Checking in with Marty Willson-Piper about the Church and His Musical Legacy

The guitarist and singer-songwriter performs the breadth of this career at the ONCE Lounge in Somerville this weekend.

Marty Willson-Piper

Image of Marty Willson-Piper courtesy of In Deep Music Archive

When Marty Willson-Piper takes the stage at the Once in Somerville on Saturday night, he’ll be representing an eclectic musical career that spans more than 35 years. Most fans will know the guitarist and singer from his decades in the Church. After all, that Australian band was one of college-rock’s biggest draws in the 1980s and early 1990s, and its biggest hit, “Under the Milky Way,” is still remarkably ubiquitous, whether used in the movie Donnie Darko or covered by dozens of other artists ranging from Sia to Rick Springfield. Even after grunge changed the airwaves, the Church maintained a massive cult following with dozens of albums, all marked by elegant songwriting and a dreamy, psychedelic dual guitar attack. As one of the band’s axemen, singers, and chief tunesmiths, Willson-Piper played a huge role in that legacy until he split from the band in 2013.

But even as he made a name with the Church, Willson-Piper was also releasing a half-dozen solo albums, guesting and collaborating on many others, and even joining an astonishing variety of other bands. For example, he was a member of British goth-pop group All About Eve for ten years. Now, at age 58, he’s playing with Swedish progressive-rock titans Anekdoten and doing the circuit of massive European rock festivals with them this summer.

The Church and All About Eve, in particular, have the reputation of being favored by other musicians, which is why bandleaders keep calling Willson-Piper for his services. “I’m from the north of England, so I’m a bit of a workaholic and a pretty positive type of person,” Willson-Piper explains. “If someone calls me up and says, ‘Hey, do you want to get involved?’ I get excited and say, ‘Yeah!’ Then I put the phone down and say, ‘What did I just agree to?’ I’ve been in a psychedelic band, a goth band, a punk band, and now a prog band, and when I’m playing by myself I do sort of a folky pop thing, but none of these audiences cross over hardly at all. So many fans of each band have no idea what I’ve done in other groups.”

Enter Acres of Space. That’s the name that Willson-Piper gives his concept of a fluid backing band that changes from tour to tour, or even from city to city, but which will cover the wide breadth of his songs from the Church and all the other different phases and bands in his career.

“I wanted to create an umbrella for everything I’ve done and have an opportunity to perform anything from any project old and new,” Willson-Piper says. “When I line up the people who are playing with me in this format, I ask what songs they know of mine that they like, and I say, ‘Let’s play that one.’ I may be the first singer-songwriter who has the band choose the set.”

For this spring tour, which concludes at the Somerville show, Acres of Space includes the band HuDost, based out of Montreal and Kentucky, who provide a lush folk-rock base and world-music textures.

One special guest last fall and earlier this week in New York is the best testimony for the decades of Willson-Piper’s musical history: his 26-year-old daughter, Signe Carlberger. A singer and pianist herself, she regularly joins her father on the song “Water” from one of his early solo albums. “It’s amazing,” Willson-Piper says. “You have such unconditional love for your children and there’s one of them smiling back at you, singing one of the songs you wrote. On the original track, it’s a duet with her mother [Ann Carlberger, singer with ‘80s Swedish punk band, Pink Champagne]. Now I’m playing that song with my daughter instead of her mum. Talk about passing it down the line.”

Marty Willson-Piper’s Acres of Space with HuDost plays on Saturday, June 25, at 8:15 p.m. at the Once Lounge and Ballroom, 156 Highland Ave., Somerville. Tickets are $20-$25 and available through Ticketfly