Starfish (1988) recording sessions found the band in the thoroughly new surroundings of Los Angeles. Paired up with producers Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi, the environment was somewhat of a new challenge for the band. Used to following a more relaxed routine in the studio, the Church suddenly found themselves having to adjust to a thoroughly different approach. Kilbey: "It was Australian hippies versus West Coast guys who know the way they like to do things. We were a bit more undisciplined than they would have liked." Personality clashes became inevitable as the two sides bickered over guitar sounds, song structures and work ethic alike. Despite these conflicts, the results seemed promising. Under pressure from the producers, Kilbey began to take vocal lessons, an experience that he came to regard as valuable in hindsight. Wachtel and Ladanyi found promise in the songs, particularly "Under the Milky Way," which they focused on as a potential single from early on.
Life in Los Angeles came as a shock as well, and its influence filtered into the session. With the band feeling out of place, the stresses of a major American city energized the songs. Kilbey: "The Church came to L.A. and really reacted against the place because none of us liked it. I hated where I was living. I hated driving this horrible little red car around on the wrong side of the road. I hate that there's no one walking on the streets and I missed my home. All the billboards, conversations I'd overhear, TV shows, everything that was happening to us was going into the music." "North, South, East and West," "Lost," "Reptile" and "Destination" all bore the imprint of the faces, scenery and daily life of the group's new, temporary home.
Largely recorded live after four weeks of grueling rehearsal, Starfish focused on capturing the band's core sound. Bright, spacious and uncluttered, the recording was a great departure from the layered orchestrations of Heyday. The intention was to make it as "live" and dynamic an album as possible, which was achieved to a measured extent (Willson-Piper later went on to say that trying to record a live atmosphere lacked a real gig's sense of "being there"). Although the band found the results bare and simplistic, the reception they would come to receive would be unlike any they'd had before.
Released in February of 1988, Starfish soon found its way into the mainstream, propelled by the single "Under the Milky Way." Although never perceived as an intentional "hit" by Kilbey (who wrote it with then girlfriend Karin Jansson), it "just seemed to be the right song at the right time" as he would later claim. The warmth of the melancholic melody shone through on the 12-string-based progression, accented by light keyboards and minimalistic electric guitar. Kilbey's baritone vocal line "Wish I knew what you were looking for, might have known what you would find" made up the distinctive chorus, providing an abstract, but striking emotional centerpiece. A near-five minute music video received respectable airtime on major music video television channels, which in turn made available to a wider audience The Church's unique - as far as the mainstream was concerned - style. In line with the song, "Under the Milky Way's" video mixed mysterious, if not somewhat abstract, storylines with ethereal production filming techniques.
Whatever the formula for success, it worked, and the Church suddenly found themselves thrust into the spotlight as the single climbed the charts. As their name began to appear across the music industry, the band embarked on a nine-month world tour. The effects (and stresses) of their newfound success would not be solely positive, as time would later show.