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It’s his life: the secluded world of Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis

Uneasy with his fame and fiercely private, the post-rock pioneer left behind a musical legacy of extraordinary beauty.

By Jason Cowley

Two years before he died from cancer, at the age of 64 in February 2019, Mark Hollis and his wife moved from west London to the East Sussex market town of Heathfield, where they bought a house at the end of a secluded track. For such a private former public figure the name of the house was resonant: the Walled Garden. In many ways Hollis had been living hidden behind high walls for more than two decades. In 1998 he’d released his first, and what turned out to be his last, solo album, Mark Hollis, after which he retired.

There was no public announcement. He simply slipped away having fulfilled a contractual obligation to Polydor. Hollis loathed the music industry and never wished to be famous. What mattered to him was making the music – and only the music. The final album was spare and minimal and recorded entirely with acoustic instruments, and at times Hollis’ voice is scarcely audible. It’s as if you can hear the emerging silence closing in around him.

Talk Talk did not have it easy. They formed in 1981 and in their early years were ridiculed in the music press and dismissed as poseurs and lightweights. Outside of Britain they had more success, notably in Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands following the release of their second album in 1984. Much later, Hollis negotiated a £2m advance for a two-album contract with Polydor. He was never spectacularly rich, but he evidently did not need to work and royalties from Talk Talk songs eased and enabled his retreat.

[See also: How music helps us to feel]

After retirement Hollis lived quietly with his wife Felicity Costello (“Flick”) and their two sons in Wimbledon, declining all interviews, releasing no more records. Even his fellow former band members, Paul Webb and Lee Harris, and his closest collaborator, the producer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Tim Friese-Greene, stopped talking about Talk Talk. What had happened between them? What had gone wrong after so much had gone right during the making of the music? No one knew or, at least, no one would say.

During the years of Hollis’ withdrawal something significant happened: Talk Talk’s critical reputation was re-evaluated. A new generation of musicians led by Guy Garvey of Elbow and Thom Yorke of Radiohead frequently referenced the band and cited Spirit of Eden (1988) as a totemic work. A cult of personality grew around Hollis. He was legendised as a misunderstood visionary, or post-rock pioneer, or as an uncompromising innovator persecuted by treacherous music industry executives. As with the reclusive American writers Thomas Pynchon or JD Salinger long before him, Hollis’ retreat from the public gaze served only to intensify interest in him. Who was he really? How did he live? Why did he stop making music?

In the absence of any direct communication from the man himself his admirers sought answers to these riddles and intrigues in his opaque, quasi-mystical lyrics or in interviews he’d given years before. But every music writer who set off “in search of Mark Hollis” soon reached a dead end – or rather slammed into the high protective wall he’d built around his life and work.

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In person – I did one of the last interviews with him – Hollis could be gnomic. We met in a pub of his choosing in Wimbledon and, as we talked over an afternoon pint, I found him awkward, often inarticulate and evasive. I knew he was a Spurs fan, or had been, but for some reason he denied it. When I attempted to discuss the meaning of one of his songs, he said, “Cor! – or something like that.” But I never doubted his sincerity. Do I believe this person? Does he believe in what he’s doing? The answer to both questions was emphatically “yes”. Above all else, I respected the integrity of the music and was moved by the beauty of some of it, most transcendently “Wealth”, the fragmentary piece that closes Spirit of Eden, and “New Grass” from Laughing Stock (1991).

The final two Talk Talk albums, as well as his solo work, take the listener on a long journey, the ultimate destination of which is a form of post-rock minimalism, with echoes of Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie and Olivier Messiaen. There is nothing bombastic or overstated about this music in which the silences and long pauses are as important as the sound. As the critic Richard Williams wrote of Hollis at the time of his death, “he was one of the great originals of English music. Such rare beauty in those records.”

Ben Wardle, a lecturer in music business at the University of Gloucestershire, has set himself the challenge of getting behind or going over the wall and telling Hollis’ story. The biography is unauthorised and so it is a story told from the outside. The author did not speak to Hollis’ family or have access to private papers, diaries or notebooks. He remains cut off from the inner life of the artist.

The book begins, predictably, at the beginning, with the parents, the Essex childhood, the year spent studying child psychology at Sussex University where Hollis met Flick, and so on. Wardle follows the life and charts the work chronologically. The mysterious long final period of retreat occupies less than 20 pages during which we are informed that Hollis was friends with the head of music at his sons’ school, played golf occasionally and enjoyed riding a motorbike.

Wardle has interviewed Keith Aspden, Talk Talk’s former manager; Mark Feltham, the harmonica player and one of Hollis’ most trusted session musicians; and Phill Brown, the audio engineer who worked on the great albums. They help him fill in some of the gaps in the story: where Hollis was living at certain times; how the albums were recorded and in what circumstances (rumours about opium-laced sessions during the recording of Spirit of Eden are shown to be nonsense); and what it was like to be around Hollis – sometimes fun and sometimes maddening. It’s a conventional work about an unconventional musician. It is diligent, sceptical when it needs to be, well reported, authoritative and written from the heart.

[See also: How Shirley Collins became an icon of English folk]

But Hollis remains unknowable. He was always reluctant to speak candidly about his life even to those closest to him – sometimes he would sit with a friend in a pub in complete silence – and so Wardle’s interviews reveal something about how he was perceived but not much about how it was to be Mark Hollis. “At the base of it all, he had a really gentle, kind, sweet character, but was capable of great cruelty and ignorance at the same time,” one long-time collaborator said.

Even in the early years, as frontman of Talk Talk, Hollis seemed to be in retreat. He cussedly distrusted record company executives, though he was a shrewd dealmaker – after leaving EMI, the label to which the band were originally contracted, he signed that £2m Polydor deal, which allowed him complete artistic freedom. He resented public performances but by the time he gave up touring in 1986 Talk Talk had become a formidable and compelling live act. (You can watch some of their final performances on YouTube.)

To the mockery of his many detractors in the music press Hollis, in early interviews, likened Talk Talk to a jazz band in ambition and approach. Ed Hollis, Mark’s elder brother, was manager of the Canvey Island punks Eddie and the Hot Rods and had an eclectic, wide-ranging record collection, which he shared with Mark. Hollis was close to his brother, who became addicted to heroin and died in his thirties, and in those early interviews he cited the influence of John Coltrane and Miles Davis as well as the classical composers Béla Bartók and Claude Debussy and experimental rock and blues bands. None of this impressed the NME or Melody Maker. The ridicule and brutal dismissal of the work continued. 

Yet over the years, Hollis, working in intense and rewarding collaboration with Friese-Greene, confounded his critics – as well as EMI, with whom he was often mired in bitter legal disputes – by going entirely his own way. He had intellectual and artistic courage, and made music without compromise. “All that matters are my records,” he said in 1991. “I can’t live up to them, I can’t be as succinct and clear as they are.”

Today, beyond the records, beyond the music, the rest is silence – or at least that is how Mark Hollis would have wished it, and his wife and sons seem determined to honour his legacy by saying nothing and keeping the door to the walled garden firmly locked. Ben Wardle has been looking for a key but never came close to finding it. Perhaps it does not exist. Sometimes we as individuals are mysteries even to ourselves. The secret is… there is no secret.

Mark Hollis: A Perfect Silence
Ben Wardle
Rocket 88 Books, 368pp, £40

[See also: Jason Cowley: Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England]

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This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future