While his old band remain a thriving concern – with 17 albums to the name – their former vocalist has since enjoyed a solo career spanning more than quarter of a century.
Fish now has 10 of his own studio albums behind him, feeling the latest, A Feast of Consequences, is his best yet.
And there’s a chance to witness his five-piece band in the UK and across Europe from now until Christmas.
My excuse for speaking to Fish was his return to Preston, Lancashire, for a show at the 53 Degrees university venue own he first frequented in the 1960s.
“It’s very strange to come back. My uncle came from Preston. I used to come every year when I was a kid, in the late ‘60s and the ’70s.
“I remember the very first service stations, thinking, ‘Wow – there’s a bridge over the motorway!’ It was the first time I’d ever been on a motorway.
“My uncle worked at a power station just the other side of the Ribble, and I remember walking across a rickety old bridge. That used to scare me!
“There were holes, with the planks rotten, and at seven years old, that was a big river!
“I remember buying shoes and going to the market to buy Supertramp’s Crime of the Century, paying £1.99 for the vinyl!
“My uncle, married to my mother’s sister, was a regimental sergeant major in the Highland Fusiliers. He was English, but served in a Scottish regiment.”
While you can date the 56-year-old’s love of music back to the 1960s, there was a defining ground-shift in April 1974, just days before his 16th birthday.
And for a singer whose voice has often been compared to Peter Gabriel, there’s no surprise that it involved that inspirational artist’s first band, Genesis.
“I saw Yes and Genesis within 48 hours at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall in 1975. Yes were on the Relayer tour and Genesis were on The Lamb tour.
“Those were the first gigs I was ever at, with tickets £1.25!”
I checked up on that after our chat, and found each band played two nights at that venue, right after each other, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway dates for Genesis having been rescheduled from the previous November after a hand injury for Steve Hackett.
Edinburgh-born Fish joined Marillion in 1981, the Aylesbury-based outfit hitting the big time with top-10 debut album Script for a Jester’s Tear two years later.
Major success followed, with top-10 hits in 1985 with Kayleigh and Lavender, then again in 1987 with Incommunicado. But a year later Fish went solo.
He’s followed his own path since, and although there was a six-year gap between 2007’s acclaimed 13th Star and his latest release, that wasn’t helped by a six-month enforced break after throat surgery.
But now the 56-year-old is back, enjoying a fair amount of critical acclaim, and more proud of A Feast of Consequences than perhaps anything else he’s brought out.
“There were the two notorious vocal operations, then disappearing on the road for 170 shows with the Fishheads Club tour, with questions over whether I could manage to do it again – put something together up there with the previous album.
“But we did it, and I think it’s up there with Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors, one of my best solo albums.
“I think as well that when you’re 56 and have come through a career with all its ups and downs – some quite extreme – to be able to deliver an album comparable to your first solo album is a nice feeling.
“There have been positive reviews across the board, especially in Europe. It’s been really gratifying to see.
“It was a very difficult period in 2008/09 with the vocal thing, and social media’s got its ups and downs.
“It’s great when you’re on a high and everyone’s saying how wonderful it is, but when you’re taking hits and after gigs there are comments about my voice not being the same, it can get quite depressing.”
Can you tell me more about those voice complications?
“The first vocal operation I had was at the end of 2008, after they discovered a cyst that had been there for more than two years while I’d been singing.
“It was the equivalent of a footballer playing with a stone in his boot, not knowing it’s there. The breath of relief after that blew down the house, you know!”
That’s had a major impact, and those thinking of the Fish of yore and his Marillion era may be surprised by his voice on the new album, not least on the beguiling Blind to the Beautiful, which brings to mind Del Amitri’s Justin Currie.
“It’s more that I’m singing in a range suited to my voice now. Back in the old days, on the first two Marillion albums especially, it was an untrained voice and I was singing in a falsetto that was not a natural part of my range.
“That’s why I developed so many problems by the late ‘80s. Even on this tour, there’s two or three songs we’re playing from 1983. And your voice changes a hell of a lot in that period.
“But we’ve sunk it down and it sounds better, so you’re able to find the richness and find the soul in it all.
“This isn’t the high jump. You try to express yourself and find the delivery from your voice and emotion in the song. And I’m lucky that the writers I’m working with these days appreciate that, and we gauge the keys.”
There are also the more rocking numbers on the latest album, and those which would clearly appeal to the Marillion fan-base – perhaps more what we might think trademark Fish. But he’s clearly moved on.
“Yes, a wee bit.”
A Feast of Consequences was a long time in the making. Will there be a similar gap before the next album follows?
“No, I’m planning to write my last album at the beginning of next year.”
Last album? Yes, we’ll come on to that. But for now, has he got anything pencilled in?
“Not at all. I’ve got ideas, but that’s the way I work on an album. I don’t get together with a bunch of guys in a room and say ‘OK, let’s write an album’.
“I say, ‘Right, this is what I’m kind of aiming for, this is the direction’, then I start to assimilate ideas.
“When I’m out on the road I’m thinking, taking photographs, reading, observing.
“I get a feel for things and know kind of roughly where the core idea is, and already know where that is for the next album.
“With A Feast of Consequences I remember sitting there in a Parisian café with Frank Usher and Foss Patterson way back in 2011.
“I said to them it’s an acoustic album, so we write everything from an acoustic perspective rather than relying on technology and cut, copying and pasting in the studio. We write songs, then we embellish them.
“That was even before Steve Vantsis came in the door. So when he came up, it was like ‘Don’t bring your computers. Bring your keyboard, bring your guitar, and this is where we start.
“And I think that’s why A Feast of Consequences is so special.”
The resultant album was released alongside a hardback book chock-full of artwork, a DVD, live footage, and more – somewhat typical of Fish’s attitude to recent changes in the music industry.
“This is a different era. Everybody talks downloads, but the bulk of my fan-base came with me through the ‘80s, and like that tangible product in their hand and the idea of opening up a sleeve, reading the lyrics, looking at the illustrations.
“You’ve got to give them room to play, and it was our artist, Mark Wilkinson, that came up with the idea of a 90-page hardback book with a deluxe version.
“It grew from there and it made sense. Yeah, we sell downloads, but if you look at that percentage compared to the deluxe version of this album it’s obvious the fans still want the physical version.
“I hate jewel cases. They’re cheaper, and they’re better than downloads, but at the end of the day, for those who can afford it, deluxe is the way they want to go forward.”
Is the collaboration with Mark and Julie Wilkinson your answer to those old glory days of vinyl gatefold cover art?
“Yes. We do vinyl as well, but again the model I use these days is very different.
“But this isn’t the ’80s anymore. You don’t have the box of fireworks that coincides with every release.
“I’m now going out on a 60-date tour of the UK and across Europe, promoting an album released a year ago. It’s still active, not a catalogue item by any means.
“We’ve got major radio stations in Holland, with a single out there and active in Germany, Denmark, Norway, and already a top-20 single in Poland. This is how you work it. It’s a slow burn.
“I like to compare independent artists like myself to Sioux Indians. The corporations are the big-time hunters coming out of the cities, shooting hundreds of buffaloes, taking away the carcasses lying in the field.
“We take them out one at a time, and when we take a beast down we make sure we use everything before we move on.
”Too many albums just go missing. If they don’t spark the firework box in the first instance, it’s like ‘Next!’
“That’s why I got tired of dealing with corporate labels. Because a lot of work goes into an album.
“When you’ve been working six years on one you don’t work it for six months, you keep it active as long as you can before it becomes a catalogue item.”
A Feast of Consequences was produced by Calum Malcolm, who has past links to The Blue Nile, Deacon Blue, The Go-Betweens, Orange Juice and Prefab Sprout, among others.
“Calum’s a brilliant producer, and understands how to get the best out of me. He also stands there between myself and the writers and balances all that out.
“It was his work with The Blue Nile that made me wake up to what he was doing.
“He’s been mixing material for me a while but it’s only the last two albums he’s produced. And the next album.”
As hinted at before, that next album will be his last one. At that point he plans to swap music for writing, most likely moving with his family to Germany.
But until then, he has plenty to do, and is still extensively touring, with the next shows at Durham Gala Theatre (September 29), Preston 53 Degrees (September 30) and Southampton The Brook (October 1).
Then there will be four shows in the Netherlands, the first of more than 40 dates in mainland Europe, then 13 more in the UK up to Christmas, ending on home soil on December 21 at Glasgow 02 ABC.
“Some of those were cancelled last time. My guitarist, Robin Boult, was ill with chicken pox for more than six weeks. So all the UK tour dates were moved towards the European dates.
“That’s why it’s such a long run at the end, but it’s something I’m looking forward to. It works really well and we’re all ready to go.”
“And there’s a good balance from the Marillion era to the solo material. I’m very aware that people want to be entertained. They don’t just want to hear a brand new album.
“Anyway, we’ve tried the set out, and there were no complaints.”
“No, but when I go out on the road and get up on stage, I know it is. I took Ibuprofen to keep my voice in order, but now take it to keep my knees in order!”
There’s been a wealth of material from those Marillion days right through to a very long solo career.
I take it there’s been a loyal fan-base there to see you through the more lean years?
I note the last album was available exclusively through your website. That seems to fit into your independent spirit.
“This is the thing. It’s a completely different industry. When I started there were no CDs. It was vinyl, and you sold a lot of vinyl.
“Then you had people with the ability to record the vinyl albums and suddenly those sales dropped, and the recording media sales went up.
“Then you had the ridiculous situation where the Sony corporation was saying ‘home taping is killing music’, yet at the same time were selling ferro-chrome cassettes.
“Those weren’t made to send a message to your grandmother in Australia. So as far as I’m concerned there was a lot of hypocrisy in all that.
“It’s all evolved, and a think a lot of the major record companies were hoisted by their own petard, becoming victims of their own greed.
“I think that’s why our model works. We’re small, we’re independent, and we make the most of what we’ve got.
“You’ve got to make the budgets balance, you can’t afford to be over-flamboyant, but at the same time you’ve got to be brave.
“You’ve got to be sure that what you’re doing is right, keeping the quality base up and ensuring you’re not abusing the fan-base by selling them not only shit, but expensive shit.
“I think that’s one of the reason why we’re here. You’ve got to respect your fan-base, and having social media at my disposal – especially Facebook – is a very important part of my armoury as far as promotion goes.”
Thinking of that fan-base, and getting back on to the forthcoming tour, are there a few hits you can’t bring yourself to perform these days?
“I don’t play Kayleigh, and haven’t for quite a while, although it’s seen as a greatest hit.
“When we were doing acoustic gigs, we asked, ‘Do you want to hear the pop song or the rock song? Nine times out of 10, they’d go for the rock.
“It’s a great song, I’m very proud of it, but I’m not really keen on playing it, not least because the person I wrote it about died of cancer a couple of years ago.”
It’s been more than a quarter of century since Fish left Marillion, but clearly us media types still hark back to that seven-year era. Not as if it bothers him too much.
“It’s a proud seven years, and I’m the same guy that was in that band. There wasn’t a metamorphosis that occurred in 1988.
“People can listen to the latest album and see the links, even though it’s more mature songwriting now.
So how long has your current band been with you?
“Months! It evolves all the time. The keyboard player, John Beck, joined from It Bites in May after Voss Patterson decided on a sabbatical.
“That said, we all still get on really well, and Voss is popping in for coffee tomorrow.
“As well as John Beck on keyboards and Robin Boult – who came back a couple of years ago – on guitar, there’s Steve Vantsis on bass, and Gavin Griffiths on drums. So we’re a five-piece these days.”
There were several day-jobs before Fish, real name Derek Dick, made his mark in the music business, from petrol pump attendant to gardener and forester.
That’s when he gained his nickname, supposedly spending so long wallowing in bathtubs. Is that still the case? Only it must be good for acoustics in there.
“Put it this way, when I’m on a big tour, one of my favourite things is to get a hot tub and a steam room on a day off. That for me is heaven.”
Fish has a reputation as a voracious reader too, and you may recall from way back the sleeve of Marillion’s Clutching at Straws depicted several of his favourite writers of the time, from Robert Burns and Dylan Thomas to Jack Kerouac and Truman Capote.
“I love words. That’s why I’m retiring in two years. I’m going to be writing books.”
A whole different chapter, so to speak.
There was also the legendary ‘Fish out of Marillion’ status in Viz, the man himself joining Billy the Fish at Fulchester United – as I was reminded by my former regional sports journalism colleague and rock fan Dave Seddon. But I don’t go on to that.
And of course there’s the acting, from playing himself in The Comic Strip Presents More Bad News in 1988 onwards.
Those roles have included The Bill, Rebus, Taggart and Snoddy for TV, and films such as Chasing the Deer, Quite Ugly One Morning, 9 Dead Gay Guys, and The Jacket. So is Fish still actively seeking acting work?
“Not as much. I don’t have the time. And as I always put myself forward for action stuff, with my knees those days as an action hero are numbered!
“I’d love to do more, but more for the experience of working on a film set.
“And in 2016, in all probability I’ll be calling it a day as a musician to become a writer and screenplay writer – something I’ve always wanted to do.
“I’ve a lot of ideas, but because of my commitments in the last 20 years I’ve never had time to sit down and put my mind to other stuff.
“That’s my next move, but I don’t think I’ll ever completely give up music. I love the stage and I think there will always be the call of the stage, but it’d be more going out to do acoustic stuff and maybe a weekend here and a weekend there.
“And again, in all probability, within two years I’m going to be moving to Germany.”
His planned move to Germany was mentioned during the Scottish referendum debate, with Fish – a major supporter of independence and a card-carrying member of the SNP in the past – declining to campaign, saying it would be ‘hypocritical’ in the circumstances.
But this Edinburgh-born, Dalkeith-raised performer, who’s lived all bar eight of his 56 years in his home nation, was still drawn in when I mentioned it.
“I do believe it’s important and it’s exciting in this day and age after general elections in the UK with 60 per cent turn-outs and less, to be looking at around an 85 per cent turn-out.
“What really excites me – forgetting the issue of the ‘yes or no’ – is that people in pubs, cafes, colleges and the street are engaging in politics.
“Whichever side you‘re on, I find that really invigorating. What really got to me in recent years was the apathy and ‘what’s the point’ attitude.
“There is a point to what’s going to happen. And I’ve watched the debates on telly and found them extremely interesting.”
Is there a correlation between that and the independent movement in music we were discussing before?
“Yeah. That’s what we’re looking at. There’s so much wastage. Not just in Scotland either.
“I remember Preston way back, when the mills were there, and it was a bustling town.
“I’ve been to the North-West and the North-East. You go to places like Hull and Stockton-on-Tees, then look at Preston and Blackburn. It’s sad the way they’ve been run down.
“Yet I’ve a friend who’s a record producer in London telling me he’s going to have to move out as he can’t afford to live down there.
“We need a redistribution of wealth. It’s all very well talking about high-speed rail lines, but we need something else.
“A lot of communities in the North of England need serious Government investment to get re-invigorated. Give people hope – treat them like people again!”
Finally, we get on to football (so if you don’t want to know all about that, look away now), neatly side-stepping Fulchester United and getting on to his beloved Hibernian.
“Oh … don’t go there!”
Are you still a regular at Easter Road?
“I used to be a regular, but I’ve seen Karlsruher SC more lately, and I’m quite pleased with how they’re doing in the Bundesliga 2 at the moment.
“It’s just the whole British football thing. I was watching England last night and they were bad.
“You’ve got the same problem – too many foreign players coming into the game. As for the Scotland team, I don’t know anyone who’s in that team now. They all play in the Championship or whatever.
“When you see the money that’s getting spent on players in this day and age it really sticks in my craw. How can a single individual be worth that much money?
“I love football and still enjoy watching it. And I’ll always be a Hibs fan, but I’ve just become a bit despondent with the way it’s been managed. And the Scottish game as a whole is …ugh.”
I confess to Fish that I can’t get my head around Scottish football at the moment. It’s only early days, but when we spoke Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Hamilton Academical were topping the Premier, with Hearts, Hibs and Rangers in the second-flight. That can’t be right, can it?
“Again, it’s the money and financial management of these places. Hearts were £20 odd million in debt and then suddenly had no debt and have a happening team again.
“Meanwhile, Hibs looked after their money and now sit in the same division. Then you have Rangers looking for a £5m investment or they’re going to go bust, and you just think, this is all screwed up!
“When I was a kid and used to go and see Hibs, everyone came from Leith, the players went to school together and were brought up together.
“We brought in our first foreign player from Norway, and it was like, ‘Wow!’ That’s what it’s lost. That sense of community and working class.
“And it’s so expensive to go to a game now. How can a father take two children to a game now when they end up playing £70 with a pizza and a Bovril, the car parking charges and all the rest of it.
“Then you see players not playing for the crest. It’s just a wage packet.
“I’ll be watching Scotland against Germany this weekend though, although I’m caught between a rock and a hard place with a German partner and a German daughter!”
This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature first published in the Lancashire Evening Post on Thursday, September 25, 2014. For the original online version, head here.
And for more details about Fish and his forthcoming tour, head here.