Originally published in The Music Network – December, 2011
“Being commercial is alright as long as it’s by accident. That’s the good thing about Under The Milky Way, it was accidentally commercial. You can hear that it wasn’t a song where someone sat down and thought ‘I need to write a commercial song.’ We were always trying to tread that very thin line. One step to either side and it can be fatal. One step towards being too commercial and you betray all your fans.”
Steve Kilbey, founder and lead singer of the church, is discussing his band’s enviable legacy. The group are marking their 30th anniversary with a tour in which they will play three of their albums in their entirety; American breakthrough Starfish, Priest = Aura – considered by many to be their artistic high watermark – and 2009’s Untitled #23, which was met with almost universal acclaim. Kilbey is understandably proud of his band’s recorded output, but modestly removed from it; as he explains, he relates to his earlier albums “like a guy who designed a car in 1988 that people still like to drive.” The idea of a greatest hits set to mark the occasion is met with good-humoured disdain.
“Well, we’ve only got four hits so that would be a really short show,” he says dryly. I think these were the best three albums to do, one from the ‘00s, one from the ‘90s and one from the ‘80s, so we are representing each decade. We’re playing our most commercial album, in Starfish, our artiest album inPriest = Aura and our latest album, which got good reviews, so it’s a very fulfilling show. In American when we did it, there was a real feeling that something had been accomplished, rather than just a random show. It’s actually hard to go back to random shows after doing it this way. There’s something nice about playing albums in their entirety.”
Priest = Aura, by virtue of its length, meandering structures and dense instrumentation was the hardest to prepare for, with two-and-a-half of the three-week preparation period spent on this record, with a mere two days spent on each of the other records. “It was kind of a hassle to do it,” Kilbey admits.
Starfish was, as Kilbey noted, the church’s commercial peak, propelled by the “accidental” hit single Under The Milky Way, which broke the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100. The recording sessions for the album proved fractious, as the band’s vision constantly clashed with that of the producers (Greg Ladanyi and Waddy Wachtel, session musicians and producers who had worked with Toto and Jackson Browne, among other ill-suited acts) and their US label Arista. Despite the horrible working conditions, Kilbey is quite diplomatic about the experience now.
“I believe that any random set of circumstances can help produce a good album,” he explains, “and it seemed to me that was a good random juxtaposition, having a group of dope-smoking hippies from Sydney go to California and make an album with these two big-shot, coke-snorting ratbags. Between those two forces, one pulling to the right and one pulling to the left, out of the middle something quite interesting emerged.”
A relationship between a band as fiercely experimental and progressive as the church and a staid, multinational label was never going to last. Still, Kilbey doesn’t plead ignorance, claiming the band was well aware of the situation they were entering into. Even now, he refuses to pin any blame on Arista.
“Everybody who was on a [major] label sooner or later experienced something that was rough. You can say two things: they gave us lots of money and they gave us lots of latitude, or they ripped lots of money off us, they tried to clip our wings and tried to force us to do things that we didn’t want to do, and both things are simultaneously true. It’s the nature of dealing with them. If you were working for some rich boss who had all kinds of idiosyncrasies, and you were trying to get money out of him, there’s this ridiculous interaction that goes on.”
Despite this ridiculous interaction, Kilbey doesn’t hesitate when asked if he would hop back in bed with a multinational.
“Fuck yeah,” he declares. “If someone said, ‘Sign to me, come over to LA and spend three months making a record and stay in a great hotel with your own car, working in the best studios in the world, snorting lots of coke and smoking Californian dope, yeah! If anyone’s reading The Music Network and has any ideas, I’m available and ready… right away, actually.”
Despite their latest album Untitled #23 receiving the band’s best reviews to date, this multinational scenario seems quite unlikely at this juncture. The idea of the church aiming at radio anymore is laughable to Kilbey: “That kind of talk of ‘Will this song be a single?’ hasn’t been around for a long time. We know there are no more singles and there’s no more need to be commercial or even to think about it.” Still, although this way of thinking has “faded out of view” for the church, Kilbey admits he was shocked at the overwhelmingly positive reception Untitled #23 received, especially seeing they had reached that rare point where good albums were expected, not highlighted.
“As you can imagine, if you have a load of albums, it gets to the stage where you release an album and people go ‘oh yeah, another good album from the church, next.’ We were feeling that feeling of banging our heads against the wall. Strangely enough, I wasn’t that enamoured of that album when we finished. I thought, ‘Another good album by the church, next’,” he laughs. “Then it got really good reviews, which was something I was not expecting. It was a very nice, comforting feeling. I mean, if you don’t sell many records, it’s nice to get good reviews.”
Another plaudit came last year when then band were inducted in the ARIA Hall Of Fame. For Kilbey to be nonplussed by this honour makes perfect sense for someone who never chased accolades. To hear him speak of it, you get the sense that he was relieved that it wasn’t a complete ordeal.
“Unexpectedly that turned out well,” he begins slowly. “Look, I don’t really believe in ceremonies and awards and halls of fame. I think the most important thing is that people love what you do, and the people who love what you do are going to go on loving it for the rest of their lives, and there’s always going to be something in it for them.
“I met a family when I was on tour last time in America. You know how some families are a Richmond family or a South Sydney family? They were a church family. Within the family they all argue about their favourite albums and favourite songs. Meeting them and hearing them ask their questions in the different ways they would approach the band and what aspect appealed to them; that means more then being in the fucking Hall Of Fame, which is basically people looking around going ‘Oh, who have we got left, who’s still going? Oh, the church are still going, let’s have them in.’ “But it turned out well in the end, I think it was a good thing. But it doesn’t bolster up my feelings of integrity or anything.”
Perhaps Kilbey will feel more strongly about the honour as time passes. When the church first rose to prominence, Kilbey realised that he wasn’t as in-the-moment as he had assumed he might be. Experiences such as performing in front of large crowds or hitting the Billboard Hot 100 charts were only fully absorbed long after the fact.
“I sort of post-experience everything,” Kilbey explains. “Things happen, I let them happen and I slowly analyse them. Otherwise, I found being in a rock band was winding me up too much, always going ‘Wow, I’m playing America, and I’m making money, ahhh’ so all the ups and downs, I tend to smooth them out by not getting carried away with it at the time, and trying to look at it all from a distance.” Kilbey concedes this way of post- experiencing his band’s most significant moments was born somewhat out of necessity, a sub- conscious method of self-preservation in order to avoid becoming another rock ‘n’ roll casualty. He marvels at how The Beatles were able to become the subjects of unprecedented fandom and media coverage while remaining, for the most part, “normal guys.”
“Just because you’re a guy who can sit down and write songs on a guitar, doesn’t mean you are ready for it,” he explains. “They’re all different things and just because you are good at one, doesn’t mean you are good at the other. Before I’d had some success in music I thought I would be in the moment, being jubilant all the time, but I found it wasn’t like that. I couldn’t enjoy it the way I’d hoped to. It’s a hard thing to stand on stage at a big festival and see 100,000 people out there and kind of actualise that at the time. Sometime when it’s over and you are sitting on your own, you begin to bring back those feelings and think about what it felt like. It’s kind of a weird thing.”
As Kilbey notes, rock ‘n’ roll’s back pages are littered with cautionary tales of those who flew too closely to the flame.
“It’s all very tricky and it’s not ever exactly how you hoped it was going to be. I reckon it’s like that for everyone. You can see that in some of the biggest stars in the world; they’re some of the most unhappy. Suicidal and drinking –the people you’d think would be the most happy, going ‘Wow’, they’re the people that can’t stand it – like Kurt Cobain and Elvis, they couldn’t handle it.”
Kilbey’s own downfall arrived in 1990 when he found his dalliance with heroin had become a full-blown addiction. The band had just come off the back of their most commercially successful record in Starfish, only to follow it up with the “lousy” LA-produced Gold Afternoon Fix, which was made under increasing pressure from Arista to replicate the success of Starfish. Not surprisingly, this didn’t sit well with the band and resulted in an uneven record, but the disappointing sales meant Arista lowered their sales expectations considerably.
The band returned to Sydney and began stretching out artistically in the studio. The resulting album, Priest = Aura is feted as the finest in their canon (Kilbey prefers 2005’s Back With Two Beasts, an Internet-only release: “That’s my favourite because it’s the weirdest”). The sprawling Priest = Aura was also the only positive outcome of his increasing reliance on opiates, an addiction that he went on to battle for a decade.
“In the beginning I had a small honeymoon period where I did the album Priest = Aura. If people like the feeling on that album, that is very largely due to the feeling of opiates. After that, I think it had a negative effect on everything I did in every way, and made me a shabby, shoddy, half-arsed, second-rate human being leading a half-life. Not giving anything on stage, not giving anything in the studio and just being a complete… heroin addict. All you can do is cope with being a heroin addict. It’s a 99-hour-a-day job.”
Despite being hyper-aware of the aforementioned pressures and pitfalls of the music industry, his use of opiates was less a reaction to his increasing success, and more a by-product of his renegade mindset at the time.
“You know what,” he says resolutely, “it was pure hedonism and pure hubris of thinking ‘Oh, I can try any drug and nothing will happen’ and underestimating heroin, which is very easy. It’s not a wild feeling at all, it’s kind of like ‘Oh, I kinda feel nice,’ it’s not like acid or datura. Imagine you’ve had a lovely day swimming, been in the sun, had a lovely meal, then you have a warm bath and you’re just sitting there, the day’s all over and you’ve got all these endorphins and you feel very peaceful and rested – that’s what heroin feels like.” So I underestimated it and got drawn in. It did its thing on me and I couldn’t get out of it.”
Although he paints a quite serene picture of the initial effects of the drug, Kilbey spent the next ten years attempting to kick the habit. In the end it was lack of availability that forced him to go cold turkey while the band were holed up in a small, mid-American town in the dead of winter.
“It disarms your willpower so you don’t know what you’re willing to do,” he recalls. “It distorts your thinking, it’s in your brain and it’s watching your thoughts and as you’re thinking ‘I’m gonna do something about this,’ it’s already heard that thought and is figuring out how it’s going to stop you. It’s very hard to outwit an enemy that’s in your own head. So in the end I had to sneak up on it accidentally, finding myself in a situation I hadn’t anticipated – I couldn’t get it. And for a while its going ‘you gotta get it, you gotta get it’ – if I was in Sydney, I’d have gone ‘alright, I will,’ but when you’re somewhere and it’s not possible after a while you go ‘Okay, I have to just fucking go through this’ and you go through it.”
This decade-long struggle hasn’t dulled his penchant for experimentation, however.
“I still like all other drugs and I’d still take all other drugs in a flash.” He pauses to reconsider. “Yeah, I’d take any drug if I felt like it, but heroin was the only one that fucked me, so I couldn’t get away. The others I can do a bit of a dance with, but heroin, you can’t take it on. It’s bigger than you. You can’t beat it, everyone wants to bow out on a good one, but you can’t with heroin; you crawl away whimpering and you never go back.”
Any band would have fallen apart under such an intolerable situation, and a cursory glance over the band’s output during the ‘90s shows a talented band clearly flailing. One of the three founding members, the incendiary guitarist Peter Koppes, left the band shortly after the release of Priest=Aura while band members focused on other side-projects. Abandoned studio sessions, flirtations with electronica and lacklustre sales of the (quite excellent) 1994 release Sometime Anywhere saw the band dropped by Arista. The unfocusedMagician Among the Spirits followed on their own label; an American distributor the group had struck a deal with went bankrupt and sunk a quarter of a million dollars worth of the band’s merchandise in the process. The mounting pressure saw the often-fractious band come dangerously close to splitting. Kilbey was blunt with the press at the time, stating that this could very well spell the end of the church. It’s no coincidence that the first record the church released after Kilbey kicked heroin and the band dug out of their financial hole remains the calmest in their canon; a lush bed of soundscapes, After Everything Now Thiswas apt both in title and content.
Reflecting on the fact the church have managed to stay operational for thirty years, Kilbey rattles off a list of reasons that have contributed to the band’s longevity. “I think the band stayed together for a number of reasons; if it was agriculture, you’d say ‘this tree didn’t have too much sun, but didn’t have too much shade, it didn’t have too much rain but didn’t have too much heat.’ It was just the right conditions, we were always successful enough to keep going, and for some carrot to be dangled in front of us, but we were never successful enough to feel like we didn’t need the band. Although we’re very argumentative, and nasty with each other, we’re harsh judges of the music we make; if anyone’s coasting or doing anything that is too obvious or old we are ruthless. We weed out stuff we don’t like.
“We’re all quite passionate about very different things too, so it pulls us into some other place.” He pauses. “It’s just a lot of luck, though. That’s the most important thing.”