Marillion: They did it their way

By A. Lee Graham

To experience a Marillion concert is to know modern rock culture.

Londoners meet Louisianans, Bostonians chat up Belgians, Frenchmen converse with Floridians.

It’s all about transcending geography, a feat allowed through social media and pushed forward by Marillion.

“We have friends everywhere, it seems,” says Steve Hogarth, who knows firsthand the benefits of online discussion and Internet commerce.

As frontman for Marillion, Hogarth has sang on 14 albums. But the man also known as “H” has done much more. Aside from recording six solo releases, Hogarth has helped attract legions of fans whose loyalty is almost unparalleled among rock acts.

Dream Theater, Rush, Steven Wilson, The Grateful Dead: only a handful of bands command an audience so loyal that CDs, concert tickets — virtually any product — is pre-sold before available for purchase.

Coupled with crowd funding — a movement Marillion helped pioneer — and the band enjoys life free from record labels and bean counters. It records and releases albums at its own speed, often looks to fans to fund tours and new music and savors a freedom most acts would kill for.

It’s been that way almost since Marillion formed in 1979. A leading light of the so-called neo-prog movement, the quintet took inspiration from early Genesis and Camel but crafted its own style. Racing ahead of IQ, Pendragon and fellow neo-prog names, Marillion — fronted by Derek William Dick, known as Fish — made its mark with Misplaced Childhood, its third album whose single “Kayleigh” raced up the charts. Follow-up Clutching At Straws, arguably an even stronger platter, strengthened the band’s following but saw Fish leave, to be replaced by Hogarth.

Though many die-hards still cry “no Fish, no Marillion,” Hogarth helped craft a new sound. Not since 1987 has the band echoed the sonic veneer of early Genesis. Indeed, each of its subsequent 14 albums has shed the neo-prog cloak in favor of something entirely different.

Progressive? Yes. But not in a way that formed Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer or Camel. Rather, in the true definition of the word. More at home with Radiohead or Talk Talk than Yes, modern Marillion embraces atmosphere, introspection and heartfelt emotion in their tireless sonic exploration.

Fusing Hogarth’s passionate delivery with Steve Rothery’s Gilmour-esque guitar gloss, and the foundation for some of the most adventurous pop is firmly in place.

Balancing such artistry is a shrewd business sense that took flight just prior to the This Strange Engine tour.

Lacking funds to take the tour stateside, Marillion found a solution when fan Jeff Pelletier suggested an inventive funding strategy. The online initiative raised $60,000, which funded the 1997 tour while planting the seed for a pre-order fan campaign for the next studio album.

About 12,000 fans signed up and made Anoraknophobia a reality.

Since then, Marillion has existed on its own terms, releasing album after album on its own label, Racket Records.

Prior to returning for another leg of its stateside tour, Hogarth took some to discuss the Marillion phenomenon with Classic Rock Revisited.

Lee: Hello, Steve. Or should I call you H?

Steve: I answer to both. I really do. Some people call me H; some people call me Steve. My mum and dad always call me Steve, so I’m still answering to that (laughs).

Lee: I think I speak for all North American Marillion fans in thanking you for bringing the tour stateside again after the first U.S. leg in 2016. What led you to return as part of the same tour?

Steve: Well, we were offered Cruise to the Edge, which happens at the end of January. And we thought being as we’re already going to be in America, maybe this would be a chance to play places we’ve never been to or, you know, been to but not for very long.

When we came to America in the past, we’d play LA, New York, Boston, but we’d never been to Texas and never played Florida. I mean, America is huge, obviously, but there are states we hadn’t been anywhere near. We thought we’re on the right side of the world, should we do a few more dates? Our agent managed to put together a few more.

Lee: And we’re grateful. I live in Dallas and have to book a flight to see you guys. I saw you at the Saban Theatre in LA in late 2016, just before F.E.A.R. (Fuck Everyone And Run) was released. A fantastic show, as I’m sure Cruise to the Edge will be. Congratulations on landing that gig: only Yes has higher billing.

Steve: Thank you. We’ve done it twice and I think it’s always going to be a good experience. The guys who promote the cruise are fans. I’ve met them before and they are really into what we do. That always helps. It’s a great privilege to be so high up on the bill. And Yes is an enormous name in the genre we’re in. So it’s really great.

Lee: Your position on the marquee speaks volumes to the passion Marillion fans share for the band. What about Marillion inspires such devotion? Only Rush, Dream Theater, Steven Wilson — and The Grateful Dead, of course — seem to inspire such dedication.

Steve: I just don’t know. What was it John Lennon said: “If we knew, we’d form another group and be managers.” (laughs)

Lee: Indeed.

Steve: Perhaps it’s the fact that our stuff’s very honest. A lot of people say, “This music’s been the soundtrack to my life,” or “Your words describe my life perfectly and some of the things I’ve been through” … (Hogarth moves to his computer) I got this email this morning. This is a strange thing to do during an interview, Lee, but this is quite typical of things we get…

(reading an email Hogarth received only hours before this interview)

“I know you’re probably inundated with messages all the time, but I’ll say this anyway. I’m a relatively new Marillion fan and I’ve been listening to your music for months and falling in love with your songs. I came across one that brought this to a new and entirely different level. That’s “Ocean Cloud.” It’s just so good, it aches, it hurts. That ache is my soul finding a little part of itself that it never knew.”

Lee: That’s it. That says it all.

Steve: Maybe that’s what did it: the fact that people can email us and say things like that. That answers your question better than I could manage to.

Lee: What makes me ache is some fans bought the single-disc version of Marbles, the one that lacks “Ocean Cloud.”

Steve: Well, what can you do? (laughs)

Lee: Let’s discuss the forthcoming dates. What can fans expect this time? Will the set be the same or similar to what we saw in LA almost two years ago, or will you change things up a bit?

Steve: It will be different. I haven’t got a set list in front of me. What did we play from F.E.A.R.?

Lee: “The New Kings,” to name just one.

Steve: Did we play anything else from the album?

Lee: Yes, but not a lot. If memory serves, that show came very shortly  before F.E.A.R. was released, just prior.

Steve: Yes.

Lee: Did you play “The Leavers,” perhaps?

Steve: I don’t think we did. Maybe we’ll have “The New Kings” in the new set and look at some others [songs] for people to hear with some of the earlier stuff. When we play England, we play a lot of newer material, but when we play these American dates, we’ll have a much broader sweep since so many [fans] haven’t seen us before.

We might play music from the first four albums: “Kayleigh,” “Lavender,” “Sugar Mice,” and maybe “Brave,” “Afraid of Sunlight” — those kinds of songs. Maybe we’ll have a broad sweep across the band’s catalog. That would make sense if we’re going to Dallas, for example. People just haven’t ever seen the band in many places. We’ll do something like that, not just focus on the past three years.

Lee: So fans can expect a different set than the one you performed at Royal Albert Hall?

Steve: Were you there?

Lee: If only!

Steve: I only ask because so many people traveled there. It seemed half the world was there. No, it won’t be that set list. It’ll be another set list entirely.

Lee: I understand Royal Albert Hall holds personal significance for you.

Steve: If you grow up in England, the Royal Albert Hall is the pinnacle. They have this event every year, The Proms, where they have classical concerts through the summer and traditionally end with the last night of the Proms and play [Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”], jingoistic imperialist stuff (laughs). No, they are good tunes, to be fair.

So it’s kind of woven into the idea of Englishness. Anyway, it came at an interesting time in my life, having just made an album [Sounds That Can’t Be Made] that examines Englishness and is somewhat critical of it. It was interesting to be in that cathedral of the English empire and be virulently criticizing it from the stage. I was waiting to be struck by lightning (laughs).

I was singing some of those songs, but ever since I was a young boy, Royal Albert Hall was the place to play: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton — all the greats played there. I didn’t want to drop dead never having played the Hall. Now I won’t have to, so that’s great.

Lee: When F.E.A.R. first dropped, listeners noted a certain anger not entirely present on previous Marillion albums, even more so than “Gaza” from Sounds That Can’t Be Made. Should they have been surprised? After all, it seemed as if much of the previous catalog was rooted more in human emotion and introspection than geopolitics.

Steve: I guess it’s probably just a case of growing up and becoming increasingly aware of what’s going on and how the world is functioning and railing a little bit at the injustice you’re seeing coming down the tube. At the same time, I remain a little bit cynical of the agenda of people running the media that give you that information.

There are so many heated debates that go on in pubs and bars, conflicting opinions, that have all been drawn from a newspaper or TV documentary. How do you know any of it is real?

A lot of the opinions people form are formed without really cross-checking the information at its source. I prefer to form my own opinion by talking to the people on the ground. When we were writing that song [“Gaza”], I hoped to get it right and not get it second- or third-hand from television or newspapers. I spoke to the people, looked them in the eye. It was very interesting to hear what they had to say. That altered what I said in the song.

I had to be so careful and not write a piece of nonsense and something I could stand by when the shit came by at me — and it did.

Lee: In that case, one might call Steve Hogarth fair and balanced.

Steve: As fair and balanced as I could be (laughs). I had to be fair and balanced to the point of neurosis when I wrote “Gaza.” I didn’t have to be so careful when I wrote F.E.A.R. because I am English. I had a go at my thing, my country, something I was intimate with and something I grew up with.

It was easier shooting from the hip because it was about the sense of disappointment and shame with my own country. What’s interesting is if I go to Spain and sing those songs, it’s like they kind of become Spanish. When I come to America, they sound like a criticism of America. That was never the intention. There is so much in those songs, they’re universal but it sounds like I’m having a go at wherever I am!

Lee: You’re touching on something I was going to point out. And it’s this: does day-to-day living change the way you view the songs you’re performing and consequently give audiences a different experience? I realize that song lyrics and subject matter don’t change, but even then, does life itself color the same music differently over time?

Steve: Definitely the same. For example, “The New Kings“ is a song about the bankers screwing the system and riding off into the sunset with millions of pounds to yachts in Monaco while taxpayers are left to sort it all out. That was something that happened in England, but it also happens in the U.S., France, Spain, etc., so it really resonated.

Lee: I want to move on to your music. Your label is continuing to re-release records from your back catalog this year, most notably the Brave remaster in 5.1. Are you seeing a resurgence in demand in the catalog, or has that ever waned for Marillion?

Steve: Well, it’s got as much to do with the corporate stuff, deciding that some of the back catalog they’ve got sold well and how to present it and repackage it. As much of it comes from the label as comes from us. We don’t call them first. “We want to make them better” is what we tell them: good-quality video and better packaging, so together those things get hatched out. These things are usually initiated by the label rather than the artist.

We got Steven Wilson to do the 5.1 of Brave and it sounded great. He’s a brilliant mixing engineer. He’s kind of become the go-to classic rock remixer.

Lee: Everything from Rush, Jethro Tull and Yes to Tears For Fears, you guys and his own stuff, as well. Don’t know how Steven Wilson finds the time.

Steve: It’s amazing what did for [Tears For Fears album] Songs From The Big Chair.

Lee: Lest we forget what he did for Misplaced Childhood!

Steve: Lest we forget Steven mixed about half of way back then. That was among his first outside projects when we asked him to mix the album. He mixed quite a lot on Marbles, as well, and that was the original release, not the re-release. We’ve had a relationship with Steven over the years, and we’ve always been very happy with what he did for us.

Lee: Aside from Steven’s involvement in in remixes, have you and he ever considered collaborating on a project outside the band?

Steve: No, not really. We’ve been so happy with [producer] Mike Hunter, we’ve worked with him for the last three or four albums. With each album, he seems to take each one to another level and he really understands us. We work in such a peculiar way with the writing. We jam for weeks and months before we start putting anything together.

Not a lot of people would have that kind of patience. To be honest, I mean Steven’s usually made three albums in the time it takes us to get one album together (laughs).

Lee: But those albums are entirely under your control and created at your own pace. I mean, Marillion pioneered the sort of crowd funding trend that’s pervaded music marketing these days.

Steve: We invented crowd funding thanks to an American called Jeff Pelletier. I don’t think he realized that. He found out we wanted to go on tour. We made an album called This Strange Engine and couldn’t afford to tour the U.S. This is because we were no longer with a major label, and the independent label at the time wasn’t going to give us the money so he said, “Put a note on the Internet,” on a notice board.

He said, “If anyone wants to see a tour, send money.” When I found out about it, he already had $20,000 in the bank. We were shocked. We almost fell over at that moment. That was the birth of crowd funding.

He underwrote the tour and we eventually did the tour after raising $60,000. After that, we were all thinking, wow, you. You know, we were shocked.

Lee: The possibilities of this new fundraising strategy probably raced through your minds.

Steve: Definitely. We were thinking about the possibilities. We put a few numbers together and pulled a little stunt where we persuaded the label to put a mail-back card in with an album that there’s another in the CD you can have. You only have to ask us for it. Overnight, we found out who our listeners were and had a data box. So suddenly, it was possible to send a message to 70,000 people for no money, which was impossible up until that point.

Lee: And then Marillion no longer had to rely on a label. You essentially bought your independence.

Steve: Yes. Not only that, but we ended up richer in the sense that of the money we have to spend making a record. We didn’t have some dumb A&R [artists and repertoire] man on the phone telling us to sound more like this or use this producer or that producer. We became free of any kind of interference and also became creatively free and financially free. So it was fantastic. We invented crowd funding. I think it’s even in Wikipedia. I even met a guy a guy who had to write a thesis on us for his final year at Oxford University.

Lee: It’s probably a no-brainer that the next Marillion album also will be crowd-funded.

Steve: I should think so. We did make one album called Somewhere Else where we didn’t go to anyone for any money because we didn’t need it and felt morally wrong to go to fans to ask for money when we didn’t need it. We disappointed so many people by not asking.

Lee: You can’t win!

Steve; We got to the point where we asked, what have we done wrong? I imagine we’ll crowd-fund the next one.

Lee: So you’re saying Marillion isn’t so rich that the follow-up to F.E.A.R. won’t be solely self-financed?

Steve: No, we definitely don’t have enough money to retire.

Lee: Have you guys talked about the next album and what it may look like?

Steve: No, we haven’t. We never do. You’d think that would make sense, wouldn’t you? It’s kind of futile in our case because of the way we write. We jam and write in the studio for days and weeks and months. We just jam, make a big noise. And then we listen through to all of it and throw it all in the bin. Apart from the odd little moments when we go, oh, that’s interesting, they become good starting points. Until we hear those interesting little accidents, none of us know the form the album will take.

Lee: So you never write on tour?

Steve: Yeah, we’ve never written anything on tour. It never happens.

Lee: What about you? Any Steve Hogarth solo releases planned for the near future? I really enjoyed Arc Light and Not The Weapon But The Hand. You and Richard Barbieri seem to have some unspoken bond when it comes to music.

Steve: I’ve been talking to Richard and we may do some live collaborations this year. Regarding solo studio work, I don’t know. I started forming a relationship … something interesting going on but I don’t want to go public yet.

Lee: You’ve piqued my curiosity.

Steve: Sorry about that (laughs).

Lee: No, that’s what keeps it interesting. As for the upcoming dates, we can’t wait to see you guys..

Steve: We can’t wait to come back. It’s always special, always magnificent. If you’re looking forward to it, we look forward to it.