Marty Willson-Piper is a man with a serious pedigree and a focus on music that deserves more attention. We caught up with him about his years with new wavers The Church and goth-folk legends All About Eve, his latest album Poison Stream as MOAT (a moody, reflective Anglo-Scandinavian collaboration with Niko Röhlcke), his vast vinyl collection of over 50,000 records, and his successful music mentoring programme.
LTW: I had a chat with The Church’s Steve Kilbey a couple of months ago, and he filled me in on the early days of The Church in Australia and how you met – but give us a bit of background on how you came to be there. I can hear a bit of a British accent…
Marty Willson-Piper: I grew up as a teenager in Liverpool, born in Stockport, Manchester in 1958. My parents had pubs in Marple, near Glossop, then another in Derbyshire, and then my dad got a job in Liverpool when I was about 12 and we moved to The Wirral. So as a teenager I grew up in a suburban sprawl – it was really weird, one minute we lived in a big pub with lots of rooms and then suddenly we were in a little flat. I remember being quite claustrophobic. That’s where I learnt to play guitar. I was always pretty interested in music and having a brother 7 years older helped with music coming into the house. I did have another older brother who died as a baby, and the reason I was born was because that brother died – my mother didn’t want to have another child after that but my dad pressured her to do it. I only exist because of my mother’s tragedy.
I had the Beatles and the Kinks, The Who and Small Faces in the house, my dad was into Frank Sinatra and Nana Mouskouri, my mum was into Glenn Miller and swing – so there was a lot of music around. My brother was a cabaret musician playing guitar, he was pretty busy going around working men’s clubs playing Spanish Eyes and that sort of standard stuff. I got a guitar at 14 in about 1972 and started getting into music, buying records, and that just took over my life really, I was always a big music freak. I loved music; I loved listening to music, loved going to concerts, loved buying records. I got into playing the guitar and one thing led to another – a couple of bands that didn’t really do anything, I started writing some songs, and then my oldest friend who I still do a lot of work with moved to London, I followed him and we formed a band there.
Then one day I met an Australian girl in Ealing, and we got together. After we’d been together about 8 weeks she said to me, because it’s kind of hard in London (I wrote a song about how tricky it is to live in London on one of my records) let’s go to Australia – and that it would be easier if we got married rather than trying to do it any other way with the paperwork. So at 21, I married this girl, who I still know and am friends with, and we went to Australia. I got there in April, I turned 22 that May, and in about May or June I met the guys from The Church – they were looking for another guitar player, and I just looked right: I had a tiger skin jacket, I looked like a cross between Pete Way from UFO and Peter Perrett from The Only Ones – and it was like “who cares if he can play guitar, look at this guy!” And I actually could play. After about 5 months we got a record deal and the rest is history. I was with them for 33 years, until 2013.
Do you have any standout musical influences that you would see as shaping your sound and tastes today?
Do you know about my record collection? I’ve got about 50,000 records. I started buying records in the sixties because of my older brother, so I had that influence, and I still have the 7-inch single of See Emily Play by Pink Floyd, from 1967. I bought Alternate Title by the Monkees, Itchycoo Park by Small Faces, Autumn Almanac by The Kinks, Hole In my Shoe by Traffic. As a 14-year old I went to school during the glam period – so the singles I heard and the music that most of the kids at school were into would be T Rex, The Sweet, Showaddywaddy, Racey or Mudd. But there was also an underground scene going at the same time which a few of us at school got into, so I had records by Led Zepellin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, and also more folky things like Roy Harper.
That was the thing for me, I never really understood rivalry – I never understand rivalry between football supporters either – rivalry between people who follow one thing and not the other, as if it’s a competition. I could never understand why people who liked T Rex didn’t like Deep Purple, and vice versa. I went travelling when I was about 17/18, and when I came back punk had hit, and I remember listening to the Sex Pistols and thinking, well why can’t I like Steve Hillage and the Sex Pistols? I always found that a bit strange, that people had to choose. So I was as much into Hawkwind as I was into The Sweet, or as much into Led Zepellin as I was into T Rex, I kind of liked it all – I always could see what was good about each side of the story. And that’s what led to me being extremely eclectic in my taste.
Then as it came to the 70s and I started to become more aware of albums I bought Deep Purple In Rock, Led Zepellin II and started to go to concerts, and of course, that led to discovering bands and getting more interested in music. I started getting into more progressive things like early Genesis and Gentle Giant and Van Der Graaf Generator and all those kinds of bands. I used to buy records at a shop in Birkenhead called Skeleton Records, I went there recently when I was up there working with The Wild Swans. I never really sold my records, I always held on to them – I only sold my records once, I went on a trip and sold about 50 records. But other than that, if I was ever going anywhere I would store them.
When I went to Australia, I took my records with me, and I had a huge collection which I brought home to England. That’s why I have the In Deep Music Archive in Penzance, which is part of the studio where we work on all the projects that we do. I have a storage unit too, it’s a labyrinth. When punk and new wave came along I was as happy buying the Police albums and Pretenders as I was buying Led Zepellin. Maybe a lot of people’s collections are smaller because they’re more focused on what they like: people are into reggae or soul or metal or pop, but for me it could be Bob Marley, Black Sabbath or Sex Pistols, and I always liked Motown as well. So I was always buying records from different people in different genres, which is why the record collection is so huge.
What’s your rarest or most valuable record?
It’s probably the Beatles’ ‘Butcher’ album, that’s probably the rarest. Also, Can, one of my favourite groups, only made about 10 albums but I’ve got 25 records by them. Even records that aren’t super rare are still worth a bit of money these days; if you’ve got a copy of Electric Warrior by T Rex or Masters Of Reality by Black Sabbath and it’s in good nick and an original copy it’s probably worth about £50. Some people own houses, I’ve got my record collection – if I sold it I could probably buy a house. I’ve also got Eurythmics albums which are worth nothing, but for as many Eurythmics albums that are worth nothing I’ve got records by 70s, 80s, 90s bands which are rare or limited or obscure, which are worth loads of money. I do remember most of them – although occasionally I’ll go into a record store and wonder “Now do I have that?” – if I have 20 records by an artist I might wonder if I’ve got that particular version of it. This is nerd stuff, I’ve always been excited at buying an album by a band that I already have but it’s slightly different, like a Caravan album with a different cover. Somebody gave me a Spanish copy of Sticky Fingers by the Stones and it’s a completely different cover, I was so excited by that – especially as it’s a cultural thing. As you know the Sticky Fingers album has the Warhol zip on the front – the Spanish in the 70s thought that was way too sexual so the Spanish Sticky Fingers cover has severed fingers in a tin of treacle. Which is way more acceptable…
Yesterday I was doing some looking around on Spotify and I found a record by a band I listen to called A Fleeting Glimpse from the 70s, and they were saying that only two copies have only ever shown up, ever. You have to get one!! Somebody said they saw one on eBay for £6,700….
So I love buying records – I actually stopped drinking so I could buy more records. £3 for a pint of Guinness, then another and by the time you’ve been there for an hour you’re on your third pint, and I’d be thinking £10, I could have bought a record for that!
What are you listening to at the moment?
Today I was listening to some really strange Burnin’ Red Ivanhoe, who are a Danish progressive jazz psychedelic blues band from the late 60s and early 70s, I like them. But if you look at my blog I post every day what music I’m listening to. I’ve written a blog every day for the past year, I like to write too.
You spent quite a long time with All About Eve, how did that come about?
I get asked to do things now and again. I was on tour in America with The Church, the phone rang and it was my manager, he said he’d had a phone call from Julianne Regan from All About Eve and she wanted to speak to me about possibly doing some work with them. She called me at my hotel and said “hey we’re making a record, we’ve lost our guitarist, we like what you do, would you be interested in working with us?”. I said “sure, send me some demos, when the tour’s finished I’ll come over to London, we’ll get together, see if we get along musically and personally”. I stayed with them for about 10 years, making two studio albums, two live acoustic albums and a live electric album, and doing lots of gigging and touring in England.
I like to collaborate, I like making solo records but I also like to collaborate – and I don’t mind which role it is that I take; if somebody wants me to be the bass player, fine, if someone wants me to be the producer, fine, you want me to be the lead singer and write the lyrics, fine – as long as I can do it and you see me fitting into that role then I’m happy to take it on, as long as I like the people and what I’m doing. In All About Eve I was the co-songwriter and the lead guitar player. The records I made with them I co-wrote all the songs, all but one, all of Ultraviolet, all of Touched By Jesus. When we played live, Julianne also liked a couple of my own songs which we used to play, from previous solo records.
So I always get involved in the writing process when I get involved in a band. In fact, I just worked with The Wild Swans in Liverpool a year ago, in the studio with them being the guitar player – Paul Simpson had a load of demos of a whole lot of songs that he wanted to do so I just played guitar on his songs. I’m happy to collaborate in different ways or make solo records, whatever you like.
What major collaborations have you had, and who would you love to collaborate with?
I’m in the process of making a record with Jerome Froese from Tangerine Dream, it’s just at the mixing stage. Plus The Wild Swans – the singer Paul Simpson used to be in The Teardrop Explodes and was also in Care with Ian Broudie. I wrote a song for Charlie Sexton for one of his albums, he’s now Bob Dylan’s guitar player and has been for years, so that was an interesting collaboration, produced by Bob Clearmountain and Tony Berg. I co-wrote a song with Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane, and Linda Perry, and also Amy Mann and Jules Shear – he’s a great singer-songwriter. I worked with Tom Verlaine too, from Television, I didn’t get a credit though!
I’ve always liked David Sylvian a lot. I feel like he’s got to a musical dead end, he started doing improvisational spoken word stuff, but I really like it when he writes songs and sings them – it would be great to work with him. I always thought that if I was in a band and David Sylvian was the lead singer, Jaki Liebezeit from Can was the drummer, Andy Fraser was the bass player (from Free) and I was on guitar that would be a great band. Unfortunately, two of them are now dead and David Sylvian seems to have disappeared into the forest…
Your current big project is MOAT, tell us more about that?
MOAT is a collaboration between me and a guy called Niko Röhlcke, a German/Swede. I lived in Stockholm for 10 years, and one of my oldest friends there told me he had a great friend and he thought he and I would make a great collaboration. Niko is a talented composer, he does things for soundtracks and dance and plays and TV series, but he’s also guitarist and keyboard player in a band called Weeping Willows, one of Sweden’s biggest indie groups. He plays pedal steel, bass, piano, guitar and piano accordion, with a great composing mind. But he doesn’t sing and he doesn’t write lyrics. So when we got together that was obviously my major contribution to his ideas. I wrote a couple of things, he contributed to them; we wrote a couple of things together; and quite a few things he took from soundtracks of series he’d done, little ideas that had appeared for 10 seconds in an intense moment, which sounded like a cool little riff that could be developed and turned into a song.
Poison Stream is MOAT’s second album, we’ve done two in seven years – we live in different countries, we’re busy and pandemics – and people have been giving it really good reviews. It’s got a Scandinavian hue or mood about it in a way, and yet with my influence, it has an English atmosphere, it’s a bit folky, a bit moody, a bit weird. It’s not really acid folk, it’s not really folk.
It’s interesting that you say “Scandinavian, folky, moody, weird etc” what you end up with has a resonance of Nick Drake/Nick Cave/Leonard Cohen – maybe that’s the end of the formula, that’s what happens when you put all those elements together. I think Poison Stream will appeal to fans of those artists.
We recorded the album in 2019 in the studio in Penzance. I have this other project Noctorum which I do with Dare, the co-producer of this record, he and I put together a lot of projects and we have a drummer, Ed, who lives in Bristol and who’s played on the last three or four records. Niko came over from Sweden to do his multi-instrumentalist bits, and we wrote the songs over a period of time before that. I also play with a Swedish progressive rock band called Anekdoten, which is a fascinating experience – I’ve always liked music like that but I’ve never gone into playing it. The reason I got into that band wasn’t because of The Church but because he heard Ultraviolet by All About Eve. We go to Japan and play for 1000 people, it’s amazing, they’re one of those bands that do well in Japan, Italy, Poland… we even played in Armenia! But the band’s never been to England.
Pandemic allowing, we’ll play the album live but a few of these songs need Niko’s guitar skills. I’ve got Niko to record some of the tricky guitar parts and I sent it to a friend in Scotland, so if Niko doesn’t want to do it then he’s looking into learning them, so I can get away with just being a singer. It’s not my style or skill to play those parts. Generally, my wife Olivia and I tour anyway, we go to America, we’ve been to South America, Europe – sometimes it’s just me on 12-string and Olivia on violin, and other times we have a drummer and an old friend called Hannah who plays bass with us whenever we’re in America. Again, it’s like the collaboration thing – we don‘t have a solid, absolutely focused version of who and what we are, which keeps it interesting – we never know what it’s going to be. It’s often to do with budget. I would love to bring Ed our drummer in Bristol to America and put him together with Hannah our bass player in NY and go out on the road with drums and bass. But it all depends on the money really. So we’d love to tour the album depending on the pandemic and finances.
Is there a connecting theme through the album, how did it come together?
There’s a lot of devilish things in the songs, I’m not sure where it’s come from. But you know, Ozzy Osborne doesn’t really worship the devil. Richard Thompson (Fairport Convention) is a lovely guy and great songwriter, an underrated guitar player, but he writes very dark lyrics – but when you meet him he’s just “hello, how are you”. If you watch a horror film it’s not because you’re in a dark place. If I watched a camp Vincent Price horror film it wouldn’t mean that I was feeling dark and devilish, it would just be entertainment really. We did a listening party the other day and Niko, Ed and Dare and Olivia were all part of it with fans, and Dare asked me an interesting question: “So, how come you come up with all these lyrics all the time, where does that come from?”. I’m one of those people that sees faces in curtains and imagines what’s happening in the shadows on the wall.
It’s like Roald Dahl, creating a fantasy or a mystery or something dark, I’m just a kind of lyrical observer. I write stories as well. On the blog, sometimes I tell a story about our daily life, but other days I’ll write a short fictional story out of the blue. It’s just a matter of using your imagination really and trying to observe the universe philosophically, being creative, using your imagination. I have read quite a lot of books – between the ages of 15 and till I got busy I was a big literature fan and I read a lot of French literature. I was always pretty interested in the language. If you read Crime & Punishment it’s pretty dark but it’s just a story really, someone’s imagination. If you read a Kafka or a Dostoyevski book, they’re pretty dark.
Does the name Poison Stream have any particular significance?
The first MOAT album has a picture on the sleeve of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia which I took when I was travelling in South America, so there’s a bit of a water theme. A friend of mine in Stockholm who’s a top photographer in his spare time took that cover picture and I really liked it. There’s also something about streaming, poison streaming, and what that’s done to music. There’s lots of positive aspects of streaming, which I use all the time – I discover music because of streaming, because I can go online and find a band and listen to it, I couldn’t do that before. But the difference between me and everybody else is that I listen and if I like it I go buy a vinyl copy. Also, the green of the cover, the poison, it’s quite multifaceted around the climate of today and suited the lyrical content as well. I’m surprised no one else has thought of it, it’s a good title.
Do you have favourite tracks? Standout tracks are Helpless You, Ballad Of Sweet Marie, which has a Nick Cave/Leonard Cohen atmosphere, and the hauntingly sad and beautiful The Folly.
We released three tracks before we released Helpless You, but Helpless You is the one the record company wanted to hold back and we made a video for it – it’s just a video of moving cut out images which Olivia found, people liked it.
The Ballad of Sweet Marie’s an interesting one – Niko wrote the music for that for a documentary, he gave to me and said could you write some words for this. Basically, it’s a murder ballad – if Nick Cave’s looking for a new murder ballad then that would be the one for him. It’s one of my favourite lyrics on the record, I’m proud of it, the mood of it all and the phrases I came up with. But again it was just a flight of imagination – that’s the thing about writing words, you come up with a theme and then you start investigating the theme. You don’t have to be a murderer to write a murder ballad, but you can pick up on the theme and how it actually works.
I’m a big fan of Ian McEwan, I’ve read 11 of his books, and they can be really dark – but I guess he’s just a guy who lives in a nice big house somewhere in the countryside with a family and walks around the garden on a Sunday. It’s just a flight of fantasy, that’s what it is. I like that idea, of being able to take yourself away from who you are and create another world – it’s often your influences and your experiences that mix together with your imagination so that you have the reality of you, the truth of you, the experience of you, and then you have the fantasy of things that just fascinate you. And finally, you have the imagination of putting it together and coming up with a scenario which hopefully is an intriguing piece of lyric or story.
The Folly is one of Niko’s skills again, putting the strings together and finding the players, me getting to sing it and write some words. It’s an ambiguous subject as well, it’s about the mystery of the mistakes you make in life – it’s a strange piece, I almost feel it’s about disillusionment and getting something wrong, there’s something regretful about it on a lyrical and musical level. That’s what we’re always trying to do as a singer-songwriter-musicians, you’re trying to get across the mood of the idea, trying to make people feel it, see it, hear it so that they get what it is. Some people are more susceptible to certain moods than they are others – so if I do something beautiful with yearning violins and strings, and then I do something dark and industrial, some can’t appreciate the dark and industrial but they can appreciate the yearning strings, whereas I can appreciate both. I like pop music too, I can write a murder ballad and a song with strings about regret but I can also write some kind of “hey hey” pop tune – what about all those great Beatles pop songs, they’re brilliant, you can listen to those all day.
You’ve gone from living in the UK to Australia to Sweden to now Portugal. How have you ended up living in Porto?
It’s because of Brexit. I’m English with a British passport – my wife Olivia is German and she has a German and a Swedish passport because her mum’s Swedish. I’ve got an English daughter and a Swedish daughter as well, so it’s a funny connection between us. But although we’ve been together five years, we hadn’t been together long enough to qualify for automatic stay in England, and they want so much money out of you to even apply, it’s just ridiculous. We didn’t want to live in Germany or Sweden, so we picked a country that neither of us really knew – I’ve come to Lisbon once to play a gig in 1989, arrived at 5pm, played the gig and then left in the morning, that was all I knew – so thirty years ago I was here for 6 hours.
Olivia had never been here, we picked the country because we’d been to France, Spain, Scandinavia, Holland, and we wanted somewhere that we’d never been to – and it was such a good choice, it’s so cool here, it’s just great. It’s really old, lots of beautiful buildings and windy streets and hills and it’s friendly – that’s the other thing I like, I so like living in a friendly place, people are so cynical these days. People here are just nice, it’s great – it’s like a city but with a non-city vibe. We’ve been here three months, it was loose until just after Christmas but then they locked down. It’s been raining a lot actually, we’ve been stuck inside because it rains a lot here in December/January – but now the good weather’s coming, the sky is blue, we’ve got all the windows open.
What do you do when you’re not working with Anekdoten, The Wild Swans, MOAT, and Jerome Froese – do you have any time left?!
I write every day, and study French. I also offer sessions called Songwriting & Guitar Guidance – it’s not really lessons as such, is more direction and help for people with what they’re doing creatively. It’s like creative mentoring. The funny thing about it is that when I left The Church, most people in my position would look for another band with a name, but I actually did the opposite and thought it would be interesting to work with people who don’t have a name and see what their ideas are. I started getting people interested in getting in touch with me – sometimes they wanted to learn how to do an arpeggio on a guitar, but then I realised that a lot of people are interested in the craftsmanship of songwriting, so I changed it to being a songwriting thing too.
Then I realised that people need a sounding board, and that they need inspiration and positive input and advice and collaboration, and the whole thing ended up turning into what it is now. I’ve made two full albums with these people, one EP and one song. I have people that come to me to work on their songs; sometimes I’m working with them as a songwriter, sometimes I advise them on it, sometimes we just talk for hours about music and creativity and inspiration and arrangements, skills and accuracy and dynamics – the whole thing of music, art, creativity, how to bring it together and make it work for you. It’s turned into something really great. I spend a lot of time doing that and I thoroughly enjoy it – it’s like a teaching role but it’s not very specific, 80% of the time it’s just talking. It’s like music therapy, creative direction, confidence-building – getting people to believe in what they’re doing, and helping them find out what they need to do to improve, to bring them up to one more level than where they are. And what I’m finding is there’s a lot of people out there you’ve never heard of who have really great ideas. A couple of them are going to come out soon as projects with me and them together.
Some people struggle, getting some people to do things is hard, some fall by the wayside and other people improve, it’s different all the time. There are some people out there who really persevere. I say to them it’s magic and maths – you have to have the inspiration and you have to have discipline, it’s a big huge thing being a musician and creative and working on things and improving. Maybe Al Green woke up every morning and was just a brilliant singer, but not everyone can be that – some people are absolutely talented and can do anything, but other people can be successful, just they have to work on it to get to that level, and have to put the work in to get somewhere, be good, get better. Everybody’s at a different level and different stage. I have people who say they’ll never be able to sing and I say “Come on, could Lou Reed sing? How great a singer is Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave? Come on you can sing, let’s do some singing.” And I try to encourage people to be creative and believe in themselves, write songs, improve the guitar, be more accurate, think about dynamics, sing it in tune! It’s a fascinating thing which I really enjoy, it teaches me a lot, you learn a lot from teaching people how to do things.
I have so many things going on all the time. I don’t ever think, Oh I might laze around today, I’m always trying to create something or work with people or learn something, watch something interesting or try to find time to read. I feel as I‘ve got older I don’t want to waste any time and I want to be as creative as possible, do as much as I can. I have never been bored a day in my life, never, it’s never happened. I just can’t imagine how anybody could be bored, I don’t know how it’s possible.
I was going to ask you to choose five people, dead or alive, to have a drink together or share a barbecue with you on the beach in Portugal. But you don’t drink or eat meat. So who would you choose to have a non-drinking vegetarian barbecue on a beach with – who are you going to invite for your tofu fry up?
Christopher Hitchens, Ian McEwan, Holger Czukay from Can, Lawrence Olivier, Obama. But there’s no women in there, I need a woman in there! Angela Merkel.
They’d all be terrified of her, no one would say anything…
Can I have one more person? Kate Bush! I definitely want her there. I’m a big fan, I have everything by Kate Bush, the reissues, the Japanese cover, the French cover, the remasters, the 7-inch singles, the 12 inch EPs. I wish she’d made more records though, 50 Words for Snow is already 10 years old, she hadn’t made a record for years and then she made that one. I don’t think it’s that she’s not creative any more, it must be that she’s either otherwise engaged with her family or she’s very picky about what she does. She’s got her own studio. Maybe she doesn’t have anyone to work with, that’s always a problem.
Does she need you, do you think?
Yes, that’s right, that’s what needs to happen. Kate Bush needs me to make a record with her, that’s definitely what needs to happen! Me and Kate, bring it on! I’ll just drop her a line…
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