Underwater Archery and other tales of drunkenness - Anthony Phillips talks about Tarka and his forthcoming album. Interview conducted by Alan Hewitt on Saturday 29th April 1989. Photos by Ted Sayers. Memorabilia: TWR Archive.
TWR: Well, here we are again, Anthony Phillips take two. Well, Anthony, as you have probably guessed, we have got a few questions to ask. Mainly about the last couple of albums. You mentioned while we were talking before that you had worked with Harry Williamson on Tarka and also, I believe on a couple of other things. How did you find working with him? Was it a satisfying experience?
AP: Very. I met him … back in 1923 (laughs). I met him actually when I was still with Genesis in fact, back in 1969 and he was more technical than I was. He was playing fancy keyboard arpeggios and stuff. I used to do two piano things because we had two pianos in the house. He was from a slightly different background from the Genesis guys. It’s difficult to describe, but he just took me off into a slightly different area. I didn’t work with him much after that for a few years, we did the odd demo and stuff and then around 1973 or 1974 we started doing more serious two acoustic guitar things and he told me about his father’s book ; Tarka The Otter and we both got terribly inspired by that and started coming up with all sorts of musical ideas, not just two guitar stuff …piano things for the more dramatic parts. He had, and no doubt still does, have great kind of rhythmic, earthy quality to his music and he played more six string and he would hold sddown the piece if you like while I would provide the chords and the melody. Not always like that!
TWR: Will you give us a bit of background to the Tarka project. How it developed and how it came to fruition?
AP: Well, originally we hoped to get the score to the film they were doing of Tarka The Otter in 1977/78 and we thought it was a good nepotistic line; Harry being Henry’s son but I think it was a bit far fetched. I mean, Rank had their own film guy in mind: David Fanshawe. But Hit & Run put up some money to finish the orchestral score and it sounded pretty good actually. I mean, there were a few wrong notes and things. It had to be rushed but it came out pretty well.
But the problem was not having it used in the film, the whole pop scene was going through its radical punk thing which was totally one track. Everybody was jumping on the bandwagon so we couldn’t really get anything going with it. It was just impossible once we had not got the film. So, Simon Heyworth, the producer kept you know, he was behind it with tremendous stamina and all the time believing in it, he never gave up. We kept on hearing all kinds of stories that the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra were going to perform it underwater, that sort of thing (laughs). Wild schemes kept on coming up every year and I had certainly given up and was convinced that Tarka was a score in the bottom drawer. I mean that didn’t make me feel too bad because I thought you know, this isn’t fashionable music, you know we’re not missing any buses here, it’ll be OK in the end because it was scored out and it will have its day but I didn’t really think it was going to happen actually.
Then Simon Heyworth was acting as film consultant to Amy International, this young film company which is run by Simon MacCorkindale and Susan George and they heard it and loved it and wanted to use it in one of the films and in fact they based a script re-write around it; a sort of Celtic thing, Vikings and things. Quite gory in fact. A sort of modern day thing that intercuts with Viking times…
TWR: Is this The Dragon Under The Hill?
AP: Yeah, that’s right and they based a script re-write on it and they loved it and decided, fools that they were, to put up the money to actually do the album of Tarka in its original form ahead of the film because they felt that it could only help the film in the end. There was also a business reason in that they also acquired the synch rights to the music which they would have had to pay for anyway for using it. So it was sort of killing two birds with one stone but nevertheless they didn’t rally have to take the chance and I shall always be grateful that they did. It’s a difficult one to package though in this country.
TWR: Do you see yourself more as an orchestrator rather than the band
AP: Well, I do see myself more as a composer than a band member but I don’t want to end up writing just orchestral scores I mean, I DO … I mean having done two very instrumental projects recently I do want to get back into some songs because that is still very much in the blood and also the contrast is great. You can’t have too much of one you know, you’re working in long instrumental forms and you really yearn for the simplicity of a song! And the song format seems so terribly constricting you know, you can’t expand ideas and you yearn for the size and the scope of a big instrumental piece, in which to really develop things. I am just about to try and get back into some songs now, actually.
TWR: Underwater hang-gliding? Oh no, it’s underwater archery this time? The one thing that intrigues me about Tarka is the end piece; The Anthem. Whose idea was that?
AP: Well it was supposed to be, actually to give him his due, he’s a lovely man actually, Mr MacCorkindale suggested that we try to write a love song from the film to be and it was actually done as we too this theme out of Tarka, yes it was supposed to be a song and then nothing happened to the films and we thought; ‘this is rather nice, why not try sticking it on the end and maybe it will work.’ There was a little bit of commercial thinking. I was wondering well, hold on; if they are going to play anything from it, what are they going to play? It’s gong to be tricky so if this fits as a sort of epilogue, it would lighten people’s spirits because the end of Tarka is so doomy, it kind of lightens it without being trite. Also it would be something that would be in inverted commas “accessible” on the radio to play. And it seemed too good to waste hanging on for a film that might never be made.
TWR: With all the developments in the world of music, how far has the technology that is actually involved in the creating of music these days influenced how you write?
AP: Well, samples have made it easier to do orchestral things more convincingly; cheaply. I mean I wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of the stuff on the current album if I hadn’t had samples. They just wouldn’t have sounded convincing so, people now are able to do pretty reasonable full orchestral mock-ups from that point of view. Sequencers are obviously giving people a chance to play lots of lines which physically would be extremely difficult or just impossible. And I think that has ushered in a slightly new kind of orchestration in rock which is very interesting. It is a kind of rock orchestration and it enables people who haven’t got that finger technique to be able to put those ideas down.
TWR: Do you still consider yourself a traditionalist musician or… ?
AP: I am both. I am a complete mix of both. I love orchestra but I love all the new sounds. I mean, the current album is a real mix up of you know the pure orchestral approach with sections where you can definitely tell, you know, there’s the string part; there’s the oboe part; there are the harp arpeggios coming in and other sections which are much odder. You Can’t put any definite form to it. I am not ultra hi-tech though. I mean, I haven’t got some of the necessary gear to be ultra hi-tech. I would just like to think that I am pretty much in the middle. Maybe just a little bit traditionalist. There are areas that I want to work on. I want to get more au fait with some of the more percussive side which is really interesting; the more abstract percussive sounds like Peter (Gabriel) used. I have touched on it with this album but I would like to do more.
TWR: This brings us right up to date and the news that we have been waiting for since last year. The new album. Give us the low down on the new album.
AP: Well, I have to tell you that I am still a bit close to it to tell. I mean you know what it’s like… I feel now that perhaps it was a bit of a grand enterprise and I have tried to go for so many styles and tried to do full orchestral stuff here at home.
TWR: Is it another one of the Private Parts & Pieces series?
AP: Not at all. Not at all, I mean in then sense of the size of it. It just doesn’t hang around. The first side is a little bit slow to get going possibly but it moves around and generally covers a lot of ground.
TWR: Is it an instrumental album?
AP: It is purely instrumental yeah. I did it partly with a sort of… I mean I wanted something apart from Tarka which could demonstrate a larger canvas work if you like, for film companies and stuff. I did write four sides. I wrote a piano side; a twelve string side and would like to have done those but I just thought the two sides which are more interesting; had more change, more dynamics more space in places. More orchestral would fulfil more in the end. It remains to be seen whether I was right. During the course of it I kept on thinking perhaps I have bitten off more than I can chew because parts of it are VERY orchestral and I didn’t have an orchestra! And while I have got reasonable synths , I Haven’t got the really top synths; the ones that sound like strings.
In the end we did add real strings to some of it which was great but it was slightly changing horses in mid stream and actually the timbre of the real strings didn’t marry with the timbre of the samples in some places. It was almost like the clarity was too much. In the end it was a little bit of a hotch potch but I hope a hotch potch with lots of pieces that people are going to like. Generally the opinion is that side two; which is the side with all the new material flows pretty well. Side one is…well you see I did side one all on the one machine as well and I leapt running out of tracks and I ended up back in The Geese & The Ghost territory with one track tambourine, bass drum into piccolo, so the mixing was a complete nightmare. Tarka was all mixed on computer so we had loads of control but side one of this was a bit of a nightmare in that sense. Hopefully the people who have thought that my music in the past is too small scale will like it…..
Editor’s note: At the end of this interview Ant thrust a cassette copy
of this new album into my hands under its original title of “Project Two”
an album we now know as the magnificent Slow Dance.