Interview with Marty Willson-Piper of The Church

Los Angeles, June 1994.

by Brett Dicks

"As a four-piece rock band, what else could The Church have done after Priest=Aura asks Marty Willson-Piper. "We had just made this wonderfully introspective, moody and thematic record which was very much a case of 'get into it or see you later'. But it was the kind of album it was because we were basically a four piece trying to be interesting but not being able to experiment. We were all in our own roles, which made it so hard."

Since the release of the Priest=Aura album much has changed within the ranks of The Church. At the commencement of their last Australian tour, guitarist and co-founder Peter Koppes announced his intention to end his relationship with the band. Consequently, the future direction of The Church was effectively left to fate and circumstance rather than to deliberation on the part of its members.

"When Peter told us that he was leaving we just looked at each other and said 'Okay fine, if you can't see how good this is, however frustrating it may be at times, then fair enough. Good luck and we will see you later.' So we did our tour, played our gigs, flew on our planes and, when the final gig came along, Steve announced that it was to be Pete's last show. At the end of the show, that was it."

"But that's another era now and it's in the past. And that is fine, because if things hadn't happened as they did, and Pete had not left, we wouldn't have made the record that we have now."

It is one of the hottest days that Los Angeles has experienced so far this summer. The ground acts as a heat sink and weather forecasters fear another spate of fires such as the devastating blazes of late last year. As the mercury soars, the air and smog thickens, with the only refuge from the day being found within an air-conditioned interior.

As The Church's guitarist reclines in his chair within the boardroom of Arista Records' Los Angeles office, he apologizes for his unfortunate bout of sinus. For an Englishman who resides in Sweden, he is finding the current climatic extremes more than a little disconcerting. Marty and his Church counterpart Steve Kilbey are currently within the United States, having just completed a four-week promotional tour. The tour was designed to promote Sometime Anywhere, The Church's ninth studio album which was recorded in Sydney late last year. Upon the album's US release the duo took to the road. As well as undertaking the obligatory press and media appointments, their whirlwind sojourn also provided the pair with the opportunity of presenting some acoustic perforrnances.

"It was one of the hardest tours we have ever done," recalls Marty. "Now that mightn't sound like a very big deal coming from someone who has toured their arse off in Australia, someone who has played Deception Bay, Warnambool and Geraldton But this tour was really tough."

"We had shows everyday and late night and early morning flights. One day we would be playing with The Pretenders in Denver, the next in some small club in St. Louis. In between we would be doing interviews. There was no routine to it which made it very difficult. It was certainly an interesting way of doing a tour."

The venues for the tour were as diverse in stature as they were in size. They put in appearances at multiband, outdoor festivals along with the likes of The Pretenders, The Rollins Band and Frente, they playedclubs and theaters, a cinema, and even did a couple of nights in a laundromat.

"One of the best gigs was in Salt Lake City," recalls Marty, ~where we played in a cinema after a Ginsberg film. We had a captive audience of three or four hundred who were deprived of beer! So we lit some incense, played with a Marlon Brando film being shown behind us and had people screaming the whole way through it-they loved it. Who would have thought that Salt Lake City would have had an audience who would want to be excited by us ?"

"Another was in a laundromat in Seattle. We did two nights in this place which was kind of like the one in 'My Beautiful Laundrette'. It was great, the Seattle grunge audience really took to us."

More than anything else, the tour offered an opportunity to reaffirm The Church within the American music scene. And with much of the material on Sometime Anywhere not lending itself particularly well to an acoustic approach, it also offered Marty and Steve the chance to present a new approach on some older material.

"You have to remember that this is The Church you are talking about," affirms Marty. 'We make a record which is not at all acoustic and we decide to promote it acoustically. Then, when we do go out to promote it, we play only one song off the record. So rather than being any sort of insight into what the record was going to be, it was more a way of making The Church visible."

"Seeing Steve and I play this way is an unusual thing. We did some old Church songs along with one of the new ones, we did songs from my solo stuff, songs from Steve's solo stuff, and even some covers. It was a quirky and interesting version of The Church, one that people over here had not previously seen."

"And the acoustic thing is really great," he adds. "I was talking to Steve yesterday and we both feel that it is probably the most enjoyable thing that we have done yet And although I don't get the chance to make a real row on the guitar, I do try. It may be acoustic, but we try not to play like we are in Simon and Garfunkel," smirks the Englishman.

Steve Kilbey and Marty Willson-Piper wrote, recorded and mixed Sometime Anywhere within a two month period late last summer. Recalling past frustrations incurred by the task of finding a suitable producer, the pair opted for the production skills of Marty's life-long friend, Dare Mason. But before the trio could set themselves up in Steve's Sydney recording studio, the issue of the album's production had to be finalised with their record company.

"Dare is an accomplished engineer and producer but he is not famous. It is ridiculous, the world is full of incredibly talented people, but unfortunately the world is also full of successful people who are bloody idiots!"

"We have made nine albums and that is just with The Church-never mind our solo projects-and after fourteen years together we know how it works. It is all about our emotions, and for someone else to tell you how to use your own emotions is quite bizarre."

The Church got what they wanted and, with Dare Mason's assistance, once again set about weaving their craft But unlike past recording ventures undertaken by the band, this time they found themselves in the rather precarious position of entering the studio with no songs. Initially within The Church, songwriting was predominantly the domain of vocalist Steve Kilbey. During the mid 1980s the band underwent a transformation and their approach to composing became a combined foray.

The band would compose and refine their material in a rehearsal studio, over the period of a month or two. Once satisfied with their endeavors, they would enlist a producer and progress to the recording studio. This approach worked well for the four-piece ensemble. It immediately spawned their critically acclaimed album Heyday, thus paving the way for their future successes.

Next came Starf sh and with it the recognition that the band had so long deserved. Two more albums followed, Gold Afternoon Fix and their majestic classic of 1992, Priest=Aura. In keeping with its predecessors, Sometime Anywhere is a reflection of the chemistry between its collaborators, yet this time The Church seems to have been guided by a different light: liberation.

Pete was always a more formalised musician than Steve or I," explains Marty. "On this record, when it came to just the two of us working together, we had only each other to please. We soon discovered that we could write interestingly together in a new way; so if we could do that, we could also do our old style. Then the whole record flew along very, very easily."

"What we did with this record-which most bands would not have the guts to do-was go into the studio without any songs. So instead of writing a song, rehearsing it and then going into the studio and finding that you have lost all of those interesting and colourful bits which make music great, we just switched the machine to record and jammed straight onto tape."

"If the second verse was one bar longer than the first we didn't care. If the song was nine minutes long instead of five, so what, we didn't edit it. We just bought everything in, all of those little scrapes and rings that the guitar makes, and when the drums stopped we started again."

"Ironically, the first song we wrote when we got into the studio was 'Lost My Touch'. The music was so interesting. It seemed like a good rap song and the idea of having a world weary, cynical feel in the verse was just so appropriate. And because the verse was so jarnmed, the chorus just seemed to float off somewhere beautiful; all of a sudden the cynicism of the verse turned into the sympathy of the chorus."

"It all flowed together so easily. Being able to do that in a first song showed us, in true Church irony, that we probably won't lose our touch. You have to be brave and for a first song, when there is just the two of you left after fourteen years, that is a pretty brave piece of music."

Being just the two of us there was no role-playing," explains Marty. "I could play half the bass on the album if I wanted too and in the end that made for a far more across-the-board musical input than if it were still Pete and I as the guitarists. I would come up with some loop idea or even get on the drum kit and say 'What about this?'. There was no one to say 'You can't do that'. Suddenly we had freedom."

The first single is me singing a duet with Steve! Steve has such a really cool voice and has a great Iyrical style and there I was in a position of having to write half the Iyrics and sing half this song. That is not an easy thing to do, but I did it and it worked. We seem to complement each other and that is why we are in a group together."

The thing with Steve being the singer and writing most of the words is just basically because he is so good at it. There was a point in Pink Floyd's early days where Roger Waters took on that job and Dave Gilmour became the lead guitarist. But Gilmour also sang a couple songs, such as 'Comfortably Numb', which were great."

It is kind of like that with Steve and I. Steve has this unique lyrical concept and sings most of the songs and, like Gilmore, I play lead and sing a couple and it all works really well."

Perhaps the secret to The Church's harmony can be found outside the band itself. While The Church may have been the chariot which carried both Steve Kilbey and Marty Willson-Piper deep into the realms of the music industry, the pair have now made more records outside of the band than they have in it.

Steve Kilbey has amassed an impressive array of solo and collaborative credentials. He has released four solo albums and has worked with a diversity of personalities from Australian group Curious (yellow) to Canada's Mae Moore, from former Go Between Grant McLennan to Melbourne stalwart Stephen Cummings.

While equaling his partner in solo releases Marty has also spent the past two years in the now defunct All About Eve. He recently formed his own band, Never Swallow Stars, along with two members of the former British outfit.

Yet, with both having been involved in a diverse range of solo projects, the one unifying constant within each of their musical spheres has always been The Church. And even after nine albums and fourteen years Marty still feels that while ever The Church has something to say, it has a future.

I can wax poetically all day and all night about how fantastic it is to be in The Church. But some bloke back in Sydney may think that I am a complete wanker, which is fair enough. We are probably not the best band in the world, but then again we are not the worst either. We just try to maintain some kind of artistic direction and try to create interesting music."

"We are not in it for anything other than to make interesting music. Whether we are commercially successful is not important -- it's important to the record company but not to us. If we can't afford to do it like this we will scale it all down until we can afford to do it."