posted on June 1, 2017 at 10:06 pm

Conversations With Kilbey Part One: “Once I’ve Started I Don’t Stop”

Tim Earnshaw 2017


Steve Kilbey. A man out of time and place. He should be strolling with J-K Huysmans in turn-of-the-century Paris, twirling a cane. Flat on his back in an opium haze next to Coleridge. Posing as Jupiter for Gustave Moreau in a Haussmann salon. Punching Aleister Crowley on the jaw in the Himalayas. Not in Australia, not here, not now. He’s a bohemian, a true bohemian, a hothouse flower on the outskirts of the back of beyond. A dandy and a rake. Ageless – the cheekbones, the hair, the sharp good looks and skinny shirts. What’s he on? His room is cluttered with books and pictures. A portrait of a High Court Judge he’s working on (it’s beautiful, she’s beautiful). It’s an artist’s home, full of life and work. And that’s his secret; the work, the Great Work. He never stops. The music and the writing and the painting, he’s burning up with it.

Do you remember your dreams?

“I carry vague impressions of them around. I smoke dope every night, so I usually forget them in the morning. The details vanish. Ninety per cent of my dreams are unpleasant. They’re often of regret, searching, trying to achieve an impossible task, Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill. Time’s running out, pressure and anxiety. Wake up in the morning like I haven’t had any rest at all.”

Do you hear music in your dreams?

“I’ve woken up with songs in my head but I’m not quick enough to jump up and catch them. I think I’ve dreamed some great songs but they’ve evaporated.”

When you’re composing, do you think you might be drawing on this forgotten material?

“No. It’s gone. I had a toy as a kid, you drew on this sheet of clear plastic with a stylus, and lifted it and it disappeared? That’s what inspiration can be like. You can be on the verge of a magnificent idea and bang! It just goes. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, when he was writing Kubla Khan. Man knocked on the door and it was gone.”

Do you ever dream you’re playing an instrument?

“Yes, but it always goes wrong. I’m on stage, but my guitar is moving, the frets are warping, the stage is sinking and I’m playing really hard but the rest of the band can’t hear me. Never like a great Wembley Arena gig.”

[A dog barks on the banks of the Mekong River – we’re distracted. It’s like our Man From Porlock.]

When did you first feel you were making your own music?

“Not until Heyday. Our first record was a good example of the New Wave genre. Still a hodge-podge of influences, you can hear a bit of Bowie, a bit of Beatles. On Heyday, the songs were mostly written as jams, the guitarists turned into themselves, I turned into myself as a singer and a lyricist. I’d written the words to Myrrh, and the music came together, and I knew we’d completely transcended all our influences. The words I’d written, the way I was singing, it could only be me. Even though I’m made up of all these influences they were finally put to bed. It was like a huge door had opened. I can do anything! Freedom!”

[I’ve never heard The Beatles in The Church’s music. Maybe a bit of Bowie in the singing, but at a so-what level. To me they’ve always been their own band with their own sound. A sound that’s changed, sometimes before I was ready, but always carrying their own signature. I’m much fonder of the first album than Steve is.]

Can you talk about the change in tone from the first to the second album, The Blurred Crusade? That was a major shift – what happened?

“On that first album I was fighting with the producer, who thought he’d discovered us, the engineer, who was always turning the rhythm guitar down, and the horrible drummer. All that went for the second album. We got rid of the drummer. He was a real rock-head, a traditionalist AC/DC Rose Tattoo chug-chug-chug drummer. The new drummer was into The Beatles, psychedelia. One of the best producers in the world, Bob Clearmountain, was somehow persuaded to do this album with us, and he indulged me with all the things I wanted to do. I told him I wanted a harpsichord on one track, just to play these little lines, and this guy turned up and assembled a harpsichord in the studio, a whole day, and in the evening I played my lines, and the next day he took it away. Bob encouraged me and the band to do whatever we wanted. Which was more acoustic guitars, no more chug-chug-chug rhythms. Embracing a bit of The Byrds, walking away from New Wave and going back to what we really were at heart – classicists. We didn’t want anything from the eighties. We wanted to sound like a real band playing together. The bass to be warm and round and melodic. Crisp acoustic guitars. Bob Clearmountain brought that all out. We weren’t groundbreaking in any way at all, but we were saying if you like the values and aesthetics of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Bowie, here’s our take on that.”

You’ve always been very strong on image. Projecting the band by album sleeves, the way you dress …

“When I was growing up, I was planning this all along. Looking at Bolan and Bowie, I could see you had to have the total package. I didn’t want to be just a songwriter. I wanted an image, a philosophy, a look, a manifesto, I wanted my henchmen to be fucking good-looking skinny guys with great hair. I couldn’t have some fat old ugly bloke in my band! We all picked up on it. I wasn’t masterminding it that much, we were all heading towards that look.”

Where did you get your clothes?

“We got them from Opportunity Shops, because we were driving all round the country, playing little towns where the sixties had not yet been plundered. One day this old lady who knew us called us over and said Steve! Come out the back and have a look! There were like thirty unopened packets of Nehru shirts from the sixties complete with medallions. Three dollars each. Nobody wanted paisley clothes in Australia then – we got them all. We had three-quarter length coats, cravats. The look is important initially, until the music becomes so strong it doesn’t matter. When Brian Eno started he was all image and swagger, and now he’s all kind of theory and science, become a real academic. That’s sort of what I’ve done, started out as a sort of ponce, and I’ve become more authentic.”

When you were picking up those clothes, it was a retro thing, but you were around for them the first time, right?

“I was very young, but I was sucking it all in. It seemed to me the best thing you could be when you grew up was a dandy rock star – skinny, pale and wasted, in velvet and paisley.”

You’ve used artworks on your album sleeves, paintings, and you’re an artist yourself. Who was the first painter whose work you noticed and thought was special?

“That’s where I’m really deficient … I don’t have any influences in my painting. I never was really interested in painting. Didn’t go to museums and art shows. My brother said I should do an album cover for him, so I sort of stumbled into it. I got a good response and a demand for more, so I kept painting. I’ve done about five hundred paintings, sold four hundred of them. But I’m not even proficient enough to be influenced by someone. I wish people would look at my work and see a Dali influence, but I’m not good enough technically to be influenced by Dali. I’m just making something up. I’m a naive artist. Fuck it, I’m going to paint even if I don’t know how. There’s a naive energy to my lofty ambitions I wouldn’t have if I’d been to art school for four years. I paint all the time.”

Is there any similarity for you between the creative processes of painting and making music?

“There are some meta principles that are applicable. One of them is trusting the process, never giving up, never stopping. Having the audacity to put your personality on a piece of paper or a piece of silence – I’m going to fill this up with what I am. Then when this process has started, to get out of the way and let it do it’s own thing. Letting it become something else than what you intended. I persevere with a painting as I do with a song. I don’t give up if it’s not immediately right. I keep working at it, knowing that having trust in the process, something will come out of it. Building up layers until something great jumps out. I don’t have any projects I started and didn’t finish. If I didn’t think it had potential I wouldn’t start it, and once I’ve started I don’t stop.”

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