‘I remember Preston way back, when there were mills – it was a bustling town’

As Scottish singer-songwriter Fish prepares for his 53 Degrees gig he took time out to speak to MALCOLM WYATT about music, writing, acting, football, the independence campaign, and childhood visits to Preston

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 25th September 2014, 9:00 pm

Remember Marillion in their ’s 1980s heyday, the band led by a compelling Caledonian performer and singer-songwriter by the name of Fish?

While his old band remain a thriving concern, with 17 albums to date, the Edinburgh-born vocalist has since enjoyed a solo career spanning more than quarter of a century.

Fish now has 10 of his own studio albums behind him, and feels the latest, A Feast of Consequences, is his best yet.

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Preston fans have a chance to witness his five-piece band at 53 Degrees next week, Fish looking forward to returning to a town he first frequented in the 1960s.

“It’s very strange to come back. My uncle came from Preston. I used to come every year when I was a kid, in the late ‘60s and the ’70s.

“I remember the very first service stations, thinking, ‘Wow – there’s a bridge over the motorway!’ It was the first time I’d ever been on a motorway.

“My uncle worked at a power station just the other side of the Ribble, and I remember walking across a rickety old bridge. That used to scare me!

“There were holes, with the planks rotten, and at seven years old, that was a big river!

“I remember buying shoes and going to the market to buy Supertramp’s Crime of the Century, paying £1.99 for the vinyl!

“My uncle, married to my mother’s sister, was a regimental sergeant major in the Highland Fusiliers. He was English, but served in a Scottish regiment.”

While you can date the 56-year-old’s love of music back to the 1960s, there was a defining ground-shift in April 1974, just days before his 16th birthday.

And for a singer whose voice has often been compared to Peter Gabriel, there’s no surprise it involved that inspirational artist’s first band, Genesis.

“I saw Yes and Genesis within 48 hours at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall in 1975. Yes were on the Relayer tour and Genesis were on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tour.

“Those were the first gigs I was ever at, with tickets £1.25!”

Fish joined Marillion in 1981, the Aylesbury-based outfit hitting the big time with top-10 debut album Script for a Jester’s Tear two years later.

Major success followed, with top-10 hits in 1985 with Kayleigh and Lavender, then again in 1987 with Incommunicado. But a year later Fish went solo.

He’s followed his own path since, but there was a six-year gap between 2007’s acclaimed 13th Star and his latest release, not helped by a six-month enforced break after throat surgery.

But now the 56-year-old is back, enjoying a fair amount of critical acclaim, and more proud of A Feast of Consequences than perhaps anything else he’s brought out.

“I really enjoyed making the album. There was a lot of pressure on us and on me, six years after 13th Star, which set such a high benchmark.

“There were the notorious vocal operations and questions over could I manage to do it again, put something together up there with the previous album.

“But we did it, and I think it’s up there with Vigil, one of my best solo albums.

“When you’re 56 and have come through a career with all its ups and downs – some quite extreme – to be able to deliver an album comparable to your first solo album is a nice feeling.

“There have been positive reviews across the board, especially in Europe. It’s been really gratifying to see.”

His first vocal operation was in late 2008, specialists discovering a cyst there for more than two years.

“It was the equivalent of a footballer playing with a stone in his boot, not knowing it’s there.

“The breath of relief after that blew down the house!”

Those thinking of the Fish of yore and his Marillion era may be surprised by his voice on the new album, not least on the beguiling Blind to the Beautiful, bringing to mind Del Amitri’s Justin Currie.

“I’m singing in a range suited to my voice now. Back in the old days, on the first two Marillion albums especially, I was singing in a falsetto that was not a natural part of my range.

“That’s why I developed so many problems by the late ‘80s. Even on this tour, there’s two or three songs we’re playing from 1983. Your voice changes a hell of a lot in that period.

“But we’ve sunk it down and it sounds better, so you’re able to find the richness and find the soul in it all.

“You try to express yourself and find the delivery from your voice and emotion in the song. And the writers I’m working with appreciate that.”

A Feast of Consequences was a long time in the making, but Fish insists he’ll be starting on his next at the beginning of next year. And it will be his last.

At that point he plans to swap music for writing, most likely moving with his family to Germany.

But until then, he has plenty to do, and is still extensively touring.

A Feast of Consequences was released alongside a hardback book chock-full of artwork, a DVD, live footage, and more – typical of his attitude to changes in the industry.

“This is a different era. Everybody talks downloads, but the bulk of my fanbase came with me through the ‘80s, and like that tangible product in their hand and the idea of opening up a sleeve, reading the lyrics, looking at the illustrations.

“We sell downloads, but if you look at that percentage compared to the deluxe version of this album it’s obvious the fans still want the physical.

“But this isn’t the ’80s anymore. You don’t have the box of fireworks that coincides with every release.

“I’m now going out on a 60-date tour of the UK and across Europe, promoting an album released a year ago. It’s still active, not a catalogue item.

“I compare independent artists like myself to Sioux Indians. The corporations are the big-time hunters coming out of the cities, shooting hundreds of buffaloes, taking away the carcasses lying in the field.

“We take them out one at a time, and when we take a beast down we make sure we use everything before we move on.

”Too many albums just go missing. If they don’t spark the firework box in the first instance, it’s like ‘Next!’ That’s why I got tired of dealing with corporate labels.

“A lot of work goes into an album. When you’ve been working six years on one you don’t work it for six months, you keep it active as long as you can.”

A Feast of Consequences was produced by Calum Malcolm, linked to the Blue Nile, Deacon Blue, the Go-Betweens, Orange Juice and Prefab Sprout, among others.

“Calum’s a brilliant producer, and understands how to get the best out of me. It was his work with Blue Nile that made me wake up to what he was doing.

“He’s been mixing material for me a while but it’s only the last two albums he’s produced. And the next album.”

The tour starts in Durham, Preston and Southampton before 42 dates in mainland Europe then 13 more in the UK up to Christmas.

“Some of those were cancelled last time. My guitarist, Robin Boult, was ill with chicken pox for more than six weeks. So all the UK tour dates were moved towards the European dates.

“But I’m looking forward to it. It works really well and we’re ready to go. And there’s a good balance from the Marillion era to the solo material.

“I’m very aware that people want to be entertained. They don’t just want to hear a brand new album. We’ve tried the set out, and there were no complaints.”

Does it seem like more than 30 years since that first Marillion album?

“No, but when I go out on the road and get up on stage, I know it is. I took Ibuprofen to keep my voice in order, but now take it to keep my knees in order!”

Are there a few hits you can’t bring yourself to perform these days?

“I don’t play Kayleigh, and haven’t for quite a while, although it’s seen as a greatest hit.

“When we were doing acoustic gigs, we asked, ‘Do you want to hear the pop song or the rock song? Nine times out of 10, they’d go for the rock.

“It’s a great song, I’m very proud of it, but I’m not really keen on playing it, not least because the person I wrote it about died of cancer a couple of years ago.”

It’s been more than a quarter of century since Fish left Marillion, but the media still hark back to that seven-year era.

“It’s a proud seven years though, and I’m the same guy that was in that band. There wasn’t a metamorphosis that occurred in 1988.

“People can listen to the latest album and see the links, even though it’s more mature songwriting now.

“But next year is the 30th anniversary of Misplaced Childhood and I’m taking it out on the road for the very last time, doing open-air shows next summer.”

There were several day-jobs before Fish, real name Derek Dick, made his mark in the music business, from petrol pump attendant to gardener and forester.

That’s when he gained his nickname, supposedly spending so long wallowing in bathtubs. Is that still the case? It must be good for acoustics in there.

“Put it this way, when I’m on a big tour, one of my favourite things is to get a hot tub and a steam room on a day off. That for me is heaven.”

There was also the legendary ‘Fish out of Marillion’ status in Viz, and acting as well, from playing himself in The Comic Strip Presents More Bad News in 1988 onwards.

Roles have included The Bill, Rebus, Taggart and Snoddy for TV, and films such as Chasing the Deer, Quite Ugly One Morning, 9 Dead Gay Guys, and The Jacket. Is he still actively seeking acting work?

“Not so much. I don’t have the time. And as I always put myself forward for action stuff, with my knees those days as an action hero are numbered!

“But in 2016, in all probability I’ll be calling it a day as a musician to become a writer and screenplay writer – something I’ve always wanted to do.

“I’ve a lot of ideas, but because of my commitments in the last 20 years I’ve never had time to sit down and put my mind to other stuff.”

His planned move to Germany was mentioned during the Scottish referendum deabate, with Fish – a major supporter of independence – declining to campaign, saying it would be ‘hypocritical’ in the circumstances.

But he was still drawn in.

“It’s exciting in this day and age after general elections in the UK with 60 per cent turn-outs and less, to be looking at around an 85 per cent turn-out.

“What really excites me – forgetting the issue of the ‘yes or no’ – is that people in pubs, cafes, colleges and the street are engaging in politics.

“Whichever side you‘re on, I find that really invigorating. What really got to me in recent years was the apathy and ‘what’s the point’ attitude.

“There is a point to what’s going to happen. And I’ve watched the debates on telly and found them extremely interesting.

“There’s so much wastage. Not just in Scotland. I remember Preston way back, when the mills were there, and it was a bustling town.

“I’ve been to the North West and the North East. Go to Hull and Stockton-on-Tees, then look at Preston and Blackburn. It’s sad the way they’ve been run down.

“Yet I’ve a friend who’s a record producer in London telling me he’s going to have to move out as he can’t afford to live down there.

“We need a redistribution of wealth. It’s all very well talking about high-speed rail lines, but we need something else.

“A lot of communities in the North of England need serious Government investment to get re-invigorated. Give people hope – treat them like people again!”

Fish is at Preston’s 53 Degrees on Tuesday, September 30, with tickets priced £22.50, and doors open at 7.30pm.