So, for the Marillion.com album, you inserted a Trojan Horse into the CD: a postcard inviting fans to send in their contact details in exchange for an exclusive bonus CD. It was Marillion’s way of building up its database of email addresses. And the record company didn’t have a clue, did they?
I think they had a bit of a clue but we had them over a barrel because it was a three album deal with them and this was the concluding one. They wanted to keep the relationship going, so they knew that if they turned around and said “No, you can’t do this,” we’d take the hump and not re-sign with them. And I think they knew that if they said “Yes,” it would put us in a position of strength going forward. That’s not what labels like. Of course, if you’re the artist and you know who listens to you, you have the power. That’s all you ever need. Then you don’t the label anymore. To cut a long story short, it woke us up to the fact that people were willing to put their money where their hearts were, as far as we were concerned. And this Internet thing was going to be the future.
Coincidentally, when we played that American tour, Mark Kelly, our keyboard player, used that same organ to advertise for a keyboard technician for that American tour. We got a keyboard tech on board named Erik Nielsen, a young kid from Cleveland, Ohio, who happened to be able to program websites. So we took back to England and moved him into our offices. He built us a website. I think it was the first rock ’n’ roll website in the UK.
And then we stole Lucy Jordache from EMI records. She’s more of a marketing girl, really. She’d worked for Saatchi & Saatchi and EMI. So we brought her into the fold and she assumed this role—which she occupies to this day, among other hats that she wears—of keeping her finger on the pulse of the Internet and what the fans are saying and how they’re responding. We also now garner marketing ideas from the fans. In fact, if we have an idea about doing anything, we usually ask the fans first. Because, usually, somewhere in amongst that lot, there will be someone who will be very well placed to help—and they all want to help.
We had this idea that, instead of doing yet another independent record deal—where an independent label gave us a bag of money to make a record and then made 10 times that amount of money and didn’t do a lot of work—we thought it might be nice if we had the power. So, I think it was Mark Kelly who said, “Why don’t we just ask everybody if they’d be prepared to buy the next album now, even though we haven’t started making it, yet.”
By then, of course, we could email everyone (who sent in that mailback card we were talking about) and ask, “Would this be something you’d go for if we did it?” Out of everyone that replied, 90 percent said, “Yeah, where can we send the money? I’ll buy it tomorrow.”
That feeling of faith was completely reaffirmed. And also a feeling of trust because if you’re prepared to give a bunch of guys in a band your money and then trust that they’re going to send you something in return for it in a year’s time, there’s not a lot of bands I would trust to do that, to be honest. We were touched.
What are some of the things that Marillion has done to take care of its fans and stay fan-focused? In many ways, though, Marillion has always been fan-oriented. You’ve maintained a close relationship with the band’s fan club magazine and, each Christmas, the band gives a CD or a DVD to members of the fan club. I heard a story of a US fan who sent an email complaining about something and so drummer Ian Mosley called him directly to sort it out. The fan was blown away and probably felt more connected than ever to the band. And you’ve been known to answer fan mail when you’re particularly touched by something someone wrote.
That’s true! Maybe twice a week, I’ll email someone. I’ve got this site of my own, stevehogarth.com, and it’s got a guestbook on it. I encourage people to leave me a message if they’re in the mood. It’s this endless list of people pouring out enthusiasm and affection. It’s the most wonderful place to go. It just blows my mind that I can go to this place and there’s all of this love on the page from all over the planet. I don’t take that for granted, at all. Once or twice a week, someone will leave a message on there that will move me and so I’ll reply and tell them “thank you.”
Every two years, you stage a convention weekend for thousands of Marillion fans in Holland, Montreal, and the UK. How important are those convention weekends to the band financially and also as a means of staying connected to the most faithful fans.
We have Lucy to thank for that. There’s a band called The Stranglers you may have heard of. They were doing these holiday camp weekends. We happened to be rehearsing one day over at this guy called Phil Wilcox’s house—he’s the manager of The Stranglers. He was telling us about The Stranglers weekends. We asked him to do one for us, to promote one. We did it at a little holiday camp in England and it was a great success.
We promoted the second one from there. It’s kind of stabilized at the Center Parcs at Port Zelande in Holland. You don’t stay in chalets there, you stay in brick apartments. We can now sell the holiday camp out for three days. There isn’t a gig there, so we have to build a gig. So we usually hire in an enormous structure and build a stage. We play Friday, Saturday, Sunday night—three different shows. It’s like a tour in reverse because the audience come to us. They travel from everywhere in the world. We stay on the site ourselves as well and whenever we walk out the door, we know, before we walk out, that everyone we’re going to encounter is there for us. That’s the strangest feeling. And it could be the spooky and unpleasant, but for the fact that our fans are the sweetest fans you’re ever going to run into.
The atmosphere at those things is quite incredible. We have these things every two years and people are becoming regulars. So, suddenly, you’ll have some guy from Munich or somewhere in Germany who has become best friends with some guy in Mexico City and in the intervening period he’s been to Mexico and had a holiday or the Mexican’s been to Munich and had a holiday. People have proposed marriage to each other. I actually performed a wedding at the last Marillion weekend. I took the vows and that was an English guy marrying a Dutch girl who he’d met at a gig. I should shut up, really, because it’s going to sound a bit weird and cultish. But it’s not really. There’s no sniff of Tom Cruise about it all!
These weekend conventions are almost like a Grateful Dead concert but with a lot less weed!
I sometimes feel like these weekends are kind of like how Woodstock should have been. We received an email from the head of Center Parcs, Port Zelande, the very first time we went there and he was kind of shocked because he’d never known a situation where there’d been a weekend where the camp was entirely full and there hadn’t been any trouble of any sort. Security had nothing to do. The barman hadn’t seen any fights. No one swore at anyone else. He said, “We’ve never seen anything like this. Your people are so incredibly cool.” They saw one guy knock a pint of lager over another guy and it went all over him. He said the guy didn’t even get upset.
It was a bit like that in Montreal when we did the first weekend convention there. There was a big black guy who does the security there. He came backstage after the first three nighter there and he just went nuts in front of us. He said, “I’ve never known anything like this: Three days, completely sold out, no one has hit anyone, no one has tried to get backstage. There’s been nothing.” His head was blown. He said, “I came here 10 years ago with Whitney Houston. She had security to go take a pee when she was already in her own dressing room.” He said, “You came in through the front door when there was a line around the block. No one ever comes through the front door!”
What’s been the secret to Marillion’s longevity as a band—Marillion has somehow avoided breaking up over personnel or creative differences.
I think the creative spark is innate in the chemistry. Musically, it’s got to be a chemistry between the five of us and that’s either there or it ain’t. What it hard, as time passes, is recognizing that chemistry for what it is from within. When you’re on the inside looking out, it’s harder to place a value or to see what’s extraordinary about the band doing what they do because you do it together day in and day out. You do need an outside influence—a producer, an engineer, someone who can see it from the outside and can it for what it is, can see what’s good about it, see what isn’t.
All five of us are all trying to push the music into a place it’s never been and we’re always doing that. If I could describe the process, it’s like a flow diagram. It’s five guys jamming and making a terrible noise for years on end. That goes into a funnel and it’s distilled and listened to until someone discovers the happy accidents. It’s a chaotic process but I suppose the biggest part of the flow diagram is the bit on the end, which is quality control. Everything we do is subject to almost dispiriting levels of quality control. I suppose it’s necessary, but it can discourage you, at a certain stage, from even suggesting anything because everything is so rigorously scrutinized and criticized.
How would you describe the sound and direction of Sounds That Can’t be Made, the album Marillion is releasing later this year?
We’re at the stage with this one where we have a handful of really good songs—great songs, I would even go so far as to say. It could be one of the best albums we’ve ever made. But we’re in this mind-numbingly difficult stage right now of arranging the songs and picking holes in them. And it’s the picking of holes that gets me down a bit sometimes. As a lyricist as well, quite often I’ve finished the album about a year before everybody else has. I just have to summon the patience to put up with the arguments over whether something should be in F minor 7.
We’re kind of everywhere with this record. It is rocking out, in its own way, and it is spacey, in its own way.
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MARILLION North America Tourdates
Sun Washington DC
USA 9:30 Club
Tues New York City
USA Irving Plaza
Weds New York City
USA Irving Plaza
USA Paradise Rock Club
Canada The Opera House
USA Park West
USA Park West
Weds Los Angeles
USA House Of Blues
Thurs Los Angeles
USA House Of Blues
Fri San Francisco
USA The Fillmore