The Church perform at Twilight at Taronga this Friday night, 24 February, which coincides with the launch of their new album, The Hypnogogue, the band’s 26th studio release.
Manly Observer caught up with the veteran talent Steve Kilbey, who has been the voice and principal songwriter for The Church since their formation in 1980.
Is this the first Twilight at Taronga concert that The Church have performed?
“No, we played it around 10 years ago,” Steve revealed. “I think it was 2011 or 2012. But last year’s show was cancelled because of Covid.”
As well as co-writing the band’s stand-out hits, Under the Milky Way (which was named after an Amsterdam nightclub and appeared in the cult favourite film Donnie Darko), and The Unguarded Moment (which has been compared to The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride, but with more imaginative lyrics), Steve has written countless songs for The Church, plus hundreds more as a solo artist, including collaborations with other musicians.
The Taronga Zoo concert coincides with the release of The Church’s new album The Hypnogogue.
“It does, very neatly,” he confirmed. “The album comes out on that very day.”
Will the band play the entire album during the course of the night or just a few excerpts, given the time constraints?
“We’ll only be playing three or four songs off the new album.”
According to a preview in the December 2022 edition of Music Feeds magazine, The Hypnogogue is a ‘concept’ album, which is “set in 2054 in a dystopian future, about a machine and a process that pulls music straight out of dreams.” Can he elaborate?
“Okay, so 2054 is a kind of ‘used-up’ future,” he explained. “It’s not like an incredible future. It’s a future where there’s no spare parts.
“Someone has invented a machine that pulls music straight out of your head. It’s a sort of machine, but it’s also linked to the occult, and drugs. The protagonist of the story is this guy called Eros Zeta, and he travels from his home in Antarctica to Korea to use the machine. He falls in love with the lady who invented it, then it all goes wrong.
“The songs have fatal implications for the people who hear them.”
He continued, “The story is very loose, very vague. It’s just really a very loose framework for all the songs to hang on. You don’t have to go with it at all. You can just enjoy the songs for what they are.
“Or you can dig a little deeper .. In the record there’ll be a little booklet telling you what’s happening in the story.”
“There’s actually three,” Steve corrected. “C’est la Vie, Hypnogogue and No Other You, a new song that’s just come out.”
What was it like writing a concept album, where the songs are interlinked and follow a narrative thread that underpins the album, instead of the usual stand-alone tracks?
“Well, I cheated a bit,” he admitted. “I sort of wrote the songs and then I figured out how they would fit into the concept… Sort of like doing a painting and then cutting it up into the puzzle, so it could be reassembled. Besides, the concept developed as we were working on it…”
Would he consider writing another concept album for The Church?
“Yes, I got quite a taste for it! It’s strange that we’ve never done it before. If there is another Church album I’m sure it will be a concept.”
Steve revealed he regards The Hypnogogue as one of the best Church albums they’ve released in the band’s 43-years existence.
“I do, I do, I really do,” he enthused. “And I don’t always say that. … If we never record another album, I think it’s a good one to go out on.. It’s cohesive and melodic. It still sounds like The Church but we’ve progressed a bit and the new guys have added a lot to it.”
The Church’s line-up has evolved over time, with the 2013 arrival of Ian Haug, songwriter and lead guitarist with legendary Aussie rock band Powderfinger, after the departure of long-term guitarist Marty Willson-Piper. In 2019, guitarist-keyboard player and the band’s co-founder, Peter Koppes, also moved on.
Steve has previously written songs for movie soundtracks. It would be interesting if the new album evolved into a feature-length science fiction film. Historically, several other classic records have evolved into film projects; notable examples include The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, The Who’s Quadrophenia, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
“One can always hope!” Steve enthused. “If Netflix are looking for me and want to make The Hypnogogue into a movie, I’m ready for it!”
Steve’s song writing career has been prolific, including 26 studio albums with The Church and 14 solo albums. How many songs does he estimate he’s composed in his life?
“A thousand probably,” he considers, “maybe 2000! But I’ve written a whole lot of songs that nobody has ever heard.”
And many that never will, he revealed, due to an incident early in The Church’s career, when a large collection of his creative endeavours were deliberately trashed.
“I bought a domestic four-track machine in 1977, when they first came out,” he recalled. “I wrote hundreds of songs on that, which I recorded on cassettes that filled a shoe box.
“Then a girlfriend got angry at me and threw all my cassettes away. I lost half of my life’s work in one fell swoop! That really hurt, there was no need for it.
“Every now and then I remember and I get really sad… But that was a long time ago, back in the eighties.”
What creative projects is he working on now?
“I’ve got a solo album that’s in the can,” he revealed. “And I’ve also got a collaboration with Nick Littlemore from Empire of the Sun and Pnau. He wrote a load of music and I did a load of singing. He’s putting out an EP on his own label of our collaboration…
“And I’m going to Italy to work on an album with Hugo Race. You know who Hugo Race is?”
Hugo Race, a former member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, is an Australian musician and record producer based in Europe.
“He manages a recording studio on a houseboat in Italy. I got interested in his work, so I wrote to him… I’m going, at the end of The Church’s forthcoming American tour, to Italy to make a record with him and some other players.
I imagine staying on a houseboat is an inspiring environment to write music.
“Yes, it would be, wouldn’t it?! On a lake in Tuscany. I’m looking forward to it…”
And The Church are off to America soon?
“We’re doing a cruise,” he declared. “We’ve never done one before; it’s a rock cruise with Devo, Joan Jett, Howard Jones and a load of other refugees from the eighties.”
Considering it’s an eighties revival event on the ocean, are The Church obliged to perform old songs from their early years?
“Unfortunately, yes,” he lamented. “But I’m going to try and shake it up as much as I can!”
I inform Steve that The Church was the first band I ever saw perform live on stage in a concert, on 18 June 1981 at Macquarie University (where my mum was studying while I was still in high school), when they opened for Australian Crawl. The latter were topping the music charts at the time with their album Sirocco.
A few months earlier, on 12 April, The Church appeared on Sunday night youth pop music program Countdown, performing (ie, miming) their second single The Unguarded Moment, which subsequently enjoyed a lot of radio airplay.
So when the opportunity arrived to see them in concert, with their distinctive, jangly, 12-string guitar sound, reminiscent of 60s psychedelic band The Byrds, I jumped at it.
He’s written some wonderful songs, but does he ever kind of get tired of playing Under the Milky Way or Unguarded Moment?
“Unguarded Moment I was tired of about five minutes after I wrote it!” he laughed. “Back in 1981, like 42 years ago, I got tired of that f***ing song!
“Under the Milky Way is not a bad song but Unguarded Moment I can live without! But it’s just three minutes of my life, so I can grin and bear it! You know, they pay the bills, so I’ve got to play them, and so they remain there in the set…”
Twilight at Taronga – tickets
The Church – band webpage
The Church music videos