The journey from Talk Talk to listen listens

February 13 1998 / The Times

For a musician, Mark Hollis is unusually interested in silence, in the gaps between notes. To listen to the last two albums by Talk Talk, the band he fronted for more than a decade, was to hear a music of fragments and dissolution, his murmured vocals fading into the ether, into nothing. His new, self-titled work extends further what Hollis describes as his fascination with the “geography of sound within which all the instruments exist”.

The work has a cathedral hush. Listening carefully you can sometimes hear another kind of music, a sigh, the creak of a guitar stool, the hiss of tape and the shuffle of footsteps: the peripheral sounds of musicians working together in a room. It’s hard to think of anything quite like it.

The record is entirely acoustic. There are long compositions for a woodwind ensemble, loose, jazz-inflected improvisations and skeletal piano, percussion, harmonica, hamonium and acoustic guitar. Listening to Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain was famously likened to the experience of walking on eggshells. So with Hollis: there is a fragility in his work which runs counter to the white noise of contemporary life.

He sings so quietly and with such trembling hesitancy that it is as if he is inventing his own language as he goes along, pushing at the limits of the sayable. Without a lyric sheet it would be impossible to know what he was singing about; that he is singing songs of faith and devotion.

A shy, wary man, Hollis finds talking about his music difficult. Again and again he flounders against the wall of how to discuss something that defies representation without collapsing into abstraction. Or pretension. For he is gently self-mocking, laughs often and responds to my attempts to offer a reading of his lyrics with “Cor, or something like that.”

The motivation for the album, he says, was “to produce a piece of music so that it was impossible to know in which year it was recorded. 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 solo work since Talk Talk broke up in 1991. The band’s journey from being electropop New Romantics, stablemates of Duran Duran, to avant-garde experimentalists in less than a decade has no parallel. Their musical development was smoothed by a fabulous advance from EMI, reward for a series of hit singles on the Continent and in South-East Asia.

Hollis never enjoyed being a conventional pop star. Endless touring bored him, as did the short, sharp songs and the 4/4 pop format. But he is grateful for his early success. “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 The Spirit of Eden , a shimmering, devout six-track composition of loose, fragmentary arrangements that prefigured many of the innovations on his new album. The band had already signalled their seriousness with The Colour of Spring (1986), a work that, although adventurous, offered no clue of what was to come. For, like all great work, Spirit assumed its own form in the very process of composition.

The band’s paymasters at EMI were completely baffled. After such investment they expected something, well, more commercial , something they could market aggressively. “We had some kind of split,” Hollis says, evasively. 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.”

Hollis has spent the past ten years listening to anything but pop. He cites as influences, among others, Ornette Colman, Messiaen, Ravel and John Lee Hooker. He lives quietly with his wife, a teacher, and two children in Wimble don, his life disciplined by a willingness to learn. He never thinks about who, if anyone, might buy his records.

“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 reading, listening to and playing music, and getting a bit of sport in. Yeah, it’s a good life.”