Mark Hollis of Talk Talk: A Life (1955 - 2019) | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Mark Hollis of Talk Talk: A Life (1955 - 2019)

The Singer is Dead at Age 64

Feb 25, 2019 Mark Hollis Bookmark and Share

Mark Hollis’ death was very much like the latter part of his life-shrouded in mystery. When the singer and principal songwriter in Talk Talk quietly retired from music in 1998, he was barely heard from again. Like other reclusive geniuses such as JD Salinger, Harper Lee, and Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, Hollis created profound work and then, at a relatively young age, completely disappeared. Today’s news of Hollis’s death at age 64 came not in the form of an official announcement, but via a tweet from his cousin-in-law. Anthony Costello, a professor at the University College in London, tweeted: “RIP Mark Hollis. Cousin-in-law. Wonderful husband and father. Fascinating and principled man. Retired from the music business 20 years ago but an indefinable musical icon.”

Hollis is hardly a household name. Yet his influence on modern music is, to put it mildly, considerable.

Few bands have had the curious artistic trajectory of Talk Talk. In the early ‘80s, this British group started out seemingly in the same league as New Wave synth bands like Spandau Ballet and Flock of Seagulls. Okay, not quite. Singer/songwriter Mark Hollis always had a depth that distinguished the band even then. He was aided and abetted by the stellar musicianship of bassist Paul Webb and drummer Lee Harris. Producer Tim Friese-Green was as key to Talk Talk as George Martin was to The Beatles. An unofficial fourth member, he co-wrote songs with Hollis and played keyboards in the studio and sometimes on the group’s few live tours.

Talk Talk’s early records are fairly disposable but yielded hits such as “Such a Shame,” “Dum Dum Girl,” “Today,” and, best of all, “It’s My Life.” That song wasn’t quite a hit upon release in 1984. It peaked at 46 on the UK singles chart. Like seemingly everything Talk Talk did, its brilliance wasn’t fully appreciated until years later. In 1990 it was reissued as a single from Natural History: The Very Best of Talk Talk. Second time lucky, “It’s My Life” reached #13 in the UK charts. And then it became an even bigger hit upon its third iteration, this time as a cover version released by No Doubt in 2003. (Gwen Stefani’s brash vocal lacks the soulfulness of the original but one imagines that Hollis appreciated the royalty checks during retirement.)

With each successive album, Talk Talk began to strip away the synths in favor of a more organic sound. In interviews, Hollis was citing musical inspiration by the likes of Erik Satie, King Crimson, Pharoah Saunders, John Lee Hooker, Pink Floyd, and Shostakovich. The turning point was 1986’s artistic and commercial breakthrough, Colour of Spring. It even yielded a hit, “Life’s What You Make It,” whose insistent piano figure has lost none of its startling power decades later. Colour of Spring was a great leap forward for the band and featured guests such as David Rhodes (Peter Gabriel) on guitar and Steven Winwood on organ. The band’s tour for the album would be its last (a performance at Montreux was later released on DVD).

In a 2018 interview for Mojo magazine’s “Last Night a Record Changed My Life,” musician Steven Wilson observed, “I think the first time I connected with the Colour of Spring was the video for ‘Life’s What You Make It’ on a Saturday morning kids’ show. I responded to the extraordinarily Gilmour-esque guitar line, which wasn’t something you expected from a so-called synth pop group….I loved the music of the ‘80s but it did have a very processed, artificial quality. This was very natural sounding, almost something that could have been recorded in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, with this musical palate I recognized, with Hammond organs, a very organic drums and bass production, acoustic guitars, very warm analogue spring reverbs. It was surprising but also exactly the kind of music I was looking for.”

Two years later, Spirit of Eden completed the band’s transformation. All the synths had been replaced by instruments such as guitar, piano, drums, clarinets, harmonium, bassoon, oboe, trumpet, and violins. The recording sessions, engineered by Phill Brown (brother of Rush producer Terry) ate up gobs of money in studio time. It was very much an experimental creation in which each musician entered the darkened studio, sometimes lit by strobe lights, and improvised upon a theme. Hollis, Brown, and Friese-Green stitched various bits and pieces together to create a record that drew as much from the worlds of jazz, ambient, and classical music as it did rock music. Hollis, with his singularly unique and mournful voice, sounded like he’d be better off on a psychiatrist’s couch than in a recording studio.

It’s a masterpiece.

You cannot tell that Spirit of Eden was recorded in 1988. It’s so timeless that you wouldn’t know it wasn’t recorded yesterday. Some have called it the first “post rock” album.

“It’s certainly a reaction to the music that’s around at the moment, because most of that is shit,” Hollis told Q magazine. He described Spirit of Eden as best experienced “in a calm mood, with no distractions…. You have to give it all your attention. You should never listen to music as background music. Ever.”

As Alan McGee (who signed Oasis and Primal Scream to his Creation Records) put it this way in The Guardian: “Spirit of Eden has not dated; it’s remarkable how contemporary it sounds, anticipating post-rock, The Verve and Radiohead. It’s the sound of an artist being given the keys to the kingdom and returning with art. Yet upon completion it was seen as utter commercial suicide, as if Duran Duran had released a Krautrock, free jazz, gospel album after Notorious.”

As Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater described his first listen to the album in a contribution to the book Spirit of Talk Talk: “It was the depths that drew me in. I’d been sleeping on a hardwood floor at a friend’s house in Chicago during one of our early tours, a wool coat thrown over me, a couch pillow under my head, and I woke up to the smell of burning coffee and the sound of a needle dropping onto an LP. And then the first muted trumpet note and violin swell of ‘The Rainbow.’ I opened my eyes, squinting in the light, and had just begun to remember where I was when a lovely, crystalline guitar figure was shattered by a blazing harmonica. What was this? Charlie Musselwhite’s lost psychedelic record? And then there was that voice-an introspective, clipped, mysterious, Anglican warble, humble yet laced with an anguished, hard-won confidence.”

In an interview, Guy Garvey of Elbow told me in 2011: “I went back to Spirit of Eden just recently. I know every note and bleep on that record. I’ve no doubt in my mind that I know that record better than the people who made it. Knowing what I know now about how to make money as a band and how important it is to stay afloat financially and how tempting it is to just make commercial records…I appreciate the bravery of Spirit of Eden more than anything else. There’s a band that essentially formed as a Duran Duran copy band. Then there was the bizarre and responsible use of synthesizers in Colour of Spring. And then, suddenly, to break from it to make a completely organic and make such a beautiful record in Spirit of Eden. It was a real moment of genius.”

But, alas, Spirit of Eden was ahead of its time. Talk Talk made the album for a major record label back when it cost thousands of pounds per day to use a studio. The record company didn’t understand the recordthey didn’t hear a hit singleand Hollis and co. had a messy divorce from EMI amid several lawsuits. The band’s battle with EMI reportedly set a precedent so that future record contracts included a clause stipulating that recordings “be of a commercially satisfactory nature.” Q magazine gave the album 4 stars out of 5, but the review didn’t seem to quite grasp just how revolutionary it was at the time.

Talk Talk released one more album, titled Laughing Stock for Verve Records in 1991. (Pleasingly, the cover artwork of exotic birds nesting in a tree was a continuation of Talk Talk’s collaboration with surrealist designer James Marsh.) Perhaps the new record company was hoping for a hit along the lines of the recently reissued “It’s My Life.” But if anything Laughing Stock was even less commercial. Laughing Stock pushed beyond even the considerable outer boundaries established on Spirit of Eden. They spent seven months inside the studio, barely emerging for any sort of break.

“We broke the unspoken rules,” Hollis told an interviewer. Once again, the band had to sort through messy tangles of experimentation to find the album in the editing room.

“It’s quite often the mistakes that are the best things, and that’s why so much of the LP would be so hard to recreate,” Hollis mused in another interview at the time with Record Mirror. “The most important thing you can work with is silence… I’ve always believed that one note is better than two, two notes are better than three: so it’s never hard to choose because you’re looking for small fragments. That one-note guitar solo on the third trackwe wanted to get to that stage with this album and it was one of the most important achievements for us.”

This time, Q magazine’s reviewer got it right when he observed that “the same qualities will ensure that even though Laughing Stock may lose Hollis some of his newly found friends, it will be valued long after such superficial quick thrills are forgotten.”

It would be Talk Talk’s final studio record. (A live album, London 1986 was belatedly released in 1998.) At the time, Hollis shared the same manager, Keith Aspden, as the band No-Man, a duo consisting of Steven Wilson and singer-songwriter Tim Bowness. The latter recommended to Aspden that Hollis try collaborating with Kate Bush. On paper, it would seem to be a sublime meeting of talents of two avant-garde musical pioneers. Alas, the partnership never quite gelled and nothing came of their brief time in the studio together in the mid 1990s.

In 1998, Hollis released an eponymous solo record on Polydor Records. Though the album retained regular Talk Talk guest harmonica player Mark Feltham, this was a more subdued affair. It featured the classical chamber instrumentation as well as the acoustic guitar playing of Robbie McIntosh of The Pretenders and Sting’s longtime sideman Dominic Miller. Mark Hollis distilled Talk Talk’s sound to a purely acoustic, chamber-music sound recorded live in a studio with no overdubs. While that album lacks the melodic strengths of earlier Hollis work, it’s an exquisite recordingyou can hear the scrape of fingers on fretsand “A Life (1895 - 1915)” is one of his finest compositions.

Hollis promoted the album with radio and print interviews, but it was yet another commercial failure. Hollis’ next move was to produce half of Anja Garbarek’s 2001 record Smiling & Waving. Then, without so much as an announcement, he retired.

“Mark Hollis just quit in the end,” Robert Plant told me in an interview. “He said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ And yet what he was doing was spectacular. Colour of Spring was great, but Laughing Stock, my god, that was so good….”

Reflecting on Hollis’ prolonged quiet, Elbow’s Guy Garvey told me: “I have a few good friends who have dropped out of music and it’s not always because they have problems or because they’re tortured. Sometimes they just run out of things to say. Bands don’t split up publicly most of the time. They just stop writing. And then one day you go, ‘Wow, what happened to them?’ You have to think, “Poor Mark Hollis, what’s upsetting him? Why isn’t he’s writing anymore?’ But maybe he’s just decided to do something else.”

Hollis’ music is so deeply mysterious that it’s not surprising that his public absence only enhanced his mystique. And all the while, Talk Talk’s influence on other musicians seemed to grow exponentially. Talk Talk’s many acolytes include (deep breath): Doves, Radiohead, Sarah McLachlan, Olafur Arnalds, Sigur Rós, St. Vincent, Slowdive, Matt Johnson of The The, Field Music, Steve Mason of The Beta Band, Nils Frahm, David Torn, Alan Wilder of Depeche Mode, Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene, Glenn Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket, Jason Lytle of Grandaddy, Duncan Sheik, Paul Hartnoll of Orbital, and Rick Wright of Pink Floyd. Bon Iver and Shearwater have performed cover versions of Talk Talk songs in their sets. Music critics, too, have reassessed Talk Talk and Hollis’ work. For example, Pitchfork awarded Spirit of Eden an exceptionally rare grade of 10/10 during a reissue. It also ranked Laughing Stock as the 11th best record of the 1990s. In 2012, Chris Roberts, the music journalist who first made his mark at Melody Maker, co-wrote the aforementioned biography, Spirit of Talk Talk, with Toby Benjamin and James Marsh.

Fans held out hope that the belated recognition of Talk Talk’s brilliance would entice Hollis to return either solo or for a band reunion. After all, the other members of Talk Talk had remained musically active. Drummer Lee Harris and bassist Paul Webb had gone on to form the band .O.rang. Webb (who records under the moniker Rustin Man) released an album collaboration with Portishead’s Beth Gibbons titled Out of Season (2002). Following a 17 -ear hiatus of his own, Rustin Man followed it up with this year’s excellent Drift Code (which features Harris on drums and has distinct echoes of his former band). And Friese-Green has released several albums as Heligoland. In 2012, it briefly seemed as if Hollis hadn’t thought the better of retirement. Tasked with soundtracking the Kelsey Grammar TV series Boss, composer Brian Reitzell marshaled an all-star crew of collaborators including Shearwater’s Meiburg, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, the duo Air, and Oneohtrix Point Never. Reitzell’s coup was talking Hollis into contributing a short piece of instrumental classical music, “ARB Section 1,” to one of the episodes.

Yet despite Reitzell’s wish that the new composition would herald a whole new album, Hollis retreated again. Even his former bandmates lost touch with him. In a Facebook post today, Webb wrote: “I am very shocked and saddened to hear the news of the passing of Mark Hollis. Musically he was a genius and it was a honor and a privilege to have been in a band with him. I have not seen Mark for many years, but like many musicians of our generation I have been profoundly influenced by his trailblazing musical ideas. He knew how to create a depth of feeling with sound and space like no other. He was one of the greats, if not the greatest.”

Hollis’ disengagement from public life was so complete that he became a musical Yeti-never photographed and seldom spotted. Only a brief hint of the sort of private life Hollis led appeared on Twitter today following reports of his death. Motorcycle enthusiast Adrian Butcher (@adebika) tweeted the following: “Appalled. A good mate. Was riding with him and a bunch of others only last March…seemed fit well and was delighted with his recent house move. Massive condolences to the family. He laughed when I said his music would be played at my funeral… Blue skies Mark.”

Hollis is survived by a wife, two children, and a body of work that will remain timeless.

As Garvey put it several years ago: “I hope, where ever he is, he knows just how much he’s enriched my life. I’ve really leaned on those records at different times. There was a point in my life where Spirit of Eden was the only thing I could rely on in my life. You can’t possibly know how important that record was to me.”

Read our appreciation of Spirit of Eden in honor of its 30th anniversary last year.

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Great piece, thanks for writing it. Apparently, Lee Harris in a statement via Facebook confirmed he was in touch with Mark regularly, right up to the day before he died. We won’t see the likes of writers like him again.