The rise and rise of Marillion – the band that refuses to die

Line-up photo of Marillion, all dressed in black, in 2016

Marillion might not be far off their 40th anniversary, but they have no intention of going soft in their dotage. FEAR (Fuck Everyone And Run) is the title of their latest album, and it’s as angry and politically charged as anything they’ve ever done. It’s both lyrically sharp and their most musically dense and rock-symphonic to date, with passages as shimmeringly lovely as the words are lacerating. It’s as creative as the Marillion operation itself: for years now they’ve been without a label, their records instead paid for via a fan-funded system pioneered by keyboard player Mark Kelly.

It’s a far cry from Marillion’s early days, when they were derided as prog Johnny-come-latelys; 80s misfits who weren’t invited to join any of the era’s clubs, whether goth, metal, new romantic or pop.

And yet they were the ones to survive. Indeed, they’re one of very few bands to successfully carve out a second career following the loss of their original singer. And they’ve done it their way, even if the 37-year journey hasn’t exactly been smooth.

It’s testament to the individual contributions of the five current members – Kelly, guitarist Steve Rothery, bassist Pete Trewavas, drummer Ian Mosley and vocalist Steve Hogarth – and their shared chemistry that they’ve managed to survive, despite peeved record labels, fractious Scottish frontmen and everything else.

Mark Kelly is simultaneously the wild one, the tough one who might be called upon to have a quiet word in a band member’s ear, the negative one (“The running joke is that I hate everything we do”) and the self-critical one. “I never finish anything because I get bored with it or start to not like it,” he says, at his home in Eynsham, north-west of Oxford. “I’m like: ‘Oh, that’s shit. No, I’m shit!’”

As well as being the joker, he’s also the one who rescued Marillion’s fortunes via crowdfunding.

Did you share a house with Pete Trewavas and Steve Rothery?

Yes, in Aylesbury. We were like the prog Monkees. Actually, when I joined the band, in winter eighty‑one, I lived in a house with Fish in Aston Clinton. It was terrible – we had no money, no heating. I remember getting up one morning to use the toilet and it was frozen, so I thought, “I’ll pee on it and that’ll melt the ice.” I flushed it and of course the ice didn’t melt and it overflowed.

Beyond your musical contribution, what’s your role in the band?

I was definitely at the forefront of the internet thing. I guess I’m the risk-taker; I like to do new things. I’m also the hatchet man – if anybody needs sacking, apparently I’m the person to do it.

Were you the one who ousted Fish?

I’m afraid I was. I didn’t sack him, but he left because of my opposition to him. Musically and creatively, we were struggling to write an album together [1987’s Clutching At Straws]. He wasn’t enjoying what we were doing music-wise and we weren’t enjoying his lyrics. The whole thing came to a head over something trivial, some pieces of band artwork – we argued over who should get them. He thought he should get them all! Basically, I stood up to him, he didn’t like it, he got the hump and resigned.

Fish was the principal caner in the band. Did you struggle to keep up?

None of us were saints. We certainly liked a good drink and there were a fair amount of drugs floating around in those days. The problem was Fish never wanted to stop, and that put a wedge between us. You’d get to five am and be like, “I think I’m gonna go to bed now.” And he’d be like [burly Scottish roar], “Ah, ya fuckin’ lightweight!”

Steve Hogarth seems to have steadied the ship.

We’ve had a good run, but we’ve had our fallings-out. The closest we came to splitting up was around [the last album 2012’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made]. We went to Portugal to do some writing and fell out rather dramatically. I said something in a confrontational and upsetting way to someone else and… well, none of us spoke for about six months. When people ask what’s the secret of us staying together, I say ‘forgiveness’.

A lot of your albums seem to have been made under pressure: EMI threatening to drop you after 1984’s Fugazi, Fish quitting, leaving EMI and then Castle…

It shows how precarious the life of a musician is, and how out of the ordinary a thirty-five-year career is. One of the reasons we’re still together is because we’re successful enough that we can still make a living, but we’re not so successful that we can afford to do nothing.

You’re no longer beholden to a record company, but are you beholden to your fans?

When we started the whole crowdfunding/pre‑order thing, we tried to make it clear that fans wouldn’t be able to tell us what sort of music to make. Obviously there’s a business contract between us – they’ve given us money so we have to deliver an album – but actually they don’t want us to make the same album; they don’t want us to make another Misplaced Childhood [1985’s No.1 album]. So we don’t feel beholden in a creative way.

Is Marillion like a family?

A strangely dysfunctional family. We’re like a band of brothers. People say: “How can you work with the same four people for so long?” But we still have fun and most of the time we get along. Steve’s a great guitarist. H is a great singer who comes up with great vocal melodies… It would be hard to find anybody other than those four guys that I’d want to work with.

The South Yorkshire-born Steve Rothery, who lives in Whitchurch, a village north of Aylesbury, is the longest-serving member, having joined the band in 1979 when they were still called Silmarillion. He’s evolved from a guitar fiend in awe of Dave Gilmour, Steve Hackett and Jeff Beck into a highly regarded instrumentalist in his own right. He might be a 57-year-old father of two grown-up children, but as much as anyone in the band, Marillion is his baby.

What’s the secret of the band’s longevity?

Just an incredible creative chemistry, and the fact that we can spend ninety per cent of our lives together without wanting to murder each other!

The bust-up that led to Fish leaving is a matter of record. Is there much tension now?

We had a meltdown during the making of the last album, but no, we get on well. We’re at an age where we don’t know how much longer we can do it, so we want to make the best music we can make and have a bloody good time doing it.

Who’s the mediator?

Probably Ian. We can get a bit snappy because life’s like that, and there are the additional pressures of life and various divorces… just trying to function as one-fifth of a band. But we know each other’s eccentricities and make allowances.

Lead guitarists are generally flamboyant but you’re more quiet and reflective. Is that fair?

I suppose so. It depends why you get into music in the first place. Some do it because they love music; others want to get laid and party twenty-four-seven. We’re more about the music. We had our parties and our rock’n’roll days early on. I’m not saying we’re boring now! But you have to realise that too much partying stops you being able to do your gig.

What were The Pop Star Years like for you?

I was glad to see the back of them. I didn’t feel comfortable being recognised in Sainsbury’s or having people come round my house, delivering cryptic notes. Fame has such a seductive power for a lot of people, but I’m about as far away as it’s possible to get from that.

Do you think Marillion should be bigger?

I think there’s a huge potential audience for what we do, but it’s just one of those things. Maybe it’s the brand name – they think of Kayleigh and Lavender and Fish and, strangely, that we’re a Scottish heavy metal band… But we’re fortunate in that we have this passionate fanbase who believe in what we do. They’ve given us an independence that’s almost unheard of.

You’re one of the few bands who have managed to enjoy two separate careers with two different frontmen.

Yeah. Some people pine for the Fish years, but if Fish had never left, the most we would have made would have been two more albums and then we’d have imploded spectacularly. We’re all pretty grounded. Apart from Mark, who’s barking mad.

Middlesborough-born Pete Trewavas is the only member still living in Aylesbury, the town where the band formed. He recalls the band’s pop star moment in the mid-80s, in the wake of Kayleigh and Misplaced Childhood, when two German fans made a pilgrimage to his parents’ home, only to be invited in for a cup of coffee. But for the musically promiscuous bassist – his extracurricular projects include Transatlantic and Edison’s Children – it’s all about the music.

You’ve sold around fifteen million albums – you’d think you’d all be living in gated mansions by now.

You would, wouldn’t you? A lot of money was squandered over the years on recording, and managers and agents taking vast sums. We all liked to party, too, back in the early eighties. When Kayleigh was kicking off there was always a free bar so, as you can imagine, we did party a bit.

Who was the ladies’ man?

[Laughs] I don’t think any of us were. I was married quite early on and so was Steve Rothery. We’re still with them, which is a feat, although it’s probably more to do with our wives than us. Because it’s tough being away and coming back to someone. We used to tour for a long time. We still do.

How have Marillion endured for so long?

That’s easy: we’re tremendously good friends. And contrary to what you hear in our music, we have a lot of fun. People probably think our music’s gloomy, and this album is about foreboding. But you’d be surprised that writing it all, we did have quite a good laugh.

Is it you that brings the gloom?

No, I’m quite upbeat. I’ll make a few throwaway comments and little witticisms… We’re all very good at wandering off, so if someone mentions something, we’ll have a conversation about that.

Do you remember the last bust-up?

I do, actually. We’ve been through a lot of disappointments and also elated moments where fantastic things happen. We’re all passionate about what we do, even at our old age, and that can get a bit much, where everyone else is wrong and you’re right about your particular bit of music or lyric and you really want to fight your cause.

Are you amazed to still be doing this after thirty-four years?

I’m always amazed. I spent years thinking, “I wonder what I’m going to do when this all finishes?” I never quite believed it. I tend to err on the side of caution. When I joined Marillion, I was always thinking, “How long is this gonna last?”

Has there been a single standout moment?

We had an amazing moment when we played in Rio de Janeiro with Steve H, at this festival in a massive stadium to 180,000 people. Everybody was singing along. Even we didn’t know how big we were. There’s nothing better than being on stage and everybody telling you how great you are. I’ve heard people say a song saved their life or got them through a difficult time. That’s what it’s all about: connecting.

Steve Hogarth on stage in 2016

Steve Hogarth on stage in 2016

Steve Hogarth is one of the few singers – Bernard Sumner and David Gilmour would be two others – who know what it’s like to take over from a near-mythical frontman. He’s not without hubris – he tells Classic Rock about the Steve H doll currently doing the rounds among fans, complete with trademark black hair, white shirt and long black coat – but it’s tempered with humour and a self-debunking streak. He becomes heated when discussing his lyrics for FEAR, but then they are uncannily prescient. From his home near Silverstone, he considers the band dynamic that he had to negotiate when he joined in 1989.

Mark talked about forgiveness within the band. Has there been a lot to forgive?

There’s always something. The creative process will set you against one another. The potential for differences of opinion is colossal. You’ve got to employ a lot of tact and try not to take something deeply personal to you too personally. Mark and I are very passionate so we go head-to-head a lot. Then again, Rothers is the most stubborn man I’ve come across in my life.

The new album is very current, with its references to ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ and songs filled with a sense of impending doom.

I coined the terms ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ about five years ago, and I finished a lot of the lyrics three years back. I’ve been waiting for the band to finish the music. It was almost like I had a premonition – it’s spooky reading the lyrics with my July 2016 head on, and how much they resonate with what’s happened. It was all there a long time before the album was finished.

How apocalyptic a landscape are you envisioning on the album?

I don’t think I was envisioning a landscape or a worst case. I was talking about how I feel about what I see around me and also how I feel about this thing I can’t quite put into words about this approaching storm. I’m saying I’m becoming harder to live with because you can’t see into my head, because if you could, you’d understand why I don’t sleep at night.

Marillion were reviled as the antithesis of punk, but the level of anger on the album is actually quite punk.

Well, it’s a protest album. I’d like to think a bit more thought went into the lyrics than a lot of punk ones. ‘God save the queen/The fascist regime’ isn’t necessarily something that’s had a lot of thought put into it.

Surely it takes a smart mind to come up with a pithy slogan that endures for forty years?

Well, yeah, top marks to Johnny [Rotten] for that, then.

Shouldn’t rock lyrics be pithy slogans that can be reduced to wall graffiti?

They should be true. What’s the point of a slogan if it’s just bollocks? I’d rather truth that isn’t catchy than catchy fiction.

How do the Fish and H eras of Marillion differ?

I think I’m more limp-wristed than Derek [Dick]. People often say to me, ‘What kind of music do you make?” and I say, “If Radiohead and Pink Floyd had a baby that was in touch with its feminine side…”

How upset do you get by websites such as the one that asked if you’d destroyed Marillion?

I think if I was to read it, it would probably upset me. I’m sure you can find ten people to make a good argument for that, and I’m sure you could find ten people who could make a good argument for Marillion not being any good till I showed up.

Did you feel the need to ‘diva it up’ when you joined, to try to match Fish?

I’m a natural diva anyway. Always was, even in my first band, The Europeans. But I can tell you, hand on heart, I’ve never ripped Fish off or had Fish anywhere in my consciousness whenever I made any decisions about what I’m going to do on or off stage. To be honest, I never ever think about Derek William Dick, apart from when I do interviews. He really could never have existed.

You’re very different from the other four. Has that made it work?

Maybe. Maybe there’s tension there. If I was more like the other four, we might be a bit whiter and a bit duller. I’d like to feel that I brought a black influence to this band. We’re still one of the whitest bands in the world, but not quite as white as Genesis or Pink Floyd.

It hasn’t been easy for Marillion, has it?

Most bands exist in a permanent state of, “Oh my God, it’s all about to fall apart!” Or, “Oh shit, now so-and-so’s got a smack addiction, or this bloke’s hanged himself.” Look at The Pretenders, for fuck’s sake. Ride that train and come out of it in one piece. I think there’s something inherent in being in a band that attracts fairly colourful characters who are not gonna have straightforward lives.

But there’s no one in the band as extreme as, say, an Ian Curtis, which presumably is why you’re all still here?

Yeah. There’s one or two very bright people in Marillion that, when our backs were to the wall, went, “We’ll embrace the internet. We’ll get everybody to pay for this next album before we’ve recorded it.” Whenever the record label lost interest, I’d get hysterical, whereas there are characters in this band who go, “We can do this.”

So without you they might have lacked an edge, but without them you might have gone off the rails?

Who’s to say? But certainly without me they’d have sounded a lot less like me.

At 63, Ian Mosley is the eldest member by six years – old enough to have had a life before joining Marillion (he played with Curved Air and Steve Hackett). In fact, he was the last to join the Fish version of the band, in 1984. As such, he’s the wise, calming force. Based in Tring, he recalls being the latest in the group’s long and Spinal Tap-ish line of drummers.

Do you remember day one?

Yeah. They treated me with too much respect – they knew me from the Steve Hackett band and I seemed to them to be professional, whereas they were more like a real band. I wanted to get things done and they were like, “Oh, let’s get a drink.” Pete was the workhorse. And Mark was totally mad – he’d be the one on fireworks night who instead of lighting a banger would tie thirty bangers to a rocket just to see what happened.

I got to know Fish very well – I ended up being his best man at his first wedding. He’d often have to pop into hospital to have things repaired. But he wasn’t the only one. I remember a good night on the Fugazi tour, having a drinking competition that ended in carnage. I was sharing a room with Fish, and I came in and saw blood down the wall.

The ones likely to get into conflict are Mark and Steve H. We did a gig in Germany one Christmas and for an encore, Steve H suggested Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. And Mark said: “You can fuck off!” We nearly split up over that…

Have there been any punch-ups?

I can’t remember any life-threatening moments. When we were doing Clutching At Straws, there was an altercation between Fish and Steve Rothery. Fish got aggressive towards Steve, and Steve said: “I don’t think this can ever be the same again.” He was right.

The new album is full of foreboding. But does the future look bright for Marillion?

At the moment the band is very happy. We all get on great. The older you get, the more forgiving you are about people’s quirks. We’re in a good place.

FEAR (Fuck Everyone And Run) is available on September 9. Steve Rothery’s Postcards From The Road book is available from www.postcardsfromtheroad.co

The Marillion Quiz

Childhood Memories: Marillion

Marillion Q&A: "We're going on and on and on, until somebody dies"