Pic: The Church, 2018
Thirty years ago The Church flew to Los Angeles to record what turned out to be their commercial breakthrough album, Starfish, and their most enduring song, Under The Milky Way. It turns out the recording was anything but smooth. Singer/songwriter Steve Kilbey was as frank and forthcoming as ever when asked to reveal the stories behind the whole process. The band is performing the entire album live on their Australian tour later this year, along with a selection of fan favourites. They play Perth Concert Hall on December 9.
So, it’s 30 years since Starfish. In 2018, how are you different from the guy who wrote, sang and played on that record and how are you the same?
On some deep level I’m obviously the same geezer. I’ve been through a lot of dark and bright places since then and gotten older and wiser and I’m not such an impetuous person. But I’m still coming from the same place as the person who wrote those songs. I mine the same vein but I want to try to make it different and progress. That’s all I can hope for.
From what I’ve read, there was a lot of internal strife while Starfish was being recorded. Was it not the happiest time for the Church?
The Church were never, ever happy. The Church were never, ever mates or brothers or comrades in arms. We were always four individuals. In LA, me and Richard (drummer Richard Ploog) shared a flat and Peter (Koppes) and Marty (Willson-Piper) shared a flat. And I guess you’d say Ploog and I were the closest to being friends in the band. We would do stupid stuff together like going out trying to score drugs. Ploog would do crazy things. He’d say, ‘Tonight I’m taking you to a restaurant and don’t ask any questions’. We’d end up in a wild Jamaican part of town dressed in our paisley shirts and tight jeans and pointy boots and walk into this restaurant that’s full of rastas. Something about Ploog neutralises what would normally happen to two guys walking into a situation like that. His naive enthusiasm got us through.
As well as being out of your comfort zone in LA, you were working with Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi, two producers who were best known for the US West Coast sound.
There was a lot of dispute between us and them. They didn’t care who we were. They didn’t know who we were. We were just some unknowns who were plugged into their schedule until Jackson Browne was going to make his next record. And they were doing a lot of cocaine.
Well, Ladanyi is actually name-checked in the Jackson Browne song Cocaine, isn’t he?
That’s right, he is. They thought it was normal to snort cocaine day and fucking night. Waddy went out and got a really large supply of this grey cocaine. It was more like a mummy’s ashes than cocaine. I had one line and I was sick for three weeks. These guys would keep snorting it and plough on.
Is it true they made you take voice lessons?
They made both me and Peter get voice lessons. In the spirit of cooperation I went along and had them. And in their idiot naivety they said they could immediately hear the difference in my singing. Just going (he does low guttural voice exercises) doesn’t turn you from an idiot into David Bowie overnight. Do you really think I was sitting around in LA every night doing scales and voice exercises?
From what I hear you were smoking more pot than you have ever smoked in your life.
Me and Ploog were smoking so much pot and taking psychedelics like you wouldn’t believe. There you have the clash of ideologies in a nutshell. Two stoner, hippie guys against these two coke-snorting guys.
This does not sound like the ideal situation for recording what became your breakthrough record. How did this all work?
Well, we all submitted to Waddy. He was the guy driving it all. He was the guy where the buck stopped. I pretty much did as I was asked. Occasionally I’d disagree, but I think he had some good ideas and I’d made a decision to go there and not fight it and see what would happen. Somehow, with us pulling to the left and him pulling to the right, we arrived at a place in the middle.
Over the years you’ve said some pretty uncomplimentary things about Starfish and Under The Milky Way. How do you feel about the record now?
I’m happy with it. I think it’s a good tight, record with all the flab and excess and the unnecessary trimmed away. It’s a rock band playing a bunch of good songs. I’m glad that my successful album was that one. It’s totally an album not to be ashamed of under any circumstances
Yet you once called Under The Milky Way “flat, lifeless and sterile”.
Sometimes it amuses me that anyone cares what such-and-such a guy thinks about such-and-such a song he wrote. In my dark days I’d just deliberately say stupid things. If the band was going to have one hit song I’m glad it was that song.
It’s become something much bigger in the Australian consciousness than just another song, hasn’t it?
Yes, it has. Like a snowball. And it gained this meaning and mythology. I sat down on YouTube one day and tried to get through all the cover versions of Under The Milky Way. I couldn’t get through them, there were so many. That song is out there on a lucky streak. It’s become a default song that people go to. It’s got nothing to do with me anymore.
How do you think you’re going to feel playing the album on stage now compared to how you felt when you played it for nine months on that tour 30 years ago?
Our job is to replicate this album as faithfully as possible for the audience, so they hear it exactly as it was. We don’t change the instrumentation or my approach to the singing. That’s how it’s supposed to be. I will be concentrating trying to do my bit. I won’t be thinking about Waddy Wachtel or a gram of grey cocaine. I’ll be thinking about reproducing the record. I don’t think about those days anyway, unless somebody asks me. I could talk to you for three days about the absurd things that happened while we made that record. Someone should make a movie and get young actors in to play the members of The Church making Starfish. It would be a cult classic.
Who should they get to play Steve Kilbey?
Some handsome young actor (laughs). And I could have a cameo playing (US record company boss) Clive Davis. He came in with these six or seven bigshots from Arista to listen to the finished album and as he’s listening he goes, ‘Good, good, good’. And then Under The Milky Way came on and he said, ‘That song is a hit’. They then walked out and each of them shook my hand like I was the guy who just won the lottery. The last guy out the door was a young A&R guy I knew and I said to him, ‘Is it really going to be a hit?’ and he said, ‘It will be now those guys have agreed it’s going to be a hit’.
An Evening With The Church happens at the Perth Concert Hall on December 9. Tickets via https://perthconcerthall.com.au/events/event/an-evening-with-the-church