Meet: Is this all there is? An interview with Steve Kilbey (The Church) on the new album ‘The Hypnogogue’, the US tour, being a stand-up comedian and the temporal nature of existence.

Feature Photograph: Hugh Stewart

The Church – a veritable and venerated music institution – are about to release their new and much anticipated album ‘The Hypnogogue’. The band celebrated its 40 years as an entity in 2020.

I caught up with singer, songwriter, bass player and spiritual leader Steve Kilbey on the eve of the album’s release and on the eve of another extensive US tour. Looking a lot younger than his 68 years, Kilbey professed to be unwell (not, he noted, due to COVID) and hoped that our interview would lift his spirits. A heavy burden to bear. What followed was an extremely entertaining discourse – I don’t know if his spirit was lifted but I was certainly entertained.

The last time we spoke was in August 2020: a prolific year for Kilbey – he released a solo album, collaborations with Martin Kennedy (All India Radio), Glen Bennie (Underground Lovers) and Gareth Koch as well as commencing work on The Church’s new album. Kilbey noted that in the ensuing years, he hadn’t been quite so prolific – he hadn’t released so many albums, was no longer doing Instagram shows but he had explored new ways to perform.

Someone came up with the idea that I play The Church’s greatest hits on my own (solo) and with a sort of ‘pick up’ band, which I’ve done a bit. So The Church is supposed to be a more esoteric incarnation and then there’s the band that plays all the 1980 1992 hits – I’ve had some success with that – it seems more popular than The Church (laughs) – which is a shame. I just wanted to exploit my back catalogue a bit and make some money out of that (laughs).

On a serious note, Kilbey says that his main priority is always The Church – the real Church:

On the eve of an American tour and the new record – the first new record in five years or something – I’m getting geared up for that.

I steered Kilbey back to his solo gigs – a new arrow in his quiver – curious as to how that felt to perform without a band behind him.

It’s a really different thing. I’ve become a bit of a comic. Look: I’m not a good enough singer or a good enough 12-sting guitarist to hold an audience enthralled with my musical skills. I’m not!

So, on my own, I’ve had to develop a tactic to cope with that, and that is being a bit of a raconteur and telling stories, trying to put people in the picture of what my life was like back in 1980. So that’s a whole different thing because there’s a lot of talking and a lot of joking around, whereas with The Church, there’s not a whole lot of talking, there’s a lot of playing. That’s what I’m best at – playing bass guitar. Unlike most people, I didn’t begin by strumming acoustic guitar on my own and then eventually join a band. I started by playing bass guitar and immediately joined a band and it was only years and years later that I experimented with going out and playing acoustic guitar accompanying myself singing. It’s not really what I do or what I’m best at. I’m far more comfortable within the band playing bass.

I noted that one is very naked and exposed in such a situation.

Totally! With the band there is so much noise and there’s lights and pomp and ceremony (laughs) – guitarists grimacing, drummers walloping the drum kit and flashing cameras and all that. Solo there’s just me standing on a little stage, it’s a whole different thing but I enjoy the challenge of that. Two completely different sides of what I do.

When asked what had changed in his life since we last spoke in the midst of COVID back in 2020, Kilbey wryly boasted of his newfound career as a stand-up comedian. I asked if Kilbey had a plan b to develop a career as a stand-up comedian should all else fail, and he confessed he wouldn’t mind that at all.

I think I’ve got a pretty good rock’n’roll comedy show in me (laughs). Rock’n’roll is as funny all as fuck. It’s a funny game. You know, I imagine a Martian appearing, and we go to an AC/DC concert and he says, ‘please explain what’s happening to me, please explain what’s happening here’ and it’s pretty fucking funny when you think about what’s going on. Rock’n’roll is pretty funny – people take it seriously, but I reckon I could have a pretty good comedy show. I could impersonate people, dance around, play a bit. A lot of people have been saying to me after these gigs I should ditch the guitar and just tell jokes.

We turn to the new album – Kilbey explained the correct pronunciation for the ‘The Hypnogogue (Hip-no-gog) – and the meaning of the title.

There’s no such word, really – there’s a word hypnagogic and the hypnagogic state is the state between sleeping and dreaming when the ideas start to turn into dreams. So, you’re lying there thinking about when you were a kid and you were around at your Aunty May’s house, and then somehow as you’re falling asleep, that drip, that idea, that thought, will start to turn into a dream. It’s not quite a dream and there’s this kind of light – it’s my favourite state of being when the things are flowing –  just the ideas and the thoughts.

I was always thinking there’s the hypnagogic state and yet there’s no hypnogogue –  a place where you go to experience the hypnagogic state. So, for this album, The Church’s first and only concept album, it’s about a place called the hypnogogue, set in the future.

It’s a very ramshackle and rundown future. They don’t have all the spare parts so someone has cobbled together a machine or place, or a building or an event called the hypnagogue which is half occult, half drugs, half machine –  whatever they can do – and people go in there and they get songs pulled straight out of their head without having to bother to write them. The machine writes hit songs, but it has terrible consequences for our hero, the protagonist, who goes there.

So, the new album is kind of very loosely based around that idea set in 2054  – thirty years into the future. This guy, who’s had some successes, he’s like a big pop star in in the future but he has dried up and he goes to this place, engages with the machine, falls in love with the woman scientist who’s invented it, and they overdo it, the songs are toxic and it all goes horribly wrong!

I joke about the quantity of chemical intervention that was required to come up with a storyline like this.

All of them! What have you got?

I returned to the idea of doing a concept album, and Kilbey noted that for him personally, it was a recent approach and, in the process, makes a very revealing disclosure about the future of The Church.

My last two albums were concept albums (collaborations with Martin Kennedy) – I know you know these records because you wrote some nice reviews! The first one is a concept about Jupiter 13 which is about a sort of satellite where things go wrong – in all these fucking things, things go wrong (laughs)  – I can hear my mother’s voice going ‘why don’t you write a happy record, son, why do things always go wrong?’ (laughs) And then the second album ‘The Strange Life of Persephone Nimbus’ is about a girl who gets involved with the wrong crowd.

So after having never really done a concept album in my life, and this being very possibly the last Church album ever (it’s hard to imagine there will be one more after this, though it could come to pass), I thought as we were starting to write this album and as I was starting to write lyrics, I was thinking this could be a great concept album so I  made it work.  It wasn’t like it was naturally happening, I sort of beat the songs into place so they would work within this concept.

It was quite stunning to hear Kilbey reveal that this might possibly be the last The Church album ever, but I was relieved that there was a degree of qualification. I wondered whether the exploration of the spiritual, mystical worlds set in the future was a reaction against our current reality.

It’s really interesting, being such an old man as I am  – and I’m not joking here  –  I don’t have much of a future so I’ve become very…

I mean all good sci-fi is located in the future it’s just the terrain. It’s unlikely I’m going to make a concept album about mediaeval times, but it seems like in the future, that’s where all the interesting stuff will happen, or maybe not. I do think the world’s going in a really weird and bad way, and part of this album that I’m talking about in the future is already happening – see this site (Chat.gpt) –  a guy posted on The Church site that he told the AI site to write a song in a Steve Kilbey manner.  It wasn’t very good but soon maybe AI will get it together and write something good.

This is a kind of a like a merger. The hypnagogue is a merger between AI and real humans, sort of like using technology to suck stuff out of a human brain. I don’t know – the present? What am I going to fucking write about in the present? The future is infinitely untouched and it’s just up to one’s imagination.

Kilbey expresses doubts on the reception of a concept album:

Probably a lot of people are really groaning –  I don’t think this is going to be a very popular idea this this concept album of mine. I’m just realising that now if they’re probably groaning, they want another  –

Unguarded Moment?  

(laughs) Who fucking knows, right?

The theme of the temporality of life and aging seems an apt moment to the discuss the spate deaths amongst musicians recently – David Crosby, Tom Verlaine and Terry Hall as examples. Kilbey reminisced about The Church being huge Television fans and later touring with Tom Verline as support – Verlaine travelling on their bus, hanging out with the band and joining on guitar during encores. While he wouldn’t call him a close friend, they had some memorable times together.

I had some really crazy times with Tom just him and I and him and the band. For example, once we cooked up an idea that we should play monopoly with real money and were sitting at the back of the bus putting in a real $100 bills down and stuff and he was very argumentative, and he never paid up  – he was incredibly stingy.

He chain smoked and drank coffee just like Steven Cummins (The Sports) –  both of them – they smoked so many cigarettes and they drank so much coffee they were like oscillating in another universe already. Even shocking for me who’s the biggest drug bag that’s ever lived who’s taken so many fucking drugs. Those two things –  smoking millions and millions of cigarettes and drinking thousands of cups of coffee  – I just can’t understand how they did that.

Verlaine was just wired all the time. Mean and stingy and hilarious – nothing like you would imagine he was.

Kilbey goes on to tell the famous tale of sharing $1.50 chips with Verlaine who insisted he paid less because Kilbey ate a percentage more of the chips, mimicking Verlaine’s American twang:

I noticed, you know, it cost a dollar fifty for those French fries and I gotta say you ate lot more than me and I don’t think it’s fair, like, to pay $0.75… well look I only really had about 10 chips and I’ll pay for the ketchup so you know I really only owe you about $0.10

Kilbey’s admiration for Verlaine remained soundly intact.

This was the guy I grew up reading about with his swan like neck and his stranglers hands on the guitar, who named himself after a French poet and was Patti Smith’s boyfriend. It was marvellous to see this guy close up. He was nothing like what you would imagine him to be. I’m sure people say that about me too, you know (laughs), but he really was a marvellous New York jokey kind of character so when he died, yes it made me very sad.

Crosby makes me sad, but boy, you know, he was living on borrowed time, so I think that the fact that he got to eighty is pretty impressive. You know he was dying 30 years ago…(laughs)

And Terry Hall… every man’s death diminishes me as John Donne said. If I just even pick up an obituary and read of somebody I’ve never heard of died, yeah that makes me sad. You wonder who the fuck is going to go this year  –  there’s a few up for the Grim Reaper – including me! You know I’m two years off 70 –  if I died now no one will go ‘oh he’s so young’. 68 is not so young – my dad only got to 52, he would have loved to have got to 68. I feel like when McCartney goes and Dylan, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards all of those rock and roll bands  – Neil Young: that one’s going to fucking hurt when he goes –  Townshend  – they’re all getting eligible, they can’t all go on forever. And there’s no-one around to really replace them…I don’t know – I’m so old maybe there are brilliant young rockers out there coming up through the ranks, but I’m not so sure. So when they go they’re going to leave a great big void. But Tom Verlaine was not someone you ever thought would die. He seemed like he was immortal.

It’s like we are all on a travellator and the end is coming up soon…

It’s going to happen sooner or later, my old friend.

The transience and temporality of life is clearly on Kilbey’s mind and his response is the creation of another world and time to express artistic endeavours and dispel the realities of life. Over the forty years of creativity and countless albums, I wondered how the development of ‘The Hypnogogue’ differed from previous The Church albums.

In the beginning I wrote all the fucking songs, and when I say I wrote everything I mean everything. I wrote all the guitar parts and the keyboards –  and people won’t believe this. They say ‘no you didn’t’ but all that stuff you’re hearing it was me.  Not the solos, but most of what the guitars were doing and all of that was me. I wasn’t as good as those guys but I I figured it all out and I brought it along and said this is what we’re going to do.

That would’ve hit its peak around ‘Séance’ where the only thing that the guitarists thought of was the guitar solos –  everything else was just me for better or for worse. I didn’t think it was necessarily for the better, so on ‘Heyday’ I said to the guys ‘you’re now big and ugly enough to think of your own guitar parts’, and so how we worked is that people would come up with a good a guitar riff or we’d jam and we’d figure out something and then I would step in and go OK now this is a thing we’ve got here, we’re going to work on this and develop it into a song, because that’s what I was good at. I’m good providing a context for really good players to play in.

If you look at a song like ‘Is This Where You Live’,  it’s just two notes going (imitates the run): that’s all it is but then they do all their brilliance over the top yeah, but it still takes someone to think of (hums the riff again). At that point we all started writing together.  We would jam it out and I would go ‘OK I want this bit’ and then I would sing over the top and I wrote the melodies.

That song writing process has pretty much remained in place ever since, including with this album. A bunch of really good players  – we went in the studio, and it was much easier because these new guys were not so argumentative as the old guys were. The old guys, as good as they were, didn’t always want to harness themselves and rightly so. When they became stars in their own right – when they had got some notoriety, people said ‘hey why is Kilbey doing all the singing and writing all the songs, you should be doing that’. They became more argumentative saying ’oh I don’t know why we’re doing this, I don’t know, I don’t want to do that’, so if I walked in and said ‘let’s detune our guitars and record in a garage’ or something, they go ‘no I don’t want to do that’.

The new guys are more open to being guided by me and more willing to try experimenting. Some of the songs on this album are sonic experiments.  The first song on the album (‘Ascendance’) came from my idea of an Escher-like ascendance –  a chord progression that just goes up and up and up and up and just keeps moving up like the Escher picture of the guy who’s perpetually walking up stairs. On some of the tracks the players came up with on their own ideas and then I re contextualise these ideas into songs. Some tracks come from jams. We had these two wonderful jams that went on for an hour each one marvellous but nobody knew what to do with them, so I waded and cut them up into the songs.

I wondered if there was any favourite track on the album and without hesitation, Kilbey nominates ‘Antarctica’.

I listened to the album the other night and I keep coming back to Antarctica. The track is called Antarctica because the album is set in the future and the hero lives in Antarctica which is one of the only habitable places on earth in 30 years’ time. He lives there and he writes a kind of a paean, an anthem for his country (Kilbey breaks into song). I really like that song – it’s recontextualized from a jam and the playing is really loose. We are playing it live but it’s so hard to reproduce the looseness of a jam, so you’re getting a song that has never been played before but what you’re hearing is us writing it spontaneously and me wading into it with a pair of scissors, saying I’ll have this bit in this bit and putting it all back together.

The way the drums are playing – Tim playing thinking he’s playing something no one’s ever going to hear and so he’s loose and he’s wild and crazy – he’s just having fun and improvising the way it should be, never thinking that this is going to make it onto a record and so there’s some marvellous drumming on Antarctica and I’m really pleased with that.

I ruminate that there is such a complex story and themes attached to the album and ask whether there will be guidance in the way of a compendium to take the listener through the story.

Each song has a photo, a quote, and an excerpt from the lyrics to help you, if you want to, to decipher the story. It starts here, it goes along here, and it ends here, and this is how it all works. But it’s incredibly vague, it’s incredibly ambiguous and you wouldn’t have to know anything, you would never have to look at that and listen to it and know any part of it if you didn’t want to. It’s optional but it will come with the album, or we have this little sheet that will tell you what’s going.

I observe that The Church obviously love going to the US and are about to embark on another massive tour there – I wondered what was the attraction?

They appreciate us more than anywhere else! And you go where you appreciated! We play nice venues and the audiences love us  – sometimes we just walk onstage they give us a standing ovation before we played note. It’s the place with the most cities  – we’re going for six weeks, and people are already complaining we are not playing some cities. You could go play different city every night for a year and never go back to the same place twice. It’s just the best place  – it’s just the best place setup to enjoy us. Playing Europe going from country to country is a pain in the arse especially with the Brexit thing. Touring there used to work out really well for me being an Englishman, but now it’s going to be a real pain in the arse. I hope we do get to tour Europe and of course we love playing in Australia, but we’ve never really been as revered anywhere as much as we are in America  because we are foreigners, and they don’t know about you. In Australia there’s a whole lot of baggage that comes with The Church and with me and ‘The Unguarded Moment’, and he said this and he did that.

In America it’s not like that  – they think more about the music and not so much about the personality behind it all.

Time had run out – this could have gone on for hours. I rounded up the interview with some quick fire questions in the manner of a Smash Hits teen magazine. Despite the brevity of what is written here and the unfair nature of the questions, Kilbey did find it extremely challenging:

Favourite band: Sigur Ros

Favourite guitarist: Bill Nelson (Be Bop Deluxe) (with Tom Verlaine close behind)

Favourite bass player: Chris Squires (Yes) (I could never play what he does if I joined a Yes cover band)

Favourite Album: Diamond Dogs by David Bowie

Favourite The Church song: Antarctica

Favourite venue to play in: The Sydney Opera House (that’s when you know you’re not playing in some pub in Newtown)

Cones or cups for ice-cream: Cones (when it gets down the bottom and there’s that little bit of frozen chocolate – yeah, cups are boring, now give me a fucking cone)

The US dates for The Church are as follows:

Mar 11  Los Angeles, CA               The Belasco – Ticket link
Mar 12  Solana Beach, CA           Belly Up Tavern – Ticket link
Mar 14  San Francisco, CA          Great American Music Hall – Ticket link
Mar 16  Portland, OR                     Aladdin Theater – Ticket link
Mar 17  Tacoma, WA                      Elks Temple Ballroom – Ticket link
Mar 21  Englewood, CO                Gothic Theater – Ticket link
Mar 23  Minneapolis, MN            Fine Line Music Hall – Ticket link
Mar 25  St Louis, MO                    Delmar Hall – Ticket link
Mar 26  Chicago, IL                        Thalia Hall – Ticket link
Mar 28  Kent, OH                           Kent Stage – Ticket link
Mar 29  Philadelphia, PA            Theatre of Living Arts – Ticket link
Mar 30  New York, NY                  Gramercy Theater – Ticket link
Mar 31  Boston, MA                       The Sinclair – Ticket link
Apr 1    Hartford, CT                     Infinity Hall – Ticket link
Apr 3    Asbury Park, NJ              Asbury Lanes – Ticket link
Apr 4    Alexandria, VA                 Birchmere Music Hall – Ticket link
Apr 5    Norfolk VA                         The Norva – Ticket link
Apr 6    Carrboro, NC                    Cat’s Cradle – Ticket link
Apr 8    Pelham, TN                        The Caverns – Ticket link

If you catch up with him, don’t give him a cup for ice-cream. You read it first here.

‘The Hypnogogue’ is out on 24 February 2023.


Feature Photograph: Hugh Stuart

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