Unguarded Kilbey

by Stuart Cope

RAM March 5, 1982

steve1.jpg - 20805 Bytes "It's like a bunch of housewives and there's only 10 packets of Omo going cheap and they all want to get a bit" says Steve Kilbey; lead- singer, bass player, songwriter and chief egomaniac with The Church. Kilbey is describing what it's like being mobbed by hordes of young girls after an under 18 concert in Melbourne last year. "The girls spur themselves on. I don't think that would have happened if I was just walking down the street, but they were so excited, you could have thrown a gorilla in there and the reaction would have been the same.
"It's like sharks feeding,-they spur each other on. The rest might not be hungry but they smell blood and go in for the kill.
"The few times that's happened they really go for you. They grab your hair and your ears, stick their fingers in your nose. One girl had her arms around my neck and was sobbing and saying, 'I love you, I love you, I love you.
"I think it's just something they've seen in films."

Kilbey, as he is frequently only too aware, has along with his three good looking, pale complexioned mates become something of a pop star. The editor of Dolly magazine reckons they get more letters asking for stories about The Church than any other Australian rock'n'roll band. They hold house records in Melbourne and in terms of overseas they're definitely one of the bands-most-likely-to. It's happened fast. The Blurred Crusade, their second album is out, a slightly altered version of their Of Skins And Heart debut is released OS and managers mutter about mid-year tours in other countries.

Good players they are, too. Flanking Kilbey are guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper, whose interplay is never less than superb. Behind them drummer Richard Ploog hammers a drum kit like he's trying to drive it below floor level in the space of one song. Whilst Blurred Crusade moves towards a more melodic rock'n'roll sound, The Church's live shows have become harder, faster and tougher: They've got rid of last year's sound guy whose idea of power was turning everything up full tilt, but live the band seem to be going in a totally difterent direction from the records.

The first time I interviewed Kilbey he said Fighter Pilot -- the hardest rocking song on Of Skins And Heart -- was about to be dropped from the repertoire 'cause it represented a rock'n'roll style he wanted to leave behind. It's still there 18 months later.

"I think we just can't play what we're playing on the album," Kilbey says. "We can't play it live and re-create those moods as well. We're doing five songs off the new album and that's all we're doing.
"There's some that we won't be able to do just because the singing's too deep or the song is just too sensitive to be played live.
"The majority of the audience seem to get off on it being tough live."

What about the under 18 gigs?
"Well, they're glammed up a bit," Kilbey says. "We pout... we're aware of why the under 18s come. "Not all under 18s. I mean, fuck, when I was under 18 I think I still had the same kinds of demands as I have now.
"It alters. It's like when you speak to your mother and when you speak to your girlfriend. It's not always a conscious change of mannerisms but it happens whether you like it or not.
"If you're playing to a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals at the Jump Club you play a different gig to when you're at Festival Hall playing to under 18s, And they're both different to the sort of gig you play at the Comb and Cutter in Sydney."
"They're all different, the audiences want different things and should be treated slightly differently.
"There's four or five basic reasons,why people like us and they don't necessarily intersect. Some like us because of the lyrics -- whatever poetic or 'intellectual' quality they think there is.
"Other people see us because they think we're a good rock'n'roll band, we play loud and fast.
"Then there's a few 16 year old girls who like us because Richard's good looking or Marty's good looking.
"Then other people -- like you -- like us because we're kind of a '60s psychedelic group. Maybe someone else likes us because they thought Unguarded Moment was a good hit single, and they basically come along to hear that.
"So they're the things you exaggerate or play down. If you're playing at the Comb and Cutter you don't particularly want to come on and pout and prance or over-intellectualise it. But at the Jump Club you don't want to play machine gun riffs, you emphasise subtleties."

To one ear all that might sound frightfully contrived and planned. It can also be interpreted as scaring about audiences and wanting to give them a good show. Kilbey and his mates engender a degree of cynicism and suspicion amongst many people who wonder about the speed of the band's success.

There's the stuff about Kilbey compering Countdown so early in the piece ("It was only because Meldrum took a fancy to me"). The public persona Kilbey projects is one of arrogant domination. He tells me, one night in Melbourne whilst I'm spending time with them, that if this story becomes the RAM cover story he thinks the photo should just be of him. "I've got this one that makes me look a bit like David Bowie," he says. [Brian : The cover actually had a picture of the whole band.] There's a big heap of insecurity underneath the bravado. I tell him I want our interview to be largely confrontational -- the things people most hate about The Church. Until then he wasn't in a hurry to do the interview. Suddenly he can't wait. He worries what people think of him. His ego is bolstered by being reminded that people do think about him.

Late one night, three hours after a good gig, he sits on the bed in my hotel room; his girlfriend asleep by his side, arguing for the correctness of his position.

You're often accused of being lyrically obscure whereas bands like Sunnyboys write lyrics that communicate directly.
"So what? Why is it of interest to 600 people that Jeremy Oxley is shy when he's alone with a girl? Why's that so interesting?"
Because 80% of his audience probably feel the same way
"So what ?"
It's the old thing about rock'n'roll saying things to kids that they feel but can't articulate themselves. "I would have thought that anyone could articulate something like that. His songs are just as imaginary as mine. It's just that he imagines simpler things. Look at Unguarded Moment. What the fuck is it about? Who knows? I don't know, but people identify with it. Unguarded Moment is as cryptic as any other song I'm likely to write and people identify with that,so I assume they'll identify with all the other cryptic songs. I'm not deliberately cryptic. It's just that I don't particularly have any point to make and songs have got to have words so I just make up some words. They're just imaginary stories."

Just because it doesn't have a meaning doesn't mean that I don't mean it, if you know what I mean."

If you know what you mean then I know what you mean, and I'm definitely reminded of what it must have been like getting anything coherent and consistent out of Dylan in '66!

"People always say, 'We've read that your songs don't have any meaning, is that true?', and they're really disappointed when I say 'yes'. They're not true things that have happened but a dream is frightening even though it isn't real. Poems and words and surrealism and painting... you get an abstract painting which might not necessarily be of anything -- that's basically how I see the words."

Deep without a meaning, as the line in Unguarded Moment goes ?

"Yeah, and some are shallow with a meaning. But I know how people write songs. I've sat down and analysed how every bastard writes songs. "You can see how Bob Dylan writes songs. Bob Dylan gets a line and it comes at the end of every verse. Everything else is totally unrelated but this last line is the relating thing that connects it all. It's pure surrealism. With the exception of the obvious protest songs and the stuff on Desire and Blood On The Tracks they're just pure fantasy. Yet I was silly enough, or honest enough, to come out right from the start and say that there's no great message in my songs.
"Anyone who tells me that Eight Miles High or I Am The Walrus or any of Television's songs are about something is having themselves on."

Does that lead you to think that people respond mostly to The Church's music?
"No, they're great lyrics."
"Because they are."
That's not an acceptable response. You've been quoted as saying you're the best songwriter in Australia.
"Well, of course."
"Why am I the best songwriter? I think I'm the best songwriter in Australia because I enjoy what I do more than I enjoy what anybody else does. That's the only reason I can give.
It's totally big headed but I'd rather listen to one of my records than anybody else's who's around."
So what do you like about The Church's records ?
"I just think the playing is good but not sort of technoflash. It kind of puts me in a mood, an inexplicable mood. that's what it's supposed to do but it's hard to say why you like being in that mood."
"It's like someone saying, 'What does being drunk feel like ?' You can't really explain it. You can say that you lose your balance and feel a bit wobbly but that doesn't really describe it. And that's what the music does."

The strength of the music is largely due to the trio that Kilbey has with him. Onstage they seem more like a compact unit, a band, than most other groupings I can think of. In the great '60s tradition they're a combo. They look like they're meant to be together - something would be missing. Although there were dozens of guitarists around as good as George, The Beatles just wouldn't have been the same if...

Contrary to the public image, The Church fight a lot. Peter Koppes left before Christmas but rejoined. In Melbourne there's meetings about a proposed film based on two of the band's songs. Tension rises. Anger flares over ideas. Again Kilbey is the pivotal figure. He's the boss and knows it but there's a sham democracy. I sense he's not too interested in me talking to the rest of the band but still encourages me to do so. "No one ever interviews Richard and Peter," he says. It's the old clash between arrogance and insecurity. He wants things his way, but is scared the others will walk out and leave him.
"There's undercurrents of animosity in the band directed towards me, and sometimes between themselves and sometimes towards the record company. Sometimes we feel like it's four of us against the world, and other times it's those three against me."

What if the others start writing songs that are Deep Without A Meaning?
"To be perfectly frank (.don't want to be in. a band playing someone else's songs," he says. "If someone comes along with 10 songs they think we should do then maybe I should leave the band and do something on my own. I will never sing anyone else's words. If someone writes a song they'll have to sing it."

In the next breath he admits to being totally freaked out at the thought that Peter was leaving...but still expects that if anyone goes Peter will be the first. They don't like each other. The other two see attractive points on both sides.

Kilbey doesn't like plagiarism, especially as practised by numerous rock'n'roll bands in Australia. "We won't mention any names but there's that band who thinks they're Bruce Springsteen reincarnate," he says. But then people might say that The Church combine The Beatles, The Byrds and The Only Ones?
"OK, even if that's true, at least we haven't jumped on a bandwagon: we've only jumped on our own little bandwagon. At least we're not copying other bands who've copied The Beatles and The Byrds. "We're certainly not copying them, or even influenced by The Only Ones. I like The Only Ones. I saw them when I was in England but they've had no influence on me whatsoever.
"I don't think anyone would have picked up on The Beatles and Byrds stuff if I hadn't mentioned it. I've been my own worst enemy in that respect. Because I've mentioned them everybody says, 'You sound like The Beatles and The Byrds', and we don't.
"I mean my singing is totally different from anything The Beatles or The Byrds did. The riff in Unguarded Moment sounds a bit like the melody in Ticket To Ride but that's about it. It's just that I find qualities in The Beatles and The Byrds which are much more inspiring that things like Heaven 17's drum machine and sloganeering."

Turns out Kilbey becomes rather vitriolic when it comes to most of what passes for 'New Music'. The majority fare badly against his own abilities.

"I think I write more sensitive songs than a lot at people out there," he says without the slightest trace of modesty. "There's not many people in Australia who write proper songs. You can discount most ot the so-called new bands because there's no melody. It's just that whining shriek or thrash, or the electronic or sub-electronic, pseudo electronic bands who don't tend to have melody. The way they write those songs is very, very easy... but my songs have melodies, and beginnings and endings and middle eights and relevant instrumental sections that kind of develop and do things and, although I hate to use the expression, they're usually well crafted."

Talk is still about the validity of Kilbey's views. I suggest people might think that far from being the slightest bit talented he's just efficient at selecting random images and stringing them together.

Take An Interlude for instance:

"They're going to send you away, "she said
Psychic angels spread on the top of her head
And in the compartments of my dread
The rush hour crush travels home to bed

"You never seem to hear, "she smiled
Statues tiptoe for the glimpse of a child
The lawns are always lush and wild
Spacious floors bejewelled and tiled

Mermaids drowned, but I clung to the raft
it's just the water in the bath
An interlude for the busy staff.'

"Sounds like the hallucinations of an old hippie," remarks a friend of mine. "He really does seem like he's out of time, but you've got to hand it to him, he writes great melodies."

Kilbey tells me though that people do write to him saying that he's got the answer to all their problems and that they realise he's on a higher plane of consciousness and that they've got to get in touch with him. "Maybe I am," he says, almost smiling. The Church's appeal is broad. And Kilbey's ego won't let up. I venture that the band are likely to become the most popular teen band Australia's had in years. Off he goes. "Well, who else is there?" he says. "I think we probably already are. I don't know who else there is. It's a by-product. It was nothing we set out to do. but fuck, it it makes those people happy. I'd rather those girls got into us and liked us because they thought we were good looking men, and suddenly thought there's more to this than just that and got into the music, and through us got into other types of music, instead of getting into someone who was totally vacuous, like I think Sherbet was. With them that's all there was and that was the end of the trip. I want them to like us but I also want a 40 year old ex-hippie to like us, and I want a 25 year old bank clerk, and an 18 year old punk to like us."

And there's little chance The Church will leave Australian shores till a fair stack of divergent people like them overseas. "I won't go over there and have one of those fiascos," Kilbey says. "Like, when there's one radio station who says they like the record and it's in the top 400 albums, so you pick up everything, sell everything to get over there and get treated like idiots, come back and have Molly greet you at the airport, 'I understand you kilied it over there', and you say 'Yeah' and then never go back again."

Chances are The Church will find enough ex-hippies, punks, bank clerks and teenyboppers in due course. Their rock'n'roll is intense, melodic, refreshing, and does successfully induce mood. But heaven knows what the music press will make of Kilbey's ideas. "It must be hard when you become friends with a band like you've become friends with us and then have to go home and write an objective article about that band," Kilbey says one night over dinner in Melbourne. "It must be hard to risk a friendship."

"We'll see if you still come round to play records after this one comes out," I tell him.

Much as I love The Church's music I feel, on behalf of their leader, it's still a Blurred Crusade...