Marillion: Viagra & Muesli

by Keith Valcourt

 

Thirty-plus years in, prog rock pioneers Marillion show no sign of stopping.  The English quintet best known for the mega-hit “Kayleigh” have been releasing high quality albums for decades now.  West Coast Bureau Chief Keith Valcourt sat down with Drummer Ian Mosley, Bassist Pete Trewavas and lead singer Steve Hogarth backstage at the House Of Blues in Los Angeles, one of many stops on Marillion’s first US tour in 8 years to discuss their rabid fans, new CD “Sounds That Can’t Be Made”, and what keeps the band going (Hint: it’s in the title).

 

 

Rocker: What motivates the band to keep going after thirty plus years? 

 

Steve:  Viagra.  Muesli.

 

Rocker: At the same time?

 

Steve:  What with the jet lag, you end up doing both at once!

 

Rocker: With such a vast catalog of songs how do you decide what to play live?

 

Pete:  That is quite a big decision.  We actually polled the fans on line to see what they would like.  We haven’t played in America for eight years, so there are three albums that they have never heard live.  Then we cherry picked a few songs that were favorites for the American audience that we like to play, and thought would go well.  So it’s those along with some old favorites we’ve been playing around Europe for the last couple of years.

 

Steve:  It’s probably a combination of evolution from previous things we’ve done that we discovered worked, with the polls of the American Fans for their favorite stuff via the internet.  It doesn’t mean were going to do everything they want, but it’s nice to know what people will hope you’ll do.  Plus our own personal favorites, the songs we all feel like playing most.

 

Ian:  The fans kind of gave us the top twenty really.  When we play two nights in one city we change the set completely.

 

Rocker: Completely every night? 

 

Ian:  There might be one or two songs we play on the first night that we also play the second night but the majority of the set will be completely different on night two.

 

Rocker: How many songs do you prepare for the tour?

 

Pete:  We must have about four hours of material we can draw from.  Plus there are other songs that even though we haven’t rehearsed, if somebody said “play it” we could.  There is a song called “The Release” which we haven’t played this tour but we play it so often, and it’s a relatively simple song to play, that we could just pull it out of the back and play it, and it would probably be fine.  (Laughs)

 

Ian:  We had a request the other week for someone’s birthday or wedding anniversary.  They said, “Play “Ocean Cloud” which is 15 minutes long. Sure.  Could you hum a bit.(Laughs)  We did it.

 

Rocker: When you tour the USA do you feel the need to play “The Hits?”

 

Pete:  No.  I think it’s more a case of playing songs that people in America like.  We haven’t really had hits as such for quite a long time.  We went through a long period of consciously not playing  “Kayliegh.” We recently put that song back in to the set.  Because enough time has passed and we sort of proved the point that we don’t need to be the sort of band that relies on a hit to get by.

 

Steve:  We were very mindful of what the US fans wanted to hear. A lot of our American fans have turned up at our conventions anyway.  They are such a hardcore bunch.  I don’t think that there are that many people who show up at our shows anymore just because “Kayleigh” got some airplay.  It’s gone way beyond that.  Twenty five years since “Misplaced Childhood.”  They would have long lost interest.  The hits are not such an issue.  There are so many Kaylieghs showing up at the shows now.  Women in their twenties with their dads.  We play it now just for the daughters.

 

Rocker: After 8 years away what has been the reaction from the U.S. audiences?

 

Pete:  The reaction has been amazing.  We were expecting a high anticipation, but it’s beyond what we could have thought.  Unbelievable!  I don’t know what it is that we’re doing but we must be doing something right.

 

Steve:  What we have now when we step out onstage, we go out to raw affection.  It’s the most incredible feeling.  It’s a giant hug every night.

 

Rocker: When Fish left and before you found Steve was there ever a moment you thought of breaking up?

 

Ian:  We never contemplated splitting up.

 

Pete:  We didn’t really.  I know it sounds weird and seems strange now looking back but it never crossed any our minds not to carry on.  We were the nucleus of the band musically.

 

Ian: The four of us (Pete, Ian, Steve Rothery, and Mark Kelly) wrote the music.

 

Pete:  Fish was the lyricist and a very focal point of the band.  But inside of the band it was the 4 of us that made all the decisions musically, and a lot of other decisions as well.  It never crossed our minds not to carry on.  It was a struggle finding a good singer.  Because they all seemed to be already in bands.

 

Rocker: How did you find Steve?

 

Steve:  How did you find me?

 

Pete:  Steve’s publisher at the time in London sent a tape with a couple of songs to our management company. They listened to the tape and thought, “This will work out for the guys.”  So we set up a meeting at my house with Steve.  I’ve got two cats so we had to have the meeting outside…

 

Ian:  Because Steve is allergic to cats.

 

Steve:  Yes the cats.

 

Pete:  It was January and it had been snowing.  Freezing cold and

we were meeting with coats on.

 

Ian:  We auditioned quite a few people, some of them very good singers, but not right for us.  As soon as we heard Steve’s voice the decision was unanimous.  The first song he song with us was “Sunset Town.”  He said, “What do you want from me?”  We said, “Just do your thing.”  I can’t believe how laid back we were about it.

Then we said, “Yes!  We want you to join.”  And Steve said, “Well I’ll think about it.”

 

Steve:  Had to weigh my options.  (Laughs)

 

Pete:  What?  We had a couple of mutual friends who got word in his ear that he should join the band.

 

Ian:  I think he did the right thing by not just saying yes.  Big shoes to fill and he needed to think about it.  Luckily he said yes.

Rocker: Was it odd for you Steve to sing Fish era songs?

 

Steve:  The band was very cool with me when I joined.  They said, “Look we’re going to have to play some of this old music.  We’re touring with “Seasons End” and only have the one album together so we’re going to have to delve into our history but we want you to do what you do.  Choose what songs you wish to sing.  I did have the freedom, which I was very grateful at the time, to have a listen to the albums they made with Fish and choose what I felt would work for me, and what wouldn’t.  I’m a very different personality from Fish.  I’m not someone who wants to scream about heroin soaked needles and toilet floors.  It’s not just what I’m about.  So the more Gothic hard edge side of Fish’s persona and his writing just got left out, and they were fine with that.  I don’t think we’ve ever touched anything on the “Fugazi” album for instance.

 

The softer, more psychedelic imagery, “Warm Wet Circles,” the sexual imagery sat very well with me.  I had no problem with that because I could relate to it.  I do really feel like I’m a singer.  I feel like someone who relives things.  In tune.  (Laughs) Singing isn’t about words in a tune.  It’s about expressing a feeling or a journey that someone has had in their heart, mind or soul through music.  The great singers have that going on and that is why they move you.  You don’t hear a great singer and say, “Oh that’s in tune and those words are quite good aren’t they.”  You hear a great singer, get soul and find tears running down your face.  That’s what I aspire to.

 

Rocker: What singers inspired you?

 

Steve:  John Lennon.  Daryl Hall actually.  Peter Gabriel.  The guy from the Four Tops.

 

Rocker: Levi Stubbs.

 

Steve:  He had a fantastic voice.  Very knocked out by him.  Ray Charles!  Holy shit!  Nat King Cole, incredible.  Guys like that are so good they are freakish.  There is not point even trying to go into that place.  And then later on Joni Mitchell.  Paddy McAloon from Prefab Sprout and Paul Buchanan from The Blue Nile.  He’s a singer’s singer.  If you go to see him you’ll witness Chrissie Hynde, Annie Lennox and Peter Gabriel all sitting in a line crying watching Paul Buchanan sing.

 

Rocker: How soon after Steve joined did you feel like you came together as band?

 

Pete:  A lot of the material for our first album “Seasons End” was already written, and that album came together very quickly.  We did have a lot of fun on that.  The next album “Holidays In Eden” was a lot harder to write.  We were being pressured by the record company to make it more commercial.

 

Ian: “Seasons End” came together very quickly.  But “Holidays In Eden” was a blank canvas and it was the first time as a band we were starting from scratch.

 

Pete:  It was tough.  Because he way the band had worked in the past was to jam, come up with ideas and then put them on the shelf.  Come up with other ideas.

 

Steve:  I said, “Well, we’ve got an idea. Let’s make it into a song.”

 

Pete:  We were like, “Well, we don’t want to do that yet.  We want to come up with a load more of ideas.”

 

Ian:  Let’s jam for another year.

 

Steve:  After nine months of it I was climbing the walls wondering if we were going to write an album or not?

 

Pete:  It got frustrating for all of us.  EMI said, “We really need a single.”  They sent our A&R guy down, he was a nice guy, he came down and sat-in on the writing.  He sat on a stool trying to talk us through what he thought “No One Can,” which became a single and is a good song, should sound like.  You don’t really want someone from the record company directing you that way.

 

Ian:  Chris Kimsey was going to be producing the album, but suddenly he couldn’t do it because the Rolling Stones offered him something…

 

Pete:  A huge amount of money I think.  (Laughs)

 

Ian:  So fair enough.  We found Chris Neil.  He was good, but from a pop world.  He had done Mike and The Mechanics, and Celine Dion…

 

Pete:   I think when we started working on the next one, “Brave,” we all felt we had kind of arrived at the same place at the same time.  We were all happy to just be completely honest with each other and work.  That’s when I felt we were comfortable being a proper band.

 

Ian:  I think Pete is right.

 

Steve:  I would agree with that. “Seasons End,” even though “Easter” was the rest of the band’s and I was sort of grafted on at a late stage.  A guy called John Helmer had written half the words on “Seasons End” and I wrote the rest.  That album was a kind of grafting together.  Then “Holidays In Eden” was a reaction to “Seasons End.”  It was a troublesome record to write.  Then EMI put us with Chris Neil who gave it a pop sensibility, which I really enjoyed at the time, but the band had an idea of themselves that that album really challenged.

 

We kind of just went native to make “Brave.”  We cut all the other influences away and made a dark, brooding, experimental record.  Which at the time probably lost us more fans than anything.  Ironically it’s now viewed as some kind of watermark in our career.  It wasn’t a major career move.  We’ve always been much more about what will we do now.  We do it, cross our fingers and hope to God somebody gets it.  That’s been the approach.

 

Rocker: There was some backlash that “Holidays In Eden” was too pop.  Were you happy with the album?

 

Pete:  Out all of our work, it is the album that I find easiest to listen to.  It sounded sonically like an album.  It was a bit light.  The way Chris liked to work was, “There’s the hook.  Let’s play that as much as possible.  We don’t need loads of overdubs.  We’ve got a guitar.  We’ve got a piano.  Let’s the play the hook, get to the point, get the choruses over and done with then fade out at the end.  Job done.  There’s your song.”  Where with us in the past we would like to weave in other stuff and have a bit more depth.  He wasn’t that bothered with all the depth.

 

Ian:  It’s really difficult.  When you’ve just done an album you can’t tell half of the time.  I listened to “Holidays In Eden” last year as a refresher because we were going to being playing some of the tracks on this tour.  Some of those tracks like “Splintering Heart” are favorites, like “Cover My Eyes.”

 

Pete:  That song was made up of two songs we weren’t going to use.  Chris said, “Trust me I’ll do it.  I’ll put them together.”  And he did.

 

Ian:  He really wanted the album to be successful because his son was a big Marillion fan and he would be in real trouble if it wasn’t good.

 

Pete:  He realized our reservations because of the acts he had been working with.  He said, “I want this to be your best album.  Otherwise my son will kill me if I turn you into Celine Dion.  So I’m not going to do that.”

 


 
Rocker: Has anyone had contact with Fish since he left?  Has he ever asked for his gig back?

 

Pete:  No.  Not really.  We’ve had lots of speculation from promoters saying, “When are you guys going to get back together?  You could make a lot of money doing a tour or this and that.”  We’ve never felt like we wanted to.  From my point of view we’ve come so far it would be a shame to backpedal.

 

Ian:  When you think of it, how many albums did Fish do with us?  Three or four?  And how many have Steve done?  Fourteen or so.  I speak to Fish occasionally.  We all do from time to time.  It’s all quite amicable, if wasn’t at the time of breakup.

 

Pete:  It was awful at the time.  Very heavy.

 

Ian:  But we’re all older.  Probably not any wiser!

 

You’re music has been called “Prog” early on but seems to be getting for esoteric.  Are you mellowing with age?

 

Ian:  I think it’s all of those things.  It’s hard to be an “Angry Young Man” especially when you can’t remember what you were angry about in the first place!  (Laughs)

 

Pete:  We are really just trying to write music that excites us.  It’s great that we can all get into the same room at the same time and be excited about music that we create after doing it for some thirty odd years now.  Just the fact that we actually can be in the same room without lawyers and loads of people is quite a challenge for some bands.  Not us.

 

Ian:  We still feel like we’re progressing.  We’re not making the same album every album.

 

Pete:  If we tried to force something it would sound false.

 

Rocker: After “Seasons End”, “Holidays In  Eden” “Brave” and “Afraid Of Sunlight” you parted ways with the major label.  Was it a relief?

 

Pete:  At the time we thought it was going to be a relief, because we wouldn’t have them pressuring us.  But the indie labels we worked with at the time, they promised a lot and for whatever reason it didn’t happen.  They seemed to be very account driven.  Once they got back their investment they seemed to just close the book and not be interested in future sales.

 

Ian:  They weren’t into marketing and stuff like that.  They knew that our fans would find a Marillion album even if it was buried in the ground somewhere.  They didn’t have to market it.  For me it was a gray era.  Things were changing at the time because of the internet.

 

Rocker: Marillion were pioneers of crowd sourcing and getting fans to pay for recording of albums.  Who came up with that?

 

Ian:  It was Mark really who came up with all the internet ideas.

 

Pete:  We were signed to Castle Communications for three albums.  With the third album we had a website and planned as much as we could.  Mark said, “The internet is going to happen.  It’s not just this nerdy thing for American colleges.  It is going to become this international thing.  Trust me.”  So we got ourselves a website and we called the third album Marillion.com purposely.  We also decided the cover would be pictures that fans sent in.  That started to build up a database.  Access to that data.  Mark got the ball rolling.

 

Ian:  It started with the tour fund.  The American fans were saying, “Come To America!”  We said, “We really can’t afford it.  It would cost about fifty thousand dollars!”  And a fan said, “We’ll get a tour fund together.”  I remember we all thought, “Yeah Right.”  Three weeks later, Mark rung me to say, “He’s raised forty thousand dollars.”  That was the first impact our fan-driven thing had.

 

Pete:  That was the first time we really thought that the internet was going to become an important tool for us, and that the fans really do have a lot of faith.  To just put money into a pot.

 

Steve:  The Americans brought that feeling of being a family.  The tour fund woke us up to how the people here were willing to put their hands in their pockets and commit to something they believed in.  We never realized that it was an option before.  We woke up to the spiritual aspect of the internet.  Ironically it’s what it’s all about.

You never would have known technology would be a medium for a constant spiritual exchange.  We learned who are fans are and how we could speak to all our fans quickly and for no money.  That evolved into a sense of family between the band and fans.

 

Ian:  That’s when we pushed the button on the pre-order idea.  Suddenly it meant we had the freedom to do whatever we wanted.  Our music was our own.  The fans were all that trusting to up all that money.  We might have just taken the money and gone out partying.

 

Pete:  Some of us probably would have.  (Laughs)

 

Ian:  That was amazing and has carried on till this day really.

 

Pete: We are in a fantastic position.

 

Rocker: Why are Marillion fans so intense? 

 

Pete:  There is a truth, and an integrity in our music.  There is a soul.  It is a music that moves people.  Lyrically as well.  We try and marry the whole thing together and it does seem to move people.

 

Ian:  There is an honesty about it all.  I don’t know.  I remember when I first joined the band that I thought there is something really magical about this band.  I didn’t really know what it was then.  And  still don’t really know.  (Laughs)

 

Steve:  I think people can sniff truth.  If you lie to people and are clever you can still move and entertain them.  Give them a good time if you calculate an experience, like writing a movie, you can give people a good night out.  But if you give them truth you can wipe them out completely.  You can reach a part of them that mere entertainment will never reach. I think the fact that we’ve been true musically and just about everything I’ve ever written has messed with people on a deeper level than most other words and music that they hear.

 

Pete:  It’s fantastic.  They come up and say, “That song changed by life.  It saved me.”  It’s very humbling and makes you think.

 

Steve:  People say, “You’ve written the soundtrack of my life,”  which is a strange thing to be told.  “You saved my life.”  It’s wonderful, and it’s beautiful.  You can’t even say thank you because that’s the wrong response.  You just sort of stand there thinking, “This is a great privilege.”  Sometimes people will come up to me and just shake my hand and say nothing.  I get emotional just thinking about that.  For some people it means so much they can’t put it in words.

 

Rocker: Do you have any female fans? 

 

Pete:  We have a few. (Laughs)

 

Ian:  I met one the other day.  (Laughs)

 

Pete:  She’s nice!

 

In some countries like Spain, Italy and South America we seem to have loads of female fans.

 

Steve:  I think girl fans tend to be into pop music and we’re not very poppy.  The girls that do come I guess are the ones with issues! (Laughs)

 

 

What can we expect from the new CD: “Sounds That Can’t Be Made?” 

 

Pete:  There is no theme as such to the album.  It is song and melody driven and each song has an identity of its own.

 

Ian:  It’s not a concept album.

 

Steve:  I don’t think it sounds like anything we’ve done before.  I think it’s another quantum jump away from ourselves.  We’ve been doing that.  On each album we remain within ourselves, but make a quantum jump away from the previous one.

 

Pete:  We spent the best part of three years working on it, which sounds like a long time but we did a load of stuff in that period.  We  put out an acoustic album, toured…

 

Steve:  Because of the way we record, writing by jamming, we are able to select the ideas that are not only the strongest but sound the least like what we’ve done before, because we never want to keep making the same record.  There is a song on there that I think falls in some area between Todd Rundgren and Prince, which is an area we’ve never gone before.  There is a song called “Montreal” that is born out of a diary piece.  I don’t think we’ve even done a song that is a day or two in the life. Doing what we usually do when we are on tour.

 

Rocker: The Muesli and the Viagra?

 

Steve:  The endless cycle of Muesli and Viagra.  There is a new song “Power” that we’ve been playing live that is going over really well.  It’s about what power really is about what moves you or takes you apart.  And there’s “Lucky Man” which is very Joe Cocker-esk.

 

Pete:  Sort of Faces-sounding.  Kind of rocky, with a strong guitar melody, which has some Abbey Road tinkering.

 

Ian:  We’re still working on it.

 

Pete:  It’s a strange situation because we’ve been recording it in bedrooms.  Mike Hunter is producing it and putting it all together.

 

Rocker: Do you miss recording in the big studios with all that excess?

 

Pete:  No.

 

Steve:  I do.  Desperately.

 

Ian:  I really do miss that.

 

Steve:  I miss club sandwiches and girls in short skirts making my breakfast.  That doesn’t happen anymore.

 

Pete:  No. No. No.  We’re of an age where that doesn’t do us any good.

 

Steve:  I did say I miss it but I didn’t say I ever want to do that again.

 

Pete:  We did go into the most luxurious studio in England for two weeks while working on this new CD.  We went to Real World (Peter Gabriel’s studio) and spent two weeks really getting to grips which songs we thought would become the album.  We needed to focus.  We have our own studio, but because we do everything there it’s not like being in a studio and having the same kind of focus when you’re paying for something.

 

Ian:  Too many distractions in our own studio.

 

Pete:  It was a great experience.  You can really free up your mind and focus on music.  An unbelievable place to work.  Whatever you want is there.

 

Rocker: Except for girls in short skirts serving breakfast.

 

Steve:  I don’t want that.  I just miss it.  (Laughs)

 


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