Fortunately, humankind has staved off nuclear holocaust long enough to allow the release of Starfish, The Church's long-overdue U.S. breakthrough. The new album, the Australian quartet's first for arist, is currently moving briskly up the U.S. Top 50, and has even spawned a hit single and AOR smash in the haunting "Under The Milky Way." In fact, Starfish's sales-200,000 at last count-now outweigh the cumulative sales of the rest of the band's catalogue.
Though The Church has been one of Australia's most popular and respected homegrown acts since 1981, when "Unguarded Moment," from the band's debut album Of Skins And Heart, became a memorable Down Under hit. But, though they've produced consistenly worthy music, The Church's stateside career has been considerably less than stellar.
With minimal hoopla, Capitol released a reshuffled Of Skins And Heart, titled The Church in the U.S. The subsequent (and excellent) Blurred Crusade and Seance weren't even issued here. Later, a three-year stint with Warner Bros. produced two albums, Remote Luxury (actually a compilation of two Australian eps) and Heyday. Both sold respectably to a growing American audience-but not respectably enough to keep the band on the label.
Despite Arista's reported penchant for maintaining a certain amount of creative control over its artists, Starfish (recorded in L.A. with the unlikely production team of Greg Ladanyi and Waddy Wachtel, best known for their work with the cream of the West coast soft-rockers), is no sellout. In fact, it's as pure an evocation of The Church's swirling, bittersweet sound (distinguished by the wall-of-guitars interplayof axemen Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes, and the completely human drumming of Richard Ploog) as the band's ever put on vinyl. Highlights include such group-written tracks as "Destination," "North, South, East, West," as well as "Spark" (written and sung by Willson-Piper) and "A New Season" (featuring Koppes as composer and vocalist).
In addition to raising The Church's U.S. profile, Starfish has also created a new interest in the band members solo projects. Enigma recently relesed Unearthed, Kilbey's first non-Church album, and Rykodisc has just issued Kilbey's all-instrumental Earthed (a third Kilbey disc, The Slow Crack, is as yet unreleased here). Also on the way from Rykodisc are Willson-Piper's second solo outing Art Attack (in a CD version that includes six tracks from his first, In Reflection) and Koppes' solo debut Manchild And Myth.
Steve Kilbey: Not really. They heavily suggested that we do the album in America, and that they'd like us to work with Greg Ladanyi and Waddy Wachtel, but after that there was really no input from Arista. The reason Arista wanted The Church, I think, was that they wanted to have something that's a bit different to what they normally put out.
HD: It's kind of strange that they matched you up with Ladanyi and Wachtel; a lot of things they've worked on in the past were rather unadventurous musically.
SK: Yeah, but (Don Henley's) "Boys of Summer" was pretty good. I'm no big West Coast fan, but I thought that was an interesting record... The randomness of the whole thing appealed to me. I think The Church has got a strong enough personality that it wouldn't really matter who produced it, because we'd still come out sounding like The Church. We just wanted to apply Greg and Waddy's knowledge and technique to what we were doing.
Actually, Waddy helped straighten out a few things. I think we had a discipline problem-we're great for writing songs, but we hate rehearsing and ironing out the kinks. Waddy was really good with that-he'd sit with us in the rehearsal studio every day for a month, going over the songs and saying 'Do it again, do it again.' I think it was good for us to do that. Before, we'd always gone into the studio with bits of songs and thought 'We don't know what's gonna happen here, let's hope no one else notices and we'll just gloss it over in the studio.' Whereas on this record, it was all pretty much planned out. But some of the songs to about 40 takes to get down properly-Waddy's very, very finicky about gettingeverything exactly the way he wants it. There were lots of fights, and we argued with him quite a bit.
HD: Was it a high-pressure situation? I'd imagine that it might have been somewhat uncomfortable, making such a pivotal album in an alien environment...
SK: And with alien producers. Personally, it wasn't alot of fun, but I think it was good for us musically. If you're having fun and you're happy and content, you don't always make a good record. People who go to Iceland and make records in the middle of Winter are probably doing the right thing, forcing themselves into a situation where the music is the only thing. That's how it was for me-I didn't like Los Angeles, didn't like the apartment I was staying in, wasn't real good buddies with the producers... All I had was the music, and I bloody well concentrated on that all the time.
HD: Starfish seems to be basically built around the band, whereas Heyday tossed in lots of outside elements. Was it your intention to make a more focused record this time?
SK: Nothing The Church does is intentional. It's all a happy accident-hopefully it's happy, sometimes it isn't. I originally heard this album a lot rawer than it is. Sometimes when you write a song, you think 'I'm gonna write a song like Keith Richards,' and by the time you finish it doesn't sound anything like Keith Richards.
Starfish is a lot more simple than Heyday, less busy. I think there were bits on Heyday which were heavier than anything on Starfish, but generally speaking, I think Starfish is a lot smoother and more together as an album. But making a more commercial record was never even discussed-we just kept doing what we always do. We're so undisciplined that even if we wanted to make a commercial album, I don't think we'd be able to do it.
We've been doin it this way for so long that, even if someone rang us up ands said, 'You've got to have a more commercial sound,' I don't think that we'd know how to respond to that sort of pressure, even if we wanted to. We're kind of like idiot savants-we just do what we do, and after that it's in the lap of the gods.
HD: Why do you think Starfish is doing so well? Is it because it's being promoted better? Or is there something about the music u=itself that's more accessible and attractive?
SK: Yeah, I think so, I don't know what it is though. It's just simpler and easier, I think, without compromising any of the basic mystery of it-it's a mystery that's easier for the people to get involved in. I suppose it's an all-purpose sort of album. It can appeal to underground-type people, and it can appeal to 40-year old businessmen who used to like music 10 years ago but don't hear much that they like anymore. If a middle-aged housewife goes out and buys our record, that's just as valid to me as some spotty 15-year old kid from inner London buying it.
There's been a lot of fan mail coming in from people who haven't got any of our other records, saying that they're trying the other ones. I think that our other records could have been successful here if they'd had the kind of airplay that "Milky Way"'s had. But "Milky Way" has kind of struck a responsive chord with people. It's kind of a smooth song, and it's got some kind of universal feeling that people can relate to-which may have been lacking in what we've done before. Maybe it's been a bit esoteric before, whereas people cna understand a line like 'Wish I knew what you were looking for."
Apart from five or six songs, the Top 100 in any country at any given time is just instant-gratification stuff that drives you out of your mind if you listen to it all day. And when something like 'Milky Way' comes along, it's a bit of relief, because it doesn't clobber you over the head with hooklines or try to impress you with a great big snare drum whacking away. It's a song that unfolds itself quite gradually, and it certainly wasn't recorded as a single.
HD: What longterm effect do you think U.S. success will have on The Church?
SK: I think we're like someone who 's been catching little colds all their life-when the big cold comes on, they're immune. I think we're immune to success or failure, I really do. I really don't think it will affect us one way or the other.
Maybe it makes me sound like a country bumpkin, but I'm just doing what I've always done. But instead of doing an interview on college radio, now I'm doing it on bloody KPOX or something. I'm not nervous about it all, I'm just taking it as it comes. And even if the album stops selling tomorrow, it's already outsold all of our other albums put together. We've already betteres oursleves, so whatever happens now is really icing on the cake.
HD: You seem to do your best to ignore the business aspects of you musical career.
SK: I do. Warner Bros. didn't care so much, Arista really do care, and it makes me happy that the album is doing so well. But those are all things that are happening in the right side of my brain, and it's more important for me to concentrate on the other stuff-the music, the words, the creativity.
'Music Industry' is a contradiction in terms-the two things just can't be reconciled. You've got to be on one side or the other. I went into our manager's office today, and our manager said he was having a problem air-freighting our gear around Europe, and he was just about to tell me about it and I said 'Don't wanna know, don't even bother telling me about it.' You've just got to be willfully naive, and you've got to live in a different sphere to all that stuff. You've got to keep swimming away from this whirlpool that's trying to suck you down.
We try and deflect a lot of the seriousness and responsibility by just being kind of silly. People who meet us re quite surprised at how stupid we are, and how deliberately idiotic we are when we're on the road, driving down the road hanging out of the windows and screaming at passers-by.
HD: But you have such a somber image.
SK: I know. It's funny, because every serious-type group I've ever worked wih have always been wacky wallies offstage. And every fun-loving group I've worked with, it's always like a funeral procession backstage, and they go on stage and suddenly they're funny. People probably think The Church live in a dark castle that's full of candles, but we're not like that at all.
We're four different very people, actually. I guess Peter and Richard are the easygoing side of the band-Peter's fairly quiet, and Richard just likes playing drums and has a natural noninterest in doing interviews and looking at charts. Marty and I are the more awkward and difficult ones. And basically, when we get together, we try and seeit like four overgrown schoolboys out to have a huge picnic.
HD: You've been talking a while about wanting to make a double album that would capture more of the band's live side, particularly the extended guitar jams.
SK: Yeah, it's disappointing that we never seem to be able to get that live thing down on vinyl. Obviously, it didn't happen this time. It was our first album for Arista and, working with the two guys, obviously there wasn't going to be a whole lot of experimentation. But maybe if this album does well enough, the next time we'll be able to do an album where we can extend oursleves a bit more. I always think of Tommy-a lot of long things interspersed with pop songs. It would be great to something like that.
HD: You must be aware though, that in the general music area The Church is perceived as being a part of, things are very oriented towards snappy three and four minute songs. There's a big stigma attached to the concept of jamming and instrumental interplay, perhaps because a lot of people who've done it in the past have been pretty dull.
SK: Yeah, I think the old thing where the bass player and the drummer and the rhythm guitarist get in a groove and the other guy solos over the top is boring. I think what we want to do is create atmospheres, rather than showing off our instrumental prowess. We do that on stage on some of our older nunbers, where we extend it with lots of interesting guitar textures and things like that. I think that could be very easily translated onto vinyl, if we could find the right context to do it in.
HD: You've also talked about wanting to create music that's beautiful rather than ugly.
SK: It's so easy to make ugly music. As long as you've got the right haircut and a pale face, and stand on stage and scratch your guitar or play it with a screwdriver, you're hailed as a sort of gothic demigod, and that doesn't appeal to me. It's perhaps an old fashioned notion, but I believe that people should be able to play their insrtuments, and that they should be able to play them with some originality as well.
Once upon a time I was a fan of artful amateurism, but now I no longer am. Perhaps it's just me getting older, but if I listen to classical music, I want to see and hear it done well. But it's a huge bloody world, and I think there's room for everybody.
I don't know if we're beautiful, but I don't see how the thing that we're going after could be out of fashion. I'm sure there'll always be someone who wants to hear something that's enjoyable and pleasant that isn't bland.
HD: What's it like playing with The Church?
SK: It's wonderful. We're like a smug little football team that knows that no matter where we play and no matter who we play to, they're gonna end up liking us. Because we've been playing together so long that even when we do a bad show by our own standards, it's still gonna be a good show by most other people's standards. We've done it so much, we've got six albums of songs to pull a repertoire out of, and everybody in the band is a fairly competent and talented musician by this point. It's not like going on stage and holding on by the skin of our teeth; it's actually a vary relaxing and comfortable situation. Not many groups get to stay together for eight years with the same guys, so not many groups get the stage where they're this comfortable with each other.
HD: Although The Church has often been identified as a "psychedelic" and/or overtly '60's-influenced band, you've taken pains to publicly disavow such associations. Why?
SK: I think we've digested our influences to the point where they're just part of us, and we work from that. I mean, I don't think there's any '60's influence on Starfish. But you can't separate it really-you can't get the John Lennon away from the Bob Dylan away from the Marc Bolan away from the Steve Kilbey.
If someone wants to write a 10 page list of The Church 's influences, I'll read it and be most interested, but in my own head, I'm trying to be myself and not anybody else. But it's pop music, so of course there's a sense of history involved. As far as I'm concerned, everything is still pretty much coming from The Beatles-maybe not rap and Whitney Houston, but with people who play guitars, bass and drums, everything can be directly traced back to The Beatles. No one can deny that.
My ideal situation was when I didn't do any interviews and didn't have to think about any business. All I ever had to do was show up at the gig, get my bass guitar and play the songs. Someone else could work out if I was a psychedelic rocker or part of the Australian invasion or if I was something else. I'd rather just get on with it and not think or talk about it so much.
HD: What caused Marty's temporary departure during your 1986 tour?
SK: It was just an extreme case of road fatigue. A long tour, lots of disappointments, lots of bad things happening, lots of silly arguments between everyone over silly things. Marty walked out, and a week later he rang up and said, 'I feel better, can I come back?,' and we said 'Of course you can,' amd that was the end of it.
It was just the friction in the band. When your album's doing well, you can handle it if a guy comes off stage and treads on your toes. But when things are going badly and someone comes off stage and treads on your toes, you're just going to snap. After eight years of frustrations and all kinds of small bad things happening-being delayed at customs, or baggage going to the wrong city, or no vegetarian food on the plane-and there's no reward coming in to offset that adversity your resistance get very low. Those things can add up and bubble under the surface and eventually erupt, and that's what happened.
HD: Is the band stronger now for having withstood all of that aversity?
SK: It's a real day-to-day thing. The Church doesn't have a collective philosophy; it's more like four blind donkeys stumbling blindly on. One day we might be really upset, and the next day we might be delirously happy. At the moment, there's a kind of macro feeling of happiness, a feeling of all of our work coming to fruition. But there's still the day-to-day microcosm of one guy being mad at another because he sat in the front seat of the car, or someone lent someone five bucks and he didn't pay him back, or Richard lost my Leonard Cohen tape which I still haven't forgiven him for.
There's still all those little things going on, but generally we're really happy. We've worked eight years and we've finally got an album in the American Top 100, and that's a really good feeling. We still don't measure what we do in commercial terms, but it's very nice to get htat kind of feedback, and it does make a difference.
HD: You, Marty and Peter have all released solo projects in the time since Heyday. Was there a conscious decision to work outside of The Church, or was it just a matter of filling the time when The Church didn't have a label deal?
SK: It was just because we all had songs that we'd recorded at home that we wanted to put out, so why not? Those records were really just meant for aficionados in Australia, but it grew out of that into something bigger. I did three albums-the first and third were songs I recorded at home on an eight-track, and the middle one was an instrumental album that came with a book I wrote. The book is sort of surrealistic prose, just bizarre sort of fragments-it's sort of an extension of the lyrics I write with The Church.
The first one came out here on Enigma, and I don't think I'm gonna release the third one here because I don't want to flood the market with things. The instrumental album is coming out here on CD on Rykodisc-the books been reduced to fit into the booklet that comes with the CD.
I think The Church is travelling along in a certain fairly recognizable sort of way, whereas what I do outside of The Church is a bit less restricted. Some of the instrumental album is sort of ambient, drifting piano figures, some of it's electronic, and some it's kind of like The Church without the vocals. And the latest one is eight totally different kinds of songs that The Church would never do. There's a sort of slow piano blues, and a couple of electronic-type things, and a sort of Phil Spectorish thing.
HD: Are there strict stylistic parameters built into The Church?
SK: Yeah, definitely. We sort of have our own quality-control system. We don't work with synthesizers or sequencers or drum machines. We know the sort of music we want to make, which we have made for the last six albums. So there's no point in someone coming along with a country ballad or an out-and-out pop song or anything that's lyrically trivial, becasue we won't do it. We know what's Churchy and what isn't.
The songs we record as a band are mainly written by the entire band now, unless someone comes up with something that really should be done by the band. The other guys aren't even getting access to what I'm writing by myself-I'm not even playing it for them, because it's irrelevant to The Church. They're probably not interested in it, and I'm not interested in what they think of it. They probably feel the same way about the stuff they write on their own.
HD: Who owns the U.S. rights to The Church's lp catalogue?
SK: Arista has got it all, but I don't know what they'll do with it. Every new label gets the rights to the back catalogue, but they never seem to do anything with it. I'd like to see Blurred Crusade and Seance get released here, especially if they could do it as a very cheap double album. Arista has got it all, and if this new album continues to do reasonably well, they may release them, or they might do a compilation or something.
They're all just about deleted in Australia-if they're not deleted, then they're all kind of permanently out of stock. In one way, it's kind of nice to have them deleted, because they've become these legendary unavailable albums, and when people finally get there hands on them it's like 'Wow I've got a copy of Blurred Crusade.' That's fine as long as people aren't paying a $100 for them.
I'm pretty happy with whatever happens. If it all gets released, if it doesn't-it doesn't really matter. It was so long ago, and I'm finished with it. It would be nice to see them come out, but I won't lose sleep if they don't.
HD: Is there any particular significance to the title Starfish?
SK: No, I just thought Starfish was a nice name for an album. My parents probably thought Stephen was a nice name. But it's open to interpretation-if only one guy thinks Starfish is The Church's statement on ecology and another guy think s it's a clever juxtaposition of the words 'star' and 'fish,' then they're both right. I really like that.
[Brian: Donnette Thayer has an interesting story about the album title...]
I think The Church is more open to interpretation than any band on Earth. Everything we do is so random and open to interpretation, and I think that's what people like about us, because they can take it home and call it their own. You can't misinterpret it. If someone came to me and said they thought our music is saying that he should murder a certain actress, then I'd be upset. But aside from that, whatever people get out of it is alright.
I like the fact that we can give people something that they can call their own. We're like a musical Rorschach test, or a perfume that smells different on everyone who wears it. I think it's a good thing that the people who like The Church spend a lot of time with it, like I do with my favorite records, and ponder the significance of it. It's like a word-association test-we toss things out and let people freely associate.