“How I Came To be Involved In Underwater Archery” - An interview with Anthony Phillips at his home on Saturday 31st May 1988. Interview conducted by Alan Hewitt and Ted Sayers. Photograph by Ted Sayers. Memorabilia: TWR Archive.
AP: How did I become to be involved in underwater archery? Well… (laughs).
TWR: That is a very interesting question that. What did make you take up underwater archery? No.. but seriously folks, one of the questions we have been most frequently asked is what did you do between leaving Genesis and recording your first LP: The Geese & The Ghost?
AP: Yes. Well I was rumoured to have died in America (laughs). I studied music principally. Not to say in any great order I didn’t have any great master plan in mind. Quite soon after leaving… I am trying to remember which piece it was… this Sibelius piece… The Karelia Suite, that’s right. I suddenly had this feeling that I must be able to control an orchestra, ie orchestrate and learn therefore it was a question of learning how to write music down. I couldn’t do it. I was completely untrained. So, how do you go about that? So it had to be done through basic music lessons. So I went to a piano teacher who taught me a basic sort of technique and I started writing millions of piano pieces - very primitive, short but it was great fun.
Quite soon after that I studied Classical guitar again although I had done some in Genesis it was a limited sort of two finger sort of gallop. So I started Classical guitar and I qualified as a Classical guitar teacher and I went into it pretty heavily. I wanted to try and get through it quickly.
TWR: Do you actually teach Classical guitar then, Ant?
AP: I did at one stage, yeah. I mean composing has always been … I have enjoyed it most. Study was great in a way but it was definitely a means to an end. I didn’t want to be a concert sort of guitarist. I just wanted to have more power at my behest for composing and so… some of it was a bit torrid. Basically most of it was a kind of wonderful voyage of discovery because I had grown up with all the various sorts of pop bands… of course it was all kind of marvellously inspiring and influential at different times but suddenly this kind of treasure chest was opened if you like. After leaving Genesis. Discovering all these people who had just sort of been names that the establishment had thrust at us at one time or another. Serious composers who I had rejected like anybody else would do really. So it was very exciting actually very exciting. I started teaching in I suppose in around 1973, still studying. I studied through until 1975 I think. I did odd things with Mike, odd bits of writing; we did a hymn together.
TWR: Oh yes, the Charterhouse School Choir…
AP: We did a single with Phil of course, that was never released.
TWR: Is that Silver Song?
AP: That’s right.
TWR: Was it written as a sort of tribute to John Silver?
AP: Oh yes, very much for when John left. I think John was a lovely guy but I think he realised … I don’t think he would mind me saying that he was musically, in the end, slightly out of his depth. I think John was a good drummer but he wasn’t sort of writing… the creative drummer and I think that maybe he thought the risks were too great. He was a really super guy but he elected to go to university in America and not go on.
TWR: Have you got any idea what he is doing now?
AP: Oh I think John has done pretty well actually. I think he is in one of the TV stations. He is big in TV. I think Tony Banks keeps up with him. But going back to where you came in on that… it was very much about him and there was loads of other material at the time actually which was never recorded. I mean, there was a whole middle period of Genesis music between the first album.. If you like a more mature style but pre all the emphasis being thrown over on to the you know, heavy side. In the middle really some of that never saw the light of day. A lot of it was knocked off on the road really for some of the more sort of sensible stuff. We used to start with all this quiet stuff on stage and it just didn’t work at all. In the end we had to start loud and pin ’em back! (laughs).
So, I was doing things with Mike and Phil all through this but studying was important but obviously I had in the back of my mind I wanted to try and get back someday but it was always a bit daunting really. So you see The Geese & The Ghost began as a co-thing between Mike and myself . It was only when Genesis did The Lamb… and that became a double album and Mike lost the time and it just became impractical really and he felt more comfortable making it and calling it my solo album which was probably fair enough.
TWR: Was that why it took so long to actually record?
AP: I think it was quite well thought out really. We had to plan very carefully because we didn’t have… we started out with two four track machines actually and then we moved over to two sixteen tracks. It had to be pretty well thought out. Maybe you are right, I felt at the time that we were losing the flow horribly because Mike kept on disappearing. I mean, a lot of the music was written in 1970. We started recording it finally towards the end of 1974. Then it stopped you see, I carried on doing a few overdubs, I couldn’t do any awful lot because we were stuck with this four track TX and it was in the summer of 1975 that we completed it on Tom Newman’s barge off Little Venice. We used to be rammed by these other barges (laughs). Do you know any of these stories…?
TWR: No, not these…
AP: It had to be done on the cheap (laughs) and Tom’s barge was going through teething problems and so was the studio on it and we kept on getting breakdowns all the time. We would have to keep stopping and it was quite demoralising but looking back on it now you tend to remember the funny side of it. It was quite funny with this barge being rammed. Once a guy came to put some timpani on and we had forgotten to measure the tents going down the side of the barge (Laughs) and they didn’t quite fit and so we had to ask the guy on the next barge who ran, I think, Argonaut Galleries.. No, Argonaut Trips, that’s right. People were ringing up. There’s this very odd scene where I was conducting this timpanist and the guy was answering the ’phone and ’what’s that?’ ’Oh, it’s only the timpanist’ going on in the background - very strange. It had its eccentric moments but even that took a fair amount of time as I said because the studio didn’t work all the time.
TWR: Well, the end result seems to have been well rewarded. Rewarded by the critics because it is one of the few of your albums that I have, a) ever read a review of and, b) that I have seen a good review of…
AP: You have got to remember that it came out eventually. It then sat for a year and nothing happened. It didn’t come out until 1977 by which time the early Punk movement was well advancing and the thing is… it’s a nonsense really in a sense. I have always thought that this kind of music being reviewed and judged by the same sort of people who are reviewing very sort of straight current top ten stuff. Not that I have anything against that and I love a lot of that stuff, always have done, always will do. But it is a complete nonsense. It’s like a Classical reviewer reviewing Jazz or a Country reviewer reviewing Reggae! It’s a complete nonsense. Of course they are going to say the things that they say. I seem to remember there were some wonderful reviews of The Geese & The Ghost. I remember one guy called it “music to wash dishes to” . He would say that about Vaughan Williams and people who I love. I mean what does that tell people? I mean, it doesn’t tell the people who are going to buy it very much.
TWR: Do you take any of these criticisms seriously?
AP: Of course I do. I think you have to. I think one shouldn’t be so completely kind of arrogant or whatever that you just dismiss all criticism. On the other hand, as I said, if you… the people judging it are from a different side of the fence, the sort of people who would slag off music you revere then obviously you don’t take it so much to heart. More with a pinch of salt. Oh yeah, certainly there are reviews which get under your skin I think that is inevitable but it is slightly frustrating when you want people you know to criticise your music for what it is and not for what it should have been. I mean a bouncy top ten number… and why are there these acoustic guitars drifting on in the background? (laughs).
TWR: Well, one thing that no one can criticise, at least no one we have met, are the cover paintings for most of your albums. Can you tell us how did you actually meet Peter Cross?
AP: Peter was just a friend of a friend really. And he was living this incredibly cloistered lifestyle, he never went out anywhere at all and I was shown into this kind of greenhouse (laughs) where he used to work in the garden. He was quite remote but his work was lovely, and he showed me “May” from the “Trouble For Trumpets” book, do you know that? And I thought this is absolutely brilliant, I must just ask this guy to do a cover and he seemed quite up for it because he was into sport and that helped and his humour was the same as mine so he was OK. It’s quite hard to goad Peter actually, he does a lot of wry smiling and we clicked so it was ok and he had a pretty free hand with it I think. I just love all that pastoral stuff, you know, the humour as well.
TWR: Well, when it comes to the likes of covers to Sides , there are so many pictorial gags that it is difficult, if you blink you miss one. There are so many there, I mean the covers are just a pleasure to look at let alone the records themselves…
AP: I think it is so much nicer. I mean, I don’t tend to buy a record just for the cover but I think it is nice to have that extra… to give people something which is a real visual reward. So Peter once we started it was great because he was… particularly on Wise After The Event, he took copies of the lyrics quite early on …
TWR: One thing that strikes me, particularly on Sides, was the literary influences that seem to have got hold of you there. Particularly on the song Bleak House. Does your reading matter influence the music that you write to any great extent?
AP: Yeah, I think I tend to be influenced by all sorts of things; paintings, very obviously on that one because it was the verse, because I thought the story was so intricate; wonderful. I had seen it done by a group of people called “Shared Experience” as a play or something where there were no props and they did about three parts each. They just did this dramatic version which was so moving that I was quite inspired to go. There are lots of other writers about the time of The Geese & The Ghost but I don’t think any of them actually made me take a definite line.
There have been lots of others where I have got more of a feeling, like just descriptive things. I have been reading Virginia Woolf or other descriptive writers. There is this kind of imagery and that kind of imagery went with the … I am very influenced by the French Impressionist painters and composers and I still think they are wonderful. I mean, I went through this terribly derivative period around the time of The Geese & The Ghost really you see. I was still studying and I was influenced by a lot of composers and I was coming up with bits of Ravel. I am sure everybody does it - Andrew Lloyd Webber gets away with it! (laughs). A lot of it. So yeah, I guess there was lot of literary influence but nothing … no other song was based on anything. The story was actually based on it. That I can remember.
TWR: On a similar subject, you have just mentioned the Classical people who influenced you. What particular music influences you these days? What do you listen to the most?
AP: Now? I don’t actually listen to a vast amount to be honest. I listen to … what I tend to do is I listen to one cassette in the car, one current classical piece and I devour it for two or three weeks and become completely immersed in it. It can be almost any composer. I am not so moved by the composers of the strictly “Classical” period ie, the Beethovens and Mozarts, it’s obviously very fine stuff it just … the more descriptive, the more passionate 19th century stuff. I mean not necessarily the really terribly sentimental stuff, but the kind of Ravel, Debussy. Actually there are so many composers , there are millions of them really. I went though Stravinsky, Bartok. I don’t really go much beyond that to the really modern classical guys. I find it quite hard actually.
TWR: Does modern music influence you at all?
AP: It does, yeah. I mean the thing is we have kind of jumped this a bit. During the Eighties I was writing lots of songs with people. We were trying to get song covers. It was very much a song writing professional money thing but I have always enjoyed trying to write “pop” songs. Not the kind of sacchariny areas but so I may perhaps go for a month or two where I don’t listen to the top ten at all but I do keep in touch. I do listen. I do always listen and know what’s going on and I like a lot of that stuff. I am just thinking of what we listened to in America; the George Harrison album, I liked a lot if it. I think a lot of the… the last Steve Winwood album I think was very good.
I will risk being boring here but you have got to go back and seal this in… sadly the truth of these things is governed much more by the practicalities than… you see we are not just composers like in the old days, writing it all down in scores or like painters who just need to cover the cost of their materials. All this stuff you know, costs a lot of money and if record companies say ’we want hit singles on the album not a lot of instrumental stuff’ then you have a choice: either do that or you don’t make records. So what do you do? I mean I have often wondered whether it would have been more honest not to have made records perhaps and just done exactly what I thought was right. But on the other hand this is the language of the time - recording.
TWR: Besides which, if that was the case, we wouldn’t be here now (laughs).
AP: That’s right, that’s right. But a lot of the… for instance Wise After The Event was, I would have probably liked to do something more like The Geese & The Ghost but done it perhaps more tidily and quicker. But it was like .. Songs and basically with Sides it was very definitely ’hits, please can we have hits’ and also you know the classic ’where’s the disco single? We must have a disco single’ (laughs). You think I am joking but it’s the truth!
TWR: No, we know it’s the truth it just seems so unlikely but…
AP: I managed to get away with the stuff on side two of Sides but only because I mean, Sides. I had two who extra long pieces. There was a long orchestral… well I later scored it but it was a sort of single orchestral thing and a long twelve string piece which I would have liked to have built up in much the same way as The Geese & The Ghost and Rupert (Hine) really liked both of those and I think he would probably just preferred to have done those with me but we both realised that we couldn’t do this and we had to jettison those. Nobody knows about these things.
TWR: That’s what comes across on Sides, it is… especially on the track Um & Aargh with the lyrics. Most people get their dissatisfaction with the industry out quietly but that’s such a blatant statement of dissatisfaction it is surprising to hear it. Perhaps the same thing occurred with the Private Parts & Pieces series. When I remarked in the review of Private Parts & Pieces II that I did for the magazine. The one thing that strikes me is that it is rushed. The others seem to follow some kind of pattern but P P & P II seemed to have been put together to satisfy someone else rather than you?
AP: Well… we’ll get on to that… we’ll move on to Private Parts & Pieces II in a sec. Just going back to Sides. Sides ended up being a bit of a hotch pitch I think. Some people liked some of the stuff on side one… I mean, Side Door I remember had a lot of weird rhythms and stuff and I had this long battle with the others, they were saying you have got to cut out the skipped beats, you can’t have the skipped beats because people can’t dance, you know! They’ll break their necks! (laughs). They’ll strangle themselves (laughs). So it was really quite just subtly this kind of control which is being exerted all the way down the line and you think to yourself … ‘well I mustn’t compromise and stay true to…’ and then you think ‘who the hell am I to be so grand?’ Everybody has to compromise and you’re not sure which is right and you go on because obviously you want people to hear it, to hear what you are doing. Well, maybe they know better than I do?
TWR: All the way through your career you seem to have been haunted by people wanting you to write dance music, with Genesis as well. Ever since your first public appearance at the Balmes’ dance, people wanted music to dance to and it has gone on ever since! (laughs).
AP: Yes. I will always remember that one. Peter was doing one of his … he used to do these songs which was very nice but they almost always solos sort of. The rest of us didn’t really get involved and he used to go on the piano or whatever and just kind of drift away really (laughs).
TWR: He still does that now!
AP: I remember the rest of us used to be twiddling our thumbs and the dance floor was completely empty! He was wonderfully absent-minded. But, how did we get on to that? Yeah, well, Invisible Men, you see that was very much… I had just moved in here and I didn’t have a lot of money and it was back to the same old thing, the same circle coming round again. You’ve got to make a commercial album to make the others sell. You’ve got to break out of the cult artist set. You’ve got to try and experiment. Any means to an end is extremely dangerous because if you fail then the end can be destroyed by the means and you can lose some of the fans you have already got. I felt it was quite risky. Some of it was quite fun but I found maintaining interest in those kind of songs very difficult. It’s fine to just sort of write these things and chuck ‘em off in an afternoon or get somebody else to do them but to try and keep going over them at the different stages; backing tracks; overdubs, vocals … By the time I got to that point I could have just screamed and I felt just extremely uncomfortable. You see, Mike and I had done it, taken singing lessons and things and I felt it was worth doing because if you have a guest singer the album loses a little of its personality, it becomes a little disparate. So I thought I would have a go and long before the end I had switched off.
Well, we certainly won’t switch off, Ant! Thanks for giving us the opportunity of talking to you and thanks for answering the array of questions with such patience especially in view of the fact that you had only just returned from the USA earlier that day and were obviously still jetlagged. Next time we shall bring the matchsticks to help keep you eyes open! Next issue we will have part two of this interview which we’re sure you will find as interesting as this one so, until then…