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The original pioneers of the DIY model currently so prevalent in the music industry today, Marillion are no strangers to the upper echelons of the pop charts. The original band fronted by Fish had a number 1 single in the late 80s with Kayleigh, as well as top 10’s with Incommunicado and Lavender, but more recently their last commercially released single ‘You’re Gone’ from 2004’s album Marbles entered the charts at number 7. Their current album ‘Somewhere Else’, on which ‘Thank you Whoever You Are’ appears was the first Marillion album officially eligible for the album chart since the band took matters into their own hands in 2001.
Simon Baker met drummer Ian Moseley for a beer and a chat on the tour bus when the band visited Cambridge recently for a sold-out show at The Junction.
So firstly, congratulations on your mid-week chart position for your new single “Thank you Whoever You Are” – I think it’s number 4. Would you say the singles chart is more or less relevant now, given that with a bit of effort almost any band can get in there?
Ian: Well, I don’t know if any band can. We’re quite fortunate in that we have a massive fan base who are very loyal to us, but Marillion get blanked as far as radio is concerned, so it’s really just our fan base that are putting us in there. My advice to any young band is to try and build a database, even if they’re playing pubs to 50 people. Try and get their names and addresses and their email addresses, which is what we’ve done over the years. It just means that if you want to do a gig next week you can let them know and if then you do get to the point where you’ve got a few thousand people and they’re all buying your product, they can get you into the charts and you never know, the radio might play you! But we’ve always had a problem in that area, even in the 80s they wouldn’t play us. Incommunicado went in the charts at number 6 and they never played that. So really, everything we’ve ever done has been fan-base driven. When Marillion were signed to EMI, they didn’t really know what they were signing. They just saw the vibe and that the punters were loving it and signed us!
Your sustained level of success is certainly a testament to how well your business model is working. What led you to doing things on your own, and how much extra work does it mean for you as a band?
Ian: It’s a bit of a balancing act sometimes! What led us to doing it was Mark Kelly (keyboard player) being in touch with a couple of people in the States who wanted us to tour there. We had to tell them we couldn’t possibly afford to do it as it would cost us too much. So these guys offered to get a fund together to get us over there. We said “fine”, but thought nothing else of it because we never thought it would work. A few weeks later the guy is back in touch and he’s raised $30,000 already! Amazing! So they reached $50-60,000 and we went over there and toured. We even had people contributing from Europe who weren’t even going to see us in America. They just got into the whole vibe. One guy in England donated £800! So that’s when we woke up to the idea of the power of the fans really. We’d left EMI and had been on various indie labels, which weren’t that great for us or our profile. So that’s when we came up with the idea of the fans funding the next album before we’d written it. I think we raised £200,000 odd, which was way more than we’d get as an advance, and we retained all our rights. The last album we recorded for a label was a bit of a ploy – we called it “Marillion.com” which was a signpost to where people had to go. So we got about 12,000 pre-orders in the end which gave us what we needed to record the album, which was an amazing thing! I mean, sometimes I wish we were on a major label and massively successful and we didn’t have to deal with any of it, just play the gigs!
So since then do you thing your sales have increased, or are you simply just getting a much larger royalty rate for the same amount of sales?
Ian: Judging by the last two tours for the Marbles album and this new one, the fan-base is getting bigger. We’re attracting new people, which is really encouraging because I wouldn’t like it if we were just touring for nostalgia reasons and playing old stuff. People are into what we’re doing now, which is really nice. What also seems to be happening is people coming back after not seeing us for 15-16 years. They’ve gone away, got married and had kids or whatever and come full circle and started listening to music. We also have a lot of younger people getting into us too. It’s been a very positive vibe recently, amongst the fans, and a respect from the music industry.
You have a very close relationship with your fans….
Ian: We do – the fans are very close to us, and they let us know if they’re not happy with something. I avoid some of it, like the net forums – I never read those because I’d probably get pissed off (laughs) – it’s good to have a bit of distance. But, you know I joined the band in 1983 and we’re still going now and that’s an amazing thing. It is incredibly special relationship, something quite unique and you’ll see that at the gig tonight.
What area of the traditional music industry do you still utilise?
Ian: What we did with our first own label release (Anoraknophobia) was a special package for the fans, with the names of all the people that had pre-ordered the album in the sleeve – over 12,000 of them! Then we did a distribution deal with EMI because what we discovered was at that time, all the majors did a much better job with distribution than any of the indies. Then with the Marbles album we decided that rather than use the money to write and record we used the money for a marketing campaign. So we used a sales and marketing company – Absolute, and that’s when we got the first single back into the chart at number 6 or 7 and suddenly we were on the news “Marillion are back!” We’d never gone anyway but suddenly the profile was back and that was the goal, so people would realise that we hadn’t split up 15 years ago and that we weren’t a Scottish heavy metal band!
We’ve used Absolute distribution for this album too, but I’m not sure what we’re going to do with the next album. I mean, it’s an amazing situation to be in because we have total freedom. I mean, we’ve always done whatever we want, but we’re under no time constraints in the studio and there’s no A&R people poking their noses in…
You’ve also recently taken a stand against venues charging extortionate percentages for having a merchandise stall. Is Marillion boycotting those venues going to change this policy?
Ian: I don’t know whether it will or not, but our manager Lucy is part of the Music Managers Forum and they’re collectively taking a stand against this sort of concession. But I think it’s totally out of order. I mean, the band can’t take a percentage on the drinks the venue is selling to the bands’ fans. But it is incestuous sometimes. Some bands have managers that take a commission from the venues’ percentage as well as the band and the merchandise sales themselves. The Corn Exchange in Cambridge insists on these concessions for example, hence why we’re playing at The Junction.
The new album is markedly different from the last one, and this seems to be a running theme…
Ian: Everything we do is honest really – we try the best we can do at the time. And the fans seem to latch onto it – they trust us I suppose. But every album is different, and that’s nice because it would be a drag if we were recording the same album every time. We never sit down and discuss what sort of album we’re going to make – we simply jam and see what happens. There’s no master plan as far as the writing goes, which can be frustrating sometime because we could jam for months and end up with nothing.
Marillion are probably still regarded by the outside world as a “Prog Rock” band – how would you describe the band now?
Ian: Well that’s tricky – prog rock still conjures up all that, you know, dancing round Stonehenge, druids, all that stuff (much laughter). I think when I first joined the band there was a bit of that – Fish had the makeup on and stuff, and it did sound a bit like Genesis. But music to me, whether it’s 2 minutes long or 20 minutes long, it’s either good or bad. If someone wants to say it’s prog, it’s fine with me, although I don’t necessarily like the druid connotations.
It’s ironic that traditionally progressive rock bands were synonymous with the big major labels, yet here you are doing something that’s more akin to the DIY ethic of punk. With that in mind, would the Sex Pistols’ “EMI” been a more suitable choice of cover version rather than Toxic by Britney Spears, which is on your new single?
Ian: (Much laughter) Yeah maybe you’re right! The Britney thing was just for a laugh really. We did an Abba cover as well at one stage. We do these things for the Marillion conventions that we put on. It’s ironic that the week after we did it Britney Spears was in the papers having shaved her head and gone into rehab!
Tell me about the Marillion weekends…
Ian: We started it because The Stranglers manager told us they were doing a similar thing at Pontins, so we gave it a go. So fans came from all over the world – about 1500 of them and we had the whole camp to ourselves, and it was very successful. So the following year we repeated it at Butlins Minehead. So that was three days, a different Marillion set every day and other bands throughout the day. The last one we went a bit more upmarket and held it at Centreparcs in Holland. The accommodation there was much better, plus we built our own venue on the site with a stage and so on. So we had 2500 people there for 4 days. Even the staff had a great time!
It says in some of your press releases that you’re “..still fighting misconceptions”. What are they?
Ian: I think, as I said earlier, the main misconceptions are that we’re a Scottish heavy metal band and that we split up 15 years ago. We gave away a CD recently called “Crash Course”. Anyone could have written to us and requested one. We just wanted to give people an opportunity to listen to what we do, because people are surprised when they hear us. The other one of course is that we’re a prog rock band who dance around potato sacks, but that’s our own bloody fault!
A lot of the prog rockers are quite upset with us I think because they want us to play 10-12 minute numbers all the time.
So you’re not playing Grendel tonight then?! (Infamous Fish-era epic number that the band refused to play live after a while, despite audiences chanting for it for years)
Ian: Do you know what? I’ve never played Grendel live!
You’ve been touring since April – any good tour stories?
Ian: Every gig has been bloody amazing, even when I don’t think we’ve played that well, people’s reactions have been incredible. It was touch and go in Holland though, and I’m not sure if I should tell this story but Steve Hogarth had really bad piles and had to go to a doctor to have them cut. So in Utrecht that night they was a couple of songs where he was sat at the piano and…well… the show must go on and all that! (laughs). A first on this tour is that we’ve been encouraging people to shout our requests and we’ve come unstuck with that a couple of times! Some of the songs are prepared or programmed. Last night we did “The Uninvited Guest” and we hadn’t played it for years. I don’t know if we got away with it! In Wolverhampton the night before someone shouted for The Great Escape and that wasn’t programmed either, so Steve Hogarth said he’d hum the middle section where there’s all these oboes and things. But it’s good – it’s kept us on our toes!
You can already pre-order your next album on the website
Ian: Yeah, well we haven’t finished it yet, but this is the way we’re doing things now so people have started ordering it and it’s all good. It’s a first for Marillion that we’ve actually got another album nearly in the bag so soon after releasing the last one. We had about 8 tracks nearly finished from the last album, so we reviewed those and now we have 5 from that, so I reckon we need another 2 or 3 killer tracks, then we have another album. So we’re back in the studio in 2 or 3 weeks time. We have our own studio which is great as we can waste time in there without it costing £1000 a day or something. Although sometimes that can be a good thing for motivation and focus!
Are there are new bands that inspire you?
Ian: My tastes are really diverse, I really like some pop, some jazz rock, y’know, it doesn’t matter. If it’s good I like it. You know, I like that Toxic single by Britney Spears – it’s a great arrangement and brilliant production. But a band that has really inspired me over the last couple of years is System Of A Down. They’re probably my favourite band at the moment. I’ve seen them 4 or 5 times over the last couple of years. They’re great live, they really mean what they’re doing – you can tell they’re a real band onstage; for me they’ve got the balance just right. They’re nuts! (laughs). For me they’re like Frank Zappa meets Motorhead or something. Great musical arrangement, lots of melody and great songs. Seeing them like was a real inspiration. My son is 19 and a guitarist – he lives in Florida and introduces me to all these bands. Tool I love as well, and the other night we were watching Rammstein, and I loved that. I don’t know what they’re singing about, but it was like watching a Vegas show! So theatrical, with flame throwers and all sorts. I wish we had the budget to blow things up! (much laughter). I need to find out what they’re singing about though, because it all sounds like Germans marching over graves!