Q&A with the Church's Marty Wilson-Piper
Twenty-nine years into its career, the Church recently released Untitled #23, one of its most accomplished works in an already remarkable string of albums over the last decade. We had a chance to have a candid conversation about the band's music, the true meaning of artistic significance and its dazzling array of equipment with the charming and affable Marty Wilson-Piper, one of the band's two main guitarists. Read the transcript after the jump.
Westword (Tom Murphy): I picked up your new album a few weeks ago and I have to admit that it surprised me a little in that it was one of the best things your band has ever done.
Marty Wilson-Piper: That's what people say about this album. It's an evolution, isn't it? What often happens with bands is that they don't evolve. It always astonishes me how bands lose the vision of themselves or maybe they just sort of have one idea and once they've achieved that they have nothing else to say or nowhere else to go and it's as simple as that.
You cannot listen to anybody, that's the key. If anybody ever asked me after 29 years in the band and great reviews and touring America and stuff like that what piece of advice I would give it would be, "Don't listen to anybody when it comes to creativity." Listen to people when it comes to business and logistics, but not creativity. How you manifest your ideas, that's what it's all about.
WW: There has been talk of the mystical significance of the number in the title to your new album. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
MWP: I never want to destroy anyone's fun when it comes to mysticism. Well, I'll tell you one thing that happened with this album is that we had a couple of titles. One title we came up with, I won't tell you because we might use it again. It was a cool title but it didn't suit this album. Everyone realized that and we went through a few more but they weren't good as a general title. I had the idea of calling an album "Untitled" something for a while even as far back as the Uninvited album but it didn't suit that album. So it got cancelled out. One day I called up Steve [Kilby] and said "Why don't we go back with that title 'Untitled #24' or 'Untitled #25." And Steve immediately said, "23, it's a much better number." Apparently that number has more of a mystical significance than 24 or 25. It just came from that, Steve being somewhat more mystical in his philosophies and readings and understandings of the universe seemed to think that was a better number.
Is it our 23rd album, it could be if you counted it that way if you counted Best-Ofs and collections and counted the Remote Luxury album because it was an album here but two EPs in Australia. Do the Internet albums count? Does Jams count? If you count it up, it's more like 32, which is, interestingly enough, the reverse of 23. Also, I took the picture on the sleeve of this album. I took all the photographs on the album. It kind of looks like an abstract painting. If you go to an art gallery and see those sorts of thing, and they're often titled "Untitled #1," "Untitled #7," "Untitled #23." I thought there was a connection between that picture and that title.
The EP that we released that isn't out in America, except we will have it available on the tour, the Pangaea EP, that's the name of the super continent of 250 million years ago. On the CD, if you look on the back, the titles of the songs are listed as though they are the names of cities in an archipelago. The picture is actually taken from my photographs of Mexican walls in Oaxaca. If you look in the album credits it says, "MWP Oaxaca Mexico." The Pangaea EP is a different cover again.
WW: Rolling Stone and Inpress Magazine have written glowing reviews of Untitled #23, and rightfully so. For the last decade or so, the Church has been a surprisingly prolific band writing some of its best music to date. What do you think accounted for that creative resurgence? Well, I don't know if I should call it that because you never really broke up.
MWP: Yeah, that's one thing. If you never break up, you're always brewing. We just had a few projects which got finished around about the same time and we put them all out at the same time because I've got this idea that the Church should make lots of records. It should make EPs, it should do covers, it should do instrumental albums, it should do vocal albums, it should have Steve singing, it should have me singing, it should Pete [Koppes] singing, it should have me playing bass, it should have Pete playing piano, it should be acoustic, it should be electric, it should be all kinds of things. The band is by nature prolific. We could have hundreds of albums out. As far as the quality goes, if the quality doesn't suffer, it just depends on how long you spend on molding it into what you want to be. That's what we do, we find places where we need to have something out and we ask if it's got where we want it to be and release it and then do some shows. We don't worry too much about it.
Every album is a reaction to the one before it. Like with the Beatles, Revolver was a reaction to Rubber Soul,and Sgt. Pepper's was a reaction to Revolver. We don't try to make the same record, we try to make a reaction to the record before and somehow it always sounds like us no matter who is playing which instrument. We swap instruments quite a lot. That explains the chemistry and the prolific nature of the band, how we're always writing and evolving. We have our own record label, and Tiare Helberg and I work a lot on the artwork, design and the t-shirts. We have sort of have this cottage industry of ideas and that's basically how we want the Church to work. It's kind of an art project that doubles as a really cool rock and roll band.
WW: Was your band consulted on including "Under the Milky Way" in the Donnie Darko soundtrack? You've said, more or less, that you think that inclusion hasn't sparked increased interest in the music of the Church. Why do you think that is?
MWP: No [we were not consulted.] But that's the problem when you've been going for 29 years. You get so tired of people being interested, then waning, then being interested and then waning. We've been around for three generations of people who are ten-years-old. I don't wane with a band; I like them from beginning to end. I don't lose interest in a band unless they do something crap. And even then I go, "Oh what a shame." I don't say I'm not interested in them anymore. I'll buy the next record as well, or at least listen to it and give it a chance. One of our reviews said, "This is the best 23rd album ever made." That's probably true. I don't know where Dylan or Zappa were on their 23rd albums, it could have been one of their better records or one that was rubbish.
WW: The Church has had a distinctive and influential guitar sound that has perhaps not received the recognition it deserves. If I may ask, what kinds of rigs and guitars have you used to create your unique sound?
MWP: I'll answer that question in three parts.
First of all, recognition is in the eye of the beholder. My top ten guitarists aren't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What does that tell you? Success is what it's all about? You know what, I know it isn't all about that. I know Rory Gallagher, Paul Kossoff, Bill Nelson, Richard Thompson, Tom Verlaine, Robert Fripp and whoever else I could think of in a row that aren't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are amazing. I don't care what anybody thinks. I don't care if people agree with me, I accept it if they disagree with me, but those seven guys I just named off the top of my head, oh yeah and Harvey Mandel and Terje Rypdal, nine, I know those nine guys are not getting in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
So how can I care about getting recognition, if nine people I love, and who have been around and what geniuses they are since day one, aren't getting in there. If it isn't going to come around for them, it isn't going to come around for me. And the people who like what I do, that's enough. That's great. People come up to me and say, "Hey, Marty, I love the way you play guitar." Wow. Imagine being a guitarist in the world and having people say that to you. That's amazing. I'm completely content with that, I don't need some kind of institution to recognize me. And if they do, great. If they do, I'll be grateful and then say, "Now let me tell you about Paul Kossoff, Tom Verlaine, Richard Thompson, Bill Nelson, Robert Fripp..." and that will be my speech.
It's an emotional thing for me. I guess I've learned some kind of adept skills on the guitar but it was never about that. If I do something that looks tricky, it comes from an emotional place. I'm interested in the tone, I'm very interested in doing something very different. Having said that, I've listened to Derek Trucks, and he's amazing, and he's sort of a very traditional slide guitar player in a blues band, and he's completely the opposite of what I do, but I think he's brilliant. Or Jeff Beck, there's a real recognized amazing guitar player.
As for my and Peter's rig, we both usually use a Vox AC 30. He has a 50-watt Marshall and I have a 15-watt Orange. In the studio I've got a 100-watt Orange. I've got 3 '60s AC 30s and with a blend of those I come up with some sort of great tone. Peter has got an AC 30 and his Marshall 50 and he uses a kind of Danelectro amp, it's an effects amp. Sometimes he uses it for his tone as well. For this tour Matchless have leant me an amp. So I've got a very colorful rig at the moment. My guitar tech Davida, who plays with me when I'm doing solo shows, she's leant me her 15-watt Orange and Matchless leant me their 30-watt amp. So I've got a green amp and an orange amp so I'm looking very autumnal one side and sort of springy on the other. So it might change my mood by just looking around. I might look around and go, "Ooh...the autumn sound." Anyway...
Loads of pedals...I use a big, long Boss volume pedal, which is one of the most pieces of effects that I use in my rig. It has nothing in it but it sort of gives you expression with your foot in your fingers. Expressing notes with a volume pedal is an amazing thing. Of course I've got one of those OC-1, stereo chorus vibratos. The one I'm actually using on the road is Peter's, but I've got one in the studio in England. I've got one of those old Boss yellow pedals, the C-1s, I think they're called. I've got one of those funny green Line-6 pedals for reverse delay. I try to use the authentic stuff. I've also got a UE-405 Ibanez effects unit with a compressor, analog delay, stereo chorus and a parametic, which I never use. I've also got an Electro Harmonix Big Muff but it sounds kind of muddy because it was fixed and has never sounded the same. When you're a guitarist you can tell the difference between muddy in a good way and muddy in a bad way. Mine is muddy in a bad way. I've usually got a wah pedal but I may buy one on tour to use in places in songs where it makes sense. Usually I like to use [an Ernie Ball Crybaby.]
I've also got a '59 Jazzmaster; it's my main guitar. I also play a Roger McGuinn Limited Edition Rickenbacker 12-string, strung the other way around; it's got compressors in it. Rickenbacker, I must say, have been very kind to me. That guitar I just took in to get fixed up because it was in such a disgraceful state. It had so many things wrong with it it was unbelievable, and they fixed the whole thing up for me brilliantly. I'm getting a Rickenbacker bass for this guitar and I'll be playing it if I can get it to work. I saw the bass player from Dead Meadow play and he had a really warm sound, so I hope it can work out. I also use a Takamine acoustic 12-string, which I've had for 25 years and it's a really nice guitar. It doesn't look like it will be but it sounds great.
Peter's playing a new-ish strat and he has '59 Telecaster but I don't think he's bringing it on this tour. He's also got a Taylor 12-string. He's probably going to bring the AC 30 on this tour so he can get a dirty sound as opposed to my clean sound. He's probably bringing a Fender Deluxe and an effects amp. He's got a huge number of pedals I couldn't even begin to tell you what they are--20 pedals or something. He uses a [Sony] GP-5 to get those symphonic sounds. And I think that's about it for me and Pete.
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