“Making soundtracks to pay the bankstatement” - Tony Banks in conversation about his solo career. Interview and photographs by Alan Hewitt.
TWR: Moving on to the Soundtracks album, there was a lot of talk at this time that you had been involved with the 2010 soundtrack, and that it didn’t eventually happen…
TB: I was given the sack, there’s no two ways about it. The guy chose me because he really loved the theme from the Shout, he could sing it! (laughs). I couldn’t believe that as it was difficult to sing anyhow, it hasn’t got much of a melody. I thought that I was on to a winner here as that was like stuff I could write in my sleep. I met him and things went well and then I went home and made a demo of about five or six pieces. He rang me up and said that he didn’t like any of them! He was very definite about it as well.
I thought this was the big moment as well, I had seen it as the next step up in the film writing world. Anyhow, I tried by sending another tape out which he didn’t like, so I finally decided to go out there and see him. I wrote a piece almost in front of him and I found the chord changes that he liked. He said that the piece I did there and then was great and then asked for something that could be a song. Then I went home and began demoing some actual pieces for the film on the themes that we had agreed on but he said that it wasn’t working and that was that. The whole thing wasted about six months and it really was a set-back for me, there were quite a few film offers coming in. I was actually sent the script to Terminator although I doubt that I would ever end up doing the film. But that was something that I was in the running for as much as anybody else.
So, the whole 2010 thing meant that I had to turn down other offers and the film writingh side of things took a setback and it was obviously a big blow to my self confidence as well. I then just looked around for anything that I could find and what turned up was Lorca & The Outlaws, a science fiction film done by Roger Christian. It was very low budget, a £200,000 film and I said I would do the soundtrack for free as I wanted the experience and I just really needed to do it. I really enjoyed writing the stuff for it and just recorded it at home. Some of it sounded great and some of it didn’t sound so great.
Unfortunately the film was pretty bad. In the film there’s this little robot that had a voice with a Japanese accent, a sort of in-joke I think and you couldn’t understand a word it said! It stopped being cute very quickly and just became annoying. The main theme I wrote for it seemed to work well but with some of the action stuff it seemed very weak and it just wasn’t a good film. I just wanted the experience of trying another film more than anything else. It’s very much a pot luck thing with films, you can’t tell if it’s going to be a classic or a cult thing. One of the themes I had originally written for 2010 went into Lorca… but it would have been very different if I had got into 2010, I think it would have been the much bigger bass stuff - a different approach entirely. But the director went in the end for a just standard Hollywood soundtrack which is what I think he wanted all along. I think he wanted John Williams and I don’t know why he got me!
Of course, in Lorca… there were the two songs; the title song which I did with Jim Diamond; You Call This Victory and the other one that I did with Toyah; Lion Of Symmetry. There was a moment in the film where they had a sort of video jukebox and that was the song to go with that. I thought that the song was potentially very good. I just looked around for a possible singer and someone suggested Toyah. She was up for it, she seemed very keen to do it. So we met and the end result was one of he most enjoyable moments of my career in fact. She was a revelation to me, it just sounded so much better than it had ever done on her own where her voice always sounded so small and restricted. She has a fantastic range and it is one of my favourite songs. I was really pleased with the way it turned out especially the middle part. The idea of a female voice on what is essentially a traditional Genesis song was an interesting idea, it just changed the whole character of it completely. She wrote the lyrics and I love some of the imagery - it sends a shiver down my spine when I hear it now! I put the lyrics on the album sleeve as I thought that people would need that for the song with Fish, as no one could hear a word he sang! (laughs) There’s just too many words per minute! (laughs) Quicksilver turned up and I went to see the people. I wrote some demo pieces for them which they liked and it went from there. It was a weird situation actually as I was writing for committees. I ended up being involved in conference calls with about six people in Los Angeles and it was a complete nightmare. I survived that but the problem was that I had a song to write for the film, it was crucial. I wrote three pieces for one section - the first they liked but didn’t feel it was appropriate, and the second ended up as A House Needs A Roof on Bankstatement, although it was just an instrumental at that point. The third one that I wrote was this thing I did with Fish. None of these things seemed right as far as they were concerned and when I heard the thing they used in the end, which was a thing by Giorgio Moroder with Roger Daltrey which was extremely bad. They put it out as a single and of course it did nothing. They would have done far better had they put out the one I did with Fish. We made the song and it ended up going on the album although it’s not actually in the film itself at all. I said we should try and make a hit out of it. We got in Richard Burgess, the producer and said to him; ’make it a hit, take out all the bad bits and do whatever you have to do…’ but he felt it was good enough as it was. I think that he was wrong in fact, there were bits that should have been repeated more times as the idea was to have it as the hit song from a film. But I like the way it sounds, in fact I think it sounds great. Lyrically there are perhaps a few too many words in it although it is a good lyric. We made a video for that one.
TWR: Is it true that the film is about motorbikes, as we haven’t had the chance to see it?
TB: Yes, it’s about a cycle messenger. I was rather against making a video using bikes because I thought that people would think that it was something to do with the film. It was fun to do, we rode around in a field for a day in an orchard with a pretty girl and Fish and myself riding these bicycles around the place with a guy taking pictures of us going it. It was quite entertaining.
TWR: It certainly bemused a lot of your fans and I don’t know what the Marillion supporters thought about it!
TB: I enjoyed working with Fish. When he was suggested to me, I initially said no as I wasn’t too keen on Marillion or what I had heard of them at the time and everyone said that they were like Genesis and all the rest of it. But I met him and we got on well. He got through a whole crate of John Smith’s bitter while we were making the demo! (laughs). After working with him I went and listened to some of the early Marillion stuff and I was amazed at how some of the things were so close.
What was amazing about it was that they had had a number one album out of it, taking ideas that we had used on Foxtrot when Foxtrot was not a big seller at all. It was more the keyboard player than anyone and the fact that Fish’s voice obviously sounds a bit like Peter’s. Peter is very much someone who thinks about melodies and things whereas it is very difficult to get Fish to sing anything other than what comes out of his mouth naturally. What happened on that song was that I let him kind of improvise and then made a melody out of the bits that he had sung and I liked that. When I worked with him again, trying to get him to work with a written melody was really quite difficult.
TWR: Moving on to Bankstatement, why did you choose to submerge your identity within a group?
TB: The theory was that having tried all these different combinations; a group might be a better idea. Obviously Mike tried with Mike & The Mechanics and it worked really well, so I thought I would try the group thing. There are several ways of getting around the identity problem, you can sing it yourself if you can face it; you can somehow make the project bigger than the album like War Of The Worlds, or the third thing is to make up a group. If People think it’s a group then they will tent to see it as having another identity and in a sense that’s what I went for with Bankstatement. In some ways I am least happy with that record, there are two or three tracks that I really love, but having decided to have another go I thought I should do it and get it right. Virgin said that I should use a producer, so I said fine. I had a few conversations with people who I didn’t really see eye-to-eye with.
Then I met Steve Hillage and I thought “well, he’s a musician and he’s kind of weird, he would be quite fun to work with…”. I enjoyed working with Steve, it had its up and down moments but we really didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything. Eventually I felt that I had to step in and take a few things back and one or two tracks suffered as a result of that. I was trying to find a piece of music the other day for some other use and I came across a demo version of Throwback, which sounded great. It had a great feel which we completely lost on the album. One or two of the songs really survived it; I’ll Be Waiting would be in my own sort of “top ten” of my favourite songs. But things like The Border really missed the mark, which is a shame as it had the potential to be such a good song. Alistair Gordon just wasn’t right for that song. But working with Jayney Klimek was great and having a female voice after working with all these blokes for so many years was good.
I think she didn’t get the best songs on the album either. The song that worked far better than I thought it would was the song that I sang which was a bit of a throwaway piece and yet it came out really well. Alistair Gordon had a great voice and although he is better singer than me, he didn’t sound as good as me when he was out of character. The More That I Hide It was another song that sounded good but that was more within the song itself than the performance of it. I get a lot of letters from people who say that that’s their favourite of my albums but I can’t agree although that could be down to all the heartache that was around throughout the making of it.
TWR: You have said yourself that you see your role in Genesis as one steering them away from Top 40 material and that’s the way a lot of people see Throwback; it’s almost a statement of how you keep yourself out of the chart scene. Is that how you see your position?
TB: To some extent, although I have to say that with any of my records, up to and including Bankstatement, I have always written very much in the third person. I don’t like to get too identified with my own things. Someone like Phil is so closely identified with all of his solo stuff, this is me saying all of this, and all the rest of it. But I don’t feel like that, I like to write these things as a kind of little play; you put thus character in this position and then you take it from there. It’s not difficult for me to identify with the Throwback idea, it’s an extension of what I did with The Fugitive, with a person being out of step with what’s going on around them. I have always seen myself as being out of tune completely with this business, and Throwback to some extent is part of that. All the things that are said in the song, I wouldn’t agree with at all! Throwback as a word sounds good to, with the emphasis on the syllables. When I listen to the song now I wonder about the riff on the verse and think “why?” and then I hear the demo and realise why, because there it sounds great. On the final version the sounds I chose to play just didn’t work as well. But now in the business it is almost impossible to put out an album and expect it to do something without the hit single as well. The shops just won’t take it which is the problem.
When I put out A Curious Feeling, we could get 30,000 records in the shops and if you could sell a few it worked OK, and I think that ’s why I got a Top Twenty entry on that album. Whereas with Bankstatement you could only get two or three thousand in the shops and even if they all sold within the first week, you couldn’t get a chart entry, that’s how it was. So the whole business has completely changed and it’s bad for me as a solo artist although it’s fantastic for me as part of Genesis, because exactly the opposite happens. But what is it like for people who come in at the bottom from nowhere? It must be virtually impossible as you can’t come through with anything other than a hit single. So, every album now that is a hit follows on from a hit single and I don’t think that that is a very healthy situation at all. it’s impossible to change it as well, which is a problem and that’s why everything sounds all the same now, nothing that doesn’t fit the mould can break through. You can’t break through unless you have a hit single and you can’t have a hit single unless it sounds like everything else. You do get the occasional quirky one that gets through like St Winifred’s School Choir (laughs) and I find those quite refreshing!
TWR: Several people have noticed that the song Queen Of Darkness has a lot of similarities with part of the Lorca… suite from Soundtracks. Was that intentional re-cycling on your part?
TB: Yes it was. It was just one of those things. When I wrote it for the Lorca…thing I thought that it could be a good song but I didn’t think much more about it and I tend not to like going back over old material. Steve Hillage was listening to my old stuff and he said that that bit sounded good and that I should make a song out of it. Since he said exactly what I’d always thought I said we should do it. So, we re-arranged it and it turned out pretty good. Again, I like Janey’s voice on it very much. But the piece of music is no better than the original in a way. I’ve also discovered that the record company won’t put out anything the girl sings as a single as the identity crisis gets too much for anyone to bear; a Tony Banks song with a female voice although I don’t see that at all. Dave Stewart did it very well with It’s My Party, I thought he did such a good version of it. He also did a version of We Are Siamese which I thought sounded good as well.
TWR: It seems that as you have carried on making the albums, there has been more in the way of social comment being made. Do you find yourself being drawn more to making comments about actual situations?
TB: It gets increasingly difficult I think to write about fantastic situations. In terms of fantasy writing, books about that sort of thing are probably more popular than they have ever been. But fantasy in song just seems to be more difficult although I don’t know why that is. I’ll be the first person to go against the grain but I feel I need to set things in some sort of reality although I don’t know why that should be. When I wrote Undertow which was one of the first realistic songs that I wrote, I thought it worked really nicely because people understand what you mean and it touches them directly. I thought that this was a nice kind of approach to take. I still like to write some sings that take you away from all of that but I think you are right in saying that there are more songs about real situations and seeing where that leads you. I often feel that the most effective lyric is the well-written love lyric as it can move you so easily.
TWR: The extra track on the CD of the album reminds me of some of The Beatles’ more off the wall moments, especially I Am The Walrus. Were you paying homage to them in any way with that piece?
TB: Not particularly. If people say to me that I am sounding
like someone else then normally I hate it, but if I sound like The Beatles then
I am happy to sound like The Beatles. I don’t know why that is really
although I always think that they’ve been far and away the biggest influence
on this band because they were always imaginative. They always seemed to try
to use chord structures that hadn’t been used before, even in quite simple
songs and for me it was one of the most exciting things about them. I have always
taken that as a sort of starting point. When I hear a song I hear the chords
as much as I hear anything else and when I hear something that has the same
chords it’s like hearing the same song again, it’s that close. So
I need to do it differently