Interview Steve Rothery (Marillion)

"I'm trying to find melodies and emotion in my playing and not play the same licks that everyone else already does"

(August 2014, text by Dave Smith, edited by Peter Willemsen. Pictures by Roberto Scorta)

Steve Rothery is the guitarist in Marillion. He has recently released a double CD and DVD of a concert recorded earlier this year in Rome. His first studio album The Ghosts Of Pripyat will be released in September this year. Well, reasons enough to do an interview with Steve for Background Magazine. When we spoke on the phone I asked him about the ideas for some of the songs.

I like the way you talk about each piece being a small soundtrack, but what I didn't get to hear is what pictures you had in mind for the tracks Morpheus and Kendris.
Steve Rothery: “I'm a big fan of the Neil Gaiman graphic novel
Steve Rothery
The Sandman; visually that was the kind of thing I was thinking of for that track. Kendris is based on Kendross which was an ancient name for Plovdiv in Bulgaria where the first concert was. So that spoke to me like an East meets West kind of thing, slightly psychedelic as well like a sort of crossroads of Europe. Old Man Of The Sea is a little strange track. It starts quite atmospheric and mellow, but towards the end it gets quite rocky. However, it's one of my favourite tracks since Steve Hackett gets to guest on it and Steven Wilson as well. We all three perform a solo on this piece. Yesterday's Hero is an idea I've had for quite a while inspired by the recent passing of my stepfather. He was a veteran of World War II, a very kind and gentle man. It's for every country and every generation, the heroes of the moment. It's an acknowledgement of the sacrifices each generation has made for whatever cause.”

Both Live In Rome and Live In Plovdiv contain the same tracks that are going to appear on The Ghosts Of Pripyat, your first studio album. How much have these songs benefited from being played live before they were recorded and committed to the studio?
“Well, it gives you a good idea of what's working and what you need to develop. The difference between the Rome and the Plovdiv album is that the songs have developed a bit further and they have evolved again since then. I've kind of changed the arrangements, shortened some sections and condensed it for an album I suppose. So what you're hearing are ideas in their raw state. It's a lot of fun to play these ideas live with this great band. I always get a big smile on my face just hearing us play.”

Is it more relaxing having that type of band than the things you do with Marillion?
“With Marillion we are five individuals. We don't always agree, but we get on very well especially for a band that have been together for as long as we have. Maybe, because we have been doing it for so long, we are a little bit stuck in our ways, so it becomes a bit of a committee for whatever you try to decide to do creatively, business wise or trying to plan for the next couple of years ahead. So this is a lot more down to me. I have to work incredibly hard multi-tasking. It's not only making the record, but looking after the promotion and the business side as well. It's quite a lot really, and in hindsight I should have got somebody else involved. We've got a great deal of interest for the album. Initially it's going to be sold directly from the Marillion website and from my own website. There will be a free download of one of the tracks that Steve Hackett plays on, which I currently working on in my studio.

The Steve Rothery Band live

Your Kickstarter* campaign must have exceeded your wildest dreams.
“There's a lot of love and respect for what I do which is an amazing thing, really. We hit the £15,000 target within the first 24 hours and we went on to raise nearly four times that amount.”
*) Kickstarter is the world's largest funding platform for creative projects like film, music and theatre, amongst others (edt).

Did that give you the opportunity to do something different because you had more money to work with?
“I bought some new recording equipment for my studio. We had a couple of days down at Real World studios to do some live recording and some filming for the documentary and the live performance for the special edition of The Ghosts Of Pripyat. It was amazing to go down there with the band for two days and get a lot of work done and there was a couple of great performances we managed to capture.”

Pripyat is a purpose built town for the Chernobyl workers. What's your fascination with it?
“When I was writing the music for the first Plovdiv album, I came up with something that reminded me of a haunted children's carousel, so I went on Google Images and tried to find abandoned fairgrounds around Europe and I came across the iconic images of the fairground in Pripyat. I kind of researched the whole Chernobyl disaster a bit more and was interested in the people who stayed in the area who still had to work there travelling by train every day to decommission the remaining reactors. It was a fascinating story to read of the sacrifice of tens of thousands of people, who gave their lives to ensure it wasn't a bigger disaster than it could have been. I was supposed to be playing in Kiev live for one of the first concerts of this tour. It was going to be a memorial concert for those people who gave their lives in the plane crash. Unfortunately with all the troubles in the Ukraine it has not been possible. Maybe in a year or so's time, when the situation has stabilised I would still love to go there and do it.”

Ricardo Romano

Well, that would be great.
“Yeah, I know a lot of descendants of people from there have been very grateful of me reminding people of the sacrifice, because there will always be disasters in the world and we do tend to forget.”

Are you taking the same band with you out on tour later this year?
“I am, yes, we have full-time keyboard player Ricardo Romano who plays in RanestRane. He came and did the Real World sessions with us and he will be on tour with us as well. There will also be a couple of guest vocalists and we will do some old Marillion songs that I don't really play anymore like Chelsea Monday, Fugazi and Incubus, so it's going to be a bit of a party. It's probably the only time I will do this, but I want to make it special.”

How do you start to write an instrumental album? Would you start with a tune, chord progression, a mood, or a drum pattern?
“I start with a framework, usually some sort of picking or strummed pattern that has some sort of melody implied in it already. I'm pretty good at writing something that fits in with something else that takes it into a different place. It's very hard to say, I mean writing music comes very naturally to me. It's one of the few
Dave Foster
things in life that does, so it's not a problem especially when I'm writing with my friend Dave Foster, the other guitarist in the band, who's also the guitarist and writer in the English band Mr. So & So. We've got a great writing partnership, a really strong musical chemistry, he's one of my oldest friends, so if either of us has an idea it becomes like a Lennon & McCartney type of thing, not effortless but relatively easy for ideas to be born.”

I really enjoy your style of guitar playing. It's full of emotion rather than playing licks for the sake of it.
“What I do is trying to find melodies and emotion in my playing and not play the same licks that everyone else is playing. That's difficult because there are traps you can fall into very easily on guitar, where you deal with certain licks. I mean we all do it occasionally, but it's how much you're able to break out of that the rest of the time and find different inflections and different places where you would put together a melody that sounds natural and doesn't sound contrived or too technical. Sometimes technique can be a wonderful thing, but you've got to be careful you don't end up in a strange fusion wilderness where the only people that would be impressed are other musicians.”

Let's pretend that Marillion never existed and you can join any band you want at any time, because the guitarist has left to join a nose flute trio or whatever. Which band would you join?
“I honestly don't know; of all my favourite bands I couldn't imagine replacing their guitarist. I could be an additional guitarist not replacing the original member but share it with them. Pink Floyd would definitely be up there, I would love to have played guitar for Kate Bush or Joni Mitchell and songwriters more than mainstream acts I suppose.”

So for me personally, are you coming anywhere near Newcastle? And for our Dutch readers, where are you playing in the Netherlands?
“We play in Glasgow and Manchester for the north of England and we have two concerts in the Netherlands: on October 23 at Cultuurcentrum Boerderij in Zoetermeer and the day after at Dru Cultuurfabriek in Ulft. For both gigs we have the Italian band RanestRane as a support act.”

Thank you for the interview, Steve, and I wish you a lot of success with the new album.
“You're welcome. Thank you for having me in your magazine.”

More info about Steve Rothery on the Internet:
       review album 'Live In Rome'

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