Interview: Fish

Singer/ songwriter, Fish, has just broken a lengthy period of enforced silence with his new album, "Internal Exile." The past year has seen him become a father. He's also had to swallow a bitter pill to escape his recording contract with EMI Records and sign to Polydor. Alan McCrorie donned his hiking boots and took the high road to Fish's East Lothian home to get the story straight from the horse's mouth.


INFERNAL AFFAIRS


Football always seems to loom large in FISH's life. Over the last twelve months, the big fella seems to have been knocked around from pillar to post by paperwork and the desire to put his new fifty-six track recording studio, 'The Funny Farm,' on the map. His home is a beautiful converted farmhouse, just a bus ride east of Edinburgh. Far enough away from civilization to avoid the crush, but not too far to be completely out of it. Wandering up the driveway, after hopping off the bus just a little too early, my exasperation evaporates as I'm met by a bouncing German Shepherd dog and a friendly white haired gentleman who, as it turns out, is FISH's dad.

The experience of an acrimonious split with EMI looks to have quite an impact on FISH. 'The Company,' his fan club, is looked after by his mother and the business that will look after the studio is, I suspect, in very friendly hands. A Glasgow newspaper recently painted a picture of him as a bitter and angry man, nursing a massive and explosive grudge. I don't think so. Our conversation made me feel FISH is facing up to the future with a fresh optimism he hasn't felt since the early days of MARILLION, and that, contrary to what some may have expected, it is FISH who carries that distinctive identity whilst his old buddies head for a unique AOR sound.

Internal Exile
Even after a night on 'the sauce' (for the first time in ages it seems), and a lot of comedy involving burglar alarms, he's in good humour. As I sit listening to the new album, the rain, quite typically, is "auditioning outside the window." Even at a cursory listen, Internal Exile is stamped with a strong identity. Held up to the light of MARILLION's recent Holiday In Eden, as it will no doubt will be, I think his work will carry a lot of dithering fans. It's probably the most colourful thing he's ever done, as the first single will demonstrate. Featuring three members of Scots folk-rock act CAPERCAILLIE, Donald Shaw, Charlie McKernon, and Marc Duff, the Internal Exile single is very, very different. Lyrically, it is not as introspective as you might expect, but its not as heavy as Vigil In A Wilderness of Mirrors.

As the tape trundles to a stop, FISH wanders in with two steaming mugs of coffee. I ask him, for my benefit, to put across his interpretation of the MARILLION saga.

"Is that thing on?" he asks, eyeing my tape recorder warily. The upshot of the converssation is this: "I've gained two other names in the press," he says, "Ex-MARILLION and frontman. I wish they'd recognize me as a solo artist and let the past be."

Point taken.

If FISH has sought to celebrate the changes and recent events in his life through the Internal Exile album, it is the song Tongues that is a catharsis for all his ails. "Dedicated to Rupert Perry, MD EMI (UK) Ltd.," says the typed lyric sheet. On the way up to Edinburgh, I mulled over how to approaach the subject of the EMI furore and what impact it has had on FISH and his family. Getting to the point seemed to be the most honest way of dealing with it: Tell us about the EMI situation. FISH's mood darkens.

"Now that it's done, I think there's an element of sheer frustration left with me in that I wasn't able to take the matter to court." he growls. " If the case had been heard and maybe if the judge had said EMI were right, that would have been it."

But of course that wasn't it.

"I've never had a judgement on it. I wish I'd at least had that. In March I was told that I'd have to find about a quarter of a million quid [between then and June] just to go to the High Court, just to have the case heard! I couldn't afford that. There's stuff in the papers just now about lawyers, and FISH isn't PAUL McCARTNEY or BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - I don't have that sort of money to throw around. I had already spent £100,000 taking it so far - just to have the matter discussed!"

I look at him, You had to spend £100,000 on paperwork?

"Yeah," he says grimly. "Originally EMI wanted £500,000 and 4% of the next four albums. Then in March they hit me with coughing up £300,000 and 2% o the next three albums - like it or lump it.  It's either, 'you give us that or you're on EMI,' and I knew in my heart that if I stayed with them, I would have been buried. FISH wouldn't exist anymore and I could kiss my career goodbye. I wanted to quit completely in January," mourned FISH.

As if to lighten the atmosphere, he reclines theatrically and adds, "Yeah, I wanted to get out and do some acting [anyone seen Jute City?] or writing or something. I couldn't handle this thing. I felt like..." he furrows his brow, searching for words. "It was like a state of slavery. With Polydor I have a really good contract, and, for the first time in my life, I own the copyright to my own material. At this moment in time, EMI own all the MARILLION material and all the Vigil material - for all time! Abd they can do whatever the fuck they want to with it, without asking me."

He brightens. "We tried saying to them, 'we've got another album, why don't you push Vigil?' We had no response. I've been waiting for my royalties off Vigil. I approached an EMI lawyer a while back and said, 'Look, I've got landscaping to do at the farm and I need a half inch machine for the studio. The royalties are due in December, but you've just had £300,000 off me. I could really use my royalties a short time in advance. How about it?' The reply was no, it would set a precedent."

How tied up with EMI were you at that point?

"I'm thirty three years old. I'd signed up for another seven albums, like another fourteen years of my life, which is basically my recording career. With that kind of  commitment, I'd expected some leeway or compromise, but there was nothing. Nothing! They just dug in - that's what Tongues is about. They said a contract is a contract. If you want out, you'll have to take us to court. It's the classic movie scenario," he reflects. "One man against the corporation and the corporation will always fuckin' win."

Fish is getting deeper and deeper into the matter, and I need air.

"You gotta remember, I have no other means of making a living, writing songs and making music is my job!" he says emphatically. "They had stopped me doing that. And at one point, we had a huge overdraft against the house, our home. My wife was pregnant and we were going through a difficult stage of her pregnancy, and there we were living in a house that didn't belong to us. It's terrible. I'd been in the business ten years, and I'd been treated like I was a dog of something."

FISH reveals that he was extremely unhappy with the promotion of the Vigil album and EMI's lack of enthusiasm for his music.


"The problem with the Vigil campaign was that it wasn't being pushed. Even today I'll go out and people'll ask me what I'd done after I quit MARILLION. They're totally unaware of the album. Keep in mind," he went on, "I had bugger all when I left MARILLION - not even a bloody mic-stand. I spent £125,000 in touring on the back of Vigil, and went out to do interview after interview. In Germany, EMI out there were great, and I wish I had signed to them. Over here, nothing! Sure, people were nervous about the band. We were new, we played smaller halls, but we turned in a cracking tour. All out of our own pockets."

As they say in all good detective novels, 'the plot thickens.'

"We never even got a release in the United States," he says with a gesture of resignation. "I was dropped by every EMI company. They said, 'Look, we don't want this album.' I said. 'Let me work on it,' and took it to MCA/Geffen, who reckoned it would sell, which is great, considering MARILLION did nothing in America. We went back to Rupert Perry at EMI, who said, 'Now, tell us who to contact and we'll handle it, paying you what the Capitol deal would be."

FISH sighs.

"They could have gone off and got me that deal. Remember I paid for Vigil to be recorded, and EMI would collect 25% on that deal and pay me 12% of it. For an album that I had paid for!" he exclaims. "All they had to do was hand over the tape!"

He shakes his head sadly.

I put it to FISH that no one held a gun at his head to continue with that relationship.

"I was under what's called a 'leaving members clause," he says, correcting me. " I signed as an individual, which means that when I quit, if I wanted to go on recording, EMI would have first option to pick up my contract. This would mean 50% less advances and 30% less royalties. I asked them to remember that I had more overheads: session players. They left me with either the 'leaving members clause' or the MARILLION contract of 1988. We said we'd like to negotiate. My manager went to Rupert and explained that I'd always been a company man, that I'd made a fortune for EMI, along with MARILLION, and that I wanted to stick with them. The new contract was strangling me. 'You've got to look at this morally. You're gonna finish this guy's career. Can we please have some slack here?' Perry replied that 'there's morality and there's reality. This is reality and we won't negotiate. Tough!"

Rupert Perry, rewarded with a CBE for "services to the music industry"
FISH stops for breath, looks into his coffee mug and gathers his thoughts. "I'll tell you," he says wryly, "I couldn't work with that."

I tell him that I would like to take the conversation in other directions. The rain has stopped outside and FISH smiles.

"It's gonna be really easy for anyone to write me up as bitter and a cynic, but I'm not. It's as if my career's been split in two halves. Over the past two years, there's been a transition. I'm back home in Scotland, I've got the studio, a family with Tara, and everything. Even if things go horribly wrong in the future, I still have the studio and I can still make music. I need people with drive and enthusiasm around me. I think I've found them with Polydor."

Last year FISH told me he would never again be involved in a band situation, yet now, it seems as if he's pretty much settled on a full-time line-up. Was this so?

"I don't see any need for fresh blood. With Frank, Robbie, Mickey, the guys are all involved with the writing and the chemistry of the group. This is probably one of the most prolific working periods I've ever experienced. We've had forty to forty-five minutes slotted for the album, and we have had more than fifty minutes of material, plus a number of B-sides for singles, ready well in advance of that release. Okay, there's been a period when I've not been able to record, but all that stuff has been prepared in less than two months, and that's quite outstanding. As you can imagine, at the end of last year I had to tell you guys that really nothing could be done with the EMI situation and all. But when all that came to an end, when I quit EMI, it was like coming out of prison. The vibe at Polydor was like EMI back in 1981, there's so much good feeling."

A more up-to-date photo of Fish and Tara.
FISH's daughter Tara has obviously made a big impact on his life. Did being a parent find any space in his work?

"To be honest with you, Tara came along at just the right time, and saved me from going completely insane! Because all of a sudden, there was something more important than EMI. My wife and I have gone through that introduction to family life and it makes everything else seem that much less important. It really saved me!"

Clearly being a father puts a new perspective on your work.

"Sure. She came along during the Gulf War and all that, and I found myself getting really upset, profoundly sad at some points. I was holding Tara in my arms and watching a potential Third World War blow up in our faces. We looked at Tara and thought, 'What've we done, bringing this little girl into a world that's going nuts.' And it made me angry about how these people control the world - a parallel situation to EMI for me. It's the big corporation thing."

"But Tara's birth has made me a lot more contented, as a birth would for any father," he smiles. "And it has made me look at the world around and say, 'You know, how can we change this thing for the better?' Lyrically, it's made me a lot more aware, another step down the road from the casual observer."

Something In The Air, the old THUNDERCLAP NEWMAN chestnut has been getting a lot of airplay since the launch of Internal Exile album. It might be construed as odd that some like FISH should be recording covers.

"Not really. Back in MARILLION, there's always been this notion of tackling a song like that, way back since 1981. It's been one of a great many songs I'd love to cover, and when we picked it up, I said, 'Let's do this to this kind of beat.' I'd been listening to the CHARLATANS or something," he laughs. "Spike came up and had a go at it [Mark 'Spike' Stent has worked with PM Dawn and stuff like that] and everybody really got into the groove. I think it's worked out brilliantly with the pipes an' all. 'Let's do a fuckin' outrageous commercial dance mix!' This is simply the most adventurous album I've ever made!"

Adventurous indeed, and played to mixed receptions. I spoke briefly to FISH about his Scottish Nationalist sentiments and found him to be quite sound in that respect, but he didn't believe this interview to be the place to expound those views.

"I know what I feel and believe about Scotland," he says. "But people should know this is my home and I'm proud of it. Not in a stupid or sentimental way, but because I feel I know what it can be for all of us. The lyrics of Internal Exile are recognition of what's gone and what can be."

I left him to get on with cutting another number. He tantalisingly threw me a few bones before Mickey Simmonds drove me back to Edinburgh. Not surprisingly the keyboard player was off to a Hibs match. These bones included plans for a live album and something it pleased FISH to call Sunset On Empire and Meat From The Balcony, but let's not jump the gun!

"I'm glad all that shit is over for FISH," said Mickey as we drove up Easter Road. 

So am I, Mickey, so am I.


Alan McCrorie
Riff Raff 
January, 1992

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