Altar Ego

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It’s not difficult to imagine Steve Kilbey, singer and bassist of Australian velvet-rock outfit The Church, reading fairytales to either of his two sets of young twins, Electra and Miranda, or Eve and Aurora. Living in Stockholm, the serene capital of mythically beautiful Sweden, seems appropriate to the creator of such aural masterpieces as The Blurred Crusade, Starfish and Priest = Aura.

Here the unashamedly esoteric electric poet reads his children treasured copies of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales.

“We’re up to Prince Caspian,” he says. “Every night we take a chapter and they absolutely love it. I love those kind of stories as well. I read the Lord Of The Rings when I was about 12 and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I go back and read it every five years and I always marvel what an amazing book it is.”

Kilbey’s love of fantastical literature reflects the enigmatic themes and shimmering guitar sounds of The Church, a style that’s been refined over time.

He’s coming to the Borderline in London on July 5 to play a rare solo show demonstrating the songwriting qualities that have captivated his audiences.

“A lot of my ideas come from the things I was impressed with when I was a kid,” says Kilbey. “I’ve read all the Greek, Roman, Norse, Celtic and Russian myths and I kept that feeling in my songs, of how I felt when I read those things.”

The preoccupations of The Church were often with otherworldly subjects — witness Field of Mars, a haunting paean to a huge graveyard in Sydney. Over 18 years the band conquered the hearts of discerning Australians with early hits like Under the Milky Way, while the epic album Starfish sold more than a million copies in the US alone.

The band’s days as all-conquering stadium rock-druids are now behind them, with the surviving members content to play sporadically.

“We’ll make an album and play some gigs and then we’ll just stop for a while. We’re not touring incessantly, there’s no need to do that anymore. We’ve established what we are and when we get a new album out we go and play it for a while.”

Not that Kilbey’s musical motivations have wilted. He’s recorded an album with brother Russell, made two as Jack Frost with Grant McLennan of the Go Betweens and last year released a book of prose poetry. His forthcoming show is not the kind of thing he’s accustomed to, not having made many solo appearances like, say, legendary Australian rock icon Ed Kuepper.

“Ed’s a solo artist, that’s the show,” says Kilbey. “Whereas with me, I’m having a night off from The Church and you can hear what the songs sound like stripped back. You don’t come along because I’m gonna produce loads of great sounds or hear fancy guitar work, if you do you’ll be disappointed. It’s more the strength of the songs speaking for themselves.

“This is a real rare appearance. I haven’t done a solo show for a long time. I did one in Bondi in Sydney about three or four months ago and recorded a CD from it, but that’s the only one I’ve done for a long time.

“I like the fact that I can hear my voice, because you often can’t hear it when you’re playing in a band. I like the intimacy and the fact that you can joke around. There’s no discipline really, you can do whatever you like.”

His first love, however, remains The Church, who recently toured Australia in invincible form.

“One particular show we did in Melbourne at the Mercury Lounge was just incredible. I dunno why those really good nights happen, but it was a really extraordinarily good night.”

He’s equally enthusiastic about the band’s recent recordings, which are soon to be a new album, proclaiming it the best thing they’ve ever done. Meanwhile, they recently released a bunch of brilliantly interpreted covers called Box of Birds.

“It started off as just one song. It was gonna be a flexi-disc and then we did another one and then Peter figured out the chords to All the Young Dudes and before we knew it we had a four song EP and Cooking Vinyl, our record company, said ‘Why don’t you make it into a whole album?’”

Meanwhile, absorbed in solo work that has so far engendered such records as Unearthed, Remindlessness and Narcosis, Kilbey reflects on his forthcoming performance.

“I’ll probably play bits from everything, but not much early stuff. Mainly stuff from the ’90s and a new song called After Everything Now This and a few things I haven’t played for a long time.”

Kilbey’s idiosyncratic style has spawned plenty of copycat acts. Imitation may be high flattery but, though he probably helped bring intelligent, oblique music to popularity in Australia, he’s no lover of esoteric genres per se.

“Ah man. As much as I love the Lord of the Rings I hate all those books that copy it. You know what I mean? You go in bookshops and there’s a million copy books called Elf Bane, all about when the wizard Srock pursues the magic Sword URRRR through the land of Niiick. He must first defeat the Dark Lord Igor and blah blah blah … They’re just total rip-offs of the LOTR, I don’t know why people tolerate them.”

Steve Kilbey plays the Borderline on July 5.

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