An e mail interview for Fabio Zavattoni (Italy).
FZ: Hi Fish, happy with the latest tour?
Fish: I was really happy at the way it panned out. All our audience figures were up right across the board and the reactions from fans and media was particularly positive. Coming on the back of two tours that ran into problems at some stage or other this one was relatively stress free. It was tough, make no mistake. The compromises I have to make are becoming too much. The number of gigs in a row and the manner of getting about make tiredness a cruel enemy and some gigs I had to be very careful not to overstretch myself. Not my preferred style as I like to commit wholeheartedly to the performance.
I was exhausted both mentally and physically after the tour and a recurrent problem with my knee has meant my footballing days are officially over. The dream of wearing the dark blue strip are now gone!
FZ: What about Italy? Will we have the pleasure of seeing you here, as all of us are hoping? ( NDR : the question was made before the San Giuliano gig, but if you want to answer about other opportunities..)
Fish: On the "Scattering Crows" tour Yatta, my production manager, and I had to look carefully at guarantees on the show fees and plan accordingly. At the end of the day the backing vocalist made more money than me from the ticket prices and my wage for the tour came solely from merchandise sales. I seem to more of a haberdasher these days! It's very hard making tours work and after suffering severe losses on a couple of tours in the past (which were a major part of my financial problems in the late 90's where I was forced to sell my house) I am extremely reluctant to take risks. At the end of the day I am a professional musician and have to earn a living. It does not make sense to me to play shows where I am losing money before I have even set foot on the stage. I love gigs and I love performing but I must remain sensible.
In the 80's a lie pervaded the Italian media that I hated playing there. That was never the case and my absence from Italy is not because of lack of will but rather lack of offers from promoters and guarantees that do not cover my costs.
Genoa last year was a superb occasion and a wonderful weekend. I would love to play a 10 date tour in your country but no-one has offered me such a tour and the dates we do get offered are rare and more attractive to a 4 piece acoustic outfit in an estate car rather than a 12 man touring team travelling on a bus!
Lack of promotion and an active label have hampered me in the past and with the current climate in the music industry it is highly unlikely that things will change. I now accept this and have to dig around for gigs that make sense.
The recently announced San Giuliano show is more than welcomed as it gives me a chance to play at least one show featuring the "Field of Crows" material to the Italian fans. As it is a free show I don't have to emphasis that this is more of a gesture to the fans than a commercial gig and we are treating the weekend as a fun working holiday more more than anything else. If the hospitality is in any way similar to Genoa then I am sure this will be a great weekend for all concerned.
FZ: Some people were disappointed that you left out "The Field" (by barely using the theme as an intro), and even "Scattering Crows" in some gigs. In other words, two war-horses. Was it just a time limit or are there other reasons?
Fish: It was purely to do with timing and the curve of the set. Picking a setlist can be a pain as there are some numbers that despite their claims for inclusion have to be left out as there could be too many slow numbers/too much new material that fans don't know yet/other numbers that warrant performance due to the band's enthusiasm and playing or sometimes because the song doesn't translate well to a live performance. The last reason is a rarity I must say!
"The Field" was too slow and too long to kick off a set and didn't seem to fit later on. "Scattering Crows" is a great live number and was played at the beginning of the tour. The set started to get too long and I had to reluctantly cut the stage time in order not to add to the already huge demands on my voice on a 42 date tour. "Scattering Crows" left me with too many slow numbers at the end of the set and was jettisoned in favour of the "Raingods" section and "Vigil".
I am sure they will appear in other setlist sometime in the future.
FZ: The album lyrics are at times very self-critical and tell us of a love story that has not yet achieved closure in your heart?
Fish: I don't believe that true love ever effectively registers closure. It may only exist as a shadow and sometimes you can forget the darkness that exists beyond the memory. In those melancholy moments it is easy to confuse the reality. On "Field of Crows" there was a strange melancholy attached to some lyrics and I allowed myself to tap in to that and fuse it together with various fictional elements to create a believable scenario. I am also an actor as well as a writer. All that appears on film or in song content is not necessarily a totally true representation but is influenced and rooted in real life events.
FZ: FoC, as an album, is brimming with good contents and hints at a return to the atmospheres of "Vigil". The horns were a fresh addition, and in view of your recent work with the SAS band a logical step. However, we believe that the album deserved different and better arrangements in some places and more efforts at the production stage. The recording quality and the interaction of the instruments are not as good as they could be. What are your thoughts on this?
Fish: The recording quality I consider the best we could afford considering the circumstances I work under and the sales I expect. It would have been easy if I had a huge budget to command a major studio and 6 months recording time with a host of internationally recognised session musicians and "mainstream" producers and engineers. The reality is different. Elliot Ness did a great job on this album. I am proud of what he did and the album itself. It was never going to be an overproduced album as the writing was far more classic rock orientated. The arrangements are not over the top and are subtle enough to embellish rather than "oversugar". The rest of the criticism I put down to opinion. I disagree with it completely.
FZ: Another thing that left me confused is the sounds of keyboards. It's as if you disowned a kind of "wilsonian" path (that also appeared in parts of Fellini Days) that would have called for other, different, sounds. Is that so?
Fish: My main writing partner on the album was Bruce Watson, a guitarist. The Tony Turrell keyboard written tracks balance the album in my opinion. It was always going to be a guitar based rock album and I had no intention of "progging" it up! I didn't disown a "Wilsonian" path. I didn't even know one existed! I followed the traditional "Fishy" route - "if it feels good, record it!"
FZ: Could you give us a "final" explanation on how the composing process goes? Do you take an active part in suggesting harmonic strategies (or even melodies) to the musicians, or do you just suggest the atmospheres, moods and style you would like to follow?
Fish: All ways! I just don't play a musical instrument therefore I communicate with my voice! Sometimes I sing a melody and the musicians find the underlying chords and keys. I am part of the writing team and am involved in all aspects to some degree or another. I don't just write lyrics and come into the studio to be told where and how to sing on previously arranged songs as some people would like to suggest. There is no magic formula. I have worked like that since 1981!
FZ: Talking about FOC, let's go nito a bit of detail. Listening to the soundclips I noticed an intro of "The Lost Plot" which was definitely more homogenoeus in how the sounds came together (piano plus keyboard effect), and a slight out of synch in the definitive version. What happened?
Fish: No idea! Ask a musician!
FZ: The "Moving Targets" solo, with that almost out of tune "dive"... has that a symbolic significance?
Fish: Not as far as I can remember! It sounds good and links up to the re intro of the pinning rhythm. A tempo slide and a breather, it works well.
FZ: I think the above mentioned track, together with "The Field", "Innocent Party, "Numbers" and "Scattering Crows", represents the creative apex of the album, but many would agree that there aren't any low points. Even "Old Crow" and "Zoo Class" are confirmation that a "pop" song can show the artist's good taste, which you have in abundance. What are your thoughts about this?
Fish: I get too self conscious writing "pop" songs and get embarrassed by the simplicity sometimes. "Zoo Class" and "Old Crow" have a touch of humour and are soaked in irony that pokes fun in some respects at the genre while at the same time I get a chance to exercise both lyrically and arrangement wise in order to "Fish" them up! They are writing "games" that I really enjoy sometimes and especially at the start of the writing process. I love performing "Zoo Class" live. It gives me a chance to boogie down on those old legs of mine! Strip me down and I am really a dancer!
FZ: Neither in your albums nor within the individual tracks there is ever the ambiguity between pop and rock (like, for example, in Genesis' "Calling all Stations"), and I believe that to be a very strong point in all your work! I would like to hear your comment about this. Thank you
Fish: My initial intention when beginning the writing process is to write an album. I don't follow the formula of writing 3 "hit singles" and then filling the rest of the album with material that could be classed as "b-sides" or just there to make up 70 minutes on a CD. I like to have a conceptual structure or at least an overall theme that directs the process. I haven't entertained the dream of a hit single for a number of years now and should anything appear overtly commercial then it does so by accident rather than by design. I have no pressure on me from a record company or anyone else but myself. I choose where the album goes and I am not ruled by outside influences be it high sales on a previous album or by management and promoters who need a hit to ensure the machine stays on the golden road. Not always the best of scenarios but I have so far enjoyed working this way. It certainly hasn't delivered the success of my Marillion days but I am proud of what I have acheived over the solo years and think I have written songs some of which are as good if not better than some of that material but which have never been recognised due to lack of a major record company, promotion and radio play. I don't despair. I had a great run in the 80's, bought the t-shirt and ticked it off! Times and taste change and these days the cost of success is far more expensive. I have never looked good or felt comfortable in strings!
I enjoy my Life and between my acting, writing and music careers I can manage to sustain my current lifestyle.
Being famous does get you a better table in a better restaurant but there are always more waiters who all want bigger tips!
I enjoy cooking!
FZ: Would you think that a future remaster, or a FoC "revisited" (a bit like "Yin" and "Yang") would give justice to the most Marillion-like album since "Vigil"? After all, even "Fellini Days", with its genial production idea of director's voice inserts, could do with a little shine, wouldn't you agree?
Fish: No. Perhaps a 5-1 mix of albums may be feasible one day but there are no plans to re record or re master the last 3 albums.
FZ: Some of your fans state they'd buy a CD of yours even if you were reading the weather forecast or the local paper on it. I take this to be a great compliment to your vocal expressivity and the unmistakable tone and timber of your voice, but I would point my finger even more to your knack of seamlessly matching your singing to the music, impeccable even in its rythm and timing. I would go as far as saying that singers like yourself, Waters, Gabriel, Hammill and very few others can make the music an almost negligible detail! I think that the current art-rock, especially the American side, lack this bonus; I can't see many vocalists around who'd be able to pick up your inheritance. What are your views on this?
Fish: I am not a musician therefore my main contribution to the recording/performing process is with my voice. I am first to admit that I do not have a great technical voice but I have the ability to infuse a great deal of emotion and expression into my delivery which carries a lyric well. That is why a move into acting is such a logical transition. At least I don't have to act in tune! Strangely enought the internal rhythms of scenes I find relatively easy to spot which is something really useful in certain types of comedy acting. Both careers seem to compliment each other in some ways and I think that my stage performances have benefitted from my growing acting roles. The understanding of dialogue and the writing process have definitely aided me in both areas. The recent inclusion of "Jungle Ride" and the spoken section in "Perception" in particular have both stood out on the last tour.
As far as phrasing goes I learned a lot from singers like Rickie Lee Jones and Joni Mitchell as well as Van Morrison and Lowell George. In the early days Peter Hammill was an influence especially on expression but masters like Frank Sinatra came to the fore in latter times. I love scatting and finding ways to fit lyrics across strange time signatures. Sometimes it's your only choice if you have to fit the words in for something to make sense. I think my style of phrasing helped me develop as a lyricist as my choice of vocabulary was less limited.
Nowadays there is a lot more jazz, soul and blues in my voice partly to do with age and partly to do with a more mature approach. I still don't like listening to it though! It never sounds how I want it to!
FZ: In a recent interview you said "If this were the last album..." You know that these inferences and things half-said are a great trial for the alcohol-dazed, suffering hearts of all of us at TCI! Can you put our minds at rest denying what for us would be a real tragedy?
Fish: I strongly doubt that this is the last album but I have no plans at present to embark on another writing venture. It takes time to recuperate and revitalise and I am choosing to do this through an acting career that has been on the backburner for a long time. I feel that I have to devote more time to both acting and other writing projects in order to re energise and re focus my creativity. There are a number of opportunities opening up to me and I would be foolish to ignore them. Touring will be stripped down and apart from the idea to take out the "Misplaced Childhood" album out next year as a solo production to celebrate the 20th anniversary there are few touring escapades in the pipeline. As I said previously I love being on stage and the rush of performance is one I would miss too much. I am trying to find a balance between the two careers and find space to write somewhere in amongst that commitment. The future will tell.
I don't want to make albums as markers in time or cash cows. I want to record something I am proud of and something that fans will respect and hopefully enjoy. At this moment in time in my life I feel I need a short break to follow a new idea that is very exciting and one that I have wanted to pick up for a very long time.
Whether I am an actor, a writer of screenplays or novels, a singer or a stand up comedian I will still be Fish.
Interview 6th July 2004