They may be considered a cult band on American shores, but Marillion—vocalist Steve Hogarth, guitarist Steve Rothery, bassist Pete Trewavas, keyboardist Mark Kelly and drummer Ian Mosley—have maintained a steadfast worldwide following that have kept them going for over 30 years. Trends have come and gone, careers made and lost, and the music business turned upside down, but the veteran British rock band keeps chugging along. They have built their own little empire, having financed albums and tours through fan money, organizing bi-annual conventions attended by faithful followers and leaving industry politics behind to control their careers and utilize music labels solely for distribution. They are one of those rare bands that really are playing the game by their own rules.
"It's one of those things where you accept what happens and look at what could've happened to a lot of bands—you stop having hits, and your audience disappears," notes keyboardist Mark Kelly. Marillion's one hit album in America, Misplaced Childhood, broke the Top 50 in 1985, and their first few studio albums amassed solid worldwide sales for EMI. "For us, our audience has shrunk, but there's a hardcore following. If it's not the same people, it's new people coming in to replace the ones who are leaving because we've maintained the same level of success, sales and income for the last 15 years. It's quite an unusual situation to be in."
Operating on a smaller level is not without its challenges. Marillion's current North American tour—coming in advance of the release of their next studio album, Sounds That Can't Be Made—is the group's first since their 2004 cross-country trek in support of Marbles. Initially they received friction from some U.S. booking agents that said the group could not charge more than $20 per ticket this time out, which would have made the tour difficult for the band economically. Kelly says they told agents that they knew the fans were willing to pay more, especially as they had waited so long to see them again on American soil.
"If fans knew the reason why we weren't coming is because the ticket price is $20 and not $50, they would kill us," remarks Kelly. "They would rather pay $50 to come and see us in their city than pay $500 to $1,000 to get on a plane to see us somewhere else, which is what a lot of them do. It took us so long to get this across to the agents. Not only that, but if we could play two nights in a row in some of the major cities—L.A., Chicago, New York—people who come and see us on the first will come and see us on the second night as well and make a weekend of it or take a couple of days off of work. In return, we will play two different shows, so they'll get to see us twice in two days." With entirely different sets, it will be like seeing the group on two separate tours.
Once tickets went on sale and agents saw that the demand was strong at the higher ticket price, it was a sigh of relief for everyone, especially for Marillion because, as Kelly states, "It means we can come to the States and not lose $50,000 to $100,000. There are a lot of artists that charge $200 for these hugely spectacular shows, but obviously we don't have to do that."
Beyond the current tour, a new release is in the works as well. Drummer Ian Mosley reports that the new Marillion studio album, their first since the double-disc Happiness Is The Road in 2008, is coming along well, although they have been battling time constraints in terms of recent tours, one-off gigs and rehearsing for their current U.S. trek. "Steve Hogarth is singing in the studio at the moment, and I think he has another two or three tracks to finish vocals on," reveals Mosley. "I finished doing the drums a few weeks ago, so I'm still hearing things getting developed. It's pretty exciting and my favorite time of the album [process]."
When asked about favorite tracks, the drummer is hesitant to say too much since often times songs he likes do not make the final cut, but he specifically references "Sky Above The Rain." "I think it's going to be a real epic Marillion track," declares Mosley. "I think it's a really good arrangement and a really good lyric, and the lyrics and the music really seem to match." He says that the album is quite diverse. "There are a couple of quite aggressive sections in some of the numbers, which we really haven't done for a long, long time. I don't whether that's an age thing—you just get old and slow down—but we definitely have a couple of moments in the angst department."
It can be tricky trying to stay in touch with the angry young man inside, but Marillion have never really been an angry band. While some of their early albums with Fish had heavier guitars, the group became known more for their atmospheric style and then an increasingly eclectic, genre-bending approach as time has passed on. While Fish turned to heavier political and social themes when he embarked on his equally impressive solo career, Marillion touched on some like-minded topics, but not with the same edginess or overt anger.
"It can be a fine line sometimes as far as the band becoming political," muses Mosley. "I think you have to be a little bit careful. It comes down to Steve Hogarth because he's writing the lyrics. Steve always wants to be honest with the lyrics, and he always wants to sing something that he believes himself, so I think the lyrics on this album are definitely from his heart. There are a couple of things that have been bothering him about world events, with all the troubles around the world and people suffering, and he wants to express his opinions."
A big balancing act on any tour is finding the right selection of material to play. While some long-time fans might wonder why there are not more Fish songs in the live repertoire, Marillion have recorded three times as many albums with singer Steve Hogarth over the last 23 years.
"If we had the same singer for the last 30 years, the amount of songs we would've played from the first four albums would be about the same as they are now," offers Kelly. "There are certain songs we don't play because Steve doesn't really get them or doesn't feel that he can get inside the lyrics and give a good performance. He's not saying that the songs are shit, he's just saying he doesn't feel he can do them justice. If you take those songs out of the equation, there are not many that we haven't sung at some point. The rest of them are just in the mix of all the other stuff that we've done. We have over 200 songs, so we just try to strike a balance between what we like playing, what we think people want to hear and what we did last time."
For American fans who have not seen the group live in eight years, that will not be much of an issue. Marillion have a devout following that has appreciated their diversity over the years, and the fans' economic support has also been impressive. "The fans surprise me all the time by the passion that they show," concurs Mosley. "We think of ourselves just as musicians. We play music and are privileged to earn a living doing it. So when you get people coming up to you and saying 'that song or tour meant so much to me' or 'that changed my life' or 'if it wasn't for your music, I wouldn't be alive,' it's just unbelievable."
"One of the great things about being a musician is that it seems you can move in so many different circles and mix with so many different circles," adds Mosley. "It's a free pass—one night we might be having dinner with British or Chilean diplomats, the next night we might be in a dodgy bar in Rio." It's always a new adventure on the road.
Marillion will be at Irving Plaza on June 12 and 13. They will also be at the Theatre Of Living Arts in Philly on June 15. For more information go marillion.com.