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Marty talks to college mag The Harvey Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 January 1989

Interesting questions (and answers!) with a good dollop of art.

 

The Harvey (Perth, Australia)
1989

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Questions With Answers with Marty Willson-Piper
by Deborah

Whether he’s juggling between The Church and All About Eve, on a solo musical crusade or writing books of poetic prose (or songs for Charlie Sexton), Marty Willson-Piper is endeared an assiduous, well-read, Eurocentric, Rickenbacker-wielding cutie-pie... but is he really an arrogant, whinging pommie bastard? Deborah talks to the reader of the pack outside House Of Wax Records.

D: Your songs have both lyrical and melodic emphasis, but which do you consider more important?

M: Well, I can’t really listen to a good melody without a good lyric these days. It wasn’t so important to me when I was a teenager. I’ve always liked Steve Harley’s lyrics, for example, and Be-Bop Deluxe, people like them. I’m equally impressed with music as a whole, but as I got older, if I hear an idiot saying something stupid to me with a great melody, I tend to disregard it.

D: You’ve put out very beautiful records, do you ever feel like you want to be ugly?

M: I’m ugly in my own way. I’ve made some very ugly statements lyrically. ‘Evil Queen Of England’...

D: That’s pretty ugly...

M: And ‘Fear,’ that’s quite ugly, too.

D: Is it hard for you to sacrifice aesthetic values to express yourself like that?

M: Not really, because it’s a poetic ugliness. As I said, I’m interested in expressing myself lyrically. When I look back at some of the poppy things I’ve done, although I’m sure there are people who like them, I tend to be disinterested in them myself. I go back to the more beautiful, lyrically strong things rather than the hooky ones. My favourite song of mine is probably ‘Say’ off ‘Rhyme’ because I like the soundscape of it, and particularly the atmosphere.

D: Has there been any writer to strongly influence your songwriting?

M: Camus. I love Albert Camus.

D: Listening to ‘In Reflection’, the language you use reminds me of Dylan Thomas, very voluptuous words you can touch and smell...

M: As a matter of fact, I was reading Dylan Thomas at that time, it’s interesting to hear you say that.

D: Do you relate to any writer as far as to say you’re his modern equivalent?

M: There’s a theory that rock musicians are the poets of now, but when you compare them to guys like Sartre and Camus, I just don’t believe it. It might sound terrible to say this, but I don’t take what I do musically as seriously as what I read by an existentialist writer. Camus, for instance, just reading his notebooks from ’39 to ;42, it’s just brilliant. Small sections, 3 or 4 sentences about incidental things, like sunlight piercing through a window, it’s beautiful stuff. Just reading a piece of beautiful work can bring tears to my eyes...

D: It literally, physically brings tears to your eyes?

M: Oh, yes! Absolutely. All the time. Books that I read have always made me cry.

D: What’s become of the book you’ve written, ‘Swallowed’?

M: Well, I never got a publisher. I didn’t want to put it out myself, because I didn’t feel I had a particularly concentrated market. You might say there’s Australia, but I don’t feel that I have the concentrated interest that Steve has in this country... and the country I live in (Sweden) doesn’t speak English. I don’t feel that time is important. At this stage, I’m happy to have it written, waiting for an opportunity.

D: How would you describe it?

M: Well, it’s a collection of stuff. A lot like my lyrics, except in prose. Thematically, it’s to do with the existence itself, which is what all my favourite writers deal with. The great artistic riddle...

D: What country has been most conductive to your creativity?

M: Well, all of Europe. I’ve taken the European culture to my heart. They are definitely the inspiration for the things I do. When I come to a place like Australia, I just think it’s hot. (laughs) I don’t feel inspired...

D: It’s very young, but mediocre...

M: Exactly. I’m much more at home in a musty old bookshop, or in a museum, or wandering around old buildings. I’m a bit old-fashioned, actually.

D: How does the European sensibility differ from that of Australia?

M: Well, I’m a reader, you know, and I don’t know if it’s Australia or the world... it probably is the world... you don’t come across people who read these days, and if they do read, they go to the trash section of the bookshop, not the brilliant. They ignore all this great art, philosophy and fantastic work. On the plane over today, I just finished ‘The Trial’ by Kafka. That’s not even a difficult book, but I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone that’s read it!

D: I’ve read it! I found it quite funny actually. I thought heaps of people have read it. It’s like having the Velvet’s Banana album in your collection...

M: Come to think of it, I had met a guy who’d read it, and he gave me a book by Jean Genet, ‘A Thief’s Journal’, which is interesting because the question you asked about aestheticism... this book is about the aesthetic of degradation.

D: Yeah. Do you like George Bataille?

M: I don’t know who he is... what’s he like?

D: He’s French, ‘erotica noir’. I think he’s like a cross between Baudelaire and Bukowski.

M: Sounds interesting. The way the French go about creating, and looking at art, is just beautiful. I love French literature and most of their other art forms. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a French film that I didn’t like. Europe is tremendously rich in art and history.

D: In what way was living in Australia valuable to you?

M: Well, it got me out of England. I got here and I didn’t like living here, but I always wanted to leave England. The English speaking culture leaves a lot to be desired as far as art is concerned. It’s like, “Don’t think you’re something special, don’t be pretentious, be one of the lads....” It’s not that I mind being one of the lads, it’s just that I don’t want to feel guilty for reading a Kafka book, and people I’m hanging around with think I’m a prat for talking about it. If I want to read a fantastic piece of philosophical literature, then I want to be able to bring it up without someone saying, “Aw, come on, shut up.” I mean, Britain’s got a huge intellectual nucleus but I never found it myself.

D: When you were busking around Europe in the early days, what songs did you play? Neil Young?

M: Yeah, ‘Man Needs A Maid’... some Dylan... ‘Blowing In The Wind’, Beatles ‘Ticket To Ride’... a lot of my own songs too. I didn’t take busking seriously in that I was an artist singing his own songs to the public, it was more as a concept to get around Europe. I’ve busked in so many places... from Bondi to Geneva to West Berlin to London to Liverpool, I’ve been threatened, taken to dinner... I met a lot of girls (laughs). It was very interesting. I can’t really remember what other songs I did...

D: You like Kevin Ayers, don’t you?

M: I love Kevin Ayers. I’ve got all his records. He’s brilliant. I’m a 70’s prog-rock fan... Caravan, Gentle Giant...

D: What contemporary bands do you like?

M: I like Ride... Chapterhouse... My Bloody Valentine... I buy everything that Julian Cope puts out. (Marty’s record purchases in Perth included The Eurhythmics, Julie London, Simple Minds, Lewis Furey, Scott Walker’s ‘Joanna’, and The Models ‘Oh Darling’...)

D: Who would you team up for the ultimate supergroup?

M: You want me to throw some names around that I’m going to regret later? (laughs) Um... David Sylvian on drums... Roy Harper on bass... Kate Bush on lead guitar... and Nick Drake on lead vocals.

D: Who would you really love to work with?

M: Well, I’d say Tom Verlaine but I’ve already worked with him. Both Jay and I played on his last album, but we didn’t get credited. I like Richard Thompson a lot. I think he’s a great underrated unknown... especially in this country.

D: There’s a story that’s been going around Perth that you wanted to join The Stems as a bass player around 1984...

M: No...

D: So it’s a load of bullshit?

M: Um, I do remember The Stems, but...

D: It’s all a blur...

M: Well, it is a blur!! (laughs) 1984 was a very blurry year for me.

D: So you never had any intentions of joining The Stems... which is what I figured anyway.

M: Well, I’m not going to answer that question with a direct “No”, because it might have been a case of a guy in a bar asking me to play a bit of guitar with them, so I can’t confirm or deny that, because I can’t remember.

D: Have you heard your songs in very strange places?

M: Um... I walked into a café in Stockholm, and they were playing Charlie Sexton’s album, and I wrote one of the songs on that...

D: That’s right, ‘I Can’t Cry’...

M: Yeah. I was having dinner with my girlfriend, and the song came on. It’s funny, because even though I wrote the song, I didn’t recognize it, because it was being performed by someone else.

D: Do you like it?

M: He’s a damn good singer but, in my eyes, he hasn’t got his direction together. His cheekbones are singularly responsible for ruining his career... nobody believes a guy who looks that good!

D: Could you write, perform or release a rap record?

M: No. I don’t relate musically to something which is based on rhythm. I relate to melody and words. Rap is words, of course, but the medium used to make rap successful doesn’t interest me at all. I can’t understand how everybody has the same beat. I accept it as a form of music, but resentfully.

D: Is romantic sentiment devalued in the pop format?

M: Is shallow pop meaningless? Is Kylie Minogue meaningless?

D: I mean, encapsulating what you feel and writing a pop song about it...

M: As long as it’s sincere, and it works. If you have the ability to translate it into your art form, I believe it can elevate the sentiment. If it works. Like Picasso painted some paintings that just didn’t work. That’s why I mentioned Kylie Minogue. When she expresses something emotional and romantic, which she does in a lot of her songs, a lot of kids believe it. You or I might say it’s shallow, but is it? I don’t know if it is. Romance is quite a dangerous concept, because it’s a lot to do with delusion.

D: I think delusion, and self-delusion plays a big part in the creative process, just taking on the role of an artist seems to be transcending and humbling at the same time.

M: Yeah. I think one of the good things about self-delusion, artistically or otherwise, is that you don’t analyse yourself out of existence. Self delusion gives you a framework, a set of principles and ideas in which you can create, whereas if you have all the answers to all the secret corners of your life, and the world, then there’s no point in creating in the first place. Maybe that’s delusionary, I don’t know.

D: When were you bitten by the guitar bug?

M: Well, in the early 70’s, I guess. I have an elder brother who was into the Beatles and the pop music of the 60’s, and he inspired me a lot. He bought a guitar when he was 21, and I got an acoustic for £5, and then I got a Rickenbacker--I was 14, would you believe--for £60.

D: What’s your favourite guitar?

M: I’ve had a few favourite guitars stolen in America, actually. I’d say a 1960 Blonde Rickenbacker, which is a beautiful, beautiful guitar that I use all the time. I like the one I use on the video for ‘Milky Way’, that’s a really rare 1948 acoustic Rickenbacker that was lent to me by the Rickenbacker museum.

D: In past interviews, you mention sartorial elegance, but I’ve seen the very first video for ‘Unguarded Moment’.

M: Why, what was I wearing? I can’t remember. It was a jumper, wasn’t it?

D: The video before that, the first one. It looked like beige tracksuit pants and...

M: Tracksuit pants!! No, no. I’ve never worn tracksuit pants in my whole life. Never. (laughs) I’m not that interested in fashion anymore. I don’t go op-shopping anymore... I’ve got too many clothes.

D: What do you think of Madonna playing Frida Kahlo in the movie she’s making?

M: (laughs) It’s hilarious. It shows how mixed up the world really is.

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Transcribed by Mike Fulmer

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