A Conversation with The Church’s Steve Kilbey (part one)

Australian foursome The Church are something of an institution in their native country, and throughout their thirty-plus years together they have enjoyed worldwide success as well. Their commercial apex was undoubtedly the hit single “Under the Milky Way” from the 1988 album Starfish, but every one of their twenty-three albums has its high points. A perennial critics’ darling, the band has mounted tours both acoustic and electric. Their early 2011 US tour took them to the southeast, and I spoke with Steve Kilbey (bass, vocals, lyrics) about the current tour, the band’s longevity and much more. Here’s part one of our conversation. All photos except the press-kit one are © Bill Kopp.— bk

Bill Kopp: After nearly two dozen studio albums with The Church, how would you say your music has changed?

Steve Kilbey: I’d say we had a certain artistic goal when we started, and I think that goal has remained. But I think the way that we sort of achieve that goal – or attempt to achieve that goal – has kind of changed a bit, though not completely. So I think there’s a real continuity going right back to the first album. Our goal is to have interesting lyrics and interesting guitar parts that weren’t just one guy playing chords and the other guy playing the lead solo. We like interweaving guitar parts. And we want to have songs that are about unusual things, and that – within the parameters of rock music – do unusual things and conjure up different kinds of feelings. We’re still pretty much the same band, just with a lot more experience. We’ve got a lot more tricks under our belt.

BK: The Greenville SC date is the only one on the current tour slated as an acoustic show. Does reinterpreting the songs from your albums as live acoustic numbers present any particular challenges?

SK: Oh, yeah. We’ve stripped away all that noise. You can make a lot of noise on an electric guitar, and a pounding drum kit can cover up a lot of errors. So this is exposing the songs for what they really are. It’s a bit like taking a film back to being a play. You’re taking all of the electric and electronic effects out of the picture, and presenting the bare bones of what the music and the dialogue is. And I think that there are a lot of electric songs that wouldn’t stand up to this treatment. Though the songs that we reinterpret are the ones that have got a pretty sound musical skeleton, you know what I mean?

BK: Yes. Because some of them are built — at least in part — around riffs. Do those riffs translate in the acoustic idiom, or do you give new arrangements to the songs, emphasizing other elements?

SK: Well, that’s something I’m always interested in: How do riffs sound played on the acoustic guitar? And the answer is, half the time it sounds bloody awful. And the other half of the time – if you can get a kind of new thing into it – it can sound really good. So with these songs that we’re reinterpreting, some of them do actually indeed keep the electric riff, which becomes an acoustic riff. Or in some cases it changes onto another instrument. We do the song “Reptile,” but the riff is now played on a jazzy piano instead of a frenetic electric guitar with a lot of echo. Sometimes the riff is the very cornerstone of the song, and it reappears. Other times we find that the riff is disposable; we’ll do a song that has a famous riff, but the riff’s no longer there.

BK: I imagine there are a few “deep album cuts” that you’ve either never done live, or at least haven’t done in years. Does digging out some of these older songs bring back memories for you? Is there any feeling for you of sort of rediscovering some of your earlier work?

SK: Absolutely. After thirty years of playing these songs, I’m still rediscovering things I put into the lyrics. I’m standing there singing the song thirty years later, thinking, “God; I thought this was a random song I wrote. Now it’s coming true!” Which is one of the lines in one of the songs (“Mistress”) we’ll be playing: “Everything is going wrong / All my songs are coming true.” It must be terrible being Bob Dylan lying down at 2am. He can’t get to sleep, all those fucking songs…all those songs all biting him on the arse. All those words coming into his head. Because that sure happens to me. All my songs — all the words — are sort of re-presenting themselves, and going, “This is what you really meant.” We’ll be playing onstage somewhere like Greenville, and I’ll go, “Jesus Christ! I’ve been playing this song for years, and now finally I know what it means!”

Sometimes I marvel, and sometimes I’m disappointed by how simplistic we used to be. And sometimes I marvel at how on one particular day we created a piece of music that I know we couldn’t have done at any other time. We might have used a certain chord progression that I think is quite clever. I really do like going back and looking at our old songs. You know, we’ve never written rubbishy, throwaway songs; every song has at least one redeeming quality about it. Some have more than two. So it’s fun to go back, get some old ones out, have a look at them and kind of reorganize them.

BK: You mentioned your lyrics. Some critics have observed that your lyrics are — the word they sometimes use is impressionistic. Whether one accepts that or not, I am guessing that one of two things is at work here. Either (a) the lyrics have a specific meaning to you, and it’s merely oblique to some listeners, or (b) you craft your lyrics in such a way that leaves it up to listener to sort of take what they will from them. How would you characterize it?

SK: Okay, what I would say is that my lyrics are impressionistic, and that “b” is definitely the answer. The lyrics are written for me and for the listener to be able to create a world. It’s kind of like I’m writing a book, but I’m only giving you very vague hints of the story in the background. Because of the music — and because of my voice and everything else that comes with the record — when you hear the song, if you close your eyes and think about it, you will find yourself involved in an adventure.

I used to have a terrible job during school holidays, and I’d go home and put my favorite T. Rex album on, close my bedroom door, lie down on the bed. And as soon as that record started up, its world would open up to me. It’s like now when kids come home and get on their computer, and they’re in some world. Running ‘round shooting people or whatever they’re doing. In my world, Marc Bolan did that. It was like one of those films where you can choose the ending. So I found that this was the absolute best form of entertainment: to have music that sets up the situation for you. The song is vague enough for you to sort of flesh it out in the way you want, but it’s specific enough to keep directing you. So that’s definitely what my lyrics are supposed to do.

BK: As opposed to leading the listener around by the nose. Or the ear, as it were.

There’s no leading the listener around by the nose. Most of what’s in there is a springboard for you to jump into a swimming pool of your own design and populate it with your life, your characters. Or you can take mine. Or you can mix them all up. It’s like a dream.

BK: I bought your solo album Earthed some twenty years ago. Your solo albums are — to my ears — complimentary to your work with The Church, yet different. When you compose songs, do you often start with a specific destination in mind, as in, “This one’s for the band, that one’s for a solo release” or does it develop differently?

SK: Usually when The Church write a song we’re all together. We’re there, we pick up our instruments, we jam around. Usually I’ll go, “Yeah, I like this, I like that.” We work on a piece of music, and then when the piece is finished, I’ll put lyrics on it. It never happens that people come along and say, “Here’s my song, and the Church should play it.” That’s kind of been banished. We overhauled our constitution and we realized that was a point of potential revolution. So that scenario was excluded. So now in our amended constitution, all songs must be written by the band. No individual may contribute individual songs to the band. Otherwise, if we didn’t have that clause, I would come along and say, “This is this great fucking song I’ve written,” and they’d go, “Oh, we don’t like that.” And I’d go, “You don’t like this song? Fuck you! I’m leaving!” Or someone else would do that. So we’ve nipped that in the bud.

We’d seen it happen. Because the band constitution had been that I was the dictator. I’d say, “Here is my song. You will play it.” And lo, they played it. But halfway through, the early democracy snuck in where I asked, “What would it be like if we all wrote songs?” And verily, it was good. We all did like writing songs together. Still the old way remained; “Under the Milky Way” was one of the last ones ever, strangely enough. This was much to the frustration of Arista; they kept saying, “Write another ‘Under the Milky Way,’” and I’d say, “Under our new constitution, all songs now have to be written by the band.”

You have to think of these things if you want a band to last thirty years. You have to figure out ways you can do things. For example, me and Marty [Willson-Piper], if we have a really nasty argument, one of us will drop a nuclear bomb on the other, which will mean there will be no more band. So Marty and I, to a certain extent, have learned not to have really nasty arguments. If we feel one coming on, we both sort of go, “Ahem…” and we walk away. Whereas me and Peter [Koppes], we — like two countries — can have a really nasty argument, and then at the end we go, “Oh well,” and walk away. And we’re okay. You’ve got to figure all the ins and outs of how your band works as time goes on, so you don’t push people in the wrong direction.

And it also works to protect me. In the constitution, one of the other guys could turn up with a hopeless fucking song that nobody wants to play. And we can say, “Sorry. It’s not a band song.” So it’s a very good way to run a band, I think.

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