Mark Kelly, keyboardist with Marillion, is releasing his first – and long-awaited – solo project Mark Kelly’s Marathon with his new band, Marathon, at the end of November. He recently spoke with TPA’s Leo Trimming about the development of the album and some of the ideas behind the songs. Amongst other issues he also discusses how he formed a new band to record the album, how he ‘discovered’ Peter Gabriel (!!?), and gives an update on progress for the new Marillion album…
Hi Mark. Thanks for your time. If you don’t mind me asking, how have you been coping with COVID and Lockdowns?
Fine really. It hasn’t affected me too badly. In some ways it’s given me an opportunity to make this album. It has put the Marillion album back a bit as we didn’t get much done between March and the end of Summer, but everybody’s fine. Fortunately we didn’t have any touring planned this year.
I’ve seen some reviews and wish I’d never mentioned I started work on it 30 years ago – I didn’t really!
… OK… well, that’s one question I’m now going to have to cut out – ‘Why did it take so long?’
[Laughter] To be fair, that’s a valid question. I did start working on stuff about 25 years ago, but nothing from that time survives until now. There is a bit of a funny story about that actually. I had done a few bits way back then and put together this rough cassette. It was terrible really – I listened to it recently. I can’t remember how now but I met up with Steven Wilson, who was just getting started with Porcupine Tree at the time. He came to our studio and I gave him this tape and said ‘If you fancy doing something together here’s some music I’m working on…’ and I never heard from him about that so I assumed he didn’t really like it.
Didn’t he work on Marillion.Com?
He mixed some songs on that album, but this was before that. It was around the time of Brave or even earlier. Anyway, more recently when I was finishing this album I sent him a message asking him if he fancied mixing it? He came back and asked ‘Is it that album you started working on 30 years ago?!’
‘No, it bloody isn’t!’, I replied. [More laughter] He said he was a bit too busy right now.
Mr. Wilson certainly is in high demand these days.
So I got Andy Bradfield to mix it. He’s been working with us a lot on the Marillion re-issues – he’s a really good engineer.
Andy’s done some great work on those re-issues.
So this was just me trying to write an album on my own. I think it’s a real challenge to do an instrumental album. I really admire people who can pull that off, people like Mike Oldfield on Tubular Bells and Camel with Snow Goose and some Vangelis stuff. It’s really hard to do a wholly instrumental album and keep people’s attention with good music. It’s easy enough with ‘spacey’ drones and stuff. So I got started a number of times over the years and kept thinking ‘This isn’t really happening’ so it got put on the back burner, especially with all my Marillion stuff and a young family and everything going on. However, I have to blame this friend of mine, Guy Vickers, who suggested a few years ago I should write a solo album and he could write some lyrics.
I was going to ask you about Guy as he’s come up with fascinating themes for songs.
He’s actually a barrister who is a Marillion fan. I found out he was barrister and asked him to look at some contracts as we were having a dispute with our label at the time. He acted for us for about 2 or 3 years so we got to know each other really well. We talked about music and found we had a lot in common musically and became friends.
You may be one of the first rock musicians ever to have your barrister as your lyricist!
Yeah. When he suggested he could write some lyrics I have to say I was a bit sceptical but when he showed me his lyrics I thought they were really good. I sent him some music, but we had a bit of a false start back in about 2016. But he kept hassling me saying; ‘Come on, come on, let’s do this album!’ So I said, ‘There’s this whole bunch of Marillion jams with stuff I’ve come up with that were never used, and probably never will – why don’t I send you a few of those ideas and see what you can do with those?’… and that’s what became the track Amelia really.
I really like that track.
I sent Guy three or four keyboard-led clips from Marillion jams and he wrote the lyrics to Amelia. I thought they sounded interesting. He actually sang his words on it as well, but his singing’s SO bad!
Am I allowed to quote that?
[Laughter] His singing is terrible… but I could see what he was getting at. I thought ‘OK, you need to find a singer’. I started looking – could I find anybody? Not a chance. It took about a year and I got my nephew Conal involved.
He’s playing bass on this album?
Yeah, he’s actually a bit of a multi-instrumentalist. He’s used to working at home on his own, doing everything himself musically, including singing. I’d send him a keyboard idea and he’d send it back with a ‘band’ playing that he’d put together. That was really useful for the arranging side of things, but we still needed a singer. I started looking on Spotify out of desperation more than anything really. I was trawling through unknown bands and then using the Spotify ‘band also like’ option which led to the next thing and so on. Then I came across this band called Big Blue Ball, and I thought it sounded interesting. I was thinking ‘This guy can really sing, he’s got a great voice.’ It had about 2 or 3,000 streams, which is nothing, so I thought they must be unknown. It sounded a hell of a lot like Peter Gabriel… and then I realised it actually was Peter Gabriel!
Oh, it was the Big Blue Ball project he did a while ago! It’s a good album he did with a few other artists.
Oh, you know that album. I’m trying to remember the song I heard now.
Gabriel actually did a song called Big Blue Ball with Karl Wallinger of World Party on that album. He also did a song called Whole Thing.
That’s the one. Looking at Spotify now it’s still only had 180,000 streams, which is not a lot really.
That’s not a lot of streams for someone like Peter Gabriel.
No, exactly. Once I knew it was him I thought ‘Damn!’ Around that time I did an interview with The Web magazine (Marillion fanzine) and I told them the same story. I got a phone call from a mate who said ‘I know just the singer for you’ because he thought I was looking for someone who sounded like Peter Gabriel. I actually wasn’t – I was just looking for ‘a singer’, but I liked his voice obviously. My mate suggested Ollie (Oliver M. Smith) and I thought ‘this guy’s actually got a really good voice.’
One thing I’d say about Ollie, Mark, is that at the beginning of Amelia he sounds uncannily like Peter Gabriel, but on other songs on the album he doesn’t have that same resemblance. He has quite an adaptable voice for the nature of the song.
I agree. When he does This Time, his voice is a bit like Squeeze. On When I Fell he reminds me of Seal, and in other places he sounds a bit like Guy Garvey of Elbow. He’s got what I would call a very ‘English’ voice, and it really suits the music. I sent him the Amelia track, but didn’t subject him to Guy’s singing (!), just the music and the lyric and asked him what he could do with it. Weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything. So I thought he didn’t like it. I wasn’t that confident about it to be honest. It was a bit of a big ask, sending him a ten minute track and a lyric that long. He has more of a pop/rock background. After about two or three weeks he sent something back to me and it was REALLY well produced vocally with all the harmonies for the big Amelia refrain at the end, and I was just blown away.
What a great discovery. He’s outstanding vocally.
He’s also got a great ear for coming up with melodies. I like to let people do what they feel. I like the idea of taking something that’s maybe not an obvious piece of music with lyrics that aren’t that obvious and saying ‘Have a go. See what you can do with that’. In the early days of Marillion with Fish we’d play this music which wasn’t straight ahead pop music, and his lyrics were often quite ‘wordy’ but the combination of trying to make those two elements work together produced some good work. That friction of it not being obvious how this stuff was going to stick together creates something different. Similarly, I think that’s why we’ve ended up with something that’s not straightforward ordinary pop songs. A few people have compared it to Mike and the Mechanics, and I was a bit insulted actually. [Laughter]
I wouldn’t have made that comparison, but This Time is certainly a more straight-ahead song.
That’s the one. People hear that and think it sounds like Mike and the Mechanics… or as someone said ‘Mark and the Mechanics’! [Laughter]
I wouldn’t say something like the epic 2051 sounded like Mike and the Mechanics.
Well, there’s a band called DeeExpus.
You played with them in 2011 on their The King of Number 33 album – it’s a good album.
You seem to have a better idea of what I did than I have! [Laughter] Was it 2011?
It was about then. I saw them at the Summer’s End Festival in 2014 but they seemed to disappear after that. However, they’ve actually reappeared again recently, but I take it you’re no longer with them.
I had a problem with my hearing. We were supposed to do some dates but I lost the hearing in my left ear in January 2012 – so you’re right. I had to tell DeeExpus I couldn’t play live as I was worried about causing more damage to my hearing. It got better but by the time I was ready to do something they’d already found Mike Varty, and he’s good. So that’s how I met Henry as he was their drummer. Andy Ditchfield of DeeExpus introduced us, telling me what a great young drummer he is and we got on really well. Andy’s great fun and a really nice guy as well.
How about the two guitarists, Pete Wood and John Cordy? Where did you find them?
‘Woody’ plays in a band with Guy Vickers. Guy plays keyboards as well write lyrics… and he plays a bit of harmonica. He managed to squeeze a bit of harmonica on the album, buried in at the end of When I Fell in a dub section. A little cameo for Guy so he could say he played on the album! ‘Woody’ plays with Guy in a functions sort of band.
Woody’s done some really good work on the album.
Yes, he has, and his approach is completely different of John Cordy. We were quite a way through the album and I was trying to get ‘Woody’ to do a certain type of solo but it wasn’t going the way I wanted. I decided to ask Steve Rothery if he was up for doing something.
Was that on Puppets?
What actually happened was I asked Steve ‘Do you know of any good guitarists?’, thinking he’d suggest himself… [Laughter] … but he said ‘Yeah, I saw this guy on YouTube called John Cordy and he’s really good. You should check him out’. I asked how he knew him and Steve said, ‘I don’t know him – I just saw him on YouTube!’ So I messaged John and asked if he was interested. John asked how did I know about him so I told him ‘Steve Rothery told me about you’, to which he replied, ‘How does he know about me!?’ [Laughter]
That must have made his day!
John did exactly what I wanted so I was happy about it. You mentioned Puppets. The reason I asked Steve Rothery to play on that specifically was because the chorus part of that song where Steve is playing was taken from a Marillion jam and Steve played that part, so I thought if I want to use Steve’s guitar part he should play it.
Puppets struck me as the most ‘Marillion-esque’ sounding song on the album, but on the whole the album has its own distinct flavour.
It’s more like ‘old Marillion’ I suppose with the most straightforward ‘Proggy’ type things with long instrumental passages. I was being a bit self-indulgent really. I wanted to do something quite nostalgic sounding.
It had that feel. I’ve been impressed. I was talking to my wife about it – oh, by the way, she likes it so you’ve passed the ‘Mrs. Trimming Test’ – let me tell you, that’s a high bar to pass!
She’s also your resident ‘Zoom’ expert!
[Laughter] (Mrs. T had indeed helped Leo set up the Zoom call)
I said to her ‘It’s a grower’. I didn’t know what to expect from it, and it’s really grown on me. Amelia does hit you straightaway, whilst some of the others took me a bit longer. Puppets took a few listens but then it really clicked, and I’m increasingly falling in love with 2051.
You definitely have to listen to that three or four times because it’s so long and a lot of it doesn’t repeat.
I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but I was talking with Thomas Andersen of Gazpacho and he said you have to listen to one of their albums at least 10 times. I think he’s right. Sometimes you need to invest time in a song or an album. 2051 definitely repays repeated listens.
Yeah, I agree. We know Gazpacho. They’ve done some gigs opening for Marillion.
The album wasn’t meant to have an overall ‘theme’, but you’re right – there is a thread about communication and breakdowns in communication, along with the idea of ‘Exploration’ in Amelia and 2051. Puppets is actually about ‘Free Will’. It’s not really a concept album though.
In 2051 it starts off with the story of (sci fi novelist) Arthur C. Clarke and (film director) Stanley Kubrick, and the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but then explores what might happen if we ever do make ‘Contact’ with Aliens. Stephen Hawking once famously said we should stop trying to make ‘Contact’ as we might not like what would happen if we do make contact.
It may already be too late with all our transmissions already travelling out into deep space.
Guy actually wanted to call that song Turn it Down [Laughter] I told him we already have ‘turned it down’ because most of our communications these days are short distance and wi-fi. There’s less transmissions into space going on than there was 50 year ago really.
Clearly, it’s very difficult thinking about it now but are there any plans for Marathon to ever play live?
When we were making the album and working remotely and separately I wasn’t thinking about playing live, but when we met for the first time for a couple of days at Real World studios it was interesting. I went from being the youngest in a band to being the oldest. We have a range of ages from 20s onwards and I’ll be 60 next year! Once we started playing together it was so good. Everybody clicked really well. The engineer, Dan Austin, said it was amazing how good it sounded, considering we’d never played together. That made me think we should definitely play this on stage somewhere. It would be fun.
So it sounds worth getting the release with the bonus DVD with the Real World gathering for the different performances.
Puppets especially is different as I made some changes afterwards and Steve Rothery’s guitar part wasn’t on it, but most of it is basically the same.
Talking of Steve Rothery, how’s the new Marillion album going?
It’s going well. I’ve been listening to stuff this afternoon as we’re not in the studio today, but we have been most days. We do the jams, then those jams get edited by Mike Hunter. They may be two minute or four minute sections and so on – there’s hundreds of them. I’m looking at them now on the PC. We have them on a private Soundcloud space – there’s 1,158 tracks.
We choose the best of those that excite us the most and maybe jam around it. We learn what we like and then try to develop it, explore different ways of playing it and see where it takes us. We’ve now gone past that stage and we’re starting to turn them into proper songs.
Yeah, a lot of these ideas have lyrics in already.
I know it’s early days but are there any hints as to a theme or does it not really have a theme?
To be honest, I don’t really know what he’s singing about half the time! [Laughter]
‘H’ complains we don’t take enough interest in what he’s singing [laughter] … but I do, when they’ve reached the stage of proper songs I’ll actually listen to what he’s singing.
I was wondering whether the current World Covid situation has had any impact?
I’ve heard ‘H’ say he doesn’t want to sing about bloody Covid. We’ve all had enough of that really.
That’s a good point.
The last album was bit of an angry album really, complaining about what’s going on in the World, so hopefully from what I’ve heard lyrically this won’t be a particularly miserable album. But our music isn’t exactly happy, is it?
Sometimes we need Art to take away from bad things. Art can reflect bad things but it can also be a real balm, a healer.
I was talking about that with Guy Vickers as we’ve just started working on the next Marathon album. He’s written this long lyric about something which is kind of depressing really, but the way he’s written about it is quite poetic. It doesn’t come across as ‘preachy’ or miserable, bringing you down. It makes a difference how you come across.
There can be great beauty in melancholy and more serious subjects. So you’ve just revealed you’re already doing a second Marathon album. That’s quick!
Well… you know… got to keep busy, haven’t I? I’ve got some catching up to do.
I think with that positive news it would be a good place to end. Thanks for your time and good luck with the new album.
And you can read Leo’s review of the Mark Kelly’s Marathon album HERE.