Marc Atkinson – De-Bunking the Myths

Two sayings came to mind when I started formulating an idea about writing an article about Marc Atkinson, “Nice guys always come last” and “Never meet your heroes”, I was thinking of going to see Marc sing live at The Station Inn in Whitby, about 40 miles from where I live and, after conversing with Marc over Facebook and reading his regular updates on twitter, I had formed an image in my mind of a very likeable bloke who works really, really hard to follow his dream and provide for his family. Would the Marc Atkinson I met on Friday March 14th live up to those ideals or would he be someone else entirely? I set off for the hour’s drive cogitating excessively in my mind.

Before I get started on that meeting, let me answer a question, Who is Marc Atkinson and what drew me to him in the first place? Well, Marc is a singer and songwriter and has been since the age of 13, as well as his solo career, he is the vocalist and co-writer with Riversea and has previously been a member of Nine Stones Close and Mandalaband. Marc plays acoustic gigs (and a hell of a lot of them, his gigging schedule is particularly punishing!) for a living. His last solo album, Light and Shade was released at the end of 2012 and, as well as the new Riversea album, he is currently working on a follow up. I first encountered Marc’s work when I stumbled, luckily, over the Riversea album ‘Out of an Ancient World’, still one of my favourite albums of the last few years, more of that later but, I have since enjoyed Marc’s solo work and his work with Nine Stones Close and was very intrigued to find out what went on behind the mask, so to speak.

Right, that’s enough background, I arrived at The Station Inn around 8.25 p.m. And Marc followed about 5 minutes later having been on the road between his home at Millom in Cumbria, Wetherby and Whitby since early afternoon, I offered to help take his gear into the venue but, due to having to move my car to avoid parking fines, I got back just as the last item of sound equipment was lugged into the bar (good timing you may say!). With the minimal set up time and a quick glass of coke, provided by me, I do my bit for music in this country you know!, Marc was ready to perform and went on to sing two sets of brilliant acoustic covers, leaving a list around the bar for people to suggest tracks for him to sing. How he actually knows all the songs on the list is a mystery to me but he went on to produce two sets that bounced with energy with barely a mistake, and he made light of the ones that did happen, working the audience and overrunning by at least twenty minutes. After packing up most of his equipment, we sat down for a chat, here is a transcript of that chat.

Turning the table on its head, Marc actually asked me the first question,

Marc: How did you get into Riversea in the first place?

Progradar: To be honest, it was the album cover, I’ve stated a lot how I will pick up an album just because I like the album cover and, I saw the cover of ‘Out of an Ancient’ world on a Facebook suggestion, listened to the album and the rest is history.

Marc: Yes, I loved the album cover but, when Ed Unitsky (album cover artist) sent it over, it was red at first, I asked him if he could do the cover in blue,black and white as these were the colours I envisaged for Riversea. I expected it to come back much later but Ed sent it straight back and I loved it immediately so that’s we went with.

Progradar: Marc, your career started in 1984, was it always your ambition to be a musician or, like many of us, did you want to be something else? Like a policeman or fireman?

Marc: when I was a kid I wanted to be either a comic book artist, as I love Marvel comics, or a motorbike racer as the one and only sport I like is motorbike racing, my Dad got me into that. As I got older, when I went to Secondary school, I met Brian Josh from ‘Mostly Autumn’ and Liam Davison and we formed our first band, we were 13. And that was it, I started playing bass and singing as I was the only one who dared sing, that’s how I became a singer. They were two guitarists and they had a drummer so the thing they were missing was a bass, I bought a bass and learned to play very basically and started singing. I wasn’t a natural singer and the early demos were appalling, it was learning curve.

Progradar: Who were your earliest musical influences?

Marc: Well the first rock band I got into was Iron Maiden and when I met Brian and Liam there were more into Rainbow and The Michael Schenker Group, Survivor as well. Once we had the band up and running in the early 80’s I really got into AOR, Bon Jovi are a big, big band for me and Foreigner, that sort of thing really, I really got into Dio and then Black Sabbath with Dio.

Progradar: Do you think Black Sabbath have endured, they brought the new album out last year ’13’ ?

Marc: I’ve come to appreciate Ozzy Osbourne now with time, the first Sabbath I heard was with Dio, the Neon Lights and Heaven and Hell albums, Dio is technically a brilliant singer whereas Ozzy Osbourne isn’t , is he? He’s a character and a brilliant showman but he’s not a singer, I got into them with Ozzy later in life when I got the best of Black Sabbath featuring Ozzy and realised they were four guys in a room jamming and appreciated it more at that level but, yes they are just as relevant aren’t they?

Progradar: Riversea and Mostly Autumn are Prog bands so, if your early influences were hard rock how did you ‘Segway’ into progressive?

Marc: Just as I got older really, I started enjoying progressive music, Marillion were my Segway, I love the early albums, ‘Script for a Jester’s Tear’ was a massive album when I was a kid and so was ‘Fugazi’ and ‘Misplaced Childhood’. When Steve Hogarth first took over, the first song I heard was ‘Hooks in You’ and I didn’t like that and I still don’t like it, I thought I wasn’t sure of this new guy. It was in 1999, just before Anaraknophobia came out and my mate did me a mix tape of the Hogarth stuff and I loved it, bought Anaraknophobia and it’s still my favourite Marillion album. I love them more now with Hogarth than I did with Fish, I don’t know what it is, maybe my taste changed around that time.

Progradar: Who do you listen to now then, if you had a mix tape in your car, who would be in there?

Marc: It would be a very eclectic mix to be honest, I like anything, I’m not prejudiced towards anything, if I hear something and think ‘that’s a great song’ then it’s a great song, it doesn’t matter who it is, whether it’s One Direction or Miley Cyrus or whatever it is, I just like good songs, progressive music wise, I got into Porcupine Tree, Spock’s Beard and then Neal Morse from that and Transatlantic and all that sort of stuff, I’ve got the new Wisdom of Crowds album and I love that, it’s great. Sound of Contact too, I love that.

Progradar: Where do you and Brendan (Brendan Eyre, co-collaborator with Marc on Riversea) get the ideas for the songs from, I listened to the album the other day and you’ve got ‘The Song’ and ‘What Does God Want’ and there seems to be a spiritual, almost religious influence?

Marc: All the musical side is from Brendan, it starts musically with him and then he just sends me what is, basically, an instrumental and then I write a melody, a vocal melody, and a lyric, so all the lyrics came from me. the Riversea album does have a spiritual side to it because I have as well, I’ve been on a spiritual search for years and years, so that’s fed into the songs, obviously. ‘Is that what God Wants’ is a true story about a Jehova’s Witness woman, I saw a headline in the paper where she was about to give birth and there were complications in the pregnancy and they wanted to give her a blood transfusion and she wouldn’t have it because of her religious beliefs so she died, that’s where that lyric comes from and the second verse is about 9/11. Where the ideas for ‘The Song’ came from, lyrically, because Brendan starts of the music, it’s literally a case of what the music says to me.

Progradar: You have no preconceived ideas before you hear the music?

Marc: Exactly, like the first song ‘In the Beginning’, that was one of the last ones we did, he sent me that and I thought, “well, that’s an opener” and I just wanted something that built and built, it’s as simple as that, how it happens, I wanted it to feel like a journey. ‘Out of an Ancient World’ was one of the first songs we wrote, it’s funny how the first song we wrote is the last song on the album and the very first song we wrote is the opener, we did everything backwards which is quite strange.

Progradar: I think your voice lends itself to the slower, more melodic tracks….

Marc: I’ve always favoured the ballads, I’m more of a ballad singer, I like emotion in the vocals, the thing that puts me off with other bands, especially Prog bands, is the music starts and I think ‘oh this is great’ and then the vocal starts and it lacks a heart to it, even if, lyrically, you’re not sure what it’s about, the lyrics on Riversea are purposefully ambiguous but, hopefully, you can still feel an emotion to it, I think a lot of Prog lacks soul.

Progradar: We’ve seen tonight the mad rush to get set up, you obviously have a heavy live gig schedule with the amount of gigs you do, do you ever look at talent contests where these guys go on, go through the processes and then instantly get a £500k recording contract, does that make you resentful when you’re putting all this work in and some of these guys that, maybe, haven’t got the talent that you have, are getting instant success?

Marc: I don’t know, I don’t truly see it like that as such, I think there is a place for everything. I love watching stuff like that and The Voice, I really like to hear a good singer, I’m a singer’s singer, when I hear a really good voice it impresses me. I think to do that and go out and sing for a minute and a half, or whatever the length of the song is, is amazing, with all them nerves. I don’t know how they do it to be honest because, I wouldn’t be able to do it. So I don’t really think of it like that, I think there’s a lot of really talented people out there, isn’t there? That have never made it and never got any further, it’s a learning curve, I always think that my career, musically, has been like that because you’re learning all the time. Even now, I hope, you’re trying to improve,always wanting to get better.

Progradar: How has the music industry changed from the heydays of the 80’s when you had to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of a single to get to the number 1 spot?

Marc: It has changed a hell of a lot, now you don’t need to be signed really, Riversea is totally on our own label and a complete cottage industry where we organise it all and do it all ourselves, we are downloading everything. Within a week of our album being released we found 20 sites where you could download it for free, it’s so disheartening when you’ve put all that work in but there’s nothing you can do about it really.

Progradar: You started in the 80’s and you’ve seen the transition, do you think that the internet has been good for the music industry or evil?

Marc: Both, it’s both really, Riversea wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for the industry and at the same time, the download sites, you don’t know how many people have downloaded it from them, it that sense, it’s a bad thing.

Progradar: Flipping that on its head, I’ve seen a few artists who say there is no such thing as bad publicity, if people know who you are, it may lead to people purchasing it legally?

Marc: Yes, I know what you mean, it isn’t all bad, at the end of the day, you write songs, you record songs for them to be heard so, the more people that hear it, whether you’re getting money for it or not, is better really. It’s a bit annoying but there’s nothing you can do about it really.

Progradar: Moving onto Riversea, where did the idea come from? Was it your idea or Brendan’s?

Marc: I’d known Brendan for a couple of years from a gigging capacity because my band ‘Gabriel’ used to gig a lot in Hartlepool, where Brendan lives so he used to come and see my old band so we’d have a chat after a gig, I didn’t know him that well but, one day at a solo gig, I think, he came up to me and said “I play keyboards, can I give you one of my CD’s to see what you think?” And I said “yes”, so he gave me a CD and I really liked it and I said I’d love to try and write something over the top of your stuff, as simple as that really and, the first thing he sent was what became ‘Out of an Ancient World’ and from there we said “well, this is working” so, we carried on from there, our styles really suit each other. The way it happens is, he basically sends me a song on a ‘wav’ and I put it onto my recording studio, as a stereo track and then I just set up a mike and I just jam, to be honest, that’s how I write to it. Then I send him it back with a vocal on and, touch wood, and on the second album as well, he’s liked everything I’ve done, we seem to work together really well.

Progradar: I think, and I know a lot of other people think too that, ‘Out of an Ancient World’ is a brilliant album, how do you think it would have turned out if it had been recorded in a traditional manner?

Marc: All the songs, all the arrangements and everything, were done right from the beginning, if we’d been in a band situation, like Marillion for instance, where they go in studio with a full band and jam around an idea, they would have evolved somewhere else, we missed that but, to listen to the album, it doesn’t sound like it misses that, it sounds like it has been done like that so, in an ideal world, and I’ve often said this to Brendan, my ideal situation would be to go to a studio, with Brendan, with Alex on drums and Dave on bass and one of the guitarists that we use and just jam for ages and do it that way, I’d love to know what would come out that way but, unfortunately at the minute, we haven’t got that luxury, we can’t really do that at the moment.

Progradar: Quickly looking on your website, you had quite a list of musicians, was that a question of them recording their parts and sending them to you?

Marc: Sometimes, a number of the musicians came to my studio in York and I produced the guitar parts or, we did it together and I recorded them and put them in the mixes. Ade from Nine Stones Close and Ashley Mumford, who plays on ‘Wiser’ and Paul Cusick, all three of them recorded their parts at their own studios and sent them on, so we had no idea what they were going to be before they sent them and, luckily, it worked really well, they’re good enough players to know what was required and, also, with Paul Cusick, who plays on ‘Eden’, Paul was originally involved with Riversea right at the beginning and he had to leave because he was doing a solo album, we’d already written ‘Eden’ with him, or at least the early demos he’d played on so, we asked him to do that one because he knew it and he did a great job on that. The backing vocalists, including my sister Janeane, all came to my studio to record they’re parts.

Progradar: Social media, I’ve enjoyed your updates about the new album on twitter and Facebook, do you think social media is beneficial? Can it ramp up anticipation of a new album and get you a little base of people who will pre-order the album?

Marc: Oh yes definitely, that’s what happened with Riversea, the day that we put out the ‘Eden’ video was the day that the pre-order went on, it worked out brilliant, it went on on the Monday and by Tuesday afternoon we’d made enough money to pay for the whole album to be done, which was amazing as it was our first album, it was incredible really, we were so chuffed. We made enough money to burn all the copies to begin with.

Progradar: so ‘Riversea 2’, the songwriting process is identical to the way you did the original Riversea, has it been more enjoyable this time because you think, maybe, you know what you’re doing?

Marc: I feel more of a pressure this time because I know there are people waiting for it, when we first started it was more for our own enjoyment to see what would happen, It was always our intention to release it but, you just don’t know what’s going to happen, do you? There is more of a pressure this time, it’s good because I know we’ve got an audience now.

Progradar: Was the first album a bit of an unexpected success then?

Marc: Well, I think that, by the time we’d written all the songs and we were progressing with how it sounded we were more and more confident with how good it was, more people were hearing it in our circle of friends and were impressed with it and, plus ourselves, you can just tell when something is working.

Progradar: Nine Stones Close? You’re not working with them anymore, was that different pressures?

Marc: What it was was, we did the second album, it came out in November and my solo album came out in December, Ade was wanting to do another album literally straightaway and doing some live gigs, by that time I was already totally booked up with my own work and I didn’t want to do another album straightaway, I wanted to do something different. I really enjoyed it, it was good and Id be up for working with Ade again, he was lovely to work with but, it’s just that I didn’t want to do it straightaway and I just thought that, rather than let them down, I’d let them know now, I can’t do the gigs and I don’t want to do another album next year so they could get someone else in then.

Progradar: Are you going to use the same musicians on the second Riversea album?

Marc: Probably, yeah, we’re certainly going to be using Alex on drums and Dave on bass and Mark Rowan’s offered his support as has B.J. and Ashley and Ade so, yeah, we probably will use the same people to be honest, you don’t fix something if it’s not broken.

Progradar: On the Riversea blog, the release date of the first album became something of a recurring joke, eventually taking 5 1/2 years, are you more confident of an earlier release with the new album?

Marc: Definitely now, when we first started writing it, we didn’t quite know how we were going to record it, this was before Brendan got Cubase, which is what he records on. We were going to originally record it on my studio, which is a 16 track digital thing, which is lovely, I did all my solo stuff on it and I recorded my vocal on there to be transferred to the Cubase, originally we were going to do it like that by we realised it was too limited to do it like that, it was just a long process until we decided how we were going to record it all. It took a while because we were too busy and, all of a sudden, months would have gone by without anything progressing, it was really kind of baby steps. The difference with this second one is, we have written six already and, if Brendan keeps them coming, because I’m relying on Brendan, for example, he sent me one on Sunday and by Monday night I’d sent him the song back with my vocal on it that I’d written and I’ve done that pretty much every week. Every time he’s sent me one, I’ve sent it back straight away so I’m kind of waiting on him.

Progradar: Have you got any idea of a release date or is that putting yourself under too much pressure?

Marc: No, we’re just going to write as much as we can, like the first one, and make sure we get a cracking album, we’ve got to match the level that we set, or exceed it, we can’t go below. I hope it will be next year, that’s what I hope, the way that we’re going at the minute, it’s looking like next year, yes.

Progradar: ‘Corridors of Power’ on Lee Abraham’s ‘Distant Days’, did you enjoy doing that?

Marc: Yes, he asked me if I’d do it a while ago actually and, sent me the song over. He sent two versions, one with a guide vocal with him singing it and, obviously, an instrumental version and, I just recorded it really, yes I really enjoyed it, it’s a great album, I’d do that again anytime.

Progradar: That was part of my next question, do you enjoy doing them?

Marc: Yes I do, I love doing sessions, I do quite a lot of sessions actually, I’ve been lucky, backing vocal sessions and things like that. I’ve done quite a lot of recording for musicals and things, it’s really well paid as well so, I love doing that, I’m quite comfortable in a studio, I got my first studio when I was sixteen, I’ve always had a studio, I love recording and producing.

Progradar: What gives you the most pleasure, solo work, Riversea or gigging?

Marc: They’re all different, I love gigging because I love singing and the actual on stage time, it’s the fun bit. It’s the driving and everything else, the setting up, that’s the crappy bit. I love doing my own solo stuff but, I really love doing the Riversea things, I love working with other musicians, even though, at the minute, I’m working on my own or with Brendan. When we get together later on, when we record the drums and when we’re mixing, I love the comradeship of working with other musicians so, I love ’em all, it’s hard to say, like who’s your favourite kid!

Progradar: Have you got any plans for another solo album?

Marc: Yeah, I want to do one this year, we’ve got a piano at home now, we’re just getting it re-tuned actually so, I’ve been writing a lot on the piano, I think I’ve written about twenty songs actually that will, possibly, be on the next solo album. I could go tomorrow actually. With the last solo album, after Riversea had taken so long, I just wanted to do something really simple, I did it all myself as well. The plan is to get the piano tuned up, I’ll be able to record the album properly, I’ll start laying down proper recordings. I’m hoping that, by the end of this year, I’ll have another solo album, that’s my intention, I’ve certainly got enough songs ready to go already.

Progradar: And the final question: where do you see yourself in ten years or do you not look that far?

Marc: Not really, in an ideal world, I’d love to be gigging with Riversea, that’s the ultimate goal, I’d love to do that and, the only thing that’s stopping us is finance really and logistics as well because everybody is busy, I’ve got this and this is my job, Brendan’s a hard working guy and he’s away from home a lot but, if it was possible, if I won the lottery tomorrow, it’s the first thing I’d do, I’d pay for Brendan to take six months off work, let’s go into a studio, let’s do it like that and let’s take it out on the road.

Progradar: That to me, a live Riversea concert, would be brilliant, the first album is not a concept album but, needs to be played in its entirety, it’s better enjoyed as a whole thing so, to see that in a live setting, I just think would be amazing.

Marc: I agree, ‘In the Beginning’ is the way we would always open a gig, there’d be no their song we’d use to open. It just ramps up a level of expectation, you can almost see it and feel it, I’d love to do it, you know live, and I hope, one day, we will, it’s not laziness that’s stopping us, it’s just sheer logistics. It’s the first question that people who know me through Riversea ask, “when are you going to do some gigs?”, I really wish we could, I know it would be great, Brendan’s a great keyboard player and he knows his stuff, Dave the bass player and Alex are so professional, I know it wouldn’t take much rehearsing because I know my parts, it’s just the guitarists. Mark Rowan’s offered to do it live so it would be just him having to learn his parts really and just get together and do it.

Progradar: Well Mark, thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to me after a busy gig, I appreciate it, thanks very much.

Marc: You’re welcome, thank you.

So, that was it, a lengthy , in depth conversation with Marc Atkinson, discussing the history of Riversea, his musical likes and the future, at this point, I did help Marc load up his car with all the equipment before saying a cheery farewell and disappearing into the chill, early morning air for the drive back home. With all that is going on with Riversea, his solo work and his live gigs, Marc Atkinson is a nice guy who has definitely not come last and, as for that mantra of ‘Never meet your heroes’ I’d like to debunk that theory here and now, Marc is a down to earth Yorkshireman who has a great sense of humour and spent over 40 minutes of his time happily chatting to me at 12.30 a.m. after one of the longest days he has had recently, top, top bloke.

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