Living In Another World: Remembering Mark Hollis

Following news yesterday of the loss of Mark Hollis, Talk Talk's mastermind, Wyndham Wallace pays tribute to a man who truly understood music's magic and mystery

When all’s said and done, music is no more nor less than the sound of air vibrating, invisible and enigmatic. It’s what makes arguing about it so utterly futile, yet makes it so magical too. The first time I heard Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden I was 17, and, as the fifth of its six songs, ‘I Believe In You’, enveloped me in its warm embrace me for the first time, I burst helplessly, inconsolably, into tears, overwhelmed by unspeakable emotions I knew I’d buried deep inside. They’re feelings which continue to lurk within me, but which remain too complicated to articulate, yet even today this song holds the power to unlock them. If you’ve heard it, you’ll understand why: three minutes into its timeless span – not long after the band’s mastermind, Mark Hollis, with little more than a bereft whimper, has uttered the word ‘spirit’ like it’s the last he’ll ever sing – the Choir Of Chelmsford Cathedral’s voices rise, wraithlike, to… to…

31 years later, I still don’t know what it is that then happens. Nor do I understand any better the grip that Hollis’ music has maintained upon me ever since. In fact, it may be precisely this incomprehension that ensures that Talk Talk are, without hesitation, the band whose records mean more to me than those of any other artist. At their finest, Hollis’ recordings offer moments of such transcendent bliss, so loaded with wonder, grief, hope and remorse, that they’re simply beyond dissection. 1986’s The Colour Of Spring, 1988’s Spirit Of Eden, 1991’s Laughing Stock, 1998 solo record Mark Hollis: they’re the sound of air vibrating, but they get you right there. That’s exactly why music remains the most powerful, inscrutable expression of the soul. Mark Hollis understood.

That Talk Talk’s mastermind spoke of the mechanisms behind his work only grudgingly, and only occasionally, until the release of his 1998 swansong, and then – unless one counts a brief instrumental employed by the Kelsey Grammer TV show, Boss – maintained a dignified, masterful silence forever after, makes his music even more mystical. It was an aesthetic he’d pursued increasingly vigorously the longer he’d worked. "Before you play two notes," he once said, "learn how to play one note, and don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it." When Hollis stopped talking to the media, it was because he’d said all he wanted to say, and that, for him, was enough. "I hope in the end to be understood for the music I do decide to put out and meaning and sense the music has," he insisted. "It’s almost useless asking me questions about it. The music speaks for itself."

In the 21 years following the release of his only solo album, people would occasionally claim to have spotted Hollis in, say, the stands at White Hart Lane, but to all intents and purposes he disappeared from sight entirely. Even his former bandmates and manager lost almost all contact with him. He was, in many ways, doing us a favour: our enjoyment of his records remains unfettered and unpolluted by anything so banal as analysis. But now, after a short illness, Mark Hollis has left us, extinguishing for eternity any last hope that he would share the secrets of its alchemy. The dream that he would one day again make air vibrate is gone with him too. A feeling that we share: it’s a shame.

Hollis, who was born on January 4, 1955, appreciated the power of mystery better than most, and in an era like ours this is especially valuable. Though he attributed his refusal to discuss his work at any stage after the release of his only solo album, 1998’s Mark Hollis, as merely fulfilling his urge to be "a good dad", it’s been interpreted in a variety of fashions, not least a gesture of defiance towards a music industry he held in contempt, and which had failed in recent years to understand the huge artistic leaps he’d undertaken. It was, however, indicative of his always uncompromising attitude towards what he created. "If you understand it, you do," he told Vox‘s Betty Page around the release of the band’s final album. "If you don’t, nothing I say will make you understand it. The only thing I can do by talking about it is detract from it. I can’t add anything. Can I go home now, then…?"

Hollis had formed Talk Talk in 1981, after a brief spell in a punk act called The Reaction, with Paul Webb, Lee Harris and Simon Brenner. Having secured a deal with EMI, the band were groomed for success in the mould of labelmates Duran Duran, with whom they toured as an opening act as the year came to an end. It soon became clear, however, that Talk Talk were cut from an entirely different cloth. Before they’d even released their debut single, ‘Mirror Man’, Hollis had described their work to NME as "closer to a jazz quartet than a rock band". He could be found name-checking Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis, and a list of the band’s Top 10 for Look-In magazine included Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 and Fauré’s Requiem, "great," Hollis explained, perhaps flippantly, "for relaxing me over breakfast".

Despite his esoteric tastes, Talk Talk’s debut album, 1982’s The Party’s Over, delivered hit singles – ‘Today’, ‘Talk Talk’ – and stopped just short of the British Top 20. Its follow-up, 1984’s It’s My Life, fared less well, barely making the Top 40, its singles (‘It’s My Life’, ‘Such A Shame’, ‘Dum Dum Girl’) failing even to make the charts. The band’s mournful synth-pop gave little indication of what was to come: Hollis later claimed that their records only sounded this way because they couldn’t afford real instruments, nor the musicians needed to play them. Fortunately, it was only a matter of time until that would change.

It was success beyond the UK’s borders which provided the band with the necessary bigger budgets to make the music of which Hollis dreamed. With Brenner now gone, and producer Tim Friese-Green joining their ranks as an unofficial fourth member, 1986’s The Colour Of Spring was the first indication of his greater ambitions. In ‘Life’s What You Make It’ and ‘Living In Another World’, the band delivered massive, enduring hits, though in retrospect the album is most fascinating for the realms it foreshadowed. The free-floating ‘April 5th’, on which Hollis’ voice had never sounded more aching, and the cryptic, skeletal ‘Chameleon Day’, at first seemed baffling to anyone reared on the New Romantic diet, but they represented Hollis’ first deep dive into the very worlds for which he’d earlier professed admiration: "From the place that I stand," that distinctive voice sang on ‘Give it Up’, the words seemingly condensing the journey he’d now undertaken, "to the land that is openly free."

It’s Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock, however – recorded following Hollis’ unanticipated announcement in September 1986 that the band would never perform live again – upon which the legend of Mark Hollis is founded. Loathe as I am to employ superlatives, these two records remain, to me, among the finest ever recorded. Painstakingly pieced together from extended improvisations by multiple guest musicians in darkened studios where breaks were only permitted to eat or sleep, they both took the best part of an immersive year to make, their methodology epitomised in comments Hollis had made to NME back in 1982 about A Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess. "He was saying he can spend six hours writing thousands of words," Hollis had marvelled, "and then throw almost all of them away. It’s the same with songwriting. It’s worth it for the stuff you’re left with at the end."

This was exactly the process upon which the band embarked, as engineer Phill Brown confirmed to me in 2011 in a conversation about the Spirit Of Eden sessions. "It takes a strong discipline to erase 80% of the music you record. Few have the discipline to get rid of ‘stuff’". What was left was so indescribable that, at first, it left most of the band’s audience perplexed, even distraught. Spirit Of Eden allegedly provoked the band’s A&R – who, like all but those directly involved in its making, had been kept from visiting the studio – to burst into tears of despair that his globe-conquering band had delivered something so completely uncommercial. It was, Q claimed, "the kind of record that encourages marketing men to commit suicide." Two years later, NME‘s David Quantick wrote of Laughing Stock that "the whole thing is unutterably pretentious and looks over its shoulder hoping that someone will remark on its ‘moody brilliance’ or some such. It’s horrible."

Quantick was right about one thing: we do indeed now look over our shoulders remarking on Laughing Stock‘s moody brilliance. But Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock offer far more than this. They are indefinable voyages into musical landscapes that were as yet uncharted and unfamiliar, and which artists have repeatedly sought, usually in vain, to explore ever since. They dispense with traditional structures, techniques and even instruments, their organic textures defined by Hollis’ belief that "the first time something is played it is at its finest, and the minute you try to recreate that it becomes an imitation of something that was originally better." More important still was his conviction that "technique has never been an important thing to me. Feeling always has been, and always will be, above technique." How perfectly right he was.

Now that Hollis has gone, it’s feelings that remain. In refusing to speak for so long about what he achieved, that’s exactly what he would have wanted. Late last year, I interviewed his former colleague Paul Webb, aka Rustin Man, about Hollis’ vow of silence, and suggested that this arose because "it was hard to articulate what it was you were doing, because so much of it was a process of elimination. You knew what you didn’t want better than what you did want." Webb’s response was succinct: "I’ve heard those words come from Mark’s mouth before," he told me. "I don’t know if that’s the reason why no one’s talked. I can’t speak for him, but for me it’s been a thing that the less you talk about it, the bigger it is." In all honesty, Hollis’ reticence is maybe the very thing for which we owe him most gratitude.

In 2016, when my father died, I was living on a small island off the coast of Northern Norway, its location such that it would take me 24 hours, door to door, to join my mother and sister in England. After taking two boats to reach the mainland, I found myself alone on an unheated bus late at night travelling south to Trondheim, and the darkness, solitude and silence were at last too much for me to bear. I scrolled through my phone in the desperate hope that I might find comfort in music, and instinctively chose a lesser known song by Talk Talk, a track released as a B-side after being rejected from The Colour Of Spring in favour of ‘Life’s What You Make It’.

"Make believe our exile’s chosen," Hollis sang. "Untied, I can see our freedom’s in your mind." I didn’t really understand why these words moved me the way they did. Nonetheless, they felt indelibly linked to the idea that my father, who’d been ill for some time, was not gone at all, but merely elsewhere, and free. I don’t know if that’s what Hollis meant. Most likely not: "I’ve always written lyrics," he claimed, "from a phonetic point of view." But, as I had done almost three decades earlier, when first listening to ‘I Believe In You’, I crumpled into a heap and wept inconsolably. I still don’t know why I love his music so much. It’s just the sound of air vibrating. But I can still feel it now.

Heaven bless you in your calm, my gentle friend. Heaven bless you.

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