Many of us turn to music to reflect on different times in our lives and to express different emotions we may have felt along the way. But it’s not often that one man’s work can encompass the whole spectrum of feelings that reside within us. That man is the great guitarist, Steve Rothery.
Playing in three bands, Steve has encapsulated three very different styles of music – the well-known progressive rock songs of Marillion, the cinematic instrumental pieces of the Steve Rothery Band, and the spiritual masterpieces of The Wishing Tree.
Like any community, Pagans have a whole raft of varying music preferences, but Steve’s band The Wishing Tree possess a unique quality that will resonate with a lot of Pagan Dawn readers. With both folk and Celtic undertones, the band’s output conjures up a backdrop of myth and magic. The tantalising notes of Steve’s guitar playing, accompanied by the beautiful, haunting voice of Hannah Stobart puts you in mind of Lisa Thiel, as the listener is transported to a time long-forgotten, conjuring thoughts of the Celtic world of old. If you’re on the hunt for some backdrop music for your Pagan festival, or simply music that you can close your eyes and immerse into, there’s an aspect of Steve’s work that will satisfy that need.
Now, it’s not often that you get to meet one of your heroes, let alone one that lives up to your expectations as well. But that was exactly what happened when my partner Tony and I were lucky enough to catch up with Steve Rothery at the Classic Rock Society awards ceremony, where we asked him about his work and spirituality. It was a pleasure to speak to Steve, who has to be genuinely one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.
How would you describe your spiritual self?
How long have you got? When I was at primary school, I must have been about nine, I pondered the concept of God one day. I decided it all seemed a bit silly and from that moment I was an atheist. In later years, I became interested in physic phenomena (this was around the time of Uri Geller’s rise to fame), however after reading a book by the scientist who tested his abilities at the Stanford Research Institute I came to the conclusion that it was all illusion and wishful thinking on the part of the scientists.
After I left school in Whitby, I worked part time packing tarot cards for a local couple – she was a famous astrologer and he wrote books about the tarot. Again, I just got the impression that that was a load of hokum too [laughs]. But having said that, I do class myself as a spiritual person. Just not necessarily one that follows any belief system. I don’t believe in a deity overlooking anything. If there’s anything appeals to me, it would be certain aspects of Buddhism, and also the whole Gaia concept of Earth as a living organism. I think music has a deep spirituality about it. I mean, it’s all about energy and passion and connecting with people.
One other religion story before I forget, is about the first time we flew to South America. I was in the business class lounge with a cardinal, someone very high up in the Catholic Church and I really got the impression that he wasn’t a good man. He wasn’t even a spiritual or holy man, he was just a politician.
You mention Whitby – you spent most of your childhood in that town. It’s widely known as a very spiritual place and it’s also a heart of the ancient country of Brigantia. Has this influenced you at all?
There are a lot of folk legends and myths around Whitby. I actually had a book once that listed all of them. One of which was about the ship that sank, and the ship’s bell that rings from the bottom of the sea. That became the Marillion song ‘The Bell In The Sea’. So yeah, folk music does come through in what I do. With living and growing up in Whitby and the folk week once a year, it must have a subliminal influence, I suppose.
A lot of your music, especially with the Wishing Tree, seems to have very Celtic overtones to it.
Yeah, Celtic. Like I say, it’s sort of that folk influence coming through. You know, a lot of that sort of music I love. I think there’s an honesty to some of it and great joy and you know, it can be very powerful, sometimes, in its simplicity. It kind of resonates with us. A lot of my favourite artists are female singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Tori Amos. It was just fun to explore that side of things.
How did you come about with The Wishing Tree’s second album name, ‘Ostara’?
That was from Hannah actually. On the first album, John Helmer wrote most of the lyrics and I put them together, sometimes with multiple lyrics and then kind of formed the songs that way. For the second album, Hannah wrote all the lyrics and the vocal melodies, whereas I wrote the vocal melodies for the first album. But we work really well together.
With the Wishing Tree, the people who have heard it love it, think it’s quite wonderful. But not enough people have really heard it. Maybe for Marillion fans, that’s not what they wanted from me. My solo album is more what they wanted. Because we had a couple of chances with the first album; our Japanese label wanted to fly us across to do some major promotion over there and I couldn’t because I was in the studio with Marillion. And that sort of pains me because there was only a couple of chances the Wishing Tree had to break into any kind of mainstream success and that was one of them.
You were talking about Druidry – I’m interested in the whole pre-Christian civilisation and religions as in Julian Cope’s book The Modern Antiquarian, that sort of stuff fascinates me. And like how may Pagan celebrations were assimilated by the Church.
Ostara for one, which became Easter.
I have no problem with faith, whether it be pre-Christian or something else. I like to believe there’s such a thing as karma. Where if you’re good, then good things come to you but if you’re a complete… [laughs], you know.
One of the important functions of a Druid is to be a Bard. With the album ‘Ghosts Of Pripyat’, you’ve said yourself onstage that it paints pictures, which it does. Like ‘Kendris’ [Steve Rothery Band] it’s just pure joy, it’s wonderful. But do you see yourself as a Bard?
I see myself as someone who tries to paint pictures with music and with sound, I suppose. I don’t know how you’d define that. A lot of my favourite music is actually film music, stuff like the Blade Runner soundtrack, the music from Paris, Texas: sort of atmospheric, visual kinds of things. So, I think with instrumental music that is what I was trying to do: creating an imaginary film and trying to write the soundtrack to it. And they’re a great bunch of musicians, great friends of mine. Just a joy to play with. And I think that’s the thing when you see us play: you can sense that joy in what we do.
Marillion’s 18th studio album is due out this year. Can we expect any spiritual-sounding tracks? You know, ‘HITR’ is an incredibly wonderful spiritual journey. Can you give us an idea of what to expect…though I know you probably can’t talk about that without letting the cat out of the bag, can you?
Not really, but there are different things. One of the songs is about touring and how that affects you and the people that you love. Its very cinematic. The three longer tracks are closer in concept to the episodic expanse of ‘Gaza’.
Do you have any personal rituals you conduct to ground yourself before a gig. And if so, what are they?
Well, I used to always be famous for reading right until the moment when we walked on stage. I never used to get at all tense; a little bit more maybe these days. But that’s probably having Mark Kelly’s keyboards die every now and then for as long as I can remember. I love Mark to bits but he’s a test pilot, really. Unfortunately, sometimes we’re passengers on that plane as it plummets to the ground. Flying just like a brick does.
Which track from all of the three bands you have fronted would you consider your most spiritual?
That depends what you mean by spiritual. I mean, I’d probably say the whole of ‘Ostara’. ‘Fly’ is quite spiritual. From the first album (Carnival of Souls), probably ‘Midnight Snow’. That’s not necessarily very spiritual; it’s very sort of atmospheric. So I’d pick The Wishing Tree songs.
At the time of speaking, Steve was working with the rest of Marillion on their 18th album, the excellent F.E.A.R, and has just finished touring. All of these albums are available from www.marillion.com.