Interview with MARTIN ORFORD (IQ)

April 2003

orford1One takes it for granted that keyboards play more than a prominent role in progressive rock, and it’s no coincidence the genre is often referred to as art rock. Because it’s an art – and operating the keyboard has always been an art. There’s no need to name the great artists who helped shape the genre, what needs to be said is that today you rarely get to see much intelligent and classically trained musicians like those. Thinking a bit longer brings a couple of names to mind, one being Martin Orford of the IQ fame and an artist in his own right, the title of whose album, “Classical Music And Popular Songs“, puts the man’s creative stance quite eloquently. Eloquently yet too laconic, and that’s quite a reason for a conversation.

– Your album, and “The Field Of Fallen Angel” in particular, has a certain English feel to it. What does it mean to you being an English musician?

I think that the influence of the folk music of the British Isles features very strongly in my music and always has done. It’s not just there in tracks like “The Field Of Fallen Angels” where the use of various “folk” instruments make it quite obvious; if you listen to tracks like “Provider” from “Subterranea” for instance, that’s just a little folk song melody too, though the “drone” sound behind it is from electronic sources rather than bagpipes or hurdy-gurdy! I deliberately write a lot of my material using the Mixolydian and Dorian modes rather than the normal major and minor scales, and this help to define the music as peculiarly English as a lot of traditional folk melodies have a flattened seventh in the scale. However technicalities aside, I am very much a creature of the English countryside and I hope to continue to reflect that in my music.

– Of all the countries, Netherlands and Poland seem to have a special affection for progressive music. Where it is that you find most rewarding emotionally playing at?

I enjoy playing anywhere where the audience appreciates the music. It wouldn’t be fair to single out any one country.

– If push comes to shove, which one of the keyboards instruments would you choose? There are so many emotions in “Quilmes”, my personal favorite, so I dare guess, it would be grand piano…

No, actually it would be an electronic piano. I generally prefer them to grand pianos which can be very inconsistent and unreliable unless they are beautifully maintained. A good electronic instrument is capable of all the expression of a grand piano without any of the hassle.

– Is there any creative rivalry between IQ and PENDRAGON, as both bands are seen as leading forces of current prog scene now, when MARILLION aren’t what they were? I don’t mean personal thing, though, as you are friends with Clive Nolan

There is no rivalry at all between IQ and PENDRAGON, and I would consider all of the members of PENDRAGON to be very good friends of mine. In fact I have toured with them, playing an acoustic set with Gary Chandler, many times. The PENDRAGON guys are tremendously supportive of what we do and they are always happy to pass on any good business contacts that might be useful for us. We are, of course, happy to help them too in any way we can. There is a great mutual respect between the two bands and we both acknowledge that there is plenty of room in the prog market for the good bands.

– What does it take in terms of personal, mutual understanding to mould the elements coming from different band members into something as homogeneous and whole as “Subterranea”?

You have to get lucky! Although we had a rough plan of what we wanted “Subterranea” to be like, a certain amount of magic occurred in the writing process, and the album took on a life of it’s own. It’s great when that happens, but you can’t force things.

– Was it you who scored that John Barry-like orchestral “Overture” to the “Subterranea”?

Yes, it was my arrangement. But who’s John Barry?

– What is THE LENS’ “A Word In Your Eye”, an old album or the new one, as it was written long ago but recorded recently?

THE LENS’ “A Word In Your Eye” is a relatively new album in terms of the actual recordings, but the material on it is all around twenty five years old. THE LENS was the predecessor of IQ, and there was some great material that came out at that time, 1976-1981, which was never properly recorded. Mike Holmes and I therefore thought it would be a nice idea to re-discover some of those tunes and record new versions of them. I’m happy to say that the album turned out incredibly well, and it has really captured the flavour of the original band.

– Is there a chance for the IQ “unplugged” album? I bet many of the songs will sound magnificent in bare acoustic arrangements.

It’s a possible for the future, but we have plenty of other projects in the pipeline that we would want to do first. These include a new studio album, a new recorded version of “Tales From The Lush Attic”, and DVDs of “Forever Live” and the 20th anniversary tour.

– Still, you played acoustic shows with John Wetton – as well as the electric ones. Which of those you find more interesting?

I must admit I enjoy the electric shows more, though the “unplugged” gigs can be fun, too.

– Was it a challenge for you as a progressive rock performer to work with John Wetton, with his pedigree in the genre?

Learning a new set of material is always a challenge, but the John Wetton set is actually a really nice one to play. I have very fond memories of seeing John with U.K., so those songs particularly appeal to me.

– Are U.K. or CRIMSON songs the most daunting aspect of this experience, technically?

No, strangely enough they’re not. I would say that “In The Dead Of Night” is probably the easiest song in the set from a keyboard point of view, and although it sounds complex there’s nothing too demanding about the instrumental part of “Starless” either once you realise it’s basically a 12-bar blues in 13/8. “Red” is a similar deal, but it’s quite easy once you know how it works. The most difficult song in the set for me is “Only Time Will Tell”, because the running order of the verses and choruses is quite strange and it sometimes catches me out.

– Did you chance to play flute alongside Ian McDonald, while touring with him and John Wetton?

No I didn’t, though it was nice to do some live tracks on piano with Ian and John. I would be very reticent about playing a flute duet with Ian as he is so much better than me as a flautist.

– Some time ago you said if you released a solo album it would sell three or four thousand copies. Now you had one – how does it fare?

Rather better than that – it’s currently nearly six thousand. I will definitely do another one.

– Would you go for a sole-piano record?

No, unless all the material was absolutely stunning, I think it would be pretty dull. I can’t lose sight of the fact that my music appeals to mainly a rock audience.

– Some of the pieces you released on “Classical Music And Popular Songs” hark back to your school days but, like “Fusion” are amazing. Do you have much material of this quality in your vaults?

There isn’t much that I don’t use, because I tend to quckly forget the less good ideas. If there’s something old that still sticks in my head, it’s probably worth using. However after the solo album and THE LENS’, I don’t have as many tunes in reserve as I used to, though there are some that haven’t seem the light of day yet.

– You told about a new studio album, a new version of “Tales From The Lush Attic”, and DVDs of “Forever Live” and the 20th anniversary tour – in what order these releases will see the light of day?

I think the new IQ studio album will probably be first. After that it’s just a matter of when people have got time to work on the other projects. It’s difficult to find time to do so many things when we all have other, non-musical, jobs too. We just have to do what we can whenever we have some free time at the weekend.

– It’s been ten years since “Forever Live” was recorded and seven since it’s out on the CD. Why it took so long to put out on the DVD?

Again, it’s a question of time, and we don’t have much to spare! Mike Holmes is the only one of us capable of authoring a DVD, but it is a very time-consuming process, and he has a very demanding day job too. Getting a professional DVD authoring house to do it is out of the question as they are far too expensive. Although DVDs are nice for the fans, we sell a fraction of those compared with CDs, so making DVDs is not a priority in keeping us afloat financially. In fact we find it very difficult to break even on a DVD release as the setup costs are so high.

– Your label’s called Giant Electric Pea but what does that mean?

In IQ we were always amused at the long lists of equipment that some bands put in their sleeve notes, so when we recorded “Are You Sitting Comfortably?”, we decided to throw in some “unusual instruments” in our list of gear. One of these was the “Giant Electric Pea”, and Mike once tried to get Ibanez guitars to make him a round, green guitar that would look the part. Not surprisingly they refused, but we still used it as the name of the record company.

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