Published in 'The Amsterdam Times', February 22 2004.
"Like Van Gogh I walked into the fields to get my head together"
In the years that followed Fish's departure from Marillion in 1988, he has released 12 studio albums, with eight of them unique and the remaining four compilations, 16 live albums, four DVDs, five videos and one book. But it still happens that when some people hear a Fish-song they say: "I thought he stopped after Marillion," or even worse: "I thought he died."
To show these people that he's still alive and kicking, the Scottish singer will perform the famous Marillion album 'Misplaced Childhood' which contains his famous songs 'Kayleigh' and 'Lavender', on a major tour with his solo band and special guests, next year, which will mark the album's 20th anniversary.
Fish presented a tour tryout in a fan club weekend in Enschede, in 2002, where the reactions were very positive. Fish's 'Misplaced Childhood' was a bit different than Marillion's 'Misplaced Childhood'. It was rockier, had background singers and Fish had to sing in lower keys because his voice had matured with age. Fish says: "Singing the older Marillion stuff is a nightmare unless they drop the keys. It's over 20 years ago, that's a long time for a voice. It's like expecting Ruud van Nistelrooy in 20 years time to be able to go in and walk in a penalty in the way he does now."
Besides with his own group, Fish also performs with the SAS-band, an acronym that stands for 'Spike's All Star band'. SAS is a party and festival band that was formed by Queen's famous keyboard player, Spike Edney. The 'All Stars' each sing their most famous songs which means that Fish performs 'Kayleigh', which is still played at least once a day on most popular radio stations. Doesn't he get bored of singing that song so often? Fish: "Well last year I only did about eight gigs with the SAS band. And it's different: with the SAS-band we have a brass section and backing vocalists. Besides that, 'Kayleigh' always puts a smile on people's faces." The singer hastily adds, "But I won't play Kayleigh on the next tour." The Scot says that because he knows many of his fans hate the song, often calling it 'the K-song', they even don't want to hear its proper name.
Sing along with Fish
Fish's promotion tour for his new album Field of Crows was launched in England this month (February 2004). Fish says: "The new album has a lot of 'sing along with Fish-numbers' on it (he laughs), but, as much as I would love to play the entire album from beginning to end, I can't do that. There 're gonna be a lot of people going to these gigs who don't have the album yet and they also want to be entertained that night. But 90 percent of the stuff we will play is from the last three albums: 'Raingods with Zippos', 'Fellini Days' and 'Field of Crows'. And it will be a very rocky set list," he adds.
This tour will be a hard tour for the giant Scot. It has fifty dates in it with just one day off after each four days performing. Fish: "And that's pretty tough. I've got a backing vocalist coming to help me out. I'm a bit older now, 45-years old, so it takes more time to recover. I can't party like I used to and I have lost the desire to do that. The worst thing you can do is wake up with a hangover on show day two, when we are out on a four. But I still love fun; I can still rattle my chains when I need to, although I have to make sure that I do it at the right time and place. The worst chain in the band is the singer. A guitarist has ten fingers, or whatever, so at least he's good to the muscles in the throat, which are very sensitive. If you're on a tour, as much as you would like to walk in an art gallery, sometimes you just pull a cover over your head and stay in bed for another three hours because you have to play two hours for somebody who paid for a ticket that night. And the most depressing thing is being ill on tour. I hate that."
One of the strategies to get rest is to sleep on the bus. Although a hotel seems more comfortable, that's not necessarily always the case, according to the Scot. "To get up at 8 o' clock in the morning in a hotel and then climb on the bus for a five hour drive to the next gig isn't something you really want. Instead, you can get a decent sleep in the bus, do the gig, take a couple of showers at the venue and get back in the bus to sleep 'till you wake up in the next town."
In the documentary 'A Badger's Day', which is a bonus disc of the Sunsets on Empire DVD, Fish shows how he sleeps in the bus. At an impressive, 1.98 metres, he is forced to lie with knees bent at one end of the 'bed', with his head vertically against the other side. This also means that, if the bus were to be in an accident, it's probably goodbye Fish. "When you've enough money, you can permit yourself to take the time to stay in a hotel and really see the places, and you're voice will always be there. But nowadays it's difficult to put tours together. Financing them is going to get harder and harder over the next few years. We're in the kind of situation that means we have to use the tour bus." The thing the big man hates most about the touring is the 'dead time'. "But I love to read and I bring more then 20 books with me. All different types, from gardening books to cookery books, to thrillers, political books, all sort of things. I kind of bounce around."
'Cunning plan' to get the most out of his album
If Fish managed to keep his health together, after this tour, he'll do another in South America. For the summer he is planning many open airs, and other work. Fish: "What I need to do is to maximize what I can earn between now and September so that it allows me to take a year off to do other projects." It was for this reason that the singer developed a particularly "cunning plan" to get the most out of his Fields of Crows album. The plan saw it being released to fans through Fish's website, a rather appropriate two weeks before Christmas. Those who order it in this way or during the tour receive a larger CD booklet than the people who buy the album from retail stores. Fish explains his strategy: "We might sell about 50.000 albums, or so. The artwork, recording, engineers, session musicians, etc, etc, for the album cost me between 40 and 50 thousand pounds. If I sold it in the usual way, it would cover my costs, but I wouldn't make enough money to keep myself alive for a year, because the retail companies, the distribution company - all the middleman - get their percentages and the artist gets very little. That's why I'm doing it through the Internet. I've got a very loyal fan base and I've worked very hard to keep. I also work very hard to supply quality albums. We don't make much money selling an album at retail compared to what we can make through selling via the Internet. The music industry has changed a lot. You've got to pay so much for promotion and advertising; something we don't do. We can only make sure that radio stations get the albums and recognize that the songs are as good as we think they are. I've written songs since 1985 that are as good as Kayleigh; if they got the serious airplay Kayleigh and Lavender did, they would have been equally big hits."
Fish's new album, 'Field of Crows', may be more accessible and 'rockier' than his others, but it is still typical 'Fishy' music; not straight rock, but a mystique form of rock, with a false bottom. The false bottom begins with the title of the album. There are two reasons why it's called 'Field of Crows'. Fish: "The first one resulted from my visit to Kosovo. I went to a place called 'The Field of Black Birds'. There had been a huge battle there; I think it was in the 15th century, during the Ottoman Empire. The battle basically happened between the Muslims and the Christians (mainly Serbs). About 18.000 people died there, on what they call 'the Field of Blackbirds'. I thought the name too romantic because Kosovo is an ugly place. Later I figured that the blackbirds must have been crows, feeding off the bodies. It was the nature of the birds. At the end of the day men had fought a huge battle, but nature won the field. The crows won in the end."
The tree stump and the laughing crow
The second reason for his choice of name stems from the personal problems Fish experienced in 2000. "I was going through a divorce and my ex-wife and daughter went back to Berlin. There is a big field at the back of my studio and there is a tree stump there, by an old wood. I used to sit on the tree stump and smoke a bit, just to chill out. It was the only place I could go, where there was peace. One day a crow flew across the top and it appeared it was laughing at all the irony: I was sitting there, in this peaceful place, but in my house were all the problems and these images on my satellite TV, coming from conflicts all over the world. As the album started to grow; 'Field of Crows' seemed a very periphrastic title for an album that is really about living in nature, about dreams, about journeys... about a person who leaves a place because he thinks he has to follow a dream; he has to follow an old course where his father went. Then he goes away, but he doesn't find what he wants and in the end he discovers he really wants what he already had before. There's a lot of confrontation in the album, but we live in a very confrontational world."
There is another mystic side to the album. Fish first asked sleeve artist Mark Wilkinson (who also did the old Marillion sleeves) to make an eighties-style airbrush for 'Field of Crows'. But as the album grew, Fish increasingly began to get the picture of Vincent van Gogh's painting 'Wheat Field Under Threatening Skies' on his mind. Fish: "So I busted the originally airbrush idea, because it just didn't seem right. And I decided to go for a Van Gogh-kind of cover. We were looking for a proper field to use as the background for the album painting and ironically, at last, we ended up at the same field I had gone for those walks when I was trying to get my head together. Mark Wilkinson did a great acrylic painting across the top of that field in the Van Gogh style."
"Later I found out that 'Wheat Field Under Threatening Skies' was Vincent's last painting. He went down to the fields after he came out of the sanatorium and he said these fields inspired him again. It gave him a vibe of life and reminded him of the opportunities life offered. And that was similar to my situation, when I was going to that field to find inspiration from life again. It was a very dark period in my life when my marriage collapsed."
Writing a movie script
After the summer Fish wants to take a year off to do the things he really want to, instead the things he has to do. One of his dreams is to write a movie script. The well-humoured Scotsman explains: "I've got a screenplay that I need to start working on. I've got all the ideas and I'm getting them on pieces of papers and I want to start putting them all together. And I want to concentrate more on acting. I still love the music side, but it encompasses every part of my life: there have been times that I have really wanted to get away from it."
In January this year, Fish played a role in John Maybury's film 'The Jacket' which was produced by George Clooney. Fish (laughing): "So I managed to get into at least one movie at the beginning of this year and I think that's a good sign!"
Interview January 11th 2004