“I’m just an ordinary man who’s extraordinarily handsome and has lots of talent. But don’t be overwhelmed by me, please!” teases Steve Kilbey.
As the singer, songwriter, bassist and founding member of much loved Aussie band The Church, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed.
Steve has had so much colour tinting in his 38-year career, any rainbow breaking through dark clouds on a drizzly day would be put to shame – Steve’s stories, good or bad, are never short of colour.
The old boy looks better now than he did 30 years ago. “Due to [a] lack of any better looking men in Australia my age, I’ve become the default Sean Connery,” he teases.
“Back in the day when ['Starfish'] came out people said we were going to be the next U2.”
Perhaps he’s pickled himself with a life of excess or perhaps it’s the love The Church have received for their unmistakeable psychedelic rock music. Whatever the reason, Steve delivers his conversation with as much charm and wit as any young man might. “I think I’m the default, sexy senior citizen for a load of granny groupies!” he laughs.
Steve has had quite the career: moving to Sydney in the early '70s, forming The Church, getting their big break on 'Countdown' in 1981, battling a heroin addiction.
Fast forward to 2018, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of their seminal album 'Starfish', which featured The Church’s classic ‘Under The Milky Way’, the song that brought them overnight fame.
The Church will take to the road with a national tour, 'An Evening With The Church', celebrating the album this November-December.
In recent years, Steve has said of his musical output that he prefers to “keep things ambiguous, preferring listeners to arrive at their own meaning”.
With 'Starfish', Steve has watched its meaning be reinterpreted over the last 30 years to become something quite different to what he intended when it was written in 1988. “Have you ever heard of the word accretion?” he asks.
“If you’ve studied religion, you see they have accretion, that things get added on – like Jesus might have said ‘Hello boys’, and 2,000 years later the phrase has grown into a whole thing of paintings, songs, stories, and people have added their own interpretation, and yet the original thing may have had no meaning.
"Now all its meaning has been ascribed to it – I think that’s what’s happened with 'Starfish', and ‘Under The Milky Way.
“When ['Starfish'] came out, it was an album of ambiguous songs. Now it means so much more, which is wonderful when that process works for you.
“Sometimes it’s just something you did 30 years ago and is best left in the past, but if you get really lucky… It’s like the Mona Lisa – surely the Mona Lisa has more meaning, more oomph, more mojo than the day Leonardo [da Vinci] finished it 600 years ago? He would have gone: ‘Oh yeah, nice painting, put it there.’ The whole thing has built up so much meaning over the years, for sure.”
Back to 2018 and looking at 'Starfish', Steve says it’s hard for him to disentangle things that have been ascribed to the album, things he says he didn’t originally foresee.
Ultimately, though, he prefers his work is appreciated and commentated during his life like Da Vinci, than scorned and ignored like Vincent Van Gough. “Nobody even liked his stuff at the time, did they? He sold one painting in his lifetime,” Steve agrees.
“That puzzles me, why people take so long to see how amazing something really is – one painting in his whole lifetime, and yet to us,” he says before trailing off.
“It’s the same with 'Starfish' – is it so hard to know what it really is? [Then] you’re getting into the realm of subjective and objective art. I’ve always thought The Church is very subjective, as in you have to want to like The Church.
“We’re not a converting band. You’ve got to be a bit involved in the whole trip of it, what it means, what it’s about, before you can really like it. I think our stuff is more subjective and certainly that particular album and song have built up a lot of subjective context over the years.”
It has been said that The Church through their tenure, have missed the international fame mark and developed more of a cult following, an opinion Steve believes ties in with his thoughts on the subjective nature of the band. “We were trying to be the biggest band in the world,” he says.
“Back in the day when ['Starfish'] came out people said we were going to be the next U2.
“When you’re making a record, what are you hoping for? Well, I’m hoping for riches and fame, but I’m also hoping people are really going to love the record, adore it and play it for the rest of their lives and go on finding something in it – it’s hard to always hit both marks.
“We didn’t quite have the international stardom but from then on in, we became a cult band whose fame and fortune rises and falls with the tide.”
To a degree, The Church have hit one of those marks. Here they are 30 years on from the release of 'Starfish' and about to embark on a massive, national tour to celebrate their success and longevity.
Given Steve’s artistic output over time, it’s interesting to wonder if his efforts outside this album should have achieved greater recognition. “It’s like having children,” he begins.
“I’ve got five children – some days I get up and go: ‘Those ungrateful little sods, they’re not grateful for anything I have!' Then other days you hang out with them and go: ‘Wow, they’ve all come home to roost and appreciate what I’ve done for them.' I think it’s like that when you look back on your musical creations.
“There’s a pessimist in me who gets up in the morning and thinks, ‘Geez, all the stuff I’ve done and all anybody thinks about is ‘Under The Milky Way’, and then another day an optimistic me goes, ‘Wow, I’m lucky to have made a living doing what I love'.
“I think I’ve done as many good things outside of 'Starfish' as I did within it. I flip between the gaps a bit – the commodities I peddle in music, the ambiguity, that’s not necessarily what people want. The Church isn’t peddling appealing commodities, it’s peddling ambiguity and interpretations.”
Ambiguity is a trending word Steve has ascribed to things he’s done in recent years – he’s talked until his tongue bleeds about the bad aspects outside of The Church.
But those experiences, especially with his well-documented dabbling with drugs, have shaped him into the man he is today, ambiguous or not. “When I was young and I was rude, that shaped it,” he says. “I was too cool to talk to anyone.
“Something was making me do that, I can’t explain. And with the whole band taking their cue from me, someone would say ‘Hey, new record is out, it’s great!’ and we’d go ‘Oh, we’re too cool to answer your question’, so we’d sit there squirming uncomfortably.”
How very Sex Pistols of them. “Yes, exactly, except they were massive, they could afford to do it!” Steve cries.
“I couldn’t do it anymore, I just have to be friendly – I guess I’m looking at things in a different light and I do have a lot of gratitude that I’ve been able to do this thing for so long.
“Like a general, I go over old battles and think ‘Why didn’t I fight differently? Why didn’t I do this or that?’ But on the other hand, the partial obscurity was good for the creativity of the band – after a while, we could just meander with no pressure to be anything, and therefore, if nothing else, we became this cult band.
“A lot of people have fallen by different waysides [sic] – some died from drug overdoses, some from liver cancer, some fell into obscurity, some got married and opened a f...ing pizza business – and I’m here, doing what I’ve always done, and I am grateful for that, and I’m thankful.”
An Evening With The Church Tour DatesFri 23 Nov - Anita's Theatre (Wollongong)
Sat 24 Nov - NEX: The Arena (Newcastle)
Sun 25 Nov - QPAC Concert Hall (Brisbane)
Fri 30 Nov - State Theatre (Sydney)
Sat 1 Dec - Palais Theatre (Melbourne)
Sun 2 Dec - Royal Theatre (Canberra)
Fri 7 Dec - Thebarton Theatre (Adelaide)
Sun 9 Dec - Perth Concert Hall