Welcome to ConcertLivewire's exclusive interview with Steve Kilbey of The Church. Sit back and enjoy a visit with one of the most fascinating and imaginative artists in music today.
Livewire: Hello - is this Steve?
Steve: It is.
Livewire: Hello this is Brad Walseth calling for ConcertLivewire.
Steve: Hi Brad - how are you?
Livewire: Very good. How about yourself?
Steve: Good man - I'm good.
Livewire: Are you awake this morning?
Steve: C'mon I've been up since six - I've already done twenty laps.
Livewire: Have you really?
Steve: Yeah. (laughs)
Livewire: Well that figures. You looked very good on tour so you must be doing laps.
Steve: Thanks, thanks, but being on tour is unhealthy, man. Yeah, you've got to try and do something on either side to get back again.
Livewire: That's great. Well I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
Steve: No problem, no problem.
Livewire: Well, I've got a little intro written - let me run this by you and see if I've got it all right:
Across 24 years and 15 full length albums, several EPs, compilations and solo projects - the band The Church has graciously offered up their shimmering and beautifully esoteric songs for the asking to astute and discriminating music listeners. One of the only bands to emerge from the 80's that hasn't called it quits or faded into Vegas style reunion tours, The Church instead seems to be getting better and stronger with age. The man with his hand on the rudder of this ship is bassist/ primary-vocalist & lyricist Steve Kilbey, a multi-instrumentalist Renaissance man who paints, writes music and poetry, as well as some of the most intriguing and enigmatic--
Steve: (laughs uproariously)
Livewire: --lyrics in music today. You're laughing?
Steve: Yeah. (continues laughing)
Livewire: ...Fresh off their most recent tour in support of the new album Forget Yourself, Steve kindly took the time to talk to Livewire's Brad Walseth from his Sydney, Australia home.
Thanks for talking with me Steve and congratulations on the new album - Forget Yourself.
Steve: (still laughing) Um... thank you! What an intro! Wow!
Livewire: Does that work for you? Did I get everything?
Steve: (laughing) Yeah that'll um... that'll be just... "nice," thank you! (more laughter)
Steve: Um yeah - I'll have to get a copy of that to show my mother. She has no idea.
Livewire: I'm sure she's very proud of you.
Steve: Oh yeah... (sighing) Yeah - here we are - Sydney Australia...
Livewire: How's the weather?
Steve: It's beautiful actually - it's about 75 degrees... and as you know it's 10:30 in the morning... and blue skies, breezes gently lifting the trees... and yes - the birds are singing, the flowers are blooming and the bees are buzzing...
Livewire: I wasn't lying about you being a poet.
Steve: (laughs) And this is all just straight off the cuff - all this amazing stuff. (more laughter)
Livewire: So Steve, what are your thoughts on The Church's fabulous new album, Forget Yourself?
Steve: It... (pause) it surprised us once we started making it - but then all our albums do. We never have any idea what we're doing - so we just started it and this album started to emerge. And pretty much like if you chiseled away at a piece of stone, eventually a horse starts to emerge - then you go - "Ah it's a horse!" and you start working on it to make it more like a horse - do you know what I mean?
Steve: When you've got all this creativity, but you're not sure where it's going - and as soon as it kind of reveals itself a little bit - where it wants to go - then you sort of jump on that. But I don't really know how the album came to be like that - except it was a kind of accident.
Livewire: A lucky accident.
Livewire: Well the new songs came across very well live here in Chicago - how did the rest of the tour go?
Steve: Well you know it's like life - sort of up and down. One night's really great and the next night is bad.
Livewire: I've read some horror stories about the SxSW gig in Austin.
Steve: What? What about it?
Livewire: There was an air conditioner dripping or something, and Tim broke his bass drum pedal?
Steve: Ah yeah, yeah. Yeah always... Yeah it was a bit of a tour for things like that - with things going wrong. Of course my particular sort of thing that I hate is when you come on and you've got the big fanfare - you know with the Blade Runner thing and then it ends and the band is supposed to crash into "Sealine" - and nine times out of ten it didn't happen for one reason or another - something wasn't working and there was always some big fanfare and then nothing happened. You know it was stuff like that.
Livewire: Were the Europeans enthusiastic?
Steve: They were, except in Paris - Paris was a complete waste of time as far as I was concerned, but England... Belgium was an amazing gig - we played in the botanic garden there - in this kind of strange building. You see that's the thing with The Church - the House of Blues in Chicago is a good venue - it's a lovely venue in fact - and it doesn't matter that it is - as well as being a lovely venue - a rock bar. But some places are just rock bars and they're the places I hate. The botanic garden was a lovely venue with a little restaurant attached that was selling alcohol - but it was mainly a venue, so you were in there to see whatever was on, rather than in somewhere to have a drink and sort of vaguely listen to if something interesting was on as well.
Steve: So you know it's hard... For example you play the House of Blues in Chicago and it's a lovely... it is - for people who haven't been there - it's like a kind of an old theater type of feeling in there. It's got a big stage and lots of provisions to do good light shows and everything. And great backstage and hospitality... And then you go on to The Magic Stick in Detroit - which is only really as far as I'm concerned one city away - and suddenly you're in fucking you know... the backstage room is like a... well...
Livewire: A closet?
Steve: Yeah it's like a closet. And like from the ridiculous, sumptuous, fucking luxury of the House of Blues to this... The Magic Stick, you know - a smallish stage and not much of a P.A. and kind of... And the audience - although a very good - a very nice audience - they weren't as big as Chicago. So that kind of thing... It's good - it keeps my ego in check. If every night were perfect - you'd just fly away.
Livewire: Well, regarding the album again - the Dogen Zenji stated that: "to know yourself is to forget yourself." If the new album is any indication - after almost a quarter of a century you all seem to know yourselves exceedingly well - the interplay between the band members seems almost "telepathic." How did this all come about? I know the band has never really gone away completely, but did the positive reaction to (previous release) "After Everything Now This" kick start everyone and spur the band to move in this direction? There seems to be a new energy afoot.
Steve: Definitely! I think a lot of things contributed to this. First of all it's a natural fruition after playing together for 24 years or whatever. And we're in a strange sort of greenhouse conditions because we're neither successful, but we also still exist, and we're not nostalgia. There aren't many bands like that, because most bands that have been around for 24 years are like hugely successful, and are kind of locked into what they have to do, and there's no need - like Rolling Stones or whatever - there's no need for them to try and do anything different. Or there's these tiny little kind of bands that haven't had any success at all, and we're kind of in the middle there - we're just kind of hanging in there. But because of that -no one tells us what to do - and we don't have any pressure on us to be anything other than what we want to be. And luckily that's what our sort of small cult following wants us to do. They want us to be what we are and develop and that's what they like about us.
Steve: So that's really good. Plus "After Everything Now This" did get some good reviews. It got a lot of people kind of interested in us once again after that - so when we went in to make this album we were kind of feeling like we had a little bit of treasure stored up in heaven.
Because people are always reacting to your last album - you know and if your last album was a bit of a dud - that can really affect the way that they hear your next one and it can take a while to sort of get the confidence back again.
Livewire: Well fortunately you've never had to deal with that particular problem.
Steve: Ah no - I wouldn't say that. I wouldn't say that at all. (laughter)
Livewire: Well, am I... am I picking up on something that maybe isn't there? It seems like in the new album there seems to be a bit of a theme of rebirth - in songs like "June" and "Maya" - is this something that is just coincidence?
Steve: No, I think there is a feeling of rebirth and energy throughout the whole album. It's definitely there and I guess there're a few factors behind that. I moved back to Australia, and I've moved down here where I'm living now at the beach - Bondi Beach - which is the most beautiful spot on Earth and it's very invigorating and I was just very happy to be back here. And a lot of that enthusiasm went into this record. I'm probably the most enthusiastic and energetic I've been in - oh, I don't know - 15 years.
Livewire: It's like a feeling of optimism.
Steve: Yeah. Yeah! Exactly! Exactly. But yeah optimistic - not sort of ridiculously kind of "idealistic." Optimistic - yeah! The feeling like we can get to where we want to go.
Livewire: Forget Yourself seems to take the stunning production values of "After Everything Now This" and combines them with a return somewhat to the hard rocking guitar band sound of earlier times when one critic called The Church "the best guitar band in the world." "After Everything Now This" was recorded across several continents, but Forget Yourself I understand was recorded with the band jamming together in one room - is that true?
Steve: You know the thing is - this is very misleading. We've always jammed - that's how we write. And that's funny because I've seen a few people who have kind of interpreted this idea of jamming differently. Some people - if you said to someone the band is having a "writing" session - they would regard that differently than if I said we were having a "jamming" session. Jams sort of imply a kind of slack kind of - you know what I mean - a goofing off kind of thing?
Livewire: Right. But some of the best ideas come out of jamming.
Steve: Exactly! Exactly! So to me - I don't know how a band or an ensemble could write together without jamming. I can't see how you can write with another musician if you don't jam a bit to start with, you know? So we did jam with this record, but we jammed with all of them - all of the records we've ever written from "Heyday" onward we've written together - and have been written by jamming.
Livewire: And once the music is done then you add your lyrics to that? Is that how it works?
Steve: Well, what we've done in the past is we've jammed and then from the jam we get a kind of a rough nucleus of the song and then we work on it and work on it and polish it and polish it and rehearse it and then record it. With this album we jammed and left them kind of rough - without going through the idea that we have to do this or do that. We kind of left it - the idea we thought was to have it closer to the actual source of inspiration. So it's as close as we can get to when the idea actually appeared. On some of these songs - it is actually the first or second time we ever actually played it.
Steve: Yeah. Just to get that feeling of like - we're excited by it - rather than write it - then take it to rehearsal studio and beat it into shape for a month. Which is great - and you get a great thing from that. And "After Everything Now This" was the epitome of that idea - but at the end of it - the joy and the thrill of having written it is gone. So you're constantly in a flux between absolutely capturing it on that first take, or - somewhere on the other end of the scale - you sort of take it and work on it for ages and ages and beat it to shape. Somewhere in the middle - I reckon you've always got this spontaneity versus having something sophisticated. It's hard to--
Livewire: Find a balance?
Steve: --It's hard to find a balance. I think that this album definitely erred on the side of spontaneity - "After Everything Now This" erred on the side of being sophisticated. I think the thing to do now for me is to sort of try and fall somewhere in between those two for the next record so it's still got the spontaneity, but it's not quite as rough as this one.
Livewire: As far as your lyrics - they've always been the subject of intense scrutiny and speculation, but in the end they almost always defy exact interpretation. What is your purpose in your poetic slight of hand and why do you think the masses clamor for the easily understood?
Steve: (deep breath) I think that in any field whatsoever people want... the obvious. People want cheeseburgers rather than macrobiotic food. People want to go on holidays to Miami rather than going on holidays to the Himalayas or something. You know people, and art and music and films are no exception. And you know as you deal with more and more subtle concepts, you're going to find less and less of the people are hanging in with you... But the people who do hang in with you - they're going to be really into it because they know they can't get it just anywhere. (pause) So...
... right from the age of three or four I found myself drawn to kind of I guess surrealistic, psychedelic, mystical, metaphysical words and music. You know, that's the hit that I wanted when I saw a film, when I read a poem, or had a book read to me, or you know. And in those days it was Alice in Wonderland - that was my psychedelic hit. When my mother read me that, at the age of four - it was like - I was hooked on this idea that literature, and art, or poetry, or lyrics, or anything you do should be transcendental. And, and then as I grew up and I read things like Andre Breton's saying "beauty should be convulsive or not at all." And, you know - living through things - like I was 13 when "Sgt. Pepper's" came out and you sort of see this revolution - somebody producing something so intensely beautiful and revolutionary it could sort of galvanize the world. When you get hooked on that idea, you can never go back. I couldn't write ordinary kind of lyrics - rock and roll lyrics if I wanted to.
Livewire: And thank God for that.
Livewire: Um... Carl Jung speculated that there exists a collective unconsciousness that is shared by all living creatures--
Steve: (intently) um huh
Livewire: --and the archetypes, symbols and myths throughout humanity's existence are part of this whole. Your lyrics seem to tap into this unconsciousness - resulting in a stream of unconsciousness style that is personal yet universal...
Steve: (enthusiastically) YES!!! Yes!
Livewire: ...Can you discuss your methodology?
Steve: Um well I read a thing someone on a Church website where they did a review on this album and said that the lyrics on this album hit a poignancy that the second that you are listening to them you sort of understand it - and then the seconds gone and then you're suddenly left in the dark again... And I think that's amazing because I had wanted to do that, but I never actually verbalized it to myself in those terms. So, I have all these vague desires that I want to do in the lyrics that I find that are even so hard to say to myself - even I were to say to myself - "what are you trying to do here?" I'm not really sure - but I'm sort of trying to uncover something. And I figure that if when I uncover it I sort of get this electrical flash or something - I'm sure someone else will too - because I get it from other people's lyrics. I can be listening to something - and suddenly get this like "wow - that's right!" And it's sort of like the second you know - you've just been let in on the secret. And then it's gone and then you... That's what makes you play the record over and over and over.
Livewire: Which I've been doing with Forget Yourself. It hasn't left my cd player.
Steve: Ah great! That's great!
Livewire: Jung also stated that he felt that he could sense the growing threat of world war and that it manifested in him in visions and ill health. I've read postings from several ardent fans out on the internet that insist that your song, "Numbers"...
Steve: Uh huh.
Livewire: ...prophesizes the Trade Towers disaster of 9/11.
Steve: (emphatically) It did!
Livewire: Do you think it is possible you envisioned or felt the future subconsciously?
Steve: Um... uh... Could you just hang on second? I've got a call waiting.
Part II of the Steve Kilbey interview
More The Church
Concert Review - House of Blues, Mar. 12, 2004
CD Review - Forget Yourself - April 29, 2004