“CHURCH WITH NO MAGIC
THE CHURCH have just been inducted into the ARIA Hall Of Fame and are about to spend a month revisiting their entire catalogue in concert. MATT O’NEILL catches up with vocalist STEVE KILBEY to discuss the band’s considerable legacy.
If history is kind, The Church will go down as one of the most gracious and idiosyncratic acts to have ever been inducted into the ARIA Hall Of Fame. In a year where the awards ceremony proper was largely ridiculed by the public, frontman Steve Kilbey’s monumental 15-minute acceptance speech – a torrent of wit, gratitude, words and memories the likes of which podiums were practically built for – should stand as a reminder of why musicians deserve recognition in the first place.
“I got lucky. The band had told me we didn’t need a speech and I’d naively believed that because I didn’t know what to say but, as the night wore on, everyone else who was accepting an award had a speech,” the vocalist reflects. “I realised I was going to appear completely churlish if I didn’t have a speech. Why did we even fucking bother to turn up if we were just going to stand there and go, ‘Thanks’ and walk off?
“I realised I had to say something so I was sitting there working it out, [former Go-Betweens drummer] Lindy Morrison comes over and tells me to relax but, each time she says relax, I freak out more. I ended up just standing there and getting lucky. A few vague ideas came to me on the way up but I was mainly just lucky. I could have just as easily gone, ‘Okay…’ and just choked – but I seem to have gotten more attention for that speech than ten years of making music.”
Strangely, though, the moment of truth in the band’s collective acceptance emerged not from Kilbey’s marathon efforts but rather guitarist Marty Willson-Piper’s reaction to them: “I wonder if anybody thinks if Steve has managed to demystify us,” the guitarist quipped with bemusement. “We’ve worked so hard to be aloof and enigmatic – aloof no more. All ruined in 15 minutes….After 30 years.”
The guitarist was, of course, incorrect in claiming Kilbey had ruined the band’s image as mysterious craftsmen but there can be no denying that the band’s vocalist altered the public perception of his band. For the better part of 30 years, The Church have been forced to contend with numerous misapprehensions about their work and philosophies. Depending on whom you ask, the band could be described as one-hit-wonders, art-rock experimentalists or Australian pop legends.
“I would like it if The Church had more attention but, in regards to deserving it, I think we’re a little bit too subtle and left-of-field for most people,” Kilbey reflects of the band’s ambiguous status as under-appreciated luminaries. “I always think it’s a shame, though, because I think there are a lot more people out there who would really like us – people who think there isn’t a band out there doing what we do.
“If they could discover us, they would be a lot happier and we would be a lot happier,” the vocalist laughs. “It’s a shame that it can’t happen. Over the past 30 years, it’s occasionally looked like it’s going to happen and occasionally started to happen but we’ve never managed to sustain it. I always feel there’s got to be more people out there, though. I’ve just run into too many people over the years who have said things like, ‘I wish I’d known about you guys all along’.”
While lamentable, the ambiguity of the band’s public profile is nevertheless not in the least bit surprising. Glancing over their career, one would be hard-pressed to find a unifying theme to the band’s work. There have been pop crossover tunes (1981’s The Unguarded Moment), prog-rock explorations (1994’s Sometime Anywhere album), electronic albums (1996’s Magician Among The Spirits) and, over the past decade, a series of improv-heavy Internet-only releases.
“We have always tried to be more than just a rock band – that’s the way I’m trying to push the band all the time,” Kilbey explains. “But, the forces out there that want The Church to be a rock band and do the things rock bands do, they’re hard to argue with. It isn’t as easy as just being more than a rock band all the time. Sometimes you have to do these other things as well. It simply isn’t always possible for us. I know other bands have pulled it off but we haven’t as yet.
“I wish I was out there in some weird place doing some experimental show every night – never doing any old songs or anything. I wish that was what the demand was for me to do but it isn’t. People appreciate the innovation of The Church but they also appreciate some of our traditional values and they kind of want that as well. You know, a legacy is a good thing and a bad thing for a band to have – it restricts you but it also enables you.”
The perception that Kilbey’s speech altered was that the band’s ambiguity and mystique was in any way deliberate. It’s been easy to believe, over the past 30 years, that The Church’s development has been the product of craftsmanship and forethought – if nothing else, Kilbey is an naturally precise songwriter – but the vocalist’s wild explosion of sentiment and recollection revealed the band’s key inspiration has never been considered refinement so much as chaotic vitality.
“I don’t like to look back on what we do. If I had my way, there would never be any retrospective stuff ever,” Kilbey announces. “It’s not really me. As an artist, I abhor it and I want to keep moving forward all the time. It’s our thirtieth anniversary but, really, I’m not the kind of guy who likes anniversaries either. I don’t like any of that stuff. I’d rather be out there chipping away at the coalface of new ideas rather than looking back at what we did 30 years ago.”
In a way, the group’s forthcoming set of shows is the ultimate demonstration of their restless approach to creativity. While retrospective, the band’s shows will celebrate their thirtieth anniversary not with greatest hits sets but with a set of acoustic renditions of songs drawn from each of their 23 full-length albums – beginning with 2009’s Untitled #23 and working backwards toward 1981’s Of Skins And Heart – performed in venues more associated with classical music than rock performances.
“It’s a wonderful showbiz package. It’s got an intermission and everything. We’re actually importing this intermission from overseas. It’s been designed by Swedish designers and it’s covered in stamps from customs,” Kilbey says with a laugh. “We’re basically taking a song from each album and working backwards – except acoustically. You get a program and a free CD as well, which basically means anyone who doesn’t come to this show should be dragged from their home and executed.
“You know, I don’t like anniversaries, but I feel there’s a pressure for us to do it and I think we’ve done it pretty tastefully,” the vocalist reflects. “It’s weird to think about it. As an institution, The Church has weathered 30 years and the nature of the universe is usually bound up with things closing down or falling apart, so to keep a band of largely the same guys for 30 years is quite a feat.” – Matt O’Neill