Mike Marlin


There is a simple song (‘More Than I Can Say’) on Mike Marlin’s album ‘Grand Reveal’ that is a perfect example of what Mike does terrifically well. You immediately identify with the sentiment: how do you feel about the people who have let you down? But on repeated listening, it dawns on you that the protagonist is perhaps not the innocent victim. Nothing on this record is quite what it seems. The album opens with lead single "Skull Beneath The Skin", a Hammer house of horrors. The track opens with a sweet Wurlitzer - but the musical mood turns as a discordant counter melody creeps in like an unwelcome guest. The song starts and apparently "You have nothing to fear" but when the Hammond organ solo hits and the Leslie spins it becomes clear that you should be very afraid indeed.  The hauntingly Nick Cave-esque ‘The Murderer’ features wind up toys, strings and discordant guitars to create a horror movie soundtrack. Is it about an unnamed killer? Or is it about you, the murderer, forever killing time? A real horror movie! Yet another song - the potential future single "War To Begin"  - features the line "And I've been standing here before/Waiting for this bloody war to begin" but is it a call to arms? Or a lament for lives wasted on envy and excuses? Welcome to the world of ‘Grand Reveal’.

Mike was brought up in suburbia. When he was four years old he lost an eye while playing in the garden at home. The accident was traumatic and it turned Mike into the person he is today. Children are cruel and there was plenty of fuel for his anger and competitiveness. He became withdrawn and introspective. His outlet was academic and he became something of a child prodigy and at the age of seventeen won a scholarship to Oxford to study Physics.

It was while waiting to go to Oxford that Mike, who had been playing guitar for some time, decided to give himself a musical education. He went to endless gigs: Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Eddie and the Hot Rods, about “seventeen Inmates gigs”, Dr Feelgood and just about every R ‘n’ B band going. He also saw Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Stranglers, the Undertones first ever London appearance and the first splutterings of punk – that “didn’t really feel like punk at all – it was just music to me.”
Suitably enthused but terminally distracted by reality, Mike headed off to Oxford. He fell into an acute depression when his fellow students (who really were nascent rocket scientists) and his teachers (who were actual Nobel Prize winners) didn’t seem to notice his rebellion. While there he played bass guitar in a band whose only claim to fame is that they once supported Gary Glitter. He did not sing. Finally, in his third year, he dropped out and found himself working as a dogsbody in the back office of the small family broking business. He couldn’t think of anything better or worse to do. Soon afterwards, they wheeled in an early personal computer and his life changed.

Motivated by laziness and boredom, Mike read the manual, and programmed the prototype beast to automate his job. Accidentally he created the ability to analyse and measure systematic trading strategies. Following a family meltdown, Mike walked away from the business and started his own technology company. Over the next 25 years Mike started a series of businesses that rewrote the rules on technology in markets. In 2008 Mike decided that enough was enough. He decided to become a novelist.

Through the years Mike had always written songs - with no thought that they would ever find an audience. In 2009, Mike was introduced to a musician and producer James Durrant. As a creative experiment they recorded an album in Mike’s basement called ‘Nearly Man’ that Mike now describes as “the greatest hits of a man who never had any hits”.

He also recorded an outrageous version of ‘Staying Alive’ (yes, really!) that brought him to the attention of Neil O’Brien, an agent, who offered to represent him. Mike was propelled from a creative experiment to supporting The Stranglers on their 2011 UK tour. Almost a year to the day since he’d first decided to sing his first song to another human being, Mike found himself on stage in front of three and a half thousand people at the Hammersmith Apollo. As he says: “If you had told me even 6 months before that I would be playing at the Apollo I would have laughed. It simply could not happen.”

Later that year he recorded ‘Man On The Ground’ with Catherine Marks, a producer who spent the last seven years working with acclaimed sound-smiths Alan Moulder and Flood. Another Stranglers UK and European tour persuaded Mike he was onto something: people were buying his records and responding to his songs.

Mike had found his metier. He went back into the studio in 2012 determined to give his songs full creative rein. The result is ‘Grand Reveal’, a record that’s as gloriously recalcitrant as anything by Luke Haines and as determined and focussed as anything by Richard Hawley. Produced by Mike and mixed by Catherine, ‘Grand Reveal’ is a record of shattering depth and substance and has the feel of an instant classic, like something you have had knocking around the house for years.

The tearjerker ‘Amazing’ is a love song - “I hear that you’re replacing me with someone that I know” – the song loses the listener in an epic landscape before the world crashes in with a guitar driven wall of loss and regret; ‘Doesn’t Care’ features a rolling U2/Edge style riff and a psychotically assured lyrical refrain that only reveals itself in its hypnotic repetitive denouement - “Don’t leave me/It won’t hurt me/Don’t pray for me/God knows/That I don’t care.” ; ‘More Than I Can Say’ (spiritual bedfellow to The Smiths’ ‘Unhappy Birthday’ or Siouxsie’s ‘Drop Dead Celebration’) is about all the people Mike has ever hated and was an excuse to exercise some lyrical dexterity - “There’s a clock on my kitchen wall/And it’s stuck at a quarter to four/At least its right twice in every day/Which is more than I can say about you”).

Mike suggests that the album could be seen as a progression from someone who is happy and in love to someone who is truly murderous – the serial killing track ‘Skull Beneath The Skin’ suggests as much. Finally, the title track itself is a macabre McEwan-esque affair where Marlin imagines himself in control of events. The song “wrote itself with no self-conscious self editing” – “I’m older than I look,/But I’m younger than I feel/I can read you like a book/Welcome to the grand reveal.” The song is pure bluesy Americana that’s almost a blueprint for a forthcoming album.

The more observant amongst you have now realised that Mike Marlin has been dragged kicking and screaming on to the stage and into the light. His haunting, addictive vocal delivery is utterly un-contrived, reminiscent of Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed in their more revealing moments and yet, occasionally, we are transported to a world where Wilco is fronted by Richard Butler or David Bowie. However, it is as a story-teller that Marlin really excels. Upsetting all the right apple carts and as bright, heretical and unusual as any artist these shores have produced this century. His voice is substantial enough to hang your washing on and so dark, brooding and intense you feel that when he sings you are holding something close to your heart like a wounded bird. He’s enigmatic, yes – and believes in “making cathedrals out of matchsticks with no external point of reference”. The last song ‘To The Grave’ sums this up: Mike intones in apocalyptical mantra “Did you learn to wait?” and you know that it is a true story. Like everything on Grand Reveal – it is heartbreaking, true and utterly authentic.


Sunday Times, March 2013

Q Magazine, April 2013