The rise and rise of Marillion – the band that refuses to die
They’ve made it through drink, drugs and the departure of Derek Dick. Now, with the release of new album F.E.A.R., Marillion share their survival secrets
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.