At 57, Steve Kilbey of the Australian band the Church can look back on more than three decades of . . . Of what, exactly?
Instant fame in 1981 with their second single, his classic jangle-pop song Unguarded Moment; cracking the US (and elsewhere) charts with the sublime and much-covered Under the Milky Way Tonight of '88; a long catalogue of albums of often gorgeously mysterious post-psychedelic music (notably the exceptional Priest = Aura in '92); a highly acclaimed series of solo albums and respected collaborations; the Church inducted into the Aria Hall of Fame in 2010 . . .
Yes, all of that.
But also, when the Church's story distilled to shorthand reads like a catalogue of woes and dissent: early tours as an ill-fit support for the likes of Duran Duran; demands for more commercial material by their record company who rejected songs; dropped by Capitol in the US, dropped by EMI at home; linked up with unsympathetic producers; drug dependency and Kilbey being busted for heroin; enduring a period in LA before fleeing; a changing line-up as arguments came to a head between Kilbey, Marty Willson-Piper, Richard Ploog and Peter Koppes which saw them go separate ways for a while . . .
Put like that, the Church – who play Auckland's A Day on the Green at the Villa Maria Estate in Mangere on December 15 with Devo and Simple Minds, their first New Zealand gig since '84 Kilbey believes – did it tough.
So Steve, looking back did it seem like a battle for existence?
It was for me because I have to do everything the hard way, it's my nature. I was fighting the zeitgeist and just trying to get it my way and everybody else had another idea on how it should be. I was sulky and withdrawn, wasn't very friendly to people I did interviews with, was arrogant and boastful . . . but I knew what I wanted to do. And I was right.
Other people were fucking it up for me and it was a struggle and a fight, and it still is and always will be because that's my nature. As soon as I get involved with other people it happens, because I can't explain to them the voice that guides me. By the time I try to explain to them why I want them to do something I'm tired of it and have lost the idea anyway.
It's not easy being a tyrant (laughs)
Not easy working with one either, I imagine. You said you were right, how did you know?
I was right because from the age four I was analysing songwriting and thinking about songwriting. I was writing songs in my head, I was listening to my dad play piano, I was listening to music and I was thinking about music and I focused all my intelligence and will on making music.
When the Beatles came along I became an expert on the Beatles, then I became an expert on the Rolling Stones and Dylan and I absorbed their music. I wasn't listening to the fucking guitar solos, I wasn't listening to what the drums were doing, I was deconstructing their music in my head and trying to figure out how these guys were doing what they were doing.
By the time the Church got together I was 26 and had like a PhD in rock'n'roll and songwriting and how to take other people's songs, deconstruct them, put them through your own filter, put your own bits in and put them back out again so people couldn't even tell where they were coming from.
This was my obsession and I knew the kind of record I wanted to make. Anybody getting in my way who wasn't helping me achieve that I would clash with. And they were all trying to make me Eighties and have synthesizers in and try to make us wear these particular clothes and work with [this producer].
I say I'm right because put the Blurred Crusade on which was made in 1981, 31 years ago, and have a listen.
That is a classic rock album.
It was classic then, it is classic now and in 30 years time you won't be embarrassed to hear that.
That is the spirit of what I was trying to do. I didn't want to be some stupid, fizzy synthesizer New Wave 1980s group.
This is the thing though, if you lock into your era you inevitably become dated. At my website I have said Priest = Aura is an Essential Elsewhere album because it was beyond its time.
Yet the other day I pulled out Bastard Universe [a bonus disc of ethereal studio improvisations which came with the '98 album Hologram of Baal] and thought that was timeless. Do you look at things like that and think, 'Man, we so clever'?
(Laughs) I haven't listened to Bastard Universe . . . probably only once, when it got made. But Priest = Aura I'm very proud of, one of my . . . one of the best Church albums I think.
You said it was struggle, but in the last five years perhaps things seem to be at a very satisfying state. You are productive, you did that Future Past Perfect tour which found an audience out there which had been waiting for you to come back. Has the past five years been more satisfying?
Yes, definitely our star has re-risen and we passed that magical thing when an old car has become a vintage car. That's happened to us and people now re-assess us . . . and see we were right all along (Laughs)
And all the albums have been reissued now too. I guess you get to that fortunate point where the generation listening to you at the time which was critical has moved on and a younger generation hears the Church's music a very different way.
I think they must do. It must be strange being 20 and one day someone gives you Priest = Aura and you actually like it and you have no idea, without a bit of research, the context into which it came into the world. And perhaps that's fine.
I'm glad that for some people one or two of our records land in their lap and they don't bother to research it, it's something they just like for what it is.
The strength is in the songwriting and those allusive lyrics which are not bound by any particular time. You've lived in Australia, Stockholm and LA, which I know you didn't like. Are you a person who can write anywhere or do you need a conducive environment?
No, I can write anywhere under most conditions except emotional duress, that doesn't help. But any continent you like I can write, I reckon I could write a song in the Sahara Desert or in Greenland.
You don't hear anything in the music and think, 'Well, that was clearly influenced by being in Stockholm'?
I think the regional differences do get into the music. What the Church do is take things around us and reflect them back into the world musically. I think if you get a band who works like that and stick them in LA a certain amount of LA will come back out.
What about the question of age? You aren't the young man who wrote [the Church's debut album] Of Skins and Heart, so does age bring a new sensibility in songwriting.
Age is like youth. Youth can bring passion and embarrassing naivety and rawness. Youth has its upsides and downsides. Age has the opposites. Some people at age 60 – which I am rapidly approaching – are old and boring and uncreative and just a puddle siting on a couch watching the bowls.
Other people like me are running round on stage for three hours lugging a bass guitar and singing my heart out and swimming and doing yoga and bringing up three kids. Never ever will you find me sitting on a couch eating pizza, drinking a beer and yelling at a game of football. I'm going for it all day long.
So I reckon in some ways I'm trying to combine youthful energy but bring to that the, hopefully wisdom, but at least experience of having lived so long.
Also what the Church has between us is incredible musical prowess, the other three guys are some of the top players in the world.
You couldn't find musicians who can play drums and guitars like those guys do.
Together we have all this experience and so on stage while we are not going to be an exciting shambolic racket like the New York Dolls or Jesus and Mary Chain at their heyday, we don't have that explosive youthful mayhem. But we have a solid, experienced mayhem, people who know how to play their instruments before they start making a noise.
Rather than making a noise and eventually learning to play.
Which is what you did originally?
Yes (laughs). Now we use our ability to . . . rock out. (laughs)
It must be gratifying then that Marty and Peter can realise your music, if it be your music or theirs.
In 1986 it became 'our music' because by then they were all ready to go and we wrote the music together. So now the music we play is our music we've written and my words usually, and we all help each other realise how we can be more than the sum of the parts.
You talked about being constantly busy. You do solo stuff, collaborate with others and paint. You are a workaholic and have a full dance card for the next year or so?
I do. Christ, it would be horrible to be sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring and hoping someone would want me to do something.
I meant, you can't see a month off when you can go to Bali with the family?
Nah, I couldn't take a month off, I couldn't leave it alone. That wouldn't be good for me. A week might be good for me, but a month off? Whoever I was with would probably want to strangle me.
There was a biography came out of you and the Church [No Certainty Attached by Robert Dean Lurie] and you were especially helpful. You must have looked back and thought that the Church was the great project of your life and that, at a particular point, there would be no turning away from. You look back with pride?
It seemed like that. I also have a lot of regret that I didn't do it better, that I wasn't a better person, that I wasn't nicer to people or make better records and that at times I would slack off and just do any old thing. I wish I hadn't made so many mistakes with the drugs.
But there is pride . . . and it's looking like that now that I'm a grandfather of rock with a big body of work behind me. But I don't think about it much.
I mentioned young people out there at gigs.
Yeah, there are a lot of young people now.
I said Priest = Aura and you said Blurred Crusade. If you could say to any young person, 'Go and listen to this one album that we did', which wasn't those ones, which would you choose?
I'd say Untitled#23 which came out a few years ago, that's what we are doing now. Go and listen to that.
And live I understand you are doing predominantly more recent material?
I reckon we do a mixture.
People are going to want hear the two big songs.
Then I guess they will. (Laughs)