Something Quite Peculiar: The Life & Times of Steve Kilbey – At MIFF

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Brian Wise speaks to Michael Brook, the director of the new documentary about The Church’s Steve Kilbey which is showing at the Melbourne international Film festival.

The Church’s ‘Under the Milky Way’ might be one of the most popular Australian songs of all time but for Steve Kilbey, its co-writer and creator, it is a double-edged sword, reminding him of a time in his life he might rather forget.

Kilbey is the voluble subject of Michael Brook‘s new documentary Something Quite Peculiar: The Life and Times Of Steve Kilbey, showing at the Melbourne International film festival this coming week.

Brook’s previous Australian music documentary, Don’t Throw Stones, chronicled the career of The Sports and featured a front man in Stephen Cummings who was almost as forthright as Kilbey turns out to be in the new film, which uses some of the same techniques to tell what is  even more of a personal story of fall and redemption.

Over the course of 40 years Kilbey has, by his own count, written more than 750 songs and recorded 50 albums. He is a member of the ARIA Hall of Fame but, as the documentary unfolds, we realise that he is indeed lucky to be still be here. It is not necessarily an expose of the vicissitudes of the music industry but rather a tale of how success can completely change a person’s life.

Like a lot of musicians Kilbey has a fraught relationship with some of his early work. While ‘Under the Milky Way’, co-written with Karin Jansson and described by Kilbey as an ‘accident, brought great acclaim and some riches it also led to a path of self-destruction. Similarly, and perhaps even more surprisingly, he also has a dim view of ‘The Unguarded Moment.’

Unlike many music documentaries which tend to be either a hagiography or thinly disguised promotional videos, Something Quite Peculiar benefits immensely from the fact that Kilbey was so willing to talk openly about his drug years. The fact that he is still here, looking terrific and fitter than even is the ultimate result of the redemption story. Kilbey has also been affected by the changes to the line-up of The Church.

The departure of Marty Willson-Piper is still obviously raw but Kilbey has managed to keep the band going to enjoy the benefits as he glides into his sixty-third year. The fact that the group is still so revered in the UK and America is yet another salute to Kilbey’s survival skills.

Director Michael Brook and Steve Kilbey will be at ACMI for both sessions of the documentary – August 5 (4.00pm) and August 9 (6.30pm)  – to introduce the film and take part in a post-screening Q&A. Tickets are available at miff.com.au

While Australian music is Michael Brook’s  passion, his ‘day job’ (so to speak) is as an editor and he has worked on feature films and long-form documentaries.

I spoke to Brook by phone from his home in Brighton, UK, just prior to his departure for the Film Festival.

Something Quite Peculiar, is really, really interesting. Helped by the fact that you’ve got a terrific and very forthcoming subject, haven’t you?

Oh absolutely. One thing he has been is honest through his life. He realised openly that once he’s dealt with his problems, there was no point keeping them to himself anyway. So he’s happy to touch on everything. There was nothing too taboo, apart from probably the obvious things that were around The Church at the time, involving Marty [Wilson-Piper]. So yes, it was very nice. He’s so eloquent, really, as well, for a guy who’s been through what he’s been through. Out it comes, it’s great.

How did the film come about? I mean there are a lot of subjects you could have tackled obviously, loving Australian music. The Sports doco was terrific. What made you choose Steve, apart from the fact that he’s such a fascinating subject.

It was working with him on the Cummings film. He was a great interview and then clearly, he had a story to tell, and a bit like the Cummings one, I had probably an ulterior motive, the idea of an artist and his relationship with his most popular work: the idea that an artist has a relationship with their work and they don’t always have control of that. They don’t pick and choose, which one is loved by the public and Kilbey, in particular, has had that relationship with his hit singles, all through his career: ‘Unguarded Moment’ right through to ‘Milky Way’ and further on.

It almost seems, as soon as something gets popular, he wants to shy away from it. Yet, ‘Milky Way’ just wouldn’t let him get away. So I was very interested in looking at that, alongside this fascinating career of a guy who … they sort of hit big early, then hit big a bit later internationally. And, how does that affect a person? Clearly, you can see the way it affected him.

It’s an international story really, so I imagine it took you some time to put the whole thing together with the travel. There were scenes from in London, gigs there and then there’s the Scandinavian connection and interviews. So it must have taken a fair amount of work.

Yes, we’ve been on this for well over two years. It’s worked out quite well. I’m based in Brighton in the UK. As it turned out, it’s easy-access to London. They end up playing a gig down in Brighton regularly when they come over anyway. So, that was quite handy. Obviously, Stockholm’s not too far away and I get home every year. It was easy to jump onto the tour bus, so to speak, with Steve and the band.

I would make sure I was in the town where we needed to be. Then, thankfully, they did three gigs in Western Australia, so it was mapping out my own travels around that. As you probably well know, like [Don’t Throw] Stones, this is self-financed, so I had to fit things in around what I was doing, then had to fit around Steve and the band.

It’s been a long time in the process, and it’s funny because you get to the end of it and it all starts to speed up. So, we get a festival in Brighton, all of a sudden you’ve got to get that into certain packages for them. It’s very interesting that you’ve got this time to live with something. Then all of a sudden it’s out there and the public are getting their hands on it.

Now it makes sense that you’re an editor, because the editing is quite sensational, if I may say so. You use some really interesting techniques in the film with the songs assuming a voice and ‘telling’ the story themselves.  And the use of the podcasting interview. It really makes the content much more interesting and I guess there is a flow there. Explaining that you are an editor, that makes sense that you would have an eye for that flow.

Thank you very much. I wouldn’t like to say we see things differently, but I’d like to say that we’re there to strip stuff out. With my films it’s always about, I’m trying not to labour the point of things. If it’s said once and it’s said well, don’t say it again. Then you’ve got access to Steve’s words. As he says in the film, words are his main thing in his arsenal and it’s use them, they’re there.

Again, it’s a bit like going to a Church gig. They play 20 songs and they could have played 20 different songs and so be it with the film. You could have taken eight other tunes that could have told a little snippets of his life. It’s interesting because he’s not really that sort of songwriter, yet in hindsight you go back 15 years, and he’ll tell you the same thing and you think, ‘Oh, maybe it was about that. Maybe this was it.’ So, yes, it’s definitely trying to weave the words, his lyrics, in amongst his actual tales.

The actual credit of the film is given to the outpourings of the mind of Steve Kilbey because you can’t just say it’s his book. You can’t just say it’s his blog. You can’t just say it’s his interviews. It’s everything. Everything he brings to words, hopefully, we’ve put across in the film.

I suppose it’s handy that’s he’s already published a memoir because some of the words are already out there, so the story’s there. It’s not as if he has to be embarrassed about telling the story on film.

Absolutely. Yes, that’s true. There are stories he’s told well, for a long time. There’s others that I think we’re probably hearing in a different context for the first time as well. But certainly, the fact that the book became, like the Cummings one, became a bit of a sort of a spine for the narrative in a way. But we certainly veered off more than we did say in the Cummings film.

Now Steve quotes his mother as saying his mouth would get him into trouble one day. She was absolutely right but it does make for a much more interesting documentary. He does have a fascinating relationship with the words because sometimes you think to yourself, ‘I can’t believe he’s saying this.’

Yeah. It’s very true. As a filmmaker, you’re sitting there, glancing across the room at your cameraman and your producer going, ‘Man, that’s nice.’ There are some key moments in it where he says things that you think, ‘Wow!’ and, he can sum it up. Being a lyricist, that sort of thing, it becomes two lines, and that covers almost a year of his life. I think that’s a fascinating skill to have, isn’t it?

I think one of the criticisms I read of his book, was that the last decade or so of his life, he just summed up in a few paragraphs, which led to some frustration amongst some of the readers.

Yes. We’ve probably gone a little bit further with it. There is that part of his life he takes out because it’s dominated by his addiction and his struggle with that. I guess that sort of comparison runs with The Church. They got lost in that melee as well. We can blame grunge a bit as well. There has been a fascinating life, his last ten years or so, because the art has brought a new aspect to it and it just reinforces his fascinations with the mythology and religions. Hopefully, we fill in a few blanks there.

I just want to ask you about his relationship with his songs. Particularly, ‘Under the Milky Way’. And it’s always an interesting thing with musicians isn’t it? They often have a love/hate relationship with some of their music, and they sometimes feel trapped by it. People like Van Morrison for example. Dylan is another good example. But the story of why he has this feeling, unfolds throughout the documentary and when you see his former partner talking about it, and the emotional impact of it, you can kind of understand why he feels that way about the song, can’t you?

Absolutely. It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? Because you look across the other sort of mediums, it’s, artistic-wise, you don’t get that same thing. If a comedian went out and told the same joke, he’d be crucified. If the artist went out and did the same painting, he’d be vilified. Yet, you go to a gig, and he doesn’t play ‘Unguarded Moment’ or ‘Milky Way’, and he’s taken out. You just think, ‘Hang on, why are the goal’s so different?’

But I can understand it. You’re a writer. If you had to write the same article out every night, it wouldn’t become quite different. But, it’s finding ways to address it, isn’t it? And he’s interesting because he does, as you see in the film, he has got a massive, grudging respect for the song.

And he welcomes what it does, but equally to have it there, and hanging around your neck, yes, it’s strange life, isn’t it?

I can kind of understand it. He’s co-written the song with someone who he’s had children with and who he’s broken up with, and I would imagine that every time he would sing it, it would bring back all those memories.

Yes that’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? I guess that’s the other thing with the artist. It places you back there. We all say that with music, don’t we? That was actually where you were when you heard that song or, why does that song remind you of. In my case, I get reminded about Australia and I might be in America, sitting there. It’s weird how these things place you. But you’re right, there’s a direct contact there.

There’s another interesting story with The Unguarded Moment. That’s an interesting relationship as well.

But it’s all of the singles. He’ll do it with ‘Metropolis’. They play ‘Metropolis’ regularly and he doesn’t like playing that either. That’s technically their biggest hit in America. ‘I’m Almost With You’, they played on the Blurred Crusade tour, and I’m not sure you’d get that out of him too many times either. It’s very interesting and I wouldn’t say it’s just Steve.

It’s almost, as I said earlier, it’s this idea that it’s been forced on them, that it is their best tune. Again, I suppose that’s like anything. If someone’s told, ‘That’s your best work and that’s what we say and that’s what we think’ your guard goes up and you think, ‘Well, I think this one’s a better one.’ It might be a better song to him lyrically or whatever, but you just can’t control what the public is going to love, can you?

That’s true and he does talk about some of his early work as being like fourth form poetry and how it makes him cringe a bit, but it is also a story of redemption because he went through a terrifying phase in his life. He could have easily died, couldn’t he?

Absolutely. There were moments we didn’t address in the film, he addresses in the book, where his search for drugs and his want for them, gets him run down by a car in Stockholm. He has to go to hospital and various things. It was a lifestyle that, as you say, just put him close to the edge. I don’t think anything mentally inside him would have put him there. It was just the dangerous situations he got into. I’m not seeing any comparisons to him emotionally going down the route of losing his life, but certainly the situations and scrapes he got into, would have been quite amazing. But again, he’s that sort of charming guy. He’s a guy who can talk his way out of most situations and people want to be around him. I imagine, even under the influence, he would have been pretty entertaining.

He talks about the fact that he was taking drugs for pleasure and all the people he was mixing with were taking them to forget their life. It’s interesting that he can put it into such a context and show how he was able to eventually come out of it, which is somewhat of a miracle after the life that he had been leading.

Absolutely. The comparisons we try to make within the film, is that he replaces it in a way, with swimming and with art and so forth. This idea that, ‘Keep the focus and keep the work going forward and keep moving.’ I keep saying to people is that, there’s that shark like element to Kilbey, in that he just won’t stop moving.

There was a key element in the film that apart from one thing with his mother really, our camera is always moving when it’s on him. This guy just keeps moving. There’s no standing still. He’s the Yes Man, like he says in the film. I’m not sure how it relates directly to that question, but clearly he keeps going on with it. He’ll keep making things happen. He’ll keep finding new things to do.

The Marty Willson-Piper story is a little bit harder to deal with, isn’t it? That’s sort of a sore point, isn’t it?

Had to keep our distance on that, just for reasons it was still so close to it. Really, it’s still not that well known. No one knows exactly what’s going down, so it’s quite a fascinating thing in a way, but we simply couldn’t go there.

And you couldn’t get an interview with him?

I wasn’t too far away from him in Stockholm, but I’m not the type of filmmaker that’s going to go and stand on his doorstep with a camera …….and Marty is a big bloke. He’s bigger than me. I think there’s probably been a few punch-ups in The Church, and I don’t want to be one of them.

It was a very fractious relationship at times. I’d completely forgotten about that Stuart Coupe article that Steve made him look really bad.

Yes, and it’s fascinating how that affected someone like Michael Dwyer who follows in the footsteps of Coupe. It’s interesting how these things affect people further down the line. So, everyone’s wary of everyone because of one incident and, actually, those Ground Zero moments, you don’t often see them at the time.

And you can understand how the members of the band might have felt as well.

Exactly.

It is a redemption story as I said, in a way, and, it’s great to see Steve looking so fit and healthy and creative. And, when you see him in your film, you can understand why he wants to move on and he wants people to hear other work, rather than just the clichéd hits so to speak. It really puts that into context for the viewers.

Yes, and again it’s probably been said before, but if he keeps himself interested, he’ll keep an audience interested, As long as the audience lets him do that. The major fans obviously do, but it’s those ones coming to him thinking, ‘Oh, I want to hear those hits.’ Well, those of us who go and see bands regularly don’t always expect that. But, you know.

I’ve been a big fan of Ryan Adams for years. Playing the gigs in London he just rattles out five new songs and in most cases the audiences are loving it, but as you say, there’s a few going, “Play ‘New York, New York’” And it’s so, super frustrating, isn’t it really? Maybe bands need to go on tour and so there’s the fan gig for three hundred people and there’s the 1500-seater and we’re going to play the hits. I don’t know.

I guess one advantage with this market is, is that it is an international story and so in terms of sales success it might bring you, a bit of a more return. It’s not going to be just related to an Australian audience.

Well, that’s been a bit of a sad story with Don’t Throw Stones, really. It still lies in limbo and people who want to see it, haven’t had the chance to see it. So, yes, we’d like a little bit of success with this one. There is talk already of a couple of big US festivals. So that’s nice.

And hopefully we can possibly drag Don’t Throw Stones, kicking and screaming with it, to an audience but that’s not the focus here. The focus here is Steve and this story.

The one thing that I really love about talking to him – while his mom said his mouth gets him into trouble – it’s not like doing an interview with a lot of musicians, where they just repeat the same story every interview and you hear them. They’ll basically do five interviews that are exactly the same. You can never predict what he’s going to say.

Yes, yes. And there’s also variations on the theme too. We’ve had a couple of things, you’re thinking, ‘You know you told that slightly differently the other day.’ But anyway, what is it, ‘Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.’ Or something like that. But I think he’s so honest that, actually, it all comes out.

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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