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Religious Fervor

The Church’s Marty Willson-Piper discusses the band’s latest record — and why everyone should lay off of Courtney

The sermons are longer and there’s a bit more dust on the hymnals,
but the flying buttresses that support the Church are strong as
ever. The band’s eleventh release, Hologram of Baal, hits
stores this week, and it’s a familiar ride through the shimmering,
mesmerizing universe that’s home to the lonely voice of
singer/bassist Steve Kilbey and some of the most underrated dueling
guitars this side of Television. Baal marks the return of
six-stringer Peter Koppes, and the trademark interplay between him
and guitarist Marty Willson-Piper is not the least bit tarnished by
his five-year sabbatical (He’s done spot work on Church albums
since, but his last proper collaboration was ’92’s
Priest=Aura.)

For nearly twenty years, this Australian-Anglo conglomerate has put
out records that have alternately landed them in the Billboard Top
40 and completely ostracized mainstream listeners. To wit, the
first 7,500 buyers of Baal get a bonus disc called
Bastard Universe that contains a four-part, 79-minute
improvisational jam. Break out the bong!

But if you ask Willson-Piper what’s wrong with music today, he’ll
gladly proffer his opinion that there’s far too much compromise —
and that the Church’s unyielding stance is precisely why the band
has survived through myriad member-changes, label switches,
distribution problems and seismic shifts in popular music.

“In true Church style, instead of trying to come back and making a
commercial record, we make a sort of semi-obscure one,”
Willson-Piper says with discernable confidence. He’s phoning from
his hotel room in San Francisco, where the Church are gearing up to
headline a show at the Fillmore. “I’ve got this theory that as soon
as you start catering for anybody else you’re in serious trouble.
You can’t make records for your profile; you have to make records
for your heart. When we go in to [make a] record, we’re not sitting
around thinking about radio airplay, journalists and fans.”

That’s the kind of attitude that gets paid a good deal of lip
service in the music industry, but one that often won’t keep a band
in their label’s good graces. But Willson-Piper insists he’s never
caved in to the guys with cigars who might plead with him to churn
out another “Under the Milky Way.” Nothing about the Church’s
process or product, he points out, is scripted.

“The demo process [whereby bands develop material through
recording] is an interesting process for slick, sleek music
perhaps, but all the spontaneity can disappear very quickly if you
do it like that,” the guitarist relates. “I mean, listen to a
Stones record these days. It’s so kind of like worked out that it
just doesn’t have any meaning.

“When we record, it’s a matter of we meet, we jam about, we put the
tape recorder on, and we figure out some basic arrangement to the
song and we record it. The lyrics and melodies are written after
we’ve recorded the music.”

Indeed, the cult guitar hero believes that today’s music, in
addition to lacking spontaneity, might also lack staying power. His
thoughts on the matter won’t necessarily go over well with
hipperati.

“If you think that things like the Chemical Brothers and the
Prodigy are the future of music, then just go back through your
last twenty-five years of Rolling Stone and look at what
everyone predicted was going to be big and wasn’t. And when I say
‘big’ I don’t mean successful for four or five years — or
financially or commercially successful — I mean things that
actually really mean something. Of course, it’s all
opinion and none of it really matters,” he clarifies, “but I think
there’s a tendency toward ‘if you don’t get into something
immediately then it’s not worth listening to.'” Which brings the
thirty-nine-year-old musician to the subject of Courtney Love.

“If Hole’s new single didn’t have that catchy bit in it [sings:
‘When I wake up in my make-up’…], then people wouldn’t be
listening to it. If they’d written a song which was kind of
interesting — I mean, I kind of like that new single; it’s cool —
but if they’d written a song that didn’t have a catchy bit in it,
everyone would be saying they’re over, which is ridiculous.”

A good point, but what if no one listens to the Church’s new record
because it takes time to get under the skin? Is that something that
worries Willson-Piper?

“If you’re going to listen to the Church and you don’t expect it to
take a couple listens,” he says, “you’re listening to the wrong
band.”

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