Marillion's Fantastic Power: An Interview with Steve Hogarth

The members of the band Marillion aren't millionaires, but they do call themselves Marillionaires because of their profitable relationship with their family of fans. Singer Steve Hogarth talks about his new album collaboration with Porcupine Tree's Richard Barbieri, Marillion’s groundbreaking business model, and the band’s imminent first tour of North America since 2004.

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.

* * *

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.

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