Culture

Music

The Church frontman Steve Kilbey

By Angus Nicholls
The prolific singer-songwriter reflects on four decades and counting in music

Steve Kilbey at The Church’s Weekend Crusade show, Bush Hall, June 2018. Photograph by Angus Nicholls

The Slaughtered Lamb is a pub with a basement room located in Clerkenwell, north London. On an autumn evening in 2019 an audience of mostly middle-aged men stands in rapt attention as a bearded man of similar age plays an acoustic guitar plugged into an amp on a slightly elevated stage less than a metre from the audience. He is accompanied by a slender woman in a black beret, playing an electronic keyboard. The man – born in 1954, full name: Steven John Kilbey – came into the world not far to the north of this pub, in the commuter town of Welwyn Garden City. The woman is Amanda Kramer, keyboardist in the Psychedelic Furs.

Kilbey has driven from the previous night’s gig in Birmingham on this short tour of small venues in the UK. Visibly tired, but wiry and energetic despite having reached what is retirement age in many less physically demanding professions, he is an engaging conversationalist. “This is where my dad is from,” Kilbey tells me, “he’s probably been in this pub.” Kilbey’s parents emigrated to Australia in the late 1950s to find a better life than what was on offer to the working class in post-war Britain. Arriving in Wollongong, they created a little England in southern New South Wales. “My mother always talked about home, and England was home … We were like the Maltese, the Italians and the Greeks – we went out into Australia during the day, but when we came home it was all English, all our friends were English, my parents only watched English TV shows, and the mint sauce had to be Crosse & Blackwell’s.”

That sense of being both English and Australian, but also neither, has marked Kilbey’s career. “I’m glad I have no allegiance,” he reflects. “I don’t feel like an Australian and I certainly don’t feel like an Englishman, and I feel this gives me a good distance; I feel like a citizen of the world.” From their beginnings in 1980, The Church aimed to be an international act: “I did not want to be associated with that Oz-rock thing … I wanted to be David Bowie.” When growing up in Canberra, where he had subsequently moved with his family, Kilbey idolised Bowie and Marc Bolan, and after a brief stint working in the public service, the music scene of the mother country beckoned.

When Kilbey turned up in London with his first wife in the late 1970s, he was confronted with the world that his parents had left behind: “We lived in this flat in Kensington and it was total rubbish. It was this cold, damp, miserable, noisy place where you had to put 10 pence in a machine to have a shower.” Kilbey’s aim was to land a record deal in the UK: “I made 60 cassettes on my four-track and sent a tape to every record company in England.” None of them were interested. But Kilbey stored up other UK experiences for future use. Seeing live acts such as David Sylvian’s Japan would influence the future direction of The Church.

Things were different when Kilbey returned to the UK in 1982. By that time The Church were pop stars in Australia, having appeared on Countdown in 1981 with the hit “The Unguarded Moment”, and having released two LPs – Of Skins and Heart (1981) and the still magisterial The Blurred Crusade (1982) – both on EMI Parlophone in Australia. The band’s Australian success convinced Carerre records in the UK to give The Blurred Crusade a European release and fund a European tour. An early date on the tour was at London’s The Venue. “There were 2000 people and they went berserk over us,” recalls Kilbey. The Church’s brand of literate guitar rock struck a chord with mature British audiences with a penchant for psychedelia.

Given this fanbase, the later decision of The Church’s UK label to pay £40,000 to place the band on a thirty-date tour opening for teen idols Duran Duran seems bizarre. Kilbey pulled the pin after just eight of those dates: “There are some audiences you can’t conquer,” he says. “We were playing to 11-year-old girls and they wanted Simon Le Blob [Simon Le Bon]. It was a waste of time.”

These early episodes in The Church’s career seem to have worn deep grooves into Kilbey’s mind, and his recollections of them unfurl like guitar riffs; a seasoned interviewee, his answers open up and veer off in unexpected directions, before rounding themselves off as they end. He is both animated and sardonic about the absurdities of The Church’s early career in the UK. When I suggest that The Church were seen through a colonial lens in Britain, citing Mark Seymour’s UK experiences with Hunters and Collectors during the early 1980s, as recorded in Seymour’s book Thirteen Tonne Theory, Kilbey agrees: “We used to fill these big venues, and the reviewer would write ‘full of Aussies’, and that would be the end of it.” In Kilbey’s opinion, some bands, such as The Birthday Party, The Triffids and The Go-Betweens, overcame these condescending dismissals by UK critics, but The Church did not. Unlike in America, where the album Starfish (1988) sold over half a million copies, The Church never became anything close to a mainstream act in the UK.

I suggest to Kilbey that today The Church have different audiences in Australia and the UK; because the band once enjoyed Countdown exposure and widespread commercial radio airplay in Australia, their Australian fanbase is broader and less specialised. Kilbey concurs. In the UK, he says, “We were far more obscure, so the people had to go out and find us … When we do a show in England it’s more special than if we play in Australia, the audience is more trainspotty, more anoraky.” The Church’s British fans often came to them through the band’s links to other acts in the prog or art-rock canon: early Pink Floyd, Robert Wyatt, Peter Gabriel’s Genesis, Steve Harley’s Cockney Rebel. The greying-ponytail count at UK gigs is high, and Kilbey and Kramer conclude their set this evening with “The Carpet Crawlers” from the deeply weird 1974 Genesis concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The crowd, with an average age probably well north of 45, murmurs in approval.

As a self-confessed rock-nerd, Kilbey is clearly gratified by this scholarly approach to the band, and in the summer of 2018, The Church staged an event that both catered to those trainspotting fans and was the antithesis to those ill-fated gigs with Duran Duran. A Weekend Crusade was a two-day program of Church shows and related events held at Bush Hall in west London; its highlight was a full set of 1982’s The Blurred Crusade on the Sunday evening, preceded by set lists selected from other albums, a film of the band’s 2011 performance at the Sydney Opera House, and solo-shows by Kilbey and each of the band’s other members: guitarists Peter Koppes and Ian Haug, and drummer Tim Powles. Kilbey compares this event, which sold out, to a “Star Trek convention” for Church fans, and wants to stage similar shows all over the world, but he is equally committed to looking into the future as well as celebrating the past.

With the departure of Marty Willson-Piper and his replacement by former Powderfinger guitarist Ian Haug in 2013, The Church is now a different band. At live shows, Haug wisely avoids attempting to reproduce Willson-Piper’s wild and idiosyncratic lead breaks and arpeggios in songs such as “Reptile” from Starfish, instead replacing them with more conventional-sounding riffs. Haug does better at rendering songs from earlier jingle-jangle albums such as The Blurred Crusade and Heyday (1985), and he really excels when playing his own material from the two critically acclaimed LPs that The Church have recorded since he joined the band: Further/Deeper (2014) and Man Woman Life Death Infinity (2017). His squiggly guitar parts on the latter album, especially on the track “Submarine”, have taken The Church in a genuinely new and fruitful direction.

A new direction has also recently been taken by Kilbey in his latest solo album Sydney Rococo (2018). Kilbey’s earlier solo records – such as 1990’s epic Remindlessness, or the dark and druggy Narcosis EP of 1991 – have been described by Kilbey himself as homemade sketches rather than as polished studio material. But for this latest record, Kilbey was given a full studio budget as a result of his involvement with Solid Gold Live, a 1980s hits tour involving other acts of that era such as Ross Wilson, Sharon O’Neill and Matt Finish.

The album’s financial backer, who owns Golden Robot Records, said that he was interested in Kilbey doing a record reminiscent of the Electric Light Orchestra, with full string accompaniment. “It was the first time I had done a proper solo album where I was completely in charge, in a proper studio,” says Kilbey, who produced the album himself. Recorded at Rancom Studios in Botany with engineering and production by long-time Church engineer Ted Howard, Sydney Rococo has a much clearer and deeper sound than Kilbey’s other solo recordings. Many tracks on the album include lush string arrangements provided by the conductor George Ellis, with whom Kilbey will perform a full album show of Sydney Rococo at the Sydney Festival in January 2020.

Kilbey demurs at the idea that Sydney Rococo should be seen as a concept album about Sydney. “The name of the city sets the scene, but a lot of the work is up to the listener, so you give them this basic framework and ambiguity, and then you let them fill in the gaps.” Those gaps are at times suggestive of dark places, and some of the tracks on the album – such as “The Lonely City” and “Lagoon” – do paint a grim picture of the harbour city. I ask Kilbey if this is based on his own experience of his hometown: “If you’re killing it and doing well, Sydney is your best friend, but when you’re not doing well, Sydney is a very inhospitable place,” he tells me. “Sydney is very success oriented, but there is a dark side, a violent side and a seedy side,” which in Kilbey’s view often jars with the city’s beautiful weather and geography. The city’s natural environment is what keeps Kilbey there: “I live in Coogee beach, one street back from the sea. Every morning I get up and swim in a pool that has seven different types of octopuses … I love it there, so I’d be very reluctant to trade that in for some rainy garret in Islington.” Even if he does not see himself as completely Australian, Kilbey seems to have decided for now that Sydney is home.

Angus Nicholls

Angus Nicholls is Professor of Comparative Literature and German at Queen Mary University of London.

Steve Kilbey at The Church’s Weekend Crusade show, Bush Hall, June 2018. Photograph by Angus Nicholls

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