By Martin Popoff
Fully 25 albums under their down-under belts, The Church have been celebrated as one of Australia’s finest and most fearless of rock institutions. But it remains that 1988’s Starfish is most widely recognized as the band’s masterpiece, with the ethereal “Under the Milky Way” helping propel the record to gold status in the States and effusive critical praise worldwide. October 9th to the 25th, the band are celebrating the 30th anniversary of this classy record of shimmery and intelligent acoustic pop with a rare North American campaign sure to be remembered for decades to come.
“I guess I’m like an author who’s written a lot of books,” reflects bassist and lead vocalist Steven Kilbey, setting expectations that the record is one of many he’s proud of in the catalogue, but also the work of a long, long time ago. “Yeah, it’s pretty good, but I don’t think about it a real lot. I guess other people think about it more than me. It was our most important record, and I guess our most successful record. We were just reacting against all the music we hated in the ‘80s, you know, synth pop, Howard Jones, Spandau Ballet sort of stuff. We were trying to be classicists and sort of go back to what we perceived to be the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, and so the Beatles and the Stones and Bowie. Bowie’s always my biggest inspiration. Bowie’s the main man as far as I’m concerned. Marty (Wilson-Piper, guitars) liked prog rock, Peter (Koppes, guitars) liked Jimi Hendrix and Richard (Ploog, drums) liked reggae. So we were bringing a lot of diversity to the table.”
But as it turns out, it was a bit of a war getting the record made. Out of sorts in Los Angeles, the austere Aussies weren’t exactly accommodated.
“No, I mean, you were never sure in those days how records were gonna turn out, so I was always fighting for the side of what I thought was sense and sensibility. They were pulling to the right and we were pulling to the left side, so I guess in the middle something came that was good.”
The “they” that Steven is referring to in this particular case would be producers Greg Ladanyi and Waddy Wachtel, who—it must be stressed—co-produced Starfish with the band, already veterans of many records and production teams at this point, having made four previous records which all sound great.
“There were a lot of arguments and fights with those guys—and with each other,” recalls Kilbey. “Greg Ladanyi—God rest his soul—he wasn’t a really great geezer. He was sort of dividing and conquering and made lots of disparaging comments which, for me, I rose up to meet those disparaging comments. A couple of the other guys just felt demoralized, to have someone, you know, criticizing them all the time for what they did. Our drummer was a really wild, intuitive drummer like Keith Moon and they tried to turn him into a kind of LA timekeeping machine, so he bore the brunt of it. So yeah, there were a lot of disagreements, a lot of tension, but I was up for it. But the others, it’s demoralizing to having people telling you how useless and how small you were and how you’d never get anywhere like they were telling us all the time.”
Which begs the question: if Wachtel and Ladanyi had got their way, what kind of record would Starfish have become?
“It would have been softer,” says Steven. “The lyrics would have been dumbed-down, right? You know, it was 1987 and they were these two LA guys. They produced Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne and Don Henley, and so they wanted more of that. And we wanted more of Hawkwind and Television and Iggy Pop.”
Let’s not forget, R.E.M. was all the rage at that time, and one wonders if Clive Davis and Arista might have been looking as well for their own version of that, given the torrent of acoustic guitars and the paisley look of the band on Heyday, the band’s revered 1985 album on Warner Bros. Judging by Kilbey’s answer, he’d be having none of that.
“No, no, I have always made it very clear we have nothing to do with R.E.M.. We are two people walking down the same street, but apart from that, there’s no similarity whatsoever. No similarities between us and R.E.M.. Yeah, I mean this: they’re very simple. They’re like Creedence Clearwater Revival. They had very simple songs, very simple lyrics. We had complex sort of things that they didn’t… they weren’t using a lot of guitar effects. Yeah, they had nothing to do with us. Some lazy journalists tried to chuck us in together. Some really lazy journalists thought we must be influenced by them seeing that they heard them before us. But the fact is, we were going two years before them and they had no effect on us whatsoever.”
“In the end,” continues Kilbey, “one of the worst reviews we ever got was for Priest = Aura, which was The Church’s masterpiece, which was just so f***ing cool and brilliant that in 1992 most journalists couldn’t dig it. They just had cognitive dissonance that something like that could come out. And then a few idiots said, ‘Why can’t they be more like R.E.M.?’ Oh yeah. You know, get rid of Priest = Aura and have (sings) ‘Shiny, happy people holding hands.’ I mean, I don’t listen to these idiots. I do the opposite of what they say. They don’t understand music. And in those days journalists had so much power. So when Priest = Aura came out, we got a really bad review—two stars. And the guy said, ‘They should try and be more like R.E.M..’ And yet when they did their retrospective a few years back and re-valued all those albums, Priest = Aura got four stars and the guy said, hey, this was a masterpiece. So you know, journalists at the time can’t always understand what you’re doing. And then grunge happened as well, which sort of wiped us out. But how many people are listening to f***ing grunge records now? You know, I don’t hear Pearl Jam playing from a lot of places as I walk down the street.”
I asked Steven what Waddy did specifically that might have helped shape the Starfish record.
“Waddy drilled us. We had never done anything like that before. So our previous albums, we would turn up and go… with Bob Clearmountain, Blurred Crusade, Seance, which we produced ourselves, and then Heyday which we did with Peter Walsh,we would turn up and go, ‘Hey, we’ve got a bunch of songs,’ and they’d go, ‘Really? Let’s hear them.’ We’d play them a couple times and they’d say let’s go in and record. With Waddy Wachtel, we turned up in LA, and for one month he drilled us. We were down in an aircraft hangar in Venice Beach and he drilled us, like, ‘Play it again. Play it again.’ We must have played each song a hundred times. It’s a bit like, you know, when they look at a Stradivarius violin now and try and figure out what made it great. Some people say it was the fly s*** in the varnish that made it great. Maybe Waddy drilling us and drilling us and drilling us and making us play these songs a hundred times every day, maybe that did wear off and maybe that gives that album some of the things that people like about it. I think it’s very hard to know. Imagine if we would have gone to England and worked with some left-of-center guy, what he would have done. It’s really hard to tell who did what and why it ended up the way it did.”
As for what the band themselves wanted to do different vis-à-vis Heyday, Kilbey says, “We didn’t. We thought Heyday was great! I remember going to LA and we’re working on a track and one of the guys goes, ‘Oh, at least it’s not going to sound like f***in’ Heyday.’ And I’m like, hey, I thought Heyday was a great record. A great-sounding album. Sparkly and sort of frothy and effervescent. One day Greg Ladanyi was in there reading a music magazine and he said to Waddy, ‘Hey, you know, Chuck Plotkin’s f***in’ producing Bruce Springsteen next week.’ And I filled in the sentence and went, ‘Yeah, and you’re stuck here with a bunch of no-name Australian hippies.’ And he looked at me and went, ‘Exactly.’ You know, they had no regard for us. They hadn’t heard of us. They didn’t think we were good. It was just a gig. And they were trying to sort of do the opposite of everything we’d ever done before. It’s all very confused. It’s so easy to look back on something that happened in 1987 and we wanted this and Waddy wanted that, someone else this. It’s so easy to look back on it and see how it was all working. When you’re in the middle of it, when you’re turning up each day in the studio with these two LA guys bossing me around and making disparaging comments…”
“We were recording a song one day and the lyrics in the song ‘Lost’ go, ‘It’s an exquisite corpse and its lips are red.’ And when I was singing those lyrics, Greg Ladanyi stopped me and goes, ‘What the f*** are these f***ing lyrics?! What’s that f***ing mean? An exquisite corpse?!’ So I gave him a brief five-minute enlightenment on the surrealist movement and how they played a game called The Exquisite Corpse, which is basically, one would write a line and they would turn that bit of paper down and another one would write a line and then they would open it up and read it all. This was a version of that game, where you would produce sort of surrealist results. So I explained to him what that was and he looked at the engineer and said, ‘I told you I wouldn’t f***in’ understand what he’s saying.’ You know, it was that sort of stuff.”
“But, you know, two schools of thought,” continues Kilbey, making note of the yin and yang of the experience. “One person would say Steve Kilbey is a pretentious motherf***er for trying to get André Breton’s manifesto into a rock ‘n’ roll song. And someone else would say good on him for trying to introduce these literary concepts into… what rock ‘n’ roll up until then was, you know, ‘I feel all right, I’m gonna have a fight, I’m gonna dance with my baby tonight,’ you know. And my vision was always to try and get more stuff than that into rock ‘n’ roll. So as I said, there was a nice… their complete resistance to all of that and my gung-ho thing to try infuse as much literary, spiritual, religious, whatever into my songs, I think that worked out well. I think it would have been a hopeless album had they won, but it would have been hopeless had we prevailed. Even though it was a painful collaboration, I think what eventuated out of it accidentally was good.”