(originally published in Avenue magazine, September 2005)
By Brian Tucker
It was during Robert Lurie’s first summer in Wilmington as a graduate student at UNC-Wilmington that he charged a fifteen hundred dollar plane ticket to his credit card. He was flying to Australia attempting to interview a singer for a band – The Church, that has long since fallen off the Billboard charts.
Lurie landed outside of Sydney, Australia not knowing a soul. He’d only maintained minimal e-mail contact with singer Steve Kilbey in addition to the reclusive singer’s brother, John Kilbey. Over a month long stay, Lurie would get to know Kilbey as someone other than the drug addled performer he’d actually opened for at a club in London back in 1998.
Kilbey would eventually open up to Lurie about his past and be insistent about making the book truthful. In turn Lurie would return home with literary gold to mine for his graduate school thesis and book project.
Born in California, Lurie grew up in Minneapolis. Being a musician, Lurie was drawn to the Athens, Georgia music scene in the early nineties and completed undergraduate studies at the University of Georgia by 1998.
“Music is a big force in my life,” he says, having recorded and released his own music over the years. After graduating with an English degree he taught high school for two years in South Georgia, citing the experience difficult.
“I taught an age group I don’t ever want to deal with again,” he says.
After attending a reading by Philip Gerard in Georgia, Lurie stuck around to talk. Gerard suggested UNCW if Lurie wanted to pursue an MFA in writing. The conversation led Lurie to Wilmington. He knew the school fostered notable writers, and it was a close move. Able to get a teaching assistant position working alongside a creative writing professor, Lurie taught two classes.
Students in the Master of Fine Arts Program are required to complete a thesis prior to graduation where it is reviewed by a thesis committee. Most MFA programs are three year programs and students take introductory writing courses in addition to classes in and outside of their chosen genre. Lurie applied to UNCW knowing his genre in advance – non-fiction (a large percentage of theses by non-fiction students are memoirs).
“They start with their own stories and move outward,” Lurie says. But Lurie didn’t want to write a straight memoir. First, there was a false start with a biography on singer Robyn Hitchcock.
“I couldn’t go the distance with Hitchcock,” he says.
He eventually decided on The Church, his favorite band after The Beatles. A fan since thirteen, Lurie found himself returning to the band as an idea for the project. During the first year a graduate student has time to ponder the final project for graduating. Second year, the student submits a proposal for the final thesis. Third year, a rough draft is submitted to the thesis committee for evaluation, wherein questions are asked about choices the student made and so on. Then, the student revises a few months prior to graduation. Upon graduation, the thesis is bound and a copy is kept on campus. Most are around 200 pages. Lurie’s is between 300 – 400 pages. He is taking an additional semester to complete the project and will also be teaching three composition classes. Lurie feels the MFA program helped him as a writer to find his voice.
“The MFA program is good for writers. It helped refine me,” he says. “But choosing a thesis adviser is crucial. If you don’t match up it could be disastrous.”
During some classes Lurie work-shopped sections of the book which gave him plenty of feedback. One suggestion was for Lurie to include himself in the book as a character since he was such a big fan. This idea is a relatively new literary device, most notable in the book Dutch, about former president Ronald Reagan. Although that book was met with criticism, Lurie went with the idea, drawing significant influence from the novel’s style.
“It allowed me to be more creative. Dutch is a source of problems for a lot of people,” he says. “Lots of people hate it but a lot of English majors like it as experimental literature.” For his book, Lurie also begins with a disclaimer in the foreword and believes that without the existence of Dutch, his book “would have been more conservative.”
Work on the book as a graduate student has been a different experience versus working on it alone. Lurie sees the pros and cons of the experience in relation to the book.
“The workshop experience is very weird – there’s 15 people writing critiques of a section of your book,” he says. “It’s hit or miss because you could take the wrong advice.”
With every critique, there’s a different point of view giving advice on what to remove or add to the book. And students come up with ideas and see things that a writer does not.
“I had the idea for a while, well before I had the skill to do a book about them,” he confesses. In May of 1994, Lurie mailed a hand written letter to Steve Kilbey about doing a biography. He never heard anything back. “That was probably a good thing,” Lurie laughs, “it would have been a bad book.”
Lurie was certain his professors wouldn’t be keen on his thesis idea but was surprised to find they were supportive and approved. Knowing he’d spend nearly three years working on the project he was relieved. He knew that another writer had attempted to write a book before on the band and failed.
“The band didn’t want to participate on the writer’s book,” he says. Given that, Lurie decided to focus on the singer more than the band.
Some responses to writing a biography on a band, a band that is relatively obscure today, have been mixed, even jaded. Lurie explains that a few times he’s heard, “why write about him, or The Church?”
Lurie isn’t fazed, couldn’t really care. It’s his interest, his passion for the idea. It isn’t for them. For Lurie, he was both positive and negative about his subject.
“Even if he is a jerk, he’s interesting enough to do a book,” Lurie says. “I chose a subject that was of interest to me and wanted to learn more about.” He also chose a subject that he’d met years before.
Lurie met Steve Kilbey in the context of performing. In 1997, after graduating from the University of Georgia, he completed a CD of music, some lo-fi and experimental compositions. He e-mailed a rep for a club in London where Kilbey was doing a show. Lurie asked about opening for Kilbey and mailed a CD. Feeling weird the next day, Lurie tried to put what he’d done out of mind. Some time passed and the rep called and asked him to come and open for Kilbey.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Lurie says. “I was going to open for my hero.”
Lurie purchased a five hundred dollar plane ticket to perform at a show that would garner only a hundred dollars. But what should have been a true experience for Lurie as a fan and as a performing musician took a gloomy turn.
“I thought he was a jerk after meeting him,” Lurie says. What he didn’t know at the time was that Kilbey was a junkie. The experience was a let down, leaving Lurie wishing he hadn’t met Kilbey.
Lurie returned to Georgia where he continued playing music and covered local shows for a magazine called Flagpole. He still attended shows by The Church when they came through but avoided the singer and interviewed other members of the band, like drummer Tim Powles.
Even though Lurie was familiar with his subject there was still research to do. A lot of research. Lurie combed over tons of interviews, articles, song lyrics and two books written by Kilbey. He researched the period in the context of where the band is from and the era of music, looking at the band’s contemporaries (Go Betweens, INXS, Midnight Oil) and listened to sound files from a web site where the site master shared an archive of material that rivaled the Library of Congress.
The Church found fame quickly in 1981, then falling to indie rock status within a short span of time. Prior to U.S. acclaim in 1988 with the Starfish album and hit single “Under the Milky Way,” The Church was considered washed up in Australia by the music press. Like many musicians, The Church had to leave home to get noticed – again.
“Once they became famous, they lived in a world we’ll never understand,” Lurie says.
They were a band that flirted with fame, while consistently making tantalizing music. Lurie isn’t concerned solely with crafting a biography full of salacious stories and drug fueled lifestyles, one can read Hammer of the Gods or The Dirt for that. Not that The Church didn’t fall prey to drugs with their fame, but Lurie wanted to dig deeper, believing the band are a good role model for musicians-to-be.
“It’s interesting what kept the band together to make music through it all,” Lurie says. “I was interested in the all consuming desire to keep making music. The tenacious adherence to the muse that is music”
The Church disappeared upon the arrival of grunge music. They went from Grammy winner to a band having a hit on the college charts. It was a cycle of being successful then having to start over again. The Internet was indispensable for Lurie, sites like ShadowCabinet.com and HotelWomb.com provided a bulk of information to direct the writer along the way.
“This book wouldn’t have happened without the Internet, meeting people via certain fan sites for the band. Lurie met someone who gave him Kilbey’s e-mail address, something Lurie believe he would never have gotten on his own, having tried for a long time. Lurie sat on Kilbey’s e-mail address for three months, eventually sending one about doing a biography on the singer. Lurie, attempting to play it safe, reassured Kilbey about his position on the issue of drugs in the book. Kilbey sent a two line e-mail back to Lurie giving his blessing on the book, stating-
“It’s your thesis. Write whatever the fuck you want about drugs.”
Lurie also met someone on the web who collected CD’s of music from every tour the band embarked on from the early 1980’s to the present. Lurie wanted a respective sample of music from each tour. After promising them a copy of his finished book, Lurie received a large box of CD’s.
“It was interesting to write along to the music,” he says. “I have all this research and I can listen to volumes of the band’s music history as I go. One year, the guitarist quit so I got to hear them as a trio.”
But Lurie’s research would take him far beyond the Internet. It would result in the urge to take a huge leap of faith.
Lurie flew to Australia not just for source material, but because he was afraid Kilbey might back out. At worst, Lurie would have just done an unauthorized book, many already this way. Lurie found a cheap flat for the month he’d live in Australia, not knowing anyone.
“I was pretty lonely there,” he says. “I didn’t know if I had more than three hours with Kilbey to interview him.”
But Lurie had one saving grace. He had been in contact more with Kilbey’s brother John. Lurie’s first meeting with Kilbey was at a songwriting workshop at the Bondi Pavilion where students sat in with professional songwriters. Lurie went not expecting to actually meet Kilbey, just his brother John. Lurie was admittedly a little star struck at first. But Kilbey was in a mischievous mood, teasing Lurie and calling him The Biographer throughout the day.
“Is the tape recorder running in your mind?” Kilbey would ask.
Throughout the workshop songwriters passed around a guitar, each discussing a song they’d perform. Students did this as well and John suggested that Lurie play something. He chose a tune he’d written entitled “Cathedral.”
Kilbey told the students that Lurie wasn’t a student there for the workshop but was a musician and asked him about his song and lyrics. Lurie found a creative acceptance through the workshop and a sense of approval from Kilbey.
But Lurie would find himself walking around Sydney a lot in his down time. The first half in Australia he was alone a lot, feeling like he was “losing his mind.” At first, Kilbey only gave him a few hours at a time but eventually grew to longer periods, sometimes as long as ten hours talking.
Understandably, Kilbey was hesitant of the process, but it also took Lurie a long time to not be nervous around Kilbey. In time Kilbey warmed to him and the reality of the book, to the point that Lurie was essentially ‘on call’ for interviewing. At times Lurie found himself agreeing with Kilbey, perhaps coincidentally or perhaps it was the fan coming out. But Kilbey would insist on the truth, not a love letter to his past glossing over events.
“Just because I’m participating with you on this,” Kilbey once interrupted, “doesn’t mean I want a fucking yes man.”
Lurie concurs. “Kilbey would rather the book say that he’s an asshole but the music is beautiful.”
It was also a relief that the singer made sure not to influence Lurie’s take on the story or the book’s tone.
“I want you to do the book your way and be honest,” Kilbey would say. “It’s always a let down when you meet your hero.”
Kilbey was only reluctant about discussing his relationships, specifically his first wife. He was very guarded about that but open to discuss his own abuse (Kilbey was arrested in 1999). There were those around Kilbey who told Lurie to ‘tip-toe around the drug stuff’ when interviewing. But Kilbey had been clean for the last four years and was very open about discussing that part of his life.
Life was like this – Lurie would go from doing really intense and lengthy interviews to then spending a lot of time alone. To break the cycle, he would visit a little surf town nearby and stay at a hostel.
“A vacation from my vacation,” he jokes.
There would be days Lurie would go without talking to people and then suddenly be surrounded by them. The final half of that month-long stay turned out to be the most enjoyable. The Church played a three night gig while he was there and then performed an impromptu show just for fans, several of which Lurie corresponded with over the Internet while researching the book. Fans of The Church had traveled from around the world for the three night’s worth of shows and Lurie was one of them. Suddenly he was not so alone anymore.
Lurie will be sending a copy to Kilbey after graduation for his own interest and factual clarification (Kilbey didn’t want to read anything until completion). The experience of interviewing and getting to know Kilbey changed Lurie’s opinion of the singer. Lurie went from thinking of Kilbey as a self obsessed jerk to a warm and giving man. Lurie also did phone interviews with Kilbey following the trip to Australia.
“Don’t send me anything negative to read. Until you’re done,” Kilbey would say. “I want to retain objectivity.”
Lurie would talk with Kilbey around eleven at night while it was after lunch time in Australia. Lurie plans to shop the book for publication after graduation, titling it No Certainty Attached.
Last July, Lurie went to CD Alley to pick up the new Church CD, el momento descuidado, its title translated as ‘the unguarded moment.’ When Lurie placed the disc on the counter the clerk was surprised. The clerk was a fan too and they talked a few moments about the band. From Australia to downtown Wilmington, after so many years, The Church’s music lived on.