SECTION: Calendar; Part 6; Page 5; Column 1; Entertainment Desk
LENGTH: 709 words
If struggle is the cornerstone of success, then the Church could be on the verge of stardom.
The Australian quartet's latest album, "Starfish," comes after the group was dropped by both its U.S. and Australian record labels, experienced intense internal friction and then ultimately signed with another record company, only to do battle with the producers that label had selected.
Yet "Starfish," the group's new album -- propelled by the shimmeringly psychedelic single, "Under the Milky Way" -- is looking like the breakthrough for the band (which headlines the Roxy on tonight) after eight years of marginal visibility.
"I keep thinking it's all going to end," said singer/bassist Steve Kilbey affably by phone from New York of the foursome's new-found success. "There's this initial rush and it's all just going to stop."
Experience has given Kilbey good reason to worry: The Church's three previous American albums of heavily brocaded, plush pop -- released by two different labels over the last seven years -- were slow sellers. And even the band's home label, EMI-Australia, dropped the group after Kilbey proposed recording a double album. But then on a grueling 1986 European tour relationships frayed to the breaking point and the group temporarily fell apart.
"It was a case of being awakened by a jackhammer in the morning, a baby vomits on your briefcase in the airplane, you stub your toe as you go through customs, your girlfriend's run off with the milkman and your guitar goes out of tune," Kilbey deadpaned. "Whether your record company's behind you or not gets to be a bit irrelevant at that stage."
Kilbey left the band at that point, but a week apart proved sobering as he, guitarists Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes and drummer Richard Ploog realized they wanted the Church to continue.
Then, out of the blue in early '87, Arista expressed interest in signing the band; after all, it had managed to attract a loyal cult for its flowery lyrics and ringing guitars despite the travails. But another battle ensued after Arista suggested the group work with Greg Ladanyi and Waddy Wachtel, two L.A. session vets known for their work with the likes of Linda Ronstadt and Don Henley, and who had recently produced the Cruzados' album "After Dark" for the label.
"It was Australian hippies versus West Coast guys who know the way they like to do things," reflected Kilbey, who has also released three solo albums (the most recent, the spacey "Unearthed," issued here by Enigma) and a book of poetry. [I think he means *Earthed* here--RC] "We were a bit more undisciplined than they would have liked.
Despite these differences, Kilbey liked working with the pair as they enforced techniques the band had previously avoided -- including making the husky-voiced Kilbey take vocal lessons.
"I wouldn't say we came out of it best of friends," he admitted. "But I don't think that's important. The record is the important thing. The idea was for us to utilize all their knowledge to make the record we'd been trying to make for a long time."
Also reflected in the album -- especially in the biting song "North, South, East and West" -- is a less than pleasant stay in Los Angeles. "The Church came to L.A. and really reacted against the place because none of us liked it," he conceded. "I hated where I was living. I hated driving this horrible little red car around on the wrong side of the road. I hate that there's no one walking on the streets and I missed my home. All the billboards, conversations I'd overhear, TV shows, everything that was happening to us was going into the music.
"Obviously, the lyrics are about L.A. but hopefully not in a proselytizing, this-is-a-city-of-decadence trip. It was more a matter of feeling alienated and it's my fault, not the place's."
Though this Angeleno aspect of "Starfish" underscores the fact that little of the Church's work is obviously Australian, the band still finds itself being lumped in with other breaking Australian bands like Midnight Oil, something that bothers Kilbey.
"It's not one of our big factors," he explained. "If you want to assimilate what Midnight Oil are about, you've got to understand who they are and where they're from. I think the Church are far more musical of a trip."
CORRECTION-DATE: March 25, 1988, Friday, Home Edition
CORRECTION FOR THE RECORD:
Peter Koppes was misidentified as Steve Kilbey in a photograph accompanying an article on the rock band the Church in Wednesday's Calendar.
GRAPHIC: Photo, Steve Kilbey of the Church.