Marillion is widely considered one of the founders of neo-progressive rock . Starting in the early 1980s with albums like Script For a Jester’s Tear and Misplaced Childhood, Marillion was initially influenced by the British progressive rock of 1970s groups like Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd. With the entrance of singer Steve Hogarth in the latter part of the decade the band began a long, slow transformation into an amalgam of progressive, pop, ambient and modern rock that defies labels, confounds critics and delights music fans.
In 2009 the band released Less is More, an album featuring acoustic re-arrangements of past Marillion songs. The adventurous new arrangements expanded the band’s instrumentation to include dulcimer, autoharp, celeste, glockenspiel, xylophone, and pipe organ. On March 29, 2011 Eagle Rock Entertainment, through earMusic, released a double CD/DVD set entitled Live From Cadogan Hall, which was recorded on the final night of the Less is More tour at London’s prestigious Cadogan Hall.
Marillion guitarist and founding member Steve Rothery spoke to hornface.com just before the album’s release. In the following excerpts from that conversation he talks about the musical challenges of re-arranging the band’s past work, the band’s rabidly loyal fan base and how it has followed Marillion through many changes, the Internet and its positive and negative roles in marketing the band now, the divisions in the fan base between older era and newer era fans, the current status of progressive rock, and much more.
Hear the entire audio interview by clicking on the video at left.
Special thanks to Steve Rothery and to Carol Kaye for arranging this interview.
When you recorded Less Is More, did you enivison doing a whole tour that re-imagined other songs from the catalogue as well?
We hadn’t really thought it through when we first made the album. Sometimes we do a slightly similar thing when the three of us go out as Los Trios. So we knew there were some existing arrangements that would probably work well in that context. But it was only when we started rehearsing for the tour that we made a decision over which songs we were going to include.
This involves such unusual instrumentation in some cases. Where did the idea come from to apply those kinds of instruments? Were they things you were already interested in?
We had a few of them lying around, but I think once we decided to make this record, it’s probably our producer, Mike Hunter, that pushed us into going the whole way and using such a wide collection of unusual instruments. Nearly all of my stuff is on guitar, although I did some stuff on Portuguese guitar as well, on a couple of tracks. But everybody else got very adventurous in terms of glockenspiels and xylophones and all sorts of wonderful keyboards.
Mark [Kelly] bought a huge church organ on Ebay which is still taking up most of one wall of the studio. (Laughs). It’s quite spectacular. I don’t think he actually used it on the record. It was sort of a mad scientist idea he had to build this thing.
I wouldn’t have thought that a church organ would be available on Ebay.
Yeah, he went up there and picked it up and spent quite a while re-building it. You have to take a hacksaw to the tubes to tune it. (Laughs). It’s quite a sight.
It’s not the most portable instrument, needless to say.
No, you wouldn’t really want to tour with it, put it that way. Not unless you had a week between gigs.
Marillion fans are notoriously loyal, and they’ve stuck with the band through a really large number of musical changes. Do you ever wonder on the front end of a project, ‘Are we taking a step too far here?’
You can’t really stop and worry about that. I think at the end of the day you’ve got to try and make music that excites and interests you, and hope that you’re going to take at least a fair percentage of your audience with you. I think once you start tailoring your music toward what you think your audience wants, that’s kind of the kiss of death, artistically and creatively. I mean, you can go to extremes and make an album of white noise, but we’re not really that way inclined. It’s more of a gentle evolution or diversion in terms of direction.
It’s great to have that freedom, and of course we only have that freedom because we’re not having to satisfy a record company. It’s very unusual for a band in our position to be in that situation, where we can be so completely independent. We’re doing well so far, considering the state of the industry and the way that CD sales are generally plummeting. There’s a lot to be said for having a really dedicated fan base that wants you to continue and are willing to support you by buying your products direct, or buying the pre-orders or convention tickets. It makes a huge difference.
You embraced the Internet way before the labels were seriously dying in the way that they are now. A lot of artists are experiencing the other side of the hand, which is the Internet is taking away the sales that they did have.
It is a problem I think for all artists, and I don’t really see that there’s a solution. I think it’s just how most of the general public sees the value of music now. It used to be that MTV was a very powerful influence on a certain generation, and these days, if they’re interested in a band they’ll just go find the video on YouTube. If they’re interested in the music, they’ll find it on Last FM, or Pandora probably in the States.
You can’t control the way that music is perceived anymore. It used to be with certain generations, buying the product was part of the experience. In the old days of vinyl you had the gatefold sleeves, and you’d look at the lyrics and photos on there. It was all part of the immersive experience of getting a new album and really listening to it quite intently, where I think maybe for later generations music, they might enjoy it, but other things have taken over. Technology, or computer games . . . just the Internet. There’s so much constant stream of stimulation for them depending on what they want to do that music doesn’t have the same power, maybe, for those generations.
It’s gone back to the original paradigm where it’s completely singles-driven, because people aren’t even aware of entire albums, mostly.
Yeah, you just cherry pick the single, really. And the other thing as well, due to the nature of the industry, quite often that’s the only half-decent track on the record. Which is maybe the other thing that’s a factor in dwindling CD sales, apart from the greed of major labels and file sharing, is that there’s really not that much interesting music out there anymore, apart from the independents.
You were one of the first bands to begin direct marketing to your fans. Do you think that’s one of the things that’s helped you weather the storm as well as you have?
I think it’s a major part of it. It’s more than just music with these fans. A lot of them have followed us for a long time, but we are still getting new fans all the time. A lot of it comes down to the kind of music that we make. It’s not pop music. It’s something that has a lot of depth and a lot of atmosphere. People are never really lukewarm about our music. They either don’t like it – in which case they usually haven’t heard it, or it’s just not their thing – or if they’re into it, they’re into it with a complete passion, and they’ll think nothing of flying around to the other side of the world to see us perform, because we haven’t toured in their country.
We’ve talked before about not touring in America just being down to the expense. Is that a fair assessment?
It is, but we actually have a strategy that we’re pursuing at the moment, and I can’t really give too much away. But we’re looking at the possibilities of coming over next year and touring with another artist, sort of a dual headliner situation. So far that’s looking pretty promising. More news soon! (Laughs).
Marillion certainly has some very, very passionate American fans, but you’ve never had that big break in America. Why did that not happen back in the Capitol years like it did everywhere else?
I think you need so much exposure. The only real exposure we had was, “Kayleigh” got a reasonable amount of airplay before it was pulled due to a payola scandal that was on the national news with Capitol. But other than that, maybe it’s partly how Capitol marketed the band in the early days, it’s partly the nature of the industry – maybe nobody was writing the blank checks that you need to make inroads. And maybe it’s partly the band’s fault. We should have just come over and toured around for six months.
It would be interesting to see, because it’s been a few years now since we have toured there, other than the acoustic tour that we did. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of response we’d get now, and whether the Internet has actually increased our profile even though we haven’t toured there. So we’re looking into the possibilities for next year at the moment.
It seems like progressive rock is kind of getting a second listen right now, a critical and historical re-assessment that’s been long overdue in a lot of ways. Do you find that to be so, and does that affect Marilion at all?
There’s a few people that now own up to having progressive rock influences, or loving progressive rock. It’s not quite as dirty a word as it once was. There’s a lot of interesting artists out there that have elements of prog in what they do.
It all depends on what you mean by that. There’s a movement that’s kind of very generic, derivative progressive rock, and I think that doesn’t do anybody any favors. But the artists out there trying to do something fresh and interesting with the genre shows that there’s a lot of life in it.
My whole philosophy on progressive rock is, it’s not about any particular style. It’s not about having a section in 7/8, or Mellotrons or bass pedals, or mini-Moog solos. It’s more a state of mind. You could really be playing about with any particular genre of music, but you could bring this openness and spirit of adventure to it and hopefully make something interesting from it.
Fish has been gone 24 years, a really long time, and yet there are still fans that consider that their period. Fans ask all the time is Marillion still progressive rock and is it the same band, since it’s wandered so far away from that part of its career?
The thing is, we’ve made eleven albums with Steve [Hogarth], and we made four albums with Fish. If there hadn’t been a movement away from those first four albums, then it would be pretty sad. (Laughs). We would be plowing the same furrow.
As you develop as a writer and musician, you always have this thing of expanding your horizons. I think there’s enough variety in what we’ve done over the years, from the more commercial stuff on Holidays in Eden, to the darker stuff on Brave, to an album like Afraid of Sunlight, which I still think is our strongest collection of songs. I don’t think people should hanker back to the old days. I think some of those early songs were great. I think there’s something very special about a lot of them. But for some people the band died when Fish left. You’re always going to have that when you have a major change. You just have to move forward and try and create as good a work as you can.
Really, if someone wants that period, you can go to a Fish gig and he’s re-doing some of those records anyway.
He is, yeah . . .maybe in a slightly lower key! (Laughs).
Getting back to this live DVD, this was the final night of this tour. Does that mean if something gets screwed up, there’s really no re-shoots the next night? Does that put additional pressure on you?
We did shoot both of the two nights. We’re pretty consistent as a band, other than some sort of technical problem. Once you get into the zone, especially after the first two or three concerts, it’s normally okay. We all have in-ear monitors, so you can hear each other absolutely perfectly. That really does help in those situations.
Are you comfortable being filmed? Because I know guys who’ve been filmed a number of times that really can’t stand it.
You’ve just really got to ignore it. You’ve just got to focus on what you’re doing. We’re not the sort of band that’s going to start posing for the cameras. Well, most of us, anyway! (Laughs). So you just concentrate on your gig, and you concentrate on the audience. You perform to the audience, you’re not really performing to the cameras. You’re hoping something great’s gonna happen and the cameras are in some way going to capture that.
What happens from here? Are you working on new recordings or writing?
We’re writing the next album. We’re jamming every day before we start rehearsal. We’re going to continue doing that throughout the rest of the year. We have some concerts in Germany in November, and probably in the UK in December, and we’ll probably spend the rest of the year writing the record and probably start recording it early next year. Hopefully it will come out before next summer. That’s our very rough strategy.
I think when you’re in the situation we’re in, it’s more important to make the strongest possible record than it is within any sort of time frame, if you can survive financially. The greatest luxury you can have as a musician is the time to try and do your best work.
We really can take as long as it takes. I hope it’s not gonna take too long, because you really can lose sight of things if you work on a record for too long. But there’s some very strong ideas, and there’s some great creativity within the band, so I’m sure we’ll have something great.
Any hints as to the direction the next record might take?
Not really, no. Impossible to say. I’d like to think there’ll be a little bit more guitar on the next record. That’s the only thing in terms of a direction.
Is there anything else you want to say about the new DVD or anything else that going on?
I think there’s trailers on YouTube if anyone wants to check it out. It’s probably the best filming and the best sound of any live event that we’ve done. I’m sure if people give it a chance they will really enjoy it.
The only other thing is the thing that I’ve started called the British Guitar Academy, which I’m looking to bring to the States as well at some point. I’ve had a lot of interest. I’m working with other British musicians in name bands, doing these workshop ideas. The web site is going to be quite an important part of that, where I’m going to have free lessons and equipment reviews, as well as more subscription-based teaching. So if anyone wants to know how to play a Marillion song, just drop me an email. The website is www.britishguitaracademy.com.
Great. Thanks again for doing this today.
Hopefully if we can get over next year, we can share a beer or two.