Interview: Fish

As a set of lyrics I feel Weltschmerz are probably the best I’ve done. I feel it’s time to change, expand and bring something else into my life, and get off the tour bus.

Fish is a concerned man, at the time of our interview. Only recently awake, having collected his guitarist up from the airport the previous evening, any initial reticence to conducting business soon fades away. Once warmed up, Fish is affable, intelligent and mostly, worried about COVID-19. There’s no panic, just a matter of fact assessment of the severity of events. He alludes to his preference for his forthcoming tour to be cancelled, to allow the whole series of dates to be rescheduled for later in the year.

In spite of Fish’s concerns, the short tour does indeed start, days after our interview, in Aberdeen, but only manages one date before limping to a halt. The singer since has given a balanced, measured response to this situation on social media and one suspects in real life. We caught up with the former Marillion singer about his plans for retirement, the long-awaited final record, and also asked him to cast his mind back over some career highlights.

 

(((o))): Tell us a little bit about your retirement plans, Fish.

Fish: Mainly gardening – I’m going on extended gardening leave! It got to a point with Feast of Consequences where I really enjoyed writing the lyrics, for example ‘High Wood’, I revelled in all the research, it wasn’t just straight forward lyric writing, it was making sure everything was right. After Feast of Consequences I felt quite drained in a way. Before that album, when Twitter was only 140 characters, I was trying to put stuff up and I had to really self-edit, self-edit, self-edit to get it down, and I got used to doing that condensing, and then on Feast of Consequences it was really boiling everything right down to the leanest of the lean.

When I was approaching Weltschmerz I thought, “I want to write more, I want to do more, I want to open up the lyrics a bit”. I started reading things like Cormac McCarthy, and really enjoying his writing. For a long time a lot of people have been trying to get me into non-lyric writing. With Weltschmerz I was really getting into the lyrics with it and the challenge I put to myself was, “I don’t want to write about corporations and big banking, business, kings and queens and governments”. I wanted to take my observational writing somewhere else. Weltschmerz means “pain of the world”. I wanted to take everyday characters, people dealing with problems that are around in this modern age, from mental health issues to male suicide to dementia, and I wanted to wrap it all up in characters; it was a big challenge to do that. As with the Feast of Consequences album, the subject matter demanded a lot of research. For example, ‘Rose of Damascus’, in which I chose to write about a refugee coming out of Syria, there was a lot of background research gone into that. I felt music was becoming a bit claustrophobic, having to make things rhyme and phrase and cram things into melody lines.

On top of all that, in parallel to that, the music business that I joined in 1981, 1982, has completely changed. Recorded product has become secondary – everybody’s used to free music now via Spotify, YouTube etc, and we’re getting herded into the live field. I’m going to be 62 in April and the reality is I’m never going to jump up to arenas any time soon: where I am now regarding venues is where I’m going to be at. And I don’t want to be doing that in my late 60s, because this isn’t the Rolling Stones where you have your own personal assistant. I thought, “let’s make Weltschmerz my last album, let’s get the lyrics and songs to the point that it’s the best solo album I’ve ever done, in the same way that Clutching at Straws was the best album I ever did with Marillion. Then I’ll leave it and move into gardening.”

It was said flippantly but I am quite passionate about my gardening, I’m a very enthusiastic amateur. I can bore musicians tits off in the back of a tour bus by getting garden based. I don’t really listen to music that much in the house. Recently we had a Nick Drake evening, but usually it’s Netflix and movies and I love the way screenplay writing has developed over the years. When I started watching movies it was 1 hour 20 minutes. Then you had the 3 act play taking precedence, then the five act play, and around 10 years ago or so, series taking over with Netflix and its ilk. People don’t really buy albums, people don’t go to the cinema unless it’s to see the next Marvel or whatever. I saw Breaking Bad, and the way that developed, it took characters and examined them. You went from feeling sympathy for the main character to questioning him and by the end of the series, you’re really not liking the guy. I thought that was an incredible examination of character, I found it really exciting and I thought “that’s really what I want to do”. As a set of lyrics I feel Weltschmerz are probably the best I’ve done. I feel it’s time to change, expand and bring something else into my life, and get off the tour bus.

(((o))): You’ve always blended the personal and political in your lyric writing, but you’ve been less vocal away from your lyrics. Will moving away from the music industry loosen up your tongue?

Fish: I think so. There’s a memoir or an autobiography in there somewhere, but there’s not enough people dead yet for me to write what I want in my autobiography. There’s a lot of things that I’ve seen and a lot of experiences over the years that a lawyer might not allow in a book. I said to my wife it’d be interesting to write a memoir, then have a parallel series of writings on the other side, which are basically fiction and extrapolating a lot of those memories and stories that I’ve got that would otherwise be unable to be mentioned. And then expand upon the characters on that other side. That excites me. I love words – the bottom line is I’m a writer who can sing, I’m not a singer who can write, it’s a completely different thing.

I’ve recently finished reading Brett Anderson’s autobiography Coal Black Mornings, last week, and I was really intrigued by it. It prompted me to go out and get some Suede albums. Wow, there’s some very nice writing in there. I’d like to meet Brett, actually. I hated Suede when they first came out but it was more the idea of Suede. I never really gave the music much of a chance but I love his writing. I’ve been reading a lot of musician’s autobiographies to get a flavour of where things are at. I read Pete Townshend’s one which I really liked, Keith Richards one obviously, but I think Brett Anderson’s one is probably the one that I felt more in tune with. I liked the style of writing in it. I’ve read some bad ones, too: the Paul Stanley from Kiss book is awful.

There was a poem I wrote in March 1980 that was found written on the back of an album cover in a charity shop. That was how far back it went. That was when I joined Marillion and started writing lyrics. I got into progressive rock music because I loved the words, I loved the stories, and what’s what I am: a storyteller. I think on the Weltschmerz album with Steve Vantsis, my main co-writer who’s been with me on my last three albums, when we approached it, each story determined how long the song should be, in pretty much the same way as in the old days when I used to go to writing rooms and think, “this is what I want to put across”. Back then they had empathy to what I was doing, so on ‘Forgotten Sons’, for example, where I went, “we need a prayer section here, this is where you need to drop down to the drums to work with what I’m trying to put across”. Over the years with Marillion that disappeared as they went on their own musical thing. I was moving into a position, which I was in by the time I left the band, where the lyrics were almost an afterthought, and I didn’t like that at all. With Steve Vantsis, when I said, “I want to write a song about male suicide, this is the storyline”, he’d have bits of music and we’d try to piece the music together that suited the drama or the atmosphere to tell the story. I found that exciting and I loved doing that. I think the Weltschmerz album is the peak of that type of writing that I’ve done. I think I’ve done it now; I want to move on and break free from chords.

Don’t get me wrong, I love progressive rock. When I was listening to music it was Yes’ stuff – you listen to ‘Close to the Edge’ or ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ and although lyrically didn’t make much sense they’re great. Lyrically I like Bernie Taupin, his style of writing, although it’s more poppy, the words were always the thing that pulled me in, you know?

(((o))): Alongside the album, you’re planning to tour celebrating the end of your career.

Fish: I made this decision back in 2014-15, when I was with my wife in Germany, we were splitting our lives between there and here. That was when I made the decision to stop when I get into my 60s. That’s when I decided to take Misplaced Childhood out on its last tour, then I took Clutching at Straws out, now we’ve got Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors on this tour for its 30th anniversary. I like the jigsaw piece nature of it all – Vigil, my first solo album, going out alongside the start of Weltschmerz, my final album. Plus I’m throwing in a couple of tracks from Script for a Jester’s Tear, which is out as a remaster, my first-ever piece of recording. There’s a good architecture to all that.

(((o))): So you’re consciously closing the circle?

Fish: Definitely. Suddenly finding by pure accident a lady finding the oldest piece of writing I ever did and having that sent to me, it feels like this is all meant to be.

(((o))): How close is Weltschmerz to being ready?

Fish: The strings were added yesterday; that was the last recorded component. All the tracks that didn’t have strings are already mixed, so there’s three tracks to mix. One of them is a 16-minute track, ‘Rose of Damascus’. I let my 87-year old mother read the lyrics and listen to the song and she said “this is like a movie”. That’s an absolute epic that’s being put together.

The album will be sent to the manufacturer for release 10 July. The deluxe version has a 100-page book, which I still need to write about 3,000 words for the sleeve notes. That’s not just a “making of” but also explores other elements of the lyrics. I’m doing a documentary with Will Smith, the writer and comedian, and we’ve got live footage to shoot on this tour to put in the deluxe version, so all the assets are coming into place; and they all need to be in place by the end of April, then we’re into the Willy Wonka chocolate factory.

 

(((o))): You’ve been very open with your creative process for ‘Rose of Damascus’.

Fish: The song was originally inspired by this film piece at the end of the Channel 4 news, tagged the gardener of Aleppo. It was about a guy in Aleppo who had a garden nursery, and Aleppo was famous for having flowers on roundabouts: lavender, hibiscus and other things. He decided he wanted to keep on growing flowers and plants. He worked in this nursery with his two sons. There was a couple of lines that really stood out. He was asked what he thought of the rockets and he said “to me, the rockets sound like Beethoven”. I thought “wow” – this guy was incredible. In the face of all that conflict he’s just carrying on a normal life. But the sad thing was at the end of it, the nursery was shelled, and he was killed and his sons were left. I felt I’ve got to find a way to write about this. And then I started to do the research I was talking about earlier on.

In 2016, when my dad died, I found the garden a great place of therapy and healing. I basically spent 7 months in 2016, I don’t even know where they went, I was just gardening, seeding, nurturing and growing and that got me through that period. I wanted to take the album and have elements of plants and flowers within the whole album, so the nature of the world is reflected in it all. For ‘Rose of Damascus’ I started looking at the flowers associated with Syria, and I came up with a Damask Rose, and researching the history of the plant; the fable surrounding the plant is that in 1340, it was a French knight that took a rose from the walls of Damascus during the siege and brought it back to France. The Damask rose is one of the principle cultivars of all the roses in Europe. I liked that idea of a rose being brought back across the seas. So I thought that rather than write about the garden of Aleppo, let’s take the rose and make the rose a woman. It’s a girl who has grown up in Damascus where the revolution was seeded, and her taking on a western approach and hiding western culture from her family, taking her into the revolution and the hope, and of course the revolution exploded, her being left to the ruins having lost family and friends and being left with nothing. She realises she’s got to leave, and it’s about her journey from the ruins, and her discovering a rose on a balcony, which was the only piece of colour in the neighbourhood, taking that rose, and heading towards the Lebanon to get onto the sea.

It’s a 16-minute song with so many elements in there. It’s a journey in itself; there’s so much drama and atmosphere. When you listen to it as a whole I’m very proud of what Steve Vantsis and I did with that song.

(((o))): Over your career you’ve worked with a number of different producers: James Cassidy, Steven Wilson, Elliot Ness, Jon Kelly, Calum Malcolm and others. Is this an important relationship for you?

Fish: Jon Kelly did the Vigil album, when I’d broken free of Marillion but was still with EMI. Then Chris Kimsey took care of Internal Exile once I’d moved to Polydor, as I needed someone I knew. That was just when the studio had opened up here, so whoever was coming in was going to be a guinea pig for all the technology that was used here. It was quite a daunting experience. So Chris Kimsey was perfect as a great friend of mine who came in to nurse me though that.

Fortunately James (Cassidy) came in at the right time as a writer for the Songs album (Songs From the Mirror) and then stayed on to produce this and Suits. After that, production choices were more dictated by the financial stress I was under at the time. That period in the mid 90s to the end of the century, that was a sleigh ride over stone, you know? Elliot Ness came in. Calum Malcolm was on the outside doing the mixing. The bottom line is I couldn’t afford the kind of producers I wanted for those projects. I wish Calum had been involved with Raingods with Zippos and Fellini Days. I think they’d have been very different albums.

It wasn’t really until the 13th Star album that Calum really got involved. Then we moved into Feast of Consequences. Calum is a great ally. As a producer, his musical experience and knowledge is incredible. I trust him to do what he does. He listens to music, he’s an old school producer. He’ll tell me “you should be changing this” and he guides you through it in a way I’m very relaxed with. What he’s done with the Weltschmerz record, even Calum himself said “nobody is making music like this anymore”. It’s going to blow people away, this record: it’s not like a normal album. It’s something completely removed that stands on its own.

(((o))): You’ve worked with one artist throughout your career who you perhaps you’re more closely associated with than any other: Mark Wilkinson. His artworks seems integral to what you do. Tell us about that relationship.

Fish: Mark and I got together before the Script album. I was introduced to him when he did the ‘Market Square Heroes’ sleeve. When you go back to that lyric on the album cover from 1980 that was the first mention of the crying jester. I always had that image of the jester in my head, long before I joined Marillion. When we set out in 1982 we wanted to get an artist in the same way that Roger Dean had a relationship with Yes. When you look in a record store, see the artwork and immediately identify it as being a Marillion album. That was when I brought the jester to the table and everyone was quite happy to go with it, so the jester became synonymous with the band for a number of years. Even back in the Script and Fugazi days we’d be talking to the band about what we wanted to put in. We used to clutter up the sleeves with images that were all relevant, that was a little game we used to have with the fans.

When I left Marillion in 1988, I asked Mark if he would carry on working with me. He didn’t really want to work with the guys because I was the one he’d always been closest with. So that’s why he came in to do the Vigil sleeve, which is a phenomenal sleeve, and he’s worked with me all the way through. The only sleeve that he didn’t do was the cover-version album, because I thought this wasn’t original music and it wasn’t Mark. Since then he’s been an integral part of Fish world.

For the Weltschmerz album I gave him a lot of leeway. We’ve had a couple of moments where we’ve thought “this is not where it should be going”. It’s very much like putting together the music: these are the images I want, I want garden imagery, I want flowers and things that that are related to it. What started off as what we call the alien became a complete man, and an esoteric value came into it as well; the character on the slipcase, we call him the mud man. Mark is great at interpreting what I’m trying to do. He’s given demos of music and lyrics way in advance. We’re trying to inspire him from our side, and there’s a degree of inspiration that comes to us from him.

(((o))): What are your recollections of releasing Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors, your first solo album?

Fish: It was a daunting process. There was a great deal of excitement putting that together with Mickey Simmonds. After Clutching at Straws we were going to go back to writing. I was going to do my thing, and the band were doing their thing, and it wasn’t meeting in the middle. So when Mickey Simmonds came in on songs like ‘Big Wedge’ that were more politicised in terms of state of mind, also ‘Internal Exile’, the band weren’t happy with what I was writing about and felt the lyrics were taking over the music. Maybe that’s what it was. With Mickey I had a co-writer who wasn’t concerned about whether we were going to break the American market so much, if you know what I mean?

There was a load of freedom that came in on Vigil. If you listen to Clutching at Straws we’d started to write songs like ‘Sugar Mice’ and ‘Incommunicado’, even ‘Warm Wet Circles’, which could have been a big single if we’d just applied ourselves, if I’d have been working with a different writer it would have been more like Vigil. Songs like ‘Family Business’ were where I was wanting to head. I was writing songs, but not standard rock songs or pop songs; they were more lyrically based. Since I left Marillion, the lyrics have always led the songs, and never more so than on Weltschmerz.

(((o))): Listening back go Vigil now, some of the songs such as ‘State of Mind’, ‘Family Business’ and ‘View from the Hill’, you’d like to think that they were irrelevant 30 years on, but alarmingly those political lyrics still sound very relevant. How is it revisiting these songs today?

Fish: I listened to ‘Family Business’ for the first time yesterday in rehearsals: what a great song. My voice has obviously changed. I started singing in 1980. If I’d have seen a voice coach back in the days of Script and Fugazi they’d have said, “stop singing like this. It’s unnatural and you’re going to damage your voice”, which I did. I couldn’t sing with that false falsetto. It became a trademark of Marillion’s in some ways. Nowadays my voice is a lot richer, deeper and has a lot more soul to it. When I took the Misplaced Childhood album out on tour recently I remember standing on the stage for the first performance, thinking “how do I do this” as the keys were all dropped. It went down so well because the soul and the passion was there.

I know Steve Rothery has gone on record stating that it’s not the same if it’s not in the same key. That’s bollocks. It’s easy for a guitarist to say buy a new set of strings from the shops, but a singer can’t do that. I think I’m finding my natural voice now; my natural expressive voice. When Steve Vantsis and I write music he knows the keys where the voice works best for me; he knows where my sweet spots are. So we work to that and it’s great. It feels natural and comfortable to sing. Even Vigil we’ve had to take down keys, but it is 30 years ago. So ‘Family Business’ yesterday sounded so rich, you know? Some of the songs I have to push myself harder in areas. It’s where my voice is at the moment. I’m 62 now. I’m not moaning about it or being petulant. For this tour and the Weltschmerz album my voice fits perfectly. I just don’t want to be doing this in 5-years’ time.

I remember seeing Genesis in Twickenham, and I took my daughter along to see them. I found myself singing along to the songs and going “wait a minute, I’m hitting all those notes”. Until then, I didn’t even realise they’d taken the keys down. There are certain gigs I go to where I go back to being a teenage fan. I don’t know if I’m going to go and see Genesis on this tour. I saw them at Wembley on the Abcab tour and I really didn’t like that gig at all. I think I was a bit too protective of my teenage memories at the time. I’ve seen them since play some brilliant gigs. I love the way they changed with Phil. I love the music, it’s just sad to see Phil’s health deteriorate over recent years.

(((o))): Take us back to making Script and being a budding musician trying to make it in rock.

Fish: There’s a book in there! They were exciting times; at the time we were incredibly naive. At the time, with the mixes coming back, of course modern technology it exposes everything in a very compressed way. Suddenly the modern production exposed everything. It’s very sweet. The Marquee club was my primary school, my apprenticeship. It was great. They were very formative times. Things have moved on a lot since then but there are a couple of numbers on that album that will be in contention for the farewell tour in 2021, 2022. What I’d like to do is pick venues I really like then do two shows there, across two days. Then I can have a set-list from right across the entire career, rather than focused on any specific album. I want to play my favourite songs on my farewell tour.

(((o))): How is your relationship with your Marillion bandmates?

Fish: We talk regularly. I talked to Ian just before Christmas. Ian and I tend to phone each other up about medical stuff when one of us goes through an ailment. I get on with Pete, Mark and Steve, but Ian and I have a real soulmate bond. I think that was one of the things when I left the band – it was like a divorce; very bitter. We lost touch for a while, but now every time I meet Ian I remember what a good relationship we’ve got. I love Mark’s madness. Pete is Pete and Steve is Steve. We all get on very well when we get together; it’s wonderful. There are a lot of little spirals and twinkles. What they do musically is very different to what I do. Their approach and attitude is completely different. Good luck to them.

We did a documentary, about doing the Script album, and we came through that period and that’s what launched us. It’s a shame some of the relationships were affected in the way they were but we still keep in touch; but life marches on.

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