Marillion’s Fantastic Power: An Interview with Steve Hogarth

Steve Hogarth and Richard Barbieri
Not the Weapon But the Hand

For a band whose music is often described as “spacey”, it’s entirely fitting that Marillion has a fan in the form of Neil Armstrong. The late science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke loved the British quintet, too. But it’s Marillion’s earthbound qualities — the humanistic themes of its progressive music and the emotionally intimate singing of vocalist Steve Hogarth — that has garnered the band the most devoted fans on the planet.

Every rock group claims to have the world’s best fans, of course, but Marillion can actually back up that assertion. Case in point: When the band announced that it couldn’t afford to tour North America in 1997, Marillion fans — spontaneously and without being asked — clubbed together on the Internet to pledge $60,000 of their own money to fund the tour.

The experience was a lightbulb moment for a band whose fortunes had steadily waned since the release of its 1985 album, Misplaced Childhood, which yielded the big hit “Kayleigh” during the band’s tenure with former singer Fish. Though Marillion had released a series of acclaimed albums since Steve Hogarth joined the band in 1989, most notably Brave (1994) and Afraid of Sunlight (1995), the band had grown tired of record company politics and paltry royalty revenues.

In 2000, Marillion’s musicians — Steve Hogarth (vocals and keyboards), Mark Kelly (keyboards), Ian Mosley (drums), Steve Rothery (guitar), Pete Trewavas (bass) — asked fans a radical question: Are you willing to pay for an album before even so much of a note has been recorded? Over 12000 people said “yes” with their checkbooks. The resulting album, Anoraknophobia (2001), was the world’s first micro-financed album.

Since then, Marillion has continued to use the Internet to harness its considerable fan power. (The band’s website boasts the tagline “A Better Way of Life” and offers newcomers a free sampler CD.) In addition to staging its own biennial festival weekends in Canada and the Netherlands, Marillion released several studio albums on its own record label. The 2004 album Marbles (whose lead single, “You’re Gone”, was a UK Top 10 hit) and 2008’s Happiness Is the Road are widely considered artistic high points in the band’s three decade career.

Ahead of recording Marillion’s 16th studio album, Sounds That Can’t be Made, to be released by September this year, Steve Hogarth recently collaborated on an album with keyboard player Richard Barbieri of Japan and Porcupine Tree fame. The duo’s recently released Not the Weapon But the Hand (K-Scope) has a neat division of labor: the keyboardist wrote the music and the singer came up with the lyrics.

On Not the Weapon But the Hand, the keyboardist yet again conjures up spooky ambient moods and otherworldly spaces, aided and abetted by textural guitar by Dave Gregory (formerly of XTC and currently a member of Tin Spirits). “Naked”, “Crack”, and “Only Love Will Make You Free” showcase the duo’s pop instincts. Tracks such as “Red Kite” and “Your Beautiful Face” are contemplative tone poems that manage to be at once unsettling and serene. The album closer, “Lifting the Lid”, should appeal to fans of latter-day Massive Attack.

PopMatters caught up with Hogarth by Skype to talk about subjects such as his collaboration with Barbieri, Marillion’s business model, and the band’s imminent North American trek in June, its first proper tour of the continent since 2004. And if you’re wondering why it’s taken Marillion so long to return to North America, read on to learn about the bureaucratic nightmares of getting a touring visa.

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Richard Barbieri played on your solo album, Ice Cream Genius, but when did you first meet him and what did you love about his musicianship?

I met him just before the recording of Ice Cream Genius. I originally approached Steve Wilson [of Porcupine Tree] to produce it but I then found out he was about to produce [former Marillion singer] Fish’s album so I thought perhaps it’s not such a good idea… Steve played my demos to Richard and he liked them — particularly “The Deep Water” which was very much his sort of thing. I invited Richard to add his distinctive colors to my album and he came on board. After that he toured with the h band and we got to know each other and realized that although we’re quite different characters, we get along really well. We joke that we’re long-lost brothers — there’s a feeling between us.

What do I love about his musicianship? Everything really. His programming knowledge is such that he is constantly creating sounds which no one else can make and this gives him a palette which is all his own. Add to that his innate good taste and you have something really distinctive and evocative. I’ve been a fan ever since I heard Japan’s Tin Drum in the early ’80s.

Steve Hogarth + Richard Barbieri “Naked” promo video

Are you fan of Porcupine Tree and is Richard a fan of Marillion?

Well, “fan” is a big word…. It probably doesn’t add up to that, but I think there’s a lot of mutual respect and we’re probably fans of certain songs rather than each other’s entire catalog. I have been going to Porcupine Tree’s gigs since before they had a record deal, and working with Steve Wilson since the early days of Porcupine Tree. I’ve seen Porcupine Tree probably about six or seven times in various parts of the world. They’ve opened for Marillion twice too. Richard played a fair few Marillion songs during the h tour and seemed to enjoy the process.

Richard wrote the music and sent it you the instrumentals to write lyrics for them — did you ever go back to him with musical suggestions for the songs and, similarly, did Richard ever offer feedback on the lyrics or your vocal ideas?

No. None at all. For my part, I thought the music was brilliant and there really was nothing I could add. I contributed a hammered dulcimer to “Naked” although it would have worked just as well without it, and a tambourine and a few bells to “Only Love…” That was it. Richard had no criticism whatsoever of the lyrics or vocal approach.

What’s the story behind the biting lyric for “Your Beautiful Face” — and is the song about an actual person?

It was a chance encounter with her daughter last year…. I’d kinda known (not “Biblically”, I hasten to add) a very beautiful but power-hungry, calculating, woman some 20 years back and, with the passing of time her beauty is somewhat depleted. Then I saw her daughter last year and there it was — that same face — but with a much softer soul inside. I wrote those words the same night last spring and then I tried them on one of Richard’s ideas. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album.

“Only Love Will Make You Free” includes the lyric, “If love blinds you / It ain’t love, if love ties you, it’s ain’t love / If love makes you angry, it ain’t love.” What is true love and how does it make on free?

I think that what we’ve come to think of as “love” is not necessarily love. “I love you” often has so much to do with a kind of obsession, or physical attraction, or the need for a trophy, or simply someone to cook the food and wash the floor, accompanied by a smothering possessiveness. Real love is about allowing someone the freedom to BE themselves and about respecting them enough to be happy with their freedom. Only real love, the true essence of love will make you free. Everything else is just the mechanism of sexual reproduction and those basic instincts of ego and control

Your style of singing on this album is quite different from Marillion — you often whisper, talk-sing, and there’s also more cut-and-paste layering of vocals such as on “Only Love Will Make us Free”. Did you approach this project with a very clear idea of wanting to try different vocal approaches?

Yes. This was a chance to explore something radical. Richard’s music deserves more than just a singer singing a song and I went into this project with those expectations of myself. Some of the “songs” worked better spoken than sung so I simply spoke them. “Only Love…” is for instance, more a piece of vocal theater than a song. I’m imagining a cast of characters while I’m singing that one y’know, a Shaman, a preacher, a philosopher, a section of ghosts, a narrator etc…. sometimes all going on at once to create a kind of deliberate mystical confusion. There’s a darkness in it which I wanted to take further with the idea of being visited by the ancients imparting wisdom. There’s much in this album which is about the juxtaposition of darkness and light. Like a Vermeer or a Rembrandt.

Marillion has never been a band to write about sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and fast cars. You’ve always been interested in meaning of life songs.

I think when artists are sincerely talking about the issues of what’s right and what’s wrong, love and the absence of it, respect for the planet and respect for each other, and why we act the way we act. How we derive our self-respect — one of the things I keep coming back to. I tend to just be harping on about those things but I try and harp on about them from the heart. I think that people can sniff truth. Truth has a smell to it and it’s quite hard to fake in art. If art is borne out of some kind of bandwagon or what’s in fashion or a desire to service the marketplace, you can smell that, too.

I can honestly tell you that there’s a lot of ways we could probably make more money than we do. But it’s not really what we’re about. We’re not millionaires but we’re comfortable and I consider myself one of the luckiest artists in the planet to make a living without even the vaguest notion of compromise, having to think about radio, the hit single. We don’t even have to think about what our own fans want. We never have and it’s gotten us this far.

What sort of feedback have you had from fans about the meaning of the songs in their own lives?

I get email, cards, and letters. I guess once every two years, someone comes and shakes my hand or sends a message and says, in all seriousness, that we’ve saved their lives. I never know how to respond to that. It’s an amazing thing for someone to say to you. I should probably start wearing a stethoscope and call myself “Dr. H”. I tear up even thinking about it, but there was one time in Paris a few years back and I was doing an interview at a table at a café in the street. A French guy came up to me — there was a camera on me and it was running during this interview — and he just stood in front of me and he put his hand up and he shook my hand. He said nothing at all. He just looked at me. And I just knew. It was so deep and it was just his way of letting me how, without any words at all, how deeply he’d been affected by things I’ve said. It’s that truth thing again. If something’ true, you almost don’t have to put it into words.

The song “Estonia”, with its lyric about coping with the death of a loved one, seems to be one song that many fans relate to in a deep way. After your father died, did that lyric take on a new meaning for you?

I originally wrote that song after a chance encounter with a guy who had been on the ferry when it sank. He was the sole British survivor and I just happened to be sat on a plane next to him. He was hellbent on telling me all about it even though he didn’t know who I was. He just wanted to talk. He gave me a moment-by-moment account of that ship sinking and everything that happened to him and the people on it. It was incredibly moving. I was in floods of tears listening to him.

We did a little charity gig because he was trying to raise money for bereaved Estonians who had lost the main breadwinners from their families because there was no social security in those countries. At the same time as that happened, I knew a girl who had lost her father and I was trying to write some words to be of comfort to her. So those two things wove together and became “Estonia”.

That song was played at his funeral at his request. Going back and singing that after that was a struggle, to be honest. I had to try and find a place to put it in my head so that it wouldn’t upset me when I was singing it. Easier said than done.

We had an amazing experience in Estonia. A couple of years back we made an album named Less Is More and that was an acoustic treatment of various things we’d written, and “Estonia” was one of them. We toured with that album and, as it happened, that was the first chance we had to go to Estonia and we played that song in Tallinn. At the end of that song, everyone stood up like they were standing for the National Anthem. It was astonishing, really. They didn’t clap and go crazy. It was just their way of acknowledging what their countrymen had been through because it was such a national disaster on that ferry, and also for parts of Sweden as well. It wasn’t like they stood up for us, they just all stood up.

Marillion: “Somewhere Else”

In June, you’re embarking on the first Marillion tour of the USA since 2004. Now, because many people may be wondering why it’s been so long since you last toured here, can you take a moment to describe the mixture of taxation policies and red-tape of immigration control you have to go through to tour here?

We’ve been trying to get a visa. What we’ve had to do is fill in a 50-page application document for permission — permission! — to apply for a visa. So you go through this first stage where you fill in all this stuff and it has to include all the schools you went to, including the name and address of the school you went to when you were six years old, and everything else. The other day I got an email: “You’re divorced, right? We need to know the name and date of birth of your first wife, when you were married, when you were divorced, and the grounds for your divorce.”

So they’re actually asking me to supply the grounds for my own divorce five years ago just for permission to get an interview to go and stand outside the American embassy at 7:30 in the morning, which is what everyone has to do, to queue in a line to go through the door to have an interview to get a visa to play a rock ’n’ roll show to people who are desperate to hear you. They treat you as if it’s your life’s ambition to come to America and they should try and prevent you when, really, we’re coming because the Americans want us to come.

We’re only coming for three weeks. That’s the point. The tickets are already sold so it’s no great leap of the imagination of the immigration authorities to figure out whether we’ll be a problem. I don’t see how we can be perceived as one. And I think they can work that out without needing to know the grounds for my divorce.

It’s no joke is it? I mean, a good friend of yours, Aziz Ibrahim, who played in your solo band and has been the guitarist for the Stone Roses and Paul Weller, recently applied for a US Visa to tour America as a member of Steven Wilson’s band. Steven said that they took one look at him and denied him — he may be Pakistani but he was born in Manchester.

I spent a long time on the phone with Aziz after that. He was very upset and disillusioned. We’re quite close, Aziz and I. He’s never had a parking ticket, he’s never committed a crime of any sort. He has no kind of criminal or police record in the UK. He said, “I’ve been a good boy all my life. I grew up in a rough neighborhood where it would have been easy to have had a criminal record by the time I was 10 years old. But I never put one foot out of line. All I ever wanted to do was to be a musician and to entertain people.”

They still, to this day, haven’t given him the reason was just placed in the pending tray. I mean, they didn’t refuse him in the end, he actually got the visa in the end but by the time it came through, he lost the gig. I’ve heard horror stories about popular musicians from the Middle East and Africa trying to get visas to tour America.

I knew a guy a couple of years ago and he put together a tour for Hugh Masekela from South Africa. Half his band didn’t have birth certificates or passports. So, to be fair to the Americans, some of the African bands can be an administrative nightmare because they don’t have any paperwork. But, nonetheless, if you can turn on a movie and see a band playing, that should be fairly good proof that that’s what those guys do and that’s who they are.

I was on the 747 that was grounded so that they could arrest Cat Stevens [in 2004]. That was a long day.

It was the American fans who, essentially, saved Marillion’s career by showing the band how it could harness the Internet to connect directly with fans.

First of all, we’ve never been that successful in America, but having said that, people who have gotten into the band in America have been very passionately into the band and very hardcore in their approach. And so when we do play in America, the audiences are small but amazing. Consequently we’ve only ever done club tours in States. In fact, we’ll be playing mostly the same clubs this year that we were playing in 1989 when I met the band! That tells you how well our career has lost it! But, having said that, it could have gone the other way. At least it’s held steady.

Back in the old days, when I first joined the band and we were signed to EMI, we were much more surrounded by men in suits than we are these days. When I say men in suits, I necessarily don’t literally mean men wearing suits. I mean there was more business around us. We had a proper manager and we had a proper agent and we had proper lawyers in central London. And we had a proper record label, EMI, which meant we could sell half a million records and make less money than we do now! Which is what tends to happen when you have proper music business around you. They have all the money.

Marillion: “Afraid of Sunlight”

So when we left EMI, we started off doing an independent deal with a company that, back then, was called Castle Communications and then evolved into other things soon after. They were the label that fell apart on the day my solo album was released — that was the kind of thing that happened to me over my career. Because we’d done an independent deal, there wasn’t the major label to give us the tour support in for us to come to play America. We’d always lost money going to America because we’d always played club tours and men in suits were always involved.

So we put out a message the fan club to say that we sorry but we wouldn’t be able to come to America to support This Strange Engine. The next thing I heard was that there was this guy called Jeff Pelletier and he had this idea. He would open up a bank account and he put up a message on a message board on this thing called the Internet — which I didn’t know anything about in 1997 because the Internet hadn’t really happened in Europe at that point. Quite a lot of Americans were on it and getting into it. But they hadn’t even invented browsers at that point, so this was all very hardcore, geeky, writing your own code and creating your own message boards. Pioneering stuff, which Americans are good at.

The first I knew about it, he’d opened a bank account. He’d made an appeal to American fans to pay for Marillion to come and tour — to actually cover the shortfall. He’d already got $20,000 in the band when I heard about it and I’m the singer in the band. They subsequently raised $60,000 and gave it to us. So we went and toured America. Of course, everyone who had contributed money still had to buy a ticket to come and see us.

It was an act of amazing faith and generosity and it really woke us up to a lot of things. It woke us up to two things most of all. One, that our fans had our music so ingrained in them and it was so important to them that they would think nothing of contributing money for us to come over there — well in excess of the ticket price. And, secondly, this Internet thing was damn useful and we’d better get on it.

What are some of the things that Marillion has done to take care of its fans and stay fan-focused?

So, for the 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.

Marillion: “Neverland”

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,, 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.

Stephen Humphries is a freelance writer in Los Angeles who also blogs at: His first novel, The Lobster Thief, will be released this fall.

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MARILLION North America Tourdates

10 June

Sun Washington DC

USA 9:30 Club

12 June

Tues New York City

USA Irving Plaza

13 June

Weds New York City

USA Irving Plaza

15 June

Fri Philadelphia


16 June

Sat Boston

USA Paradise Rock Club

18 June

Mon Quebec

Canada Imperial

19 June

Tues Montréal

Canada L’Olympia

20 June

Weds Toronto

Canada The Opera House

22 June

Fri Chicago

USA Park West

23 June

Sat Chicago

USA Park West

27 June

Weds Los Angeles

USA House Of Blues

28 June

Thurs Los Angeles

USA House Of Blues

29 June

Fri San Francisco

USA The Fillmore