“The coolest dad there is” – the Steve Kilbey interview
By Barrie Bardoe
There are only two bands in the world which have 19 albums which have achieved a 4.5 star rating or higher in the All American music guide. One of these bands is the Rolling Stones. The other is Australian band The Church which has been in existence since 1980. The band has had its ups and downs but bassist/vocalist Steve Kilbey’s creative vision has endured. The band has released some 30 albums – an incredible feat on its own – but then we have to take his solo work into account and I think most people would be amazed by such a vast body of work. Kilbey has never traded quantity for quality however – his work is never less than engaging and more often quite brilliant. His latest solo offering is Sydney Rococo and his band finds itself touring this summer with Ice House and the Sunnyboys on the ‘By the C’ tour. It seemed like a great time to talk to Steve, but I wasn’t prepared for just how long we talked. Normally a music interview is bound of strict time constraints but when I asked Steve how long we had he said it was open ended…….an hour later I felt like we had barely touched the surface.
What did we talk about?
Reincarnation. Both of us have children who have done and said things which make us convinced of the reality of this. We talked about how creative output must be open to interpretation. We dispelled a myth. And Steve talked frankly about the 3 phases of his life including the one where he was a heroin addict who assiduously destroyed everything before re emerging with no possessions but considerable wisdom and a very deep appreciation of the gifts he has received in life. He talked about his unyielding desire to make musical art. He talked about the bass. We pondered how you define and interpret art. He talked about how he became a visual artist…….I found myself abandoning any semblance of a structured interview. Digression led to digression. Steve is a ‘working class’ Renaissance man with a fierce intellect and an unyielding dedication to create. He has gone from being a good looking and talented ‘narcissistic twit’, to an addict who still managed to create, to a kind of elder statesman of the music scene who is feted by a new generation who have hung upon every guitar chime, bass line and enigmatic lyric.
Where can you even begin?
Let’s start with the video for ‘Sydney Rococo’.
It has a kind of stylish ‘film noir’ feel to it, but I really didn’t understand it. Was it even meant to be understood as a kind of story? What was Steve’s idea behind it? “I really had nothing to do with the video”, he says. “It is meant to be enigmatic and strange….I don’t think there is anything to understand. It is something to look at while you listen to the song……it is a feeling. You are not meant to understand it, it is meant to wash over you.” This in turn led to a discussion of the meaning of art. “It is not a newspaper article”, he states. Art does not have a definitive meaning. “A video or poem does not have the ‘right’ interpretation….” Which is one reason why he doesn’t include the lyrics on his releases. The listener is completely free to interpret it as they wish. Rule number one of art – there shouldn’t be rules. “I used to like the old days of albums when they would just fall out of the air……you didn’t know anything about it….often knowing things can ruin it. It is often better left unsaid. I like that randomness. The Rolling Stones didn’t print their lyrics…..” And there’s that comparison again.
Steve characterises himself as a “nasty, egotistical smartarse…” during the early days of the band. “I thought The Church were the most ephemeral thing”, he says. “We were going to live it up and explode. I never thought we would endure this long.” And yet they have not only endured but they have achieved a level of success that that is quite extraordinary. But no success can really compare to what a teenage daughter thinks of you. Quite recently his thirteen year old saw the band for the first time and said to him “You are the coolest dad there is…” The decades of hard work and industry accolades pale into insignificance next to a moment like this. “My parents were Cockney cannon fodder”, Steve states putting to rest a rumour that he had attended a private school and came from a privileged background. His father and his grandfather fought in the Empire’s global conflicts. “I thought there is really only one way out of this…..it has to be rock and roll! We were really poor.” From the age of four he had an unyielding belief that he was meant to be a musician, but he recalls a considerable frustration that he had to learn how to play. He felt that he was a musician, re learning his craft. This was his first sense of the truth of reincarnation. “I felt I had been a musician before”, he states. “It was my vocation. It was in my genes if you like”. What makes him “annoyed” about dying is that he will have to start again and re learn everything from scratch.
Everything was going very well in Steve’s life until the Cosmic Intelligence visited heroin upon him. “When all the money started coming in I was quite careful”, he says. By his own admission he wasn’t shy of trying different drugs, and had wondered at the connections with the creative process. The arrogance of the early version of Steve was his undoing. He thought he would be the drug’s master and the people who succumbed to addiction were “losers”. But it would prove to take a decade and everything he had. “I was alright until I discovered heroin”, he says. “It doesn’t matter how much you have it will take it all. I lost my house…..my guitar collection….I put it all up my arm.” What ensued was a period of extreme lows, but then something quite remarkable happened. The obsession was over. Steve now claims that you could put a “fishbowl of heroin” in front of him and he would “ just look at it”. He has no interest in it all. He sees it as all being part of a very necessary path of personal growth and claims he is a better person for it. “When I came back in 2001 I literally had nothing….I had a knapsack. I had to put it all back together. I still don’t really have anything. But it was necessary for me…..the Universe was saying ‘this guy needs to come down a peg or two’” The “narcissistic twit” has grown into a wise and respected elder statesman of the creative arts – a visual artist and respected thinker, let alone a gifted songwriter and performer.
Steve has sold millions of albums. He has a truly global following and nowhere more so than in America which has always been a tough nut to crack for Australian bands. His audience is now intergenerational. As part of the ‘By the C’ tour this summer The Church joins forces with Icehouse, Sunnyboys, Do Re Mi and Mental as Anything and thereafter they return once more to America. His latest solo work continues to build on a legacy of beautifully crafted, instrumentally rich, haunting and enigmatic popular music that has deeply affected listeners for decades. He once said that he makes “sad music so you can be happy”. The fact that he is still making music of such high quality does make a lot of people happy.
Sydney Rococo is out now
Steve Kilbey website: http://thetimebeing.com/
By The C dates:
Camp Shortland, Newcastle
Saturday 19th January, 2019 (gates open at 1.00pm)
Stuart Park, Wollongong
Sunday 20th January, 2019 (gates open at 1.00pm)
Queen Elizabeth Park, Coolongatta
Saturday 2nd February, 2019 (gates open at 1.00pm)
Leura Park, Geelong
Saturday 9th February, 2019 (gates open at 1.00pm)
Glenelg Beach, Adelaide
Sunday 10th February, 2019 (gates open at 1.00pm)
Tickets on sale on now and available at