As the singer-songwriter and front man of The Church, English-born Steve Kilbey is one of Australia’s most prolific musicians with his own story of success and redemption.
In a time when every kid was handling a guitar, it was the bass that was Steve’s calling. He honed his skills listening to records and playing in a few bands, until the late 1970s saw him form The Church with Peter Koppes, Marty Wilson-Piper and Richard Ploog. They would work their way up the ladder to see international fame strike hard in 1988. Under The Milky Way remains their top commercial hit to date.
For four years, it’s a golden age, right up to the album Priest-Aura in 1992. And then there are his hazy days lost amongst heroin; a habit he concealed until his arrest in New York City in 1999. These are days of regret. But he pulls himself up and jumps back onto his Fender to start the process all over again – though with a great deal more clarity. He’s written about these days in his autobiography Something Quite Peculiar. So, we know who Steve Kilbey is.
But ask Steve Kibey who he is, and he will say he is a lot of conflicting personalities in the one body and well aware of his eccentricities and his foibles. “I’m not grounded,” Steve declares. “Even though I’m 60 years old, I’m all over the place and live my life like a child. All I am, is lucky – with a good constitution,” Steve affirms. “I’ve been flushed around the ocean of fate, making all kinds of silly choices. But with the luck of the devil I am still around and functioning.”
He points out his quirks are accentuated when surrounded by well meaning admirers. “People justify your excesses, telling you it’s fine, you’re a rock n roll star,” Steve recalls. “You can break all the rules because you’re an artiste. Suddenly you’re excused from getting away with it because you have a purely artistic temperament. People will tell you about you, and it’s hard for an impressionable idiot to distinguish anything,” Steve reveals. “I became despairing with delusions of grandeur. Those heady days of success wasn’t all dancing on clouds.”
For Steve, perhaps those days seem a double edge sword. “I was always feeling dissatisfied with myself, because someone was measuring me by figures. I accidentally had some success because of the songs I was writing. Then people would say the songs you’re writing aren’t making you successful anymore. You question your own abilities, because people are telling you how to use your abilities. Everything for me was a challenge at heart. Sometimes it was great. Sometimes it was overwhelming.”
But there was always music. It would be a unique choice in such days when bassists were jibed as failed guitarists. “The bass was my calling,” Steve notes. “When I knew I wanted to be a musician, a very distinctive voice said it’s gotta be the bass. I listened to a lot of bass players, but I wasn’t really clever enough to copy any of them,” he notes. “This is true of me as a songwriter too and I think I invented my own path of least resistance for my bass playing. It’s a simple style – a loping style. But I’m just running along with the rest of the pack. I’m drifting with it. In my simplicity, I’ve developed a signature way of playing.”
Steve’s quirks and anomalies have stood the test of time as the underlying fabric to his artistry and, it appears, the same applies for The Church. “When a bunch of idiosyncratic guys get together and make an idiosyncractic sound,” Steve explains, “all of those things go together to not sound like anyone else. If you can’t make it sound like you, there’s no point. The guys are maestros,” Steve outlines of the band. “We’ve been playing for all our lives. We’re older but we’re still hungry to make good music and do what we do.
They’ve certainly been doing well. The recent addition of Powderfinger’s Ian Haug has also refreshed the band’s approach, with their 2014 release of Further/Deeper resulting in successful Australian and North American tours. But if he’s learnt a few things across the years, one specifically stands out to account for The Church’s continued triumphs, “Many are called, but few are chosen,” Steve declares. “Persevere in playing, writing and singing. Keep following them through. A great song is only a minor adjustment away,” he vouches. “You might be one rehearsal away from cracking it. Persevere for that elusive grail of writing the most perfect song. Never give up.”
Further/Deeper is available on CD, digital and vinyl on Unorthodox
Photographer: Anthony Collins