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Progressive Rock Interviews

Marillion

Interviewed by Steve Alspach
Interview with Steve Rothery of Marillion From 2004
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2004 Year Book Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

So you're on tour right now (October 2004) and how's it going?
Fine! We actually have a break. We start the next leg of the tour with a few shows in London, then across Europe, then to Mexico City for a couple of concerts, then to the U.S.  

MSJ: Hmm. Mexico City, of all places!
Yeah, we did quite well there, oddly enough. We've played there to about seven thousand people - a couple of times, actually. We don't know the how or why, but for whatever reason we've had quite a following there.
MSJ: The Rush in Rio DVD seems to indicate that progressive is big in South America and Central America.
I think it's because radio play isn't quite as formatted - it's a bit more independent there, maybe. There's a bit more freedom, so we get more airplay there than in different parts of the world.
MSJ: I read in "Separated Out" that you're from the Midlands in Yorkshire.
Yeah, I was born in South Yorkshire which is like a mining community. We moved to North Yorkshire when I was seven, in a little fishing town called Whitby.
MSJ: And there's a town there called Rotherham. Any link to your lineage?
Right, that's from South Yorkshire, and there's a river called river Rother, which is where Rotherham and Rothery comes from. I suppose if you go back far enough it's probably someone who lived on the river or worked by the river.
MSJ: I noticed in the book "Separated Out" that most of the band is in their mid-forties. At that age how is life on the road? Not as wild and partying as it used to be?
No, we've never really been that "rock and roll without abandon." To be doing it for as long as we've been doing it one has to establish some sort of balance or equilibrium where if you party too hard it affects your ability to do your best. It's fun to have a party every now and then, but playing to your audience has to be your top priority.
MSJ: Did you think back when you started the band that 23 years down the road the band would be going as strong as ever?
Well, you never really think about things in those terms when you start out. You have your immediate future and…put it this way: if you knew then what you know now you'd do certain things differently, that's for sure (laughs). I think that anybody goes into a band with the idea of a twenty- or twenty-five year career is incredibly fortunate.
MSJ: Okay, a few questions about Marbles. I get the sense from listening to the album that you, as a band, pulled out all the stops to make your magnum opus. Is that what you set out for?
I know what you mean. It's just sometimes the way things come together with the record, either the songs or the atmosphere - the vibe that a record has. Or even a record that has a very strong identity like the artwork that gives it a very coherent feel as a package. There wasn't any feel when we were writing the album that this is going to be such a landmark, but it felt like it was going to be a great collection of songs. And once it came together with the artwork and it achieved its own identity. Once you're making a record there's all these different stages where you can mess it up. It's so easy to have an idea for song and then mess it up in so many different ways - not catching it in the right performance or getting it wrong in the mix, or even mastering the record, finishing it with something that doesn't really achieve its potential. The great thing about Marbles is that those songs have pretty much achieved their potential on the record.

MSJ: Marbles have gotten some good reviews here, how has it been received in the U.K. press?
All around Europe - not just the UK - we've had great reviews, both for the album and for the first part of the tour, so everything's very positive. We had two top twenty singles in the UK, one of which went number 8. Although we still struggle for radio play on the national stations, on the regional stations we get a lot of support. You can't help but get the feeling that something has turned the corner and that we've pushed our profile back up. It's been at least five, six years. We (Marillion) are really the label these days, so we do deals with other distributors or licensing companies in different countries, but we're the people in control. So when it comes to promoting the record, we usually decide how much money is going to be spent and where it's going to be spent. It's given us more control with the record which has helped the profile of the band.
MSJ: "The Invisible Man" was a rather dark way to start the album!
It's quite a challenging work, and it's one of my favorite tracks on the record. We always want to challenge people's preconceptions of what they're going to get, and I think "The Invisible Man" is a really strong way of doing that.
MSJ: "Ocean Cloud" - how did the band find out about that Ocean Rowing Society?
It was Steve (Hogarth)'s lyric. It was something that he made a note of about rowers and various attempts to do trans-Atlantic crossings. It's the idea of someone pushing themselves to the limit, really, being driven to endure such hardships and such solitude. It seemed like a great idea for a song. We even talked at one point about the whole album based on that idea, but it's such a great story to tell, really.
MSJ: Who came up with marbles as a theme?
Marbles was originally a poem that Steve wrote about childhood and playing with marbles as a child. I suppose it ties in with nostalgia and going back to your childhood - figuratively speaking, I suppose. The album originally wasn't completed as "This is a 'Marbles" album where it had to fit in with any concept or theme, but we had this lyric that ended up being four separate sections or interludes that we thought would give the album a lot of coherence, really. A lot of things on the album, like "Ocean Cloud," are about being driven, or like "Invisible Man," someone who is on the edge - kind of extremes of mental anguish or suffering, I suppose. The whole idea of "losing your marbles," or your sanity - it kind of makes sense.
MSJ: The Marbles interludes seem to act as "okay, we've given you a bit of music, now here's an interlude to take a break, step back…
Yes, in concert we do the second Marbles piece with a guitar solo, so it's a bit longer.
MSJ: For any of the gear-heads, I have to ask: what kind of guitars do you have on tour?
I mainly use Levinson Blades, like a stratocaster-type guitar with single coils and a blade humbucker. I also use a Blade telecaster. Amps, a GrooveTubes trio 275 with a G2 processor and a 2290 cabinet, like a Leslie effect. A box thing that I used on the album is called AdreniLinn - Roger Linn, the guy who designed the original Linn drum machine, designed a kind of modulation box. A few noises on the album are really the guitar that you wouldn't think came from it. The opening of "Invisible Man" and some of the softer sounds on "Drilling Holes" utilize that box, and that's most of what I'm using. (Note: Steve also used a Steinberger and an acoustic 6-string at the Chicago show.)
MSJ: Do you have any sort of practice or playing schedule, or do you just pick things up when the moment strikes?
Well, when recording or touring, you're playing a lot anyway. It really depends - I'd be playing a lot if I was writing. I hate to just practice - I'm not that disciplined. I'd rather try and be creative than practice my chops, really. It's more interesting for me to come up with something fresh and new than concentrate on out and out technique.
MSJ: I dabble at the guitar a bit, and I pretty much feel the same way.
You can do a whole bunch of fast-and-flash runs but you have to ask "what am I doing it for?" Is it just to impress other musicians, because it gets to a certain point where it just stops becoming music. At the end of the day, the thing about the guitar is that it's such an emotional instrument, and I'm sure that people would much rather hear a guitar if it's played with emotion and feeling than just racing up and down the fret-board. Sometimes that can work, but so much of the time it just becomes self-indulgent.
MSJ: So, what are you listening to these days?
Recently I got the Finn Brothers album. I really rate Crowded House, and I think Neil Finn is a fantastic songwriter. Hmm…you try to find things that are interesting to you that people recommend or you hear from the radio. Sigur Ros is another band that I quite like. Coldplay is a good band that I like, especially that first album. Other than that, you go back to things that you always like, like Pink Floyd or Joni Mitchell. I'm a big Joni Mitchell fan.
MSJ: Really?
Yeah, especially the earlier stuff. Another one I like is an English folk singer named Kate Rusby.  

MSJ: Getting back to Joni Mitchell, "Hejira" is a personal favorite. I don't really understand the open tunings she does, though.
I really like her lyrics, and I really like the chords that she uses. I think she's one of the great talents. I haven't been blown away by anything recently, but I think she's a very talented songwriter. Some of her early records are so good I think it's scary.
MSJ: I'm sure you're busy with the tour and all, but are their any other side projects that you have going on?
I've been doing some more work with Hannah Stobart - she's not Stobart anymore since she got married - on the Wishing Tree album. I hope to do some more work with her after the tour. I also have a wealth of material that I've recorded over the years with other musicians. We have a three month break at the end of this tour so I hope to find the time to follow up on that when we finish the tour.
MSJ: Will you be releasing any CDs or DVDs of the Marbles tour?
Yes, we've scheduled a DVD release of one of the previous London shows from the Astoria. It's being mixed by Mike Hunter who mastered Marbles. And it should be out by Christmas.  

MSJ: So put that on your Christmas list! Anyway, I was going through the back catalogue and was wondering if there's anything from the previous albums that really stands out over time?
There are a few that, in one, have achieved the song's potential. I think that "The Great Escape" and "Afraid of Sunlight" - you have those moments. I'm proud of all the records - I think there's a sense of consistency that a lot of artists lack. I think that we've come up with a lot of great tracks like "Estonia." So I'm, really proud of all we've managed to accomplish.
MSJ: As well you should be!
Yeah! (laughs).
MSJ: I've pretty much tapped out the entire back catalogue of yours and now there's nothing to do but wait for the next release.
Well, we'll try to make it less than three years. We have been talking about the possibility of doing a series of EPs. Hopefully the first one would be ready say sometime next summer. Nothing definite but a probability. We'd like to be able to achieve the kind of momentum that we've achieved with this record.
MSJ: As a cricket fan, I have to ask: what's with the MIDI-cricket bat that Steve uses?
Well, again we're pioneers. When Steve first joined we were using MIDI gloves, which were these white gloves with microswitches on the fingertips which send information to a box which transferred the switch information to MIDI notes by way of a radio pack so you could trigger samples from his fingertips. We used the gloves for a few tours but they became more and more unreliable, so we put the same idea into a cricket bat. The bat has 10 microswitches and the MIDI transmitters, all in a hollowed out cricket bat. Steve can use it to trigger ten different nodes, depending on what song we're playing. It's easier than having a keyboard slung around your neck which can be incredibly naff. It's a curious thing. It's a great thing when it works, but occasionally you might get a few wrong notes, but that's rare. It actually works quite well!
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