Sometimes, great art can become something like a snowball as it tumbles downhill after its initial creation, colliding with — then absorbing — many other diverse mediums, expressions, and even creators themselves as it goes. Take, for example, Australian author Jane Harper’s riveting mystery novel from 2016, The Dry. It lures you in from the first page and won’t let go until it’s wended its serpentine, violence-spattered way to a surprising, genuinely satisfying conclusion, as federal agent Aaron Falk receives a note from the father of his former childhood friend Luke Hadler, who has allegedly just killed his wife, son, then himself in the small drought-ravaged town of Kiewarra. The ominous message reads, “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.” Falk has no choice but to reluctantly return home from his police job in Melbourne to a place he’d hastily departed two decades earlier under a cloud of suspicion involving the unsolved drowning death of his then-teenage girlfriend, Ellie. And sure enough, the resentful old-wounds fireworks kick off the moment he arrives.
On its own, Harper’s book is a great one. But — given the colorful characters and conversely bleak backdrop she’d sketched — naturally, The Dry was destined to go much further. And, oddly enough, as it kept rolling, it even grew to include Aussie artist Steve Kilbey and his band The Church, who — bandleader Steve Kilbey was surprised to learn — had made an impact on the mythical hamlet of Kiewarra, as well. In Robert Connolly’s razor-sharp 2020 film adaptation of the bestselling novel, starring Down Under legend Eric Bana as Falk, The Church’s breakthrough 1988 smash “Under the Milky Way Tonight” is featured not once, but twice, and feels almost synonymous with the stark Outback landscape Falk must navigate as he unearths one false lead after another to eventually solves both crimes, old and new, almost simultaneously. First, the song is crooned a cappella by campfire light by Ellie in two-decades-old flashbacks, and she explains its importance to her afterward with, “My mom used to sing it to me, over and over and over .” Later, the actress, 26-year-old Bebe Bettencourt, daughter of rock royalty, Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt and Baby Animals front woman Suze DeMarchi, presides over an even more elegiac piano version of “Milky Way” during the closing credits, and its dreamy, almost otherworldly wispiness somehow manages to summarize the picture perfectly. Harper herself even has a cameo as one of the Hadlermourners.
And, of course, Kilbey isn’t resting on his glory days laurels at a seasoned, still-cynical 68. The Church has a brand-new concept album out, The Hypnogogue, its 26th, and it gleams with potential hits every bit as chiming and charming as that Dry – reinvigorated definitive early work, like the galloping “C’est la Vie” which considers the possibility of becoming irrelevant (as the record’s protagonist does) with “Watch out tiger/ You’re on the skids. Falling out of favor/ With the kids,” the sleighbell-toned jangler “I Think I Knew,” a jittery “The Coming Days,” and an arena-huge anthem called “No Other You” that recalls vintage early-‘80s classics like “The Unguarded Moment.” Buttressed by the newly invigorated triple-guitar threat of Jeffery Cain, Ashley Naylor, and ex-Powderfinger stylist Ian Haug. In the end, it’s Kilbey’s ethereal pneumatic warble and — by his own faux-journo-speak definition in the lyrics — “reptilian bass”: that hold sway, especially as the melodies get more psychedelic and prog-rock intricate on “Antarctica,” “Ascendance,” and the six-minute epic “Succulent.” Although the album’s theme seems a bit MK ULTRA-creepy — a washed-up singer/songwriter consults a ceramic-masked mystery woman who, through apparent covert hypnosis, sucks song ideas out of his head, possibly the last bastion of his personal privacy — Kilbey convincingly sells it, even though he’s not sure how this twisted predator vs. prey parable ends. And just what, exactly, would constitute an actual victory? The aim of the notorious Sidney Gottlieb-helmed CIA MK ULTRA experiments from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s was to completely, albeit subliminally, alter an individual’s personality and behavior without their knowledge or permission, and they came uncomfortably close.
So Steve Kilbey doesn’t necessarily need to fall back on past successes like “Under the Milky Way.” He’s just as relevant today as he’s ever been. But happy to take a bow for it, 35 years later, from his home in Sydney. When he first penned the number with then girlfriend Karin Jansson back then, neither he nor the band thought much of it, he recalls. It was one more cut for the L.A.-recorded ( and best-selling) Starfish album. But when their Arista Records honcho Clive Davis heard it, he instantly proclaimed it a hit, and Davis was rarely wrong. Its ensuing worldwide success didn’t sit well with Kilbey, who was growing tired of major-label machinations; When the song took Single of the Year honors at the 1989 ARIAs, he refused to attend and claim his trophy and commented, “I don’t give a fuck about winning that award.” He’s changed his tune now that it’s become a revered Australian standard, covered by countless artists over the years, including Bettencourt’s take on piano, the original instrument he wrote it on before transposing it to guitar. And the licensed usages of “Milky Way” just keep coming. “There was a Ford commercial, and twice it’s been used as a tourist thing, a song to get visitors to go to the Australian capital territory, where Canberra is,” Kilbey says. It’s just all over the place, and it was a piano song before it was a guitar song, so it can be either, and I think it sounds good either way.”
The story didn’t end with the film credits. When The Dry had its Down Under premiere at an open-air theatre, Kilbey was invited to get up on stage to sing “Under the Milky Way” before the movie ran — a nice touch, underscoring the track’s enduring appeal and importance. The singer was even given a front-row seat alongside the Bana-to-Bettencourt cast. And then? “How’s this for irony?” Kilbey chuckles. “It rained! And they gave everybody raincoats and ponchos, but I couldn’t leave because I had my guitar and everyone in the cinema, two hundred to three hundred people, would see me. So I had to sit there, getting rained on, and watch a movie called The Dry. I was obliged to.”
Still, nice work if you can still get it after a four-decade career in show business. He rationalized all of it in the following good-spirited, Which complements our mid-pandemic, more climate-change-themed chat….
IE: Jane Harper’s book The Dry is set in the fictional Australian town of Kiewarra that’s been plagued by drought. But the film really hammers it home, with shots of grain silos all marked ‘Contaminated,’ clearly showing how weather can destroy an entire area’s economy. Climate change was definitely coming.
STEVE KILBEY: Climate change is here. But I think Australia has always had ‘drys’ since I can remember. Before climate change, there have been drys, and I remember as a kid going to places in the country with my parents where it hadn’t rained for five years, you know? So Australia has always had that, those drys, definitely.
IE: The last time we talked, Don’t Look Up had just come out, but you hadn’t seen it yet. That was a real zeitgeist-capturing moment, I thought.
SK: Yes, and I did see that movie, and it’s true — that was a zeitgeist thing! What an incredible film that was, and it’s funny — within a couple of weeks, everybody I knew was saying, “You’ve gotta see this film!” And now? No one’s talking about it anymore.
IE: What’s this hyperbaric oxygen tank you’ve been talking about?
SK: Look, my girlfriend joined me to a gym, and it’s that thing where they have all these hot and cold pools and infrared saunas and weightless float tanks and stuff. And that was one of ‘em, that was one of the things you could try. So I tried it, and I didn’t notice anything, good or bad. So that’s the end of that. But apparently, if you really need it, it’s really good for you, I hear. It’s good if you have bone injuries and skin grafts and stuff, but I didn’t have any real reason to be in there, so I didn’t notice any benefits, I’ve got to admit. It was just like, I sat in there for an hour, wishing it would end.
IE: These days, I wouldn’t mind owning a sensory deprivation tank, like they had in old sci-fi flicks.
SK: You know what? I’ve done plenty of that. My brother worked in a flotation tank center back in the ‘80s, and they used to have hundreds of those things. And sometimes, it just felt like you were lying in a hot salty bath, wishing it was over. And other times, you’d have really profound astral happenings, you know? You could never tell what was gonna happen, but I have quite a lot of experience with the float tank. They’ve got one of those at this place I joined, but it’s a dry one, so don’t have to lie in water — it’s like the water is in there, but there’s like a skin, and you lie on top of the skin, and you don’t have to get wet. I haven’t tried that yet, but of course, as soon as I tried to book into that, they said, “Oh, that’s busted now.” But it sounds good in theory because I always found that when you’re in those flotation tanks, just when you’re in the farthest reaches of the cosmos, experiencing some incredible enlightening event, a drop of cold water would condense on the roof, then drop on your face and wake you up. So they haven’t quite got it right yet.
IE: In the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the CIA was conducting these creepy MK ULTRA experiments, trying to covertly alter human behavior. It sounds like your Hypnogogue concept could easily have been a part of that. Where and how did you come up with this idea?
SK: The Hypnogogue in my story is a machine and a place, and it’s also an event. It’s sort of like…it’s an indefinable thing. It’s ambiguous because I don’t know exactly what it is. So it isn’t just confined to a machine or a place or a building, and there’s a sort of occult aspect — it’s a machine, but there’s a drug and occult side to it. It’s a really dangerous dabbling in something that nobody understands in my story. This woman has invented it, and our hero goes along to try it out against his manager’s advice. And he tries out The Hypnogogue to write some great songs to have some hit singles, and there are some disastrous consequences. But there’s a lot of ambiguity again — I’m leaving a lot of it up to the listener’s imagination. I’m not even sure how the machine works, and I’m not sure what the disastrous consequences are. I don’t wanna tell people too much of what it is — I just want them to enjoy it and flesh it out as much as they want. Or not at all. One person may flesh it out and really get the story together of what they think happens, and someone else might go, “Fuck all that — I don’t wanna do all that. I just want to enjoy this record.” And you can do any of those things.
IE: But it sounds like the Hero’s decision is made for him without his permission. But he goes along with it in the name of art?
SK: I’ve never thought of that. But I like that. I never thought that he would be forced to do it — I’m more like, This guy has been a pop star, and the hits have dried up, and he hears about somebody on the other side of the world who’s invented a machine that can drag art straight out of people’s heads, so you don’t have to bother with all that stuff. You don’t have to bother writing it — you can just pull it straight out. And there’s a song called “C’est La Vie,” where his manager is saying all this to him, like, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” But he goes along and uses it against his manager’s advice.
IE: Love that song. “Watch out, tiger/ You’re on the skids/ Falling out of favor/ With the kids.”
SK: The kids! That’s right. I was also trying to have the voice of a manager, like what a manager might say to an artist who he’s battling with. There’s a lot of that. “What if I told you it was you?” You, you’re the reason it isn’t working out for yourself — it’s because of you, it’s not anything else, so don’t try and go find it in a machine. But the whole thing came together, bit by bit — I didn’t say to the guys, “We’re gonna make an album called **The Hypnogogue, and it’s gonna be about this.” It was like, “Oh, we’re starting to make an album, and some of the lyrics are coming together, and some music’s coming together.” And gradually, it’s dawning on me that this could be a great concept album. And then we wrote this song, “No Other You,” and we wrote the music, but as I’m singing it, the first thing I wanna sing is “Sun Kim Jong as a woman’s name, a Korean woman’s name. And I have no idea why I wanna sing that, and the other guys are going, “What are you singing? ‘Sunken Junk?’ And I said, “No, I want to sing Sun Kim Jung, like this person’s name, so there must be a reason why. And I wanna change it to something else, but I sort of feel like I’m stuck with that because that’s what the song should be.” And then more songs came along, and Jeffrey (Cain, guitarist) came up with the music for the song “The Hypnogogue,” and then all the lyrics started coming out. And when it was all over, I sat back and looked at what I’ve got, and I thought, “It’s a fucking concept album about this thing called The HYpnogogue, and Sun Kim Jong is the woman who invents it, and the guy who’s going there, he’s the protagonist of the story. He’s a futuristic pop star, he lives in 2054, which is a hundred years after I was born, and he’s dried up, and he goes across the world to use The Hypnogogue, falls in love with Sun Kim Jong. And it all goes wrong, the machine blows up, the songs are toxic, and when it’s all over, he’s sore and sorry. It’s just entertainment.
IE: This is your 26th album, and you still sound as musically inspired and altogether relevant as you ever did. Were there times when you feared that it would go away?
SK: My creativity? No. I never worry about my creativity — I worry if people will be receptive to it. Sometimes I feel incredibly out of favor; I feel incredibly out of fashion. I feel that nobody’s listening anymore, and whatever it was that I had to offer isn’t kind of what people want anymore. But I never doubt the actual stuff itself — I just doubt where I am in the scheme of things at any point in time. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me if the album just comes out and disappears, and nobody ever takes any notice of it.
IE: Well, everything’s for sale now, from Hypnogogue hits to your algorithm-calibrated attention span. How do we fight to maintain our humanity?
SK: I don’t know. I don’t know and I, myself, am pretty close to giving up. And in many ways, I’m glad that my tenure on this Earth is almost up because I don’t like the way things are going at all. But I can’t figure out if the times really are bad or if all old people feel like this.
IE: But how are your twin daughters (Elektra and Miranda)? Are they still making music (as Say Lou Lou)?
SK: Yeah. Say Lou Lou are on the verge of releasing a new single called “Waiting For a Boy,” and Elektra was on a TV show called Shantaram that was on Apple TV, and now she’s getting in another one, so she’s doing a lot of acting. But yeah, they’re definitely still making music.
IE: Because as a parent, you definitely have to hope for your kids that everything will turn out alright in the world.
SK: I do. I have five daughters, and my very youngest daughter? I gave her her first guitar lesson the other day. And it went pretty well — I didn’t lose my temper. Afterward, she said she really enjoyed it, and she thought it was good that I didn’t lose my temper. Because I had tried to give some bass lessons to her older sister, and apparently, I lost my temper, and she went, “Fuck that! I don’t want to learn now!” You know like when you’re trying to teach them to drive a car? You lose your temper, and they go, “Oh, I don’t wanna learn now.” So obviously, the worst way to try and learn something is if your teacher loses their temper. So I wish all my kids could be following along in music, but I would be really happy if any of them or just some of them go on and make some music. Nothing would make me happier than that, for sure.
IE: And the point of our “Under the Milky Way” discussion, by the way, is just the intrinsic staying power of a great song. You’re going to live forever through just that alone. You’re automatically eternal.
SK: But it just won’t feel like that when I’m actually dead. But yes, I know what you’re saying. I will live on through that song. I remember something Woody Allen said — “Some people try and achieve immortality by creating a piece of art that lasts forever. But I’m trying to achieve immortality by not dying.” I go along with that one more. But yeah, it would be nice to achieve immortality with a nice song. But the, uhh, rewards of it are kind of nebulous. But because I’m a believer in reincarnation, I always imagined being John Lennon, who reincarnated sometime, maybe in the ‘90s or the 2000s. And I guess Mozart or Beethoven could reincarnate, but when they encounter their own music, it would be hard. But imagine Lennon dying, then he reincarnates, and one day he encounters The Beatles playing somewhere. One really wonders what it would do to that guy. In fact, that’s almost a little story in itself, don’t you think?
IE: It’s amazing you even came to play music, the way you’ve described your family dynamic as a kid. Your dad was a keyboardist who treasured music, and your mom actually hated it. There was constant bickering, and you’re the end result.
SK: I am. I am. The result of two opposites.
IE: What conclusions have you come to at this point?
SK: Well, I can’t do anything about this life. But I hope, and not just with decisions I made about music and stuff, but one hopes when one is reincarnated back into this world, that next time I’m tempted to do some of the things I did in this life, a little voice inside of me goes, “Didn’t you learn from that last time? What happens if you’re rude or arrogant, or hubristic? Or if you underestimate people? I hope that I can remember the lessons that I’m supposed to learn. I think we come to Earth and elsewhere — this is just one destination — but we come to Earth over and over and over to learn until we can qualify to move on to whatever’s next. So you keep moving up the scale, down the scale or staying the same, according to what happens. But when you become an Enlightened Master, you don’t have to come back here anymore — you can go on to whatever’s next, being unified with the Universe or some other glorious thing. But if you fuck up every time, you have to keep coming back and learning your lesson. I think this stuff is absolutely fascinating.
IE: But aren’t there some defiant days when you want to address any skeptic or naysayers with — to paraphrase Woody Allen again, and that awesome Marshall McLuhan line — “I am Steve Kilbey! And you know nothing of my work!”
SK: Ha! You know, I just might use that one! But I don’t worry so much about people arguing. I worry more about just being ignored. I think people even noticing what you do and then saying something negative about it is better than being completely ignored. I think that’s my greatest fear — not so much being misunderstood, but just having even been interested enough to try and interpret it. But I will say that! “I’m Steve Kilbey! And you know nothing of my work!”