“People want more than just a CD in a plastic case, so that’s the market we’re catering to.”
When you’re known as a cult-favorite band, you have a certain aural legacy that must be upheld at all times, both live and on record. It’s something that’s often easier said than done, however, as one perceived slip — no matter how slight — can instantly downshift a band’s fortunes onto its collective ear.
With that in mind, it’s not hard to see why Marillion continues to nurture such a loyal, rabid fanbase all across the globe. Just cue up FEAR (an abbreviation for the much more starkly direct full-title phrase Fuck Everyone and Run), out now in multiple formats via Intact Records, to glean why this veteran progressive band thrives in a world very much of its own making. From the ever-shifting whisper-to-a-scream tone of the opening opus El Dorado to the choral muscularity of Living in Fear to the royal, pulse-pounding majesty of The New Kings, FEAR displays a certain sonic sinew that every hungry new band could take a few notes from.
“It does come down to what the chord structures are, and what the vocal melodies and the words are,” Marillion keyboardist Mark Kelly admitted to Digital Trends. “Everything else you add to the arrangements can certainly help and enhance a track, but it has to stand on its own as well.”
During a tour break, Digital Trends did the Skype thing with Kelly across the Pond to discuss how to properly layer song mixes, how Marillion pioneered the concept of crowdfunding, and the real reasons long songs get broken up into multiple parts.
Digital Trends: I think it’s fair to say Marillion music lends itself to being mixed in the surround-sound format, wouldn’t you agree?
Mark Kelly: I think it does, because I know what goes into the recordings, and I know how many layers of sound are in there. To be able to separate that out and spatially position stuff makes it all much more audible.
And that’s the thing — when you’ve got multilayered recordings, it’s almost a shame that you don’t hear the detail that’s there, you know? It’s like one of those optical illusions when you see a picture in a certain way, and then you can’t stop seeing it that way. The same thing applies to sound, so I’m all for it.
Because of all the layering that goes on with each Marillion album, if I’m listening to them in a streaming or MP3 form, I feel like I’m missing half of the audio picture. Any low-grade file just isn’t going to have that information there.
“We don’t spend three years writing and recording a new record for it to be listened to with a crappy, lossy format like MP3.”
Yeah, though I think you listen on different levels. If you’re listening at a low-grade level, you’re listening more for the song. If you’re listening to it through iTunes, I’m sure it’s still enjoyable. You can still hear the melodies and the chord structures.
But there’s certainly a lot more to it than that. We don’t spend three years writing and recording a new record for it to be listened to with a crappy, lossy format like MP3. But that’s the way quite a lot of people listen to music now.
At least there are high-resolution options for downloads, and you guys are cutting things at 96kHz/24-bit, which is the critical part of the equation.
We do record everything at 96k/24-bit these days. It’s all there at that resolution. And I’m sure as the bandwidth keeps going up and the capacity goes beyond 5G, streaming at those high-resolution-level audio qualities is not going to be a problem in the future.
And you won’t have to use up an entire hard drive to save an album like FEAR on it in its full hi-res form, either. Some artists have told me they can’t record at 96/24 because it takes up too much space if they have 40 or 50 tracks banked per song.
It’s not really a valid complaint anymore these days, is it? Storage is so cheap now, you know? I use a cloud storage service that allows me to back up unlimited data. That’s how cheap storage is.
It’s no small thing to say you guys were pioneers in the field of crowdfunding, is it?
Yeah. It’s been a bit of a learning curve for us, but obviously, we started out the whole crowdfunding thing in 2000 with Anoraknophobia. We did a special version of that album for the people who preordered it. At that point, nobody else was doing that.
[12,674 copies of Anoraknophobia were pre-ordered prior to the album’s actual recording, essentially ushering in the crowdfunding era in full force. Anoraknophobia was ultimately released in May 2001.]
Next, we did a big box for [2004’s] Marbles, and then in 2007, with Somewhere Else, we didn’t need to ask people to buy it in advance. In the early days, it was necessary so that we didn’t have to sign another terrible record contract. By the time we got to Somewhere Else, we thought — well, it was actually me who said it: “You know, we don’t need to ask people to pay for it in advance, so let’s just do a ‘normal’ CD for it.”
And we did, but so many people complained: “Ahh, it’s such a shame you didn’t do a preorder,” and “we love the special edition and the idea that you can have your name in the booklet.” They love all the extra stuff. We realized then that it was just like you were saying — people want the package. People want more than just a CD in a plastic case, so that’s the market we’re catering to.
Let’s talk more about FEAR One of my favorite sound elements of the album comes in Vapour Trails in the Sky
I’m going to have to confess this to you now — we didn’t divide the songs into subsections until very late in the process when h [vocalist Steve Hogarth] came along and said, “Here are my suggestions for the titles of these subsections.” And h had good reasons for them. He thought it helped focus what each of these sections was about.
We spend a lot of time trying to find great melodies and create nice musical passages, but we still want to challenge our listeners.
But the real reason we had a big discussion about it is some people may not necessarily want to listen to an entire 20-minute song — they may only want to hear them in five-minute increments.
There was also a commercial reason. On streaming services like Spotify, you only get paid by the song. The Leavers is almost 20 minutes long, and it would be counted as one track. The same thing goes with publishing — in the United States, they pay something like 9 cents per track, up to a maximum of 10 tracks per album. So if you’ve only got five tracks on an album, you’re only getting half of the potential money.
When you look at those old Yes albums, you see they’ve got all those sections on the long songs, like Total Mass Retain in [1972’s] Close to the Edge, and then how Starship Trooper (the last track on 1971’s The Yes Album) starts with Life Seeker.
Right, and then came the Disillusion section, followed by Würm.
Yes! (hums melody) That was Würm. Uh oh, we’re showing our Yes geek credentials here! (both laugh) Anyway, that was probably why they did it that way. The reason I tell you all that is because I have absolutely no idea what Vapour Trails in the Sky actually is in terms of the music. We only worked with the full titles while we were recording.
If it helps you any, that’s the section I call “echoes of Echoes,” because some of what you were doing in that sequence is a nod to Pink Floyd’s Echoes [the epic, album-side-long 23-minute track from 1971’s Meddle].
I’m on Spotify right now, and I’m going to find it. It’s in The Leavers, and it’s Part III. I’m playing it now, so let’s see what it is. (Song starts playing in background) Ah, OK, I’ve got it! This is a good section, I agree!
Now I’m going to tell you something about that one. That whole instrumental bit — what I’m calling The Dream Sequence — didn’t exist. At first, we had these two piano sections butting up against one another. It sounded a bit cabaret or Broadway, and we were not quite sure it worked.
Then [guitarist] Steve Rothery said, “It would be nice if we had something more guitar-based in there, just to split those two piano sections up.” We said, “OK, what do you have in mind”? And he said, “Well, how about this?” He played this one riff, and we all joined in and played along.
And it’s one of my favorite sections of the song, even though it was added almost as an afterthought. It represents the idea of being on the tour bus and traveling through the night. Everyone else has gone to bed, so it’s a sort-of dream sequence. I think it works really well.
Did you ever feel you had to hold things back in older mixes because there just wasn’t enough room for all of what you did with the keyboards and synths back in the original vinyl days? Did you have to edit yourself differently?
No, though I think there was less choice in the old days. You had the Minimoog [portable synthesizer], organ, piano, Mellotron strings, Roland Jupiter-8 [analog synth], and things like that. But now, there’s such a wide range of sounds, and there are some really interesting sounds you can develop.
What you tend to find now is you come up with something that has such a “huge” sound — like the big, loud sound in El Dorado. It’s a multilayered sound, and there’s a lot going on there.
Of course, it was one of those rare times where I played that and everybody went, “Ah, that’s great! We’ve got to use that!” The whole band didn’t pile in and play on it because it just sounds fantastic on its own. As soon as you get it into the full-band situation, it sounds really small, somehow.
We always make sure with whatever we’re doing that it’s complementary to what the lyrics are saying. With El Dorado, you had that opening with the English country garden setting, and the birds. And then the thunder approaches, giving you that sense of foreboding. So that big synth was the musical equivalent of what h was singing about.
In the introductions to some of the songs, you’re just playing a little piano backup to what h is singing before the full arrangement unfolds, and that all serves the song first. If you don’t have a good song to start with, you can’t make it better just by putting it into 5.1.
We spend a lot of time trying to find great melodies and really nice musical passages. Where we make it difficult for the listener is we quite often don’t repeat them. In a 15-minute song, you’ll hear something that will only go past once. So you have to listen to the song three or four times before you go, “Ohhh yeah — that’s a good bit!”
Where in most pop songs, you’ve got verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and by the time you get to the end of the song, you’ve heard the chorus already three times — or maybe even four times — and you know it. And then you’re locked in.
But we make it a bit of a challenge, I suppose. People like yourself and our regular fans know that. Some people will say, “I usually think I’m not going to like Marillion stuff when I first hear it. But when I listen to it three or four times, it ends up being something that I really love.” They know they have to work it a bit — and that’s a good thing.