An interview with Steve Hogarth
© Dave Ling - May 2001 - previously published in CLASSIC ROCK magazine
After several years away from their long-time home, EMI Records, how better to commemorate Marillion’s return to their original label than a lengthy inquisition at the company’s plush Hammersmith offices? Vocalist Steve Hogarth was keener than ever to discuss the "millstone" of the band's progressive rock heritage, sinking a couple of bottles of Becks as he explained what he sees as the "laughable" misconceptions that continue to surround the group…
DL. What were the circumstances of your joining Marillion? Everybody knew the position was vacant after Fish left, but did you send off a tape like all the other hopefuls?
SH. My publisher sent a tape, at the back end of 1988. To be honest, I wasn’t terribly interested in doing it. My previous band, How We Live, had just split up and one day I went into Rondor Music and asked whether anyone could think of anything I could do. I didn’t mean music…
DL. What, you’d have considered busying yourself with some filing?
SH. Yeah! I had no income and was completely skint. It was in a groovy building on [west London’s] Parsons Green and I’d have done anything at all. They also had a demo studio in the basement where’s have been quite happy engineering their other acts.
DL. Did you even know Marillion were looking for a new lead singer?
SH. I had no idea that Fish had gone. So they persuaded me to send a tape. I’d forgotten all about it until January 1989, when they rang. At about the same time, Matt Johnson of The The asked me to play piano on his tour. I always say I had to make a choice between the most hip band in the world, and the least. But when I met up with them it didn’t take long at all to make up my mind.
“If the Daily Mail ever talks about Marillion they still print a picture of Fish, that’s a ghost
we haven’t been able to lay to rest. But on all other fronts, it’s Marillion 1 and Fish 0”
DL. It’s strange how things pan out. Everyone expected Fish to thrive as a solo artist and Marillion to fall by the wayside without him.
SH. In musical terms it didn’t happen that way, or in business terms because we make more money than him. But it did pan out like that in media terms. If the Daily Mail ever talks about Marillion they still print a picture of Fish, even now. That’s a ghost we haven’t been able to lay to rest. But on all other fronts, it’s Marillion 1 and Fish 0.
DL. What did you think you could bring to the band?
SH. Myself. And that was all they seemed to want. That was why I joined. If they’d said to me, ‘This is our last album, this is what it sounds like, this is how many copies it sold and this is what we want you to do’, I wouldn’t have been interested. I’d feared that was what it would be like, but it was completely the opposite.
DL. To most vocalists, interpreting their own lyrics is integral to what they do. Yet Marillion often rely upon words written by John Helmer. Why?
SH. I really admire what he does. In some ways he provides an analytical and intellectual edge, whereas my own lyrics tend to be based on what makes us tick. That said, John didn’t write anything on the new album, or on [1998’s] ‘Radiation’. On this one, I wrote everything except ‘Map Of The World’, which Nick Van Eede of the Cutting Crew helped me to unlock after I’d been having problems with it.
DL. Did you own any albums from the Fish era?
Not a single one.
DL. The perception of many is that when you joined Marillion you looked around and thought, ‘Right, I’m here now. What can I change?’ True?
SH. I’d take 80 per cent of the credit – or the flak – for that. Bare in mind, I’ve been in the band for 12 years now and there have been points when different members have decided they would change. Right at the beginning, I was keen to change everything. And they weren’t. But as time went by, one or other of the boys would decide they didn’t want to carry on the same way. [Guitarist] Steve Rothery is a great example. He’s completely changed his approach to his sound and the choice of some of the instruments he uses. You can still tell it’s him, but I really admired that he was prepared to change his whole focus.
But, yeah, I was always pulling to change this or that. And I gradually got the whole band into a mindset where doing something we’d done before was cheap.
DL. At the recent Dingwalls gig, some cretins still insisted in shouting for ‘Grendel’, the obscure B-side of the band’s ‘Market Square Heroes’ single. Be honest, what goes through your mind when you hear that?
SH. They probably didn’t even know what it means, it’s just something that some clever dicks shout because they know they’ll get a reaction from the boys in the band. A way of making yourself seem more important at a gig. It’s pointless. You might as well shout, ‘Show us your arse’.
“We should’ve changed the name when I joined the band.
The Marillion [of the past] is a band that’s dead and gone.”
DL. Give us a ballpark figure of how many copies you have sold of the past few albums?
SH. Between 70,000 and 80,000 at the last count. Definitely no less than that.
DL. You’ve often complained at the lack of label backing since you left EMI. Is that the sole root of your problems, or are some self-created?
SH. The only problem we’ve created for ourselves in being uncompromising in our music. Doing it for ourselves and hoping that the fan-base will enjoy it and maybe that someone somewhere at radio will play it. What choice have we got; you can’t deliberately write for radio, although there are some artists out there that do precisely that. They find a sound that’s successful, but they secretly hate it. To me, that’s not why you make music.
DL. How have you coped financially during the time away from EMI – has it been difficult?
It’s certainly been hairy, and a bit of a roller coaster ride. Fortunately, the car never left the rail, but we have had to negotiate some tight corners.
DL. The internet has proven invaluable to Marillion.
SH. It saved our bacon. It gave us a medium through which to collect data, find out who our fans are and advertise to them directly without spending any money. We’ve got Mark Kelly [keyboards] to thank for that, because he saw its potential in the very early days. Nowadays there’s so much talk of internet trading, but we were doing it before it was on the TV.
DL. How then do you view its flipside, Napster and the whole MP3 business?
SH. Personally, I don’t mind a fan owning one or two of the tracks that way before it comes out because they’ll still buy the record. But you also have to consider that music does cost quite a lot to create, and if you give it away you’re gonna go out of business. My own viewpoint is that I don’t mind a student who doesn’t have two pennies to rub together listening to my work if it cheers them up - it’s crap being skint! I only have a problem when people start making large amounts of money out if it.
DL. You’re now back in the bosom of EMI Records, after a groundbreaking arrangement with your fans that saw them finance the recording of the new album in return for total creative freedom.
SH. Two independent labels had offered us deals, but when we got the contracts we decided that to sign them would consign ourselves to being fairly helpless about our career. Somebody – it could have been Mark – said, ‘What if we asked the fans to buy the album now, six months before it’s made’. And it grew from there. Even with 13,000 names having committed themselves, we weren’t sure whether somebody like EMI would be interested in our proposal of making an album with no advance payment whatsoever, but we came into the building and presented to them and that the end of the meeting they practically broke into applause. Basically, we were offering them free money. If we can sell 10,000 copies of this record, they can do 90,000 through the shops. All we wanted was a decent royalty rate and a reasonable marketing campaign.
DL. Does the fact that it was 100 per cent dependent on the goodwill of your fans cheapen your return to a major label?
SH. [Frowning slightly]: In what way?
DL. Well, you just as good as admitted that we wouldn’t be sitting here in an EMI boardroom unless they’d promised all those sales up-front.
SH. [Looking slightly irritated]: That’s true. But no, I don’t really give a monkey’s. I don’t think ‘cheap’ is a word you could use in connection with all of this, unless you had a fairly cheap view of what music’s all about.
DL. Maybe you could explain the circumstances of leaving EMI in the first place. Did you jump or were you pushed?
SH. A bit of both. Our long-term deal had long since run out and we had the option to do things album by album. After ‘Brave’ [a double concept album from 1994] we’d been given a new A&R guy who fancied himself within the company and had been telling everybody that he was gonna whip Marillion into shape – get us to make a comparatively cheap album for £60,000. We responded with ‘Brave’ which took two years, and he never forgave us for the egg that ended up on his face. Although we saw ‘Brave’ as a work of art, it didn’t sell shed loads and at that point we considered leaving EMI. But although we decided to stay for ‘Afraid Of Sunlight’ , we quickly got the impression that the steam on our behalf had gone out of the company.
DL. To accompany your new album you have released an extraordinary biography to the press. In it you challenge reviewers not to mention the words ‘Genesis’, ‘progressive rock’, ‘Fish’, ‘heavy metal’, ‘dinosaurs’, ‘predictable’ and ‘concept album’.
SH. [Laughs loudly]. Well, it had to be said.
DL. Yet in the same breath you also claim to have "gone way past caring what the cynics believe". Bit of a contradiction there.
SH. [Laughs less loudly]. We’re just tired of the opinions of people who haven’t heard anything we’ve done in ten years. A lot of what’s spread about this band is laughable. For instance, I wrote a song on ‘Afraid Of Sunlight’ called ‘Out Of This World’ which was about Donald Campbell’s ill-fated attempt to break the world water speed record. As a consequence of that song, a guy decided to see if he could find his boat. He spent four years searching and finally brought it out of the water last week. And I was there to see it happen. It was a right old media circus, but nobody wanted to speak to me because they didn’t know I’d started it. The Times ran an interview with the guy in which he mentioned our role in proceedings, but they still called us "80s rock band Marillion". And yet ‘Out Of This World’ was written in 1995. Although you’re way past caring about these things, they still rattle you.
DL. So when VH-1’s Friday Rock Show screen three tracks by Marillion, as witnessed in a recent show, you fully expect them to play ‘Incommunicado’, ‘Market Square Heroes’ and ‘Kayleigh’?
SH. [Looks slightly crestfallen]. Did they? Oh dear, they ought to know better than that, we’ve been in there a few times. But it doesn’t surprise me.
Wouldn’t the bravest thing you could do right now be to start again with a new name?
SH. With hindsight, yes. We should’ve done that when I joined the band. The Marillion you’re talking about on the VH-1 Rock Show is a band that’s dead and gone. If we’d called ourselves something different, when VH-1 shows that stuff it wouldn’t be sullying our good name.
DL. So, is changing the name a serious option?
SH. We talk about it every two years. Half the band are for the idea and the other half say it wouldn’t achieve anything. We’ll have to wait and see, but to me the name Marillion is definitely a millstone.
DL. Likewise, isn’t calling your new album ‘Anoraknophobia’ creating another noose for your own neck?
SH. Well, I don’t think of the anorak thing as being prog-related. Our fans are very, very dedicated and sometimes obsessive types. Lesser people sometimes call them anoraks, and this is our way of saying that we’re anoraks, too. We haven’t got a problem with people believing in something, or being so into it that they know everything about it. On Room 101 recently, Stephen Fry made the point that there are too many programmes on TV about what’s crap. Laughing at things has become a source of entertainment, yet the smart Alecs who point the finger are always the last ones to stand up and say what they believe in. The album got its title because I’m an anorak, too.
DL. The new album is indeed an excellent, contemporary sounding release. You’ve been trumpeting loudly for the past several years about cutting ties with the past, but to these ears ‘Anoraknophobia’ is the first album to seriously validate any of those claims.
SH. Somebody in the media actually agreeing with us. Maybe that’ll make a difference…
DL. Until now, I, like many of the press, believed all your claims to be somewhat pretentious. Those comparisons with Radiohead that you made seemed to be wishful thinking on your part.
SH. [Shrugs]. Right. Well, I don’t think we’ve actually compared ourselves to Radiohead. A girl who used to work at EMI International told me one day that they [Radiohead] had been in the office taking copies of ‘Brave’, and that was at the point before they wrote ‘OK Computer’. I daresay they were checking out a whole load of progressive stuff, not just ours.
DL. Have you ever had any feedback from Radiohead, or do you expect to?
SH. No. And I don’t really expect to. I can’t imagine Thom Yorke being the kind of guy to just ring anybody up. But I suppose it would be nice.
DL. I’m just trying to gauge your expectations for this album.
SH. We seriously don’t have any. We don’t necessarily expect it to be big because we’ve made 12 records now, some of them very interesting. I may be wrong, but I can’t see anybody at daytime radio jumping on it. In a fair world they would, but the bias against the band is so considerable that it’s almost as though you would lose kudos by playing one of our records. Even if there was bribery involved.
DL. It was almost inevitable that Classic Rock would want to interview the band, but which other magazines do you feel that in a fair world you deserve coverage in?
SH. [Chuckles heartily]. It hasn’t been invented yet. We’ve very proud to be associated with Classic Rock because we’re in company like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. But to answer your question, I don’t understand why Q Magazine won’t write about us. The most memorable review they gave us was of ‘Afraid Of Sunlight’ which said, ‘If this band were by anything other than Marillion it would be hailed as near genius’. And they still wouldn’t give us a feature. How can they say, this is an amazing record… no, we don’t want to talk to you? It’s hard to take when they say, here’s a very average record… we’ll put you on the front cover. Why don’t they just stop pretending that it’s all about music and admit it’s really about money. Then put the top selling five bands on the cover and tell everyone else to fuck off.
DL. Do you really think that your fans go, ‘Wow, Marillion are experimenting with drum and bass – that’s excellent news’ when they hear of your latest exploits – or do they merely tolerate it in the hope that you’ll bring back ‘Kayleigh’ as a second encore?
SH. Neither, actually. We get letters of complaint if we play ‘Kayleigh’. We’re not trying to say that people who pay money to see us are into drum and bass because I don’t think they’re the type to split music up into different genres. They just go, this is good, innit? When they listen to Massive Attack, they don’t compartmentalise it, they just know it’s pure class. The reason we have loops on this album is because Steve Rothery bought a machine on the first day of writing, and it just seemed to work.
DL. When learning of this interview, one of our writers put forward the theory: If Steve Hogarth really loves Marillion as much as he claims, why doesn't he leave and let them bring Fish back?
SH. For a kick-off, they wouldn’t have him. But I don’t love the Marillion that that guy’s talking about. That’s the VH-1 Marillion that we were talking about earlier. I’ve never claimed to love that Marillion, I’m in love with the Marillion that exists now. Fish has no place in that, I dare him to try.
DL. Did the revelation that bassist Pete Trewavas told us that he would consider quitting Marillion to join the all-star, pure-prog project Transatlantic cause shock waves within the band?
SH. I don’t know if I want to comment on that. It definitely puts out the wrong signals. But then I don’t think Pete much cares what signals it puts out. Pete’s amazing, he’s such a pure musician that everything excites him. He doesn’t really have a notion of what’s cool. I’ve seen him sit at a piano and play a Lionel Richie song with the same amount of conviction as a massive, monster fuzz-bass riff. I suppose it does bother me a bit when he says things like that. I’m not really interested in progressive rock music, and I don’t think he is really, no more so than he is in anything else. It doesn’t help, but he doesn’t give a toss because he loves music to death and genres don’t mean anything to Pete at all.
The official Marillion website
On paper, the odds against Marillion returning to their former label EMI Records seemed very high indeed. Some might say almost astronomical. I certainly wouldn’t have put my house on it. However, in 2001 the band proved all the naysayers completely wrong with the rather spiffing ‘Anoraknophobia’ album. I met Steve Hogarth with a broad agenda to discuss. Why were they still calling themselves Marillion? Was Fish ever likely to return to the group? And – yes, really – why had they been dabbling in drum and bass? Save for the odd tense moment, it was a very pleasant conversation. Reading it back again now, my line of questioning was pretty hostile, but being the gentleman he is, Hogarth rolled with the punches and responded with some good, intelligent answers. (25th August, 2004)
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