Interview with Steve Rothery

Steve Rothery logo

Steve Rothery logo

Famous as the guitarist and founding member of UK prog giants Marillion, last year Steve Rothery released his long-awaited solo album The Ghosts Of Pripyat. It has received excellent reviews from fans and the media, along with a duo of live albums, the latest of which is Live In Rome.

Shortly before the album's release, DPRP's Marcel Hartenberg talked to Steve about his solo work, the forthcoming Marillion tour and whether bands should use their music as a means to preach to people.

Marcel Hartenberg

cover for Live In PlovdivLive In Plovdiv cover for Live In RomeLive In Rome

First off, the Live In Rome album sounds great. It is the first time I have heard the new songs live as I did not get to hear Live In Plovdiv.

Steve Rothery: Thank you! It was a very special evening as it was only the second time to perform these songs live. As we speak, I'm finishing the guitar parts on the actual album. We're looking to finish it in a week or so. It was a great experience to play these songs 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. 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.

And how is soundtrack writing different from writing for Marillion and The Wishing Tree?

Even if we don't get to follow too much of a classic song structure with Marillion, there still is more chorus, verse structure and shape to Marillion songs. I now have complete freedom to take the music in any direction at any moment. A couple of years ago I recorded a soundtrack 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.

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?

The songs are all 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 Pripyat. 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 Ukraine, but unfortunately due to all the troubles there, the concert got cancelled. But maybe in a year or so, who knows?

This was already cancelled before the downing of the MH-17 flight?

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.

The Ghosts Of Pripyat

On writing soundtracks, did it help that you are also into photography?

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 film of each song. Yes, I do kind of think in terms of images as well as in music as in atmosphere.

In your introductions on the live album, you explain what Yesterday's Heroes and White Pass are about. It maybe quite obvious what Morpheus is about. But what can you say about Kendris?

Kendris originally was Kendross, which is an ancient name for the city of Plovdiv. It goes back many thousand years before Christianity, and it was at a crossroads of East meets West. I 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.

The album as a whole seems to be far more rocky than your playing in Marillion demonstrates. What was it like to revisit the rockier part of your guitar playing?

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.

Steve Rothery (promo photo)

We won't be hearing that until the studio album comes out though.

Yes, that is out on September the 22nd. But probably Morpheus, that features Steve Hackett, will be available beforehand as a download. He also plays on Old Man Of The Sea.

Playing together with other guitarists and revisiting the rockier parts, is there a chance you might record an all-out rock album?

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 anything is possible.

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.)

Maybe. A lot of these guys are very 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.

A lot of people look down on prog. How do you look upon the "prog" tag?

It can mean so many things to different people. It can be a swear word for a 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 70s, and it's good to acknowledge that and to take it somewhere new as well.

If you take that further, look at modern day music, what then do you listen to?

I listen to a lot of singer-songwriters, I like bands like Elbow or Sigur Rós. 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.

Steve Rothery (promo photo)

In what way did the other members of The Steve Rothery Band contribute to writing the album?

I had some ideas, I worked out other ideas 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.

Obviously you know Dave Foster well. How did you go about choosing the other members of the band?

Dave and I talked about doing a project for quite a while. We always talked about the idea of Leon as a drummer. And Dave was playing in London one day. He was filling in a spot with The Reasoning. 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. It just felt great.

You have been playing for many years now, so how do you keep refreshing ideas for yet another melody, riff or solo?

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 timetable as next year we will be pretty much concentrating on writing the next Marillion album.

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?

Honestly, I really didn't know what to expect. 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 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 Pripyat 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.

Lasse Hoile was featured on the artwork as well, if I'm correct.

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.

You did a second live album before the studio album was released. 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. What can you say about releasing two live albums before the actual studio album?

(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 ego. 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.

Steve Rothery (promo photo)

Some Marillion and Loreley questions now, if that is OK with you? At the Loreley gig, the Night Of The Prog festival, you played with Marillion only two days after the Israel invasion of Gaza. Looking around in the audience I could tell it felt special. How was it for you to play Gaza with that timing?

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 any more, they don't want to think about it any more. 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.

The festival was baptised Night Of The Prog, but you had a setlist that did not contain a lot of epic songs. How did you decide on the setlist?

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 after he suffered a lot of pain with that, he was absolutely flying.

It seemed you thoroughly enjoyed yourself with the fans right after the Anathema performance. What do you get out of your contact with fans?

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.

What can you say about the upcoming tour?

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, and 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 (March 2015 — Ed.). It's going to be fun to do. Well, if anyone wants more information, there's of course the website, if anyone's interested in a free download of Morpheus with Steve Hackett on it!

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 the tour!

Thank you, bye!