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My Life As A Mole

"My Life As A Mole"British pop singer Phil Collins about the abuse from the critics, his move to Switzerland, and the pointlessness of the plan to forbid the world's radio stations to play one of his songs almost every hour.

Spiegel:Mr. Collins, you sold more than 170 million records solo and with Genesis, and even more due to your new Hits album - and yet the critics keep deriding you like almost no other musician. Why do you still talk to journalists?

Collins: Because I enjoy it. Of course it's sometimes hard: Success often attracts envy, but I seem to have a very special magnet for this. The more often I appear at the top of the charts the more angrily I am being accused of cloning hits on the drawing-board. I hadn't been aware for a long time that I am also being sweared at in Germany because I don't speak the language. But then I realized that the German journalists were getting more aggressive as well. There were veritable battles of words - but those are just the ones that I often enjoy very much.


You enjoy being sweared at?


Interviews would be boring if every journalist thought I was a genius. It is actually a nice challenge to convince someone that he may be wrong.


Your rate of success [in convincing] leaves to be desired.


Unfortunately. Especially in England, in the U.S. and in Germany I am the whipping boy of the music journalists. In Germany that's probably because I have more success there than in any other English-speaking country. This has got to make even the Germans skeptical: How the hell can someone be so successful? Somebody who produces something that everybody likes cannot be highbrow; McDonalds, Phil Collins, no matter - let's put a stop to his game.

Spiegel: Maybe it would help if you forbid the radio stations all over the world to play a Collins song every single hour? In the U.S. there were radio stations that advertised Phil-Collins-free weekends in the 80s.

Collins: That would be pointless. Millions buy my music because they like it and it touches them. And they want to listen to that music on the radio as well.

Spiegel: Which displeases the others. When it was reported last year that you were supposed to write a song for the English soccer team at the World Soccer Championships signatures against you were immediately being solicited; NME demanded: "Piss off Phil, we want a good Championship song."

Collins: When I read that I got really angry. I hadn't even been asked about it, and they're already beating me up about it.

Spiegel: So how did the journalists get this idea?

Collins: Glenn Hoddle, coach of the English national soccer team, was so rash to tell a reporter that he intended to ask me for it. The reporter immediately wrote a piece full of hate, and all the papers joined enthusiastically. Well, I wrote a letter to the reporter to put things straight - and at least he corrected his error a couple of weeks after that.

Spiegel: Do you often write to journalists?

Collins: Every time I'm really angry. Often I do it to get some facts straight - and sometimes I simply shout back on the phone.

Spiegel: You call them on the phone?

Collins: Why not? After a Genesis concert in Indianapolis I called this fellow who had written a very hurtful critique. I thought: Last night we provided great entertainment to some 50.000 people - what is this guy thinking, hurling insults at us for this?

[this must be the Jan. 24, 87 show, right?]

Spiegel: Was the man baffled?

Collins: Yes, he was just stammering: "You shouldn't take this personally." I replied: "How personally would you take it if I called you a short, bald ass"?

Spiegel: Do you often get angry?

Collins: I'm a peace-loving individual and I assume the best about everyone until he proves the opposite to me. I tell myself before every interview: Be careful! Usually doesn't work though. A couple of days after that I open up the paper and see myself cast as a complete idiot. Suppose you [the interviewers] had just left the room and I told my manager: Those little greasy idiots! You would be outraged and hurt - and justifiably so.

Spiegel: Do you blame the British press for you leaving your home country England and living in Geneva for four years now?

Collins: England is no longer my home. I've grown up there, went to school, my relatives and friends live there, alright. But my home is Switzerland now, and people are nice there. You can leave your car unlocked overnight and in the morning it's still there. That's Switzerland. But actually I live there because my girlfriend Orianne Cevey is Swiss.

Spiegel: The British press interpreted your move [to Switzerland] like this: For the second time the man left wife and kids in the lurch to have fun with a beautiful girl who is 21 years his junior in tax heaven Switzerland. Do the Swiss journalists let you live in peace?

Collins: Most of the time. But their colleagues from Britain keep following me there, you can never get rid of them. Okay, I left my wife for Orianne, and I took a good beating for this, although I'm not the first husband who leaves his wife for another woman - but alright. But that the reporters were hanging in the trees when Orianne's father was lying at home terminally ill with cancer - that was simply nothing but wicked and insensitive.

Spiegel: But hadn't you complained earlier that journalists called you "Mr. Nice Guy"?

Collins: Because this nickname wasn't used in a friendly way, it was meant to be scornful. The way it came into being was very typical: One day a journalist took my mother, who was already over 80 years old at that time, by surprise by ringing at her door and asking: What was the worst that Phil has ever done? My poor mum couldn't come up with anything immediately. And - bang! - I was Mr. Nice Guy. While in fact I'm not as nice as everybody thinks! For example, I say "fuck" quite often - see, I did it again! And I don't give a damn if you may be deeply religious and take offense in my swearing.

Spiegel: But you re-interpreted this nickname into something positive by giving donations generously.

Collins: Granted, I give a lot. Not because I'm super nice but because I'm a human being - and a super rich one at that. But I was derided even for my donations, that's especially cynical.

Spiegel: Are you still hoping that one day you'll get the respect you deserve in your opinion?

Collins: That would be fantastic but I guess it's too late for this. Over the last five years I've come to terms with this, that it's not going to work out anymore in this life as far as respect is concerned. Folks aren't going to change their opinions about me, and my hair isn't going to get any thicker. So what?

Spiegel: Have you ever thought of using a pseudonym?

Collins: Before I left Genesis in 1996 we were debating this for years. Because when a music journalist finds a new album by Genesis or Phil Collins on his table it's absolutely impossible that he will give it a fair chance. This is like somebody wanted to convince me of the qualities of a Grateful Dead CD. I wouldn't be interested - I know that's unfair, given that I don't actually know anything about The Great ful Dead. I have prejudices as well. And I know that, when you've been in this business for as long as I or Genesis have been, you become a caricature for the journalists almost inevitably.

Spiegel: You are 47 now. Isn't there a law in the music business according to which stars from a certain age on get appraisal for their work almost automatically?

Collins: My friend Eric Clapton, who had to suffer a few punches as well, has achieved this; and so has Elton John, I guess - though I would say that his music is aimed at the masses a lot more than my music is. But what the heck: I was recently on a world tour with a jazz big band and was having a lot of fun. There I am, perching in the background, and playing drums, and from time to time somebody comes up, pats me on the back and says "Hey Phil, you're really good!"

Spiegel: Big bands are really the latest fashion right now due to the current swing revivals. So are you finally about to become hip this way?

Collins: I've had a passion for swing for years, I can prove it! But seriously: All this talk about the swing revival is giving me the creeps.

Spiegel: Why?

Collins: Don't you think I have an idea of what this will mean for me? Strictly speaking I shouldn't even be talking with you about swing - for as soon as the word gets out that I play with a swing band I can guarantee you that somebody is going to bitch and moan: This is the absolute end, now old Phil Collins is even trying to jump on this bandwagon!

Spiegel: Now you really sound bitter.

Collins: You know, there are days when I feel like a mole in this fairground game. As soon as the mole raises its head from its hiding-place somebody comes with a spade and - bang! - hits it on the head. At some point even the dumbest mole realizes that it had better stay in the ground.

Spiegel: And what is it that brings some light to the darkness down there?

Collins: Those people, for example, who write to me or who thank me when they meet me on the street because my songs mean something to them. They don't care about the ugly reviews I get. Maybe it's simply the journalists' job to swim against the stream and to try to impose their own tastes on the masses.

Spiegel: Your critics prefer to talk of a heroic fight against mediocrity.

Collins: My compositions are certainly not mediocre. If I was convinced of that my world would shatter. I hate mediocrity.

Spiegel: Isn't it in the nature of the avant-garde to be praised by only a few? You, however, seem to wish that your music is loved by as many people as possible.

Collins: Is that too much to ask? When an author or a songwriter has completed a book or a song he wants as many people as possible to like his work. What's so wrong with that? Isn't it absurd that bad sales are seen as a seal of quality? When the British Q magazine re-evaluated all my albums recently Both Sides got the best grade - my album with the worst sales. This was accompanied by a smart-ass comment: "Many years hence this one will be regarded as his best album." - complete nonsense. That's like saying "Nebraska" was the best Bruce Springsteen album. A flop is a flop, and only the critics never change their opinion: They are smart and the consumer is stupid.

Spiegel: The journalists also have been bickering about your outward appearance from the beginning of your career. Does this hurt you?

Collins: I'm definitely not a beauty but I'm not as ugly as they're trying to make me believe either. I'm quite normal. But nevertheless, a little while ago columnist Julie Burchill called me "the ugliest person since George Orwell". It's not very funny to imagine that insults like this are being read by hundred thousands of people.

Spiegel: Would you feel more comfortable if you looked like Antonio Banderas?

Collins: Not exactly like Antonio Banderas. I wouldn't mind a few adjustments but over the years I've become accustomed to my body. Some fans think they do me a favor if they give me Chinese hair lotion or toupee's. No, thank you! I have to live with me the way I am.

Spiegel: At least from time to time one can read something nice about you. You have actually been celebrated as an actor in movies like "Buster" and [is this Frauds?? Germans please help!] . Why did you stop acting?

Collins: Definitely not because of the favorable reviews! It just didn't work out anymore. I was being considered for a lot of great roles, for example the one that Dennis Hopper did in "Speed" or Tommy Lee Jones' part in "Blown Away", but if you want to get the good parts you need to live in Hollywood. I used to have a house there but after the divorce it belongs to my wife. Apart from that I simply don't have enough time, being a musician. And believe it or not - this is still what I enjoy most.

Spiegel: Mr. Collins, thank you very much for this interview.

© Der Spiegel
translation by Volker Warncke

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