Out of Time: Mark Hollis

February 13 1998 / The Times

For a musician and singer, Mark Hollis is unusually interested in silence, in what could be described as the gaps and intervals between notes. To listen to Spirt of Eden (1988) and Laughing Stock (1991), the last two albums by Talk Talk, the band of which he was singer and principal songwriter for more than a decade, is to encounter a music of fragments and dissolution, his murmured vocals often simply fading away as a song does not so much end as expire. This music was not pop but nor was it anti-pop: Talk Talk’s journey from synthpop “New Romantics” - they shared a label with Duran Duran and toured with them – to ambient avant-gardists in less than a decade has perhaps no parallel.

I met Hollis for a pint one afternoon in an unremarkable pub in Wimbledon, close to where he lives. We were there to discuss his eponymous solo album, which comprises eight songs or pieces, each exploring his fascination with, as he explained enigmatically, the “geography of sound within which all the instruments exist”.

The new album has a cathedral hush. Listen carefully and you can hear another kind of music: the sound of a man sighing, the creak of a guitar stool, the hiss of tape and the shuffle of footsteps - the peripheral sounds of musicians working together attentively in a small studio. In the age of “Brit pop”, it’s hard to think of another contemporary album quite like it.

This minimalist work is entirely acoustic. There are long compositions for a woodwind ensemble, loose, jazz-inflected improvisations and skeletal piano, percussion, harmonica, harmonium and guitar. Listening to Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain was likened to the experience of walking on eggshells. It is something like this with Mark Hollis’s contemplative new album: there is something fragile and uncertain about its mood and atmosphere, a modesty even, which seems strikingly out of place with the swagger and triumphalism of Tony Blair’s popular cultural cult of Cool Britannia.

Hollis sings so quietly and with such trembling hesitancy that it’s as if he’s trying to invent his own idiom as he goes along, as if he’s pushing at the limits of what can and cannot be meaningfully expressed. Without a lyric sheet it would be impossible to know what he is singing about: to know that he is singing songs of loss and faith.

A shy, suspicious man, Hollis has a long fringe, a narrow face and sharp, pointed features. He was born in Tottenham in 1955 – he has a strong norff London accent – and was a reluctant pop star: he disliked interviews and promotional tours and found talking about his music awkward. The dilemma was this: how to discuss something that defies representation without collapsing into abstraction? Or pretension. In person, he is gently self-mocking, laughs often and responds to my attempts to explain the meaning of one of his songs with “Cor, or something like that.”

The motivation for the album, apart from fulfilling a contractual obligation with Polydor, was “to produce a piece of music so that it was impossible to know in which year it was recorded”. He continues: “I have a strong affinity with acoustic sound and with the natural characteristic of instruments. I wanted this to become part of the soundscape of the room. It was recorded very quietly. There were times when, vocally, I felt I could hardly make a sound.”

Mark Hollis is his first album since Talk Talk disbanded in 1991. There were three in the band (Paul Harris and Lee Webb were his collaborators) and their later musical development was smoothed by a fabulously lucrative advance from EMI, reward for a series of hit singles and albums on the Continent and in South-East Asia. But never in Britain.

Hollis was a bashful pop frontman. Touring bored him, and so did conventional song structures and the 4/4 pop format. But he is grateful for his early success because it liberated him into becoming the musician he longed to be. “Because we were successful in Europe, with the exception of England, we had absolute freedom in terms of our recording budgets and in retaining a degree of anonymity in this country.”

The split with EMI followed the release of Spirit of Eden, a shimmering, devout six-track composition of loose, fragmentary arrangements that prefigured many of the innovations on his solo album. The band had already signalled their severity of purpose with their third album, The Colour of Spring (1986). It was adventurous and the songs were richly textured yet they were still recognisably pop songs: they offered few clues as to what would come next. Like so much great art, Spirit of Eden assumed its own form in the very process of being created as Hollis and his co-writer Tim Friese-Jones (the band’s producer and de facto fourth member) experimented with ever more complex arrangements. They deconstructed the form of Talk Talk’s earlier pop songs, with their insistent, pulsing rhythms, pursuing more improvisational, free-form compositions.

Talk Talk’s paymasters at EMI were completely baffled by the finished album. After investing so much in the band something more commercial was expected, something that could be sold and marketed aggressively. “We had some kind of split,” Hollis told me. (In fact, Talk Talk and EMI ended up in protracted litigation over disputed contracts.) Later, he adds: “I think they wanted us to produce something along the lines of our earlier hits. But we felt strongly that we shouldn’t repeat ourselves, that we had to keep progressing.”

Mark Hollis does not listen to much pop music and cites as influences, among others, Ornette Colman, Messiaen, Debussy, Ravel and John Lee Hooker. He lives quietly with his wife, a teacher, and two children in Wimbledon, his life disciplined by a willingness to learn (he seemed most animated when speaking about his son’s music teacher at school). He never thinks about who, if anyone, might buy his records and does not know if he will continue to make and release music.

“I have enough money to live on, which is great,” he says. “In this sense, I feel a bit like a student whose grant allows him to spend his time creatively - reading, listening to and playing music, and getting a bit of sport in as well. Yeah, it’s a good life.”

1998

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Mark Hollis turned out to be Mark Hollis’s first and last solo album and mine was one of the last interviews he did (which is why I have included it here). Nor has he released any new music since 1998. Yet in the intervening years he has become ever more admired: Spirit of Eden is considered to be one of the best and most innovative albums of the 1990s and Hollis a pioneer of what became known as “post-rock”. Among the bands who cite Hollis as an influence are Guy Garvey’s Elbow. “Mark Hollis started from punk and by his own admission he had no musical ability. To go from only having the urge, to writing some of the most timeless, intricate and original music ever is as impressive as the moon landings for me,” Garvey has said of Hollis.