Episode 9: Steve Kilbey

Steve Kilbey is a songwriter, musician and author.

Penmanship podcast episode 9: Steve Kilbey, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2015Steve is best known as the songwriter and frontman of Australian rock band The Church, a role which he has inhabited for 35 years across the band’s extensive and respected career. In 2014, he became a published author with the release of his memoir, Something Quite Peculiar, which explored his history working as a professional musician, from his first job playing in a popular cover band in Canberra as a teenager, through to more recent years as he approaches 60.

I first met Steve in February 2013, when I interviewed him for my book Talking Smack, about his experiences with illicit drugs in general and his addiction to heroin in particular. The Kilbey chapter opened the book, not only because it was the most immediately engaging and transformative story, but because Steve is such an articulate and fascinating interviewee that I was tempted to just publish the transcript in its entirety, and leave it at that. (An edited version of the Kilbey chapter from Talking Smack was published in The Weekend Australian Review, which you can read here; there’s also a funny YouTube clip filmed at our first meeting here.)

This conversation took place on a Sunday afternoon in a downmarket hotel room in inner-city Brisbane in early July, when The Church were playing two shows at The Triffid. This was billed as a double-album tour, where the 1982 album The Blurred Crusade and the band’s most recent album, Further/Deeper, were intended to be played in full, but as we discuss here, the band soon realised that wasn’t such a good idea. While we spoke, Steve and I sat on the floor of the hotel room, with the microphone between us. There were a couple of other blokes in the room while we recorded: fellow journalist Michael Dwyer, and Mike Brook, who filmed our interview as part of the documentary about Kilbey he’s currently working on.

Our conversation touches on the experience of writing his memoir, and Steve’s response to my review published in The Weekend Australian; the differences between his on-stage and off-stage personalities; how he went about learning the bass guitar; how his artistic career is dictated by money, and how he enjoys being lean and hungry; the origins of his remarkable blog, which is named The Time Being; and how he prefers to write lyrics in a stream-of-consciousness style that’s rarely edited between the page and finalised albums.

Steve Kilbey began his professional music career when he was 17. He played in several bands before forming The Church in Sydney in 1980. After some initial success, Kilbey and The Church shot to international fame in 1988 when their album Starfish, featuring the song ‘Under the Milky Way’, rose to the top of the music charts in both Australia and the US. Kilbey has collaborated with a vast array of musicians on various projects and has produced a number of solo works as well. He is also a painter, poet and music producer. In 2010 The Church was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. Steve Kilbey currently lives in Bondi, Sydney and continues to evolve through his craft as a vocalist, songwriter, poet, artist, actor, writer and guitarist bringing all his talents together for unique and instinctive performances.

Steve Kilbey on Twitter: @SteveKilbey

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3.00 What Steve does in his downtime while on tour with The Church
4.00 How Steve makes the “rapid transformation” between being backstage and standing in front of an audience with a guitar
5.00 The difference between his performance personality and his off-stage personality
6.00 How Steve first decided to pursue a career in music, and in songwriting, after writing his first songs at age 10
8.30 How creativity was valued in the Kilbey household when Steve was growing up
9.00 “My father was always keen on music, and used to say to me, ‘No matter what else you do, make sure music is the main thing in your life’”
11.00 How Steve went about learning bass guitar: “I had the calling; I had the vocation to be a bass player”
12.00 Steve responds to my review of his memoir, Something Quite Peculiar, for The Weekend Australian, and my disappointment at how abruptly it ended
13.00 How the book was received, nine months after its publication: “It didn’t sell that well, but it didn’t sell that badly”
14.00 “That’ll probably be the last book I ever write, I’d say, unless somebody commissions me to write a book about Syd Barrett, or something”
14.30 The book’s origins were purely in being offered $15,000 to write it by his publisher, Hardie Grant; Steve hadn’t been accumulating material prior to that offer
16.00 Hardie Grant wanted the book to be about Steve’s life in music, rather than being “about the drugs and all the other stuff”
17.00 How Steve’s artistic career is dictated by money, and how people might assume that he has a lot of money in the bank
18.00 “Having a lot of children, and then getting in trouble with the Australian Taxation Office, getting behind on my payments, and a few bad business deals – I’m always having to be a prostitute”
19.30 “If the 1984 version of me was sitting in the room and saw the version of me now going, ‘Yeah, so I wrote this book because I was getting paid $15,000,’ he’d go, ‘Is that all you got? And that made you happy?’”
20.00 The upside of Steve’s financial situation is that he keeps working all the time, and he never says no: “I’m still lean and hungry”
21.00 “I kind of enjoy the roguishness of my position, of being so old and so broke”
22.00 “I created all my own wealth from my cleverness, and then my stupidity destroyed it all”
25.00 The artists and writers that Steve was interested in when he first began writing songs: The Beatles, Shakespeare, Tolkien
26.30 The origins of The Time Being, Steve’s blog, which began in 2004 after his brother set it up for him
30.00 “It was very seductive, just the idea of sitting down, writing whatever came into my head, hitting ‘publish’ and next minute there’s a guy in Cairo reading what you’ve just written”
31.30 The difference between releasing albums every few years, and the instant gratification of getting feedback from an online audience
33.30 “I feel like I am a master of the English language. If I’m not, who the fuck is? Maybe Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave; there’s a few of us around”
40.00 Steve doesn’t keep a notebook or a journal: “I don’t do anything that I can’t use [in my art]”
43.30 The differences and similarities between the Steve Kilbey who wrote The Church albums The Blurred Crusade [1982] and Further/Deeper [2014]
45.00 What Steve is aiming to achieve when writing music and lyrics: “We’re trying to create magic”
48.00 Steve deconstructs the song ‘Miami’ from Further/Deeper, which captures the mood and emotion of a place I’ve never visited
50.30 Steve isn’t precious about his lyrics, and he doesn’t edit very often: usually his stream-of-consciousness lyrics are what end up on record
51.30 “I need the music to write the words; I think the music should inspire the words”
52.30 What Steve thinks about when he picks up a bass guitar in 2015
53.00 “When I pick up my own bass, I feel like a wizard picking up his staff, or a witch picking up her wand”
56.00 Steve played a six-string bass with a plectrum on all of Priest=Aura, and on ‘Lightning White’ from Further/Deeper
56.30 How Steve learned to sing and play bass at the same time: “I think the worst thing to do is try and think about it too much; you’ve got to try and let the two sides not interfere with each other”
58.30 The interplay between the rhythm of Steve’s basslines, and his voice singing the melody
60.00 What’s next on the horizon for Steve in the coming months, including performing in A State of Grace: The Music of Tim and Jeff Buckley at Brisbane Festival in September 2015
62.00 “The money’s good, and I want to sing the songs. I probably would have done this even if I was a billionaire with my three houses and eight studios”


The below three photographs from this interview were taken by Michael Dwyer.

Steve Kilbey interviewed for the Penmanship podcast by Andrew McMillen, July 2015. Photo credit: Michael Dwyer

Steve Kilbey interviewed for the Penmanship podcast by Andrew McMillen, July 2015. Photo credit: Michael Dwyer

Steve Kilbey interviewed for the Penmanship podcast by Andrew McMillen, July 2015. Photo credit: Michael Dwyer

The below three photographs from this interview were taken by Mike Brook.

Steve Kilbey interviewed for the Penmanship podcast by Andrew McMillen, July 2015. Photo credit: Mike Brook

Steve Kilbey interviewed for the Penmanship podcast by Andrew McMillen, July 2015. Photo credit: Mike Brook

Steve Kilbey interviewed for the Penmanship podcast by Andrew McMillen, July 2015. Photo credit: Mike Brook

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