“I just sit at the back and make nice sounds…”
The ever-modest IQ and Jadis keysman reveals all about holding songs together, avoiding experiments and swapping touring for trains.
What inspired you to first take up keyboards as opposed to, say, the guitar?
Well, the piano wasn’t as glamorous as the guitar, but it always looked more logical to me. You’ve got low notes one end, high notes the other, so just concentrate on the bit in the middle and it’ll be fine.
Which other keyboard players were you influenced by?
I wasn’t really influenced by keyboard players a great deal. I got into the whole progressive rock thing late, so I went through the 1970s blissfully unaware that Genesis and Yes and ELP existed. By the time I discovered there were other people who were doing that sort of thing, I was doing it already.
You once said that you weren’t cut out to be the next Keith Emerson. So what did you want to do with the keyboards? I guess I liked being the engine room, adding and subtracting things and managing texture. I’ve never really seen myself as much of a soloist. I can play as fast as anybody else if I can be bothered, but I’ve never had any great desire to do that sort of thing. I think the guitar is a much more expressive instrument to have as a solo instrument. I’ve written just as many guitar lines over the years as I have keyboard lines.
Was there ever part of you that secretly wanted to jam knives between the keys or swish around in capes?
No. I’m not a flashy person like that. I’m not theatrical. I’m one of those ‘sit at the back and make the right noises’ guys.
One of the criticisms of the neo-prog movement that IQ were part of was that it wasn’t moving things forward. Was that a valid point? Neo-prog is a terrible term. Americans made that up. They weren’t there. And it’s not a valid point. Nobody else was moving music on either: metal bands weren’t, reggae bands weren’t, funk bands weren’t. But it was the prog people who got the flak for it. It was only from the press – you didn’t get any of that from the progressive rock old guard. There was never a distinction among musicians. It was always from the outside.
Did you ever feel hemmed in by the prog scene?
Not really. I was never one of these people for experimentation in music. Experiments belong in a laboratory and not in a recording studio. I always try to take the stance of trying to make progressive rock music more accessible to a mainstream audience. It didn’t bloody work, but it was worth a go.
You quit IQ in 2007 and retired from music the following year after your second solo album, The Old Road. Why?
I didn’t retire from music – I was forced out. The climate I was in didn’t enable me to carry on with it any more. It was the point when broadband internet was coming in. People were illegally downloading everything. All of
the companies The Old Road was shipped out to went bankrupt, one after the other. And the album never paid its bills. I thought, “It takes four or five years to do this, every waking hour, and you never break even.” The last track on The Old Road is about the end of my time in music. All you can hear at the end of that album is the blackbirds singing in the garden: “That’s all the songs you’re going to get.”
Do you still play today?
I do the odd thing, as much to prove I can keep my hand in. The last time I played a keyboard was back in May, on the Jadis tour.
What do you do instead?
I was always interested in steam engines so I mess around with them. I’m a fireman on a steam train. Basically, I build a bloody big fire in a steam locomotive and make it go. And I drive them too.
Do you miss being in a band? No. I don’t mind getting back and doing the odd show here and there, but it does feel like looking through an old photo album. It’s like revisiting a former life. It’s quite nice to do that, but I wouldn’t want to do it all the time.
Do you see yourself as one of the great keyboard players? Good lord no. Just a bloke that sits at the back and makes a few nice sounds that hold the whole thing together.
IQ, CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: MARTIN ORFORD, PAUL COOK, MIKE HOLMES, TIM ESAU, PETER NICHOLLS.
MARTIN ORFORD (SECOND FROM LEFT) WITH JADIS.