It's been a long time coming, but Marillion are finally heading back on the road again in November on their 'Light at the End of the Tunnel' U.K. tour. The fans may have missed it, but then again, so have the band. "Every night on this tour is just going to be incredible; just walking on that stage. Yeah, it’s going to be emotional", affirms Steve Rothery as we sit down to chat. Talking the band's eagerly anticipated new album, their ongoing reissue campaign, and guitar techniques, we get in-depth with the guitarist. Man of a thousand faces; Eamon O’Neill
Hi Steve, how are you doing?
Yeah, I’m good. I’m back to walking 5k a day and eating healthily. The summer was a bit of a blip. Sometimes the whole pandemic thing kind of gets to you, especially when you think things are going to get easier, and the whole delta variant situation came around and bit us all on the ass. Other than that, yeah, I’m good!
You must be looking forward to finally getting out there and playing live.
I’m looking forward to the Marillion tour, and the new Marillion album’s sounding fantastic, so yeah, it’s all go here!
The pandemic has obviously had a huge effect on the band’s plans, but it’s been a long wait for fans for a follow-up to ‘F.E.A.R.’, which was released in 2016.
It’s crazy. It’s around five or six years, but when you’re as busy as we are touring, and then the Marillion Weekends and then the last two years have been pretty slow. I mean, we carried on working together, and there were times when the four of them were working without me because I was shielding, but I’ve got a studio at home so I could carry on doing bits and pieces here. I think, considering the situation, we’ve come up with something quite exceptional.
Are you feeling the pressure, after the huge success of ‘F.E.A.R.’?
It’s always difficult to follow and album as critically and commercially successful as ‘F.E.A.R.’, really. How do you follow something that people love so much?! But I think we’ve done it with this one. We will wait and see!
Did that success take you by surprise?
Well, we started to get some positive publicity with the ‘Sound that Can’t be Made’ album . One of the guys at the Guardian who’s sadly died was a bit of a champion of the band, and yeah, we got great reviews for that. But yeah, ‘F.E.A.R.’ was quite astonishing really, the response from everyone; from the fans and from the media. And then playing it live, it’s quite a challenge for people to sit through, but that first Royal Albert Hall show; if you can pull it off, you finish up with something quite exceptional.
That show, along with the 1986 Milton Keynes gig must surly rank among your highlights with the band?
Yeah, absolutely. They’re probably up there in the top ten gigs ever. The Royal Albert Hall show was just such an incredible experience, to walk on that stage. The energy, and the love and the passion from the crowd just carried you along, really. It’s just so amazing we were filming and we managed to capture that, because I don’t think we’ll ever make a better concert film than that [‘All One Tonight’, 2018]. A lot of the shows that we did with Fish were fantastic shows as well, but the Royal Albert Hall show, the ‘All One Tonight’ show is probably in my top three, ever.
‘Fugazi’ has been the latest set to receive a deluxe reissue; what’s it been back looking back over the band’s albums for the series?
Sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge because you have to try and rack your brain, usually about the sequence of events, but it was fun. It was great to see; like the Swiss TV show that we did that was on the special edition. That was that line-up of the band at its peak, I’d say; the way that we played together, the tightness, even though ‘Fugazi’ was a bit of a strange album to make because of the pressures we were under. It almost felt like it got away from us a little bit; partly because of budgets and the amount of time that we took, and then, going off on tour before the album came out was all very strange. But looking back now, I wouldn’t say it was my favourite album, but I would say it’s got some real high points in it. I mean, ‘Incubus’ and ‘Fugazi’ itself, I think, are two great tracks.
Given that Marillion rarely perform any ‘Fugazi’ material, you must relish the chance to play those tracks live with the Steve Rothery Band.
Yes, absolutely. I mean, it might be that in some point in the future we do the whole of the ‘Fugazi’ album, which would be a challenge. ‘Fugazi’ is a very important album for me because for a start, it’s when I defined, I think, what I wanted to do in terms of guitar sound. I started using the Roland JC 120 after our first American tour and I kind of fell in love; both with the clean sound and the solo sound with the DS 1 distortion pedal. So, things like the ‘Incubus’ solo; I feel like I’d found my holy grail in terms of the sound that worked so well with my approach, even though when you listen to the sound of the original version of ‘Fugazi’, it had that kind of ‘80s harshness to it, which I think [remix engineers] Andy [Bradfield] and Avril ]Mackintosh] have really helped tame. I don’t think it’s ever sounded better than it’s sounded now.
Speaking of solos, when you’re writing them, do they just arrive, or do you have to labour over them?
I’ve got no idea where it comes from; I just try not to do the obvious thing, and try and surprise myself. Other than that, quite often I have to listen to it and work out what the hell I did because it’s not through that rational, conscious, mathematical part of the brain; it’s a lot more the musical equivalent of finger painting. You just go in somewhere and try to find something that sounds fresh to you, and that you’re not trying to sound like anyone else. I think that’s very difficult with the guitar because there’s always the tendency to copy the favourite licks of your favourite players and throw them in here and there, and I try really hard to avoid that.
You have a style that is uniquely yours.
There’s so much that you can still say on the guitar that hasn’t been said, and sometimes it’s just little, tiny subtleties of rhythm, phrasing and dynamics, and how you approach the instrument where you consciously don't follow down that minor, or pentatonic blues licks. Somewhere in there world there’s maybe five or ten thousand guitarists all playing exactly the same thing, so it's trying to break through that and find all this rich potential, still, in phrasing and dynamics. I think once technique became so important to players maybe at the end of the ‘80s, the beginning of the ‘90s, you kind of got that Olympic sport shredding approach, and maybe some players just lost sight of what it was that people wanted to listen to. At the end of the day, if you play the guitar it’s a sort of communication; it’s non-verbal, but you’re expressing emotions and moods, and you can’t do that if you’re just shredding. You’re not communicating anything other than how fast you can play.
You’re a fan of David Gilmour, but you tend to do the opposite of him, with little half-step bends where he’ll bend two steps sometimes.
Yeah. Maybe Steve Hackett does that occasionally, but Hackett, Gilmour and Andy Latimer were the three main influences as my style developed. My music knowledge is pretty patchy, but just understanding it enough to see which notes you bend a tone, or a tone and a half if you’re doing a Gilmour or the semitone up to the minor thirds, and sometimes micro-bends – where you’re not even going a half tone – all these different ways of making the guitar expressive. Especially vibrato as well, that’s one of the most important things for me; it makes the guitar sing, so I’ve worked on that an awful lot; probably to the detriment of my hand position. It’s about having maximum control for bending and vibrato, and not necessarily for playing like legato passages, but that’s just how my style’s evolved. I try and play in a different way and it’s just not natural to me.
We have in the past talked about how you employed a technique you learned in a Hot Licks video – sweep picking – in ‘Easter’.
Yeah, it was Vinnie Moore. I just thought it would be a very cool thing just to throw in very occasionally. If you did that all the time it would stop meaning anything, but if you surprise people with it, it can be a cool thing.
I’ve also noticed it at the tail end of the main riff to ‘Hooks in You’.
Yeah, a little bit; not quite the five notes, but I do a little sweep arpeggio on the chords.
The video for ‘Hooks in You’ saw you wielding a Charvel Model 6; I was surprised to learn that you actually sold it about eighteen years ago!
Yeah, the thing with the Charvel, it was such a strange guitar. For a start, it was very much like ‘80s rock, like you felt like you had to have big hair to play that guitar! But it was incredibly easy to play. The neck was really, really fast, and because it was a neck-through body construction, having the Kahler [tremolo system] on it didn’t really seem to steel any sustain like it does with a Strat. It was also an active guitar, and I found it quite hard at times to dial in a sound with it that didn’t sound a bit – not ‘nasty’ exactly, but it was just like, too loud. I almost bought another one actually; I found the exact same guitar that’s for sale, and I made an offer but we couldn’t agree a price. It’s one of those things where I’d buy it and probably want to change the pickups, so I’m not sure I could justify the cost.
Do you own a lot of guitars?
I really have no idea! Probably about thirty, I think.
Do you still have that amazing double-neck from the ‘Beautiful’ video?
Oh yeah. It’s a Steinberger double neck that was custom made for me at the beginning of the ‘90s. As far as I know it’s the only one in the world that has three single coils. It’s normally two singles and a humbucker, so it’s literally priceless - probably fifty grand upwards - because they’re normally going for twenty-odd. It’s got the transposing trem, which I use on some things like ‘Cannibal Surf Babe’. It just has that sound; it's very chimey, and I use it on ‘Gazpacho’ as well. I don’t tend to use it so much these days.
Back to the deluxe editions series, and which one is coming next?
‘Holidays in Eden’ will be the next one, which has already been remixed by Steven Taylor who did an incredible job. It’s put a lot of the rock ‘n’ roll back into it. I think people are going to be blown away by it. I know I was. I always struggled with the aspect of the sound of ‘Holidays in Eden’, but he’s really made it sound quite powerful and magical.
The struggle you mention, is that because it’s got quite a polished production?
Exactly. He reduced some of the polish. He’s a great mixer. He’s the guy who did the Kate Bush live ‘Before the Dawn’ album, and he’s done a couple of mixes for me for my next solo album, and he’s just great at capturing that energy, really. He understands guitars, and he’s worked with everyone from Rush to XTC. If you look at his CV on Wikipedia, he really has been there.
Speaking of which, ‘Radiation’ is probably the best example of a Marillion album that has benefited from a remix, with the ‘Radiation 2013’ release.
Yeah. I think Mike [Hunter] did a great job. The original album, I struggled with. I was under a lot of pressure to have a different approach in terms of guitar sounds, and I did my best. I think the original mixes of the album just didn’t have the magic maybe, that some of our other releases have had, and I think the 2013 version goes quite a way to redressing those concerns.
You said you were under pressure to approach playing differently; was that from yourself, the band, or the producer?
There was just… how can you say in a politically correct way? There was a feeling within certain elements that my guitar sounds, I should try and do something a little bit more high-energy and raw. Maybe they had a point; the whole Roland, chorused sound that I’d used since ‘Fugazi’, I’d used quite a bit [laughing]! But you know, you can find a happy medium with that, and I think something like ‘Born to Run’ has the best of both worlds. You don’t have to throw everything away that you’ve built up over the previous thirty-odd years away. But anyway, it was good to experiment, but I’d like to think I know what is a good guitar sound!
I suppose the logical question is, given the format of the EMI deluxe reissues, is there a temptation to continue the series, with the Castle-era albums and beyond?
Oh, I think everything eventually will be released in the same kind of format. I think there’s a desire from our audience to have that, to have like, the ultimate version and the live stuff, any sort of writing stuff. More of the same, I suppose really. I mean, we’re only going to make so many albums in our career, so you want the best possible version of each one.
We have to talk a little bit about forthcoming album ‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’.
I can’t really tell you much without giving anything away. It’s got some of my favourite moments from any Marillion song, on one song in particular. The end section, I think is probably the most moving thing that we’ve ever done. Yeah, some great guitar solos, loads of guitars on the record, and it’s quite rocky in places; quite a few power chords adding to the general rock ‘n’ roll mayhem of it! At times, it’s quite sort of modern-sounding, but not trendy, but at the same time quite fresh and interesting and exciting.
What Marillion album would you compare it to?
Maybe you could hint at it with ‘Afraid of Sunlight’ made in the style of F.E.A.R.’
So, with the upcoming ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’ shows, is there much wrestling over the set list?
Not usually. We’ve got it kind of down to an art now. We usually look at the songs that we played the last few tours and try not to repeat ourselves, but also to balance that with playing some of the Marillion favourites. Obviously, it’s been so many years since we played anyway, and I think that every night on this tour is just going to be incredible; just walking on that stage. After people living through this pandemic, to have a celebration of a live concert, yeah, it’s going to be emotional.
Elsewhere, you’re about to release ‘Live in London’ from your own Steve Rothery Band.
Yeah, it’s been a long time, but it's the two shows – the Bush Hall show and the Islington show. Yeah, great performance from my guys – they’re great at making me look good! Great lights too, very beautiful and artistic. It’s a blu ray with two full concerts, and a couple of audio CDs with the best of those two concerts, and I’ll release the two concerts on a download via my Bandcamp page, around about the time that the blu ray comes out at the beginning of November. I’ve just shared a couple of videos – ‘White Pass’ and ‘3 Boats Down From the Candy’, on my Facebook page.
Have you any plans to follow up ‘The Ghosts of Pripyat’?
Yes. I’m half way through my other solo project, my Revontulet, space-themed instrumental album - but I did do some more work with Dave [Foster] and Leon [Parr] last month actually, and we got two tracks together. So, I’d like to think that at some point next year we’ll have an album’s worth of new material to record. Like I say, I’ve just got to finish my other album off first. Now I’ve done all my parts for the Marillion album I can re-focus my energy onto that. I’ve got a track called ‘X-15’ that’ll be coming out at some point early next year that’s quite a short, but high-energy instrumental that Steve Hackett guests on, and that’s very, very exciting, and very different. Some of the music of that goes back to a recording session I did during the ‘Brave’ album ; the drums and bass on that.
What was that session like?
When we were at Parr Street [studios, Liverpool] making the ‘Brave’ album, I’d agreed to mix the first ‘Enchant’ album, so my friends Doug [Ott] and Paul [Craddick] flew over from California, and I then I did a couple of days jamming with Paul playing drums, and Pete Trewavas playing bass, and this ‘X-15’ track was born out of the ideas from that session.
Before we wrap up, can you name your top three Marillion albums, and why?
I think ‘Clutching at Straws’  is a great record. Again, it was quite a difficult record after the success of ‘Misplaced’ , but I think there’s some exceptional tracks on it. I could pick so many. There’s so many that I’m proud of, but probably ‘Afraid of Sunlight’ , because I think it’s as close to a perfect collection of songs as you could get, and then ‘F.E.A.R.’, if we’re not counting the new album, as it’s not finished yet! But you know, you could have a shout for ‘Marbles’ ; you could have a shout for ‘Season’s End’ , to come back after such a major change with something so strong. So yeah, I’m spoilt for choice, really.
And at the other end of that spectrum, what would you say were your least favourites?
Probably ‘Radiation’, actually. Even thought it’s got some great tracks on it, it was just a little bit hard work for the reasons I’ve talked about. I think the great thing about this band is, even on our albums that aren’t necessarily our best there’s usually two or three outstanding tracks on, so I think having that high a hit rate, in terms of an artistically successful track, I think we’re doing pretty damn well.
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Marillion 2021 Dates:
Sunday 14th Nov Hull City Hall
Monday 15th Nov Edinburgh Usher Hall
Wednesday 17th Nov Cardiff St David's Hall
Thursday 18th Nov Manchester Bridgewater Hall
Saturday 20th Nov Cambridge Corn Exchange
Sunday 21st Nov Birmingham Symphony Hall
Tuesday 23rd Nov Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
Wednesday 24th Nov Bath Forum
Friday 26th Nov London** Eventim Apollo Hammersmith (seated)
Saturday 27th Nov London** Eventim Apollo Hammersmith (standing)
**Please note the Apollo Hammersmith shows will be - one night seated and one night standing.