Interview Summer 2000


As a lyricist, Fish has always been heartfelt, poetic and prolific, repeatedly focusing on both deeply personal issues and wider social themes, shrugging off accusations of 'sixth-form sentimentality', to produce some of the most emotionally honest and moving verse to breach the UK mainstream in the latter decades of the twentieth century. With the new era, Fish aka Derek Dick, intends to diversify his talents and has recently made inroads with his acting career...

Scrawl caught up with Fish on his return from Glasgow after filming for Taggart, around the same time as the first tele-movie adaptation of Ian Rankin's Rebus novels, Black and Blue, was premiered, featuring a cameo by Fish as a bar owner... and this is just the beginning.

"I'm trying to concentrate a lot more on my acting and getting a chance to do Taggart was a boon," Fish enthused, "My agent has been trying to get me more high profile parts and Taggart - along with working with John Hannah on the Rebus movie - has set me up really nicely for this year." Having recently spent time in Glasgow, Fish's usually gentle and lilting Scottish accent has become a little broader and a bit gruffer, "I just received word that Salvation is finally greenlighted... a movie I'll be doing in July-August, with a two million budget."

Fish described his role in Salvation as, "one of the principal supporting roles." So how does Fish see his acting career progressing from here on?

"I'm trying to change the entire perception of what I do - starting to get my head around continuous acting... from being a singer who does occasional acting to being an actor who does occasional singing. It's something I really enjoy and find exciting, and I think one of the reasons, as well, is that over the last couple of years I've got bored of touring - and a little bit bored with music itself. I think it's got a lot to do with the environment that you're trying to work within - all you have to do is look at the Brits: I think, 'wait a minute, I do not relate to this!' I don't see myself as being a part of that business."

Yet it is a business he has been a part of for two decades, to what does he attribute his longevity in a business that is usually so fickle?

"The loyalty of the fans, they stay interested. Rock fans aren't as fickle as pop fans. So, as long as I keep delivering good quality albums and maintain my integrity, then I can be assured that I can at least get an audience. Whether they will keep on coming to gigs and buying CDs or not, that's something you don't know... I hope so."

"The way I look at it is, that if I'm acting and doing a bit of writing and working with music as well, then the music should benefit. Because there's gonna be a freshness in approach and a new vitality coming in and, I think, taking the pressure off the music. Over the last five years, I have been very aware that one flop album or tour could bankrupt us. We work without any safety nets, we've not had any safety nets since 1993. I think, now, having the acting, a realistic approach to business and realistic aspirations, then the music and my approach to the writing should be fresher and revitalised."

Fish-penned songs always have a great lyrical strength, often with a narrative structure. It would seem that the words come first and then the music illustrates the text...

"I wouldn't say it 'comes first', but it is a priority... There have been many times when people have come up with musical ideas that will inspire..."

So, how then do the two processes contrast - writing is usually a solitary process, whereas music, particularly when working with a band, has to be a team effort.

Fish clarified his modus operandi, "For the next album, which has the working title, Fellini Days. John Leslie (Wesley - Mo) - who was playing guitar on my last tour - will come over for a period of four to six weeks, and everyday we'll get together and play about with tunes and ideas. I'll have a clutch of lyrics, and we'll start putting melodies together and bounce ideas off them. Then we'll start to crystallise the album around those ideas.

"It's not as if I just write the lyrics and hand them over to someone else who does the music - one of the fallacies that was put forward when I left Marillion... which I think may have been part of the 'damage control', to say, 'oh, well, Fish just wrote the lyrics'. People were given the impression that I'd just throw a bunch of words into the room and they'd put it all together. It didn't work like that, it is very much a collaborative process."

- Fellini Days, as in Federico, the film-maker?

"Yes. A Fellini Day is one of those magical days where you have a lot of high synchronicity moments. When you go, 'oh this is a great day!' and you kinda forget about all the hassles that are going on in your life... You worship life for a day...

So by what process does Fish set about actually putting pen to paper - or is that finger to key board? Is he disciplined with a strictly enforced regimen?

"Very instinctive and tends to be dominated by inspiration. Something'll just pop into your head and you'll make a note of it and eventually, a couple of weeks later, you'll have accumulated all these little notes, ideas and phrases. Then you start to put it all together. I'm very lazy when it comes to writing lyrics... I always thought it took me a long time, but that was until we were recording the Raingods With Zippos album and I was in the position where I had to write a lyric in a day, and all these little notes I had weren't particularly helpful. I had to come up with an idea and mould it, get it up to standard during the day because in the evening we were recording it. That made me aware that I can do it. If I put myself under pressure, I can come up with stuff. I mean Incomplete and Tilted Cross, I consider them both very fine lyrics, but both were completed in a day."

With such finely crafted songs and recurring themes worthy of the kind of authors who become deified by the Sunday Papers, it seems that Fish should try his hand at some longer pieces, perhaps a novel?

"That's one of things I want to get going on this year. It's a natural progression. What I think my wife and I are trying to do, is to simplify our life. After having the studio and record company in the past - and a lot of other extra-curricula activities that were basically noise rather than music - get rid of them and divest ourselves of a lot of responsibilities. Doing that will give me a lot more time to get down to work. And simplifying my lifestyle in a financial sense as well, selling the house, and some other moves we're making at this time, means we're not having to bring in as much money as we used to. Because, before, we were supporting quite a big operation, with large overheads. Now, with smaller overheads, there's less pressure for us to pull things in and that gives me a lot more space and freedom of movement, and I have time to research stuff, and work, and play about - and if I can bring in more discipline...

"I've been talking, recently, to people like Ian Rankin and Iain Banks, about the organisation of their days, how you get involved with that discipline."

Two fellow Scots and worthy mentors for sure... Are they authors that Fish holds in particular esteem?

"I love Iain Banks' stuff! And Espedair Street is one book I always return to. It's a great slice of the industry in a novel. I was trying to buy the rights to make that inta a movie - if there was ever a character I could wear the coat of, it would be Daniel Weir.

"I love Ian Rankin's stuff too. And working on the Inspector Rebus movie for TV, there are a lot of crossovers and I read a lot of scripts at the moment as part of the studying, getting used to the way it's put together, the structure..."

Something that comes through very strongly in Fish's writings is a social awareness and conscience, something that he seems to share with some of his Scottish contemporaries such as Iain Banks...

"I think, as the kinda writer I am, I'm very observationalist and involved in a lot of human issues. It's hard to be an observationalist and get emotionally involved, without noticing the society you're living in and becoming confrontationalist with politicians and social issues. Being Scottish has a big effect on me as well - predominantly a socialist - so that has coloured me in a certain way and given me certain angles that come through in my in writing, such as Big Wedge and State Of Mind [both tracks from the album, Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors]. ..things like that."

Would he say that his Scottish roots have a tangible effect on his outlook?

"A definite effect on what I'm writing. I think it comes with the territory up here. It's a community based society and if you look back - Burns all the way through to Alasdair Gray - it's all over their work..."

So what was the last book he has read and enjoyed?

"Something by John Grisham. I like to read those kind of books because they tend to be more Hollywood biased. You can sense the end-run towards a screenplay. Whether you like them or not, that is what is getting made into movies at the moment. So I take an interest in that kind of book.

"When you're on a film set or sitting on a train, sometimes you only have certain amount of attention, and that can be wrapped up in a Grisham book, but if you're trying to read something else - I've been reading books on writing and how to write screenplays, things like that - you have to concentrate and try to assimilate a lot of information, or there's no point. You can't pick up anything useful in ten page runs...

"If you're sat in a trailer on a set waiting to get called up, you just want to loose yourself for ten minutes - it's easier to do with a Grisham book, or something like that. I read Black Hawk Down, a book by Mark Bowden, which was a kinda piece of faction based around the American incursion in Mogadishu, in '93.

"I read a lot. When I go on tour on the bus I have a big, overloaded carrier bag of books... a lot of James Ellroy, and those kinda crime thrillers. At the same time, I like some of the new science fiction, like William Gibson and Neil Stephenson."

What is the earliest recollection of a book that comes to the mind of Fish?

"I remember reading 'Secret Seven' books when I was a kid. And there was - a series of books, a kinda library - I can 't remember what it was called... loads of different subject matters and there was one called Red Caps - kinda Boy's Own Stories - hard back books and I used to save them up..."

Now back to the present... and the awaiting future.

Interview by Jeremy Dean

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