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Definitive Starfish interview. Rolling Stone delivers the goods Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 June 1988

From Australia's Rolling Stone Issue 419 / June 1988


The Church suffer under the bad karma of L.A., find communion with each other, and deliver a hit album

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There were two major earthquakes and lots of tremors. When you're in a three storey building and it comes at two in the morning you can look at it in two ways; panic or say to yourself, "Wow, this is an experience, let's go and watch buildings fall. You realise pretty quickly that there's not much you can do. They tell you to stand under a [unrecognizable word], but you wonder if that's going to have much effect when the whole building goes down. You switch on the TV and the `Today Show' people are getting under their desks. It's an extreme existence and I think I was the most traumatized of the guys in the band. Even now if a truck rumbles by a building I get a pretty strange feeling."

Peter Koppes, the Church's guitarist, is relating just one experience from the three month sojourn in Los Angeles that brought forth the new Church album "Starfish". However, the earthquake which shook L.A. last year makes a neat metaphor for the state of the Church -- almost everything the band stood on has moved and shifted dramatically over the last couple of years. And most dramatic of all is the current success the band is enjoying on the mainstream charts both in Australia and the U.S. After almost eight years the Church have themselves a bona fide hit record.

The band which first appeared in 1981 as a guitar-pop quartet with tunes that harked back to the Byrds and the folk-rock era have subsequently gone through a number of phases. After some commercial success with a first album, "Of Skins and Heart", the band became more and more obtuse and apparently uncommercial. It seemed as though the further they plumbed the
depths of lyrical obscurity, so the cult status of the Church swelled.

THE BLURRED CRUSADE GATHERS MOMENTUM -- "I think our audience has kept it's faith in us because we've defiantly continued to make music that we enjoyourselves, and, beyond anything else, we haven't sold out," says singer Steve Kilbey. "We haven't gone with any trends. A lot of people like that."

Despite an absence of hits the Church continued releasing albums through the Eighties with their downbeat songs and intricate guitar parts until the rest of the world finally caught up. Rather than being an historical curiosity, to wit -- a `Sixties band' -- they were leading the charge back to guitar combos alongside bands like R.E.M.. Recognising a growing international cult following they made the last album, "Heyday", back in 1986, an all-out effort on the charts using Simple Minds' producer Peter
Walsh. But even that failed to deliver a crossover hit.

"We needed an injection of energy, or something, into the band to take us away from making that smooth Church album we didn't want to make again," says guitarist Marty Willson-Piper. "We didn't want to make another "Heyday", we wanted to make a more cutting, hard-edged record which this one is." Following the critical success but relative commercial failure of "Heyday", the sessions of "Starfish" were a time of make or break for the Church. Given that the band had been dropped by their record company and that the solo careers were being actively pursued by each of the individual members, time was running out.

The Church began as a vehicle for Steve Kilbey back in 1980. Kilbey had been brought up in Canberra where he was briefly a member of the post-punk angst machine Tactics. He moved to Sydney where he met guitarist Peter Koppes and original drummer Nick Ward. Even at this early stage Kilbey was wary of the grind of the Australian pub circuit. The real impetus to get
the Church established came from a music publisher, Chris Gilbey of Northern Songs, who signed the band, got them a deal with EMI's label Parlophone and enlisted heavyweight American engineer Bob Clearmountain to re-mix their debut album "Of Skins and Heart".

It seemed at that point that the Church had it made. The band had stabilized with drummer Richard Ploog and guitarist Willson-Piper and with their tight jeans and long bangs they seemed ideal pop stars. However, the group's interests were more esoteric and the albums consistently rarified. They were nothing if not productive; EP's like "Sing Songs", "Persia",
"Remote Luxury" came out regularly in between albums with titles like "Seance" and "The Blurred Crusade". Although the band was improving with each release, sales weren't.

"One day about this time last year I went into EMI and met the big chief who was this big fat fellow with a gold chain around his neck," says Kilbey. "I don't think he had ever thought about the Church before and suddenly he became aware of this irritating little mosquito that was on his label. About a week later the call came through, 'your album has been postponed indefinitely'."

To Koppes, the quietest and least volatile of the group, the parting was not altogether a surprise; "It was a timely end to the relationship," he says. "We weren't selling enough records to keep them happy and they weren't selling enough records to keep us happy." In many ways the Church's survival for the past eight years has been a continuing revelation. Four separate people with four sizable egos do not a long partnership guarantee. After five or six years something usually has to give and so it came to pass that two years ago the Church were about to split asunder. Reports filtered back to Australia from their last European
tour of Willson-Piper's fiery resignation and a general dissatisfaction within the band. It was apparently only a matter of time before the Church went their separate ways.

The turning point came when the band made an effort at collective songwriting and the focus shifted away from Kilbey. The result of that new attitude bore fruit on "Heyday" and a burst of solo work from Kilbey, Willson-Piper and Koppes. The freshness and enthusiasm that flavoured "Heyday" brought a new zest and fire to the Church on vinyl, and impressively, on stage.

The tour supporting "Heyday" was, without a doubt, the most consistent set of quality performances from a band with a,  deserved up to then, reputation for unevenness. The collective songwriting has continued on "Starfish".

SLOW CRACKS -- In the same period the Church started individual projects. Whilst Ploog has played and recorded with the likes of Salamander Jim and Damien Lovelock's Wigmen, the other three have released a stream of diverse and fascinating solo material, while still retaining their passion for the Church.  Kilbey began the flood with his solo album "Unearthed" followed by a
book of poetry and another album both titled "Earthed", and more recently "The Slow Crack". Willson-Piper followed with a mini-album, "In Reflection". The floodgates opened wider last year with Peter Koppes' four-track EP "When Reason Forbids" followed recently by the album "Manchild and Myth".

'The band doesn't need to split up now," says Willson-Piper. "A couple of years ago the band probably needed to split up but now we've discovered a way where everybody can be satisfied within this context. Steve can be in his house and make his records on his eight-track machine and he is totally happy. Pete can make his records at home and Richard can live wherever he
wants to and play with anyone he wants." The personalities of the four Church, usually hinted at on record, flourish onstage. Watching them live you can see the contrast between the flamboyant and wildly energetic Willson-Piper, playing busy solos on an array of guitars, while Koppes, eyes closed, eases out a siren or a whisper from his Stratocaster. In person, as onstage, both are passionate about their music but Koppes is given to an almost dreamy vision as seen in his individual lyrical
contribution to "Starfish", "New Season".

He describes it as being "a utopian idea with symbols to represent the kind of utopia. I try to avoid being philosophical," he says sporting a self-depreciating smile, "One of my favourite writers was John Lennon, even his later work, because he brought beauty to the simple things in life." On the other hand Willson-Piper is ever active, punctuating his conversation with forceful statements and flights of fancy. He shifts gears from high to low effortlessly. Midway through this interview he took a call
from an obviously inexperienced and ill-informed journalist. Confronted with banal questions, he playfully strung her along with offhand comments and tall tales until, dismayed at the apparent futility of interviews, he finally slammed down the phone seething with frustration.

Several years ago Willson-Piper became, in effect, the band's Australian manager [SC note: Marty and Tiare are doing this again , for most of the 2000s] , doing the sort of work most musicians are quick to give up as soon as possible. It's not a job generally considered conducive to creativity, but the guitarist seems to thrive on it. "I can be Miles Copeland (the wunderkind manager of Sting and the I.R.S. record label) one day and Patti Smith the next," he says with a broad grin. "I am first and foremost a singer/songwriter/musician but I have this practical ability to keep that creativity under control while using these other talents. It's a disciplinary thing basically. I don't have this attitude of `don't worry me with business'. I mean I can't do this outside of Australia but here I've been in the Church for eight years and I know everybody I need to know."

Surprisingly, Willson-Piper handles all this while being based in Stockholm, Sweden. With Kilbey and Koppes domiciled in Sydney and Ploog sporadically nomadic, the Church can't be said to have firm roots anywhere.

"I always have this thing about how I'm going to explain to Australians why I don't like living here without being insulting or condescending," says Willson-Piper, explaining his residence in Sweden. "I came to Australia in 1980 where I lived until 1984. I missed Europe deeply. My girlfriend lives in Stockholm, my parents and my brother and sister live in Liverpool and Wales. My best friend, who I make my solo albums with, lives in London. So I miss them here.

"And then I can't stand the heat. I find it very uncomfortable. I live in a climate which is often minus ten degrees. People say that's ridiculous, how can you not like the sun and want to have freezing temperatures, but I was brought up in Liverpool, the north of England where it's cloudy, raining and cold all the bloody time. I don't like going to the beach. I'm not a swimmer or a physical, sporty-type person. I find sitting in Australia under a beating sun a very uncomfortable experience. "I can live in Europe and make my solo albums where I like. I made my next album, "Art Attack", in New York. So basically I can live with my
girlfriend and be where I am at peace with myself." For Willson-Piper, Los Angeles could not have been a pleasure jaunt. "It was horrible. It was too hot, I can't drive, I can't stand the smog and the entertainment was sitting around the swimming pool, which I did once. In Stockholm I walk everywhere, I love to walk, but in Los Angeles it was impossible." In contrast to Willson-Piper's active dislike of Sydney, Kilbey is rarely happy out of it. "Whenever I am anywhere but Sydney I feel totally lost and insignificant and I was trying to get that feeling across on this album. I don't feel comfortable anywhere else but Rozelle where I can walk around in a pair of board shorts and sunglasses, I know all the people in my street and I feel happy. When I'm overseas I tend to carry Sydney around with me in this alien environment. I think that is what "Lost" is about in one way."

Steve Kilbey is still the major public face of the Church. Centre stage he moves in and out of the spotlight, wanting the attention and simultaneously feeling uncomfortable with such public displays. In conversation he shifts between confidence and doubt, aware of exposing himself. Like his lyrics the writer is often deliberately opaque, concealing as much as he reveals. Richard Ploog is a drummer capable of rapid fire bursts of power and yet can support a wafting melody or barely
moving rhythm. He goes where the mood takes him. According to Kilbey: "If Richard visited Madagascar and liked it he would stay there until he had to come back and play."

As a band it's a combination that can make a performance an exhilarating moment, caught in the crossfire of channelled emotions, but it can also leave them floundering if someone is not quite in synch. When they were in a trough during the dog days of 1984 and 1985 they only occasionally sparked onstage and the two mini-albums recorded during that time reflected
a band at cross-purposes. Once all four felt comfortable with their level of contribution and the band had ceased to become an extension of Kilbey's songwriting it all turned around. However, it's this openness that has helped build a solid and at times, fanatical following. Their second album "The Blurred Crusade" features strongly in `best ofs' for many fans and
critics, with its blending of grace and strength still appealing. They have always tried to return the faith of fans by being true to their own vision.

IN THE CITY OF ANGELS -- And so it was that last July the Church found themselves in Los Angeles, California -- a town for which they had unanimous distaste, recording an album with producers Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi who were known to the band only for their work with Californian singers like Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt. "Starfish" was the first Church album recorded outside of Australia and their longest period in the studio. These kinds of pressures made earthquakes and the San Andreas Fault seem like small change. And the effect of these dislocations is evident throughout the album. "I'm
really into something different all the time," says Kilbey. "I really do like the random element of doing things and when these guys were suggested, I liked the idea that anything could happen. The Church recording in Los Angeles with these guys was a ridiculous concept. I mean Waddy Wachtel is this long-haired, sort of Furry Freak Brother, and Greg Ladanyi was a complete unknown. But somehow it worked." "This album is probably the least conservative album the Church has done," says Koppes. "Which was a big surprise, particularly for the producers. We recorded everything virtually live."

"It was an intense time," adds Willson-Piper. "The relationship between the producer, in Greg, and the band wasn't exactly a bed of roses. Greg is a top, hot L.A. engineer who has this `golfing type' attitude. He would be in the studio, feet up on the desk and you would come in after doing a take going, `Was it any good? How was it?' and he says, 'It was good, I'm going, to play golf', and walks out of the studio. Meanwhile you are thinking, 'Is it a take or are we doing it again?' and he's gone, he's already on the first green. The relationship wasn't, as I said, a bed of roses but maybe that was good for the Church because I think we needed a bit of aggravated input."

As the principle lyricist, the displacement had profound effects on Kilbey. "Oh yeah," he explains. "I mean, I really hate Los Angeles and I was feeling like a spare prick at a prostitute's wedding which definitely comes across in "North South East & West" which is about being in Los Angeles. But it's nice looking back and seeing the album has this edginess about it."

The sense of displacement, of people out of their element searching for commonality is manifested in the recurring images of travelling and alienation, from the opening track "Destination" which looks outward in expectation to the closing number "Hotel Womb" where the dream is limited to the comfort of a bare hotel room. In between the idyll of Koppes' "New
Season" is brought up against the hard face of the homesick blues "North South East & West".

"It's probably the best thing to ever happen to the Church," says Willson-Piper. "We made five albums in the same studio in Sydney, which is absolutely ridiculous, especially for me who doesn't even live here." "It wasn't the usual Californian style record and it wasn't another esoteric Church record," says Kilbey. "It was a nice middle ground where people who liked our old records would still like it and the people who didn't like our old records would say: `I finally see what this band's getting at'. Luckily it worked with hem pulling to the right and us pulling to the left so we ended up in the middle."

It's ironic that "Starfish", while being the leanest and toughest-sounding record the Church has made, with emphasis on the guitars in its stripped-down sound, is also the gentlest album. Not since "Seance" have they created and sustained such a melodically delicate oeuvre throughout an album. Willson-Piper's Mott the Hoople/Who-like stomp "Spark" and "North South East & West" pack a punch but generally the energy and the edge is in the likes of the withheld venom of "Blood Money" or the
atmosphere of "Reptile".

"It's weird isn't it?" asks Willson-Piper. "It's really strange that this album is more obscure yet more commercial, it's a gentler but harder sounding. Basically it's a guitar album. See, the band live has this soaring energy, a much harder edge than we have been recorded, and I told them (Wachtel and Ladanyi) that that's what we wanted in the studio this time."

Another side effect of the past few years has been the growing confidence of Steve Kilbey's singing. On "Heyday", which garnered unusually favourable comments for the vocals, Peter Walsh surrounded his voice with multi-tracked vocals and worked and reworked performances. He succeeded in putting depth into the sound and making a virtue of what many had seen as a
drawback for the band. Further advancing this development were the unadorned vocal tracks on two of his solo albums "Unearthed" and "The Slow Crack", where Kilbey alone had to carry the weight.

Now on "Starfish" the singing is confident, easily stretching out the possibilities of the lilting "Under the Milky Way" or suggesting the menace of "Blood Money". As Kilbey reveals, there has been a change in attitude and technique: "I took singing lessons from this old opera singer and he said to me, `you know you actually have a good voice' which shocked me. So I was really happy to learn new things to do with my voice and now I approach songs differently. On this one it is more intimate."

"Seven years ago if someone had asked me if I would ever get better at singing, playing bass and writing songs, I would have gone, `No I know everything about it. I've reached excellence and now I'll continue to maintain it.' What I realise now is that I don't know much at all and I hope I'll continue to improve."

PLUMBING THE MURKY DEPTHS -- Clearly the band's collective songwriting has strengthened as well. Not only is the group writing together and sharing their ideas but the songs all work together as well. The playing on "Starfish" is consistent as are the lyrical themes. Always willing to plumb the "murky waters of the Church's collective subconscious", as he puts it, Kilbey is more than happy to elaborate on the themes of the album.

"I've got this ambition to have songs with more of a cinema feel," he says. "I want people to imagine "Destination" being the Church plodding through a snowstorm or desert trying to reach this obscure point in the distance which is getting uglier and uglier."

""Hotel Womb" has got that `I can't wait to get back to where everything is a controlled environment'. There is a sort of cycle from "Destination" to "Hotel Womb" -- a loose connection. Already in America a review in Creem said it was a concept album like "Dark Side of the Moon", which it certainly isn't."

The first single, "Under the Milky Way", was originally written on the "sounds good" basis, but it does fit in, as Kilbey goes on to explain: "There is the Milky Way Hash Bar, which I'm looking forward to visiting when we get to Holland. I'll be legally able to sit down and take my favourite drug without any fear of being hassled. The song is vaguely about that and also some experiences I had travelling about.

"With "Blood Money" we wrote the music and I thought it suggested a blackmail situation on its tension. It's about a politician being blackmailed by a prostitute. The Malcolm Fraser thing intrigued me too, there's a line `Lower the curtain down in Memphis'. I liked the idea of a goody-goody like Fraser being caught out." One of the most unusual tracks is the sinuous slink of "Reptile", a style the Church have not touched on before, though Kilbey pointed the way in "Transference" from "Unearthed". "I went to see David Bowie and someone gave me an acid trip before the show and I was standing there watching him. He seemed so reptilian with this look of sheer contempt in his eyes. He was up on the big video screen and I was looking right into it and when I looked into his eyes it was like a snake about to eat a little frog. The word reptile was in my mind from then.

"I wanted the Church to build a snakey, slimey feel because one thing I want to kill forever with this album is `paisley mop-tops play jingle-jangle music'. It was great in 1981 but it just isn't where I'm at anymore. I really want to get into this evil, nastier sort of theme which I think "Reptile" really is."

The most energetic and powerful track on "Starfish" is Willson-Piper's "Spark" which first surfaced last year as part of his solo set. "It's about the fires of passion," he explains. "It's a song about when two people meet and become obsessed with each other, breathing every breath the other one breathes, and then three years later it's `Oh no, you're not going to be in
the same room as me are you?'. I wondered if there was any way of keeping the spark alive between people -- men and women, or men in relationships like a group... though it is not directly related to the Church."

JERUSALEM -- What may keep the fire burning in the Church is the growing success of "Starfish". On sales in America alone it is set to be the biggest selling Church album. With extensive touring planned this year in Europe, America and Australia the ever-increasing radio exposure seems set to strength the position of the Church as a viable mainstream alternative band.
"The Church is very successful for the kind of band the Church is", says Willson-Piper finally, "because we are not an across-the-board, mass appeal group. Still it is really interesting for us to see ourselves getting added to all these radio stations each week, which has never happened before. We've got a record which is getting good reviews and selling out more than
before but I don't think we really know why."

Bernard Zuel  

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