By Howard Whitman
Marillion may not have reached the heights of prog-rock royalty inhabited by the likes of Yes, King Crimson, ELP or Genesis. But there is something to be said about a band that has stayed productive, without a break or breakup, for over 40 years — with no end in sight.
Formed in 1979, the band was originally called “Simarillion” (for the J.R.R. Tolkien novel), but soon cut it down to the more manageable Marillion. And while the band experienced a number of personnel changes in their first 10 years of existence, they have maintained the same lineup since Steve Hogarth replaced original vocalist Fish (real name: Derek William Dick) in 1989.
This change of singers marked a real turning point for the band. While Fish was a big man known for his Peter Gabriel-like voice and flamboyant stage presence, Hogarth’s entry prompted a vast shift in Marillion’s music, as the band veered to a more emotional place. Fish’s fantasy-inspired lyrics (which also owed a debt to Gabriel) were replaced with Hogarth’s more reflective, real-world poetry. The change was so extreme at the time that some longtime fans questioned whether the band was right to retain its name.
In the over 30 years since the beginning of the “Hogarth era,” those questions have faded. While Fish went on to his own successful solo career, Marillion have built and maintained a passionate following — one so passionate that the fans virtually ushered in the era of crowdfunding, just because they wanted another tour and album from the band at a time when it was without a record label (and the funding that comes with a recording contract).
2022 finds Marillion releasing their 16th studio album with Hogarth, An Hour Before It’s Dark on the heels of a tour that again successfully tested the loyalty of the band’s fans, who put up money to insure the shows against pandemic-related losses.
On a video call with Hogarth, I found him to be an enthusiastic, good-humored and downright funperson to speak with — a marked contrast to the sad, emo character he presents in many of his songs with Marillion. In our conversation, we discussed the content and creation of the new album, the incredible support (financial and otherwise) the band commands from its following, future deluxe releases, touring possibilities, his solo activities and The Beatles. (We actually talked a lot about The Beatles.)
GOLDMINE: Let's talk about the new album. I am really enjoying it. Your albums tend to have a theme. Not everything is Tommy, you're not always telling a story, but you did on Brave and some other albums. Would you say there's a theme to An Hour Before It's Dark?
STEVE HOGARTH: Yes and no. I think there's a recurrent theme on about four-fifths of it, and one-fifth of it stands alone. But the recurring theme is really that of the climate crisis and the pandemic. There was no getting away from it. I didn't really want to write about those things, but I found that as we got going, they just kept creeping in no matter what I tried to write about. The references to what's going on all around us and then the lockdowns that we were in and the climate change summit and all of those carbon issues were just inescapable, and so even the songs that started life as being about something else, by the time I got to it, really got working on the words, these things kept creeping in. So it's real, climate change and the pandemic, but I do think that the pandemic is a consequence of where we're at with the climate anyway. It's all one thing, really. It's a planet in crisis.
GM: Yet the press materials have a quote from you about the album being upbeat. Do you feel it is positive and upbeat?
SH: Musically, relative to the last one, by our standards, it's upbeat. By anybody else, It's probably like a funeral march, but by our standards, it's upbeat. It's maybe a little more upbeat than F.E.A.R., the last one, musically and in terms of the energy and the tempos on the record. But lyrically, the new album is pretty grim, so you've got these apocalyptic lyrics really wrapped around these quite often up upbeat grooves. A good example of that is Section 1 of “Maintenance Drugs,” which is really about being kept alive by drugs and chemotherapy, wrapped around this quite cool groove. So there's a bit of a yin and yang with it all the time, where the music might be uplifting, yet the lyrics might be more somber and downbeat, but the contrast is there. I'm not a terribly downbeat person, although I do have a gallows humor that is never far from the surface. I’m very conscious of what's wrong with the world. I suppose I do subconsciously tend to hone in on the negatives, even when I'm feeling positive. They're never too far away. I've always got this sense of irony about pleasure. So maybe that's just how I am.
GM: Listening to the album, it seemed to me to be like playing one continuous song as it went from piece to piece. Was that intentional?
SH: Yeah. We wanted to try and make the whole thing flow right, so that it stood up as one item. We have all these problems now in the digital age as well, where we felt compelled to split the songs up into subsections. Because if we don't, there's all kinds of confusion when it goes to streaming, about how you get paid for a stream. I think you get paid for three minutes, even if it's 10 minutes and you've got all of that. So we would end up being paid for two songs on an album which has an hour of music on it.
GM: Twenty minutes is nothing for you guys.
SH: No, it takes us that just to get going (laughs).
GM: It was almost like your side two of Abbey Road.
SH: It's a good point you're making, because I think The Beatles invented progressive rock music with side two of Abbey Road. I've been watching that Peter Jackson documentary Get Back a lot lately, and it's cool to hear “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” as a song, and at some point someone said, “Do you know what this is? The good bit? Let's just use that when we get the rest of it.” We kind of work like that ourselves. Quite often someone will get the knife out and just decide which is the good bit and use that, and we'll put it somewhere else.
GM: I saw comments that a lot of your music comes out of jamming. Is that true that it's written in the studio together by the band?
SH: Just about all of it, and we've always worked like that. So we go into the studio for, well, it used to be about four or five hours. Over time, that's been reduced to about an hour and a half a day, because we gradually realized that the good stuff happens in the first half-hour. And so you can jam for four hours and you'll throw the last three away. So now when we're jamming, we'll go in each day and we maybe only do an hour and record all of it, leave it alone, and then return to it much later, decide if there's anything good — by good I just mean anything interesting. Does it interest all five of us? Do we think it sounds like nothing we've done before? Is it melodically good? Does it just lift us? And if it does, then it carries on to the next stage and everything else goes in the bin. So it's a distillation process in many ways. There's this great mash of stuff that goes in the machine at the top, and it's refined and refined and refined in the hope that what dribbles out the bottom three years later will be like nectar.
GM: A lot of bands, such as Yes, have recorded remotely during the pandemic. Was it challenging to get Marillion together to make the new album?
SH: No. It was a bit challenging, but in our case, not too bad because we've got our own studio. It's quite a big room. We usually work in headphones anyway, and we're usually sitting in opposite corners. So we could actually get in there without being anywhere near each other. (Marillion guitarist) Steve Rothery, being a big fella and having diabetes, he was in a category that would be more dangerous, right? We need to watch it. And so he freaked out a bit and didn't want to come in. He wanted to stay home. He's got a studio at home anyway. Certainly for a lot of the album, the four out of the five of us were working together in the studio, jamming and bringing the ideas forward. And Steve got involved in a slightly later stage than he usually would. And I think that maybe that altered things slightly in the sense that nearly all of the original musical ideas came from Mark Kelly, the keyboard player, whereas normally perhaps Steve would have had a bit more to do at the very early stages.
GM: The keyboards do have a strong presence on this album. You can definitely hear Mark’s influence.
SH: Yeah, I think he's really grown over the last two or three albums. Actually, he's become much more the spine of the musical ideas and the songs.
GM: You guys were pioneers in crowdfunding, dating back to around 2001, when you started getting your fans to help underwrite your albums by preordering them.
SH: Yeah, we have the American fans to thank for that. I mean, they did it without us asking. It goes back even further than that. I think it goes back to the late '90s. We just happened to say that we weren't going to tour America because we left EMI. We didn't have the financial clout behind us, because we typically always lost money when we toured in America. And so we said, “We're sorry, but we can't come.” And a couple of our American friends opened a bank account, put a message up on an internet notice board, and said “We're going to make this happen.” I didn't even know about this, and they got $20,000 in the bank before I knew. It was happening and they subsequently raised about $60,000 and gave it to us, and we came and played. So that was us inventing crowdfunding that the crowd actually invented. We just benefited from it and became the first band ever to do it. I guess we then learned two things: first, that our fans would do anything for us, and second, whatever this internet thing is, we better get on it because it's the future. They were the two things, two pennies that dropped because of that. So we had one of the first websites in the U.K. — certainly the first rock and roll website, I think. And we gathered data on our fans, and we began to email them and ask them, “Would you be prepared to buy the next album? The one we haven't made yet? Would you be prepared to buy it tomorrow? Because if you would, you set us free and we don't need record labels anymore.” And they all came back and went “Hell, yeah!” So that was the invention of the pre-order and of crowdfunding. So we did do it; everyone else followed after that.
GM: I understand that you recently adopted the crowdfunding idea to help insure your tour in case of cancellations. Could you talk about that?
SH: Yeah. The problem we had was we put the tickets on sale and people bought the tickets, and it suddenly occurred to us that if one of us tested positive, we'd have to cancel the tour and all of these trucks and buses and crew that we'd hired would all still have to be paid for, and we were going to lose an awful lot of money. There is no one on Earth who will insure a band against the government locking down, even now. They've had plenty of time to think about it, but they've thought about it and they're not going to do it. So Lucy, our manager, one day said, “What are we going to do about this? It could get really ugly.” And so she said, “Why don't we try and crowdfund an insurance policy? We'll raise the money that we think we could lose if we have to cancel, and we'll ask the fans if they'll give it to us.” And they did. And of course, we returned it all. In fact, at the end, the American fans got more money back than they put in, because the exchange rate had moved. We turned into an investment option as well!
GM: That's great. And people were cool with that? Your fans really show up for you guys.
SH: You know, it's unreal. It really is unreal. It's like a big global family. To call them fans is to do them a disservice really. Our relationship isn’t really an “us and them” relationship anymore. It’s grown into an “us and us” relationship.
GM: That is so cool. Getting back to the new album, I saw a mention of the Choir Noir singing on some tracks. Could you elaborate on that?
SH: It was started by Kat Marsh; she has a choir that has worked with many bands. We were introduced to the choir by a guy called Tim who makes our live movies. He came down to Real World (Peter Gabriel’s studio, where An Hour Before It’s Dark was recorded) when we were there to shoot some footage of the band. We were just talking, and he said, “Have you heard about the Choir Noir?” He'd been shooting a live movie for a band called Bring Me The Horizon that were playing the Royal Albert Hall. They had the choir on stage with them. There is loads of footage of them singing on YouTube, and they've covered quite a lot of heavy metal songs, and with the choral approach, it's quite interesting. And I think most of the time the choir functions remotely, so Kat does the arrangements and then she's got these singers all over the U.K. who all contribute parts, and then she puts it all together in Logic (recording software). So we had to listen to some of the stuff you can find online, and we thought, “Wow, that's quite interesting!” I'd been thinking about maybe instead of just putting backing vocals on this album, it might be nice to bring people in that are outside of the band, not me. I’ve been doing quite a bit of work with Trevor Horn, the producer, and so I've been working with his backing singers as well. I've done some live shows with him so now I know all his backing singers and I thought maybe I could get the girls in. But then Tim introduced us to this Choir Noir, and I thought it'd be just weirder to have them involved, so that's how that happened.
GM: I understand there's a documentary coming out about the making of this album. Is this kind of your Get Back? Are we going to get eight hours of you guys smoking and drinking tea?
SH: I've been watching a lot of Get Back. I mean, it's great, because it rewrites the history of The Beatles. Instead of this kind of “Oh, it all went really wrong and they didn't like working together and then they split up” idea. I mean, nothing could be further from the truth, could it? It's so joyous.
GM: They're having fun!
SH: John Lennon never stops goofing around at any point, does he? I mean, even during the takes, he's shouting things across it all. Perfect.
GM: Some of that made it onto the Let It Be album.
SH: Yeah, it's terrific. That sort of mad, carefree humor that they had in the early days clearly never went away. But if you would believe what the media wrote, it was like that went away and it all became very miserable. That obviously wasn't the case, so it's great that the record’s been set straight by that.
GM: So in your film, are you guys as goofy as they were?
SH: I thought we were, but looking at Get Back, I don't think we were. I think they out-goofed us by quite a country mile. In fact, I felt a bit guilty watching that movie and I thought, “Would I need to be stupider in the studio than I have been?” I think that constant lifting of the mood is something you really need when you're creating, because it's so easy to get intense and depressed by the pressure of the process. You need somebody on the sidelines goofing around, cheering you up.
GM: It occurs to me throughout the whole thing that George is saying, “Hey fellas, I've got some songs.” And the other Beatles respond with “Yeah, that's nice,” just blowing him off.
SH: Yeah, I know. I know that feeling.
GM: That material became All Things Must Pass, all of those beautiful songs. But he was in a band with the two greatest songwriters ever, so that was his good and bad luck.
SH: That's the trouble, yeah. And the marketplace, as well, was expecting Lennon and McCartney tunes, wasn't it? They had that.
GM: Unlike The Beatles, Marillion has stayed together in this lineup for over 30 years with you as lead singer. How has your band persevered when so many bands have fallen by the wayside in that time?
SH: Well, I think we've been in the kind of band where we never made so much money that we could just drive away in our sports cars and forget about it, and we never made so little money that we just went broke and couldn't do it anymore. We were always in that place where it made sense to keep going financially at the same time. We get on. We do have our ups and downs obviously. I can't speak for myself, but the other four guys, they're all good people. They've got good hearts. They're reasonable. I mean, all right, we've all got egos, but they're never really totally out of control. They're gentlemen, and I think if there's one secret of the longevity, it's the fact that everybody has been reasonable. I think a lot of bands split up out of petulance more than anything else. They have a difference of opinion during the creative process. Someone storms off, and that's the end of it. And it's a bit childish, really. And we've always found a way to go, “Well, you know, it's only music.”
GM: Marillion has done a number of deluxe reissues of your classic albums, expanded editions and 5.1 remixes. Do you have any projects along those lines currently in the works?
SH: Yeah, we've still got Season's End from the EMI catalog to come. Was there another? We did Brave and Holidays In Eden and Afraid Of Sunlight. So I think there's just Season’s End to come now, unless I've missed one. And that's been remixed by Michael Hunter, who's producing us these days. So that's in the pipeline.
GM: Do you have any solo projects in the works? I know you did some work with (Porcupine Tree keyboardist) Richard Barbieri some years back and you've done your own albums as well. I was wondering if you have anything new in the pipeline independent of the band?
SH: No, not really. As I said, I've done a couple of things with Trevor Horn that I was singing on. He did an album, last year or the year before, called Trevor Horn Reimagines The Eighties. There was a lot of '80s stuff with various other characters doing the lead singing on it. I think Seal was on it, and Robbie Williams was on it. And Jim Kerr (of Simple Minds) was on it, and I sang a Joe Jackson song (“It’s Different For Girls”) on it. So I've done a few bits and pieces with Trevor. I've not done anything with Richard for a while. I think he's starting to get busy now with something else. I have no real plans for another solo album, although I am doing piano and voice shows. I've done quite a few of those over the years. I'm actually playing The Cavern in Liverpool, and then I'm playing Hamburg after that. So I'm doing The Beatles’ cities just for the hell of it. And I'm playing the church in Oxford once a year at Christmas. I always do a Christmas show, but that's just live stuff. Whether I'll ever formalize that and make a piano and voice record, it's something I've been pondering to be honest, because it seems to work quite well. But I've never recorded It in a studio.
GM: But you're keeping busy with Marillion, and that’s going great. Are there any chances of an American tour in the near future?
SH: The problem we’ve got with America is that it’s so hostile to foreign artists. The whole work visa situation is a right old bowleg. It takes months just to fill the forms in. So there are no immediate plans. We're hoping to do this year’s (Yes-themed) Cruise to the Edge in the late spring, if it happens. In these times, if it happens, then we'll be there. We may even be headlining it, because I don’t think Yes wanted to do it. It's just sort of bizarre, really. It's their cruise! It's like not wanting to be a member of any club that would have you as a member.