Once upon a time (in the late ’70s and early ’80s), America had a fairly notable love affair with Australia. This was almost a full decade before Outback Steakhouse would teach us about shrimp on the barbie and the bloomin’ onion. There was Wallaby Squash, a lemon-lime soda with an ear worm of a jingle; The Paul Hogan Show (a sketch comedy show pre-dating Crocodile Dundee movies and far more hilarious) was in TV syndication; and Mad Max and The Road Warrior were infiltrating our culture.
Then there was the music.
Many Australian new wave music groups were exported to the U.S. via independent or cult films and soundtracks like Dogs in Space (Michael Hutchence, from INXS, played the lead role). Aussie music — Midnight Oil, Icehouse, Men at Work, Crowded House, Real Life and Pseudo Echo — was brought in by U.S.-based college and modern rock DJs who had underground music connections.
The Church was one of these exports. Formed in 1980 in Sydney, the band quickly became a staple of college radio stations and commercial “modern rock/rock of the ’80s” formats in the U.S. and abroad. With the likes of Echo and the Bunnymen, the Cure, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and The Psychedelic Furs, The Church helped introduce new wave to the states. The band’s style has been described as ethereal, psychedelic dream pop.
Over the past 38 years, The Church has produced a robust catalog of more than 26 albums. The band has also been inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association Hall of Fame. Although the band’s style has evolved over time, the unmistakable guitar sound and vocal qualities have remained constant. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Starfish, The Church’s most successful album. The most widely known track, “Under the Milky Way,” was a dance club favorite which saw its way into heavy MTV rotation (back when MTV still played music), movie soundtracks (Donnie Darko), TV shows (Miami Vice) and commercials. Sia has even covered the song. The band kicked off its 20 date, North American tour on Sept. 30, playing Starfish in its entirety, along with selected hits and favorites.
Founding member, lead singer and songwriter Steve Kilbey says he was pleasantly surprised by the success of Starfish.
“I really didn’t expect it. I’ve always had a kind of negative philosophy. I never expect anything good is going to happen so when it does, I’m surprised,” Kilbey says. “When [success] never happened, I was always well armored against that. Making Starfish with that same philosophy, I didn’t think anything would happen with it.”
He is clearly proud of the album, and he should be. It catapulted The Church to new heights in the U.S. and beyond. ‘Under the Milky Way,’ reached No. 24 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1988. It brought the band from the college and underground scenes to the mainstream.
“I felt like Starfish finally vindicated us,” Kilbey adds.
“Reptile” was the second single from the album to reach the charts. It peaked at No. 27 in 1988.
Although, when asked which is his favorite Church album, Kilbey says it’s Priest=Aura. He explains, “I always come back to Priest=Aura from 1992. I think that was sort of our zenith. We did something on that … we never were able to do it again. We never tried to do it again. I think for that one album, it all came together. Everything that was good about us, it just came out at the wrong time. It came out when grunge was happening and it wiped us out. Well, that’s what happens with these sort of art movements. Art, poetry, music, something … comes out and everybody jumps on that. Everybody’s a cubist, nobody’s a classicist for a couple of weeks, and everyone’s naive. Then everyone’s ‘I’m punk, I’m prog, I’m new wave, I’m grunge, I’m euro…’ whatever. And, as each thing happens, other things get suppressed.”
Kilbey is well aware of the importance college radio played in The Church’s success in the U.S.
“[Austrailia] didn’t have the tastemaker network of college radio stations,” Kilbey says. “It did not exist at all. There aren’t so many colleges and universities; we’re such a small country (about 24 million compared to 326 million in the U.S.). If [college radio stations] did have shows, they didn’t really have that kind of influence, you know, like CMJ (College Music Journal) … and when you got on all that, that was pretty good.”
Contemporary college radio darlings like MGMT, LCD Soundsystem, Japanese Breakfast and Santigold borrow extensively from the ’80s modern rock era. When it comes to influences and borrowing from the past, Kilbey says, “All I can say is go for it. Please take what you can find. I borrowed everything I’ve played from somebody else. Everybody is sort of adding to the whole thing and refining it all the time.”
Kilbey admits he doesn’t really listen to modern bands. When asked what he does listen to, he says, “This is a terrible answer. I should be going, ‘Ah yeah, I’m getting into this rare Madagascan nose flute,’ or something. I actually turn on my iPhone and I’ve got a beat box that connects to my blue tooth and every week iTunes makes up a playlist of my favorite 20 songs. So, every Tuesday I get a playlist and listen to it for a week. Every now and then I’ll play a whole album of something. It’s not what people would hope … that I’ve got this massive vinyl collection or I’m listening to all these rare acetates (tapes) of, you know, whatever … it’s not like that.”
He continues, “30 years ago if I heard myself saying this, I would have said, ‘What are you talking about, man? You can’t listen to music like that — you’ve got to listen to an album.’ … People [today] aren’t taking [music] seriously, loving it, defining their lives by it, making friends, creating enemies by the music that they believe in. When I was at school, I couldn’t be friends with someone who liked stuff I hated and hated the stuff I liked. Music created a lot of friendships and bonds. That was a real kind of bonding experience. I don’t think there’s so much of that anymore because everything is accessible all the time.”
Which brings us to the question of his own band’s future.
“Music is like a game of football: It’s whatever comes along,” he muses. “Imagine one of the [bandmates] buys a harmonium and starts playing that and suddenly we go off in a new direction, or one of the guys drops dead … or say there’s a new thing happens or a movie uses one of our old songs and it becomes really disproportionately famous. There’s so many things that could happen. I don’t really know where it’s going to go and I don’t even try to imagine what we’re going to do. One of the guys in the band doesn’t want to make any more albums. He says we’ve made enough albums. I certainly don’t feel like that. I hope we survive. I hope we make more music. But, in that broad sort of idea, I have no idea. I don’t care. I just drift along with it. It was too much heartache and headache to make things happen the way I wanted them. If someone says, ‘Hey, let’s do a tour of Finland,’ I’m like OK, let’s do a tour of Finland.”
On the Bill: The Church — Starfish 30th Anniversary Tour. 8 p.m. Oct. 11, Fox Theater, 1135 13th St., Boulder, 720-645-2467. Tickets are $29.50-$99.