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Crawdaddy magazine talks to Steve about the 30 year tour Print E-mail
Thursday, 17 February 2011
Originally published at

Starfish mainstreamed the Church back in the late ‘80s, but according to the band’s singer Steve Kilbey, the making of the album, which eventually soared to the top of the charts on the strength of the hit single “Under The Milky Way”, wasn’t as stellar. In fact, the LA recording sessions, set up by major label Arista Records and dominated by big-name producers back in 1987, were quite tense.

“It was a bit of a shock,” Kilbey said during our phone interview earlier this month. “All of our other albums were made in Sydney, where we’d sort of wake up and catch the bus into the studio. We’d work in town, so our friends dropped in. The recording process felt friendly.

“In LA, the studios were miles away from where we were staying,” he continued. “Some of the producers were kind of hostile and some just disinterested. We were kind of hippie characters flown into all this, and we didn’t like it.”

Now, with the Australian neo-psych band’s boomerang back to the US for their “Future Past Perfect, Winter Tour,” they’re embracing their past successes while continuing to look forward. This trek, on the heels of their “An Intimate Space 30th Anniversary Tour” last spring, sees the Church performing three of their albums in reverse chronological order—their latest, Untitled #23 (2009), their artistic high mark Priest=Aura (1992), and the indelible Starfish (1988)—in their entirety each night.

“With so many albums, we couldn’t just pick two,” Kilbey said. “So we went with three: Starfish because it was our most popular, Priest=Aura because it was our most esoteric, and we’ve never played it live in its entirety, and Untitled #23, to show people that we’re a band that’s still making albums. We’re not a nostalgia act but a functioning act moving into the future.”

After forming in Sydney in 1980, the Church—vocalist/bassist Steve Kilbey, guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper, and drummer Nick Ward—gained local notoriety for their alternative radio hit “The Unguarded Moment” off their debut album Of Skins and Heart (1981). However, with new drummer Richard Ploog, the band entered a commercially bleak period that even a supporting slot on tour with major act Duran Duran couldn’t improve.

“Suddenly, there we were, long-haired, hippie scruffs with two neo-psychedelic albums, playing music to 12-year-old girls,” Kilbey said. “They were not our audience; they hated us. The experience totally demoralized us after six gigs. We said we’re not doing the tour anymore, because it was just making the band feel bad about ourselves.”

Things went from bad to worse when Wilson-Piper temporarily quit the band, frustrated by Kilbey’s creative dominance over the group’s music. Band fractures reoccurred through the mid-‘90s, each one taking its toll on the Church.

It was like splitting up with a girlfriend, where on one level you feel like it’s done, and on another, where you think you can work things out,” Kilbey said. “Everyone had those emotions, but we knew that we would get back together again.”

Kilbey’s decision to relinquish the reigns a little paid off as subsequent albums won the band a larger following in the US. Hoping to capitalize on their growing success, Arista Records signed the Church to a four-album deal in 1987. The group headed to LA to begin work on Starfish with superstar producers Waddy Wachtel (Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones) and the late Greg Ladanyi (Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne).

This may have been the chance of a lifetime for most bands, but album tracks like “Lost”, “Destination”, and “North, South, East and West” captured instead the group’s disillusionment with the experience as well as their distaste for their temporary home.

“We were staying in these apartments filled with weird people, and we had to drive for miles to get to the studio,” Kilbey remembered. “There were freeway shootings, and it was the first time we heard rap music—an incredible noise of rap music from a car—and the first time we heard a leaf blower. We had never heard of blowing leaves with a machine. Back home people would rake things up. We felt like fish out of water. We were on a crash collision course with the future.”

Their future proved bright when Starfish reached the US Top 50 and went gold on the strength of the ballad “Under the Milky Way”, which peaked at number two on the rock charts. The second single, “Reptile”, also slithered onto the charts.

With the success of Starfish came label pressure to create another hit record, so after a nine-month tour, the Church returned to LA to record a follow-up with Wachtel. But the demands of replicating Starfish’s success took its toll on the band, particularly drummer Richard Ploog, whose increased drug use led to his replacement by Patti Smith drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. Kilbey’s own drug problem would come to a head a decade later when he was arrested for the attempted purchase of heroin in New York, for which he received community service.

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