There’s No Money in Integrity: An Interview with Steve Kilbey of the Church
They were poised to be the next U2 after the ubiquitous single "Under the Milky Way" took America by storm in the late '80s. That didn't happen, but despite internal strife, debilitating heroin addiction and the curse of grunge, leader Steve Kilbey and the Church are doing just fine.
It shouldn’t have gone down like this. In 1988, Australia’s the Church were on the threshold of superstardom, riding the critical and commercial success of fifth studio album Starfish and breakout single “Under the Milky Way”. And just as soon as they’d appeared, the Church vanished from commercial radio and MTV. Blame can be thrown anywhere: Arista Records didn’t know what to do with them. The music was too mysterious and dark. Grunge killed everything in its wake. Whatever the case, the Church never really went away. They’ve stayed huge in Australia and across the pond. While remaining cult icons in the U.S., the band’s brand of moody dream pop helped usher alternative into the mainstream in the late ‘80s, and along with Echo and the Bunnymen and the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Church’s influences can still be felt today, from the romanticism of Death Cab for Cutie to the orchestral swell of Coldplay.
It’s around 6 pm when I get Church leader Steve Kilbey on the line from his home in Australia. I think it's morning there, because Kilbey breaks from our interview at one point to put peanut butter on a muffin. Kilbey’s routine these days is a lot healthier, instead of heroin and despair, he now practices yoga every morning and is a swimmer. An avid poet and painter, Kilbey is a creative whirling dervish, with heroin no longer a hindrance to his muse. The Church is on a cross country U.S. tour in which they will be playing albums Untitled #23, Priest = Aura and Starfish, concluding the tour with a celebratory 30th Anniversary homecoming show at the legendary Sydney Opera House. Thirty years. Quite the milestone. Who the hell wants to be the next U2 anyway?
Can you walk me through 2010. Was it a surreal experience? Did it feel like a rebirth?
2010. A good year for the Church. We got inducted into the Australian Hall of Fame, whatever that means. It’s not even a hall, it’s a virtual hall. That was good. Peer recognition and all that, I suppose. Our new album came out in 2009, didn’t it? Untitled #23. That got pretty good reviews. We did a good tour of America and a tour of Australia. We started working on some new music. After 30 years, we do kind of feel like we’ve got a new lease on life. It’s a nice feeling. It’s always been up and down for the Church. Now we’ve gone up a bit, so it’s very nice to ride the waves of success and actually be going up a bit.
A lot of bands are doing the seminal album in its entirety thing. Was this a group decision or were their external influences at work.
No, we’re just being copycats. We’re looking around and going, “Wow, Joe Blow is doing his complete album in concert, and it’s still working out. Maybe we should have a shot at this.” It wasn’t a very original idea really. I’m sort interested in seeing how it all works out. We’ve never played a complete album live before.
Can you take me back in time. It’s 1988, and Starfish is about to be released. How are you feeling on the verge of that moment?
On the verge of it, I thought it would just be another record that would come out, someone might give it a good review, college radio would play it, and that would be it. I had no idea, not one tiny inkling or suspicion, that the record might actually sell a few copies.
What was the band dynamic like at that point. Pretty volatile?
We’ve always been quite volatile. We’ve always had our grudges and feuds. On the other hand, we have enough leeway in our relationship to incorporate that and keep on making music. The dynamic back in those days really wasn’t much different from what it is now, except that we’ve got a new drummer now whose been with us almost twenty years. He’s a more stabilizing element in the band.
You can’t sense a hit when you’ve written it?
When we made the record, no one thought “Under the Milky Way” was a hit. The producers didn’t think it was anything special, and it wasn’t even considered a single. It was kind of like a self-fulfilling prophesy. Arista Records came in, and as soon as they heard that song, they all got immediately excited and said, “We promise you that this will be a hit.” I’ve never seen a record company, before or after, make their own prediction come true. Arista threw everything they had into making that song a hit. Even when I came back to Australia and people would ask to hear the single and I’d play “Under the Milky Way”, they’d go, ‘Hmm. I don’t think much of that.’ It was funny watching it all happen. I noticed all the happy who hadn’t been impressed before all changed their minds, saying ‘I always knew that song would be a hit.’ Up until Arista came in, nobody, including myself, the band and the producers ever remarked or thought that the song would go anywhere. Quite the contrary. It was kind of the black sheep of the album that nobody wanted to know about.
Following the success of “Under the Milky Way”, how did Arista try and groom you to be the next breakout success?
They were looking for that, but it never happened (laughs).
What do you think were the contributing factors to never becoming huge in the U.S.?
I think that we were too subtle to ever be hugely successful anywhere. The kind of images and the music we make is certainly not mainstream, and doesn’t hit you over the head with hooks and catchy choruses. I think that fashions change all the time. Grunge came along and completely wiped us out. At any point in time, like when punk came along, it wiped out loads of bands. We missed our moment, and our follow-up was kind of a weak album. It sort of tried to cater to Arista and the mainstream, and in the middle nobody was interested. On Starfish we weren’t catering to anybody except ourselves. We were just making our kind of record. Everybody had an opinion about what we should do. And that’s it. You have your chance, and suddenly you turn around and the whole world has moved on to the next thing. (laughs). And you look a few miles into the distance and think ‘Wow. Things change quickly.’
America seems to have these brief flings with Australian culture. We’re kinda whores in that sense. I still love Yahoo Serious.
(laughs) Oh God. Not Yahoo! Yeah, you are whores!
Were you aware that you had missed your moment? Did it weigh heavy on you?
Yes and no. You can’t live in the past too much. If we let it weigh too heavy on us, we never would have recovered. We just said ‘That’s it. Let’s carry on, and maybe we’ll get another chance sometime.’ It didn’t all happen in one big go. I wasn’t walking down the street and suddenly went, ‘Wow. Our moment has come and gone.’ It just kind of slowly dawns on you. Failure in the record business is something that unfolds slowly over a period of months, and that’s something that makes it a little more bearable. It’s not like ‘Wow, we’ve just been wiped out.’
It did seem like you guys could have been molded into a gothier U2.
Yeah, I think that was the plan. A lot of people said you guys could be the next U2, but that was the wrong thing for us to be aiming towards, because we were nothing like U2. When we didn’t become the next U2, a lot of people in the business just kind of lost interest in us. Because we weren’t going to be some mega-huge, stadium band, they lost interest completely.
You look at bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and Jesus and Mary Chain. I, for one, am thankful for their career trajectory. All of you kept your integrity.
Thanks. There’s no money in integrity though.
Tell me about your narrative themes. Can inspiration strike you at any time, or do you have to be in the right headspace?
I think that all the time I’m sort of collecting material. We usually get together and have a jam. I think we could write anytime. We’re normally in the mood to create new music and art.
Do you approach poetry different than songwriting?
I think you have to. Lyrics have the advantage of having music propel them and a melody. Poetry just kind of has to exist on the page with no backup. I think you can get away with more in lyrics, because the other auxiliary things are helping them out. Poetry has to be much stronger. It is quite a different art, and a good lyricist isn’t necessarily a good poet and vice versa.
Who are some of your poetry heroes and lyricists?
My favorite lyricists are Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, Lou Reed, David Bowie and Mark Bolan. My favorite poets are the French symbolists like Rimbaud, Baudelaire. I like the French surrealists a lot. Andre Breton and those guys. I also love Dylan Thomas. I like a lot of Ancient Greek and Roman poetry too. I like poetry to be wild and wonderful. I don’t like ordinary, mundane kinds of things.
I was watching a recent video interview, and I have to say, you look great. What’s your health regiment like these days?
I kidnap virgins and I murder them. I fill up a bathtub with their blood, and on the full moon I bathe in it and emerge looking ten years younger than I really am.
Is that the secret?
(Laughs) You know, there was actually a woman who was doing that with virgins that I read about. No, for me, I’m just swimming and doing yoga.
Are you a vegetarian as well?
I am. Yeah.
Do you swim in the ocean? Are you a surfer?
I’m not a surfer and I suppose I’m too chicken for that. I swim in an ocean pool so I get the sea water.
You haven’t always been in such good shape. Was it about ten years ago that you got clean? Had you been trying to kick for years?
I had been trying from the moment I started, but it’s hard. And then one day, by accident I guess, sobriety stuck.
What was your first experience with heroin?
I guess it was 1990.
It shows in some of your lyrics, but have you always been attracted to flirting with oblivion and touching that darkness? Were your heroes junkies?
Yes and no. I wasn’t really walking around reading William Burroughs all the time. I just sort of randomly came across heroin one day in my travels. I had never come across it before, and I tried it to see what all the fuss was about, and I was completely hooked right from the start and couldn’t stop. It was my desire to do that. I thought it would never happen, but it did.
So, it was a ten year dance with the devil from that point?
It was ten years of absolute misery and hell. I don’t recommend it to anybody.
What’s a perfect day for you?
A perfect day for me would be to get up, do yoga, go and have a swim, come home, spend the whole day painting, and maybe at night write a nice song.