Australian band, The Church, had hoped to spend 2020 celebrating its 40th anniversary but world events interceded. Bassist and singer Steve Kilbey took the down time to adapt Church back catalog for solo performance which, in turn, inspired him to write and record Eleven Women, a recently released solo album. Bob Gourley caught up with Steve Kilbey, who reflected on the band’s history and current projects.
Steve Kilbey had planned on a busy 2020 with The Church, as the Australian band celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. But with tours and other plans canceled due to COVID-19, Kilbey, like many artists, gravitated to live-streaming. As singer/bassist for the band, Kilbey found that he was spending a lot of time adapting old Church material for solo guitar. It promoted him to quickly write a new solo album to perform, which has now been recorded and released as Eleven Women.
The Church formed in 1980, releasing their debut album, Of Skins and Heart the following year. Starfish (1988) proved to be their international breakthrough, containing the hit single “Under the Milky Way.”
Kilbey is currently the only original member of The Church. However, original guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper had long runs with the band, and current drummer Tim Powles has been with them since 1994.
Kilbey has consistently been active with projects outside of The Church. He’s been releasing solo material since the ’80s and has been part of many collaborations. These have included Hex (with guitarist Donnette Thayer), Jack Frost (with Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens) and Kilbey/Kennedy (with Martin Kennedy of All India Radio.) So far, 2020 has seen the release of collaborative albums Chryse Planitia (with Gareth Koch) and The Dangerous Age (with Kate Ceberano and Sean Sennett.) The most recent Church album was 2017’s Man Woman Life Death Infinity; a new one is in the works.
“Providence” – Jack Frost (Grant McLennan/Steve Kilbey):
PKM: Eleven Women was written and recorded quickly during this pandemic. Could you discuss the inspiration and process of making it?
Steve Kilbey: With The Church, at the beginning of this year, I was sitting there looking at about six weeks in Europe, a Church convention in London, and then a huge tour of America. And then, because it’s our 40 year anniversary, we were doing a big tour of Australia. Obviously, none of that eventuated because of the virus, and I don’t know what exactly I thought I was going to do financially. I’m sort of living hand to mouth, so each tour is important to me. Luckily just before this all started, a friend of mine said to me, ‘Hey, do you know, you can do live stuff on Instagram?’ which I had no idea of before. So, one Monday night, about a week after the whole thing started, I just got on Instagram and played some songs. I didn’t really think anything was going to happen, and people seemed to like it.
“Josephine” – Steve Kilbey, from the Eleven Women album:
I left the option open then as I do now that if you want to chuck me some dollars, you can, and if you can’t afford it or you don’t think I’m worth it, you don’t have to. A few people chucked me some dollars, and I just started doing it every week. And then I started saying; I’m going to do a whole album this week. So I went back, and I did five of the earlier Church albums. And I noticed it was an enormous pain in the ass having to learn all those songs; I was spending all week long trying to figure them out. Because I hadn’t played a lot of it; I’m the bass player. But now I have to figure out all the guitar parts. And then one week I said, ‘look, it’s easier for me to write a new album than to go back and learn an old one.’ So, I said, ‘I’m going to write a brand new album and premiere it on Instagram, and then I’m never going to play those songs again.’ And then, I did write a new album, but I couldn’t leave it alone.
I became too enamored of the songs, and I said, ‘look, I’m not going to leave them alone. I’m going to go and record them. ‘ I had just discovered a little recording studio up the coast from Sydney, where I am right now actually, making another album. So I discovered this studio, and I got a great bunch of characters. I got a classical guitarist and a wonderful keyboard player who has all kinds of strange instruments like Hurdy Gurdy and a Swedish instrument, nickel harp. And he’s also got a hammered dulcimer. And there’s a fantastic drummer I’ve been working with. I said,’ let’s just go and make this new album that I’ve written.’ So one thing led to another and probably never would have happened without this nasty virus shutting everything down.
PKM: Did debuting the material over Instagram have an impact on how it turned out?
Steve Kilbey: I think it did. I haven’t worked this way for a while. It used to be that I’d go in the studio, and everyone would fiddle around. When there was a piece of music ready, I would sing over the top of it. So this was the first time in a long time where I’ve gone in with songs fully formed with the melody and words and everything. And I think just the general good reaction that I got off the people on Instagram, the whole thing had a bit of momentum by the time it hit the studio. That’s a common thing that happens with bands, and I’ve been part of this. When you start, you’ve got this repertoire of like maybe 15 songs.
And so you’ve been playing them, and you know how to play them, and you finally get into a recording studio with a repertoire to go. You’ve probably still got a few songs leftover with the second album that you didn’t record on the first album. After a while, as with us with, by the time it got to our third album, it was all brand new songs. They hadn’t been played before. So it is really good to at least play them or familiarize yourself with them as songs, rather than just pieces of music that will eventually have a vocal put over the top.
I think it informs all the players in the band when they know where the singing’s going to be. See for a long time, myself and The Church have recorded by creating instrumental pieces, which remain as instrumental pieces for a long time. And then, one day, I actually write the vocals and sing the vocals over the top. But meanwhile, it would just be instrumental pieces, and nobody was really sure where the vocals were going to be or what they were doing. That is a good system, and that definitely works, but it is also a means a certain amount of flying blind, I think. So this is a good way to do things, to have the songs already completely written.
PKM: When performing the old material solo, were there any particular songs that you feel changed or took on a new life?
Steve Kilbey: Definitely. Yeah. The last song on Seance is a song called “It Doesn’t Change.” I’m going to admit before you and God and the universe; it was influenced by Joy Division.
“It Doesn’t Change” – The Church:
It’s funny to think so now. Just to branch off from this idea, I’ve been listening to the Beatles song “The Sun King,” and always thought, “wow, that sounds like Fleetwood Mac. That sounds like ‘Albatross.'” I’ve been saying it for years and telling it to people. And then the other day, I saw George in an old interview go “we really loved that album, we love that song ‘Albatross’ by Fleetwood Mac, and we wanted to do a song like that.'” So it’s funny to think that bands do get things out there that nobody ever spots. So “It Doesn’t Change” was very influenced by “Atmosphere” by Joy Division, the rolling drums and this huge keyboard. Obviously, I can’t do any of that. So I had to sort of have to figure out the song on an acoustic guitar. Same for some of the other songs. Another song on Seance called “Travel by Thought” has sort of a maelstrom of electric guitars and stuff.
“Travel By Thought” – The Church:
All those things you have to reappraise them and go, “I don’t have all that. What does it all boil down to on just an acoustic guitar?” And I think that’s an interesting exercise. It’s a sort of a strange reductionist process that doesn’t usually happen because normally songs are written by a guy sitting down with an acoustic guitar strumming, and he takes it to a band, and the band turns it into a big number. This was the opposite, where the song had existed as a big number that no one had ever tried to play on acoustic guitar. So I think that’s interesting. It’s interesting to go both ways with that. Now, when I put a song on, I’m wondering more about that. I wonder how if this was written like with a guy sitting with a guitar and playing it, or was this written as an ensemble and then redacted down to an acoustic guitar if need be.
PKM: The making of Eleven Women is a sharp contrast to some Church albums’ long recording process. Do you prefer to work like this?
Steve Kilbey: I have always liked to work quickly, strangely enough. I was in the studio the other day, and I found a book by Woody Woodmansey, who was Bowie’s drummer in The Spiders from Mars. He was saying David would only let us do one or two takes. So Bowie, according to Woodmansey, would roll up and go, “here’s my song, blah, blah, blah, C, A minor, G here’s the words, okay guys, go in and play it.” He said if they got to the third take, it would be a miracle, as Bowie would usually take the second take. So Bowie could see that there is something very exciting about a bunch of guys who don’t quite know what they’re doing. They are good musicians, they kind of know the song, but they’re all just hanging on for grim death. I think that that creates an interesting kind of uncertainty.
So with these songs, it was because of necessity, as I only had three days. Everybody just had a couple of takes. And I think that keeps it fresh and interesting and vibrant. Obviously, you can’t make an album like Sgt. Pepper that way. And if you’re trying to make your magnum opus with lots and lots and lots of sort of overdubs and people coming and doing things and scoring and stuff, it ain’t going to be that quickly. But The Church had, and I’m not complaining about this either, because it looks harsh in print; The Church has taken months and months and months to make records. I can see the necessity of why people do this and do that, why it has to take so long. But it frustrates me. It always frustrated me, because I kind of work quickly. Starfish was the epitome of that and Gold Afternoon Fix. We rehearsed the songs for a month before we even went into the studio. There is obviously a sweet spot between under rehearsing and over rehearsing. I used to sing those songs a hundred times; everybody played the song hundreds and hundreds of times. I don’t know if that’s necessary.
Bowie, according to Woodmansey, would roll up and go, “here’s my song, blah, blah, blah, C, A minor, G here’s the words, okay guys, go in and play it.” He said if they got to the third take, it would be a miracle, as Bowie would usually take the second take.
And I don’t know if what you get at the end of that is something that’s over-processed and over-packaged and doesn’t have any of what people like about music. But maybe the guy who produced Starfish would hear my latest album and thing it sounds hastily thrown together. So, I think there are many ways to make a record. I think the three-day method is as valid as the three-month method and will get different results. I wouldn’t recommend always trying to do everything in three days
PKM: Looking back, what are your thoughts on the general musical climate at the time The Church emerged?
Steve Kilbey: It was amazing. I would freely steal anything I liked. Although Joy Division by 1982 was well over and had turned into New Order, I used to sit at home, listening to that song ‘Atmosphere’ and over and over.
There was another one, a New Order song that had been a Joy Division song as well, called “In a Lonely Place.” I liked the floor tom riff, I liked the rolling toms, and I liked the ‘awwwww’ sort of thing on top of it. On our first album, the Church had a vocoder that I used to play that was sort of like the ‘awwwwww.’ So you have this like a chorus of monks behind what you’re doing.
I thought some great bands were coming out of that period. They were squeezed out of punk rock, which didn’t really leave you anywhere much to go. I’m digressing here, but I think each movement has one great band. So I thought, you know, punk rock had the Sex Pistols, and they kind of did it all on their record, and there was no necessity for any other. Well, maybe the bit of The Clash, but all those other punk rock bands, I mean, who fucking listens to them now? Same with grunge. You got a million grunge bands, but really Nirvana is the only one that anybody will go on listening to into the future.
Although Joy Division by 1982 was well over and had turned into New Order, I used to sit at home, listening to that song ‘Atmosphere’ and over and over.
So I thought out of punk rock came some really great things. Ultravox with John Foxx, not Midge Ure’s Ultravox but with John Foxx. I borrowed freely from John Foxx and was influenced by John Foxx. Their third album, Systems of Romance, that they made with Connie Planck in Germany was an incredible album. And just because of the snobbishness of the day in England, it got really bad reviews. But it’s a brilliant, beautiful album. Joy Division and New Order, even New Gold Dream by Simple Minds. I thought there were lots of good things happening in that. I freely helped myself to any ideas that I like, that’s for sure.
PKM: You seem to have been very influenced by British and American bands. How did you feel about Australian music at the time?
Steve Kilbey: Especially in those days, I was a bit of an elitist, a bit of a snob. There were a couple of good things happening in Australia, but right at the dawn of 1980, there were a lot of bands that were like AC/DC, sort of like ‘rock and roll, baby!’ For me, that was great because that gave me a lot to revolt against. I liked AC/DC with Bon Scott; when they got that other guy with a silly hat, I thought it was incredibly moronic. I’ll probably be crucified, because you’re not allowed to say that, but I just couldn’t understand it. And there were many bands in Australia that were sort of ‘rock and roll, baby!’ and for me, that was great because that gave me something to really react against—being the complete opposite of that. To be for want of a better word ‘European.’ We were going to quote Kierkegaard and fucking Nietzsche or whatever, to counter this sort of testosterone, tattooed, screaming, ninny. It felt good. I can be a sort of an oblique angular, European kind of guy singing my songs as if I was living in Cologne instead of in Sydney sitting down on the beach each day.
There were a couple of good things happening in Australia, but right at the dawn of 1980, there were a lot of bands that were like AC/DC, sort of like ‘rock and roll, baby!’ For me, that was great because that gave me a lot to revolt against. I liked AC/DC with Bon Scott; when they got that other guy with a silly hat, I thought it was incredibly moronic.
I really had that feeling like I want to get away from this sort of rock and roll thing and be more sort of … I keep coming back to this word ‘European’ though it doesn’t really have any meaning in this context. But I was going more towards that sort of thing I liked in Ultravox and Joy Division. That feeling.
PKM: While Eleven Women came about due to circumstances, you’ve done many projects outside of The Church. Is doing a variety of work important to you as an artist?
Steve Kilbey: Yeah. I meet other musicians that I want to play with or other songwriters. I like collaborating with people. I like doing things on my own, and I like sublimating myself in a whole band. I like to do everything. The more I sublimated myself in the Church, the more I was itching to get outside of that and do everything again. Then when I spend time outside doing everything on my own, I want to sublimate myself back in The Church. Again, I suppose I want to have a crack at everything. There are many ways to do it. Listen to Todd Rundgren, a guy who did everything, absolutely everything; engineered, produced it, mixed it, probably even fucking mastered it, sang all the songs, played all the instruments. I want to have a go at that, but I also want to be part of a band and just be a bass player and a singer and leave all that other stuff. To share it equally. I think they’re all interesting. I think they’re all valid, and one thing doesn’t rule out the next.
PKM: How do you feel about hitting the 40th anniversary of The Church?
Steve Kilbey: The Church has an enormous body of work. With the acoustic albums, live albums, and covers albums, probably 40 albums worth of stuff. I don’t think it can rely on individuals anymore. I think if I should die and people still want to hear The Church, get another singer and let this huge body of work live on. It is no longer is reliant upon just individuals. Let it go on and on and on forever. And I’d be really happy, if I did die, to be looking down from heaven and seeing that they were carrying on and there was still a demand. And I think when a guitarist leaves, just replace them and carry on.
Mark E Smith from The Fall said, “if it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.” So I’m taking that same attitude.
There’s a mood; there’s an atmosphere. There’s a course that we have plotted. I still think people want to hear that. Some people are fixated on their favorite members and things. “It’s no longer The Church because it hasn’t got him.” But I can’t just stop because people leave, and we did a long time together. The two guitarists who the band started with, one of them was in 33 years, and one of them was 38 years. That’s a long time. And I think if people want to stop, I can understand they’ve had enough, and they want to stop, or they’re tired of me or tired of each other and want to do their own thing, that’s fine. But I can’t; I’m not going to stop this project, which I think is now bigger than it’s bigger than the people involved.
So that’s my philosophy. A lot of people out there still want to hear it. The three guys, the three guitarists playing now, are all huge fans of The Church. So they’re playing with sufficient reverence and respect for what it was. I guess we’ll carry on into the future for as long as I can play; The Church will keep going. It’s like Mark E Smith from The Fall said, “if it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.” So I’m taking that same attitude. It’s me, and whoever I choose to play with, or whoever chooses to play with me, will be The Church. And if people don’t want to do it anymore, let them go and get others in. There’s plenty of people who want to do it.