Innerviews, music without borders

Marillion
Balancing perspectives
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1992 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

 

After the departure of original lead singer Fish in 1988, British prog-rockers Marillion had an uphill climb to reestablish its profile. But it accomplished what few bands in its situation have: the recruitment of a committed lead singer with an impressive breadth and depth of songwriting experience, and an elastic voice capable of handling a wide variety of material. Most importantly, it established a new band chemistry built for the long haul.

With Steve Hogarth onboard, the band released 1989's Seasons End, one of its finest efforts to date. It followed it up with 1991's Holidays an Eden, a surprisingly pop-inflected record with no shortage of kinetic energy and overtly radio-friendly songs. But the album didn't totally abandon the group's roots, with "Splintering Heart," and a trilogy comprised of "This Town," "The Rakes Progress" and "100 Nights" likely to appeal to fans of its earlier era. Hogarth and keyboardist Mark Kelly discussed the group's current trajectory over drinks at the Delta Hotel in downtown Montreal.

It must be strange to talk about Holidays In Eden as a new album on this promo tour when it's been out for eight months.

MK: Yeah. When we first came over, we were in New York for a couple of days and up until then I hadn't even listened to anything off the album for seven or eight months. I had to have a quick recap to check through it really. It's amazing how distant it all becomes after you've been touring for quite awhile and playing the songs live isn't the same as hearing what you did on record. I think the good thing about talking about it now though is because you're not so "Wow, this is the best thing we've ever done." That's how you feel when you finish it, but after a bit of time you get a bit of perspective on it. But then again it makes it sound like I'm not as keen on it as I used to. [laughs] If I'm critical of it, it's because of the time perspective.

Holidays In Eden is more direct and forward than Seasons End. There's less mystery.

MK: Yes, it was intentional really. We felt that with Seasons End, in a way a few of the songs on there didn't reach the audience we thought they would because of the production.

Like what?

MK: Like "Easter" for example, we thought that would be a big hit. We thought that had the elements of a commercial song.

Really?

MK: Yes, it's long but if you were to shorten it down it could work. We thought it was one of the best things we had ever done in our career and that in a sense it was the perfect radio track and single. We felt it was a good advert for the band in that we were very proud of it and we thought it would cross over.

I thought "Hooks In You" had hit potential.

MK: Again, we thought maybe the problem was in the production. We had spoken to Chris Neil before Seasons End and he wanted to do it but we changed our minds about him doing it because Steve had just joined the band and if people heard a drastic change in the band, Steve would probably get the blame for it and we thought that would be a bit unfair and we'd be written off from there. So, we thought we would produce it ourselves or co-produce with Nick Davis and keep it under our own control. After that, looking back on that album, we thought maybe Chris Neil would have been a good idea after all.

I understand Chris Kimsey was originally slated as producer for Holidays In Eden.

MK: It was just a timing problem with Chris, really. He wanted to do it and we scheduled a time but he was doing a Rolling Stones live album, and we just thought this wasn't going to be finished in a few weeks like he said. And then Mick Jagger got married and Ron Wood got knocked down and broke his legs, so we said to Chris "Either you agree to start on a certain day or we won't wait."

How did he find time to work with Fish then?

MK: I think he made Fish wait. It took until the end of February to finish the Stones and we were well under way by then and we were glad we didn't wait. Then he did Fish's album. We actually worked with him just last week.

For the forthcoming Six of One, Half Dozen of The Other compilation?

MK: Yeah, it was really good. We really enjoyed it, it's been a long time.

Is some of that old chemistry coming back?

MK: Definitely. And I think he felt it too. He's keen to do the next one too.

Do you think previous Marillion efforts are more self-indulgent compared to Holidays In Eden?

MK: It doesn't mean the tracks that are the longest are the most self-indulgent or meandering, but I know what you mean. There are certain things we've done in the past that I would change now. I don't think anyone would say anything else in that position. You know, as far as the commercial side of it, you try to make yourself accessible to people and you try to make records that will get played on the radio. You try to do that because we've seen what effect that has with a song like "Kayleigh." We know the power of a hit single in terms of exposure and album sales. At the end of the day, if you're not going to make albums for people to listen to, you might as well not be signed to a record label. On the other hand, we try to balance that with remaining true to what we want to do. So, the only area it's really variable is in the production, because when it comes to writing we don't try to write hit singles because it's a complete waste of the time. We've all talked about it. If you wait for it and think you've hit the target and you go for something you think is commercial, then it does nothing. And then again you'll write a song that you don't think is a hit. "Kayleigh" was like that. Nobody expected it to be anywhere near as successful as it was and that album was slighted by the record company. "A concept album, it doesn't have anything going commercially, how are we gonna fucking sell this?" or so everybody thought. You can't tell, so there's no point trying to figure that out.

As far as the production goes, we thought it was somewhere we could try someone like Chris Neil. Looking at Holidays In Eden now, I think it's a little bit safe. It suffers from being, not predictable, but getting that way. There's nothing there that I think was a bit of a risk. We didn't really take any risks, and on certain songs we didn't takes risks purposefully like "No One Can" or "Cover My Eyes" because if we'd chucked 7/8 bars in there or something – immediately its commercial value and chance of getting played on radio would drop.

Originally, you weren't going to include some of the tracks that found their way onto the album.

MK: "Cover My Eyes" wasn't going to be on it because it wasn't finished being written. We had the opening bars and the first verse and we thought it was really good but couldn't figure out what to do with it. Chris Neil helped us rearrange it, putting the chorus part with it. So, that song probably wouldn't have appeared on that album, but these things have a habit of resurfacing if they don't get used.

One thing that surprised me about the album is the fact that your keyboards take more of a background role on it.

MK: There's no keyboard solos as such. I don't know, there's something about that thing I used to do with the old mini-Moog that has a problem with sounding dated you know. That's the only thing about doing that. So, I've stayed away from it to be quite honest.

Do you see your future role in the band as filling out the sound with texture and ambience then?

MK: Who knows? It might go the other way. It's something I'm not ruling out but yeah, I've been trying to avoid those diddle-diddle solos.

SH: It'll be hip as fuck by the next album!

Steve, you've said in a past interview that you feel you should apologize for writing songs that aren't about war and peace.

SH: Did I say that? I was probably drunk at the time! [laughs] I probably meant the wordiness of things. The conceptual, lots and lots of words thing. I know when we do the old songs, it's a bit of strain to remember because there's so many words. I remember trying to learn the words to "Fugazi."

I thought you didn't want to perform that track?

SH: Yeah, but I was prepared to try it, but we abandoned it in rehearsal. After verse one, everyone said "Nah, this isn't working." But I sat up for about three nights trying to write them all out trying to get my head around it.

How do you guys balance the direction you want to go in with what your old fans expect or want?

SH: We don't.

MK: I think it'd be a mistake to do what the old fans expect. They just want to hear stuff like we've done before and that's the last thing we wanna do.

You mean Misplaced Childhood II?

MK: Yeah exactly. So, we have to just keep moving on, and hopefully they'll still like what we do, and if they don't, hopefully it's not because it's not as good, it's because their tastes have changed or ours have.

SH: You've got to what comes natural really. We get together and we put together the best music we can lyrically and musically at any point in time and that's what the album becomes. The direction of the album depends entirely on which ideas are the strongest at that point and if we have a straight-ahead rock track that sounds stronger than something more folky then that's the one that'll make it to the album and that becomes the criteria really.

Chris Neil stopped us from throwing "Waiting To Happen" out because we felt it didn't really stand up and we were ready to put it in the bin. He was really excited about it, so a producer can stop us from lobbing stuff out, so we don't think "Oh, will the fans like this?" You can't know what the fans will like anyway. There will always be 10 fans coming up to you saying "You haven't done anything from Fugazi. Why not? How could you?" And you'll get another 10 that'll say "You haven't done anything from Fugazi, thank fuck for that." We have people coming up to us saying they like the new stuff but not the old stuff and that's particularly encouraging because we've got young kids turning up at the shows again that couldn't have been into Misplaced Childhood at the time. They've heard the new stuff and they've discovered the band and are going back to buy the old albums and that's always a very positive thing. If you try to please a certain section of fans, in five years time, they'll have got old and they'll be sitting watching TV and stroking the labrador and maybe not listening to rock music anymore and then the young kids maybe wouldn't want to know.

MK: Ungrateful bastards! [laughs]

Steve, one thing I've noticed in recent interviews is that you sometimes discuss the band in a "me and them" context.

MK: It's not as clear cut as that at all. Because when we're writing now, we've discovered a way which is a process which we've learned through writing Holidays In Eden. And one of the things is that Steve has a keyboard in front of him all the time and he joins in when we jam. It's the five of us making the music, like on the latest song we've written "I Will Walk On Water." I put this Hammond organ on it, and that was the initial starting thing and Steve's playing this modern keyboard sound and there's these two different styles of keyboard playing happening and all the other instruments as well, but it was very much written as a group. So, it wasn't really a me and the other four situation as far the music goes, but as far as the lyrics go, it's generally Steve's domain because none of us can write lyrics really, unfortunately. [laughs]

SH: I don't think there's a me and them feeling in the band.

Why do heavy metal magazines like Kerrang! and Rock Power pay so much attention to the band?

SH: We can't tell you, because we've no idea at all.

MK: I think it all stems back right to the beginning really. I can remember one of the first things written about us was written in Kerrang! We talk to them because they give us a fair crack at the whip, because at least they can be critical but they don't slight us because it's fashionable to, which is the case with a lot of the other magazines in England. It seems to me more people read Kerrang! over here in North America than anywhere else! I didn't realize it was so influential.

SH: I think Kerrang! talks to us as well because we represent an area of music outside what they normally concentrate on. So maybe they... well actually, it is a bit strange, because bands like Depeche Mode don't talk to Kerrang!.

MK: But you do get other bands that are considered to be melodic rock bands like Aerosmith or whatever.

SH: I think it's to do with the power. Bands like Living Colour seem to get into it as well.

Holidays in Eden was released through I.R.S. Records in the States. What happened to your relationship with Capitol?

MK: I dunno, they all had their heads stuck up their asses as far as I can tell. Actually, the president of Capitol Records really likes the band and when we finished this album he wanted to put it out and by then we'd just had enough of it because we felt when we got over there it'd be like "Oh great guys!" and fuck, then it would be out the door! So, we left and then they persuaded us to put this album out, and mainly because it was the president that who wanted to give us one more try, and we thought it must mean more then they said in the past. It was about to be released and then he said "I've gotta be honest, I can put it out, but the rest of the company's not behind this, I can put it out, but nobody's gonna work this, they just can't see it." So we thought "Fine we'll go elsewhere."

SH: It was very annoying at the time, but looking back, it was a good thing, really. The vibe we've had in New York in that one day with I.R.S. gave us a much more solid feeling than we've ever had before.

Why different track listings, track titles, packaging and bonus tracks on the U.S. release?

SH: I.R.S. wanted to.

MK: We felt that since it was a new move for us, a new company, we thought "Let them have some rope, let's see what they think we should do, they live there, they know the market."

SH: All the changes were their idea, even the artwork, the sleeves, the whole thing.

MK: We still had a certain amount of control, they wanted to change the artwork, so we got Bill Smith to change it. In fact, they asked to remix "Cover My Eyes," so we said "Okay, fair enough."It was remixed and we thought the remix wasn't very good, but we said "Ok, if you want to release the remix we'll go with it" but we thought the original mix was better and to their credit they came back and said exactly the same thing. That gave us a lot of confidence in their decision-making because at least when we thought something they were about to do was wrong, they changed their minds about it, so that was good.

Is it a multi-record deal with I.R.S.?

SH: Oh yeah, I believe so, it's not just a commitment for this one album is it?

MK: No, it wouldn't be worth it from either side really, we're not the sort of band you could crack wide open with one album.

SH: I think they're a bit better placed to build it slowly as well if it comes down to that, because they're used to doing that kind of thing. I think they're working on a smaller scale, so they get excited for less sales. They feel like they're achieving something at a certain level where Capitol would say "Oh shit! We only did 100,000. It was hardly worthwhile getting out of bed."

MK: To us it seems a bit ridiculous, because 100,000 sales is 100,000 sales.

SH: Yeah, it's a significant fraction of our worldwide sales.

How has Holidays In Eden sold worldwide?

MK: It's about the same as Seasons End. Shy of half a million, which included North American sales as well but everybody says "And taking into account the current recession, it means you're probably doing better than you were before," so everything's qualified.

SH: Sales are down across the board and ours are about the same, so there's been a bit of growth and I think we're seeing that at the shows. We're finding a significantly younger audience turning up at shows which is encouraging.

Tell me about the title track from Holidays In Eden.

SH: It's another one of John Helmer's stories that I think is true. It's about a girl he knew, who's very straight-laced, a timid sort of character. She saved up her money and went on holiday to South America and when she got there she completely immersed herself in the culture and fell in with the crowd and went ape shit crazy basically and did everything she dreamt of doing and not done at home. She changed her name, changed everything about herself for a few months and eventually the money ran out and she had to go home and when she got home, she found she couldn't get on with any of her friends. They didn't like her the way she was now. They liked her when she was quiet and timid and she found she didn't fit in anyway, and so that's the story of what that song is all about. When I set eyes on it, it wasn't that long since we had been in Rio, South America ourselves and I could relate straight away to this sense of losing yourself in another culture and an alternative lifestyle for a period of time and the problems of you might have readjusting. At the end of the day, that's what we spend half our lives doing. Half our lives we pretend to be someone else and play being rock stars and there comes a point where you find yourself in a supermarket shopping trying to come to terms with that and dealing with reality again. I could really relate to it, I added a few lines to it here and there and that's the story. And the music was written by... them! [laughs] That was the only song on the album that I stayed musically completely out of, and came in at the end when it was written in a jam. So, having completely denied the me and them thing, I've completely contradicted myself.

How did How We Live's "Dry Land" end up on a Marillion album?

SH: Chris Neil wanted it on. He heard it as a very old demo and turned up at the first meeting saying said "I love it, would you consider doing it?" So, I had to go dig it out and play it for... them! [laughs] The band listened to it and liked it and that's how it came about. Chris was jumping up and down and turning cartwheels and really wanted to do it so we thought we'd try it and improve on it.

Who decided to release the "Cover My Eyes" single in four separate formats, each with different b-sides in Europe?

MK: I think it's sort of a record company thing. I think a lot of fans were a little upset about it.

SH: The fact that they had to buy multiple formats to get them all?

MK: Yeah. It bothers us too. We've always had a problem where they want to put out several 12" singles and we think we can't sell the same thing three times to people.

Marillion fans are quite different though.

MK: Yeah, we realize that and it's usually the most loyal fans, the ones who really like you best, that you're really fucking over because they'll buy everything anyway because they want to collect the stuff. So, the first thing we've always tried to do is give them decent b-sides. In fact, in the past we, put out that album that was all b-sides and in fact the two b-sides we had from the recent stuff are on the U.S. release which shows that we're not ashamed of them as tracks.

Speaking of b-sides, tell me about "A Collection."

SH: There's another good John Helmer story behind that. It's about someone he knows who has a collection of photographs of all the girlfriends he's had in his life, but they're all standing in this same spot. He has this place that's his favorite view and he takes them to it and they don't know he's taking photos of his other girlfriends there, too. He gets them to smile and says "Oh, what a lovely view. I'll take your photograph." So, he has this collection of photos in essence that are all the same shot, but different girls. That's what it's all about.

The Holidays In Eden songs have a very different energy when you perform them live.

SH: Yeah, it's a bit faster live, but you can more or less say that for any of the songs really. They tend to acquire an energy that comes through performance and they also acquire an edge that comes through the nervousness of being in concert.

Is performing in concert a nervous thing for you?

SH: Christ, yeah.

MK: Yeah, it depends on the show obviously, like some of the bigger shows we've done but, it's good. It gives you a bit of edge.

SH: Iit's a positive thing.

MK: But you can tell we're nervous, because everything's twice as fast.

What percentage of your earnings would you give up to be able to stop performing "Kayleigh" in concert?

MK: [laughs] I still don't have a problem with it.

SH: I don't mind singing it, I enjoy singing it, it doesn't bug me at all. Given a choice I'd lose "Berlin." I got fed up with it.

MK: Yeah you didn't want to do that did you?

SH: No, I wasn't enamoured about doing that, and I heaved a sigh of relief when we took "Market Square Heroes" out of the set as well.

MK: Oh yeah, we were all sick of that. [laughs] There are certain songs that you get bored of very quickly and there are other songs that you can play night after night. In fact, we've probably played "Kayleigh" at every gig since we wrote it, but you know it's not really boring.

SH: I think it's lovely. I've always enjoyed singing it because it's so meaningful lyrically, I mean that's it for me – if the song's meaningful and I can relate to it, I can sing it twice a day forever and every time I sing, it those pictures would be going through my head and that stops it from being "Oh God, I've got to sing this song again." It's slightly different every time because I'm imagining slightly different images. it's like looking down the same kaleidoscope every day.

I understand things are a bit friendlier between you guys and Fish now.

MK: Yeah definitely, he did come to a gig and we saw him after the show and he was his charming self. [laughs] He can be very charming when he wants to be.

I understand he had problems with EMI.

MK: He's not with them anymore.

SH: He's left them and sued him.

Didn't he want to release a live album with Marillion tracks on it and EMI prevented him?

MK: You really have done your homework.

SH: Is that true? I didn't know that.

MK: Yeah, he came to us and said "Do you have any objection to me putting out a live album with live Marillion tracks?" And in fact we didn't, even though we have a best-of compilation coming out in May and we said "We'd prefer it if you didn't release it before this other album comes out." And to be honest this is to his advantage as well, since we didn't want to clash in the market. So, he went to EMI and because of what he said about the company and all that stuff about dedicated to Rupert Perry on his album, the guy said no.

SH: What does it say on his album? I don't know anything about it.

MK: There's this song called "Tongues" on it that says "Dedicated to Rupert Perry, M.D. of EMI Records London."

SH: Bloody hell.

Mark, weren't you pictured inside the original album sleeve on Fish's first album too?

MK: I was a bit upset about that. That was such a petty thing to do.

What do you think of Fish's solo music?

SH: I've hardly heard any of it, really. I've just never been interested in hearing it, so I haven't gone to any great effort to hear it. The only thing I've ever heard was "Big Wedge" and I thought it sounded like Phil Collins.

MK: I think as a lyric writer he's talented and he does do some good stuff, but I think the problem which he's always had is that he doesn't always know when he's doing his best work. In a band where he's the sole leader where he makes all the decisions, it could be a problem for him. At least when he's part of a band, where everyone is equal, people can say what they think.

Tell me about Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other. It seems odd to mix tracks with both Steve and Fish on one album.

SH: Well I suppose it's odd, but EMI came to us and wanted an anniversary album because it's 10 years and we gave it a bit of thought to start with and I was very worried about putting out an album with the old material, because there's still quite a few people out there in the world that don't know I've joined the band yet. I'm talking about those people that have been very casual listeners that maybe heard about the band a long time ago with "Kayleigh" and that's the same market that a compilation album would appeal to. It's not going to appeal to the fans so much, and to be honest it's not even aimed at the fans, it's aimed at people that wouldn't normally go out and buy the record, that's the whole point.

But there's going to be two new tracks on it as well.

MK: Yes. We're aware that the fans will buy it anyway. [laughs] That gets back to that thing we were talking about before, so we're also remixing "Garden Party" and "Assassing" for it.

SH: I was a bit worried about the idea of them doing that, because it might be misleading and a lot of people might see the album in the shops and think "Oh, Fish has never left, or Fish left and now he's back in the band." I think it was Mark's idea to do something that's a complete scan of 10 years of the band with both singers and that seemed to make a degree of sense, once you really think about it.

Mark, you're doing some vocals in concert now.

MK: I'm singing backing vocals, yeah. That's Steve's fault, he encouraged me to do it.

SH: He's not a bad singer.

MK: It's an extra texture. I don't think I have a voice suitable for a lead vocal.

Any trepidation over doing them?

MK: It's terrifying, yeah! Playing's no problem, singing though, is.

SH: I'll tell you, there are many people singing lead vocals out there that are worse singers than him.

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