Musicians on Mark Hollis: 'He found hooks in places I'm still trying to fathom'

Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, Charlotte Church, Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry and others on his songs, enigmatic spirit and musical vision

Alexis Petridis: ‘The reluctant pop star who redefined rock’
Annie Zaleski: ‘Talk Talk’s visionary: Mark’s ambition co-existed with commercial success’

Margaret Pollock, bassoonist on Mark Hollis’s self-titled solo album
Although it was 20 years ago, I clearly remember the session. I was curious to find out how the sound of a bassoon would fit in to an indie-rock band. Mark had written short ‘sequences’ of music that he planned to insert between tracks to link the whole album together, or to use as a backing for parts of the tracks. He knew exactly the sounds he wanted, so we recorded different versions of each section to make it sound happy, angry, lost … And even though we went over some parts at length, there was a lovely, friendly atmosphere in the room.

He wanted one track to sound tentative, so we imagined we were drops of water that had waited thousands of years until, at last, we were to fall from a stalactite. Unusual strategy! When I heard the resulting album, I loved the result. He had a unique gift for blending different sounds to create an entirely new effect, and it all flowed together seamlessly. It is a great pity that he didn’t compose many more albums. I am shocked to hear of his death. He was a unique musician with a gentle manner and a wonderful musical imagination.

(L-R) Mark Hollis, Paul Webb and Lee Harris in Munich, 11 October 1984.
‘Experimental pioneer’ … Mark Hollis, left, with Paul Webb and Lee Harris in Munich in 1984. Photograph: DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy

Hayden Thorpe
When I first heard Spirit of Eden, I thought the CD had melted into the stereo. I don’t know anyone else who I can look to as a master of pop craft as well as an experimental pioneer. It was his voice that led me: he found hooks in places I’m still trying to fathom.

Peter Gabriel
Real originality is a rare commodity in music. Mark created very personal pictures with his music and magical voice, a wry, unique and soulful take on the world. He will be missed.

Wendy Smith, Prefab Sprout
I remember when I listened to I Believe in You, from Spirit of Eden, for the entire three hours and 15 minutes of a train journey from London to Newcastle, its melancholy reflecting my mood. A barely audible piano. The quiet cymbals and drums that sounded as if they were recorded in someone’s living room. Soft, muted and persistent bass. The Hammond organ drone, more church than jazz. The voice of Mark Hollis, a murmuration. Blurred words, as exquisite as any of Liz Fraser’s incantations with the Cocteau Twins. And then the choir, the word “spirit” floating above everything.

The track embodies everything I love about music: the creation of atmosphere through sound and silence; its acting as a mirror and container for experience, ideas, mixed feelings and complexity. The music of Mark Hollis is not about show. It’s about listening. There’s a classical influence: Debussy, Ravel, maybe even John Cage. He was an enigmatic, elusive singer-songwriter who once said: “I would rather hear silence than I would one note.” Let’s not say he “retired” from music: he pursued other things in life. Sometimes, it’s the beauty of what you can’t hear that makes a sound.

Talk Talk: I Believe in You – video

Alexis Taylor, Hot Chip
Mark made some of my favourite records, with Talk Talk (Laughing Stock in particular) and as a solo artist. His use of space, melody and timbral interest was unique. I have spent many hours over many years listening to these records, with great wonder at the special atmosphere he helped create. Mark once wrote me a kind and thoughtful letter when I contacted him asking for help with some music I was working on. He will live on in his wonderful recorded music and spirit of experimentation.

Roland Orzabal, Tears for Fears
He was a god among so many mere mortals of 80s music. In fact, to brand what he did with Talk Talk as “‘80s music” is to discredit the genius that seeped out of his melodies and lyrics – lyrics that sometimes barely made it out of his mouth, as though he wanted to keep the world’s best kept secret all to himself.

Charlotte Church
Spirit of Eden is, hands down, one of the greatest records ever made. The amount of healing that record allows is nothing less than a beautiful gift and I am ever thankful for it. Thank you, Mark, for your enigmatic spirit, which surrounded and comforted us through every work you made.

‘A marvellous soul’ ... Mark Hollis
‘A marvellous soul’ ... Mark Hollis. Photograph: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

Karl Hyde, Underworld
In 1988, Rick [Smith] and I were on tour in Australia with the first incarnation of Underworld. We were writing our soon-to-fail second album, striving to do something great, when we received Spirit of Eden on cassette in the post from our manager with a note saying: “If you want to know what brave is, this is it.” We listened to it on the stereo of a rented car as we drove from Sydney to Brisbane, neither of us able to say a word because we knew the bar had been set higher than we would ever be able to reach. That album still travels with me everywhere as a reminder of what brave is. Mark Hollis – what a tragic loss.

Mary Epworth
It’s strangely appropriate that Mark has slipped away while the strangest and sunniest February spring is bursting into life. There’s nature and landscape all through his work, and such a sense of space and emotion. I sometimes find it so overwhelmingly intense that I’m not robust enough to listen to it. Right now, I’m in a park, surrounded by new white sloe blossom, listening to Eden and trying not to let anyone see the faces I’m pulling.

Ryley Walker
Mark Hollis wrote the playbook for so much of the music that I hold close to my heart. His music has the widest vision and somehow so much isolation: this sort of far-out, Technicolor world with a broken spirit that always gets back up. When I toured with the world’s best storyteller, Danny Thompson [who played on The Colour of Spring and Spirit of Eden], I would ask him about Mark, expecting larger-than-life tales. All Danny said about him was that he was a “marvellous soul, loved his morning tea”. Turning young record-heads on to Talk Talk and hearing reports back about their brain being shifted is such a thrill. I live for those conversations that begin with: “Wait, you haven’t heard Laughing Stock?” A massive loss, to say the least.

‘He was a genius’ ... (L-R) keyboard player Simon Brenner, singer Mark Hollis, drummer Lee Harris and bassist Paul Webb.
‘He was a genius’ ... from left, keyboard player Simon Brenner, singer Mark Hollis, drummer Lee Harris and bassist Paul Webb. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images

Rachel Goswell, Slowdive
My earliest memory of Talk Talk was hearing Life’s What You Make It on the radio and instantly falling in love. It has one of the best hooks I’ve ever heard and stands up for me as one of the best songs ever written. It always brings me joy when I hear it.

But it wasn’t until 1994 that I discovered Talk Talk properly. When we started the very difficult process of recording our third album, Pygmalion, Neil [Halstead] was absorbed in Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. Naturally, this led to me listening to those records, and their influence can be heard throughout Pygmalion.

With music, it is often the voice that my ears tend to absorb most. Mark’s voice has such fragile beauty and warmth. Eden floors me every time I hear it – lyrically it’s so beautiful, and the space and depth of the songs are simply wonderful. In my earlier years, I would have spent my time listening to these songs with headphones on and no doubt had a joint in hand. I still go back to these records time and time again – sans drugs – and let them wrap around me like a familiar friend. These records stir a myriad of emotions and give me comfort and peace. I am so sad to hear of Mark’s passing. He was a genius.

Mark Hollis performing at Hammersmith Odeon, 7 May 1986.
“Broke the mould’ … Hollis at Hammersmith Odeon, London, in 1986. Photograph: Peter Still/Redferns

Julia Biel
I was introduced to the masterpiece that is Spirit of Eden as a student. I had it on repeat for months. It still illuminates the darkest of times for me and gives comfort where all else fails. Every sound is considered and meaningful and unashamedly emotional and raw. It showed me how powerful music could be, and awoke in me the urge to make music myself. Mark Hollis broke the mould gloriously and left us his truth in music – the honesty of it will forever be a tonic in my world.

Richard Reed Parry, Arcade Fire
If there were ever records that defy description, it’s Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock, and Mark’s solo record. I don’t know of any other albums as confidently soft-spoken and utterly without precedent – where the sound of the room seems to be as important as any instrument, where the quality of an improvised single note, captured on tape the first time it’s played, is far more important than any amount of rehearsing or catchy pop melody. This trinity of modern chamber, jazz, post-rock masterpieces are some of the most finely crafted albums ever made, with no discernible limits to their scope beyond their own gorgeous sense of self-restraint.

I feel so thankful that any band could incorporate such vast amounts of space and silence into their albums: they really created a precedent for artful quietude. And then Mark went and set the quiet bar even higher with his solo album, a gloriously delicate and naturalistic piece of work that I struggle to find words for. I realise as I write that it’s entirely unnecessary, and in fact all I want to say is, thank you for this music and the exquisite silences and spaces within it. They touched me and influenced and inspired me more than I will ever be able to quantify.

Jack Barnett, These New Puritans
Mark stretched the boundaries of what could be called popular music. He wrote some of the best pop songs ever written, and made some of the best albums ever recorded. In a backslapping musical world of insipid dilettantes, Mark and his music stand for absolute conviction, absolute meaning and the absolute refusal to compromise your vision. We’ve recorded a fair amount with Phill Brown, who engineered the later Talk Talk albums, and he told us so many inspiring and hilarious stories – a treasure trove of ways to disorient the received wisdom about how to make music – from which it sounds like Mark was a wonderful human being, too.

Felix White, the Maccabees
My fleeting impression of Talk Talk was that they were a slightly cheesy synth 80s band that sounded a bit like Duran Duran. That was kind of true. But Mark’s subsequently substantial impact on my life came as an introduction to the band’s later work. After our first two records, my band were making an album that sounded like nothing we’d done before, and to our record label, worryingly unpalatable. We were looking for historical reassurance that we might be able to continue while not exploding our lives in one gesture. Our manager told me to listen first to Colour of Spring, then Spirit of Eden. If Colour of Spring was a small lightning bulb, Spirit of Eden turned my head inside-out. Suddenly, I couldn’t live without it. I couldn’t believe I had lived and made music for so long without it.

Mark Hollis performing in Dortmund, November 1984.
‘Musical prankster’ … Hollis in 1984. Photograph: DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy

Once you fall in love with an album, it’s a delicate job to convince someone else to come to the same conclusion. You can be so drunk with your own connection to it that it can be extremely off-putting. There was a danger of that with me and Spirit of Eden. We’d come home from parties and I’d make everyone stop whatever they were doing and lie on the floor to listen to it in its entirety. If anyone moved, I’d bolt upright to shush them. The thing was, it worked.

After I had played his solo record [on repeat] as well, I watched the Live at Montreux video from 1986. The genius was in that 80s synth-pop band with mullets and vests and bongos. I don’t think there’s anything more charming than Mark at the start of Talk Talk’s Such a Shame video mouthing to the camera: “How you doing, you alriggghht?!” before the song starts. As serious as his music would become, it felt like he was telling you: “Yeah, being in a band is really stupid, but it’s really fun.” That was just as powerful, really.

Richard King, author
The Talk Talk song New Grass appears on Laughing Stock, the final record credited to the group, and shares its title with an album by Albert Ayler. Laughing Stock was released on Verve, a company that had, in part, appealed to Mark and his remaining bandmates due to the label’s association with jazz.

From the group’s inception, Hollis had experimented with song length and structure, but the final trilogy of studio recordings – The Colour of Spring, Laughing Stock and Mark Hollis – confirmed that these experiments were borne of an intensity and fearlessness that was equivalent to those of the jazz recordings he held in esteem. The very British, indeed very English emotional space he created in these three albums proved highly influential: the stadium ennui of Radiohead and Coldplay owes a substantial debt to Spirit of Eden’s I Believe in You; the Talk Talk soundworld of diffuse instruments and seemingly random microphone placements first became a signature of post-rock, then familiar as a contemporary production technique.

Despite his innovations, he frequently sounded frustrated at having reached the limit of both the studio and his own ability. As a counterpoint, he regularly included passages of silence in his compositions. Today, these moments have an added poignancy. They prefigure his retreat from music and now, his death. He leaves a body of work entirely unique in its musical and emotional range: the revelatory sound of a private, British spirituality.

Hollis in London in 1990.
‘Listening to his albums changes you for ever’ … Hollis in 1990. Photograph: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

Peter Brewis, Field Music
We didn’t really know about Talk Talk or Mark Hollis until after he’d stopped releasing music. But through the bands we loved in at the turn of the millennium, we started to find out about the profound influence those last four albums had had on musicians searching for something new, and something of their own. Mark Hollis was an essential part of that long line of music makers – Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Robert Wyatt, Can – who seemed to thrive on that search and in the process blurred the boundaries between pop, rock, jazz and classical. To us, his experiment seemed to be one of dynamics and form rather than timbre or technology – seeing what new things can be done with traditional instruments – and not in a flashy way, but quietly to the point of secrecy. And maybe it is that which still demands our attention. It was brave and that was hugely important to us.

Steven Wilson
It’s hard to think of any pop musician to whom the word “integrity” would apply more than it does Mark. Perhaps Kate Bush. I still think of Spirit of Eden as the most admirable fuck-you to commerciality and the pop mainstream ever made – and, of course, it’s a much better record than the previous holder of that award, Metal Machine Music. And I loved Mark for it. And on Laughing Stock, the minute-long, one-note noise guitar solo in the otherwise transcendently beautiful After the Flood is one of my favourite Mark moments, showcasing the musical prankster in him. His records still stand for me as the most beautiful pop music ever made, albums where every musical gesture seems somehow sacred. Listening to them changes you for ever.

Talk Talk in Munich, September 1984.
Talk Talk in Munich, September 1984. Photograph: dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

Shara Worden, My Brightest Diamond
The day I met drummer Earl Harvin for the first time, we rehearsed some songs and then he made pasta and played me records. It was the first of many listening parties in which we aligned our musical values. Earl played Mark Hollis’ solo record that night and I was shocked by the silence and musical space in the arrangements. The recording quality was rich and warm. We sat listening without talking. That first listening session has defined the last 20 years of our musical relationship as My Brightest Diamond. Mark’s voice, his aesthetic, his care for detail and his songs have been core for us: deeply resonant music to which we continually return.

Max Richter
Mark Hollis’s death robs us of a visionary talent. When we heard the news, the film mix I’m working on ground to a halt, and we played Spirit of Eden instead. It’s one of a tiny handful of records that I’ve played regularly for decades. The first time I heard it, I felt like I’d found a secret universe, one that contained something I’d been been missing without my being aware of it, and that seemed to promise a way of making sense of the world. I read somewhere that a person’s true legacy is what they leave behind in the hearts of others. By that measure, Mark Hollis left us a very beautiful legacy indeed.


Interviews by Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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