Marillion's vocalist Steve Hogarth has been interviewed by the Montreal Gazette just ahead of the band's Weekend festival in the city. The interview was conducted by Jordan Zivitz and below is an extract:
Montreal Gazette: How far along are you in rehearsals?
Steve Hogarth: We’ve been at it for a few weeks now, ever since mid-January. For probably three or four weeks we’ve been chipping away at the seven, 7 ½ hours of music we’ll have to have ready for the first convention, which is always a colossal undertaking. First of all, to have all the sounds programmed and ready to access, and to play from moment to moment — it’s a huge job for Mark (Kelly). And then it’s a huge job for everyone else just to remember the music, remember the chords, which order everything comes in. I’ve always had a natural ability — ever since I was a child, really — to remember song lyrics, so once they’re in, they tend to stay in. But in my advanced years I’m not quite as good as I was, so even I have a bit of a job to have 7 ½ hours of words ready to roll out flawlessly. (Laughs) But it’s the music and the remembering of all the chords, really, that’s the tough one for the band.
MG: Does it get easier each time that you do this, though? After having to relearn so many older songs every two years for these conventions, some of them probably stick a bit more easily if you revisit them again.
SH: Well, if we are revisiting them, yeah. Two years apart. But there will always be certain songs that we may hardly ever have played that we’re dragging out. And also, as time goes by and technology moves on, Mark particularly is moving from one system to another. One rig or whatever. He started off with a lot of discrete keyboards and samplers, and now it’s all much more software-based, because everything has gone that way. And every time all of this technology supersedes itself and reinvents itself, it has to be programmed all over again. A lot of it, starting back at scratch again and reassembling all the original sounds from the original samples and god knows what. Our music is by its nature very complex sonically, as well as chordally, and the band has always been very meticulous in trying to reproduce the music pretty faithfully to the original arrangements. We’re not really one of those bands that will take a song and go, “OK, well, we’ll reinterpret that totally.” Unless we deliberately do it as an experiment, as we did with Less Is More, with the deliberate deconstruction and rewriting of songs. But apart from when it’s a deliberate experiment, if we’re just rolling out the music, then there’s a feeling in the band that it should be reproduced as closely as possible to the original arrangements. So that usually involves a lot of colours and meticulous detail being called up from moment to moment.
MG: I should ask about the two nights where you’ve announced the full-album performances. For Anoraknophobia, how do you think it stands up now, almost 15 years later?
SH: When we first returned to a lot of those songs on Anoraknophobia to play them again — bearing in mind at the beginning of the rehearsal process that you don’t tend to be getting right into the detail and the dynamics of the song; you’re just going through it — we all felt that a lot of those songs would have benefited from pretty harsh edits. I think Dave Meegan, the producer, he loved to set up a vibe and then just keep it going. And I’m thinking particularly of This Is the 21st Century; I think it might have been a better song if it had been a bit shorter. We kind of felt the same way about When I Meet God — that we could have perhaps lost a few bars out of that for the better. So coming back to that album, I think we felt some of those songs were a bit unnecessarily long and drawn-out — although we’ll probably remain more or less faithful to the original arrangements.
MG: Funny — I don’t think of that album as being stuffed with longer pieces. Maybe because it starts with Between You and Me, which I think is one of your best straight-ahead rock songs. So maybe that brainwashed me.
SH: Maybe! I mean, it was great to come back and play The Fruit of the Wild Rose, which has hardly ever been played live. I really think that’s a wonderful song. I was very happy with that when we first recorded it, and I still think it’s a strong thing musically and lyrically. It’s got a great mood about it. So it was really nice to come back to that and to sing that again. It’s a nice song to sing, because sonically everything occupies its own space and there’s room for the voice to be heard, and the mood of the voice and the emotion of the voice has room to be heard. It’s not fighting against a wall of noise. Which I’m often used to having to do. Between You and Me is a great example, you know — the voice is sitting on top of a wall of noise, whereas The Fruit of the Wild Rose, the music consists of colours that are wrapped around the voice, so the voice has so much more room to be heard and to express itself. So it was lovely coming back to that. Separated Out is always great fun to do. And I think When I Meet God’s a good statement as well, and I’ve been enjoying singing that again.
MG: It’s interesting that you feel sometimes like you’re fighting against a wall of noise. There are some bands that have so much going on sonically where it feels like the voice is just another instrument, but I rarely get that from Marillion. Your vocals tend to pop out from everything else going on.
SH: It’s probably because I fought tooth and nail during the mixes to make it happen. And I’ve won more often than I’ve lost. (Laughs)
MG: I was mentally flipping through your albums, and along with Radiation, Anorak seems like the one that went as far afield from your traditional sound as you ever did. Do you remember if you went into the sessions wanting to experiment as much as you could?
SH: Yeah, it’s true. I don’t know if it just happened naturally. We were always really up for getting away from ourselves, and we try to do that with each successive album. And we always feel like we have gotten away from ourselves, but then sometimes when we look back we sort of realize, “Well, maybe we didn’t get as far away from ourselves as we thought we had.” And of course, with the passing of time, even if you had gotten away from your sound, in inverted commas, you redefine your sound in doing that. You then create something else to get away from. (Laughs)
MG: Yeah, what I might think of as traditional Marillion now isn’t necessarily what I would have thought of even 10 years ago.
SH: Yeah, we’ve been very fortunate to have the kind of fans that have stood by us while we’ve done those things as well, and been patient enough and immersed themselves enough in the new music we’ve created to get into it and see it for what it is, and then stay with us. And so on the one hand we might be perceived to have been brave or a bit radical by our own definition, to kick out and try and redefine ourselves. But the truth is, as time’s gone by, I guess our confidence to do that has increased, because it’s not quite the suicide that we once thought it might be. I mean, I remember when we made Brave, part of me was thinking: “Is this us committing suicide?” I was glad to do it (laughs), and I was pleased and proud that we’d done it, but there was still a feeling of misgiving, that maybe this was us shaking off our core fan base. I don’t think we would have lived to regret it, but it was a concern in the back of my head. I didn’t hear anyone else in the band express it, and I’m not even sure I expressed it myself, but it did cross my mind. And I listen back to Brave now and it sounds like a relatively conservative Marillion album.
SH: Well, time passes and it becomes what you are, I suppose. It sounds like us. It represents what we sound like. But at the time we made it, it felt like quite a radical and wild departure, and some of the time seemed to sound more like other bands than it did like us.
MG: And rather than being a career-ender, Brave ended up reassuring a lot of people who were concerned you were turning into more of a pop act with Holidays in Eden. Even if the sales fell off, I think that’s when you went back to being a band with an unshakable core fan base.
SH: Well, I’m glad we did it, and I’m very grateful that enough of our listeners got into it and stayed with us to enable us to just keep doing what we do. Because I don’t know what it is, but there’s a figure below which you can’t function. You can’t make enough money no matter how much you try to get by. Bands can easily split up over poverty (laughs), insolvency, as much as they can out of musical differences. And we’ve always remained solvent, and it’s meant we can carry on doing our thing — without ever really having to take the king’s shilling and sell out. So we’ve been lucky. I would never put another artist down for selling out or compromising, because unless you know what kind of personal, artistic and commercial pressure another artist is under, you can’t really judge them. And some artists do stand or fall and continue or stop on the success of their next single. And that’s just where they are and what they have to do. So I’d never put another artist down for it. But at the same time, I’m very grateful we’ve managed to remain pure.
MG: I think that’s one of the things that keeps your fans on board. They know by this point that if they’re not particularly captured by one album, that doesn’t mean the next album isn’t going to be to their liking, because you’re always trying something new artistically.
SH: Yeah, and I’d also like to appeal to the fans out there who thought we made a duff record to stick it on the shelf for five years and go and listen to it again, because they might find there was rather more to it than they thought. I don’t think we’ve made a record yet that doesn’t stand the test of time. I know a lot of people are down on Somewhere Else, but go back to it. I’d ask you to go back to it and make sure. (Laughs)
MG: That’s one of the great things about being in the band you’re in, isn’t it? You have the freedom to do something off the wall like that. There isn’t a code you have to follow with every single song in terms of how it’s structured. You can do more concise pop songs, you can do longer-form pieces, you can do a jigsaw puzzle and it’s all you.
SH: Yeah, we write like Bowie, we can write a collage, and streams of consciousness, or we can write something that’s much more of a traditional pop song. And everything in between. And we probably have over the years. When I’ve done promotion, one of the common questions is: “You’ve been around a long time; where do you see you guys being 10 years from now?” And I say: “Well, we’ll either have just made some kind of Iggy Pop record, or we’ll have written a symphony.” (Laughs) Both are equally likely. And that’s what’s wonderful about being in this group: it can go where it goes. Because we write so much by jamming, we won’t really know until we’ve spent three, four, five months jamming in the studio and listening back and going, “Well, I didn’t think we would do anything like that, but I’m really enjoying it, so let’s work on that.” And it gives us the opportunity to sometimes see the strength in something that we wouldn’t normally have decided to do if we wrote in another way.
MG: How far along are you for the next album? Are you at that point where you can look back and pick things out?
SH: Well, we could if we chose to, but there’s a line in the sand in our heads, I think, which is the summer of this year. We’ll jam each day and we’ll keep that going until the summer, and then at some point in June or July we’re going to call it and go: “Right, what have we got? Let’s skim the cream off all of this stuff we’ve got. And let’s sit down, listen to it and decide what we want the next album to be.”
MG: I guess that answers the question I was going to ask about whether you’re previewing any new songs at these weekends.
SH: No, we don’t have anything. I said to Mike (Hunter, producer) the other day: “Christ, will we ever write another song, Mike?” And he said: “Oh, yes yes yes. I’ve heard loads of stuff.” Because he’s usually in the control room listening while we’re jamming, and he will flag any interesting things that happen. So that makes the process a bit easier. When we go back through everything, we’ll go looking for the things he flagged and we’ll have a listen, and we usually then just take a vote. If all five of us go, “That’s really good and interesting,” then that goes in a folder with five stars. And then there will be a four-star folder and a three-star folder, and on it will go down. We usually don’t bother listening much to anything with three stars or below. (Laughs)
MG: It’s probably way too early to predict what the tone of the next album will be?
SH: I’ve no idea where it will end up. I can’t even guess. I’ve got a couple of notions of how it might feel lyrically, but I’ve had those in the past and they’ve usually been wrong by the time it’s finished.
MG: I should ask you some more about these weekends. Did you think of it as just a one-time thing the first time? As just another of the band’s idiosyncratic ideas?
SH: Yeah, the first time we did it, we did it as a bit of an experiment, really. We had a friend called Sil, and I think he still manages the Stranglers. The Stranglers had done a weekend at this holiday camp in England, and we were rehearsing out at Sil’s farm. He lives down near Bath in the West Country. And he said: “You know, you should do one of these weekends like I do with the Stranglers. I could do one for you. I could promote one for you.” We got to thinking about that, and we agreed to do it. But we didn’t realize at that point that it would become something that was so tailor-made for our spirit and the kind of family spirit that we have among the fan base. Having done one, the penny kind of dropped: this format could be a precious, precious thing, because it’s just perfect for the spirit that exists within the band and the band’s fans. And it’s exceeded all our expectations. Once we moved it up to Port Zelande and started to realize the distance that people were prepared to travel to be there, and the number of countries that with time would descend on this holiday camp in Holland … I think we have 50 countries this year. That’s a lot! (Laughs) It really is. We’ve got people from every part of the world, and that’s such a beautiful thing. For me to feel like I’m somehow at the focus of this family spirit is just beautiful beyond words, and such a privilege. It’s such a warm, affirming feeling to be carrying around. I’m looking forward to it so much.
MG: Even at the Montreal weekends, where it’s obviously on a smaller scale, I’ve met people from South America, I ran into someone from Africa … and I’ve made I don’t know how many friendships through your band.
SH: Yeah, it feels like something that’s bigger than the music, almost. The music has become a catalyst for a whole other sort of level of … well, beauty! There’s no other word for it, really. I know it sounds a little love-y to keep saying it, but I can’t think of another word for it. You know, so many people have tough lives — we all have our moments, but for a lot of people life is a struggle. It is hard. They encounter terrible sadnesses and terrible difficulties, or they might find that every day is just tough to get by. And to be part of something that can lift people out of all of those everyday worries — there’s something transcendent about what the music has made possible. It’s not just that the music’s transcendent — it’s what has come about as a consequence of us stumbling into this way of working. It’s not like we designed it. It’s just become part of what we naturally are. And it’s a great privilege, and very flattering to think that all of this is going on amongst all of these people all over the world, and that we’re somehow part of that. We certainly never designed it, but we’ve fallen into this. We’re very, very lucky.
MG: What was the first time you remember being struck by that feeling at the weekends?
SH: (Long pause) I don’t know. It wasn’t the last convention. I guess it might have been the one before. I can’t honestly remember. I suppose as the years pass I become more aware of it, because there are more instances. I remember marrying a couple at Port Zelande a few years back. (Laughs) Actually putting on the cassock I had worn for Brave in the old days. Dressing up as a vicar. During a spare half-hour between sound check and show, I nipped across the courtyard, thinking: “This is existing now on a whole other level to anything I’d ever imagined.” And that’s really wonderful. And I think we had 46 countries there last time, two years ago, and when we played Made Again, it was my idea to say: “Look, bring everybody onto the stage with a flag of their own country and let’s have them all up there clapping along. I’ll get out of the way and sit down and just watch that happening.” That was just extraordinary. And it needs to be shared. So I’m very aware of it now. But you know, with every email you get, and you hear: “We just got married and we met at your convention two years ago, four years ago” — that’s just incredible.
MG: When you started doing the North American conventions, I guess Montreal was a city that popped into your mind right away?
SH: Oh, right away, yeah. When I first joined the band, they all used to say to me: “Wait till we get to Montreal. Wait till we play the Spectrum. Just wait for that.” And sure enough, when we got to the Spectrum it was like the love was deeper. It was deeper and more ingrained. The audience somehow had more heart, and more love for what the band was doing. You know, it was the first town I ever crowd-surfed in. Not the sort of thing I would normally do (laughs), but it just felt right to lie down on the people. I could never have done that unless I was feeling something really extraordinary from the people. It takes a lot of trust to lie down on an audience — you have to feel very at ease and very respected to do that. And I always felt very respected and very loved in Montreal. I’ve had some really magical moments in your town.
MG: Was that why you wrote the lyric for Montréal?
SH: Absolutely, yeah. It’s even in my diary somewhere — I’d written “some day I’m going to write this city a love song,” and that was quite a few years ago. … I can’t wait to come back. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s always magical. I don’t know how many years we’re going to be able to carry on doing what we’re doing — we’re not getting any younger, so we certainly never take for granted the feeling that we’ll return. So to know that we’re coming back is always a treat, and something that sits inside you: we’re coming back, and we’re going to do it again.
To read the full interview go here: