Marillion may be the best-kept secret in rock.
Formed in London in 1981, Marillion started out like any other young band. The band members, including vocalist Fish, drummer Mick Pointer, keyboardist Mark Kelly, bassist Pete Trewavas and guitarist Steve Rothery, desperately wanted to strike out on their own with an individual sound and a strong musical purpose. Instead, the young band wore their musical influences—the progressive rock of Genesis and Yes—on their collective musical sleeves.
Still, the band attracted a multitude of dedicated and passionate fans with the release of their first album, Script For a Jester’s Tear, in 1983. The next year, the band released Fugazi and ditched Pointer for former Steve Hackett drummer Ian Mosley. Mosley still sits on the band’s drum stool today. In 1985, the band finally found commercial success to match their fevered fan following with Misplaced Childhood. The band even scored a top 40 U.S. hit with the sweet and catchy “Kayleigh”. With each album, the band became tighter and more sophisticated.
Vocalist Fish wrote the intense lyrics for the conceptual Clutching at Straws in 1987 and the record wound up being Fish’s last with the band. A gorgeous and depressing poem to the pitfalls of stardom and the evils of alcoholism, Clutching at Straws marked the end of Marillion’s first half. Vocalist Steve Hogarth joined the band to replace Fish and recorded 1989’s Season’s End. With Hogarth at the microphone, the band grew more confident musically. With little dashes of Neil Finn and Mark Hollis of Talk, Talk, Hogarth’s voice sounded like nothing else in popular music. Hogarth and Marillion went on to record seven more studio albums including Holidays in Eden, Brave, Afraid of Sunlight, This Strange Engine, Radiation, marillion.com, and 2001’s Anoraknophobia. Marillion made musical history when they pre-sold 13,000 copies of Anoraknophobia via their website—www.marillion.com—to fans before the band had written or recorded the album. Right now, the band is hunkered down in their home studio writing and arranging new music for their 13th studio album.
When people think of Marillion today, they may think of some old band from the ‘80s. Or they may think the band is just a bunch of Genesis wannabes. That’s if they think of the band at all. Those are both false misconceptions. People are missing out on some of the most beautiful, powerful, intelligent, catchy, adventurous and heartfelt rock music being created today. Marillion are impossible to categorize musically and impossible to ignore once someone listens to the band just once. Marillion bassist Pete Trewavas, also a member of the prog-rock supergroup side project Transatlantic, took time out from his busy writing and recording schedule with the band to answer some PopMatters questions about the progress of the new album, pre-sale new album plans for fans, and what drives the band to create the most emotional and moving rock music on the planet.
PopMatters: First of all, how is the writing and recording of the new Marillion album going? Are you at the recording stage yet or are you guys still playing bits to one another, writing and arranging?
Pete Trewavas: Well we this seems to have taken a long time to get together so far (about a year to date) but the main reason for this is that we are actually making a two CD album set. I don’t want to call it a double album, but the second disk will not be the usual bonus disk material a lot of people put out so we have been writing and arranging enough songs to pick the best out for two CDs.
We are at the arranging stage still although we have already played versions of five of the songs at our World Wide Convention this year down in Somerset. They went down very well with the 2000-odd crowd which gave the whole project a bit of a boost. Since then we have arranged another four to five songs. We must have 12 to 14 songs in various stages that we could play through if asked but nothing is written in stone until the whole thing has been recorded and mixed so it is as they say subject to change (we reserve the right etc., etc., etc.)
PM: I’m wondering what the music’s like so far in the writing sessions for the new album. If you look back, This Strange Engine and Radiation had some harder guitar influences while marillion.com and Anoraknophobia mixed those harder guitar influences with interesting electronics and, especially with your bass playing, a real dub influence. How would you describe the new music and does it remind you of any past records?
PT: One of the really nice things about writing for more than one album of material is that you have room for all aspects of your musical spectrum, and as you mentioned, depending on which album you listen to, we have various styles.
I think we have a fair mix of stuff (technical term). We started out arranging a few songs picked out from the hours of jamming we did throughout last year, or put together various ideas which were crying out to be married. We have since gone on to arrange two or three quite long songs in a Strange Engine thematic kind of way. Some of the music is a bit reminiscent of bits of .com or Anorak and some possibly Afraid of Sunlight. We have been working with Dave Meegan, who has produced a lot of our records, since late last year and recording to multi-track all of our arrangement ideas so we have captured a lot of what we are trying to say and sound like.
PM: Looking back at the pre-order campaign for Anoraknophobia, do you guys see it as a success and why?
PT: Yes indeed it was a very big success for lots of reasons. 1. It generated for us the financial situation to record another CD without signing to a record company. 2. It also meant we could afford to work with a producer, so of course we picked Dave. 3. It showed us the faith and trust our fans have in us. Thank you everyone—no one else in the world has what we have. 4. It allowed the fans to have involvement and be more of a part of something. 5. Because we didn’t have to sign any record agreements we regained the rights to our recordings. For collection purposes we did sign a publishing deal for the song writing. 6. It showed other people that you can do these things on your own and told a great story to the world. 7. There must be one but I can’t think of it.
PM: While watching the video of the making of the second Transatlantic album, you guys looked like you were having a ball just playing together and arranging each other’s bits. With Marillion working together for more than 20 years now, is it like that in the studio with the five of you? Also, is arranging the music your favourite part of the creative process?
PT: Transatlantic was fun because it wasn’t really thought of as a long-term thing, so we didn’t have to be to serious about it, and also it was all a new experience for all of us (well me anyway). With Marillion we are passionate about every aspect of it and it has to be 110% all of it all the time, so we would rather throw something out than compromise; indeed we always throw more music away than we keep.
As for the most enjoyable part for me is the raw creating part when we just jam and pick things out of thin air. Amazing happy accidents happen; also after I have been playing a riff or whatever for a few minutes I stop thinking about what it is I’m doing and my mind wanders. That is when I tend to come up with some great things.
PM: There are some Marillion songs that come to mind when I think of powerful and emotional music—music that literally makes your spine tingle. Songs like “Easter”, “Go!”, “Afraid of Sunlight”, “When I Meet God” and “The Great Escape”. What I want to know is, are there moments for you playing those songs on stage or recording them in the studio when you get that tingle or the strong melodies of the music make a tear fall from your eye?
PT: Absolutely. That is what Marillion is all about. We feel the emotion when a good piece of music is being created and spend the rest of the process trying to keep that moment alive. Being able to communicate those feelings and senses through our work is everything. If you can play a song and people react then you’ve done well. If you can get that reaction from everyone who listens to you then you’re doing it right.
PM: With the exception of Anoraknophobia, when you look back at all then past Marillion albums, which is your favourite, musically speaking, and why?
PT: This is a very hard question to answer, obviously I’m proud of all of our albums. I think they all stand up well as musical statements and I can give good reasons for everything we have done at every stage of our careers. As for a favourite I can’t narrow it down that much, I’m afraid, however I have picked three.
I think AOS [Afraid of Sunlight] is a bit of a classic. Although Brave was a huge project and a big concept album for us, AOS, which came straight afterwards, has lots of classy music and good feels. We also got a balance of songs as well as experimenting with tracks like “Beyond You”. .com also has some good songs on it namely “Legacy”, “Go”, “Rich” and “House” are songs I’m proud of, and also I think Clutching at Straws is an album that has lots of good music on it. It is no surprise that tracks from that album still feature in live sets to this day, I think it has stood the test of time well, although you can tell which decade it was recorded in.
PM: How would you describe to a non-Marillion fanatic what’s it’s like to mingle and interact with your hardcore fans at your famous Marillion weekends?
PT: It is a great feeling for everyone really. It is one big party where everyone is very cool and enjoying themselves. People come from all over the world. Some bring their families. Some are with their girlfriends or boyfriends. I had quite a lot of people this year come up to me and say, “I’ve never heard of you guys before, it’s been brilliant—are you doing it next year.
I stayed on site last year with my wife and two sons and the atmosphere was really infectious. I was expecting to get hassled to sign stuff but people were cool about letting us have our space when we wanted it. This year we all stayed on the site and it was just the same. Considering there are so many people from all over the place there is never any trouble. That says something. We have a great dedicated bunch of fans. You can’t put a price on that.
PM: For the new album, you guys are asking fans to contribute money for Internet-only sales of the new album before it’s released that will fund marketing and promotion. Why do you think promotion has always been a problem for Marillion in the past?
PT: We are yet to finalise exactly how we will fund the whole project but the idea is to be able to market and advertise the whole album/tour lifespan. To do it properly requires a reasonable budget and we are confident we can make a difference to the sales and to people’s awareness of us. For years we have suffered from either the wrong kind of marketing campaigns or none at all. I’m not sure which is worse, but we need people to know. 1. What we are. 2.What we are up to. And 3. Where we are up to it. In a nutshell. Over the years we have gradually taken control of all the problem areas to do with the business side of things and this is just a natural step forward for us.
PM: Do you think there will ever be time in the future, or any desire, to record a Pete Trewavas solo record?
PT: Yes I am working on that side project at the moment, and have probably the best part of two albums worth of songs. Ideally it will be folk-based with a couple of rocky things for good measure. I really like the approach of some of the older Paul Simon albums. Great playing simple songs with a killer message You listen to those songs and you know the players are just great and they are all doing exactly what the song needs. So that is my inspiration.
PM: Who are your favourite bass players and which ones, do you think, had an influence on your playing?
PT: I have, of course, mentioned many times Paul McCartney. It was watching the Beatles’ Shea Stadium gig on the BBC when I was about seven that made me want to be a musician—it was as simple as that. I spent the next ten years at least with my hands glued to the guitar, then when I was 12 the bass as well. I came to the conclusion that most bass players weren’t very good. That might have been a bit harsh but there wasn’t much music I couldn’t pick up and play, so I started to listen more to my Dad’s jazz records and Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Caravan Isotope. Then, of course, very muso stuff came along like Maravishnu Orchestra and Weather report, etc., but I found that for playing I most enjoyed bass with strong melody amongst the rhythms a la McCartney.
The most influence was probably from McCartney then Chris Squire followed by Mike Rutherford.
PM: For all the people out there who are not familiar with Marillion’s music, what would you tell them that might get them interested in listening or giving a Marillion CD a try?
PT: This is so hard. If I knew how to get people interested in us by using words alone I would have done it by now. All I know is that when people hear our music always say, “This is great—I didn’t know you guys sounded like this. Where can I buy some of your stuff?”
People who hear us without knowing who it is always buy an album, and usually go to Marillion.com and buy a whole lot more. I am talking about students right across the board to people even older than ME (can you believe). There is a whole section of my local grammar school kids who have got into us because I took some friends to one of our concerts and their son bought one of our live Racket releases and he played it to his mates.
In fact the people who think it is unfashionable to like Marillion are unhip to what is going on these days. There are hints of Marillion all over the place in what is going on musically today. It’s nice to know that some people got your drift.
PM: I have been listening to Marillion since the early ‘80s and I own every album. I bet you would be surprised to learn that my favourite Marillion song of ALL time is “House”. I turn off all the lights and turn it up loud. Your bass playing on “House” is amazing—simple and seductive. I was wondering if you could take us in the studio for the writing and recording of “House”. How did you guys come up with the idea and what was it like for you to create it and come up with the amazing dub bass that holds the song together?
PT: O.K. Well we are in a situation we often find ourselves in—we are all at the Racket Club, home of Marillion. The studio is in almost darkness as Ian doesn’t like the lights on. We are all in our respective places and just jamming away with everything going to mini via our desks in the studio and back through the monitor desk for our er…, monitors. We must have been jamming for a couple of hours I think and everyone was getting laid back, probably not even thinking about what was going on. My mind usually wanders and I start to think that nothing else is really going to happen today. Then that drum rhythm starts up and I find myself just knowing what I should play. It’s as if someone has planted it in my mind or I’ve heard it before so I just started playing that riff knowing that it should just go on and on and on, never changing, never stopping, putting you into a trance-like state.
At times like those it is great being in Marillion. Those are the moments we look for and nurture—doesn’t matter what style it is, if it has real meaning and soul that is what counts. However at the time although we all thought it was good I couldn’t really see a place for it in amongst what we were doing. It was Steve H who came along a few weeks later (for weeks read months, years even) and said “Listen to this” and he had taken the original jam, put a drum machine on it, and worked out an arrangement, adding to it so it didn’t stay still but kept you transfixed. We worked on his version and incorporated that in with the original. Not everyone was convinced at first but it became one of those songs that really comes to life while recording. I love doing things that make you work slightly differently.