It's been a while since we heard from The Church. The venerable Australian band last played in NZ in 2012 on a bill with Simple Minds and Devo. Now they're returning to headline a show at Auckland's Spark Arena, celebrating the 30th anniversary of their Starfish album.
Radio 13's Marty Duda spoke to Church-leader Steve Kilbey about what the band has been up to lately. The conversation eventually got around to Kilbey's worst gig ever. As it turns out, it took place in New Zealand. As Kilbey tells it, the show was simultaneously soul-crushing and hilarious.
Here's a transcription of the interview:
MD: You’re doing a few solo shows around this time as well, aren’t you?
SK: I am in Melbourne. I’m doing a show a The Spotted Mallard. I do all kinds of things. I do a singing… sort of what they call tribute bands?
MD: Oh, really?
SK: I was doing David – Yeah, it’s like David Bowie. When David Bowie died I went around singing with the symphony orchestras in each city as part of a troupe, a troupe of singers. And you know, did the same for Jeff and Tim Buckley and Leonard Cohen… you know, when things like that, when they’re looking for singers for hire, I’m a singer for hire. I do solo shows; I do collaborations and yeah, I do a lot of different musical things with lots of different people.
MD: What’s your favorite Bowie song to sing?
SK: Oh… well, I never – okay, the only time I ever sung this song – and it did sound like an awful idea on paper – but I did the The Bewlay Brothers. I did The Bewlay Brothers with a band called The Thin White Ukes in Melbourne, which is a Bowie ukulele band. We did this song, but… now look. When I first heard that I thought, “That’s ridiculous.” But you know what, they’re so good they’ve just been invited to China and they’re doing a tour of China. It’s really beautiful how they – they’ve got kind of a bass uke and then a sort of a lead uke and they sort of arrange it like a little orchestra, and it’s not – it sounds really cheesy but it was quite moving in the end.
We have a three electric guitar attack, so it’s like – its absolutely monstrous!
SK: Yeah, that’s the only time I’ve ever sung The Bewlay Brothers, but that’s probably my favorite Bowie song of all time.
MD: That’s an excellent one, yeah. Now, the last time that The Church was in New Zealand – if I’m not mistaken – was when you guys were touring with Devo and Simple Minds, which was a few years back. The band has gone through a few changes since then, so maybe you can tell folks what’s been going on with the group.
SK: Yeah, well Marty Willson-Piper, who was our long-term guitarist, he left. For – as they say in the business – “musical and personal detributions". Which is such a polite expression... musical and personal differences… he left, and wonderfully we got Ian from Powderfinger, who is like, Australia’s biggest band ever, we got their lead guitarist Ian Haug to join, and he settled in amazingly as a person and as a player. And not only that, but we’ve got a new guy who is our auxiliary guy, who is the lead guitarist and songwriter for quite a big American band called Remy Zero from the late 90s who was a Church fan. He’s joined as our sort of auxiliary player, so he’s playing keyboards, doing backing vocals, and playing guitar as well. So sometimes we have a three electric guitar attack, so it’s like – its absolutely monstrous…having three electric guitars going. It is!
MD: Right! And you guys have also released a couple of albums in the interim since you were here last, so has the sound –
SK: Yeah, yeah, we have.
This is the paradox that The Church has to struggle but we have to still sound like The Church and yet we have to progress and change and develop.
MD: Yeah, so has that sound… I mean The Church has kind of a – for those of us who’s been around for a while – we have an idea of what The Church sounds like and what it should sound like. Does it sound significantly different with these changes?
SK: Okay, this is the paradox that The Church has to struggle but we have to still sound like The Church and yet we have to progress and change and develop that, but never – I reckon our mission statement is to never abruptly jump into something that people go, “That doesn’t sound like The Church.” So we still sound like The Church, but we have… Ian’s brought some muscle into the band, like some serious musical muscle. And yeah, I reckon… yeah, we’ve made two albums with him and I reckon they’re both pretty good. I reckon if you like the old Church you would like the new Church probably even more. We are certainly not a nostalgia act, you know, not at all.
MD: Yeah. And the other thing that has happened is a film has been made about you, Something Quite Peculiar. And I’m really curious – what was that process like? What is it like having a film made about you? I mean, were you kind of reveling in the attention or you’re cringing at the close scrutiny of it all?
I have the ability to see myself as a product. I can extrapolate the product and I look at it as I watch it.
SK: Neither, neither. I was going… no I wasn't! It’s like, there’s a geezer making a film about me and I allowed the film crew to come and interview me and my mother; I allowed the film crew to come and interview me and my twin daughters, and they came on the road. We were backstage and when we were playing they were in the audience, and when I was walking along in Brighton on the gangplank there, they’re walking along talking to me and capturing, sort of, things. And then we did some arty kinds of things, and there were some happy moments and some angry moments and some melancholy moments. I watched it again cause we did do this Church convention in London where we, for a whole weekend, it was a Church fest – watching our films and us playing all our albums and blah blah blah… and I watched the film again and the English really enjoyed it, and I could see they really enjoyed the insight into The Church touring in Australia. To them we’re something mysterious that turns up once every three years, does a gig in London then disappears. It was hilarious for them to watch me coping with playing in some… you know, some very small, unimportant town out on the coast of Western Australia two hundred miles away from Perth, and watching me go through all the agony of doing that. I think they found that insightful and quite amusing.
MD: And what about yourself? How do you feel when you’re watching it?
SK: I have the ability to see myself as a product. I can extrapolate the product and I look at it as I watch it, looking at the product that I’ve created, just like if I was a guy having an exhibition and there are all my paintings on the wall, I’d still be trying to stand back looking at the paintings, getting some distance to try and see what they really were. I still try and watch it… I try and watch it and wonder what all the people around me are thinking about it and how I’m – you know, he didn’t always choose all the most flattering things. And not only that, but the place that I bitched about – so I’m driving along in the car and I’m going, “Last week I played in London and the week before that Paris and the week before that Amsterdam, and now I’m playing in Bungaree, Western Australia and its doing my head in, man.” And then the idiot arranges for me to do a film festival in Bungaree…
MD: Nice one .
SK: And the headline comes up like, in Bungaree film festival, and then when I say that line the whole audience goes “Woooo!” The rat bag is in their midst. You know what I mean? It was like, so embarrassing! That’s how my life always works out; I have to have a moment like that. Like, the one place that I bitched about and actually mentioned by name is the place where the film festival is. They’re being so nice to me and all that, and there I am, bitching about their town, what an insignificant, sort of, worthless place it is. And you know for rock ‘n’ roll – it is!
MD: You’re right!
A guy in this audience walked up and said, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life. What are you going to do about it?”
SK: It did do my head in that last week I was in Paris playing all this, people going “Woah~” then boom! And then next week I’m in Bungaree where people don’t even like me anyway. But what the hell…
MD: Is it very different just in general playing for an Australian audience than overseas?
SK: Playing in Sydney, playing Melbourne, playing in Brisbane, playing in Perth… they’re like an overseas audience. They’re like, “Wow, this is something special, this is something…” and they’re enthusiastic and they’re encouraging. But you know what? Take The Church outside of those places and put it in Aubrey or Wagga or Christchurch, New Zealand, where I had one of the worst gigs of my whole life ever, it’s like, no, they can’t dig it! There’s something about us that they can’t understand or dig, or they can’t see why –we’re very much an urban, an urbane band, we’re sort of… I don’t know, we don't appeal to the hoi polloi.
MD: Right, right, right. And what happened in Christchurch?
It was a solo gig with a bunch of musicians who betrayed me like Christ on the cross.
SK: Oh my God, I did a gig in Christchurch and the promoter got us lost on the way there, and they send us amateurs on a foggy night. It was a Sunday night and when I turned up it was like already an hour and a half late being on the stage. And the forty people there, and they just hated it! In the middle of the gig, a guy walked up to me while I was playing – a guy in this audience walked up and said, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life. What are you going to do about it?” And I stopped playing and I said, “My email address is stevekilbey@gmail, write to me and I’ll give you a refund.” And the next week the guy did! He wrote to me and said, “Look, I told you,” he said, “I want a refund” and I went, “Give me your bank details,” and he did, and I refunded him his money! And to add insult to injury, right at the end of the gig as I was standing there playing to miserable thirty people who were hating every moment, and the rest of the band I’ve got with me have completely disowned me and have turned their backs huddling over their instruments, pretending they can’t see what’s going on. Suddenly, a guy on… a guy I guess who was on crystal meth walks in with his girlfriend, and he’s so out of it that he thinks I’m the greatest thing – and he’s about twenty one, right? And he suddenly thinks this old geezer on stage is the best thing he’s ever seen, and he’s turned up late, and he’s going, “Yeah!” looking at all the rest of the people, “Come on! What’s wrong with you!” And he’s going to his girlfriend, “Come on, come on!” So he’s going nuts at this late stage of the game because he’s out of it, and I’m – and it just made everything so much worse and bizarre and ridiculous, so that was definitely the worst gig I ever played in my life.
MD: Fantastic and I assume that was a solo gig, not a Church gig, right?
SK: It was a solo gig with a bunch of musicians who betrayed me like Christ on the cross, it really was Christ – they betrayed me in that they turned away and wouldn’t maintain any eye contact with me and they all just had their heads down and were pretending they weren’t there.
MD: Yeah, we don't know who this guy is and we don't know how we got here.
MD: Fantastic… now, tell me a little bit about the Meltdown thing you did. It was curated by Robert Smith, right? How does it work being put in the middle of that?
SK: He put the “Cure” in curated, didn’t he?
MD: Hey! There you go!
SK: Yeah, on the night we were really disappointed he sent a message to us and said, “Due to a family emergency, I can’t be there, but good luck.” And he wasn’t there, so it ended up being us in quite an amazing theatre…and opening, we’re being the first band on and then The Psychedelic Furs after us. It was quite a daunting theatre; it was probably the best venue I’ve ever played in in my life. Which is, you know, after a long career in show biz, that theatre was the absolute bees knees, and it was quite… as I said to the last person I was talking to, if I had been twenty five and walked from that stage, I think I would’ve just about… done me in, because it was so… it was such a beautiful theatre and such a huge stage and they had all the mod cons.
MD: Yeah, yeah… that's better than playing down at Christchurch, that's for sure.
SK: And you know what? Playing the Royal Theatre in South Bank in London… it’s like, the only other equivalent could be like playing some gig in New York, as far as you are now under the scrutiny of – you know, if this doesn't go well you can’t walk away and go, “Oh, it’s just Bungaree,” you know what I mean? If you can win over this audience and you can make a good impression, you’ve kicked the serious goal in rock ‘n’ roll terms. London and New York, they’re the capitals – or LA – I guess those three places they’re the capital cities of rock ‘n’ roll. So in this beautiful theatre, it was sort of daunting but I think we rose to the occasion.
MD: Excellent! Well I’m sure you guys are going to rise to the occasion when you come here. And I was kind of thinking, because you’ve got Ian replacing Marty as your guitarist and there’s probably some hubbub about that, it’s almost kind of the same thing that happened with Fleetwood Mac recently when Lindsey Buckingham wouldn’t go with him and there was this hubbub, you know, they’ve got Mike Campbell and Neil Finn.
SK: Wow, yeah, how weird is that? How seriously weird is that? That's the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard of.
MD: And what do you think – and for me, I’d rather hear the new version because I haven’t heard that before so I’m kind of curious as to what it’s going to sound like, so…
SK: I’m really curious as to what that’s going to sound like. I think that’s one of the weirdest things that has happened in rock ‘n’ roll, it almost like a hoax.
MD: I know! I thought it was when I first heard it, ‘cause Neil Finn lives, like, right across the street from me here, so it’s more bizarre I see him jogging everyday.
SK: You’re sorted for tickets then, aren’t you?
MD: Yeah, I think – I hope so. I’ll hit him up when I see him next.