In which we discuss Music, Mushrooms, Literature…and Dapto.
In my ongoing efforts to bring you the unpublished director’s cuts of previous interrogations, today we revisit an afternoon in Newtown with Steve Kilbey of The Church. Originally published in truncated form in Collide Art & Culture magazine Issue 3, the full chat appears here for the first time.
Sydney’s Vanguard Theatre seems different by daylight. Spartan and utilitarian, it nevertheless retains echoes of the music, laughter and burlesque that fills it of an evening. The Church were a fixture of my Pot clouded adolescence and their music has been a constant in my life since those confusing, heady days. I’m here today hoping for an unguarded moment with singer and bassplayer Steve Kilbey about the Church’s new album ‘Further, Deeper’ (their first with ex Powderfinger guitarist Ian Haug stepping in to fill the space vacated by founding member Marty Wilson Piper), as well as Steve’s recent memoirs ‘Something Quite Peculiar’ which tells his tale from Dapto, to L.A., via Sweden, psychedelia, narcosis and all things betwixt. All whilst wrestling with a particularly insubordinate vegie-burger.
You’ve recently released your memoirs ‘Something Quite Peculiar’, a book in which you achieve the almost Herculean feat of making Dapto sound idyllic. What made now the right time to tell the Steve Kilbey story?
Why did I do it? For the money! It was always on the cards to write my memoirs or autobiography but I didn’t want to do it and then have to shop around for a deal, so when someone actually came to me and said ‘Will you write it? We’ll give you some cash for doing it’, then it became really appealing. That’s what made me knuckle down and do it.
I’m a bit of a tragic for Rock Biographies. Do you read them often, or did you whilst in the process of writing? Do you have any favourites?
Oh yeah, loads of them. One of the very best ones is by Ian Hunter.
Diary of a Rock n Roll Star?
Yeah! That was probably the first one I read where I went “wow!” It was so honest! How he’s sitting on the toilet all night, looking at himself and thinking “oh you’re so fat”, that and the arguments in the band. It was really revealing, he wasn’t really a rock and roll star at all, he was an ordinary guy and I really like that about that book. Another one I really like is Ian McLagan’s book- he was with the Faces and The Small Faces and he played with the Rolling Stones. So yeah I do really like them. I read a lot of books on the Rolling Stones, like STP, The Man Who Shot Mick Jagger, Everybody’s Lucifer’, almost any book about the Stones I had to have. I read loads of books about David Bowie, tonnes of books about the Beatles. I’m reading Neil Young’s autobiography at the moment. But the Rolling Stones were the ones where I most wanted to get into their world. I think when I was about 17 or 18 all I wanted were stories about women and drugs!
Your book glosses over some really good records towards the end. Stuff like ‘Hologram of Baal’ and ‘Untitled 23’.
Oh it glosses over everything. The book sort of really stops.
Was that a conscious narrative conceit so that you’d have that flow of downfall and redemption?
It’s more like, because it’s not an autobiography, it’s my memoirs, it was more ‘Here’s an interesting time in my life’. From my childhood, then having a look at me as a teenager, and then the rock and roll years, where I made and lost money and got addicted to drugs and did all those stupid things. And then suddenly I get to about 40-ish and the book is over, because the people who are in my life now, I couldn’t write about them. I couldn’t write about my children and my relationships and stuff now. It seemed like things had to be kept safely in the past, I didn’t want it to come into the present. But I never knew how it was going to end. A lot of people have very justly criticised the book saying “It just fucking stops”.
You can see it coming because your fingers know how many pages are left, but meanwhile you’re thinking to yourself ’There’s so much more to tell’…
Yeah, and still you can’t quite believe it! That happens to me with other books. The really bad thing is if the final pages are advertisements for other books! So you think you’ve got 20 pages left and suddenly it ends. What the fuck is that? Hahahaha!
So really, the story is ‘the rise, fall and redemption of Steve Kilbey’. Then it’s over. You don’t want the rest.
The book goes into detail about the darkness of your heroin years, but I’m kind of interested in hearing about the lysergic years. About how those experiences influenced your outlook and your song writing.
As soon as I heard Sergeant Peppers when I was 13 I was already into the idea of lysergic things, and I could already sort of intuit what tripping could possibly be like. I took a lot of acid, a lot of mushrooms. I’d get up in the morning, take acid and hang out with Richard Ploog in Balmain and Rozelle just walking around the old loony bin looking at things and listening to music.
We would play a lot of gigs on mushrooms. We’d try and take as much as we could and see if we could still do the gig, so some nights I was just off my fucking face. The guitar’s warping and the audience is melting and I’m looking back at Ploog and he’s just playing the drums…
Some of the songs were getting longer and more psychedelic, songs like ‘You Took’ off The Blurred Crusade. I’d imagine that it had an influence in that regard.
I don’t know, I think we wanted the idea of trippy music, but I don’t know if my drug experiences were really feeding into the creation of it, except for pot. When I took the other drugs I would have incredible visions and ideas but the tripping was so unbearably ecstatic that I could hardly focus on writing. The only song I ever wrote tripping was ‘Tear It All Away’ – I actually wrote that tripping. But it’s so hard when you’re tripping. You want to but it all fucks up, so marijuana was the only influence that was really coming out in the music.
Was the acid part of what piqued your interest in authors like Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, Herman Hesse and those kinds of chaps?
I actually got into Robert Anton Wilson before I took acid. Believe it or not I didn’t take acid until I was about 23. I was a bit frightened of it. I was a stoner and I hadn’t really come across it and then one day I stumbled into the right circumstances and I had a blue dragon. And it was amazing.
Your lyrics are awash with references to myth and mysticism, heroic journeys and blurred crusades with wry turns of phrase scattered throughout. Lyrically and as far as your prose in books like the ‘Earthed’ anthology, what were your literary influences? I know in the book you mentioned Hesse….
Well, strangely enough I think the things that influenced me most were the things that I discovered between the ages of 0 and 16. They’re the things that really blew my mind. And after that I’d read Hesse or Madam Blavatsky, and they all became a part of it, but they didn’t truly occupy this place in my heart in the same way. The literature that really set me up was Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass, Greek mythology and Norse mythology and then the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis, and then right at the end of that period came Lord of the Rings and a book called Gormenghast.
The trilogy by Mervyn Peake?
Right, Mervyn Peake. So after ingesting all that I had so many implications to work on that later on, when I’d find Hesse or Dylan Thomas or Rimbaud or whoever, I sort of judged them by those initial books that had blown my mind. I was always looking for this magical, mystical, strange or different hit. I didn’t want to read about a group of boys who go on a camp and go canoeing and fight a bear or something.
Five go Wild at Smugglers Cove…
Yeah. I didn’t want to read that. It had to be a fucking wizard or a ghost or a spell or shadow to have something in it for me. I think that because the first two books that were read to me were Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass it sort of really raised the bar for what I expected in a book!
I’ve seen you on stage without a bass in your hand a couple of times and you seemed a bit ill at ease. Were you a reluctant front man? Songs like ‘The View’ off the Heyday album paint a pretty dismal portrait of the limelight.
It was just opportunistic. I initially saw myself as a bass player and not a singer. I saw myself as a songwriter, like Greg Macainsh from Skyhooks who would write the songs and then hand them over to some other geezer to sing. But then, singers let me down and I just wound up at the mic by default. So I guess I was a bit reluctant, I didn’t always see myself as ‘Johnny Main Man’.
In the book you refer to your style with the phrase ‘sing speak’ and it reminded of things like Bowie’s voice at the start of ‘5 Years’ or Bolan during the verses of ‘Children of the Revolution’ etc. with a focus on enunciation that is melodic without being operatic and I think you have that in spades. Who were your influences when starting out finding your voice?
There were the initial influences of Dylan and the Stones and the Beatles; you couldn’t escape them, but then I discovered Marc Bolan. I didn’t idolise the Beatles, I didn’t even really idolise the Stones but when Bolan came along I had a hero to worship. And then David Bowie came along and I worshipped him after Bolan. So that’s really the bedrock of everything I do. Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Bowie and Bolan. I take in all the other good stuff I can find but after Bowie and Bolan I never again fell in love with someone that I wanted to totally emulate. I guess it’s a sort of rite of passage for young boys to fixate on a man and go ‘wow –I want to be like that!’
Yeah, particularly those otherworldly androgynous types.
Oh yeah, well Bolan was quite something when I first stumbled into him. There was no-one around like that. In 1970 when you were walking along through this world of flannelette shirts and guys wearing Ug-boots, then suddenly there’s Marc Bolan, with the way he looked, the things he’s singing about and all of the implications. If you were a musical type it was quite a revelation and really something that for the first time you could go ‘wow, I could do something like that!’
And he did it all with just a 3 chord trick really. It was 3 chords, enunciation and charisma.
Well Bob Dylan is 3 chords enunciation and charisma! No one can go wrong with just 3 chords enunciation and charisma.
The new album ‘Further, Deeper’ has had pretty much universally positive reviews. Were you worried about how people might react to Ian coming on board and the fact that this was your first record without Marty?
Yeah I was. I’m still very touchy about it and I get upset when I think about it because we didn’t have any alternative. Marty had made it clear that he wasn’t going to make another album so it was either do something with another guy or do nothing at all. It’s hard. I understand why people get upset about it. I’m still quite touchy about the whole thing.
During your recent shows in Australia you’ve been focussing on playing the new album in its entirety. Was that a conscious decision to state that the church are looking forward, and moving forward?
I think we had to show people what Ian could do. We couldn’t trot him out and have him playing old songs first up. So we had to say ‘this is why Ian’s joined the band, he’s made a valid contribution, this is what we’re doing now, Marty’s not here, here’s the new album. Next time we’ll be doing old stuff as well.
Despite all the ups and downs and even through the fog of your drug haze, you’ve remained incredibly prolific, both with The Church as well as your collaborations and solo projects. Do you have some kind of protestant work ethic?
I just keep going. I don’t know why. Financially I have to keep going. I don’t have any huge record out there that’s pulling in a load of money so I have to keep making new little ones to plug the gap. And I’ve just always liked doing this. I’ve always liked writing songs and going for it all the time, even before I was at all successful I’d write a song every day. I had my little studio and I was just writing and writing. Writing words in books. And now I’ve started painting I paint a lot. It’s not really like work, it’s not like turning up somewhere and cracking fucking concrete or something. It’s a pleasant way to spend your time. And I’m curious as to whether I can exhaust myself, I f I can hit a dead end. Every time I sit down in front of the typewriter with a blank piece of paper I’m curious to see if I can pull anything out of the air. Sometimes I only just manage and sometimes I surprise myself and go ‘Wow, that’s pretty good’.
At this point Steve is clearly struggling with the state of his lunch, with his vege burger appearing to suffer some serious structural difficulties. It’s in serious danger of going full Hasselhoff.
Oh man this is getting bad! Don’t worry-it’s a vegie burger, there’s nothing horrible in there.
That’s an interesting question actually, what made you decide to become a vegetarian?
I read that one of the symptoms of being abducted by aliens, or being tampered with by aliens is ‘a spontaneous decision to become a vegetarian’ Hahahaha! So that’s what I did. For no good reason.
There’s that Bowie fixation at play. Starman! Come take me away!
If there is tampering by Aliens I don’t think they arrive by spaceship, I just think they come into the room and go wherever they like. I don’t think they have a vehicle I think they just arrive.
So I don’t know why I became a vegetarian. It was just sort of intuitive I guess. It wasn’t spontaneous, it was intuitive. When I became a vegetarian there were no vegetarian restaurants, there was no vegetarian thrust, there was no cause to rally behind. In fact I was the only vegetarian I knew. People found out I was a vegetarian and they’d make fun of me.
Haha that still happens today!
Absolutely. Every fucking Christmas.
It just seemed like it’d be a good thing to do.
Moving forward, after the tour cycle for this record, as far as plans for recording more material, do you think you’re going to be sticking with Ian for the Long Haul?
I don’t know if there is a long haul for someone who’s my age. Is there really much of a long haul left? I think the next stop’s the cemetery!
The way I look at the Church now, it’s sort of a body of work. It’s an idea. And if they all leave and I still want to be the Church, I’m gonna fucking be the Church! And if they all want to stay and behave themselves then we can all be the Church till someone drops off their perch.
You’re a poet and didn’t know it.