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RAM Interview with Steve from Starfish era Print E-mail
Wednesday, 23 March 1988

Interest Starfish interview with Steve, with some insights into the recording of the album.

The notes listed as "... - Ed." are from the original, not added by me :)


Metaphysical Guru


Prominent CHURCH leader STEVE KILBEY takes a pulpit stop on the band's latest global crusade... J.J. ADAMS questions their status as decorative objects on pop's ocean floor - as the new album title, Starfish implies. . .

STARFISH are funny critters - they're found in shapes ranging from the classic Caltex sign to a pentagon and live in every ocean on this planet. Some are colourful - you can find psychedelic orange ones cruising around under the Antarctic ice shelf - and others just blend in with the scenery, like the dull green ones living in Sydney Harbour. Some defend themselves with a forest of spines and others simply scuttle away when attacked. Their place in the marine ecosystem seems a bit fuzzy - starfish have been around a long time, but they don’t have many predators and they consume only food that other starfish appear interested in. Usually attractive to look at, they seem content to lead laid-back lives and just let the ocean drift around and through them. That's about all this writer knows about starfish, other than that some equally laid-back, drifting musicians called the Church have named an album after them.

The Church, like starfish, are not creatures who leap out at the unwary, boldly proclaiming their presence. Some people travel everywhere searching for them, but many others discover them purely by accident. Their music is often colourful and concerts are lively, but a lot of the time the Church seem content to just... be there, watching the rest of the musical world ebb and flow around them.

"We don’t have that many fans, but the ones who like us are very loyal. They write letters saying 'we like what you do, please don’t break up’. I think they appreciate that we put some thought into our songs.” Steve Kilbey, softly and carefully choosing his words on this Sydney summer evening, is already proving that he’s not the anti-press terror he’s occasionally painted as, but a friendly, albeit cautious spirit. I He doesn't bend easily to criticism - suggestions that Starfish doesn't represent much musical change in the Church are met with curt disappointment - but he’s not going to let it break him either. ”I think Starfish is a progression, and people know me well enough to realize that I wouldn't say that if I didn't believe it," he claims. "As far as I’m concerned, the album stands on its own feet."

Later, in a discussion about the need to deal with the press, he states: "We've done a million TV shows and magazine interviews, and I don’t think they've added or detracted to anything we’ve done. I don’t believe good or bad reviews make any difference to the music."

Starfish is the band's first LP on Mushroom Records. A blue press release, which differs from most promotional material in that it was written and signed by Kilbey in the form of a letter (a little like Paul Kelly’s aerogram for Post - Ed), says the Church originally planned to release an LP in early '87, Then their relationship with former record company EMI 'came to a sudden end’ just before they were about to record it, so the project was shelved until the band found a new home. ”When we became available, all the labels were approached and we weighed up the offers," informs Kilbey. ”Mushroom always seemed like they did a good job with other people, so we picked them."

Also signing with Arista in the USA, the group began to organize themselves again, with Kilbey writing "songs at home,” and guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper also contributed tracks on Starfish. According to Kilbey’s press letter: 'After many months of looking for the ideal recording studio where we thought we could all be happy and ideologically sound, 1987 began to slip through our fingers’. Finally, Clive Davis, legendary American starmaker and Arista label mogul, mentioned Greg Ladanyi’s Complex Studio in Los Angeles, a city Kilbey admits he "doesn't like very much.”

"We had the option of working elsewhere, but it was heavily suggested we record there. If we hadn't wanted to, we wouldn't have, but I wanted the chance to absorb all of Ladanyi's and (co- producer) Waddy Wachtel’s recording knowledge, but was also prepared to resist any changes they might want to bring in. We started recording Starfish in July after rehearsing the songs for a month, and took three months to record it. Most of the ten tracks were laid down with relatively little overdubbing, even with the vocals."

Guests on Starfish include David Lindley (a multi-instrumentalist doyen of the Californian music scene) and Kilbey says they could have had "Don Henley and the whole (Eagles) crew if we'd wanted, because they were all best friends with Ladanyi.” One night he bumped into the aforementioned Clive Davis at the studio coffee machine and was surprised at the result: "He'd come down to the studio to see us. He knew a lot more about the band than I would have expected, and said he hoped we would be happy on the label."

There's another Church album out in '88; "Hindsight: 1980 To 1986", a compilation of material from the band’s years with EMI. According to Kilbey "the label wanted to have another shot with our music, but if they'd wanted a greatest hits record, it would have only filled an EP! I decided to compile all the B-sides off all our singles - even though in retrospect, I think some of them are bloody awful." Kilbey selected other tracks he thought ”were reflective of our albums, songs that were personal favourites or reminded me of those times. Unguarded Moment and Almost With You are on the album, but most of it's less well known. It will be out later this year; as we didn’t want its release clashing with Starfish.

"Putting some tracks on it was pretty painful for me, but people are being asked for huge amounts of money for our early singles in record stores, and I thought that they should have a chance to hear some of these songs without paying ridiculous prices to do so, even if it is flattering to have such a demand for our music."

To further confuse the legions of Church fans, Kilbey has also released three solo albums on the Sydney based Red Eye label over the past year or so, with plans for further solo work unaffected by the Mushroom signing. Other band members have also been involved in separate recorded and live projects, but he hasn't heard many gripes from the punters.

”Once the hardcore fans realized the Church weren't going to break up, they were happy for us to do the solo stuff. While the Church is around, my stuff is secondary to the band. I can't comment about what the others have done, but my stuff is pretty casual - although, if I wanted to try for a grand masterpiece, I wouldn't be able to work on it and the Church as well. My solo stuff is a completely separate thing from the band - I wouldn't expect the other guys to perform it on stage with me, just as I wouldn't expect to perform their stuff.” In 1981, Kilbey was quoted in a newspaper article as saying, 'right from the start I didn’t want to play live, and I don't enjoy it much at the moment. My basic aim is to get out of live work and make records with and without the Church'. Seven years down the track, he's changed his "personal manifesto" about dealing with audiences: "I'm used to it now. The Church have gone from an introspective period to a lively period and we may go back again. Who knows?"

Some things have never changed however; like his reasons for writing songs that, to Church fans, are rich in imagination and meaning. "I never write about day to day situations, and I don't like hearing songs about them. I don't want my rock'n'roI| to be about stuff like hanging my socks on the back line - I want something a bit more extraordinary from music."

To the Church’s detractors, these same songs are merely 'wistful music full of mixed metaphors, psychedelia filtered through glam and other sources' as one put it, adding 'like fantasy literature, they’re obsessed with themes of vanished kingdoms and the lost innocence of chi|dhood'. Kilbey denies he's trying to give himself a mystical image.

"I lead an ordinary life and so does everyone I know," he insists, "aIthough I admit it's probably more mystical than someone working in a factory. I enjoy going down to the beach and doing ordinary things, it's just that I want my music bigger and better than ordinary life."

There’s no lyric sheet with Starfish (the first Church LP without one), as Kilbey wanted "the lyrics and music to merge more, without any distractions. l'd like to leave as many options open to people's minds on every level." It's a concept that, years ago, attracted him to the works of Marc Bolan, which he listed as music he'd take to a desert island anytime (even the ones with lyric sheets? - Ed).

"I'd take some T Rex stuff; the first time I heard their albums I realized they had amazing musical lyrics, and when you couldn’t understand any of them, you just made up your own - I really liked that. Bowie’s Diamond Dogs is also a superb album, especially since he played most of the music himself. l'd also take the whole catalogue of (Brian) Eno's works, and some selected Dylan - Blonde On Blonde for starters."

Kilbey admits he's been "a hippie, a country and western fan and a glam fan - whatever was happening at the time," but says he's talked about other artistic influences on his work before, and makes it clear he thinks questions on such matters are pointless.

"So, I don't feel like naming names again. I like the Surrealists and anyone who's done anything that's kind of been fantastic. I think the less people know about you and the more a record seems like a lightning bolt out of the blue to someone who doesn't know anything about us, then, the more it succeeds. I don't think people need to know about what colour underwear I wear. On tours people come up to me wanting to know what my lyrics are about, or what I'm about. I think they should just listen to the music rather than worrying about that. It's like concentrating on the menu without enjoying the meal." Ironically given the long term cult status the Church have enjoyed in Europe, Kilbey believes: ”If the Church are ever going to be successful, it's going to be in America. The American critics unreservedly like us and we’ve got clumps of fans there,” but admits, "we'll go to one town and pull 1500 really enthusiastic people, then travel a couple of hours to somewhere with 200 people who don't know anything about us. We seem to be very popular in Minneapolis and the south, where they like guitar pickers - and I think the Church are vaguely a guitar picking band, even if they mightn’t think so in Darlinghurst."

By the time you read this, the Church will be playing in the USA and Europe. Last time they were in Europe they supported Echo 81 the Bunnymen and toured with the Rain Parade. Their London fans "are so fanatical that they believe in their minds that we’ve done a great show - even if we haven't." But, enthusiasm aside, Kilbey doesn't seem impressed with life on the road.

"Basically, I'm totally uninterested in tourism in America, although there are some places I'm interested in seeing in Europe. All I do on tours is try and keep my head together. I find a vegetarian restaurant, do some washing and get some sleep in between shows. I remember places by what the backstage room looked like." Coming from a man who's often accused of having his head in the clouds, that's a pretty down to earth observation.

Page 16, RAM, March 23, 1988

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