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Mike Rutherford: Why Three Heads are Better Than Five

When Mike Rutherford steps in to his hotel lobby from the busy New York City streets, there's barely a stir.

Though tall and remarkably unchanged from his days as the guitarist in Genesis and leader of Mike + the Mechanics during MTV's heyday, only a few people seem to notice that a rock star with 80 million-plus album sales under his belt is standing nearby, chatting amiably. By the time we make it to Rutherford's comfortable but modest hotel suite, he's loose and talkative, excited to discuss the new documentary (Genesis: Together and Apart) featuring all five members — Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, Phil Collins, Tony Banks, and Rutherford — of Genesis, as well as the band's 3-disc anthology R-Kive and the Mike + the Mechanics reissues and tour set for 2015.

I think that one of the things that struck me after hearing the new Genesis anthology R-Kive is that I noticed that you and Tony Banks are there from the very first track all the way through. You're there the whole time. Listening to it that sound was really the core of Genesis, wasn't it? Maybe you didn't realize it at the time, but at some point did you realize you were the rhythmic core?

You start with R-Kive, but actually R-Kive started with our documentary. Before that I sent the memoir I've written that's coming out next year out to the band. And I think it warmed everyone up a bit. I think that they remembered what a great time that we had. When they saw the book, they kind of warmed up to the project. So to answer your question, doing the book made us all realize that the sound has a relevance to what we've always been in a sense.

When you to approached the documentary was everybody on board right at the beginning?

Yeah, it wasn't really hard, but I do think my book first helped remind them what a great time it was. It wasn't hard. Everyone wanted to be aboard. Otherwise it wouldn't really have worked. And it's nice to see us talking about the old days and stuff.

So it's not just individual talking heads, so to speak. You are together?

Yeah.

Wow, that's fascinating, how was that?

The same old thing, Peter winding up and Phil's good humor. It was good actually.

I interviewed Ringo Starr a while ago, and he said that they could never agree about anything when the Beatles were making the Anthology. Their memories are so totally different about even the same events that all four of them were present at. Did you have those moments? Was there conflict in this?

Tony Banks is the keeper of the keys. His detail was pretty good. If we weren't sure we deferred to him. The other thing that's surprising is that you sort of forget. And Peter's time was quite short really. It was an important time, but the timeline was quite short.

Listening chronologically to the new R-Kive set, the thing that surprised me was how well it all hangs together. Some bands will have the hits up front and intersperse things.

We thought in a sense we felt that if we didn't go chronologically, we'd be in trouble. Where do you put songs and figure out the running order? It actually seemed like the right way to do it. I said that there was a better story. People don't put it together. You've got the Gabriel career, the Collins career... the variety of songwriting is actually quite different. People don't put it together, but when you do that, you kind of realize that it's a huge range of material. That's kind of what got the whole thing going.

Yet they aren't completely separate. I've always thought of them, like you said, as the Peter era and the Phil era, but it's not really that, is it?

Right. It does flow together nicely. And everything Pete's always done I've enjoyed, and it's the same way with Phil.

When you were starting out, you were really playing more bass and pedals and rhythm guitar. You really evolved, and yet that sound never disappeared. The things you developed early on in the studio and live are constants in Genesis, aren't they?

Yes. And hopefully that's okay. You want to change a bit, but you can't change too much. You can't try to change. You can't try too hard to change. You are what you are. You can't not be what you are.

Well, if you take a very early track and a very late track, they do sound completely different. But taken in chronological order, the evolution makes sense. Listeners can see you all developing your chops — for you the double guitars, the pedals going on — and everything happening. Tell me a little about that adaptability in the context of the band. You did fill a lot of roles.

I think what it was was that the long songs covered so much ground that if I needed to start changing guitars, it would end up horribly. Now suddenly I could have pedals and sound like two guitar players.

How did you approach that in the studio? When you cut, were you cutting live?

Early we'd play things live.

Steve on guitar, you on bass, and overdubs.

Yeah, but the pedals at the same time. You couldn't play without the pedals. It gave us another half player, which was why I did it, really.

You never stopped doing it.

When I write now, or record, whether at home or in the studio, when I pick up the guitar and play some pads on the guitar synth and use some pedals, I'll just be playing some weird notes that I'll never do afterwards.

Well, it has to be second nature to you. I interviewed Ray Manzarek years ago, and he said he hardly thought after a while about what his left hand was doing. It has to be very much second nature.

Well, I did a bit of writing years ago, through my pedals. I don't know how it happened. I really enjoyed it, though. Without that, I'm just a guitarist playing guitar chords or riffs. With the pedals, you add this dimension of weirdness, playing all of these odd notes.

You're very humble about your guitar playing, yet that sound has been at the forefront of several musical movements.

I'm probably humble about lead playing. There are so many players who are wonderful lead players. I'm a rhythm player who can do a bit of lead. That's what I'm talented at. That's about chords and riffs and that sort of thing.

Do you feel that over the course of the career of Genesis you struck on new ways of playing and new ways of approaching the guitar in the studio? It seems that adaptability was at the core of the Genesis sound.

Yeah, hopefully. As a band, we tend to play that development down. Peter, all of us. It's our nature, you know what I mean? It's very English, I suppose. I remember we were in the studio years ago at this place out in the country doing a take. Somebody played a part, and the engineer went, "Eh, not too shabby." In America, they'd be like, "Oh my god, that was incredible." It's just our nature. It's our kind of humor.

Over the five year period that Peter was in the band you obviously learned a lot about working in the studio and working together as a band. Those are two separate things, live and in the studio. Obviously there are very different approaches. What are your abiding memories of being in the studio with Steve and Peter at that time?

Yeah. It was quite hard work. In those days, it was... We were trying to push technology basically. Everything was really slow. On one of our long songs, the engineer felt he didn't dare drop in, because of the click, so we had to be there from the start. It was quite hard work. On the later albums there was a bit more playing, a bit more jamming. But on the early albums, in those days, it was quite hard work. Technology was not really on our side.

Did you find that you were constrained by budgets? You clearly had big ideas.

It wasn't so much budgets. We were quite green. We were so new to it.

At what point did it then become easier? Around Abacab?

After Peter left. [Laughter.] Not because he left!

Technology caught up to you, I suppose.

Yeah. Then we were four then three... Just having three people with a lot of ideas is easier than four or five. One album a year was always going to be a problem, in a sense. There were just too many ideas. Plus, we were young in those days. When you argued about something, you realize that you don't really care, but you stick to it. Later on, you admit what you don't know. That's the change, too. In the earlier days, you're very committed to making your point.

Did the role of the producers and engineers change as the technology developed?

We really came to life when Hugh Padgham [Tape Op #55] began producing us. The other guys were all great, but it wasn't until we got with Hugh that we sounded on our recordings the way we actually sounded in the live room. On every album that we did, Phil did stereo cassette DAT tapes of the band playing, and they always sounded great. Then you recorded it and everything would get small and teeny. With Hugh, we were finally sounding the way that we did in the room.

Hugh Padgham certainly has a very distinctive sound, but what was it about that change?

I think he just got it. We always sounded that way, but no one quite caught it. Everyone's scared a bit of what's in the room.

You always say that you are a songwriter who plays some guitar. What did the ability to capture your sound finally do to your approach as a player and more importantly as a songwriter? 

Yeah, that's my primary role in a sense. Also, in the early days, we were trying to impress ourselves in a way, if you know what I mean. Later on we realized that if the right thing for a song is to play something simple, that's what you play. After that, recording became more fun and easier.

Was that the motivation when you started Mike and the Mechanics? Genesis had become so huge by that time. Were you trying to capture a little bit of that fun, that looseness?

No, it was kind of just more like... We were just out for a bit of variety. Phil's the best drummer in the world, but I wanted to play with someone else for a change. I just wanted a bit of variety, to play with other people.

What does that do from your standpoint as a songwriter. Did you think in terms of writing Mike and the Mechanics songs versus Genesis songs?

They could have been either, but because I was doing the Mechanics project, they went a different way. It's the co-writing. With someone else, it'll sound a bit different. That's why you do it really. That's what you want. You want the variety.

Yet again, in the scope of the R-Kive project, they slot right in nicely.

It's interesting. The solo stuff doesn't seem as different as you'd think it would. In my mind they're more different. But that's in my head, I suppose. Maybe it's the video and the time and the sound that creates that.

What did you do differently in the studio with Mike and the Mechanics that you didn't do with Genesis?

Well, it was the different people, the different players. The other thing about this sort of thing is that you learn more, because there were new people. With Phil and Tony, we got to a point where we all knew all that we could know together, and that makes it hard to change things. You don't learn very much every time. With someone else, you learn new things.

Did that help you feel fresher when you came back into the studio to work with Genesis?

Yeah, always.

There's definitely hints of all three of you that your solo work in Invisible Touch, Land of Confusion, things like that, you can hear bits of your solo projects in that coming together.

Yeah. It's sort of hard to define, but I think that you learn something.

Something I thought was really interesting about R-Kive is that it sort of ends where it begins. It starts off with these big, progressive songs. You're really reaching for the stars on those early tracks. You're new and green, like you said. Then you go through the arc of the band, and it becomes, for want of a better way of saying it, more commercial toward the end, because you'd become a very big band. But then the last few tracks on the set are back to kind of the beginning in that they have more artsy leanings, if you know what I mean. Do you hear that same thing when you listen to it?

Yeah, I think so in a sense. Every album that you do is a snapshot of where you're at during a moment in time. Every time you are in the studio it changes. It's just that moment in time.

Talk to me about how you set things up in the studio. I know you have your Rickenbackers and, of course, quite a few Strats. Do you use a lot of pedals or outboard gear? Do you like to go into the board and deal with it later?

I write at home, not in a big studio but in a writing room. It's pretty basic. There's not a lot of gear. I record in Cubase. I've got Pro Tools, which is purely for my guitar sound, because Cubase is delayed. I go through Pro Tools and use that like an amplifier. I've got that, my guitar synth, my guitar, and the pedals. Then the drum machine. I use those a lot.

At what point did you start doing such elaborate home demos and do you begin recordings at home and then just fly the best parts into the master?

I write like that, but I never do demos. I don't demo things. You waste so much time demoing. If it sounds good I'll just bang it in there. Obviously with keyboard stuff and guitar synths, you've got to do it properly. But I'm impatient too. I'll play a song and get it in there. Then I'll go from my place to the bigger room to add to the recording and finish it.

Do you foresee a time, now that the ice has thawed a little bit, that you'd want to play with the guys again? Would all five of you be in the room?

There are no plans at all. Who knows. We'll see. There are no plans, but it was a nice project doing the documentary.

What was surprising about doing the documentary or your book? What was good and bad about those experiences?

Now that you mention it, Steve was so easy and nice. He said yes to everything. It was wonderful. All the e-mails about artwork and design, Steve just thought it looked great. And Phil's funny again. Thank god the humor's back.

Do you guys see each other much socially? You're so intertwined.

I see them quite a bit. Phil's over here so I see him less, but he obviously came for the documentary stuff and will come for the screening. Pete I see a bit.

There's a deluxe edition of the Mike and the Mechanics album The Living Years coming out soon with a new version of title song. Are you going to do more recording?

I'm going to write some new songs. I don't know about an album. The amount of work to put in an album, I just don't know. But I want to write some new music.

That's the great thing nowadays. You can put out bits and pieces if you want.

Yeah. I thought, rather than trying to work it out, I'd just write some songs and see where it takes me. We haven't toured much. The Mechanics tour was three years away from the last album, so I started touring about three years ago. What was nice was that I'd forgotten about some of these good Mechanics songs. They're good live songs. What was interesting is that it sort of took three years. You can't cut corners. To be come a band, you've just got to fill the shoes. Somebody asked about doing a tour in America, so we decided to do it. Just in the northeast. It'll be nice to do.

It is the way to do it these days. 

About three years ago we were asked to do a Venice festival in two weeks time. I didn't have the gear or anything, but my promoter just said forget about that. Just bring out your guitars and rent stuff. It was actually quite liberating. At the festivals around Europe for that one and after that, we were at the airport with about six guitars, a little keyboard computer, some cymbals, or not, and that's us! We'd just rent stuff. It wasn't bad at all. If you see us at the airport, we just had four suitcases of stuff. We sort of looked like gypsies going on tour. It's quite fun to do.

Well, it's got to be liberating relative to those huge mega-tours.

Those are great too, but this was something different. I like that sort of middle ground. It's wonderful when you've got a big budget, but I was sort of in a funny area. I was constrained by traveling with lights and everything. Most days people have their own gear and manage the front of house themselves. Also you can only go to the places that you want to go.

So if you go in and write some songs, and you get some things down on your home setup that really spark your musical palette, so to speak, do you call Phil or Peter? What do you do with them if you're not sure what project they're for?

It's for Mechanics at the moment. That's all I'm going to do. It was actually suggested that I try some different co-writers.

How do you choose? You've worked with a lot of people.

It just works. It always works. Something's a little bit different. I'm more for just trying new faces. It's always good to just try a new face and see how it goes.

Well, I could obviously pick your brain about studio stuff for the rest of the afternoon. I'm fascinated by the way it went from five to four to three, and that three really seemed to be the magic combination in the studio.

It's true. There were so many ideas with just the three of us. Imagine when we had four. Or five! We could never last. There was no room to fit all those ideas in with one album per year. It couldn't ever have worked for very long, because you just couldn't fit it in.

There were four people in the band for about six years, with Steve there for some of that. That's a long time to sustain that many ideas. 

Steve didn't join until '73. But you're right. It wasn't too bad, but it made it hard to fit it all in.

But from the standpoint of the listener, that period where there were four and five people was pretty magical. The result in the studio — perhaps it was too many ideas to fit on a forty minute album for you — but...

We were young, with intense egos. Later on in life, you calm down a bit, but at that time we were young. 

Did you keep a diary?

No, it's all out there what we did. That wasn't the hard part. The hard part when I was writing my book was trying to get it to work with my father's life. That generational change was what's the book about. That's the story really, and the band fits right into that. I think that's the important thing that I wanted to write. My father's book — his book, my book — it fits together well rather than just being a list of facts.

Is there one memory of early days in the studio, or any time in the studio that, when you think of Genesis, sticks out in your mind?

A couple of things. "Supper's Ready" probably. The second half of that, when we recorded it and Pete came in to sing. I had no idea what he was going to sing. Was it a vocal? I didn't quite know. He just came in and it was mind-blowing.

When you hear it now, does it take you back to that time?

It still stands out to me as pretty impressive. I'm pretty proud of that. I think in that sense in doing the documentary I've realized that was a pretty good piece of music, really.

By Jeff Slate

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