This past month saw the worldwide release of Marillion’s 17th studio album, Sounds That Can’t Be Made. Well after most long-lived bands have ceased to fire creatively, Marillion offers a powerful argument for their continued artistic success as an independent minded entity with a work that melds melody and aggression with thought provoking ideas and downright gorgeous love songs that are equal parts classic and modern rock. As ever, it sounds like no one else but Marillion, who have hewed to their own course for decades with music that’s simultaneously sonically & technically rich and quite easy to get on with.
While many bands of comparable skill fly up their own navels, Marillion seems ever ready to extend a hand into the world, seizing on connections and pulling one into spaces we might not have gone on our own. Like much of their catalog, Sounds That Can’t Be Made is a grower, where the full reach of the song cycle only emerges over time, a sure grip we only realize has us once we’re securely in its hold. Dirty Impound makes no pretense to fully understanding the latest salvo from these U.K. survivors – talk to us in a year – but luckily we were able to chat with lead singer Steve Hogarth about the new album, the path to its creation, and some other fortifying topics.
One thing I’ve long wanted to talk with you about is how you have one of the most complicated relationships with God as a lyricist I’ve ever encountered. It’s something that’s drawn me into your work since the beginning of your time in Marillion. You don’t flinch from gigantic ideas.
I wasn’t aware of having a complicated relationship with God [laughs]. I do play with God a little bit, I suppose, in my words. “When I Meet God” is the obvious place to start with isn’t it? That lyric started with the idea, “How come so much is wrong with the world? If there is a God, why don’t you sort this out?” John Lennon said – and there’s a lot to be said for it – that God is a concept by which we measure our pain. The less pain we’re in, the less need we have for God and the more God slips from our minds. And when we’re in a lot of pain or in a fix, I think we need a friend, and if we haven’t got any then we look upstairs for one.
I don’t think I’m really a religious person, in the traditional sense. The other day I was looking at an amazing documentary Martin Scorsese made about George Harrison [Living In The Material World], and [George] gets asked about God and he says, “I left the whole man with a beard in the sky thing some time ago, but then the other week I kind of came back to it” [laughs]. He continues, “God is everything. God is everything that has life or spirit, so if for you God is a man in the sky with a beard that’s absolutely fine.” So, God can be a flower or a grizzly bear or forest in a mountain valley. Who’s to say God isn’t there? I think I’m more of a pagan, in that way, where God is a life force thing. God is what binds us all together. It’s the energy that makes us believe in the impossible.
You can define it however you choose, but for me, it has a lot to do with the kind of indescribable energy that’s contained in beauty and nature, and also in empathy and mutual understanding. I think God is in “live and let live.” I think God is in “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” God is in a flower and a tree, and if 15 people want to dance naked on my Village Green tonight wearing a sheet and circling around a goat’s head, well, that’s cool too as long as they’re having a good time [laughs]. That’s kind of where I’m at with God [laughs].
I grew up in a Roman Catholic family followed by a lot of conversions to Pentecostal Christianity, and had lost hold of the “bearded dude in the sky” thing by my teens. Once you’ve stepped away from organized religion it’s very hard to step back into it.
Maybe, maybe…well, that’s more about control than about God. It’s about keeping people in utter terror, and there’s no God in that for me. Maybe there’s a sense of betrayal when you see beyond something that you were so unquestionably fond of for such a long time.
The new album begins with “Gaza,” and just seeing that word brings up questions of identity, belief, God, territory, etc. No matter what your intentions were, there’s a powder keg inside that single word.
We started getting angry emails before the lyric could possibly have been seen anywhere, and certainly before the music was heard anywhere outside of our own studio. Just the fact that we called a song “Gaza” before people knew what we were going to say agitated certain people. It’s a hot potato, and I knew it would be a hot potato when I was writing it. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, there came a point when I was writing it where it was apparent that the music the band had started to wrap those words was so strong that there was no way I could bury it. So, I had to get my head around this one day being out there in the world and I better make damn sure I knew what I was talking about.
So, from the moment I realized this song was going to end up on the record, I had to take a long, hard look at these words and make sure it’s not a piece of naïve drama. I mean, what right does a white, middle class English boy who lives in the middle of England on a bloody Village Green got to write about the pain of a child growing up in Gaza? No right whatsoever unless that person has spent talking [to people], looking at the situation, researching, etc. So, I spent every free weekend I had from that point onwards Skype-ing ordinary Gazans. I was fortunate to have a friend of a friend working in Gaza, and I approached her about speaking to as many ordinary people as I could. I didn’t want to speak to members of political factions or anything.
I also wanted to know what does it smell like where they live? Is it too hot? Is it damp? Dusty? What are the sounds they hear walking down the street? What do they when they get up in the morning? Where do they sleep at night? I wanted to feel like I’d been [there] but I couldn’t go. Everyone I spoke to that knew anything said I might get a visa to get in but I might not get out again for weeks, and that could have meant blowing out the [recent] American tour or finishing the record. I dearly wanted to go because I felt I would be a charlatan just writing about the place, so I did the next best thing and got on the Skype and asked about their lives. I spoke to Israelis and Palestinians. I also had a friend who had been there doing diplomatic work on the peace process, and we had lunch and he gave me the low, low, low down on the political situation – what’s going on at the borders including the Egyptian border, what’s going on with Hamas, who’s firing the rockets and who isn’t, the whole thing. So, I did spend a lot of time looking into it even if I don’t live there and have to sleep in a bomb shelter. So, this song isn’t about Israel being completely wrong. This song is about how a child shouldn’t have to grow up like this, living like this, living in a place with a wall around it.
There’s a sigh in the middle of the song where you remind us, “Nothing’s ever simple, that’s for sure.” It’s a breath one needs to take as they step back from this situation to look at all the sides.
The problem with the situation is how each faction involved has its own truth. It’s not just a point of view but a long, firmly held truth, and they’re not the same truths. There’s a different truth for the state of Israel, a different truth for the Palestinian government, and a different truth for the Egyptians and a still a different one for Jordanians, and a different truth for the U.N. and the West. They’re all based on hard facts, history and statistics, and they’re all true things but they’re not the same. I respect that but all I’m saying is if you’re a child growing up in that place it’s not right and something must be done. Soon after this song was released, the U.N. issued a report that said the whole situation will be untenable by 2020. The infrastructure won’t be able to deal with the influx of people and there’ll be a crisis there.
The main purpose of writing the song, from my point of view, is we have a lot of fans out there and it would be a good thing if they heard this song and checked out the situation. I don’t care if they say, “This is a load of shit,” just so long as they check it out. I just want people to think about Gaza and think about the place. I didn’t know there was a bloody wall around the place until five years ago! It was just a place on the news. If the only thing that comes out of this song and this album is some people who didn’t know there was a wall around the place now do. It’s worth writing it on its own for that reason, but I’d like to feel there’s a lot more to it than that. I feel it’s a metaphor for every child that’s caught in a war zone. It’s not just solely about that one kid sitting in that one place anymore than any of my lyrics have been about one thing and nothing else.
You’re very adept at holding up mirrors to the world. You seem unflinching in what the mirrors show you personally, and at the same time you’re offering this reflective surface to others as a tool. What we each see will be slightly different, but it begins with your own courage to not blink at what comes back at you.
That’s all you can hope for, and I think if you pass someone a mirror to have a look at something you know the light will catch it in a slightly different way and it will maybe make them think about this thing all over again. That’s enough of a reason for any writer to get out of bed in the morning.
There’s so much history to this band at this point, both before you joined and the 23 years since you came on board. How do you approach this thing that is Marillion at this point? What drives you to keep making these sounds that can’t be made? By the way, that’s a pretty ballsy title for an album, I must say.
I know, I know…it is a bit of a gauntlet in a way, but not really. We just thought it was a good title. So, what drives this thing along? Well, we can’t afford to stop – we’re not millionaires. You look at the bank account and say, “Shit, we better do something!” [laughs] On the other hand, there is an absolute refusal to compromise. If it ain’t flowing and we have to take a year off and live slightly less well then we will – and we did with this [new] album.
We all went off to Portugal for a few weeks to write, and nothing really came out of that. It became apparent right at the beginning of the process that we just weren’t ready. I didn’t really have anything to say…or whatever it was I wanted to say wasn’t what the band wanted to make music around. We just didn’t feel comfortable with each other or the process, and at the end of that place there are a lot of bands that would have split up. But there are people in our band who are wise enough – Ian Mosley, our drummer, has kind of held our band together. He’s sort of the Mick Fleetwood of Marillion [laughs]. In the end, we said, “You know what? We should just go away from each other for however many weeks or months it takes. We shouldn’t try and work together if we don’t feel like it just because we’re in this band and feel we should.” A) We’ll write rubbish, and B) we’ll split up and what’s the point then?
So, we split up, and I spent most of Year One renovating a cottage. That got my head away from music and everything, though I wrote a song called “This Week’s House.” We had to move so many times while we were renovating this cottage and I wrote a lyric about the house we were living in that week, which I thought was quite a nice subject for a song. When you’re living in places that don’t have your life in them they’re like blank pages. You move into these spaces that have nothing to do with you, and then a week later you move out again. It’s a lot of upheaval but it does give you something, especially if you’re creative. It makes you think about all sorts of things.
You’re not carrying around as much clutter. You can’t accumulate the same amount of junk in the corners when you’re a rolling stone.
I had a line that goes, “This week’s house has a pin board on the wall with absolutely nothing written on it.” I thought that was interesting – the blank page, no appointments, no history – along with no pictures on the walls or books on the shelves. That really got me going. I found it strangely uplifting where before I’d have thought it would be vaguely depressing. Suddenly there wasn’t baggage.
So, I renovated a cottage and that took six months or more, and then we finally got back together again and bit by bit we got there but this record was a really, really difficult journey. By the time we got it finished just hearing it stressed me out. Even the thought of putting it on and listening to it was stressful. The irony of it is now that we’ve released it everyone’s done back flips and said it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. You just never know how people are going to react, eh?
Join us next week for Part Two of Dirty Impound’s conversation with Steve Hogarth.