Marillon's Steve Rothery Digs Deep

MARILLION HAS ALWAYS HAD A FEARLESS STREAK ABOUT IT. SINCE ITS debut in 1979, the British band has reimagined progressive rock on an ongoing basis by infusing it with contemporary rock, pop, and folk influences.
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MARILLION HAS ALWAYS HAD A FEARLESS STREAK ABOUT IT. SINCE ITS debut in 1979, the British band has reimagined progressive rock on an ongoing basis by infusing it with contemporary rock, pop, and folk influences. It also turned the music industry on its head—pioneering fan funding in 2001, eight years before Kickstarter emerged—by establishing a hugely successful direct-to-fan advance album sales model.

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The band, featuring guitarist Steve Rothery, vocalist Steve Hogarth, keyboardist Mark Kelly, drummer Ian Mosley, and bassist Pete Trewavas, just released its 17th album, Sounds that Can’t be Made [Eagle Rock]. It’s one of Marillion’s finest to date, with eight dynamic songs full of dramatic moods, intriguing lyrics, and imaginative song structures.

The album includes one of the band’s career highlights in “Gaza,” a 17-minute-long epic that explores the complex and difficult issues faced by Palestinians living in the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip in the Middle East. The cinematic piece offers an impartial, yet emotional and detailed look at what the people there face, expertly balancing a narrative perspective and reportage.

Rothery’s signature lyrical, highly melodic, sustain-filled soloing is in full force across the recording. It features several searing, aggressive guitar moments that underline the passionate outlooks the album conveys.

Outside of Marillion, Rothery is focused on running the British Guitar Academy, his school devoted to encouraging guitarists to develop unique voices and make creative musical choices. He also scored From the Heart, a recent Emmy-winning documentary on the consequences of school bullying and constructive solutions to the dilemma.

Describe the intent behind “Gaza.”

In some ways, it’s the most important song we’ve ever done. When you’re a musician you’re given a platform for your views, and we wanted to use that here. A lot of what Steve Hogarth writes is from a humanitarian or personal aspect. It’s a song that had to be written. It’s not a political song. It’s not taking sides. Steve has friends of friends working for various aid agencies out there. He wanted to write a lyric from the viewpoint of a child amongst the troubles of the region. The song expresses the belief that children growing up there have no hope and it’s a terrible injustice.

The first half of “Gaza” features a giant, distorted, extended guitar riff with a touch of Indian tonality at various points. How did you get that sound?

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If you want to capture something with that sort of aggression and power, you need to track things several times, which we did. The heavy sound is a combination of my signature Jack Dent guitar and my Stratocaster-style Blade RH4 through an Egnater M4 and a Groove Tubes Trio preamp combined with a Groove Tubes Dual 75 power amp. I used an Effectrode Fire Bottle Magnetic Pickup Booster pedal at times as well. Delay was from my TC Electronic 2290, and reverb from a Lexicon MPX G2. Mike Hunter, our co-producer, also used the Native Instruments Guitar Rig plug-in to record some sketch guitars that are blended with mine in the mix.

From there, “Gaza” unfolds with a couple of other memorable solos. Describe them and how you created them.

The first high, screaming solo uses a Rockbox Boiling Point Overdrive and a Digi-Tech Whammy DT. The middle solo is just the Scream channel of the Trio with extra delay from the SoundToys EchoBoy plug-in. That, along with the SoundToys Crystallizer plug-in, was used on a lot of the guitar parts on the album as I didn’t want to record the guitar with too much delay, and they work extremely well in the mix. For that solo, I wanted a sound that communicated a scream of frustration in a visual way that serves as part of the narration. Near the end of the solo, which I did on the Trio, you’re aware of the whole emotional buildup in the song, and I’m trying to reflect that. The other effects I used on that track were the Effectrode Delta-Trem tremolo pedal and the Electro-Harmonix POG, along with an Analog Man King of Tone.

What made you want to work with Jack Dent Guitars to create your signature model?

Their guitars are incredibly beautiful and play wonderfully. I’ve never been a guitar snob, though. Most of Marillion’s early stuff was recorded on a Squier Strat that I souped up with EMG SA pickups and a Kahler trem system. But I wanted to have more choices, sonically speaking. My signature instrument has a one-piece mahogany body, which gives it incredible sustain and resonance. That means if I’m trying to write a part and want the guitar to sustain, I can play with a cleaner sound. In the past, with my Squier, I had to use a very overdriven sound to make it sing. The Dent also has a Graph Tech Ghost saddle pickup and a hexaphonic MIDI system. Having both on the instrument makes it an amazing writing tool. It plays brilliantly, but the high tech extras give me the option of having an acoustic sound, a MIDI-based sound, or both simultaneously.

You also collaborated with Farida on your A-SR Signature acoustic-electric guitar. Tell us about it.

A really good friend of mine, Dave Foster, who works with me at my British Guitar Academy, also works for Farida’s parent company Dawsons. They offered to build me a guitar to any specification I wanted. So, I was a bit cheeky and went to the Martin website and made a note of all the specifications in the Martin OMJM John Mayer Special Edition acoustic-electric and said, “I’d like all of those woods, please.” [laughs] They said, “No problem.” It’s a beautiful instrument that uses spruce for the top, with rosewood for the back and sides. It’s not expensive or budget, but mid-range. It’s lovely to play, sounds great, and has a good acoustic and acoustic-electric sound. It has a relatively small body. It doesn’t have as much low end as a jumbo acoustic, but projects well. As with any guitar, you know it’s a really good instrument if, when you pick it up, you don’t want to put it down.

What are the main goals of your British Guitar Academy?

The British Guitar Academy is as much about the philosophy of music as it is about the technique. It’s about finding your individual voice. Some schools over-concentrate on technique and don’t focus enough on creativity. Musicians come out of these schools being able to play notes, scales, and a lot of complex things, but what the average person wants to hear from music is emotion, melody, and the sheer aggression involved with really great guitar playing. That’s the world we live in—one in which all these incredibly technically proficient musicians exist. But the soul of music is about something else and that’s what the Academy is about.

How do you teach that?

Part of it is encouraging musicians to play what a song requires. People sometimes play the same licks that have been played since guitar began. So, trying to get people to break out of that is emphasized. When you’re playing what’s right for a song, sometimes that means two or three notes or a fast, complex thing. But the decision shouldn’t be about your ego or showing off how great your chops are. It’s about doing what will let a song achieve its potential.

Sometimes, the emphasis is on sound. I’m given many CDs by musicians, and one thing that drives me nuts is how awful some of the guitar sounds I hear are. People say, “Why bother with the amp? Let’s just plug into the Pod.” Some get great sounds that way, but a lot of the time they’ll get very tinny, fuzzy, horrible sounds that have no weight or guts. We stress having a choice of great tones and the right marriage of instrument and amp as fundamentals. If you’ve never played through a great amp, it’s a revelation to hear how the guitar responds.

Why do you feel so many fans follow Marillion on a lifetime basis, given its many musical detours over the years?

I think we have a certain consistency in our work that a lot of bands lack. People know what they can expect from us in terms of the amount of hard work we put into the records. Hopefully, we’re creating something unique and special. Although we have our prog roots, they do not restrict us. Prog can be a nice little box to put you in and a big stick to hit you over the head with. But to be truly progressive isn’t a retro thing. Rather, it’s freedom to explore and incorporate different styles, and work outside the confines of a conventional song structure. Progressive in its true sense means music with no prerequisites.