80s FLASHBACK: Q&A With The Church

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bobdobbins.thumbnail.jpgBY BARRY GUTMAN Twenty-nine years into their career, Australian quartet The Church – singer/bassist Steve Kilbey, guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper, and, for the past 15 years, drummer Tim Powles – are back with a new album, Untitled #23. Don’t take that number literally – it’s much higher when you figure in B-sides and EP collections, re-mixes, jam albums, soundtracks and best-ofs, not to mention countless solo and side projects. The band that hit with “The Unguarded Moment” in Australia in 1980 and “Under the Milky Way” worldwide in 1988 is not going for the easy nostalgia buck. When they appear at the Troc this Wednesday night, July 1, they’ll play some fan favorites from ‘80s masterpieces The Blurred Crusade, Heyday, Remote Luxury and Starfish, but the set will also include several more recent songs of a hazier, gauzier and altogether more challenging nature. In advance of this appearance, I spoke with MartyWillson-Piper (not Australian, like Kilbey, Koppes and Powles; he’s a Liverpudlian whose speech has retained the sing-songy patterns of his birthplace) about The Church’s longevity, evolution and creative independence. Q&A after the jump.

PHAWKER: Years ago, you said of The Church, “We’re the kind of band that doesn’t come to you – you come to us!” That’s probably truer now than ever. You could have rewritten “Under the Milky Way” or remade The Blurred Crusade any number of times of times over the years, but you’ve never taken the easy way, you keep moving forward. And the albums are little more complex each time, but they’re really worth the work.

MARTY WILLSON-PIPER: That’s why I play (Fender) Jazzmasters and Rickenbachers – because you have to make them work. All those other guitars play themselves.

PHAWKER: It used to be easy to describe the Church with words like “jangly,” “plangent” and “Byrdsy”.the_church_band_pic_hi_res.jpg

MARTY WILLSON-PIPER: It’s just not true now, is it?

PHAWKER: Your sound has really evolved over the years. You’ve applied various new treatments to the guitars and also use other instruments, either played by the band or friends. TimPowles, your drummer of the past 15 years or so, is also a producer and engineer. Has he been an influence on this evolution?

MARTY WILLSON-PIPER: He has, yes. He kicked us out of the playing old songs thing, really. I think we had a pretty retro set until he joined the band, and then he wanted to be part of the songwriting process, and he pushed for adding new songs we were recording into the set and kicking out old ones. Of course, now we’re at the stage where we have to play a mixture of everything, old and new.  On Untitled #23, we all swap instruments. I play drums on “Space Saviour”. Steve plays the guitar on “Deadman’s Hand” and I play the bass. Swapping instruments isn’t new for the Church – we’ve been doing that on records now for eight or 10 years. But it’s new to people who haven’t listened to the Church since the ‘80s.  The interesting thing about this album is that despite it being an eclectic record, with everyone challenging themselves instrumentally, it’s got this focus to it. Steve sings all the songs except for one that I co-sing with him. Generally [when making albums], I sing a song and Pete sings one. But it didn’t seem to make sense on this record, and I made the suggestion that the two songs that Pete and I did should be on the [Pangaea] EP, not on the album, as should be the very long song, because the album became the more concise piece of work the way that it is. It’s actually more of a focused album in the traditional way as far as the sound of it, the mood of it. So that’s kind of actually a throwback [laughs] rather than an innovation within the Church. I don’t mean this to sound arrogant, but by the time everybody’s caught up with us about how we’re doing things differently, we’re going back to something that we did before.

PHAWKER: The Church may not have the biggest fan base in the world, but you do have one of the most devoted and passionate followings.

MARTY WILLSON-PIPER: We do, yeah. It’s amazing isn’t it?

PHAWKER: Here you are after 29 years, you’ve made all these records, and yet you and your fans are still very, very passionate about what you do. And there are all these other bands that were your contemporaries, many flew a little higher than you but crashed and burned a whole lot sooner. Now, they do nostalgia tours, and that’s not what you’re about.

church_dits_sm_1_1.jpgMARTY WILLSON-PIPER: So many bands that started off so cool became that, it’s such a shame. And even some of the bands that did just barely manage to survive don’t make records as vital as anything they did when they were younger. And I think the difference with The Church is that we do.

PHAWKER: With all the albums, singles and EPs you’ve recorded over the past 29 years, how do you put a set list together, decide which old songs you’re going to do?

MARTY WILLSON-PIPER: It’s a rotation system, isn’t it? It’s also that the band evolves in different ways and we find ourselves going on tangents, and some of those old songs fit into the place we’re going to. Like, at the moment, “You Took” [from 1982’s The Blurred Crusade] is back in the set – it kind of suits some high jamming’ explosion thing we want to do at the moment. Other times, we’re more mellow, I guess, or more song-orientated. So, at the moment, that’s where we’re at. But having said that, it is an eclectic set. It’s got old songs, new songs, long songs, short songs, acoustic songs, electric songs. I’m playing bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric 12-string…

PHAWKER: And you’re still playing “Under the Milky Way,” which probably pleases a lot of people.

MARTY WILLSON-PIPER: We play it because we like it – if we don’t like (a song), we don’t play it. We are uninfluenced by what anybody says! I’ve spent most of my life in this band. I think it’s up to us to decide where we go with it, and we work that out internally. What people say isn’t important; it’s what we think that’s important. We can’t listen to other people outside the band, because it we did that, we’d still be playing [“Unguarded Moment” [debut single, a smash hit in Australia]. We were brave enough to drop it. On at least one American tour of the past 10 years, we dropped “Under the Milky Way”; we play it now because it fits and we like it. Come and see the show, like it or don’t like it; listen to the record, like it or don’t like it – whatever! (Laughs.) I respect your opinion. But what I’m interested in from Church fans is them just allowing us the freedom to make our own decisions about our own creativity; that’s the only way it can work.

PHAWKER: We Church fans can be kind of nerdy. You put out all these records, so we feel we have to impress you at shows by screaming out for the most obscure songs.

MARTY WILLSON-PIPER: (Laughs.) We never listen to what you have to say, as I said before. We only follow our own path. And you might be calling them out thinking they’re obscure, but we wrote ‘em, we don’t think they’re obscure at all. You can’t out-obscure us! [laughs]

PHAWKER: Next year will be The Church’s 30th anniversary. Has the band given any thought to doing something special to commemorate the event?

MARTY WILLSON-PIPER: Yeah, we have. And I’m working on it. As soon as I’ve got any details, I’ll let everybody know through the Web site.

PHAWKER: How much longer will The Church go on? Are you, Steve, Peter and Tim still diggin’ it?

MARTY WILLSON-PIPER: Yes we are and it’s out of our hands. It’s something else that keeps the group together, isn’t it? I’d like to think that we can get past any niggley little differences or philosophical differences and just continue to create music together that is chemically impossible to recreate with any other people.

THE CHURCH PEFORMS WEDNESDAY AT THE TROCADERO

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