The 1970s represented the halcyon days for progressive rock. Back then, bands like Genesis, Rush, ELP, Pink Floyd, Yes, and others regularly churned out ambitious concept albums rife with 20-minute songs, superior musicianship, and a dizzying array of time signatures.
Born out of this era is the English band Marillion. Formed in 1979, the band has for more three decades routinely pushed the musical envelope. One of the UK music scene's best kept secrets, Marillion has consistently bucked popular trends and ignored often nasty media criticism with one overarching goal in mind: to make the music that it wants to make.
The band's latest release and seventeenth studio album, Sounds That Can't Be Made, has just been released, and the band is about to embark on a tour of the United Kingdom. I recently sat down with lead singer Steve Hogarth to talk about the new album, the state of the music industry, and how the Internet now allows bands to reach their fans directly. The following is an excerpt of that conversation.
To watch the entire video, click here.
PS: Is Sounds That Can't Be Made more of a departure or evolution from the band's most recent efforts?
SH: Well, hopefully it's a departure and an evolution in the sense that we've kind of evolved by departing--to date, anyway. We've made a conscious effort, at least by our own standards, not to stay the same from one album to the next. People will sometimes say, "Why haven't you split up yet?" What splits bands up is two things really: a lack of forgiveness on a personal level; we're quite forgiving people. More importantly, if you feel you're in a rut creatively then at some point you're going to have to run away from it. We're in the fortunate position of creatively being able to do what we like. We have the freedom to take on new forms of inspiration and go to new places musically. I have total freedom lyrically to write about anything I like. No one in the band tells me what to write and not write.
We take each album as an opportunity to redefine ourselves. For instance, the opening track on this album, "Gaza" is a foray into Arabic melodies and Arabic rhythms. It would be a simplification to say that it's Arabic because it's moving around musically all of the time. But we've not really been in that area before.
PS: The album's first track, "Gaza", has an epic feel to it. Did the band make a concerted effort to write about Palestine and the situation in the Middle East?
SH: I'm not entirely sure how it came together. I had started writing words about Gaza and the situation there. The more I've read and heard about the situation in Gaza, the more I felt that someone, that I, should open my big mouth and say something. The subject matter has made it the major headache of my career, really. I feel a great weight of responsibility on me for saying what I've said. It also had to be an accurate representation of the place so I spent my weekends Skyping Gazans and Israelis to try and paint a true feeling of life there and to hear points of view from both sides.
We have a lot of trust out there amongst our fans. If I open my mouth and say something, they don't necessarily agree with it, but they'll go and check it out and get online and open some newspapers. Why is Steve H suddenly going on about this place? What's really going on there? What's upsetting him?
What I'm hoping this song will do is raise awareness of what's going on in Gaza, what Gazans are having to endure. Then, beyond that, perhaps people will get into reading about its history. It's not an anti-Jewish song. I must stress that. I was careful not to say anything that condemns the state of Israel although I've already started getting some pretty angry criticism.
The song simply outlines the stark reality of daily life in that prison-of-a-city and says "People shouldn't have to live like this."
Gaza is a situation that's worsening year-on year and the world needs to get in there and do something about it because it's becoming a breeding ground for hatred and we all need to pour a whole lot of positivity into that place. I genuinely and passionately believe that empathy and caring can move mountains. Governments seem to look at everything from a point of view of mutual suspicion. Well, we all know where that gets us. It gets us here.
PS: Over the years, Marillion has utilized the Internet to directly reach its fans, in some cases to successfully finance the making of new albums. Why aren't more bands doing this type of thing?
SH: Well, they must be crazy because it is the way to go. It's not an easy path to tread; it involves you doing a lot more than being a musician which, of course, most musicians don't want to do. Most people get into a band so they don't have to do mundane work. I think mundane work is going to be with you at some point in your life whether you like it or not.
We have the Americans really to thank for the whole Internet thing that we embraced. The Americans brought it to us. Some of our Americans fans started it all off and raised a bit of money to go and play in the USA back in 1997. This was the first I knew about it. They already had $60,000 in a bank account somewhere. They would give us a big bag of money to go and tour America. I certainly had no idea. Most people in 1997 in Europe thought that the Internet was some weird thing that people did in sheds if they had a computer. They really didn't imagine that it would become part of everyday life in the way that it has - seemingly in no time at all.
We were fortunate that the American tour fund woke us up. Whatever this Internet thing was, we had better get on to it. Secondly, our fans would put their money where their hearts and mouths were--no problem. It woke us up to the fact that we really didn't need a record label. The realization that we could ask our fans to buy a record we hadn't recorded yet was really the key that unlocked it.
PS: What's your take on the state of the music industry? Its future?
SH: It's obviously changing almost by the second. I've watched all of the major labels come crashing down. I've watched them moving out of their shiny high-rise buildings in London and taking up evermore modest premises. It's definitely changing.
CD sales are in free fall. Our CDs sales are in free fall just the same. People are getting to listen to their music for free. They're starting to expect that. No one going's to pay for anything they don't have to, are they? If cars were free, you'd probably go get a free one, wouldn't you?
Music piracy isn't legal but no one's going to arrest you for it. You can't blame people for stealing music. From my own perception, if you're in a new band and you're trying to forge a career it's like it exists on two levels. You can do it in-house which is what we're doing. And then there's the Simon Cowell TV talent show "instant fame" thing. I can see a time in the future when it becomes more like subscription and licensing; you'll maybe pay for a license and then all the music and entertainment content will be free as part of the package. You don't have to buy and own music anymore. Let's hope they find a way of automatically paying a royalty to the artists who create what you hear - that's the tricky bit. Complicated, but perhaps no harder than automating the congestion charging system in London. They managed that alright..
PS: Who inspires you as an artist?
SH: I don't know if I am inspired that much by artists anymore. Neil Armstrong inspired me. Nelson Mandela inspires me--people who put missions ahead of their own well-being. People who have agendas beyond their own egos are my inspiration.
If you had asked me a few years ago, I'd have told you that The Blue Nile is a huge inspiration and their singer Paul Buchanan. I would have said Paddy McAloon, Mike Scott, John Lennon and David Bowie, of course. It's very hard to pick them out. I love Joni Mitchell and great wordsmiths.
PS: Are there any artists with whom you'd like to work?
SH: I'd love to sing a backing vocal for Peter Gabriel even if he didn't credit me. I'd love to put a little ghost of a thing above his voice. That would be lovely. I don't know why but it would. I feel the same about Sting. I'd love to sing a backing vocal on a Sting track. It's weird how few artists mention Sting and pull him out but he's such a brilliant talent. And, most of all, I'd like to sing with Massive Attack. I'd drop everything right now to do that!