Interview with Steve Rothery
‘The Ghosts Of Pripryat‘ by the Steve Rothery Band was prequelled by two live albums by the band, the latest of which was ‘Live In Rome‘. On the event of releasing that album DPRP got the chance to talk to Steve.
DPRP: Good evening, very nice of you taking the time to talk to us at Dutch Progressive Rock Pages.
SR: My pleasure.
DPRP: First off, the album sounds great. The first time I heard the new songs live as I did not get to hear the ‘Live In Plovdiv‘ album but the songs are great. How did writing the songs go about when compared to Marillion or either The Wishing Tree? You did talk about sort of little soundtracks.
SR: Thank you! It was a very special evening as it was only the second time to perform these ideas live. We kind of evolved again after that. As we speak I’m finishing the guitar parts on the actual album. We’re looking to finishing it in a week or so now. It was a great experience to play these ideas live. After the Plovdiv concert I had the choice of turning them into more conventional songs, but then I had the question of writing the lyrics and who was going to sing them. Then I went to see Camel at the Barbican in London performing the Snowgoose and that gave me the confidence to make an instrumental album. I think if you can make the music interesting, then people will still enjoy it.
DPRP: And how is the more soundtrack like writing then different from writing for Marillion and The Wishing Tree?
SR: Even if we don’t get to follow too much of a classic song structure with Marillion, there still is more chorus and versus structure and shape to Marillion songs then I put in now. I now had complete freedom to take the music into any direction at any moment. A couple of years I did some soundtrack music for a PBS documentary that won an Emmy and that also added to the confidence in writing instrumental music that can grab and hold your attention without the aid of vocal lines.
DPRP: The songs all seem to have a theme of their own, yet you clearly envisioned a title for the album as a whole. In what way is there a central theme to the album?
SR: The songs all are thematically different. The album, you could say, is like a collection of stories, I suppose. The way the album came about, I was writing for the first concert, the guitar festival in Bulgaria and the one thing that came to mind was the haunted caroussel so I searched the internet and found the iconic images of the abandoned fairground of Pripryat. The tragedy of the city, tens of thousands that lost their lives after the Chernobyl disaster and the helicopter pilots that did their utmost to have all the area covered with cement to prevent radiation spread through Europe, it could all have been a lot, lot worse. I wanted to do something that could acknowledge that. One of the first concerts was going to be a tribute concert in Kiev in the Ukraine, but unfortunately due to all the troubles there, the concert got cancelled. But maybe in a year or so, who knows?
DPRP: This was already cancelled before the going down of the MH-17 aeroplane, I suppose?
SR: Yes. I was originally going to play there and then fly into Moscow. Well, ehm, let’s just say it just didn’t work out.
DPRP: On writing soundtracks, did it help you that you are into photographing as well?
SR: Yes, I suppose so. I do have a kind of visual way of looking at things. For example, when writing ‘White Pass‘, it really suggested desolate snowy mountains and desperate people freezing to death. It was a pass that was used at the end of the 18th century during the Klondyke gold rush. All these people making their way through these treacherous mountains and many, many died. A filmmaker could take it on and make a movie of each song. Yes, I do kind of think in terms of images as well as in music as in atmosphere.
DPRP: In your introductions on the live album you explain what ‘Yesterday’s Heroes‘ is about and what ‘White Pass‘ is about. It maybe quite logical what ‘Morpheus’ is about. But what can you say about ‘Kendris’?
SR: ‘Kendris‘ originally was ‘Kendross’ which is an ancient name for the city of Plovdiv. It goes back may thousand years before Christianity and it was at a crossroads of East meets West. It was kind of inspired by that, having a hybrid of musical styles. It has also got a sort of Indian tonality which I really like and in that way the song is just as much inspired by George Harrison.
DPRP: The album as a whole seems to be far more rocking than your playing in Marillion sometimes goes to show. What was it like to revisit the rockier part of your guitar playing?
SR: Oh, I love it! All guitarists do! If you want to rock out, it’s the instrument to go for. Well, in Marillion, there are two keyboard players (both Steve Hogarth and Mark Kelly). When songs are arranged, it takes a lot for a heavy riff to be added, it does happen, like in ‘Gaza‘, yet it’s quite rare. It might some time lead to some sort of frustration. Well, there’s at least three great rock riffs on this album. In fact, the title track starts off mellow and acoustic, yet the end section has a really, really great riff.
DPRP: We won’t be hearing that until the studio album comes out though.
SR: Yes, that is out on September the 22nd. But probably ‘Morpheus‘ that features Steve Hackett will be available beforehand as a download. And he plays on ‘The Old Man Of The Sea‘ as well.
DPRP: You playing together with other guitarists and revisiting the rockier parts, is there a chance we might get an all out rock album any day by your hand?
SR: I don’t know. You never know with me. I like to have a lot of things happening. I don’t like to be bored. So all things are possible.
DPRP: Any chance of an album by The British Guitar Academy (initiated by Steve,the British Guitar Academy is there to educate about the music industry as well as to discover and nurture new musicians)?
SR: Maybe. A lot of these guys are really good friends of mine. What we’ll probably do, is have a live concert with some of these guys which we’ll hopefully record and film. It’s one of the things on my list, yet then again, I have a very long list.
DPRP: A lot of people look down on prog. How do you look upon the ‘prog’ tag?
SR: It can mean so many things to just so many different people. It can be a swear word for certain ‘cool’ company or it could be a symbol for a band trying to break out of the boundaries of pop music or the traditional contemporary music scene. To me the true meaning of ‘prog’ is music without boundaries; a hybrid of musical styles and just not having to conform to traditional song structures. It’s a lot like what we do with Marillion. Not many people do that. Of course, the golden age of prog was at the start of the Seventies and it’s good to acknowledge that and to take it somewhere new as well.
DPRP: If you take that further look, at modern day music, what then do you listen to?
SR: I listen to a lot of singer-songwriters, I like bands like Elbow, Sigur Ros. Anything that I find interesting. Usually it might be something that my son and daughter listen to these days. There is a lot fine music happening out there.
DPRP: In what way did the other members of The Steve Rothery Band contribute to writing the album?
SR: I had some ideas already and others I worked out with Dave Foster, who is one of my best friends. We really have a musical chemistry, the ideas can really bounce off one another. With Marillion it may take quite more time to find something we all agree on. With Dave it’s a lot quicker musical process.
DPRP: Obviously you know Dave Foster well. How did you go about choosing the other members of the band?
SR: Dave and I talked about doing a project for quite a while and we always talked about the idea of Leon as a drummer. And Dave was playing in London; he was filling in a spot with The Reasoning. And the other band playing that night was Panic Room. That’s where Yatim Halimi was noticed, we looked at each other and thought, he could be the right addition to our dream team. And of course we now have a keyboard player in Ranestrane‘s Riccardo Romano. He came over to Real World and we did some things for the limited edition of the album. And it just felt great.
DPRP: You have been playing for many years now, so how do you keep refreshing ideas for yet another melody, yet another riff, yet another solo?
SR: I just love writing and playing music. It’s kind of what my life is about as a professional musician. You’re not much good for anything else, come to think of it. It’s still my dream to be able to do this, to be able to write and play music for people. We have lots of offers for this project to go and play for people, from Japan, Australia, South America, all over the world, so it is going to be some figuring out to fit in with the Marillion time table as next year we will be pretty much concentrating on writing the next Marillion album.
DPRP: Did you expect the kind of response you are now getting? If you take into consideration the gigantic success of your Kickstarter campaign, that may have come rather unexpected, I suppose?
SR: I really didn’t know what to expect, if I’m honest. I hoped that people would like it. But that’s as far as it went. Every concert we played has been an amazing success. We did a guitar festival in Portugal, in Santo Tirso and that was fantastic. I have a recording of that, unfortunately not a great recording, but the band really sounded on fire. It’s all about being inspired. When you find the right music with the right musicians, the inspiration kind of takes care of itself.
As to the Kickstarter campaign, it was really amazing. We reached our target of £ 15.000,- in the first 24 hours. We even generated four times the amount. That enabled me to rebuild my studio with a lot better new equipment, to hire Real World, to get the artwork that I wanted, an amazing aerial picture of Pripryat by a famous French photographer which was very, very expensive. Yet I love the image and it says a lot about the quality of the project.
DPRP: And Lasse Hoile was featured on the artwork as well, if I’m correct.
SR: Yes, he has done amazing work. You see him mostly in the special edition, but even in the standard version, there are really some incredible images. He filmed the performances and the documentary down at Real World.
DPRP: You did a second live album before the studio album is released. What can you say about releasing two live albums before the actual studio album? The way you interplay live with Dave Foster gives the album a very natural feel not unlike Larry Carlton and Steve Lukather playing together some couple of years ago.
SR: (Laughs), Yes, it’s slightly unconventional. But I think in a way it is not that strange, because it is music that needs to be played live. It’s not like jazz. It’s all about the inspiration of the moment. Every other concert may be different. That’s one of the things that’s fun about it and that makes it a challenge as well.
If you have two great musicians who have mutual respect, then it’s not about the ego’s. I think what we did together is play what is best for the music; if the music asked for underplaying, that was what we all would do. The music is sometimes of a fragile beauty that just comes from space and here you have great musicians who are all sensitive to that. That’s what makes it kind of magical.
DPRP: Some Marillion and Loreley questions now, if that is OK with you. At the Loreley Night Of The Prog festival you played with Marillion only two days after the Israel invasion of Gaza. What was it like to be playing ‘Gaza‘ only two days after the start of that? It felt very special to the audience, I noticed when looking around.
SR: Well, you feel a sense of responsibility to try and make people aware of the situation. It is very complex and no one side is blameless. Yet it is the innocent, the ones who have nothing to do with the troubles, especially the children who get caught up in this terrible situation, that is kind of heartbreaking. In the future, when looking back, this is going to be one of the tragedies of our generation. I don’t think a lot of people have yet acknowledged just how bad things were or are. It’s difficult because there are all different trouble spots around the world and there is a lot of pain in a lot of places. You can see that sometimes people can’t take it anymore, they don’t want to think about it anymore. I think it’s a responsibility for everyone that can at least give a voice to the concerns that any person can have about the situation to try and put whatever pressure on to at least find some sort of resolution or stabilization of the situation.
At the end of the day, it is not a political song, it’s a humanitarian song. We don’t want to use our music as a means to preach to people. It is one thing to make people aware of the situation yet everyone can have their own opinion.
DPRP: You had a setlist at the Loreley which was not about overlong and epic songs whereas the festival was baptised ‘Night Of The Prog‘. How did you decide on the setlist?
SR: It’s difficult, you know. You try and find a setlist that appeals to most people. Maybe we try the odd brave choice, but playing overlong epics one after another, it can be too much. It can wear people out. We had more easily digestible songs that night. It was a special night and even though Steve (Hogarth) was trying to be more careful with his knee, because he suffered a lot of pain with that, he was absolutely flying.
DPRP: It seemed you thoroughly enjoyed yourself with the fans right after the Anathema performance. What do you get out of your contact with fans?
SR: Well, what can I say? I am very grateful that we have the support and love of our fans. It gives us an incredible freedom. We don’t take it for granted. I think we’re one of the bands that has this kind of relation with their audiences. It’s like mutual respect. Maybe it’s because we’ve been around so long, maybe it’s in our personalities, but it’s not ego driven. It’s sharing with all these different people and in return they give you back this amazing energy. It is a two way exchange really.
DPRP: What can you say about the upcoming tour?
SR: Right, well, we are going to play the album and after that Martin Jakubski (from Stillmarillion) will sing some old Marillion songs that we haven’t played for a long, long time like ‘Chelsea Monday‘, ‘Fugazi’, ‘Incubus‘. So it is going to be a bit of a party and yes, I am really looking forward to that. And we will be playing at the Marillion weekend in the Netherlands as well. It’s going to be fun to do. Well, if anyone wants more information, there’s of course the www.steverothery.com website, if anyone’s interested in a free download of ‘Morpheus‘ with Steve Hackett on it as well.
DPRP: Well, that concludes the questions I have. Thank you very much for taking the time and I wish you all the luck on the release and on the tour.
SR: Thank you, bye!