In the Church of Marty Willson-Piper

By Brian L. Knight

Australia’s The Church first gained widespread fame with their 1988 hit "Under the Milky Way" from the album Starfish and subsequent follow up tunes such as 1990’s "Metropolis". In 1999, the Church released an interesting record on Thirsty Ear Records called A Box of Birds, which is a collection of cover tunes. The highlights? Neil Young’s "Cortez the Killer", Kevin Ayer’s "Decadence", Iggy Pop’s "The Endless Sea", George Harrison’s "It’s All Too Much", Hawkwind’s "Silver Machine", David Bowie’s "All The Young Dudes" and Television’s "Friction". To some, a album full of covers may seem as a bit of a cop-out but not in this case. It is a collection of superb songs and they are all really well done.

The Vermont Review spoke to The Church’s Marty Willson-Piper from his apartment where we soon discovered that he was actually not from Australia but rather England and that he is spending a few months in New York City. He teamed up with The Church when he followed a girl down to Australia, but now all the bandmembers spend their times in NYC, England and Sweden and they get together about once a year. Through our discussion, we discovered quite a bit about Willson-Piper’s love of English progressive rock, his dislike of the movie Velvet Goldmine and Limp Bizkit and that Y2K is nothing but a crock of shit.

VR: Why did you guys decide to do an album full of cover tunes?

MW-P: Originally, we were going to record a live album and we then were going to put out a covers record through the fanzine. But we decided not to release the live album because we didn’t like it. So the record company said you have to release a record then……..because they were expecting a record from us. We said, "OK, why don’t we do another eight songs for the covers records and turn it into an album."

VR: There are a lot of interesting cuts on the album, one being Hawkwind’s "Silver Machine." Did you grow up listening to Hawkwind?

MW-P: Oh yeah, I was at the concert – the famous Space Ritual concert which was recorded in Liverpool and London (Space Ritual was Hawkwind’s breakthrough 1973 live album). I was actually at that concert as a teenager.

VR: That must have been quite a show. Was Robert Calvert with the band at that time?

MW-P: Robert Calvert was coming in and out. When I think of Hawkwind – I know that Robert Calvert is important in their history, but when I think of Hawkwind, I think of Dave Brock, Lemmy, Nik Turner, Dik Mik, Del Dettmar and Simon King. That is the lineup that I think of. And Stacia.

VR: Stacia the dancer? Did she do some crazy moves during the shows?

MW-P: Oh yeah. For sure. Hawkwind never made much of an impression in America, did they?

VR: No, not really.

MW-P: Americans just don’t get it. Anything that has to do with space rock is always good in my book. I was having this conversation with Mark Burgess from the Chameleons and he was saying that if a band has anything to do with space in them, they are usually good.

VR: What are some other space rockers that you like?

MW-P: Ramses. Anything by the German bands – Amon Duul and all those bands. All those kraut rock bands. And Guru Guru.

VR: How about some the newer bands, like Ozric Tentacles?

MW-P: Oh yeah, I got all their albums. I just got their newest album, Waterfall Cities. Another favorite band of mine is Porcupine Tree.

VR: Their newest album, Stupid Dream, is fantastic.

MW-P: My favorite album by them is The Sky Moves Sideways. You have to get that one. It is a great album. It has a Hipgnosis cover (the company that did most of the Pink Floyd album covers).

VR: What do you think of America’s closest thing to space rock – Phish? Have you ever listened to them?

MW-P: P-H-I-S-H? I didn’t know that they were space rock.

VR: Not by definition, but they are close. They tend to have extended improvisational jams that have a touch of progressive to them. They are given the moniker of being a hippie band, but they are a whole lot more.

MW-P: Oh really, I think I will have to get one of their records. Which one is the best?

(There is a slight pause as Marty retrieves a pen and paper)

VR: That is a tough one. For a studio effort, I think Billy Breathes is really well produced, but they are a live band, so try A Live One or Slip, Stitch and Pass. The latter one has a Hipgnosis cover as well. Breaking away from space rock, but still an interesting band is Television, who you also cover on A Box of Birds.

MW-P: I went and saw Tom Verlaine (former lead guitarist and singer for Television) play the other night.

VR: Is he still playing a lot Television stuff?

MW-P: No. He was doing something called Music for Film. He was playing soundtracks to these live films by Man Ray –films from the 1930s and 1940s. It was he and another guitarist.

VR: More cuts from your album. How about David Bowie?

MW-P: I am not a big fan of anything by David Bowie since Scary Monsters. I just got the new album but I haven’t played it yet. I liked China Girl. I liked Loving the Alien. I liked Absolute Beginners. I liked the Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack. But that’s about it.

VR: It is kind of interesting that you cover both David Bowie and Television on A Box of Birds and that David Bowie cover’s Tom Verlaine’s "Kingdom Come" on Scary Monsters and Super Creeps

MW-P: Yeah that’s right.

VR: Yet another person that I find interesting on A Box of Birds is Kevin Ayers, who played in the Soft Machine as well as collaborated with Brian Eno.

MW-P: Yes. I am a huge fan of Kevin Ayers. Anything to do with the Canterbury scene, I am a big fan of. I just bought a Caravan live record – bootleg –the over day. You know, Kevin Ayers is not credited on that first Caravan album but he is pictured on the cover. That was a little twist of rock fate. I think he was in the band and then he left before they made the record but he made the photo session for it. I am not quite sure what the story was. I have all of Kevin Ayers’ records and all of Soft Machine’s records. And all of Caravan’s records. So anything that has to do with Canterbury…………. and the Wilde Flowers (The band that was responsible for spawning Caravan and Soft Machine) of course. And Steve Hillage who was in Khan. They have a great record called Space Shanty, which is a hard record to get.

VR: It is hard to find Steve Hillage’s solo stuff as well as his stuff with Khan and Egg.

MW-P: You also have to get Hillage’s first two albums. They are great. One is called "L" and the other is called Fish Rising . Those two are really great records. I recorded down there (Canterbury) when I was doing an All About Eve album so I got to hang out in Canterbury quite a lot.

VR: Do any of the "Canterbury" musicians hang out in Canterbury anymore? Is there anyplace there that you can treat as a Mecca for Canterbury music?

MW-P: No. There is just Canterbury Cathedral, which I am sure that they all walked around once or twice. I did not find any specific sanctum of glory.

VR: Jumping over to America. There is a cover of Iggy Pop on the album. Are you a big fan?

MW-P: I started getting into Iggy Pop when he was not with the Stooges but The Idiot. And then Lust is Life and then I have bought all of his albums since. Some of them are great, some of them aren’t.

VR: Speaking of Iggy Pop and David Bowie, did you see the movie Velvet Goldmine?

MW-P: Yeah. Terrible. I fought it was awful.

VR: What did you think of the soundtrack?

MW-P: I thought the choice of songs was really great but I thought that the whole presentation and representation of the era was terrible. I thought it was absolutely awful. If you were there, and I was, it was nothing like that. All of those inferences of the gay thing was totally unbelievable. That just didn’t happen. I mean, I know that David Bowie and Lou Reed said that they kissed or something. Glam rock in England was no about being gay. It was about dressing in weird clothes and liking the music.

VR: Well there you have it.

MW-P: And who the @%&* was Ewan MacGregor supposed to be?

VR: I think he was supposed to be Iggy Pop?

MW-P: Or?

VR: And uh……….Lou Reed?

MW-P: Or?……………Kurt Cobain. He looked a lot like Kurt Cobain. And all of that shagging that English guy on the roof. What a bunch of f*&%$ing stupidity that was. Meaningless, gratuitous homosexual sex. And Jack Fairy (a character from the movie)! Who the f#$%% was that supposed to be? The whole thing was ridiculous. And Placebo (a band on the soundtrack)………….yuck!

VR: Sounds like a touched on a good nerve there. Well, along the same lines as Velvet Goldmine, you should go see the play Hedwig and the Angry Inch while you are in New York City.

MW-P: What is it, a Glam rock play?


VR: Yes, with all original music.

MW-P: I will have to live it up to that recommendation.

VR: It seems that A Box of Birds has a lot of progressive and Glam rock musicians on it. Is there any of those styles in the Church?

MW-P: Yeah, there is a little bit of both those things in there. You know…….."You Still So Beautiful". "Grind" is a bit progressive. "Metropolis" has a little bit of Glam.

VR: What kind of impact did Syd Barrette era Pink Floyd have on the Church?

MW-P: No impact on sound but a big impact on my taste. I have always has Syd Barrett solo records and had them right from the beginning of time. I bought "See Emily Play" when it came out. And I have always been a huge fan of the early Pink Floyd records – without Barrett as well - Meddle, Obscured By Clouds, Ummugumma, Atom Heart Mother.

VR: I read on a website that the Church is often equated to the Byrds…….

MW-P: No that is not true. I am not equated to the Byrds. I was never a Roger McGuinn fan. I don’t mind him but I never grew up digging the Byrds. I never really discovered the Byrds until I started playing and people would say ‘You have a Rickenbacher 12 String. Just like the Byrds used to have. You have a Rickenbacher 12 String – you must like Roger McGuinn.’ And I said ‘ I don’t really know his stuff."

VR: You play Neil Young’s "Cortez the Killer" on Box of Birds. Do you think Young is the Godfather/Grandfather of Grunge?

MW-P: It’s not fair to label him with that. He is the grandfather of folk as well, then. Just because he rocks and he is over 50 doesn’t make him cooler than the fact that he plays beautiful acoustic songs. The kids want to like someone over 50 because he rocks. That is just stupid. Why does it matter if he rrrrrrrrooooooccccccccckkkkkks? We can rock after we turn 50 but so what. The big test is not winning the race but starting competing in it and surviving. It is doing what you feel like doing . Its like Nick Cave. I can’t believe what he has gotten away with doing. He got mellower and mellower and mellower because he started off so radical. Instead of people saying "oh, god. He has mellowed out." People love him for it. It is really bizarre.

VR: On your last little tour that you did, were you playing tunes from A Box of Birds?

MW-P: Four or five.

VR: Any plans for a video from any of the tunes on A Box of Birds?

MW-P: No

VR: What do you think of MTV?

MW-P: Well, its not MTV at all. Its Moderate Television. What’s the point! What’s the point of having a program called Music Television with no music on it. It is like an airline without flying.

VR: Besides A Box of Birds, have you written any other new songs?

MW-P: Yeah, we did one of the new songs live. We started a new record. We have a few songs written and recorded and few a backing tracks. We are going to continue in March with the record. I have a solo album coming out in February. It is a record that I made about five years ago and I just spent a week fixing it up in the studio about three months ago. So it is kind of an old, new record. It has never be heard. It is a bit "sing-songwrity" acoustic guitar. It is kind of a funny record - it is a contrasting. It is kind of lovey-dovey – I started it madly in love and I finished it left.

VR: What is it like playing in America, from a fan point of view?

MW-P: It’s good. They are really into it. American fans are really enthusiastic.

VR: Where do you like playing most?

MW-P: It depends how big you are in the place. Church fans are pretty mad wherever we play – Sydney, London, Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta. Atlanta has been the craziest crowd out of anywhere, which is really peculiar because it used to be dead. Seattle has a really good crowd –Portland as well.

VR: Is there a place that you played that you vow that you will never return to?

MW-P: Phoenix.

VR: How has the Church evolved since the popularity explosion of "Under the Milky Way"?

MW-P: Well, as with any good band, you evolve away from it. Most of the bad groups stay with it and then split up because of their lack of an imagination. I think more of the interesting groups usually jump away from the commercial aspects and get into a more experimenting or interesting place. I think that is what we do. Some people say that we are mad because we could have cashed in more on our success. But we can’t because we are not those people – we are just the confused idiots that we are. That’s all that we can be. And if people don’t like us as confused idiots then they should get on with liking the controlled, pretend-to-be-confused idiots like Limp Bizkit, who run around like they are completely out of control, but they are really rich and sitting around really planning their f@#$%ing world takeover. We have never done that. We are not here to take over the world, we are here for people to come to us on our level, uncommerciably and like what we do. If they don’t like it, then we don’t care and they can go. We are not here to impress the world about how successful we are and how many people we can play to. We are here to make the music that we want to make. We are lucky enough to be able to have done that. I wouldn’t be Poison for all the tea in China.

VR: One last question. What are your plans for Y2K?

MW-P: I don’t give a shit. I don’t believe in anything that has to do with it. I think that all doom mongers should go kill themselves when they find out how wrong they were. They should go kill themselves so they can live up to their own self-fulfilling prophecy. Imagine being disappointed if you don’t die? What a letdown.

Well, there you have some insights and opinions from Marty Willson-Piper of the Church. Don’t forget to check out to A Box of Birds on Thirsty Ear Recordings – if you don’t, you will simply be a wanker.