“Taking Sides and other tales of eccentric librarianship” - Anthony Phillips in conversation with TWR about his recent projects and work with Steve Hackett. Interview conducted at Chez Stench on Saturday 14th November 2009 by Alan Hewitt. Photographs by Stuart Barnes.
It has been a while, but at last TWR manages to catch up with Mr Phillips for a long overdue interview about his recent activities including his work with Steve. I thought I would get my share of Pythonisms in before Ant this time though…
TWR: Tell us about your latest film, Sir Edward. Do you mind if I call you Eddie… Eddie baby?
AP: They are perennials aren’t they Al?
TWR: Yes, but so are weeds!
AP: So what brings you here Al?
TWR: I don’t know, an exercise in masochism I think. Seriously, we are here to talk about your latest musical activities and wot you’ve dun since 2007 since the re-release of The Geese & The Ghost so what have you been doing since then….? Including this rumour of you allegedly working on an album by another allegedly well-known guitarist …what’s his name… Gilbert Hackett… something like that?
AP: Well you seem to know it all old boy so I’ll just sit back and listen. How far back are we going?
TWR: Well, the last time we talked to you was for the remasters of The Geese & The Ghost , Wise After The Event and 1984.
AP: So, we have covered those have we? Lots of library music of course, I have been very lucky in doing back to back double CDs apart from lots of mini projects in between which most of those are joint efforts with different composers doing different tracks to try and get as much variation as possible. For the listener it has been incredibly lucky they let me do a big documentary based one which was “Synth” and after that an orchestral project which was the first one since English Pastoral. Sadly English Pastoral we have tried to get released but the problem with that is that the company only paid the musicians the library rate and if you then want that music to be released commercially then you have to pay the players the same amount again, which given my sales figures is simply not practical, unfortunately and we would be talking figures of upwards of ten thousand pounds and so it kind of cancelled everything out which was a great shame because the idea was to have Take This Heart on it because that would have tied up that kind of Classical area of things which had not been released.
We were going to release Take This Heart possibly on the new Missing Links compilation which we will come to but it didn’t really sit well with most of that synth and guitars so anyway the orchestral CD which came up was the first since 1999 and I was given a much freer brief on this one because the previous one was aimed at the EC vacuum that had been created by rounding up the copyright period to that of the country within the EC that had the longest copyright period which had put Vaughan Williams and Elgar back into copyright therefore it was prohibitive for a lot of people to use their music hence libraries were jumping in and saying lets have some stuff that sounds similar to people which wasn’t going to cost them as much. So it was a real challenge to do stuff that was like that and when I had a free hand it was alright but when it was stuff where I had to do definite pastiches of things like Nimrod I obviously came unstuck. Luckily on this one they said just go for it really, speak with your own voice, my boy and so to be honest I did what a lot of us do really, I just gathered together all of the most appropriate pieces I had over the last period like composers have their sketch books and stuff and then think that could work, that could be nice.
Covering a much much wider brief right down to aiming at all sorts of types of films at the very least film trailers. Interestingly with some guitar stuff for a change because of the man whose name I can never pronounce… Gustavo Santorolo is it? The guy who composed the music for Brokeback Mountain and Babel of course, and won an Oscar for both of them, back to back Oscars. Brokeback Mountain was more traditional orchestra with guitar but I don’t know if you saw the film Motorcycle Diaries because that was very lovely and had a lot of jangling twelve strings in a way and Babel as well was a really fine mixture of ethnic guitar and again some lovely ringing arpeggio patterns that were not a million miles away from my area so… I didn’t set out to write pieces like that but we used those as a model and so where there were pieces of music that were in a slightly similar genre we took those. The aim was to shoot the person at the front door (at this point we were interrupted folks)....
|So I was given a very wide brief to try and cover some English TV world cinema so in a sense it was a complete disaster because you think where do I begin and as I said I used quite a lot of old pieces or old embryonic ideas and I had a short list or should that be long list of about seventy or eighty and then it was a question of bashing it down from that . I was dealing with a girl called Claire Isaacs who I have been dealing with before and who is an absolute sweetie. She’s no nonsense but she is not one of these opinionated people who tries to stick loads of her own personality as some of them do. So we whittled it down and there were a few models it would be wrong to say it was completely free, obviously you had to be aware of certain composers whose work is being used a lot, for instance Philip Glass, about who I have got slightly mixed feelings. I can see why his music works a lot but I think some people find that his music is too insistent and doesn’t change very much and isn’t melodic enough because it is more arpeggio. I suppose it is a form of modern commercial film music which I have got some friends who are quite scathing about it.|
It made me examine why in not doing pastiches of it but slightly angling your music towards that or aspiring to, to see why it is so popular. So there were one or two areas where you were going along trying to fill in certain used popular areas without doing poor man’s pastiches and we got the list down. Then it was a case of, I was supposed to finish it all off the composition and then the orchestration in the summer of 2008 but I quickly realised I was never going to make it. I pleaded for extra time and Claire came up with this idea of using an outside arranger which I wasn’t sure about really because the old Genesis days of not having the control and one learned all that so you never had misunderstandings and mess ups but actually the chap they found for me; a guy called Andrew Skeet who had worked for them on some other stuff was really delightful and incredibly good. Whilst there was the odd piece and the odd area where I thought well, I should still have done that myself it wouldn’t necessarily have been better but truer to what I wanted but that was a tiny minority and most of it his orchestration was much more imaginative and much more varied. What it made me realise was that, provided the guys don’t start putting too much of their own personal composition into it. You see some of these guys are like the arrangers who do the orchestration in films they just know how to get the best out of a track or to make it sit best in that particular genre and that is real skill. He was coming up with variations which I would never have thought of. I tend to start in a certain style of orchestration and keep it there whereas he varied the instruments a lot and it was a lot lighter. He was a delightful chap to work with.
Unfortunately we had to go to Prague, I say unfortunately and that isn’t fair on the people up there because they were very good but it is probably well known that the Musicians’ Union are tough on certain of the rules that it is quite prohibitive to record certain projects in London because you would have to pay extra for this and pay extra for that and one classic example of this is if a piece of library music gets used as title music for a programme, which is not impossible, the players have to be paid all over again. So if you have people asking “can you do some title music for a couple of grand?” you have to say “sorry mate, can’t do it” . So, because of that inflexibility we found ourselves having to go to Prague where you get a bit more of a mixed bunch out there. The thing about London is that the players are all of a standard and there are some terrific ones but out there it is a bit more of a mish-mash. You are going to get people pulled in from theatre orchestras and we had some phenomenal players but put it like this the person at the back of the first violins isn’t necessarily that and it could be a granny who’s knitting (laughs) and that is really unfair but there you go. It was good fun, a bit scary but Prague was an amazing place. The place where we were recording reminded me so much of war films.
TWR: You say this is a double CD? Normally working to the length of a single CD you have got the problem of I have got to much music chasing too little space. Did you have the other problem this time of having enough music to comfortably fill both discs?
|AP: Easily, easily we did get rid of a lot of tracks. The ones we got rid of were the ones which were too dramatic the ones we got rid of were the ones which were really fast driving dramatic tense ones. There is pacey stuff but didn’t go for any of the big brash ones partly because it meant having a bigger orchestra with all the big brass and all the rest of it. I think we seemed to have enough and we did quite a lot of different mixes because people call them “stems” and we had all these different types of mix with different programmes and obviously listening to it as a CD makes it a bit boring because there would be the same track four times. In the end they split it on to two different CDs which I am pleased about because it probably gets more use and they have done one which is although slightly artificial, they called one “English Film & TV” and the other “World Cinema”. Some of them aren’t supposed to be up front although it is more up front than some of the documentary stuff which is setting mood but is not necessarily up front melody. There was one which was almost a John Barry type melody which was quite fun|
The other thing is, with the recession and all these cable and satellite stations, they don’t have the time or the budget or the wherewithal to get some bloke to come in and do it and you can edit these things now very finely to make it seem as if it was actually written for their programme and in the old days you couldn’t do that and so library music, from their point of view unless it is some really complicated action story you can really make it fit very well. In fact numerous times I have thought this must have been written for the programme but then there is no credit at the end of the programme which is a giveaway.
It is very early days, these things are always very strange because unlike the commercial release where you hopefully get reviews pretty instantly, with these they spend a lot of time between when you finish it and when it comes out on the packaging and marketing and just getting it just right. Particularly with the acoustic based orchestral ones where there is no passing market for them. It took about five or six months from finishing to get on the Internet which is increasingly becoming the thing with things downloaded and not hard copy. And for someone like me it is a bit hard to move on before you know how the last project went but I have been incredibly lucky doing so much stuff and I am not going to be doing anything for a while but the marketing department although quite a lot of them are young girls some of them were very enthusiastic. English Pastoral is still in its first flush of youth (laughs) when you think about it. I would be interested in what people think about some of the guitar stuff as well because I can’t really judge it to be honest. I know there is one we have done with the string section which is different and I haven’t done anything like that before where you have just got solo twelve string and strings and it is quite dramatic. And there is a sole classical one on my old Mirecord a very plaintive one a sort of repetitive undulating thing we’ll see… the great thing about this one is we will be able to release this one commercially because it was recorded in Prague. It is a shame having to speak out against the MU like that but I do sometimes think that the lack of a sliding scale sometimes really does a lot of their players a disservice. When you are, as a composer, sometimes paid very little for a project, you can find yourself paying a fairly dramatic fee to a player that would not be that much different to being paid for a film and it doesn’t make sense. A film has a huge budget and we’ve got a small budget why is the fee so large? Wouldn’t it be better to give the player 50% of something rather than 100% of nothing.
TWR: Was that the last library project or have you done other things since?
AP: There were lots in between, I mean Joji and I did some pieces for the Olympics although I am not sure if any of it ever got used really. It’s too early to tell because the overseas stuff doesn’t come in for a while. We did one really heavy one with him playing downstairs and we cleared all the furniture out (laughs). We did a couple of rather pretty ones using that zheng which is a Chinese zither…. Koto is the word I’m after, Chinese koto and we got Guo Yue in to play some flute which was good. That was really nice I think you’ll like those.
Over the last four or five years I have done so much and between those there was some stuff on a CD called “Movie Soundtrack” and I collaborated with Chris White who is my technical chappie and we have collaborated on a fair few things so there has been numerous things. So we will have to stock take at some point and get some of these released commercially. I think it must be nearer a thousand but certainly five hundred plus pieces well in excess of five hundred.
TWR: It was funny actually, when I saw the piece about Steve’s new album in Classic Rock Presents Prog and there was a column down the side with the interview about you and it said “with this album (Steve’s album) this will be his fiftieth album…” and I am bloody sure it is more than that actually! (laughs)
AP: Fifty? More of those library albums have been actual tracks or segments of CDs so it would be difficult to add it all up really.
TWR: So, the orchestral album was comprised of all your compositions?
AP: Yes, although Andrew’s contribution was so marked on some of them that I am going to split some of it with him, only on the ones where the orchestration has made so much difference. Or maybe there is an extra melody on top and I am actually going to cut him in on some of it. Yes, it was all of my stuff and it was great to work out stuff that I hadn’t been able to get a release for. It has left a lot of pieces mainly the ones which were too romantic but it has left a lot of stuff for that legendary Slow Dance II or Slow Dance Fifty Seven (laughs). it’s funny that so many people have said that that one is a soundtrack in waiting but I have never found the right person who has tried to place it somewhere. There is a LOT of material left over from this and I don’t mean it is left over because it is inferior. It is a little bit too Anthony Phillips-ish really and it won’t fit on a library album but I really do want to do it but it is a question of when, though. I was going to start in October but then the house work but that is the next one. Once the library company sack me and there’s no more work. Actually there are all sorts of different material left over. That is the great thing about the orchestral stuff, it doesn’t date. Anything with electronics and particular drums and that kind of stuff you have got to be careful about. I have been very lucky because as Atmosphere have been repeatedly taken over we have moved up and so we are now part of Universal who are the biggest publishers of the lot we are UPPM - Universal Publishing Production Music now so I have had music used on adverts in Sweden and other countries. Most of this money is coming from abroad, not much of it is from England it is a lot of use in Sweden, Poland, Germany, Switzerland and all sorts of places which is fantastic for me because it funds so many other different things.
One of which of course, moving on before we come to Steve’s project is the latest Missing Links project which is one that Jon (Dann) and probably you and I talked about in the past; the B sides album the ones; the obscure tracks that HAD been released but they are all on different CDs somewhere and it is very frustrating because people have said “well I would like to hear that track but I don’t necessarily want to buy or struggle to buy,… can’t you put these all in one place?” and we didn’t do it for years. Take This Heart is the one notable omission but it didn’t really seem to fit on this and this is cobbling together things from various charity CDs there was the one for the poor little girl that had Downs Syndrome (The Sky Goes All the Way Home) and Sky Dawn seems to be a popular track and that seemed to fit nicely on there.
TWR: Looking at the track listing I would have to say that over half of these I don’t know…
AP: Golden Road To Samarkand was a library piece that got released on an Italian compilation. A lot of the tracks are library releases which we were mentioning earlier on; French and German ambient compilations from TV programmes. I have re-titled a couple, there was an EMI one which was there for the Greek Olympics which was originally called Aegean Reflection which was an informative library title but a bit too bland so I re-titled it It’s All Greek To Me which was a title I was looking forward to getting in again somewhere (laughs).
TWR: Once again you are keeping your fans happy, because the whole idea of this series was to tie up a lot of loose ends and not in any deprecatory sense, because some of this music is damn hard to come by…
AP: Halcyon days of course, that’s worth a mention because it was,,, if one uses the word out-take it seems like it was inferior but Halcyon Days was from either PP8 or 9 I can’t remember. Nine I think and it didn’t fit because it had a different kind of dimension it was quite a large track and it actually features me playing the lead guitar which is something I hardly ever play. So that’s quite fun and Joji plays percussion on that. I don’t think there are any other musicians guesting on it.
TWR: What time period do these cover?
AP: I think the earliest usage has been from the Terra X German TV compilation which was a library album in 1987 which had some distinctive but not too primitive synth sounds. So we are talking a spread of over twenty years. What’s interesting is that Jon (Dann) has done some nice cross-fades and I didn’t find myself thinking that sounds old but there are a couple of those Eighties synth pieces which are a little bit on the borderline. I hope that whilst it is an album that people won’t like all of it, hopefully they will like some of it a lot that is all that one can really hope. It is a mish mash but Jon has done a good attempt at making it sound homogenous. There is a video clip on the web site too, the first time we’ve done that - five or six tracks a little promo piece which is rather nice actually. Some nice footage, a couple of my photographs and I think it is a nice way of advertising it really.
So that occupied a fair bit of the summer and there are two other big things to talk about one of which is Steve Hackett asking me to do some stuff. I remember at one stage the entreaty was something along the lines of “I don’t mind what you play just come along and play Serbian toe flute” he did mention. And I remember thinking… “Okay, it’s pretty relaxed if I can come along with the old Serbian toe flute” so I didn’t come along with a Serbian toe flute, I came along with a twelve string that was, having played very little over the summer because I was involved in this building work and stuff and the studio was all mothballed. It was one of the most easy and pleasant sessions of my life and I know it sounds like a cliché and to turn up with a twelve string and I thought I was turning up just to listen to a couple of things and then think “shit, I haven’t got any ideas” and go away and say “sorry mate, can’t add anything” and I am not being falsely modest, I really did think that. I was definitely not going along in my mind to add stuff on the spot but he played me this song which was in B flat but because my twelve string was tuned down a tone was in C and therefore has a lot of open strings and is much easier to play. So it was real serendipity working overtime and the chords were reasonably simple and that sounds incredibly denigrating but what I mean was it wasn’t incredibly difficult to learn and very nice as well so it was easier to just kind of duck into and interweave and do a little bit of mucking about without going too far off. It was just one of those odd things where you start playing and you know …. Because often when you start playing people go off into huddles and “hmmm maybe” and then you keep trying things and the more things you try the further away you go. This was the reverse really, everything I tried they seemed to like so I found myself recording the choruses of that song.
Insert photo of Ant in Steve’s living room from #72 here - credit Hackettsongs.com
Steve went out which is the normal thing he does, he goes out of the room and I just found myself recording with Roger (King) who is delightful. Not a pushover, I know my timing I always tend to speed up a bit the old Mike Giles story about going home and practising with a metronome. I did tend to speed up a bit and they might have done a bit of moving afterwards but it wasn’t just like one take and then “oh, can you repair that, Roger?” I did retake slightly but it was good fun and they double tracked it with a higher inversion and that was fine. Everyone seemed so happy and it had taken so little time.
The first one I did was the pretty almost Country type (Emerald And Ash) and the other one was Sleepers. That one he just said this was a complete long shot and he said “can you add anything to this?” and I listened to it and thought “no” (laughs) but then it didn’t seem to be right for twelve string and I just started mucking about again it was in…. anyway I was in B minor which seemed to work. I don’t know but Roger was saying “well, actually that really does work why don’t you just try and develop that?” Then they started stripping the track down and they said “Maybe we will just use a section where we just use all the guitars” and it seemed to work nicely. That was a lot more looser , I was just vamping around on that one and the track sounded great. So that was it really, an hour and out we went to supper! (laughs) And I didn’t have to come back! (laughs) that was great fun and very enjoyable indeed. Roger couldn’t have been any more delightful. Steve was very easy It was just perfect really - even the neighbours enjoyed it! (laughs)
So… Tarka… I got a call from Harry in the early part of this year just after I had finished the library album at the end of January, early February saying “we are getting involved with a water charity” and this was just after the dreadful fires in Melbourne where people were killed and this idea about doing a concert of Tarka came up. Given past stuff to do with Tarka, you know Harry is a lovely guy but he does at times and I am sure he would be happy to admit this, he does get involved in ventures that are speculative and it is wonderful to be idealistic but sometimes these things don’t work out and so he was very enthusiastic about this and I was thinking is this going to happen. But it seemed to be an impossible one to turn down. There was proposed concert in aid of a water charity, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra were providing some of the players which they wanted to do, no one was being coerced into doing it. But, and this is a big BUT, they needed to see the scores in order to be sure that this was kosher and it was like scores…? Where are they? Are they legible? And of course they weren’t legible. The first movement never had a completed score we just did the parts for the players and it was disastrous so Harry had, despite having the reputation at the time of being a bit more disorganised than me, his organisation was impeccable compared to mine because he had all the movement two scores and he had all the guitar parts written up and again, whereas in the early days I would be the one who would remember Mike Rutherford’s parts for him, he couldn’t remember anything (Some things never change -AH) I found myself struggling in the second movement to remember some of my guitar pieces AT ALL. Harry was the one who had got rough notes of my guitar parts so I shall be forever in his debt.
I set off in February with movement one and got that out to him. I didn’t complete it but I wrote all the guitar parts. I wrote up all the orchestral parts that were in the score because they were really all very pencil faded. That did take quite a long time but then it got worse because movement three I had to get out and my heart sank because we did it on what was effectively large tracing paper because it copied well but Jeremy Gilbert couldn’t find the copy he had done for movement three for his conducting score which meant that all we had was that original oil paper and it had all faded. I had to go through 36 pages of this virtually updating every single note! I had to do all the parts for movements one and three, copy out all the parts. It probably took me about six weeks and Andrew Skeet has done an orchestral arrangement of The Anthem because I couldn’t face doing that and so he has done that what was interesting on that was what he used for the rhythmic bits but what we used was harp actually. So Harry is using a brilliant guitarist called Doug Defries who is very, very good. Apparently he launched into my parts with gusto despite them being in weird tunings and stuff. The concert, you will see there is a poster on the wall in the other room is taking place on February 27th next year, could be your birthday present… It is happening on 27th February. There will be a DVD of it and everything. It is still a little bit early days, the concert may be pulled and nobody might buy tickets. He came over in October and we did interviews and played a bit of movement two it didn’t feel right I couldn’t get back into the groove of it and we will see what happens.
TWR: So what are you currently working on…?
AP: The one project I have done which is quite interesting. Well, to me it is very interesting I don’t know if everyone else will think that way,, it is Andrew Skeet and I who arranged the orchestral album was so enamoured of the twelve string in Strings Piece that we have done our own little mini project which may be expanded of adding strings to, so far six of the tracks from Field Day which is interesting. What is interesting so far is from the reaction and I can totally understand this, the people that don’t know the tracks seem to like it more. People who know the original tracks and have got used to them and all the intimacy, the desolate quality of it. I wouldn’t say they are lush because they are quite angular at times but they are full and people who know them say that doesn’t sound so much like you. It ISN’T so much like me, that’s the whole point but I respect their point of view. So I think it has got mixed crits but the people who don’t know the original pieces seem to like it. What are we going to do with it? Good question. It is very early days but I really enjoyed doing it and I hope it might lead to something in the future. If it goes well, we might do more because there are another fifty five (laughs) tracks on Field Day.
After that I would like to try my hand at some song writing again, there are so many bits and pieces. There is also another small library project and then hopefully, summer, or autumn, next year a new album.
And there you have it, folks. Our long overdue chat with Mr P. Hope you found
it interesting and our thanks to Anthony as usual for his hospitality.