It’s not exactly what fans want to hear before you and your band mates launch into the very song that turned them on to your music in the first place, but then, never let it be said that Steve Kilbey, bassist and lead vocalist of Australian rockers The Church, has ever been anything but honest to a fault: “I’m doing this song for your sake, because I hate this fucking song!”
The outburst is captured for posterity in Something Quite Peculiar, a new documentary about Kilbey inspired by his autobiography of the same name. While in retrospect, Kilbey admits the film features him “mouthing off” and saying things he wishes he hadn’t said, he appreciates the fact it’s all very honest.
“In my book, there's a lot of self-reproach,” says Kilbey, who recently turned 63, and speaks with the enthusiasm (and occasional sarcasm) of a man in his 20s. "When The Church were successful, there was so much intrigue and stepping on each other’s toes and everything you can imagine was going on. I guess I was a bit of a prick, but then so were the other guys.”
Formed in Sydney in 1980, The Church are now enjoying a well-received North American tour to celebrate their excellent forthcoming album, Man Woman Life Death Infinity, which will be released Oct. 6. (The Church play The Heights Theater Sept. 20.) It is the band’s 26th album, but only the second with the rejuvenated line up of Kilbey, guitarists Peter Koppes and Ian Haug, and drummer Tim Powles. (Founding member Marty Wilson-Piper left the band in 2013).
In 1988, while hunkered down far from home in a Los Angeles recording studio in an effort to appease their U.S. label, “God walked through the room,” as Quincy Jones is fond of saying, and the band recorded a hypnotic and insanely catchy song co-composed by Kilbey and his wife at the time Karin Jansson called "Under the Milky Way Tonight." The song was a U.S. hit, and has remained a fan favorite across the world since its release. It sounded good then and if it still sounds good to you now, keep in mind there are at least 750 other songs by Kilbey you might also enjoy, including those on the new album.
Man Woman Life Death Infinity's first single, the dramatic, yet strangely soothing “Another Century,” a song that my wife and I played on repeat during Hurricane Harvey, was composed on an Omnichord—a sort of '80s-era autoharp coveted for its kitschy sound quality. From there, Kilbey says the process of arranging the song was highly collaborative, with each band member adding another layer to the core harmony.
“We're like a pack of dogs with the scent of the hare in our nostrils,” says Kilbey of the process. "That's the good thing about playing together for so long. We can all sort of follow the hunch together."
And then there's Kilbey's voice, an intimate croon, like something you only hear in the wee small hours. It's revealing to discover his earliest musical impressions came via Frank Sinatra and the vibe of his late 1950s albums such as Only the Lonely.
“That was my first taste of music,” says Kilbey of that album, which he remembers hearing at age 4. “It was very melancholy, with really engaging lyrics . . . Sinatra was singing to the trees, to the shore, to the night and the stars, and evoking all of these things in songs for a lonely lover.” Though he enjoyed the Beatles and loved psychedelic music, it was glam-rockers Marc Bolan and Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie who inspired Kilbey to write his own songs—"stuff that had the same effect their stuff had.”
With years of acrimony behind them, The Church are enjoying what F. Scott Fitzgerald called a “second act.” (“Third act!” says Kilbey with a laugh when I use the phrase.) Onstage, the band quickly taps into a telepathic level of interplay and, on a good night, creates a feeling of transcendence that can only arrive after years of experience.
“We do have a gestalt between us,” says Kilbey of the band’s hard won peace. “I do want to transcend. It's an incredible high when it happens. It doesn't happen every night, but every now and then, you hit the peak. It's very inspiring. Better than almost anything else I can think of.”
The Church plus special guest The Helio Sequence will perform Wednesday, Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. From $32.00. The Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th St. 214-272-8346. theheightstheater.com.