Marillion just released its 20th studio album, which also doubles as a look at the world we live in, called An Hour Before It’s Dark. Vocalist and lyricist Steve Hogarth recently sat with me to discuss the real-world themes of the record, including the environment, Covid, and much more.
Please press the PLAY icon below for the MisplacedStraws Conversation with Steve Hogarth –
On coming up with the title An Hour Before Its Dark – Well, it was almost an accident, to be honest. We were working on what turned out to be the first song on the album, “Be Hard on Yourself”, and what I was trying to say in that song really was, look, we’ve got a climate crisis, we’ve got a planet in crisis, we’ve got a mass extinction, and we all know, and we all know (that) we’re gonna do something about it, and we all know we’ve got to do something about it, but none of us is doing anything about it. We will wake up in the morning and the first thing when you think, isn’t, “What am I gonna do about the planet for God’s sake?” We think of other stuff, and this is urgent, and it is an existential problem for mankind, and if we don’t do something about saving the planet, the planet will sort it out itself. And that’ll be ugly. I think the pandemic, we’ve all suffered is one of what is gonna be many harbingers of the planet’s final solution for us. That choice of words is in bad taste. I think there is a very good chance that the planet is gonna have to reduce our numbers because there’s too many of us. That’s the fundamental problem. Everything we’re thinking and talking about doing to be kind to the planet is all well and good, but the fundamental problem is that there are far too many human beings on it, now living at odds with nature. So “Be Hard on Yourself” was really just a message to me, as much as everyone else. I’m looking in the mirror, singing this song to some extent, you’ve been spoiled for years. You’re gonna have to learn to live with less and to live slightly less comfortably than you have been doing and to try and get out of this addiction to the next shiny thing, that makes you somehow a better person. “I’ve got the latest iPhone, who I’ve got the latest this, I’ve moved on to that I’m an early adopter”. That’s all gotta go because it’s killing everything. So we need to have a fundamental reason. So to come back to your question, that was the tree I was backing up with that song. We got to the very end of the song, and it was calming back down again until we had the idea to return, as we often do actually, to return the song at the end to whatever started it. It started with this sort of floating pastoral little piece of music before the rhythm kicks in. So we returned it to that, and as we return it to that, I was singing on the mic and I just sang, “Paint a picture, sing a song, plant some flowers in the park. Get out and make it better, you’ve got an hour before it’s dark”. I had a whole load of all the lines for that song, I’ve got this line about throwing the television through the window of the pub, thereby destroying the two things that are wasting all your time in one movement, but it wasn’t very poetic and it didn’t really work as a piece of poetry. It was a bit too coarse, but it was my second attempt to try and say that, “don’t sit down on your fat ass and watch the television, go out and try and make the world better, somehow more beautiful, do something positive”. When I was a little boy, my mom would say to me, I’d go out playing and she’d say, “You’ve got an hour before it’s dark, and I want you back in”. So that was a sort of a thing that came from my childhood, and it went on the end of the song, and then I sent all the lyrics to Simon Ward, who designs our record covers, and I sent in lyric snippets as well as possible titles for the album. He came back to me, he rejected them all, and he came back to me and said, “What about “an hour before it’s dark”, that very last little bit that you put on “Be Hard on Yourself”?” I thought, “Well, there’s a lot of that in terms of what the album is about” because this album is about being out of time or running out of time in that “five minutes to midnight” cliche. So it seemed to be a good title, that’s really where it came from. 1:08
On writing longer, multi-part songs versus traditional songs – We found over the years that ideas, we quite often start with…everybody goes, “do you start with words or do start with music?” In our case, it’s usually words. I turn up to the writing sessions with my laptop full of words. Some are new, some go back years because they never got us used. While the band is jamming, I’m sitting on a mic, casting around for whatever I think would feel right with the music that’s being played. I will be trying to sing those words on the jams, and that’s how we write. We record all of it, then we leave it alone for a while, then we listen to it, and then we throw nearly all of it away, and then we save just those little moments and maybe 10 seconds in each hour where we all go, “Hang on a minute, what happened? That was really interesting”. We sniff those out and they go to the next stage of the distillation process, and we begin looking at those again, we learn how to play them, but because we are jamming, we don’t know how we play, so we have to learn them, and then we take it from there. Now, sometimes that we words we were using a part of something, a thought process, which is very long, and sometimes it’s barely more than a handful of words. So the ultimate length of the songs are really more to do with what naturally develops from the thought process than out of any feeling that we are obliged for a song to be this long, this short, have this many time signatures in it, change key ten times, all those things are so set to progressive rock. They’re things that we’ve done, but we’ve never done them because we feel we should, we’ve done them because they felt like the right thing to do for the song in that moment. Perhaps, even more, they felt like the right thing to do for the words. When we wrote “This Strange Engine”, for instance, I’ve got those words, I’ve got all of that from word go. So really, the band was challenged to write a piece of music that was long enough to get them all in. So sometimes that happens, and then sometimes another example would be from this album, “Murder Machines”. I might just have a handful of words, “Murder MAchines, fragments of life”, and then I had “I put my arms around her and I killed her with love”. Because it occurred to me during the pandemic when you embrace someone, you risk killing them. That was so very, very strange and very at odds with our nature that we had to start thinking about those things. I guess it’s to some extent it’s probably the same terror, the gay community had in the 80s when AIDS first struck. Suddenly to be close to another human being physically could be a death sentence. That’s weird. It’s very difficult to cope with. So “Murder Machines” came out of those two thoughts really, initially, the idea that the virus itself was a machine because it’s not a living thing, it’s a piece of DNA, it can’t think. So you could argue that it’s some kind of machine on a mission to take over an organism and kill it. So that was really where that came from, but now once I got to thinking about “Murder Machines”, sometimes you can say an awful lot with not a lot of words. Because you can actually have two or three meanings running in parallel, and we’ve done that a lot as well, my favorite lyrics are the ones where I know that they mean three things. I find that that probably just makes me feel clever, but I do like that. There’s the obvious meaning and then there’s a metaphor running beneath it, and then there’s maybe a third metaphor for running beneath that one. They are the most satisfying things. Quite often when I’m working on words, I’ll get to a point in a lyric where I think, “Well, this could also mean this”, and because that then occurs to me, that will affect the rest of the lyric, I will alter the rest of the lyric to keep that double meaning running to entertain myself or whatever, it becomes like a game. “Murder Machines”, what started out as a very straightforward lyric about a virus and the terror of not being able to hug the people you love, then I started to think, “Well, a chorus like “I wrapped and killed her with love”, can mean quite a few different things”. It can refer to un-requited love, it can refer to how we can kill somebody with affection if we then withdraw affection, and how love can become torturous. So I then started to think, “Well then maybe we are the murder machines? Maybe we have that capacity to kill with love?” So I had those two lines of thought running. But what I was trying to say really was that “Murder Machines” is only 3:50 or whatever it is. That sort of feels like the right length for that message. Whereas other things we’ve done, “The Leavers” from the last album might be a good example. I had so much to say about what we are, these people who arrive and create a show and then leave and go somewhere else and do that again. How the process of constantly waving goodbye to people is corrosive to the soul. It’s exhausting after a while. The whole idea of being a circus person and somebody who constantly leaves everything behind. So the idea of the leavers and the remains and the remainers who remain while the leavers go. I had a lot to say. So that ended up being a long song. 7:14
On trying to find hope in this record after the heaviness of F.E.A.R. – Yeah, maybe maybe. I think certainly musically, this album is kind of redelant where it’s more uplifting despite my gloomy words. I mean, “Be Hard on Yourself” is a good example because it goes really heavy message, and then at the very end, it almost end like something from Peanuts or something, “Plant some flowers in the park, paint a picture, sing a son”. So it kind of goes airy-fairy and light in the last minute. It appeals to the better angels after all of that. So perhaps you’ve got a point. “Sierra Leone” is a song about dignity and about a poor man who’s never had any control over his life because he;’s poor. He suddenly finds himself in possession of this priceless diamond, as big as his hand, and he refuses to sell it because, for the first time in his life, he can refuse to do something. He can impose his own will on his destiny. He’s laying on this white beach, Sierra Leone is famous for its white beaches, he’s lying on a white beach listening to the children playing, and he’s looking at the sky through this diamond, and he’s thinking, “I’m not gonna sell this because it’s changed me, it changed my life, and I have more power by withholding it than I would have if I sold it”. So it’s a little bit about selling out or not selling out, and it’s about dignity. That’s certainly not a depressing notion, it’s a beautiful notion and that’s a hopeful notion. As you pointed out, the end of “Care” is so beautifully uplifting because it’s got that thing where all elements arrived eventually together, the brilliance of the band and the choice of chord changes in the end, and Pete’s choice of the bass notes and where it’s gonna go, and how that mantra that’s just going around. “The angels in this world are not in the walls of churches”, and the music was growing all the time, underneath it, I’m not, I’m singing the same thing but the music is opening out like a flower underneath it. That’s the brilliance of the musicians. When we’re at our best, we’ve got that chemistry together where I can hold down a thought process that they can unfold and work with. Then, of course, we discovered, we were fortunate during this album to discover the Choir Noir, it is an amazing choir. The choir’s piling and the whole thing, it becomes like a hymn. It becomes a church itself by the end. So we’ve closed the album with a thank you to everybody, as you say to caregivers, everybody who looked after all of us during these difficult couple of years. Some of them gave their lives, of course. A great many careworkers died themselves in the early stages of the pandemic, before there were vaccines and before the protective equipment was fully understood, before the way that the virus was transmitting was really fully understood. There was just that feeling, wasn’t there, “Dare I touch this. Is it here? Is it on here? Where is it? How can I not catch it?” People were lying under ultraviolet light, Mark Kelly announced to be lying under ultraviolet lights one day because he thought that would save him. Nobody knew, everybody was like, “What the hell? What do we do?” Of course, people are dying before it was really fully understood what we should do. So I wanted to say “Thank you”. I wanted to carve it literally in stone and put it out on record forever. Those are the people, at the end of the day, we’re just bloody rock musicians, but those are the people. This whole notion of a Hall of Fame with people like bloody Billy Joel and Jeff Beck in it. They’re not the heroes in this world. They’re just guys having a good time for the most part. 16:20
On if he’s ever surprised by the support fans who the band – The surprise came in back in the late 90s, I think it was ’97 or something, and it was you Americans that started it. There was a couple of guys called Jeff, one opened a bank account and the other one put a message up on an internet website. It had nothing to do with us. The first time we heard about it, they already raised $20,000, and that was me finding out, and I’m the singer in the band. So that was the surprise, “What are these people doing? Oh, they’ve created a fund for us to go and play in the USA? Having discovered it, we kinda got behind it, and we said, “Well, anyone contributes to this fund, and we end up making this tour, and then we will record one of the shows and you’ll get it for free. We’ll make a CD and we’ll send that to you”. You invented crowdfunding. I’d like to take the credit, but it’s really not fair, because the truth is, it was dropped in our lap by the faithful, and that wasn’t a shock. When I first found out, “Oh, there’s two guys who got 20,000 in the bank. What? How? Why?” That was the point at which we all woke up to the fact that we occasionally got letters from people saying, “Your music has been a soundtrack to my life. Your music saved my life”, people have looked me in the eye and said that to me. I never know what to say back, because nothing seems like…what do you say to that? When somebody says that to you, it’s very hard to come up with an appropriate response other than maybe a hug, it’s nothing you could say in words. But although people had occasionally written letters like that, I don’t think we fully realize how widespread the feeling was until then. So that was something that we learned back in ’97, and we also learned that whatever this internet thing is, we’d better get on it ’cause it’s the future. So they were the two lessons, and if I can give ourselves any credit at all, it was just the credit for being smart enough to recognize the value of what had been dropped into our laps instead of brushing it off. We could see that it was something extraordinary and we’d better learn from it, and we’d better run with it. So the idea to crowdfund the next album, which I think was Anoraknophobia, then everything got easier because we arrived at a place where we could email all the fans. So before email, we never could have done it, but once email existed, you could send a question to 20,000 people and say, “Hey, we’re thinking of doing this. What do you think of that? Is that something you would be into or not? If you’re into it, reply to email@example.com, and if you’re not into it, reply to firstname.lastname@example.org. Then we don’t have to read the emails and we just have to count them. So we did that and the response was overwhelmingly positive, which again, surprised us but it wasn’t that we were emboldened to go ahead with it, it was that we knew it would succeed before we started it then. We crowdfunded the album, and it set us free. We didn’t need any more record labels. We only needed record labels in the sense that once the album was finished, we could give it to them as a finished product and say, “Hey, put that in the shops, it will make you money”. They’re not gonna argue with that, there was no need for an A&R man to stroke his beard and say, “Oh, maybe if it was a bit faster or if it was a bit shorter, the snare drum was a bit loud. Or if you’ve got a couple more tracks for radio”, we don’t have any of that to deal with anymore, we just have the art and we just do what excites us, and that’s the end of it. We really don’t give a damn about any other aspect of anything. People ask me sometimes about the music business, and my reaction is always, “We’ve got nothing to do in the music business. I don’t know a damn thing about the music business, and I don’t want anything to do with it”. I’ve been in the music business for 40 years, and I still haven’t got a clue how it works, it likes no sense to me. 23:09
On possible upcoming US touring – The only plan we’ve got to get over there is we’re gonna appear on Cruise to the Edge in May, which sets sail out of Orlando. We’re doing those shows, and then we have a definite plan to play Marillion weekend in Montreal. But as for the USA, there’s nothing in place yet. The obstacles that are placed in our way by your government with all of these visas and work permits and things make it very difficult. Whenever we’ve toured in America, I know some of the people involved in setting up have vowed never to do it again because it’s just so hard to do. It’s alright for us, but Lucy (Jordache) just about went out of her mind, just this jumping through all the hoops to get the visas and whatnot. So it is difficult at the moment for us to come to the USA. Well, let’s how the record does. 29:33