It was a pleasure to interview Tony Banks on June 22nd 2015 concerning his new box set release, A Chord Too Far, covering his entire acclaimed solo career on the other side of Genesis. Just as Steve Hackett gave us last year, there were some incredibly detailed and revealing responses he gave to my questioning. Tony Banks also has a recall facility which is just as sharp as a tack and he offered rare insights into how both early and late Genesis performed together. We delve into movies, orchestral suites with no tricks of the tales!
TP: It is incredible how Genesis do not seem to have any long disputed fall outs. The recent BBC TV documentary Together And Apart (accompanied by the release of the Genesis R-Kive Triple CD) demonstrated how well you still all get on together and have a very gentlemanly spiritual relationship after all these years. Would you agree with that?
TB: Yeah, you know there was not real any falling outs when anyone left it was to further their career in a different way I just suppose and then I still see all the guys reasonably regularly and consider them all friends,
And that comes across. Incidentally I just read Mike Rutherford’s book The Living Years…
Oh, Right! (Laughs from both sides) …..shall I put that in?
Yeah, put it in, but what I mean I think he takes me for granted a bit and it is only a book.
It is only a book, I agree, but what I thought interesting is that it appears to be sometimes brutally honest and is the only autobiography which has been written by a member of Genesis so far, is that right?
Yes, he is the only one to have written autobiographically but when it originally started it was supposed to be more about the concentrated relationship with his father and how he was related but then ended up being his autobiography of life with Genesis, more than he originally intended.
Yes, I believe so, but do you have any plans of your own to write such a book?
Not really, no, I occasionally think about it but then I think, what is the point, really? As far as I am concerned the most interesting thing about my life is the music, I can write words, but I am not sure I really approve about these biography books of people that much. I don’t really like them and so it does not grab my attention there.
Absolutely agree. So, tell me all about your new box set, which is what this particular interview is all about, as there are 49 pieces of music we can choose to talk about…..
Well, we have four CD’s within this box set which is a combination of the various seven rock and film score albums I have done over the years and the two orchestral albums. I think some of these releases did not make a very good impression and so I wanted to give them another fresh airing, particularly for those people who have liked Genesis over the years, so there is quite a lot of back material for them to like, many pieces of which they will not have heard. The first one did OK and the later orchestral albums did OK but in between some of them got lost a little bit.
So, aligning your solo work history to the recent Genesis R-Kive 3 CD release, wherein each of the five mainstay members were given only three choices each of their solo works for inclusion on the album , how exactly did you come up with your own three selections from your extensive repertoire?
For A While, I thought, was a good pop song from Curious Feeling, I was looking for tracks which were not too demanding and had a good feel which would sit smartly on the R-Kive project in order to help them flow into the other Genesis tracks on the album. My second choice was Blue Day On Blue Street which features Nik Kershaw on vocals and is from the album Still, he has a good voice in that context, and Siren from the 2012 Six Pieces for Orchestra album was the easiest to latch on to as it has atmospheric melody and so this is why I put those three pieces on the R-Kive to attract attention.Your box set comprises your seven solo albums: Curious Feeling (1979), The Fugitive (1983), The Wicked Lady (also 1983 and is a film score), Soundtracks (1986), Bankstatement (1989), Still (1981) and Strictly Inc (1995). So you haven’t really done a solo rock orientated solo album since as such since 1995 is that right?
Yes that’s right.
So, without being rude here, but fill in the gaps for me, what have you been doing for the last 20 years on solo rock material as your last solo rock album was from 1995?
Well, the next thing, I had the Genesis project Calling all Station’s which filled a couple of years and then I did the orchestral album called Seven and then a Genesis tour which took a couple of years out and then I did the album Six Pieces For Orchestra 2012. I just don’t sit down writing rock albums all the time, I think what is the point, I love making them I can put rock albums out but they can get all a bit depressing.
I did Strictly Inc which I thought is as good as anything I have done, I put my head above the parapet but it was impossible to get a single hit out of that, so I decided I would probably not do that anymore. Then after came the Genesis Calling All Stations period, which did OK, but obviously didn’t light up the world as much as we would have hoped.
So then I thought it was time to call it a day really, but I still had this idea in the back of mind to do something orchestral, having done Wicked Lady soundtracks some 20 years before and I then just found how the main theme sounded better with an orchestra as opposed to the way I just tinkled on the piano. So, I tried to write one or two pieces for the orchestra or even adapt one or two pieces we had for the orchestra and see where it led.
Fantastic, I feel that vision carries your musical writing somewhat full circle in bringing this orchestral experience to the fore as when Genesis started out you were very classically inspired.
Yes, very much, I like the idea that when we started out it was very much using more classical form and harmony within the rock context, which had not been done very much at the time, and that was quite exciting to me. Particularly in the phase of early Genesis albums with the orchestrations, we were recreating a feel of instruments which simply weren’t available to us.
In particular Steve was a very imaginative guitarist, and in terms of what I had available to me such as the melotron and that kind of thing we could build up an orchestral picture, which was great fun to do , and so when I came back later on with a humble sort of orchestral feel where you don’t have to worry about that repetition feel of words and choruses and then your chords can go on for a while, my hands weren’t tied and I just enjoyed doing it and was what I wanted to do all along really. I mean I love writing pop songs as well but it is a different discipline to writing a sonnet as opposed to writing a poem, I suppose. There are times you have to do what is required but then there are times when you just have to throw off the shackles and do what ever occurs to you naturally.
Well, exactly, you are the master of utilising the creative effect of using repetition chords, which will forever go down in history as masterpices of music such as Ripples? Everywhere in the world this melody is recognised and adored.
Yeah, sometimes you want it to be more straight ahead but sometimes you don’t want it to be so. In the early Genesis days we experimented with a total lack of repetition with songs such as Musical Box, where we would be in pains and purposely just play a piece once and then suddenly just go somewhere else. I enjoyed, treating it as special journey whereby normally we would come back to a chorus, which was fun to do aswell, but a different way of working.
Going back to the Mike Rutherford book (which I now know you think is rubbish!) one of the things I thought was fascinating from your early Genesis days was how you all carried that heavy Mellotron up the steep path to that rented cottage in order to endlessly rehearse and perfect your game. It is great to recall that in those early days you had to lug all your own very heavy gear about, which probably would not happen with that same discipline in these modern times!was that he couldn’t drive! So, Mike and I shared most of the driving and Peter did a bit. Click To Tweet
We had two guys who helped up us when we first got on the road, the roadies, but the main guy ended up being on his own after a bit and the main problem with that situation was that he couldn’t drive! So, Mike and I shared most of the driving and Peter did a bit. In terms of moving the gear about we obviously took part in that, and all the guitar string changing, the electronic making up of leads and everything, at that time you didn’t go out and buy jack plug leads you made them yourself, which was all a lot of fun really and we had a value to everything, mostly homemade, as money was fairly tight and you had to make the most of what you had, and our enthusiasm carried us through.
Moving on a few years, once getting your heavy equipment on stage, you always seemed to position yourself to be far right of stage looking out directly over the band, rather than into the audience. Was this considered to be your natural position as if you were the conductor?
Not really, not from that point of view, but I did do one tour in the middle of the two drummers, and that was a nightmare, because it was so bloody loud. That was ACACAB live and it worked from a visual point and so I went along with it but I didn’t feel right up there at all. I had always just got used to a certain position so I could look across at the group, I like to watch the band and take the cues from the singer and the drummers, and taking cues is what it’s all about, so you’ve got to be able to see each other. As you said facing the audience you can’t really see that, and sometimes when something’s wrong you can come in and do what you have to fix it. Then in the later days with earphones you could cheat a little bit with the extra stuff in the technology but back in the old days you came in the same time as the drummer….
Your legendary concert tours and how the roadie activities were micro managed draw apparel with today’s cutting edge technology with parallel to Bernie’s Formula One road show. Everything is so slick and the timing is always immaculate. Do you agree?
Yes, but we spent a lot of time on it, and we had good players, but the key is having the drummers to knit things together and once you have them in place to play along with it just makes life so much easier.
So, do you think there will be any more Genesis live shows now or is it all exhausted due to Phil Collin’s back problem?
I think it is highly unlikely but we never say never or that were not going to do it. There is nothing planned so I don’t think its going to happen, if something was to happen I would probably be up for it but I don’t think its going to happen.
So, is this the end of Genesis live, and is now effectively retirement from Genesis?
Well, for the group, possibly yes, but we all do stuff on our own, and I suppose as long as that carries on it doesn’t stop anyone from playing Genesis material as Steve Hackett is still doing.
Well, yes and he does a fantastic job doesn’t he? Those Hackett Genesis Revisited tours get sold out and I have done a few reviews, he makes his band play just like early Genesis forcing them to learn the twelve string guitar exactly as Genesis performed.
Well, its an approach and I had no doubt that he would do it again, I mean he wrote a lot of it, and there is always a lot of dialogue concerning tribute bands doing the Genesis stuff but you mentioned we couldn’t play with Phil’s back problem, and we simply couldn’t do the songs like we used to, and if we did they would have to be in a different style.
So perhaps this bodes well for an acoustic Genesis set?
Well, all I can say is that we never say never!
When I interviewed Steve Hackett this time last year I asked a question that Fly On A Windshield is perhaps one of the heaviest Genesis guitar tracks he had ever played on. He explained it was written as an ensemble rather than just for guitar and he cited Respighi’s Pines of Rome as a major influence. Are there any instances of classical pieces which have given you influence on any of your own songs and compositions?
Not directly, I suppose there are influences in all the stuff you write but I don’t know where Respighi comes from for Fly On A Windshield really. For that track we had set ourselves out for writing a piece having designs of Queen of Sheba coming down the aisle, so we did an improvisation on that theme. Phil played a slow heavy drum solo and I played slow heavy Mellotron chords and so, going back your question of classical influences, yes, on that piece I had the idea on that to play one key as long as I possibly could with one key change in the middle, just as Ravel’s Bolero without any key change for 20 minutes, that was my thought on it to give it an Egyptian feel, so that is where it came from really. We all improvised together so, yes, on this particular piece Steve may be right, it is an ensemble.
Looking at the classical aspect of your own new box set is their any significant usage of the numbers Seven and Six for your orchestral pieces?
Well, it happened to be seven pieces of music on the first and six pieces on the second. I wanted a title which did not have any particular name so I gave them numerical titles but not just one, two, three; we are not supposed to use those anyway. Then with the demo tracks from the new release I prefer to use inspiration of the Four Seasons and stuff like that. I am not one of these sorts of people who get influenced by fashion. I like music for music sake and making chords fit together is what I do and I like chords which move me directly rather than just leaving a window to view the music through. So I settled on using numbers in the main but there are also hints of rising and falling of the tide and horizons, all phrases which I like and had used in the past, and so that was the idea.
What about the title for this new box set album A Chord Too Far? Does that not sound a little apprehensive, or even daunting?
Well, I don’t know I always felt that a lot of the time with my music, people just feel that I use one or two too many chords, you know, and often when writing with the others even they would sometimes give me a look as to say that is not really there and would hold me back a little bit but over the years and through my solo albums I was allowed free reign, but I always knew what I was doing, You make music to give pleasure and lift the spirit and be user friendly really, so for the people who do like it, they like it more because of these qualities, just like the introduction to Watcher Of the Skies, and from this box set tracks such as Black Down, which is my favourite orchestral piece from Seven: A Suite for Orchestra, where the chords are quite exotic at times, but there are also many sequences of three of four chords which is where most pop music is written around, or three or four discords even.
You just half answered my next question, so what was your favourite piece of your works carried out with an orchestra?
Black Down, which was originally released in 2004, I thought I would give it a go, when I wrote it I thought this is ideally suited for a proper orchestra where some of the others are just orchestral arrangements.
Six Pieces For Orchestra came out in 2012 so do you have plans to make another classical album in the near future in this style?
Last year I was commissioned to do a piece for the Cheltenham Musical Festival which I performed down there which was quite fun to do and was a 15 minute piece, and using that as a starting point and expanding from there I have another couple of pieces I have completed and some others I am thinking about and working on, which should be recorded later this year, and released next year hopefully.
Did you not take the Six Pieces for Orchestra recording live in the Royal Albert Hall?
No, apart from that Cheltenham Festival in 2014 nothing I have written for the orchestral world has ever been done live, I have thought about doing it but am not sure I want to go down that road.
This new box set release includes music from your four film score soundtracks albums comprising of Shout, Wicked Lady, Starship and Quicksilver, which you can see clips of on YouTube…..
You would rather not I think! (Laughs)
Yes, they are mainly from the 80’s, but what about going forward with more movie scores? As an example, Trevor Rabin went on to make a career in that genre, is this not an area in which you see yourself operating in future years?
Well, I tried to do it back in the day really, especially as Genesis went through our regeneration period, but with those film scores I did, none of the films, unfortunately, were very successful and so they did not give me any platform to go forward with my ideas. I was quite keen on it in those days but today I am more happy working with artists who tell you straight away if they like it or not. Film scores took a lot of effort, you can take a month doing all of that and then it gets edited to a three minute video out of your control and that kind of thing.
It is probably only Vangelis, from the keyboard perspective, who got an Oscar for a film score isn’t it?
Well it was a great film and he wrote a great theme for it, so there is a combination. The first thing you have to have is an acclaimed film, you can make an incredible score but if the film then flops you are left with nothing, to end up with a the combination of a great film and great score together, well, that’s just rarer.
Wrapping up then, what does the future for Tony Banks hold, is this perhaps a classical direction?
Well that probably is my future but I would just like to mention a couple of the tracks from the box set which I believe have real merit. When you mention people who like Genesis, there is a 15 minute piece called An Island In The Darkness which is on the album Strictly Inc and recalls the early playing style of my career.
You may also want to mention the track just before it called Charity Balls, which was written in the 1990’s but is about people having dark secrets which they try to hide and then these things come out in the future. If you read the lyrics, which you can’t because they are not on this album, but the words relate very closely to things which have been in the news in only the last 5 or 10 years or so concerning the Jimmy Saville’s and the Rolf Harris’s and all the rest of it. Some of the lyrics did raise questions at that time concerning these kinds of relationships and stuff.
There are also some artists on the record which I like to refer to. People like Fish, who appears singing on three tracks and Nick Kershaw, who also has three, Toyah Wilcox, who has a very strong voice and I even appear on some tracks as a vocalist.
That was actually a question I had in mind, what does your lead vocal hold, as you actually have a very good singing voice. Could you not do the lead vocals?
I don’t know about very good. I can do it but it is one of those things in life. I wanted to do it, and did some on a Curious Feeling, and on the next record The Fugitive I decided to sing all the tracks myself. But the thing really is this: If you are going to be the lead singer you have to carry it off after that, all the time, as the leader, you have to perform in videos and all that and I found that is not really what I want to do.
Tony, many thanks for this interview, it has been an absolute pleasure and I feel we have uncovered some very classical territory for both new and old listeners to explore.
Interview by Tim Price with Tony Banks June 22nd 2015 between Wolverhampton and Tony’s Home office nearby the Farm Studio
A Chord Too Far. A Special Edition Four Disc box set of Tony Banks solo career released on Esoteric Recordings, hits the stores on July 31st 2015 http://shop.cherryred.co.uk/shopexd.asp?id=5095