Friday, July 31, 2009

The Further Adventures of 'No Certainty Attached'

Back in June, Doug Crist of the Bainbridge Island Review interviewed me regarding No Certainty Attached and the long, tangled story of its creation. Some of the material made its way into his excellent feature story, which you can read here. Now that the book has been out for a couple months, I thought some people might be interested in reading the extended answers to his questions.

> Q. What prompted you to write a book about Kilbey and his
> band? As I recall, you were doing it for your master's
> program, but that may not be accurate. If so, was your
> advisor enthusiastic about the project?

Yeah, I was doing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing with nonfiction emphasis, for which we are required to write a book-length thesis. And I thought, “What the hell can I write 300 pages about?” Well, might as well take this slightly unhealthy obsession and get something out of it! I had a few different advisors, but the reaction generally was “Steve who?” However, this might have been the first biography written in the department, so it was intriguing from that standpoint. The book went through several different phases. One of my advisors felt--rightly--that the strongest writing occurred in the sections where I recounted my direct interactions with Steve. As a writing instructor who had no interest in the Church, he wanted to see me take the book further down this memoir path. That would have made for a good read, but Church fans would never have gone for Robert and Steve: A Love Story. So the dual narrative thing began to take shape: I would fold my experience into the larger narrative and act as a sort of stand-in for the reader, who gets to walk with me into John Kilbey’s (Steve’s brother’s) apartment and stare down at the lonely Macintosh, realizing that they are gazing at Karmic Hit Records in its totality. They feel John’s fat housecat brush against their legs as they watch the two brothers banter back and forth. These scenes were fun to write and are hopefully illuminating to the readers. But you get the full biography as well. And whenever possible, I tried to depict Steve’s own experiences with the same energy and narrative detail I had brought to the “memoir” scenes. Ultimately, my book benefited greatly from having gone down that twisty path on the way to the MFA degree.
> Q. How did you first contact Kilbey, and how did he respond
> to your idea? Did you travel to Australia, how many times
> and how long were you there?

I first met Steve when, as a musician, I opened for one of his solo gigs. I was star struck and did not handle myself well, and he was completely indifferent. Based on that initial meeting, I doubt he took me seriously when—a few years later—I sent him an email stating: “I’m writing your biography.” When I asked if he would consent to an interview, he wrote back, “I thought you learned your lesson”! But then he made his fatal mistake: “Okay,” he said, “I’ll give you a couple hours. If you get here.” So a few months later I showed up on his doorstep in Australia. It was completely insane and it’s not something I would do now. Thank God for the brashness of youth! You’ll hear over and over again that Steve is “difficult,” but his mother didn’t raise him to be the kind of guy who would cast me out after I’d come all that way. I stayed in Australia for a month—interviewing the Kilbey family and researching the book. Financially, I was living off my credit card’s fumes—something else I wouldn’t do now.

> 6. In interviewing Kilbey, was he candid or guarded (or
> both)? Cooperative? Enigmatic? Did you have a good mutual
> rapport? How about the other members of the band? Kilbey's
> family?

Steve was incredibly candid. I had wandered onstage just at the moment when he was starting to get his life back together and was ready to talk. One of the only subjects he was tight-lipped about was exes (girlfriends and first wife), and that’s pretty understandable. I admire and respect that. After Australia we ended up doing an additional series of interviews over the phone; it all clocked in at over 20 hours, and when I listen to some of that stuff now, I’m struck by how different it is compared to the other Kilbey interviews I’ve heard/read. Yes, there were times where he would give these frustrating one-sentence answers and then wait while I tripped all over myself trying to fill up the empty spaces in the conversation. But most of the time he was warm, funny, and absolutely sincere. He started his blog not long afterward and you get a lot of that feeling in there as well, but when he’s writing he can still sometimes wrap it all up in irony or sarcasm. There wasn’t much of that in our conversations.

His family: I talked to his mom and brothers. Joyce (the mom) is a very sweet lady. It would be impossible to overstate how warm she has been to me—both during the long writing process and after the book came out. Like all moms, she was eager to share embarrassing (read: endearing) stories about Steve’s childhood. Steve’s brother John cooked me dinner and was a wonderful host, though a bit guarded when it came to the actual interview--but I can’t fault someone for being loyal and protective toward his family. Russell Kilbey was just a wonderful, funny guy, and definitely fit the stereotype of the mischievous middle sibling. In direct contrast to John, he told me it was my “journalistic responsibility” to dig up as much dirt as possible. He said: “The readers don’t want to hear about the speeches on economic policy, they want to hear about what happened in the Oval Office with the cigar.”

Band: Peter Koppes—co-lead guitarist and “the quiet one”—became a great partner in the project. We fell into a very easy rapport when the Church were out here (in Arizona) doing a couple gigs in 2006. Tim Powles didn’t work with me directly on the book, but I had interviewed him previously in 1998 and hung out with him a number of times since then and was able to pull from that. He has always been an easy person to talk to and spend time with. Marty Willson-Piper (other lead guitarist) is not a “looking backward” kind of guy and did not participate, but he has been pivotal in arranging for the band to sell the book on the road and on their website. I’m really grateful for that. I also got to talk to the band’s original drummer, which will be a real treat for the longtime fans to read about.

> Q. What did you learn from your interviews that surprised
> you? How did your perceptions of Kilbey and the Church
> change as the project went along?

We’ll be here all day if I start talking about my perceptions of Steve. Briefly: at some moments he is absolutely the wise mystic I had envisioned. At other moments he is…not. But he’s mellowed over the past few years and the two sides of him are beginning to fuse. He’ll never be a “regular bloke,” but you aren’t so much assaulted by the extremes in his personality anymore. I’ve been very lucky to have him in my life. I’ve learned a lot from him about being an artist.

I am still a huge admirer of the band and their work. The most recent Church album is one of their very best—if not the best.

> Q. How long did it take to actually write the book?

That’s a tricky question. There are sections of the book that were written as far back as 1998—after I first met Steve. But I mark the real beginning in 2002—when I emailed my friend Sue Campbell a couple of vignettes depicting Steve as a weary, iconic troubadour taking the stage and strumming along as the words to “Providence” floated up out of his throat. So that makes this a seven-year endeavor. Seven years with another man living inside my head.

> Q. I gather the publication of your book has seen delays.
> How did that process unfold? Was it hard to find a
> publisher?

It was not difficult to find a publisher once I went looking. I had intended to self-publish, but that is not a good move for career longevity. Verse Chorus Press was always my first choice because they had put out a biography of (Australian band) The Go-Betweens. And Steve Connell was a complete ass-kicker of an editor. This was like the MFA part 2. I kept thinking I was done and he’d keep sending it back asking for more. He absolutely raised the bar for me, and got me to dig deeper than I thought I could.

Q. I read in Kilbey's blog that he's enthusiastic about
the finished project. Your response....?

This is something that, at 14, I never could have dreamed of. Philip Furia (biographer of Johnny Mercer and Irving Berlin) told me, “Biographers are usually lambasted by their living subjects.” No Certainty Attached shows the good, the bad, and the ugly about Steve Kilbey. So by embracing the book, my subject has displayed the sort of maturity and grace you’re not going to find in a lot of “rock stars.” I’m impressed, and so, so thankful.

Q. Do you think Kilbey/the Church deserve more
> recognition, critically or commercially? Why has the band
only seen fleeting popularity, and that so long ago?

Yes! I don’t think they’re ever going to be mega stars, but they should be much bigger than they are now. At the very least, I should think that a good chunk of Radiohead’s fans would fall in love with the Church if they heard what they’ve been up to since 1988. The reasons for that not happening are complicated and have to do with some bad personal and business decisions. Consequently, it’s been difficult for the Church to get the level of exposure that would help break them to a new audience. Also, there is sometimes a lack of quality control: they’ll follow a great album like Hologram of Baal with something lukewarm like Box of Birds. I said in the book that they needed to find a great producer—their own George Martin—but they’ve proved me wrong with this recent album.


Centuryhouse said...

REALLY liked reading this, thanks for posting it!

Anonymous said...

I really liked the book.
/Martin, SWE