Published on March 30th, 2016 | by The Beige Baron2
Interview: Steve Kilbey
In the early 1980s during U2’s first tour of Australia, Larry Mullen Jr. bought The Church’s Seance LP and passed it to his friend Frank Kearns when he returned to Dublin.
Like a butterfly wing summoning a storm, the result of that seemingly unremarkable gesture manifests now in Speed of the Stars, a collaborative musical project due for release this June that traces its roots to 1986, when Kearn’s band Cactus World News toured North America with The Church.
Thanks in part to Mullen Jr. switching him on to The Church via Seance, Kearns and Church singer Steve Kilbey made a connection on the road, and by 1994, had made plans to record an album together.
By the late ’90s, the pair had laid down about half an album’s worth of music. For whatever reason, the project stalled and the tapes shelved until around 2013, when Kilbey and Kearns blew the dust off and listened with fresh ears. Immediately, they “resolved to finish this extraordinary music,” according to Kearns. “I really think this is the best album I’ve ever been involved with.”
I still don’t think I’m a very good singer. But I invented an attitude to cover up that fact.
“This is going to sound cliched,” Kilbey agreed in a recent newspaper interview. “But these are honestly the best lyrics I have ever written. It’s mysterious and goes beyond your stereotype of Irishness into Celtic roots. It feels like we are tapping into a lost Celtic world.”
The Speed of the Stars will crown Kilbey’s vast body of solo and collaborative work produced over his remarkable and sometimes turbulent 40-year career. He’s written and released 14 solo albums, and collaborated with other musicians on well over 20 more: most prolifically with Martin Kennedy on a series of electro-ambient records, as well as two under the name Jack Frost with the gifted (and sadly missed) songwriter Grant McLennan of The Go-Betweens.
Other notable Kilbey projects include Hex, with Donette Thaylor [Game Theory]; Curious Yellow (with Karin Jansson, with whom he co-wrote Under the Milky Way); Isidore, with Remy Zero’s Jeffery Cain (a band first tapped by Radiohead for a support slot on a US tour during the 1990s, leading to the band’s ongoing contribution to Hollywood film and TV productions); and more recently, the GB3 with Underground Lovers guitarist Glenn Bennie and Brian Jonestown Massacre guitarist Ricky Maymi.
This sprawling catalog of work (Kilbey is also a prolific writer, poet, and painter) was created in parallel with his work in The Church, for whom he co-wrote some 21 albums.
I think pot is an incredible adjunct for making music.
What makes Kilbey’s voice so distinctive, and so unmistakably Australian in its understated delivery, is difficult to pin down with any precision. The bombast of late ’70s and early ’80s commercial rock (the period when original Church members coalesced in Canberra) is notably absent, yet its warmth and world-weary intimacy has emotional heft equal to the theatrics of Robert Plant, Bono, Marc Bolan, or David Bowie.
The latter artist, Kilbey tells BNU, was the one who most captured his imagination as a kid, and in some respects, you can hear that influence in Kilbey’s voice.
“But I saw a lot of local bands, too. Just any rock ‘n’ roll blew my mind at first. I saw The Easybeats when I was 11. That really blew my mind.”
Kilbey started performing on stage at 17, firstly in a local cabaret act, then in Baby Grande, then Limazine (where he met The Church’s future drummer Nick Ward). He also had a brief month-long stint with punk band Tactics (he was fired after four shows).
So when did the realization dawn that he had a voice, and did confidence to sing arrive at the same time?
“I never realized I could sing. I still don’t think I’m a very good singer. But I invented an attitude to cover up that fact.”
The effect of his voice and it’s ability to pool poignancy of feeling in melodies that never fade with age would surely be diminished were it not paired with lyrical mastery. At one moment painterly and impressionistic, and in the next sardonic and loaded with contempt, Kilbey’s stories are sometimes explicitly narrated; others are metaphors, word collages; but more often than not, the meaning is cryptic.
It does surprise me sometimes, after a long time, when I perceive the truth of what I was trying to say
And like many great experimentalists—King Buzzo, Beefheart, Beck, Zappa, Ween, and others—he seems to delight in the percussive, rhythmic effect of syllables and sounds of words as much as the power in their meaning; most Kilbey fans enjoy how images spring out so fluidly from his word arrangement.
But I wonder if meaning sometimes comes after form?
“I do love words. It always works differently in every song. And yes, it does surprise me sometimes, after a long time, when I perceive the truth of what I was trying to say that I’d never realised before.”
For a long period dependent on heroin—initially describing being “in love” with the drug, now regretful of the impact it had on his relationships and his work—Kilbey nonetheless remains a vocal supporter of drug legalization. His use of them as part of the creative process is well documented, so I ask if his feelings about the relationship between drugs and creativity have changed.
“I think pot is an incredible adjunct for making music. None of the other drugs so much, and definitely not alcohol. But pot always does the trick. Opiates were okay in the ‘honeymoon phase’, but after that I was just an addict, and I wrote despite opiates, not because of them.”
When The Church’s success peaked as an internationally charting band—was Kilbey happy or miserable?
“At the height of our success I was juggling so much stuff, I was neither happy or unhappy. I was confused.”
Priest = Aura. Too cool for the idiots in 1992 to understand. They thought they wanted grunge
Not one to pull punches, Kilbey’s fractious relationship with elements of the music business led to a period of change for The Church. In 2012, he announced he would quit the band, blaming their North American label after members received AU$100 each in royalties for sales that generated, Kilbey claims, a vastly greater sum.
Guitarist Marty Willson-Piper departed the band soon after, and The Church continues with Kilbey to tour and record. I ask how Kilbey feels when seeing contemporary Australian bands, such as Tame Impala, walk away “with zero dollars” according to Kevin Parker, after three very successful international albums… apparently also victims of a shark-infested industry. Has anything changed?
“You just gotta get over all that stuff and carry on making music,” he says. “Or you’ll go crazy.”
Given Kilbey’s long career, has his perspective changed on how the Australian state values and supports its artists? Totalitarian governments around the world actively censor art and punish subversive artists, right-wing conservatism is on the rise in many western countries—does this atmosphere make it better or worse now to be a musician in Australia?
“I don’t think about stuff like that. I think Australia neither supports nor oppresses its artists. And that’s fine by me. I don’t want to be propped up by the committee, nor do I want to go to jail for saying the wrong thing.”
Does political or social oppression create conditions that make rock music relevant, dangerous? Is rock music dead?
Gotta keep making new music. It’s just the way I am.
“Rock’s dead, they’ve been saying that forever. I dunno. Maybe it’s no longer dangerous, that’s true, I suppose. I listen to old stuff. When it seemed more dangerous. But if you want ‘danger’, join the army, I suppose,” he jokes.
Based on Kilbey’s sheer volume of output—new projects, solo works, books, music videos, production work in his Surry Hills studio—and his compulsion to create, you’re left with the impression of a man who exists on forward momentum.
“That’s a correct assumption. I have to keep moving forward. I don’t wanna rest on my laurels, you know. Gotta keep making new music. It’s just the way I am.”
Do you ever listen to your own stuff once it’s complete?
“Yeah, I like listening to the finished thing. And then I gotta move on to the next.”
For a Church fan approaching Kilbey’s other projects for the first time, and ahead of the release of The Speed of the Stars, what three albums should be first on the list to explore?
“I’d say listen to Jack Frost and Remindlessness and Hex.”
What about The Church? What record never found its mark, or you felt was misunderstood at the time?
“Priest = Aura. A masterpiece. Too cool for the idiots in 1992 to understand. They thought they wanted grunge.”
The first preview tracks available on the pledgemusic page suggests that The Speed of the Stars won’t the share the same underwhelmed reception as Priest = Aura: despite its roots in decades past, what we can hear of the new music right now seems alive with liquid energy.
The track Nepenthe moves with serpentine grace through shafts of light in a green and slinky trip-hop beat (unsurprising as Hex are often credited as the original precursors of that genre), the earthiness of Kilbey and Kearn’s voices adding welcome harmonic warmth. All the signs are there of another vital album, and one that should enjoy its time in the sun, before Kilbey asks his fans to move on with him again, to somewhere new.
Anywhere but backwards.