Steve Kilbey says his band feels like the Church again



By Steve Newton

That big old vinyl collection of mine sure comes in handy sometimes. Up until last week I had no idea that it included anything by the Church, but in preparation for a chat with singer-bassist Steven Kilbey, I took a hopeful meander through the alphabetically arranged stacks. Lo and behold, tightly wedged between Chilliwack’s Dreams, Dreams, Dreams and Eric Clapton’s Just One Night was a pristine, plastic-encased copy of 1985’s Heyday.

The cover photo depicted the longhaired Aussie quartet in all its paisley-shirted glory, and I wondered if the music itself would be a tad too ’80s to handle. But I slapped it on the trusty Yamaha turntable I’ve had since high school and—surprise number two—it sounded great! The music wasn’t dated at all, which is no shocker to Kilbey. He’s confident that Heyday still holds its own, even though its title was never meant to signify the group’s glory days.

“That was a very cynical time,” he recalls from an L.A. hotel room, “because we were going through a bit of a slump, and people were kind of saying, ‘Aw, they’re already past their heyday.’ This word was being bandied around a lot, and I thought it was kind of a good, cynical title.”

The Church’s sole lyricist, Kilbey loves to play with words, which is how he conjured the name of the band’s new CD, Hologram of Baal. “It’s sort of a mindfuck,” he relates, “to imagine what a hologram of Baal would look like.” The paradoxically titled disc sports the trademarks of the Church—jangly, ethereal guitar motifs, dreamy melodies, and surreal lyrics—but according to Kilbey is a lot coarser than the music they were making 13 years ago. “Heyday was a very smooth album,” he says, “very polished and melodic, and Hologram is a very rough album—lots of dissonance on it, lots of noise. But that’s just for this album, you know; we jump around and follow the muse. When we make our next album, it could be really smooth, it could be even rougher. Nobody, least of all us, really knows what we’re gonna do.”

The future sound of the Church may be uncertain, but the band itself has stabilized since the return last year of original guitarist Peter Koppes, who rejoins Marty Willson-Piper in creating the band’s shimmering six-string soundscapes. “When Peter left, he left a big hole,” remarks Kilbey, “and you cannot overestimate his contribution. He’s just a marvellous guitarist. And having him back, it just feels like the Church again.”

Koppes split from the band in ’93, following the release of the uninspired Priest=Aura. His departure was preceded three years earlier by that of longtime drummer Richard Ploog, although Kilbey doesn’t place so much significance on the loss of the latter. “We’ve got the best drummer we’ve ever had now,” he claims, referring to current skin-basher Tim Powles, who played on the last three Church albums. “I don’t know when he stopped being a drummer on the sessions and became a member, but he’s a very paid-up, card-carrying member now—and bosses everyone around. He’s a very, umm…how should I put it…a very strong-willed personality. He’s certainly not like, ‘Oh, I just joined this band and these guys have been in it for 18 years so I’ll just shut up and do what they want.’ He’s very opinionated, and I think that’s really given us a good kick up the ass.”

Kilbey and his mates will bring the reunited and rejuvenated Church to Richard’s on Richards on Sunday (September 27), their first local gig since the Gold Afternoon Fix tour of ’91, which drew a moderate-sized crowd to the Commodore Ballroom. “Canada’s always been a funny place for us,” notes Kilbey, “particularly Toronto, where I don’t think we should even be playing because no one ever comes and sees us there. Vancouver’s never been too bad, but Canada’s never really latched onto the Church. In America people go crazy; the audiences here are quite rabid.”

Although the Church came to international prominence from humble beginnings in the pubs of Sydney, Kilbey’s current home base is Stockholm, where he lives with his Swedish wife and seven-year-old twins. The music scene in the land of ABBA is a “funny little thing”, according to Kilbey, who points to acts like the Cardigans and Ace of Base as particularly chuckle-inducing.

“They honestly do have a few really good bands,” he offers, “but they don’t seem to appreciate them. There’s one called Soundtrack of Our Lives who are an absolutely amazing band. They sound like the Beatles round about Revolver—really psychedelic, really great lyrics—and the Swedish press just give ’em hell.”

For the most part, the Church has managed to escape the wrath of critics over the years, its psychedelic flavourings and cosmic wordplay finding favour with the pundits of pop. But the band hasn’t been so lucky with record labels. Although its sales record includes more than a million copies (in the U.S. alone) of 1987’s Starfish—which included the Top 30 hit “Under the Milky Way”—the band has been unceremoniously dumped by the likes of EMI, Warner Bros., and Arista. You’d think they were the bleedin’ Sex Pistols or something.

“Fuck ’em!” blasts Kilbey, doing a quick Johnny Rotten impression. “Fuck ’em! There’s always someone else wants to sign us up. I don’t care what fucking label I’m on, quite frankly. What does it matter to me as long as people can buy my record? And you know, Thirsty Ear [the band’s current U.S. label] is getting a lot of reaction to this record. I think they’re a bit surprised by how hard they’re gonna have to work to keep up with it, ’cause a lot of their other things are really obscure, and with this one they’ve been sort of inundated with people wanting copies and wanting to talk to us.

“So they’re pretty happy,” he adds. “I guess it’s better to be on a small label who are happy that you sell, say, 30,000 records than on a big label who are unhappy if you sell 300,000, you know what I mean?”

To hear the full audio of my interview with Steve Kilbey from 1990, when the Church was touring behind its Gold Afternoon Fix album, subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 250 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Grant Walmsley of the Screaming Jets, 1991
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Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1993
Ellen McIlwaine, 2001
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Nancy Wilson of Heart, 2006
Jeff Golub, 1989
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Gabby Gaborno of the Cadillac Tramps, 1991
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Grace Potter, 2008
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Jeff Healey, 1988
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Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, 2003
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Edgar Winter, 2005
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, 1990
Randy Hansen, 2001
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Kenny Aronoff, 1999
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Randy Bachman, 2001
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
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Eric Johnson, 2001
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Ace Frehley from Kiss, 2008
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Steve Vai, 1990
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Michael Schenker, 1992
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