This is an English translation made by Stefan Weber of an interview with Mark Hollis from the German website Subaudio.

The path over the burnt bridge

We are 'gleichgeschaltet'. The music world is only seemingly dissimilar. Actually it is all the same - Will Oldham, Pearl Jam, Nick Cave, Mark Eitzel, Smashing Pumpkins, Low, Radiohead, Portishead, the whole 4AD-label, triphop, postrock. The cultural fallout, evoked by blues and country music and boosted by mass media, rages everywhere.

We are living in a time of lamenting, moaning, whining. Melancholia, grief, despair, brokenness have occupied what is left of the seemingly profound underground to such an extent that, just like Nena or the post war generation, one is tempted to call for discipline.

At first sight Mark Hollis too is part of this culture. His nasal timbre alternates between trembling forte and minimal whispering, at the same time bewailing and imploring. Neither the orchestral pop that Hollis produced with Talk Talk in the eighties nor the autosuggestive mantras like "Happiness Is Easy" could alter this. But from '86 on Talk Talk were fed up with pop and the music business. They gave the world "Spirit Of Eden" and "Laughing Stock", two stunning sound documents that brought Van Morrison, the electric Miles Davies, Ornette Coleman and the holy spirit into the most touching harmony. Aliens, who one day are going to liberate this planet from our sinful species, will learn from them that there was not only shit on earth.

Seven years have passed since these lying-ins, which had cost tons of pound sterling and obviously were commercial catastrophes, and the unpretentious genius raises his voice again, this time acoustically and softer than ever. For seven years he listened to music and prepared this new album through meditations and composition exercises. Released under his own name, it morphs between minimalism, jazz and romantic to such an extent that the outside world pauses in awe. There is lamenting only for the sake of sound and art.

After '86 you never went on tour again?

After '86, yes.

That's quite a long time.

"It's a little time", yes.

Are there any intentions to play live at the moment?

No, none at all. Firstly it would be totally impossible to play this music live and besides I have no desire to reproduce music for a whole year that I've just recorded. I'd rather be writing new songs.

It's not a problem of contact with the audience, but the question of sound.

Yes, absolutely.

But what about locations for classical music?

Yes, sure, but look, even during a classical concert you have noise, there is coughing during really soft parts. That throws off my concentration. With rock music the live aspect has a value of its own, whereas silence is an extremely important aspect of classical music, so with the latter I prefer listening to records. It's the same with my music, everything is so incredibly soft that any interference would be fatal.

Talk Talk

Are there any bad memories concerning the time with Talk Talk?

No, on the contrary, rather amusing ones. There are a few things we could have done better when we signed the contract, but otherwise it was great fun and we had nice moments. And as far as the albums are concerned, they are as good as was possible at the time.

And what about the commercial aspect? Weren't the last two albums problematic in so far as they were very expensive and failed commercially?

Yes, know. I love these albums, so what the hell. Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock and this new album are related to each other and I'm fond of all of them. Spirit of Eden was the first album to emerge without pressure from outside.

But what happened when you presented the tapes to the record company?

I never bothered about that. I only concentrated on the album and Keith, my manager did the rest. I always tried to separate these areas and not let anything interfere with the music.

And what about the remix album?

Totally out of my control. There is nothing I can say about that. I never listened to the record. We had left the record company and it happened. I couldn't stop it.

Did you ever think about something like remixing?

No, never. When a record has been mixed, that's it. I don't listen to it again or think 'we should have done this or that differently'.

Was the evolution of Talk Talk a joint process or did you lead the way?

Tim Friese-Greene had an essential share. The two of us composed and arranged songs. It was important to us not to repeat ourselves but to develop constantly. Lee and Paul...they liked the direction it all took and enjoyed being part of it.

So it was not a question of your concepts that the band ceased to exist?

No, no, everything sort of drifted apart...since Spirit of Eden we had no gigs any longer, so Tim and me worked together and met the others only at the recording sessions. This situation allowed all of us to start something new. By the time Laughing Stock was finished Lee and Paul had bought a studio and worked on their own project.


In two aspects there is a difference between Spirit and Laughing Stock. We still worked with arranged improvisation but treated the musicians as isolated cells living in separate timezones as if they were revolving in space and communicating from time to time but being completely isolated otherwise. What was the Off-Beat for one musician was the On-Beat for the other.

Was that part of the mixing?

No, it was part of the composition. The other new aspect was to expand the songs further than ever. With the first song for instance, Myrrhman, we had the idea of doing a composition with no repeating sections. With Ascension Day we did have three verses, but each with fewer bars and identical vocals. It was all about changing song structures.

A very intellectual approach.

Yes, yes, that's true. When we had completed the recordings we were through with it, knew what it was like and didn't want to go further. We had pushed song writing as far as possible and thought 'this is the right moment to stop'. That was the end of it, very vague, if you know what I mean.

Doesn't that mean at the same time, you could come together again?

Oh no, it doesn't work that way. All of us took different directions and explored different fields...

Would it not be more appropriate for the last two Talk Talk albums and your new record to be managed by the classic department rather than by pop people?

Sure. No question. The existence of such sections is unfortunate anyway, be it in companies or music generally. And on top of that there are these pointless arrangements determining when something is released, and when one is supposed to listen to it. If you look at the Blues for instance, I myself would find it impossible to consider the Blues of the nineties only. If you want to understand something you have to look at all of the past 90 years.


Was it actually difficult getting the contract for this record?

No, this record was still part of the last contract. The contract I signed prior to Laughing Stock included two records, with no temporal limit.

And what about the financial aspect? Do you have to make records in order to earn a living?

No, not really. I earned enough through old royalties to make a living.

Until the end of your days?

(laughs) No, that's a bit long. But for a conceivable time. And that is important for me to work the way I like.

And what did you do during these seven years? Music?

I listened to an incredible amount of music and composed a great deal. But there is no need to record everything. I play piano for the sake of piano playing. You know...(pause)...the first couple of years I wrote arrangements for wood-wind ensembles, four or five players. That's what interested me after the last record - writing for small ensembles, with no percussion and no song structure. At the time I never thought of making a record and only a few little parts are included on this record now. Most of it exists on paper only.

But you are still in contact with other musicians.

Sure, I met a lot of musicians over the years. But that has nothing to do with the music business. They are almost all guys who can't make a living of making music.

You say you listen to a lot of music. Do you listen to modern or temporary music?

No, not at all. That is, a little modern classic, but no rock or pop.

That's far off your world.

At the moment, yes. The reason for this is that I'm interested in musical references and like to dwell on some things more thoroughly.

A few parallels are drawn from the rock and pop area - Robert Wyatt or Scott Walker - do you feel a kinship to them?

Yes, no...well I always admired Robert Wyatt, a great drummer already back in his Soft machine days, and I love his voice. I'm not quite sure what he is up to but I have great respect for him. As far as Scott Walker is concerned, I only know "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" and "Tilt" and...what shall I say - he obviously has a mission, and I wish him all the best.

There is no one you feel close to?

Not as far as pop is concerned, but there are some ideas I feel related to, take for instance Morton Feldman, an American composer who works on a tremendously soft level, where the vibrations are extremely important and every little note matters. I feel a great affinity towards this way of approaching sound, but there are numerous examples of this kind in various areas. For instance Can was very important to me, but I never wanted to be like them or do the same, there was just a strong influence on my perception. Take the drummer: I cannot think of one song in which he ever took a rest. What a marvelous technique.


I read that after Colour Of Spring you moved to the countryside. Do you still live there?

No, I'm back in London for two years now.

Doesn't the noise bother you?

Yes and no. I need a room that is very quiet. But what I also need and especially want with respect to my two sons is a cosmopolitan society, a vital culture that does not exist in rural areas.

And you don't mind your children listening to hardrock or hiphop?

They can listen to whatever they like. Occasionally I play something for them, but that's just to see how they respond, not to educate them.

Is music important to them? How old are they?

Seven and ten. No, music is not very important to them. They both learn instruments, piano and guitar, but totally relaxed and without constraint.

The new album is just titled Mark Hollis. Does that mean it's kind of an essence?

No. I just didn't feel there was a reason for a title. The songs have titles, which makes sense. But the album...if it was the second it would need a title to distinguish it from the first.

The album begins with "The Colour Of Spring". Is that a reference to the past?

No, I just thought it would be a good title for the text. Apart from that, the reference is ok.

There is a remarkable connection between the title and the text in which you talk about burnt bridges.

It is definitely not an autobiographical song. The song is about people who think in absolutely materialistic ways, do anything just for money, have no moral principles, and are going to tell you something about the beauty of nature. And yet they know nothing about it, because these are completely contradictory ideas. The next thing is a very romantic idea: that while you have this sensation of beauty you can fly over the bridges that you burnt before...

Are you romantic?

Am I romantic? Good god, that's a question (smiles, muses...)

New album

Let's skip this point. The recording process must have been a very disciplined matter.

It was the composing and arranging that was rather disciplined. During the recording sessions the playing was - within the limits of the strict arrangements - quite free and lively.

But doesn't the fact that you hear such noise as the creaking of chairs mean that you hardly breathed?

Yes, no, I just wanted to record everything as it is, an album without producing. To make you feel like being in a room together with these people.

How many tracks did you use to achieve this?

Good god... it must have been something like 66, I think. This was necessary in order to capture the colours and the space.

Did you write more songs than there are on the album?

No. Everything is included. There has to be a carefully planned balance of tension and ease, with each song as well as with the whole album.

Little philosophical excursion: there is this old Talk Talk song called "Happiness Is Easy". Is that so?

Good god, is happiness easy...good god (rolls his eyes)

Ok, let's put it this way: are you happy? Now? With this situation?

I am definitely happy with this record. It is exactly what I wanted it to be.

And the rest is too private.

Yes, I think so.

Would you say you escape from reality? Escapism?

Yes, certainly. Music is an escape. And yet at the same time the exact opposite of it, something that deepens your senses and forms your perception of things, i. e. your life.


Holger in't Veld

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Last updated August 31, 1998