I had an opportunity recently to speak with Steve Rothery, the guitarist with Marillion, about their new album This Strange Engine, and future plans. Here are some excerpts.
For those of us confused by your label situation, what exactly is the deal with The Strange Engine?
This Strange Engine has come out in the U.S. through a company called Velvel Records, on the Eaglerock label. We're still signed to Castle in England. There are some good people there [in Velvel] and they seem very enthusiastic about our music. We got caught in the whole Castle/Alliance shakedown. Castle isn't the same company we signed to and its barely functioning as a label. There are a lot of people bidding for it, and it has caused us a great deal of frustration. We had a great relationship with them, but things didn't work out. It has been a lot like Snakes and Ladders. We made the record starting the end of last year through March, and we didn't even have a record company when we recorded the album.
How would you compare This Strange Engine to all the other albums you've made?
It's very hard for me to get any perspective on it. I think you need a certain amount of time before you can tell. I think it's a good album. The title track and Man of a Thousand Faces are my favourite tracks.
I think this album is one of the best-produced Marillion albums. What do you think?
Kind of... it's the first album we've produced ourselves. We have had to take more responsibility. There is a lot of dynamics going on, and in the case of a band like Marillion that's what it's all about. It's all about light and shade, and the imagery, both lyrical and musical, is like the soundtrack to a film. I really think the production is one of the best, especially the way the guitar sounds. But I think we can make a better sounding record next time..
Is there a concept in This Strange Engine?
There is not so much a concept, but there are few recurring themes. The album is autobiographical, as you may know. Steve [Hogarth, the vocalist] wrote about his father explaining the sacrifices his father has made. But since there are two writers [Hogarth and John Helmer, a novelist], it's hard to maintain a distinct concept. The lyrics are a strong blend of the personalities of John and Steve.
Who's doing the laughing on the last/hidden track, and what was the joke?
It was originally on the B-side of the original Man of a Thousand Face. Steve came to the recording session to sing the vocal part after drinking a bit too much, and that's his manic laughter after having had one too many beers.
Where do you do your recording/rehearsals?
We have our own studio called the Racket Club. Some of the equipment we got from EMI and some we added ourselves. It's a pretty well-equipped studio and we are able to maintain it because the technology is at a point where you can make great sounding records without spending a lot of money.
Can you tell me a bit about the solo project you did before Strange Engine?
I worked on a solo project called the Wishing Tree with a girl singer. That's one of the things I am doing in Amsterdam, recording demos that she's doing on my hard disk recorder. It's supposed to be released soon. Steve Hogarath also did a solo album, and Mosley did one with a French Guitarist. I've been trying to get a project done for about 11 years, and I think these solo projects revitalisted the band when we came together when we got together not only did we appreciate the chemistry, but our enthusiasm had increased and we had new ideas as a result of our solo experiences.
Your guitar work has gotten more instrumental, and more acoustic. Are you getting bored with the electric guitar?
I'd probably say the acoustic guitar was influenced by the Wishing Tree project. I think when it come to ideas for the Marillion album, we are constantly finding new ways to express ourselves without trying to cashing in whatever the current trend is. It's just you trying not to repeat yourself. And if you try and be an individualm you don't want to be a cliche either. You definitely have to fight against that and shift the emphasis of what you do. So over time, there has been a widening of approach. I don't think I'm bored with the electric guitar---my favourite guitar solo is at the end of This Strange Engine.
What sort of guitars do you prefer/have?
I like Fender Stratocasters, but they're not the easiest to play. I have a custom-made 12-string Steinberger, which is one of my favourite guitars.
Have you ever been approached by any of the mainstream American guitar magazines for an interview, and if not, have you tried to stir up any interest in such an intervew?
It's a bit of a strange situation as there's a certain amount of snobbery to it. You either have to be very very hip or a very very technical to be interviewed, though that's not necessarily true in all cases. It's difficult finding people at the magazine who are interested in what we were doing, but it is something to consider.
What is your view on the business side of music?
When I did Wishing Tree, I got more experience on the business side of things. I think the problem generally is that with record companies and radio stations, it's dominated by a quick profit thinking, that all the bands who are marginal and who aren't mainstream are pushed to one side. So you end up with homogeonised sounds. The industry tends to water individuality. A magazine won't cover anything that's not going to be popular in this mainstream.
There are a lot of rumours about the direction you will take for the next album. Can you shed any light on that?
With regards to the next album, I don't know which direction we'll take. We'll start writing in the next couple of weeks, and we never set or premedidate the direction of a record that we are working on. The songs have their own life. We're proud of Brave as an artistic satement, and we'd like do do something like Brave. I think our next album could be the strongest we do, combining all our respective strengths, but it's all speculation until we get together in the room and write.
What about the U.S. tour for December?
It was talked about, but I don't know what's happening with that. As far as I know there is not enough time since we begin writing shortly, and it's a bit strange to stop writing the record and start performing.
What are your future plans?
We're going to a restaurant... there's a tour party and we're going to get drunk. We go home on Tuesday, start working on the next album, and we're hoping for a September release, next year.