From Melody Maker, September 7, 1991
With his back catalogue rereleased to haunt him and an album of remixes cutting him to the quick, MARK HOLLIS explains to STEVE SUTHERLAND why he must take legal measures to protect the reputation of 'Laughing Stock', his latest exploratory album.
"You say it's weird. I don't think it's weird. I think it's disgraceful!"
Mark Hollis is agitated, almost animated. This is extraordinary behaviour for a man about whom I used the word "reluctant" six times in one paragraph the last time I wrote about him. What can have happened to draw such anger from lips that characteristically tremble to form the curtest "maybe"? What outrage can have been perpetrated for him to have broken cover from his precious privacy in order to express his displeasure with such conviction?
Well, first there was "Natural History", a compilation album of Talk Talk tracks released by EMI after the band's contract with that label was terminated and they'd been released to ply their art elsewhere. EMI had been shocked by "Spirit of Eden", the innovative, improvisational and wilfully uncommercial album Hollis delivered to them in 1988. It was anything but the anticipated follow-up to "The Colour of Spring", the album of soulful hits that seemed to have guaranteed Talk Talk a future of filling stadia around the world. It was nearer the free jazz ethic of vintage Miles Davis than the soaring inanities of Simple Minds, and EMI waved Hollis farewell, presumably releasing "Natural History" as a way of recouping part of the small fortune they'd invested in "Eden".
"A compilation album is not my idea of an album," says Hollis today. "I don't like compilation albums and I didn't like that one. It certainly wasn't the selection of tracks I would have liked even if there had to be one. But, at the end of the day, they had every right to do it so…"
He shrugs his way into silence.
What really disgusts him is "History Revisited", the album of Talk Talk remixed by the like of Julian Mendelsohn and Gary Miller that EMI released after the company had lucked into discovering that, if they wacked a dancebeat under some of the band's finest early moments, the public could be duped into thinking they were buying something new and tres chic. To Hollis, a man for whom integrity is the very root and sole reason for making music, this was tantamount to artistic rape. He felt defiled, frustrated, furious and unclean — the way you feel if you've ever been unfortunate enough to return home to find you've not only been burgled and your most intimate possessions abused, but that the burglars have wantonly smeared shit on the walls.
"We're gonna take them to court over this remix thing," Hollis says and, believe me, he's near to tears. "To me, it's unbelievable they could do that. To have people overdubbing stuff you've done and putting it out…" The sentence evaporates in exasperation. It's the complete antithesis of the Talk Talk ethos. Everything he's worked for is being murdered, mocked for greed.
"I've never heard any of this stuff and I don't want to hear it…but to have people putting this stuff out under your name which is not you, y'know, I want no part of it. It's always been very important to me that I've got on with the people we've worked with. People's attitude has always been really important to me. So much of why someone would exist on one of our albums is what they are like as a person. So to find you've got people you've never give the time of day to going out as thought it's you…it's disgusting."
Hollis says he got wind of "History Revisited" before it was released back in March and sent legal letters to get it stopped. The letters were ignored so now Hollis, a man who it seems to me would do just about anything to avoid a confrontation, is taking EMI to court. This isn't business. This is strictly personal. Of course, the harm's been done — the record's out and it sold enough to take it high into the album charts. He was even nominated for a Brits Award on the back of the rereleases — a situation he finds as distressing as I find it ludicrous.
They showed film of us from 1984," he says, visibly shaking. "It was just insulting, wasn't it? I wasn't happy with it."
There are people who, ignorant of Talk Talk's evolution from Duranalikes to free spirits, will be expecting their new album, "Laughing Stock", to be some bubbly dancepop magnum opus. These people are going to be disappointed and Hollis says that's down to EMI. And so it is he's prepared to appear in court, to fight for the principle of the thing in the hope that a legal precedent might be set and others may not be forced to suffer the indignity he feels has been forced upon him.
When I arrive to interview Hollis, he is asleep on the sofa in a record company office incongruously crowded with taxidermy. He is uncomfortable talking about his music and — yes — reluctant to reveal much about himself. For this reason he's happiest doing his duty in offices like this where nothing of his personality is betrayed by his surroundings. His first suggestion was that we meet at my place — an idea which, it seems to me, suggests a positively obsessive desire to negate any possibility whatsoever of giving away unnecessary clues. That plan didn't come about because Hollis, who lives in the Suffolk countryside and visits London as seldom as possible, managed to organise a couple of meetings and the Maker interview all on the same day, thus minimising his journeys.
It's not that he's impolite or even that he begrudges intrusion. It's just that he's chronically ill at ease with the investigative process.
"I do this to be reasonable," he explains. "But I don't see that doing an interview does anything but detract from the album. I mean, the album was a year of me being as succinct as I can possibly be and me talking about it can only detract from that."
Hollis fears that words overembroider his work and that the more we say, the further we stray from the new album's purity of intention.
"The last thing I would ever want to do is intellectualise music because that's never been what it's about for me," he says. "Nothing has changed from the ethic of the last album and I would never want that to change because I can't see any way of improving upon that process. As before, silence is the most important thing you have, one note is better than two, spirit is everything, and technique, although it has a degree of importance, is always secondary."
So "Laughing Stock" is…
"…What it is," says Hollis.
It's not a reaction to anything, it's not a political statement with either a big or a small P. It has no axe to grind and no ulterior motive. "Laughing Stock" is just the rich recorded rewards of an organic process of working which Hollis adores.
What he does is collects a group of like-minded musicians together in Wessex Studios in North London where he can record the "perspective of instruments in physical distance rather than off the board", and then each player (there are 18 on "Laughing Stock") gets to improvise around a basic theme as he or she feels it. Imperatively, this process is continued over a long period of time ("Laughing Stock" took a year) until Hollis feels each player has expressed their character and refined their contribution to the purest, most truthful essence. Only then is the record complete.
"It's never a thing with any of these albums of knowing what they're going to sound like. It's more like knowing the kind of feel you want. The one kind of starting point we had this time was just this thing of everyone working in their own little time zone. Really, it's just going back to one of a couple of things — either the jazz ethic or y'know, an album like 'Tago Mago' by Can, where the drummer locked-in and off he went and people reacted at certain points along the way. It's arranged spontaneity — that's exactly what it is."
"Laughing Stock" will be released on the Verve label, an offshoot of Polydor that specialises in the esoteric. Hollis is pleased because the Mothers of Invention used to be on Verve although several people at Polydor are purported to be gutted at what Hollis has given them. How will they sell it?
The first time I heard the record was at a dinner given for retailers by the record company at The New Serpentine Gallery. It was an embarrassingly desperate attempt over cocktails to convince store owners that they should stock a record which, the company was trying to infer, stood for quality over likely quantity of sales. Nobody knew where to look as Hollis' muted blues confessional purposely disintegrated into shivering feedback. A similar farce was, apparently, held in a Paris planetarium.
Hollis attended both playbacks and survived. He says the Paris one wasn't too bad because, when the lights went out, it was close to the perfect way to listen to his music — with your eyes closed, watching your own mind movies. He didn't stick around in London, though — he had no desire to see people's reactions. He says he's proud of the record and, seeing as it wasn't made for other people, their opinions don't bother him.
He also denies there is any problem with Polydor: "Not at all, because the whole structure of the deal we have with this record company is understanding how we work. I suppose because it's on Verve some people will think we've been stuck under 'Jazz' but what on earth does jazz mean? It's such a vague term, isn't it? Without any question there are certain areas of jazz that are extremely important to me. Ornette Coleman is an example. But jazz as a term is as widely used and abused as soul — it no longer means what it should mean.
"Jazz has almost been bastardised to such an extent that, if you've got a saxophone on a record, it's jazz, which is a terrifying idea. It's like, where would you ever place Can? To me 'Tago Mago' is an extremely important album that has elements of jazz in it, but I would never call it jazz.
"Basically, the deal is that I promise to give them the best album I can. I think they have options across four albums which, at the pace we work, is the next 12 years. What more can you say?"
"Laughing Stock" isn't going to be a massive seller; everyone knows that and Hollis doesn't care. It's nominally divided into six parts although it's really one long piece spanning an evolution of moods. It begins with the fragmented blues scratching of "Myrrhman" (like John Lee Hooker played violas!), grows into the drizzle-burst lightning flash of "Ascension Day" where the words are little more than awkward static, and on into "After the Flood", a piece reminiscent of Robert Wyatt's Seventies fusion group Matching Mole, where a guitar of balletic grace is suddenly the cry of a pig being slaughtered, a minute-long one note feedback solo of which Hollis is particularly proud.
"Taphead" is even heavier, the guitar suggesting a blues progression but failing to follow through as if Hollis' grief is too great to even pursue the time-honoured route to anguished release. Trumpets puncture the flesh of the piece like arrows and the tension is well nigh unbearable until is suddenly dissolves into the lighter "New Grass" which is like a Haiku of King Sunny Ade, the spiritual awakening expressed through a homage to McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, the percussive axis around which John Coltrane once weaved magic.
Finally there's "Runeii", a masterpiece of simple precision. There's not one note that doesn't need to be there, not a sound that fills to flatter.
"For things to endure, they need to be in their most pure form," says Hollis. "I mean, it wears on you if you're hearing all this echo or something all the time. You just thin, 'Let me hear this thing for what it is'."
Hollis is phobic about passive listening — he hates the notion that we don't choose what we hear the way we choose what we read or what we eat. It bothers him that we have been lulled into treating music as mere entertainment, at most a diversion, at least mere background sound. He sees music as a means to spiritual enlightenment, something to enrich the soul.
"Ideally, that's the way it should be, that's for sure. At the end of the day, the greatest music, if you look to singing, must be gospel. It can't be anything other because it's just from the heart."
Although you can't make it out without a lyric sheet, "Laughing Stock" is a deeply religious work.
"It's just about virtue, really, just about character, that's all it is. I can't think of any other way of being able to sing a lyric and actually sing it and feel it unless I believe in what I'm singing about. That goes back to the gospel thing. I'm not saying all lyrics have to be about religion but, in a way, there must be that kind of thing in it.:
Well, what is there to sing about? God, sex and death — that's all.
"Yeah, well, I've certainly picked up on two of the three."
Mark Hollis hasn't a clue whether Talk Talk bear any relationship at all to rock music as we know and love it today. He's never heard Ride, never heard Chapterhouse, never heard any of the bands who swooned when "Spirit of Eden" came out, enraptured by its textures and envious of its freedom of format.
"I'm really not familiar with what is happening," he says. "I haven't heard any of them but it's not because I'm in any way dismissive of what is currently happening. It's just that I'm basically uninformed. That's all it is. I don't for a minute think that we're out on some limb and there's no one that has an understanding of what we're doing. I would hate to think that and I'm sure there are a lot of people around right now with whom we would have an empathy but it's just that I don't know who they are."
I tell Hollis that some of the bands I've spoken to cite Talk Talk as an inspiration which he thinks is great. Most of them, though, will never be as brave or suicidal enough to abandon the more accepted avenues and plunge themselves into glorious self-indulgence the way he has.
"The less you compromise, the less you're prepared to compromise," he laughs. "I look upon us as being extremely fortunate that we can work absolutely the way we wish. That must surely be the ideal for everyone.
"When I finished 'Spirit of Eden', there was a long period where I never thought I would make another record because I just didn't know where to go or anything. It's never anything I can predict. It's like, I say I'm in a four album deal but there's no way of knowing that I can ever do four albums. I do not know. The only thing that I can ever hope is that I would never make an album for the wrong reasons and just stay with that ethic. I can't see the point of making an album for the sake of it. There's nothing that I would get from it."
Mark Hollis shifts his bare feet off the table in front of him and informs [photographer Tom] Sheehan that, if he wants to take any photos, he'd better do it while we're talking because he just can't bring himself to pose.
Sheehan asks him to change seats with me so he's in the dying daylight and Hollis willingly complies.
"So there won't be a Talk Talk photo book coming out for Christmas?" says Sheehan, a mite sarcastically.
"I don't know," says Hollis, laughing nervously. "You'd better ask EMI. You never know, they might put one out with other people's heads grafted on our shoulders."
"Laughing Stock" is released on Verve on September 16. There will be no single taken from the album and no video.