Fish: “I still cannot play an instrument, you know. I wish I could play piano, but I am a shit dancer and I am a shit keyboard player. I have no coordination between my head and my hands. I am a writer. There is a proper definition for that. I am a writer who can sing. I am not a singer who can write.”
De Schotse zanger en songschrijver Fish werd wereldberoemd als frontman van Marillion in het begin van de jaren tachtig. Later bouwde hij een bloeiende solocarrière uit die eind september vervolledigd wordt met het afscheidsalbum ‘Weltschmerz’. Net als alle artiesten werd hij getroffen door de consequenties na de uitbraak van de coronapandemie met een recente Engelse tournee die abrupt afgebroken werd. Fish zit nu thuis en houdt zich vooral bezig met muziek en tuinieren. In april van dit jaar hadden een uitgebreid en hartelijk ‘lockdown gesprek’ met de iconische ‘grey beard warrior’. We publiceren dit in twee delen, verdeeld over mei en juli. In september stellen we onze focus op ‘Weltschmerz’, maar natuurlijk wordt in ons lockdown gesprek al een tip van de sluier opgelicht over dit dubbelalbum.
Vera Matthijssens Ι 24 mei 2020
How are you doing?
Fine. I’m okay. As we all say: strange times because of the virus. Are you okay there?
I’m okay. Thank you. At the moment you should be on tour, but it was interrupted and stopped. Did you do any concerts in the end in the UK or was it cancelled just before it happened?
Well, everything started to happen when we were in rehearsals and even before we were into rehearsals I saw the news coming in. When we were doing rehearsals, it was additional for us fifteen/twenty minutes every day to get together to discuss what we were going to do. We had rehearsed and we had twelve shows in the UK. The first one was in Aberdeen and then we moved down to London. The Aberdeen show was very strange. Everybody was so aware of the danger. The regulations at that point were: wash your hands and keep distance. When we were packing the car, we got a text from Scotland, saying that all shows over five hundred capacity were going to be stopped. We were supposed to be filming the Edinburgh show, but that could not happen. The Aberdeen show was really weird. 150 people did not show up, although they had tickets. We were in the dressing room all day and very careful, washing hands, keeping away from other people, imprisoned in our backstage. There was no occasion to go to the bar to have a beer, the food was brought in from our side. There was a gig, but there was a strange atmosphere. We did a good show, but afterwards we drove home. We came home around three o’clock at night and listened to the radio to know what was happening. Another big problem was, because the UK government had not said ‘all gatherings got to be cancelled’, we were in a position when we cancelled the shows, I was going to be blamed for not coming up to my contract. The venue, the promoters… we had no insurance. The insurance had told us three weeks before that there would be no insurance for the corona virus. When we were heading down south to England, we heard that by the time we were moving into London, we heard they shut down the public transport. Nobody’s going to come to the venue, So we just decided to stop there. We told the promoter that nobody in the band or the crew wanted to go ahead. I was responsible for my band and crew, everybody’s got clearance. Everybody’s got children, family, responsibility. So the decision was made. I lost eleven shows, financially it was a kick, but it wasn’t as big as it could have been and I think I was lucky that I moved my April/May touring by that time. It was all scheduled back to October/November, because of the brexit. Because we cancelled those UK dates that early, we were one of the first bands looking for new dates. The UK tour will be in February, I got few shows in December and in October hopefully it is going to be okay. I lost a festival in Portugal. Well, we just got to see how this goes Vera. There is no point in planning, you just got to react on how things move. Strange ways.
Indeed, because the first thing I heard from the UK – and from the Netherlands as well – was that they were going for a kind of group immunity, let the virus do its work and it will go away. Seems rather risky to me…
We’ve got a lot of lessons to be learned. When we come out of this, we are going to have another perspective on a lot of things. First and foremost, it is clear how badly the government runs the National Health Service. Initially Boris Johnson came over as a lame man to me. How can you allow an entire population to become regularly infected? They were completely overwhelmed, the medical services. The home rule was the only rule, people will become infected, but at least ease the pressure. For me health service has been underfunded for a very long time. It is a free service in the UK and I think we have to find another way of funding if we want a health service that provides a health service for the entire island of Great Britain. We need to invest money in it. Capitalism has been very exposed. I mean, all these services that we supply from other countries, going from globally, all because we follow the cheap labour market. And suddenly you find out that the cheap labour market was one of the most idiot things we had. So many problems we have are due to globalisation and capitalism.
In Belgium we still don’t have masks, provided by the government. We have to take care about that for ourselves… they talk about the economy, but not about elder people who are dying…
Well, I went down to the supermarket today, I had a mask on and I had brought hand gel and I kept my distance. It is really strange, you know. I was roaming through the empty streets. But I don’t get down about this. We have my 70 years old mother here at home, that was our major concern when the band was here for rehearsals. My guitarist is coming from Amsterdam, my production manager came from Berlin, my merchandiser came from Portugal and few other people came from all over the UK, so I had to isolate my mom even at that stage. We were very careful. I said her: please don’t come through. We were meticulous when we dealt with this situation. But I am lucky. I have got a garden, I grow my own food, I was in the green house before doing this interview. Thank God I am not in a flat with neighbours in Naples or Milan or Barcelona or Madrid or a tenement block in London, you know. I got space. I live in the country and we are able to get food, we were well stocked up before everything happened. You have to look at the good things Vera, Look at nature. Fish swimming in the canals in Venetia, I can’t even remember if that happened before. And the water is clearer than ever in the rivers. These are positive things.
I don’t mind this lockdown. As a matter of fact, all I did before was writing, being busy with music and enjoying the peace of my garden… except for once a year roaming the planet as a kind of holiday…
The rhythm of life has changed. Before, when I was doing a task, I was thinking about task number two and task number three and forward. Now I am doing a task and concentrate. Later I will move on but first take a break. So my rhythm has slowed down with the world. Before it was a tango, now a slow dance (chuckles).
That can be nice…
That can be nice indeed and I like it! I am lucky that we still have the merchandise at home to distribute. The irony of all ironies, the thing is the re-master of the ‘Script From A Jester’s Tear’. We are overwhelmed by copies of that Marillion album at home at the moment. I really enjoy packing them for people who ordered it. It reminds me of yesteryears. I can make people happy with it, by sending them. As you said, you listen to music and find solace and comfort in it. I hope many people will find the joy of music again during this time of isolation. It is a different rhythm. I am enjoying nature again. I even watch countries on Google Maps and you can see it promptly now, because there is no pollution. It was an interesting article in the newspaper. It said: the size of activity in the world has decreased, because people are not using cars and planes. Two days ago my wife did a recording at six o’clock in the morning. The birds’ chants in the forest were incredible! Just amazing! This suits me. I get happy from that! And another good trend: why do you need offices? Why all this traffic up and down while home working is possible? I think governments have to start looking for a worldwide spread opportunity to work from home. There will be positive things coming out of this, you know… I get sick of the media at the moment. The media just focus on economy and ‘when will it be over’? Let it go… well, everybody’s locked down, but when everybody’s going to come out… well, in Wuhan in China, everybody is getting back to work, let’s just see what comes out of this. If it all explodes again, to health service it is new and they have to learn to deal with it, so we have to find a vaccine.
This whole thing reminds me a bit of the hear play ‘War Of The Worlds’ when creatures coming out of space were seemingly untouchable and finally a simple earthly bacteria killed them…
Yeah, I remember that hear play of Orson Welles. I don’t think it is fears by any means. All we have to do now is limiting the number of deaths and screen, but at the same time we don’t know what’s happening in Africa and God knows what’s happening in the refugee camps. News is always populated with stories from the West you know. Stories from the first world. We don’t know so much from the third world. There are so many parallels with the Spanish flue in 1918 and that lasted until the early twenties. I can see that happen. I fear this isn’t here just for a short visit. This is here for a while and as I said, I mean, we are talking about October, November touring in Europe, but I am fully prepared for every scenario and assaulted what will happen. Again, the ‘Weltschmerz’ album was supposed to be out in July, but even the manufacturers didn’t make it till that deadline. The people who were working in shifts, they got the disease and things had to be delayed. Borders were closed. Well, until the end of September, let us see and wait and change the rhythm. Change the rhythm.
I remember on your Facebook, your wife Simone and your mother were packing CD’s and Blu-rays. Was it from ‘Script From A Jester’s Tear’ or from the new album?
These were the ‘Script’ albums. We are very lucky, because we manage to do a small business. We are keeping this all in a very small industry and it is working very well. I don’t ask the government for money. I am in a very privileged position at this moment. We just adjusted to it you know. I’d never believe that I would be launching an album called ‘Weltschmerz’ in this time, because it is a kind of Zeitgeist. The first song on the album is called ‘Grace Of God’ and it was inspired by the time when I was in hospital last year twice. I had abscesses and I was in an ambulance with a blue light going to a big hospital in Edinburgh. I was kept there for three months and some said I nearly died. When I was lying in the hospital bed I started thinking about life and where I was. I have seen people that were in worse situations than I was. It is the first song on the album, the track choice was there, instantly four months ago and it opens up the album. If the wrong government appears, they may bomb me as a witch (laughs).
Witches are connected with nature…
The rhythm of my life changed a long time ago, you know.
Do you only eat food from your garden?
Yeah, today I have done twenty parcels of tomatoes, setting there in seed. Six or eight tapes are going to grow. All the onions and the garlic was brought in last autumn. If we work on it, we can become self-sufficient, we grow everything. My stepson is a vegetarian and that makes me think. I still eat meat, but I try to eat smaller portions of meat. I stopped drinking nearly four months ago, that has been a big help as well. I don’t want to have an alcohol problem in this day and age. I went to the supermarket two weeks ago and all the beer shelves were empty, apart from three cases of corona beer (laughs). So fucking stupid. Some people are so fucking stupid. The media has been very disappointing. There has been a lot of sensationalism and a lot of false news which is not helping people. We have cats here. Today an article: dogs and cats may carry it. Why an article like that, if it is not proved? It is crazy.
Let us go back in time now. The first band that you saw live was Yes in 1974. Is that true?
Yes. 1975 I think it was. I saw Yes on the ‘Relayer’ tour on a Sunday and Tuesday I saw Genesis in the same venue, performing ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’. That was a very influential gig for me. Seeing a front man performing like this… I mean, with Yes, Jon Anderson was never a front man like Peter Gabriel was. These were my two first concerts. That was where I was into at that time. For the rest I was into Pink Floyd, I listened to Deep Purple. I loved The Who, I loved Led Zeppelin and I loved The Faces, Elton John… Bernie Taupin’s lyrics were a very big influence on me. I still cannot play an instrument, you know. I wish I could play piano, but I am a shit dancer and I am a shit keyboard player.
Only singing then?
I have no coordination between my head and my hands. I am a writer. There is a proper definition for that. I am a writer who can sing. I am not a singer who can write. I love writing and I just happen to be able to sing. I can hear melodies and I can find melodies, but I work with my co-writer Steve Vantsis. He can come up with ideas and I tell him what the story is. He mentions what works and then we bring things together and I would change things and he suggests things. The two of us fashion the movie. And that’s what I do, I make movies for people’s ears.
In the beginning you had paintings and marks on your face with Marillion and also in the video of ‘Weltschmerz’ we can see a muddy face. Does it bring you in a kind of mood that brings you from the normal Derek to a kind of performer?
No, when I think way back in the early eighties, I was very shy and I was lacking self-conscience. When I first started singing in 1982 in Marillion – or was it 1981? – I was not comfortable with my voice, I was not confident with my stage act. So hiding behind a mask was very easy, you know. When we moved onto the gigs, in 1984 and surely in 1985, the concerts also got bigger and the make-up became irrelevant. It became a hindrance, it became a wall, something that I did not need anymore. With the new video for ‘Weltschmerz’ that was more a reference towards spirituality. It was more a reference to where we are as human beings. When you are in a position which is very difficult, you go back to very primal behaviour. And that is why I wanted to use that mud mask. But I was aware that there was a reference. You know, this is going to be my last album, then a proper definite reference to the 1982 period makes sense.
The video has marvellous sights in the back, like Northern lights and moon-shaped landscapes…
That is just the world we are living in. I really started to think about gardening about 2007 à 2008. I have always been interested before. I used to be a forester worker when I left school and I always loved trees and I have always had an affinity with nature. Around 2007 I really got into it. In 2016 my father died. I went out to the garden and I did not realize how much it affected me. Well, as everybody does when somebody dies, it took me a couple of weeks and months to get over it. I woke up in the garden several months later and I just found so much solace and peace in gardening. A spiritual healing happened in the garden, you know. I loved it. I loved being out there, growing things, natural things… and it runs through the album. On ‘Weltschmerz’ there are many references to a flower or a tree in the lyrics. I always play little games with words, same goes for ‘Weltschmerz’. It was my game with myself, I had to get a plant or a flower or a tree in every lyric somewhere. It was a reference back to the peace. You may have the pain in the world, but the world is still there. The pain is created by your own actions, by your own lifestyles, by our own decision-making. But nature is always there, it is a constant.
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