The BIG Über Rock Interview: Mark Kelly (Marillion) Print E-mail
Written by DJ Astrocreep   
Sunday, 26 November 2017 04:00

Just prior to their recent appearance at the Manchester Academy, I got the chance to sit down with Marillion keyboard player Mark Kelly to get his thoughts on the changing touring climate for bands, their writing process, the impact of Brexit and other such things.


I started off by recalling that Marillion were one of the first bands to start using crowdfunding, for their 2001 tour and then the album, ‘Anoraknophobia’.  I wondered if he, and the band, had ever envisaged it having such a profound effect on the music business and how bands finance themselves…


Marillion Anoraknophobia


No, not at all. We just did it for ourselves. It wasn't something that we thought would catch on in quite the way it did, you know, obviously like Kickstarter and PledgeMusic and everybody coming along after we did it. No, at the time, it was just something that we saw as a way to free ourselves from having to sign another record contract.


It's a bit strange that, despite you still enjoying some commercial success, you're not really getting mainstream media coverage. Do you think there's any reasoning behind that?


Well, to be honest, the whole number one single thing, it was only physical sales, which these days doesn't really count for much. Everybody's looking at streaming charts, that's really where the media are focused now. Artists like Ed Sheeran and everybody else. We've never really been a mainstream band, you know. We've always managed to keep out of the spotlight. Well, apart from five minutes in 1985 when we had a big hit single (*smiles*) and then we quickly disappeared again, but as far as most people are concerned, like our fans, it's not like that. That's alright though, we're like a cult band, but a cult band that's been around for 30-odd years! (*laughs*)


Is there another album planned in the near future?


We have, but we haven't started it yet. These days, we tend to, rather than do an album, tour and go, 'Right, let's start another one', it makes sense to spread the touring over a few years and keep playing the songs from our most recent album longer than just one short tour, you know? It takes a lot of effort and work to come up with something that we feel is good enough and original enough after having made 18 albums, to write a bunch more songs. So, we give ourselves the time, I feel the best thing to do is not rush into it and make another album straight away. We'll probably start it next year and aim to have something by 2020 (*laughs*).


Is there any particular process behind the songwriting? Is it jamming, and you pick the best bits, or...?


Yeah, I think we've always done that. I would say what's changed recently, in the last five or so years, working with Mike Hunter, the producer that we've been working with for the last few albums. He's got really good at understanding how to get the best out of the band. We'll do jams and record it. Nowadays, of course, we record everything multitrack, in the best quality we can, so that everything we do is usable. If we want to use it, we can. Quite often, we will take ideas that we've jammed and say we've got ten things that are really good, then Mike will say, 'Well, let's look at this idea, learn what you played' and we play to a click track, as well, so that when we come to edit things, the tempos match. This means we can start to play an idea, but once you've done a couple of minutes of this, just see what else happens, go in any direction you like. That way, the ideas that we think are good get developed into new things, which can then be added into the song, and so that process can take months, because you want to leave something for a while, then come back to it once it feels fresh again. That's how we basically work! Steve (Hogarth - vocalist since 1989) write pretty much all the lyrics and again it takes him time to come up with lyrics that we feel are good enough and inspired with, subject matter and all the rest of it. We're not expecting to make an album more than every three or four years really, these days, so we probably don't have that many more albums to make really, when you think about it (*laughs*). That's alright though, we're enjoying ourselves, and that's good!


The last album, 'FEAR', was quite political in its lyrics at times - is that a particular way you see yourselves moving forward?


Marillion FEAR


Not necessarily. There was quite a lot of politics, I suppose, in the last album's lyrics, and even the previous one, with songs like 'Gaza'. The approach is always from the humanistic point of view, rather than trying to make a political statement or take sides with or against anybody. When you see the things that are going on in the world, it's hard not to be either disturbed or worried about what's happening. As a writer, Steve feels compelled to write what he feels strongly about, and we're not gonna say no to that. It would be difficult to make a song if certain members of the band felt uncomfortable with what the message was, but that doesn't happen, so it's fine.


Talking briefly about politics, do you think with the likes of Brexit happening, do you think that's gonna have a big impact on touring in future?


That's a good question. Yeah, it's a worry for us. We all feel that we should have stayed in the European Union, but that's from a personal point of view, because of things like touring, as you can imagine and the fact that we're quite familiar and happy with our European cousins, as we spend a lot of time there. I can understand that there's a lot of people out there feeling pissed off and left out and unhappy by the way things are going, and they're blaming Europe, blaming immigration, trying to find somebody else to blame, basically. It was as much a big Fuck You to the establishment really from a lot of people saying this, rather than let's leave, but I think it's probably going to end up being worse for many of the people that voted for it. It doesn't seem like there's much we can do about that, though.


Do you think it will affect the work that you do with the PPL as well? (Phonographic Performance Limited, commonly known as PPL, is a UK-based music licensing company and performance rights organisation)


PPL do do a lot of international collections and that's been increasing over the years. I can't imagine that's going to make any difference, really, from that point of view, but certainly touring as a band, the idea of having to go back to how it used to be, with equipment lists and that kind of thing, it will be a bloody nightmare, to be honest, but we'll see.


You played a few years ago with Travis at the Isle of Wight festival…


My god, that was ages ago! (*laughs*) 12 years ago I think it was, yeah!


Was it quite different playing with them rather than as you would with Marillion?


Yeah, completely different. It was a nice change at the time. It was just because of my friendship with Adam Wakeman, who was their keyboard player at the time but couldn't do it, because he was working with Ozzy Osbourne. He and someone else between them suggested me, so it was just a bit of fun! It was not a particularly demanding role playing keyboards for Travis, it's more of an add-on, rather than a main part of the band, which was good as I only had a few days to learn the bloody songs (*all laugh*).


Is there a particular gig or festival appearance that sticks in your head as probably the best gig I've ever played?



It's funny you should ask that, but it did feel like that at the Royal Albert Hall a few weeks ago. I mean, it was just amazing. I'm not usually one to - 'You know, that gig was great' - I tend to be fairly level, but that was a real standout gig. Over time, it might change - I may look back in ten years’ time and wonder if that was the best gig we've ever done. I couldn't say what was the best gig we've ever done, but for me, it was certainly way up there, in the top five at least.


Do you think there's much of a difference between, say, a big festival appearance, or a more intimate gig like tonight - which even with 2,500 people is small in comparison?


It's interesting. We're experimenting with different styles of gigs, I suppose. Probably because of the Royal Albert Hall, we like the idea of maybe playing a few more 'posh' gigs. I wouldn't call the (Manchester) Academy a posh gig, although it's always a great audience here and a great atmosphere, it's a typical club - all standing and sticky floors and all the rest of it. Last night we played the (London) Palladium, which again is a very posh venue, with the Royal box, and all that bollocks, but the set that we chose to play was more of a stand up set, we put in some really old songs, on purpose, to make it different to the Royal Albert Hall. I think that set will probably go down much better tonight. It went down really well, but you could tell with a stand-up audience, it would be...


Singing along, that kind of thing?


Exactly! The energy level would be better. I think, to answer your question, different gigs have different qualities. I think, in future, what we're looking to do is a couple of prestige gigs every year, like the Royal Albert Hall, the Zénith in Paris, that kind of thing, which certainly raises the band's profile and makes people perceive the band to be bigger, but to also keep the existing fans that like the club gigs, places like here, or the Forum in London, keep those gigs as well and just try different things!


Do you have a personal preference between the two (types of gigs)?


It's nice to play somewhere like the Royal Albert Hall, I have to say, it's nice and enjoyable from the artist point of view and a great atmosphere, so if you can have both of those things, great! There's nothing worse than, for example, years ago, we played in the Playhouse in Oxford, it was a sit-down audience and the energy level was so low, it just felt like you're trying to put it out there, but the whole energy on stage comes down as well. You feel like you're not really delivering as you should.


Almost like you're feeding off the energy of the crowd?


Yeah, and it can work with a sit-down audience. Maybe it's where we are now, with the enthusiasm for the band and the fact that the last album was so well received, we are selling more tickets. We're sold out tonight, which was more than we had last time, which was more than we had the time before. The Royal Albert Hall is around 5000 people, the Palladium is around 2,500, so clearly people are wanting to see us play, which is great, and so I'm not complaining!


Do you have a song that you've been involved in writing that means a lot more to you than some of the others?


I was really pleased with the comments from the fans and reviews that we've had of the last album, where people are saying that the keyboards are a key part of this album, or their sound, and the rest of it. I suppose I did come up with a lot of the music for this last album, and ‘El Dorado’ is probably the one that stands out for me in that sense. I really enjoyed playing it, so yeah, that's the one I'd pick! (*laughs*)


Is that the one you love playing live as well then?


It's enjoyable to play, yeah. It's weird, some songs can be great to listen to and other songs can be great to play, but it's not necessarily the same thing. I suppose Jazz is the kind of thing that falls into the category of fun to play, but not so much fun to listen to.


You're a little more centre stage with the big singles, ‘Kayleigh’ and ‘Lavender’, especially so with ‘Lavender’, which just has that small part as the heartbeat to the song right through the verses. Is this what you prefer, or are you happier blending in?


I'm happy with however we can make the song sound best. Regardless of who comes up with the ideas. We always make room for each other and just try to do what's best for the song really. It does happen where I come up with something, and Steve (Rothery) ends up playing it on guitar, or vice versa.


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