I caught up with Mark Kelly, keyboard player from Marillion, as he was arriving at the studio to start rehearsals for the Light At The End of The Tunnel Tour, to talk about the last few years and hear about how the fans are underwriting the insurance, as no insurance company will pay out if the tour gets cancelled due to COVID.
HC: How did you guys keep occupied during the lockdowns?
MK: Personally, I was quite busy over as I wrote and recorded a solo album which was released at the end of last year and wrote an autobiography so that kept me fairly busy for about a year. It’s not yet published but should be out in the next couple of months.
In 2020, we’d already decided we weren’t going to do any touring that year so it didn’t derail our touring plans or anything like that and the plan was to write the next Marillion album and record it. We’re notoriously slow so having a year to do it kind of suited us although we are now near the end of 2021 and it still hasn’t been released but we can gloss over that as it’s taken even longer than we normally take.
HC: You’ve written an autobiography, what was that like, reminiscing?
MK: It was fun, I found it relatively easy to remember the early years. I’ve got a pretty good memory for a lot of stuff and these days you can cross check stuff, check old set lists, where we’ve been and there is a lot of stuff out there that helps you remember. It’s basically the story of the band told from my point of view. I hope some people enjoy it.
HC: Did any of the band learn a new skill during lockdown?
MK: I don’t know! I could have taken the opportunity to learn Portuguese which I’ve been threatening to do for about the last 5 years – but I’ve not had much success at that.
HC: I imagine you are excited to be out on tour….?
MK: It’s very exciting for us, we’re starting rehearsals today. It will be the first time playing together on a stage for 2 years, which for Marillion is so unusual. I’ve checked and we have done gigs every year since we started back in 1980ish so to not play for 2 years feels so weird.
HC: Are you going to have to get used to each other’s annoying habits again?
MK: I think it’s going to be thrown in at the deep end because of the COVID thing and the lack of insurance, normally when on tour you go out, meet up with friends, go out for dinner, after show meet & greet, but for this tour we’ve decided that we’re going to have to stay on the bus, or the dressing room, not see any of the crew, apart from the tour manager, and on days off just going to have to stay in hotel rooms. So apart from the 2 hours on stage a night, it’s going to be pretty boring and we’re going to be spending a lot of time together so it will be interesting to see what happens.
HC: As a band family, what roles do people play, who acts the parents, who’s the big kid?
MK: Ian (drummer) is the Dad of the band, he’s the oldest anyway but is our bank manager and finance guy – he pulls the purse strings, you have to go to Ian to ask if you want to buy a piece of equipment. He’s pretty tight with money although does pay bills on time, but he’s great with the money.
Steve (singer) he’s the artist in the band, he’s the one who’ll have a fit about something and throw his toys out the pram. Steve (guitarist) he’s the gadget man. He’s the guy to go to if you want to know anything about a piece of technology. I’m the fitness guy in the band.
HC: We’re excited that you are out on tour and coming to Cambridge. I read that Cambridge was your first performance with Marillion 40 years ago.
MK: It was! On the 1st December 1981, it’s going to be special for me for two reasons: 1) it’s a really nice venue, we like the Corn Exchange and have played there a few times over the years, but 2) my daughter is at Cambridge University, she’s going to come along with a few friends, who have never heard of Marillion because they are too young! But I am excited about that but also it is my 40th anniversary in the band
HC: Do you have any favourite venues around the world where you would like to go back to?
MK: on this tour, we’re going back to Hammersmith, what used to be called Hammersmith Odeon. It was the place I always saw bands playing when I was a teenager and was the place I wanted to play, when you think about being in a band and being successful Hammersmith Odeon for me was the place. We used to play there a lot in the early mid 80s and for years we haven’t played and now we’re going back and finishing the tour there. Two nights there will be good.
HC: The tour is called ‘Light at The End of The Tunnel’ obviously a COVID reference?
MK: Yes, it is, I think everybody thinks it’s a tunnel we’ve been in and hopefully there is light at the end of the tunnel and not a train coming the other way.
HC: What can fans expect from Light at the end of the tunnel tour? I know there will be the premiere of ‘Be Hard on Yourself’….
MK: We have finished the album and it’s annoying we couldn’t get it out before the tour, it’s just there is a paper shortage, cardboard shortage, vinyl manufacturing lead times are ridiculous these days, everybody wants vinyl and there just isn’t the capacity to make it. It’s back to February/March release date, so we thought we’d put at least one song out so people can hear it and so we have something new to play, it’s about 8-9 minutes long so it’s quite a substantial song.
As far as the tour goes, we look at what we’ve done in the past, what we’ve done most recently on tour, we did a friends from the orchestra where we had bunch of classical musicians with us and we played the Albert Hall, and the songs we chose suited that line up. This time we’re looking at songs we’ve not played for a while, some fan favourites. We’ve got 20 albums of music to choose from – it’s always difficult but we try to mix things up a bit. As It’s been 2 years so whatever we play hopefully people who come and see us will like it and hopefully we’ll be good enough!
HC: What’s the inspiration for ‘Be Hard on Yourself’?
MK: it’s basically saying we need to make some sacrifices, the state of the world, climate change and the stuff that is going on, even COVID to a certain extent, people need to accept that we need to change our behaviour and be a bit hard on ourselves. We’ve had it good for so long. It has a message in the song, it’s not like we’re trying to bash people over the head. It’s hard to get away from what’s going on when you are writing lyrics, Steve said at the beginning that he didn’t want to write an album about covid as everyone is sick of covid. But it’s hard to avoid it when you’re writing about how you feel about things and the experiences. There are some references but not too many.
HC: What do you tell people who’ve not heard your music, the younger generation, to encourage them to a gig?
MK: I suppose most people, even if they are not fans will know, or have heard or even know someone called ‘Kayleigh’ although we don’t play that song very often. We do dip into the deep past occasionally but as we’ve got so much music to choose from and because we’ve had a change of singers after the first 4 albums we do tend to favour the last 15-16 albums. For younger people, something that people always say when they hear us for the first time and the feedback we get from those who’ve not heard our music before, they are usually pleasantly surprised, it wasn’t what they expect. We’re not a heavy metal band and that’s the label in most people’s heads. Our music is very accessible, only needs a bit of attention as some of the songs are on the long side.
HC: Tell me about the crowd funding you have going on, you’re credited for inventing the crowd funding concept for a band.
MK: it started in ’97 in America through an emailing list, the early internet days – someone asked if we would be touring the States, we didn’t have a deal at that point and we would lose money – usually the record company puts the money up. So, the fan said, why don’t we raise the money – which they did, they raised $60,000 by putting money into a bank account. We did the tour and it was a big success. A few years later in 2000 I came up with the idea of crowd funding an album and this was before the word ‘crowd funding’ had been used. We asked whether the fans would pay for an album in advance so we didn’t have to sign one of these terrible record deals. Scroll forward to this year and Lucy G, our manager, came to us one day and told us that if anyone gets COVID, we’re screwed and the tour is off and we would lose quite a lot of money as there all the suppliers to pay. She suggested maybe we could do the crowd funding for the insurance and we offer some money can’t buy prizes for the people who contribute, and if the tour goes smoothly and no-one gets COVID we can give the money back.
We figured we needed about £150,000 to cover the basic costs, lighting, buses, crew wages, hotels and that sort of thing. That’s the target and we’re currently on about £125,000 and we’re really close which is amazing.
HC: Does it still go ahead if you don’t reach the target?
MK: Oh yes, the tour is happening
HC: It’s great to have the support knowing your fans are prepared to dip in and help you along.
MK: It’s unbelievable. We did it through PayPal so we don’t have to touch the money and we can refund from there once the tour is over, that’s the plan. It’s incredible people feel so passionate about the band and the music, want to help and are willing to do this. There is no guarantee they will get it back, but of course we hope to.
HC: You are showing the fans respect by being so strict with how you plan to conduct yourselves when on tour, stating in your bubble, and not doing anything.
MK: Yeah, we have to. We don’t want to take unnecessary risks and want to give us the best chance of getting to the end of the tour.
HC: I like how you’ve called the fans who contribute ‘Lightsavers’, each gets a thank you gift and the prize draw they are entered in – the prizes are pretty cool.
MK: Yes, there is some stuff there that people would like to have.
HC: What feelings do you have for your 20th Studio Album release – An Hour Before Dark?
MK: Yeah, and we are still feeling creative and coming up with really good music. A few people who have heard it have mentioned it’s better than the last one, which went down really well. I have to say a lot of credit goes to our producer Mike Hunter, he’s the guy that glues it all together.
HC: What can we expect from the Album?
MK: It’s not a concept album. There are only 6 songs but they are quite long. I had a wish that the album was short enough it could go on one vinyl disk. Like 45 minutes. I do feel a lot of albums are bloated for the sake of it, albums don’t need to be that long, people don’t have that sort of time to sit and listen to a record from start to finish. I feel our music demands that you sit and listen to it, it’s not like put it on random play whilst doing other things. I came out at 50 mins in the end so didn’t quite fit on one vinyl.
HC: Marillion has been going for four decades, you would have seen many bands & trends come and go – why do you think you guys have sustained making music over this length of time?
MK: I’m not sure how we’ve managed it, the fact we have these fans that stay with us, I mean we lose some over the years and gain new ones. One of the things I say, we are successful enough that we can keep going, we earn enough now what we do this as our only job but we’re not so successful that we can stop and retire, we’re in the sweet spot of having the career but not going mega and exploding.
HC: You are all looking fit and healthy – what’s your secret?
MK: Ha, I don’t know, rock n’ roll keeps you young! As long as you don’t do it to excess. We’re all fairly clean living these days. There was a period in the 80s things were a little bit more debauched. In recent years, we’ve all become aware of our mortality and you have to be careful and look after yourself.
HC: Will you be doing another tour next year, to promote the album?
MK: Every couple of years we do these Marillion weekends, we started this 20 years ago where we get together for the weekend and play 3 shows, on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday – 3 completely different shows, we don’t repeat anything. The fans congregate there and stay in the accommodation and we have around 3,000 people from around the world
2022 will be doing that again, Holland, Stockholm, UK, Montreal so the first half of the year will be doing these weekends and we’ll be playing the new album as well.
HC: What types of music do you enjoy listening to when you are hanging out?
MK: I still listen to the old stuff I listened to when I was younger. I do listen to Elbow and Radio Head and bands like that but my favourite music is still progressive rock
HC: Do you have a favourite Marillion album?
MK: The most recent one!! If I had to choose one: ‘Marbles’
HC: Which track do you like playing live the most?
MK: This Strange Engine
HC: Do you have a non-musical skill?
MK: I’m pretty good at painting, drawing.
HC: What’s the least cool thing you’ve done recently?
MK: Why would I admit that?
HC: When you are not making music, what hobbies do you enjoy?
MK: Running. I have spent too much time playing with the Oculus 2, playing Population 1 which is a virtual reality shoot ‘em up, against other people although usually it’s against teenagers and when they find out I’m 60 years old they’re like ‘Oh what…. respect man’.
HC: Do you think it’s easier or harder these days to be a musician?
MK: I think it’s harder. It’s because the promise of being successful seems to be at your fingertips from the beginning. As a young musician, you can do what most people couldn’t do when I was younger, like record albums. All the equipment is there, you can do everything at home, you can release it yourself, you can get it out there, you can put it on Spotify so it seems all the steps that seemed so difficult when I was younger are easy, but then the competition is huge as there are millions of people doing exactly the same thing. Whereas back then most people didn’t get as far as recording a record, or releasing something on vinyl or cassette, so it was a stay at home hobby which you did for entertainment whereas now people get the idea that they’re one little break away from being mega. It’s harder and the disappointment must be huge as well, you can spend a lot of time doing this and for most people it’s not going to result in a career, success or fame.
HC: Who inspired you to play the keys?
MK: Rick Wakeman, I was listening to his work, YES, Pink Floyd, and when I heard his playing, I just thought ‘I want to do that’. I didn’t think that I wanted to be on stage I just wanted to play the keyboards so joining Marillion was the point I went from thinking this is just a fun hobby to being something that I could possibly make a career of.
HC: What’s your most treasured possession?
MK: My Mini Moog, it’s the one keyboard I’ve kept for the last 40 years. The others at various times had to be sold when I was a bit short of cash, or they were cluttering up the place.
HC: How many keyboards do you currently own?
MK: about 7 or 8
HC: When and what did you last dress up in fancy dress?
MK: Probably last Halloween
HC: What’s your favourite condiment?
MK: Black pepper
HC: How do you fit a giraffe in a fridge?
MK: Take the food out
HC: What’s your favourite sandwich filling?
MK: Tuna Mayo
HC: Who is your favourite superhero?
HC: Any lockdown box sets you can recommend?
MK: Breaking Bad
The shortened version of the interview first appeard on GrapevineLIVE
Picture Credit AM Forker