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INTERVIEW: Steve Kilbey, The Church – August 2022

| 30 August 2022 | 1 Reply

INTERVIEW: Steve Kilbey, The Church – August 2022
By Shane Pinnegar

This week ARIA Hall of Fame inductees The Church begin their first headline tour of Australia in four years, an epic undertaking promising to feature tracks spanning the band’s stellar career forty-plus year career, including new material from their soon-to-be-released 26th studio album Hypnogogue.

A recent press release described the brand spanking new single The Hypongogue as “retro-futuristic”, going on to note that it’s “capturing the band’s trademark psychedelia-tinged and dream pop sound, the new track transports listeners to another realm with a striking science fiction storyline.”

Read more about the single and watch the new video at the bottom of the page, for now, let’s talk with band founder, bassist, singer, primary songwriter and leader, Steve Kilbey.

‘The Slings And Arrows Of Outrageous Fortune’ Australian Tour, September 2022

Thursday, September 1: The Astor, Perth
Friday, September 2: The River, Margaret River
Sunday, September 4: The Gov, Adelaide
Thursday, September 8: The Metro, Sydney
Friday, September 9: The Princess Theatre, Brisbane
Saturday, September 10: Northcote Theatre, Melbourne

After the difficulties and the lack of support for the music industry from our illustrious leaders in the last couple of years, it must be a big relief to be able to head out on tour again.

I think everybody’s realised this thing we took for granted, that we thought would go on forever, like, suddenly, it was gone. I think the musicians and the audiences – everybody made a realisation of how important music and playing and having an audience and all that sort of stuff really is. So yeah, I’m really glad it’s over and hope nothing like that comes back again.

Absolutely. I was discussing this with someone the other day, just like you just said – music appears to have been undervalued for a long time and taken for granted. So not having it there for that couple of years. I mean, I’ve certainly felt the sting not being able to go to a concert. But as a creative person, not only with that creative urge, but also needing it as a financial aspect to your life, you must have really found it difficult.

Yeah, luckily, I turned to Instagram very early on and it got me through some hard times, and let me at least go through the sort of motions of playing towards a kind of an audience, you know. But nothing like a real audience, obviously. And I think a lot of people re-evaluated how important music was to them, and a lot of people found that music was getting them through those hard times. Better than anything else. Better than movies. Better than books. Better than drinking beer. Music’s sort of like… it’s a balm for the soul, you know. It does something. So, you know, for people who really love music, it’s the most important thing. So it was a kind of – although it was a hard way to do it – I think everybody got reconnected to music during that so hard period.

That’s a good point. You recently did a short tour around North America. How did that go?

We did, we did. There were a few little gigs to warm up, and then we did two days of this Cruel World Festival, which was like, every big alternative act from the ‘80s seemed to be playing there [with a crowd of over 50,000 people, alongside fellow legends Blondie, Devo, Echo & The Bunnymen, and The Psychedelic Furs]. And we went down pretty well, considering we were on at like, five o’clock on a really hot afternoon, which isn’t really The Church’s natural environment. We’re kind of night music, whatever that means, not really standing there in the baking sun. But, you know, we acquitted ourselves well, I think, devoid of having a light show or anything. Yeah, it wasn’t too bad.

What’s the perception in America of the band? I mean, is it all about Under The Milky Way and that era, or are they a bit more cognisant of your work since then?

I think it’s probably like Australia. There’s people who are there because they liked Unguarded Moment, and then there’s people who jumped on board with Starfish. And then there are people I guess, who’ve been hanging in there all along. I think America is just the same. The early albums weren’t so important to Americans – The Blurred Crusade didn’t even get released in America until, you know, like eight years later or something. So mostly Starfish, and then there are the people who have been hanging in all along.

Is it frustrating as an artist when you’ve had that one big mega hit, that you’ll always have a contingency of people in a concert who just sort of want to cross hearing that one song off the bucket list?

It is, you know, it is. Everybody’s up against that same thing, I think, you know, all the musicians who had that big golden period, they’re all up against that. And it’s hard to know what to do with it as well – whether to just go along with it, or…

Sometimes it’s funny, especially in America, when Under The Milky Way was sort of a bigger hit than it was here, even. It’s a song that has some sort of significance, though it’s hard to say what that is, but it’s a significant song in people’s lives. When we start playing it, you can see half the audience sort of goes, ‘yeah!’, and the other half of the audience kind of groans, like, ‘oh, no’ – you know what I mean? So it’s really hard to know, it’s a real Buddhist sort of puzzle to know what to do with that. And it’s also, it’s a weird thing – half of you is very thankful you have it, but the other half is really resentful, but that’s all there is. It’s kind of a, yeah, it’s a sort of strange thing to deal with.

So you have to almost treat it like a loss leader in a way, in some respect, to get them in with this one, and then try and upsell them to the rest of your stuff?

Yeah. Yeah… you know, I could write a book about it. But I also don’t want to spend all my time thinking about it and talking about it. So it’s sort of like, it’s a strange thing. We were at a radio station once in America, and the deal was, the reason we were there – this was in the late 90s – was we were going to play Milky Way, and we were going to play whatever our latest single was at that time, which I think might have been a song called Numbers.

And the guy was like, ‘oh Milky Way, yeah. How’d you feel the day you wrote it? Yeah. What did you think when it came out? Yeah. How do you feel about it now? Yeah.’ And then I said, ‘we’re not going to play our new song, are we?’ ‘Oh, no, no, probably not – we ran out of time.’ And I sort of got up and stormed out, and people were really angry with me, but it was just sort of like, ‘for fuck’s sake, get over it.’ You know? Just get over it. It’s weird, because you’ve got to be grateful for it, to have it, but on the other hand, there’s no way you’re not going to be resentful when that’s all somebody focuses on?

At around the same time we signed to a record company, and he said, ’you know what your next single should be?’ and I went, ‘what?’ and he said, ‘a live version of Under The Milky Way!’ I’m like, for fuck’s sake… [Kilbey continues to do a very good American corporate accent, mimicking the record company executive in question] ‘then we can get radio stations used to playing something they’re comfortable with, and then you hit him with your new stuff.’ And I was just like, man, you know, fucking hell…

The suits are never going to understand, are they? They’re never gonna get it.

No, I guess they’re not. When I grew up in Canberra, there was a similar thought, that all the bands would play cover versions, and their philosophy was, we’ll get the audience used to us playing cover versions, and then when they’re used to that we’ll start putting our original songs in the set. And it’s the same kind of philosophy, that you have this one asset that you should flog into the ground.

Even now, if someone says to me, ‘yeah, you can come on an early morning TV show and flog your latest tour, but you’ve got to play Under The Milky Way,’ I have a conflict with myself – like, do I go on there and drag out this old chestnut so I can say I’ve got a new tour, or do I go, ‘no!’ and kind of cut off my nose to spite my face. So, it sort of creates as many problems as it solves. I’m always having an internal dialogue with myself about that fucking song.

Yeah, it’s Australian radio all over. They’ll get your James Reyne or whoever on and say, ‘hey, you’re doing this big tour and you got this new great new album, rah rah rah – play us your hit from thirty years ago.’ It seems to happen to everyone, unfortunately, and it’s a very blinkered way of thinking – it’s not looking towards the future at all.

That’s right. But you know, even if you had Paul McCartney on your show, and he goes, ‘yeah, I’m gonna play a song off the new album,’ they’d say ‘can you give us Long And Winding Road?!?’ It doesn’t really matter who you are. There are very, very few artists who escaped this syndrome of ‘I like your earlier stuff better than your latest stuff.’ And this week, all the interviews I’ve been doing seem to centre around this subject as well, so I go on endlessly repeating myself about this, and still not getting any closer to what the answer is.

Well, my apologies for that. We’ll move on now, eh…

No, no, it’s like, not only have you got to play it, but you’ve got to talk about it. Because if you say to me, ‘hey, Under The Milky Way,’ and I go, ‘I’m not talking about that’… well, how can you not? It’s weird, it swallows up everything.

It’s a little like going to a pub and having a drink with the boys and all you ever talk about is your glory days. You’ve got to talk about now, what you’re doing and what you’re looking forward to and everything.

There you go. Yeah, you’re right.

On that note, for this tour you’re about to kick off around Australia you’re playing two sets, I believe, spanning the entire career of The Church. When you’re looking at…

I believe it WAS going to be two sets, I believe now it’s going to be one long set. It’s the same idea – we’re gonna try and take in everything.

Right. So, when you’ve got that much time to fill and that much scope, to cover the entire career of the band, do you have to go back and start listening to all those records one by one and try to re-familiarise yourself with what’s going to work best?

No. No, I don’t listen to my old records. I don’t need to go back, I know what I’ll find. No, we just sort of, you know, the band sits down and [discusses it]. We’ll probably do the old ones we’ve always done, and it’s more the new ones that’ll be the interesting thing, because we made this new album.

It hasn’t come out yet, but there’s a bunch of new songs I really want to play off that. I think they’re amazing songs, however, I do have to take into account that the audience, unfortunately, won’t have heard any of those songs.

It’s the mid period that gets neglected, sort of the ‘90s and the early 2000s, that will probably be sorely under-represented in this. Because there’s like 400 songs [in The Church’s repertoire] and we can only play 20 songs in the set. That’s about as much as, you know, people are going to listen to. Someone said the other day that for every song we play, there’s fifty we can’t play, or something. So yeah, it’s a bit of horse trading, trying to figure out what our set should be. And everybody’s got an opinion on that.

Yeah, sure. I would imagine it’s difficult to balance as you say. You want the audience who are paying for the ticket to get what they’ve come for. But you also want to show off some works which you may feel have been under appreciated over the years.

It’s a fine balance. You do want to give the audience what they want. But if everybody started off giving the audience what they wanted, no-one would have ever done anything, because the audience don’t know what they want until they’ve heard it at least once! So yeah, it’s a strange thing and it’s always a delicate balance trying to get it right.

I said this to someone not long ago, actually. I suggested we go see a gig, and they went, ‘nah, I don’t know those support bands.’ But every single one of your favourite bands, and every single one of your favourite songs, was once something you didn’t know. You have to give it a go in order to know whether you’re going to like it or not.

That is correct. Once when I was a very, very young man in Canberra, I went to this pub called The Deep Inn where this band called AC/DC were playing. [Editor – I’m unsure of the venue name as the recording was slightly unclear. It seems AC/DC played a few Canberra gigs in their early years, mostly at High Schools, apart from one show in December 1975 at an unnamed venue, so I think this may be the one Kilbey is referring to]

So I’m standing there with five people watching AC/DC play. And nobody liked them. Me and my friend were probably the only ones clapping because nobody knew that they should like them yet, you know? And then a couple of years later they were the biggest thing in the world. It’s weird, but nobody sort of springs out of the box fully formed with everybody loving them immediately.

Absolutely. I’ve long wanted to interview you, if only to ask if you recall a concert from, I think it was the very late ‘80s at the Perth Concert Hall. My recollection of it is that about two thirds or so of the way through, the cloth on the lighting rig caught fire and you guys had to vacate the stage, and someone came out and said everyone leave – but almost nobody left. We all just sat there. It became part of the show almost, as the roadies lowered the rig and tore the cloth off and stomped on it and got it back up there and got the show happening.

Yeah. Yeah, I do remember that. I also remember our first ever big show in Perth, we were opening for Moving Pictures. And we came on stage and I realised the bass wasn’t working, so I ran around to the other guys and said, ‘don’t start playing – there’s no bass,’ and they still started playing. And to start we had this big number where it would sort of build up these ascending chords, and then of course, I had nowhere to go. And I was so angry I threw off my bass and stormed off stage and the audience went, ‘booooo.’ They [the band] really threw me under the bus. Wow. That was my first ever gig in Perth in 1982, opening for Moving fucking Pictures, and of course we went off stage and sulked for five minutes while they got it working, but things were never the same for that show, after that – it took a while in Perth to get over that little hissy fit. I just remember going round saying ‘don’t start – the bass isn’t working,’ and they all looked at each other and started the song anyway. Fucking idiots.

I didn’t get to that one. I was just a little bit young at that point, still 15 or so. But yeah, that Concert Hall one, it seemed like grand entertainment at the time, but in hindsight, it was only a couple of years later when the heavy metal band Great White had that horrific fire in a New York club and 100 people died, so it sort of brought home the fact that that could have turned very nasty very quickly, but thankfully they had it all under control.

Oh yeah. We’re risking our life up there – for you guys. You know, breathing in that poisonous smoke machine, I’ve been electrocuted onstage, been hit with cans of beer. Yeah, it can get nasty.

I literally never had a puff of anything in my life. I don’t smoke, never have, been anti it my whole life. But right through the late ‘80s I had a smoker’s cough because I was going to pubs and seeing bands three or four or five times a week, back when everyone could smoke in venues.

Yeah, look, I remember I didn’t smoke either. And you’d play one of those shows and you get in the shower the next morning. And the smell of the smoke that was in your hair and on your clothes and on your body. Yeah, what a shocker. That was horrific.

You released Of Skins and Hearts acoustic earlier this year – are you planning to do the same with other Church albums?

Yeah, eventually I’ll pick a few off, I think. I didn’t really enjoy that much. No, I didn’t enjoy that process much. It was sort of like, someone suggested I have a go at it because I was doing a show where I was doing Church albums in their entirety. And someone said you should have a go at recording it. But I didn’t find much joy in that process. Yeah, not really my thing. I don’t really want to go around… it’s a bit like unearthing an old body, digging up an old record and playing it again – I’d much rather make new music.

And you’ve got so many different projects with so many different collaborators going on. So why do you need to look backwards?

For money!

Well, yeah, I hear ya. I hear ya…

A guy I know had a record company, and he said, ‘it’d be really interesting to do that.’ So I did it. And it did sell well. But I didn’t enjoy the process – it made me really angry. Yeah, singing and playing a lot of those songs again made me very restless and angry. It’s something like 41 years ago – that’s such a huge amount of time to go back and get all these old songs out that you wrote when you were a different person. Yeah, I don’t enjoy that process much at all.

Did it dredge up negative memories – is that where the anger comes from?

No, no, just angry standing there singing it, going, ‘what the fuck?’ Figuring it out, and you know, the guy working on it going, ‘sing it again.’ I’m like, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be doing singing this, I don’t even know what I’m looking for. So, nah, it wasn’t the memories. The memories weren’t that bad – I have very, very few memories of making that first album, anyway. The memories I do have are mostly about the drummer that we had. We had this really nasty character as a drummer who made all our lives a misery while we were making that album, standing there complaining about everything everybody played. ‘Awwww you can’t fucking play bass – you can’t fucking play guitar.’ And that’s all I really remember. I can’t remember much else about making that first album. It was so long ago.

Life’s too short for that shit!

Anyway, he got the boot. We got Richard Ploog in and we had fun after that!


More about The Hypnogogue:

“A cinematic blend of indie rock and shimmering textures, the mix was heightened by the renowned Darrell Thorpe (Radiohead, Air, Beck). Bassist, vocalist and founder Steve Kilbey dives into the track’s fictional themes; ‘The Hypnogogue is set in 2054, a dystopian and broken down future. Invented by Sun Kim Jong, a North Korean scientist and occult dabbler, it is a machine and a process that pulls music straight of dreams.’

“Steve says, ‘the song is about Eros Zeta the biggest rock star of 2054 who has travelled from his home in Antarctica (against his manager’s advice) to use The Hypnogogue to help him revive his flagging fortunes. In the midst of the toxic process, he also falls in love with Sun Kim and it all ends tragically (of course…as these thing often do).’



“The accompanying music video mirrors the lyrical narrative, brought to life with its rainy, fluorescent-hued visuals, reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys.

“Directed by Australian filmmaker Clint Lewis, the clip captures the track’s futuristic essence. Steve says, ‘I gave the director a lot of input into this video but he took my ideas and ran with them and came up with a fair bit of stuff I never envisaged. The Church appear on screens in The Hypnogogue as workers in the system, translating the dreams of users into real time music. I’m very happy with the way it all turned out. It’d be hard to get a better result!’”

Category: Interviews

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