So to what does he attribute his phenomenally successful, uncannily consistent career? Just what does Phil have that makes him, well...Phil? Surely, Mr. Collins himself could shed some light on what it takes to sit down at the keyboard and write another chapter in one of the most prolific and successful stories in the history of rock music.
My first interview question to Phil Collins, quite simply, was where does it come from? Where do you get your inspiration?
His answer, delivered with all the self-effacing charm I had been told to expect from someone who has become a perennial fixture at the top of nearly everybody's rock and roll Nice Guy list, took me somewhat by surprise.
'Well, it's luck really...I wouldn't even call it inspiration. It's just plain luck. There's such a big element of luck when you put your hands down on a keyboard and you see what happens. That's why I like...and I'm not bull-shitting here...why I like Korg instruments, particularly the old Wavestation. You hear a sound and you play a chord that sounds great on that and then you go find the next chord....'
Korg: So the inspiration is almost a by-product of the songwriting process?
PC: Right...I have the one song 'Northern Lights' where the entire song is built just around the sound. I'm an untrained, instinctive keyboard player, so I just follow my nose. You can be in the studio playing around all day and it's like 'I've heard it before, or I've played that before.' And you go away and come back fifteen minutes later and sometimes you just get lucky.
Korg: With such a formidable background as a drummer, do you find yourself writing drum parts along with a melody line as you go?
PC: The groove on top of which I'm writing usually comes first. I tend to write like a drummer...I certainly play piano like a drummer...it's very rhythmic and not very independent. To be honest, sometimes I usually just sort of set things up with the drum machines and the drums will be atmospheric. With a song like 'Sussudio,' for example, the drums would be something that you would replace because it was just straight ahead. Most of the time I get something like that going ahead of time before I sit down at a keyboard.
Korg: So when you write what, in effect, becomes a 'throwaway' drum pattern, do you then take pains to put your stamp on the piano part?
PC: That's really a very difficult question to answer because every time is so different. I power the whole studio up and there is only me there. I'll start playing the piano and find that I've left the MIDI things on and I get whatever has come up on the other five keyboards. Sometimes that will be quite interesting, and that will make me play something and maybe within a half hour if I have something that I like I'll go program a drum pattern that will help what I'm doing. There's no real method....
Korg: I read somewhere that you explained your decision to leave Genesis by saying that after 25 years, you just wanted the music to be 'just you.' Can we talk about that?
PC: Well...you say things like that and you don't realize that the answer will be bandied around the world. I would never choose to answer that question in that manner again...I left because after 25 years I just figured I was justified in thinking maybe I should do something else. In fact, the real reason for leaving, and I'm sure Tony (Banks) and Mike (Rutherford) have felt the same way...where one day you just wake up and say 'I wonder if I want to do this tomorrow.' Or 'Maybe this will be the last album'....That's why we've been saying for the past 20 years in interviews, 'We'll just wait and see what happens.'
When it happened for me was during the writing and recording of the album 'Both Sides'. The entire album was done on demos in my bedroom where I have my studio and it was a totally homemade, one-man effort, and I was halfway through that and the album was very personal, suggesting even that I was having problems in my personal life...so therefore it was the worst possible time to do something with the group. And at that time Mike had asked Tony and me if we would get together for a charity thing. And we all got together that night and did four or five Genesis songs...and it occurred to me during the first song that I felt like I was almost acting. It felt like it wasn't my shoes I was wearing. And I thought 'hmmm, that's interesting.' I had never felt that way before.
Korg: [Segue whiplash alert:] Speaking of shoes...I noticed on your Oprah Winfrey appearance that you whipped out a pair of tap shoes...
PC: (Laughing) Oh, year...Well I had just seen 'Lord of the Dance' in New York and I was blown away! The idea of having thirty people dancing like that, to me, was like having 15 drummers on stage. It's incredible! To me that's the same thing as what Chester (Thompson) and I used to do. It's just so exciting...the accuracy! I actually met Michael Flatley afterward, and we're going to do something together with drums and taps. Anyway, I went to see it again in Chicago and afterward went out and bought a pair, two pairs, actually, of tap shoes! A lot of drummers are actually great tap dancers and vice versa...Fred Astaire was a great drummer...Buddy Rich was a great tap dancer.
Korg: Is that why you occasionally drum along with, rather than instead of, your regular tour drummer, be it Chester Thompson or Ricky Lawson?
PC: On stage I have to have a connection with the audience...that's why the singer is up front. I mean, I *can* sit behind the kit and sing and play, of course, but it looks so terrible to the audience. I have to find a drummer that can translate my ideas and not make me say 'I wish I was doing this.' I was always lucky with Chester with Genesis and with my stuff because he was always great at interpreting and taking something on stage farther than I ever had. It's very difficult because really, I'd almost rather not be singing so I could just go play the drums. Of course, when you write songs and record them and they become hits you have to go and sing them, right? (laughs)
Korg: You just received your new SGproX. Will you be using it on your next tour?
PC: Oh yeah! We're just winding the tour down now in Europe (in the end of December) so I have to go home and get used to the feel of the thing and what it can do, obviously. The beauty of it for me will probably be in the studio, actually.
Korg: Can you tell us a bit more about your studio gear?
PC: Well, apart from the Korg Wavestation, which I use quite a bit, my entire last album was composed entirely on the 01/Wfd with many of the rhythmic things being done on the Trinity. So apart from the SGproX I've been a longtime Korg user...which is why I agreed to do the interview! I wouldn't be doing it just for the new keyboard...I have a long standing great relationship with Korg.
And I love the Trinity...of course as a drummer, consequently I'm almost allergic to electronic instruments. And the manuals (chuckling)...I almost have to hire an assistant to get through the manuals! But, honestly, I think I've just scratched the surface of what these instruments can do. Obviously, I do what I can do on them, but I can't wait to really get into all these instruments in depth...especially the SG. I have all of them connected in my studio, so just one touch of a button they're all there. Really I use the Wavestation and especially the 01/W all the time. I'm a big, big fan of the Korg stuff.
Korg: We, at Korg, might say the same about Phil.