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Forty-plus years into his recording career, singer/bassist Steve Kilbey’s still writing and releasing relevant music under The Church moniker in addition to a number of side projects. The band, which Kilbey formed alongside guitarists Marty Wilson-Piper and Peter Koppes in Sydney, Australia in 1980, has undergone some changes in the last decade with Kilbey the last remaining original member.
While some would have seen this as a reason to move onto new things, Kilbey brought on a who’s who of talent – multi-instrumentalist Jeffrey Cain (Remy Zero), guitarist Ash Naylor (Even), guitarist Ian Haug (Powderfinger) – to join him and long-time drummer Tim Powles (a member since 1994) under The Church banner. And, Kilbey couldn’t be happier with not only the collaboration with the current lineup but the overwhelmingly positive reactions (read the Big Takeover review from Michael Tolland) to the band’s 26th album.
How are you feeling? You’ve been doing this a long time and it seems like people are really enjoying The Hypnogogue.
STEVE: I’m really excited. I haven’t been excited in a long, long time. I rarely get excited about my career. I made this record in 2019. We started this record 4 years ago. I’ve been nursing it and working on it and talking about it. And now, here it is. People are hearing it and people are liking it. The most important thing, they’re digging it. It’s just a wonderful feeling.
The album has a bit of a Pink Floyd feel to it.
STEVE: Which Pink Floyd are you talking about? For me, if someone said, “We’re going on a journey in the car, I’m going to put on Obscured By Clouds,” I’d go, “YES!” If somebody said, “We’re getting in the car and going to play The Division Bell,” I’d go “NO!”
I’m talking about the Roger Waters stuff. I don’t think there’s a reference to any particular Pink Floyd song but, rather, it’s the psychedelic, prog sounds. It’s not exactly what I was expecting from a Church album.
STEVE: I love Pink Floyd. Obviously, Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here are colossal, towering achievements. No one can ever deny that but, by The Wall, it was all over for me. I really liked it when it was proggy and psychedelic. There were all kinds of things in there. It’s a strange thing for me to say because, in many ways, I’ve been thinking I’m like a little Roger Waters. I’m the bass player and the singer and conceptualist who seems to have gotten rid of all the other players and replaced them with guys I wanted. It’s strange for me to say that when Roger Waters gained too much ascendancy, and was telling them what to do and how to do it, I started to lose interest in that. I liked it when it was apparently more of a democracy. Obscured By Clouds is my favorite Pink Floyd album. Meddle as well. It’s really hard when people say, “Oh, you sound like Pink Floyd.” I always have to go, “Which Pink Floyd are you talking about?”
I’ve read where you take a “look forward” approach to live sets as opposed to a “look back” approach. Would you like the opportunity to play The Hypnogogue start to finish and not have to play any other songs?
STEVE: If the album went nuts and somebody said, “We want you to do a tour where you only play the new album,” I think that would be great. As it stands right now, I’m happy to integrate it into everything else. We’re coming to America and we’re looking at playing 5 or 6 new songs, going to try some out to see how they work out. We’re already playing 4 or 5 in Australia. I understand not everybody wants to just hear a new album and that the audience wants to hear some old stuff. I think the best thing a band can do is a collection through the years of stuff. That’s the most fun for the audience. Not to completely wallow in nostalgia and just play old songs but there’s people who’ve come along wanting to hear some old songs, it’s hard just to use them and go, “No, you’re just going to hear our new album” unless they are completely up for it and know what they’re getting. Doing what we’re going to do now, coming to America and play some old, play some new, I don’t feel bad about that. I don’t feel like it’s a compromise that makes me unhappy. I’m pretty happy to see songs from Starfish alongside songs from The Hypnogogue. There’s a continuity there that I think is worth looking at.
Are Church fans accepting of new material in a live setting or do you see them get up and go get beer and/or go to the bathroom when you bust out something new?
STEVE: We played this huge gig at the Sydney Zoo. That’s not the name of a disco, by the way, that’s the Taronga Zoo with all the animals. I was downplaying it. I was saying, “Oh, here’s another new fucking song. Sorry.” I was kind of being slightly apologetic in thrusting all these new songs on them. They mostly seemed to go down really well. There was no real reaction against them where people were going, “Ahhh, no.” I would imagine that by the time we get to America and people have been able to sit with the album and play it a few times, I’m hoping they’re really looking forward to hearing these new songs.
There seems to be a lot of excitement for this record. Are you doing more press this time around?
STEVE: I’ve always wanted to do interviews about my records and sometimes there was no interest. Sometimes, like in the last 40 years, I’ve spent days and days and days doing interviews. Other records seem to come out and nobody wanted to hear one word. It seems like this one has a bit of interest, but I’m not sure exactly why that is, if it’s just our publicist, Rey Roldan, and our label, Communicating Vessels, doing such a good job or if people are like, “Oh, hang on, this is interesting.” I think the narrative is interesting – a band you would have imagined would have run out of ideas, with a couple of new players, some of the star players now gone, you’d imagine we were going to knock out something hopeless. I think, against all odds, we have knocked out something really quite engaging and something a lot of love and time went into. Maybe that’s an interesting story for people. Just when you thought you could write these guys off, we’re not going gently into the night. We’re going down screaming.
Do you find having new people in the band to be a breath of fresh air?
STEVE: Of course, you know that Jeffrey and I have already made a couple of records together. On some of the tracks on this album, you can hear Jeffrey’s intricate web of instruments and guitars. If you were the manager of a football team, would you rather have a team full of absolute stars who cooperate or would you rather have a team of guys who perhaps weren’t so absolutely starry but they were more interested in the teamwork idea. That’s how I feel with Jeffrey in the band and Ash in the band. These people come to the band with all their expertise and all the stuff they can do and say, “How can we fit this into what the plan is?” rather than, “Oh, I’m just Joe Rock Star and I do whatever I like. I don’t answer to anyone. Everybody thinks I’m amazing.”
You hear a lot about how the notes you don’t play are as important as the notes you do play. You can extend that further and say, sometimes, on some tracks, not everybody played everything. Everybody was in service to the song. They were like, “I want to do whatever is best for the song. If that means I don’t even play on it, or I only play a little bit, or I play something I don’t normally play, so be it.” Everybody who worked on this record was happy to be there. They didn’t need an explanation for everything they did. If we said, “Let’s talk and do something like this,” everyone was like, “Yes, let’s do that.” Sometimes, in the old days, the other guys were more argumentative. Every idea I wanted to try, I had to try to talk them into it. By the time I talked them into it, I was no longer interested in doing it. Sometimes you get these incredibly vague ideas and somebody goes, “Why should I do that?” By the time you spend an hour telling them why they should do it, you’re like, “Oh, forget it.”
What this album benefits from, what’s made me so happy, is the cooperation involved because it’s a musical ensemble. It’s five musicians saying, “Let’s all thrown in all the different things we do.” Ash Naylor is an excellent lead guitarist. If you want some excellent lead guitar, come to him. Jeffrey Cain, not so much of an excellent lead guitarist, he’s a guy who builds up little webs of things. They don’t all want to impinge on each others territory. You know when you see the movies about these guys who are going to rob a bank and each member of the gang is a specialist in a certain thing? The guy who listens to the numbers crack, he doesn’t want to drive the getaway car. I find with this band, each player has his specialty that they bring to it. It was really refreshing and it was easy. There were a few little arguments, yes, but there were no screaming matches and people storming off and all of that kind of business.
Ash is the most recent addition to the band?
STEVE: Ash is the most recent edition. Now, already four years. It’s amazing, you think that he’s the new guy but in that span in the Beatles life, you’ve gone from “Please Please Me” to “Magical Mystery Tour.” Things have slowed down these days. Jeffrey joined on this album. Jeffrey was playing with the band already in 2017 but he was playing as a utility guy. Now, he’s a fully paid up member of the band bringing with him all of the things he’s good at and having an input along with everybody else.
Is it exciting hearing the new guys play the old stuff? Do they bring their own flavor to the songs?
STEVE: It’s a difficult job. You don’t want to slavishly imitate what the other guys did but nor do you want to completely disregard and go, “Oh, I’m just going to do whatever I like with this.” I think they are straddling that line quite nicely and respectfully playing what the other guys played and yet bringing their own mojo to it.
You’ve said this is one of the best things you’ve done. Has there ever been a point in your career where you haven’t said this is the best thing you’ve done?
STEVE: Yes. Go back and look at our last album. You won’t find me saying that. It wasn’t. It was a mish mash. It had a couple of really good tracks and then it had a load of really mediocre tracks because of the way things were working. Everything was being done by committee. When we wrote a song, everybody voted whether that song was going on the album or not. I sort of gave up my veto and went, “I’ll see how this pans out.” For me, it didn’t work out. I thought a lot of inferior things got on that last album. It wasn’t my favorite album. The first song on that album, “Another Century,” I love.
I’m not just saying this but I think the new album is up there with Priest=Aura and, another quite neglected album we made with the old band, with Marty [Wilson-Piper] and Peter [Koppes], we made an album called Untitled 23. It came out in 2007, it’s a beautiful record. If you love The Beatles, and you haven’t heard that record, it’s so Beatles-esque. I think of these three albums as musical highpoints, a lot of love. All of us rock musicians are working the mine The Beatles created, let’s make no mistake. To me, the idea is not to imitate anything The Beatles did but to use that inspiration to create your own music that has those same qualities. I think with this record we’ve done that. Not just The Beatles, my love of glam rock is in there, unashamedly. It wanted to be glam rock, let it be glam rock. Prog rock. Do some proggy things. I love Yes. I love Genesis. I love space rock, I love psychedelic rock. It’s all in there.
One guy said to me, and he hit the nail on the head, “This song, ‘Flickering Light,’ sounds like something from an old movie.” That’s exactly what it is. I love music form old movies. It’s all of the things that we love individually and that we value as a band, we’ve allowed onto this record. It’s a summation of rock and roll for the last 50 years filtered through the five guys that made the record.
The album is very cinematic sounding which makes me think you couldn’t be happier with the videos that have been release so far. They lend a visual to the cinematic sounds of the record.
STEVE: I’m very, very happy with the videos. When I think of the huge amounts that Arista used to spend on our videos, like, a couple hundred grand was not out of the question for one of those videos. Clint Lewis, of the Australian company Red Tape Pictures, makes these videos on a shoestring budget. If you said to somebody in 1988, “Here’s $5,000, go and make a video,” that guy would go, “That won’t even get the caterer there.” These days, giving him five grand, that’s a big budget. I am delighted with the videos and what he conjured. I’m so personally involved with this record that if it wasn’t right, it would have devastated me. I only had one shot and I had to do it remotely. I couldn’t be there. I trusted this guy and he came through. I think considering what he had to work with, I would love to see if someone gave him $200,000 and say, “Now make a video,” it would be huge. He’s doing this on a shoestring but it doesn’t feel like that. It’s got that million dollar look to it. I’m really happy with what he did.
I’m really happy with every single person that had anything to do with this record. The guys who mixed it. The guys who mastered it. The guy who did the graphic design. It’s all exactly what I wanted. Right now, today, I’m very happy with the way things are going. I’m not normally like that. But, waking up today and reading some of the reviews, reading what some long-time fans have said on social media, people who are just buying it and getting into it, I’ve got a lot to prove. This is my whole life. It’s not just rock and roll any more. I had a band for 43 years. Some of the big shots in the band left, and they were great, and they had big personalities and they left. I had a shot at making an album without them, just on my own, the last guy standing. Intuitively, I felt like these other players could help me do this and they have. And, intuitively, I thought this guy could do the videos, and everybody came on board, without the biggest budget in the world, we’ve made a huge sounding record and huge looking videos. I’m very happy.
We both know bands that have continued on with only one original member and have wound up damaging the band’s brand. You haven’t harmed The Church brand. In fact, with the new blood in the lineup, you’ve made it stronger.
STEVE: I see it like this, and I would have argued with my younger self, I remember when we first got serious American representation back in the mid-80s. The manager at the time said, “These guitarists are troublemakers. We should get rid of them and get some easy guys to handle.” I was like, “No way. This band is these four members. That’s it, it can’t be anything else.” Then, as the years went by, and people had to leave and other people joined, I realized that that original band created the blueprint and created sound and legacy and the fact that they don’t want to do it any more doesn’t mean I have to stop.
I feel musically justified in bringing in new people and carrying on the work that they started. It was always under my guidance. It was always my band no matter what you thought or what it seemed like or who was playing the loudest guitar and running around and was the better looking guy. It was always my vision. It was always my thing. I’ve had to recalibrate. I never thought those guys would leave but when they left, I came to a fork in the road. Is it so crucial that he’s left that I can’t play this music any more and call it The Church? It never seemed to me like it was. Finally, we made this album, no original members left, just me and I feel like the idea that they helped me create can now go on and live on it’s own. It’s not fixated on former members, though some people want it to be. I saw a load of good reviews today but then somebody wrote, “It’s just the Steve Kilbey band.” Well, it is then. It is the Steve Kilbey band, whatever. I think if somebody had sat me down when I was 25 and said, “This is the album you’ll make in 2023” I would go, “Fucking A! I didn’t get old and flabby and flaccid.” It’s not schmaltzy. I’m not going through the motions. I can hear on this album that I’m on and the band is on and we’re onto something. Within the parameters that this band has, we’re still pushing the envelope.
The Hypnogogue is a concept album with a story. It makes sense that the last song on the album is where it is to help finish the story. Have you ever made a record where the last song was where it was because it wasn’t the strongest song and you knew people might not make it to the very end?
STEVE: No. In my book, the first song – back in the day where there were sides – on each side and the last song on each side are really important. The first song on the record was the most important song and the last song was the second most important song. That’s always been a very important position. Sometimes, like on our last record, I didn’t really feel like we had a song to finish and I put what I thought was the next best thing, a song called “Dark Walks.” But, it certainly wasn’t like the last song, “Second Bridge,” that we have on the new record. Tim wrote it on the piano and as soon as we started getting that song under way, I was telling all the guys, “I’m earmarking this for the last song. This is the song that’s got to finish the record.” The first song sets the scene, the last song finishes it up. That’s it. Good night. That’s how it’s always been to me. I’ve always put a lot of thought into how the songs run on an album.
Was the sequencing harder in the CD era since you didn’t have to flip sides?
STEVE: I could talk about this forever. When CDs were first invented and somebody said, “You can get 80 minutes worth of music on this,” I erroneously assumed that 80 minutes of music is better than 40 minutes. But, it turned out not to be the case. For the first time ever, people were saying, “This is too long.” It took away that delineation of: this is a beginning, this is an ending, this is another beginning, this is a final ending. It took all that away. You realized it was nice to get up, have a pause, and turn the record over. I don’t even know these days. Most people are going to listen to this album off their fucking iPhone. That’s the truth of it. And they will listen to the bits and pieces they want to listen to. They might even, heresy, put it on shuffle and it’ll play it all over the place.
I think it was an accidental format the way it all worked out that you could get 20 minutes on a piece of vinyl and you could get two sides. We were all raised with this idea, and The Beatles really did this in spades, that an album is a complete work of art. It can only, by physical necessity, go for 40 minutes. I think that all worked out really well. It was not a divine plan. It was just an accident of technology and we all got used to it. To a kid who’s 15, they might think that’s a stupid idea, this thing that you have to get up and fiddle around with and put the needle on. They might like this era where they can zero in on the thing they like and have music from wherever play all over the place. I think all of us old guys are really attached to this idea of an album. Maybe in another parallel universe, records were only 20 minutes long and, in that universe, you can bet the old guys are going, “I liked records when they were 20 minutes long!”
During the pandemic, I bought a new turntable and made a conscious effort to play albums in full rather than doing all my listening on my phone. It was a great way to experience music in a way that I haven’t done in a long time.
STEVE: You discovered that music gets you through hard times better than anything else. Better than movies. Better than books. Better than sports. Better than TV. There’s nothing that’s going to get you through a really hard time like music and that’s one good thing about the pandemic. Now that it’s all over, people are going, “Wow. I really discovered how important music was to me. I had been taking it for granted.” My dad told me this. When I was 3, he grabbed me and said, “Listen. Music is the most important thing in your life. Don’t you ever forget that.” I still agree with him. I say that to my children.
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “We can imagine a world without music but it’s a terrible world.” I agree with that. I still don’t even understand how music does what it does. I don’t know why that chord and that word and that piano does what it does, but it does it and nothing else can do it. You can only watch a movie once, maybe twice. You can only read a book maybe once, maybe twice. But, I’m still listening to my favorite records 50 years later and enjoying them. How’s that for value?
I had that discussion with my wife. I said that music is always there for me, in good times and bad. It’ll never let me down. If I need to be picked up, I can throw something inspiring on. If I’m sad, I can listen to a song that matches my feelings. It’s my life blood. I can’t live without it.
STEVE: That makes me really happy to hear you say that. It really does. My father loved music, was a musician. My mother didn’t like music. She might have the radio on but she didn’t care, she wasn’t interested. When I looked at the two of them, I felt like her life was empty compared to my father who was immersed in this stuff that he loved.
When you’re not doing music stuff, if I was to run into you at a coffee shop or a bar or a restaurant and wanted to start a conversation with you about something other than The Church, what could I ask you about that would keep you talking for a while?
STEVE: Probably books. I’m also sort of interested in diet. I’m interested in all the latest stuff about getting rid of the damage of whatever the vaccine did to me which really fucked me up. If you sat down and said, “Hey Steve, I’m drinking colloidal gold and it’s sucking all the bad stuff out of my system and I’m feeling good again,” I’d probably talk about that with you for two hours. I would also talk to you about my favorite authors or poetry or science fiction. Film as well. Don’t get me wrong, I really love a good film. But, always, I’d be hoping the conversation would go back to music.
Are you of the same mindset with books as you are with music? Would you rather hold a book in your hand than read something on a Kindle or some other device?
STEVE: I will not read a fucking book on my phone. If there’s a book that I wanted to read and it only existed on the Kindle, no, I’m not going to read it. I want to turn the pages. I want a cover.
Let’s end on this. I give you the ability to go back to one 24-hour stretch in your life and watch the events as they happened. You’d feel the same feelings as you did then but you couldn’t do anything to change the day. What day would you go back to?
STEVE: There are many of those days. Most of them would probably have to do with teenage romance. For example, I remember a night where I had my first girlfriend and we sat on the school steps and it was a warm summer night. We could smell the pines all around. We just sat there and talked. Nothing happened. I was 16 and I was in love. I would love to go back and feel all that again. I think all of my best things come from childhood or being a teenager. You might imagine I would say, “Oh, it was that festival that I played in front of 200,000 people.” But, it’s not that. It’s going to be these formative times when I was a child, like the time I sat there and my mother made me a sandwich and I had just had a bath. I felt warm and safe. It’s things like that.
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