Friday, December 18, 2009

The Further Adventures of _No Certainty Attached_, Part II

The following piece was published in the November issue of Bootleg magazine and is reprinted here by kind permission of Brian Tucker. Enjoy!

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Truth Deeper Than Words
Interview with Robert Lurie
Conducted by Brian Tucker

Meeting your heroes is a risky proposition. Interviewing them and writing about them is something altogether different. UNCW graduate Robert Lurie, over the course of six years, wrote a biography of Steve Kilbey of the Australian band The Church. The idea grew from his college thesis and into a book that has garnered praise from Kilbey and fans of The Church alike. The book is as much about Kilbey as it is Lurie, non-fiction that mirrors the life of a once-famous musician and that of his audience. Being part of the narrative is a risky choice indeed, but one that seems to have paid off.

Lurie wanted to write a similar book in the nineties but decided not to. He once opened for Kilbey at a London club in 1998 and left with a sour opinion of the singer, who, at the time, was heavy into a drug habit. Lurie had the idea to do the book again and his professors approved. Still surprised at the thumbs up, Lurie bought an expensive plane ticket to Australia where he spent a month alone and at different times interviewing Kilbey who slowly opened up to him about his life.

This past summer Lurie's book No Certainty Attached was published by Verse Chorus Press and has since gone into its second printing.


How different is the published book versus when you completed it as your graduate school thesis?

A: Night and day. I really don’t think the original thesis reads well at all. It’s disjointed, and there are some bad typos that got past the gates. I’m bothered that it even exists! But having talked to some other MFA grads about this subject, I’ve concluded that the feeling of “thesis revulsion” is pretty typical.

What suggestions did professors or students give you that helped in shaping the book?

A: I wrestled with how much of my own story to leave in. The students and non-Church fans seemed to really like that material, but I had to be careful because, at the end of the day, this was a book about Steve Kilbey and The Church. Dr. Phil Furia—a very accomplished biographer and therefore a trusted authority—came up with a winning formula: 1) Use the “character” of me as a stand-in for the reader; 2) only include aspects of my life which directly impact the subject or the understanding thereof; and, 3) Most importantly, invest the biographical information with the same passion and novelistic detail as the memoir sections. It’s an ideal approach, and I implemented it to the best of my ability.

Talk about the process of taking your manuscript and presenting/proposing it to potential publishers.

A: I didn’t follow a normal process—mainly because I didn’t know the process! I had initially intended to self-publish, but George Hurchalla (a fellow writer) suggested Verse Chorus Press because they had published successful biographies of Bon Scott (from AC/DC) and the Go-Betweens. They seemed Australia-friendly and had a network in place to promote and distribute niche books dealing with Australian music. So I just sent them an email stating that I’d written a book about the Church and would they be interested? When they wrote back on the same day I suddenly had to buckle down and re-write the book in order to have something to show them!

What suggestions or responses did they give, positive and negative?

A: On the positive side, Steve Connell (editor) liked the story and felt that there was an audience for it. Early on, Steve Kilbey stood out as a compelling character. But Connell also commented that the early excerpts I sent him seemed quite fragmented and not really fleshed out. I used that as a guide in the rewriting process. Generally speaking, I tend to rush things in the first draft. During revision is when I slow down and really begin to sink into the story.

How many publishers did you approach before deciding on one?

A: Verse Chorus Press was the only one. They were the only American publisher that made sense for this type of book.

How long was the process between getting a publisher and seeing the printed version? Were there things you had to fight to keep in or keep them from adding?

A: The revision/editing process took three years. There was a lot of tightening-up to do, plus Verse Chorus had a lot of other projects on deck. The timing actually worked very much in my favor: The release of the book coincided with the release of the Church’s album Untitled #23, which has turned out to be the best-reviewed album of their career. So this book has arrived at a time of renewed interest in the band. Happily, there were no major fights about what to leave out/put in. Steve Connell allowed the creative vision to remain intact. His cuts made sense, and his many suggestions of what to add only strengthened the book.

How did you prepare yourself for interviewing Kilbey before flying to Australia ?

A: I read many of the older reviews that were out there, just to make sure I didn’t ask a lot of questions that had already been asked before.

He’s a hero of yours, how difficult was it to meet someone you admire, let alone take on interviewing for writing about his life and work?

A: Very difficult. I was quite intimidated by him. Steve is not “famous” by the standard definition—he is generally not recognized in public, but to me he had been an idol going back to my teens. I’ll put it this way: I would have been less nervous hanging out with the President of the United States.

You’ve mentioned the Internet as a great source of bootleg concert materials and other information on The Church. What other tools helped you write the book?

A: People, pure and simple. Having been such an active fan for so many years, I had developed friendships with a number of people that were also friends of Steve’s, starting with Brian Smith, Sue Campbell, and Donnette Thayer back in the mid ‘90s. A lot of people put their faith in me and helped me out because they knew me. A mutual friend passed Steve’s email address on to me. I refer to this individual in the preface as Deep Throat!

At what point did Kilbey open up to you, stop being standoffish? Was it hard for him to warm up to you?

A: Surprisingly quickly. We met up at a songwriting workshop in Bondi, Australia, that had been organized by John Kilbey. John lent me his guitar and Steve and I got talking about the composition process in front of the other students. He treated me—and the others—as peers, and that put me at ease. And we were pretty much up and running from that point on.

It’s often said that meeting idols can be a letdown. Was it like that for you?

A: Initially, yes. I had met him a number of times in the ‘90s and that never went well. I found him to be very standoffish. But once we started working on the book it was anything but a letdown. He’s such a dynamic, larger-than-life personality, full of so many interesting stories and insights. There’s a reason I referenced Orson Welles at the beginning of the book: Steve is in that league of raconteurs: Welles, Sinatra, John Huston.

How did you go about interviewing him? Were some places and situations more conducive to getting him to talk about himself?

We did a number of interviews at Gertrude and Alice’s cafĂ©/bookstore in Bondi. Those were the most enjoyable; Steve was in his element. But many more interviews occurred later on, long distance over the phone, and he always gave freely—both of his time and his thoughts, probably not expecting much in return. For reasons that remain mysterious, he told me a lot of things he hadn’t told other interviewers. I got the “scoop.”

You’re a musician. Did you find that it helped you in terms of communicating with Kilbey instead of just being a fan?

A: Very much so. You may have nailed it there. We were able discuss the intricacies of his music, as well as other music we both enjoyed: Neil Young, Sinatra’s Only the Lonely. It was a common language and it helped build the rapport. This was an even bigger asset with Peter Koppes. Non-musician journalists often make the mistake of singling out Marty Willson-Piper as the primary guitarist in the band, simply because he is so energetic on stage. Now, there is no question that Marty is an exceptional musician deserving of any praise that comes his way, but anyone who actually plays guitar recognizes that Peter’s contributions are every bit as crucial to the band’s sound. In fact, during their early years, Peter was unquestionably the dominant player and the most accomplished musician in the band. After the book came out, he told me he was just so happy that it had been written by a musician, because I took their work seriously and understood the true dynamics within the band.

After interviewing the focal point of the book, Kilbey, were other interviews easier to come by? Did members of the band seem surprised that someone was writing a book on The Church?

A: Yes, Kilbey’s participation gave the green light; the others began to line up after that, and this is one of the reasons why the revision/editing process took so long. On the whole, I think people were both a) surprised/flattered that anyone would be interested, and b) anxious about the outcome: Would this earnest American kid bring the goods?

Why was The Church and Steve Kilbey such an influence on you personally? Why do you think they didn’t continue to be a success in the States in the nineties?

A: For me personally, their music articulated feelings and impressions I’d had all my life that I could never quite nail down. When I heard “Under the Milky Way,” something just clicked. To this day, I can’t tell you what the song is about, but I felt strongly that it was telling a kind of truth that is deeper than words. I had to hear more, and I was not disappointed: their already impressive body of work unfolded before my ears, taking me to another place. And I’ve stayed there ever since. It informs who I am as an artist.
The lack of later success could probably be summed up by bad decisions, bad karma, failing to seize the moment, and simply the ever-fickle tastes of the masses. But in a way, the fans won out. I don’t know if the richer work that began in the mid-late 90s and continues to the present would have happened if they’d been driving around in limos. It seems born out of an attitude of “We have nothing left to lose; why not follow the muse into these fascinating, obscure corners?”

What album by the band resonates with you the most?

A: I can’t pick one. Depending on my mood, I turn to Starfish, Hologram of Baal, After Everything Now This, or the new one: Untitled #23. But for about a decade, Priest=Aura was my favorite because it is a self-contained world.

How long did it take you to complete the book? Did your narrative change from how you originally conceived it?

A: Seven years from inception to publication, though there is material pulled from personal journals going back to 1998. It went through more permutations than I can count, but I always wanted it to read like a novel. The best parts of the book stay true to that vision.

Your story is part of the book as well, your journey to Australia. How did it affect or change your life?

A: It was great to finally get to the place I had dreamed about so much. Australia is indeed magical, particularly the coastal areas. More importantly, meeting the people I had listened to and read about for so long felt like the culmination of one phase of my life. In the long run, telling the story of the artist that inspired me has cleared the decks for me to now do my own thing. It has been a rite of passage, and the beginning of a career.

Has Kilbey read the book and commented on it? Do you maintain contact with him?

A: Yes, he has read the book, blogged about it, and promoted it at Church concerts. This goes well beyond anything I could ever have dreamed of. I try to carry that feeling of gratitude with me every day. From a karmic perspective, I now need to do something really nice for someone. I don’t know what yet, but it will happen! And yes, we stay in touch.

A car company recently used ‘Under the Milky Way’ in a commercial sung by another singer. What do you think Steve Kilbey would think of this beyond receiving payment for the rights to use it?

A: I think Steve takes a realistic view of these things. He doesn’t feel that a song’s intrinsic integrity is compromised by how it is used. Plus, the additional income allows him to continue making music. The only real downside is that the other guys in the band are not credited as co-songwriters on that particular song (“Under the Milky Way” was written by Steve with Karin Jansson), so they don’t see any money from it.

What pressures did you feel taking on this idea for a book given there are a lot of fans out there of the band and Kilbey?

A: I successfully ignored any pressures until right before the book came out, at which point I realized that the “characters” I had written about were real people with families. I just prayed that everyone involved would recognize that the book was written out of love. Happily, almost all of them have.

There was one other concern: I always knew that the personal angle would be controversial; some people just want a straight biography without this muddled fan/idol subplot. “Just the facts, ma’am.” But it was absolutely clear to me from the start that the personal backstory was the soul and lifeblood of the book. If I was going to write the book, then it had to be written that way. There was no other option. And it has paid off. While it has not entirely escaped criticism from some corners, the insertion of the personal story has prompted a lot of people to write me directly, sharing their own stories of how they discovered the band. I received an email from a guy who grew up in apartheid-era South Africa, and saw in the Church’s music the possibility of an existence beyond the repression of his own surroundings. Another fan said the music of Steve and the Church had formed the soundtrack of her twenty-year marriage to her husband. All of these people told me they saw in my experience a mirror of their own. This makes me so very glad that I took the risk of laying myself out like that, and I’m so grateful for the many key people—including Steve himself—who encouraged me to write the book in a creative, non-conventional way.

At what point were you done writing and had to let it go for the publisher? Were there stories or other, new, information that was left out you wanted in?

A: This was the hardest part. There is so much more that could have gone in there. I finally just had to turn off the tap, but I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t think of other stuff that could go in. And of course, so much has happened since 2006—when the book essentially ends. I’ve already decided that in ten years I will revisit the idea of an expanded edition or sequel. I have a feeling Steve will still be around and still creating important work. Besides, he has already told me that he wants me to set the record straight that his paunch is now gone.

There is surely an interest in this book given The Church’s fan base around the world. How has the book sold so far and will it likely go to a second pressing?

A: It has already gone into a second printing, which is very exciting. I do think there are still a lot of Church devotees out there who don’t know about it yet: people who go to the concerts but are not checking online message boards every day. The challenge now is to find them and make the connection. These people don’t exactly advertise themselves, do they? Think about how you and I met: pure chance! So maybe this article will help spread the word in your corner of the universe, and I thank you for showing such an interest in this project over the years.