Happiness is the Road: an interview with Marillion’s Mark Kelly
How many bands do you know that are pushing 40 years on the scene without much of a break? What about bands who hold their own conventions every two years across the world? Did I mention that this same band pioneered crowdfunding some twenty years ago before many people had even considered the concept? This is Marillion.
With the same line-up for almost 30 years and eighteen studio albums under their belt, and they’re probably more active now than they were 30 years ago. Shaun Neary sat down with keyboardist Mark Kelly to reflect on the past year and a half of the bands career, the upcoming tour and plans for the future.
Let’s go back to the F.E.A.R release towards the end of 2016. Lyrically, significantly darker than previous releases. Looking back, what was the general feeling just before album release, and were you surprised by how well it was received in reviews?
I can’t believe it’s been so long since we released an album, that was the first thing! I think just before the release of the album, I think we were excited about it and we knew we were pretty confident that we had produced a good album. For me it’s usually one or two tracks on an album that I’m not so excited about or are as strong as the rest of the album and because you’re in a band with four or five people, there’s always one or two that think “It’s great!” and you go with the majority. But I think for F.E.A.R, I think we all felt that we had five great tracks and consequently when the reviews came out, we were surprised because we don’t usually get great reviews, but it was received really well and that was great.
How has the general reaction been towards F.E.A.R’s tracks from the live crowd?
We played The New Kings live back in the summer of 2016 before the album was actually released and it went down really well. Personally, I always felt that El Dorado and The Leavers were better tracks for live, especially The Leavers because it’s been crafted in such a way that it takes you on a journey and the end section of the song really delivers something that’s great for a live audience. It was sort of done like that intentionally. Our producer, Mike Hunter had mixed a lot of live material for us and he noticed that certain songs go down really well live and there are certain things that you can do that really enhance the enjoyment from the point of view of the audience. So the One Tonight section of The Leavers was originally an instrumental piece and Mike suggested to H that he sing something on that because it’s very anthemic that it would work really well, so he came up with the One Tonight lyric, which of course, in a live situation works brilliantly.
You won UK Band/Artist of the year at the PROG awards last September. What was the feeling going in, and then after winning it?
To be honest, the PROG awards, it almost feels like an alternative universe where Marillion are a band that wins awards. We’ve never really won anything apart from the PROG awards pretty much, so it does feel like coming home when you go to those awards ceremonies. We pretty much go every year, we don’t always win, but we feel like we’re amongst people who appreciate what we do, the audience – the PROG magazine is our audience as much as anybody elses and it’s always nice to win something.
And then you played the Royal Albert Hall. You’ve had some time for that to sink in, what did that feel like?
The Royal Albert Hall gig was a bit of a landmark in the bands career. It’s really rewarding that it came so late in our careers considering that we’ve been going for nearly 40 years, and we’d never played there. We were really looking forward to it and it didn’t disappoint. We had a great night, we recorded it and filmed it, and that will be coming out really soon and we’re really pleased with how it turned out. And we’re going to do it again!
Do you feel the band has received any additional recognition since the album, and subsequent award?
I think the album has done us a lot of good in terms of sales, not just album sales but ticket sales as well. The UK tour that we have coming up in a few weeks time is pretty much sold out. We sold out the Royal Albert Hall within a few minutes. It feels like things are on the up and there’s a real hunger to see the band play live, and that’s probably got a lot to do with the last album release two years ago. Which is why we continue to tour it really, and go out and play it live and try to get it to as many people as possible.
A lot of the recent shows have been fully seated (including some dates on the upcoming tour). Was that intentional?
Yes it was intentional. It was brought about partly because of the way the Royal Albert Hall sold out so quickly and we realised that was is a nice venue, it’s seated, it’s got a bar, it’s somewhere that you can, let’s be frank, someone who is our age, could have a night out with their partner and it’s not like going to a rock club where there’s nowhere to sit, and the floors are sticky and the beer is terrible!
Some people like standing gigs, and a lot of people like seated gigs too and I think we’re just trying to appeal to people in both categories, really. The UK tour is mostly seated, and it’s mostly sold out, so there’s obviously a market for the seated shows.
Without giving too much away, are there any plans to do anything different live on these upcoming dates? Or are we looking at an extension from the last tour?
Not different as in anything new. We will still be featuring the F.E.A.R album mainly. What we’ve done, is made a list of a pool of songs that we’ll draw from, so we actually don’t know what we’re going to play from night to night. But I think you can expect the songs to be fairly similar to what we’ve been doing if you look at what we’ve been doing on the U.S tour previously through the last couple of years with possibly one or two surprises.
If you step back and look at the bands schedule over the past two years alone, it’s been album, tour, weekend, tour, grab an award, tour. On paper, it looks pretty hectic. Has any downtime ever been considered over the years?
To be honest, It might look hectic but it’s not that hectic. We did have breaks between tours and other members of the band have found time to do other things. Pete is out in America working with his old friend and collaborator, Eric (Blackwood – Edison’s Children), Steve Rothery is on tour with his band. So the Marillion schedule, while it has been pretty busy, it hasn’t been too hectic to be honest. I’ve had some time to spend at home with my kids which has been great. So no, I think we’re at the stage where we’re ready to start work on the next record rather than having some downtime, which is great. I’m looking forward to it.
Marillion still currently hold the Guinness world record for the fastest music DVD film to release. Are there any plans to break any more world records in the pipeline?
No, to be honest, it was a bit of a publicity gimmick to do that, and I’m not surprised that we still hold it, because really, who cares how fast someone can put out a DVD out? But if anyone has any suggestions for records to break, please let us know, I’m always up for things like that!
A few years back, you released Unconventional, a documentary that gives further insight into the entire Marillion weekend. With the next one a little over a year away, how far ahead does the band have to prepare for it?
The next Marillion weekend is over a year away and we’re already starting to prepare for it. We’ve had meetings to discuss what we’re going to do. The thing with the weekends is, that every year, we’ve been trying to raise the bar in terms of what we do, keeping it interesting and exciting. Because it’s just the weekend, it’s a great opportunity to put on a bigger production, to try things that we can’t take on tour.
That’s the way we approach it, we play songs that we wouldn’t normally play on tour, and and implement production ideas that we couldn’t do on tour, like taking out a string quartet and some of the light shows we’ve had, it would be just too expensive to tour around Europe with it for example. So we’ve already made some decisions on what we’re going to do, but it’s not quite finalised yet.
I have a couple of fan questions. As the band are doing more conventions in more countries, have the band ever considered splitting the conventions? Say, half are done each year in different countries to attract more people and maybe spread the cost? Or is that too much of a logistics nightmare?
The reason we try and group the Marillion weekends together and only do it every two years, is due to the amount of preparation involved, which is a lot. As I mentioned, we’ve already started working on what’s going to happen for the one in 2019. And there’s a lot of rehearsal time because rehearsing up to three nights worth of material is a completely different workload to rehearsing a two hour set to getting six to seven hours worth of music in your head and ready to go, and using music we don’t play very much so that’s added stress as well, trying to remember songs that we haven’t played for many years or even rehearse songs that we’ve never played at all.
So it makes sense to group them all together, because once we’ve done the work to just go around and do each weekend to give us a bit of a break, because it does take it’s toll on Steve’s voice as well because doing three long sets in a row, and then there’s the meet and greets, the signings, Q&A’s, all the talking, it’s quite hard work. To do it every year would be too disruptive to our normal workflow. So every two years is probably the best compromise really.
The band have been going a very long time, almost 30 years with the current line up alone. Has retirement ever been discussed, be it from touring, or conventions? Or has that never entered into the equation?
It’s been talked about in vague terms, but mainly from the point of view of “Oh we’ve only got another x number of albums in us, let’s make sure they’re great” conversations that we’ve had. I don’t think anyone ever wants to think about retiring, we’ll probably end up retiring when we’re forced to because of ill health or something like that. It’s one of those depressing things that nobody really wants to think about to be honest. Retiring from touring will probably happen before retiring from the weekends because the weekends are less of a time consuming thing, who knows?
But at the moment, there’s no talk of retirement at all. So there’s no need to worry about that just yet. We’re certainly not planning any farewell tours, and if we ever did one, we’d probably end up coming back again a year later!
Other than the planning for next years weekend, when this tour is finished, what’s next for Marillion?
Next thing we’re going to do is write an album. Whilst preparing for the weekend that we’ve got coming up in 2019, there’s some more touring to do this year in various places, and writing as well. Hopefully recording, we’re probably looking at touring and writing this year and then early next year, preparing for the weekends and then after the weekends we’ll be looking to get down to some serious recording and have an album ready by the end of 2019!