Steve Kilbey remembers the first time he was worried The Church might become irrelevant. It was just a few years into a career now spanning three decades.
The moment arose in Kings Cross during the early ’80s and his blossoming rock band had just finished playing one of their early shows when a fan accosted him outside the nightclub.
“This guy came up and told me about this band called Spandau Ballet and said we’d better get with it or we’d be finished,” Kilbey laughs.
“He was persuasively telling me that we should become new romantics.”
Thirty years on and The Church are still going strong. Three quarters of its members remain intact (Kilbey, Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes with drummer Tim Powles joining in 1994). They’ve watched by as musical fashions flashed and disappeared.
While Kilbey admits to enjoying a brief fascination with another English group, Simple Minds – it drove him to seek out their producer Peter Walsh to record The Church’s 1986 album Heyday – otherwise his band have remained fiercely loyal to their own ideology.
“In the early days all the different fads made me feel insecure but as each new thing came along it started to affect me less and less,” Kilbey says.
“Most things I’ve always purposefully reacted against, especially grunge, I had not time for that.”
Over three decades The Church have remained one of the most inventive and single-minded bands in Australian rock. Founded in 1981, the band have built and maintained a cult following here and overseas on the strength of songs like Under The Milky Way and timeless albums like Starfish and Magician Among The Spirits.
Spanning their 70-minute improv jam for 1998’s Hologram of Baal and a collaboration with a science fiction writer in 2008’s Shriek: Excerpts From The Soundtrack, of all the 27 albums arguably their finest was their last, Untitled #23, which won an unprecedented five stars in Rolling Stone magazine.
Last year The Church were inducted into the Australian Rock’N’Roll Hall of Fame. Kilbey delivered a speech that has already gone down in music industry folklore. It would have been the perfect moment to bow out, Kilbey always subscribing to the idea that it’s better to burn out than fading away. But the 56-year-old singer still believes the band have more to offer.
“There’s always more songs to be written and I have things to achieve, to keep getting better and to make that perfect record,” he insists.
“You can never rest, as you do each thing you’ve got to reach for the next.”
In addition to pushing new ground, The Church are revisiting their admired back catalogue. It started in 2004 with the acoustic album El Momento Descuidado recreating a number of well known hits alongside new tracks, then continued with two greatest hits collections, Deep In The Shallows in 2007 and last year’s The Best Of The Radio Songs.
Kilbey is happy to relive the past for fans around the world so long as he keeps his better eye on the future.
“It is a fine line but I can appreciate how going back and reworking things can make the idea of pushing on with new music more attractive and can also help you understand and write better new stuff,” he says.
“Kind of like an ongoing process because no one can go back and rewrite a book or repaint a painting but I guess in music you can go back and rerecord a song.”
Next month The Church will play a sell out show at Sydney Opera House alongside a classical orchestra dubbed A Psychedelic Symphony. The marriage between seminal rock band and multi-sectioned orchestra is being overseen by the arranger George Ellis, a lifelong fan of the band who swears he met Kilbey on a street corner in Balmain in the ’80s. Kilbey can’t remember the encounter but is confident that someone who understands the band’s fluid style can successfully recreate it within the more rigid structures of classical music.
“George straddles both worlds effortlessly,” Kilbey says.
“Most arrangers wouldn’t know how to combine the two sides but he understands the problems and how to overcome them.”
Ten years ago Kilbey might never have entertained such a nostalgia trip. When he was young he’d rather go and see a 19-year-old punk strangle a guitar than delight in a 40-year-old master. Only recently has the singer mellowed his insistence that The Church must militantly look forward.
“I used to think that new ideas meant new songs and that was all I was interested in,” Kilbey explains.
“I’ve come to realise lately that you can have new ideas for old songs and new ideas of representing them to people.”
Part of the ageing baby boomer generation, Kilbey has noticed a shift in attitudes to fifty-somethings continuing to pursue credible careers in music.
As long as middle-aged music lovers comprise a dominant force in the market, and fresh faced kids continue coming to shows, he sees no reason to slow down.
“One of the things you struggle with in life and especially in the music business is growing old.
“But you have to take the passing years and use the experience you’ve gained to create a better thing.
“At my age I don’t traffic in youthful enthusiasm and anger of a young man, I traffic in experience and wisdom and technical excellence in playing and writing, or striving for it at least.”
Three decades of hard work appears to be paying off. The Church returned from the US last month to what band members and critics have described as perhaps their best ever tour. Sell out crowds and standing ovations greeted the band as they spanned their back catalogue to the delight of audiences. Kilbey believes that even now the band have turned a corner.
“It was as if we’d been learning a new language for the past 30 years getting better and better slowly but surely and then suddenly we were speaking the language absolutely fluently.
“Suddenly we were speaking the language of The Church perfectly and instead of being a bunch of rockers thrashing out a song on stage we were actually musicians carefully reproducing things accurately with all the colours of the musical palate being utilised.
“Through every last note, whisper and beat on the drum everybody was perfectly in the moment.”
The Church play A Psychedelic Symphony at Sydney Opera House on April 10.” –
Ross Purdie, AAP Entertainment Writer, AAP
March 22, 2011, 8:49 am