© Dave Ling - October 2001 - previously published in CLASSIC ROCK magazine
Fish is looking distinctly thinner. The stress of a divorce from his wife of many years, the German model who co-starred in the video to Marillion’s ‘Kayleigh’ video, has taken its toll in that respect at least. However, professionally he’s busy and content, and despite retiring from the road in late 1999, he’s touring and recording again. The former Marillion singer’s new album, ‘Fellini Days’, has been released with the assistance of his internet community, just like his erstwhile bandmates’ ‘Anoraknophobia’. As we prepare for a typically lively and frank conversation about past, present and future, I inform Fish I’d just finished reading a fascinating article on him in the US magazine Progression. In it, he was asked his opinion of Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy, unexpectedly responding: "He’s a crap drummer."
Fish gazes at me quizzically until reminded he’d actually misheard the interviewer’s question and thought he’d been asked about Mick Pointer, Marillion’s first percussionist.
"I never liked Mick’s drumming," he grimaces. "Listen to the bootlegs, his timing was awful. If it hadn’t been for the band standing up for him he’d have been booted out as early as ‘Market Square Heroes’. As musicians, everybody was developing except him."
Nevertheless, early on Marillion were a bit like Spïnal Tap, guzzling up drummers. Nooooooo! The thing was, being a band founder, Mick felt he was above reproach, and it was the biggest mistake of his life.
But Marillion were young and we’d never been in a position where we had to audition. Even when Mark Kelly joined, we didn’t audition keyboard players, we kinda found Mark and he was the right one. And when we went for bassists there was only a choice of Pete Trewavas, who was in Aylesbury, so Peter was great. Everything happened because it was meant to happen. Then in ’83, we had to make a quick decision and [ex-Camel drummer] Andy Ward came in. Marillion weren’t a particularly mature band in those days, and Andy was basically having a nervous breakdown, which we didn’t know how to handle.
“If I’d stayed in Marillion I’d have drunk myself to death, because I couldn’t deal with the situation”
So John Marter, who’s now in my band, came in. John was very much a Fish fan and at the time there was sensitivity as to my position in the band. I never said it was my band, but John said a few words out of line in a New York hotel and some people took exception to it, and John was gone. Jonathan Mover left me cold, but the musicians loved him because he was super-technical. I felt I was being railroaded. All he could talk about was drums, and he didn’t fit in to the band’s social element. Ian Mosley was meant to become the band’s drummer, he’d almost joined once before but couldn’t make the audition, but he eventually turned up at Rockfield in his battered Merc and has been there ever since.
In that same Progression interview, you also derided Marillion’s early B-side ‘Grendel’ as "a crap song". In my book that was fair, but it remains a cult favourite to this day.
I remember the first time they played it to me, that syncopated rhythm in the 9/8 section. I said, ‘You’re going to get us killed, that’s ‘Supper’s Ready’ by Genesis’. Plagiarism didn’t even come into it. It was one of Mick [Pointer]’s songs, which is why he still plays it in Arena. I just find that sad. In 1981, when we were playing [Aylesbury] Friars and stuff, it was a fucking great song, but now it’s not relevant. I’m proud of it in the same way as I was proud of one of my first English essays that got 100 per cent. I’d never disown ‘Grendel’, but I’ll never play it again.
What was it like to experience that first rollercoaster of success, and why do you feel Marillion seemed so unstoppable?
In the early 80s there was a fantastic live scene. We were taking a stage set into the pubs and it became a good solid night’s entertainment. What got us our deal was playing so many gigs at the Marquee, which was the drinking hole of the press at the time. EMI didn’t sign us because the record industry felt we were making great music – I mean, the same arrangement of ‘Garden Party’ that was rejected by Virgin Records went on to become a No.16 single – we were making such a big noise, they couldn’t ignore us any longer. I still remember the ‘Market Square Heroes’ tour because we staying in bed and breakfasts, it was a step up from the van. And then when ‘Script For A Jester’s Tear’ [the band’s 1983 debut album] hit, we were at Hammy Odeon. But we never took off big time until the ‘Misplaced Childhood’ album [two years later].
The ‘Kayleigh’ single peaked at Number Two, and ‘Misplaced Childhood’ a place higher. Did you feel like the success would never end?
Well, until we lost the plot – or the manager lost it – there was a gradual acceleration. But when ‘Kayleigh’ happened it took us by surprise. We were touring Germany and the venues kept getting upgraded. But there was a lot of hedonistic activity going on. I’ll own up to being the ringleader, some of it was escapism, but put a chocoholic in a sweetie shop and you know he’s going to come out a fat pig!
We became isolated and there were a lot of self-inflicted paranoias. The manager [John Arnison] had never been at that level before, and he perpetually kept us touring. He made three and a half times more than me during 1987-8. This isn’t a slur because it’s been acknowledged that he was an alcoholic and a cocaine addict. We even had a band meeting in a clinic in Chelsea to discuss our next tour. He was dressed in a white gown. We left and I said to the band, ‘You’re fuckin’ mad, this man’s in charge of our lives. We’ve got to get rid of him’. But they were worried that I’d bring in a manager who’d turn us into Fish plus the band.
Steve [Rothery, guitarist], Pete, Mark, Ian and I went to dinner about 18 months ago and among the first things they said was that they should’ve backed me in 1987. They did eventually fire John. But if I’d stayed in Marillion I’d have drunk myself to death, because I couldn’t deal with the situation.
You’ve made no secret that drink and drugs were very prevalent at the time of your last album with the band, 1987’s ‘Clutching At Straws’. But while they presumably aided the creative process, were there repercussions?
It didn’t get to the stage where unless I did acid or coke, I couldn’t write a song. My worst drug period was probably between 1985 and ’86. We did ‘Clutching At Straws’ as I was coming off, which was ironically when other people around me were accelerating. On top of that, the management bullshit was going on. When the band kept John Arnison on, I knew that my days were numbered. After the attempted coup, I was separated. In a very Machiavellian way, Arnison engineered me into resigning. There were so many parasites around us, but the way I left was impetuous. I jumped, and I didn’t realise how high up I was or how hard the concrete was.
The way I understand it, the band eventually found themselves in a situation where it was either Mark Kelly who would get the bullet, or yourself. I wonder if they ever consider they sacked the wrong guy…?
I don’t think so. With all respect to Mark, he had a lot of problems in his private life to do with his finances and domestic situation. I tried to reach out to him, but he didn’t want to be reached, and there was a certain amount of friction. I will admit I found the situation in 1988 very difficult, and I remember pondering what would happen if John Arnison was out of the picture… whether Mark would go, too. I knew that if it became a head to head between me and Mark, I would fight for my position. I’d met Mickey Simmons through playing squash with Mike Oldfield and Mickey had done the Pete Townshend charity gig at Hammersmith Odeon with us, so I knew that if Mark went away or whatever we’d have a replacement. There was nobody in that band that was irreplaceable. Nobody. But it never happened.
Strangely, I’m now closer to Mark than ever. We can spend a night together and get absolutely bladdered singing Alex Harvey songs till five in the morning. We’d been really good friends originally, but my wife and his hated each other. That’s an impossible situation. Who are you gonna be more loyal to, a band member or someone you love?
Did spouses have anything to do with Marillion’s disintegration?
Indirectly. It would be very, very nasty to name names. When I got married it definitely changed the band’s balance because it was easier for me to be controlled. As a single guy, my needs weren’t that great. As long as I could afford my bills and a taxi back from the Marquee it was cool. But I realised the partying had to stop. When Tammy came along there was a switch in the band, as with all the wives – especially with Mark. I wouldn’t say it was a Spïnal Tap situation where any one wife tried to take over the band as such, we just weren’t astrologically inclined.
Was it scary to find yourself out on your own?
Yeah. Previously whenever I had to make decisions I could ask others. I was lucky I had Mickey Simmons, but it was terrifying. When you lost money you weren’t splitting it four ways. When it went right everyone was happy, but when it went wrong, it was, ‘See you, Fish’!
Do those days of three consecutive Top 40 solo hits – ‘Big Wedge’, ‘State Of Mind’ and ‘A Gentleman’s Excuse Me’ – now seem a million miles away?
I honestly think that if the ‘Vigil…’ album had been a Marillion album it would’ve been even bigger. But EMI asked me to delay it because they wanted Marillion’s album [‘Seasons End’] out first. They said they’d give it full promotion, da da da. So my album didn’t come out till January ’90, and three years is a long time. It was difficult to pull the fans back in again. It was a lot easier for Marillion, because they had the name and the EMI press people always focussed on them.
“What does Steve Hogarth think I’m gonna do? Turn up with a bunch of SAS stormtroopers
and take over Racket Records?! It’s a bit macho for a small man, right?”
Does it irk you to still get called Fish from Marillion?
It doesn’t exactly irritate me, it’s just… can’t we get a bit more up to date? That was 12 years ago, I’ve done nine albums since, plus acting. Calling me Fish, ex-singer of Marillion, is about as relevant as calling me Fish, former boyfriend of Lesley Proudfoot!
You eventually returned to Scotland. Being so far away from the industry and all you’d worked for to achieve, was this not something of a backwards step? Burying your head in the sand while everything went pear-shaped, perhaps…?
No, because I was getting myself together personally. But of course it affected my career, I wasn’t schmoozing with the press, I wasn’t being seen at parties. I was even more affected at the time of ‘Internal Exile’ [in 1991], when I dipped my toe into the murky water of Scottish politics. That upset a lot of English fans and the English press
You’ve been quoted as saying you are now making music you feel comfortable with, as opposed to things you were obliged to create. What was the cut-off point?
Well, there was obviously going to be a hangover. I took them title track of ‘Vigil…’ and they said it was crap. I felt like I had a blank piece of paper with that album, which was great, but after ‘Internal Exile’ I knew I had to find some new ideas. A line can be drawn from ‘Script…’ to the present day and there are troughs. ‘Songs From The Mirror’ [a covers album from 1983] is definitely one. But the ship stabilised with [1996’s] ‘Sunsets On Empire’ and Steve Wilson [of Porcupine Tree, producer] had a lot to do with that, which I’m incredibly grateful for.
You told me in spring 1999 that you’d approached Marillion about doing a joint tour, both bands performing separate sets and then reuniting to play ‘Misplaced Childhood’. You quite rightly believed it would raise the profiles of all concerned. Was the subject raised at your meal with Steve, Mark, Pete and Ian?
We discussed it very openly, but their answer was no. Arnison came back to me and said, ‘Come out without your band, Marillion’ll learn some of your solo stuff’. I declined because it’d look like I was going back to Marillion.
Don’t both acts need it?
Well, it was mentioned at around ‘Best Of Both Worlds’ [the split Fish-Hogarth album in 1997]. Both Marillion and I were suffering, but they rejected it then. They probably felt they were safe at EMI and I was on my way out. You have to remember that ‘Brave’ had been their biggest album, and we were both on a bit of a slope. Later on I suggested the two-band scenario at a festival in Cologne, and if it worked maybe we could write an album together, not even calling it Marillion, just elevating ourselves together. But the answer – the band answer – was no.
Am I correct in thinking you and Hogarth actually appeared onstage together at a show on the Continent?
Yeah. When I left the band, the press loved it. It was a raw, bloody situation, but I didn’t deal with it maturely. If somebody pushed the Marillion button, I’d become the Tasmanian Devil. But in reality there was never much animosity. I never looked at it as competing with them because we were playing to the same goddamn fan-base.
I know that you read Steve’s comments in Issue 27. What about all that Marillion 1, Fish 0 stuff?
That was unnecessary and I put it down to the fact that perhaps the interviewer was winding him up [guffaws with laughter]. To say that financially it was Marillion 1, Fish 0 was just pathetic. It’s not as if they’re selling fuckin’ hundreds of thousands of albums. Even if they were selling a hundred thousand albums then, okay Steve, I’d take that punch on the chin. I’ll put all that down to maybe being led by the writer, or just being a bit cocky.
But that line about Fish rejoining Marillion if he dares... Fuck off, get a life. What does Hogarth think I’m gonna do? Turn up with a bunch of SAS stormtroopers and take over Racket Records?! It’s a bit macho for a small man, right?
Anytime in the past few years I’ve had a chance to do them a favour, I’ve done it. But I’m not interested in going back. It is not like it’s the Eagles, who have a catalogue of music and the musicians have kept within their style. As musicians we’ve all diversified. With ‘Anoraknophobia’ they can try to be a bit grungey, but I was brought up with the Faces and Deep Purple at the same time as Genesis, and I listen to Little Feat and Humble Pie.
Do you keep up to speed with the progressive scene?
Keeping up with all those nonce bands that are out there regurgitating all that stuff that was done in the 70s? Not my scene. I’m progressive, but it’s a different kind of progressive. It is like on ‘Fellini Days’, taking the light and shade, sampling the dramatic Frederico Fellini stuff, taking blues and putting it next to Spanish guitar, using Mexican trumpets and stuff.
What are your sales expectations for ‘Fellini Days’?
[Shrugs]: If it happens it happens, if it doesn’t it doesn’t.
C’mon, everybody says that, but nobody really means it.
Aye. Selling 50 or 100,000 thousand albums would be great. 75,000… wonderful. At 200,000 it could start becoming a pain in the arse. I’m going through a divorce, but I have a new girlfriend I’m very happy and a beautiful 10-year-old daughter. The house has been sold, my debts are cleared up and I’ve still got my studio. What more do I need?
At the end of 1999 you made a big deal about retiring from organised touring. Can you explain why you made such a dramatic announcement from the stage in London that night, and why you appear to have reconsidered?
That ‘Raingods With Zippos’ tour pissed me off so much, just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The production manager was lying in hospital and they were talking about amputating his arm because of a blood infection, and I was laid up with a viral infection for six weeks. There were Fisher Price PA systems. But I had to keep going. All the profit from three months was due from the last three shows. And my situation at home wasn’t helping, either.
Do you now regret that retirement speech?
Of course. People didn’t want to see some miserable cunt on stage saying, ‘I fucking hate you all and this is complete shit’. I shouldn’t have gone out there. A day later a doctor said stop it, right now or you’ll kill yourself.
Of course, you’ve also got a career as an actor.
[Theatrically]: I’m glad I’m not depending on it for a living, dear boy.
Do you feel that the way you look may have affected either your musical or movie career? Have you tried to lose weight?
[Glares threateningly]: You saying I’m not good looking?
Well, you’re not traditional leading man material, are you?
Very, very coy of you! No, there’s such thing as wigs. I know I’m not likely to get Hugh Grant roles. I’ve always been sartorially challenged; that comes from being a kid… I’m six foot five, nothing has ever fitted me.
Readers will have seen you playing eccentric studio owner Derek, er, Trout in C4’s The Young Person’s Guide To Becoming A Rock Star, but presumably your thespian skills were stretched further starring alongside Carol Decker of T’Pau, Steven Berkoff and Julian Clary as a homosexual in Nine Dead Gay Guys. How did you research that particular role?
I shagged journalists from Classic Rock [guffaws loudly]. I was scared that I’d be stereotyped as a six foot five, drunken, hardman jock, so I might as well get typecast as a great big gay! I’m no DeNiro or Scorsese. I’m picking up bits and pieces where I can between tours. But I do want to build up my CV, take on slightly bigger roles and become recognised as an actor rather than as a singer. In fact, I see script writing as the mainstay of my activities for the next five years. I’ll never stop making albums or touring, but it’ll happen when I want to so that it’s fun.
The official Fish website
To secure this interview, I met Fish in a central London pub – how unusual our paths would cross again in an establishment that sells alcohol! As ever, the big Scotsman was excellent company, and talkative beyond belief. Maybe it helped that only a few months earlier I had spoken to his successor in Marillion, who’d ruffled a few feathers with his own well-chosen barbs (that Steve Hogarth chat is also available here). For the record, I’d like to see Fish on stage again with Marillion one day, but I doubt it’ll happen. Both sides are too proud, and of course it would completely undermine what they’re doing today. (25th August, 2004)
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