1997-1998 has been a banner year for '80s band reunions; early-MTV hall-of-famers like the B-52's, the Pretenders, Blondie, Echo & the Bunnymen and Bow Wow Wow are suddenly the darlings of the oldies tour circuit. Some of these comebacks have been cause for major celebration (Bauhaus, Jane's Addiction, X), while others by long-forgotten '80s footnotes have gone as unnoticed as those bands' initial disappearances (Men At Work, the Motels, the Fixx). But then there are some bands who made a mark in the '80s that continued to quietly and nobly release quality albums--some of them among their finest ever--well into the '90s, albeit to pitifully little fanfare.
One such band is that psychedelic wonder from Down Under, the Church, who for better or worse are still probably best known for their dreamy 1988 MTV hit (from the days when 120 Minutes still aired at a reasonable hour and actually affected record sales), "Under The Milky Way." Since then, the band (in various incarnations, but always with core creators Steve Kilbey and Marty Wilson-Piper [sic] at the helm) has come up with several sublime '90s efforts, including the sonic stunners Priest=Aura (Kilbey's personal favorite) and Sometime Anywhere--both of which snubbed the Church's earlier "Milky Way"-fueled success in favor of more ambitious (i.e., less commercial) adventures in hi-fi. Considering that the Church's last album, 1996's self-released Magician Among The Spirits, barely even made it into record stores due to distribution difficulties we won't bore you with here, it's easy to understand why some might mistake the Church's transporting, transfixing new masterpiece, Hologram Of Baal, for an "'80s reunion" album. But don't call it a comeback--the Church have been here for years.
True, Baal is a reunion of sorts, since it marks the most-welcome full-time return of original Church guitar god Peter Koppes (who quit in 1992), and it's also the impetus behind the Church's first U.S. tour as a full band in eight long, lamented years. But one high-decibel earful of the narcotic (pun intended) "Anaesthesia," the luscious "Louisiana," the intense white noise whir of "The Great Machine," or perhaps one of the most gorgeously soul-stirring love/ worship ballads recorded this decade, "Glow-Worm," and it's clear that the Church never went away, and that they have no reason to capitalize on the past when their future still shows so much delicious promise.
Two days into the Church's much-anticipated U.S. tour, Churchmaster and renaissance man Steve Kilbey (who, when not busy with the Church, has published books of poetry, produced albums for various other artists, released a handful of solo LPs and recorded with side-projects like Jack Frost, Hex and Guilt Trip) took a hour or so out of his busy schedule to discuss the Church's erratic career, the pitfalls of sudden fame, how to age gracefully in rock 'n' roll, his gripes about the music business, his lyrical inspirations and some of his more disturbing encounters with fans. It was a very enlightening conversation, and here's how it went:
LAUNCH: There have been a lot of false alarms that the Church were breaking up. But you never really broke up, did you?
KILBEY: Well, we were thinking of breaking up last year, but we were just playing so well, it seemed a shame to actually break up. I realized, if I quit this and go play with some other guys, who the hell would I get that could do this? It's like shooting a horse and buying a donkey. We should stay together, because together we're better than we ever could be apart.
LAUNCH: Why did you ever want to end the Church in the first place?
KILBEY: I sort of felt nobody was interested anymore. I thought, let's just finish this off and then I can move on to something else. And then, when we played, people were just ecstatic. A lot of people were coming back and saying, "You can't break up, you can't break up!" And then we made this record and it was like, maybe there's a bit of life left in the old beast. Why knock a thing that's going well, if people still want it? I just didn't think people wanted it anymore.
LAUNCH: Actually, it seems like people are more interested in the Church than they have been in years. Do you have a theory why?
KILBEY: I think bands' careers go up and down all the time. Something comes around that seems to make you obscure, but then that goes away. I remember thinking during the early '80s, when all those people were doing that dance on the floor where they get on their backs and go 'round and 'round [Uh, that would be break-dancing--editor's note], "No one's going to want to see us anymore! Everyone's gotten into this, and it's the end of us." But then that goes away and everyone's back into guitars and psychedelia--and there's been so many waves of guitars and psychedelia! In two years' time, someone will come out playing autoharps and lutes or something, and suddenly we'll be finished. But then everyone will discover electric guitars again, and we'll be back.
LAUNCH: Are you surprised that the Church has lasted so long--18 years?
KILBEY: Well, when we first formed, my ambition was just to play in Melbourne! So yeah, I'm really surprised. Pop groups aren't supposed to last for a long time. But people seem to go on liking us, so as long as people go on liking us, I guess we'll go on playing. But ideally, great pop groups should form, make two great albums and then break up; I think they're the best ones, really.
LAUNCH: Yes, but unlike a lot of bands that have been around for 18 years or more, you've gotten more adventurous. Unlike--
KILBEY: --the Rolling Stones, for example. What happened? They're not the same people. They're impostors. It's good that they're out there though, because we can look at that and say, "F--k, if I ever start doing that, please shoot me." The trouble with the Rolling Stones is they have this rebellious-youth, we're-sexy-we're-dangerous thing calculated into it, and as you get older and older, that becomes ridiculous. Hopefully, with the Church, it's mainly about our music, it's not about us being spokesmen for a generation or anything like that. Hopefully that means when we're 60 we could still conceivably be playing and it won't seem ridiculous, because we're making good music together and our age doesn't come into it.
LAUNCH: Are there any artists who are older that you look up to as an example of how to age gracefully?
KILBEY: Leonard Cohen. As he gets older and older, he gets better and better. Everybody's got to get older--I mean, when I was a young man, I used to poke fun at "old" guys. I remember being in a music shop buying a guitar, and there was a guy in there who was 27, and I was 18. And I said, "You're 27! F--king put that guitar down and get out of the business, man! You're washed-up, you're old!" This guy was crying! And I was just baiting him mercilessly, because I was an 18-year-old young buck, y'know? That's part of the thing--certain parts of rock 'n' roll are about youth and rebellion and all of that. But okay, if you are going to get older, you may lose all that fieriness and all that, but bring your wisdom and all the things you've learned into it! I think you've got to stop singing about cars and girls and start singing about things that are appropriate to your age. And that's what Leonard Cohen does.
LAUNCH: So, tell me about this Bastard Universe bonus disc that comes with your new album. Isn't it basically an hour-long jam session?
KILBEY: It's 80 minutes.
LAUNCH: Wow! Is it all one take?
KILBEY: Yes. We had a DAT tape running, and we were supposed to be jamming out ideas for new songs. Then a strange atmosphere came across the studio and everybody just went off into a little trip of their own, and we just played and played and played and played and played. It's funny, because I've listened to it about 10 times, and you never figure out where it's going to go next; you think you've got it sussed, and then it sort of goes through all these different movements. It gets noisy and dissonant, and then it fades down. I'm ashamed to say that I was quite stoned at the time--I didn't play on a lot of it. I sort of wake up at the end and start getting busy, but the guitarists made up for it. As someone told me, it makes Pink Floyd look like the Ramones.
LAUNCH: So it wasn't done with the intention of ever releasing it?
KILBEY: No, it wasn't like, "Oh, let's write an 80-minute piece!" In fact, if you listen really hard you can hear someone come up the stairs at the end of it and say, "God, how long was that going on for?"
LAUNCH: Doesn't the Church usually write songs through jamming?
KILBEY: Yeah, we just start playing, and we go on, and then I usually go, "I really like that; can everyone do that again?" I'm kind of like the editor of the jams. I'm the one that's got to sing over it, so we play around until I start hearing things I like. But with Bastard Universe--even I wouldn't have had enough lyrics for that! So I just left it.
LAUNCH: Speaking of lyrics, that's obviously a very important thing to the Church, plus I know you've written poetry and books and done spoken-word stuff. Is it different when you're writing prose or poetry, compared to writing song lyrics?
KILBEY: Oh yes, because lyrics always have to be harnessed to the music. You've got to think about the meter and rhyme and all that. The other stuff I write, it's just all over the place. Five million adjectives in every sentence and all that. That's my problem: too many adjectives. I know that.
LAUNCH: As far as inspiration for your writing, besides the Bible, do any other works or writers inspire you?
KILBEY: I'm more into Homer and Hindu sorts of things. I guess it's just a grandiose effort to try to get that kind of impact on people. It's hard to say. Of course, I had my influences growing up, but nobody influences me anymore. I don't hear anybody and go, "Oh God, I wish I could do that." I'm too old for that. I mean, I like Radiohead, but I'd never say, "I want to write lyrics like Thom Yorke." I think he's a great lyricist, but it doesn't make me want to do that. Whereas when you're really young it's like, "Oh, Bolan! Bowie! Bob Dylan!" Jump jump jump jump jump. In one week you can go from Bryan Ferry to the New York Dolls to whoever. Every new song you write is like the latest record you got.
LAUNCH: Now, I know most Church songs are written through jamming, but some of the songs are actually pretty poppy. How do you come up with pop songs from jams?
KILBEY: I'm actually not real big on pop songs at the moment. As soon as someone says, "It's really good POP," I'm like, "Well, I don't want to hear it then." "Pop" always implies a sort of shallow, bouncy-bouncy-wouncy thing. I grew up on Pink Floyd, these 20-minute pieces that rise and fall. Yes, we do have a pop side to us, but I think we try and balance that out with some instrumental things.
LAUNCH: So if someone says a song of yours is a pop song, do you take that as an insult?
KILBEY: It could be, if they knew my bent. They could say it if they knew how to insult me--"That's just a pop song!" We throw that word around ourselves. There's a few songs on our new album, like the second-to-last song ["Another Earth," which, incidentally, this writer likes very much], which I'm not mad on at all--I think it is "just a pop song." On the album, I like "The Great Machine." That stuff's what I like.
LAUNCH: "Glow-Worm" is one of my favorites. It's a very moving love song. Who is that song about?
KILBEY: Oh, it sounds really corny if I say who it's about....I've got children, and I write songs for them that I know they won't listen to now, but I just hope one day, when I'm dead and gone, they'll put my records on and realize how much I loved them.
LAUNCH: Aw...that's not corny, it's sweet!
KILBEY: No, it is corny; if I read that, I'd go, "Oh f--k, I don't want to hear that record!"
LAUNCH: The lyrics are very vague. It sounds like it could be a romantic love song.
KILBEY: No, I don't seem to write those anymore.
LAUNCH: Like I said, you've become more experimental over the years, while with other bands that've been around a long time, it's the other way around.
KILBEY: Isn't that good thing? I'm happy that you see it like that. My ambition is to make weird music. Anything but ordinary. Anything except someone saying it's "nice." It's good because everyone has a bent like that in the band--nobody wants to do ordinary things. I even thought "Under The Milky Way"--even though it was a "pop" song and a hit single--I still think it had enough of a strangeness about it to justify it. I don't mind playing it now, because even that song is off-the-wall enough.
LAUNCH: It was a very different time for music when "Milky Way" came out, even though it wasn't that long ago. I know you've been really outspoken about your dislike of the music industry, but wouldn't you say the business is even worse now?
KILBEY: Well, the strange thing about the music industry is most of the people in the music industry don't like music, and don't like musicians. I've always thought that was really weird. People always say, "How does it feel to be on such-and-such label?" And it's like, who cares? Our long as you can buy our record, who cares what label it's on? It's the record, surely! I don't see why anyone who likes your records cares what your relationship is with your label. It's like, if you're betting on a jockey in a horse race, you don't care if him and his wife are getting on well, do you?
LAUNCH: Well, I know that after Starfish went platinum, there was a lot of label pressure on you for the follow-up. That could've permanently soured you on music as a career.
KILBEY: There were a lot of things that went down around the making of Gold Afternoon Fix. People saying stuff like, "You've got to write a song like 'Milky Way,' but not like 'Milky Way.'" Okay, so you want me to sit here and you want me to sit there, and be in two places at once? Sure, I can do that. I was like, "I don't even know how I wrote 'Milky Way'; how am I going to write something not like it?" Stuff like that, and people saying, "You're going to be bigger than U2!" I'm beyond that now. If the guy from our record company wants to take us out to dinner or if he doesn't want to take us out to dinner, if he thinks I'm a good guy, if he thinks I'm not a good guy, I don't care anymore! I'm beyond it. Our audience knows what we are and knows what we can do. People who like what we do will seek us out. If we don't get a deal with one label, we'll get a deal with another, or another. So I don't care about all that. They can all go to hell. We've got a little English manager now who's a quiet guy; he's not a cocaine-snorting monster. It's really corny, but we just want to be musicians. We just want to make our music and forget all the other stuff, because that stuff destroys you, it fills your head up with such nonsense that you can't write songs. That stuff's my nemesis, an anathema to me. Hey, I just used two Greek words in one sentence--you should be really impressed with that!
LAUNCH: Indeed I am. This may be a weird question, but do you think the letdown after Starfish was a blessing in disguise?
KILBEY: There's so many answers to that, because personally, that success really ruined me. All the money and all the people saying, "Yeah, you're so great, you're gonna be bigger than Elvis Presley!" All that and being in America for so long and all the drugs and all the groupies and blah blah blah blah blah. I went home and I was going crazy; my then-girlfriend was like, "Oh, you're home? Well, there's the washing-up, take the garbage out..." And was like, "You can't talk to me like that! I'm a f--king rock star!" And I never believed it before that; suddenly I was starting to believe the myth. And I'm glad it was all deflated, because I don't want to turn into that horrible person ever again! It's just so hard when you have a thousand people telling you you're great--you start believing it. "Yeah, I shouldn't wash up! Why should I wash up?" That's why I really admire Paul McCartney; when you see him, he's such a humble, nice, average guy--you've got to admire that! What he went through, you see how John Lennon kind of didn't cope with it in some ways and became bitter and reclusive; you see how McCartney stayed with one woman and had his kids and gave them 50p a week pocket money, and every time he talks he never pulls any trips on people. He went through what the Church went through times one million! And the Beatles were the first ones! Then you see people who get a little bit of success, like Marilyn Manson, saying, "This album draws parallels between my life and Jesus Christ." Yeah right, like people are going to be talking about you in 2000 years, I'm sure! And you see people who are believing him, who are believing the myth. It's sad, because he's just an ordinary bloke who's going to get old and be forgotten like everybody else. If he really thinks he's some Jesus character, he's so way off the mark.
LAUNCH: So, who do you think your core audience is today?
KILBEY: I'm not really sure. I like to make music for my peers, and we're all fortyish, so I'd hope that fortyish people are listening; maybe they're not. But if it's young people, that's fine too. In England, it's trainspotter-type guys who come up and say, "Steve, I've got this B-side from France, look at the serial number, it's worth such-and-such amount..." But in America it's all kinds of people. America has the most intense fans. In America, it's more like, "Oh my God...oh my God...oh my God...oh my God...can I just touch you?! I'm not worthy! Walk on me!" More of this real worship trip. There are some people who take it really seriously. You what I saw one day, which really affected me? There was this woman and her husband on this talk show, and the husband was saying, "My wife's in love with Michael Bolton, and she doesn't love me enough." And the wife's saying, "Well, Michael Bolton's really sexy, and look at you!" Then this curtain comes up, and there's Michael Bolton; the woman looks at the husband and says, "Sorry!" and runs over to Michael Bolton. It's like, how could you do that to your husband on TV? That's what it's like. I'll tell you, I've been backstage many times, and there's a girl talking to me. I'm like, "Hey baby, wanna come back to the hotel?" and she's like, "Yeah!" Then I say, "Who is this guy over there looking at us?" The girl's going, "I don't know!" And I say, "Are you sure? He's really giving me dirty looks." Then suddenly the guy marches up and yells, "This is my fiancÚ!!!" and drags her off. People get like that! There was a guy in Oklahoma who, Eskimo-style, came up to me and said, "Me and my wife really like you." I said, "Thank you." "We got married to your music." "Thank you." "That's my wife sitting over there." "Hello, wife." "It would be a big honor for us if you'd sleep with her tonight." I was like, what?!?!
LAUNCH: So did you?