With bands finally able to get back out in the UK and play live, Marillion are embarking on some dates as part of their ‘The Light at the End of the Tunnel’ tour, starting on 14th November in Hull and continuing through to two nights at London’s Eventim Apollo on 26th and 27th. With the band’s twentieth studio album in the can for release early next year, TPA’s Magnus Moar caught up with keyboard maestro Mark Kelly to ask him about the tour, the album, the Fugazi remaster and his own project, Marathon.
I seem to recall this tour being announced about a year ago.
We originally had some dates planned for this time last year, pre-Covid, and we then moved the UK dates to the end of this year  and the European dates were put back to next year . This is the longest break we’ve had from playing live, certainly since I’ve been in the band.
How do you feel about getting back into touring?
I’ve just started dusting off the equipment for the tour. I’m feeling a little bit anxious about it, but I am getting into it early. I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be a bit weird though, as we intend to be doing this tour in a bit of a bubble. We’re not seeing family and friends, going to restaurants or meeting people. We’ll probably drive each other crazy.
Are you rehearsing yet?
Not yet, we’ve just been finishing the mixing of the album. By this Friday [1st October], it’ll be done. We’re really excited about it.
Some acts have struggled financially with not touring, given that streaming has affected album revenue. How has this been for Marillion?
We’ve been lucky. 2020 wasn’t really going to be a big touring year anyway. We’re fortunate with our fanbase that we’re not totally reliant on touring. There’s still a desire for CDs and vinyl for us. The Parlophone re-releases have done well. Covid has certainly thrown the limited royalties from streaming into stark relief though, so I’m really sympathetic to all those bands that have suffered.
How have you all coped with lockdown?
It’s been okay. We’ve changed the way we worked. We were limited in our writing for a while as we like to jam together in the studio. We had to put Perspex screens up. I’ve always worked from home when recording stuff. I take the stems, work from home and then send it to the producer.
I read that you’re planning to play one of the new tracks on the tour. It’s called Be Hard on Yourself, is that right?
Yes, it’s funny, we had a similarly-titled track called Don’t Hurt Yourself [from Marbles].
I’m guessing with the album’s theme, this has a different tone to that one.
Yes, this about facing up to the climate crisis. It’s a really rocking track, which is why we’ve chosen to play it on the upcoming tour. Because we want people to hear the track properly though, rather than off a dodgy Youtube recording, we’re going to be letting people have the chance to listen to it in advance. The thing is, even with the album finished, the release is some way off. The lead times for getting albums out are crazy. The supply chain problems that we’re seeing affect the record industry too. We’re looking at a March release.
Is there a chance of hearing more than one track?
We thought about playing Murder Machines, but, again, we’d want people to hear it properly. On the plus side, Be Hard on Yourself is eight or nine minutes.
Can you tell me the album runtime?
I can, I’m going to tell you. Murder Machines is about six or seven minutes. Reprogram the Gene is the shortest at about five minutes. Care is a fifteen-minute track. Sierra Leone is about ten. The Crow and the Nightingale is about eight or nine as well. There are two shorter songs, and the rest are the usual, longer, episodic-type Marillion songs.
I’ve heard you say you have a preference for the longer songs.
I do like the longer tracks. Some of my favourite Marillion tracks are on the longer side. I like the way you can have a journey on a longer piece of music, rather than it just being verse-chorus-finish.
I remember there was a lot of pressure on prog bands in the ’90s to record shorter songs. I like the fact that the band have embraced the epics. Just coming back to Be Hard on Yourself and the climate change issue. It occurs to me that this is an idea you have previously explored on Seasons End.
Yes, that was an early attempt at the issue. The lyrics were written by John Helmer from a newspaper headline which had suggested it might never snow again. It’s amazing to think, it was in the mainstream back then and yet we all did nothing.
You could have saved the world, having identified the problem back in ’89.
We did our best.
Is there any previous album that the new album, An Hour Before It’s Dark, sits comfortably with?
When we were deciding what would go on the album (there was a bunch of other songs that didn’t make it) the test was if we could take one of the songs we were considering and swap it with one of the songs on F.E.A.R.. If the answer was yes, it was good enough. That said, it’s not like F.E.A.R. as an album. It has a bit more power; heavier and rockier. It still has the trademark Marillion sound, though. There’s a lot of energy and it’s less moody than F.E.A.R..
Personally, I find F.E.A.R. very holistic. An album to be listened to from start to finish, rather than dipping in and out.
I think that’s true when you listen to El Dorado and The New Kings. This is new album is a bit like The Leavers. It’s got something of the energy of that first part of The Leavers, but it’s also quite a guitar album. A bit of a reaction to the last album, but hopefully matching it in terms of quality.
Thinking about the Fugazi remaster, what are your memories of that album? I was quite young when it came out, so my first encounter with Marillion was hearing the singles from Misplaced Childhood on things like Top of the Pops. I came to this album later, when I was in my late teens and, for a long time, it was my favourite Fish-era album. I appreciate it was a difficult album to make, though.
It was a difficult album. It was difficult to write. We were thrust into a studio in Wales. We were just told ‘you’ve got to write an album.’ We’d never had that pressure. Nowadays, we just wouldn’t think that was practical to go into the studio with no musical ideas. Fish had a lot of lyrics, but we weren’t ready. We also had the problem with the drummer – replacing Mick [Pointer] and Andy Ward not working out.
Fish didn’t really warm to Jonathan Mover either.
No, Fish didn’t like him.
Did Ian Mosley join after the writing was done?
Not at all, Ian came in when we’d written quite a lot of it, but we hadn’t written Fugazi and Incubus, which turned out to be the best tracks on the album, in my opinion. We had a bit of Incubus. That drum part that Ian plays at the start was a variation on something Jonathan had written.
I was chatting with one of my colleagues at TPA about the Fugazi remaster, and he mentioned that in the remix the piano-vocal piece at the beginning now leads directly into the guitar part without a pause, rather like every live version I’ve heard. There’s no pause in the live versions. The first time I heard Fugazi was the live version on The Thieving Magpie, so I was surprised to hear the pause when I finally heard the studio version. I was like, ‘why have they stopped?’
I don’t know what happened there. When we were writing it, we always intended to cross-fade those two pieces. When we got to recording it, there was a mismatch between the tempos and the producer, Nick Tauber, said ‘it’s not going to work’. When we got on tour, we got back to playing it how we imagined it would be. When I spoke to Andy Bradfield [mix engineer of the remastered edition], I mentioned how we had intended to do it and he said, ‘we can give that a try’. So, it finally got to sound how it should have done.
I want to talk about Marathon for a moment. I loved the album (it made my top 5 for TPA last year). I like the fact that, with the Marillion material being quite a serious venture, this is quite whimsical.
There were a few humorous things in Guy Vickers’ lyrics. I like the fact that there can be some light-hearted stuff. It doesn’t all have to be heavy. Let’s face it, some of the subject matter, aliens from space and all that, wasn’t exactly that serious. There were some lines which I thought were even funnier which we changed because our singer wouldn’t have them.
You’re supporting Big Big Train. Any headlining gigs planned or a second album?
I haven’t really thought about it. I’d certainly like to do some more shows. The timing couldn’t be worse, though, as we’ll be getting ready for the Marillion weekends. The rehearsals for those start in January because there are three separate shows across the weekends. I’ve managed to wangle a little time off. I do want to see the response to this material live, though. There will definitely be some more gigs with just us and we’ve also started work on a new record. There are a few things that I’ve got ready to go already. There’s a song call Around Around which we didn’t put on the last album.
The couch convention was a great idea. Are you thinking about doing something like this in the future? Global weekends for counties that can’t have a weekend?
We haven’t thought about it, so I don’t know. We are streaming the second night of the tour in London. We’ll see how that goes down, but it sounds like there could be a way of combining the two things. A lot of people enjoyed it, so if we could develop the theme a bit it could be something for the future.
Is there anything from the upcoming tour in terms of the set (no spoilers!) that you’re looking forward to playing?
We talked about the set two months ago and the main feeling was we should bring back some of the songs that we haven’t played for a while that are old favourites. I’ll leave you to figure out what they might be. Drop some of the songs we’ve been playing a lot, like the ones we did with the orchestra, and do some that we haven’t touched on for a while that we know are fan favourites. I wrote down a list as a first stab at a set and everyone said ‘yeah, looks really good.’ The opener is a different one to the one we would normally use. There are a few surprises. Hopefully, a crowd pleaser, not an obscure setlist.
Is there anything else you’d like to discuss that we haven’t already touched on?
I’ve got an autobiography coming out soon. It’s finished, it’s the band’s story from my point of view. It’s meant to be an amusing read. I might lose a few friends over it, but we’ll see. I think I’ve been reasonably fair to everyone. I’m sure Fish will get his own back when he publishes his own memoirs, though there’s nothing in the book that hasn’t already been said.
Will it be out by the end of the year?
Hopefully by November. It may be available by the time of the tour.
I thanked Mark for a thoroughly enjoyable chat and giving his time to TPA and myself. It seems that there is much to look forward to for Marillion fans over the coming months.