It’s an odd feeling when you get old enough that the deaths of your musical heroes are no longer isolated events.
I’ve loved a lot of music over the years, but I can’t say there are many artists who have had a profound impact on what I do. Mark Hollis belongs on the short list of those who have. As the main songwriter and voice of Talk Talk he helped to create some of the most glorious pop music of the 1980s. Then, at the peak of his success, he turned around and committed commercial suicide with music that played a large role in paving the way for what we now call post-rock, as his lyrics took on a new depth and left things like rhyming and conventional metric ideas in the dust.
I mean, how do you get from this (pre-Talk Talk, with a short-lived band called The Reaction)…
They’re all great songs, but all three of them live on different planets. Few musicians are open to allowing this kind of artistic evolution to happen, let alone capable of pulling it off in a way that feels not only natural, but inevitable.
Random thing: “New Grass” features what may be my all-time favourite recording of an electric guitar. There’s something so beautiful and pure about it — a sound in constant bloom.
There’s also evidence that Mark had this kind of music in him before Talk Talk existed. Maybe he needed the right people and resources to do justice to the sound in his head, and he was biding his time until everything lined up the way he wanted.
Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock are albums that create an endlessly evolving world of sound for you to get lost in. They achieve this not with synthesizers or sonic trickery, but with real instruments recorded in the most organic, dynamic way possible, and with silence treated as an instrument in itself. Weaving in and out of the sounds and the spaces between them is Mark’s voice — one of the most unique in all of “pop/rock”. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand much of what he’s singing in a given song without looking at the lyric sheet. It doesn’t matter. It’s a voice that can move you even if you don’t know what it’s saying.
Those last two Talk Talk albums, along with Mark’s lone self-titled solo album, form a triptych of uncommon power. Each one grows quieter and more minimal, until there’s silence and nothing else. Few bodies of work have trailed off with such grace.
This music has taken me places little else has, moving me near to tears one minute only to scare the bejesus out of me the next. Years ago I was listening to Mark Hollis late at night. During one of the more turbulent instrumental passages I noticed a tree branch flailing against my bedroom window as if it was having a visceral reaction to something only I could hear. The song sounded like a storm, and here it was storming outside, the wind shaking that tree’s arm with almost enough force to pry it loose.
“This is music that knows the world,” I thought.
Then I wrote the thought down, because I don’t often think things that sound so poetic.
I think Mark felt he’d said all he had to say after his solo album was finished. It’s difficult to fathom where else he might have gone after those half-whispered tone poems. What was there left to strip away? He even explained his vanishing act in the songs themselves, singing about his family and the joy it gave him. He wanted to step away from the music industry and dedicate himself to being a good father and husband, making his life his art instead of the other way around. There’s a great nobility in that.
The one bit of new material to surface in recent years was a brief instrumental piece heard over the end credits of an episode of Boss. It sounded like the soundtrack to a made-for-TV horror film that had been disassembled and reinterpreted by curious robots. Whether it was the beginning of a beguiling new direction or just a one-off, we’ll probably never know. Maybe it was only a wink meant to say, “I’m still here.”
Now the man who fell off the face of the earth is gone for good. I doubt we’ll get the usual deluge of reissues and biographies to cash in on the renewed interest in his work, and that’s as it should be. In a strange way, the permanence of his absence feels like it’s brought him closer. When he sang he sounded like a fallen angel, but it turns out he was one of us after all.
My introduction to Mark Hollis and Talk Talk came in 1994. MuchMusic played the music video for “Life’s What You Make It” one Saturday morning. It wasn’t like anything I’d seen or heard before. I picked out the song’s insistent piano line on a rented keyboard, feeling proud of myself for being able to figure it out at a time when getting my fingers to play anything that sounded like music was a challenge.
You might think I’m going to start bragging about how I was hip to The Colour of Spring and Spirit of Eden when I was ten or eleven years old. I’m not. Because I wasn’t. I didn’t even catch the name of the band on the TV screen that day. I would read about Talk Talk a little later on when I found the book that would become my musical Bible for a while. It still took me much longer than it should have to go out and buy one of their albums. I didn’t get my hands on Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock until I was in my early twenties. The first time I heard “The Rainbow” and that overdriven harmonica solo kicked in, I wanted to scream with happiness.
If there’s such a thing as perfect music, I think this stuff is about as close as it gets, but I’ve rarely tried to emulate it in any direct way. I think that would be a mistake. From the time I started banging on a tape case with a drum stick and singing in the absence of an instrument to play, my goal was always to develop my own voice without taking cues from anyone else. Besides, to take a real, honest stab at tapping into the specific magic of late-period Talk Talk would be…difficult. In a number of articles and interviews that are available online, you can read about how a lot of the songs started as nothing but a man-made click track of light percussion or a drum pattern and were then built piecemeal over a painstaking period of time. While the songs sound like continuous performances with all the musicians playing together in one space, that’s an illusion created through a lot of creative editing. A trumpet player might come into the studio to record ten improvised takes only to find what was used in the final mix was two seconds of them clearing their spit valve. Or a performance meant to sit in a certain space might find itself moved out of context to a different part of the song.
In a lot of ways it’s music as meticulous collage. That it sounds so spontaneous and untethered from time is a testament to the brilliance of all involved. The contributions of producer/co-writer Tim Friese-Green and recording engineer Phill Brown can’t be overstated here.
It might have taken me five years to finish an album I’m still not quite finished yet, and I might build things a piece at a time out of necessity (and a lack of Johnny clones), but I don’t have the patience or the technology to work the way those guys did in the studio. I don’t think I’d want to even if I could.
The inspiration I’ve taken from these albums lives somewhere deeper than the desire for mimicry, though I’m sure the way Phill Brown recorded Lee Harris’s drums on Laughing Stock — a great example of the “drums in a room being played by a human” sound we don’t hear too much of anymore — had as much to do with my decision to start recording my own drum kit in a more minimal way as laziness did.
A confession: there was this one time, in early 2008, when I did go out of my way to do something that sounded like a poor man’s version of a song that might have been recorded for Laughing Stock, just to see if I could pull it off. I played some unresolved chords on an electric guitar and gave them a lot of room to linger, without using a click track. I added a second guitar part, bouncing a pencil on the strings before playing in a more conventional way. Bass and drums followed. The vocals came last. Each part was improvised and recorded in one take without any preparation. I sang without knowing what the vocal melody was supposed to be, feeling it out along the way.
I didn’t have the assortment of instruments or the musician friends I do now. I couldn’t add piano because I didn’t yet have a real one, and it was clear something digital wasn’t going to cut it. I thought about buying a violin and trying to get something out of it before finding a cheap melodica at Belle Air Music. The melodica was the secret sauce I was looking for, and it felt like it tied everything together.
The freakout section a little over two minutes into the song is more me than Talk Talk. And I didn’t begin to try and sound like Mark Hollis. No one else can sing like that. But as homages go, I felt it was pretty successful. Eleven years later I still like it and believe there’s a place for it on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. Given the circumstances, it seems appropriate to share it here.