Steve Kilbey is one of the most prolific songwriters in rock. Through his work with seminal Aussie alternative band The Church, his solo projects and various collaborations, the man has been a flurry of activity.
He recently released “The Idyllist“, an excellent solo album that showcases his versatility and clever lyrical gifts (click here for my review). In addition he has an upcoming album with Martin Kennedy, and has recently begun writing songs with the Afghan Whig’s Greg Dulli.
It was a huge thrill to interview one of my musical heroes, and Kilbey couldn’t have been more gracious when I messaged him on Skype in Bondi, Australia.
He looked healthy and relaxed, and indulged my geeking out upon first chatting.
He was frank and enlightening when discussing his various projects, his creative process and the tentative future of his long-running band.
He has a wicked and lively sense of humor that might surprise those only familiar with his soothsayer croon.
In part 1 of our interview, we discuss “The Idyllist“, his upcoming projects with Kennedy and Dulli, and Kilbey’s songwriting process (click here to read Part 2).
SLIS: Well first off, I want to say how much I’ve been enjoying the “Idyllist“. It’s been a fun one to review. Have you been pleased with the overall response so far?
Kilbey: I don’t think anyone has said one bad thing about it yet, so that’s pretty good.
SLIS: I know you were originally working on a project called “Apocrypha”, is that correct?
Kilbey: I had this grandiose plan; I was gonna make this huge sort of pounding incessant, biblical sounding album. It was gonna sound like 500,000 slaves marching across the plains. But it didn’t end up sounding anything like that; it ended up sounding like The Idyllist–so I shelved the plans to make ‘Apocrypha’.
Everytime I’d write a song I was letting it go wherever it wanted to go and it never went into the Apocrypha direction that I was imagining. I was a bit disappointed because I had this huge theme planned…that would have a lot of continuity. I don’t think the Idyllist has any continuity at all, which is a good thing for ‘The Idyllist’ but would’ve been a bad thing for ‘Apocrypha’.
SLIS: The album seems more catchy and immediate than some of your other work. Was that a happy accident or was it intentional?
Kilbey: I didn’t have any plans…my plan was Apocrypha, and when that plan fell through I just let it be whatever it wanted to be. And if it turned out being poppy … that’s pretty much been an accident of not exerting any willpower over it and just going: I’m gonna turn on Logic (recording software) today and see where takes me. Rather than going, No! It’s gotta be (makes boisterous drum noises and chanting sounds).
SLIS: I really like it. It has a nice off the cuff quality.
Kilbey: Oh yeah it’s as off the cuff as you can possibly get. That’s for sure.
SLIS: I was curious about a song called “Something Out There.” It has a line that stuck out to me: “Sooner or later everyone kills me, this is the story of Steven Kilbey.” Tell me what inspired that line?
Kilbey: I just seem to be in conflict with everybody in my world. I try my best and it always goes wrong no matter what I do. Sooner or later everybody turns on me in my life but I expect it now. I create confusion you know because I am a genius but I’m also an idiot. That throws people because they don’t understand how one person can be both things. And I’m pretty naïve and I upset people in the end. Yeah, so in the end everybody kills me (laughing).
SLIS: Oh no! Don’t say that! (laughter). Another song I wanted to ask about is “Shot Through With Change.” It has a very insistent quality. Was that inspired by a real-life incident? Or more of a steam of consciousness thing?
Kilbey: Well I’m halfway through writing a book with a clergyman…. and when we’re working on the book I’m thinking about God a lot. I’m thinking about the things we ask for. And I kinda touched on this in the song ‘Myrrh‘ (off the Church album ‘Heyday‘) as well. I’m thinking of some similarities in the lyrics:
“Oh god we need more favors
We need more wine and gold
We need slaves and roads and personal favors
We need microphones and manifolds.”
And this guy’s asking for all this stuff. He wants the big picture, but he’s sorta… like I’ve heard people in AA meetings like this too: I want world peace, and I want harmony and brotherhood, but y’know, if you’re listening, my car needs a tune up…and while you’re there could I get a bit more money and could you cure the warts on my toe or whatever…so we ask for the big things from God but we ask for the small things too.
But remember; songs are songs. I know you know that….they’re not kinda statements, they’re not articles, they’re not a journalistic thing— so when someone says this song is about something …I think about is a good word…they’re approximations… they’re not specific…like it isn’t just about a guy asking God for things..that’s kinda one of the superficial things…but as each person listens to the song, hopefully they can get different things out of it, y’know what I mean?
And a caveat I always put in place; I always warn people just because I think my song is about this…that it in no way nullifies your interpretation. In the end when I listen to my songs, when I can clear my mind of all the stuff that came with it; Say if I listen to the Idyllist now, and I haven’t listened to it for about a month now. But if I listened to it now, the interpretations that I would make of the album…I wouldn’t count them as any more valid than what you said or anyone else said. Say, if someone said: “I don’t think that song is about that…I think it’s about my Auntie Maude“…Then I’d go, then it is…for you that’s the way I write.. So people can take my songs and make them about any thing they like..
I like to put lots of ambiguity in there…my songs aren’t like Rage Against The Machine where its “what’s this song about?” “It’s about the destruction of the capitalist system!” My songs aren’t like that, they’re more like a little thing you might find on somebody’s table; you’re not sure what it does and you have a look at it and it seems to do loads of things. Or like a deck of cards…its like I give you a deck of cards and you can go play any game you like. You make up the rules…you can bet… you can play strip poker…you can just take one out. Whatever. That’s how I want my songs to be.
I do not like to comment on them as a definitive: this is what my song’s about…and anybody who thinks anything else is wrong… It’s just like a take that I have..I don’t really understand them myself that’s why I just let them happen. Most of the words just come to me…I don’t even really know why I’ve written them…and then sometimes, a lot later I understand what I’ve written and sometimes I never do.
And sometimes people point out to me…you know what you wrote there? That’s really good and that’s meaningful…and then I go oh, okay. I look upon myself as a sort of conduit for all those millions of songs out there.
SLIS: Is that one reason why you don’t often put lyric sheets in your albums?
Kilbey: Okay, 2 reasons I don’t often put lyric sheets:
One is because one day I’m gonna print a book with all my songs and fucking clean up…I waited for so long to put my lyrics out so when it happens, everyone’s going to have to buy the book to find out what the lyrics are.
Secondly, and the most important reason, is because the lyrics—especially, “Shot Trough With Change”, if I saw that song on paper with the lyrics that said “God don’t give me this, or God don’t give me that“, those lyrics on paper without the music, without the voice singing them and without the atmosphere…its kinda just half of what it is.
I don’t think its good for people to read my lyrics…I want them to only exist with the music. I’m not writing them as poetry…and although people say “yeah but I want to read them“, it’s a bit like going and seeing a magician; “I wanna know how he pulled the rabbit out of the hat” …but I think it’s better not to know…and I think it’s better not to see them all written down…I think the songs might have more mystery and longevity and more interpretability in them if I refrain from doing that.
SLIS: It’s interesting you should say that because I was talking to a friend when I was preparing for this interview and we were discussing that one of many things that makes your music so special is that your lyrics do stand up as poetry. So many rock lyrics can fall apart without the music, but your’s holds up well even without the music supporting it..
Kilbey: Well thank you and thank your friend for saying that…and I think the fact they’re not written down kinda multiplies that. Say you buy an album and the lyrics are like “hey baby let’s go for a drive..I love you girl/don’t ever leave me“, that’s alright if you got lyrics like that, but when they actually write them down, and if the chorus is “girl don’t ever leave me ” five times and they write it out for five times, y’know what I mean? If it’s all written down it has this kind of mundanity…I feel it’s a strike against, and it’s a sting the other away to have some lyrics that would look good written down but refrain from writing them down and just let them be more subtle.
SLIS: I also wanted to ask about your upcoming album “You Are Everything” with Martin Kennedy (Click here to read my “You Are Everything“review). I just read a post on your blog about it and it sounds pretty epic. How long have you been working on that one for?
Kilbey: A long time actually and its gone through many stages… a long time ago I sat down with Martin..and he said it’s time to make our next album…and I told him pretty truthfully I was a little bit disappointed that our 2nd album… although it was a good album it didn’t feel like it was a great leap forward. And he thought about that and came back with these songs …at that stage they were just sketches. And then I did my vocals…and then he took it away and he really worked on it…so he had really good songs to start with. And as soon as I heard them I wrote 11 songs in 2 days; in one day I did 6 of the songs and the next I did 5, just one after another. And one of them I even sang on the spot. When he played the music I turned the microphone on and said I’m gonna make up the lyrics on the spot which I did…and it still sounds pretty good. Most people won’t know which one it is.
And then he took it away and he’s developed it. He has orchestras, pianos, percussion and backing vocals and then he sent it back to me…and it was great…and then he put even more stuff on, as on the first album and the 2nd album, he mixed himself, and though Martin did a very good mix too, it wasn’t as good as what Simon Polinski could have done. Because Polinski, he’s a mixer, that’s what he does…he’s in his mid -50s, so if he was a brain surgeon at 55, you’d say he’s at the top of his game…but he’s been doing this for like 40 years…and its just the most beautiful mix. It’s just really luxurious…luxurious is the word I like to say. It just sounds like it cost a million dollars.
SLIS: And that comes out in May correct?
Kilbey: Yes. I wish it was coming out sooner.
Y’know when I was writing that article and I went “it was the best record I ever made“..I thought fuck it…I reckon its one of the best record ever made of its type…..if you like a record like The Blue Nile’s ‘Walk Across The Rooftops‘ or if you like Talk Talk; y’know in America at the moment this idea would be represented by the Decemberists or Grizzly Bear. This sort of very adult, very intelligent music… for discerning adults…not for people who’ve got their hair dyed green with a grown out mohawk going “oi oi oi oi!!”…more sort of someone who drives a BMW and lives in Cologne, Germany and has a job…people who when they get home, want to have kind of a challenging rewarding music made by people who aren’t just rewriting “Wild Thing.”
Who’re exploring what can be done with a 4 minute song bearing in mind that their audience are a kind of tertiary educated people…who like references to literary things and history, and spiritual things…and I think this album and The Idyllist…y’know some of the themes I sing about and reference…it’s for intelligent people…well it’s for the head and the heart and the feet I hope.
SLIS: I think that’s true and I was reading where you said it has a Bowie “Low” kind of sound and I can see that working nicely with your vocals.
Kilbey: There’s a lot of “Low” in some of the songs…this kind of old-fashioned technology kicks in that sounded modern once, like the future that never came…some of it has a real germanic sort of feeling.
SLIS: So how does the creative process with you and Martin differ from your work with other musicians?
Kilbey: Well Martin just turns up with the music and has the finished track so that makes it really easy…because there’s no sitting around wondering what are we gonna do since he’s already done it. So he just turns up and says here’s the songs. And I sit there and listen to them a couple of minutes and then 99% of the time the words just start coming, and the melodies just start coming so it’s pretty easy. Which is really just an extension of my own process, which is to create a piece of music and then sit down and create backing tracks that needs vocals…and I wait for the vocals and lyrics and words and melodies to kinda percolate. The hardest thing isn’t writing the words..it’s coming up with the melodies…that’s the challenge. Anyone can write words but to be given a piece of music and say “oh ahhh“.
Grant McLennan (of the Go-Betweens) showed me how easy that was when we did Jack Frost. And Margo Smith, to whose memory The Idyllist is dedicated. I always felt I had an anchor around my voice, anchoring me to what I did and then when I heard Margo and when I heard Grant, they just seemed like they could come in anywhere in the music and just sing anything…and they really just opened up my eyes to that spontaneous singing…cause I always used to sit there with a notebook. I mean it was working out for me…I was writing “Heyday” and “Starfish” and “Under The Milky Way“, but these people helped show me how I could be freed up. So now when I work with Martin, I feel like when I hear this music…I’m not stuck in this Steve Kilbey rut. I feel more sort of opened up to come in anywhere.
Like before it’s like someone gives you a great big piece of land…but I was always building a house in the same corner.And now I feel when someone gives me a piece of land that I can go anywhere in it and build any kind of building that takes my fancy…so when I listen to “You are Everything“, I think Grant and Margo would be proud of how I’ve kind of just coming in anywhere in the song…all limitations have been shucked off…and now I’m more free to be melodic.
SLIS: And speaking of collaborations, I hear you’re working with Greg Dulli now. How’s that going?
Kilbey: Greg went home today..he’s gone back to America…we’ve written a couple of really good songs …we haven’t made a record…I guess it was naïve of me to think Greg Dulli was gonna turn up and we would make a record in 2 weeks.
I was hoping for that, and when he turned up it took us a little while to kind of adjust our expectations, cause the moment he got here, I put on the tape machine and I was like let’s go! But Greg didn’t want to do it like that. He was more laid back. But we wrote a load of pieces…we had no shortage of creative frission between us, and we properly recorded 2 songs…which I’m not sure what we’re going to do with them. We’ve got lots of other pieces we could go back to.
Greg’s saying to me “ah you gotta come to America and we can do some more recording“, so we became really good friends. So I would say it became sort of an ongoing project. But I was really naïve to think it could be kind of like Martin Kennedy…cause first of all Martin just shows up and all the hard works been done. But with Greg and I, we were starting from scratch, and it took us a while to figure out what our modus operandi was going to be. But I’m still very happy, very pleased. We wrote one song…Greg sat down one night and said : “I’m gonna write you a piece of piano music Kilbey”, and he wrote me this lovely piece…and then he went out and had dinner and while he was gone I wrote some lyrics…and when he came back he really loved what I’d written. So sooner of later it’ll come out somehow. I’ll use them even if he doesn’t.
SLIS: You both have such strong but different lyrical styles. I was wondering, would you write the lyrics to one song and him another or would you write them together?
Kilbey: We never worked on lyrics together. That’s the one thing where I’d find it very hard to collaborate. Y’know Grant McLennan and I, we actually wrote lyrics together…we’d actually backwards and forwards the lyrics…and he’s the only guy who I’ve ever felt comfortable doing that with…I’ve never done it with anybody before or since…and with Greg what I hope for is to have a record of dialogues. Which is what “Providence” (Jack Frost) is…Grant has his dialogue..I appear in the middle and have my dialogue…and then Grant appears at the end and has his dialogue…over the same piece of music.
So that’s what I was kind of hoping for with Greg…that our voices could sort of have dialogues with each other but with each writing their own lyrics…And I think with our lyrics we might do that, but I couldn’t imagine he and I could sit down and come up with the lyrics together. And I don’t think that I could do that with anybody ever again…there has to be an incredible amount of trust and a feeling that your both coming from totally the same place. So that’s what I hope, that we’d write the music together and then we would both sing on it.