Published Mar 30, 2009Few groups deserve the moniker of cult band in quite the same fashion Marillion do. Formed originally in 1979 in Aylesbury, England, the band hit their commercial zenith in the mid-'80s with the albums Misplaced Childhood and Clutching At Straws but has remained an intuitive, ever evolving act since.
This year celebrates the 20th anniversary of Season's End, the band's first album with "new" singer Steve Hogarth. Much like AC/DC's Brian Johnson, Hogarth still finds himself referred to as the new guy two decades on in spite of the fact he's been a member of the band for nearly three times as long as his predecessor.
Marillion's latest studio offering was originally planned as a single but ended up being released as two separate albums. Financed exclusively by the band's fervent worldwide fan base - 15,000 of which prepaid the band 30 pounds sterling a year in advance to ensure receiving a limited, special edition version of the album, completely on spec - Happiness Is The Road is now also available through regular retailers as two individual volumes. Collectively they are the band's best new albums in a decade, striking a fine balance between their poppier, more melodic side on Volume 1: Essence and their prog rock tendencies on Volume 2:The Hard Shoulder.
Over the decades, Marillion have become a group of smart businessmen. After their fan base raised $60,000 US in 1997 without their knowledge to help finance a North American tour, the group realized the respect and loyalty their followers had. One of the first bands to fully embrace using the internet to connect with their fans, starting in 2001 they decided to not rely on record label advances, instead soliciting fans off Marillion.com to prepay for their copy of the album. It netted the band £250,000 - much more money than any label would have given them. Around this same time the band started doing fan conventions in Europe bi-annually.
Dubbed "Marillion Weekend," the band play three days of concerts in a resort inhabited only by their fans, filling the three days with various activities related to the group. April will see the band make their first attempt at a North American version when they take residence at Montreal's Théâtre L'Olympia. The band have had a long love affair with the city, going back to their early formative years (half of 1984's Real To Reel live album was recorded at Montreal's Spectrum), making Montreal the ideal location.
On the eve of this North American debut of their convention, members of the band were kind enough to answer some questions about the new record, a new archival box set that former label EMI has released and about the convention itself.
The two Happiness Is The Road albums are my favourite releases by the band in over a decade, reminding me more of the Brave/Afraid Of Sunlight/This Strange Engine period than of the past few albums. Now that it has been a few months since their release what is the band's feelings about the albums?
Pete Trewavas: I think I can speak for all of us when I say we are delighted with the way the albums have turned out. Not just as musically but sonically and the concept behind Essence and the artwork packaging, etc. It is a remarkable achievement and I think the closest we have ever come to a complete album "meaning both discs" that we have ever been involved in. Mike Hunter, our producer for the last two CDs (Somewhere Else and Happiness Is The Road), must get a mention here as he quite literally dragged the music out of us at times while other times we overwhelmed him with gem after gem of working material. Through it all he was an absolute genius of recording and keeping the sound and vision of the project together. I am personally very pleased with how the whole thing turned out.
While it was originally planned as a single album, Happiness Is The Road grew exponentially to the point where it became two. What prompted both the decision to make two albums and then to release both albums individually? Is this a direct relation to the sound of the albums or were they split for thematic reasons?
Well the original idea was to take songs we had left off Somewhere Else and put out a CD of those seven songs. I think it was that at the time. One or two songs got left by the way side as we started re-recording and thinking of working on one or two more songs. Then Mike got us to update some of our studio outboard gear and rigged us up for recording multi-track at every opportunity while we were jamming, rehearsing or arranging ideas. When I say multi-track I mean everything had its own track from the bass drum upwards so we had ten or more channels of drums and cymbals; D.I. and miked bass; two amps of stereo guitars; four channels stereo keyboards for Mark; stereo keyboards for H; acoustic guitars; vocals, etc. In other words a lot of channels going into the HD Pro Tools recording system. This did, however, mean that if we came up with a great idea while jamming on a particular day, it was already recorded and all of that recording could be dropped in to the finished master track. Which is what happened on more than one occasion. Or we could use the drums from a particular days recording if we felt that they were better than another take we had been working on. The same goes for keys, bass and guitars. This made the process of writing and recording quicker than on previous albums and having heard some of the results we took off on a particularly creative spur and were reluctant to stop the writing process. This meant that we had far too much material to put on a single CD. We found when we listened through that many songs had a theme running through them, while a far few others were just good songs we could leave behind. That decided, the double album idea was born but we felt it should be somehow separated a little more than just disc 1 and disc 2. So we thought that two definitive albums was the way to go. Seems to have worked. So far so good.
I understand a book that was suggested to Steve Hogarth to read by a doctor heavily influenced Happiness Is The Road. What exactly is the story behind this?
Steve Hogarth: During the Somewhere Else tour I was suffering with my health. It was self-induced really. I wasn't eating properly and was also under a lot of stress both within my domestic situation [recent divorce] and professionally [on tour]. My body eventually rebelled and although I won't go into gory details, I ended up needing surgery. I was referred to a doctor in Utrecht, Holland who performed a minor operation (on the afternoon of the Utrecht show!). The doctor was also a healer and after the surgical procedure, he held his hands over me. I noticed that there were tears running down his face during this, and afterwards he told me that the tears were mine, not his. He had felt much of the guilt, regret and consequent pain that I was carrying and he said he would recommend a book that I must read. He wrote the name of the book on his prescription pad and gave it to me. "Read that! It will make you better," he said.
The book is The Power Of Now by Eckart Tolle. I bought the book and read it slowly. Much of what it contains resonated with my own thoughts and instincts and it crystallized my own ideas of the meaning of life. I would recommend the book to everyone.
How exactly does this book influence the first of your two new albums, the one subtitled Essence? What is the overall theme in the lyrics contained within and how did this book influence them?
Well the book contains two fundamental premises: One: You are not your mind. You are in fact a living being - just as a tree is a living being. You are part of the flow of life on the planet. A tree doesn't have a "mind" and yet it lives. Human beings have become unable to separate themselves (their being) from their minds and live enslaved to the mind's obsession with past and future. Two: The past does not exist anywhere except in the minds of people. Each person has their own version of their own and also wider history. This is for the most part illusory, and the past most definitely doesn't exist in reality. Neither does the future, which plainly doesn't exist at all. Nonetheless, most of us allow the past and future to torture us in one way or another, often ruining the only real thing we have - the present moment, the now. Essence is directly influenced by the book, although much of what I have written was written before I read it. As I said, I have had an increasing awareness over the past few years of the importance of celebrating the moment I am living - the miracle of it - and the importance of trying to increase my own awareness of the boundless and miraculous beauty of life and the process of living life. I'm certain we can only find happiness or peace in the present moment. To look back, or forward in time is to lose peace of mind. This doesn't mean we shouldn't make plans or address future commitments, but having done this we must return to the present as soon as possible and remain aware that the present is all we have. The theme of the Essence CD is life's journey, time and it's passing, and the meaning of life. Insomuch as I have so far discovered. If that sounds a bit pompous, please bear in mind that these are my own truths - you don't have to agree with me, but perhaps you might discover your own path as a consequence of these words and this music.
How did a typical day work in the studio when you were recording these albums? Did you have much arranged going in or would the band jam and invent on the fly?
Ian Mosely: Usually we arrive at the studio at around the crack of noon! We don't have any ideas pre-written. The first thing we do is jam for an hour or two. Everything is recorded to multi-track. This is so we can actually use any moments of musical magic that might occur at a later date. An example of this is the title track, "Happiness Is The Road." As soon as the energy starts to run out we will go back and listen to previous ideas that we think might be worth working on. This process can carry on for months.... With the help of Mike Hunter our producer, a genius and all round lovely bloke the arrangements are slowly put together.
There is a boxed set of early Marillion BBC recordings, entitled Early Stages, that came out through EMI late last year in the UK. How did this release come to be? Did EMI have to approach the band to get permission to release it or did they have the rights to this material? How does the band feel about this release coming out now?
Well, we really don't have any say in what EMI decide to release. They own the rights. Having said that, we do have a good relationship with them. If at all possible our management will always try to oversee prospective EMI projects to try and make sure that there is some quality control. I haven't actually asked the rest of the band what they think. Personally I don't mind. Maybe it could prompt some early years Marillion fans to check out the new albums too.
This is the first time that you have held one of your Marillion Weekends in North America, although a number have happened in Europe. How was the original idea to do this conceived?
We were very aware that we normally have about 200 to 300 North Americans make the pilgrimage to Europe to these events so we thought we should try and come over to them!
How difficult are these to arrange and make happen without a hitch?
Well, as this is our first in North America ask us again when it's over - we would hate to jinx it but saying it was all going smoothly!
For the uninitiated, what exactly happens at a Marillion Weekend? It's just a weekend of Marillion fun. At the European ones we take over a holiday park with accommodation so everyone on site is a Marillion fan and there are quizzes and Marillion music in all the bars. Each night there is a Marillion concert with a different theme. For Montreal this will be different in that we don't have the accommodation so it's three consecutive concerts only.
Montreal has always been a special city for your band. What is it about this city that makes it so special to Marillion?
We have no idea - we just always seem to get amazing crowd response when we come to Montreal and as a band that brings us so much joy. We can't wait to come back.