Interviews Mark Kelly (Marillion)

Published on 4th April 2020

Mark Kelly


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Marillion’s debut album from 1983, Script for a Jester’s Tear, is the latest album from the band to get the deluxe edition reissue treatment (to be released in April 2020), and Mark Kelly recently spoke with TPA’s Leo Trimming about it. Mark talks about his memories of making the album, the split with Fish and Steve Hogarth joining, Kelly’s own long-planned solo album, his view on whether music and politics mix… and the rather non-musical reason which led to him leaving Chemical Alice to join Marillion!

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Hi Mark. I’ve received the new Script for a Jester’s Tear deluxe edition and have to say it looks and sounds fantastic. What are your memories of recording the album?

Oh God! Funnily enough, it’s like your childhood memories in a way as it was so long ago, but for certain periods of your life you have very vivid memories of it because it’s the first time you do something or it’s a very exciting thing. I think the recording of Script… and that whole early period of the band falls into that category for me. I’ve got lots of very fond memories of those times. I was very excited about making an album in a real recording studio. The whole process was very enjoyable for me and I felt like we made an album we were proud of… so happy days really.

I’ll do my ‘fanboy’ bit now! I got that album the day it came out. In fact, I got the Market Square Heroes 12” around my 18th birthday, so you’ve been the soundtrack of my adult life almost literally. I was so excited when that album came out and there was such an excitement around the band. I’m sure you remember playing Top of the Pops on TV for the first time with Garden Party?

Oh Yeah!

That same night Marillion flew down to South Wales to play a gig late that night after appearing on Top of the Pops. Do you remember?

Erm… no, I don’t.

The gig didn’t start until about 11:00pm. You may not recall it as you were all clearly elated after your debut on Top of the Pops and I think you were all quite… ‘refreshed’ as I recall!

(Laughing) That’s one way of putting it!

… especially your drummer!

Really! If it was Garden Party it wasn’t Mick, was it? Mick had gone by then.

No, it was Andy Ward.

Well, being quite ‘refreshed’ was rather his problem at the time. I don’t know what he’s like these days.

I had heard similarly, but to be fair I have heard he’s OK these days.

To be fair, what I will say about Andy, at the time we were sort of horrified by the amount of drinking that he did, but if you scroll forward a few years he probably would have fitted right in! It’s certainly not a slur on his character to say he had a fondness for the drink because by the mid to late-’80s so did everybody in the band.

After being in a big band like Camel for a few years you could say he had a head start on you all.

I think that’s what it was – we were just at different stages in our careers – put it that way!

You started out in the band Chemical Alice. What attracted you to leave them for Marillion?

I’ve told this story a few times, but not sure I’ve told it in its entirety much before… because there was a personal reason. The Chemical Alice singer had recently split with his girlfriend and I was having a … a ‘thing’ with his ex-girlfriend. It was an awkward situation, shall we say?! He didn’t know about it, but it would have made the atmosphere between us very difficult cos it wasn’t a split he wanted. Just by chance, Marillion were supporting us at a gig. The Chemical Alice guitarist said that I should watch them because he thought I would like them. So I did, and ended up joining them. But it was like getting out of a situation, thinking ‘I could join Marillion instead’, and the girlfriend was encouraging me to get out of the scene because it was awkward for both of us. (Laughter)

So there you go, that’s the true story. I was really impressed with Marillion and their whole approach. They seemed so professional to me – they clearly wanted to be successful. Their jobs were really just to bring some money in, whereas the Chemical Alice guys had sort of careers – music wasn’t really something they were going to do as a career.

Looking back at Script… now – with this release I listened to it with fresh ears. To me, it clearly has that progressive slant, but hearing it again I was surprised to hear how ‘spiky’ and ‘edgy’ it sounded at times – there was quite an attitude to it. What do you think of it now?

Marillion - Script For A Jester’s Tear - Deluxe Edition

We felt that at the time, whilst people were comparing us to Genesis we felt we were quite different to those bands of the early ’70s because we had that influence of New Wave and the punk thing. We felt we had a bit more of an edge to us. Certainly the lyrics were more… real. Fish was singing about real lives. It wasn’t Tolkien and stuff – so we felt that set us apart. It’s more obvious now that we had a bit of that newer influence, and the producer Nick Tauber came from a punk/New Wave background, producing Stiff Little Fingers and Toyah Wilcox. At the time we thought of them almost as ‘pop’ acts, but there was certainly some of Nick [Tauber] and Simon’s [Hanhart] influence in the sound. Although in hindsight Steve Rothery was unhappy with the guitar sounds because they were a bit too spiky sounding and edgy for him. At that time we didn’t know as much about what we wanted. It was our first time really in a proper decent studio. Script… was the first time where we had a chance to make an album and we were finding our feet. I think looking back now it’s hard to listen with fresh ears, but it sounds ‘of its time’, as you would expect. For me, it’s got an atmosphere and a cohesiveness about it. It sounds like a complete work. At the time we were REALLY happy with it – very proud of it.

You should be. I think it’s stood the test of time and takes me right back to my late teenage years. Bringing it forward – In the band, Steve Rothery has his own band, Steve Hogarth has his solo shows and Pete Trewavas is in a few projects. You played on a Deexpus Project album [King of Number 33] in 2011. Do you have any other side projects or thoughts of a solo album?

I’ve been talking about it for many years but I’m actually quite far on with recording a solo album. I’ve pretty much finished writing and demoing with a bunch of musicians. I don’t want to say too much about it just yet but it’s definitely going to get done this year… so finally!

Mark Kelly in the studio

Is it a vocal or an instrumental album?

Very much a vocal album. I’ve got a really good singer, not known to anyone really but he’s a great find. He suits my music brilliantly. It’s a collection of songs – not really a concept album, although lyrically the songs are quite linked. It’s going to be two or three longer tracks of 10 to 15 minutes and two or three shorter tracks. It sounds a bit ‘Marillion-ish’ in places, as you’d expect, and at other times it doesn’t. Very much ‘songs’ and quite melodic.

Do you ever feel restricted being in a band?

I like it. I don’t like working alone which is why it’s taken me so long to get to this point with a solo album. It was just by chance that I started working with a couple of people that I found – bouncing ideas off other people is how I work best. I’m good at coming up with ideas in the initial creative stage, going ‘Hey, what about this?’ and knocking out something to then be worked on. The problem if I’m left to my own devices is that I start off something and think ‘This is good’ and then within a few hours or days I’m thinking ‘Nah, it’s not really that good, is it? I’ll ditch that and start something else.’ That was my solo album working modus operandi for the last 20 years! (Laughing) Working with other people I send ideas to the singer or the guitar player. They’ll do a bit of work on it and send it back to me and we’ll develop it together. That’s how those ideas have actually been developed into finished songs, which is great… and that’s how it works with Marillion. We go in the studio and jam. I come up with ideas and the band and the producer Mike (Hunter) take these ideas and help develop them into finished songs. I need the feedback of other people to help me get past the doubts of the ‘it’s not very good’ stage.

What’s the difference between the writing and recording processes for Script… and now?

You have to remember that half those Script… songs I had very little to do with in writing them. I sort of forget that myself as I’ve been involved with them so much over many years. Forgotten Sons, Garden Party, The Web, and He Knows, You Know were all pretty much written. They changed in the studio but not hugely. They were still the same songs. My involvement in those songs was more about arrangements, and very little of that on Forgotten Sons and The Web. For Chelsea Monday and Script for a Jester’s Tear I was very much involved in the writing. The thing I see now about those songs is how simple they are. For example, Chelsea Monday has got four chords that just go round and round, and then we move the key with the same four chords around and round and round – guitar solo, and then we drop back down again. It’s literally the same four chords with a modulation in the middle. We would never do something as simple as that now. I don’t know why? (Laughing)

One Fine Day [from 1997’s This Strange Engine], for example, sounds very simple but the chord changes and chord progressions are different throughout. It’s like a complete ‘Chordfest’! For something more recent like The New Kings [from F.E.A.R., 2016] there’s a lot of different moves and changes. We try not to make it sound complicated, but the underlying music is actually a lot more complicated than the early Marillion stuff. I suppose that’s the biggest difference.

That’s the thing about Marillion, I find. I’ve recently done quite an in-depth review of the recent Afraid of Sunlight deluxe edition [for Progradar – other review sites are available!]. There’s a song on there that had passed me by a bit previously, Out of this World. Looking into it, I realised there’s so much to this song with an interesting structure. It sort of emerges from the depths with watery synths, and then it breaks through the surface with Steve’s guitar solo, and then after the accident vocal clips it sinks back down – a reflection of the story really. Sometimes you don’t get all that’s going on initially. As you say, the band are doing something rather complex but it doesn’t sound complicated, which is a clever thing to do – to tell that story musically, but not in a ‘showy’ way.

Yeah, you don’t want the complexity of the music to get in the way of what you’re trying to say. You want the music to tell the story and I think Out of this World is a good example. I think that’s something you learn to do more easily as you get older. I think in the early days of Marillion we would just come up with the music, Fish would come up with the lyrics and we would slam the two together. Being quite naïve musically, Fish would attempt to sing the lyrics over the music presented to him which I think in some ways worked really well because you’d end up with some novel, different approaches that you wouldn’t otherwise get. I think the rift with Fish was partly driven by his frustration with not having any control over what happened to the music, and wanting to have some control, and with us, quite frankly, being dismissive of his musical ideas. At the time we felt he wasn’t a musician and didn’t deserve respect in that area. It was quite arrogant of us and him to be so uncompromising with each other, but that’s where we got to and we ended up splitting.

You were all headstrong young men.

That’s the truth – but it’s quite interesting working on my solo project because I’ve got a singer who’s very good at coming up with vocal melodies. I’ve got a lyricist who’s writing some really interesting lyrics, and we’re putting the music and these lyrics together, and the singer is willing to have a go. So it’s almost like what used to happen with Fish. He would just go ‘OK, I’ll make this work’ and I’d go ‘That’s a difficult bit of music with some difficult lyrics… and you come up with a great vocal melody to go over it – fantastic’. That’s exciting for me because then it doesn’t sound like a ‘normal’ song, but it’s still musical and listenable. You can write something that’s really ‘original’ but if it’s not listenable, not enjoyable then what’s the point?

I know you’ve probably been asked this a million times, but what was it like when Fish left?

I think the ‘Headstrong’ and ‘slightly arrogant young men’ thing applied in the sense that we thought ‘Good riddance, we can manage without you’ and he was thinking ‘Screw you lot. I can go solo and I’ll be as big if not bigger than Marillion. I don’t need you’ and we felt that we didn’t need him. That was how we parted really. Of course, some of it was a difficult time. Looking back now it certainly doesn’t feel like a bad choice for us.

After Afraid of Sunlight [1995], the EMI deal ended [except for live Made Again in 1996] and then you had a deal with Castle for three albums – I think that was a pretty low time. Was there ever a time when you thought ‘we’ve really blown this?’ and thought about giving up?

No, no – the low point came at the end of the Castle deal. Around about the Marillion.com album, maybe before that in ’97/’98. It certainly felt like things were going down, and didn’t show any signs of stopping. Coming up with the crowdfunding idea was a turning point really. We were lucky how it all converged at a time when the internet was starting to happen. We were lucky that the fans we had remaining were willing to support the band to get behind the idea of a pre-order.

That was a remarkably prescient idea Mark, at the time, in terms of utilising your fan base and use the internet. That was well ahead of its time and I think it was your idea?

They say necessity is the mother of invention. It definitely applied in our case. We were in a difficult situation, but we didn’t think about quitting. We may well have been forced to at some point, but at that point we didn’t think we had reached that point yet.

I have heard you call yourself a ‘risk taker’. I suppose that was one of those risks you took?

I’m always up for trying new things, and I don’t mind a bit of risk. As we get older I think we become more risk averse, but at that time it seemed like an exciting idea. I won’t say I had to drag the rest of the band with me, but there was certainly some scepticism about how it all might work. There were understandable concerns about what it all might mean having fans pre-ordering the album. Would they expect to have some influence over what sort of music we would make? What if we didn’t manage to finish it or deliver it on time? There were a lot of unknowns. Nobody had ever done it before. We didn’t know what sort of take up there would be from the fans.

You must have been delighted with the response as it was such a successful way to work. In terms of Steve Hogarth, what drew the band to recruit him?

He sort of found us really. We’d been searching for about 3 or 4 months. Fish left us in September ’88 and Steve ‘H’ joined us in January ’89. We’d been looking for a while. We tried out various people with about ten auditions but didn’t find anyone that felt quite right.

Funnily enough, I’ve spoken to one of your ‘auditionees’ – Stuart Nicholson.

Ah Yeah, the guy from Galahad.

He’s got a good voice, but with no disrespect, I couldn’t see him quite fitting with Marillion.

I do remember Stuart. The issue with him was that we felt he was trying to be like Fish too much. We wanted someone who wasn’t trying to imitate Fish. Maybe that’s what Stuart felt we wanted but it wasn’t.

Steve Hogarth circa 1989Steve is certainly nothing like Fish in terms of his singing.

He makes a point of telling people that he didn’t really know Marillion, and wasn’t really that interested in joining. It’s certainly true that he didn’t jump at the chance when we offered him the gig. He said he’d think about it. It took about a week to come back to us with his decision.

I’m glad he made the right decision.

Yeah – I think he was just nervous about it. At that time we were a well-known band, but I think he was wondering what would be his role creatively within this outfit. Would he just be the singer and be told what to do?

He must have felt like the ‘junior member’ for a while?

Well, we still call him the ‘New Boy’ now!

(Laughter)

There are older fans who still struggle with it! … Moving on… Marillion have songs like Gaza, The New Kings, or going back songs like Season’s End or even Forgotten Sons – they’re all songs with a political edge or social commentary. The band has never been afraid of such songs with views about the wider world. What do you say to people that say politics and music shouldn’t mix?

Politics is part of life, isn’t it? If you’re writing songs nothing should be off-limits – that’s what I would say. Everything is fair game to be written about, and should be – we live in a country with free speech. If people just want music to switch off to, without having to think about anything else apart from having fun, there is music for that, but we don’t make that sort of music and people know that. When we did Gaza we did have some people say things. It’s funny that it seemed not to be Israelis that got upset about it but some Americans who had never been to Israel or Gaza. We’re not trying to be critical or take sides. As Steve ‘H’ has always said about Gaza, the lyric was trying to be sensitive to what’s actually going on there. He took the trouble of speaking to people in Gaza over skype, both Israelis and Palestinians, and was trying to write a lyric from a human point of view.

It feels more humanitarian than political. He’s trying to understand experiences on both sides.

Yeah, it’s hard to say something about a difficult situation without upsetting somebody.

Moving on to your last album – F.E.A.R., I was taken aback by it and it’s been massively successful with 5-Star reviews in the Guardian, and the band selling out the Royal Albert Hall very quickly indeed. Was that something that took you by surprise or were you expecting that response?

No, we weren’t expecting it. If you work for as long on something as we did on that it’s hard to get a perspective on it. You think it’s really good, or think it could be really good, but you’re not sure. You know that you liked it when you wrote it. That’s one of those things when you work on an album for months and months or even years – you have to remember how you felt when you first got excited by it because after you’ve heard it a hundred or a thousand times that feeling disappears or dwindles, and you could be thinking ‘Actually this isn’t really that good’ and start again. To be honest, we weren’t sure. We felt like it was good. I suppose Brave [1994] was a similar experience because we’d done something that was challenging and difficult, but we thought it was really good… and some people agreed and some people didn’t. In the case of F.E.A.R., that was more universally liked, certainly by people who liked our style of music. We got a lot of positive reviews and a lot of positive feedback from the fans. Our audiences at shows increased.

Mark Kelly, Marillion - photo by Alan Jones, Web UK

I think the context of the times really helped the album – with Brexit and the rise of Trump. It just felt like a timely, ‘Zeitgeist’ album.

Yeah, fortunate timing helped. We have been very lucky with timing. There have been a few things over the last few years, such as the Coronavirus situation this year. We’d already decided not to do any touring this year, apart from Cruise the Edge [which was subsequently cancelled after this interview was recorded]. We’re looking at what’s going on thinking ‘Jesus Christ. We dodged a bullet there!’. Similarly, there was the collapse of Pledge Music – we did F.E.A.R. with Pledge Music, and then a year later they went under losing millions of pounds. I just hope our luck continues.

We’re coming to the end now, Mark. What three Marillion albums are you most proud of? The ones where you think ‘Yeah, we really hit the spot’.

Erm… Marble, This Strange Engine and… F.E.A.R. – how about that? They’ve got some of my favourite Marillion songs. I would also like to give an honourable mention to Afraid of Sunlight. It was the surprise album for me in the sense that at the time I wasn’t really enjoying how it was going for us, but looking back I think it’s one of our best put together albums.

I think it’s a stunning album… and on the other side of the coin, which album do you think is the most underrated or misunderstood?

Oh God! I don’t know – I think they’re all under-rated!

(Laughter)

How modest! I’ve read of your disappointment about the reaction to Somewhere Else [2007]?

Less so from me, but for our producer Mike (Hunter). I think he was very disappointed. There was a backlash against him from some fans. It really hurt him. It was a bit of an experiment sonically, and it didn’t go down too well in some quarters.

I think it was also in the shadow of Marbles [2004] which had been well-liked and successful.

Yeah. I think that’s probably why Afraid of Sunlight, a completely different album to Brave but in some ways stronger I think, felt like such a nice surprise.

Marillion 2019

Are you working on the new album?

Yes, we are – this year is the album, and hope to finish it by the end of the year.

Is there anything you can tell me about it yet?

At this stage it’s very much at the writing stage. There really isn’t much to tell you right now, but we’re getting on with it. We’re just at the stage where we’re bringing stuff together. It’s early days, but we’ve got the rest of the year.

Mark, thank you very much for your time.  Good luck with the re-release of Script… and all the best for your new album next year.


LINKS
Marillion – Website | Facebook | Twitter

TPA would like to thank:
Mark Kelly for the studio photos
Alan Jones for the live photo
Pete Flatt of PPR Publicity for arranging the interview


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