Q&A With The Church’s Steve Kilbey

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Many people, much to the band’s collective chagrin, think the Church came and went in 1988 with that year’s Starfish and its hit single, “Under The Milky Way.” While that slick, streamlined effort is fantastic, the melodic, poppier stuff that preceded it and the trippy psych rock that continues to follow are equally enthralling. The Aussie quartet—three original members (bassist/lyricist Steve Kilbey and guitarists Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes) augmented by drummer Tim Powles—returns May 12 with Untitled #23 (Second Motion), by our count its 17th proper studio record. (During a conversation, Kilbey says the band has released more than that, but that number most likely includes compilations and other efforts; we didn’t want to argue, though.) The new LP is more of what we’ve come to expect from the Church: epic soundtracks to a film playing in Kilbey’s mind, featuring lyrics where you don’t know what he’s talking about—he dreams of a minotaur, for example, on “Sunken Sun“—but could give a damn thanks to the sprawling, atmospheric musical landscapes they accompany. In addition to Untitled #23, Kilbey and Willson-Piper have solo efforts out, Painkiller and Nightjar, respectively (both also on Second Motion). Below is our chat with Kilbey, who discusses competing with his bandmate and whether he accepts this writer’s critical mea culpa.

Painkiller‘s “Outbound” (download):

MAGNET: You seem like a very laid-back guy, but is there any type of competition between you and Marty about your solo records?
Kilbey: Only on a very superficial level, I guess. We both do such different things on our own. I don’t compete with anyone, really. My work speaks for itself. I’m plowing my own furrow, and no one else around these days is close.

You can tell us—yours is better, right?
Well, I prefer it, obviously, or I’d be doing his trip. But he could say the same thing. We’re not rivals. We’re two guys working on a project together, with different strengths and weaknesses. That’s the great thing about cooperation and specialization. I specialize in songwriting.

Even though I’ve enjoyed how you guys have evolved, I still go back to records like your 1981 debut, Of Skins And Heart. Songs like “The Unguarded Moment” and “Sisters” will always sound great to me. I’m wondering how you view your early stuff with the passage of time and in relation to how you guys sound now.
I think the early stuff contains the roots of where we are now. It stands up very well considering all the rotten records made back then. It’s not entirely embarrassing, but I don’t ever listen to it if I can help it.

The Church seems to get labeled as an “’80s band,” thanks to the success of “Under The Milky Way.” Considering you’ve gone on another 21 years since Starfish, is that something that bothers you at all?
Yeah, I get sick of being an ’80s band. The ’80s were anathema to us—we survived despite the ’80s, not because of them.

1990’s Gold Afternoon Fix and subsequent records seemed almost reactionary to Starfish—like, “OK, we had a hit, now here’s how we really want to sound.” Is that fair or merely poor speculation? 1992’s Priest = Aura, in particular, has moments that are pretty out there.
Gold Afternoon Fix was a useless mess. Priest = Aura was a masterpiece. We blew it with GAF—it was a frigging gaffe. Priest, yes, it was out there—out there in a beautiful, widescreen place. Oh, if only we’d followed Starfish with Priest. Too bad.

Those days of chart/popular success don’t seem like they’ll come around again, largely due in part to just how the record industry works these days. Do you find yourself dreaming of selling more records, or are you content merely to still be making them?
I dream of many things, but selling more records is not one of them.

You did those two Jack Frost records with the late Grant McLennan. The news of his death (in 2006) must’ve been a shock.
We had just gotten reconciled after a long period of no contact. What a shame. He was a diamond geezer.

In a review I did for 2002’s After Everything Now This, I used words like “pretentious” and “bloated,” even though I was very positive about the record overall. I got into a discussion with fans on the Church’s message board, and while I think they understood where I was coming from and that I’ve been a fan longer than many of them, I definitely felt like I unintentionally gave you guys an unnecessarily backhanded compliment. So my question then is: Do you forgive me?
No. “Pretentious” and “bloated” are not qualities one should attribute to my music. My music is soothing and subtle and sweetly sentimental. You remain unforgiven.

—Matt Hickey

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