by Katherine Yeske
(interview from May 30, 1994)
People mill about Atlanta's Purple Dragon studio, waiting for the Church to record an acoustic set for a local radio station.
Everyone adopts nonchalant attitudes whenever members Marty Willson-Piper and Steve Kilbey pass nearby.
In town promoting their latest release, "Sometime Anywhere", Willson-Piper is a bundle hyperactive energy, almost overbearingly exuberant. He mingles easily, chattering away with staggering speed. One woman gets a laugh by observing, "Marty's like a little puppy dog. He's like, 'Hi! I'm Marty! Nice to meet ya! How are ya?!'"
In contrast, Kilbey is intimidating, despite his soft-spoken, reserved manner. People don't know how to react to his sarcastic humor, and his distance is furthered by his wariness of exposing too much of himself. He can be incredibly charming and friendly, as long as you're not blatantly ignorant of the Church's music-in which case, you'll be confronted with a decidedly contemptuous attitude. In the studio hall, a man asks him, "Your name's Chris, right?"
"It's Steve," comes the cold reply.
"Oh! Sorry," the man says, unperturbed. "So you and Marty do most of the songwriting in the band?"
Kilbey glares at him. "We are the band," he mutters, turning away.
When asked if he's going to see a concert later, Kilbey grimaces. "The last thing I want to do is see a band. Is there some place where people drink coffee and discuss Rostand?" There's stifled laughter; no one's sure if he's joking or not.
It's hard imagining Willson-Piper and Kilbey getting along, but they've been together for almost 15 years, and have no plans of stopping, even though other members of the Church have. "I think Marty and I still have got a lot of creative tension left in our relationship," says Kilbey. "And as long as we have a bit of friction, we can generate some sparks, generate some music. I think we've still got a lot of music left in us to make as the Church. [We've] picked up the banner and can't put it down."
"Sometime Anywhere" is the first Church album created solely by Kilbey
and Willson-Piper, but Kilbey says working as a duo wasn't hard.
"Making a record's easy as falling off a log," he says, shrugging. "[Sometime Anywhere] was the easiest album we've made; we had the most fun with it. Got rid of all the middlemen who were ruining things for us." He's presumably referring to former bandmates Peter Koppes (guitar) and a succession of drummers.
The album reflects its creator's differing visions, but the songwriting environment also encouraged diversity. "Each day you come in and get a different vibe happening. One day you come in and write a song like 'Angelica' (an electronic-based dance song), the next day you write a song like 'Lullaby' (a mellow acoustic piece)." He suddenly frowns, upset. "You know, I hope there is more than just noisy and soft parts."
He goes on to lament the difficulties of remaining objective about one's own music, explaining, "To do it, you have to be a musician and a critic in the same go. You have to make the music, then you have to stand back and give it a review and go, 'Yes, this song is good, this song is bad. This one's successful.' [And] you can't do that. You can't jump out and see it, essentially."
But it's obvious Kilbey and Willson-Piper's instincts are right; during the taping, the acoustic versions of their material are breathtakingly beautiful. "Hotel Womb" (from 88's Starfish) is especially effective, arousing a languid, sensual atmosphere, encased in aching melancholy.
People sit transfixed in the candle-lit, incense- filled studio, afraid of breaking Kilbey and Willson-Piper's delicate spell. The set features mostly old material-a surprising move, considering this studio tour is promoting a new album.
Despite his decision to perform older songs, Kilbey denies dwelling on their artistic merit. "Oh, God, I try to stay away from them," he says, looking pained. "I don't know what relationship I have with them. So hard to tell. Some days I think it's all good, and some days
I think it's all bad. Some days I think some of it's good and some of it's bad. And some days I don't even care."
Whatever his personal opinion, it's irrelevant this afternoon: the audience is awed by all the material. When there's a break in taping, people talk about the intensity of the performance...and the sauna-like heat of the recording room.
"Hot in there, isn't it?" Willson-Piper asks a startled bystander. "Yeah, I feel I'm taking a shower," the man says.
Willson-Piper laughs, exclaiming, "Oh, not me! I'm originally from Liverpool, y'know. We're used to disgusting conditions there."
As they go back in to finish the set, someone jokingly complains about going back into the heat. Willson-Piper points at the offender.
"Get back in there!" he bellows, a playful smile ruining his feigned anger.
After the performance, Kilbey escapes to the studio kitchen, slumping deep into the sofa.
Although he readily agrees to talk, his guard is up; he sits turned away from me, studying the opposite wall. But occasionally- without warning- he'll turn and make intense, piercing eye contact. It's an unsettling habit.
Despite the slouch, nervous habits (constantly running his fingers through his hair) betray his discomfort with talking to a stranger. This uneasiness, however is far removed from the openness of his lyrics. Exploding with symbolism and lush imagery, his choice of words is neither typical nor simplistic. But Kilbey denies putting much time or effort into them. "It's all come...very quickly, randomly improvised. [If] it takes more than two minutes to write, I don't spend any time on it. [If] it doesn't just go 'bang,' I don't do it." He smiles serenely. "But it always does. It never fails."
Embarrassed, I confess I've apparently been reading far too much into his words. "I think that's great. I think that's fantastic; that's what it's all about," he responds. "That's who the music is written for- people like you. It's to you, absolutely, without any middleman. And everything you get out of it is supposed to be there.
"It's like someone releasing bubbles, and people looking and seeing all these different rainbow colors in them. Just 'cause the guy who does it doesn't see all the rainbows doesn't mean the ones the other people are seeing aren't valid."
He shakes his head, as if he's getting lost in his own analogy. Then, composed again, he concludes, "It's just totally open to interpretation. It's as ambiguous as you like. And it means every possible meaning; they're all included."
What about charges of his being pretentious?
Kilbey is unconcerned. "Some people want rock 'n roll to be a simple medium; they want it to stick to its original thing, which was about simplicity. And as soon as anybody strays off that beaten track, they don't like it... saying, 'Oh, you're not supposed to be doing that.' But you know I'm not going to set anybody else's limitations."
Kilbey's tolerance of others' right to experiment also extends to his own career. In addition to his Church responsibilities, he's involved with solo and side projects (most notably Jack Frost, with fellow Australian Grant McLennan, an ex-Go Betweens member), publishing his poetry, and working on two novels. Realizing he's stretched too think though, he's cutting out some activities. One casualty is Hex, a collaboration with ex-Game Theory member Donette Thayer. I admit that since only Thayer sang on Hex albums, the project's demise doesn't bother me as much as the dissolution of Jack Frost would.
"Yeah?" He scrutinizes my opinion, amused at my preference for his voice. "Well, you're looking for a different thing out of that. What you're looking for a male's gonna do." His meaning is clear, and he grins broadly, knowing he's disconcerting me. The Kilbey Cat & Mouse Game in action. Then, deciding he's teased enough, he discusses his solo work, for which he's written "Lots of things, bits and pieces coming out all over the place. But I haven't written a [whole]song for a while, strange enough."
Currently, he's creating an ambient, ethereal album-a different musical direction for him. "That's going to be a really good album. I just know it," he says, with conviction. Suddenly, those intense blue eyes swerve my way again. "Ethereal' has become a bit of a dirty word, hasn't it?" he says, laughing. "Everybody says that."
I say it probably depends on whether the term refers to Dead Can Dance- type ethereal, or faddish shoegazer ethereal.
"The shoegazers," he says thoughtfully, smiling to himself before dismissing them with a pitying shake of his head. "Poor old shoegazers..."
Those poor old shoegazers are doubtless envious of Kilbey's secure position-while the shoegazing fad fades, the Church's versatile sound stays safely isolated from fleeting trends and fickle audiences. This seclusion hasn't kept the band from achieving success, however, as
"Under the Milky Way" (from Starfish) proves. In 1988, the song reached the U.S. Top Twenty, and the top five in several other countries, breaking the Church out from cult status. It also won the band several Arias (the Australien equivalent to Grammys). But, when the possibility of repeating this chart success with a "Sometime Anywhere" single is mentioned, Kilbey immediately looks annoyed.
"I just make it and let it go. The people decide all those kinds of things." He abruptly stands up. "I'm gonna get some fresh air," he says, stepping out the back door. When he comes back inside seconds later, the dark mood has vanished, and he's smiling as we walk down the hall. "Much better. I felt like I was going to suffocate when we played, you know? so hot." We find everyone wandering around the lobby, and he disappears into the engineering room before anyone intercepts him. But before going in, he grins mischievously and pretends to punch me. I'm caught off guard, unsure of the correct response. With Kilbey, only close friends would probably know what to expect from him.
And who knows what to expect from the Church- considering the wildly different personalities involved, the only certainty likely seems another 15 years of originality and versatility.