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STEVE KILBEY The unguarded curmudgeon

The Church frontman Steve Kilbey has announced he is returning to Western Australia to play a couple of The Church’s classic albums Of Skins and Heart and Séance in order and in their entirety. Joining long time musical friends and a string section, Steve Kilbey and The Hoffmenn With Strings Attached, the shows will hit Margaret River, Albany and Perth in May. BARBARA PARKS caught up with Kilbey to find out how he feels about the albums all these years later and why he felt like it was time for a reprise.

From the moment The Church burst into Australia’s consciousness in the early eighties they have ingrained themselves as psychedelic darlings of both the Australian and international music scenes. Now forty years since The Church’s first album, Of Skins and Heart was released, it’s an anniversary Kilbey is quick to dismiss.

“You know what? I’m not really an anniversary kind of guy. I don’t like any of it.” He goes on to say this includes any type of anniversary, even his birthday. “With so many records out, there’s bound to be some kind of anniversary at any one given point in time. ” He describes his records as being like his children, with Of Skins and Heart being his first child he didn’t raise very well and turned into something he didn’t approve of.

“At that stage it was very hard to assert myself. I was trying to prevail against the zeitgeist. When the second record came around, things changed a little as I’d already had some success. So now I could say See? I do know what I’m doing!”

Kilbey jokingly refers to himself as a “curmudgeon” while speaking, and the humour continues to flow. It’s a trait he credits to his father, Les. Fellow muso and sometime touring buddy, Shaun Hoffman tells me that going on tour with Steve Kilbey is like touring with a comedian. “I’m glad he thinks that, he won’t wanna get paid then!’

The relaxed banter seems a far cry from the more aloof version of Kilbey from back in The Church’s heyday, and Kilbey ponders whether his younger self was a more serious soul. “I think I thought I had to play this part. Somewhere down the track I thought I can’t do this anymore, I’m just gonna have to be me…”

He describes his earlier self as being divisive and self-negative, as a means of gaining attention. “It was a mistake. I should have been a nicer person all along. Being a nice person is the best thing in life and I didn’t understand that.”

He continues to say that he was in the wrong country to be projecting that kind of persona. “Australians don’t really like all that I’m the best songwriter in the world stuff. In England, that sort of excites people. In Australia, it makes them go Man you should really wake up to yourself, and they’re right!”

“At my first interview, I should have said Yeah, I’m a singer and a songwriter and I hope everyone likes what I do and thank you very much. If I’d done that, things would have been easier. It wore me out trying to be that person and it embarrasses me. I was just being stupid. I like me a lot better now; I’m not that guy anymore.”

Steve Kilbey at Lyric’s Underground in March 2020

His current, upfront self also comes with a healthy dose of spirituality, and Kilbey is a firm believer in the beyond. “How could you not be? I find spirit in everything; guiding me and everybody else, if they listen to it. I think this is a beautiful world. There is God in everything, spirit in everything.”

It’s a belief he has carried through life. “I always had a bent towards God, magic and all that sort of stuff. The minister at school would come around to our class and all the other kids would switch off while he and I would engage in discussions about God and the trinity and all things religious. All the other kids would be glad, cause they didn’t have to!”

Perhaps it’s this deep sense of spirit which has carried him through some crazy, challenging times, including heroin addiction and the intensity of the rock n roll lifestyle. Touring, sometimes for as long as eight months at a time, had its particular demands and challenges. That said, it was an aspect of The Church that Kilbey particularly loved.

“It’s an incredible feeling. One of the guys summed it up by saying So much is happening that you can’t experience it all until you get home. Then you post-experience it.”

“I’ve been doing it for 40 years and it’s wonderful. I miss it. I want to do it again at least one more time. In America especially, as you’re crossing borders and all that. If you go on one of those tours that last about eight months, you just give yourself over to it; all the decisions are made for you. It’s like Now I’m on a bus…now I’m in a city…now I’m playing a gig…now I’m on the road…now I’m doing drugs…now I’m on TV…now I’m walking down an alley…blah, blah blah!  You can’t really make any sense of it, nobody can. The only decision you have to make all day is what shirt you’re going to wear.”

But when asked if there’s anything enjoyable about the experience, he answers with an emphatic yes. “The tour manager tells you exactly how it is, I love that! I don’t have to think about anything. One night we did a gig in New York and it was snowing as I jumped into my bunk. I was so tired I slept until 4 o’clock the next day. When I woke up, I was in North Carolina and it was a beautiful sunny day. When I pulled back the blinds, people were walking their children down the street, cocker spaniels were running around chasing balls and yet the night before, I was in a blizzard and a gale. It’s like time travel, it’s a wonderful experience. I really miss it, and I love playing in a band.”

Steve Kilbey at Mojo’s Bar in 2017

Not quite on the same scale, but exciting nonetheless, The Church are soon to be headlining the April Sun festival in St Kilda. Scheduled to appear on Wednesday, April 28, it will be their first live gig since Ash Naylor joined the line-up two years ago. After the last minute COVID-related cancellation of their appearance at Bluesfest last month, it’s a gig Kilbey is quietly cautious about.

“It was a big disappointment on every level, it’s very anticlimactic. Nobody benefited from that. A woman in the chemist said to me You must be devo-ed! I said, Yeah, I’m fuckin’ devo-ed,” he laughs. “I still have a bit of cynicism now. When I’m walking on stage with my old bass strapped on, I’ll be alright. But until then, I’m gonna be cynical and non-committal to protect myself from any disappointment should that gig get cancelled.”

Hopefully for Perth fans, the show will go on with Kilbey’s upcoming gigs with The Hoffmen with Strings Attached. Exclusive to WA, the performances will be at The River Hotel, Margaret River on Thursday, May 13; Albany Entertainment Centre on Friday, May 14; and Astor Theatre, Perth on Sunday, May 16. Despite his apparent ambivalence to his musical firstborn, the performances will feature Of Skins and Heart in its entirety, as well as third album, Séance. A few extra Church classics will be thrown in to make it all the sweeter.

The Hoffmen are Kilbey’s go to Perth backup band; featuring Shaun Hoffman on drums and sons Adrian and Lochlan on guitar and percussion respectively. Shaun Corlson will be doing his thing on the acoustic 12-string.

“What will make this really special is that we have strings attached,” says Kilbey. The strings are courtesy of Anna Sarcich on cello and Rachael Aquilina on violin, the sweet strains of which will no doubt make even the most hardened Church fan swoon.

“Give my regards to all the people in Perth who still like me!” says Kilbey. With three gigs to choose from, hopefully he’ll be able to tell them in person soon too.

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