We caught up with Rob Marshall before Humanist’s support set for Jane’s Addiction at Glasgow’s Barrowlands last week to talk about new album ‘On The Edge Of A Lost And Lonely World’, his time working with the late, great Mark Lanegan and the therapeutic wonders of music.

Humanist is the solo project of former Exit Calm guitarist Rob Marshall, an ambitious undertaking which has seen the multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer collaborate with a number of vocalists including Mark Lanegan, Dave Gahan, Mark Gardener, John Robb (he gets everywhere, that one) and Joel Cadbury on Humanist’s self-titled 2020 album, with Dave Gahan returning for up-and-coming release On The Edge Of A Lost And Lonely World, along with Isobel Campbell, Tim Smith, Ed Harcourt, James Allan (Glasvegas), Carl Hancock Rux, Peter Hayes (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) and Rachel Fannan.

With a brutally enthralling sound which roots its soul in our very own mortality, Humanist drenches us in turbulent hues of darkness as luminous ripples of hope uplift. The timeless collection of tracks the Humanist project has yielded so far shift like the seasons from ambient grooves and dark disco beats to savage kraut rock and dark-wave post punk, backlit with brooding gothic undertones, providing comfort in the woes and desolation which so often consumes our lives.

As the title On The Edge Of A Lost And Lonely World suggests, the theme of the new album is essentially life, death and mortality, subjects very close to Marshall’s heart. “It says everything you need to know about the album. It’s a disconnect, a feeling of abandonment from the past, especially during lockdown,” explains Marshall. ”But you reach a point when you’re looking to the future through the chaos and contemplating life and its meaning. This also comes with age, which finds you looking back on your life, and forward with hope.” He goes on to tell us, “I’ve lost my main collaborator, Mark Lanegan (who died suddenly in early 2022), and my best friend also passed away, so it feels like death has been around me a lot.” 

Marshall wasn’t only coming to terms with these losses, but with personal illness at the time of writing the album, music the shining light that saw him through these dark times.

I’ll do music until I die – I was lost before I had it and it was life affirming when I found it. I can’t not do it. There’s no option, I wish there was.”

It’s clear that he’s pretty much chained to music though he does feel the benefits mentally and can’t see himself doing anything else. “Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, it’s not easy being in the music business, but I just don’t know how to do anything else. It’s therapy and I’d be totally lost without it. Of course I’d love people to enjoy the music I write, but when I’m doing it I don’t think about what people think, I’m just doing it for me. It really does mean that much to me.”

Life and music are the same for me. I can’t disconnect the two, they overlap each other all the time.”

But although music has gripped his hand through the hard times, he’s had to relive some of his lowest moments in order to fully understand the journey he’s been on and exorcise the ghosts, the last three numbers on the album thick with a portent and ambient claustrophobia which weighs heavy whilst uplifting the soul.

“I was lost in the dark for a little bit. There’s a track called The Presence of Haman on the record, and that’s about as dark as I’ve got. But that passed and I’m optimistic and super hopeful now,” he smiles. “The End is about not being alone. You can’t really hear the vocal on purpose, but it’s conveying that you’re not alone when you pass over.” And there it is, that feeling of hope in despair which he conveys so well, an enlightening spiritual charge present in all his work, his belief in “an energy” undeniable.

Although all this stuff can seem a bit heavy, it’s just the reality of life, especially as we get older, something one of his collaborators on the first album, John Robb (who featured on the mesmerising march of English Ghosts) attested to when we spoke to him earlier in the year as he discussed the number of obituaries he now has to write for artists he was once introducing as 20 year old hopefuls. 

But the Humanist project offers a therapeutic release from these realities, not just for Marshall, but also for his collaborators and listeners. When he approached Tim Smith (Harp, Midlake) to feature on the record, he asked Marshall what he wanted him to sing about. Marshall explained the themes of loss, life and death, wondering if he’d go for it but Smith was more than happy, saying those were all the subjects he was comfortable with. The track Too Many Rivals was the second single to drop from the new release, a striking number which unbelievably didn’t make the 6 Music Playlist. Deeply reflective, there’s a visceral pain rushing through Smith’s vocals as Marshall’s icy chimes materialise from the gloom before dissipating like gasps in a winter’s dawn. Marshall is delighted with the result, and how Tim’s voice lends itself to both sending shivers right up our spines and giving hope at the same time.

Of course, it’s a different model from the traditional rock band, though to be fair, Marshall has done his time in that mode as guitarist with Lyca Sleep and the under-rated Exit Calm, who split in 2015. His solo venture was a new challenge and his first foray into producing, a set up more aligned to the likes of the UNKLE project, from which Marshall has sourced a few singers including Joel Cadbury and Rachel Fannan. But is he ever tempted to go centre stage and step up to the mic himself? He shakes his head, 

I know what I’m good at, or comfortable with at least, and really I just like to be up there playing guitar. For one, I don’t think I’ve got a good enough voice and two, you need to have that special ingredient, which I ain’t got.” 

Well, I’ll have to disagree with that as he sits pretty behind his shades, decked head to foot in black as he downs his pint of Guinness. But when he gets on stage later that night, it’s obvious he’s in his zone when he’s up there, thrashing the living daylights out of his guitar. He practically sweats out his emotions as he plays, visibly moved with the release his music offers him, providing respite from the ravages of life. “I’m a head in the clouds kind of guy, and not good in big situations,” he adds, “but when I’m playing guitar, I’m not even aware of the people watching, I’m so lost in the moment.” 

Of course the reality is, we’re all reaping the benefits of his modesty, his collaborations with such a diverse range of vocalists allowing the dynamic to shift quite dramatically between tracks which results in a collection of songs which capture the extremes one person alone could never attain, enabling every nuance of emotion to be explored. 

When it comes to touring, he obviously can’t include all the collaborators from the record, as amazing as that would be, and rather hand-picks a live band. On the current tour the only artist to feature on the new album is James Cox (Crows) who performs the brooding anguish of This Holding Pattern. He’s joined by Jimmy Gnecco (Ours) and together they provide the vocal range and diversity to allow Marshall’s gloom-stained masterstrokes to flourish unrestrained. The results are astounding.

But back to recording, does the vocalist determine the music, or is it the other way around? “I tend to write the music then work out who I feel that piece is going to fit with,” Marshall tells us, explaining that he’d heard Rachel Fannan sing on an UNKLE track, which resulted in Keep Me Safe, Fannan’s vocals simmering atop the driving disco beat and glimmering guitar, her intones giving off echoes of The Duke Spirit’s Liela Moss (another UNKLE collaborator). Marshall goes on to tell us “once I’ve got the contact for someone I then take some time, manifesting it in my mind before approaching them – that’s what I did with Dave (Gahan) and Mark (Lanegan), and generally it works. It’s all about energy really, which I try to tap into.”

After putting together a wish list of artists to contact, with low expectations of any interest, it was Mark Lanegan who first responded to Marshall back in 2016, which led to the former Queens Of The Stone Age and Screaming Trees singer performing on four tracks of Humanist’s first release. Lanegan was so impressed with Marshall’s work he also asked if he’d written anything else he could use on his new album, Gargoyle. Marshall didn’t have anything but the man’s a machine and within ten days he’d written six tracks, which all ended up featuring on the album. He tells us “I sent him Nocturne and Goodbye To Beauty, and he was like “fuck”, Marshall articulating Lanegan’s gruff intones to a T, later responding to numbers Drunk On Destruction and Beehive with a gravelly “God damn”, which pretty much translates as ‘that’s bloody incredible, Rob, you’re a genius and you’ll be doing six more for my next album, Somebody’s Knocking

Although he’s gone, you can still feel Lanegan’s presence on several of the new tracks including The Immortal and Happy, both featuring former Lanegan collaborator Ed Harcourt, and there’s no doubt that he would’ve played a big part in this album had he been around. With this in mind, it’s probably no surprise that Isobel Campbell also features on the new record, having released three albums with Lanegan, her serene vocals casting an ethereal glow over woozy waves of feedback on Love You More. Marshall comments that once you were in Lanegan’s inner circle, he’d do anything for you, the legendary singer helping him make contact with Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan, resulting in the shimmering ache of Shock Collar, Marshall surely deserving a halo for such a beautiful creation. And as a vote of confidence, Gahan returned to perform Brother on the new album, the number a poignant tribute to Lanegan, fittingly co-written by Harcourt, with Campbell on cello.

On one of the last emails Lanegan sent Marshall, he asked him who he wanted on his next record, listing off Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Chrissie Hynde as possibilities. “I never asked Mark for anything – he always offered”, says Marshall, reinforcing how kind Lanegan was. And although Marshall did start work on a track he wanted Nick Cave to work on with him, in no rush asked Lanegan to hold off sending it so he could take a bit more time on it. It was never to be.

But the future looks bright and no doubt some of these collaborations will see the light of day as Marshall’s reputation grows. He tells us that although he loves discovering new artists to work with, he can’t resist the thought of collaborating with some of the legends he grew up listening to such as Siouxsie Sioux and Robert Smith, with maybe Janes Addiction‘s Perry Farrell thrown into the mix too after this tour. It certainly sounds like a plan, all these artists perfectly suited to Humanist‘s sound which harks back to the dark wave of the ‘80s…watch this space. He’s also got some work lined up with Anton Newcombe from The Brian Jonestown Massacre, which we can’t wait to hear. But before he can think about album number three, he’s focusing on being the best guitarist possible along with ensuring that Humanist’s live proposition is as good as it gets, which I can assure you it is after watching them support Janes Addiction.

In a country where the arts are being driven into the ground and only the top tier can make a living from music, with the added threat of those championing AI hell-bent on crushing the creative spirit, Marshall considers what constitutes success. “If I can sell out a 200-300 capacity venue then that’s enough for me because I get to play the music that I want to write, to people who seem to respect it and love it. I can’t ask for anything more than that really.” He then sums it up perfectly, reflecting on something Lanegan said to him. “The reward is in the music itself.”

On The Edge Of A Lost And Lonely World is out on 26 July on Bella Union.
* 11th June update – Brother (feat. Dave Gahan) announced as new single *

Check our our live review of Humanist and Jane’s Addiction >>

Words and interview: Shirley Mack @musingsbymarie
Pictures: Calum Mackintosh