Age, rage and the virtual stage: The late-life rebirth of Steve Kilbey
Wednesday, 15th September, 2021
By Jack Marx
On a weekend in September of 2020, a handful of Broken Hill people got to witness something special.
Steve Kilbey, former frontman with The Church, performed at The Palace Hotel, solo, the crowd limited to 49 paying customers in observance of COVID restrictions.
What might have been a downer of an evening was, in fact, an exhibition of power – a mere 12-string guitar in the hands of one man, but a campaigner experienced enough to understand the strange clout one can wring from an intimate situation. It was, if the pun can be pardoned, a religious experience.
For Steve, it was just another show. What he remembers most about that weekend is the strange place he found himself in, for the first time.
“I remember it was a good show,” he says, “and I remember the audience were very kind.
“I don't really remember a lot about what happened that night. It was a good gig. I remember that.
“I think I've done so many gigs now, and they’re not always going to be like Hultsfred in Sweden, with 60,000 people, you know? Sometimes it's smaller intimate places
“But I’ll tell you, I have really fond memories of Broken Hill from that weekend,” he says.
“I didn't think I would enjoy my time there and I really did. I’d never been to Broken Hill before and I didn’t know anything about Broken Hill, but the little bits and pieces that I saw I really enjoyed, and every person that I met was very gracious and kind to me.
“I wasn't in any hurry to leave at all. When we finally got on the train and left, I was quite melancholy the whole thing was over.”
Sorrow over good times having passed is an emotion with which Steve Kilbey is intimately familiar.
In the 1980s, The Church were one of the brightest stars in the nation’s rock and roll filament. Not as flash and glitzy as INXS, nor as miserable as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Church surfed the wave of international interest in Australian acts by remaining aloof, mystical, just a little out of reach of both fans and critics. It was a posture that worked, though Steve doesn’t care for it much today.
“I sort of invented a little character for myself,” Steve recalls, “and I thought I had to play it, and I thought my character was to be frosty and standoffish and even rude.
“Looking back on that now, I'm very ashamed of myself, and I think I did myself enormous damage by behaving like that. It wore very thin. I managed to piss off a lot of people and not get invited back on to things.
“If I had my time again, I would go for affable right from the get-go. If I had been more affable with people, I still could've been frosty onstage, but I didn't have to keep it going all the time.”
For a time, however, the theatrics worked, The Church building an international fan base the relics of which remain to this day (the internet is awash with The Church fan sites, at least one of which has made it its business to document every single show the band ever played, in Australia and the world).
The Church’s apex moment came in 1988 with the release of Under the Milky Way, a dreamy single that propelled The Church to #2 on the US Billboard Charts, the song finding a second home on the soundtrack of the 2001 cult film, Donnie Darko. In 2008, a poll by national newspaper, The Australian, voted it the best Australian song recorded in 20 years (while Kilbey was in Broken Hill, he received notification that he’d been paid a five-figure sum by an American football team who’d played 30 seconds of the song as they ran out for Superbowl).
But, as far as chart success is concerned, that was it for The Church, the following two decades seeing them break, reform and break again. Eighteen albums later, The Church still exists, but more like an idea than an actual band, coming together when they feel like it, which, for Kilbey, isn’t often.
“I sort of feel like I'm a different person,” he says. “Obviously, I had my 67th birthday yesterday (Monday September 13). I'm a much different person than I was then, and people like the me that I am now better than that other idiot who sort of ... I don't know why I wrote that part for my ... We all sort of wrote parts for ourselves and then we adhered to them. It was very tiresome.
“I was telling somebody yesterday, down at the beach, that I thought my 50s were a breeze. I felt, wow, 50s are no different than anything else. It's like I'm 55 or whatever, and nothing's happened at all – a little bit of grey in my beard, but that’s all.
“Now I'm in my late 60s and I guess you'd have to say I'm not enjoying it. I don't care about the looks, and getting old, from that point of view, but it's the health things, like arthritis in my feet, and back ache, and teeth falling out, and stuff like that. I've got screaming tinnitus. And I don't see so good.
“Having said all that, I think for someone of 67 I should be pretty grateful because I still have most of my faculties.”
And he’s still performing. One of the first Australian musicians to respond to the challenges of COVID, Steve jumped on the live-streaming wagon before anyone else, his nightly on-line performances during 2020 scoring audiences in the thousands.
His last solo album, 11 Women, was praised by critics when released in September last year, the experience enlivening him to record and release The Hall of Counterfeits, a double album, no less.
“I always loved that stupid idea of making what you hope is a sprawling masterpiece,” Steve says. “There's like 24 songs on there, and it's just like a rollercoaster of ... I'm really proud of it. I really enjoyed doing it. It's quite a preposterous listen, and I doubt where there's many people who have ever listened to it all in one go. It's quite an ask.”
Being prolific and genuinely (as opposed to theatrically) strange, says Kilbey, seems to come with age.
“I guess it's like raging against the dying of the light and all of that,” he says.
“Old musicians tend to lose their bite, and they just get old and soft and boring. So, for me this record was a way of saying: ‘I'm not. You might not like my record, but you can never say I've gotten old and soft and boring.”
A product of Kilbey’s prolific period has been a musical: The Road to Tibooburra, a nod to his time in Broken Hill, which he hopes will be performed soon.
“Maybe that musical will get performed properly or maybe it won't,” he says.
“But I went into the studio and recorded my own version, so that's set to come out at some stage too. My own personal version of The Road to Tibooburra.
“It’s the impression that part of the world had on me,” he recalls.
“I've never had a good time when I'm out in the desert, in America as well.
“But, as I said before, that’s all changed now.”