If there’s one thing that is patently obvious over the forty years of Steve Kilbey‘s career, he is the maestro of melody and mysticism. Whether fronting The Church, through his many collaborations and solo work, Kilbey captures the kind of melodies that catch like superglue, wrapping his inherent romanticism and wry lyrics in a glorious multi-coloured cloak.
2020, the year of COVID, has seen this remarkable talent distilled and bottled in a series of recordings that have defied science by not being becoming diluted in any way. Concentrated quality songwriting.
We reviewed the extraordinary collaboration with classical multi-instrumentalist Gareth Koch in ‘Chryse Planitia’ earlier year, where Kilbey added his magic touch to Koch’s medieval palette. Now, Koch returns the favour in Kilbey’s new solo album ‘Eleven Women’ by providing the lush instrumentation and the fruits of this are undeniable.
‘Eleven Women’ has a production that is absolutely free of unnecessary adornment or distracting effects: the instrumentation is crystal clear, raw and acoustic and the song-craft stands exposed and transparent. And is all the better for it. Koch’s guitars add a pastoral element to the songs, creating a whole new style that indelibly augments and sustains the songs.
From the standard swinging rock’n’roll anthemic blast of ‘Woman Number 9’ and ‘Queen of Spades’ to the pure pop perfection of ‘Sheba Chiba’, every track is a perfect shimmering jewel with Kilbey’s lyrics and distinctive voice the sparkling heart.
And Kilbey’s wry humour is never far from the surface – ‘Josephine’ nods to the fabled Napoleonic response to his wife’s demands (‘not tonight, Josephine’) and opening track ‘Poppy Byron’ has bizarre images of Mary Shelley watching the TV.
This is without doubt a concept album that reflects Kilbey’s deep respect for the thread of women he sings about – historical and ancient figures and personal acquaintances all steeped in romanticism – the heartbreaking, fragile and elegant closing track ‘Think of You (for Jessie Bellette)’ epitomises this.
Kilbey’s voice throughout is deep and crisp – emotionally raw and at times melancholic, at times tinged in humour and playfulness.
‘Eleven Women’ is a pure unadulterated joy. It is not just an album for the completist The Church fan – it stand on its own as a beautifully expressed monument to Kilbey’s talent as a songwriter and his ability to draw upon the best to support his glittering vision.
I caught up with Steve Kilbey in between his many obligations – live work, Instagram performances and recording, and fired off some questions that covered his 40 year career with The Church through to the new solo album.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of The Church – it must be disappointing not to be able to celebrate this. What had been planned?
This was our 40th anniversary wasn’t it! However none of those guys are left so it would have been weird, you know – it would have been my 40th anniversary with myself!
Despite that we did have a big thing ready for the end of the year – we were going play all the albums for the 40th anniversary but yeah, it’s all cancelled, it’s all over. There’s a long list of disappointments, aren’t there, with COVID?
What advice would you have for your younger self forty years ago?
My advice for myself would be not to be such a dickhead as I was, that’s what I would say.
I ruined it for myself a lot by having this idea that I was going to be this character, this kind of aloof, icy, nasty character. I don’t know where I got all that from. I used to carry on like this and I didn’t get invited back on TV shows. I should’ve just been a nicer person, but it was too late and by the time I realised this, it was all over.
It was all over for that particular thing. I used to read the music magazines in England and there was a guy called Steve Harley in Cockney Rebels and he really started off with a chip on his shoulder and he used to call the magazines the comics and he had an attitude with all of the interviewers and I thought wow that’s the way to do it.
In Australia it was all “Hello Mate I love your band’ and I thought I’m going to be the diametric opposite of that: I’m going to be ‘Oh really?’ – I thought I was going to be…’European’ – disdainful – ‘European’ is the word I’m grasping for. We were trying to be ‘European’ always and sometimes being ‘European’ didn’t go down very well in Australia in 1981…
I remember once I was on the Donny Sutherland Show and I was being ‘European’ and he leaned over to me in one of the breaks and said ‘If you’re not going to fucking talk then what are you on here for’ and that scared me even more…So I’ve turned the ‘European’ down and amped up the Australian a bit more now – it works a lot better.
In your biography, you talk in detail about your friendship with Grant McLennan from The Go-Betweens – there’s a great quote from a Belle and Sebastian song about McLennan that says, ‘he’s charming but he’s a troublemaker too’. He had quite an impact on you…
McLennan yeah I’d never had a friend like that before and we were as thick as thieves. He was the only guy that when I was writing songs with, I felt like he was an equal. I never would have dreamed of writing lyrics with anybody. I would write music with people, but I wouldn’t ever dream of sitting there swapping lyrics with someone, but, with Grant, I felt like we were really on an equal level. We were really good friends, we were always doing stupid things together and he was a great guy to hang around with and, yeah, I miss him.
I’ve got to write an article about The Go-Betweens for a Rolling Stones piece called 50 Iconic Australian Bands of all Time, with other Australian musicians writing about it, so I have to revisit all my Go-Betweens memories and get them out for that article.
I often think that The Church were a gateway drug for me to the Australian indie music scene and bands like The Go-Betweens…
(Laughs) Yes, that’s a good term – The Church were a gateway drug to indie music. We sort of had a foot in both camps – we were a little bit indie and a little bit commercial as well. I guess we wanted to be a little bit more commercial than indie but then we were a little bit indie – whatever that term means. If one of my daughters asked me what does indie mean, I would say I didn’t know that I could actually explain it. Remember Sting’s famous comment – someone said to him why don’t you do something more independent and he said, ‘what does that mean – independent from good?’
To wind back to 1980 – it seems to me that The Church were at the forefront of guitar-based jingly jangly guitar songs, a precursor to the later C86 era indie pop – what do you recall that your influences were at this time?
Well it was the Beatles. My influences were always the same – The Beatles, Mark Bolan, Dylan, the Stones and that’s really it – always harking back to that classical thing – classic rock and roll, and you know, in the beginning of the 80s there weren’t many people doing that. We were one of the very first jingle jangle return-to-psychedelia bands – we were doing that before almost anybody else.
And REM didn’t release Murmur until 1983…
I found it incredibly frustrating to be compared to them – people saying The Church were Australia’s answer to REM when we already had three or four albums out before anyone even heard of them. I never like really liked REM – they never really jingle jangled and they only had 1 guitar and I didn’t really like anything about them. I normally wouldn’t have cared about them, but I started to really hate them because we’re always fucking compared to them. We were nothing like them, we had nothing to do with them at all.
What do you say to those who say the band is no longer The Church without Marty Wilson-Piper and more recently Peter Koppes?
Well, it’s not that Church any more. This is the thing – Marty did 33 years in The Church and Peter did 39 years. You’d imagine that people could let them go – they’d had enough, they didn’t want to do it anymore – and that leaves me with a large body of work which is all called The Church – you know, about 30 albums which I wrote most of.
I can understand their disappointment, but they also have to understand that’s my trademark, that’s my name and I want to carry on playing that volume of work and I’ve got other musicians who want to play it, so it has to be The Church. If you look at the first 4 albums, I wrote them all completely on my own. Those guys, they’re guitarists and then they’re not, they weren’t songwriters. We did a long stretch together and then both of them finally had had enough, maybe they had enough of me and had enough of each other and I had enough of them and that’s it, they’re gone.
And you could say perfect riposte to this when Marty left was the album ‘Further Deeper’ which to me is one of your best albums…
Thank you, thank you. Well we’re halfway or three quarters of the way through a new album without Peter and it is sounding pretty good. People don’t know what other people do in bands. I’ve already read people saying how they will miss Peter in The Church when we haven’t done a gig or made a record they’ve heard. How can they miss him when they don’t even know what we’re going to do? I understand – people become very attached to a football team and if a player leaves, they say but it is not the same now without him – I can understand that. I sympathise and you know we did hold it together for a long time, but you know, they had enough.
You have been spending a lot of time in Damien Gerrard Studios‘ new premises this year – there is quite a history from the old Damien Gerard Studios in Rozelle, Sydney – can you tell us about that link?
Yes – I used to own that studio, and Damien Gerard Studios moved in and then I moved to Sweden and I think it might have been a few other owners between them and me but I wasn’t the original owner either – Mark Punch had a studio there called Electric Avenue where The Church first recorded and I lived just across the road in Mansfield Street, so when that facility became available I took it, I got in there and moved all my stuff there and then I moved to Sweden and I sold it all up.
Any truth in the rumour ‘Under the Milky Way’ was written there?
There is no doubt that COVID isolation has not been wasted by you: you have already released two collaborations with Gareth Koch, you’ve done some solo gigs around Sydney, you’ve just done a live gig with a band and now this solo album. Have you found this period particularly creatively fertile?
I’m always creative, like I’m always creating, I’m always writing, I’m always working, I never stop painting or writing and COVID hasn’t really affected my creativity much – although I guess without all the gigs…
I guess I would have been touring this year – I would’ve been probably touring right now on the American tour – so I guess without doing all those gigs I’ve turned back to writing more than I would have normally, and sort of trying to figure out what I can do in the time involved – you know without going anywhere and having an audience. I have had to go back and learn a lot of old material – I have been doing shows on Instagram playing entire albums.
I’ve been spending a lot more time playing acoustic guitar than I ever had. Normally, my acoustic guitar, I pick it up to write a song yeah and then when I’ve written it and go to the band ‘here’s a song I’ve written – you play guitar and I play the bass’ but I guess I’ve started sitting around strumming my acoustic guitar a lot more…
You’ve got quite a gorgeous Guild haven’t you?
I’ve got a lovely Guild 12 string, top of the line, that my friends got me for my 60th birthday – they all put in together to buy me it. It’s a really beautiful guitar and a real pleasure to play it – it sorts of plays itself, doesn’t go out of tune and so yeah, I just start writing a lot more songs on that.
Going back to ‘Chryse Planitia’ – Backseat Mafia reviewed this and rated it very highly. How did this collaboration with Gareth Koch come about?
He just said ‘I got your number off Martin Kennedy (another collaborator) and would you be interested in singing on a couple of songs for me’, so I said sure send them on to me and then we did that album at the old Damien Gerard studio – the ones that used to be mine. Then he said you want to do a whole album with me, and I said sure. So, he wrote all of the music and I just turned up and wrote the words and sang on him for two days and it was over.
And then you followed that up with another album…
While we were doing ‘Chryse Planitia’, I said to Gareth that of all your songs are kind of medieval and Gareth said that’s what I am – that’s what Spanish guitar is like. I said that my favourite period is before that – like ancient music and he said that no-one knows what that sounds like and I suggested we try and reimagine what it sounds like if you want to and suggested we should make an album re-imagining that.
So we went back into the studio and did another album ‘Songs From Another Life’ which is kind of trying to re imagine the Greeks and the Roman and the Phoenicians and the Babylonians music – trying to reimagine what their music and their lyrics might have sounded like. Obviously, nothing like that – it certainly didn’t sound like what we came up with (laughs).
I’m influenced by movie music, like when you go and see Ben Hur when you’re a kid and The Ten Commandments – it’s all the biblical music that they had, right, so it’s sort of like all just cobbled together from vague ideas of what perhaps that could have been, re-imagining it.
Certainly, the music is raw and acoustic – there are no effects pedals…
I had a little bit to do with the music but it was mainly Gareth’s music and it was amazing what Gareth could do with an acoustic guitar – he could really summon up the idea of an ancient instrument so he could make his guitar sound like a lyre or a harp.
You and Gareth recently played live with the band The Winged Heels and it was quite exciting to see Barton Price (from Models) involved…
Barton Price is a friend of mine and I’ve known him for a while and outside of The Church is my go-to drummer and then he brought along Roger Mason who was a keyboard player in the Models of course, and he was brilliant. Both of them played on my solo album ‘Eleven Women’ and Gareth was hanging around as well so they all just ended up on the album.
Congratulations on ‘Eleven Women’ which has that sort of back to basics acoustic feel. Would the bedrock of these songs normally have been written for The Church or is it completely separate process?
No, The Church has this thing where The Church only wants to do songs The Church writes together, so I don’t come along and say here’s a song to do. But if I had really exceptional churchy song, like on ‘Further Deeper’ I had ‘Old Coast Road’, so I thought this is really stupid if we don’t do this because it’s really an archetypal Church song. Really the philosophy behind The Church is that it is a collective and we write the music together and then I write the words on top.
None of these songs would have ever ended up on The Church record.
I would imagine someone who likes The Church would like Eleven Women – I mean it’s not as electric guitary as maybe The Church but it’s not a million miles away.
With the title and the eleven songs referencing women, is this concept album – is there a particular theme or idea linking the songs?
Yes I had this idea a long time ago to do this album to have eleven – well it started off with ten – having an album that each song was a women and I never really got around to it. I was doing the live albums on Instagram and was trying to think of an album to play and then I thought it would be easier to write a new album that to learn another album! I’ was spending all week trying to figure out how to play ‘The Blurred Crusade’ album and it just seemed easier to decide that next week I’m going to write a new album. And I did! I wrote eleven new songs.
Are these songs based on women you know?
Some of them are…everything is a conglomerate of things you are thinking about at that moment.
What’s next for the album?
If things open up, we intend to play it – with The Winged Heels – wherever we can. There will probably be a launch in Sydney, and that’s it, I imagine – playing to a socially distanced fifty people.
Let’s hope it doesn’t get worse…
I know – I’m grateful for what there is.
And what about The Church – what’s next for the band?
The Church album is about three quarters of the way finished, but we had all this work lined up to tour the UK, Europe and America and there are shows being planned for 2021 – you know people ring me up and say can we do this wherever and I say yes whatever you like but whether it can happen, who knows? It would be great if it all blows over and 2021 is business as usual, but its hard to see this happening isn’t it?
You have been touring extensively over the past few years – hats off to whoever organises these…
A lot of people don’t know this but the last six or seven years we’ve been doing about 200 gigs a year in America – we go around and around America playing everywhere. The band got really good – we played so much we got really tight and we were really ready to keep on rockin’, but this COVID really fucked things up…
Are there any local bands you would recommend?
No not really – I’m not really in the loop anymore – I’m just working in my own furrow. I don’t know what’s going on out there. My days of knowing what’s up and coming and what’s cool and hip are long passed!
Thanks for your time and good luck with the album.
‘Eleven Women’ is released on 4 September through Foghorn Records and you can order here. You can get ‘Chryse Planitia’ and ‘Songs from Another Life’ here and here respectively.