Mark Hollis: The sound of silence

The New Statesman editor remembers the Talk Talk frontman, who died this week aged 64.

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One spring afternoon in 1998 I met Mark Hollis in a bland pub close to Wimbledon train station in south-west London. He lived nearby and had chosen the pub. We ordered a couple of pints and sat together at a small table. A bored mid-afternoon drinker took a seat close by and leaned in, listening to every word of our conversation.

Hollis, who had longish hair and a sharp angular face, was guarded but courteous: he was there to talk about his first solo album, Mark Hollis, which comprised eight songs or pieces, each exploring his fascination with, as he explained enigmatically, the “geography of sound within which all the instruments exist”. It had been made, I discovered later, to fulfil a contractual obligation with Polydor.

Hollis, who died this week aged 64, was always a reluctant pop star and by the time we met he was deep into a long journey into silence. Born in Tottenham, north London (he was a supporter of the football team and spoke with the local accent), he found a kind of uneasy fame in his twenties as the frontman of Talk Talk. In the early Eighties, they were marketed as the new synth pop kids on the block and shared a producer as well as a label, EMI, with Duran Duran.

But Hollis always had more demanding ambitions and Talk Talk evolved into being something altogether more interesting and sophisticated: not exactly an anti-pop band but an ensemble of avant-garde “post-rock” composers who seemed utterly uninterested in fame or selling records.

Even today, the albums Spirit of Eden (1988) and Laughing Stock (1991) sound like nothing else from that era: minimalist, fragmentary, ethereal. They blend ambient electronics, contemporary classical and improvised jazz as well as rock and pop. At times, Hollis does not so much sing as murmur reluctantly, as if engaged in some long, tortured process of self-examination – or, perhaps, an extended act of confession. His songs are about faith and faithlessness, addiction and desire, love and loss. EMI
was appalled by Spirit of Eden and the relationship with Talk Talk ended acrimoniously.

Working in intense collaboration with the producer-musician Tim Friese-Greene – who, in effect, became the fourth member of what had been a three-man band (the others were Paul Webb and Lee Harris, both later marginalised) – Hollis pushed against the limits of what he thought was possible within the pop format. Encouraged by Friese-Greene, he channelled the influence of Messiaen, Debussy and Ravel as well as the German experimental rock band Can. “I have a strong affinity with acoustic sound and with the natural characteristic of instruments,” he told me, adding of his solo album that he wanted “to produce a piece of music so that it was impossible to know in which year it was recorded”.

There was nothing pretentious about Hollis in person: he was relatively inarticulate as a conversationalist but of course found himself supremely articulate in the language of music. Liberated from financial worry by the success of the early Talk Talk albums, notably in Italy and Germany, Hollis lived well and seemed to be content in his roles as father and husband.

Mark Hollis turned out to be his first and only solo album and mine was one of the last interviews he ever did. He released no more music. Yet in the intervening years he became ever more admired: Spirit of Eden is rated as one of the most innovative albums of the late 20th century and Hollis as a pioneer of post-rock.

During the years of his long silence an aura of mystery grew around him and, from time to time, a “whatever happened to Mark Hollis?” piece would be published. The most recent, from early last year, was headlined, “How to Disappear Completely: When Musicians Retire For Good.”

Among those who cite Hollis as an influence are Radiohead and Elbow’s singer-songwriter Guy Garvey whose favourite album is Spirit of Eden. “Mark Hollis started from punk and by his own admission he had no musical ability. To go from only having the urge, to writing some of the most timeless, intricate and original music ever is as impressive as the moon landings for me,” Garvey said of Hollis.

His former bandmate Paul Webb said this week, “I am very shocked and saddened to hear the news of the passing of Mark Hollis. Musically he was a genius and it was an honour 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.”

By peculiar coincidence, I happened to be writing this week’s Editor’s Note and listening via Spotify to the Lights and Darkstars cover version of Talk Talk’s “Living in Another World” when I read of Hollis’s death on Twitter. It was shattering news – and wholly unexpected.

Over the years, I often wondered what he was doing and had even contemplated trying to contact Hollis or writing a long piece about him. I still occasionally listen to Talk Talk – “Wealth”, the shimmering and devout closing track on Spirit of Eden, is deeply moving, and for a period two decades ago provided solace during a summer of unsettling transition in my life.

It was heartening to read the tributes posted to Mark Hollis on social media. The music of this strange, complex man, who “retired” in his early forties, evidently mattered to a lot of people. Many of them were united in expressing their respect and appreciation for what he achieved – and for what his manager Keith Aspden described as the “gentle beauty he shared with us”.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 01 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics