Originally published in X-Press on Thursday 12th November 1998.
Having re-emerged this year with a new album, Hologram of Baal, The Church hit Metropolis Fremantle this Friday, November 13, with special guests The Chevelles. Gareth Gorman caught up with guitarist Marty Willson-Piper in London recently.
Marty Willson-Piper has just completed his and Steve Kilbey's soundcheck for the duo's upcoming shows to promote The Church's new album, Hologram of Baal. While the show may be as a duo, the band is once again firmly in place and functioning as four members.
Released in the UK before Australia, Hologram of Baal is the group's first album to be released over here with independent merchants Cooking Vinyl. In Australia, they are receiving major release through Festival Records. The Church has been through many incarnations on their long often mystical meandering, but Steve Kilbey and Marty Willson-Piper have remained constants and it's hard to imagine Kilbey's word-play and low monotone without Willson-Piper's revelatory, intricate playing.
It's been a long ride, generally a consistent ride and never a dull one for The Church. The Liverpool-born Willson-Piper hasn't been based in Australia for 15 years and now finds London life as comfortable as it can possibly be. This interview takes place in the fine dark, dark surrounds of the Borderline, smack bang in the middle of colourful yet sleazy Soho.
XP: The title, Hologram of Baal, sounds good to me, but what does it mean?
MWP: Originally, it was called Hologram of Allah. What happened was that Steve was looking for a number in my address book and found one of the pages I'd used to jot ideas down and he saw it and he went, 'that's a good title'. I went, 'use it, it's yours'. Often we name the songs that he writes the lyrics for, we name the song and he goes off and writes. Someone may go 'Buffalo' and that's the starting point for him to go off and write. Anyway, he decided to call the new album that. Originally, we were going to call it Bastard Universe, but I thought Bastard Universe was a great name for the bonus EP, but not for the album itself. It was too negative. But everyone started freaking out about the use of Allah in the title and I was going 'what's the matter with you?'. And they said 'you know, Muslims and all that'. But as far as I knew the thing with fatwas are that you have to betray the religion and be a Muslim which is what happened with Salman Rushdie. But the consensus was still... so we went with Baal.
XP: I was having a struggle with the title, it seemed to evoke something, but I didn't know what.
MWP: But that's the whole thing with The Church isn't it? The ambiguity and the evocative thing with the lyrics and the title and the mood - the whole thing. It's funny because the thing about us is that we're quite a rock band really. We're a funny mixture between rock and mood.
XP: Louisiana, the lead single has an Under The Milky Way glow to it.
MWP: Do you think? It's a funny thing isn't it? The thing about us is it's hard for us to find singles really. It's one of those irresistible songs, really - not that I expect all the 18 year old South Londoners to go out and get a copy of it. But as you say, it's a very accessible song and very beautiful. It's got great lyrics and, again, is quite evocative.
XP: Anaesthesia is the first song, lulling and dragging the listener into the depths of the album. Is that why it's there at the start?
MWP: The whole feel of the song is timeless, the guitar line in the chorus. When I first heard it when we were mixing the album I thought, 'Shit, I don't know if that should be the first track on the record'. It took me a lot of listens before I got used to that as the first song. Then I got used to it and now everyone's saying 'Wow, that's a great opening track', but I couldn't hear that straight away.
XP: Are you someone who has sounds racing through your head that you attempt to capture while in the recording studio?
MWP: With Anaesthesia, I heard that complete guitar line I play right from the beginning. That happens sometimes when you get visions of songs or ideas that you can't resist or leave home. It just happens, sometimes. Sometimes, these songs fall out of the sky.
XP: With you living here in the UK and Steve having his studio in Australia, how do you tee up the working relationship you've got as far as making albums?
MWP: We just go, meet and jam. We say, 'right it's October, let's move, let's jam'. We then have to work out some interesting way for someone to pay for the air ticket to get us there. This record we made without a record deal. We got the deal and gave them a finished album. It's coming out on Festival in Australia, we are sort of got big in Australia. When I say big, I don't know what big means. I don't mean Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil or INXS big. But we'll sell out two shows in Sydney, we're doing a festival and things like that.
XP: Didn't The Church officially break up for a while?
MWP: No. No. It never happened. Everyone tries to say it happened, but it didn't.
XP: I'm asking, I'm not saying.
MWP: (Laughs) The band never broke up, Pete left, Richard was pushed. Steve and I carried on then Tim joined the band and Pete came back and Steve said something like 'I don't know, maybe this will be the last tour'. He was just being Steve and just being negative.
XP: He's displayed some fine moods at shows, it's always a bit of a lottery as to what you'll get.
MWP: You should try playing in a band with him!
XP: What do you ascribe The Church's longevity to? 1981 was when you put out your first album, that's quite some time ago.
MWP: I think we're too good to split up. This album has the goods. Why would you split up? I mean, we're not making shit music. We don't hate each other, it's not boring. There's no reason at all.
XP: I remember seeing you support Moving Pictures in 1982...
MWP: Oh God.
XP: At the Perth Entertainment Centre.
MWP: Oh yeah. It was horrible. Horrible, horrible gig. Yeah we stormed off. Hey, Brian (their UK manager pottering about) will love this. We did a gig at the Perth Entertainment Centre in front of what, 10,000 people?
XP: Well, 8,000 probably.
MWP: And we walked off stage supporting another band... 8,000 people. Steve's bass amp wasn't working properly and he just threw his bass down and walked off stage and the whole band walked off. We wouldn't go back on for half an hour and the audience booed us (laughs at the memory). That's The Church. To think we were supporting Moving Pictures - they were terrible, but they were successful.
XP: How do you feel these days about playing in comparison to say, the early years?
MWP: It's a funny thing when you see a band like us continuing, because most bands that started in 1980 aren't around anymore. I suppose some music is kind of timeless and sort of lasts forever. Other music is dated in 10 minutes and for some reason - not because we've tried to - but for some reason we've just managed to ride 18 years without anybody writing us off. No one has written it off as dated and they can't, because were not. This is our 11th album and it sounds as new as anything, but we're not trying to sound new. A lot of people make records and they say, 'Oh we've got to sound like that because it's the new thing'. Jimmy Page has done something with Puff Daddy - can you believe that?
XP: It's probably best encapsulated within the Trainspotting text, the theory that artists inevitably lose the grasp of what they do that's special somewhere along the way. It's very rare to keep going solidly and surely.
MWP: It is very rare and I'm not sure as to how we didn't lose the way. I'm also not sure why we didn't, because we didn't, I guess we just kept on taking the right turns. The thing is, we always did things that people classified as mistakes.
MWP: I remember going on Countdown in make-up in 1981 and everyone saying our career was ruined. I remember Steve hosting Countdown and that was a mistake. I remember Steve doing an interview saying he was the best songwriter in the world and that was a mistake. I remember we toured England with Duran Duran, that was a mistake. Then we came off the tour because we couldn't stand it and that was a mistake. We did loads of things that people at the time told us were big mistakes. We made an obscure album like Priest=Aura and everybody told us that was a mistake.
XP: What has been the most extreme fan behaviour you've encountered?
MWP: We were doing a gig in America and this girl came backstage and Steve and I were talking to her. She then says 'excuse me, could you me a favour?'. We said, 'yeah'. She looked at Steve and said 'Would you hold my eye?'. She then took her eye out and placed it in his hand. So he did. She said, 'Thanks very much, that means a lot to me'. I'm standing right next to him and I tell you it was a bit bizarre.
XP: What were the darkest days of The Church and how did you overcome them?
MWP: We had times where we didn't get along. I left the band once - for about 10 minutes. We were on tour and I got pissed off about something or other. But after I'd left the band, Steve and I sat down and talked about it and it was okay.