Thursday, November 15, 2018

In Deep with Marty Willson-Piper of Noctorum

Marty Willson-Piper (right) and Dare Mason of Noctorum (Photo by Olivia Willson-Piper)

The best interviews are always the ones that evolve into free-flowing conversations. With that in mind, I loved my recent conversation with Marty Willson-Piper.

In a sprawling and highly enjoyable call that hit on everything from his admiration for my recent interviewees Kingdom Come (not featured below, as that could fill an article in itself) to his extraordinary In Deep Music Archive in Cornwall, England (explored below and worth checking out on your own in greater length), Willson-Piper delivered every word with the same level of wonder and enthusiasm that defined his legendary decades-long work with his former band, The Church.

At the time of this posting, Willson-Piper was in the final hours of a successful PledgeMusic campaign for The Afterlife, the upcoming fourth album from his Noctorum project with lifelong friend and famed producer Dare Mason (best known to Church fans for his work on 1994’s Sometime Anywhere). In addition, his everywhere-at-once musical schedule currently includes work with acts ranging from Swedish Prog Rockers Anekdoten to Texas-based singer Salim Nourallah. His wife, Olivia – an extraordinary violinist – regularly accompanies him in his various exploits.

Check out Noctorum’s recent single “A Girl With No Love” below, then strap yourself in for a very fun read.  

How indicative is “A Girl With No Love” of what else we can expect from the rest of the new album?

Well, as usual in Noctorum’s eclectic world, it’s not indicative at all. Look, Joel, I see it like this. If you’re the kind of band that is constantly attempting the same trick, what happens is you have good versions of the trick and not-so-good versions of the trick. Some of the albums are great, and some of them are not as great as the ones that are great because it’s the same trick – and that trick isn’t as good maybe the 15th time. What I love about The Beatles is The White Album has McCartney going from  ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’  to ‘Helter Skelter’ and Lennon pushing ‘Julia’ and ‘Revolution 9.’ I hate those people who say, ‘McCartney’s shit; Lennon’s good’ or the other way around. I think diverse approaches to music and all kinds of styles within the same record is just interesting. If you can’t follow it because you only like Goth music, then that’s just your lack of vision. I prefer to hear music that is challenging genres. Not that I’m a Hip-Hop guy, for fuck’s sakes – excuse my French. That’s just something I can’t do.

You’re doing this new record through PledgeMusic. I’ve spoken to several acts from the 80s and 90s who are also using crowdfunding to get things out these days. You’ve obviously been on both sides of the fence, so what do you see as the advantages of doing it this way as opposed to working within the more traditional industry structure that once existed?

Well, yeah, the ‘industry structure that once existed’ doesn’t exist now, does it? So, you have to find other ways. I mean, that direct connection with people who like your music is a really great thing. I’ve always been very accessible to people who want to talk to me, discuss music with me and ask me questions about my record collection, my gear, my guitars, my songwriting, my lyrics. I‘ve always been happy to talk to people – not just journalists, but anybody – about that kind of stuff. Music, art, literature - I’ve always been very open and accessible to that kind of thing anyway. So, for me, it’s just not really that strange. The only strange thing about it is when you sort of think of it in terms of asking people for money. That’s when it’s a little weird. Did you ever hear that Chris Rock thing where he says, ‘When you first meet somebody, you don’t actually meet the real person; you meet their representative’?

Yes! (laughs)

(Laughs) Which I thought was brilliant! I’m not a particularly massive Chris Rock fan, but I thought that was really perceptive of him to bring that to everybody’s attention. What happens with the PledgeMusic thing is you’re sending in your representative. I don’t want to kid anybody about who I am in order to raise money. I want them to know who I am. If they like what I do and like me and like my work, then get involved. I don’t want to send my representative in to raise money. (laughs)

You’ve known Dare since the two of you were kids. Obviously, you’ve had a career in which you’ve worked with many tremendous musicians, but what does Dare in particular offer you musically and creatively – and perhaps vice versa  to the point where you’re still making records together all these years later?

Dare is a highly skilled producer/engineer. He’s one of those guys who really knows his job. He really, really knows how to make a record sound great. When he got his first job after engineering school, he went to the Virgin Townhouse Studios in London and worked there for a few years. He’d be second engineer or assistant on Queen or Paul McCartney or Prince or Ravi Shankar. All these big-name acts would come through there, so he sort of honed his skills working with artists like that. Once he became competent, he’d get a call from his manager, and she’d say, ‘Hey, Dare. Can you come in Friday night? Prince wants to come in and do some songs while he’s on tour.’ So, you can imagine the level of expertise he had to reach in order to have Prince come in or help Paul McCartney with vocals on the Flowers In The Dirt album. So, he brings a lot of expertise to the project. I’m more sort of left-of-center than he is creatively. He’s got all those kind of skills from real education and working with major artists, and I bring in sort of the spanner-in-the-works aspect of writing songs.

Speaking of Dare’s expertise, he brought some of those in when he produced Sometime Anywhere. That was obviously a transitional album for The Church, largely because the band had been reduced by half at that point –

The same as now.

What impact did Dare have not only on the material for that album, but also keeping the focus within The Church moving at that time?

The idea was to bring in somebody who I was comfortable with. The singer [Steve Kilbey] had somebody he was comfortable with, working on loops and things. So, we felt comfortable in the surroundings of who was contributing on a technical level to the record. I think the departure and the direction that record went in was really interesting. I don’t know if people who liked more jangly Rickenbacker-type songs from previous albums were enthralled with that, but songs like ‘Day Of The Dead’ and ‘The Dead Man’s Dream’ and ‘Loveblind’ – there was all kinds of great songs on that record that were sort of presented in a different light. That’s my idea of how things should be. Trying to move into other areas instead of settling. The band didn’t do that, actually; the band started off very much with jangling guitars and moved into a moodier direction, which the band was more comfortable with in the end. But it should always be morphing into something else, really. Otherwise, it’s just sausages and potatoes for dinner every night.

I want to talk about the In Deep Music Archive. The website is fantastic; it’s a great rabbit hole for me to climb into every so often. You have some long-reaching plans for this thing. Including getting a small venue and sort of making it a hub of musical activity. What’s the current standing of the Archive project in terms of seeing some of those things come to fruition?

First of all, the dream is to be able to have a building. I need somebody to give me a building in a city, somewhere where there’s people. Let’s presume that Howard Hughes is still alive and he’s got a spare building in Manhattan, London, Chicago – wherever it is. He says, ‘Marty, I’ve heard about your project; here’s the building. Now, go for your life.’ What I would then do is take all of the records, pile them into the building – all in alphabetical order, all sorted out… Cassettes, vinyl, seven-inch singles. 78s, eight-tracks – and I would make a living audio museum of music of all different genres – Classical to Hip-Hop and everything in between. I would then turn it into a café. There would be rooms where you would go in where there would be VHS, cassettes. There would be analog rooms; there would be digital rooms. There would be future rooms and past rooms. There would be retro rooms with retro furniture; there would be modern, digital rooms with modern furniture. There would be a bar, a stage…There would be a place where you could hold events and come and see people play music. You would be able to treat it as a research facility, and you would be able to become a trustee and get access to the records based on your approval rating. (laughs) There would be a whole [area] that would be dedicated to cover art and the artists, and there would be a whole thing about how records are made. There would be archives of ways of learning about how things are done – from how a record is made to songwriting workshops and interesting debates on music. There would be a ‘Bob Dylan Night,’ and there would be an ‘FKA twigs Night.’ It would be from one extreme to the other. I like to be eclectic. Who would be interested in this? If I was a multi-millionaire, I wouldn’t care! That would be my gift of music and my passion for music to the universe.

Maybe it wouldn’t be that interesting to the mainstream –  or maybe it would be amazingly interesting to the mainstream. Look at the Hard Rock Café. I would also have memorabilia in there. I would have a whole cave of old radios. There would be a History of Turntables, from the beginning of time to now. But I just need Howard Hughes to give me the building!

In the meantime, are you still offering Skype music lessons?

Oh, yeah! That’s going really well. I do this thing I call ‘songwriting and guitar guidance.’ I just went to New Orleans and played a show at a little bar because I was there. Mike and Paul, two guys I’ve been working with, have a little studio there. I went in there all day  to help them make the best of their music, try to get them on the right track and help them with advice and my experience, listening to their tracks, producing it, mentoring it and trying to guide them into a place I think they need to go based on the level they’re at at the moment. I do that with lots of different people. Sometimes, I just show people how to play arpeggios on the guitar; other times, I sit and talk to them for two and a half hours about the philosophy of writing songs. That can be anything; that can be eclectic as well.

I also like to write about music. On the Archive page, I’ve written like over a million words just about music. I also like to philosophize about things that are going on in the music universe. I like playing guitar, I like writing, I like traveling, I like music and I like playing with a lot of people. I like it all. Consequently, I’m very busy doing all these things.

Here’s a question for an archivist. Clearly, you have experienced a lot of different artists. There are a lot people who fall into this category, but in your mind, who might be an artist who wasn’t given their shot? I’m not even referring to record sales or Top of the Pops, but just in terms of being able to touch the most hearts with what they were doing. Who within your archives makes you say, “Wow, the world has yet to discover and catch up to this person”?

Are you talking about in the world, or in different countries? Remember, some artists are known in one place and not in another. For example, Robert Wyatt.


I don’t know what his profile is in America, but I can’t imagine it’s very big.

No, but a select few get it.

Yeah! He’s amazing. I love Robert Wyatt. Even though Scott Walker’s a legend in his own lifetime, I’m not sure if he’s really managed to penetrate the hearts of the people, really, especially in America.

No, but those albums are gifts if you understand them. You’re absolutely right; those are two artists right off the bat who would make my list of people who are like, ‘Man, they’re leaving these treasures in their wake. It’s going to take archeologists to discover them at some point. 

What about Annette Peacock?

There’s another one, yeah!

I mean, I’m The One by Annette Peacock is a ground-breaking masterpiece.

But you can’t go to a local convenience store and ask the clerk who that is.

No, most people don’t have any idea. But then again, generations have gone by. That’s fine. People from my generation probably aren’t familiar with Benny Goodman or The Lennon Sisters. People don’t know them. A lot of people are not archivists or enthusiasts or passionate about music. I often ask people, ‘What’s the last record you bought?’ The people I ask are people I know aren’t record nerds. I can almost say 10 out of 10 people look to the sky and can’t quite remember. Eventually, they come up with the last record they bought, and it was not recently. (laughs)

That’s fine; I understand, but I did a show the other night and came up with this off the top of my head. I said, ‘Listen, I know it’s difficult for people to buy a CD for $10’ –and I hate pushing people to buy my stuff; I really don’t like that – ‘What about I sell you a massage for 12 bucks, which will last you for 10 minutes, or you can buy my record for 10 bucks and it will last you for the rest of your life?’ (laughs) I thought that was a pretty good way to explain how ridiculous it is that you can’t get somebody to buy a CD. When you think of the work that goes into a CD or an album –  buying the guitar, learning the guitar, bleeding fingers, egos, learning to write songs, writing them, making records, producing them, having the experiences – and then people are looking at you going, ’10 bucks? Shit. I’m not paying $10 for that.’

‘Right, who’s coming to Starbucks?’ ‘Yeah, cool, I’ll have a decaffeinated macchiato espresso with soy foam. And give me a vanilla bean without the whipped cream. I’ll have a pumpkin loaf and maybe a sprout bagel toasted with the cream cheese, and I don’t want the pumpkin loaf heated up. How much is that? $16? Great! Here you go.’ It’s funny how it’s ended up like that. The amount of work that goes into what we do, and suddenly the internet…But the internet has decimated many things, hasn’t it? It’s decimated broadsheet newspapers. Thank God for mobile phones; if there wasn’t mobile phones, the internet would have killed phone calls, because you can get in touch with people all over the world for free with Skype and other things. I remember when I used to call back home when I was touring America. I used to go to a phone booth in the car park with 25 bucks’ worth of quarters!

I love the accessibility of the internet, but it’s hard to monetize.

That’s the thing about monetizing, isn’t it? You’ve got to find a way to monetize it these days. That sort of wasn’t the point; I didn’t start playing the guitar to monetize it.

Well, that’s why you’re still here.

That’s why I’m still here with no money! (laughs) But I still have the Archive. I have 3,000 books, 50,000 records and a loving wife. And I’m going to be grandfather in four or five weeks. My eldest daughter, Signe, is having a baby in November.

It sounds like you’re always in perpetuation motion in many different directions. You’ve got the Noctorum album happening, but what does the rest of 2019 look like at this point?

In the beginning of December, we’re going back to Germany, and then we’re flying to Liverpool to see Paul McCartney. While I’m there, I’m hoping I can meet some of those Liverpool luminaries who I’m sort of vaguely in contact with and have a couple of cups of tea with a couple of these guys from the Liverpool scene from ’70s, ’80s and into now – you know who they are! Then, we fly back back to Germany, and Olivia and I are playing a gig at a castle in Hanover from the year 1200 on the 22nd of December with some people we’ve become friends with. Then, on the 2nd of January, we’re playing at a little venue in Bavaria. Then, of course, it’s next year, and we’re probably going more into Anekdoten territory with more shows, writing and recording. In March, we’re going to see Roy Harper - there’s another guy who hasn’t penetrated people’s hearts but should have, at least in America. Then, we’re doing a project called Atlantium in April in a studio in Cornwall with some friends who live in Scotland. It’s an instrumental project, and Olivia plays violin on it. I play guitar on it. Then, in May, we’re continuing the MOAT project, which is my project with my friend Niko Röhlcke from Weeping Willows, who are a quite well-known band in Sweden. We’re working on our second album. Olivia hosts the biggest Progressive Rock festival in Europe, so she’ll be doing that in July. In September, we’re going to South America with Anekdoten; we’re playing in Chile and hopefully Argentina and Brazil. I’m not sure about Mexico. Then, hopefully we’re going to come back here and maybe start working with Salim [Nourallah] again on one of my own projects …getting the Acres of Space thing back together again…That’s kind of me solo but with a band. Maybe I’ll make a solo record with me, Olivia and whoever’s around. Lots and lots going on – whilst scouring the record shops of the universe, whilst writing about music and observations of the world as much as I can, whilst showing people things I’ve learned from being a musician my whole life and whilst trying to learn German.

*Portions of the above interview were edited for clarity. 

Official Marty Willson-Piper Website 


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.