It’s All A Game Of Change

1 07 2013

They say ‘never meet your heroes’; it’ll ruin your built up perception of them. But what do they say to journalism students? ‘Never interview you heroes’? If they do, “Oops”. I was lucky enough to meet Steve Kilbey in Bondi last weekend.

30 years. Kids will tell their parents that that’s a long time. But parents will retort ‘blink and you can miss it you know’. No matter which way you cut it though, a lot will change in that time. 30 years ago there was no such thing as a ‘smart phone’ or an XBOX. And 3D glasses were red and blue cellophane.

30 years ago The Church had only just released their third album, Seance. The cover of which would go on to feature in the third edition of the Album Cover Album coffee table books. “I came home one day and my brother Russell’s girlfriend, who was an art college student, had been mucking around with photography. She’d been out with a friend of hers who’d chucked on a veil and was holding a metal flower”, says lead singer-songwriter-bass player Steve Kilbey. “Not thinking much of it, she threw it on the kitchen table and as soon as I walked in, I went ‘that’s our new album cover’. When I showed it to everybody else, they were like, ‘yes, that’s it’. No argument what so ever”

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In an interview on SBS’s Rock Around The World during the same period, a softly spoken Steve said “I never sit down and think ‘I’m going to write a song for so and so and then approach them’.” This would seem a logical statement. How do you know what another person wants out of the same industry? “I’m not sure why exactly I said that stuff then, but that’s 30 years ago, I don’t know what I was thinking. [Because] I would now”, he says. “If someone asked me to write a song either for them [or] that they’re going to perform, I’m pretty happy to do that”.

But not everything changes in 30 years. Steve is still of the belief that the worst thing you can do is try and understand a song. “The more concrete facts that you know about this abstract thing, the less you will really enjoy it, even though you mightn’t think it at the time”, he says. “It’s like the documentary I made (Long Distance Century Buzzes And Fades). Some people are going ‘I want to see all the footage. If that’s 3 hours, I want to see all 16.’ They think they want to see it, but I’ve actually done them a favour by giving them what they’ve got. Just let it be an intangible, atmospheric, ambiguous thing”.

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With over 3 decades of writing music under his belt, Steve’s creative spark is all but waning. For his most recent album with Martin Kennedy, You Are Everything, Steve wrote the lyrics for all 11 tracks in two days. He even wrote them for ‘A Better Day’ on the spot. “I usually listen to it and write the lyrics in a minute. But in this case, when Martin started the song up, I said ‘is that all it does?’, because it’s just two chords”, Steve recalls. “He said ‘yeah’, and I said ‘alright, I’m not even going to write it down’. So I just grabbed the head phones and sung it”.

This isn’t the first time Steve has done such a thing though. “On solo albums I do that too, so it’s not the first time it’s happened. I often just improvise”, he says. “Grant McLennan (of The Go-Betweens and Jack Frost collaborations) is one stop better than me though. I’ll strum the guitar for a bit before getting the words where he’d strum and make up the words at the same time”, he says, playing an air guitar.

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But you know that 30 years is a long time when Steve says he’s in his 3rd phase. “The mad, energetic uncle”, he says with a laugh. Having arrived via his “heroin stage”, Steve is now more physical during on stage performances than ever before. ‘I only really started getting physical on stage 11 or 12 years ago, and that coincided with me getting hardcore about swimming and yoga’, he says. And with this new lease of life has come an increased workload. While The Church may not have put out any new offerings since 2010, Steve has been a part of 10 albums since then; either as a solo artist or in collaboration.

Apart from the music though, Steve also posts to his blog (The Time Being) daily, and paints or draws too. The normal person would love to be able to have achieved just half of all this in such a short period of time. As one DJ noted in an interview last year, to ‘research [Steve] is overwhelming, there is just so much to pick through’.

But with so much talent and energy, you can’t really fully appreciate what Steve Kilbey is like as a purveyor of art until you witness him at work for yourself. Upon walking into his workspace, a large open room with a low, angled ceiling, Steve is working on another of his drawings. And it’s not that he is detached from the interview, but he certainly has the energy and ability to focus on two tasks at once without being dull. He gives high quality answers that leave you wanting to know more, all while adding more strokes to the portrait he is in the developing stages of.

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It’s not even that long before Steve is bouncing around mocking his on stage performances. And showing a brief excerpt from the recently released documentary, he demonstrates the kind of energy that many people dream of having, let alone when they’re nearing 60.

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Steve’s band The Church have been on numerous different recording labels, and given they haven’t had a recognised hit since the early ‘90s, it’s amazing that they are still around today. What they have gone through would have been enough to break other bands long ago. But their very existence shows that while nothing stays the same forever, change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is also why, on a morning that is cold, miserable and drizzling, Steve is the “only person getting up and the first thing I’m thinking is ‘I’ve got to have a swim’”. How many other stars of rock would be thinking that?

*Pictures taken by Kit Q

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