Just lately, the media has been full of breathless stories about how alt-rock chanteuse Amanda Palmer has raised more than a million dollars (and counting) via Kickstarter. But don’t bother telling Marillion about crowd-sourcing: This veteran British band was there from the beginning—and even before then. In 1997 Marillion benefited from an American fan base that wouldn’t take no for an answer. Sans major-label support for the first time in 15 years, the group announced that it couldn’t afford to visit the U.S. Undaunted, a single fan sparked a Web-based fund drive, ultimately netting $60,000 to support a stateside tour that became the stuff of legend.
Inspired, Marillion has responded shrewdly, preselling tens of thousands of records through fan campaigns prior to recording them, and packing weekend-long conventions on two continents. Now, as the band returns to Irving Plaza on June 12 and 13 to preview a new album still in progress, frontman Steve Hogarth—who joined Marillion in 1989 with the intent of taking what was then known as a prog-revival band in bold new directions—spoke with TONY from London about the ins and outs of international touring, crowd-funding and cult status.
Marillion hasn't toured America as a full band since 2004. Coming back around, is it like a long-distance relationship you have to work a bit to rekindle?
Oh, no, quite the reverse. Because of the Internet, we don’t really feel like we’ve drifted much from the fans there—there’s a sense that we stay close. We have a sort of highly developed international community, so we feel kind of close to everybody all the time…which is really a new feeling, I suppose. It would’ve been impossible 20 years ago.
What kept you away for so long? Is it all to do with visas, or as much to do with being an unsigned, independent band?
It was both, and one tends to lead to the other. I mean, just the process of applying for the visas is in itself expensive when there’s about 15 personnel required to come there. You don’t get much change out of $10,000, believe it or not. That’s just for the visas to go in your book, and then you’ve got to jump through all these hoops. I don’t want to sound grouchy, but I don’t know why the U.S. government needs to know the grounds for my divorce just to allow me to come and play a few clubs. But it does, and it gets a bit much. You get right up to that “hang on a minute, how much do I want to do this?” [Laughs]
You’ve said elsewhere that you’re playing some of the same clubs you've played before, and that it feels like you're not quite advancing, but also not losing ground.
I don’t know whether to be depressed or thrilled. [Laughs] Some of the venues are the same venues where I arrived to play with the band in 1989. The Paradise in Boston I remember doing—and they still haven’t fixed the air conditioning. I suppose, putting a glass-half-full light on it, at least we haven’t slipped—which is amazing, really, given how little we’ve been there and how little media attention we tend to get. And that’s not just in the U.S.; we’re one of those bands that doesn’t really get a lot of media attention anywhere. But we have our passionate fans who’d crawl over glass. We have this other thing that really sits outside of conventional wisdom or the music business or anything: We’re a cult phenomenon, in the best sense of that term.
You’re playing Irving Plaza, which was your New York venue for the legendary Tour Fund visit in 1998. Having fans raise a collection for you to tour is still an amazing thing. Can you relate, personally? Have you ever been so passionate about any band that you would’ve chipped in to pay their way across the ocean, or bought several records in advance?
I think the only band I might have done it for—and I didn’t, and they never asked—had they been American, I would have probably put my money in to bring the Blue Nile over here. But as it turns out, the Blue Nile were from Edinburgh in Scotland, and they never asked, and they’re here anyway. Part of the reason I would have paid for the Blue Nile is because they were extremely uncompromising, musically. They were just doing their thing; they had nothing to do with the music business per se, really. They did have a deal with a major label for one album, but really they weren’t a band whose music was tailored to the mass market. Maybe Talk Talk, in their later years, had they said, “We’ve made this most incredible, strange record and we can’t get a label to put it out—we could do with help, how’d you feel?” I would’ve been probably in the queue with my money.
I mean, a band can struggle because it just has bad luck, and then a band can struggle because it’s decided not to compromise its values or its music, and that basically the music-business machine can’t deal with that artistic point of view, and so it has become outcast. And I think if that’s the reason you see somebody with their hand out, it’s not like they’re begging, it’s like they’re saying, look, this is art; do you want part of this or not? This is truth. And I’m of the opinion—I’m of the feeling myself, but I’ve also witnessed firsthand—that if you go to someone with truth, and something that will actually move them, and something that speaks to their innermost self, then it takes on a whole other meaning for them. It’s not entertainment anymore; it’s much more important than that to people. It sounds a bit pompous, but it just is how our audience has responded to us. I don’t think they consider us entertainment on any level; I think they consider us almost spiritually core to what they’re about. And I know this, because I get emails every day from people trying to articulate that for me.
Do you ever see a dark side to that relationship, a sense that someone’s trying to get too close for comfort?
It’s an understandable question, but I can hand-on-heart tell you that I’ve never experienced that from anybody. We’ve done these gigs in these conventions in Holland where people have literally come in from everywhere—they’ve flown in from Australia and Japan and Brazil and all over the U.S.A. and all over Europe and Iceland and just strange, far-flung places. And they’re all in there together, and I can hand-on-heart tell you that I’d be just as happy to go quietly to a pub or a bar and have a drink with any one of them. They’re some of the sweetest people.
You’ve now funded four records that you’ve presold before a note was recorded…
We missed one out. There was an album called Somewhere Else that we made, the one before the last one, and we didn’t pre-order that because, to be honest, at that point we didn’t need the money, and we felt a bit cheap asking if we didn’t need it [Laughs] We were actually doing all right at the time and we could comfortably finance it. And we found that we got a lot of complaints, and I do mean a tidal wave of complaints: “Was it something we said? Was it something we did?” [Laughs] People were dismayed and upset that we hadn’t asked, because they wanted to be part of it, and they felt like we were trying to exclude them.
When people have paid in advance for a project that is not finished and not close to finished, does it create any kind of pressure for you to respond in a certain anticipated manner?
After I joined the band, we really started trying to push outside of everything we’d done before. Album after album after album—Seasons End followed by Holidays in Eden, which was a totally different record, and then Brave, which was utterly and entirely different again, and then Afraid of Sunlight, which had another slant—we were almost trying to redefine what we were, album by album. And by the time it got to late ’90s and pre-order-land, I think the people who wanted us to stay the same had long since gone, and the people who celebrated the fact that they didn’t know what was coming, they were the people who stayed with us.
I mean, we would always draw the line at letting the fans tell us what to do, but that’s not really how it works, because I think as soon as you’re even self-conscious about your marketplace, you cease to be honest and you become a factory that’s creating a product for a market. We didn’t get into this so we could work in a factory; we got into this to get out of working in a factory! [Laughs]
You recently released a beautiful side project with Porcupine Tree keyboardist Richard Barbieri, Not the Weapon But the Hand. What sparked that outing?
You have to go back 15 years to when I first made a solo album, Ice Cream Genius. That was an attempt to explore whatever I could that was not Marillion, and an attempt to remind, if anyone needed reminding, that there was more to me than being the singer in this band. I immediately went to Clem Burke from Blondie and asked him if he would drum on it, and then Dave Gregory from XTC and Richard Barbieri from Japan. And Chucho Merchan, who was working with the Eurythmics at the time, played bass. I was very fortunate to run into [Porcupine Tree leader] Steve Wilson during the process of setting that up, and he played my demos to Richard Barbieri. Richard came in and played synthesizers on my solo album, and we became good friends.
He sent me an email one day, about two years ago, and said, "You don’t fancy making an album, do you, just the two of us?" And it was a great moment for me, because back in the ’80s I used to listen to Japan, Tin Drum, and I really appreciated Japan for what they were, which was this collection of musicians who’d completely redefined themselves and their own instruments. They were just shockingly innovative and one of my favorite ’80s bands—and the ’80s was my favorite decade, anyway.
It’s a very different record, different to just about anything except possibly Richard’s own solo work. You can immediately identify him…he’s one of the few synthesizer players and programmers who has completely, totally and utterly a sound of his own. A dark magic in everything he does, there’s this magical darkness—so I just tried to pour light all over it.
You do a lot of stylistic stretching on the album. Are those things that you only feel free to do outside of Marillion, or is that the kind of research and development that you would consider bringing back into the studio?
If you’d have asked me a few months ago, I’d have said, Yeah, sure, I’m going to try all this experimental stuff on the new Marillion album. But I’m currently putting down lead vocals for it, and there isn’t really the room, to be honest. With so many people expressing themselves at once, it starts to become a bit claustrophobic if I try and stick 15 voices on it and two people whispering and someone making a speech and a wall of other people muttering. [Laughs]
When you’re in the studio, is there a Marillion cop who says, “Oh, no, that’s not Marillion?”
There used to be, back in…I’d have to go back quite a way. But, I mean, it was a very white band when I joined, and so the black influences—it’s not like they weren’t allowed, it’s just that nobody felt that they could go there. And bit by bit we took black influences into the music, which…it’s kind of weird that we wouldn’t, because it all came from there in the first place, let’s face it. Even the whitest bands on earth, like Pink Floyd, are wrapped around what is essentially a blues guitarist, Dave Gilmour.
I was given the freedom day one to pull the thing toward myself—they said, do what you do and we’ll do what we do and we’ll see what happens—and in pulling Marillion in the direction of myself, they were inevitably pulled towards my own influences, which are quite black. So then gospel happened, and dub happened. It got into all that dark, weird stuff in Brave, and then Afraid of Sunlight became a very American sounding album. Maybe not sounding like American people, but rich with American themes.
The references to Elvis Presley and O.J. Simpson, and at least one song that sounds very much like Phil Spector.
Absolutely. We very carefully and deliberately crafted that to make it as Spectorish as we could, just as we introduced the Beach Boys elements in “…Surf…”
Oh, “Cannibal Surf Babe,” sure.
[Long pause] Not many people say, “Oh, ‘Cannibal Surf Babe,’ sure” in regular conversation! [Laughs]
You’re doing two nights in New York. Are the sets going to be different?
There won’t be one song played on night one that’s played on night two. There will be no songs in common. There will be two completely different set lists, with no songs in common. So if you miss one night, you’ve missed a whole show.
Are you showing off any of the new songs?
Yeah. I can’t promise how many, but it’ll be more than zero.
More than zero and less than the whole album, start to finish.
Definitely less than the entire album. We wouldn’t dare do the entire album, because we live in an age now where it would be on YouTube and there would be no point releasing it, then. [Laughs]
Follow Steve Smith on Twitter: @nightafternight