October 4, 2018 Interview – Steve Kilbey of The Church
Music is a force that engulfs the senses, often allowing us a chance to let go of any unnecessary worries and stress. A form of release and self-expression for those who create it, there is no denying the infinite power of it. Allowing themselves to be taken by the music, Australian Rock band The Church have often chosen the path less traveled, and still managed to find their share of success in the process. Together now for nearly four decades, the band has worked tirelessly in their quest to create superior songs along the way.
Taking a large international audience along for the ride, they have put out an astounding 26 studio albums to date, and show little sign of slowing down as they embark on their latest North American tour this fall. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of their most commercially-successful record, 1988’s Starfish, The Church’s Steve Kilbey took the time to reflect on the incalculable journey of the band, striving to write the best music possible, plus much more.
CrypticRock.com – The Church has been around for nearly four decades, and in that time has seen a ton of success and established themselves as a truly unique band. First, tell us, what has the journey of the band been like thus far?
Steve Kilbey – Like a river meandering through a field, I think. We have been all over the place, we didn’t do anything directly or in a controlled way; we stubbed along. Like a bunch of idiots stubbing through a minefield, that’s how we survived. It was not through any real planning, manifesto, or any real coherence amongst the members. Just really dumb luck, I suppose.
CrypticRock.com – The band is truly unique and has always done their own thing, regardless of trends or styles.
Steve Kilbey – Exactly. It’s funny, things change. At the time, the people that worked with us would say we were arrogant and we didn’t listen to what they wanted us to do. Now people look back on it and say, “Oh, you were headstrong.” (Laughs) History judges things differently. It was really hard to fight against and it was hard to articulate why I wanted to do what I was doing. A lot of the time people thought we were being deliberately and willfully obscure and trying to stop ourselves from being successful as a sort of joke or some sort of a weird concept.
Actually, I was always fighting for some kind of quality in our music that people were trying to get us to not have. It’s funny to look back on it now, people can appreciate our struggle and go, “Wow, you guys sort of kept going through some hostile environments.” At the time, it was really hard. It’s easy to look back on it now and say, “Yeah, that’s what we did,” but at the time, not exactly knowing what we were doing, it was hard and weird.
CrypticRock.com – That is very understandable. Through it all, The Church has also been rather prolific, releasing an amazing 26 studio albums. What do you attribute the longevity to?
Steve Kilbey – I’m a songwriter: I’ve always been a songwriter and I’ve always wanted to write songs. It’s my vocation; some people have a vocation to be a missionary, some have a vocation to be an architect, my vocation was to write songs. Nothing stops me, I just keep going.
I have a lot of people coming to me now wanting to collaborate, so a lot of the things I do now is collaborations – it’s just what I do. If you went to saw a carpenter working on a house, banging together a couple of pieces of wood, and you said, “Why are you doing this?,” he would look up and go, “This is what I do; this is what I’ve always done and I will keep on doing until I can’t do it.” It’s the same with me: I wouldn’t dream of stopping; I write songs all the time. I still really enjoy collaborating – I love meeting people and writing songs with them. Everybody has a completely different take on what music is and how to write a song, I love to get inside other people’s mind and make music with them as well. I always will!
CrypticRock.com – It is wonderful to see how passionate you are about your craft. Beyond The Church, you have also done your share of solo material. Keeping going, The Church released Man Woman Life Death Infinity in 2017. This album is yet another collection of wonderful songs. What was the writing and recording process like this time around?
Steve Kilbey – It was pretty much like all the other records. I think the whole committee thing got the better of us on that record. We had a bunch of jams, one guy has a studio in Sydney and another guy has a studio up in Brisbane. We jammed here, we jammed there, and we came back to the big studio where we were making the record to listen to all our jams. The committee all said, “Let’s do this one, this one, and this one.” I think, a year out, I am a little disappointed in that album. I think it’s a good album, it’s a solid album, but I don’t think it has enough of weird and wonderful stuff on it. Within the context of what we do, I think it’s too ordinary.
CrypticRock.com – Interesting. Well, it will be exciting to see what The Church comes up with next.
Steve Kilbey – Yeah, the thing is going to have to be marvelous, otherwise I don’t want to be bothered doing it. This next thing has to be absolutely fucking amazing, otherwise I don’t want to be bothered trying. I think that’s what it has to be. I think maybe this next one will be our last album: we have to go out with a bang, not a whimper.
CrypticRock.com – One can imagine that yearning to want to do better each time inspires you. As a songwriter, you do not want to repeat yourself, you want to do something better than what you did.
Steve Kilbey – Always, absolutely. Yes, I’m very much like that, and I always have been. As soon as I do one thing, I want to do something better. Each good thing I produce, I immediately want to do something better than that. That is the thing that flogs me on, flogs the band on, and makes me flog the band on. On this new record, we came to a spot and said, “What should we do now?” I said, “Imagine a friend of yours just rang you up and told you the hippest band in the world is about to do a show in Sydney and I’ve got a ticket. We are going to go along to see them, they have been hyped, and everyone says this is the best band you have ever seen in your life.” I said, “What we are going to do now is write that song – that song when they walk on to play, the first song. We are going to write that song ourselves.”
Trying to sort of keep topping whatever we’ve done. Keep trying to up the ante, because the ante can be upped; there is always a lot of room. Music is an ever receding horizon: no one can ever do it perfectly, so there is a lot of room. Because we have been playing so long, we can effortlessly make good music, but can we go better than just doing something good and pull off something mind-blowing? That’s what interests me to keep going. I will never pull it off, but it is my aspiration to try and do that. Knowing that you have to fall short of the mark, because it can’t be reached.
CrypticRock.com – Most certainly. They always say, once you become complacent in what you are doing, you have lost your edge. What is the point of doing it anymore then?
Steve Kilbey – That is one thing about us, there is no complacency. That is the one thing. I don’t know why that is. It’s a funny thing with middle aged bands, because if you went to see a brain surgeon and he was my age, 64, you won’t expect him to be fucking complacent. If there was a pilot flying a plane at 64, you wouldn’t expect him to be complacent. I don’t know why it has become acceptable with Rock-n-Roll bands when they are middle-aged, elderly, or whatever the hell it is, why complacency is acceptable.
You go to see an old band chugging through their greatest hits. I don’t like that. I say, “If you’ve been playing all that time, let me see what you’ve learned with all of that. Surely you didn’t learn all that to chug through a song you wrote 40 years ago.”
I still want to see a bit of passion and fire, as well as the experience. Someone who has been playing as long as we’ve been playing, we all have a lot of experience and I hope we bring that experience to a gig. We can do a lot of things with our instruments, things that you can only learn over time.
CrypticRock.com – The Church always put on a really engaging live performance, and you are actually embarking on a North American tour in honor of the 30th anniversary of Starfish. Will you be playing the album from start to finish?
Steve Kilbey – Yes! It’s like saying we are going to do Macbeth from start to finish: we are going to do Starfish from start to finish the way it’s supposed to be. It’s going to sound like Starfish, but it will have a bit more wallop. Apart from that, we are going to hopefully recreate it faithfully as it is.
CrypticRock.com – That sounds wonderful! Starfish is one of the band’s most successful releases. Looking back, what do you attribute the album’s commercial success to?
Steve Kilbey – I’m not sure. I think just because it was the most commercially successful, it’s the one everyone loves because it’s the one everyone has. If people really do love it more than our other records, I’m not really sure why that is. It’s hard to do stuff and analyze why it’s successful – I’m not sure I can do that. If that is the one people love, I’m glad it is but I don’t know what it is that makes them love that more than anything else.
To me, I think a few records we’ve done are better than that and have more interesting stuff on them. I understand it’s sort of the time it came out that means a lot and where it came in people’s lives, what they were doing at the time they first heard “Under the Milky Way,” and all that sort of stuff. I can see it sort of becomes a cliche soundtrack of their lives.
CrypticRock.com – It is difficult to quantify what makes something more commercially successful than others. For example, some would argue Michael Jackson’s 1987 album Bad is better than 1982’s Thriller or Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 Tusk album is just as good, if not better than 1977’s Rumours.
Steve Kilbey – Yes. Quantity is not quality. I guess with a lot of bands, the ones that sold the best aren’t necessarily the best records at all.
CrypticRock.com – Agreed. You spoke about the live performance and wanting to bring your best. As a vocalist, you really seem to lose yourself in the music. What is it like for you on stage?
Steve Kilbey – On a really good night, I get lost, especially if we are playing in America. It’s just different playing in America, it’s a different experience for us than playing in Australia or anywhere else. People really believe in it! They really believe, they really love it, and they want a performance; America is the land that invented show biz. When I’m in America, I lose myself in the music, I do. It’s a wonderful place. It’s very hard to describe: it is when everything is going right – everything you play and the guitar seems to be playing itself. It’s like on a spaceship and you hit overdrive and the whole thing takes off through the stratosphere. It’s an incredible feeling!
I am losing myself in it more and more. Some nights when I don’t lose myself in it, I am really disappointed, even if it’s been a good gig and the audience is happy. I remember when I was a kid, me and my dad would watch Rock-n-Roll shows. My dad was very sarcastic about the players and looking at some guy playing guitar and waving his head around, he would say, “Look at that geezer! He’s been sent.” I used to laugh but that is exactly what happens: you get sent somewhere. It’s a great place to be! It all just comes tumbling out of the universe and you don’t have to put any work into it.
Not only that, but you’re filled with energy. I might turn up at the gig, I’m an 64-year-old guy, grumpy because I haven’t had vegetarian food; I wanted to have a piss before going on stage and they didn’t have a toilet; they didn’t have the brand of gin I ordered; I got into an argument with someone; blah blah. Then, suddenly you go on stage, the band starts up and then all of that is forgotten; all the aches and pains you might feel are gone. You are sort of in this weightless universe where you can’t feel any pain or worries. The music is just happening, it’s quite a thing.
I can’t explain it. I didn’t used to get it when I was a young guy playing, I was too cynical. Before I was going, “I’m just a guy playing a guitar earning some money, and I hope I get to meet this girl in front of me at the end of the night.” Now I’m going out there, and saying, “No, there is more going on.” I’ve opened myself up to it, and the more I’ve opened myself up to it, the more it’s available. I don’t know what it is, it’s sort of a quasi-spiritual experience.
CrypticRock.com – Wow, that sounds magical. Last question. At CrypticRock, we cover music as well as films, particularly Horror and Science Fiction. Are you a fan of either of these genres and, if so, do you have any favorite Horror and/or Sci-Fi films?
Steve Kilbey – I don’t like Horror movies at all, I do like some Science Fiction. One of my favorite movies, Twelve Monkeys (1995), it is an incredible movie. I don’t like movies about rocket ships and horrible aliens, I like more of Sci-Fantasy.