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MWP talks to Tunetown about Spirit Level Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 July 1992

The interview is very wide-ranging, covering a lot about Marty's thoughts on life.

TUNETOWN/solt (?) (Australia)
c. July 1992

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Marty Willson-Piper

by Kylie Burtland

Man of Letters, Troubadour and guitarist with Australia’s most infamous and enigmatic band, the Church, Marty Willson-Piper is an articulate and interesting interviewee. On the eve of the release of his new album, ‘Spirit Level’, Willson-Piper spoke to Kylie Burtland about music, literature and life.

“The Church and I have always felt like we don’t fit into this silly old world.”

It’s true! Renaissance men have no place in this world. They are an anachronism or at best a social anomaly. But when Marty Willson-Piper escapes the context of the Church, his solo work reveals a renaissance attitude, a thoughtful focus on the humanities that may otherwise fail to be expressed. It is an opportunity that isn’t afforded by being part of a band. He offers:

“I’ve always thought the Church was a chemistry between the members of the Church which featured the lyrical vision and voice of Steve (Kilbey) and my guitar playing as the focus. As soon as I’m outside the Church, I throw all that out and start thinking in a different way.”

Willson-Piper has just released his latest solo album, ‘Spirit Level’ which has captured better than ever before his fascination with the incongruity between the poetic and the clumsy, the earthly and the divine, and features his trademark lush harmonies.

Having assumed that music would be the focus of Marty Willson-Piper’s world I am surprised when he stresses:

“With some people, music just runs through their body like sex. I put literature above music. I just think it’s a better art form, more sincere and more stimulating.”

In the style of the 13th century troubadours, Willson-Piper’s musical aesthetic incorporates far more than the need for self expression. It is a kind of holistic philosophy he has constructed from his life’s experiences and from literature.

“My aesthetic is a mixture between the profound and the earthly. I am fascinated by the idea of the street cleaner and the professor sitting in a café, chatting and that fundamental gap being closed. I don’t believe the gap needs to exist. It’s ignorance that keeps the gap open. A very common disease among intelligent people is that they are always having to justify how clever they are when the actual fact is that when you weigh up everything you know against what you don’t, then everybody is a fool.”

Somewhere along the line, Willson-Piper has spent a long time in the company of his frontal lobes sorting out his position on the human condition and his role in it. Not content with the mindless rock’n’roll aesthetic of consumerism, Willson-Piper seems to have prioritised seeking out experience. His fascination for life and humanity makes for great conversation and a music that can be interpreted on many levels.

Since there are many images of the natural world in his lyrics I asked him if that was what inspired him:

“I can’t relate, for instance, to the vastness of the Australian landscape. Actually I feel more at home in a bookshop or a café than I would sitting on a hill looking out into infinity but that might be because I grew up in the industrial North of England. I get more of an inspiration from culture itself.”

Nevertheless, the stars and the sky, all be they often personified, are common images in Willson-Piper’s songs. I asked him what they represented to him.

“Optimism, I think. The track, ‘Turn Away to the Stars’, for instance, means that through it all, whatever goes wrong, I can just turn away to eternity. It represents endless possibility. That vastness forces me to put trivial things into perspective.”

Is the only ‘Spirit Level’ that Australians understand the one they find in their local pubs:

“I think it’s to do with people being pigeon-holed. To me, those old post office pigeon-holes, where every little letter has to have it’s place, is analogous to society. If you put a letter for Wollongong in the Newcastle hole, it’s like it’s the biggest disaster on earth. But I always have the impulse to take that whole frame and throw it out the door and take each letter individually and uncover all the warmth and personality that pigeon-holing has destroyed.” Willson-Piper raises a reproachful eyebrow at this humble journo and erupts:

“The media are largely to blame for the perpetuation of the cliché that so affects everybody. You’ve got a hole in your jeans, you must be a tramp. You’re wearing a suit, you must be honest. These values are still the pillars of society but they are false pillars made of cardboard. And they’re trying to prop up the whole of civilisation with cardboard pillars.”

“People are also very much into belonging. One of the reasons that I always wanted to get out of England for was because I was always told that England was the greatest place on earth and I woke up one day thinking, ‘England’s the best place in the world? You mean, the class system’s fair? You mean the fact that people are dumping chemicals in the rivers is fair?’ One day I just quit and walked on society.

“I hitch-hiked all around Europe trying to break down this British conditioning. What I discovered was that British attitudes are narrow and xenophobic, they eat shit food, live in cold houses and let their old people die of hypothermia with absolutely no conscious at all.”

After several years in Australia playing with the Church and discovering that like England, Australian society was based on the “same lying, clichéd load of shit”, Willson-Piper was inevitably drawn to Stockholm, Sweden:

“Love was what attracted me there. I have a Swedish girlfriend who I have been with for seven years. I’m madly in love with her and we have a three-year-old daughter.”

I wondered where his general attitudes and ideas had sprung from and he replied without hesitation,

“My dad. He’s 72. he’s got a hammer and sickle tattooed to his arm. he’s a socialist and he really believes in people. From his experience fighting in World War II he has some peculiar attitudes like, ‘the only good German is a dead one’, but although he’s still very bitter he can ultimately forget it and because he’s a socialist he really wants people to appreciate each other. I get a lot of my more philanthropic tendencies from him.”

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Transcribed by Mike Fulmer

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