Despite what many would like to believe, being in a band is hard work. You don’t get to knock off at the same time every weekday; the commute varies every day, whether it be to the studio or a far flung part of the world to play a gig; and more often than not the pay is far less than that of a first year apprentice brickie. Even with a modicum of success, most bands only last a few years. The Beatles lasted barely 10 years, Nirvana less. Even those that persevere, such as The Rolling Stones and AC/DC , have endured numerous line up changes and a dwindling of quality in their creative output.
Not so the church. Arguably one of the greatest Australian bands of all time, this weekend sees them celebrating their 30th anniversary as a band with a one off performance at the Sydney Opera House billed ‘A Psychedelic Symphony’. Joined by a 60 piece orchestra under the baton of celebrated conductor and composer George Ellis, the band will be playing an epic orchestral set which mines their unequalled back catalogue. Jim Murray caught up with front man Steve Kilbey ahead of the show.
The church’s history arguably stretches back to Canberra in the mid 1970s when Kilbey and guitarist Peter Koppes crossed paths playing in bands, but the church itself came in to being in 1980 when both musicians had moved to Sydney. Much has been written about the band’s third ever gig, when a young Liverpudlian named Marty Willson-Piper, possessing to-die-for high cheekbones, came to see them and then joined them after the show; but less is known about the band’s first ever gig.
As Kilbey recalls, “The first church gig was at the Metropole Tavern opening for a band called Moving Parts who one day became Jump Inc. who had that sex’n’ fame hit. We weren’t quite sure what we were supposed to be but someone had said “Cream” and so I imagined myself as Jack Bruce. There were probably 50 people there who didn’t really mind us much either way. I thought we were quite promising.” Promising the band were, for a music exec named Chris Gilbey signed the band on the strength of a few self –recorded demos and released their debut album, Of Skins & Heart in 1981. This spawned the enduring Aussie classic ‘The Unguarded Moment’ and set the band on a path that was to prove that fame is fickle and fortune is relative.
Remembering his first appearance on the ABC’s music TV show Countdown performing ‘The Unguarded Moment’ in mascara which saw the band’s star rise exponentially, Kilbey puts the moment he realised he had become a rock star in to numbers. “I realised after the first Countdown at the next gig because we went from twenty people a night to about six hundred every time we played.”
The number of punters at gigs would rise and fall over the next thirty years, which would see all members of the band bar Kilbey depart at some point, although Koppes and Willson-Piper were to both return. Considering the group had more than the usual level of internal band friction, 30 years is a phenomenal length of time for a band to exist and certainly longer than most marriages. Indeed, being sentenced to be in a band with several other unrelated men for 30 years is longer than many murderers receive. Kilbey doesn’t see the band’s longevity as akin to a jail sentence, however. “Sentenced together for crimes against music ha ha” he muses. “…Actually we just seemed to have the right conditions for longevity, just like some people live to 100.”
Occasional internal strife aside, the church have also had an uneasy relationship with the music business over the years, continually following their artistic vision rather than that of record companies and managers. However, this approach has paid off in spades in terms of the level of respect they are now granted within the pantheon of Australian rock n’ roll. Indeed it could be argued that the music industry in Australia now venerates them. Could this turning of the tables elicit a moment of schadenfreude for Kilbey? “Fuck that’s a big word for a rock interview” Kilbey says in mock indignation . “I had to look it up to get the exact meaning you know…well it’s nice to be venerated. But I guess veneration requires one to let go of petty misgivings and so no, the long years have knocked the schadenfreude out of me.”
Schadenfreude or not, the church now find themselves being name checked and aped by a whole new generation of Australian bands, not to mention cult American bands such as the Brian Jonestown Massacre, members of which frequently collaborate with the church. Kilbey agrees it’s a good feeling. “I love to be name checked – yes that is gratifying!” Indeed, Mike Joyce of no less than the legendary The Smiths has revealed that he only agreed to join the band after going to see the church play a gig in Manchester. He recently told an interviewer “Johnny Marr hounded me to be in The Smiths. One night soon after, we (Johnny Marr & Mike Joyce) went to watch the church and I decided I would”.
Name checking aside, the band are now playing to some of the biggest audiences of their career and there was just the little event in which the band were inducted in to the Australian Record Industry Association Hall of Fame last year. Should anyone have had a doubt about the band, Steve Kilbey’s acceptance speech has fast moved in to Australian music folklore. Kilbey spent a good 15 minutes alternately praising and lambasting the Australian music scene and also reflecting on his career, for which he earned a well deserved standing ovation.
So was his infamous acceptance speech rehearsed? Apparently not. “It was spontaneous yes, though my mind is of such a nature that it is continually putting bits and pieces together for a rainy day. Some of those ideas had been chucked around in my mind starting from the beginning of the evening until when we got up. I had recently been in a play and the character I played tended to ramble on and I think I was a bit inspired by him to keep going on and on. But most of it fell out of the sky that night as I was going, a bit like when you hit a run of good luck in a card game…it could have gone horribly wrong. I understand that I got real lucky and it made them laugh….phew!”
During this infamous speech, music promoter Michael Chugg, who once managed the band, stood up and exclaimed ‘Why couldn’t you have been like this 25 years ago?’ Kilbey’s notoriously reticent manner has noticeably mellowed in recent years, which sees him reaching out to fans on the internet and engaging with people more than ever. However, Kilbey says that the reputation for being aloof and enigmatic is a just a perception that is far from the truth. “The boring troof, is I’m not aloof and anyone who loves my music I’m interested in hearing from them I guess.”
The fans are out in force at the moment, however, as the band have just completed their ‘Future, Past, Perfect’ North American Tour which sold out and saw fans flying across the country to make shows. It has also been described by the church as their ‘best ever tour’. Give or take one Top 20 hit, (1988’s ‘Under The Milky Way’) what does Kilbey think it is that has made Americans such fervent fans of the band compared to say, Germans or the Brits? “I think having that hit in the U.S. exposed us and all our other records to enough people that would realise we were more than that one song,” he explains. “We were building up an entire body of work but not having a hit in Europe it never really properly happened.”
The church have also been prolific as individual musicians in addition to their efforts in creating some of the finest records in the Australian music canon. The list of individual member’s solo efforts and collaborations with other artists could run to thousands of words, and they’re a necessary outlet for the band as musicians. As Kilbey explains, “The outlets are important for people to get things off their chests AND to improve and bring the new improvements back into the church.”
Kilbey has himself been prolific of late outside of his work with the church, collaborating with artists as diverse as Glenn Bennie from the legendary Underground Lovers, Martin Kennedy and Ricky Maymi of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. As he explains, these efforts keep pushing him to excel. “Other artists provide stuff that inspires me in different ways than my own stuff because I know how my own was done. It also inspires me to do better to hold up my side of the collaboration.”
Kilbey, and to some degree his bandmates, were once synonymous with the use of exotic stimulants to explore their muse and drive their creativity, but as these days they’re all clean living parents; fans must wonder how Kilbey approaches his craft now that he’s fuelled by green tea and yoga? Kilbey’s mischievous response is “Not as clean as you might think. My songs are hurled forth regardless of anything else. Whatever is going is the input: yoga, pot of green tea or sheer memory or loneliness or anything at all.”
Capping off a remarkable existence as a band performing their songs with a symphony orchestra at the Sydney Opera house is a career defining moment, but it begs the question: did Kilbey expect that this would be the outcome 30 years after the band’s humble debut at the Metropole Tavern in the same city? He concedes that this show was not part of his band’s original vision. “There never was a grand plan. The Opera House idea is fairly recent, it was never a particular ambition.” Nonetheless, the band is still producing some of their best work to date and playing to some of the biggest crowds of their career.
So what can we expect from the band next? Kilbey isn’t entirely sure of what’s in the pipeline for the church but he’s hopeful that they’ll be able to do a 40th anniversary tour. “What’s next I don’t know? Another album I guess. Do our Past, Perfect, Future tour here and maybe selected European cities. I do hope there is a fortieth tour. I’ve grown fond of the old beast you know. I’ve spent more of my life in it than out of it.” It’s a life that the fervent army of church fans are grateful for, however, knowing that this band, as Kilbey sings on their song ‘Block’; “…will make you all so beautiful”.