Steve Hogarth (h) Interview
at Northern Ireland, UK
By Mark Dean
Steve Hogarth, also known as "h", is the lead vocalist and occasional keyboardist/guitarist with the British hard rock band Marillion. Hogarth was formerly a keyboard player and co-lead vocalist with The Europeans and vocalist with How We Live.
Growing up in Kendall, in Cumbria did you come from a musical family?
What were your early influences and inspirations?
Steve Hogarth (h) – Definitely not from a musical family. My Gran played piano, my Grandfather on my father’s side played the harmonica, if that counts as being musical? I had a fascination for watching people play the piano since I was a kid. My father was in the navy and we moved from Kendal a couple of years after I was born to his home town which was Doncaster. He was away a lot the first few years of my life so it was just me and my mum, she would always have the radio on and singing along to the pop tunes of the day. I grew up with that constant atmosphere of pop music.
I could hear the notes and the chords from when I was very small and if you have a musical brain I think that you can hear it, how it has been constructed; and I could without any kind of tuition. When I went to school I didn’t have any musical tuition because there just weren’t any good musical teachers at the schools I went to. I went to the technical grammar school and again the music department was rubbish. The whole focus of the school was on technical science so I did English Language, Literature, Physics and Maths.After that I did electrical engineering at college after that, and became an electrical design engineer.
On the one hand with this it was a quiet passion for music, not yet thinking that it was something I would ever actually do. The music I grew up listening to was The Kinks, The Small Faces, and The Beatles of course, Stones, The Who, and then later on Led Zeppelin. I got into progressive rock music quite early on. Led Zeppelin had limited appeal to me because hot on their heels was Yes, Genesis and early Floyd. I was listening to a lot of that at the time, then of course the 80’s happened, and I was listening to Scritti Politti, Prefab Sprout, and The Blue Nile who I particularly loved. Tubular Bells also which you couldn’t escape. Then I discovered Joni Mitchell, and Paddy McElhone, the great lyricists in the 80’s.
Then you played with The Europeans who were signed to A&M Records?
(h) – When we signed to them, they already had the Police, Joe Jackson, Supertramp were huge for them, Joan Armatrading and Squeeze were with A&M and hey had a great roster.
I guess when we signed with them they were coming over the cusp of their real glory days and were starting to struggle. The Managing Director then got fired unceremoniously, after we had been there over a year, and already made our first album, half the label just got fired overnight by the American parent company. Even now all record companies are struggling even Sony and it was a giant; Universal will probably be the last to go, EMI is struggling. All the record shops are closing or turning into video shops, the iPod has killed it to a certain extent; it’s created a culture of listening to tracks rather than pieces of work. The way an iPod is structured its all about best of and the singles, just listening to individual tracks; I think that it’s killed it.
Then after the Europeans you went to "How we Live"( Columbia Records)
(h) – The Europeans were really a post-punk band. They were a really unusual band and we were very high-energy, intense tight with jazz-chords, quite an odd mixture of influences.
Even now from the inside looking out I would find it hard to spot any influences in the Europeans; it was totally unique in itself. Then we just got to a point where we couldn’t exist financially and we negotiated our way out of the A&M deal after they disintegrated, thinking we would just walk into another deal; we were so confidant and certain of ourselves…we were a seriously good band touring the world!…The A&R men around at the time, for whatever reason just didn’t get it.
I was approached by the guy at CBS/Portrait records, Peter Carpin who had signed Men At Work, he didn’t want the Europeans, he wanted me so he came and offered me a deal; to this day I feel I have stabbed them all in the back, but at the same time there was nothing doing, there was nothing to do, there was nothing to be done. By way of limiting this, I took the guitar player with me as we had written a lot of songs together, so Colin and I became “How we Live” and we made an album called “Dry Land” The title track of that album was covered by Marillion,on “Holidays in Eden”- covering myself.
The label was Portrait, and that was owned by CBS which then became Sony. We did that album for them which never quite happened for them. After a year/2 years then that hit a wall.
We were managed by a company that supported us as long as they could and they were putting money in our bank accounts every month, while nothing was happening. By the time they let us go they had sunk £30,000 of their own money into us. I don’t know if I ever got round to thanking them, but it was then I decided to get out of the music business.
What then prompted you from experiencing dissatisfaction, disillusionment and quitting the industry to auditioning for Marillion?
(h) – My game plan was to sell the house, move up to Derbyshire, buy a nice little cottage cheaply. There was a huge North-South divide in the property market, so we had a little house in Windsor. We thought if we sold our house, we would end up with hardly any mortgage and I fancied a job as a milkman. I had a job as an electrical design engineer and there was a lot of intellectual pressure on me, even as a young man. Id gone into music and there was a lot of career pressure to create or you’re fucked. I had had enough, I couldn’t even pass a piano and it had become a problem, I thought that I just didn’t want to do this anymore.
The phone then started ringing, that was the trouble. I was ready to sell the house and move north. On the phone was Matt Johnson from The The, he was very hip and trendy and successful at that time around 1988 and he made an album called “Soul Mining” that had done well, and a more successful album called “Infected” produced by Warren Livesey who had worked with me. He phoned me up one day and said that he needed a piano solo on one of Matt’s songs. I went into the studio played a solo on a track called ”Heartland”; the single from the album.
Time passed he rang me up and said that he was putting a band together including Johnny Marr, I thought it would be great to do that, he was going out in the summer (and this was in January).
I agreed and was really looking forward to that tour, and then Marillion rang up.
I was familiar with “Kayleigh”and love them or hate them they were a household name, I was a bit reluctant to go any further with it. I had already got my head set into playing piano with Matt and the reason I wanted to get out of the music business was the whole pressure thing. I thought playing piano with Matt had been really good for me as I could just sit at the back and enjoy myself. We could tour the world and get all the best of it, with none of the shit! I don’t have to do stuff like this (laughs).
All the stuff that I wanted to get away from suddenly was there again. All I heard was ‘Do you want to be the lead singer in this famous rock band?’ I kept fending them off, and they kept phoning up again! My publisher Rondor Music sent a few demos to Marillion because they were looking around for a lyricist, for the band to hear my words, they decided that they liked my voice and then they were after me. Eventually I caved in went round, saw them and we got on like a house on fire!
What about the audition itself, I read that there was a problem with cats?
(h) – Pete Trevavas had cats which I’m violently allergic to, so I couldn’t go into his house.
I had gone to meet them there, told them that I wasn’t being strange but I couldn’t go in. It was January 1989, so everybody put their coats on, we went outside and had a meeting in the garden, and we had a chat. They actually used to rehearse in Pete’s garage, even being a world-famous Rock & Roll band. They had the gear and mic set up in the garage, and they had some words written by John Helmer for a song, it was called “The King of Sunset Town”. They asked me to sing and they would play, but there was no tune. Total improvisation was needed and it was more or less done at that point, the chorus and the melody… I rewrote the verse lyrics later on.
When that whole album (“Seasons End”) was written there was a political aspect to it that I am still probably not free of, and I think that it’s in my head.
I don’t know if it’s actually real, because I was new and that they had all been together I always felt separate from them. Even now I feel that if push comes to shove that they sometimes close ranks. That may just be that singer-musician thing where you are in a band the singer is always outside the loop. There wasn’t an issue with fitting into a famous rock band, it was made much easier by the guys themselves with their positive attitude that it would be fine, and there was no reason to worry. Then we made the album, a pleasurable process in a fantastic recording studio in idyllic surroundings. It wasn’t until we started to rehearse for the tour that I started to question what I had got myself into that I was going to be in front of a diehard audience. For a lot of those people Fish was some kind of huge deal in their hearts and minds. The penny dropped very late for me and I was already in it up to my eyes before it actually occurred to me what I had got myself into.
We did the first tour which was long, I remember celebrating 100 gigs somewhere in Canada, and it was no where near finished. Every night I would go out there in front of sometimes four or five thousand people wondering with eyes shut, what this was going to be about. I was conscious of just being sussed out, initially that was the attitude. However, after 3 songs night after night I would feel the atmosphere change from one of cynicism to one of relief (that their favourite band hadn’t been destroyed), that it could be as good in the future, an immense feeling of relief. As far as the band were concerned, they had a positive vibe that everything was going to be fine anyway.
Holidays in Eden seemed to be favouring a commercial single-based sound, was that direction favoured by the band, or producer and record-label influenced?
(h) – ’Holidays’ was probably the most commercial album overall that we made or had the greatest amount of commercial songs on it. Obviously “Splintering Heart” or “This Town” is not exactly pop music. There were things within that album that were not overtly commercial at all but we had taken a decision to work with a pop producer; Chris Neil (It was EMI’s influence). Originally that album was going to be made with Chris Kimsey who the band had worked with a lot and who did Misplaced Childhood, more of a rock roll producer, he was actually making the Stones” Steel wheels” album with them while we were rehearsing. In the end the Stones served him with a writ, preventing him working with anybody else but them for the next year, we had suddenly lost our producer and EMI came in and our A&R man suggested Chris Neil who was known as a pop producer.
There was that feeling that this could be an experiment and we were quite reluctant to meet him. He won us round by introducing himself as Marillion being his son’s favourite band. He told us that his son would never forgive him if he made a crap record so we did that with him. That was probably why” Holidays in Eden” was so poppy, and then we reacted to that and went 360 degrees.
Follow-up album “Brave” was a complete departure as you say, a 70 minute concept album.
Why the complete change in musical direction?
(h) – "Brave" was a very interesting piece of work, because I think we probably lost half our fanbase overnight with that record! It was too strange for them, they just thought; I’m not into that!
Marillion as a band still do that though, with every subsequent release, they are always challenging peoples perception of them as a band.
(h) – "What was good about "Brave” was that it established a precedent, not to expect the same thing from us twice. The people then that went with us, then had the feeling that there’s a bunch of guys that are going to keep moving on. We didn’t design it that way, but gradually found ourselves in a position where we had complete creative freedom to do what we wanted, without it killing our career completely! We have ended up in a really good position and I think what makes a successful band. It’s not just the music and the musicians, it’s a complete mixture of people who forgive, so you can have a good row, get over it and not split up. Also a mixture of personalities in a band is almost better than to have just 5 great musicians, as it’s better to have 2-3 musicians, someone who are good with numbers, someone with a real commercial head and someone who is really intelligent and can see which way the wind is blowing. Marillion have got a balance where the strengths are and not just musical.
We had the fan interaction element going on before social networking got established and we were one of the first bands to have a website in the Uk. Also probably, the first band to fully understand that the future was going to be,in creating a family rather than us and them. Finding out who was actually listening to us was absolutely crucial, if you are in a band and you know who is listening to you then you have the power. We realised back in 97 that we needed to find out who was buying our records and work with them, get to know them and get feeling for them and create a relationship. We still send out a compilation cd through our website for everybody that is interested and the only way you can get into a band is to hear what they do,its about the music.
That’s fine if you are being played on the radio and on TV, but if its not the case. As a band you have got to do what you can to get your music heard, then they can be judged on just the music and nothing else. There’s no point looking at a picture of five 50+ blokes and judging them on their style and what is cool, because they arent going to have any. [laughs]
I have seen several setlists from the tour and it seems to vary nearly every night. Is it something that you pre-plan, or just go with the individual reaction, moods & atmosphere of the audience each night?
(h) – We used to play the same set every night, rigorously for the first four or five tours.
That’s the freedom of a solo tour it gives a degree of flexibility?
(h) – Oh, you mean my solo tour! (Yes)
Yeah, the whole point of doing these h natural shows originally (apart from paying the tax bill) that was the impetus to do it. Having been put in a position where it was going to be just me and a piano, I thought that I should make this an interactive evening where we can just talk to each other. Everybody in the room can ask me stuff and if they want to know where I got my trousers, or why I wrote Easter, where I got the chorus for this from, they can ask and I will tell them. I won’t just play music!
A few bands have recently adopted that approach?
(h) – If you are doing a solo show then you should explain; this is why I wrote this and this is what I was trying to say here..
So you vary the setlist depending on mood, atmosphere and what people ask for?
(h) – The thing was, I would ask people to talk to me and to ask me something.
For the most part they misunderstand and they would just shout a song and they thought I was asking for requests but I wasn’t, I was asking to talk, but a lot of them are too nervous to say anything. Slowly bit by bit, it turned into a request show and tonight will probably be like that.
The setlist is not actually what I do, as I like to go onstage with a set but I have written one down for tonight.
I did a gig in Whitechapel a few years back which we filmed and it’s on dvd "Naked in the Chapel", as I walked onstage I passed someone and he said "Play the Hollow Man", which I started with and it wasn’t even in the set. Even the first song had changed and that’s the beauty and the advantage of doing a solo performance, it can go anywhere. I can get halfway through a song, stop and go somewhere else, if it occurs to me and when you are playing with another musician eg a guitar player I couldnt do that!
How did you meet Richard Barbieri and were you familiar with Porcupine Tree?
(h) - I was hoping that you would ask me about that eventually. I met Richard because I made a solo album about 15 years ago called "Ice cream Genius" which was my first solo album outside of Marillion. I wanted it to be as radically different as possible and I got Clem Burke from Blondie to play drums and members of Eurythmics, XTC and Stone Roses. I was looking for a producer after hearing some interesting stuff by Porcupine Tree and I saw that Steve Wilson their singer was mixing their stuff which sounded great so we approached Steve to mix some of Marillions stuff and I asked Steve. Then to produce "Ice cream Genius" we had a meeting in London and he said that he had been asked by Fish to produce his solo album and I thought that was it but I realised by this time that Richard Barbieri was the synth player of Porcupine Tree. I had been a big fan of Japan’s "Tin Drum" album in the eighties which I thought was amazing and the prospect of working with Richard was very exciting. I asked Steve if he would play my demos to Richard, which he did and Richard said he would like to get involved and came down to the studio and he added a lot of synths to that album. He sprinkled his darkness all around it, we then toured the album and became friends.
I tried in vain to write a second album with the h band and I was trying to make a record as we spent a week together jamming but it just didn’t happen and I didn’t use any of the material.
Out of the blue, about 5 years ago, I got an email from Richard asking if I would like to make an album with just him and I always felt that Richard doesn’t get enough room within Porcupine Tree to be heard, because he is a genius! When I worked with him I added almost nothing to what he did, just voices and my main sensibility was to work with it without making it worse.
It was a strange process because he lives in London and I live in the Midlands and he would email finished instrumentals "Red Kite", for example. I would drive around listening to them wondering what to do with them and then eventually after months I would start like painting with the singing, painting little colours with the voice instead of "here’s the song", he had created the landscape, so I will just pop some creatures in the landscape, to put things with it, while letting it be.
The song itself became about a landscape, as I was driving around down the M40 looking at the red kites hovering above the motorway and looking for roadkill [laughs] I started to wonder about a lyric about a feral creature that is part of nature that is watching the insanity of mankind.
All these coloured cars zipping about beneath it and trying to create a juxtaposition between this thing that is waiting for something to die and all these people below it that are slowly killing themselves; that was the point of the song!
I’m really pleased with it and of the entire album as it’s not a collection of songs but a piece of art and a lot of that is down to Richard and his individuality and uniqueness to the sounds he makes.
Vocally the spoken word worked really well "Cat of Seven Souls", there is no point singing that-it is a confession.
That album hasn’t featured in your setlists on this tour?
(h) – It’s kind of impossible to play really. At a stretch I could play "Naked" which is the second track and Richard and I would love to do some dates as I don’t really have any time until next April.
It’s something that we both want to do but you can only plan it if you have the time to do it and I don’t know what he is going to be doing next April.
Are there any other artists that you would like to work with and create music with?
(h) – Massive Attack! I would love to sing with Massive Attack. Just to be asked would be like winning an Oscar, because they only use great singers!
Regarding musical styles and genres, anything different that you would like to explore?
(h) – Dub-reggae! It’s the music I would listen to by choice and I wouldn’t go home and put one of ours on. [laughs] I would even go home and listen to the Beatles and once I’ve finished and it’s mixed I would listen to something for a couple of months and celebrate that its there and feel good about it. I actually did that with "Not the Weapon",it’s unlikely that I will listen to it anymore now as you tend to hear what is wrong with it and listening to stuff like "Seasons End" and "Holidays in Eden" now is excruciating, it sounds so naive. You can stare at yourself in the mirror too long and you start to hate yourself…you are better off not looking.
Regarding fan passion-support/devotion, I’m aware that there will be many flying in for the show tonight from different countries. How does that make you feel?
(h) – There are a few familiar faces that will be there tonight. I just feel incredibly lucky and it’s very flattering that you have touched somebody on a level that you have changed their lives, that it has gone way beyond entertainment. They are invariably lovely people and when I think back…I was going to go and become a milkman…..!