An evening with The Church | 03.25.23, 8:00pm | Delmar Hall, 6133 Delmar Blvd. | All ages | $35 advance, $40 day of show
The Church, through the inexorable march of time, several key lineup changes, and changing musical fashion, have always managed to retain a core identity while constantly searching and reinventing themselves. In 1988, the group scored a timeless hit with “Under the Milky Way” (from the album Starfish), a song that has continued to etch a prominent mark on pop culture as the band continues to inspire new generations of fans of indie, progressive, and psychedelic rock.
The Church’s new album, The Hypnogogue, is the band’s 26th LP. A concept album set in a dystopian 2054, it is at once familiar and enchantingly fresh, suspenseful and cathartic. Parts—such as the swirling, expansive title track—hearken back to the sometimes-unsettling gothic mysticism of 1992’s Priest=Aura. Others tap into the jangly post-punk that has headlined their most immediate moments over the years.
As the band embark on a wide-ranging North American tour, we sat down with frontman and soul of The Church, Steve Kilbey.
The Arts STL: Hi Steve, thanks for taking time to talk today. That 17-hour time difference between St. Louis and Melbourne, Australia is no joke. I appreciate you dealing with that. So, do you have any good news from the future?
Steve Kilbey: I’m in the future. I could tell you the winners of the horse races. You put the money on, and we’ll split the proceeds.
That sounds good to me. I mean, it didn’t work out so well in Back to the Future, but we can learn from their mistakes.
You should never fuck with the future or the past. You know that.
I do know that. So you’re now in your fifth decade making music as The Church. Longevity is impressive enough, but few bands with your endurance remain creatively vibrant. You never really seem to rest on your laurels. What inspires you to keep looking for new sonic and psychic avenues to explore?
Look, it’s just built into my makeup to not rest on my laurels. As soon as one thing is done and out, I want to do the next thing. I don’t even question that. It’s like going up to a carpenter on a building site and saying, why do you do that with pieces of wood? He would just go, it’s what I do, and when I’ve built this house, I have to build the next house. It’s like a computer questioning its motive. It’s like I have to keep creating. It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. It has to be better than the last thing that I did—and often it isn’t, I know that. It’s impossible to have a trajectory where everything you do just gets better and better and better.
Sometimes what you create doesn’t turn out the way you wanted, but that’s the price of progress and pushing yourself.
It is. Of course it is. I could say with the last Church album, it wasn’t a huge leap forward at all: it had a few good things on it, but it was sort of treading water. I’m rewarded now because this album, I think, is much better, and it’s a great leap forward in many ways. It was work, but a lot of thought and love and reflection and even arguments went into this record. It didn’t just come out of nowhere fully formed. There was a lot of deep consultation, discussion, looking at it and thinking about it with this record. I sort of have a ridiculously teenage excitement and pleasure in watching this thing that I really believe in unfurl.
That’s beautiful to be able to say about what you’ve just created, to have not just pride, but excitement.
On the subject of the new album—which I’ve been enjoying, by the way—you have a deep and varied discography, but this is the first time you’ve written a concept album, at least I think it is [the first you’ve written] for the Church.
Yes. I’ve been fiddling around with the idea of concept albums for a few years now. It’s occurred to me very late. I had something inside me that had sort of put concept albums off the menu. It never even occurred to me I should do a concept album. Then in the last few years, I’ve collaborated with a guy in Australia called Martin Kennedy. He writes the music and I come up with the words.
I’ve heard that collaboration [Kilbey Kennedy]. It’s quite good.
Thank you so much. Well, our last two collaborations, they were both kind of concept albums. As I started doing The Church, it occurred to me—The Church should be a concept album, using that term in the loosest possible sense. Not, “Oh, you’ve got to follow this story.” It’s just that the story is sort of a backdrop for the music before you. Here’s a bit of a story that the music kind of goes along with, if you want. If you’re not interested in that, just listen to it and there’s a bunch of songs, and it’s happy to be that.
I was thinking about that, and I was like, so what came first? The concept or the idea to do a concept album?
They grew together. Look, I couldn’t say there was any one point where I went, oh, this is going to be a concept album. But looking back on it, it’s strange how I just wanted to sing. So I’ve got to this stage. People write music, or the band writes music, or I write music myself, and there’s a piece of music, and I can sort of hear the melody. But what to sing? Where do you start from when you’ve got a piece of music? For the last 20 years, I’ve just been opening my mouth, and something seems to come out. With this record, when I would start opening my mouth to sing these things, stuff would come out, and I didn’t know where it was coming from. It didn’t seem to have any precedent in my mind where it’d been percolating it or anything. For example, one of these songs [“No Other You”], when it came time for me to sing, I started singing Son Kim Jong. It’s the name of a Korean woman that I haven’t met or I don’t even know—that’s what the song wanted me to sing, about what a wonderful, resplendent woman she is, how much the protagonist is in love with her. Then we come to another piece of music, and suddenly Antarctica is coming out. I’m going, what’s Antarctica got to do with the rest of the story? And then I realize that’s where the protagonist comes from in the future, when the planet is a grim place to be, Antarctica is quite a nice town, quite a nice country to live in now. Things have changed a bit.
Bit by bit, it all started to suggest itself. I didn’t sit down and figure out “this has got to be a concept.” But as the songs would happen, I got another little piece in the jigsaw that occurred to me, and I realized where that piece was going to go. Of course, with a real story, if I was writing a novel and you just read this novel, you go, but it doesn’t make any sense. No, my story doesn’t really make any sense. Doesn’t have a beginning, doesn’t have an end, doesn’t really have anything at all. It’s just the vaguest idea for you to think about as you enjoy the music. That’s as far as the concept really goes.
Sometimes an interesting concept is like an impressionistic painting. It kind of gives the listener or the viewer a rack to hang on. It’s a jumping off point for their own imagination.
You’re exactly right. An impressionistic painting. The painting is maybe called “Lilac Sky in Autumn.” Then, it’s up to you to figure out why that’s the Lilac Sky in Autumn. When you make the connection, there’s this wonderful satisfaction. Or if you actually forge your own new connection, which is even better. If you hear the music and you think about the concept and then suddenly you get your own understanding of this whole thing then that’s just the most wonderful, lovely feeling you can get from art. It’s much better than being force-fed some idea.
We’ve broken out of that. When I grew up in the 1950s, movies were very much “this guy is the hero, this is the heroine, this is the bad guy. It will start here. He’ll go right through the end and then he’ll win and he’ll get the girl and the bad guy will be vanquished. And that’s how things work.” Then they invented the concept of the antihero. People began to fuck with the whole thing of what a story can be, what a piece of art can be, what a song can be.
Songs were also once very linear things. They started here and they ended here. Then suddenly, with the Beatles, especially, and some of the people before the Beatles, they had songs that were sort of vague and strange and filled you with this wonderful sense. I imagine when you come to your own conclusion about a piece of art it’s so much more satisfying than someone just going, “boom, here’s the whole thing, you sit back and swallow this.” That’s very much impressionism. If impressionism could be music, then this is kind of impressionistic just giving you enough of an impression to want to find out what’s behind it, but always emphasizing the idea that it’s open for you if you want to find it.
What I’m trying to do is play with this idea that you can actually open up something in someone. You can open this door and they can have this new sort of experience. I feel like my life’s work is playing, manipulating, and trying to hear music from other people. Hearing something I really love and going, how is it they’re creating that opening in my head, my heart, and then trying to bring that into The Church.
I think this album is one more step along that way of trying to create these moments where the heart rushes one way and the head rushes another way. So it’s sort of a thing where it’s happy, but you should feel sad. Then, momentarily, the heart and the head have this disagreement where they both can dig something and then in between that, your soul seems to come out and go “ahhh!” I have noticed all my life some films, poems, and pieces of music can create this effect. I’ve been working my whole life to try and get to this point to do that. I feel there are moments on this album when somebody listens to it with an open mind and is sort of ready to see what it could do, they could have moments of illumination.
You were talking about the soul. When the head and the heart intersect, that’s like an opening to the soul.
It’s where they intersect, but it’s also where they disagree.
So that’s interesting as well. It’s the marvelous thing you can do with music, and I don’t think anything else could do it as well. It can just totally confuse you in the most delicious way. So you’re going, “I’m happy but I’m sad and I’m melancholy, but I’m triumphant and I’m frightened, but I’m in love,” and everything at once in a great piece of music. That’s a marvelous thing that I don’t think other things can do that quite as well as music. Music can even do it without even saying anything. Instrumental music can create these incredible mindscapes where it’s full of contradiction and you don’t know what to feel at all. Especially when you’re like a teenager. My youngest daughter is starting to go and see all these bands that she really loves. She goes and sees Billie Eilish, I’m going, “what’s it like? What’s it like?” And you can see she’s in absolute ecstasy. She’s like a woman seeing Jesus Christ or something. It’s like they’re trembling in the ecstasy of this new experience while you’re still a teenager and before you’ve got the sort of the grown-up veneer, when you’re still enough of a child to sort of go “holy fuck!” And it’s just this most incredible thing happening.
Anyway, I don’t always hit that spot. That’s what I’ve always been trying to get at and have often fallen well short of that mark. But I think that’s the most worthy kind of music or film or poem to write. It’s not something that amuses people and makes them laugh. Not something that politically inflames them or it’s like nothing like that, but sort of going for that using just the words and the instruments and a guy hitting the drums and someone playing a violin and suddenly you can put that all together and some stranger a million miles away can put on a headphone. Maybe in 50 years’ time, or across time and space, you can use these things you have at your disposal to create these beautiful moments in life. A lacuna of grace and beauty, or thoughtfulness, or a feeling of not feeling alone. Knowing other people feel the same way as you because you can hear it in the music.
Nothing quite explodes that in me like music does. Good art, but good music especially, is not just a communication with the present. It’s a time capsule or a letter to the future. I think that’s a powerful thing for an artist to be able to do.
I can’t say I do it. I can only say I try for it before anything else. So when someone says to me, “I bought your record and I lie down and I put it on and I fall asleep and I have wonderful dreams,” I go, “yes, success.” That’s the kind of experience I’m trying to engender.
I get it from the album, but I also think I saw it in some of the promotional material, that you mentioned that this was sort of a prog rock-sounding kind of album. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but do you feel that this is influenced by progressive rock? And if it is, is prog rock a genre to you, a state of mind, or something completely different?
All right, well, that’s a very complicated question, very dear to my heart.
As I was growing up, that category had not quite been invented then. So I was on the ground and running when The Yes Album came out in 1971 and was a huge success. I was there when Deep Purple In Rock came out. I was there when Foxtrot [by Genesis] came out. I was there when Pink Floyd released The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I was there sitting at school with a bunch of other kids smoking weed and listening to A Saucerful of Secrets and going “fuuuck maaaan.” So I’ve kind of been on the ground all the time with what we call prog rock.
I think prog rock at its finest moments is the most marvelous stuff. But I don’t like the rapid time changes and tricky things. I like it more when it turns symphonic. Like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a track like “The Carpet Crawlers,” and at the end of Yes’ “Heart of the Sunrise.” Genesis do it quite a lot. I’m thinking of the end of “Supper’s Ready”: “there’s an angel standing in the sun, crying in a loud voice this is the supper of the mighty one lord of lords, king of kings, has returned to lead his children home, to lead them to the new Jerusalem.” Suddenly it’s like being at church, how it’s supposed to be, where you’re absolutely struck with this most magnificent, glorious moment. The guitars are swooning, the Mellotrons, the drums are thumping and pulsating. It’s like doing what you say. Like the music is standing alongside those words. And I’m having a gnostic Christian moment, you know?
Sitting at home, being a 19-year-old boy in Canberra who’s gone out and bought this record and has no idea, and suddenly it gets to that moment in the song and you’re like, “whoa!” So yes, I love that side of prog rock. I don’t know so much about modern prog rock. I have listened to Porcupine Tree. They’re really good. Steven Wilson is some kind of genius.
Yeah, he’s fantastic, and incredibly prolific. I have no idea how he makes all of that music.
I know, it’s like an obsession. He’s got it. I’ve got it. You get this thing. You can’t stop. He’s everywhere, doing everything and remixing all these albums in this new medium and, wow, what a genius.
I’m a fan of the genre to an extent and some of the bands you mentioned are firm favorites of mine too. I definitely hear elements of what I think of as the symphonic bits of progressive rock in The Hypnogogue. I didn’t know if you were a fan of the genre or if it was just you hear so many people talk about progressive rock in a kind of “lowercase p” as it being the idea of music that moves forward or is always trying to do something different.
Isn’t that what prog rock is?
I’d like to think it is.
Yeah, all right. I think all the movements in rock and roll have been good and every one of them, even the movements I’m not particularly mad on like, say, country rock and folk rock, punk rock. They’ve all thrown up a couple of classic albums or a bunch of classic albums. Every new genre, I think. Prog rock certainly has some of the most glorious moments that I have ever found.
The Church is going out on tour. You’ll be playing a show at Delmar Hall here in St. Louis in March. I’m curious if you have any surprises in store for the tour? Maybe some songs that haven’t been played for a while or trying new arrangements?
If I tell you, they won’t be surprises, will they?
I guess it’s kind of a loaded question, isn’t it?
It is a bit. Look, we’re doing five or six new songs off Hypnogogue, and we’re investigating the rest of our albums with a quiet, across-the-board mixture. There’s a few songs we sort of have to play; they’re definitely in there. We’ve tried to mix up some of the other ones a bit and we’re having a real prog rock idea. In the middle of the concert, I stop playing bass and I just become a singer. And the three guitarists all play twelve string guitars. So we have a brief moment which is exactly what Genesis used to have when suddenly they have three twelve-string guitarists.
Mike Rutherford and Steve Hackett were amazing with the twelve-string guitar.
They were. And Tony Banks, if you watch, he’s digging in as well. Anyway, yes, we’re doing quite a mix-up of all our songs. I think for a casual listener or someone who’s really into it, you will enjoy what we’re going to do this time around. It’s pretty reasonable.
I won’t take up too much more of your time, but I have one final question. So if you could impart one piece of advice to an aspiring artist, be it a musician or anything, what would it be?
Something really boring, unfortunately.
That doesn’t mean it’s bad.
They would rather hear something like drink raspberry leaf tea and then you’ll write songs every five minutes. But all I have to say is persevere and practice. Keep going. If you feel like you could be a successful musician, if you feel like you have a calling, a vocation beyond, it’s going to have to be pretty strong, because you’ve got to get through a lot of stuff and you’ve got to take a lot of blows. And there’s going to be a lot of times people say, we don’t like your music, we don’t like your tape, we don’t like your band, we don’t have a gig, we don’t have a label, we don’t have a publishing deal. Go away. Give up. And it might even start with your very parents, friends, loved ones, brothers, sisters, children, work mates. You pick up that first instrument, you start playing, and people go, “no!” Or you start going, hey, I’ve written these lyrics, or I’m singing, or I’m mucking around with a garage band, look what I’m doing. You have to be prepared to take the knocks and then persevere. Then, as you’re persevering, practice whatever it is you do. Fucking practice all the time. I don’t just mean sitting there doing scales on an instrument. Are you practicing?
I think I’m practicing all the time, but me and my friends have a garage band and we try to practice whenever we can. And sometimes it actually sounds like music. [laughs]
Wow. It’s a great moment. I tell you what, whenever that great moment when it all falls into place, it’s like catching a wave on a surfboard. The music comes along and lifts everybody up. That is really worth hanging in there for.
Well, that’s a perfect answer. Steve, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. I look forward to the tour.
See you soon. Bye, mate. | Mike Rengel
The Church plays Delmar Hall on Saturday, March 25th at 8pm. Tickets start at $35. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here. The Hypnogogue is out now on Communicating Vessels/Orthodox.
The Church on tour:
03.21 | Englewood, CO | Gothic Theater
03.23 | Minneapolis, MN | Fine Line Music Hall
03.25 | St. Louis, MO | Delmar Hall
03.26 | Chicago, IL | Thalia Hall
03.28 | Kent, OH | Kent Stage
03.29 | Philadelphia, PA | Theatre of Living Arts
03.30 | New York, NY | Gramercy Theater
03.31 | Boston, MA | The Sinclair
04.01 | Hartford, CT | Infinity Hall
04.03 | Asbury Park, NJ | Asbury Lanes
04.04 | Alexandria, VA | Birchmere Music Hall
04.05 | Norfolk VA | The Norva
04.06 | Carrboro, NC | Cat’s Cradle
04.08 | Pelham, TN | The Caverns