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FISH: TALKING ‘FEASTS’– INTERVIEW BY MIKE AINSCOE

I first became aware of Derek William Dick, the man known simply as Fish, way back in 1982. A fellow student in the PE Department at Bangor University with the grand name of John Dexter Jones (currently courting fame and notoriety with his band Jump) had recommended I might be interested in a band who were playing at the University refectory. I went along that November night in 1982 to watch Marillion and the rest, as they say, is history. Fish’s tenure in Marillion lasted a brief but highly successful 6 years and 4 albums which gained them international success and fame. Since 1988 he’s ploughed a furrow with his own solo career and is now on the cusp of recording his tenth solo  album. Titled A Feast Of Consequences, his first since 2007’s 13th Star, it is already shaping up to be a heavily  anticipated landmark in a thirty plus year career.

Catching up with Fish during the ‘Moveable Feast’ Tour, he sat armed with a glass of wine and pack of cigarettes and started off by glancing through some of my early efforts at concert photography from 1982.

FISH: We played there in ’81 on the first Welsh tour. That was in the green Commer van called Margaret and then we came back in ’82 on the...was it the ‘Script’ tour or was it ‘Market Square Heroes’?

MIKE: No – it was just after the release of ‘Market Square Heroes’ as I recall going down to the shop the next day on the High Street to buy it.

FISH: (Looking through photos of himself with Marillion in Bangor in 1982) Wow..........God!  (spotting a shot of himself complete with ‘Grendel’ mask). 

MIKE: So apart from ‘Feast’ and the touring schedule, let’s just get priorities right. How are you sorted for tomorrow?  (Fish’s team Hibs were due to play Celtic in the Scottish Cup Final)

FISH: Nah.........We were just talking about that earlier on. Just saying that we were playing crap at the beginning of the year and suddenly the Scottish Cup started to loom again and there are so many times when I’ve been on the road when it’s the Scottish Cup Final. I had it all sussed – after they beat Falkirk 4-3 i thought “Yeah – we got a chance here” – and maybe, just maybe this might happen. I booked a flight ticket that night; half six leaving Glasgow to get to Bilston at eight which is when I’d be on stage.  Then they moved the flight four days later and the entire plan fell apart and that plan included having a reserved space for a taxi at Hampden to getting my Cup Final ticket and getting the whole thing done. Gutted!

MIKE: So with ‘Feast Of Consequences’ – How are things going with the album? I noticed this morning it’s gone online with the pre-order.

FISH: Yeah, we’ve pretty much finished writing. I’ve got three lyrics to finish yet which are the three songs missing from the set but we’ve been playing it live and it’s seeming to sit really well as we get used to it. There are a lot of things still to be done; normally we’d be in a situation where we’d have recorded the album and you take it out with all the production done and you’re trying to copy the production, but we’re taking it out now so it’s quite hard.

MIKE: I was trying to think when you’d done that before – actually when you’ve had a set of songs which you’re trying out before you go in the studio to record them?

FISH: The ‘Suit’s album. We did it with the ‘Suits’ album way back in 1993. Before that it was probably back in Marillion times when we used to do that. It’s an old fashioned way of doing it which is good because when you’re in the studio you never really find the energies of the songs because you’re concentrating on what you’re doing, whereas on stage you’re projecting and you’re trying to convince people. It’s like the old days when you’re trying to sell the song and it’s like the Marillion days back in ’83 when we toured ‘Script’ for a year before we went in the studio so it was good for the songs. You know, that’s why everyone talks about the cliché of the difficult second album because by the time you do your first album you’d kind of been playing it and playing it and playing it. But the new material has been going down well.

MIKE: So is it likely that recorded things will change as a result of what you’re doing on the road?

FISH: Yeah, well some of the things and as I say there are the three songs which we’ve not done which is two of the songs from ‘High Wood’ that I’ve still only done 50% of the lyrics for, and they are really tough songs to write and I’m going to still be writing it in the studio I think, and there’s a song called ‘Great Unravelling’ which musically is done but I’ve not put my bit in it yet.

MIKE: So is the plan to start recording after this little run of dates?

FISH: Yeah we record on June the 17th. We start then and should be ready by the end of September /beginning of September.

MIKE: So the album has a bit of a theme running through it - where did the inspiration for the World War One theme come from?

FISH: It’s not the whole album. There are five songs on it which come under the name of the ‘High Wood’ suite. I went to The Somme in 2011 with a good friend of mine Simon Moston who’s a World War One tour guide – he does it more as a hobby, he’s not a professional but he’s damn good. He suggested ‘why don’t you go to The Somme,  you’re in Paris’, so I ended up going down there and it was very inspirational. When I went down there we were staying in a kind of kit house which had been built in what was, or what had been the middle of no man’s land, and I discovered the next day, to cut a long story very short, that I was actually sleeping about a hundred and fifty yards away from where my Grandad had served with the 8th Royal Scots and dug a trench. It just kind of captivated me. I’d studied it at school and I’d always had an interest in it but being there it had a tremendous impact on me. That was when I decided to write it and it was, ah, a major, major piece of writing. It’s very difficult to write because you’re trying to be respectful, you’re trying to engage appropriately,  especially with five songs. You’re trying to find a design that goes through it; a kind of story that runs through it. I think it’s gonna sound superb once we get into the studio. We’ve played three of the songs live which is ‘Crucifix Corner’ which is about one of the last ever cavalry charges of the war when they went up against machine guns and Crucifix Corner was an area of the battlefield at High Wood. The High Wood was a forest, a wood that I saw when I was there and it just resonated discovered that it was the first time that tanks were used at High Wood in 1916 and the last cavalry charge, so Crucifix Corner was an area of the battlefield where all the soldiers went or passed by to go up to the High Wood. There was an actual crucifix stood at this area where all these roads met and it was still standing at the end of the war and still stands there today. But The High Wood fed into the ‘Feast Of Consequences’ idea because the wood now is the same as it was in 1914 and that nature has continued to grow and heal and repair which ties in with the sort of theme of the album. I wouldn’t say it’s about global issues but there’s a lot more outward perspective than delving into relationships and stuff like that you know?

MIKE: You’ve always touched on themes like that with songs like ‘Fortunes Of War’ and ‘Pilgrim’s Address’

FISH: I nearly joined the army when I was a kid and we’ve always done gigs like playing for the troops in Bosnia and Kosovo and things like that.

MIKE: Again talking about the album, I know Mark Wilkinson has done a load of work with the artwork which looks fabulous....

FISH:  Well again, with the way this album’s fallen, we came off the Fisheads Club tour in December 2011 and the idea was to go straight in and record or go straight into writing but it took us about six months to get it out of our system. There were 180 shows in the Fisheads Club and Foss (Patterson – keyboards) and Frank (Usher – guitar) were supposed to be the main writers. We weren’t seeing each other very much and it got to the summer and that’s when I got in touch with Steve Vantsis who we renewed the relationship with (we met on a few dates on the Fishheads tour). I said “I need to write with somebody” and he’d done ‘13th Star’ and it was ok.  So he came in and we got about seven songs together in the first couple of months. Then Foss started to work on ‘High Wood’ and it’s moved forward since then but it’s been a long process. I think on ‘13th Star’ that was very much, as I was going through a lot of personal issues at the time, separated from Steve. Steve wrote and I wrote separately and we kind of brought it together whereas this on we’ve been definitely working together on this album which has been a big difference.

MIKE: Did you say Frank was meant to be involved in the writing?

FISH: Yeah but Frank had too many commitments – he was working in the studio, working on his solo album and doing this that and the other and I think he just got to the stage where after doing so much on the Fishheads tour (which was a fantastic tour) – I think he just needed a break away from it.

MIKE: And he’s not on this tour is he?

FISH: No. Robin Boult came in and ironically I was hoping to take the band up to a six piece again and I said to Frank “Who do you want?” and he said that the person he really wanted to work with was Robin Boult and Robin came in, and then just as Robin was making his mind up to come in Frank decided he was going to leave and Robin decided that he was gonna do it. We need a big guitarist to write. Steve plays a load of different instruments and he’s really good and very well versed but a guitarist comes up with ideas that a guitarist comes up with, so bringin in Robin changed the chemistry and advanced it forward. It delayed the writing which meant that the tour which had already been postponed twice and we decided we were gonna go for it this time. It’s fallen into a situation where we’ve got the new songs being played so we’re doing pre-production live.

MIKE: But has that worked out quite well in that you’ve worked on the material, you’ve got a chance to try it out.....

FISH:  It’s very stressful; highly stressful setting up the album and everything like that. I’m on the go all the time so I’m exhausted at the moment.

MIKE:  I’ve been reading things recently about  you’re quite committed to communicating with the fans online now in sharing your thought processes in how you’re thinking about marketing and how you’ve been looking at putting together a package for people who buy in early.

FISH: It’s all been worked out on the balls of our feet. I don’t have a huge team and having that ability to communicate and I’m able to send off to fans and ask what they want, what are you willing to pay, what do you want from all this?

MIKE: This seems to be quite a common way of working now – even with the website called Pledge Music where bands are able to offer all sorts of levels of pledges.

FISH: Yeah – I didn’t want to go down that route – they take 15% of all the money that’s raised and that’s a big chunk. It’s great for a band that’s starting out or whatever, but I’ve got a pretty loyal fanbase and I tap into that – see what happens.

MIKE: Well, the pre-order for the album has literally gone up this morning. Is the idea behind that to generate the funds to help with the recording?

FISH: To pay for the recording and to put the initial production runs together it’s close to £80,000. It’s a lot of money.

MIKE:  Another thing you put online, before this tour was set up was a breakdown of what it takes to get a show on the road and to put on a gig.

FISH:  Well we were looking at a six piece band which then became a five, but then again that’s changed as well because my daughter’s out on the road doing the merchandise for us as it was getting too much for Yatta (tour manager) to deal with the production management and the merch so it’s all changed but it’s been ok . It’s just that people don’t have the money and you’ve got to respect that.

MIKE: And you’re driving on this tour too.....almost full circle!

FISH: Ish! But it’s only a 13 date tour but I’d never do that on a 7 week tour!

MIKE: Well, the next set of dates are from September....

FISH: Yeah that’s a bus tour. In the UK the distances are so short. The travelodges are pretty cheap; we got a deal

MIKE: So the next run of gigs which is quite a big run, is it quite intimidating to go back to a full band our after the acoustic gigs on the Fishheads tour?

FISH: Well, we work to guarantees, not on percentages – you have to work to guarantees, but this in September could be the last tour of that type that I’m going to do. I’m 55 now and doing a 7 week or an 8 week tour and doing it on a bus is tiring.

MIKE: You spoke on stage on the Fishheads acoustic tour about enjoying the banter with the audiences in the smaller clubs after doing the theatres and arenas and maybe it’s a good way to think about what the next 5 years or so hold?

FISH: Yeah – you do need rest and you do not get rest when you’re on a bus. You get just a little bit every night and your power of recovery changes. I remember the last time I played Holmfirth which was the first time I got viral laryngitis and I got completely stressed out and my system went down and then the second time we played was when Frank had his heart attack – we’re all getting older! We’ve got a run of three gigs now and four at the end and then we go away to Mogadishu in a couple of weeks time.

MIKE: So when you do a lot of the new songs on tour what else do you look to include, what’s in the setlist for this tour?

FISH: Listen to it! We’ve got ‘Script’, ‘He Knows You Know’, ‘Assassing’ from those days, ‘Credo’, bits of ‘Tongues’, ‘Family Business’. You’ll hear it tonight. The medley we do is a medley we played in ’97 and Robin had played in that band so taking on rehearsals which included eight new songs  in total and Robin was coming in it was like I couldn’t afford to go into rehearsals for 6 weeks – not for a tour that’s lasted two weeks. The set will change when we get into September and it’s a great medley.

MIKE: There was a review of one of the recent shows where you dropped a couple of the new songs....

FISH: You can’t have every gig that’s going to be brilliant. I’m not going to go on Facebook and write that “three encores – great, fantastic, brilliant gig!” when it wasn’t you know?  It was that numbers weren’t what we thought but that didn’t affect anything that we were doing with the performance. It was more that the energies that weren’t coming back from the audience more than anything else. If you’re not getting the energies back then it’s hard to get motivated so I decided, but we still played for two hours. The other night we played Warrington and we were on stage for 2 hours and 25 minutes – it’s long fucking set!

MIKE: You also had a nice rant about the way fans behave at modern gigs with the iphones grabbing ‘souvenirs’

FISH: Yeah, people have opinions and I don’t have to agree with them all the time, but my feeling was that when you are standing there on stage, and the crowd wasn’t a big crowd, then you’ve got somebody standing with a beer in one hand and holding a camera – it’s like “why are you here?” . You’re trying to do ‘Assassing’ and get people to clap and someone’s going ‘I’m recording a Marillion song’ so big deal and it was all part and parcel – but the next night, the gig after that we did in Stanford was brilliant and the set changed completely because the PA went down just before the show so we had to adjust and that which made it different. And then Warrington the other night was a fantastic show.

MIKE: Well, what’s become apparent is the way that social media allows people the chance to communicate and feedback immediately to gigs and the like ....

FISH: Yeah, I enjoy it. I like it! What more can I say!

MIKE: You’re still doing your weekend conventions....

FISH: We do them every couple of years. We’ll probably do one next year. It’s like the Marillion guys who do the same kind of vibe with not going out on great huge long bus tours. It works and the conventions are fun but exhausting to do especially when the focus is on me. You’re up there doing the talks, the acoustic sets, the comedy stuff and then there’s the electric set at night and then repeat!  So it’s pretty intense.

MIKE: What was the decision behind pulling ‘Grendel’ at the last convention?

FISH:  Hadn’t played it, it was a fan club convention; fuck it – why don’t we do it! And it was good. It was really cool to play and we got off on it you know. It doesn’t mean it’s returning to the set; it was just a one off. It’s a long song. You’re talking about a son that’s over twenty minutes long. You throw that in the set and it’s a big chunk of material.

MIKE: I read something about you planning an autobiography?

FISH: Started it. It’s something for the future. You just asked about Facebook and I enjoyed doing that stuff. I like writing, I enjoy writing, it’s what I do, and it’s what my principle occupation is. So it’s a natural step forward, to take the lyrics and put a book out and there’s a lot of stuff that you don’t know I’ve done. With ‘The Masque’, we did a lot of writing round that and we did interviews and make it concise and cut the waffle out. But yeah, I enjoy writing so it’s like a natural step. I see my future, or I’d like to see myself as a screenplay writer in the years to come but let’s just see what happens. At the moment I’ve got a gig.

After a few words about the recent 30th Anniversary of the release of the first Marillion album ‘Script For A Jester’s Tear’ and a set of  overwhelmingly positive  retrospective  comments from the fanbase,  it was off to dinner with his daughter before the night’s show. For more information about the forthcoming ‘Feast Of Consequences’ album take a look at fishheadsclub.com.

Interview by Mike Ainscoe