By Bob Andelman
(NOTE — It’s always sad learning someone I once interviewed has passed. This time it was Mark Hollis, co-founder of the British New Wave band Talk Talk, who died after a short illness on February 25, 2019, at the age of 64. The story that follows, originally published on October 7, 1982, doesn’t mention if this was a phone or in-person interview, but it includes comments from fellow band members Paul Webb and Simon Brenner, so I’m inclined to think I met the guys in person. For more on Mark’s passing, you can read the extensive February 27, 2019, obituary in The New York Times here. — Bob)
Talk Talk is a new musical import from England. It is not the Beatles; every American group, after all, is not Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band.
The disqualifying list of everything Talk Talk is not is longer than the number of things it is. That is not to take anything away from the band. Americans just expect to be able categorize the new by recognizable products.
Mark Hollis knows well those that have preceded his friends and still prefers the “originals” to the waves that keep lapping at British shores.
“The Beatles had that really good ability of songwriting. The Stones had the thing of the energy, and The Who had sort of an element of both, that element of madness as well,” he said recently.
Hollis is lead singer and spokesman for Talk Talk, which is very little like the Beatles, Stones or Who. It has even less in common with the Sex Pistols or Rockpile. The synthesizer- laden sound is closer to the Human League; a point can also be made for a kinship with the imaginative ska band, Madness.
Talk Talk had a very inauspicious start which quickly snowballed into the current American tour. Ed Hollis, Mark’s older brother, was producing tapes for another band on which Simon Brenner played keyboards and Lee Harris rapped the drums as session players. The older Hollis then brought the three together with bass player Paul Webb. Of the four, none had any previous experience as a member of another band.
Starting in England was not much different than chasing the gold in America. In spite (or because) of their slender backgrounds, Talk Talk rapidly gained notoriety and success.
After signing a publishing deal, Talk Talk spent five months in rehearsals sorting out songs and sounds. Four demo tapes were cut and distributed to the top pubs and record companies. The band then announced five featured performing engagements (including Blitz, Legends and Embassy, all clubs in London) to which record executives were invited.
“We said, ‘Come down and check it out if you want to. Otherwise, forget it!’” said Hollis of their early bravado.
“After the third date, Radio-1 (BBC) gave us an in-concert thing. The feedback that came in from that plus the pub dates we did, quite a few record companies were up for it.” Talk Talk eventually signed with EMI, citing their history of developing and grooming groups, respecting rock as a legitimate career.
Singles were released and moved up the British charts. “Mirrorman,” “Talk Talk” and “Today” have all become very popular across the sea. Crossing the Atlantic seemed logical. A four-song EP was released here with a video clip of “Talk Talk” on MTV.
ln mid-August, the four young men, all in their early twenties, arrived in America for the first time. Their premiere show was in the Motor City, Detroit, opening a 2-1⁄2-week stint with Elvis Costello.
MARK HOLLIS interview excerpt: “I’ve found a real hang-up with a lot of guitarists is they don’t know when to shut up. They don’t understand what taste is. We’re a little bit past that..”
‘‘The whole reason to choose Costello to do a tour with was that the audience he’s going to attract is prepared to listen. So we’ve automatically bypassed that thing of if we were supporting AC/DC or something,” said Hollis.
Adapting to a foreign crowd was a smooth enough transition, according to Hollis, who found it unusual to be performing outdoors. “The first concert was a daylight show. Every show we’d ever done up to that point had been indoors, so just from a mood point of view it was very different. I think night is very important to mood.”
Talk Talk is touted as a guitar-less band, although that is not quite true, particularly live.
“It isn’t that we think guitars are totally redundant things,” said Hollis. “I think there will be ways we will use guitars, but they won’t necessarily be like heavy metal guitars. It could be a Flamenco guitar. We use it as a tonal instrument rather than as a featured instrument. There is a general tendency away from guitars in England. I think that’s temporary.
“I’ve found a real hang-up with a lot of guitarists is they don’t know when to shut up. They don’t understand what taste is. We’re a little bit past that.”
Hollis considers Talk Talk to be in the vein of many jazz bands, “like Coltrane. You work in a small line-up. Bass, drums keyboards, sax, lay the vocal on top. Working to that idea where the vocal replaces the sax. We wanted to keep that same sort of swing of flow through the rhythm section; approach it from a different angle.”
The heavy reliance upon synthesizers in much of the new music from overseas is not lost on Talk Talk. Colin Thurston (David Bowie’s Heroes) produced the group’s first LP, The Party’s Over, with Mike Robinson handling the mixes.
“There’s this danger with a lot of synthesizer bands. You can’t actually get the energy across on vinyl. So we got this other bloke (Robinson), who’s into a much more—stink, it you will—to do this mix so we could get some force on the record rather than laying back too much,” Hollis said.
Paul Webb laughed at a question about the current state of punk rock in England. “That’s all finished in England. That was like two years ago.”
In agreement with Webb, Hollis explained, “The thing that was really tragic about it was that there was so much rubbish getting signed up and distributed everywhere that it became hard to know what was good and what wasn’t good. Certainly, from the point of view in England, they want to listen to music that is competent again. At the same time, that energy factor shouldn’t get lost. That’s something we’re really aware of.”
Keyboards player Simon Brenner was surprised that punk is still alive here. “I never got into safety pins. They never appealed to me … England’s sound is changing all the time,” he said. “It’s not like America where you’re stuck with a sound seven years. You’re stuck with a sound in England seven days. There are so many things going on. Some die out, some go on.”
Commercial radio stations are the likeliest villains in this stagnation, if you listen to Hollis. “(It’s) the sort of numbers you’re talking about. The fact that it’s all commercially orientated, they’re playing it safe in terms of what they’re going to play and where they’re going to experiment. The way it seems, there are very few radio stations that are being that adventurous. I know that KROQ (Los Angeles), certainly, is really pushing out. In England, the main radio station (BBC) isn’t commercial, so they haven’t got those restrictions to insure ratings. They can afford to have the Sex Pistols at number ten and Kenny Rogers at number eleven.”
On The Party’s Over, Hollis described the first side as being dance-oriented. “Side two is like, let’s.get out a bit, and listen to it.” Work on a second record is already planned for after Christmas with Chris Thomas (Pretenders, Pistols, McCartney) producing.
Performing live in America has at least one area of variation from Britain besides daylight shows. “Take ‘Talk Talk’ for example,” Hollis suggested. “In England, you could put ‘Talk , Talk’ in the straight set, the way it is on the seven-inch single. Then when you hit the encore, you could play ‘Talk Talk’ again in the twelve-inch format. Over here you can’t repeat. It’s like bad news to do that.”
Talk Talk has worked hard on their concert and stage appeal, making them more impressive live than on wax. At the same time, they have sought to separate themselves from their synthesizer second cousins like Soft Cell and the Human League.
“For a live format,” Hollis said, “they really are lost. For Soft Cell, essentially, you’ve got one singer and one bloke playing the keyboards and it’s all on tapes. With the Human League it’s about equally inspiring. Do y’know what I mean?”