I was recently given the opportunity to chat with Mark Kelly, keyboard player with the most commercially successful neo-prog rock band of the 1980s: Marillion. Mark had just arrived at the studio to start rehearsals for the Light At The End of The Tunnel Tour. We spoke about the last few years and 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 lockdown as I wrote and recorded a solo album which was released at the end of last year, and I 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: 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 two years, which for Marillion is so unusual. I’ve checked and we have done gigs every year since we started back in 1980, so to not play for two 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 in 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 two 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: We’re excited that you are out on tour and coming to Cambridge. I read that Cambridge was your first performance with Marillion forty 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, so 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. Also it is my fortieth 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, which 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 to mid 80s, and for years we haven’t played it and now we’re going back and finishing the tour there. Two nights there will be good.
HC: What can fans expect from the Light at the End of the Tunnel tour? I know it will be the premiere of the new song ‘Be Hard on Yourself’.
MK: We have finished the album and it’s annoying we couldn’t get it out before the tour but it’s just that there is a paper shortage, cardboard shortage, and 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 a February/March 2022 release date, so we thought we’d put at least one song out so people can hear it and so that we have something new to play, it’s about eight or nine 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 and 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 twenty albums of music to choose from – it’s always difficult but we try to mix things up a bit. As It’s been two 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 it, 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: 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 1997 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: 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 by staying in your bubble?
MK: Yeah, we have to. We don’t want to take unnecessary risks and we want to give us the best chance of getting to the end of the tour.
HC: What feelings do you have for your twentieth studio album release – An Hour Before Dark?
MK: 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: 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 twenty years ago where we get together for the weekend and play three shows, on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday – three completely different shows, we don’t repeat anything. The fans congregate there and stay in the accommodation and we have around three thousand people from around the world. In 2022, we will be doing that again in Holland, Stockholm, UK and Montreal, so for the first half of the year we will be doing these weekends and we’ll be playing the new album as well.
Marillion will be at Cambridge Corn Exchange on Saturday 20 November. Tickets are currently sold out, but check with the venue for returns. For further tour dates visit: marillion.com/tour.
To pre-order the album or for more information on the band visit marillion.com.