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Peter and Marty talk to Guitar magazine; excellent piece! Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 January 1989


March 1989


Unknown Title

by Bruce Pollock

In the debate raging these days in the guitarist community over whether the guitar is an instrument to be studied, mastered and conquered, with all the aid and comfort teachers and technology can provide, or if it is, instead, better to learn it all spontaneously, by touch and feel and ear, Marty Willson-Piper, of the Church, makes no secret about which side he?s on. ?As far as I?m concerned,? he says, ?I don?t think being technical had got anything to do with innovation in guitar. I think that a lot of the best ideas I?ve ever had came from not knowing anything--ANYTHING--about the guitar, I see my guitar as more of an emotional extension than a physical one, and I think that?s the difference between me and a lot of technicians. The more physical side of me is when I?m running around the stage knocking microphones over, jumping about. The actual guitar thing isn?t a physical thing at all. Guitar?s about a different kind of expression. If I wanted to be technical, I?d play piano.?

What makes the Church a special congregation of musicians, however, is the presence on the other side of the stage, co co-lead guitarist, Peter Koppes. ?Peter is more of a technician than I am,? admits Marty. ?He knows the scales and all that stuff. But that?s the two extremes within the band that make it good.? While Willson-Piper is the more flamboyant of the two, taking the stage in a Jimmy Page crouch, with a flourish of bent notes, Koppes is the stately one, tall and reserved, the least likely member of the band to jump an amplifier. ?It?s a weird thing,? Peter says, ?the relationships in the band. Like the conversations you overhear at different tables in a bar, different combinations of people create different atmospheres. That?s why the Church is together, basically because we happen to be four personalities creating music that we don?t find in ourselves individually.? What he and his guitar partner share is the same basic goal for the music. ?I think Marty and I see ourselves painting this great canvas together, and someone leaves a spot, so you go there, and you either put in a light or a dark to counterpoint something that might be happening somewhere else on the canvas.?

To facilitate the Church?s multi-layered, post-acid vision, Koppes, for one, is not afraid to utilize technology?s test kitchen. ?I always wondered why records in studios sound better than what some bands sound like live. You hear a record and they sound great; you hear them live and they have these rotten, plunky, Fender Twin Reverb Gibson-plugged-straight-in type setups, which are obviously very dry, boring and amateurish. After producing a couple of records and experimenting in my own studio, I realized that it?s all a matter of delays and ambiences that you create artificially. And so I do the same thing. I?m using very much of a studio approach to live sounds, with stereo amps and quite a lot of series delays. These days a lot of people use a lot of effects; I just bastardize the equipment that?s around, like the reverb unit. It?s more live--no direct, only reverb, with a very long delay so it sounds a bit like a keyboard wash coming from underneath, which takes away the necessity to always have an attack mode, which is a problem with guitars. So, I?ve got these series delays built up, which means I can hit a note and it can play rhythm, one strike through a couple of bars--which gives me more of a strident sound in my playing style, which I like.?

Even Willson-Piper has learned to stop worrying and love the studio, to a degree. ?There are certain things I do, I suppose, that might add to my sound,? he notes. ?I tend to have a loud sound, but it?s not distorted, it?s very clear. With a Rick 12 you can?t let it all fade into nothing, so I do a lot of aggressive leads with a distortion pedal, which is probably a thing one wouldn?t usually do, because it?s a 12-string. Whenever people have a go on it, when I?m at a gig or something, they always approach it completely the wrong way. They play it like it?s a lead guitar, and try to play scales on it. That?s not what it?s for. I play Rickenbackers because they?re not easy to play, because being a technician on them doesn?t mean anything, ?cause they?re the kind of guitar that demands a different approach. They demand a more interesting approach. They demand that you do something. The Rickenbacker 12-string has made me into the guitarist I am, because I didn?t follow those obvious angles down it. I used to play Strats on stage and whatever I wanted to do, I could do. But then again, I?d sound like everybody else. I bought a Roland GP8 because somebody told me it was the best effects rack in the known universe. I?ve had it for 18 months, and I?ve never used it. I?m not interested. As soon as I plug it in, it sounds like everybody else. When I plug my Rickenbacker into my stereo box, between my old worn out, broken-down, analog Ibanez effects unit, you know what it sounds like? Me.?

Marty was virtually raised on Rickenbackers. ?My first electric guitar was a Rickenbacker when I was 14. My brothers was a cabaret musician, and a guy in his band was selling it and my dad bought it from him and gave it to me. It was a 60?s Rickenbacker with a tremolo bar. It was a beautiful guitar, and I fell in love with Rickenbackers right away. But I did end up buying a Strat in my early 20s, because I didn?t think the Rickenbacker was flexible enough for the things I wanted to do. But when I joined the Church, someone from the publishing company told me he was going to America and did I want him to bring me back a Rickenbacker. I said great. In the studio I?d used a Burns 12-string on a couple of songs and it sounded really wonderful. So he went off to America and came back with the Rickenbacker 12-string and said, ?Here you are,? took it off my advance, and gave me this guitar. I remember the first day I got it, I couldn?t keep it in tune, and it sounded bloody awful. Now, a 12-string is my main guitar; I play it 80% of the time. I play a six-string Rickenbacker on three songs--the rest is 12-string.?

Along with their swirling, guitar-driven sound, and post-hippie personas, perhaps this is where all those Church as the Byrds-incarnate rumors started. Willson-Piper took pains to refute them. ?I?m a kind of multi-influenced person,? he says. ?I?ve never been very much into one area. I tend to listen to what?s going on in every area, and try to put in my own ideas about what guitar should be. But here I am, I play Rickenbacker 12-strings mainly, and Roger McGuinn?s got absolutely nothing to do with anything I ever did. The only song I?d ever heard him play a Rickenbacker on was ?Mr. Tambourine Man.? He had absolutely no influence on me whatsoever; the Rickenbacker thing was purely my own desire and design. The only connection is that I play a Rickenbacker; it happens to be a 12-string, and the band writes melodic songs. Our vocal style is completely different, the guitar style is completely different. I play a sort of driven-sounding guitar, whereas McGuinn was playing a really sweet-sounding guitar. It wasn?t really sustained; it didn?t have a growl in it. it was just sort of ringing.?

Koppes is more explicit in naming his influences. ?Obviously every musician is influenced by everything that he likes,? he explains. ?I have a few guitarists who have influenced me, Hendrix being at the top of the list, of course, not just for his technique, because he wasn?t even aware of his own technique, but just for his passion, that he was able to soar musically and take everybody else with him. Probably Ritchie Blackmore is another one of my favorites, for his innovations, like the violin technique, and his dark chord progressions and harpsichord approach toward guitar. Jimmy Page, of course, for his ability to play acoustic guitar and slide as well as his lead guitar technique. He was a good creator of songs. David Gilmour is a great stylist and some people have compared me with him, which I always thought surprising, because although they might be right, he was never really a strong influence on me. I think is guitar work is inspired, but technically I don?t like so much fuzz box in my sound, because I think the best guitarists are guys who have so much sustain it should?ve come out with distortion, but it was clean. I never understood how Blackmore and Hendrix got those clean sounds without the distortion sounding out. I?ve got a hell of a lot of respect for Brian May. I find his experimentations exciting. He can make his guitar sound like an orchestra. Neil Young is a guitarist with bad technique but great feel. Lindsay Buckingham, from Fleetwood Mac, is highly experimental and very underrated as a guitarist. He gets great feel, but he also builds up tension in a way I?ve never heard other guitarists do. I recognize parallels in our styles.?

Yet Koppes, too, prefers to eschew the lead player mold. ?I?ve always loved lead players,? he says. ?I?m sensitive to the fact that they?re an old fashioned breed, and yet I like playing a good lead. But I don?t like to place my image or reputation on being a lead player. I don?t like people expecting that from me. I don?t want to have them be disappointed if I don?t burn my guitar in front of them every night. I just want to be a creator on the guitar. I prefer a certain amount of experimentation in every song. I might stumble upon something one night, and go searching for it again. Sometimes I don?t find it, sometimes it takes months, sometimes I forget about it, and then suddenly it pops back again, because I didn?t try so hard.?

The Church started their long ascent into American consciousness in Sydney, Australia, where one of the local bands thrashing around the turf in those days was AC/DC. ?I remember the first time I saw them,? Koppes, a Sydney native, recalls. ?For the first half hour, I was stunned, just like everybody else in the audience, just mesmerized--this guy?s just like a stranded cockroach on it?s back, skidding around on stage, and then he climbs up on an amplifier and jumps off. It was just a frenetic chaos, and yet the music was intensely powerful. It was really exciting for half an hour, and after that you were waiting for him to pull a new trick out of the bag.?

Very shortly after Koppes and bassist/songwriter Steve Kilbey originated the Church back in 1980, they were doing eight gigs a week. ?Playing the gigs made us feel like a band,? he says. And as a band they went through their trials by fire to develop their raw ringing experimentations into the powerfully cohesive sound they have on stage today. Through nine years and six albums they fought to build an American base that eluded them until ?Under The Milky Way? crashed the Top 20 last year, bringing new audiences into the arena. ?Having healthy applause after every song, you get a certain energy level straightaway that you can work beyond, which is great,? Koppes acknowledges. ?But when you?re fighting for your existence in front of people who are unfamiliar with your music, that can be exciting too, to win them over.?

The best way to win over an audience, Koppes concedes, is not to think about it too much. ?you try to learn from experience, of course,? he says, ?but more often than not, there are too many elements involved to know what makes one gig exceptional and another not. There might be a lot of people in the audience who are not really familiar with your work. There are fans coming to see you who expect something, and other people who don?t understand what you?re doing. So, basically, you take whatever opportunity you can to enjoy yourself, regardless of what the audience is doing. Sometimes you just can?t find your sound, but the audience seems to like it, so you just play your gig, and the audience goes completely mad, and you scratch your head, thinking, ?Why bother trying if it?s that easy?? Generally, you don?t notice too much about what each other is doing, apart from the drummer. The drummer?s the link between everybody. He notices if someone?s missing beats or out of tune, or something like that, but, generally, as a musician, you probably realize what you?re trying to accomplish, even if somebody in your own band doesn?t exactly know what you might be trying to do each time.?

Marty Willson-Piper?s perspective is slightly left of down under. ?I?m from Liverpool,? he explains, ?and I can deal with the ups and downs of anything. It?s because I?m not scared of making mistakes, ?cause if I do, I don?t care. It?s an attitude toward everything. Humility. Make a mistake, get on with doing it better next time. To me, music has to have room for error, otherwise is doesn?t go anywhere. Why should anyone try to perfect music? Sometimes I sort of throw my guitar in the air and don?t bother catching it. Sometimes I break things, and sometimes I delicately execute a beautifully melodic arpeggio. Sometimes I kick my microphone, and throw my guitar across the stage all night. Some nights I just stand there and go into a dreamworld. The reason I don?t care if I make mistakes or anything, or care what anybody says or thinks, is because for years everybody told us we were no good, and for years we didn?t get any encores, so anything we do now is a complete bonus.?

A couple of years ago, before the Church?s new visibility, each of the instrumentalists (Koppes, Willson-Piper and Kilbey) began to work on their own solo Lps. For all, it was a needed release in a time when things seemed to be heading nowhere. For Willson-Piper, his latest solo work gave him the opportunity to test his fearlessness in a new setting. Taking off during a break in the American tour, Marty performed a mini-tour of his own as an acoustic singer/songwriter, backed by a mere second guitar. ?I?m not the kind to hide behind the volume of an amplifier,? he says. ?I have faith in the songs that I write, the lyrics that I write, and that?s all you need, really. I knew that there?d be people there who?d like it, and they did.?

Still, it was quite different than the rock ?n? roll road the Church traveled. ?Well, going onstage and doing an American tour by myself with an acoustic guitar, I mean, anything that happened would have been a surprise--if they clapped, jumped, or stood on their heads--?cause I didn?t know what to expect,? he admits. ?The first four or five of the gigs I was just trying to find out how I should do this. You know, I just did it with a friend of mine. I went to London, rehearsed for three days, then gave him the tape, then he came to America, jetlagged out of his head, and we spent a day rehearsing. Then, just before the tour started, I had my guitar stolen, and I had to borrow another Rickenbacker to get it all together. Then we had to be our own roadies, drive, string our own guitars. I came from being on the road with a packaged tour, 39 crew members and 45 articulated trucks--hotels, sold-out shows of three to four thousand people. Then suddenly I was sitting in the back of the car stringing the guitar... but then again, I?m from Liverpool, so it took about five minutes to get used to that. But it was horrible from that point of view. I want to have a guy sitting there stringing my guitars, helping me out if the pedal gets stuck on the stage, or my microphone starts to slip. I hated not having that. Happily, I got a really good reaction, good turnout, got an encore every night, I liked the opportunity to be intimate with people, too. I mean, I?ve learned from it, and will progress somewhere else from it.?

Entitled Art Attack, the album was done largely with a Takamine acoustic 12-string guitar. ?One of the songs was from 1982, one of the songs I wrote while I was sitting in the studio. One of the songs I perceived while I was walking down the street. There?s a song where I have a series of words in rhythm, like a word association game, which started with nothing, built up to a middle, and broke down to nothing. And the reaction to that song is either, ?I don?t like that one? or ?That?s the best thing you?ve ever done.? And that?s exactly what I wanted with it. If people come up to me and say ?I really hate that song.?--?good, then you probably like ?She?s King,? don?t you?? And they go, yeah! If they say, ?I love that song?--?which ones don?t you like?? ?Ah, you know, the poppy ones.? Perfect. The album is diverse musically and lyrically--it?s pop, it?s experimental, it?s sung in foreign languages and English; there?s short songs, long songs. It?s got performance poetry on it, a political song, a big ballad country song, a kind of electric drum song. As long as the Church exists, I?ll be playing guitar in it, co-writing the songs, singing one here and there. I?ll also be writing songs for whoever wants them, whoever?s interested, and I?m also going to be doing my solo stuff. I?m going to make as many records as I can with as many people as I can; that?s what I do.?

In Koppes? solo work, Manchild and Myth, his experimental nature was allowed a freer reign than in the Church, which, despite its predilection for the odd psychedelic jam session, is actually more of a fine-tuned and highly-structured song machine. ?I get as much of a kick, if not more, out of catching something musical on a record or tape,? says Koppes. ?That?s the most exciting thing, the conception, writing it, and having it down on tape.? This pleasure has its drawbacks. ?Musically, you can be excited by something instantaneously and that can wear off. It?s like songs you hear on the radio and then a couple of weeks later, ?God, how did I like that? It?s so predictable.? Sometimes things that we?ve loved the most have been accidental things that happened on the tape, or experiments that might be very ambitious. The best indication is probably lyrically, because you write something but you don?t know what it means, and then you look back on it and say, ?Wow, I didn?t realize how ambiguously beautiful and prophetic it was.? and you see truisms that come out of your subconscious mind.

Best of all, doing solo work allows Koppes to stay as long as he likes in his home studio, where experiments can occur at any time. ?Necessity is the mother of invention,? he says. ?You might do something in the studio and need to duplicate it live somehow. I found out I could use a tape loop by experimenting with that piece of equipment that I had in the studio. Since then we?ve gone in and done recording and now that I can build up these things on a tape loop, I?ve started actually counter pointing some rhythms with this tape loop full of noises. You just build and build until you?ve got this complete tape loop of wild noise--then you just whack that in and whack it out, with a second of time lapse every two bars as an introduction, and it?s got this dramatic, kind of symphonic, effect.?

But no more dramatic than the Church?s success on the concert circuit in 1988, after a bunch of critically-acclaimed, all but invisible Lps (all five of which have been recently re-released here on their current label, Arista). But if ?Under the Milky Way? brought them the wider audience all bands crave, it?s ?Reptile? that really brings that audience to its feet. ?I think we?re lucky in that sense,? Koppes says, ?that people are identifying a song that?s probably more typical of us. I?d hate for them to expect another ?Under the Milky Way? of us, a quiet, unusual song in every respect.?

With its sinewy, insistent and instantly identifiable guitar part, a song like ?Reptile? only goes to prove Marty Willson-Piper?s point. ?The guitar parts in the Church are really important,? he stresses. ?That doesn?t make me a virtuoso guitar player, but you?d think what the education should be here is that created parts are as important to anybody as speedy guitar parts. To me, they?re more important, because I?m much more interested in a series of chords or notes--like the ?Reptile? riff and the chords on that, or some of the things I did on my solo record. One of the songs on there has got 11 chords before the chorus, yet it?s so simple that you would never know. It sounds like two chords. I think that?s far more interesting than a guy who?s running up and down the fret board like a piece of butter. But people aren?t really interested in guitar things like I would do, because you can?t really teach them. My guitar style is totally out of my own head. It?s purely feeling, an extension of my personality, not somebody else?s.?

Transcribed by Mike Fulmer

Last Updated ( Sunday, 18 December 2005 )
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