A Quiet Genius: Mark Hollis and Talk Talk's Experimental Masterpieces

Header photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

The last track on the last album that Mark Hollis released in his lifetime ends with nearly two full minutes of uninterrupted quiet. If a listener does their homework, they'll learn that this tacet was no mistake. "The silence is above everything," he told journalist John Pidgeon a few years earlier. "I'd rather hear one note than I would two, and I would rather hear silence than I would hear one note."

The self-titled solo album by the former frontman of the British band Talk Talk, released this week in 1998, would be the last listeners would hear. After its unveiling, Hollis would retire from the music industry altogether to raise his family in Wimbledon, hardly ever resurfacing before his death from cancer in 2019 at the age of 64. Perhaps the most potent silence in music after John Cage's famous four-plus minutes, the end of Mark Hollis is a bona fide disappearing act; one that serves as a perfect punctuation mark to one of music production's most fascinating trajectories.

Talk Talk was formed in London in the throes of the Thatcher era alongside drummer Lee Harris, bassist Paul Webb, and keyboardist Simon Brenner. Reluctantly typecast by the UK press as a fixture of the flourishing New Romantic movement, they would score an international synth-pop hit with the title track on their 1984 album It's My Life, which would become a certified Gold single two decades later for No Doubt—a successful cover version that afforded Hollis the privilege of evading the public eye.

By the time their critically-lauded but commercially underrated final two records arrived—Spirit of Eden (1988) and Laughing Stock (1991)—their lineup had shifted and their sound evolved to become something ethereal, experimental, and impossible to pin down, much to the chagrin of the record executives tasked with their release cycles. With the assistance of longtime producer and collaborator Tim Friese-Greene, the veteran engineer Phill Brown, and a motley crew of guest musicians, Hollis cultivated a cosmic blend of studio improvisation, chamber arrangements, and transcendental songcraft. When paired with his solo album, they embody a trilogy of visionary records that never sound the same way twice upon repeated listens. While they're often credited with pioneering the genre of "post-rock", their influence could be heard in several diverse strains of sonic exploration to follow.

Attempting to accurately write about how these three records hit the ears is like trying to capture smoke, but as Hollis described it, the formula they arrived at is simpler than it sounds. "You have these two areas of music that sit apart from each other," he elaborated in a television interview in 1988 while promoting Spirit of Eden. "One is spontaneity and freedom, and the other is having a textured depth of arrangement. What we've tried to do is bring these two things together for once, and that's why it takes so long. Everyone who comes to play is given absolute freedom and has no direction at all in what they play, then you take a few seconds and you assemble an arrangement from that. You end up with something that is very tightly constrained, but everything within it is completely free and completely loose."

Below is the story of a band's history that ended in a place worlds different from where it started. In the wake of a quarter-century since he embarked on his vow of silence, here is a deep dive into the singular vision of Mark Hollis and the mysterious making of Talk Talk's masterpieces.

Talk Talk performing one of their final shows at Montreux Jazz Festival, 1986.

"Something's Happening Here…"

Despite their ubiquitous presence on Talk Talk’s early work, Hollis hated synthesizers. They countered the compositional influence of impressionists like Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel that he constantly chased throughout the band's discography, and if he condoned the use of a state-of-the-art machine like the Roland Jupiter-8, it was a question of backline or budget constraints. "In the arrangements, we are guided by composers like Debussy," he said in 1984. "We can't afford an orchestra, but we can use the synthesizer in an economically responsible way. If they didn't exist, I'd be delighted."

It was only after the departure of Simon Brenner and the subsequent success of It's My Life that the band could afford the session musicians they desired and create records on their ideal terms. Its 1986 follow-up, The Colour of Spring, would become the band's highest-selling studio album and contains flashes of the shape of music to come. The album's many guests included Robbie McIntosh of The Pretenders on guitar, and Traffic's Steve Winwood, a hero of Mark's who contributes Hammond organ on three of the album's tracks.

Before it was converted into a residential development in 2003, Wessex Sound Studios in Highbury was an in-demand recording studio built from a Victorian church hall where Queen tracked A Night At The Opera and King Crimson finished In the Court of the Crimson King. It was here that the engineer Phill Brown ran into the band's producer Tim Friese-Greene, seated at the studio's Bösendorfer grand piano, while collecting tape reels for a recently completed project in September 1986.

"I was just being honest, really," Brown would later say about their chance meeting when interviewed for Ben Wardle's 2022 biography Mark Hollis: A Perfect Silence. During their first conversation, he congratulated Friese-Greene on his recent success. "I said, 'Man, that's the kind of band I should work with.'" After Talk Talk's last ever tour, which culminated in a memorable appearance at Montreux Jazz Festival, Friese-Greene arranged a meeting with Hollis and Brown at a pub in North London that winter.

After a few pints and some small talk, Hollis got a lift from Brown and the two soon found themselves in rush-hour traffic. Hollis was already aware that Brown cut his teeth as a teenage tape op at Olympic Studios for classic rock royalty, and when they approached Mark's destination, he asked about his most memorable session at the London studio. When Brown was quick to cite a session for Traffic in 1967, Mark supposedly smiled and climbed out of the car without a word. A few weeks later, Friese-Greene phoned Brown and invited him to engineer the fourth Talk Talk album at Wessex.

"The Rainbow", the opener of Talk Talk's 1988 album Spirit of Eden.

Spirit Of Eden

The band and Friese-Greene set up camp at Wessex's Studio 1 the following spring to work five-day weeks from morning until midnight. On the day they loaded in, it became clear that the atmosphere wouldn't be that of an average session: they rolled up with their own psychedelic lighting rig, which consisted of an oil projector placed in the control room and sound-activated strobe lights placed by Lee Harris around the drum kit placed in the studio's storage cupboard.

This is a Studer A800 24-track analog tape machine, similar to the one Talk Talk used at Wessex.
A Studer A800 24-track analog tape machine, similar to the one Talk Talk used at Wessex.

In keeping with their traffic jam talk a few months prior, Hollis and Brown decided to approach the session "as if it was nighttime in 1967", limiting themselves to microphones Brown used during his Olympic era—a Neumann U67 and U48, a Shure SM-57 and an AKG C12—which were then ran through a Studer A800 24-track analog tape machine, relying on amplification and proximity for tone instead of the console's EQ. Mark's amplifier of choice, an original Vox AC-30, was placed along the far wall of the studio with the microphones placed at the other end of the room.

Before other session musicians were brought into the fold, the core band spent three months tracking foundations, starting with Lee's drum patterns which were played "hypnotically for many hours, only stopping occasionally to hand-roll a cigarette or adjust his lighting." Friese-Greene set up all the keyboards—a Hammond organ, two harmoniums, and the beloved Bösendorfer—at the center of the live room. Mark tracked most if not all of the guitars on his Grestch Country Gentleman, with the sole exception of the riff on "Desire", tracked in the studio stairwell on a Vox Teardrop Mark XII 12-string.

"Work was carried out in total darkness," Brown describes in his autobiography Are We Still Rolling? "Our studio environment felt so completely isolated that we rarely even thought about what might be going on in the world outside. The music, the intense atmosphere, and the extreme lighting conditions created both a tranquil and an agitated state of mind, sometimes almost simultaneously." When it came time to open the doors to guests for overdubs, they too were almost entirely in the dark—literally and metaphorically. "There was very little communication with the musicians who came into play," Brown admitted. "They were led to a studio in darkness and a track would be played down the headphones."

"That was probably the most physically demanding session I've ever played on," Mark Feltham recently recalled when interviewed for Mark Hollis: A Perfect Silence. The harmonica player makes an electrifying entrance on "The Rainbow", the album's opener. "Mark wrote a big X on the floor and I couldn't move from that area, I had to stand there. He wouldn't allow me to use any reverbs. Everything had to be natural."

In an arduous process of "proto-sampling" predating the digital convenience of Pro Tools and other DAWs, Hollis, Friese-Greene, and Brown would review the takes after each session musician had left and would decide what tiny fragments of improvisation to keep or erase. In several interviews, Hollis claims that over 50 musicians contributed to the sessions, and of those, only a fraction made the cutting room floor. Even those whose performances were used were frustrated with the team's thrifty approach to editing. When Danny Thompson—the double bassist and founding member of folk-jazzers Pentangle—arrived at Wessex, Brown claimed "we did eight takes of a five-minute song and kept three notes." The veteran session musician later claimed it was the "worst session of his life".

The penultimate track of Spirit of Eden and the album's only single, "I Believe in You", is a tribute to Mark's brother Ed, a former pub-rock band manager who mentored Mark and introduced him to the music industry as Mark was forming his first band The Reaction. At the time of the album's recording, he was struggling with a heroin addiction that would claim his life around the time the record was released. The song features requiem-like choral passages courtesy of choirboys of the Chelmsford Cathedral, an hour's drive from the studio.

While tracking the song, Brown suggested that a bowed guitar might be suitable for the track and Hollis suggested that the engineer try it himself. When Brown expressed reluctance and said he wasn't a guitar player, Hollis responded, "You've had 20 years of watching musicians. Just move your hands around like everyone else. It's all chance." Much like Thompson's performance, only three notes of amateur performance would make the final cut. Brown would later call it one of the highlights of his career.

After tirelessly stitching together performances and taking a short break over Christmas, the three began the process of tracking vocals and mixing the album at the start of 1988. Vocals came together quickly compared to the rest of production: no more than eight takes a song. "The thing with the vocal is to treat it like an instrument," Hollis would say later. "It's not there to dominate, it's there to sit in the landscape along with everything else."

Production finally wrapped in February and a cassette was sent to EMI. At first, their representatives were not happy, claiming the album was completely unmarketable, but when Hollis was asked to replace the material, he refused. Confoundingly, when masters were delivered a month later, EMI accepted the album and chose to go through the motions of extending their contract, but by that time, the band wanted out. In the months following Spirit of Eden release to a polarizing critical reception, they took their label to court. After the judge's ruling in favor of EMI was overturned, they were released from the contract.

"After The Flood", from Talk Talk's 1991 album Laughing Stock.

Laughing Stock

After signing with Polydor and parting ways with bassist Paul Webb citing artistic differences, Hollis, Brown, and Friese-Greene booked Wessex once again in the autumn of 1990 to track the next album. "We discussed some of the things we didn't like about Spirit and in what way we would like to rectify them," Friese-Greene recollected of their initial meetings. "We saw it very much as an evolutionary thing, rather than a revolutionary thing, which is what we had been looking at before."

As with the preceding album, the duo of Hollis and Harris showed up to the studio without demos in a process that Mark called "rehearsed spontaneity". When they started work in September with the oil projector and strobe once again in tow, they spent four days testing Lee's kit in every area of the live room before settling on the far wall opposite the control room. A solitary Telefunken U47 was permanently placed ten meters away which resulted in the album's iconic distant drum sound.

Tracking once again began with Lee playing drum patterns for nearly 12 hours a day before Hollis approved takes—a process that was just as mentally exhausting, but initially far more swift. On occasion, Mark would play along with his guitar plugged into a D/I in the control room, and Tim would place weights on the keys of the Hammond organ to give Lee a sense of harmonic texture, but more often than not the drummer played without reference tracks. In less than a week, the duo completed the foundations for what would become "Ascension Day", the first track to be cut.

Although session musicians were eventually brought into the studio, including a few who played on its predecessor like harmonica player Mark Feltham and percussionist Martin Ditcham, they kept outside influences to a minimum. Hollis and Friese-Greene handled most of the guitars and keyboards themselves this time around.

"As nothing was planned and we were playing by the rules of chance, accident, and coincidence," Brown wrote in his memoir, "We needed to try out almost every idea and combination of sounds before we knew we had the right part or texture." Behind the boards, the engineer meticulously documented equipment settings for instant recall, down to the angles of microphone placement, amplifier settings, and Hammond organ drawbar positions. "The songs were being constructed in the studio," He continues. "Often our approach was an immediate reaction to the previous overdub or the instrument being recorded."

Mark once again made use of his Vox AC-30, also miked at a distance and cranked high. The amp's vibrato circuit is the first sound heard on the album, unaccompanied; a full fifteen seconds before the first chord struck on "Myrrhman". According to Phill Brown, Mark took five days to arrive at the right guitar tone, "simply playing the same two chords over and over again… He was trying to recreate a sound that he had captured one night at this home."

A Realton Variophon from 1975, similar to the one used on
A Realton Variophon from 1975, similar to the one used on "After The Flood".

Two separate versions of the album's immaculate centerpiece "After The Flood" were tracked: the one that made the album, and an abridged single version which was intended to be released as a 7-inch single early on in the process. The album version emerges like a sunrise: a quiet piano, a tidal wave of backwards guitar, and the elegant arrival of a Hammond organ.

However, the source of the star soloist that emerges halfway through—a minute-long wall of screeching harsh noise rudely rising over a calm vamp—might surprise listeners: it's not guitar feedback, but a Variophon, an early electronic wind instrument that created sounds based on breath, lip vibration, and resonance that was developed at the University of Cologne.

Hollis was no stranger to the pipe-controlled instrument—it was used more traditionally and extensively on The Colour of Spring a half-decade prior—but here it takes on a life of its own. "He played it through a very large amplifier and it was clearly malfunctioning, jumping between octaves randomly and producing all sorts of internal feedback" Friese-Greene recalls. "I remember thinking, 'This is the end, this is as far as we can go. After one note, there's no notes. This will be the last album we make.'"

Friese-Greene's predictions proved to be precise. Mixing was completed in April 1991 using a vintage spring echo, an EMT echo plate, and a DDL (digital delay line), and by the time Laughing Stock was released by Polydor's newly fortified jazz imprint Verve in September, the prospects of a follow-up were the last thing on Hollis' mind. "You spend so long every day working on this thing," Hollis explained in a promo-only interview cassette released alongside the album, "that by the time you come out of there you feel completely done in. Physically and mentally, you've absolutely had it."

"A Life (1895-1915)", the centerpiece of Mark Hollis' 1998 self-titled solo album.

Mark Goes Solo

While Lee Harris reunited with former bandmate Paul Webb to form the dub-inspired avant-rock project .O.rang, Hollis took a four-year sabbatical to focus on raising his two sons in the English countryside. Though he abstained from public production and promotion, he continued to compose on his own: inspired by the free-floating hush of the abstract expressionism aficionado Morton Feldman's masterful music, he began writing chamber pieces for small woodwind ensembles to be played for an audience of one.

After an amicable split with Tim Friese-Greene, who withdrew from the music business, Hollis would have to fund the next record himself. Contrary to popular belief, Hollis had yet to retire the Talk Talk name, but he had his work cut out for him: the combined recording costs of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock were an upwards of £700,000, and although Polydor expected another record and would provide a further £1 million, he was reluctant to go through the motions without the assistance of a writing partner.

In 1994, Hollis was in a music shop on London's Denmark Street when he ran into the band's former touring keyboardist, the reggae-rooted Phil Ramacon, for the first time since they were on the road a decade earlier. In the years between, he had scored a hit as a songwriter with Neneh Cherry's "Buffalo Stance". Upon asking Ramocon if he'd like to be involved in the writing of a new Talk Talk record, the pair agreed to a fifty-fifty split and began writing sessions at Mark's near Suffolk. Soon enough, they wrote what would become "The Colour of Spring", the tranquil solo piano opener on Mark's 1998 album not to be confused with the album of the same name.

Around this time Hollis also connected with Dominic Miller, an Argentinean guitarist and abiding Sting sideman, who would contribute 12-string-guitar and co-write the haunting "Westward Bound" with Hollis over the course of months, one section at a time. "A lot of the time in the writing there would be silence when neither of us knew what the next chord was," remembered Miller. "The silence and the spaces became part of our musical relationship as well."

Eventually, Hollis envisioned an entirely acoustic album that would incorporate the above songs and utilize some of the woodwind-based sketches he had worked on over the past few years. For the first time, demos were fleshed out by Hollis using a computer and sampler. As Hollis moved back to London in 1995, he also called up Phill Brown, who had recently recovered from a colon operation. The two met in London to discuss the sound of the record. "I want to capture a 1950's jazz approach, with the feeling of a complete band playing live around you," the engineer remembers Hollis explaining. "You know, everything on one mic, and standing up for solos."

After a trial run at AIR Studios in Lyndhurst with Warne Livesey—a Canadian engineer-producer who had produced multiple records for Midnight Oil—Brown and Hollis decided on a single pair of Neumann M49s at head height to capture all the instruments on the album. Though Livesey and Hollis shared an affinity for the sound of Gil Evans' arrangements on a stretch of Miles Davis albums as a reference point, they would ultimately not see eye-to-eye on the direction the initial sessions were taking.

Brown and Hollis proceeded with re-recorded sessions without Livesley in 1996 at Master Rock, a studio in North London repurposed from an old cinema. The multitracks for each song were once again recorded on analog tape, then digitally composited and overdubbed before being mixed back onto the tape machine. While several new session musicians entered the fold—including his son's music teacher Laurence Pendrous on piano—a handful of players from the last two albums were also present, including Mark Feltham's harmonica and Martin Ditcham's drums, which replaced the overdubs that Steve Gadd tracked at AIR (talk about conservation). In a departure from Spirit and Laughing Stock, there was little improvisation on the record with the exception of Henry Lowther's muted trumpet solo on "The Watershed".

The album is notable for containing no amplified instrumentation or electronics, in an attempt to create an atmosphere in recording that, in Mark's words, "exists outside of time". This is also heavily reflected in the album's songcraft: the album's centerpiece, the intensely quiet "A Life (1895 - 1915)", is a sonic portrait of the soldier and poet Roland Leighton, who was the fiancé of the VAD nurse and pacifist activist Vera Brittain at the time of his death in World War I. "It's the expectation that must have been in existence at the turn of the century," Hollis would describe writing the song to NME's Mark Beaumont, who would go on to write a particularly cruel review of the album. "The patriotism that must have existed at the start of the war and the disillusionment that must have come immediately afterwards."

Rare footage of one of the last interviews Mark Hollis conducted, for an appearance on Danish television in 1998 .

At the start of 1997, Brown and Hollis returned to AIR to finish the mixes of the album, by now referred to under the working title of "Mountains of the Moon". At the time, future Adele producer, three-time BRIT Producer of the Year, and self-described Talk Talk fanboy Paul Epworth was working as the studio's tape op. On the first afternoon, he went into the control room to change a tape reel—as he began rewinding the album, he began to hear a clicking sound.

"I happened to look round and instead of the tape winding onto the spool, it was wound round the pinch-rolled and this black lump of tape was getting bigger and bigger," Epworth recalls. "It hits the head block, jams and tape explodes up into the air. It looks like it's snowing black tape. Nothing like this had ever happened, and definitely not on the session with their favorite artist. I look round and there's Phill and Mark and they're both in the control room with their hands on their heads, looking at me through the glass. Mark was the color of beetroot." After manually spooling the surviving tape, they discovered with relief that the section that had been destroyed was a second after the final decay of the final note. The album had survived. Had it not, Epworth surely would have been rolling in the deep.

Once it was mastered, Hollis faced the dilemma of whether the album would be released as a Talk Talk album. At the last minute, he decided to release it under his own name. "It would have been dishonest to have been credited to the group," Hollis reflected in retrospect. Mark Hollis would be released in January 1998 by Polydor, with a cryptic photograph (taken by Stephen Lovell-Davis) of a piece of Easter bread baked to resemble the Lamb of God on the cover. A journalist would refer to "quite possibly the most quiet and intimate record ever made", and sure enough, that silence would become Mark's final full creative statement.

In the twenty-odd years between his retreat from the public eye and his death, Hollis had plenty of chances to reemerge for one last comeback—these included an offer from 4AD shortly after the pioneering indie label signed Scott Walker, but also prospects of scoring Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, which nearly came to fruition before the film inevitably would be soundtracked by Talk Talk's new wave contemporaries.

Despite a few knocks on the door, Hollis chose to keep his genius private until the end of his life. "There won't be any gig," Hollis humbly stated in 1998. "Not even at home or in the living room." Let it be a lesson: when a listener is left with an artist's voluntary, comfortable silence, what remains is the kind of sonic solitude of the utmost serenity.

This article contains quotes from two primary sources: Ben Wardle's 2022 book Mark Hollis: A Perfect Silence, which can be purchased directly via Rocket88, and engineer Phill Brown's 2010 autobiography Are We Still Rolling?: Studios, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll.

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