Part Two of ConcertLivewire's exclusive interview with the High Priest of The Church - Steve Kilbey. When we left off, Steve had put Brad on hold just as he was in the process of answering a most intriguing query. Join us now as Steve discusses art and war, the future of The Church, the "comedown," and elucidates further on his prophetic vision.
Part I of the Interview
Steve: Yeah - they're ringing to tell me I've got a video out that's late.
Livewire: Oh oh.
Steve: And they're going to send round the men to get me if it's not back. (laughter)
Livewire: Which video is this if you don't mind --?
Steve: No - actually it's a video of Helen of Troy - which I just saw. My daughters and I were down there and thought let's get that out and watch it. It wasn't too bad actually. It was done on a bit of a budget - it was an English one. Yeah... sorry, what were we talking about before that?
Livewire: Um about the song "Numbers" from "After Everything Now This" and the connection with 9/11.
Steve: Ah "Numbers" yeah - it does prophesize it, but I had no idea why I was writing those lyrics - I had no idea what it all meant, but... it sort of all strangely fit. Well a lot of it - not all of it - but most of it strangely fits.
Livewire: Well great art nearly always combines the universal with the personal--
Steve: Yeah, yeah!
Livewire: --and your art shares this trait. For example the layers in the title track "After Everything Now This" where we enter the persona of a dying everyman--
Steve: Uh huh.
Livewire: --This is not perhaps not unexpected that you would find this theme upon yourself reaching middle age, yet the concluding stanzas seem to hint at your own experience as a young man upon learning of your own father's death while backstage at a gig. Am I um... er... correctly interpreting this?
Steve: You know what - I never thought of that. But God, that must be in there. I... You know I never thought of that myself. (pause) Well there you go. (laughter)
Livewire: In "The Anatomy of Melancholy" by Robert Burton - he quotes Plato as saying: "Many men are melancholy by hearing music, but it is a pleasing melancholy--
Livewire: --that it causeth; and therefore to such as are discontent, in woe, fear, sorrow, or dejected, it is a most present remedy:--
Livewire: --it expels cares, alters their grieved minds, and easeth in an instant."
Livewire: I just immediately - when I read that I thought of your music, because there is a melancholy strain, but it seems to be a curative to the soul.
Steve: Yes. You know, ever since we started getting reviews in America way back in 90-92, people were saying: "mope rock," "wow this is really depressing," "music to drown cats by" - and I was always surprised that you meet people who fail to differentiate between something that's depressing and something that's melancholy, or something that's romantically melancholy. And why don't they understand that romantic melancholy is a lovely, delightful feeling. It's like walking along a beach in the middle of winter, and you're sort of wrapped up in a coat - it's that kind of feeling. That's romantic melancholy and sadness. But from the sadness comes this feeling of triumph that the human spirit can endure. Which is a completely different thing than someone who's depressed - who's living in this bleak, grey, miserable, or morbid, or decadent or dark kind of world - that's a whole different thing. I don't deal with imagery about death and decay or rotting bodies or things like people suffering from mental illness and things. I write about kind of... spiritual things - and a lot of spiritual things are sad and melancholy. But from that - some people get very, very happy. I'm one of those - presumably you are.
Steve: A lot of people out there - just like some people don't like mustard - some people when they hear Church records - they don't like us at all. They see it as sad and miserable and damp - a downer, know what I mean?
Livewire: Well that reminds me of your comment about the Goths.
Steve: What's that?
Livewire: It was something about you were playing a concert with Bauhaus or somebody and--
Steve: Ah Peter Murphy!
Livewire: Peter Murphy - yes! And when you took the stage, people were moving toward the back and--
Steve: Oh that's right, yeah.
Livewire: --you said: "This is the biggest retreat of the Goths since the Renaissance," is that correct?
Steve: Ah right. I probably did, yeah. (laughter)
Livewire: That is great! (laughing) To change the subject - The Church has never really been an overtly political band--
Livewire: --but we here at ConcertLivewire are compiling comments from artists on the subject of the Iraqi War - would you care to share a reaction for our board?
Steve: I think... as soon as the first child was even slightly injured - let alone all the children and women who have been blown apart - I think it wasn't worth it. Whatever it was going to achieve - or whatever good or stability or whatever reasons for anything at all. As soon as that first fucking kid was scratched - it was - as far as I'm concerned - it was no longer worth it. So I'm just totally anti-war. If no one would fight there wouldn't be any war.
Livewire: Right on.
Ok. We're going to change tack here again. In Faust - Goethe wrote the following lines:
"The few of understanding rare,
Who veiled not from the herd their hearts, but tried
Poor generous fools, to lay their feelings bare,
Them have men always burnt and crucified."
You have always given of yourself, Steve, and in return The Church have often been ignored, misunderstood, or dismissed offhand. You personally have received more than your fair share of criticism - much of it misguided and from critics who seem more interested in self-promotion than in cogent thought. For example a recent glowing review of "Forget Yourself" included an unnecessary and unwarranted swipe at your 1994 release "Sometime Anywhere" - calling it "abysmal"--
Steve: (laughing uproariously)
Livewire: --My blood boiled when I read this, as in my opinion there is absolutely nothing that could remotely be termed abysmal about that wonderful recording - one of my all time favorites. How do you endure such nonsense?
Steve: (laughing) Ummmmm. I don't know - that one is kind of making me laugh. You know - everybody has these secret buttons that can get pushed - and it isn't always the most obvious ones. If it's someone saying "Sometime Anywhere" was abysmal - it doesn't push any buttons for me. It's like somebody has to be a lot, lot, lot more specific. And it has to hit something I secretly really thought was bad, or something that I secretly thought was really good. And they have to needle into that to really get me hurt - you know what I mean? So just people who kind of like are chucking around things like "abysmal" and--
Livewire: Well my thought was - with all the things in the world that ARE abysmal - how do they possibly--?
Steve: Yeah - now I've read some criticism - for example someone took apart a song on this album because of the lyric - "You're blowing hot and cold, I want you heart and soul," and they said - "kindly come up with something a bit better than this." And I felt like saying - "there's a whole album here of fucking arcane, and weird, strange things - surely sometimes in the middle of the story even the most florid, flowing author is allowed to say a simple thing." And sometimes you do just want to say to someone "I want you heart and soul." There may be million poetic ways to say it.
You know I'm married to my wife - sometimes I want to just say to her "I love you." I know there a billion other ways I could say it, but sometimes a human being does just want to say something very simple and straightforward. So I'm always kind of amused or saddened by people who... I don't know - I feel sometimes that the goalposts are a lot higher for me than for other people? But I guess I've created that for myself by being so sort of loquacious with my lyrics. People don't want you to - like if I wrote a song called "I Love You Baby" and the lyrics were - "I love you baby - jump in my car and let's rock," people would be horrified. If AC/DC would do it, it'd be cool. So you do have to bear your own cross, don't you?
Livewire: Well I believe this same critic also managed to throw in a slam about "Under the Milky Way" - and to me the simple lyrics of that are just so beautiful and so wonderful in a love song.
Steve: What? He said those lyrics are what?
Livewire: I think he - I believe he called them "maudlin."
Steve: Maudlin! Or was it "mawkish?"
Livewire: Maybe it was mawkish. (Note - we were both wrong - it was actually "saccharine" - and although I disagree and the reviewer misspelled Steve's name - it was, in the end, a fairly decent review)
Steve: Yeah. Yeah. I don't know. What can I say? Like some songs are just... that's just the way it is.
Livewire: Well let us not linger on the pain, but move instead to your philosophy.
Steve: (a cross between a chuckle and a groan) OK.
Livewire: What in your own words are the overriding themes in your art?
Steve: (pause) The fact - that there's something going on - and it's going on just below the surface - and if you examine everyday things - it will just kind of sneak up on you. Or if you're looking out of the corner of your eye, or if you keep your ears to the ground, or if you keep your eyes open - there's all kinds of things going on. There's some huge spiritual thing just beyond our comprehension -the answers to everything we want to know are there. And what I try to do - what I think all the people that I like and all the people I've been influenced by, and all the people I admire - what they're all trying to do is open some kind of passageway so we can get at it.
Livewire: Now is this where we come into a discussion about "Maya?"
Steve: It could - yes absolutely! Absolutely.
Livewire: Um, the Hindu Maya - the female force of action - the constant movement of the universe - we cannot see her existence, but mistake her movement for reality-
Steve: Uh huh.
Livewire: She's also an illusion - is this correct?
Steve: Uh huh.
Livewire: The veil of illusion?
Steve: The veil of illusion.
Livewire: I'm sure you have a much greater understanding about this then I do - perhaps you could give us a little information about this?
Steve: Um - about the song, "Maya" or Maya itself?
Livewire: Uh, Maya itself. The song is absolutely beautiful by the way - it's one of the loveliest songs I've ever heard in my life.
Steve: Well thank you.
Livewire: It's playing in my head right even now as we speak.
Steve: (laughing) Right. Well you know a guy in Hungary did an interview with me and he said - "tell me what Maya is about" - and I said - "well you tell me what you think it's about" - and I think he thought that it was a girl's name--
Livewire: Which it could be taken that way.
Steve: It could be - and it could be - and you know I'm very loath to say that it's too much one thing or another. But to me - what I'm loath to do really is to say that my definition of a song is some ultimate definition. And I would say once a song has been written - and is out there -and is extant - and is playing in people's minds - as far as I'm concerned the author's version and his definition is only one more - and has no more validity than the man standing next to him who's probably listened to it a lot more and thought about it a lot more than the author did anyway.
Steve: Yes. But Maya itself - I think is - exactly is the illusion of not seeing people and seeing this world as it really is. It's seeing it through this kind of like a magical fucking haze that distorts everything - changes everything. And nobody realizes that everybody else is seeing everything different from them as well - and no people looking at any one thing are all seeing it the same.
Livewire: And nobody realizes that we're connected.
Steve: Nobody realizes we're connected, but - ironically enough - everybody feels terrible separation. There's a real irony for you.
Livewire: Well, I want to take a moment to step away from your written work for a moment and take a look at some of your other talents. You have one of the most distinctive and seductive voices around - your voice has an ability to inhabit the mind/spirit of the listener in a way unlike any other singer's - with a way of working itself into someone's mind and just looping there.
Steve: Thank you.
Livewire: But what I'd really like to talk about is your bass playing. You're highly underrated and quite innovative. Your playing is subtle, yet powerful and expressly your own - and especially notable for your ability to squeeze so much out of what would appear on the surface to be a relatively simple line.
Certainly this contributes to the overall sound of The Church in that the simple parts work together as in nature to produce a complex overall - almost organic, design. The examples of your fabulous playing are numerous - but on one song in particular you really stood the bass world on its head and I think you know which one I'm talking about - that is "Reptile." The way you sing one line, then play one line (Ed. Note: actually it's the opposite as Steve points out)- a contrapuntal bass figure - a call and response with yourself - before ripping into the 8th note drive on the chorus is one of the all time great bass lines in rock. Um... how did you come up with that?
Steve: (laughing) Now listen - I have to say something. I showed Peter your review and he kind of read through it - but when he came to the word "contrapuntal" - he lowered his glasses and he looked up at me and he went - he was really congratulating me - he thought that was really something worthwhile - playing - having contrapuntal bass lines. So you really got at least two guys with that word.
Livewire: (laughing) Oh fantastic. Well it's very true you know.
Steve: Ah - well thank you! I don't know how - it just sort of happened. During the making of "Starfish" though I became aware - because we always had these finished pieces of music and I would come in and would put lyrics over the top - and although no one knew what the melodies were going to be - people often thought they knew where I was going to start my singing and where the singing was going to be. And what I realized was - there are lots of different places you can put the singing. You don't always have to start on the first bar - you can break it up - you can sort of come in on the third bar or the fourth bar or you know what I mean? So with that song and with "North, South, East, West" on that record as well - I was starting to experiment with the singing not coming in where you thought it was going to be. It's like having a sort of little instrumental passage and then the singing. And the idea was that...
One of the records I was really influenced by when I was very, very young was my Dad had a Frank Sinatra record. He would sort of sing a line - then all the instruments would kind of come in and illustrate what he said. So if he said that the sea was running into the shore - all these piccolos and flutes would go (voices the sound of flutes) like waves coming in - and then if the girl was leaving him and he was out under a lamplight - the clarinet would be all droopy sort of like (voices the sound of a sad clarinet). And if it was supposed to be all exciting - the violins would be pizzicato. So you get this idea that someone would say something and then the instruments would kind of illustrate that idea. And I kind of thought - I guess I thought that the bass line was a kind of a snaky sort of thing - you know what I mean? And that the whole song was a kind of all slithering, wrapped around itself.
Livewire: Absolutely! One of the greatest bass lines ever in the history of rock music.
Steve: (laughing) Well thank you very much!
Livewire: Please take a moment if you will to discuss the magnificent artwork projected behind the band on this tour. Who was responsible?
Steve: Once again - like everything that happens to The Church - it's completely random - completely unexpected. We open ourselves to this now and it sort of comes to us. A guy just contacted us - completely out of the blue - he works for a university in Canada - and started sending us - these collages and montages of kind of moving pictures - photographs that were sort of like merging into each other - and sort of like doing the Rorschach thing where you only get half of it reflected on each side.
Livewire: It was marvelous.
Steve: Yeah! And he just started sending it to us out of the blue. And we decided to start projecting it - we started doing that at our opera house show last year. And he started sending more stuff and getting better and better - and then we picked up an American guy - who was working with Sea Ray - the opening band - and he became our lighting man for the tour and he really took it to a new level of integrating and using the slides and stuff. In fact Chicago was still early days - by the time we finished up in Europe - he was doing some amazing things like really jamming with the music.
Livewire: I was disappointed that I wasn't able to capture the imagery in my photographs - they just didn't come through at all.
Steve: Yeah, well the scenes are very much like the music. You can't really see what it is. They're suggesting lots of things, but, but there's no - I mean occasionally there's a face or a building or a tree, but most of the stuff is so very iconic looking - you see things emerging, fading - are just products of the different images colliding, you know what I mean? I mean it looks like there are Buddhas, but there is no Buddha really. And demons - it looks like there are lots of demons and things emerging, but that's not really what they are.
Livewire: Well, another aside about the tour - whose idea was the pre-show song list that included such prog-rock entries as Anthony Phillip's "Which Way the Wind Blows" and Emerson Lake and Palmer's "Lucky Man"?
Steve: Ah yeah - that's Marty.
Livewire: Was that Marty?
Steve: Yeah - that was Marty having a uh... I'm not sure--
Livewire: Was he making a statement?
Steve: I'm not sure exactly - it's very interpretable exactly what he's - exactly what the point of that is. I thought it was... Some nights I actually felt sorry for the audience--
Steve: --particularly some places - you'd look through the curtain and there's be people standing there listening to fucking Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer and they're like--
Livewire: You know I actually found it refreshing-
Steve: OK. (one imagines one eyebrow raised)
Livewire: --you know being in the clubs and hearing loud, pounding music to suddenly have - you know - some of the old standards.
Steve: Uh huh.
Livewire: And I mean like Anthony Phillips from "The Geese and the Ghost" - I mean who even knows that?
Steve: Nobody. Even he's forgotten it.
Livewire: So what does the future hold for Steve Kilbey and The Church?
Steve: (pause) I don't know. There's kind of vague things in the offing and... I don't really know to tell you the truth. It wouldn't surprise me if we never did anything again - and it wouldn't surprise me if we were back in America in three months going around again - you know neither thing would surprise me, really. I just don't know.
Livewire: Well I hope it's the latter.
Steve: Yeah. Probably somewhere in the middle.
Livewire: You may be right. Is there any chance of the Steve Kilbey solo cds going to be released?
Steve: Which one?
Livewire: Well any and all. Was your brother going to be releasing those on Karmic Hit (Steve's brother Russell's label)?
Steve: Re-releasing the old ones?
Steve: I think that's vaguely in the pipeline. See he's overworked just releasing all the new ones by people on his label. It's just - we've got to get around to doing it - it's going to happen eventually.
Livewire: And, and wasn't there a plan to release a compilation of your lyrics as well?
Steve: Yes! That's my fault - I just got so bored checking them all. And some of them - strangely enough some records - I couldn't... There were lyrics that were given to me that were wrong - by somebody who deciphered them. That was our starting point - by printing out all the lyrics off a web page where someone's deciphered them. And they were often hilariously wrong. And then I would sit down with the record and work out what it really was - and it was such a boring, painful process - and often I couldn't hear what I really was singing. And I didn't know what it was and I didn't know what to do about that. And then I kind of got confused - and then (sigh) - it seemed no matter how - because The Church have got - I don't know - you said 15 - some people say 17 and it's a load of songs out there - there's a load of bits and pieces and it seems as close as I was getting to completion - there would always be one more album - they'd go "What about this?" "Aren't you doing that?" And I'd have to do it again - and so I just got bogged down in it. So it's still on the back burner and it's definitely going to happen.
Livewire: Fantastic! I can't wait! Well, in conclusion, I'm going to quote Dogen Zen-ji again. He said that, "to forget yourself is to become enlightened by all things" - and I can think of no better soundtrack to the pursuance of this goal than the music of Steve Kilbey and The Church.
Steve: Ah, thank you.
Livewire: All the best wishes to you!
Steve: Thanks a lot Brad!
Return to Part I
More The Church
Concert Review - House of Blues, Mar. 12, 2004
CD Review - Forget Yourself - April 29, 2004