Songwriter Interviews

Steve Hogarth of Marillion

by Greg Prato

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By Steve Hogarth's estimate, he can spot 30 percent of Marillion's fans if he passed them on the street. "We have a very hardcore fan base," he says.

Many of these fans have been there since 1983, when the band released their first album, Script for a Jester's Tear. Two years later, they went to #1 in their UK homeland with the album Misplaced Childhood, which bore their only American chart entry, "Kayleigh," a heartbreak song that reached #74.

Steve came on board in 1989, replacing founding member Fish as lead singer and lyricist. He quickly learned their piecemeal and painstaking songwriting style, designed to flesh out the best ideas and encourage inspiration. Thanks to SoundClound, the logistics are easier, but it still takes years to make an album.

Their latest, F--k Everyone And Run (FEAR), available September 23, is their 18th album. Steve spoke with us about several of the key tracks and broke down this unusual songwriting process.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's begin by discussing the new Marillion album, FEAR.

Steve Hogarth: It was written over the last three years or so - maybe even longer. Some of the words have been around longer than that. We wrote by jamming in our studio - we've been jamming on and off between touring for a number of years now.

It's the same process we've always had except perhaps in the old days we would jam and record everything to stereo, and then go through everything we had. These days, it's going down on multi-tracks, so we have the added option of using elements of the jam instead of the whole band, or marrying other elements, like running a loop to something that didn't have a loop.

The process is one where the band jams every day, weeks, months, and then eventually years, and along the way, those jams are listened to and any good moments - if there are any - are put to one side, and we uploaded the good moments to SoundCloud. We have our own private account on SoundCloud, and each of the band assembled folders of their favorite things. And if everybody liked something, if there was a moment that was unanimously loved, it would go into another folder that would become the working folder that we'd then revisit and write the songs from those ideas.

While the band is jamming in the studio, I'm sitting behind a microphone with a laptop full of words that I'd written over the years, and I'm looking for whatever I think feels right to try along with whatever the band is randomly creating in that moment. As you can imagine, a lot of the time, it doesn't really work out, but it's the happy accidents that become the starting points for the songs. We've been working like that ever since I joined the band in '89.

It's very time consuming, but it ensures a certain degree of inspiration. You don't have to just sit there staring at a blank page until something bursts into the room with a chord sequence. They tend to happen on their own. And if they're interesting, we go back and work out what we did. So it's quite an interesting way of working, but it's very time consuming.

A good thing about it is that working from the accidents, you can handpick things that perhaps don't sound like anything you've done before, and you can therefore design the record to be a move away from other stuff you've done. So that might go some way to explain why our music seems to move around from album to album.

Songfacts: You said that the majority of the songwriting happens in jams. Are there any examples of Marillion songs in the past that weren't from jams, that perhaps a member brought in as a fully-completed song?

Hogarth: Yes, actually. I brought "Easter" to the band when I first joined - back when we were writing Seasons End [1989]. That was more or less complete - certainly through the main body of the song. The band then added the 5/4 time section at the end.

But the song was essentially written. There might have been one or two others over the years that I've gone to the band with, but for the most part, I learned really early on that those things tend to get rejected. Their noses get turned up because, "Oh, it's just a piano and voice thing." They're looking for something a little bit more radical than the well-trodden path, I suppose.

Songfacts: What is the meaning behind the new album's title?

Hogarth: The album is called Fuck Everyone and Run. That's a line lifted from the song "The New Kings," which is a reaction to the financial meltdown in the Western economy a few years back. Bear in mind, most of these words have been around for three or four years now, so that was a reaction to a protest to the people that presided over that financial catastrophe, and then kind of resigned and walked off into the sunset with huge bonuses paid to them by the banks that they have destroyed. And how is that fair, when the little guys have to pick up the pieces?

Here in the UK, two or three of the banks were nationalized and the taxpayer then collectively took on those debts, which the taxpayer hadn't created, whilst CEOs of those same banks moved quietly to Monaco and became fabulously rich. So, somebody should say something about that, and that someone is me.

This is our 18th album. We're at a point where I don't know how many more albums we're going to make, so I've decided that it is time to pin my colors to the mast and say things that I feel are important, rather than write another love song. So when I sing "Fuck everyone and run" in "The New Kings," I'm singing it in falsetto - very quietly and tenderly. And sadly. What I'm really saying is, "This seems to be the prevailing mood in the world at the moment, and isn't it a shame? Isn't it sad that it's come to this?"

What sounds like an angry, almost punk statement when you hear it, it actually isn't. It's in many ways quite the reverse. It's sung in sadness rather than in anger.

Songfacts: Let's discuss the lyrical inspiration behind "The New Kings" a bit more.

Hogarth: The lyrical inspiration is the failure of the banks, the way the CEOs walked away, having been rewarded for the mistakes they made.

It's also about the Russian oligarchs. In 1989, there was no money in Russia, and not that long after, there are now God knows how many billionaires buying up Geneva, Monaco, and London, and our football teams. You've got to wonder how much of that money is straight.

"The New Kings" is also about the compromise of our democracies by big money - the influence of big money and the corporations on our systems of government. I guess it's worse in America, because you can't even run for the presidency unless you're fabulously wealthy. At least in the UK, it's not a given - ordinary people can rise to those heady levels of power.

Songfacts: What about "Thankyou Whoever You Are"?

Hogarth: That was inspired by my own children, actually. It was a little love song to my son, who wasn't that old at the time. He was a baby.

But it was also inspired as a statement of thanks to people you haven't even met. So in that sense, it was aimed at our own fans - we're indebted to our fans. I mean, we're probably the band who knows most of our fans! I recognize probably 30 percent of them if they pass me on the street, because I'm so used to seeing them over the years.

We have a very hardcore fan base. There is a lot of them, but we do get to see them fairly often. Over the years, you get to recognize the faces, and you get to know a few of them as well. Some of our fans have become good friends. Some of our fans have even represented us in court! [Laughs] We've got barristers and company executives amongst our fans now. They are occasionally a godsend.

Songfacts: "The Damage"?

Hogarth: "The Damage" is really about infidelity, and the damage done. The power of beauty. Not only the damage done, but the potential damage waiting in the air, waiting to be done. Be careful what you wish for and all of that.

Songfacts: "You're Gone"?

Hogarth: "You're Gone" was about love lost. About desperately missing someone. It was also about my father to some degree - I lost him shortly before I wrote that song.

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

Hogarth: John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Paddy McAloon, Joe Jackson, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen - the "wordy folk" I guess. People who have written inspiring lyrics or real stuff. The people who weren't frightened to expose uncomfortable areas of their own lives and of their own hearts. It takes a lot of courage to do that. It's not comfortable.

I admire people like John Lennon particularly, because it's easier to speak out now than it was when he was speaking out. He was speaking out in a time when his own culture was wrapped up pretty tight by the establishment, and he spearheaded that whole '60s thing, of rethinking how you might live, and rethinking what a healthy set of values really are. He rewrote the book.

A lot of what he had to say back then earned him a lot of scorn and a lot of resentment from the establishment. And interestingly, all these years later, I'd say about 95 percent of what John Lennon said at his most vitriolic and controversial is now thought of as politically correct, across the board. So he was speaking what was really sense, and being really reviled for it in a lot of quarters.

It's easier for me - a lot of water has gone under the bridge. I think writers are much freer to speak out than they were back then. I wrote a song called "Gaza" on the last album, which is about the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and sure I got a bit of flak for that. Interestingly, the most vitriol I got for having written "Gaza" were from Jews who lived a long way from Israel and perhaps knew less about the situation than Israelis living in Israel. I had very little negative feedback from Israel itself. But quite a bit of indignation from around the world. I expected it.

But even so, I didn't get the kind of flak if I'd written that 20 years ago - someone probably would have put a bomb through my window. [Laughs] It's a different world. It's still courageous to do it, but not on the same scale as it once was.

September 19, 2016.
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Photos: Freddy Billqvis (2), Alison Toon (3)

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Comments: 1

  • Rene Huis In 't Veld from NetherlandsGood interview...!!! The only thing I'm missing is the 'crowdfunding' part... H. lyrically tells us what's wrong with our banks & their bankingsystem on the FEAR-album, but in fact he's calling anyone of us to 're-educate' that system. Marillion is one of the founding fathers of the crowdfunding-model and without that model, Kickstarter for example, wouldn't have existed. So in other words, the 'crowdfunding-model' may well be in the end the salvation of the bankingsystem, yet it takes a total overhaul of the current bankingsystem & the curent bankingmodel.
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