Back singing for his supper after taking stock

DEREK William Dick is undoubtedly one of the best known faces - and voices - in the Scot-rock hall of fame. Hardly surprising as, at 6ft 5ins, the former Marillion frontman is hard to miss. But while Dick’s face may be instantly familiar, his name is less so, probably because for the last 25 years he been known simply as Fish.

Sauntering into the Holyrood Hotel, unshaven, casual, and with his trademark Arabian scarf thrown around his neck, the 45-year-old introduces himself and excuses himself in the same breath - he’s forgotten his "fags" and shoots off to retrieve them.

So while he’s gone, a brief resume. Born in Edinburgh, Fish was brought up in Dalkeith where he attended King’s Park Primary, and then Dalkeith High where, surprisingly, music was not one of his seven O-Grades. Leaving school, he became a petrol pump attendant at Dick Bros Garage in Dalkeith - his "old man’s business".

But it was in 1981, while working as a quality inspector checking water sprinklers - a job he was fired from after two weeks due to bad references "perpetual dreamer, unable to keep grip on reality" - that the path to rock stardom first seriously beckoned.

Having failed auditions for other bands, one because his "voice was too quiet", Fish was finally snapped up by Marillion and played his first gig with them at the Red Lion, Bicester, England, on March 15, 1981.

Having returned and lit up, he recalls: "At some point I suggested we do a Scottish tour and as my mum and dad had a place in North Berwick, they let us use it to ‘hole up’ while we bounced around Scotland doing a load of dates."

One of those early dates was a gig at the Night Club - once situated on the top floor of the Edinburgh Playhouse. Fish laughs: "That was the first time my dad had ever seen me sing, and I remember there was this biker guy there who went a bit radge. He picked up a fire extinguisher and thought it would be really funny to give us a good gassing while we were on stage. My dad went nuts and tried to grab him saying ‘how dare you do that to my laddie’."

So rapid was Marillion’s rise that, when they returned to Edinburgh just five months later, they filled all 3000 seats of the Playhouse itself. But their meteoric ascent didn’t come without its price and in 1988, after five successful albums, the singer quit the group in an acrimonious split.

He reflects: "The thing about being the frontman was that I went through the ego-thing before the rest of the band, but I was lucky, I had good people around me to get me through."

He adds: "However, by 1987 (we’d only had one hit single off our Clutching At Straws album) we were over-playing live because the manager was on 20 per cent of the gross. He was making a fantastic amount of money while we were working our asses off. Then I found a bit of paper proposing an American tour. At the end of the day the band would have needed a 14,000 loan from EMI as tour support to do it.

"That was when I knew that, if I stayed with the band, I’d probably end up a raging alcoholic and be found overdosed and dying in a big house in Oxford with Irish wolfhounds at the bottom of my bed."

Deciding enough was enough, Fish gave the band an ultimatum: get rid of the manager or he walked. They sided with the manager. He walked, and moved with his wife of just under a year, Tamara, to Spittalrig Farm near Haddington. There he built a recording studio and, two years, later made his first solo album, Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors.

However, life since leaving Marillion has been a bit of a rollercoaster for the singer. On New Year’s Day in 1991 he became the proud father of daughter, Tara Rowena. In that same year he also came to the attention of casting directors and made his professional acting debut in the TV movie Jute City. This appearance was followed by parts in The Bill, Taggart and Rebus, as well as the role of the gun-toting Derek Trout in Channel 4’s Young Person’s Guide To Becoming A Rock Star - a part that could have been written for him.

He laughs: "Bryan Elsley, who wrote that series, was my sister’s first boyfriend. In 1991, he came to me to do some research about the music business. Years later the script for Young Person’s Guide To Becoming A Rock Star was delivered through the door and there was a character called Derek Trout who is married to a foreign woman - I was married to a German woman at the time. He lives in a big house with a Jacuzzi - we had the big bath-Jacuzzi upstairs - and he has a residential recording studio, as do I.

"I walked into that audition and said ‘if I don’t get this role I’m going to sue your ass.’ The whole character was basically me, apart from the shotguns."

He got the part, but although he’s passionate about his acting, music has remained his mainstay.

"When I was a kid it would have been just as easy for to follow a dream into acting as it was to go into music. I never actually started singing until I was 22. In fact, I was so drunk when I did that first gig with Marillion that, with the combination of adrenalin and alcohol, I spewed up all over the bathroom wall of the Red Lion and the band wanted to get rid of me," he laughs.

"But although I love acting as much as I do music, if I depended on it to make a living I’d be down at the buroo."

However, even a high profile music career doesn’t always guarantee financial success and in 1998 Fish was only saved from bankruptcy when fans stumped up 8500 at an auction of his memorabilia, after financial problems caused by a disastrous world tour left him close to ruin. Then, in 2001, his wife left him and returned to her native Germany with their daughter.

Fish keeps in regular contact with both, although that can put unwanted pressure on new relationships - one reason he’s currently single.

Consequently, he’s pouring all his energies into his first Scottish tour in more than ten years, with eleven dates around the country this month, interspersed with gigs in Europe.

The tour will feature material from his forthcoming album, Field of Crows, which has been inspired by trips he made to Kosovo to entertain the British troops there.

"Kosovo is a hell hole," he says with conviction. "It’s the worst place I have been on this Earth, dismal and depressing. There’s a 15th century battlefield there, where they reckon 15,000 people died. So many were killed that the armies had to retire because they’d lost all their principal troops. They call it the Field of Blackbirds - a nice romantic name, but as far as I’m concerned it should be ‘crows’ because of the bodies there."

The album is "still forming" at the moment but appears to have as dark a theme as its inspiration. "Just last week we were writing this thing called Moving Targets, which is basically about a sniper. Field of Crows could end up as a conceptual piece where, for various reasons, this guy goes into the woods as a young man and shoots a crow. His first taste of a gun. And then chart how he basically becomes like the serial killer-sniper in America last year - that is one option."

Why so dark, I ask. "Who the f*** writes when they are happy?" he explodes. "If you are really happy, having a magical night making love by the side of a Swiss lake you don’t stop midway through and say: ‘excuse me, I’m feeling so happy I have to stop and write a lyric’. You wait until the whole thing falls apart and then you think back to what it was like.

"Writing for me is definitely a form of therapy, but it’s dangerous therapy because you tend to wrap things up in pretty little boxes and put them away in a cupboard thinking you’ve solved the problem. Then one day you open the cupboard and the wrapping has fallen from the boxes and they fall on you."

So has he dealt with his demons?

"The one thing that saved me was the first time I went to entertain the troops and saw children in the streets who had nothing. That made me think. At one point I was hugely in debt, but that trip made me realise that meant nothing. If someone took everything I own away, I still have a beautiful kid.

"People ask ‘do I miss the big time?’ No. Everything is temporary. As long as I can walk on stage and feel ‘this is brilliant’ - I’m alive."

But will he ever walk on to a stage with Marillion again? Surprisingly, he doesn’t rule out a reunion completely, although it seems unlikely.

"I’ve been out the band now for 15 years. If you listen to what they do and what I do, I’m far more rock-orientated. Their new singer has his own direction and it’s not a direction I particularly like - I don’t think it’s got any b***s.

"It’s material I could never sing, and if there was ever such thing as a reunion there would have to be a balance whereby to satisfy the new singer’s fans, I would have to sing some of his material and I don’t want to do that."

Fish plays The Venue, Calton Road, tomorrow night. Tickets priced 12.50 are available from Ripping Records on 0131-226 7010 and Tickets Scotland on 0870 220 1116