“I have created a lot of music in my life. I can’t say all of it’s the best, but as far as quantity goes, I have created a lot of songs and words,” says Steve Kilbey of Australian psychedelic rockers The Church. Best known for the songs “Under the Milky Way” and “Reptile” off the 1988 album Starfish, the band has continued to put out records for decades — some 25 in all — and they come to The Chapel on Monday, Oct. 1, for a stop on the Starfish 30th anniversary tour on which they’ll play the seminal record in its entirety.
SF Weekly spoke to Kilbey via phone from Australia about the enduring legacy of The Church, his own struggles with substance abuse, and his mixed feelings about Los Angeles. This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
I’m glad you’re going to play Starfish on its own, but I’m glad the newer work stands on its won two feet, as well. “Another Century” [from the 2017 album of the same name] is song that, if you happen to have it on in the background, you’re going to lose all concentration because the chord changes are particularly breathtaking.
You know what, I think Starfish and everything that’s on it and everything you can say about it isn’t nearly as good as Another Century because as you say it’s got an extra thing that Starfish didn’t have: almost a classical feeling to it.
Has that record evolved? Is it constantly in flux, or have you made alterations for a live version and stuck with them?
“Reptiles” has had about 16 bars added to the middle bit, which helps the musical development, nothing radical. Something that was developing on the record is allowed to go right down and then right up, which we didn’t do on the record. Other than that, with this record I really believe our mission is to deliver Starfish as it is, same arrangements, but with more wallop. More bang. Not to fool around with it, not to reinterpret it or sing different melodies. That’s what my intuition says: When you’re going to play an album in its entirety, do it as it is. That’s what people want to hear. If I want to hear Genesis do The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, I don’t want to hear any mucking around, I want to hear it as I remember it.
Earlier this summer, you played the Meltdown Festival in London at the personal invitation of one Robert Smith. Is that because you’re friends or because he had a vision in mind and he thought of you?
Wouldn’t it be a marvelous answer to say we made friends 30 years ago and he and I play on each other’s records and we ring each other up and we go fishing together? No, we’ve never met him. I guess he likes The Church, and he invited us and the night we played we got a bottle of Champagne saying, “Sorry I can’t be there, I have a family problem.” So that was it. We never met him but it was really nice to know that he likes us.
It’s nice to know that’s I’m not obsequiously fawning over his feet, either. I’m like, “Oh great, I really respect him and he’s a bit of a genius with some marvelous ideas, but I don’t hold him in the regards some people do. He’s just very, very, very, very, good, but not a prime mover or shaker, you know what I mean?
A few years ago The Church played an enormous event at the Sydney Opera House. What was that like?
It was a one-off, a beautiful event with an 80-piece orchestra. We went back and took all our best songs and had them orchestrated, and it was an amazing night, the highlight of our whole career ever. I believe it’s on iTunes, it’s called A Psychedelic Symphony.
I don’t want to clobber you over the head with something you may have said in jest 30 years ago, but you had mixed feeling about the city of L.A.?
I came to L.A. in 1987 to make a record, and I’d only ever passed through there on tours and had never lived there. Bearing in mind, I’m a songwriter turning up to make a record and seven of the 10 songs don’t have any lyrics — also, I’m really looking for experience. It would be so simplistic to say I didn’t like L.A. There were bits that were just incredible, like going to an incredible Mexican restaurant every night, the amazing weed that was available even then before it was legal. Lots of things were incredible and lots of things weren’t incredible; they were sort of intimidating to someone from Australia. At the time we were there, there were freeway shootings. And some of the people you met were sort of like voracious and weird and powerful and bossy. Everything you could possibly even imagine on Planet Earth is in L.A., and I come from a more provincial background, but I’m deliberately opening my eyes really wide cause I ‘m looking for stuff to put into the music. My biggest thing was that I was envious and jealous ’cause it didn’t know who I was and didn’t care. After being the king of Sydney for three years and walking around, “Oh, it’s Steve Kilbey,” suddenly nobody cares about you walking down the street in your green suede boots and paisley shirt.
I know you are a portraitist, with a lot of self-portraits. Does that encapsulate the entirely of your visual artwork. Or is there a visual projection on the stage or anything that has your hand in it?
No, they wouldn’t like that if I was doing that. The other guys wouldn’t like me. And if I did that, on the next tour the other three guys would be doing their self-portraits as well.
You’ve had struggles in the past with heroin and substance abuse, and I ask this right now because San Francisco is in crisis with fentanyl-laced heroin — but at the same time, the Western world is waking up to a reconceptualization of drugs as a public health problem and not a legal problem. Do you have any perspective on that?
Yes, if you decriminalized all drugs, that would immediately solve a whole load of problems. It’s hard enough being a heroin addict and just dealing with that and finding the money and all the problems of being a heroin addict that come with it, or whatever kind of addict you are. For me, decriminalization would sort of help and I think the try what they do in Switzerland: You go along and opioids are pretty cheap. You register and say, “I’m a heroin addict,” and go in three times a day in a supervised place and you can have a shot and go back out in the world not stealing people’s laptops. You can have a normal job with a normal life and with the help of a doctor if you want to. But some people go, “Look, I just want to remain an addict and keep taking the stuff,” and if they could go get it three times a day from a government facility like insulin, you wouldn’t care anymore, you wouldn’t care about the guy next door to you if he was getting it at the clinic and behaving quite normally. So I think to take the legality out of it is the first step.
Thirty years on, how do you feel about the legacy of “Under the Milky Way.” To call it a one-hit wonder isn’t quite accurate, so are you glad people love it, or is it something you reluctantly accept as always going to define you?
It’s really complicated, because in many ways it is a one-hit wonder and [guitarist] Peter [Koppes] always said it is a novelty song. If I’m doing an interview about Starfish, I expect to talk about it. Sometimes, I’m really disappointed that I could be on the street or in a crowd somewhere and someone says, “Guess which song of yours I really like? Under the Milky Way!” I go “Ugh, why did you tell me that?”
I imagine my world if that song hadn’t happened, it’d be a lot bleaker than it is now. I’m glad it’s an OK song that I can go sing for the rest of my life and there’ll never be any contradiction. There’s no inherent contradiction in that song. If you had a song about shaking your booty when you’re 70 years old, that’s not going to be too cool. If you go online, on YouTube, you can see a school in Philadelphia, kids like six, seven, eight, boys and girls, all color and creeds. They’re all singing it and the girls are doing the hand-jive with it, “Something quite peculiar” — they’re really feeling it. I’m glad it’s become a universal song. I wish I had another 10 of those, and I would love that one a lot more, but because there’s only one of them sometimes I’m sort of — I don’t know, but at the end of the day I’m glad I have it.
The Church Starfish 30th Anniversary Tour, Monday, Oct. 1, 8 p.m., at the Chapel, 777 Valencia St. $35-$99, sold out.