Mark Kelly (Marillion)

With the release of their 14th album Somewhere Else garnering great reviews, Marillion keyboard player Mark Kelly chatted with Metal Express Radio while on the road in support of this album.

You’re at the start of the second leg of your Tour. You’ve pretty much covered the whole of Europe on the 1st leg. How did those shows go?

Well we went down to the Southern part of Europe, to Spain then to France and Germany and over to the Eastern countries like Poland and the Czech Republic and also some places we’ve never been before like Bratislava. That was really interesting and the audiences were good. There were one or two where you felt that they didn’t know what to expect and took a bit of warming up. It’s quite nice to have an audience every now and then that’s not “there” from the beginning, so you have to work a bit.

Are you planning on mixing up the setlist from night to night on the tour?

We have been changing things around. It wasn’t a conscious decision at the start of the tour, but we’ve got so much stuff to play. We don’t want to play the whole of the new album in one go, but we do want to play most of it on the tour, so if you come to multiple nights you’ll hear most of the album. It’s become more possible to do that lately. We’re a technical band and getting the guitars right and the keyboard patches sorted can be tricky, but it’s got easier. The computer system I use now … you can simply drag the songs from a list and load it up. If someone wants something different, you can go to that and drag it in. It meant that when someone shouted out for a particular song one night, Steve could look round at me and I could go “I can do that!!” Then word gets out and people start to shout out for songs, and if the audience thinks they’re getting something that wasn’t planned and it genuinely isn’t, then it makes it somehow more special, but then we get some who complain that we didn’t play a particular song so you can’t win !! It’s a bit random really, and at the sound check we’ll say “Right, what are we playing tonight?” If we have two shows quite close to each other, we’ll try to make them as different as possible.

What sort of material have you been playing?

We’ve played everything from the new album, but we only do about half of it each night. There are a few core songs that never get left out, and then everything else is a complete mixture from all of the albums Steve has sung on, and we have once or twice included a song from the Fish-era and that was “Sugar Mice.”

Do you find people are calling out less and less for the Fish-era songs?

They don’t really. It was only because of playing in places like Budapest where they might have been waiting 25 years to see the band and would want to hear an old Fish song, and that’s why we did it, but rarely do we get complaints for not playing those songs.

Does changing the set around so much keep it fresh for you?

Yeah, it keeps you on your toes, especially if we haven’t played a song for a while. If we need to blow the cobwebs of it, we’ll run it in the sound check first. It keeps it interesting for us. We used to stick to the same set list at one time. We’d spend the first few dates of a tour sorting out the set, then once we’d got that we’d stick to it for the whole of the tour.

As a band you play a part in helping up-and-coming-bands by actively inviting acts to apply to be your opening act on the tour. Are there any you can recommend to check out from this tour?

We sometimes get bands approaching us about support slots, so we thought we’d formalize it a bit, and although I didn’t get to hear all the bands who applied, the staff at the Racket Club put together a CD for each of us of the 15 or 16 best acts, and I thought they were all pretty good, actually. I had one or two favorites. There’s a band called Public Symphony who are supporting us on the two London shows. I particularly like them. The guy has a really nice voice. They are a little bit like Pink Floyd and kind of Trancey, and I think they’ve got a lot of promise. We’ve pretty much got a different band supporting us each night. It keeps it interesting for people who come to more than one show.

These shows are in support of your new album Somewhere Else. How long was this in the making?

It seems like it took quite a long time, but it’s a bit misleading as we have another load of tracks already finished and getting close to two albums worth of material took us two and a half years. It wasn’t intentional to make that many songs before releasing an album, but it just crept up on us and we had 18 songs. Instead of making a decision as to which ones we were going to finish, we just kept working on them up to a point. Sometimes we’d stop if say Steve was short of a couple of lyrics then, rather than forcing him to finish, we’d just leave it and go on with the rest. We ended up with 15 completely finished and picked the ones that we thought worked best as an album and the rest we’d finish later.

You’re already advertising your next album in Somewhere Else’s cover.

Yes, it’s a bit like a “Coming Soon” advertisement. We’re notorious for taking 2-3 years between albums, and we thought we were not going to do that this time. It’s nice to anticipate when it’s going to be so people can look out for it. It does build up momentum. Once you’re on a roll writing you may as well make the most of it, and we ended up with nearly enough material for two albums.

You must be pleased with the reviews you’ve been receiving?

We’ve had some good ones actually, even from the mainstream press. The Times said it was superb. The Guardian gave us a 4 out of 5 review, so it’s been very positive.

How would you say it different from your last release, Marbles?

I think part of the reason it has had such good reviews is that it is more direct, more straightforward. It wasn’t intentional to do that, but we always do try to do something a bit different compared to the previous album. Marbles was quite an involved double CD. The music is more accessible. A few people have said Marbles is to Brave what Somewhere Else is to Afraid Of Sunlight. Funnily enough, Afraid Of Sunlight is one of those albums that continues to be very popular with the fans. It’s not considered to be Poppy and crap, it’s just got good songs.

If you buy the album from your Web site, there is a special limited edition DVD available to go with it. What’s on the DVD?

There’s a couple of live tracks from the Convention in Holland in February, so it’s a nice little extra for the fans buying the album from Racket Records.

This is now your 14th album in 24 or so years. Does it get harder to write new material with each album, or do you find as you get more experience as musicians and are exposed to new music, it becomes easier?

I think it gets more difficult, but the songs get better. We have times where we think that we’ll never get anything and there’s other times it goes really well without you even noticing. The last few years with Marbles and Somewhere Else, we’ve felt that we are on a creative upsurge, but at the time you always feel like that. It’s only when you look back that you can think that was a barren period or that was a productive time. It does feel like we are in a good period. Working with Producer Mike Hunter was good fun too.

Where did you come across him?

He’s from Liverpool and we originally met him when we were recording Brave, he was the assistant engineer. From there we offered him the job being keyboard technician on the tour on which he lasted about 3 months until he said he couldn’t handle the stress anymore as my gear kept breaking down. Then we employed him at the Racket Club until he went crazy and went home as he missed Liverpool and his beloved Everton. We didn’t work with him again for a long time until he mixed some tracks for us on Marbles as we were running behind time. In the intervening 10 years or so he’d been working with the likes of Mansun, Coldplay and stuff like that. His experience had vastly moved on over the years and we liked what he was doing so we asked him to produce Somewhere Else. He’s been back since then too mixing some live stuff. He’ll have to come back and do the next one as it’s half done already.

How have your influences changed since your early days?

In the early days for me it was all Yes, Genesis, King Crimson and Rick Wakeman and I was listening for keyboards and keyboard playing rather than the songs. These days I do try to listen to new stuff. My partner, Angie is very good at going out and buying new music, although she’s only a few years younger than me but she likes the new bands like Arcade Fire and The Good The Bad and the Queen, bands that I would never have heard of if it wasn’t for her. Half the time it’s like “This isn’t very good is it” Quite often they just do the same thing that’s already been done to death by lots of other bands. They have not very good singing with crap words. What’s so good about it? I’m really fussy about what I like. If there is something I really like I’ll get into it but these days there’s less and less that impresses me. I don’t know if it’s just my age or what but all that’s going on in music at the moment….I mean, the Arctic Monkeys are just rubbish or is it just me? I’ve seen them live and they can’t play, they are just so average. There must be more to it than just the music but it’s just not for me but I’m always open for new suggestions.

In the past you have tended to record a lot of your work in progress and released these through Racket Records, the latest being Unzipped: The Making of Anoraknophobia. These give a fascinating insight into the song writing process. Is your plan to continue to do this for all of your albums in the future?

The real hardcore fans like them. I was really into Yes when I was younger and I’d loved to have heard what their songs were like while they were writing them or the initial ideas that developed into songs. I remember getting early Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd demos or Beatles demos, it’s fascinating stuff. It is for a particular type of person and it’s the sort of thing you listen to once or twice then put it on your shelf. People who buy realise that. The most successful of the “Making Of” series was The Making of Brave which did around 5000 copies which is quite a lot for something like that. Usually these sell around 1000-2000 copies each.

It must take nearly as much time putting these collections together as actually doing the album itself?

Well I started off doing it. I put together the Making of Brave and went through loads of tapes, hundreds of them.. It was a very time consuming process. It’s a bit easier now as we know we are going to do it before we make the albums. The way we store stuff on the computer, it’s a lot easier to pull it all together as you go. Eric who pulls them together now, usually gets a load of clips from me which I think will be of interest to him and he pulls it all together.

When you’re in the studio do you sometimes think that a certain snippet would be good on your outtakes album but disregard it for the final version?

Yes, especially if it’s completely different to how the song turns out.

Has your approach to the keyboards changed over the years? You tended to solo more on the earlier albums now you seem to add more of the textures and colours to the songs.

Mainly it’s to do with taste, the way I feel about sounds and the style of playing. People ask why I don’t do those widdly diddly solos anymore but I just don’t feel that comfortable doing it. Sometimes it’s good to have those styles but because it’s so evocative of a certain style of music that you can use them to get that if you want it but if you don’t it’s best to leave it alone. I do like exploring different atmospheres, textures and soundscapes or whatever you want to call it. What I try to do is find some really great sounds and try to do something that nobody has done before.

Somewhere Else has again been released on your own label, Intact. Do you have greater creative freedom now that you are not tied to a major label?

Yes, basically we are the record company these days and we manufacture the CDs and sell them to a distributor who sells them on to the various retailers.

Is it not a little scary too, not to have that safety net that a bigger label can give?

The first time we did that we did it through EMI for the pre-order for Anoraknophobia. EMI did the distribution for that so it was more like a straight forward record deal. We took about 13,000 pre-orders for Anoraknophobia and about 15,000 for Marbles, which is quite incredible really.

Why no pre-sale or special edition this time?

There was a bit of a dispute over whether we should do another pre-order or not. I was of the opinion that it was a case of asking your friend to lend you money one time too many. We didn’t really have to do it for the money as financially we were OK to write and record the album. This time we didn’t have to do it. Some of the people in the band did want to do it as they said the fans like the special editions and liked to be involved and people have come up to us asking what didn’t we do it again. We’re not sure when we’ll do it again but there’s a part of me that wants to do something different next time. We’ve been a cycle of record, tour, record tour now for 14 albums over a 25-26 year period so it’s always good to find different ways of doing things to surprise people. Steve H is always coming up with ideas to keep it interesting for us.

Your first single from Somewhere Else , “See It Like A Baby” was a download only single. Is this the first time you’ve done this?

We were experimenting with that. We suspected and were right in fact, that not a lot of our fans were embracing the digital age yet. They want CDs, they don’t want downloads. It may be because of their age group, being over 25 or even over 30!! I prefer an actual CD myself so I think we’ll keep producing CDs for now.

Do you think there will come a time when you do a download only album?

Well that makes you ask the question, why would it be an album if it was download only? If it’s a collection you could just do one song at a time and post it then do the next one. I think a collection of songs together makes an album and if you can just download a couple from that it defeats the point of an album.. I know Radiohead are reluctant to release stuff on I-Tunes for that very reason.

You have a second single due for release later this month “Thank You Whoever You Are”?

We’re going to play the format game as they call it, with 3 different formats and 3 different B-sides. All within the rules of The Charts and you hope your fans instead of buying one single will buy all three and triple your sales and get us into The Charts.

It’s backed by a Britney Spears cover “Toxic”. That’s a bit of a surprise. How did you come to choose that one to cover?

That was an interesting spin off from the Marillion Weekend that we did earlier this year. We decided to do a night of half Marillion rarities and half of covers. Each member chose two covers each. That one was chosen by Mike Hunter, the Producer. We thought he was joking but he was serious. We sat down at the piano and he said there were some nice chords and musically it’s quite well structured so we thought we’d do it. When Steve introduced it people thought we were joking. It started off quite Marillion-esq until it hit the chorus.

Did Steve have to put on a blond wig for that?

No, he waited for the Abba song to do that!!

You’re giving the release a real push are you hoping to crack the Top 20 like “You’re Gone” from Marbles?

Yes, that made Number 7 in the UK charts. It was a real surprise and although it didn’t result in a lot of airplay it did cause people to go “Oh, Marillion, they’re still around” As we had a Top 10 hit people wanted to talk to us again. We’ll see what happens this time. I don’t think it’ll be such a surprise this time unless we push it in the Top 3 or something.

How many units do you have to shift these days to get into the charts?

“You’re Gone” sold 15,000 or so copies to get to Number 7, maybe even less. “Kayleigh” on the other hand sold 475,000 to get to Number 2 but that was spread over about 15 weeks as it gradually climbed the charts and gradually went down again. So it did nearly half a million copies.

What about album sales. How are those these days?

As far as our albums go we sell around 100,000 copies per album worldwide which is considered pretty good these days.

How did the recent fan convention go at Center Parcs in Holland?

We thought we’d have a go at doing it abroad. It was a nightmare to organise but luckily all we had to do was turn up. Each Convention we’ve done has been a step up from the previous one. The first one we did in Pontins in 2001 had 1600 people and the atmosphere was great. Two years later we played in Minehead and there again in 2005. This time we were in Center Parcs, which is a really nice site and 3200 people turned up. There was a lot of people from the UK and obviously a lot of Dutch people and Germans and a smattering of people from everywhere else.

Do you have plans for the next one?

We will do another one but not next year. I think every two years is just about right. We do a different set over 3 nights and to maintain the excitement of something that’s original and interesting we can’t do that every year. We haven’t decided where it’ll be yet but there have been some ideas floating around of going to Las Vegas but I don’t think we have enough fans over there and it’ll be much more expensive to travel from Europe.

All of the other guys in the band have some involvement with solo projects. When can we expect some solo work from you?

I just haven’t really got it together to be honest. This summer is going to be a little quieter and I may actually put something together. It’s one of those things, I’ve never had a major desire to do a solo album. People keep asking so OK, I’ll do one!!

You recently played a few shows with Travis? How did that come about?

That was about two years ago and I was just standing in for Adam Wakeman who was touring with someone else at the time. It was just some festivals that Travis were offered. It was interesting to be in another band for a week or two. I did about eight shows in total and they were nice guys. I enjoyed doing it, I like the stuff and like the songs. They weren’t particularly challenging but it was fun. I only had a couple of days to rehearse with them before this huge Isle of Wight festival so I was a bit nervous for that.

Are you going to play any summer festivals this year?

We’re doing a couple but not in the UK. We played a festival in Richmond up in Yorkshire a while back and that was a nice little festival and Richmond was a really nice place. We also did the Guilfest in Guilford too. We’re always up for Festivals but we got fed up with asking to be honest. Glastonbury is impossible, they just don’t want to know. They can just have who they want because the tickets sell out before any acts are announced. It’s such a strong brand itself that they’ll have all trendy bands on and unfortunately we’re pretty low down on the list of trendy bands, I’m afraid!! One day we might have a big hit and they’ll all be clamouring to have us on their festivals next year!!

Once the tour is over, what have you got lined up next?

We haven’t got a lot going on over the summer, but we need to write a few more songs to finish off the album. We’ll then do some Christmas dates and aim to have the new album out early next year and do some more touring after that.

For more on Marillion visit the Marillion Official website


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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