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Interview Tony Banks: Banks Vaults 1979 – 1995 Boxset

Tony Banks: Banks Vaults: The Albums 1979 – 1995, 8 Disc (7CD/1DVD) Boxset Tony Banks: Banks Vaults: The Albums 1979 – 1995, 8 Disc (7CD/1DVD) Boxset

Inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame in 2010 as a member of prog-rock legends genesis, Tony Banks is one of the most respected songwriters and keyboard players of his generation. His career spans fifty years and has seen him sell in excess of 130 million albums, with the band and solo.

Tony Banks: Banks Vaults: The Albums 1979 – 1995, 8 Disc (7CD/1DVD) BoxsetA new box set – Banks Vaults – featuring remastered versions of all of the solo rock albums issued by Banks between 1979 and 1995 – has just been released by Esoteric through Cherry Red. Those albums feature material which saw Banks creating on his own terms, and they include collaborations with other respected musicians including singers Toyah Wilcox, Fish, Jim Diamond and Nik Kershaw, bass players Pino Palladino and Dick Nolan, and drummers Steve Gadd and Vinnie Colaiuta – as well as long time Genesis collaborators Daryl Stuermer and Chester Thompson. In this new interview with The Mouth Magazine, Banks looks back at his solo work and casts an eye across the legacy of Genesis…

Tony, the opening track of your first solo album was From The Undertow – which I think is a really good way for this new box set to begin… the box is a really neatly collected chance to overview your solo material, and From The Undertow gives listeners a really good grip on its value…
Yeah, I think so too. It’s a really good track, and it does suggest the kind of music I do independently of Genesis. The box set is almost twenty years worth of music – and it’s now almost twenty years since the last album in it was released… So it is a bit of a history lesson in addition to being other things as well, we hope.

Why this particular moment for the box set? Is it that it makes sense from a logistics and business point of view, or is it that you’re feeling nostalgic?
Not really. Obviously Cherry Red Records have been interested in the solo material, the albums. They did put out the A Curious Feeling and The Fugitive albums in recent years, and they have often talked about putting out all the rest of the albums. They, really, were the instigators of doing this box set. I was, of course, very grateful to get these things out there, because Still and Strictly Inc haven’t actually been out there in twenty years. They were deleted. And the fact is that Strictly Inc never really got any real light of day anyhow… So, yeah, it’s great to have them out there.

How well do you think they all stand up?
Obviously I like them… and I think that they’re valid. I’m very happy for them to be out there so that perhaps some people will find some things that they like – particularly people who liked Genesis, earlier Genesis… And also, with the nature of the internet as it is now, it’s more easy to come across things which are perhaps slightly more ‘out of the way’. The problem I had with all of these records was never really having a hit single so the albums never really kind of ‘took’. In those days for an album to do well I think you really had to have that – a hit single – to be noticed.

As a writer, you were incredibly prolific around this time, so would it be fair to suggest that the first solo album was a series of ideas you’d had lying around for a while?
No, no. All the stuff on A Curious Feeling was written particularly for that record… apart from From The Undertow which was originally written as the introduction to the Genesis song Undertow [from And Then There Were Three], although it changed a great deal from that to when I did it on A Curious Feeling… It was a creative period for me, at that point, and I was really quite confident in my writing. I’d written for A Trick Of The Tail and Wind And Wuthering in particular, and then kind of And Then There Were Three as well. I had a lot of ideas floating about, and they came out on those three Genesis records. The ideas all went into those three records – and then obviously A Curious Feeling A Curious Feeling as well… so A Curious Feeling was a part of that same thing, I suppose.

From The Undertow has a particular feel and a particular sound (that piano) which could be said to permeate wind and wuthering… I’ve always felt that A Curious Feeling and that were very closely related – almost sort of ‘companion pieces’…
Yeah, I think to some extent that’s true. Wind And Wuthering is an album very close to my heart, really. In some ways I look at A Curious Feeling as doing a song like One For The Vine but doing it over a whole album, if you like – one concept goes throughout, and there’s all the little changes that happen, and the musical ideas. They’re stretched out, spread out, across a whole album rather than all put down into one song.

It’s a certain way of writing…
Yeah, it’s a certain way of writing. And, as I said, I was writing a lot of stuff at that point. The vast majority of things on A Curious Feeling were written quite closely after And Then There Were Three, to be honest – but it is definitely closely connected to Wind And Wuthering too… You had things like Undertow and Burning Rope on And Then There Were Three, and I think you’ll find quite a lot of resemblance to, and quite a lot of echoes of, Burning Rope in the piece Forever Morning on A Curious Feeling… Thinking back to it, I know that I was doing certain things at that stage. The way I was using chords, and the way I was using certain sounds and so on – as you mentioned earlier, the sound of the piano on From The Undertow. That was a Yamaha CP70 but put through some chorus effect. That gave it a very distinctive sound, and that sound is particularly prevalent on Wind And Wuthering and And Then There Were Three…

Thinking about it, it’s also there a little bit on duke, too… did working on A Curious Feeling affect that next Genesis album do you think?
Well, Mike Rutherford also recorded his own first solo album (Smallcreep's Day) in between And Then There Were Three and Duke. So both Mike and I came into the Duke sessions with rather less previously written material than we otherwise might have done. In terms of writing for Genesis, I think it was at that point that things changed a little, I suppose.

You recorded A Curious Feeling (and, in fact, duke) at polar in Sweden – famously known as ‘Abba’s studio’… the sessions for A Curious Feeling would be, I think, the first time that you were able to completely take control of what you were doing… I don’t doubt that was a gratifying and exciting experience for you, in all the right ways..?
Yeah, it was very exciting – but it was a bit frightening, too. I went there with Dave Hentschel, who was the producer / engineer we’d worked with on previous records – so I had him there as a security blanket, if you like… I’d also, obviously, worked with Chester Thompson on drums. I wanted to do everything else myself – partly just to see how it would work, really.  Well, apart from the singing, obviously… What happened was Dave Hentschel actually got mumps. He wasn’t available for the first week, and so I worked with the tape op Dave Bascombe. Obviously later he became a well-known engineer in his own right. But at that stage he was pretty green and I was pretty green, so we put the basic tracks down and the results were pretty good, quite surprisingly. One main reason for using Polar was that it had this live drum room, and I really liked that big sound – the sort of Led Zeppelin drum sound. They’d used this studio. But actually Dave Hentschel was probably not the right engineer to have for that particular job. Dave Bascombe and I were working on our own a little bit at the beginning of the recording sessions and we hadn’t known how to get that drum sound that I wanted. So the drums on A Curious Feeling ended up sounding a little bit smaller than I’d originally wanted them to. And it’s actually also possible that Chester wasn’t necessarily quite the right drummer for the piece Somebody Else's Dream , which has that big sound to it and needed really big sounding drums, but it didn’t quite get it. When we did the remix we were able to get a bit of that. You can’t really recreate it properly or in full, but we did get a bit of it – so it sounds a bit bigger and a bit heavier, now, than it did on the original record.

The fact you were making a solo record (and this would hold true for all of the albums in the box set) would mean that the entire experience was actually an experience without obligation… which must have felt quite freeing after several years of having been in Genesis?
Yeah, that’s right… But I did sort of get my own way a little bit with Genesis – particularly from Foxtrot onwards, I think. Well, I definitely got my own way a bit! And I suppose especially once Peter had left then even more so, ha ha… So I kind of got a bit of that in Genesis, but even so I would still sometimes get ‘the look’ from the others… you know, that I’d perhaps gone too far or something… But for a song like One For The Vine, which I just mentioned a moment ago, I just played it to the guys and said “that’s it”… And so we arranged it and then recorded it just as I’d written it… I thought that was quite a thing, really. By that stage I could get away with that a bit. But on the solo records I could do that absolutely, yeah… A Curious Feeling was always an odd one, I suppose, just because it was the first solo record so the first time working in that way. After A Curious Feeling, particularly on the later solo ones, I was actually much more self confident as a person – things like Still and Strictly Inc. I knew much more what it was that I wanted to do, so it was much easier work, in a way… Obviously I did make life very difficult for myself on the second solo album, though, because I sang everything…

… The Fugitive (originally released in 1983)…
Yeah. I wanted to do the singing on the next solo album ‘cos I felt that I ought to try and do that one time. There’d been various problems of identity on the first solo album because it was such a different singer. Kim Beacon had sung – not me – and a lot of people had thought I was the singer.  So I felt I should do it properly, and actually sing. That was a whole new experience for me and required quite a bit of thinking. I think some people liked the album because it was more personal – you’re singing your own songs. But there were quite a few… difficult moments. I did quite enjoy doing the singing, actually, and the result was okay. Where I found it really difficult was doing the video for This Is Love. The song is quite good, I still like the song. But the video – I hated that. That was a difficult moment in my life… That video is really bad. And I’m pretty bad in it, ha ha… But it’s on this new box set – so, there you go. You can see it. Warts and all!

The Fugitive had a kind of new wave sleeve design, which positioned any perception of the music somewhere else a little bit, I think… and, as you say, you were the singer this time… I’d guess that meant you were pretty considered in the writing because you’d be writing for your own voice – its merits and its limits…
Well, on the previous album – and on the Genesis albums – I’d never really had to worry too much about the melodies or about the difficulties of the melodies when I was writing them. Particularly with Phil Collins, actually, who’s really capable of doing quite elaborate melodies and everything like that. So up to The Fugitive I’d been able to do what I liked in that regard. But then when I got to The Fugitive I really had to keep it all just that bit simpler, and do what came out of my voice more naturally. I couldn’t do as much as Phil, obviously… So I was more restricted in what I could do, and I had to find a way that I could sing which I felt could suit the music I’d written. My natural voice is a bit sort of choirboy-ish, you know? A bit sort of like Al Stewart or somebody like that, and I didn’t really want that sound for this record. I had to find a slightly more aggressive way of singing than that, which was quite fun to do, I have to say. It also taught me a lot about writing music, as well, so it was a very good thing for me to do. Basically when you’re an instrumentalist like I am, I think it’s really good to do one project where you’re also the singer, where you’re also doing the singing, because you get a much much better understanding of exactly what it is that the singer has to do. There’s so many singers out there who are kind of ‘non singers’, if you know what I mean, and I don’t think I was any worse than some of them, ha ha…

I’ve always felt that your writing (for both your solo work and in Genesis) was more of a meticulous exercise or that it was composition, than it was developed out of jamming… I guess I’m saying I don’t really see you as an improviser, because I feel like there’s probably more intellect involved…
Yes, perhaps, in one sense… I do like to structure things, and I do really enjoy the mechanics of putting things together, and making them work… So you’re right to suggest that I do think quite carefully about things. I’m not someone who’s just going to ‘let it flow’, and I’m not someone who’s going to do a 12-bar blues and just let it happen. I will tend to write. So, yes, I’m more in that area of ‘thinking’, perhaps. It’s fair enough of you to say that… But I think there’s also a case to say that all writing develops out of some sort of improvisation in some way? When I’m on my own I just sort of fiddle along and play along, and you get bits and pieces you like, and you might then write something ‘off’ of those. I do like to try and be as unconscious as possible of what it is that I’m playing – which is why, in the early days of Genesis, I used to quite like the moments when I’d play a bit on guitar… because I’d be able to get some ideas that I wouldn’t have got if I was sitting at the piano. On the guitar I never quite knew what I was doing. But on the piano I’d know exactly what I was doing. So, anyway, you could argue that composition is just a way of organising improvisations in such a way that you find attractive.

Yeah, I take your point… having said all that, there are famous examples of jamming in Genesis – the most famous being the 1983 song Mama…
Yeah, that’s right. I think Mike, Phil and I improvised really well. Some of what we produced on later Genesis records grew out of what was improvised together – even in terms of just a chord sequence or some little ideas and stuff. Mama, yes, but also something like, for example, No Son Of Mine … That came out of an improvised chord sequence. Obviously when you’ve got that and you’re happy with it you then arrange it and make it work as a song. Usually with Phil singing along on top… One of the things I most enjoyed playing (the last time we were on stage together in 2007) was the song from We Can't Dance called Hold On My Heart. I just love the chord sequence in that. I wrote that chord sequence in a different way, keeping myself really tied down in terms of chords, and thinking particularly of Phil’s voice and how he might do it. I liked that, it was a sort of nice challenge. I remember thinking “whatever he sings on this is going to sound great”, ha ha… and it did!

The 1989 album Bankstatement… I always found that one particularly interesting because I think it was probably more informed by success than the previous solo albums… you’d had global hits with Genesis, huge tours, the invisible touch phenomenon… you were no stranger to the charts at this point, and you knew how to make a hit song… so there’s something about Bankstatement which makes me feel it should have got a bit more attention than it did…
Well, to some extent you always want to have that, don’t you? No-one ever minds having a hit, if you know what I mean? But I always felt that I was likely to have a sort of ‘flights of fancy’ thing for my records. I knew that. There was nothing I could do about that… In this particular case, on that Bankstatement album, I did quite enjoy writing sort of shorter songs. There’s a lot of craft involved in that which I really like and which I really admire. At the time of that album I was working quite closely with Jeremy Lascelles at Virgin Records, and he was quite keen on it all. It was actually him who suggested Steve Hillage as co-producer, and the idea was to produce an album that was strong. I think when we’d finished it we did feel it was pretty strong. But we just couldn’t really get any radio play for the single Throwback. Now, I’m not even sure Throwback was one of my best solo singles, to be honest, but it was certainly radio friendly. We thought we’d got a hit, y’know…

Yeah, and I still can’t really work out why it wasn’t…
It was just so difficult to get that sort of interest from radio. I don’t know… It’s just very difficult to get that sometimes, for whatever reason. I think at that stage Genesis was still very successful, and Mike did manage to get some radio play with his Mechanics records, but… I think Mike has always had a much more… erm… ‘user-friendly’ edge to him than I have had. Even on my simpler songs I still tended to have something a little bit grand going on in them… Having said that, I do think you’re right – Bankstatement is commercial. It has got lots of nice things on it, but perhaps it’s a little guitar light. Steve Hillage, he was supposed to be the guitarist on that album as well as being the producer – but he was going through a stage where he didn’t feel confident playing much guitar. If I’d known that was going to be the case and that Steve was going to play as little as he did, I would have got Daryl [Stuermer] in again, to be honest with you. I love the way Daryl plays and I think he would have had a good influence – some of the songs might have changed slightly. Who knows, though? It was a fun album to do, and all the rest of it – but it was just another one of those things…

The bass player on some of Bankstatement was Dick Nolan, from the band it bites, who were prog’s sort of bright young things at that point… they’d not long put out the once around the world album, which did its own thing but also kind of respectfully and deferentially tipped its cap to the band’s influences (one of which was Genesis)… my guess is the introduction to Dick Nolan came about through Steve Hillage, who’d produced some of once around the world…
That’s right. Steve suggested Dick because he’d worked with him and knew he was very good, and because It Bites were a good band and that had been a particularly great record, I think. Whoever it was, it was always good to work with other musicians when I was doing my solo records. You meet some people and they prove very apt for certain pieces you’ve written, and perhaps not so apt for others and so on. It’s always interesting because you discover that different people think about music in different ways – and so they might approach it in totally different ways. And different ways to what you might have been anticipating. You get people like Pino Palladino (who I  used on something later on) and he’s a very musical bass player – he thinks about it as a kind of line, if you know what I mean… Whereas other bass players can be very much sticking to the kind of root of the music – so you get this really different kind of effect on the song, and a different kind of feel to it. That’s something I discovered more and more as I went along. You could hire a drummer who was suitable for some of the album you were working on, but not suitable for other bits of it. That’s actually always been one of the most exciting things about doing solo records, for me – I’m able to get these musicians in, get these different people in, and quite often it’d be people who you’ve actually admired from a distance, and they’d come in and play on your records!

Prog can take its time saying what its saying, but I think for Genesis there was still an acute pop sensibility at work – and that’s even back in the era of the most lengthy songs… let’s talk just a little bit about the classical work you’ve undertaken in recent years. I feel that perhaps you were always heading towards working with classical music, and that it suits you to have that grand way of expressing yourself …
Well, it’s good not to be too tied down. I’d wanted to do that classical work for quite a long time. I think with Genesis, exactly as you say, even our longest songs did string together what were various pop music ideas… Having said that, though, we’d also always have those sort of moments in Genesis songs which were kind of orchestral – whether it be the sort of Firth Of Fifth stuff or the Apocalypse IN 9/8 section from Supper's Ready. It was the arrangements and the structures which were more imaginative, I suppose. But one thing I did also consciously try to always do in Genesis was bring those classical influences in – whether that be the style of piano playing on The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, for example, or other things. Certain sorts of harmonies and chords… Ravel was an important influence on me, and as a composer he had a particular way of using chords. When I started my solo work – A Curious Feeling – I was able to take that sort of thing to more of a degree, I suppose.

The Wicked Lady soundtrack feels like it might have been a pretty big step in that direction…
Yeah, working on The Wicked Lady, the Michael Winner film, and having this sort of quite simple melody played with orchestration and it sounding so much better than when I’d just played it on the piano… I thought, back then, “this would be a really good thing to do a bit later on”… Perhaps when there was plenty of spare time. And so when Genesis looked like it was going to pack up for good (in the late 1990s) I just thought I’d like to try and do something.

Your first classical album – Seven – was released in 2004…
Yeah, that’s right. Having had one or two pieces ‘in the bag’ which I thought could really work in the classical format, and having written the piece Black Down, I realised it was really worth pursuing, really worth doing a whole project. Black Down was the key piece, really. It was built out of improvisations – which we talked about earlier – but they were just me using a string synthesiser. It developed into all these little bits and pieces, and we didn’t really change it terrifically for the Seven record. We added a few timpani and added a few harmonies and stuff. But what you hear on the record is very close to what I originally did. I was very proud of that. It made me feel that I can work in this zone. Rather than taking something like Sprint Tide from that album, which could have gone either way and been something else perhaps, with Black Down I had a piece which definitely was classical. So that sort of developed into writing pieces which were genuine orchestral pieces. As you said earlier about ‘freedom’, for me the classical music can go anywhere – I can do these really long pieces with these chord sequences that Mike and Phil probably wouldn’t allow in Genesis. So it was great, ha ha!

Obviously classical music is where you’ve been expressing yourself of late, but this new box set covers ‘the rock years’ or ‘the rock albums’… do you hanker after that? Do you think there are things you would like to say for which only the rock music format would do?
I don’t actually have a massive feeling of having ‘things to say’, to be honest with you. If you ask me if I’d like to work with a drummer again – yeah, I get quite excited by that. I did think about it, in the mid-2000s – but then we did the Genesis tour and so I was working with two drummers for a year or so. I kind of got my fill of drums, if you like, ha ha. Quite noisy! So after that tour I didn’t feel the need to do it again. But some of the most exciting music I’ve ever heard has drums in it. I love classical music but you get this sense of excitement when you hear something like Kashmir by Led Zeppelin. The power of that is just so wonderful, you know? It’s a great riff, but it all comes from the drums really. It’s that drum sound. I do like that sort of ‘constant rhythm’ thing. It really gets into your soul, in a way, so I do think drums are a wonderful thing. So I don’t rule it out – but I have got nothing planned in any direction, at the moment, to be honest, so it’s all a bit up in the air. If something takes me, then that  might be fun to do. I suppose in this day and age of the internet, you don’t have to do whole albums. You can just do one or two pieces, or whatever, and that might be what I do, that might be more fun to do, because it’s not quite such a big commitment.

Over the years, and whether in rock or classical, you’ve created some of the most memorable melodies and keyboard lines – all of which are ‘recognizably Tony Banks’… there’s a particular keyboard section on the cinema show, for instance, which I still find myself whistling all the time, and which still seems a really fresh and exciting piece of music even though it’s now forty-six years old… I bet you know immediately which bit I’m talking about..?
Yeah, ha ha. The Cinema Show, yes… and I love the first half of that song as well as the bit you just mentioned. I think the first half of The Cinema Show is really good. Things where we could be a little more expansive in what we were doing were always a lot of fun. Supper's Ready was obviously an important song for Genesis, of course, and that was a lot of fun to do. I think the last ten minutes of Supper's Ready are as strong as anything else we ever did in Genesis…

There was never quite another supper’s ready… but there were still long songs right the way through – even on the more commercially successful albums like invisible touch in the 1980s…
Yes, there was Domino on the Invisible Touch album. There was Home By The Sea as well, from the album before that… I thought we wrote some really good pop songs in that period – particularly things like Land Of Confusion, Throwing It All Away, I Can't Dance – and by the time of the sort of ‘hit’ songs I just mentioned, we had a good-sized pool of those sort of songs, the more straightforward songs. We managed to do those really really well. But obviously in the early days our best songs were definitely the long ones – and they were perhaps what we were known for – but I do think the longer songs in that later period were also really good… Domino is a particularly exciting piece, and you’ve also got Fading Lights and Driving The Last Spike… We always had a slight combination of short and long songs.

Do you listen back, and if you do what stands out?
Well, I have my favourite moments and we’ve talked about a few of them already – but my moods change, and I haven’t listened to some of these things for absolutely years, so I can’t tell you everything. Firth Of Fifth, I think, is something pretty special. That idea of doing a soft melody in a loud way was actually Steve Hackett’s idea. He said “let’s just give it a go,” you know… He picked up the guitar and I put the Mellotron on and we played the melody and it sounded fantastic. So that became something much more than I originally perhaps thought it was going to be. I love the way that song sounds… I think Mama is good, that was a very exciting one to do, as was No Son Of Mine… Thinking back on my solo work… We’ve mentioned A Curious Feeling a lot, of course… and there was also An Island In The Darkness (from Strictly Inc)… Those ones do sort of stand out for me a bit. They feel like key moments for me. But there are many others. I love the whole of the Still album, for example, so there are many bits and pieces… I’ve probably named too many, haven’t I? I’m really not a very good critic of my own stuff, ‘cos I tend to like it… Ha ha… My opinion is totally subjective – so it’s worth very little, in a way. But you asked!

The more commercially successful years for Genesis – so let’s say early-to-mid-1980s onwards – I’ve always been interested to find out whether you were comfortable or uncomfortable there…
Well, we were brought up on The Beatles and all of that, and I’ve always loved slightly more ‘straight ahead’ music – and suddenly we found ourselves able to write songs and get them played on the radio – and so the albums became really huge, and we played massive shows on big tours – and because of that there was a lot of attention focused on us. It was all quite a thrill, really. Obviously Phil, because of his incredible success independent of Genesis, was always going to get the lion’s share of the attention, but I think the job of an instrumentalist or accompanist in a group is to make the singer look good. If the singer sounds good, you’ve really done your job. That’s the whole idea…

Bearing in mind what you said earlier about the video you made for your solo single this is love… obviously Phil seemed to thrive on the attention and on the amount of work he did when Genesis was at its commercial peak, though I don’t doubt in some ways it took its toll… but yourself and Mike always seemed a bit more diffident…
Well, you ask me if I was comfortable and quite honestly I was very comfortable when Genesis was at its commercial peak. I loved it, really. And however it appeared – I know it appeared that Phil was dominant (and as the main lyricist in Genesis, in some ways he was) – the music in that period actually came from everybody. Mike and I, I think, were musically more behind Abacab and Follow You Follow Me and some of the other ones I’ve mentioned as well. Turn It On Again was very much something we did, two bits and we stuck them together and made it work. The three of us were very much involved in the result of whatever it was that you heard. That’s the true matter.

Mike and Phil have both done gigs, recently… so, despite it being a decade since Genesis last toured, it’s not out of the realms of possibility to think you three might work together again, is it?
We never say never. Mike and Phil and I never would say never. That’s our stock answer, and all three of us have been saying that for the last ten years – and we’ll keep saying it, probably, ’til one of us is no longer around… Phil’s been doing a lot of touring on his own, so he’s actually shown he can do it. Obviously he can’t drum – so the whole Genesis thing would be rather different because Phil’s role in Genesis is very much drummer / singer, as opposed to his role in his own stuff. So, obviously, it would be possible for Genesis to play again… but who knows whether we will? We never rule it out. We do talk about it…

© The Mouth Magazine

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 September 2019 09:19

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Tony Banks - This Is Love Banksian Central

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