A Few Words With...Steve Hogarth

Interview and photos by John A. Wilcox

On the eve of Marillion's 2012 US tour - their first since the tour for Marbles - Steve Hogarth took a few minutes to ring me up from home. He was in the midst of laying down vocals for the next Marillion album - Sounds That Can't Be Made. We had a lovely chat, so grab a tea and join us...

PS: Working on the new album today?

SH: Oh, yes. I've been home today compiling lead vocals all day. I was working on a song called Power, which we're actually going to play live in America. I was also looking at a song with the working title of Bend Your Head. That's a very interesting song. It sounds to my ear like Prince and Todd Rundgren wrote it together. So that's a curious pair of influences. We never wrote anything like it. It's a different thing. I'm really enjoying it.

PS: Different is always good!

SH: Oh, goodness me, yes! Where would we be without different? I absolutely abhor the thought of standing still, creatively. I'm very fortunate to be in one of the few bands on earth that is under no pressure from the outside world to sound like anything. Over the last twenty years we've, perhaps more by luck than judgement, drifted into a place where we can do what the hell we want. And we do! It's a wonderful feeling to be so free and have to not worry about the next single - will radio play it? All of those things that keep most other professional contemporary musicians awake at night.

PS: Is it ever difficult to connect to a song you wrote over 20 years ago?

SH: That's a good question. Guardedly, no. I can always go to those places. Sometimes it is like remembering the best moments of a holiday you had. You're not gonna forget them. But maybe you can't quite touch the essence of them the way you could have done a couple of years afterwards. Going back to This Town and 100 Nights, I try to revisit where those songs came from and how I felt at the time. I remember quite specifically where they came from. So I can kinda go back and connect back into it, but they are old memories. The bigger problem really, is perhaps when you go back to Holidays In Eden and Season's End - that stuff really sounds dated to my ear. It sounds like the Eighties - because it was! They're children of their time, those records and you have to bear that in mind. You can't despise them for sounding like Eighties songs because that's when you wrote them. That's the pool you were fishing in at the time. Some things age better than others. Hooks In You, for example, with all of those kind of Van Halen synths - sort of epitome of Eighties sort of stuff - that hasn't aged very well. Yet Splintering Heart from Holidays In Eden feels kind of timeless to me. We still go out and play that now - it doesn't feel like it belongs to any age, really.

PS: Less Is More provided an opportunity to give a new look at past material, I imagine.

SH: The whole point of that album was to deconstruct things. It was an experiment. We started out by looking at radical changes to certain songs. What was good about that process was that there were certain songs we'd recorded over the years that we felt we hadn't really nailed. Hard As Love from Brave - I much prefer the Less Is More version of Hard As Love. It's almost completely unrecognizable from the original, apart from the words. The melody's different. All the chords are different. The tempo's different. They have nothing in common except that it's the same lyric. Interior Lulu was a chance to go back and do that song again with the bad bits taken out that on reflection we maybe wish we hadn't done in the original. That was liberating. We were able to take what we felt had been the strongest elements at the time and have those without the weak ones. It was great fun revisiting these songs with instruments that we'd hardly ever used before - hammered dulcimers, autoharps, marimbas. Little antique clunky things that smelt of dust; that some of the notes didn't work. We could use it anyway because it'd have a character. That was fun. I really enjoyed making that record. I enjoyed the tour immensely.

PS: It sounded to me like everyone was having fun recording it.

SH: We did have a lot of fun with that because we were way outside of the usual parameters. Nothing could be programmed - it all had to be played - five guys in a room. There were overdubs made, but the facility to overdub on it was quite limited. The whole thing was a much more organic process than making a regular electric album which these days is much more about computers and virtual instruments and click tracks and MIDI files and Christ knows what else. What we didn't want to do was "oh, let's play those songs on acoustic guitars and call it an acoustic album." What we wanted to do was redesign the songs from the ground up so they became new arrangements. In several cases you'd have a job arguing that they weren't completely different songs. What was interesting particularly with Hard As Love was that by rewriting the music around those words - even though the words were identical - the meaning of the words changed completely. Hard As Love on the Brave album, the electric version, is very angst-y and quite violent. There's an undercurrent of violence about Hard As Love - an undercurrent of abuse. It's written in a girl's skin, that song. It's not written in my skin. So this is a song by an angry and abused girl - which we then took and without changing one word of it, put it in a minor key. It turned it into quite a sad song because the anger went out of it. Even any kind of hint of anger in the meaning of it went away. It's more reflective and had an element of despair about it - which surprised me because they're the same words exactly. It's funny how music can either reinforce an emotion or change it completely, almost irrespective of the words being sung.

PS: Music has a power to reach and effect people the way nothing else can.

SH: I met one girl in particular, actually, who was extremely ill with anorexia when she was young, but near death's door in hospital fighting for her life. She told me some time later that the only thing that could reach her was my voice. She honestly and genuinely believes that I saved her somehow - which is an amazing thing to be told. What do you do with information like that? It moves you but it puzzles you. It's flattering but you don't know what to say...

PS: I imagine that's a very complex situation to deal with.

SH: I get a lot of that. We receive a lot of letters and emails from people. They have their own stories. Some very harrowing , some just OK. We get an awful lot of people that come to us and try to explain to us that our music has been so much more than entertainment in their lives. It's been a soundtrack to their lives. It's got them through hard times - some people extremely hard times. Some people have come to me and told me in all seriousness that they wouldn't be here today without me. It's beautiful but it's a strange place to find yourself. It's wonderful and beautiful, really. People respond to that in a different way than they respond to entertainment. When people are entertained, they clap or they jump up and down and they get excited. But when people are effected, they tend to arrive at your gigs with affection. So instead of looking out at a room full of people who are excited, you're kind of receiving these waves of raw affection. It's the most extraordinary thing to be at the receiving end of - it's really something.

PS: A Marillion gig can be a very spiritual thing. It's a sort of unique communal positive vibe.

SH: Yeah, I know. You can't imagine what it's like for me being in the middle of it. It's just incredible. It is like a church. It's like a kind of mad church because it does have a lot to do with spirituality. It's a combination of the words, the music, the five personalities in the band. It's a fairly unpretentious bunch of guys. We don't walk on stage and go "Hello, here we are, we're all rock stars!" We kind of walk on stage and go "Well here we are. Isn't all this great? What are we gonna do with this then?"

PS: It strikes me that there's a lot of unity between the band and the listeners.

SH: There is, and that's grown and grown. In many ways, the Americans started it with that whole tour fund thing back in '97. This wasn't some sort of moment flush of genius on our part. It happened on its own. When we found out about it, it had already started. This was a kind of spontaneous combustion that happened somewhere in America when some guy just said "OK, I've opened a bank account. Send the money here. This band's gonna come and play here." When I did find out about it, they already had twenty or thirty thousand dollars in the bank. That was at the point I found out and I'm the singer in the band! Shocking on its own to hear about something that was already that far down the line that involved you. It was really astounding. It really woke us up to the fact that this was no longer an us and them situation - it was an us and us situation between the band and the fans. We took that feeling of trust and it became the core to everything we then did that followed. Then people responded to that, of course. The thing about truth and trust is that it bounces back and to and amplifies itself. Just as mistrust amplifies itself. Good things spiral up and up as bad things spiral down.

PS: When you come to America, do you approach the set list any differently than the rest of the world?

SH: Yes, but only because in this case we're conscious of the fact that we haven't been there since Marbles. Whereas, if we're coming out into Europe, the set might have a certain shape, the set in America will be taking into account the fact we haven't been there and maybe you guys might like to hear some other things live. I'm looking forward to being in a room with a lot of Americans. That's been a long time!


Table Of Contents