and took the six-string to rehearsals and started playing it with a pick (I usually use my fingers). And I was astonished at what an amazing bass guitar it really is. Forget the plinky stuff and the tremolo arm. It's now my main 'axe'. I used it on every track Priest = Aura - getting in with the rest of the band, playing my 'art' stuff.

SI: You don't find that, with a six string, there's a temptation to neglect that all - important bottom end role of the bass player ?

SK: No, I try to get it all in. I try and keep the bottom-end going and bung in some chords; the whole lot. As we were doing Priest = Aura, the recording engineer kept saying, 'now let's get out the four string bass, we need a really solid bass sound on this one'. We'd get one out, and he'd always agree to go back to the six string. I've got ten year old strings on it and I daren't break one; they just don't make them any more and the neck is too long to use other strings.

SI: Was bass your first instrument ?

SK: No, I had some piano lessons when I was ten, but I didn't really learn very much. It was a new system with numbers under the notes showing which fingers to use. In the end my teacher said I was doing well, but I wasn't reading the music, I was looking at these numbers - it was more like working a typewriter. When they gave me something without the numbers I couldn't do a thing - I was faking it, and was terribly embarrassed when I was exposed. I never gained any sense of notes or harmony from these lessons - I got further just trying to work out little piano riffs by ear. Then, at sixteen, I decided that I wanted to learn bass. I wanted to get into a band really badly and I thought that drums would be too much of a hassle. Guitar looked too hard and every kid in the street played really well. So I thought that bass would be the quickest ticket to get in. And it is !

I got really lucky when, a year later, I got a gig with cabaret 50/50 band (half covers,half originals) called Saga and I was making a small fortune. The band got very popular. We had to wear the same suits and go through these tacky routines. I didn't get on very well with the rest of the band, but I was making nearly $200, at 17 and those days . . .You'd turn up on a winter's night in some little ACT (Ed: Translation -In or near Canberra) country town and play in a room the size of someone's lounge room, squeezed in between the couch and the first - "oh, you're not using amps are you ?!"

SI: How was growing up in Canberra ?

SK: I didn't know it was Canberra, I thought it was the world ! It was the world of sitting around in blokes' bedrooms, listening to records and trying to play the guitar. So I think I would have turned out the same wherever I was.

SI: When did you first meet the other members of the Church ?

SK: I met Peter Koppes in 1973 when we were still teenagers. We did musical things together way back then. I met Marty Willson-Piper in 1980 and Jay Dee in 1988. Jay Dee replaces Richard Ploog, who left the band because of musical personal differences. JD was the drummer with the Patti Smith Group. We were touring with Tom Verlaine and he told us that if we ever needed a drummer, JD was our man. So when Ploog left, we knew where to look.

SI: Did you have any material left over from GAF that needed a hearing on P=A ?

SK: No, we never do that. We always write a fresh batch of material for each album.

SI: Did you have a particular flavour in mind for the album before you started work ?

SK: No, just as long as it was nothing like GAF. GAF was to be the opposite model of what we were after.

SI: Why ? What was wrong with GAF ?

SK: I didn't like it. It didn't get any passionate critical assessments. Nobody really hated it or really loved it. It was too stiff and uninteresting it didn't flow and it lacked ... I don't know ...beauty. I couldn't get excited about it at the time. It really wasn't a good bunch of songs.

SI: Surely you must have some affection for Metropolis ...

SK: No, it just wasn't innovative enough, even by Church standards; it was treading water. I blame myself = it just wasn't my best work. If you've got a bunch of good songs, it's hard to ruin them. And if your songs aren't good, it's very hard to turn them into a good album.

SI: Most Church songs are co-operations between yourself and other Church dignitaries. Does the tradition continue with Priest=Aura ?

SK: That's taken for granted now. Since the Heyday album, the songs are all basically written by the band, with me writing lyrics. With the odd exception of course, like Milky Way. GAF was a totally co-operative album.

SI: How does this approach work in practice ?

SK: It's based on the interaction of four people. It's not about someone saying, "Here's a song I've written; now you play this ..." It's writing songs together, creating instruments that aren't there by the interplay of what you're doing. That's what we're trying to do.

SI: What did you get up to immediately after GAF ?

SK: The Church tour finished in mid 1990 and I came back the Australia and made Jack Frost with Grant McLennan, and then I went on a solo tour of the US - just me and an acoustic guitar !

SI: How was that ?

SK: Oh it was a lot of fun ! I didn't pull a lot of people. I did New York, Washington, Baltimore, Boston and across to the West Coast: LA, San Francisco and various 'Santa - somethings'. I did mostly clubs; small nightclubs like the famous Nine-Thirty Club in Washington and the small club out the back of McCabes' Guitar Shop in LA where they hold acoustic shows. I did two nights there - a really good place to play. After the tour we went back and toured with Jack Frost.

SI: How did you enjoy working with Grant McLennan ?

SK: It was great. He comes from a whole different way of writing songs. He strums on an acoustic guitar and gradually puts together a complete song, whereas I tend to write in a studio, jamming, putting words on them and modifying them as I go along. Grant's more of a purist. So that was very interesting. He had never written my way and I hadn't written like him since I first started writing and thought that that was the only way to do it. We found something in the middle where I'd be saying "Let's write now" and he'd be busy doing backing tracks. A good exchange of methods.

SI: Is it a lonely existence for a solo performer ?

SK: It's just me and the roadie/sound/light man. But you meet a lot of people. I have a lot of friends over there. I've been touring America for so long that there's a bunch of people I can hang out with in every town. It's very nice.

SI: Are you a gregarious person ?

SK: I'm not really gregarious, but I'm not downright anti-social. I enjoy
the company of interesting people.

SI: What sort of commercial impact is The Church having in the US ?

SK: Starfish has almost gone 'Gold' in the US and GAF almost hasn't ! It's clocked up about 350 000 sales. P=A was released in America slightly before the Australian release, but I haven't yet heard how it's going.

SI: How do members of The Church get on together after 12 years ?

SK:Twelve years ago we were egotistical young twerps. We've grown up a lot and mutated from being a pop group to being a group of four musicians who like to play together - that's why we still get together. There's not all that pop ideology anymore.

SI: Do you still enjoy performing ?

SK: Yeah, I like to be on stage, but not a lot of the things that go with it. Acoustics are a problem. You have to handle this random element every night. Like if your sound man have an argument with his wife two minutes before you went on ! I've never found a way to get artistic control over gigs. You rely on that guy out front and you just don't know what he's doing.

At a sound check you can walk out with a cordless guitar, but you can't hear yourself singing. I've never done a tour where there was even a 70 % consensus that the sound man was any good. People would often come backstage in Australia and tell us, "you sounded awful". We had an American guy for a while who was a real artist. With him mixing for us, Bob Clearmountain came backstage and told us we sounded wonderful. We tried to keep him, but he went off with Laurie Anderson.

SI: Do you ever have to play stadiums ?

SK: God no ! We do smallish theatres and large pubs like Selina's (Ed: In Sydney) with audiences around the one or two thousand mark, with the up to three thousand at some of the Boston and New York venues.

SI: Where was P=A recorded ?

SK: It was all done at EMI's Studio 301. Partly digital; partly analogue.

SI: How was the band involved in the actual production ?

SK: It reads: 'Produced by The Church and Gavin McKillop'. In the past it's been "Bob Clearmountain and The Church", or "Waddy Wachtel and The Church". This time we're the major producers. Some of Gavin's recent credits included the last Straightjacket Fits album (Ed: A New Zealand band who supported The Church on the "Jokes-Magic-Souvenirs" Tour, which was confined to Australian soil.) Shriekback, General Public, Howard DeVoto and Hunters & Collectors - Human Frailty album. He's from Scotland, and when he was suggested to us by Arista, I really jumped at the chance.

SI: A bit of a change from Waddy Wachtel ?

SK: Definitely. But I have a tendency to try different juxtapositions of types of people. Any good group has potential in directions that they've never exploited. So I said, 'Let's see what the California-type-dudes can do to exploit a California-type side of the Church.' But the new albums definitely a Sydney album - The Church comes home !

SI: What have you been doing in the solo field recently ?

SK: Well, I released a solo album last year that didn't do very well, called Narcosis. I recorded it at my own studio.

SI: Your home studio in Rozelle ?

SK: No, my new 'proper' studio in Surrey Hills. It's got a full 24 track recorder with an automated desk and a performance space behind glass windows and all that. I run MIDI sequencing through an Atari computer using Cubase.

SI: Do you find that music technology starts to get in the way of the creative impulse ?

SK: It certainly can. I've got a partner and engineer named Pryce Surplice. He usually engineers what I do. I try to stay 'hands - off' these days, and leave Pryce to handle the technology. I understand what's happening and I can ask him to give me, 'that sample, played backwards and slowed down by three clock beats.' Otherwise you can get bogged down.

SI: Have you recorded anyone else in your studio ?

SK: Yes, I have been recording Margot Smith, a girl from Melbourne who's just been signed by Chrysalis and a girl from Canada named Mae Moore who's signed to Sony and there's a good chance that we'll get to do the whole album.

SI: These aren't your first forays into producing other acts ?

SK: Not at all. I've produced Hex - myself and a girl singer (Ed: Donette Thayer) which I did in the States. I produced Curious Yellow and Jack Frost and I would like to go on producing. It's the honorable way out when you're too old for anything else.

SI: Which of your roles do you see as most important - writer, lyricist, producer, performer ?

SK: I think what I am most pleased to be, is a jack-of-all trades. If someone else just needs some music, or lyrics, or just some bass, I think I can perform any task put in front of me.

SI: But wouldn't you say that a big part of your role is the communication of ideas ?

SK: No, not at all ! This might sound simplistic, but I just set out to create music that people enjoy.

SI: What, pure entertainment ?

SK: Not entertainment, enjoyment. There's a subtle difference. I'd like someone to come up to me and say, "I've just heard your latest record, and fuck, I really enjoyed it !" Then I know I've done my job. I don't have to go into it more deeply, though people can if they want to. People say that my music is sad and wistful, and yet I want people to enjoy it. But you can really enjoy a sad movie or a horror film. But if I stumbled across a good back-beat boogie, I might record it.

SI: There's very little black influence in evidence in The Church's output; why is this ?

SK: That's very true. We're a real 'white' European band. Peter keeps telling me that I've got no blues, black or rhythm in my soul and it's true. I guess everyone approaches their own music differently in their heads. I guess it was a cerebral thing that first got me involved.

SI: What are you listening to at the moment ?

SK: I try to listen as much as I can, usually in spates. David Bowie's just had a lot of his stuff re-released on CD and I've had Low and Heroes on high- roration on the Cd for a while. Fantastic stuff.

SI: What about new stuff ?

SK: I thought the My Bloody Valentine album was great. I get a lot of the new English stuff, often just out of curiosity. I like some of the stuff Primal Scream are doing. If I really want to get stoned and turn it up really loud, I go into the studio. I've got the leather lounge and the Yamaha NS-10 monitors, and I really crank it up. At home, I've got twin nine-month old girls and they seem to enjoy a bit of volume, but some stuff they really don't like.

SI: So how's the life of a family man ?

SK: It was hard around the time they were born. I was doing Priest = Aura and staggering home at two or three. The kids would cry all night and I'd have to stagger back to the studio. Lokking after two kids can be a full-time job for both of us. I guess the nippers will cut down some of my travelling a bit, but I think that the recession will have more effect in this respect. We used to do promo tours through Europe for BMG, but that's not happening so much in the recession. The company probably looks after us better than our European success warrants. We've never been really successful there, not in record sales anyway.

SI: Where are your favourite places to hang out in Europe ?

SK: Spain, Amsterdam...I don't know if Australians realise that hash is more or less legal in Spain these days. It's great playing to a stoned audience. And if they think it sounds good then it does ! Some people enjoy music when they're drunk...but I don't.

SI; Do you think you have influence on your listeners ideas or values ? Is there a typical Church fan ?

SK: No, and no.

SI: Do you have lots of friends outside the music business ?

SK: Most musicians I know don't differentiate between musicians and civilians. That's an old 'pop star' mode and some of the old school have a lot of fun being the centre of attention. Some it leads, quite literally, to suicide.

SI: Would you call yourself a happy person ?

SK: No, not really. I get pretty depressed. I don't think that whether I'm happy or sad has much bearing on the music I'm making. I specialise in making this sad-ish kind of music. There's enough happy mindless drivel going on and I feel that there's a need for these feelings to be expressed. Musically speaking, I'm quite happy being sad.

SI: What is the significance of the album title, Priest = Aura ?

SK: To me, finding an album title is like looking at a dog and saying "I'll call him Sandy because he looks like a Sandy." To me, P=A is just the right name for this album. It's hard to say why. It's a phrase that came about accidentally from a misunderstanding. The album title came up before the song of the same name. Everyone knew the album was going to be called Priest = Aura, and this shaped the songs and the sound. It's usually the other way round.

SI: People tend to read mysticism into your lyrics. Does this indicate an ongoing process of inquiry going on inside you ?

SK: Do you think that "Priest = Aura" sounds mystical ? I seem to have some sort of reputation for that but I can't see it. Which songs ?

SI: Well, "The Disillusionist" for example.

SK: That song came out of a real-life incident. We'd just done a really badly attended concert at this place in America and the guy came up to me waving a magazine interview I'd done a month or two before. He said "Huh, look at this; you say you specialise in disillusioning people. Well you sure disillusioned me !" I came up with this great idea of a man going from town to town, disillusioning people.

I'm interested in philosophy, but I'm lazy and I don't actively pursue my own inquiries. I wish I could say that I was, but I'm not. I know that questions like "what is existence" and "why am I here ?" are far more important than playing the guitar or making a record. And I know that people would be very wise to spend time thinking about why they're here and what they can do about it. but I sort of lapse into playing music, listening to music, hanging out with friends, going out to restaurants and enjoying myself - and now bringing up twins.

SI: Do you think having responsibility for the twins will change your ideas
?

SK: Nothing will change my musical ideas. I'd be happy to see them become creative artists, but the music industry is a kind of pyramid with only a few successes at the top. There's too much emphasis on success - charts, sales figures, gold records etc. It's now a sort of competition. It seemed to start with Michael Jackson. Up till then, nobody cared how many records the Beatles sold; it was the quality of their music. But after Jackson, it was "Thirty Million" and that number was hammered home. Now quality has become quantity and it's too easy to feel a failure. It's like supermarkets

squeezing out out corner stores.

SI: You paint rather a gloomy picture of the industry.

SK: As long as the youth keep throwing up a counter culture against the establishment, even though they will be absorbed into it next year, there will always be this continual revolt against the musical establishment.

SI: Any more Steve Kilbey books in the pipeline ?

SK: I'm working on a couple of things. I don't write notes as I go along, I just sit down and write the book. I've half a book on computer at home but I'm not sure where it's going. I haven't got the energy or enthusiasm to finish it. I've just started another one which I think could be really good, but I'm too lazy to sit down and work on it. I really like reading Martin Amis; and books about rock 'n roll - Pete Townshend's autobiography.

SI: Do you have a very sophisticated home entertainment set up ? (Ed Sound and Image is a hi-fi magazine, after all !)

SK: God, no ! I've got a Yamaha amplifier, about 70 watts per channel I think, some large Bose Studiocraft speakers and a portable Sony CD player. That's a funny thing about me; I'm not that interested in sound quality - it's the stuff, the content that interests me.

SI: Do you get involved in video production ?

SK: No. I think it's a shame that music had to become so involved in video. Although it gives employment to a lot of creative people, it seems to water down the music element. I think it will eventually die out.

SI: Any interesting future projects on the boil ?

SK: I'm working on this project in which nobody will know it's me.

SI: What' s it called ?

SK: Hah !

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