Wise Throughout The Event
An article about Ant from H & SR magazine, January 1988. Interview by Rick Davies.
Although he is perhaps best known for being a founding member of Genesis, Anthony Phillips has found a niche for his own brand of instrumental music since his departure from the band in 1970.
"I suppose I was aware that this two 12-string stuff in Genesis was quite an original area. Beyond that, I've never really analysed it. I've been influenced by so many different people that it doesn't seem that original to me. Maybe what I've arrived at is actually quite original, but it's not easy for me to see that."
It is inevitable that Anthony Phillips' experiences in the early days of Genesis should come up as we discuss his recent activities and current plans in his New York hotel room the morning before he is to host a program on VH-1. He hasn't spoken with the press in nearly ten years, and there's a lot of ground to cover.
Anthony Phillips' connection with Genesis goes all the way back to Charterhouse, the school on Guildford, England which he attended along with Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks and Peter Gabriel. Anthony and Michael played in The Anon. Tony and Peter formed The Garden Wall. The two bands merged, and out came Genesis. Their first album, From Genesis To Revelation, was a taste of things to come, specifically Trespass, the album with which the band began their move out of obscurity, and which featured the dual 12-string arrangements that became their signature sound.
"I was influenced by Simon Nichol of Fairport Convention, and at one stage by Charlie Whitney of Family - late sixties early progressive rock stuff. I suppose to be honest, on the 12-string stuff, the only person I was really influenced by was Mike Rutherford and vice versa. Family used to do some of the kind of strummy 12-string stuff. Thinking about it, the more textual arpeggiated stuff wasn't really influenced by anybody...so maybe it was fairly original."
Phillips left Genesis in 1970, after the release of their second album, Trespass, and went on to study classical guitar. It seems, however, that the order of events has often been twisted in the media over the years.
"I was a rock musician first. I get so fed up with this 'He was the classical musician that turned his hand to rock.' It's such rubbish. It's completely inaccurate. I was a very primitive guitarist for Genesis. In some respects, I had no right-hand technique at all - I just used two fingers - and my left-hand technique was pretty iffy. We sort of adapted our techniques as we wrote. Mike Rutherford is a classic example of somebody who, in a sense, has not got a great all-round, all-encompassing technique if he plays things of other peoples, but in his own area he's absolutely brilliant."
"I did fall under the spell of some classical guitarists. I suppose I was very influenced by Bach as well - I'm not ashamed to admit that. I used to think 'Am I being too influenced? Am I losing my originality?' Maybe I was being too self-critical but I think there is definitely a 'student period' where I was being too influenced, but you have to go through that."
In the years that followed, Phillips released several solo albums, including The Geese And The Ghost (1977), Wise After The Event (1978), and Sides (1979), perhaps his most remarkable recording to date, followed by a series of instrumental albums entitled Private Parts And Pieces, which featured impressionistic sketches and audio landscapes in Phillips' characteristic voicings. Phillips latest release, part VII in the series (on Passport Records), continues the tradition with a blend of acoustic and electronic sounds.
"I've managed to keep the albums going, and I've been luckier than some. Of course now it's all changing, which is wonderful, courtesy of New Age. But at one stage it was pretty difficult to get a release for the acoustic things, and I tried doing a couple of so-called 'commercial' albums. I didn't have to sell out completely, but after The Geese And The Ghost, it wasn't my choice to move away from that and do song albums. I like doing songs, and I'd have been more happy doing that, but there was record company pressure you know - 'If you want to keep a contract, lad, if you want to keep recording 24-track, let's have some songs.' Then there was 'Where's the disco hit?' sort of stuff. So it got a bit silly.
"But I managed to sort of hang on in there with acoustic albums. It got pretty rough about '80/'81 - you know, when the punk thing was at its height in England. I couldn't get anywhere with this sort of stuff. It was just like closed doors. People were just so one-track minded in London.
"So I started doing a few other things, TV things, a lot of library music. It's quite fun. I've never had to do anything really distasteful or overtly commercial. I've tended to be lucky in being given kind of abstract atmosphere briefs, so some of the things on my library albums are really not that far from the stuff on my own albums.
"That, in combination with renting out the studio to a few friends - I've never had to rent it out to people I didn't know - sort of kept me ticking over. And now, things seem to be going through an extraordinary sort of renaissance, really. It feels like, for a lot of us, we're at the end of a wave of religious persecution.
"It's kind of odd, because a lot of music that had to be shelved back in '76/'77 is coming out of the vaults and being revamped and money is appearing mysteriously to redo these old projects. Curiously enough, some of the music isn't sounding dated at all. Anything involving drums, electric guitars and some synths sounds dated, but the acoustic guitar/woodwind approach seems to not sound dated at all to me. So it's all rather weird."
Phillips refers to a project he started in the mid-Seventies with Harry Williamson, who played in one of the later mutations of Gong.
"We suddenly got money to complete a project that sort of staggered to a halt in 1977, a piece of music based on Tarka the Otter, which was a book and was going to be a film. The author is Henry Williamson (Harry's father) who fell out of favour for showing sort of semi-fascist tendencies during the second World War, but he's now coming back. Some of his books are absolutely beautiful. He tended to write a lot of animal books, not from a sweet, little kid's point of view, but from really quite a dispassionate , harsh viewpoint. Absolutely brilliant!
"We tried to get the score, but didn't make it because it wasn't practical. My manager had put some money up to the orchestral part, so for years I had an orchestral demo, which is rare. But that ended up being used on television a lot for advertisements and stuff, which is really weird - we wrote it about otters and it ended up being used for oil rigs and stuff, showing how strange this whole background music thing is... Suddenly a film company used one of the main orchestral pieces to try and get backing for a totally different film, and they were prepared to put up the money to complete the album.
"Tarka the Otter is a very evocative book and we've based the music around a lot of the sections with evocative titles. It really draws on the English countryside, and like I said, it's not this sweet little story at all. In the end the otter gets hunted to death, and it's very upsetting - not at all sentimental. Because a lot of the music was written to accompany the film, what quite a lot of people are going to make of this, if they haven't read the book, is that it's a little bit episodic and a little bit melodramatic. But on the other hand it's great to experiment again with 'guitar meets woodwinds.'"
Phillips notices that the current renaissance of acoustic music seems to be more prevalent in the USA than in England.
"Well it's more from the States at the moment, but it's growing in England. England is still a bit sort of 'Top 40 or classical' I'm afraid. There doesn't seem to be any recognition that there is a kind of viable middle-ground. The so-called fashionable cognoscenti still make out they like their rock hard, and they like their classical classical.
Whereas the trend in "new age" music is towards using synths and samplers soaked in buckets of ambience, Anthony Phillips' recordings have never fallen into a rut in terms of arrangement. Much of this has to do with Ant's musical ambitions and his ability to record pretty much whatever he feels like. For example, on Private Parts and Pieces VII, Phillips makes good use of sythesizer textures, which might be considered a smart move in terms of new age marketing, but as he points out, it has nothing to do with clever planning.
"It's all very coincidental. I'm not trying to sound clever and independent, but I just did that because I've had a lot of synth pieces around over the last couple of years and I'd done an album of all 12-string and an album of all-piano, and I wanted to try and vary it. I wanted to find an outlet for some of the synth things.
"It's curious, really, because an album like Private Parts and Pieces II, which was a real hodge-podge of different things - and some of it was pretty rough - that would be singled out as a New Age album. But I'm not that cynical about it. I don't think one should be cynical about it. One can be humorous about the fact that I was an 'old fart' in 1978 and I'm now writing 'New Age' music. If you get beyond the term, with all it's slightly tacky spiritual overtones, then it's got to be a good area. But it's up to the musicians to make it work. And then it's up to the record companies to be discerning in terms of what they put out."
Phillips has had all of his solo albums released on Passport Records over the past few years, and in a way, this has put him in a good position as far as reaching an American audience is concerned. In fact, with the exception of a compilation album, he hasn't had a British release in a long time. Phillips recalls dealing with an ex-punk label as an eye-opening experience.
"The guy was sort of saying, 'Well, I really like this sort of music, but we don't get much call for it.' It suddenly gave me quite an insight into the business, because you tend to think these guys really like putting out an album, but they don't. They are frightened of taking a chance. They're not sure how to market it, they're not sure if people want to buy this sort of stuff. Privately, they like it, and they put it on their own stereos, but they seem to be resigned to the fact that it won't sell. I mean America could have taken that attitude but presumably the guys at Windham Hill must have had the courage and conviction, and presumably enough money and a good enough marketing strategy to actually break through.
Phillips ability to release albums despite such adversity can be regarded as a significant accomplishment. When things got tough, he found another way to get his work done. He has, in fact, recorded most of his work on an 8-track Brennel recorder in his home studio.
"There's no drum booth or anything like that. I mean I've done a lot of song demos there, but there's no big space. You couldn't get the Chicago Symphony down there. I think if I hadn't been able to record at home, I'd have been stuck. Budgets became very limited for Private Parts And Pieces albums, so if I hadn't had my machine at home...well, I could have done it, but I would have just made less money. Simple as that really. I could probably have found somewhere really cheap to rent, and given that Private Parts and Pieces V and VI were just 12-string pieces and piano pieces, yes I could have practiced them all up to a fiendish standard and just banged 'em all down in say a day or two in some dingy 16-track somewhere - or even less, I suppose eight-track - but having my own machine has given me the ability to spend more time on things.
"See, you can get all the inspiration in your own home and put the basic things down while they're there and fresh. Home recording has been a bit of a saving, and being able to rent it out at times has kept the wolf from the door."
Phillips is not intimidated by technology, and in fact his album 1984 was a display of current music technology of the time. And while his studio seems well-suited for electronic recordings, he is cautious about dealing with synths and drum machines.
"There's a real danger with these things, in that people are relying too much on drum boxes. Sequencers are obviously very useful, but I'm not really using a sequencer much. I have a slight fear with all these things - maybe it's groundless - that if you start relying on machines too much your brain starts not to function musically. You can't actually think of any ideas. Instead you get drum boxes going over here, and rely on tricks and stuff. Obviously for some people this is not true at all, but I think that there is a slight danger of things becoming too easy. Any old guy can sound reasonable by pressing a certain button and just playing arpeggiated stuff.
"Obviously, if you are closely allied to fashion, then your music is going to sound dated incredibly quickly, with things moving at the pace they are. I think that just as people are suddenly going back to tube mics, they're beginning to put in a good word for analog synths, and I think there's a hell of a case to be made for the combination of analog and digital synths. I mean you get all the space and the clarity and the breathy quality with the digital but to me there's a certain fatness and body lacking in the sound. I think a combination of the two works really well. I've had an Emax since the last album came out. A lot of the pieces on Private Parts and Pieces VII were recorded in 1983/84/85 and my synthesizer set-up was quite a bit more simple then."
Now, with a higher profile than ever in the USA, Phillips is able to look down the road to doing more Private Parts and Pieces albums, as well as some more conceptual works.
"I'd obviously like to be able to do a more full-scale thing. I just have to see how it goes in the next couple of months, but I'd like to do a Geese And The Ghost Ten Years On, in the sense of acoustic guitars, with a lot of extra arrangement on top. Sort of small orchestral, if you like. I'd also like to do a 1984 album 6-7 years on as well, because I do love all the synth stuff. I love the texture and being able to come up with all these extraordinary sounds, and I enjoyed doing 1984. It's just not been financially feasible to spend five or six months on the likes of a really full album. Hopefully the new climate will enable me to do that."
Whichever way Phillips' next project goes, he'll continue recording at home, and even has plans to expand the facilities.
"I'm still at eight-track, but hopefully any minute now I'll move up to 16. I used to think that either eight at home - small-scale for getting the guts of a track down - or 24 outside, was good, and that 16 was sort of between the devil and the deep blue sea; you'd think you could get it all down and then you'd start triple-tracking the 12-string and putting the drums on eight tracks and suddenly realise that you only had seven tracks left. So, I think that there's a danger with 16-track that you just fall between two stools. But practically speaking, at the moment, I can't really see suddenly having big money to go and do a whole long album on 24-track, so it may be that I have to do a little spell on 16. It should be interesting to see whether I could be disciplined.
"I've found eight-track to be quite a good discipline actually. You don't muck about. You can't waste tracks on an eight-track. I think that's good for one's arranging. You just get used to getting what's absolutely essential, particularly for orchestral things. But the trouble is that you have to reduce the strings, from five or six tracks to two, and you're guessing a little bit about the balance of the low end compared to the top end and early always make mistakes in the pre-mixes, because you can't be sure. It seems very primitive, that sort of stuff, nowadays with Solid State Logic consoles and all that."
Phillips views automated mixing as something which small studios have not yet been able to afford, but which is certainly worth pursuing. He brings up painting as a parallel to mixing music, a suitable analogy given the image-provoking nature of his music.
"I suppose it is a bit like painting, where you gradually put the colours in and gradually alter it, and it ends with one final little mark on the painting. You gradually get the mix sorted out. Painters do that when they just touch up certain sections. It seems ludicrous to spend all that time recording instruments and then during a mix to be unable to do all sorts of things just because there aren't enough hands. I know it's terribly expensive, but SSL really seems to be the natural thing.
"It's a bit of a mixed blessing because you've got to be in charge of all the equipment, so you've got two hats on. You're trying to think about the music, but you've also got to worry about demagnetising the heads, and all that. At times I find that a real strain, but then the plus side of it is that you've got nobody to have to explain things to.
"That can be very difficult with engineers, you know. You have a notion of a sound and you can't put it into words, and they have a notion of a sound. You basically want to fiddle around to arrive there, but you know, it's their gear. They're the one who knows, so you end up going with a compromise, and you end up with nothing really, so something not very good...it's sort of a two-edged sword.
"There are a lot of good points to home recording, and obviously I think there are a lot of not so good points. But I've been lucky to have the chance. I think that anybody that can make their living out of promoting their own art is a pretty lucky guy because most people don't make it. One always wants more of course, but it certainly could have been worse.
"I'm just a bit cautious, you know. You think: 'Well, can this last?' It all seems rather extraordinary, because I haven't changed, and everything else is suddenly changing around me. And you must trust what's going on. I'm not going to be too defensive - I don't feel too cynical about it, but I think 'Well, maybe I shouldn't get too excited about this..."
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