In a mere eight years and five albums, Talk Talk undertook a transformation unprecedented in popular music history. From the formulaic white-clad New Wave debut The Party’s Over (1982) and the euro hits of It’s My Life (1984) to the avant-garde post-rock minimalism of swansong Laughing Stock (1991), Talk Talk realized a sonic journey unmatched to this day.
Seven years later, Talk Talk founder Mark Hollis resurfaced with his debut solo album Mark Hollis (1998), only to disappear entirely and never release new music again. Having been silent for 20 years, Mark Hollis died in 2019.
Mark Hollis: A Perfect Silence by A&R manager Ben Wardle is the first finished biography about Hollis. Other prolific writers tried, but the silence of its main protagonist and those closest to him made it a futile effort. Add to this a growing cult following and dedicated fan sites, and a grand mythification will inevitably build. Wardle’s biography addresses and clarifies all these sources, but the book’s aim is not so much on who Hollis was. Instead, Wardle focuses on how Hollis changed the world around him. In his ruthlessly honest pursuit of a musical vision that held no compromise, this biography is a testament to the gifts and costs of this artistic pursuit.
Everything begins with Hollis’ older brother, Ed Hollis – a Dj, producer, manager, and manic inspirator. Ed was many things to many people, but most importantly, Ed’s love and knowledge of music and his eclectic music collection would be the spark that fired up Hollis. Growing up amid the Punk movement, Hollis would take their modus operandi of DIY to heart, follow the sounds in his head, and form Talk Talk in 1981.
For Hollis, it was all about attitude and feel, while the musical technique was secondary:” I don’t think technique is important to music, enthusiasm is, the spirit in which you approach it…the liveness, the ineptitude.” In his first interviews, Hollis references jazz greats and classical music immortals behind Talk Talk’s inspiration and ambition. The fact that Talk Talk started as a New Wave band and opened for Duran Duran on tour was more a case of mismarketing than an expression of intent by the band. The ‘New Wave synth band package’ was only transitory, and it was just a matter of honing their composing skills and getting a hold of the right instruments.
Transition and transformation are crucial elements of the Talk Talk and Hollis stories. Often in an artist’s oeuvre, a transformation takes place: sensibilities mature, and abilities crystalize. We call it the transitional album, where the artistic metamorphosis occurs. However, in the case of Talk Talk, you could argue that all five albums were transitional. The progression from the naïve charm of the New Wave debut The Party’s Over (1982), the sophistication in the songwriting craft of the sophomore It’s My Life (1984), to the rhythmic exploration that found its way on their third album, The Color of Spring (1986), each album was a natural evolutionary step – a refinement of vision – not a revolutionary leap.
From the beginning, Talk Talk was a rocket with a clear trajectory – discarding elements, parts, and (lunar) modules along its way as it moved through the spheres. If Spirit of Eden (1988) was of the clouds, sounding celestial and clear, then the fifth and final album, Laughing Stock (1991), was the sound of leaving the atmosphere. The Lo-Fi recording quality, the rattle, and the distortion made it sound bruised as if it was a vessel in the process of shedding all excess weight – its protective shields burning up – until it finally escaped gravity and achieved weightlessness.
Talk Talk would push their methods to radical heights to achieve this sonic and spiritual ascension. They would record in near-total darkness, involve hundreds of hired musicians in unguided improvisation, and only use a fraction of their effort. All the while, take after take, Hollis relentlessly listened after that elusive feel and didn’t stop before it was there. “It’s a complete illusion; every note is placed there. There are bass tracks that are made up of five different instruments with five or six different players…the genius is that it works at all. It could have been an absolute mess,” says Phil Brown sound engineer on Spirit of Eden. By the end, Talk Talk had taken minimalism to its inevitable extreme: silence. Afterward, everyone involved dispersed, even Hollis’ trusted producer and collaborator, Tim Friese-Greene.
Hollis’ musical and spiritual quest could never have happened if it wasn’t for the collaborators around him. Hollis was an arranger and sampler of sound; he wasn’t a technical virtuoso. Talk Talk may be the visionary sound of one extraordinary mind, but it came about through collective effort – the sounds didn’t come from Hollis, and Hollis couldn’t create it alone. This journey came with a price, though; people were left drained, felt abused, and had their egos bruised. But there was never space for the ego on such a spiritual quest anyway – least of all Hollis’ own.
In 1998 Hollis would resurface with his self-titled debut solo album. Using only acoustic instrumentation and recorded with just two microphones, the album is an exercise in how low you can go without amplification, how subtle you can play and sing. That point just before everything goes silent. Interestingly, the album was initially intended as a Talk Talk album and had the title Mountains of the Moon. Here the Talk Talk rocket ship now rests. The Mark Hollis album is the sound of the end journey.
After the solo album, Hollis would continue composing for woodwinds on his own and briefly look into film scoring. Approached and courted, Hollis accepted to do the score for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) and had planned on writing period music until Coppola, ironically, decided to use early ’80s New Wave bands for the score. Later on, legendary independent record label 4AD tried to convince Hollis into recording again, on his terms, but ultimately Hollis was in a world and time of his own. He was beyond it all, he didn’t bother, and he was at peace with that.
Wardle takes no particular side in his biography; instead, he sides on the collective, presenting to the reader all the myriad voices of those affected by Hollis, from the closest collaborators to people sweeping the recording studio floor. He takes his subject as far as it can possibly go with all the resources available and the result is well balanced He debunks the myths and disproves old falsehoods, but all this only seems to add to Hollis’ complexity and heighten his allure. Hollis never revealed anything about his private life to anyone. Why? Because he, as a person, meant nothing. It was a complete separation of the art from the maker. For Hollis, it was all about devotion to the music.
Silence was always the end journey for Mark Hollis and Talk Talk: silence was the final step on their evolutionary ladder. Getting to that place changed everything – the peace found in silence. Hearing the last two Talk Talk and Mark Hollis albums in succession is a transportive experience. The act of listening and appreciating music won’t ever be the same.