Q&A: Steve Kilbey of The Church on never facing writer’s block and hating grunge

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Steve Kilbey (second from left) and The Church. Courtesy photo.

Starfish became the best-selling album for Australian alt-rock band The Church, but what frontman Steve Kilbey remembers most from making the 1988 record is how star producers Greg Ladanyi (Fleetwood Mac and Don Henley) and Waddy Wachtel (The Rolling Stones, Jon Bon Jovi) were rude to him and his bandmates. As Kilbey has told the story before, when he showed up one day with “Under the Milky Way,” which he co-wrote with then-girlfriend Karin Jansson, the producers didn’t see it as a hit and suggested The Church place it toward the end of the album.

The Church
6 p.m., Sunday, May 12
Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma
Tickets: $40-$100.

The Church is marking the 30th anniversary of its biggest album with a tour that began last fall, playing the album in full, along with a set of deeper cuts from throughout the band’s 25-album catalog. Since 1981, The Church has had its share of ups and downs starting with 1981 debut record Of Skins and Hearts.

Kilbey fell into a pit with heroin abuse, which he said has affected his finances to this day, but he has continued writing songs—roughly 750 in all, including with The Church, in collaboration with others and by himself. And he credits this successful streak without writer’s block to marijuana.

“Never had a block, never will have, thanks to marijuana,” the 64-year-old told RIFF in an email exchange. “I’m ready to go at any minute you like—an unending portal into creativity. Cool, huh?”

We asked Kilbey about “Under The Milky Way,” his favorite albums by The Church, how he balances his band with solo work—he released solo album Sydney Rococo while the band was on tour—and his interest in tempting substances. The Church, including guitarist Peter Koppes, drummer Tim Powles and guitarist Ian Haug, who joined the band in 2013, is touring the U.S. right now.

RIFF: One of the reasons why I’ve loved “Under the Milky Way” was because I lost the ability to pin it to a time after a few years. It came out in 1988 but felt just at home in the ‘90s. Did you have any inkling that you were ahead of trends at the time? Grunge was the next big movement, but that was followed by a period of terrific alt-rock from 1993-1999 that would have been home for a song like this.

Steve Kilbey: I had no idea that “Milky Way” would end up being such an “iconic and timeless” song as it has become. By the way, I hate grunge and thought Nirvana was the only good thing to come out of that whole movement. The Church has never been a part of any movement as such. We go in and out of fashion. But we always plough our own furrow.

Has playing Starfish night in and night out in its entirety changed the way you think about the album?

Yes; I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more. It was pretty good, wasn’t it?

What stands out the most about the making of that album in Los Angeles?

The producers were very rude to us; great weed and Mexican food; freeway shootings; the bizarre nature of show biz.

Your drug addiction has been much talked about. Does it have a profound role in your life right now? Are you ever tempted?

My drug addiction caused my ongoing financial woes. But it was good for me to go through that struggle. I still like drugs and changing my consciousness. Temptation finds me every single day. But I will never be an addict again. I did my time.

What’s something you learned about music or songwriting later in your lives that you don’t think you had when you were making Starfish?

I’m still learning so much about music and lyrics and bass guitar. I’m much better now than I was then. I wouldn’t change a thing about Starfish even if I could, but I know a lot more now, as you would imagine.

While the band was still on tour, you released a solo record. What different outlet does this offer you that The Church does not? And why did you decide to do both at the same time?

I write so much music, and the band only was putting out one record every two years. I had to have more outlets. I never cared if that interfered with what The Church was doing. That’s naiveté and arrogance right there, I guess.

What five The Church albums are your favorite, and which would you redo if you could and if you’re into that sort of thinking?

Priest = Aura, After Everything Now This, Untitled #23, Further/Deeper, The Blurred Crusade. I’d love to remix [1983’s] Seance to how it should sound.

Has the band started working on a follow-up to 2017’s Man Woman Life Death Infinity?

Nope, not yet.

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter

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