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    The Church singer Steve Kilbey made a concept album by accident. So he kept going.
    • July 9, 2024

    Only after Steve Kilbey of the Church had finished the band’s 2023 album “The Hypnogogue” did the singer-bassist realize he’d made a concept album by accident.

    “I started thinking about it and I realized a lot of the songs could be about someone living in the future who can’t write songs anymore,” says Kilbey, the last original member of the Australian rock band, about the songs on the record.

    Kilbey says the imaginary device that gives “The Hypnogogue” its name is “a weird amalgam of machine, human and vegetable” and other things that can delve deeply into a person.

    “It can extract music from their dreams and their past lives,” he says. “Music that the person themself doesn’t know how to access.”

    Singer-bassist Steve Kilbey comes to Southern California with his band the Church for shows at the House of Blues in Anaheim on Friday, July 12, 2024 and the United Theatre on Broadway in Los Angeles on Saturday, July 13, 2024. (Photo by Hugh Stewart)

    The Australian band the Church, led by original bassist-singer Steve Kilbey, second from left, comes to Southern California for shows at the House of Blues in Anaheim on Friday, July 12, 2024 and the United Theatre on Broadway in Los Angeles on Saturday, July 13, 2024. (Photo by Hugh Stewart)

    “The Hypnogogue” by the Church is a 2023 concept album about a rock star in a future dystopian world who resorts to a machine to mine his dreams for music. (Album art courtesy of Communicating Vessels)

    The Australian band the Church, led by original bassist-singer Steve Kilbey, third from left, comes to Southern California for shows at the House of Blues in Anaheim on Friday, July 12, 2024 and the United Theatre on Broadway in Los Angeles on Saturday, July 13, 2024. (Photo by Adam Nicholas)

    The Church’s 2024 release “Eros Zeta and the Perfumed Guitars” is a companion album to the Australian band’s 2023 release “The Hypnogue.” (Album art courtesy of Easy Action)

    The Australian band the Church, led by original bassist-singer Steve Kilbey, center, comes to Southern California for shows at the House of Blues in Anaheim on Friday, July 12, 2024 and the United Theatre on Broadway in Los Angeles on Saturday, July 13, 2024. (Photo by Hugh Stewart)

    The Australian band the Church, led by original bassist-singer Steve Kilbey, third from left, comes to Southern California for shows at the House of Blues in Anaheim on Friday, July 12, 2024 and the United Theatre on Broadway in Los Angeles on Saturday, July 13, 2024. (Photo by Adam Nicholas)

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    A sci-fi concept album about a dystopian future where burnt-out rock stars can plug into a machine to mine music from their dreams?

    That would have been plenty for most songwriters. But when Kilbey was asked if there any outtakes to use on a digital deluxe edition of “The Hypnogogue,” he instead took what was left over, wrote a bunch of new songs, and recorded a second installment of the story, the 2024 album “Eros Zeta and the Perfumed Guitars.”

    “Then, for good measure, I wrote a novella about the whole thing as well, if people are really interested in delving into this world of this guy,” Kilbey says of Eros Zeta, the fictional future rock star at the center of both the albums and now book.

    “It wasn’t ever a big master plan,” he says. “Just an organic little bit, by little bit, by little bit, as opposed to a great big brainstorm.”

    The Church often gets categorized as new wave because they emerged during that scene’s heyday in the late ’70s and ’80s, but the band, over its 25 albums with Kilbey as the only constant, is really something more complex, a dreamy kind of neo-psychedelia with hints of post-punk, goth and more in the mix.

    With alternative radio hits such as “Under the Milky Way, “An Unguarded Moment,” and “Reptile,” the band has long been popular in Southern California. The group returns this month for shows at the House of Blues in Anaheim on Friday, July 12 and the United Theatre on Broadway in Los Angeles on Saturday, July 13. Afghan Whigs and Ed Harcourt are also on the bill.

    In an interview edited for length and clarity, Kilbey talked about concept albums, songwriting, the role a listener plays in making an album, why he wasn’t happy with the Church’s set at Cruel World Festival in Pasadena in 2022, and more.

    Q: How do these albums fit into the category of concept albums?

    A: There’s two concept albums that spring to mind, and one of them is ‘Ziggy Stardust’ [by David Bowie]. It’s a very flimsy concept. Some of the songs you have to figure out yourself why that is even on there. Then you have an album like ‘Tommy’ [by the Who] where every song follows on from the last one, and they tell an ongoing, understandable, logical sort of left-brain story about this kid and his adventures. Or there’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ [by Pink Floyd] as sort of a loose concept album. It’s not a story so much but it’s an album about these ideas, these sort of ideas that trap us and plague us.

    So I made it fit. And if someone, for some reason, said, ‘Write another song about hitting a gong,’ I would damn well make that fit, too.

    Q: And the listener intuits the connections and stories they include?

    A: I find people do the work for themselves. If you just give an album a title – ‘Songs from a Hanging Man’ – then all of the songs, people will listen to in that context. I find when I’m listening to my favorite artists I’m doing a lot of work, figuring it all out and really enjoying it as well. And realizing how music and words are really just a door you can open into a room in your mind where you can really enjoy yourself.

    Q: The new albums have that great Church sound, but there are also other things in there. ‘No Other You,’ for instance, has bit of a Bowie feel.

    A: It’s all there. It’s like, ‘OK, I can write a very David Bowie song right here. The old me, maybe 30 years ago, would have said, ‘No, you can’t use that. That’s too David Bowie.’ And now I go, Hang on, people like what David Bowie can do. And if there’s anybody on this planet who can do a good copy of David Bowie, it’s me. So that song wanted to be David Bowie and I let it be David Bowie.

    But that’s what our hero [in the twin concept albums) is. He’s a faux rock star. I don’t know, I’ve done a sort of AI where I’ve recombined different aspects of David Bowie into that one song. People say, ‘Oh, there’s Pink Floyd moments and there’s prog moments. I’ve just sort of let it all be there. I’m not protesting, ‘Oh, I can’t be like anybody else anymore.’ Once upon a time, I couldn’t bear to be like anybody else. Now if start singing and it’s like David Bowie, I just let it be. It doesn’t matter anymore.

    Q: But the inspirations never overwhelm the Church qualities. How does that stay consistent?

    A: What I’m really good at is spotting potential in things really quickly. Because you’ve got a bunch of musicians improvising. And they could improvise something brilliant and none of them would notice. That’s sort of where I come in. I’m like, ‘Stop! That thing there. What’s that?’ Let’s go and work on that.’ We just noodle around and fiddle about and play guitar and hit the drums and muck around on keyboards. And eventually, something usually starts to take shape.

    Q: I saw the Church at Cruel World in 2022. The current band lineup is terrific.

    A: That wasn’t a very good show for us. If I’d seen that, I wouldn’t have thought that was very good. We sort of had problems and we’re also standing there in the sun at five o’clock on a really hot day. It wasn’t the way we should really be. There are some people who are so brilliant they can operate under any conditions, big, small, hot, cold, in the day, in the night, whatever it is. And then there are others who need some conditions to be right, otherwise it won’t be exactly as it’s supposed to be.

    Q: I do feel like the Church is best listened to at night in a dark theater.

    A: I agree. It’s nocturnal stuff. The Church is for sort of a rainy night and, like, getting in the mood of what it’s all about. Not chucking us on a stage with all those other bands from the ’80s. I don’t really like festivals or playing with other bands. Ideally, I’d have it all to myself. That’s selfish, isn’t it? The other guys are always saying we should play more festivals. I’m like, ‘Oh, keep my fingers crossed that doesn’t happen.’

    Q: You’ve done 25 albums with the Church and twice that many as a solo artist or different band. Talk about that prolific creativity.

    A: It’s interesting. I don’t really know where it’s all coming from. All I know is when I need it, especially if I smoke some marijuana, it seems to easily come and I never go away empty-handed. Also I just sort of feel like I’m not very good at many things. The most simple things bewilder me. But I’ve learned to understand over such a long period of 55 years, how it all works for me. I have this kind of arrangement with whatever it is that feeds me all the stuff I need, as long as I’m not doing something awful.

    When I try to use my muse to help me do something awful, when I’m trying to just do something to make some money or something, it doesn’t like it and it doesn’t work out. Then it leaves me on my own and goes, ‘You (bleepin’) write that jingle, my old son, because I’m not involved.’

    I want to create extraordinary music. I guess I’m being a bit snobbish. My music is sort of for intelligent people. I was watching a video the other day and there’s AC/DC at a concert, and 45,000 Germans, mainly men and boys. And no, they wouldn’t like what I do. You know, it’s not about fighting and drinking and shagging girls. It’s about something else.

    Q: So what is it about?

    A: I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I find it. I don’t exactly know what my mission statement is but I know what it isn’t. I can see a niche in the market where sort of David Bowie leaves off and the Beatles begin, and Lou Reed and Marc Bolan and Bob Dylan. Somehow all of this can be combined in a new way and recontextualized. I don’t think any of those people completely explored everything they had in them. They couldn’t. Nobody can.

    So there would be a song by one of those people that would raise an implication for me. The implications of that song would inspire me to go on delving into whatever it was I thought I’d found in there.

    Q: How did you pick the name Eros Zeta for your rock star protagonist?

    A: Well, you need a character and you start going what would he be called? Jim Smith? Nah. Napoleon Clandestine? So I just sat there throwing combinations together. I was struck a long time ago, as I was taking my second set of twins to school, and there was a kid in our neighborhood named Eros. I’d never seen any blokes whose name was Eros. It started to work upon me, like, this is not just an unuseable name. It could be used.

    I’m collecting information all the time. If I see a sign that says, ‘Ramp Speed 25,’ I go, ‘Can I use that?’ I was watching TV the other night and I heard this word, ‘decohere.’ I’d never heard that word before. So now I’ve got ‘decoheres’ floating around in my mind just waiting for the right opportunity to come out.

    Q: I feel like I’ve heard that on television recently too…

    A: – ‘Dark Matter’? [on Apple TV+]

    Q: Yes, ‘Dark Matter’!

    A: That’s sort of what I want my songs to be like, like anything can happen. And when it’s all over it’s just sort of some interesting things to think about time and space and love and ethics and morality. And the gods and hell. ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘The Chronicles of Narnia. Bob Dylan and ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ and all the stuff I like. It’s a huge melange.

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