Genesis founding guitarist on the latest reissue from his stellar back catalog
By Jon Liebman
Photo by Mark Latham
September 15, 2017
Anthony Phillips is a British guitarist and recording artist, as well as a prolific composer of film, television and library music. A founding member of the band Genesis, along with Peter Gabriel, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks, “Ant” left the group in 1970 in order to pursue his true passions of composition and orchestration.
After releasing an extensive collection of solo recordings, Ant renewed an association with Cherry Red Records in 2014, thus beginning a series of enhanced reissues from his back catalog. Under its Esoteric Recordings label, the company first released a 5-CD box set anthology of Phillips’ Harvest of the Heart, followed by re-mastered versions of his critically acclaimed debut album, The Geese & The Ghost, as well as Private Parts & Pieces I-IV, Wise After The Event, Sides and 1984.
On June 16 of this year, the latest title to be reissued was the classic 1990 instrumental album, Slow Dance, heralded as one of Phillips’ best releases. The newly remixed edition of this two-part orchestral rock suite includes a CD of previously unreleased “Slow Dance Vignettes,” as well as a lavishly illustrated booklet and a new essay by noted researcher and archivist Jonathan Dann.
FBPO: What’s been inspiring you to re-release some of the collections from your back catalog?
Ant: Well, signing with a new company, basically. I was with some quite small, independent labels for a while and I’m with quite a big one in England, called Cherry Red, who’ve been around for about thirty-five years, you know, they’re not a fly-by-night. The idea was to try, given that contractually they were gonna re-release everything, to give people something that was worth re-buying the CD for, because obviously, dedicated fans will go out and buy it anyway. It’s a bit of a cheat, quite frankly, in my opinion, if you don’t give them something substantial in addition, or improve the sound of the original and also perhaps – in this case we’ve gone to town on this – do a major job on the artwork and other background material.
FBPO: What kind of audio enhancements have been able to make?
Ant: Well, it’s always a question of whether you’re able to get back to the original masters. In this case, we were able to get back pretty near to the original masters. It’s quite interesting how, over the years, through copies, copied masters, things have gradually deteriorated. But when you go back to the original and spend some time on it, we felt it was fifteen to twenty percent better, and a number of people have remarked on this. Obviously, they’ve re-mastered it as well, but the source material was just stronger.
FGPO: That album was from 1990. Was it recorded on two-inch tape?
Ant: I wish it had been! It was recorded on two 16-track Fostex (machines), which I think worked on (one)-inch tape, which wasn’t ideal, really, but two of them were linked together. And of course most of the recording was done, apart from a couple sections on sequencer, it was non-computer; everything had to be played. So, it took a long time (laughs). There was no cheating, if you like!
FGPO: Sounds like right out of the George Martin playbook.
Ant: Well, yeah, in that sense. The Beach Boys had to create every sound on Pet Sounds, they had to think about it and then it had to be executed. And I’d be flattered to be even vainly recommended in even the same breath as those alumni, but yeah, the same process. I mean, if you hear the tape where you’ve got all the notes right, but the rhythm’s not quite right, you gotta do it again! (laughs)
FGPO: I have a sense that each one of your projects is very special to you in its own right. What kind of meaning does Slow Dance have for you?
Ant: I think at the time it was important. Funny enough, I had just come from a meeting, in fact, with the record company, where we were talking about the prog albums from the mid-to-late ‘70s and how everyone then had suddenly – certainly in England, I think America was more discriminating – but (what) we were all forced into doing, because of punk and then disco. My only problem was not with those things themselves, but the problem was they became illateral movements, and suddenly everyone was supposed to kind of turn the clock back and do stuff like that. The ‘80s for me was a period of doing very simple albums, trying to do pop stuff just to stay alive, really, and then doing very simple, in classical terms, sort of like chamber albums, you know, guitar pieces, piano pieces. It was ironic; it was the New Age boom, even though I’d been doing stuff like that before. More money was forthcoming to do albums at the end of the ‘80s, so that gave me the springboard to be able to firstly pull out some of the more sort of orchestral and larger-scale pieces that I had in my locker, if you like, and also write some new ones. I hadn’t really had a chance to do a full-scale album after about an 8 and-a-half-years gap. So it was exciting, yeah, to be able to work on, taking an artisan view, working on a big canvas.
FGPO: It’s very different from, say, The Geese and the Ghost.
Ant: That was from a different time, really. That was similar in the sense that it was rather large-scale pieces, fully arranged, but that was certainly more guitar-based. There were the two big instrumentals, but there were different tracks. This is basically one long piece. The tricky one here was to try to make if flow and so, at the end of the album, it sort of made sense of what had gone on before. I suppose it’s like the flow you had to get with the continuity of a novel. That was a challenge, really, ‘cause I was, in a sense, slightly setting one or two bits together, but hoping that they worked in the grand scheme of things.
FGPO: Did you always want to be an orchestrator? Was there a time where you wanted to follow the traditional “rock guitarist” path?
Ant: No, remember I hadn’t read a note of music till I left Genesis, so I found myself at the age of 19 not having any technical prowess under my belt at all. So it was a question of learning to read music. Actually, we’d had a bad experience with an orchestrator on the Genesis Revelation (album) and I remember thinking, I don’t want to be in a position where I’m not in control again. Even if somebody else is doing it, I want to understand it. But I did have a sort of, it’s well documented, a “road to the masters” experience when I left the group, hearing certain orchestral pieces. The Karelia Suite, by Sibelius, was one. It was sort of a revelation to me where I’d hitherto thought of classical music as being kind of mannered, almost like a part of a court ceremony, not very emotional. Pretty, but not very emotional. Suddenly, this Karelia Suite was just bursting with life and bursting with rich melody. That was the piece, amongst others, that made me think, “Gosh, I need to, I wanna know how to do that. I need to understand the skill.” It wasn’t particularly easy at the age of 19 because the language of notation was alien to me, but I think the drive to do it was helped by the wish to be able to orchestrate.
FGPO: What about before that, though? You grew up in England, with the Beatles and the Stones and the dawn of a new era in music. Were you a part of that whole movement, if you will, wanting to be a rock guitar player?
Ant: Well, remember, we were younger than them, so they were our big heroes, certainly in the school group. I was very much listening to Keith Richards early on, and we did do all the Beatles songs. I loved both groups, as did Mike Rutherford. We were more into the Stones than Peter Gabriel and Teddy Banks (were), so we were the slightly more sort of harder rock-edged side. I very much loved all that. I’m a sort of strange hybrid, having come from the harder pop side. Obviously I loved the blues boom as well, many, many heroes from that time. But then I discovered the more layered music of what we listened to, classical music. And that was why it was fun on The Geese & The Ghost. This sort of rock band with the orchestra on the other side of the stage, I was a little bit nervous of that. It always seemed a bit contrived to me and not integrated. The thing on The Geese & The Ghost – and I hope on Slow Dance, as well – was to try and integrate the two so that it came naturally. So you’d have a 12-string guitar playing with an oboe on top. I wasn’t, “Oh, let’s get a classical instrument in.” It was sort of written for that. So you’ve got sort of rock elements and the classical elements integrating from the bottom up.
FGPO: Are you doing anything with the guitar these days in more of a band setting, as opposed to with an orchestra?
Ant: Not really, no. I mean I write with various other sort of single people. I have a lot of collaborations going with different musical pals, but I haven’t really, for many years, done any what I call “band” work. I think one of the main reasons was the two albums I did which were sort of band-based, Wise After The Event and Sides, came at the wrong time. You know, they came at the time of punk and the critics were not very kind about them and so there wasn’t a lot of encouragement to do albums like that again, to be honest. There weren’t the pounds, shillings and pence to pay for the other musicians and, given that I was somebody that was becoming more of a composer than a guy thinking of forming a band and going out on the road. I guess that’s just the sort of way I’ve gone. I mean I would love to work with a really good drummer again, if I’m honest, that’s one of the most exciting things.
FGPO: Tell me about your guitar gear.
Ant: I’m incredibly lucky because I’m the proud owner of a very large collection of guitars, including quite a lot of antique guitars, as well. I’ve got a Wenger lute that goes back to 1733. I’ve got a Vinaccia mandolin that goes back to 1789, the start of the French Revolution. I’ve got a wonderful collection of acoustic Martins. My electric collection includes a gold-top 1967 Les Paul, a pre-CBS Strat, a number of other Gibsons, a lovely early Rickenbacker, which I used on the title track of Wise After The Event. I have a chap that works for me, who worked for Genesis for many, many years, Dale Newman. In fact he sang on Sides, he sang “Bleak House.” But he works for me as my “Guitar Czar,” as I call him, and I have a number of what he calls exotics, which are the mandolins, the ukuleles, charangos, those kind of things. So I have absolutely a vast collection of guitars of which I’m extremely proud and extremely lucky to have.
FGPO: What about amps and strings?
Ant: Really, to be honest, I tend to go straight into the desk, actually. I’ve got a pedal setup using a couple of Strymon pedals, the Blue Sky and the Timeline, which are very, very lovely, one which creates a sort of shimmery chorus effect and the other, which has all sorts of preset delays. I still use an old Dyna Comp compressor. I’ve still got an old phase pedal and a Coopersonic Deluxe Dual Valve Overdrive. So I’ve got a nice little pedal setup, but again, I tend to do less sort of hard- edged kind of lead work, and more sort of ambient, kind of dreamy, mesmeric sort of stuff. Strings are mostly Martin MEC12 on the six-strings, but there are also Elixirs on a couple. 12 strings are D’Addario. Electrics are Ernie Ball or D’Addario.
FGPO: What else is keeping you busy these days?
Ant: The album re-releases keep me quite busy ‘cause we’re constantly researching information. That’s not full-time, obviously, but there’s a lot of records still to come out. I’ve just come from meeting about a charity CD, which a number of us have done tracks for, an elephant charity. Steve Hackett is on it. Steve and I have done a track on that together.
FGPO: Tell me about the charity.
Ant: There are many elephant charities. As you probably know, elephants are disappearing at a rate of knots. We’ve lost about 95% of elephants in the last hundred years, which is pretty terrifying. And a friend of ours, Lesley Wood, a brilliant photographer, has done a book of beautiful elephant photographs. The charity is called Elephants For Africa. The book came out with the accompanying CD, but the CD is going to be released separately, in March. I’ve done three tracks for that. I do a lot of TV library music, which is stock background music. That helps to fill the coffers. I’m constantly busy doing that, so I actually spend a lot of time auditioning synth sounds. That’s one of my big things. I’m very much a sort of hybrid chap between keyboards and guitars, so I try to keep up the old technique. It’s quite difficult, actually because, unless you’re touring, you don’t have the incentive to practice and you spend more time probably listening to sounds and things and emailing than actually playing. (laughs) I’m very lucky to have both the keyboard stuff and the guitar stuff, so when one gets a bit stale, you move from one to the other. I also write quite a lot of songs with people as well, a few sessions here and there, so it’s a pretty full-on time.
FGPO: How about the future? Is there anything you’ve wanted to do that you just haven’t done yet, or anything else new in the works that you didn’t mention?
Ant: Well, there’s loads, Jon, to be honest, but nothing which I’d be prepared to stick my neck out and actually say, “It’s coming out.” I mean I’ve got a lot of songs on the go, which I’d love to turn into a song album. I’ve got ideas for pieces for the concert hall and I’d love to do a guitar concerto and a piano concerto. So there are a lot of ideas and, like a lot of composers, I stockpile ideas all the time. I’ve got many, many, many little sort of bits and sections, but a bit like Slow Dance, it needs a direction, it needs an outlet. It needs something really sort of pushing me. When the opportunity to do that album – in fact the necessity to do that album really, which it was at the time – came up, of course I had material to fit. So, at the moment, I’m dithering about, is probably the truth of it, between a lot of possible projects, just sort of waiting for one to get the green light, as it were. Meanwhile, I keep producing music for TV and we’ll keep producing the re-releases and we’ll keep working very hard to try to make sure that the bonus CD each time on these re-releases is a proper CD, not just any old tracks. We’ve been very careful to try and make sure that the bonus CD, if we possibly can, is a CD with decent material which is contemporary.
FGPO: It’s great how you put so much love into each project.
Ant: Well, I’d feel so guilty if people had to go out and buy something that’s actually the same as before. I mean when we released Private Parts and Pieces V-VIII, Jon Dann, who’s sort of my sonic sleuth, I’d say three quarters, maybe four fifths of the material on that was not sort of remixes and second rate bits; they were pieces that stood up in their own right. So you’re giving people, as well as the original CDs, you are effectively giving them a bonus CD, which is a new CD of proper material. I enjoy doing that. I’d feel guilty if we didn’t, to be honest.
FGPO: It’s been a long time since you left Genesis. You mentioned Steve Hackett, but is there any possibility of future collaborations with any of your old band mates?
Ant: I don’t think so, to be honest. Mike Rutherford and I always wrote well together and in a sense, we sort of fitted like a glove. But I can’t really see that happening because Mike’s in a different kind of direction, which I respect very much. I don’t think he’d want to come back into the 12-string, slightly classical area. Steve is, this may sound odd to you, but Steve has become almost too good a friend to want to work with. I find that when you work with people, I often get on very well with them, but it’s never quite the same. There’s always a little bit of distance. There’s going to be some stopping point. Something will happen which slightly compromises the relationship, unless it’s just a one-off. We’ve done a couple of one-off things and that’s fine, but I can’t see myself doing any big collaborations with Steve because I really wouldn’t want to risk our friendship. We have become extremely good friends.
FGPO: What would you be if you weren’t in music?
Ant: Well, Jon, people have asked me this a bit recently, actually, and here and there I’m told, “Oh, you should be a writer.” Although I haven’t been particularly amusing in this interview, I muck about with words a lot and puns and stuff and people say, “Wow, you should have written sketches and stuff” and I say, “Nah, nah, nah. I’m not good enough.” And I really don’t think I am, compared to some of the top-level guys. They say there’s a novel in all of us, but I’m not sure I could. There are times where I do wonder if I could have been a writer or journalist. I do enjoy writing. I used to write speeches after our cricket games and stuff and try and combine descriptive stuff with humor. So, yeah, I think possibly if I hadn’t been a musician, perhaps a writer. Yeah.