Friday, October 27, 2017

A Very Candid Conversation with Anthony Phillips

Anthony Phillips (year unknown)

In 1967, guitarist Anthony Phillips founded the original rock/progressive group Genesis with singer Peter Gabriel, keyboardist Tony Banks, and bassist/guitarist Mike Rutherford at Charterhouse School in Godalming, Surrey, England. He recorded their first two albums, From Genesis to Revelation (1969) and Trespass (1970). He would leave shortly after Trespass. (Phil Collins had not joined the band by the time Phillips left).

For a few years, Phillips wasn’t active in the rock music scene, but in that time, he learned more instruments—keyboards, bass, and drums—and studied classical music. He and Mike Rutherford worked on Geese and the Ghost (1977), Phillips’s first solo album. Geese and the Ghost also featured vocals from Phil Collins. Phillips’s music was a mixture of various musical genres: progressive rock, experimental, pop, and classical oriented. Phillips recorded over thirty-one albums from 1978 to 2012. Harvest of the Heart (2014) is a five-CD anthology of his solo career.

In addition to his active solo music career, Phillips expanded his musical horizons and composed music for nature documentary films as well as library music. According to writer Nate Patrin, library music “(a.k.a. production or stock)” is defined as “music recorded in a multitude of contexts and styles by work-for-hire musicians, owned by music-library labels, and lent out to commercial enterprises in TV, radio, and film.”[1] In October 2017, Phillips rereleased Slow Dance, a classical-oriented piece album with bonus tracks and a 5.1 remix. He just rereleased his pop album, Invisible Men (1982).

In this candid conversation, we look at Anthony Philips’s time in Genesis, his solo career, his forays into film and library music, and his current reissues. I want to thank Billy James from Glass Onyon PR for setting up the interview, but most of all, I want to thank Anthony for his time.

Jeff Cramer: What encouraged you to get interested in music?

Anthony Phillips: Gosh, well, I think it’s because there were other guys I knew who were learning to play the guitar, and people are always looking for something to kind of excel at, right? I was sort of okay at sports, but I’m not quite good at football or cricket. So, I thought, “Well, guitar is a nice thing to do.” The Shadows were around, and they were doing appealing instrumentals, but I think the big thing was the Beatles. I mean, the Beatles exploded with all this kind of raucous color but also melodic as well. There was so much energy and melody like I’d never heard before. It was mind-boggling. I had always loved hymns. We weren’t a particularly a religious family or anything, but I love melody. I think it was a culmination of other guys playing the guitar and then the Beatles. Then all of that came off in their wake, you know, like the Rolling Stones and whatnot. It was a great time to be around because the sixties was a time of enormous change and innovation. I consider myself very lucky to have been learning at the time when there were so many great musicians whose careers have carried on. People kept saying, “Oh, the Beatles have only got two or three years.” How wrong they were.

JC: How did it build up to Genesis?

AP: Well, I was in a cover band with three other guys doing the Beatles’ “Slow Down.” Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks were in another band. Genesis wasn’t really a band as in everybody was singing and  playing their live instruments together.  We got together as a group of songwriters, really. I was writing stuff, and Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks were doing stuff together. We sort of came together when Mike [Rutherford] and I were doing some demos and asked Tony to cover our keyboards. Then Tony said, “We can get Peter to do some vocals.” Jonathan King produced us. King is very much a pop producer. We did a couple of singles with him, which weren’t personally my favorite, but he did let us do an album, the very first album, From Genesis to Revelation (1969). We were still in high school and we didn’t have much arrangement skill.

From Genesis to Revelation (Anthony, bottom left)—1969

We didn’t have much control over the album, and the whole thing ended up being unhappy. [To hear Genesis’ “The Silent Sun,” click here.] After we graduated high school, we were at a crossroads, questioning, “Should we give this one up? We’ve had a couple of singles and an album, or do we try and go from songwriters to actually playing our instruments properly on stage and take the band route?” It was a close decision, and it very nearly didn’t happen. Mike and I had done a fair bit of live playing at parties and stuff, but the others hadn’t really. Strangely enough, it was such a shame that Peter Gabriel was not a natural performer.

JC: Oh, really?

AP: He is very shy. Lots of shy people try to be themselves on stage, but it won’t work because they’re very shy and don’t command the audience. Peter’s persona was partly developed because of the fact that Mike Rutherford and I spent time tuning our twelve-string guitars. So, Peter started making up wild stories and built that whole sort of persona. Peter’s imagination is pretty vivid, and the whole audience was spellbound with his rather bizarre stories (laughs). It gave us time to get our twelve-strings in tune.

JC: Genesis was finding its footing by the time you guys recorded Trespass, but that was the last album you recorded with the band. In your words, why did you leave Genesis?

AP: Well, it was stage fright. I’d had glandular fever before I went on the road, which physically had knocked me back without realizing it. It’s this thing that stays in your system for a long time, and it can affect your nervous system as well, which I didn’t know at the time. I kept getting sick while we were on the road, and it wasn’t just colds. I was very weak all the time and it was the glandular fever. I was quite a natural, keen performer, but I just started getting stage fright. In other words, your sort of look at your hands playing the guitar and you’re thinking, “Hang on, how am I doing that?” Going on stage had started to become a major challenge and eventually I just thought it wasn’t really for me.

Genesis (1970) with Anthony Phillips (on left)

Looking back, stage fright was just an unfortunate act that happened to me and loads of other artists. Also we had too many composers in the group. I think you can only have so many strong minds working together; otherwise, you get too many people trying to have their share of the cake. And then you get a lot of anger. While that wasn’t the reason I left, it may well have contributed possibly to some of the background, because we did have four very strong minds and personalities, and that’s a lot. If you think of all the famous songwriting partnerships, they’ve nearly always been two. But we had four guys. I think that’s quite rare. It’s no wonder that there were regular departures from the group where people perhaps didn’t feel that they were getting their full share of the cake, or that their vision was diluted. I think it probably would have come to a head anyway for all those reasons. [To hear “The Knife” by Genesis, click here.]

JC: After you left Genesis, you went down another path altogether. You went on a solo career and started to learn how to play other instruments.

AP: Yeah, it was quite a passage. I was a bit of a lost soul for a while. Despite the best efforts of one or two of the masters at  high  school who thought I had melodic skill or had tried to teach me classical music, I just couldn’t really hear it.Partly I think I wasn’t hearing the right kind of stuff. When I left, I starting to play some more popular classical stuff—it was more melodic, arresting . . . you know, the New World Symphony. It was a revelation for me because I had always thought of classical music as being rather dry, arid, and rather formal. Suddenly, here was music bursting with color and melody. I was absolutely determined to have those skills for writing classical music, having that color under my fingers.

And so I embarked on a bit of a road. It was a sort of circuitous route because I couldn’t read music, so I started with a piano teacher to just learn the rudiments. This can be very difficult for someone who can play reasonably well by ear because then you have to train your eyes to work and not let your ear anticipate where you’re going. I was terribly frustrated. I would throw the music across the room quite a lot. I spent a couple years with a piano teacher. I could play classical guitar, so I had that sort of string to my bow—pardon the pun—but I also studied orchestration, harmony . . . all that kind of stuff at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I think I studied that stuff for three or four years, and I taught as well. It  was the sort of starting gates for The Geese and the Ghost, and I was armed with a few more skills than I had before.

JC: The album, The Geese and the Ghost, was originally supposed to be a collaboration between you and Mike Rutherford before it become a solo album?

AP: It was really Mike and I. I think the problem with the group of Genesis was that Gabriel had left and the whole thing was kind of rocky. Nobody knew at that point that Phil Collins had the potential to be a megastar who would lead at the front. I mean, he only became a singer by default because they couldn’t find anyone else to follow Peter. There was a hiatus where we needed to decide what to do. Mike and I did the album, and Steve Hackett (who replaced Phillips in Genesis) did his own solo album, Voyage of the Acolyte (1975). But once Genesis got back together, they very much wanted a united front and didn’t want to have a lot of people doing solo albums, which sort of made sense. The Geese and the Ghost had a lot of Mike on it, but I can understand a group relaunching itself. It’s gonna be confusing and side tracking to have a lot of solo projects going on. So, The Geese and the Ghost (1977) became an Anthony Phillips solo album. [To hear “God If I Saw Her Now” with Phil Collins on vocals, click here.]

The Geese and the Ghost album (1977)

JC: I think that album does show the beginning of your solo career. While it obviously has Genesis elements, it also has instrumentals that would become part of your solo career.

AP: A lot of my career was really fashioned by need and, you know, a lot of the time. One has to remember that before you had your home studio, you very much did what the record company wanted; otherwise, you wouldn’t record a record. There was no way of actually recording music unless you did what the record company said. It’s different now, because you can do it all at home on a relatively small budget. I was lucky in my career to record things I wanted. I was able to introduce a few orchestral elements and hopefully combine classical elements to match classical instruments with rock ones but in an integrated way. It wasn’t the sort of rock band on one side of the stage and the rather prim orchestra on the other. I was trying a combination of sounds, some of which were orchestral sounds.

JC: I noticed that you have a lot of solo albums. Are  there any that you would like to discuss? I mean, we’d be here all day (laughs) if we discussed every one of them. Are there any albums that you’d like to talk about in particular that hold a special memory?

AP: The two rock albums, Wise After The Event (1978) and Sides (1979). Rupert Hine was the producer, I think, and mixed in the results. It was great fun working with the brilliant [bassist] John Perry and [drummer] Michael Giles—it was a privilege to work with them. I think you sort of have to fast track into Slow Dance (1990) where I finally had the chance to work on a large scale again. It was a wonderful outlet for larger-scale pieces, which I had written over the previous ten years that I hadn’t been able to record. I threw my heart and soul into them. If I had to choose, it’d probably be The Geese and the Ghost because of the youthfulness (it was my first), and Slow Dance because it was something that came at the end of a period in this sort of semi-wilderness.

JC: Now, Slow Dance (1990) was an interesting concept in itself because the album is the piece. It’s a two-part instrumental.

Slow Dance cover

AP: Well, I think it was a bit of guesswork to be honest. I wanted to do an album and I had an X amount of material already. I got a new synth, which was quite cutting edge at the time; it’s called the Emax. I assembled the body of music of different sections that I thought were strong, and then thought, “Well, how can we combine these and try and make them work together?” Obviously, some couldn’t work together, so that was a challenge, but it was exciting because I was fairly convinced that some of the basic ideas were creditable. The challenge was really to make it kind of hang together. I worked on sections for a quite a long period of time. I mean, it’s much easier to do an album or a song. (To hear a live version of the “Slow Dance” opening, click here.)

JC: What made you decide to reissue the whole Slow Dance?

AP: I’m with a new record company called Cherry Red Records, which is located in England, and  they wanted to rerelease albums I did. This is always a moot point for me. There are some die-hard fans who are going to go out and buy these no matter what they do to them, and therefore, going out and buying an album again with this specific record company’s stamp on it. I don’t think it’s right. So, I was determined to try to provide something extra. The re-releases have had a various amount of augmentation at either end, and nearly all have had extra CD material. A lot of the albums have been remastered. There’s also a lot of extra bibliographical material so there’s lots to read about. I think about five or six of the albums are in 5.1, which obviously isn’t cheap. I don’t imagine that many people have the original albums, so I hope gradually more will buy the reissued albums, and that they will appreciate it.

JC: I understand you’ve also done library music (“production or stock music”). Can you talk about composing that?

AP: Initially, I was very privileged to work on a lot of programs that were brought back from South America, from Amazonas, the southern part of the Amazon, by a wonderful man who’s sadly not with us anymore. The film footage  could be very varied—anything from an animal stalking or some beautiful sunset. It was quite taxing and the money wasn’t brilliant. Some of the producers were very demanding and I just sort of stumbled onto library music.

Library music is very much a library of photos. You have a great photo and you can use it over and over again. This is equivalent in music, but as I said for reasons of budget, time, etc., the trick is to try to write something that is quite timeless. The discipline is that you can’t really change very much. You have a piece of music that has a sort of rough length of between two or three minutes, and while it has some change and development, it can’t go from a quiet twelve-string section to a loud piece with saxophones and stuff. You’ve got to work to create and develop it, augment it slightly, but be careful not to take any strange U-turns. I have always enjoyed it a lot because it’s a bit like doing an album but without some of the great pressure that you get with doing albums. And, of course, the other thing is the potential financial reward if you do create some tracks that get used repeatedly over and over again. The results are substantial. I’ve been very lucky. There are too many library companies in competition, but I was very lucky. The company I was working with got taken over by a series of bigger companies. We ended up by being part of Universal. I’ve used the income I have made from some of my library music to help fund some of the solo projects, particularly some of the 5.1 reissue work.

JC: Talk about the compilation of your solo work, Harvest of the Heart.

AP: I didn’t choose the material; the material was chosen by the record company. I think I suggested one track that I thought was a better choice, but aside from that, it was the record company’s choice. I said, “You know, I’ll leave it up to you guys.” When the record company finds an artist with a big catalogue, they often do a boxset, but my worry was that we probably had too much material on it. My compilation was five CDs.

Harvest of the Heart (2014) album cover

JC: (Laughs)

AP: Looking back, it might have been better to have had a double CDs or perhaps three CDS, but the record company knows more than I do.

JC: Are you working on any new solo projects? I mean, I know about the reissue of Slow Dance . . .

AP: Well, yes. Invisible Men (1982) is the next one to come up. (Invisible Men was released shortly after this interview took place.) Funnily enough, it was a sort of a controversial album at the time because it was pop songs. I felt a little bit awkward about it because I didn’t feel that sort of poppy pop songs, but record companies were like, “We need a hit, otherwise, we won’t record you.” So, we have a nice bonus CD with proper outtakes, sometimes an instrumental, and some other songs. I hope we’ve provided something that’s worthwhile buying, not just something that repeats itself.

At the moment, I’m involved in quite a lot of different things. I’m prepping up a new acoustic album. I’ve also done a lot of library music and I’m involved in writing a piano duet for . . . I’m not allowed to say, but it is for someone who’s very famous in the classical world.

Invisible Men album cover

JC: What is your secret to keep going?

AP: Well, I didn’t really have a choice but to keep going. In ’91 or ’92, I had my Virgin Records deal. Then Virgin got taken over by EMI, and EMI got rid of any artist who wasn’t making a lot of money  and that included me. It was around that time that a lot of the library music kicked in. You know, necessity is the mother of invention. One of the areas particularly perturbing is if somebody asked me to remix a library track of something I had recorded five or six years ago; I’ve got very little chance of doing it properly because I have to go back to an earlier computer. There are so many things that don’t read or aren’t compatible with each other. Things are moving very fast, and there is often incompatibility between them. So, there’s a bit of a minefield. People who are inventing and putting out new computer stuff seem to think there were no previous computers. None of the new computer stuff is compatible with old computers. I think that’s a real danger. You know, I guess the older you get, it’s gonna be harder to keep up, but I’m still enjoying trying to keep.

[1] Nate Patrin, “The Strange World of Library Music,” Pitchfork, May 14, 2014, accessed October 25, 2017