According to Marillion’s latest press pack, this long-established Buckinghamshire-based band are one of the UK music scene’s best-kept secrets.
How much of a secret you can be when you’ve sold 15 million albums, released 17 studio albums, had eight UK top 10 albums, and played to more than three million people is debatable.
But I kind of understand the thinking behind that, not least as a lot of people out there still equate this band with their earliest material, when a certain Scot was at the helm.
As explored on this very blog fairly recently, former front-man Fish long ago established himself in his own right, and has gone from strength to strength in recent years.
And while he’s hit form in his latest recordings, it’s fair to say his old band-mates are also on a creative high, not least judging by heir 17th LP Sounds That Can’t Be Made.
In fact, the present line-up’s been unchanged for 25 years, this five-piece carving out something of a reputation for their live shows and studio craft, as an adoring, global fanbase will testify.
Steve Hogarth has fronted the band since Fish’s 1989 exit, the Aylesbury outfit’s lead vocalist and lyricist now having played on 13 albums alongside Mark Kelly (keyboards), Ian Mosley (drums), Steve Rothery (guitar) and my latest telephone victim Pete Trewavas (bass).
This is a reinvigorated band thriving on a constantly-redefined sound too, as Pete was quick to stress when I caught up with him during their Christmas tour rehearsals.
This is certainly a group that has forged into new territories with a succession of inventive albums, and this being Marillion, they display little regard to the vagaries of the musical fashion police or radio playlists.
Besides, you’ve got to love a band that played up to their unfashionable status by naming their 2001 album Anoraknophobia and printing t-shirts with the logo Marillion: Uncool as F*ck, their own spin on the Inspiral Carpets legendary logo.
Like their old cohort, Fish, they’ve taken independent business model to the next level too, developing a unique, intimate relationship with their fans.
And when we talk about the success of crowd-funding initiatives these days, it’s worth noting the impact this outfit made in that respect.
For Marillion led the way for all their peers in that respect – from sponsoring entire US tours to funding the recording of all their albums since Anoraknophobia.
That year, the band took the groundbreaking step of asking fans to pre-order an album 12 months before release, and 12,000 people signed up. The rest is music business history.
Many more such initiatives have followed, that innovative approach replicated in the studio along the way.
And as the band’s press would have it, ‘to those who already love Marillion, they’re something special; to everyone else they’re a love affair waiting to happen’.
But if this is a love affair, you could accuse Pete Trewavas of a little musical dalliance, the Marillion bassist also playing with Transatlantic, Kino and Edison’s Children, all successful in their own right.
He was also involved in tsunami charity project, Prog Aid, which may lead you to the conclusion that he’s only really comfortable with a guitar in his hand … or a bass … or playing keyboards.
But for the last 32 years, Pete’s primary motivation in the business has been his role in Marillion.
And you only have to see him talk about the band and their output on the official trailer for 2012’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made to see how committed he is to that cause.
That album still seems to have a life of its own two years on. I’m guessing there’s been a very good reaction from Marillion’s committed fan-base since its initial release?
“It’s been fantastic, with probably a much better reaction than we’d expected. It was quite a while in the making of and getting together, but even at that stage we played it to a few people and really felt we had something quite special with this album.
“The reaction from the fans when we’ve been on the road and from the media – and not just those we expected to get a good reaction from – seem to think it’s almost the start of a new era for Marillion.
“I don’t know quite how that’s going to pan out, but over the course of the campaign we’ve felt a rejuvenation process going on, leaving us in a very exciting place to be … after 30 years!”
You’ve been associated with Marillion since 1982, and that’s 30-plus years in itself. Did you ever think you’d still be doing all this at the age of 55?
“I don’t suppose I would have, but it’s good place to be. We’re in quite a relaxed frame of mind among ourselves, have a good business model, and all get on well, still loving music and doing what we’re doing.
“We try to do it for all the right reasons, have managed to get ourselves in a place where no one else is forcing our hand, and are able to dabble with what we want to.”
Starting an album with a 17-minute track (the epic Gaza) was a brave move, let alone something people may perceive as overtly political for a band once arguably more publicly associated with stilettoes in the snow.
“That was a bit of a worry, actually, but sometimes you need those things to put what you’re trying to do in context.
“We felt it was a cause that needed to be talked about, and that’s what we’re trying to do – get people engaged about a humanitarian issue.”
You highlighted the work of the Hoping Foundation too. That’s what it’s all about for you really, isn’t it? Highlighting how it’s kids who get caught up in these wars.
“Absolutely, it’s atrocious and there are many situations and causes around the world where you wonder how this is allowed to carry on. You can’t fix the world in a day, but …
“Steve was very reluctant to put pen to paper and say anything until we’d done a lot of research. He actually wanted to go over to Gaza, but was advised against it by Palestinians and Israelis alike.
“We met a lot of people on both sides who are trying to do good though. It’s not as clear-cut as some might perceive.
“The general public just want to try and get on, and ensure a safe life for their children, all around the world, regardless of what’s going on around them.”
I put it to Pete that Marillion in 2014 seem to be very much a ‘between other projects’ type band, not least with all the band being family men.
Pete, married with two grown-up sons, replied: “When you’ve been together as friends and business partners for this many years, you have to be able to be lenient with each other.
“But there’s no real reason for any of us to throw our toys out of the pram and say we’re leaving.
“Time is precious and you have to use it wisely, and that goes for our private lives and the career paths we like to dabble into.”
So is that how it is these days – lots of scrambling through diaries trying to find dates when you’re all available.
“It’s not quite that bad! The common love and bond between us is the music of Marillion, and the fact that we’re so creative together.
“After all the good will and faith around the world from fans in all we do, our name and good fortune we’ve had along the way, we’d be foolish to throw that all away.”
There seems to be a special chemistry there when you do get together.
“There’s a strange thing that happens when we’re in a room together, being creative, and it takes on its own identity, the sum being greater than the parts.”
This year saw the band embark on a Latin America tour and a return to the studio. So where are we up to with album no. 18?
“We’re in a good place. We’re a band that create in quite an organic, haphazard way, sometimes only getting together in twos and threes.
“When there’s five of us together we like to jam and create whatever comes to mind. There’s a filtration process then, picking out all the bits we’re really interested in and deciding what to do with them.
“Over a period of months you realise this fits perfectly with that. At the moment we have a lot of ideas, and next year we’ll put it all together and arrange the songs.
“Last year we did the finishing process at Real World. We went there with all the ideas we had and a few songs arranged.
“Although we’ve got our own studio, at a residential studio like Real World you’ve everything at your disposal and everyone is together 24-7.
“That gives you twice as many hours in the day where everyone’s thinking about music all that time.
“Life gets in the way sometimes, so we cut out all the commuting and family time and pour all our efforts into Marillion. And that provides the catalyst.”
They have some big shows coming too, and right before Christmas.
“Yes, it’s our European Christmas tour, with the UK leg first, and we all enjoy the performance element. We all picked up instruments because we wanted to perform.
“Writing is great, and if you’re a creative force you’re never going to stop creating. But being on the road is fantastic, especially around Christmas. For the last few years we’ve done tours in November, but not this time.”
What will we get on these shows, song-wise – a mix across the albums?
“Yes. A bit of a party, with most of it light. We’re rehearsing at the moment and it’s going to be a great show.”
Are you still happy to play the odd track from the Fish-era albums that made your name?
“There was a reluctance when Steve first joined, although there was a necessity then, without so much material.
“For a few albums we’ve focused on what we’re doing now, but there’s no harm in a nod to our history, because we’ve had a great history and should be proud of that.”
I believe Fish is doing his own Misplaced Childhood 30th anniversary tour next year?
“I believe so. I don’t know too much about that, but his last album was a very good album, well produced, with a lot of good people working on it, which always helps.”
While there are fresh influences, I can still hear a little of that early Peter Gabriel sound in there.
“I think certain things become part of you, and certain influences from your younger days are going to stay with you.
“The Peter Gabriel era and genre of music when we were learning our craft was a very strong influence, and a lot of people have drawn on it since.”
I gather you’re up to around 15 million album sales now, with eight of those albums making the UK top 10, and have played gigs to more than three million people. That’s some going.
“I lose count, but it would be indecent to count them all.”
It must also help having such a loyal fan-base out there.
“One of the things that keeps us creative, active and retains that spark, is knowing there’s a real reason for doing it.”
That in itself wouldn’t be enough though, and I get the impression the band were truly fired up about the finished product when the last album came out.
“And we’re very lucky that we’re all good friends and have such a good time. One of the advantages of going away from Marillion and doing something on your own – putting a toe in another pond – is that you realise how hard and difficult this business could be.
“It’s hard for Marillion too, but we do have a cushion, particularly compared to bands just starting now in this recession.”
As with Fish, you’re big on the art-work aspect as part of the package. Are you a vinyl junkie? I can’t see you being happy with a cracked jewel case.
“I’ll possibly disappoint you by admitting I’ll listen on anything now. But I was always one to avidly read the sleeves of albums and work out who did what.
“I also liked to listen to music in the dark when I was younger, but don’t think people allow themselves the time to do that these days.”
Going back to those formative years, I see you were born in Middlesbrough but moved to Aylesbury when you were around five. How did that come about?
“My father got a better job. He worked for the council and got a job in Aylesbury as the deputy town clerk, a step up the ladder, in a more affluent direction.
A fateful move as it turned out, not least with all these musical minds coming together in those parts.
“I know, and I’m very lucky. One of the great things about living in Aylesbury when I was a kid was that we had Friars, the longest-running rock club, so I was able to go and see bands like The Police and Dire Straits there.
“Before my time, Genesis and Pink Floyd played there, and I saw Manfred Mann, Gillan, Mott the Hoople, all sorts – getting to see people doing what I wanted to do.”
That’s interesting – some may have had you down for a love of prog rock from the start, but that’s not necessarily the case then.
“I started out as a big fan of The Beatles, and in the ‘60s went from the Brit Pop of that era through to the start of progressive music, Freeman on the radio and so on.”
Do I detect from your surname a bit of Cornish heritage there too?
“Yes. My grandfather was born in Mousehole – pirate country! He had a house there so we’d go down every summer. A beautiful part of the world, and I still have a distant cousin near Lands End.”
“That’s pretty impressive really. We’re all very proud of that, and it’s good to be.”
So come on then – word has it that Marillion invented crowd-funding in 2001. Is that right?
“Yes, we did, asking our fans if they would contribute to that project. The thinking behind it was that the record company interest we had was not really sufficient to make the kind of album we wanted to.
“We’d made a couple of albums where we’d co-produced with our engineer and that time wanted to do something bigger and better. If we weren’t careful we would have been on a downward spiral.
“We thought of going to a bank and of asking a couple of people if they’d privately fund it, but Mark Kelly said, ‘Why don’t we ask the fans to donate what they think they could?’
“That was borne out of a tour a few years earlier in America where we couldn’t go because our record company in America couldn’t afford to fund us – not wanting to risk losing money.
“Unbeknown to us at the time, one fan opened a bank account and asked for contributions to ensure he brought us over. He said he’d rather us play over there than fly to Europe to see us.
“That went on to raise $70,000, and he’d raised around $20,000 by the time we found out about it and took over the bank account.
“We promised everyone who donated $10 or so a special live CD, only just pressing enough. That was the start of us thinking that way.
“For years, if you’d wanted to see a band perform, you’d buy a ticket well in advance – so it was a leap, but it wasn’t unknown.
“There are now two or three big companies involved in that approach, and it’s great, because it really does empower people.
”When I first walked into record companies in the late ‘70s, there was a lot of money being sloshed around by record companies.
“People would wander into the office at around 11, go to lunch, come back for a little recovery, then go home, and you wondered sometimes how any work got done.
“You presumed there was a team in another office doing all the work. If you were working for any of the big four or five companies at the time your love of music was lashed out of you and you were moulded into what that company wanted you doing.
“That’s where the apathy came in. In the ’60s and ‘70s there was more enthusiasm, but by the ’80s that began to wane at those big companies, ultimately landing them in trouble.”
Finally, have you been on to the deed poll people with your reworked monicker, Sweet Pea Tremendous, yet?
“No! I’m not even quite sure where that name came from. Probably Steve Hogarth. It sounds like a Hogarthism!
“I can’t be doing with any of that though. I just like to keep my feet firmly on the ground.”
Marillion, with support from Luke Jackson, are at Manchester’s HMV Ritz on Wednesday, December 10, with tickets available from www.ticketline.co.uk
And for a writewyattuk feature and interview with former Marillion frontman Fish from September, head here.