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The Church - Interview with Steve Kilbey

  by Denzil Watson

published: 4 / 5 / 2024

The Church - Interview with Steve Kilbey

If there was an award for Rock n’ roll longevity, Australian neo-psychedelic/indie rock band The Church would certainly be towards the front of the queue. Formed in Sydney back in 1980, they were led by their charismatic bassist/frontman, Steve Kilbey, a UK ex-pat who moved to Oz as a five-year-old. The band’s classic line-up of Kilbey, Richard Ploog (drums), Marty Wilson-Piper (guitars) and Peter Koppes (guitars) prevailed for the first nine years of their existence, producing six critically acclaimed albums, including 1988’s ‘Starfish’ album, which spawned their biggest hit single, ‘Under the Milky Way’. After Ploog’s departure in 1990 and a brief stint from Patti Smith’s drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, stickmen’s duties were taken up by Tim Powles. Initially as a temporary member before becoming permanent, Tim has enjoyed a thirty-year stint with the band. With Peter Koppes taking leave for five years but rejoining in 1996, the band were back to a stable four-piece which saw The Church regularly tour worldwide and release new albums over the next decade and beyond. The band’s ‘Further/Deeper’ album released in 2014 was to be the first Church album not to feature Marty Wilson-Piper after his departure and ex-Powderfinger guitarist Ian Haug joining the band. Three years later, in 2017, ‘Man Woman Life Death Infinity’ was to be Koppes’ swansong, leaving Kilbey as the band’s only founding member to remain. The ensuing five years saw a relatively quiet period in the band’s history. After Koppes departure in 2020, Kilbey announced that touring guitarist Jeffrey Cain had been promoted to full-member status, along with the guitarist Ashley Naylor. Returning with two quick-fire albums, last year’s highly acclaimed ‘The Hypnogogue and the forthcoming ‘Eros Zeta and the Perfume Guitars’, The Church look set to add another illustrious chapter to their story. Pennyblack Music caught-up with the band’s leader and creative tour-de-force Steve Kilbey for a chat. Pennyblack Music: Steve, thank you for agreeing to speak to Pennyblack. How are things in The Church HQ at the moment? Steve Kilbey: Yeah, we're kind of excited to be going to America and of course we're excited that ‘Eros Zeta’ is coming out. We're going to record an album in Austin, Texas before we do our tour. So everybody's kind of good and ready to rock. PB: You must have been really pleased with how the ‘Hypnogogue’ was received last year? I think it was voted one of the albums of the year by Spin magazine in the US. SK: Wonderful, wonderful to get those good reviews. We’ve not always had good reviews in England. Sometimes they didn't review it at all and then sometimes they would give us bad reviews. But wonderful to see all the good reviews, all around the world. Really unexpected. I wasn't expecting anything. PB: Sometimes that's the best way to avoid disappointment, isn't it? Put out an album that you really enjoyed making and if they like it, they like it. SK: It really is. Also, I felt a little vindicated from those good reviews as well. Even if just to myself. Every now and then, people are going “Oh, you shouldn't be working with The Church anymore because you're the only original guy”. You know, “Blah, blah, blah”. There was a bit of that. So when it all works out, it's really nice. So, yeah, a little bit of vindication, for sure doesn't hurt. PB: I'm glad you mentioned that thing about the only original member thing. There's a lot of debate here in the UK about that sort of thing. I've just seen The Strangers and some fans are saying “Well, there's only Jean-Jaques Burnel left. It's a tribute band”. I think that they are sort of missing the point a bit, aren’t they? SK: I think on any given day, I could be persuaded to say anything at all about this subject. I can very much see it from both points of view. People who go “When the original members are gone, the band should stop, if they are that important”. But look at Genesis for example. You would have thought that when Peter Gabriel left, they would have stopped. And then when Steve Hackett left, they would have stopped. Although I didn't enjoy what Genesis did when those guys were gone, they've certainly had a much longer lease of life and they knew what they were doing and so I guess the ends justify the means. If people say “Oh, you shouldn't keep going”, but then you keep going and you're really successful, I guess they were wrong. PB: With The Church, it's not as if you've split up then reformed with one original member. It's been a continuum, hasn't it? SK: It has been a continuum. When we started, especially when (drummer) Richard Ploog joined, it was the four of us and it was sort of a “band” band and everybody was important and we wrote the songs together. I didn't really want it to end, but when it did end when Richard left, when Marty (Wilson-Piper) left, and when Peter (Koppes) left, it seemed to me that I could carry on. Is ‘mandate’ the wrong word? It seemed wrong to me that I would have to stop, after all, what was always my baby. Once upon a time, there was just me. I hadn't even met the other guys, and I wanted to have this band and this band is The Church and I wrote all these songs and I thought about in my head how it would be and how it would all go down. And I found my guys and for a while, it worked out really well. And then they left. But I just feel like it's my baby to keep on going. It didn't seem like any of them were so important that I should stop. Which kind of sounds harsh and will look harsh in black and white I suppose. PB: I think people get that. Marty Wilson-Piper and Peter Koppes were really important to the sound of The Church, but the new LP sounds as ‘Church’ like as The Church has ever done. SK: There you go. So the thing is this is what I do. I'm not a brilliant musician, but what I do is I create situations for brilliant musicians to function in. You could have the most amazing instrumentalist, who can play the violin or the guitar, or the drums, or the piano or whatever the hell it is, but they don't always know what to do with it. Just because you can play something brilliantly doesn't mean you know in which context to have it. So what I did and what I always did with The Church and what I do with all of the people I collaborate with, is come up with a context. I'm very good at saying “Let's just work on this simple thing”. When all the people come along with all the fancy stuff, I'm the guy who figures out what the foundations are going to be. So, with the bass guitar that was a very good foundational kind of instrument, to kind of figure out what's really going on. And I ‘found out’ and everybody else has ‘found out’, that if you give me some good guitarists and some good drummers and stuff, I can keep on doing this until the cows come home. I don't play guitar very well. I can play a bit, but I like having these great musicians and the musicians I have are really enthusiastic. They really want to be doing this and they're all bending all their skills and working together, as a unit, to make the best possible Church albums we could make. I guess I'll keep on going and hopefully none of them will leave, but if they do, then I know I'll just source some more. PB: One of the things I was going to mention to you is you've obviously got the knack of choosing the right people. Take (guitarist) Ian Haug, for example. He's really stepped up to the mark, hasn’t he? SK: He really has, yeah. I intuitively feel when I meet people, “Wow, I could work with you”. When Marty left, I was lost for a while until someone reminded me that I knew Ian and they said “Why don't you give Ian Haug a ring?” And then with Ash Naylor, when Peter left, I immediately thought of Ash as well. It's very important to have people who are on board. Like imagine a football team, with twenty Johnny Superstars who don't want to pass the ball or work together. It’s not gonna work out, even if they're the best fucking players in the world. What you want is cooperation and people to understand that they're part of the team. PB: Let's talk about ‘Eros Zeta and the Perfume Guitars’. I think it's your twenty-seventh studio album. I'm really into my Australian music and I was trying to think a more prolific Australian artist. The only person I could think of was Nick Cave, solo plus The Bad Seeds and The Birthday Party. I couldn't think of a more prolific Australian artist than The Church. SK: Well, we've been going along time and I'm prolific in my own right. Even without The Church, I've made another maybe fifty albums. I'm always working on things and playing around with people and working on music. It’s probably more than twenty-seven Church studio albums depending on how you count them. There's albums that people don't tend to count. It's complicated to try and mention all of them, but it probably takes it up to about thirty-five. PB: I'm just trying to think of a UK band that is as prolific, but the only one that really comes to mind is The Fall. SK: They did a lot of records, didn't they? Yeah. Mark E. Smith had that famous quote that I availed myself of when people said “You can’t be The Church still”. “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it's The Fall”. PB: On a similar line, I think I read somewhere that you've now registered over a thousand songs. That's an amazing achievement. SK: Yeah. But, you know, I'm almost seventy and I don't do much else. I'm not very much good at anything else, so I've just been writing a lot of songs. I came out of the box writing songs. Before The Church even started I probably had three or four hundred songs that I'd written. I don’t think quantity necessarily means quality, but I like to think that only a very few of my songs are really terrible. Like there's only a few that would embarrass me if you should pull them out. I'm pretty pleased with most of them. PB: In terms of your contemporaries – and I’m going to pick on The Cure here – you've released more new music than The Cure in the last two years than they have in the last quarter of a century. SK: Well, the thing is, if I was as rich as Robert Smith, would I go and make music? Would I be sitting around fiddling and collaborating and being in studios or would I just be out enjoying my wealth? I don't know. I think that the conditions were right for me to be prolific. I'm not sure if I had been incredibly successful and incredibly wealthy that I would have been as creative as I am and have been. I create because I have to keep this whole thing working and making money, so I can't really rest on my laurels. It's hard to say that if I had been really successful would it have slowed me down or not. I'm not sure. PB: Back to the new album. I read it was billed as a sequel or companion to 2023’s ‘The Hypnogogue, expanding the mythology established in that record. Is that a pretty fair summary? SK: Yeah, it is. We made ‘The Hypnogogue’ and it got some good reviews. We met these guys in America who wanted to be our managers and they went, “Oh boy, you guys should do as deluxe version. You should do a digital deluxe, add some new songs to the whole story”. We already had some songs left over and then we went in the studio and made a lot more. We sort of added thirteen new songs to the whole mythology of this, to the concept. It's like a sequel, something like that. A companion record, right? PB: For me, it's turned out to be far more than that and it exists in its own space. Personally, I saw it as a standalone and timeless album that celebrates the whole of The Church's glorious legacy, if I’m being honest. SK: I hope so. It's a fun record. It's not as serious as ‘The Hypnogogue’. It didn't take so long to make it either, we didn’t have as much time and we didn't agonize over it. It was all done a lot quicker, so it's a kind of like ‘The Hypnogogue’s’ playful other half. All that proggy stuff that happens on ‘The Hypnogogue’ doesn't happen on this so much. There's some quite rock and roll numbers. PB: I really like the track ‘Pleasure’ on ‘Eros Zeta’. For me that could quite comfortably sit alongside the tracks on 1981’s ‘Of Skins and Heart’. SK: That's amazing. Continuity! I think that’s the challenge for anybody in my position, whether they're an author or a musician or making films or making clothes. There are some people, like David Bowie, who have made a great thing of just completely changing and like “All of that has gone and now I'm just something completely new”. I like to keep building on what I've already done. I like to think that somebody who liked The Church’s very first album will listen to ‘Eros Zeta’ and go, “Well, it's changed and improved and stuff but I can still hear the manifesto behind all of this and the idea that this is supposed to be”. So yeah, I'm pleased to hear you say that and you think it's a classic Church record because I think it is too. Yeah, definitely. PB: I really liked ‘2054’. Is it a homage to Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis’s fictional thriller? SK: No, it's not, it's just that I picked that year for it all to happen. It's a year which I would turn 100 if I'm still around. PB: Okay. I was trying to work out what the significance of the date was and that's what the internet came up with. SK: It's obviously 30 years in the future from now and God help me up, will I still be alive? Then maybe you and I will still be doing interviews. It could have been any year really, but that's the year it just happened to be. PB: I also real like “Manifesto”. For a minute, for the first few chords I thought it was going to go into ‘Under the Milky Way’, but then it veered off into its own sphere. SK: We did that in a hotel room. We had we turned up in Omaha, Nebraska and we had a day off. It was snowing and freezing cold and Jeffrey got out his computer and we went down in the basement (at the Best Western Cottontree Inn), into their conference room and recorded a couple of songs. That was one of them. The other one is the instrumental track at the end of the album, ‘Music from the Ghost Hotel’. We can do stuff anywhere I guess, I'm up for anything. If someone said to me, “I want you to go into the best studio in the world and to take twelve months and make an album”, I’ll go “ Okay, yeah”. And if somebody else said “I want you to go into a not-very-good situation with some dodgy people and make an album in three days, I’d go “Yeah”. And anything in between. I've always felt there's a lot of serendipity that happens when you make records. PB: I think that openness to put yourself in different situations gives each record its own sort of personality, doesn't it? SK: It does. I'm happy to find out what happens, you know? Like we're all going to Austin and we're going to make a record there. I've never made a record in Austin, I haven't met the people who will be working on it, but I trust in the process. Someone may come along, maybe some young American engineer, and will go “Hey Steve, have you ever thought about this?” and I’m like “Wow!”. So yeah, I'm always one for working with whatever I've got. Whether it's good, bad, long, short, expensive or cheap, I'm happy. There's no reason not to make music these days. You know, there's so many ways you can make it and so many ways of putting it out. There's absolutely no excuse for not doing it, for me, anyway. I feel like I'm gonna want to make as much music as I can before the lights go out. PB: I think that's a really healthy attitude to be honest. SK: Yeah. The other thing I think is there is an idea in rock n’ roll that, unlike almost any other professions – and I always talk about this – for some reason we don't expect very much from old rockers. We expect an old actor to be really good. You know, those classic British actors, when they get to their old age, Anthony Hopkins and those guys. If you were a brain surgeon and you were my age or if you're an architect, you would expect these people to be doing their very best work. That’s the funny thing with rock n’ roll, where we think people can make a couple of good records in their 20s and then for the rest of their life, they just go around endlessly doing a vapid version of their past. Like, for example The Rolling Stones. I didn't listen to their new album, but I heard a few tracks, it was just like “Surely they could have come up with something better than that”. People were giving it good reviews and going “This is the best thing”. It's like “Why do we give old rockers this kind of condescension?”. I mean, when I go the studio with my guys, I expect we should be able to do something better than we've ever done before. There's no way I would want to settle for some mediocre rehash. I don't know why they do it and I don't know why people accept it. I mean, it’s great that The Rolling Stones are still with us, but Jesus Christ, couldn't they have tried a little bit of harder than they did? It didn’t even have any swing. You know, their much-vaunted thing of their swing. The thing that Chalie (Watts) had – the back beat. Then the first track they put out is this thing with a kind of INXS drum machine. I guess that's one of my little things I'm trying to get over as well. My idea to go out making valid music and not go gently into the good night. To kick and scream and try and make the best music I can, while I still can. I've got all this experience, I've spent my whole life in a recording studio, playing around, so I can't see why it should be sort of mediocre. PB: Which leads us nicely back to ‘Eros Zeta’. I really like “Song 18”. I got a bit of a bit of a Flaming Lips vibe and then you went into Bowie mode in the chorus. SK: Yeah, it's very David Bowie. Obviously, he’s always been my main man. I try and keep him a bit more under control and then when I started making ‘The Hypnogogue’ and ‘Eros Zeta’ it was like “If David wants to come out, I'm letting him out”, he ain't going to do it anymore. And if what he did was so wonderful, you can afford to have ten people mining that vein, because of what he started, you know there's still a lot of room in there. It's like The Beatles. The implications of what they did and the implications of what Bowie did go on forever. If you take what he did and run with it, I think “Well, good luck to you”. There’s definitely a lot of David Bowie on these records, I’m never going to deny that. PB: I think my favourite song on the whole album has to be ‘The Weather’ with its fantastic soaring chorus. For me that is one of the album’s best moments. SK: Great. I’m glad everybody likes something different, that isn't my favourite. That’s ‘The Realm of Minor Angels’, where I could stop being David Bowie and try and be Scott Walker for a moment. In these twilight days of my life and my career, I shall let these people out, that beautiful way Scott Walker used to sing and those songs he recorded. Obviously, he stopped doing that a long time ago, but I really just love a torch ballad and a broken-hearted guy sing with a big sad voice, you know. It's all an excuse to let all of the influences swirl around and just be everybody at once; Marc Bolan, The Beatles. Dylan, whoever. They're all welcome now. PB: ‘Eros Zeta’ is out in the UK later this week, I think. And to be honest, I'll be very surprised if the reviews don't top ‘The Hypnogogue’. I think it's that good a record. SK: I love you! I love the things you say! I hope you're right. It was done so fast and casually, there was no agonizing over at all. PB: A bit like back in the old days, in the Eighties when studio time was expensive? SK: Sometimes we were doing fast things, sometimes we were doing slow things. Sometimes, like when we made ‘Starfish’, it was agonizing to do, like a hundred takes of something. Then I would do a hundred takes of the vocal and when the vocals were ready, they’d pop them all in. It was like a syllable here and a single word there. The word here and two more syllables and everything was slow and agonizing. Interestingly enough, talking about David Bowie, I read an article where Woody Woodmansey (Bowie’s drummer) was being interviewed and he said Bowie would only have one or two shots at each song. Bowie would come along and say “Here’s the song and this is how it goes” and at the very most, they might get three shots at it. There's some sort of immediacy that got lost a bit in the 80s, when you sit there and you record a song for a week, you sing it for a week and it's like, “Why the hell are we doing that?” PB: A really famous example was The Stone Roses’ second album, ‘Second Coming’. It was so long in coming that the expectation grew and grew and when it eventually came out, it was like “Well it's just like a Led Zeppelin rehash and it’s not that good”. SK: You're right. They spent a long time on that second record, didn't they? A legendarily long time, a long expensive time. I think there's an argument for making quick records, an argument of making slow records and an argument for making ones where it is sort of in between. What I can't abide is to work with producers or anybody who's telling me what to do anymore. People who are trying to stretch things out too long or people trying to make you do things too quickly. It's really nice for me to be back into control. I abdicated that for a while because first of all, a long time ago, I was a junkie. As a junkie it was very hard to be the King throwing your weight around. After stopping being a junkie, I sort of merged myself back into the band a bit to see what would happen. To see if it worked better taking in what everybody wanted to do. Then, when other guys left, I've just sort of assumed more and more control and have the ability do what I want to do. If I want to chase something, I can chase it again. In the beginning, I could chase it. And then in the middle, I lost the ability for people to believe in me when I was chasing things, other than a heroin dealer somewhere. But now, at the end, it's come back around where I'm sort of calling the shots. PB: The new album came out informally when you were selling it on the U.S. tour, last year, didn’t it? SK: That's right, that's why it's so strange. This the first interview I've done about this album. All it was ever going to be was a record to sell to the fans at live shows. Then the idea grew and Carlton (Sandercock) wanted to put out as a proper record and everybody really liked it. PB: But originally, you didn't actually have plans to officially release it? SK: No. The Church's career is littered with these records, ones you could only get at a live gig. There's so many, there's ‘Beside Yourself’, ‘Back With Two Beasts’ and a record we did that was a soundtrack of a book (“Shriek” by Jeff Wandermeer), I thought it was going to be like that. I thought it was just going to be a record for aficionados only. I never foresaw it would actually come back out on a proper label and people are going to write about it, but it's great that it is and I'm really happy that's happened. PB: I think it's going to do really well and will go down as one of the great Church albums. SK: Well, thank you mate. Thank you. PB: You're going to America from mid-June to mid-July. What's planned after that? Are you going to come to come to Europe and the UK again? SK: People in UK are kind of angry with us, going “Oh, you just want to go to America because that's where the money is”. It's sort of complicated. We are definitely going to be in Europe and the UK in 2025, but probably not this year. Unless the new album goes to Number One and then we probably will come over! PB: Just a couple of quick-fire quick questions to finish with. Favourite Church album? SK: Priest = Aura (1992) PB: That’s one of my favourites too. Favourite Church song? SK: Tonight, I'm gonna say ‘The Realm of Minor Angels’ (from ‘Eros Zeta) PB: Steve, thank you very much for your time and for the interview. It’s really appreciated. SK: Thank you. All the best.

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The Church - Interview with Steve Kilbey

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The Church - Interview with Steve Kilbey

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Steve Kilbey, the vocalist and guitarist with Australian psychedelic/indie rock band The Church, talks to Denzil Watson, about his group’s long history and their forthcoming new album, ‘Eros Zeta and the Perfume Guitars’.


Interview (2023)
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Steve Kilbey, the frontman with Australian post-punk band The Church, talks to Cila Warncke about the places that have been most important to him and new album ‘The Hypnogogue’.

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