"The middle of the day was Marillion. Mornings and evenings DeeExpus." What happened when Mark Kelly joined North East prog rockers DeeExpus

(Image credit: Neil Davis)

Back in 2011 North Eastern prog rockers DeeExpus only went and persuaded Marillion keyboard player Mark Kelly to join their ranks for second album The King Of Number 33. Prog spoke to them back then to get the inside story...

A chance pub reunion in their native north-east England between old school friends Andy Ditchfield and Tony Wright spawned the creation of DeeExpus. With multi-instrumentalist Ditchfield undertaking most of the heavy-lifting, ably abetted by vocalist Wright, the pair’s endeavours resulted in 2008’s impressive debut album Halfway Home. To their surprise, an invitation to Poland to record their second live show as a DVD soon followed. Subsequently, a handful of further live shows included the revered Rites Of Spring Festival in the US in 2010.

But 2012 will see DeeExpus graduate to the next level with second album The King Of Number 33, which showcases some superb material, including the 26-minute title track. It also features both Marillion keyboardist Mark Kelly and 80s popster Nik Kershaw. While the involvement of the former is an obvious attraction, the latter’s inclusion may raise eyebrows. A fan of Kershaw’s “career resurrection” as he terms it, Ditchfield professes a particular love of Kershaw’s 1999 album 15 Minutes but clearly has a soft spot for Kershaw’s chart successes in the previous decade. Indeed, when Ditchfield returned to RoSFest last year to guest with Tinyfish, he played a solo acoustic version of Kershaw’s Wouldn’t It Be Good at an aftershow party. 


(Image credit: Absolute)

Ditchfield initially utilised the same methodology which had served DeeExpus so well previously. “I set out to produce something better than the last one, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it. The first album was Tony and I with guest musicians. We presumed this one was going the same way, but then we had more band members who wanted to contribute and with the addition of Mark it has turned into more of a band effort than Halfway Home.” After the programmed drums of the debut, then-Touchstone drummer Henry Rogers is another addition to the DeeExpus line up.

However, the birth of King… was not without its complications. Indeed, Ditchfield confesses that with progress at times proving laborious he came close to walking away from the album, before Kelly became involved. “Mark was the kick I needed on more than one occasion.” 

The involvement of both Kelly and Kershaw stems from a conversation between Ditchfield and internet radio prog DJ Frans Keylard, when the former revealed that they would constitute his ideal guests for King…. Keylard then proceeded to work his contact book, although Kelly admits to having been slow to get involved at first, as his focus at the beginning of 2010 was the Dutch Marillion Weekend. 

While his Marillion bandmates have pursued assorted extracurricular activities (most successfully bassist Pete Trewavas in Transatlantic and guitarist Steve Rothery’s The Wishing Tree), Kelly has previously limited himself to producing a Jump album (1995’s The Myth Of Independence) and playing with Porcupine Tree sideman John Wesley as well as live with – ahem – Travis. Hearing some DeeExpus material soon convinced him to get involved. “It was the chemistry worked with the music; I really just clicked with it.” 

Kelly’s involvement grew as Ditchfield asked him to review further material and while the keyboardist does not appear on the whole album, he features extensively, playing on the moving Maybe September, the superb title track and Memo (with Kershaw on lead vocals). “There’s been a lot of input in terms of parts from Mark which has been an absolute godsend,” Ditchfield enthuses. “Just about everything that Mark sent me was absolutely brilliant.”

“It was interesting for me because Andy had actually done a lot of keyboard parts with really nice chord progressions and melodies – but not so good that I didn’t think I could improve on them!” Kelly laughs. He also relished reviewing someone else’s keyboards work in contrast with his role within Marillion. “When you are so close to something it’s really hard to know sometimes when you’ve got it right, but hearing work which somebody else has done was really refreshing and enjoyable.”

Kelly does not see his role in DeeExpus as being confined simply to playing on the new album, although unsurprisingly concedes that Marillion takes priority. “But we’ve been working on the latest Marillion album whilst I was working with DeeExpus,” he explains. ”I was just managing my time so I would do a few hours in the mornings and evenings and a bit of weekend work on DeeExpus. The middle of the day was Marillion and some days when I am not needed at the studio for whatever reason I would ring Andy.” 

With numerous professional musicians increasingly dividing their time between different bands and projects, Kelly believes that it is only touring that will present scheduling clashes around which DeeExpus will need to work. “If you plan enough in advance you can work around these things and in Marillion we are not new to the idea that you have to be a bit flexible around individual members’ outside projects. Everybody in Marillion recognises the value of doing other things. It’s just taken me a bit longer than the rest of them to do it!” 

The centrepiece of King… is the 26-minute conceptual title track. There is a degree of irony perhaps in Kelly appearing on a weighty concept piece given that Marillion have eschewed such epic multi-part concept compositions since 1994’s Brave

“We’ve never shied away from doing other concept stuff deliberately,” Kelly retorts. “We’ve done long-ish tracks – not in the realms of 26 minutes, but more 15 or 16 minutes. Once you’ve got a subject that has got enough meat that you can write lyrics to justify a track that long, then it’s fairly easy to do.”

After joking that his aim was simply to make King… longer than Milliontown by Frost* – it is by 7 seconds – Ditchfield concurs: “For me it’s all about being inspired, and having this fantastic story [means] you’re more inclined to write stuff round it than literally sitting with a blank piece of paper and wondering what the hell to write about to make it that length. If Tony hadn’t come up with the concept and the lyrics then we would have done a series of other tracks.”

As it is, while King… is the album’s central focus, the four other tracks on the album are equally memorable. Potent opener Me & My Downfall proves that lyrically DeeExpus are prepared to cover diverse bases, taking torture and Guantanamo Bay as its starting point. Ditchfield downplays closing track Memo as “basically a radio friendly loud pop song”, for which he had originally planned to sing lead vocals himself before ensnaring Nik Kershaw. 


(Image credit: Neil Davis)

There’s also one instrumental, the strangely titled Marty & The Magic Moose. “That was an experiment to see what I could do with one riff I had in 5/4,” Ditchfield explains. “I wanted to try and develop it as much as I could. I wrote it really to feel like a kid’s bedtime story for some bizarre reason, hence the little speaking part at the beginning.” Indeed the boy’s voice at the start of Marty is provided by Kelly’s four-year-old son.

Last but by no means least, Maybe September is the track that, according to Ditchfield, won Kelly over to DeeExpus originally. Ditchfield provided the title and tasked Wright with writing the lyrics, which movingly recount his memories of his
late father. 

“My dad had died four or five months before and I don’t think I had properly gone through the grieving process. ‘September’ doesn’t refer so much to the month as to more the mid to late period of life – that’s the time when my dad was most content. He had to retire early through ill health at about 50 and filled his life doing things that he had always wanted to do. I became really close to him in that time. The first half of the lyric is a thank you to him – he was always there to support me and all these crazy dreams that I had being a rock star when I was 17 or 18. He and my mam would always give me just enough rope to hang myself but would always be just underneath to catch me when I burnt my fingers.” 

Given the indubitable quality of King Of Number 33, those youthful dreams may not prove so farfetched after all. 

Nick Shilton

Nick Shilton has written extensively for Prog since its launch in 2009 and prior to that freelanced for various music magazines including Classic Rock. Since 2019 he has also run Kingmaker Publishing, which to date has published two acclaimed biographies of Genesis as well as Marillion keyboardist Mark Kelly’s autobiography, and Kingmaker Management (looking after the careers of various bands including Big Big Train). Nick started his career as a finance lawyer in London and Paris before founding a leading international recruitment business and has previously also run a record label.