“It’s all about the notes I’m not playing,” is a laughable jazz cliché when falling from most musician’s lips; but when Mark Hollis became the only person ever to enthuse about the spaces between his sounds to me in an interview ahead of his minimalist self-titled solo album in 1998, he was one of very few artists worthy of a free pass. And ‘artist’ is very much the apposite word – as chief adventurer at the heart of Talk Talk, Hollis – who died yesterday (February 25) aged 64, provided a brave and uncompromising lesson in elevating pop music to the realms of true art, placing him alongside the likes of David Bowie, Brian Wilson, Scott Walker, Kate Bush and The Velvet Underground in the high-culture arena and, by turn, inspiring Low, Mogwai, Radiohead and their new wave of 21st Century post-pop.
Born in Tottenham in 1955 and moving to Muswell Hill at the age of 18, Hollis had intended to become a child psychologist on leaving university, but instead finding work as a laboratory technician. His evenings were spent constructing songs, however, encouraged by watching his DJ brother Ed manage punk-era bands such as Eddie And The Hot Rods. His first public foray into music was with a band called The Reaction, whose 1977 demo tape for Island records included the Hollis composition ‘Talk Talk Talk Talk’ and who disbanded after releasing just one single, 1978’s ‘I Can’t Resist’.
The first of Hollis’s lengthy wilderness periods ended three years later, when he formed Talk Talk in 1981 with Paul Webb, Lee Harris and Simon Brenner, acquaintances of his brother. Inspired by Roxy Music and likened to new romantic acts such as Duran Duran (whom the band supported) Talk Talk landed early synthpop hits with their self-titled second single in 1982 and the infectious title track from their second album ‘It’s My Life’ in 1984.
Citing influences such as Debussy, Bartok, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, however, Hollis clearly had ambitions beyond the frivolous pop music of the early ‘80s. He shifted towards a more layered and organic style, improvising with an expanded band to create Talk Talk’s celebrated, 2 million-selling third album ‘The Colour Of Spring’, a Top Ten album in 1986 on the back of the prowling pianos and soaring guitar riffs of international hit ‘Life’s What You Make It’. But it’s Talk Talk’s experimental final two albums, ‘Spirit Of Eden’ (1988) and ‘Laughing Stock’ (1991) that are considered their most influential, game-changing releases.
Insisting on complete control over the sessions, Hollis and producer Tim Friese-Greene constructed ‘…Eden’ over the course of a year from improvisational sessions of rock, blues, ambient and jazz music, often performed in darkness and with all management and label representatives barred from the studio. “It was very, very psychedelic,” engineer Phill Brown said. “We had candles and oil wheels, strobes going, sometimes just total darkness in the studio. You’d get totally disorientated, no daylight, no time frame.”
The record was a commercial disappointment but, as one of the earliest building blocks of post-rock, is now considered amongst the most influential albums of the ‘80s; its tranquil tonal soundscapes cohering into tender mood pieces and euphoric noise crescendos. Hollis considered ‘…Eden’ un-tourable and Talk Talk would never play live again. Leaving EMI for the jazz-based Verve label, the band recorded their final album ‘Laughing Stock’ in much the same way, featuring 50 musicians over its six tracks, improvising minimalist mood pieces, one-note solos and bold jazz clatters in what Hollis would describe in Melody Maker as an attempt to “express their character and refine their contribution to the purest, most truthful essence… silence is the most important thing you have, one note is better than two, spirit is everything, and technique, although it has a degree of importance, is always secondary.”
In the wake of ‘Laughing Stock’, Talk Talk split and Hollis withdrew from the music industry, releasing only one more album in his lifetime – his self-titled solo record from 1998. By now Hollis was making what you could even call post-music, tracks emulating modern classical music and 50s jazz that were so sparse as to barely exist. And that, barring a few brief re-appearances on occasional low-key projects, was that. “”I choose for my family,” Hollis would say of his musical retirement. “Maybe others are capable of doing it, but I can’t go on tour and be a good dad at the same time.”
Though long absent, Hollis is still sorely missed. After all, the music of 2019 is full of the notes he isn’t playing.