Former guitarist for Australian alt-rock pioneers The Church, discusses U.S. tour, new musical projects and his creative process in our exclusive interview.
While he’s best known as the former guitarist from Australian psychedelic icons The Church (who he played with for over 30 years), he’s also an accomplished solo artist, songwriter and vocalist.
In addition, he’s played with everyone from UK Goth act All About Eve, Linda Perry, Aimee Mann, The Saints, Swedish prog-rockers Anekdoten and his collaborative projects MOAT and Noctorum (to name but a few).
In addition to his flurry of musical activity, he also dissects his massive (and eclectic) record collection on his immersive project indeepmusicarchive.net, and even teaches songwriting.
Currently, he’s touring across the U.S. with his wife, violinist Olivia Willson-Piper, offering a truly unique listening experience that should thrill longtime fans, playing new interpretations of material past and present.
I interviewed Willson-Piper in advance of his performance at Barracuda in Austin, TX, to discuss the tour, his upcoming releases, his time with The Church, teaching music, and much more.
Enjoy the Q&A (edited only for content and clarity) that follows.
So how has the tour been going so far?
We’ve only done some bits and pieces really. We played in Jackson, Mississippi, which was great to go to a place like that. I’ve never been there before! It was a great show, sold out, totally listening audience…wonderful.
It was just the type of show I like to do with just Olivia and I. She’s my violinist. We did an impromptu house concert in Tucson. Somebody said on Facebook “what does it take to kidnap you guys and get you to Tucson?” And I wrote a note back saying “We’ll be there tomorrow night!”
And that turned into a house gig. We just did it, no notice, no rehearsal. Drove there 9 hours from L.A. on the way back to Texas.
It’s great being that flexible you know? It’s what happens when you’re in this kind of situation when there’s no expectations.
Well, at least I hope there aren’t any expectations! I hope that people don’t come to see me in Austin with expectations…I don’t want that, I just want them to come with an open mind and like what I do or not.
And we played a birthday party in Houston. So the club sorts of shows are just getting started–Austin on Saturday, and we’re playing two shows in Dallas on Thursday and Friday. But they’re in a studio, so that’s kind of a different gig as well. We just like to do different things you know?
So is it just you and your wife performing or do you have other musicians playing with you?
It depends which part of the country I’m in. That’s the other thing. I like to change it up. I like it to be a little more unknown about where it’s going, rather than the same band members, same set list…same chatter. I just like to keep changing it. That’s what keeps it exciting for everybody, I think.
How do you choose your set list given you have such a diverse body of work between your solo stuff, The Church, All About Eve, etc?
Well its hard you know, because I’ve got two different projects–two different albums coming out this year, so I’ve got like 20 songs of new material as well.
So I’m actually gonna leave that alone for the moment and just wait until those records come out until I start thinking about playing those songs you know?
Because I’ve got such a vast amount of music to choose from–solo records, The ex-band, lots of ex-bands. You know I played with The Saints as well. And I was just playing around with Ghost Ships by them the other day, and I was thinking god I could totally do this live…the guitar’s really good for me, it’s this arpeggio-y sort of 12 stringy thing that’s really easy for me to play.
I was thinking I could sing that, but the last thing I need to do is add other bands songs that I played with into my set because there just isn’t room! (laughs).
I’d like to do a couple of covers (shows me lyrics to The Poacher by Ronnie Lane of The Small Faces) I’m trying to learn the lyrics to play this. I usually have a band member who sings it with me, but I was wondering if I could do it by myself since he’s not coming to Austin. So if I can learn the words by Saturday, I may play it since Ronnie Lane’s somebody I really like who used to be part of the furniture in Austin.
Plus I’ve got the Noctorum project, which I’ve just finished making the fourth album for.
Is that one that will come out this year?
Yeah, it’s very eclectic and its me and my oldest friend Dare Mason, who I’ve known since the mid-60’s, so we get together and write songs together–I usually sing them, he looks after all the technical stuff.
He plays a bit of bass and guitar and I played most of the bass and guitar, we get a drummer in, he mixes it and does lots of great harmonies, so it’s a great collaboration between the two of us. But we sort of discussed the idea of not being afraid to go anywhere with the music that we make…its very eclectic..it can be sort of pop but it can also be really dark or acoustic or it can have strings and lots of different things.
I mean it always surprises me that groups are always attempting a better version of the same idea…everybody seems to fall into that trap of not being able to deviate from the original and I don’t want to stick to the original idea…I think a lot people say “this is what I like and this is what I do and I’m gonna keep on doing it like that.”
An “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” philosophy.
Yeah! I mean the Ramones didn’t do any reggae tunes you know?
But I would’ve been bored being in the Ramones. But they certainly weren’t boring–I met Joey once and he was a lovely shy guy.
The second album is a project called MOAT which was originally an acronym but I won’t tell anyone what it stands for (laughs). So people can make lots of rude things as for what it stands for!
My partner in that is Niko Röhlcke, and he actually plays guitar and keyboards in a very successful Swedish band called Weeping Willows. But he also does a lot of TV and film music. He’s really great at creating atmospheres in music.
What we do is look at his soundtrack work and go, “that is so moody and great, that little piece, let’s repeat and make that the chorus…and I’ll go away and write words for it and sing it.” And sometimes I throw a couple of songs that I’m working on at him and those get included in the project as well. Its kind of Scandinavian, moody poetic stuff.
And what we’re gonna do is release these two albums on the same day. And those will be out in October, probably on the 12th.
I was always curious what drew you to play the 12-string guitar? It’s not an easy guitar to play, and it’s such an integral part of your sound. What made you decide to pick that up instead of a 6-string?
It’s a funny thing, the 12-string. I actually had one when I was a kid, I bought an Eko 12-string when I was a teenager, but I don’t really remember going “oh yeah!” when I got it.
But when I joined the ex-band, the guy who signed us said he sort of heard 12-string in the band. And he went away to America on one of his trips and came back with a Rickenbacker 12 string, which he presented to the band and said “one of you should play this!” And I was the one that was up for it.
I’d used a Burns 12-string on the first album (Of Skins and Heart) on Is This Where You Live and I think on For A Moment We’re Strangers. Then when we started the 2nd album (The Blurred Crusade) I had the ricke-12 and started to incorporate it into rehearsals.
It’s funny because it’s not like I stopped playing 6-string or lead guitar. But some songs are really directed by the 12 string like Tristesse…and if you go to Starfish, Reptile is 6-string as well.
Really? I would never have guessed.
You know that’s my riff (hums it). I wrote that on the 6 string. But North, South, East and West was 12-string, and if you play that riff (hums it) it sounds like its gonna be a 6-string riff, but if you play that on a 6-string it just doesn’t sound the same. It doesn’t work.
You Took on Blurred Crusade: 12-string–Don’t Look Back was acoustic 12-string. I just took to it you know? And people would say oh you’re a big fan of The Byrds!
You guys got that a lot back then.
And I was like no! Not at all (laughs). I mean since then I have become a big fan, and love them, but not back then. I didn’t really know them besides Mr Tambourine Man. But I didn’t realize it was a 12-string Rickenbacker song. But it was never an influence.
I remember I was in LA in the early 80s and I saw a band called Kommunity FK.
I remembers those guys! They used to play them on 120 Minutes.
The guys name was Patrick Mata and I saw him play live, and I think he was playing a Fender 12-string through a fuzzbox. And I saw that, and I thought wow that’s great! That’s so cool. So I think that might have been the bigger influence for me. Seeing this guy that no one’s ever heard of playing an instrument that’s usually associated with beauty and melody, but plugging it into a fuzzbox and playing like that (makes loud clanging sound)!
So consequently, I didn’t only play my guitar through a fuzzbox, but I wasn’t scared to try. If you listen to Tantalized (off Heyday), that was all Rickenbacker. The other guitar was all single note thing on the Strat but I was playing the big wide chords with the fuzzbox and going (hums accents) and then go into an A chord on the 12 string. And the whole thing about Roger McGuinn? How does that have anything to with him? You know what I mean?
You know Peter Buck from R.E.M. played a Rickenbacker, but he never played it like that! And most people who play 12-strings never play them in that way. So I sort of developed my own little thing there…and here we are now about to do a show in Austin where my wife is playing violin and I’m playing acoustic 12-string…theres no point where I go, oh no I should use a 6-string on this song. Every song wants to be a 12-string song.
I was always curious how guitar duties were handled when you played with The Church. You guys were a two-guitar band, but it wasn’t like one just played rhythm and the other just played lead. You and Peter Koppes meshed together so well. How did you designate what each other played?
Well we just ignored each other until somebody came up with the best idea.
Things happen naturally don’t they, you know? Everybody just sorts of finds their place naturally. That’s what happened. In the early days, when the singer wrote the songs, he’d sorta have a rough idea of what the song should be, but we’d incorporate it into our own ideas and styles.
You’ll have to forgive me, but one last Church question–do you have any contact with any of the members anymore, and do you have anything to say as far as why things went the way they did?
I just moved on.
Do you find it more rewarding to work on your own rather than in a band? What do you like on playing solo vs. in a group and vice versa?
The funny thing is, I was always willing to be whatever people needed in a band. When I left that band I played bass with a French band. And I was so happy to do that. I was happy to play the role that I played.
In MOAT I’m happy to let Niko come up with a lot of the atmospheric moody compositions and me just be the lyricist. He even plays most of the guitar on those records! So I’m happy to be a collaborator and I’m also happy to be the lead singer and the lyricist and the leading light.
I was looking at your Facebook post for your Dallas gig and saw that you are offering Songwriting and Guitar Guidance. I’m intrigued–when did you start offering that workshop aspect?
In the last 3 or 4 years I just woke up one day and thought, you know I’ve become quite an established guitar player, I’ve got my own style, and I have an understanding of writing songs and stuff so I thought I should teach some people some guitar! So I just put it on my website: guitar guidance. And a couple of people got back to me and said “well I’d be interested in doing that with you!” and so I started doing it.
And then I realized that I had patience (laughs). I can teach people at whatever level they’re at–if somebody can’t play, I can help you! If somebody can play pretty well, I can still help you! So I started doing it, and people started coming back for more…then I changed it to songwriting and guitar guidance and people started getting in touch with me about songwriting.
Then I started realizing that I would be doing a session with someone, and this all happens on Skype…and the time would go by…and I’d realize that I’d never even picked my guitar up…because whats happened is it’s turned into a mixture of teaching, motivating, directing, helping people evolve, giving people confidence, mentoring, and trying to get people to another level from where they’re at.
And I throughly enjoy it and I thoroughly enjoy having something else–another angle to use music in a positive way.
So being a musician, being a teacher, being a lyricist, being a bass player in a French band, having the In Deep Music Archive, which is my labor of love, buying records around the world, taking them back, discovering them, filing them away in perfect order, for posterity. All these aspects of being a working musician on this wider scale…that’s my thing these days.
So do you have anything special in store for Saturday, besides possibly playing that Ronnie Lane cover?
Well Olivia is my secret weapon as my violinist…so the idea of augmenting the kind of songs that I write, the kinds of words that I write, the kind of guitar that I play, the fact that its 12 string, you add a violin into that mix, and it fits really well. It adds another dimension to it…enhancing the songs and turning them into another experience because of that instrument with this person I have this musical chemistry with.
But I mean I don’t know what we’re gonna do on Saturday. I don’t know what we’re gonna do Thursday and Friday in Dallas! When we did the gig in Jackson, Missisppi we did two sets. And I pulled out my bag of records and said “has anybody heard of this?!” And I was talking about records for awhile! And then I read a Gabriel Garcia Lorca poem…but it’s gonna be fun.
But who knows what’s gonna happen? I might just play 12 songs on an acoustic 12 string and say “good night!” Or I might play reggae and dance some samba! Or maybe I’ll just read books all night and read some Oscar Wilde. Anything could happen!
Many thanks to Marty Willson-Piper for taking time out for this interview (and to Olivia for setting it up!). You can buy tickets for Saturday’s show at Barracuda by clicking here. And visit his official website for other tour dates, and all things MWP.