Veteran Aussie psych-rockers The Church are coming to NZ to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their classic 1988 album Starfish, which includes the band’s best-known hit ‘Under the Milky Way’.
The four-piece have maintained a strong following over the years with fans including Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan and The Cure’s Robert Smith. They’ve recently released their 25th studio album: Man Woman Life Death, Infinity.
Founding member, principal songwriter, lead vocalist and bass player Steve Kilbey joined Wallace Chapman to discuss the band’s rich history ahead of their show in December.
Wallace: It’s been 30 years since Starfish, and it’s stood the test of time.
Steve: That's because we're classicists … If you paint realistic looking portraits of people, it can't go out of style. And we're like classicists as far as rock n roll goes. It's like the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan and Bowie. All their best stuff, it just hangs in there forever, it always will.
So we're just, we're just classicists. We're trying to have a classic sound using those values that those guys had.
Back in the early- to mid-80s one of the things that The Church stood out for was your guitar sound.
A lot of bands had this thing where the rhythm guitar is way in the background, and then the lead solo comes out, and it's like, “Here's the lead solo!” The idea of The Church was to have two guitars creating a sort of a wave of ambiance between them.
When we formed [guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper] were using a lot of echo and reverb. There was a lot of ambiance floating around [and] we'd create these undertones and overtones… sort of implying things.
I tell you who did that in New Zealand, Straitjacket Fits. When I first saw them play, it was just two guys playing guitar, but there was this huge wall of overtones and they were implying a lot more than they were actually playing.
Aren't they a great band?
They were and amazing band, yeah. I saw them opening for Ride and they blew Ride so far off the stage I though Ride were embarrassing after Straitjacket Fits. We asked them on tour and when they came on our tour, people were saying, “They’re blowing you off stages now too!”
The 80's, what a remarkable period in rock. You've got Prince at his height, bands like The Smiths and The Cure, and of course Australian groups like INXS, Ice House, Choir Boys, Jimmy Barnes, all on the charts. What was it like to be part of that period of rock?
It's the sort of thing you have to look back on to realise. At the time you're not going, "Oh, I'm in a pop explosion! The pop rock scene's exploding and I'm playing every night."
It just seemed like, yeah, we got signed up and we were playing every night, and we were opening for a lot of those bands. I just thought, this is the way it was and will forever be. But looking back now, you can see it was a bubble, and a bubble that burst. But there was, there was a real explosion.
Speaking of The Smiths, there’s a rumour that they formed after being inspired by your music.
That's true. Mike Joyce [The Smiths’ drummer] said in an interview, "Me and Johnny and Andy got together at a Church show in 1982 at the Leadmill in Sheffield."
If you check out early Johnny Marr, and you check out Marty Willson-Piper from The Church [they both had a pudding bowl haircut, single earring, red Rickenbacker guitar…
They weren't necessarily influenced or copying us or anything. But they were inspired by going, "Look these guys are sort of doing something different." Unfortunately, they never mentioned us in any of their interviews.
They like to think they sprang from the universe fully formed. Like Athena, springing from Zeus' head and they weren't influenced by anything else, but everybody's influenced by something.
You haven't shied away from the issue of your drug use. You write about in your book, Something Quite Peculiar: heroin enslaved you for a decade. How did you get into it? How did you get out of it?
I was sitting in a pub one night with Grant McLennan [of the Go-Betweens] and he said, "Eff this, I'm gonna go and get some drugs." And I said, "What are you gonna get?" And he went, "Some heroin." And I went, "Oh."
Believe it or not, no one had ever offered, because I was pretty anti. I didn't like the idea of it, needles and all that. Then suddenly, my best mate [Grant], who was so clean cut, he was like a great guy to introduce to your mother, you know? He was a really polite guy and he didn't like dirty jokes. He was very clean, very sort of, "Oh, Steven, You know, I'm not feeling very well today. I've got a bit of a turbulent tummy." He was like that.
So, when he said he was going to get some heroin I thought, "How bad could it be? My mate here from the Go-Betweens is gonna." I said, "Yeah, here's 200 bucks, get me some." Then we went back to my place and he shot it up, I snorted it. As soon as it hit my system I was like, "Oh, yeah. This is how I wanted to feel." It was nothing like I thought it was going to be. It just changed my relationship with myself.
I'd never liked myself, up until that moment. Suddenly, I had a snort of heroin, I was like, "Wow, I like myself now." And heroin is very much like that, it masks over all your problems. You could be sitting in a gutter with a junkie in Stockholm – how it was in the end – shooting up, and suddenly you feel good, and go, "Well, life's pretty good. Life's really cool. I really like myself, I'm doing well sitting here doing this."
It has to be said too, there was quite a moment of creativity under heroin. You'll accept that.
Not really allowed to say that, but that's why all those jazz players and all those guys were taking heroin. In the beginning, there's a honeymoon period, where you are creative, and at the same time I got into heroin, I got into opium. For the album, Priest=Aura it gave me some profound insights.
Another thing you don't shy away from, is that most of the 800-odd tracks you've written, were written with the aid of marijuana. You're a bit of a pothead.
I've always smoked pot. I always will. I'm 64, almost 64. I'm in excellent health. I see no reason to stop. Every song I ever wrote was with pot.
Why pot? Why not a cup of tea?
Look I'm a bit Asperger's. You know what that is? Like a sort of mild sort of autism. I have that a bit. Pot allows my mind to do the things it wants to do, which is freely associate.
The other guys in the band were much better guitarists than me, but I was writing all the songs because I can [take] one simple thing [and] hear a million possibilities … I can hear a sentence [and] I can hear how that sentence could be a line in a song or a title for a song.
So I've sort of been going through the world sucking it in, my whole life, looking for things I can use in the music and lyrics I create. Pot's really good for that.
Tell us something about yourself that we won't read on Wiki. What's your greatest love? Your favourite place on Earth?
I'm pretty happy at Coogee Beach, where I live. If I go overseas, I like Rome. I think I lived there in a few past lives, so I really took to Rome.
I don't really like material things. I'm pretty simple. I drive a Ford, I like corn flakes for dinner.
For dinner? You’re not a foodie?
I abhor all these cooking shows and these guys going, "We got to do more of these quail's eggs and red wine." I hate all that. I'm a vegetarian. I have been since I was a teenager.
I was a vegetarian before people even heard of it. There were no vegetarian restaurants. Every time I went to a restaurant, the only thing I would have for dessert, starters, a main course, was avocado vinaigrette.
They didn't even know to smash the avocados in those days. So it'd be half an avocado with a little bit of vinegar in it. That's what I ate. That's all I could ever eat.
And what about influences. Who inspired you?
I always loved music and I saw a lot of bands when I was a kid. I tried to go if I could. When I was 16, I fell in love with Marc Bolan and then a year later I fell in love with David Bowie. Those two guys … they're like the things I hold dearest in my heart. But, along with The Beatles and The Stones and Dylan, I try and mix them all up a bit.
You’ve talked about the influence of your parents too, because your parents, particularly your father, were very supportive.
My dad fought in World War II. He reckons playing the piano saved his skin, because he'd play for the officers every night, so they didn't want to send him anywhere too dangerous, they didn't want their piano player, who knew all their favourite songs, getting shot up. So, yeah he played piano.
When it came time and I was nagging him for a bass, I had to nag him for about a year or so. Then on my 16th birthday he took me out and I got a violin-copied bass like Paul McCartney’s.
Then when I needed amps and PAs, when I became a singer, he’d be the guarantor on all the loans, or give me money to buy stuff. He never complained, he sort of understood. He thought it was money well spent.
You've also collaborated your brother Russell.
Russell was always hanging around. He was the only guy that ever believed in me, in the dark days before The Church became successful. He was the only person who liked listening to the tapes I was making. He sort of kept me going with his support.
Where’s the starting point for The Church? How did you all get together?
Peter [Koppes] and I had this other horrible band called Baby Grand from like 74' to 76'. Then he'd gone off to hitch-hike around Europe and I took three years off live music in '77, bought myself a 4-track tape recorder, and recorded with that.
Then I met him in Sydney when I was doing the Sydney market – I was selling t-shirts, I was silk screening at the market in Paddington. So we met up and I said, “Come around and have a listen to what I'm doing.” He came around and went, “That's pretty good, but it'd be better if I played on it.” And I went, “Yes it would.”
Then when he played on my demos, there was The Church sound. No one had ever liked anything I'd done up until then, but because I had reinvented myself with a tape recorder … then when Peter played guitar on it, it was instantly sounding like The Church.
Then we formed as a three piece. Stupidly, Peter brought a guy into the band who’d been a bully at school, who bullied me on my very first day at school. Nick Ward.
His real name was Nigel Murray. And the first day I got to school he beat me up. And then I stupidly thought, 15 years later that he wouldn't be like that. But he was, he was still a bully.
And then we got [guitarist] Marty Willson-Piper in to the band and Nick bullied him more than me, so that was good. He drew the heat, then we kicked Nick out and we got in.
That's when The Church really became The Church: when Richard Ploog started playing drums. For sure.
So Nick Ward, he made life for you and the band -
Hell. He did. He really did. When we're on stage I'd say, "Oh this song's cool – ‘Fighter Pilot, Korean War’," then he'd go, "As if we really care!" He was sort of undermining me onstage and laughing.
He was writing all these songs called, get this, ‘The Lament of the Hairy Bolt’. ‘Cold steel’ was another. ‘Cold Steel’. He wanted us to play them and I'm like, “No we can't, we can't do a song called ‘Cold Steel’.”
He had a tattoo on his arm of an executioner holding up a bloody head and his axe saying, "Next.” He was quite a character.
You’re touring to celebrate the 30th anniversary of your 1988 album Starfish, which was huge. Especially one song in particular – ‘Under the Milky Way’. It's an exceptional song. I can recall seeing it in Donnie Darko. It was even in Miami Vice.
It was in Miami Vice. It's been in loads of things. Advertisements. South Australia, interestingly enough, was trying to get New Zealand tourists there, so it was an ad for South Australia. It was an ad for the Australian Central Territory… there’s a barista making coffee.
Sia recently did it for a Ford ad. Did you get paid for that?
I did get paid.
I can't say, it'd be immodest. I only got paid, ‘cause they broke the contract. My lawyer was going, "You're really upset about that," and I was going, "No, not really I think.." "No, believe me. You're really upset. You're really upset. They've taken your sacred song and used it for a Ford ad." And I was going, "Yeah, I'm feeling the misery coming on right now." He said, "You're going to need some compensation for that." And I go, "Yeah." So we did. They didn't ask. They didn't ask.
The Guardian called ‘Under the Milky Way’ an unintentional anthem. Is there a defining moment for you, in terms of The Church? A song or an album?
Okay, well, the next album after Starfish [Gold Afternoon Fix] was a load of rubbish. It was a load of old rubbish, right? We went back with [Robert "Waddy" Wachtel who’d produced Starfish] and the drummer [Richard Ploog] collapsed under the pressure.
We did the album with a drum machine. I tell you what, even then I'd been playing bass a long time. I sat there in a studio with Waddy and a drum machine, and we recreated all the songs. Me and a drum machine, playing bass, and he's just watching everything, any little squeak, anything at all, he's watching it.
That record is perfectly made, absolutely perfect if you like things to be perfect. I don't care for perfection that much. It was a load of rubbish. Soulless. Hopeless.
After that, [drummer] Jay Dee Daugherty, from Patti Smith’s band joined and toured with us. Then we made an album called, Priest=Aura and there, I think we made our sort of master statement.
But it was too… people couldn't dig it at the time. Rolling Stone in America gave it two stars, said it was no good, because it wasn't grunge, which was happening at the time.
Then 20 years later they do a retrospective: Rolling Stone went back and reviewed every album ever made and they give it four stars and said it's a masterpiece.
The Church play Auckland’s Spark Arena on Tuesday, December 4.