Armed with uncommon axes and amps, a raft of stompboxes, and mojo borrowed from his 6-string heroes, the veteran prog-rocker creates a world of vivid soundscapes on the band’s new crowd-funded album.
Very few bands make exciting music by the time they get to their 18th album. What generally separates nostalgia acts from innovators is the virility of their creative output. Prog-rockers Marillion still fall into the latter category, as their latest album, F.E.A.R., attests. They’ve long been recognized as pioneers both musically and entrepreneurially, but the secret to inspired longevity, according to guitarist Steve Rothery, is not necessarily Marillion’s individuality, but rather their chemistry.
“We are quite unique,” he humbly states. “Not only in the way that we write and fund our music, but also in the fact that there’s still this amazing creative spark between us. It’s something most bands have long since lost by this time.”
Marillion was formed in 1979 in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England. History divides the band into two distinct eras: The first featured vocalist Fish and emerged from the post-punk music scene in Britain, basically creating the neo-progressive genre almost singlehandedly. They garnered their most significant commercial milestones throughout their first 10 years, scoring eight top 10 U.K. albums and sales in excess of 15 million discs. Their sound throughout this period was most often compared to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, and albums like Script for a Jester’s Tear (1983) and Fugazi (1984) remain hallmarks in the band’s discography.
The second era, which began in 1989 and continues to the present, features vocalist Steve Hogarth. Though they haven’t been as commercially successful in this period, they did pioneer the crowd funding phenomena and were one of the first bands to really exploit the potential of the internet. Marillion has maintained a stable line-up for 27 years—a major accomplishment. Musically, they’ve been compared to Radiohead, Coldplay, and even Muse, but this is simply coincidence, rather than the result of any actual influences, according to Rothery.
“It’s just evolution, really,” he explains. “The real danger for a band is to start repeating itself, and I think we’ve done an amazing job over the years not to do that. For some people the band is always going to be associated with those first four albums with Fish, because that’s when we had the most commercial success. But these days we’re a different kind of animal. We’re survivors and we’re highly acclaimed. The buzz about the new album is amazing.”
It has been 37 years since Rothery joined Marillion—quite literally a lifetime.At this point, he’s the band’s longest continuous member and his expressionistic guitar playing has come to define their music in many ways. Rothery applies himself to his craft much like an auteur blending light and shade, but using a variety of guitars and pedals instead of cameras and lighting.
On F.E.A.R., Rothery whips his palette of effects into a delicately crafted musical maelstrom that conveys an epic, almost cinematic scope. On “El Dorado: I. Long-Shadowed Sun,” the album’s opening number, his acoustic playing reveals immense technical facility—the purpose of which is to simply and effortlessly underscore the melody and the song. Yet it also evokes bucolic imagery of the English countryside. His lyrical, effect-infused guitar melodies on songs like “The Leavers: III. Vapour Trails in the Sky” reverberate with a Fellini-like blend of fantasy and earthiness, while his solo in “The Leavers: IV. The Jumble of Days” hints at the sonically surreal side of David Gilmour and Pink Floyd. Rothery’s ability to layer guitars and complement Mark Kelly’s keyboards is an art form unto itself. The music always remains spacious and buoyant, as demonstrated by his 6/8 melody on “The New Kings: II. Russia’s Locked Doors,” which draws inspiration from Eastern European folk music.
Aside from featuring grandiose guitar playing, F.E.A.R. was recorded at 96 kHz in Pro Tools, which, along with top-notch song craftsmanship, makes it an audiophile’s dream. Producer and engineer Mike Hunter, who’s done their previous three albums, was at the helm again.
“He’s our resident engineer/producer,” explains Rothery. “Our George Martin.” Other than a week at Real World Studios, which is owned, incidentally, by Peter Gabriel,most of F.E.A.R. was recorded at Marillion’s own studio, the Racket Club.
No Marillion album would be complete without a bit of irony. The F.E.A.R. acronym reveals itself in “The New Kings: I. Fuck Everyone and Run.” Rothery says, “It’s a sad reflection of the attitude of a lot of people in the world—exploit others and to hell with the consequences. Be it fracking and polluting the groundwater or whatever you see too much of in contemporary life.”
Premier Guitar caught up with Rothery by phone as he was preparing for Marillion’s fall U.S. tour. He spoke about the band’s strategy for funding albums, the current line-up’s longevity, the F.E.A.R. concept, his classic guitar influences, and the glorious boatload of gear he used to create the album’s sonic tableau.
There are so many layers to the music on F.E.A.R. that one can discover something new with each listen.
It’s interesting, the way some of these sections develop. There’s one section in “The New Kings” where part of it is coming from two years ago, then it goes into a section that we jammed on earlier this year. And those have been combined. It’s a fascinating tapestry of takes and ideas that Mike Hunter, the producer, worked his magic on.
Is F.E.A.R. a concept album? “El Dorado,” “The Leavers,” and “The New Kings” all have subtitles or are suites.
There are definitely threads that run through various tracks on the record. Especially with “El Dorado” and “The New Kings”—this whole sense of the coming storm and a sense of dissatisfaction. “The Leavers” and “White Paper” are about the human cost of touring and the stress that places on relationships and your life as a human being. But it’s not a concept album as such. There are just common threads that tend to weave through different tracks.
As a guitarist you seem to rely more on the ethereal and nuanced aspects of the craft, like mood, rather than technique, per se. Would you agree?
Yeah, it’s what I tend to do. For me, the guitar should be emotional. It should resonate with people. Sometimes that’s playing a lead lick and sometimes it’s playing two or three notes, with the right sound, to paint a picture. It’s textural and cinematic. A lot of my favorite music is from film soundtracks.
What about other outside influences? F.E.A.R. starts with birds and bees. Nature can be a great source of musical inspiration.
I’m more of a country boy than a city person. North Yorkshire, where I grew up, is a small fishing town, so the countryside and the sea were influential. There’s also a slight English folk influence in what I do that comes through sometimes.
Who are some of your guitar influences?
When I started, people like David Gilmour, Andy Latimer, and Steve Hackett were my main influences, but since then, loads of other people, from Santana to Van Halen to Jeff Beck to Jimmy Page—that whole era of ’70s guitarists.
In “El Dorado: IV. F E A R,” there’s a Leslie rotary speaker sound layered in the song’s climax. What are you using there?
A lot of the end of “El Dorado” is a Hughes & Kettner Rotosphere pedal, which is one of my favorite sounds, really. It’s got the character of a Leslie, but it’s not quite the same, and because it’s a valve pedal it adds this great atmosphere you don’t get with any digital pedal that sets out to emulate a Leslie.
What’s your process for layering guitar sounds?
There’s the main part and then there are the parts you bring in to add emphasis in the heavier sections. In those sections I’ll bring in different heavy chord sounds. I use a Groove Tubes Trio preamp a lot of the time, and I might layer that with a Kingsley Jester Overdrive pedal into a Pitcher Shadow amp, which is like a Dumble amp, made by a guy named Whit Pitcher down in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Finding different heavy sounds to combine, as opposed to just tracking the same sound multiple times, really helps to add depth and thicken the music.
“Eldorado: II. The Gold” seems to draw from a similar template.
It’s not that large a palette that I tend to draw upon. There are certain sounds that I love. I use a GigRig G2 at the front end normally when I’m writing and recording, and I’ve got a selection of stompboxes at the front end, like a Prince of Tone or King of Tone, Jester Overdrive, Analog Man Mini-Chorus, Keeley tremolo, and an Electro-Harmonix POG and Pitch Fork. I like to use analog on the front end. Then it comes into the Groove Tubes Trio with a TC 2290. Within the loop of the 2290 I have other things, like the Rotosphere and an AdrenaLinn pedal, and that goes into a Lexicon reverb. And then, in the loop of the Pitcher, there are Strymon delays and reverbs. Sometimes I run both independently, which gives me a very wide spread.
You play predominantly in standard tuning, correct?
We occasionally drop a half-step. The beginning of “El Dorado” is in open tuning—open D with a capo. The guitar on that also has this thing called a Vo-96. Paul Vo, who did some work for Moog down in Asheville, North Carolina, came up with this system. It’s almost like a polyphonic EBow. It generates magnetic fields to vibrate the strings, but it does it at different harmonic intervals and cycles between them. So at the beginning of the album, when you hear something that almost sounds like an organ come up underneath, that was another take of the same guitar part, using my Farida acoustic with the Vo-96 driving the strings.
Fitting for a prog-rock explorer, Rothery makes extensive use of effects. Core in his go-to stompbox playbook are a Hughes & Kettner Tube Rotosphere, a Kingsley Jester Overdrive, and Analog Man’s Prince of Tone and King of Tone overdrives. Photo by Alison Toon
In what ways does picking technique affect your tone?
How hard you hold the pick, or the angle that the pick is hitting the string, or the material of the pick—all those things change your tone. All of these little tiny things just add to your vocabulary. It’s like varying the speed and depth of your vibrato, rather than being like a switch that you throw.
What excites you most about the guitar?
The possibilities. The guitar is such an amazing instrument. It has the power to convey emotion more than virtually anything else other than the human voice—and that’s what I try to do with the guitar, in terms of bending and vibrato. Emotion is more important than speed. My philosophy is that it’s communication, and sometimes you can say more in a few words than if you rattle off a run-on sentence. It’s better to say one thing that means something.
What advice do you have for developing as a guitarist?
Find music that moves you emotionally. Try to get a variety of influences and steal from as many people as possible. When you combine all the music you enjoy, it becomes your musical personality. And listen to the role of the guitar within great songs. Listen to George Harrison in the Beatles or “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd. There’s a lot to be learned from the things that just work—the things that are just right.
The current line-up of Marillion has been together since 1989. To what do you attribute such stability?
Intuitively understanding one another musically and personally. You can’t do this without being slightly crazy, and we’re each eccentric in our own way. It becomes a family and sometimes you have little flare-ups, what with personalities and life being what it is, but we’re very quick to forgive each other. It’s one of the reasons we have this amazing stability. We enjoy each other’s company. If there’s any friction it’s soon forgotten.
How democratic is the songwriting process in Marillion?
It depends song-by-song and section-by-section. We all get together, jam around ideas, record everything into Pro Tools, and then put stereo versions of the best ideas up on a private SoundCloud account. Then we’ll personally rate the ideas and start working on the ones we all like as the building blocks of songs. Sometimes it’s a keyboard-based section and sometimes it’s a guitar-based section, and quite often we’ll combine them within one song, so it’ll go off into another direction, like in the first track, “El Dorado.” It keeps the music fresh and interesting. It’s not dominated by any one writer.
Marillion is often cited as the pioneers of crowd funding and one of the first bands to tap into the potential of the internet. How did that come about?
It started in 1997 really. We were in a situation where we had a lot of American fans, but we couldn’t afford the $60,000 it would cost just to tour there for a month. This was in the very early days of the internet. There wasn’t much of a worldwide web, but there was a thing called the Freaks Mailing List, which a lot of Marillion fans were on. It was just a text-based mailing list. And somebody on there had the bright idea of starting a tour fund to subsidize bringing the band across. He opened a bank account and donations started flooding in. By the end of it they’d raised over $70,000.
Wow! Were you surprised?
The amazing thing was that it wasn’t just American fans coming into this. The biggest single contribution was from an English guy. It was like this global community of fans. We gave everyone who made a contribution a live album from one of the shows. It made us very much aware of the power of this new thing called the internet.
And that led to the development of a website and crowd funding?
At the end of that tour our keyboard tech, who was a bit of a wizard with design and computers, came back to the U.K. and we set up our first rudimentary website. I think we were one of the first bands in the U.K. to have one.
How did that lead to crowd funding your albums?
We had eight albums on EMI, on a major label, then three albums with an independent with a resulting loss in sales and profile. So, then we were in a situation of trying to decide what we were going to do, because we had different offers on the table from other independents, and I think it was Mark who had the idea of emailing our fans and asking if they’d be willing to pay for an album a year before we made it, which was the Anoraknophobia album in 2001. We then licensed it to EMI to be released around the world.
Was that literally the birth of crowd funding?
If you look in Wikipedia, we are cited as the originators of the model. We crowd funded F.E.A.R. through PledgeMusic, a U.K.-based crowd funding company. I crowd funded my solo album, The Ghosts of Pripyat (2014), about a year-and-a-half ago through Kickstarter, which was a great success. If you’ve got any kind of fan base, it’s a very important part of releasing a record nowadays.
It’s become more and more important to be involved. The record companies struggle. They’ve taken their shares in Spotify and done their deals with all of the other streaming services, but basically their income streams are still shrinking rapidly and they’re consolidating. In the U.K., Warner Bros absorbed EMI. So you’ve only got four major labels now, and most of the other labels are subsidiaries of them. For an artist who wants to make a career out of music, but not necessarily sign to a major label, it’s important to have control of your career, and you can potentially raise a lot more money than you would ever get as an advance from a major label.
Like many songs on Marillion’s new album, F.E.A.R., “The New Kings” reflect “this whole sense of the coming storm and a sense of dissatisfaction,” says guitarist Steve Rothery.