Interview with Steve Kilbey & Martin Kennedy Present

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Delusions of Adequacy:  Hi Martin!  It’s so cool that you collaborated with Steve Kilbey of The Church on the album Unseen Music Unheard Words.  How did this mesmerizing project come about and how did you get Steve on board?

Martin Kennedy:  Back in 2005 I released an album called Big Spaceship on Karmic Hit label which is run by Steve’s brother John. Steve heard that album and some of my All India Radio work, liked what he heard and put out the idea of a collaboration. Being a big fan of The Church, naturally I jumped at the chance!

DOA:  What was it like working with Steve and what do you feel he brought to the proceedings?

Martin:  For the first year of the project I had no contact with Steve at all by either email or phone. We live in different cities and everything was done via snail mail through his brother as middleman. It was an odd situation really, but it worked well. It was only a year or so into it that I finally spoke to him!

DOA:  Steve isn’t the only collaborator on this album.  His brother John Kilbey also signed on to provide backing vocals on several songs.  Who else was involved with the production of the album?

Martin:  Yes, John is the backing vocal mastermind on the album. He recorded and sang them all.  Apart from John on backing vocals we had Michael Evans-Baker on acoustic drums. It had been only electronic drums up until that point and we felt we needed to ‘warm’ up the recordings a bit…electronic drums can sound very cold sometimes. That was a late decision, which meant Michael had to play over the top of almost finished tracks. Also we had Jen Anderson on violins on “Maybe Soon” & “Another Place”. Jen is a well-known Aussie musician and session player. Steve’s daughter also sang backing vocals on “Maybe Soon”.  Some local session players (trumpet and backing vocalists) played on other songs, but on the whole the music was put together by me.

DOA:  The album liner notes say that it was recorded by you and John, mixed by Simon Polinski, and produced by you and Steve.  Can you break down the intricacies of this division of labor and explain who did what, and if the JLK Studio is John’s studio?

Martin:  Ok. It started with the music which was recorded by myself at my home studio completely independent of Steve and the others involved. When the instrumental tracks were completed, I would send them to Sydney where Steve recorded his vocals at John Kilbey’s studio (JLK studio) completely independent of any input from me. So we have the two important elements of the project – music & vocals recorded in isolation from each other. Finally the two elements came together at Simon Polinski’s studio for the mixing process. This time we all did need to interact with each other. Steve and myself provided opinions and direction to Simon as he was mixing, but on the whole we left the mixing process up to Simon as he was already very familiar with Steve and my other project All India Radio. So he intuitively knew what to do.

DOA:  This has been an on-going production – almost 4 years in the making.  Was the extended timeline due to the fact that everyone involved was being pulled in all different directions with other musical (and/or non-music-related) commitments?  How did you persevere through the trying times?

Martin:  Yes, the time length was due to all of these factors, mostly other musical commitments taking us away. For me this project has never been my ‘main gig’ so it never got to be a ‘chore’ and was always a pleasure to dip in and out of. So the time length never bothered me. It only got mildly stressful towards the business end – trying to get it finished to meet release deadlines etc. And I was starting to feel a bit silly telling fans that it would be ‘finished very soon.’ I think I was saying that for a few years!

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DOA:  Can you go into the distribution details for your album (release dates and formats)?

Martin:  The album is released in Australia 15th June. There is no US release date but the CD is available online for anyone to buy around the world. It’s also on iTunes and Amazon MP3. We are hoping for a local USA distribution deal but that remains to be organised.

DOA:  Martin, you mentioned composing all of the music for this project.  What is your process for developing a song?  On what instrument do you work out the melodies and song structures? 

Martin:  Usually I start on acoustic guitar and I start just randomly playing notes or chords. I tend to come back to my favourite chord combination, so I have to be careful not to write the same song too many times (which I have done many times with slight variations!). Sometimes I might hear a piece of music on the radio or wherever and for some reason it stays with me. I try to recreate it and mash it up a bit to create a completely new song.

DOA:  There is an expansive and sustained spacey sound featured in the backdrop of several songs.  Can you divulge how you create that sound?  Is it produced by a synthesizer or other instrument?  I find that the spaciousness of that sound effectively draws the listener in to the soundscapes.

Martin:  A lot of the back ground drones and sound washes come from my other band All India Radio where I use them a lot. The original source sounds came from many different places…street sounds, maybe a snatch of music from a radio that hasn’t been tuned properly, or real instruments like harmoniums or even acoustic guitar but twisted and mangled into something completely different. I particularly enjoy this aspect of the music. A lot of the time I will take random sounds and apply random effects just to see what comes out the other end.

DOA:  Martin, you mentioned your band All India Radio earlier in this interview.  You’ve released several albums, including last year’s Fall, and your latest album, A Low High, is due soon.  Was it your intent with the Steve Kilbey & Martin Kennedy Present project to try your hand at something different and separate from All India Radio, or are there similarities between the two?

Martin:  There are definite similarities – probably more than what I should say! Some of the songs and sounds on the Kilbey Kennedy album had their ‘birth’ as All India Radio songs, in that I was writing for both projects at the same time, and there was a lot of cross over. I did try to deliberately write differently for Steve, but I found those songs were the weakest. It was best if I closed my mind to whatever the final product would be and just concentrated on doing what I was comfortable with. I call the new All India radio album (A Low High) a ‘sister’ album to the Kilbey Kennedy one, not only because it is released around the same time and shares similar artwork & packaging, but because a lot of the music had common origins. 

DOA:  Going to the project’s name, Steve Kilbey & Martin Kennedy Present, did you choose it because you are not a traditional band per se, but more of a one-off (but hopefully not!) collaboration? 

Martin:  We felt using our names was best. It was just easier that way than mulling over band names – of which most of the good ones have long been taken!

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DOA:  You played live with Steve in September of 2008 at an opening called Art Groupie, if I’m not mistaken.  How did that come about, since you’re album wasn’t finished at that time, and what was the experience like?  Did you play any other gigs, maybe on the same bill as Steve while he was promoting his album Painkiller?

Martin:  We’ve done 3 gigs so far but they have been pretty low-key and we’ve only done six songs off the album. They have mostly been on the same bill as Steve’s solo act or Painkiller project. The set up live is just myself on guitar and Steve on vocals and we use backing tracks for the rest of the music. I feel strange about the backing tracks – like it’s a cheat. On the other hand, it makes the act very portable so there is a good chance we will be able to tour it.

DOA:  Your artwork is on the front cover and inside sleeve of Unseen Music, Unheard Words, an enigmatic painting of an entity charged with whirlpools of light.  What was your inspiration for this painting?  Did you create it specifically for the album?

Martin:  No, I didn’t create it for the album. But it seemed to suit the music perfectly. I have done a whole series of similar paintings over the last 10 years. I’m not sure where the ideas come from – dreams, subconscious probably. I’m glad I got to use one of my paintings on the front cover. I’ve never had the confidence to do that before.

DOA:  Blogs are all the rage these days.  The prolific Steve Kilbey has one at http://stevekilbey.blogspot.com/ filled with his writings and you have one at http://weatheredandtorn.blogspot.com/ – and you’re also twittering!  Looking at the promotional and personal aspects of these media, what is your opinion on these venues as a means of releasing information?  Do you enjoy and/or have the time to venture forth into the blogosphere regularly?

Martin:  I try to read as many as I can…particularly DIY musician related ones. I’m a reluctant blog writer myself, because I find it a struggle to find the words. I don’t want to always just be promoting my latest project, but it might seem like that sometimes as I feel I don’t have anything interesting to say. I very much enjoy Steve’s blog as he is so comfortable with words and it shows in his stream of consciousness blog entries.

DOA:  Martin, you’ve mentioned that you’re a big fan of The Church since the early 1980s.  Would you say that that band has influenced your sound for All India Radio and this album with Steve?  What is your most favorite album or song by The Church? 

Martin:  My favourite Church album is The Blurred Crusade for many different reasons. The first and more ‘primal’ reason is that I discovered it as a teenager back in the early 1980s and it pressed all the right emotional buttons for me and became one of those classic ‘time and place’ albums that stay with you. Secondly, the songs are simple, melodic and musically exciting. Later, I came to realise how well mixed it is and very non-1980s sounding at a time everyone was wearing silly clothes and playing synths with buckets of reverb on the music. The production actually sounded like a throwback to the 1970s. It sounded fresh back then and still does now.

DOA:  You’ve also said that you have already started work on a second album!  That’s wonderful news – but do Steve and John and the rest of ’em know about this?!  It sounds like you like to keep busy musically.  Are there any more details you can spill about a follow-up album or do you want to keep it under wraps for now?

Martin:  Yes, there are now about 18 songs more or less ready for Steve’s vocals. Steve has copies of them and has been listening to them while he paints…a great way to absorb them I’d imagine. The next step is arranging a time to record the vocals. We are tossing the idea around of Steve coming to Melbourne to record them together with Simon or whether to do them in Sydney apart from each other like the first time. In any case, the second album is definitely going ahead. I am however going to resist saying ‘it’ll be ready soon’!

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DOA:  Hello Steve!  First things first, how did you end up collaborating with Martin Kennedy on this album, Unseen Music, Unheard Words? Was it through producer Simon Polinski, with whom you worked on the project Mimesis?

Steve Kilbey:  martin sent me some songs via email
                              i brought polinski in at the end to mix

DOA:  What do you hope to accomplish by joining forces with Martin for this project?  Did you feel freer to explore more in this different environment than as a member of The Church?

Steve:  martins tracks sounded like they were created for me to sing on
               i had to sing on them, you see
               it was very compelling music

DOA:  When you were in the studio recording your vocals, how many takes did you generally do before you were satisfied with the results?  Were Martin and Simon, who mixed the album, there too, pestering you about your vocals, or did they leave you be?

Steve:  3 or 4 takes these days
               with patch ups
               or comping one vocal from the 4 takes

DOA:  Your brother John Kilbey contributed backing vocals to several songs.  What was it like working with him?  Did you record your vocals jointly, or did you lay down your vocal tracks separately?

Steve:  john recorded my vocals then did his backing vocals
              simon n martin not present at vocal sessions

DOA:  Do you follow a regimen to take care of your voice and keep it in shape?  I seem to recall a behind-the-scenes video clip from the Goldfish (Jokes, Magic & Souvenirs) videotape where you downed various vitamins, although I think those were for general good health and not specifically for the vocal cords…

Steve:  no i abuse it all the time…shouting etc

DOA:  Your vocal style sounds more natural, immediate, and refreshed on this album, perhaps because you have room to stretch out during these subtly enthralling soundscapes, to the point where you sound yearning and vulnerable on “my will be yours”.  On the other hand, a few songs feature a darker, smokier vocal sound, like on “thought of leaving”.  How did you decide what type of vocal delivery to use?  Was it based upon hearing Martin’s music first or what you thought best fit the intent of your lyrics?

Steve:  my voice has actually “matured” and
               the music always dictates the words n singing

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DOA:  Do you take on different personas when singing, whether in the studio or at a gig, maybe to create some distance, consciously or not, between your(real)self and the performance? 

Steve:  yes
               i take on the personae of lovers killers tramps n kings
               sometimes i’m just me
               i never can really tell

DOA:  Did you pick up a bass guitar or any other instruments (well, besides your voice) for this album?

Steve:  i played absolutely nothing

DOA:  Did you write specific lyrics for this album in response to listening to the evolving music Martin was creating, or did you come in with your own material that was then melded with Martin’s music?

Steve:  i had nothing previously prepared
             i respond to the music
             the music is the source of the words

DOA:  Focusing on your process of writing and the translation of transient thoughts to concrete words, does your writing come out clearly and concisely for you, or is it a rambling tangle that must be refined afterward?

Steve:  my lyrics unfold almost perfectly
               i write them down as fast as it comes
               i hardly ever change them

DOA:  Your artwork is featured on the back and inside sleeve of Unseen Music, Unheard Words.  Can you go into the import of the painting and how it relates to the album?  Is this painting, or others, available for purchase?

Steve:  the painting is random
               and its already sold
               but prints of it are available at my art site

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DOA:  You’re extremely busy with this project with Martin that has been 3-plus years in the making, and The Church is going full-speed with the release of the new album, #23, including a tour in June, and you also have a new solo album, Painkiller (album cover featured above), out now – and those are just the headlines of what you’re involved in!  Do you like to be in the position of being a workaholic?  Do you get restless or bored if you’re not working on something?

Steve:  i have to work
               i must work
               thanks for having me at your site
               i really love this k/k album, you knows north bondi 2009