An Interview with Rhys Marsh, Progressive Anglo-Norwegian Beatnik

What an honor to talk with the outrageously talented Rhys Marsh.  Marsh is as generous with his time as he is interesting and (more than) capable.  A true artist who follows his own path and makes his own way, he is armed with no small amount of integrity.  He’s not only a man on the move, but he’s also a man who will continue to move the art world for decades to come.

Any typos are my fault, not Marsh’s–BjB

I must admit, I love this picture.  Here's the man himself, Rhys Marsh.  He looks like he could've been an original member of Traffic.
I must admit, I love this picture. Here’s the man himself, Rhys Marsh. He looks like he could’ve been an original member of Traffic.

Progarchy (Brad): Rhys, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.  I’ve known of you and admired your work for a long time now, but we’ve only recently connected.

Rhys: Thank you, Brad — that’s really nice to hear.

Progarchy: I have to admit—and I’m sorry to state this is the case—but you’re not as well known in North America as well as you should be.  Let’s try to change this!  So, a really basic question and probably one that will bore you to death.  Can you introduce yourself to those of us in North America?  Where are you from?  What’s your professional background, aside from music?  I know you live in Norway now, but I assume by your name that you’re not a native?  How long have you been in the music business?  And other such basic fundamentals.

Rhys: I was born and raised in London, and moved to Norway almost ten years ago. In the late-nineties, I went to a performing arts college in south London — the same one that people like Imogen Heap and Adele went to — which is where I met Will and Francis, and we formed Mandala. We wrote half of our recently-released debut album in this period, and the other half in our first latter period, around 2005.

Marsh's captivating solo album, SENTIMENT.
Marsh’s captivating solo album, SENTIMENT.

During those years, we played hundreds of concerts, at anywhere and everywhere from The Marquee Club in London to The Knitting Factory in New York City. We started off as a rock trio, then we added a live string section. At one point, for a few years, I was playing live about three times a week — either with the band or solo.

However, many years of doing the same thing and not seeming to get anywhere with it got to be really draining, so I had to find a new atmosphere. I lived in New York City for a brief period, and while there were some great times there, that wasn’t the change of environment that I needed, so I headed for the mountains. I’d always been drawn to Norway, and at the time mostly listened to Norwegian music — Magnet, Jaga Jazzist, Thomas Dybdahl, Anja Garbarek, Arve Henriksen — when the chance to move suddenly appeared (which was mostly due to the brilliance of MySpace). So I packed my guitar and laptop, and arrived at the tail-end of the winter. The house I moved into had a recording studio in the basement, and I immediately began work on what was to become my debut, ‘The Fragile State Of Inbetween’.

Just before the move, I’d started working with some Japanese musicians, and that led to a project called Unit, which also included Ingrid Chavez (David Sylvian / Prince). It was as surreal as it was wonderful to be singing duets with Ingrid, after listening to her for years on ‘Dead Bees On A Cake’ and some of the Sylvian b-sides from that era.

As soon as If arrived in Norway, I was also invited to sing in a few projects with the Oslo progressive crowd, such as The Opium Cartel, Ignore and Ketil Vestrum Einarsen’s solo project. After a while, I was asked to be the new singer in White Willow, though that never turned into anything.

Seems that the change of environment was the perfect catalyst, and after a few years of working on various projects like that — as well as writing and releasing three albums as Rhys Marsh And The Autumn Ghost — I decided to build my own studio and get more into producing albums for other artists.  A year or so later, the idea of having my own record label also seemed like the right thing to do, and Autumnsongs Records is going at quite a pace these days.

For me there isn’t an “aside from music”. I made the decision when I was ten or eleven years old that music was going to be the thing that I do. I never chose a second option as a safety net — I just went for it, and had the confidence within myself that I could make it work. when I was growing up, my parents would always play music, and the main album that stood out was ‘Electric Ladyland’. one of my earliest memories is crawling over to the turntable, holding on to it as I lifted myself up, and turning up the volume.

I got my first guitar when I was three, but didn’t start playing until I was seven. although I loved Hendrix’s guitar playing (in fact, I think that the solo from ‘Machine Gun’ is the greatest of all time) it wasn’t only the guitar that I was fascinated with in this album — it was the sound. the details and layers of both the guitars and vocals, and the way they fit together, the interplay between the drums and bass, the texture of the cymbals. I could already pick out the different elements that made up the complete piece of music, and it wasn’t long before I first started experimenting with a four-track machine, playing guitars, keyboards and anything I could tap or hit to make sound like percussion.

Progarchy: Well, I’m just amazed at your productivity.  Just recently you’ve released a solo album, SENTIMENT; a Mandala album, MIDNIGHT TWILIGHT; and a Kaukasus album, I.   How do you explain this?  Did god give you 2 extra hours in the day?  Are you gifted with incredible amounts of energy?

One of my favorite albums of the past two years, "I" by Kaukasus.
One of my favorite albums of the past two years, “I” by Kaukasus.

Rhys: True to say, it has been a very busy few years! I think it’s partly due to the fact that I keep things very organised, so I’m able to work on several projects at the same time, without them conflicting with each other. since ‘The Blue Hour’ came out, in the autumn of 2012, I’ve released an album every six months. the writing and recording of ‘The Blue Hour’ was very heavy, and a lot of terrible things happened during that time, so the process of it became the thing that really helped me. Once I got into the swing of things I just haven’t been able to stop.

Although the Mandala album was already written and Kaukasus was a collaboration, but still, the recording and mixing tends to take longer than the writing anyway. and, to back up my theory, the next couple of albums are in progress as we speak.

Progarchy: A first follow up—can you sustain this level of writing, production, and output?

Rhys: Good question… probably not! Then again, this is what I do, so it just happens. I can’t imagine that I’ll carry on recording and releasing two albums a year, but I never thought I’d reach this level of output anyway, so who knows?!

Progarchy: And, a second follow up—what does each band or solo project allow you to do?  That is, does each speak to a different part of your artistry?

Rhys: Yes, they do. I try to define my role in every project, otherwise I’d likely just end up doing everything all the time. I love being a part of Mandala — a clearly defined trio in the old-fashioned sense. I love to write a song, then know that Will and Francis will add their own thing, and the result becomes Mandala.

I also love to write, record and play everything myself, as i can get into the details and add the idiosyncratic details that appear when the same person plays all the instruments, like you get on the albums by Jason Falkner and Jon Brion. the only downside to that is that the songs don’t naturally translate to the stage.

Progarchy: Can you tell us a bit about your influences, musically and artistically?  Each of your albums is clearly in the long tradition of rock and, to a certain extent, prog, but you’re also really doing very interesting stuff that probably couldn’t be categorized.  From the somewhat martial bass and drum lines on I to the eastern (mostly Persian and Indian sounding) sounds on MIDNIGHT TWILIGHT to an almost Talk Talk intensity on parts of SENTIMENT.

Rhys: I listen to a lot of music. Apart from Hendrix, my parents also listened to Joni Mitchell, The Band, James Taylor, Van Morrison, and a little-known band called Quintessence, who released one of the greatest albums of all time, ‘Dive Deep’. This album also got me into Indian music, and I started listening to Ali Akbar Khan. The college we went to had a sitar, tamboura and tabla, and quite often we’d sit in a room that had no windows, turn the lights off, and jam. I also really enjoy the modes, harmonies and rhythms of Persian music, so that also often creeps into the balance.

My dad is also into the mid/late-sixties English blues movement, so we listened to lots of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall, Cream, Keef Hartley, then through to Rachmaninov and Chopin. I loved the heavier moods of Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, so when I started listening to progressive rock, I was immediately drawn to Van Der Graaf Generator and King Crimson.

But the one musician who changed everything for me was Nick Drake. When we were at college, Will and I would often take the bus into town during lunch time and go to the second-hand record shops (of which there were many). one day, in late 1997, we walked into one and they were playing ‘Cello Song’. I stopped in my tracks and was spellbound. when I found out who and what it was, I bought his three albums and listened to them constantly for months. for the next five or so years, I listened to them all, at least once, every day. He redefined everything i knew, and it was then that i started to write my own songs.

The greatest of the Beats, Jack Kerouac.  Here, in his World War II days.  Photo dated 1943.
The greatest of the Beats, Jack Kerouac. Here, in his World War II days. Photo dated 1943.

Aside from musicians, I’m inspired by Jack Kerouac and Mark Rothko. I love the way that Kerouac’s words flow, and I like to have a similar feeling within the chords and melodies I write, so they aren’t too contrived, but more instinctive reactions to the moment. with my lyrics, I like to have a Rothko-style feeling to them, so that they can mean different things to different people.

Progarchy: Given that you’re very open to new ideas and love to incorporate a variety of styles and instruments, what would you like to do next?  And, with whom would you like to work.

Rhys: I feel that with every album I make, I’m refining what I do, whilst also introducing new influences. So whist I’m boiling it down to its essence, it’s also becoming more broad. This is why it’s a great help to define my role in the album before I start. I have quite a large selection of instruments in my studio now, so it would be very easy to play all of them on every album I make, but that wouldn’t work in the long run, so I limit myself as much as possible.

There are so many people I’d like to work with. The list never ends. I have so many ideas for albums that I’ll probably never have time to make. I just hope I can make a good-sized dent in the list!

Progarchy: When you’re writing your albums, how much emphasis do you place on your lyric writing?  As I listen to the three most recent albums, I hear lots of personal observations.  Some are about everyday experiences while several seem rather mystical.  Do you just go as the muse hits you, song by song, or are you hoping to convey certain themes in your music—about society, individuality, will, belief?

Rhys: My lyrics are always written from experience, though abstracted to different degrees, and inspired by different things, but they’re always personal and meaningful. I choose the words mainly by which sounds i need. the melodies mostly appear wordless, and then the words form from that, so they’re direct extensions of the music.

I’ve read a lot of dystopian literature and the English romantic poets, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley. the Kaukasus album was the one that I tried to write as distantly as possible, but still I found myself expressing my own feelings in there.

Progarchy: Ok, a hypothetical question.  It’s 20 years from now, and at age 68, I’m trying desperately to finish a masterpiece on the history of rock and prog (if only!).  Where do you see yourself in that history, and what statement would you like to make with your art?

Rhys: Maybe, just maybe, I would’ve released 40 more albums by then! I’d be very happy to just be a part of that history, and hopefully I’d be known as a multi-instrumentalist and producer who’s released a series of consistent albums over the years. I rarely look back, so I don’t really think about the albums I’ve already released. once they’re finished, I move on — musically and emotionally — so I’m not really working to a template when I create something new, which makes it both very exciting and quite impossible to think that far ahead!

Progarchy: Thank you so much, Rhys.  What an honor to connect finally.  I hope we can keep talking as you keep writing and producing such excellence.

Thoughts?

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