Steve Kilbey and The Church are on a creative roll. After a satisfying “comeback” album (Further/Deeper) in 2015 recorded by his Australian Hall Of Fame band, he and his bandmates have managed to bounce back after the loss of longtime guitarist Marty Willson-Piper, hiring replacement guitarist Ian Haug (Powderfinger) “on a premonition,” and executing one of rock’s great musical comebacks after Kilbey’s lost decade of heroin addiction.
IE: Three North American tours in the last year? We could say the Church is on a roll?
Steve Kilbey: Yeah! Who’d a thunk it? And I’ve got the deafness to prove it. I’m really going deaf rapidly. I may be like this guy in AC/DC [Brian Johnson], I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up.
SK: Really, yes. After that last tour, it was really bad. I came home and the tinnitus is so loud. Particularly if I’m speaking to people with soft voices or people with accents. I can’t hear anything anybody is fucking saying. I don’t know
what I’m going to do. I’m looking at a few remedies right now. I’m looking at herbs, I’m looking at headphones that go ‘shhhhh [white noise] for 3 hours. Your ears adjust to that sound and it’s supposed to make it better. Yeah, it’s great doing all those tours, I just hope that my ears can hold out.
IE: Is this a condition [Tinnitus] you can manage by doing shorter tours?
SK: There was a night we played a show in Australia, just before our American tour, and we played a long, shallow stage and the drum cymbals were right at my ear height, and that one gig – the whole thing ramped up. I guess I’m like a fooballer, something’s gotta give. At least I haven’t lost my voice!
IE: Yes, you do have that voice, and you are more prolific now than you were 30 years ago. Solo albums, The Church, collaborations…
SK: It seems that way. I’ve always been really prolific. Except in my bad, troubled, emotional days. I’m normally writing all the time. Most people go watch TV, I go and write a song, or work on music or something. You can see right now I’ve got all these microphones (behind me), I’m working on an album with an Irish guy name Frank Kearns from Cactus World News. I’m working on a solo album and waiting for the Church. I think the Church is going to be working on a a new album this year.
IE: Some people will be really glad to hear that.
SK: Yeah! Another great thing I’m doing – I’m working with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House on this David Bowie tribute. We’ll be doing a bunch of David Bowie numbers.
IE: Do you know which Bowie numbers you are going to perform yet, or is that a secret?
SK: Well, they gave us 30 numbers. I know which ones I don’t want to do…[Steve sings] ‘Let’s Dance!’ So I don’t want to do that one! When I told my brother that I was doing this – he doesn’t have much faith in my vocal prowess – he told me to do “China Girl,” he texted me ‘do ‘China Girl.’” So guess I can do that. I’ve got my name down to do “Station to Station.” That would be fucking huge one to do. “Suffragette City,” “Diamond Dogs,” I reckon I could nail those. I gotta pick the easy
ones, I’m not gonna try the harder ones, like “Life On Mars.”
IE: Beatles producer George Martin passed away recently. Who do think was the one producer that was your George Martin? A producer who really connected with the Church? Maybe it was Bob Clearmountain [Blurred Crusade] or for us, it was Peter Walsh [Heyday].
SK: Yeah, I’d say Peter Walsh, I’d say Bob Clearmountain. But I would give a huge mention to Gavin MacKillop, who did Priest=Aura, which was sort of our last album we did with a “producer,” per se. I think all those guys in their own different ways were definitely amazing producers. They enabled us to do what we heard in our heads
IE: I’ve been thinking about the history between [co-founding Church guitarist] Peter Koppes and his relationship with you. You’ve been making music together for 40 years. I know it hasn’t always been easy for both of you, you’ve been through so much together – but, there is an incredible musical history between the two you that doesn’t get talked about much.
SK: Yes. It’s true. You know, I was grumbling about Peter one day, and Tim [Powles – drummer] said ‘you know what Steve, there’s something about what you and Peter do together, what he brings to your songs, that is the Church.” And it’s true. When I first started The Church, Peter came around my house one day and said ‘let me hear the songs, let me play guitar on the songs.’ And when Peter played guitar on those songs, that was the beginnings of The Church. There’s something about..they’re my songs, but his musicality. He’s something. As he would tell you, he’s one of the best guitarists in the world [laughs] and he is. We were fortunate that we’ve had 2 great guitarists in The Church. You’ll never hear me say anything bad about Marty [Willson-Piper] as a guitarist. He was flashy, he was aggressive, he had the looks. Critics would write about ‘Steve Kilbey’s brilliant lyrics, and Marty Willson-Piper’s brilliant guitar playing.’ But a lot of the time they were missing out Peter’s guitar playing. They were ascribing Marty’s playing to what Peter has been doing. Peter is by far the best musician in the band. The Church needs him. Sometimes we don’t get on well as people. But I think he and I would admit we need each other. And what we both bring to this thing.
IE: Speaking of guitarists, I think Ian [Haug] has fit in really nicely. It’s been two years since he joined and I think you’ve said in other interviews you hired him on a premonition. Taking Marty’s place – those were big shoes to fill. And to see him live last year – he really slides in.
SK: I did have a premonition, yeah. We had a situation in the Church in which we had 3 inflammatory guys. We had me, we had Peter, and we had Marty. There were a lot of fucking arguments going on. And then Ian came came along and evened things out, along with Tim. When I say that – Peter and I can get angry and frustrated, and Ian brings in a balance. And then of course there is his guitar playing. I remember Peter saying when we were driving home one night, a week after Ian had joined, ‘You know, I can enjoy being in this band.’
SK: No really, that is what Ian brings in – he’s made it enjoyable. We love him as a guy, he brings in this Aussie laid-back personality thing that we really need. He’s done a good job filling in for Marty – one of the most popular people in the band – he’s kind of side-stepped that, he’s just been himself. He’s taken Marty’s parts and made things his own.
I was thinking about Yes the other day. On every album, they’d evolve and evolve. Alain White replaces Bill Bruford, and Rick Wakeman was replaced [by Patrick Moraz]. Steve Howe replaced [Peter] Banks. If you can replace the main guy with a member who carries on the spirit of the original band, then it works. That’s what we did with Ian. I’ve given the guys in The Church my blessing. If I ever die and fall off my perch, and they find a guy who can play bass and sing my parts – then that’s a guy who can keep things going. If you’ve got this body of work and can find the right guys, you can do it.
When Marty left – and I totally respect that he didn’t want to do it any more, Tim, Peter and I felt like it wasn’t time to pack it in. And Ian’s been popular – especially in America. I haven’t heard anybody complaining about Marty leaving the band in America.
IE: I know you lived in the States for awhile, what do you think the political phenomenon known as Donald Trump?
SK: Well, I’m not exactly jazzed on Hillary Clinton, Bernie [Sanders] is my guy. Americans shouldn’t be so afraid of the word socialism. Socialism is not the old Soviet Socialist Republic. Real socialist countries that work are Denmark and Norway. But I don’t know – if Donald Trump likes our music [laughs] then I may think differently! I’m mean if he asks his wife ‘whats that fucking ‘Milky Way Song,’ [‘Under The Milky Way”] then we may have a whole different opinion.
IE: Well, I guess there is that.
SK: Yes [laughs] I guess there a chance he could be president, but the whole world is saying ‘no,’ hoping that doesn’t happen!
– John Vernon
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