Marty Speaks To "13"

by John Micek

John runs an online magazine called "13". It's a great read, so make sure you have a look at his site after you've read this !

It's 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in the middle of August and Marty Willson-Piper's legs hurt.

"They bloody hurt, I don't know what's wrong with them," Willson-Piper says from a studio a few hours outside Stockholm, Sweden, where he's recording the major label debut of a Swedish band. The pressure is on, and he feels it.

"It's pretty serious," he says. "It's Warners (Warner Brothers). It's a proper thing. It's not like some mate called me up."

But, there are other things to talk about, of course, like how his band, The Church, has just released its 11th album, the new American and European tour, and the return of founding Churchster Peter Koppes.

But my God, his legs hurt. What's a globe-trotting guitarist to do?

Well, if you're The Church, you do what you've always done: Release a clutch of gorgeous, textured and woefully underlooked records, and keep plugging away.

It's been eight years (four, if you count the handful of acoustic gigs Willson-Piper and Church bassist and vocalist Steven Kilbey did in 1994) since The Church have set foot on American shores. In that time, Alternative Rock has come and gone, the Spice Girls have become a fact of life, and The Church's breakthrough single, 1988's "Under The Milkyway" has become a staple of the dread "Retro-80s Lunches" that are a fixture on just about every American radio station.

Not that Willson-Piper cares that much. The Church have a new album, "Hologram of Baal," a new label, Thirsty Ear in the U.S., Cooking Vinyl in England, and they've never been ones to care too much about fashion or the prevailing musical winds.

"We don't operate in the Real World," he says with laugh over the Transatlantic phone line, his voice gradually becoming more animated. "We go into the studio, we ignore everything that's happening: what's hip, what's not hip. We just don't care.

"We make records we like," he continues. "As soon as you stop doing what anyone wants you to do, you are in big, bad trouble. If we release a record and we get 2,000 bad reviews, we go 'Humph, that's nice, let's make another record.' If it sells 200,000, we go, 'Humph, let's make another record.'"

And that's what the Aussie band has been doing with bi-annual regularity since 1981, when they made their first splash with "The Unguarded Moment" (a song they reputedly now hate and refuse to play live). What followed were tours upon tours, new records, new labels, new managers, and a Spinal Tap-like turnover behind the drum riser, right up to 1988, and the breakthrough "Starfish," and the beautiful "Under the Milky Way." The album, which went Gold, effectively closed the book on The Church, chapter one.

Chapter Two opened with 1990's "Gold Afternoon Fix," a record that saw the band teamed again with studio ringer Waddy Wachtel, who twirled the dials on "Starfish," and the departure of drummer Richard Ploog. Ploog was replaced with drum machines on part of the record, and on tour with Patti Smith band drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. The Church returned in 1992 with "Priest=Aura," a moody and dark record that was light years away from the chiming guitar pop of the previous two outings. That's also when Koppes decided to throw in his hat, announcing he would leave the band at the end of the 1992 world tour.

Kilbey and Willson-Piper returned to the studio as a two piece, turning out 1994's strange and wonderful "Sometime Anywhere," and label Arista decided to drop them anyway. After some touring, Kilbey, Willson-Piper, new drummer Tim Powles, and Koppes (kind of), turned out 1996's "Magician Among the Spirits." It was a very weird album indeed, full of long instrumental numbers, a cover of Steve Harley's "The Ritz," and the best single to date, "Comedown." But their American label went bankrupt, and the album disappeared as soon as it was released.

So, the band returned to the studio again. And that's where we find them today, on the verge of releasing "Hologram of Baal," a record that unites the cinematic soundscapes of "Priest=Aura," with the focused songcraft of "Starfish," or "Gold Afternoon Fix." Like the previous two outings, the record was written entirely in the studio, and the way it sounds, Willson-Piper says, is entirely accidental.

"As usual, when The Church makes a record, we jam and write the structure of the songs," he says. "Then Steve comes in and writes lyrics and some melodies. It's such a random process. Because we write in such a random way, it all comes out sounding like The Church."

Oh come on, you must have some idea, right? I press him, but Willson-Piper is unyielding.

"We don't understand what happens," he says emphatically. "Music is magic, isn't it? None of us know where it comes from. Why is it someone can pick up a guitar and it blows you away, and someone else picks up a guitar, and it means absolutely, bloody bugger-all?

"I just pick up my guitar, and Steve and Pete and Tim join in, and at the end of the day, it means something to someone," he concludes. "We can't be specific about where it comes from."

Whatever it is, it seems to work. "Hologram of Baal," is the band's strongest work to date. The first single, "Louisiana," is a dreamy romp through Kilbey's subconscious, while, "No Certainty Attached," captures the intensity of The Church's live shows. All this is augmented, of course, by the fact that Willson-Piper and Koppes are finally playing together again. The latter guested on a few tracks on "Magician Among the Spirits," and is now a full-time part of the fold once more.

But Willson-Piper says there was very little adjustment, and naturally fell back into playing with Koppes.

"We've got the kind of relationship that works without working on it," he says. "Usually, we find the chords separately, and then work together."

Willson-Piper also says the addition of Powles, an old friend from the Australian live scene, has added a new dimension to the band, melding Ploog's wild-child spirit, with Daugherty's rock-steady timing.

"Jay Dee always wanted to be a paid session man," he says, adding that Powles also brings considerable skill as a producer and multi-instrumentalist to the band. "Tim is willing to take what comes with being in a band. You have to take the highs with the lows."

The fact that "Hologram of Baal" was even made at all is a testament to the band's survival instincts. A year ago at this time, Kilbey was telling the Australian press that he planned to make one more Church record and then pack it in. The album was financed by an Australian tour last year, and made during breaks in the schedule.

"He does that every two months or six years," Willson-Piper says of Kilbey's announcement of the band's demise. "It's just Steve being Steve, and one of these days, he's going to mean it.

"He doesn't want to feel like he's doing it if it's not worth doing it. Sometimes, when your record company is going bankrupt, it doesn't feel like it's worth it," he continues. "But, when you go in front of 2,000 screaming people every night _ it's definitely worth it."

Copyright 1998 by Misguided Efforts Inc.

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