“Words from the orchestra pit” - Tony Banks in conversation with Alan Hewitt about his latest orchestral project, Six Pieces For Orchestra. Interview conducted via telephone on Friday 2nd March 2012. Photographs: Tadlow Music Ltd.
TWR: I guess the first question is Tony, when did you begin to consider a follow up to Seven?
TB: Well, I suppose it had been in my mind ever since I finished Seven, I wanted to do another one because I felt I learned a lot on that project and I felt that I could certainly do a more complete piece. Because there were so many things I didn’t understand until I got in the studio with everything that was happening and as you know from before, I had to do everything twice with Seven, three or four of the pieces ended up being done twice which taught me a lot in itself. So this time I was much better prepared.
I hadn’t got anything concrete written and during the last tour when they ask you the usual questions you know, in interviews and Phil would say this and Mike would say that and so I thought I would say I was going to do another orchestral album and although I had no specific plans to do it, I knew that it was something I wanted to do in the future and so that answered the question.
TWR: And this time you have done it over in Prague, any particular reason for using the Prague Philharmonic?
TB: Well the main reason I suppose was because I knew I could get a lot more time with them for the same money. As you know, making these things is quite expensive and my experience with the LPO… they are a good orchestra but the time was a big factor and I didn’t feel that the orchestra was all that excited by it. So, there was no reason to go that way again and I thought let’s try another and someone the Prague orchestra to me and said they were very good players and you could do the whole thing much cheaper which meant that I had more time to rehearse which was what I really missed last time. Just being able to do… the first thing you have got to be able to do is put the scores in front of them and get rid of all the bum notes (laughs). So that takes a long time and so if you are doing a session of an hour and a half for one ten minute piece which was what I did last time you probably take the first hour just correcting the typos before you have a chance to consider if they were playing it right or if your arrangement was working with the orchestra you had in front of you and everything. So that was the thing I did, I had a day to go through all the pieces which was very useful because they only had to play it through once to see where all the mistakes were and that could all be dealt with and then you could also make some sort of judgement on other things as well. We just found that it made so much difference really, so we had a day and about three days between that and the session day and then rehearsals starting in order to re-do the scores and get them correct and everything.
That all worked very well and this orchestra were much more enthusiastic for the music and much more excited about the idea and quite a few of them were Genesis fans which helped quite a bit and so in the main it was altogether a much happier experience.
TWR: I know that Anthony (Phillips) has used the same orchestra recently…
TB: That’s right, I know that because he was keen on some trombonist or something I think … FEMALE tromobonist! (laughs). He has used them and I used them because they had been recommended a few times and Paul Englishby who was the conductor and who helped with the arrangements had been there before and done various TV things and he said it was a good way to do it.
TWR: Did you find that your compositional methods changed between doing Seven and doing this album?
TB: Not so much the compositional methods more the… I took it to a further degree in the demo form definitely. The big change in composition really would be the fact that I decided to do two pieces that were led by a solo instrument. Someone had suggested the idea to me of using a saxophone and I hadn’t thought of it much but I found a really cheesy saxophone sample on one of my keyboards and started doodling around on top of something I had done and it sounded quite good. Then I got Martin Robertson involved and I have worked with him before and he is a close friend and I have known him for years and he is a very good player so if I was going to use sax he was the man to do it. Once I had decided to do a sax piece I thought it might be fun to try and do another one and the violin being the obvious choice because it is the most expressive instrument of the classical instruments and also more similar to what I had done in the past with some of the solos and also with guitar solos which make it the most emotive of instruments.
That was a different kind of challenge and those two pieces were great fun for me to do just playing around and seeing where they developed and probably in terms of where they ended up sounding on the record I kind of adapted them a lot more from what I did on the demo because when you write for an instrument, the backing becomes a lot less, particularly with classical orchestra you have really got to cut down what you do behind. You can’t do what you do with rock music which is if you want a flute to be Fortissimo over a full band doing drums and guitars thrashing away, you can do it artificially but with an orchestra you can’t do that so you have to calm the backing down quite a bit which was quite a discipline and quite entertaining to try and find out how spare you could make the accompaniment to get across what you were trying to do with the arrangement.
TWR: Did you start off with piano or keyboard demos for this one or did you have the orchestra in mind right from the word go…?
TB: I always knew I wanted to do it with an orchestra but to be honest the sax piece and the violin piece were both piano based to begin with and on the sax piece the piano melodies were very much within the part really which I kind of embellished once I did it with the sax but the idea was all there. Whereas the violin piece was done very much like the way we did some of the old Genesis pieces, we had a background, a sort of basis going and then I just improvised on top to see what it would become. That was quite a different thing for me to do but the piano is often apart of them although there were two or three that hadn’t had piano in them.
I like to try and improvise using the synth particularly just a sting synth which stops you being able to play fast because it has a much slower attack and it makes you play in a different way and I suppose it is a combination of the two.
TWR: How much did you play on it this time round?
TB: I didn’t play on it at all. It has been my ambition ever since I came into this business! (laughs). Not to play on something I wrote. I never intended to be a player, I always wanted to be a writer and of course, through the early days of Genesis everything was focussed on my playing partly because we attributed everything to all of us and of course there was for whatever reason this tendency to overemphasise the role of the singer as a writer and so I had to make the most of my playing (laughs) and that became what I did. But I always loved the idea of writing and listening to it and not be involved in that way. I played a little bit on Seven because we had always intended for a bit of piano to be there and it was recorded at the same time as the orchestra but to be honest it wasn’t terribly important and if it wasn’t there you would really notice it on most of the pieces, it could have been dispensed with. I thought “get rid of this, no piano, not by me, not by anybody” and see what happens and I found that very refreshing actually (laughs).
TWR: Obviously it must make things a lot easier for you if you don’t have to do it per se.
TB: I don’t have to get nervous in the studio (laughs) and I can sort of say “no, do that again” (laughs) which was quite fun. It changes the way you feel about a thing too the whole perspective changes too, you are there and you have no axe to grind obviously in terms of your own playing, obviously I did on Seven, you can just judge the thing as a totality an dhow close it is to what you originally intended.
TWR: Can you tell us a little bit about each of the tracks because I have only heard the snippets so far…
TB: The snippets? Yeah for some reason, Carol (Willis) or Tony (Smith) decided that was how they were going to do it. Very soon you will hear the whole thing I am sure. Well the first track… I gave them all titles because people insisted on that, I wanted to call them one two three, four, five but they wouldn’t let me do that. Or even call them Adagio or.. And I couldn’t do that either so I thought that really given the structure of it and to justify the two solo led pieces, I thought if we could make it a simple sort of story idea so you had the two soloists being the two main protagonists and I thought the sax was definitely the more female, seductress type figure so I called that piece Siren which is what opens it. Then the third piece which is the violin led piece is the male protagonist and a sort of dashing knight so I called that one Blade and those two sort of set it up and the rest are kind of story pieces.
To go through the pieces, the opening piece is the sax led one and I think the two solo led ones are perhaps the easiest to hear first time because they have the melodic lines and you know absolutely what you are listening to if you like and they are quite direct and seem to speak to people. The second piece is perhaps the oldest of the pieces and was something I was kind of fiddling around with at the end of Seven and that is the only piece that dates from anything other than the last couple of years really. I felt that I didn’t need it on Seven, the idea wasn’t fully developed and I was able to develop it much more and I was able to make it much more in keeping with the ideas on Seven and it is a totally orchestral piece. It is quite slow but it gets to quite a big climax there is a strong change from minor key to major key which is supposed to uplift the spirits but, who knows? (laughs).
The third piece is the violin piece which is quite fast actually but not as fast as I originally wrote it. I originally because of computers and everything did it really fast on the demo which sounds spectacular but when we came to the actual recording we took it back a bit because although the soloists could probably play it, the rest of the orchestra might have struggled a bit and it didn’t need to be that fast and sounds good at the speed it is but I am still surprised when I hear my old demo just how fast it is.
Then there are the other three pieces, the fourth piece which is called Wild Pilgrimage and if anyone is interested that is because there is an artist, an illustrator, a chap called Lind Ward who did a series of books from the late 1920’s right through until the 1950’s of stories without words which he did in woodcut form and I find them quite strong images and one of the books was called Wild Pilgrimage and that was supposed to be the part of the story where the characters are on a journey trying to find out something and it seemed an appropriate title. It is very much a song… piece I shouldn’t say song anymore! (laughs) Movement is what I am supposed to say I think. This movement has two distinct halves, the first half being a bit more pastoral and strong and melodic. Then the second half is a triplet rhythm, quite sparse and not something you would expect and it becomes quite exuberant I think. To be honest it is probably my favourite of the pieces, I don’t know I change my mind all the time but it is quite up and quite long.
The penultimate piece is called The Oracle which is a lead up to the final piece which is the simplest piece on it there are some quite simple melodies and some little embellishments on them and quite interesting harmonically, the top line is played by various wind instruments and it never gets very loud so it is quite a peaceful piece and then the final piece is called City Of Gold which recalls as students of Genesis and Tony Banks work will know was the destination of the characters in A Trick Of The Tail which is sort of an El Dorado which is what it was intended to be originally and that was what I did when I wrote A Trick Of The Tail, the idea of someone getting bored and leaving a place that was sort of perfect and then going to somewhere else and discovering that that wasn’t so perfect and then going back to the city of gold at the end . So the city of gold is like a destination, a perfect destination and so that is what it is all about, a quest if you like. The final piece is probably the most ambitious of the pieces and I am quite pleased with the way this one turned out because the final piece on Seven; Spirit Of Gravity which was supposed to be quite a tense piece I didn’t feel worked, some bits did and some bits didn’t and it got a bit bogged down towards the end and ended slowly and without half the parts because we couldn’t get the orchestra to play them.
So, this one was a similarly ambitious track but it worked with a big climax, a big ending which was quite good really rather than petering away to nothing which I have a tendency to do. So it’s the first time you hear it there are a couple of chords in there which will definitely make you sit up and listen, that typical Tony Banks moment really (laughs). It is supposed to be arresting because things are going along in a certain way and there are lots of little harmonic things, it is the most harmonically developed of the pieces and it doesn’t have as much repetition really. It goes through all the main pieces twice but it is quite extended and it does take more than one listen to appreciate which is the great advantage of recorded music over the old guys who had to enjoy these pieces first time, you know.
TWR: Do you ever see yourself performing or the pieces from this album and Seven being performed in the live context?
TB: I would love to do it but once again it is quite a big organisational thing and there is the financial question and whether you can get the audience and all the rest of it and how many shows do you do? Do you do more than one? In different countries? If I could have got it all together on release it would have made sense but I thought because I can’t do that I would wait and see how it goes down I suppose. Classic FM seem quite keen on it this time which is good. On week of release they are giving it “Record of the Week” and the chances of people hearing it are better this time because last time I felt that Seven, the people who heard it quite liked it, it was quite difficult to reach people who weren’t prepared to do any searching.
TWR: I go to quite a few orchestral concerts myself with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and I know that the orchestra is always looking for new pieces to commission so it would be interesting to see if anyone has brought this to their attention..
TB: Yeah, they had been recommended to me as an orchestra as well, actually, even for the recording. There are these kind of orchestras who are looking for stuff and if somebody else is prepared to put it on then the onus is off me. If you are putting it on yourself the whole thing is on you whereas if an orchestra … if someone else thinks it is worth doing which is why I am waiting a little bit to see if it gains any kind of response and somebody says “it would be nice to do this” or parts of it within a concert it is a lot easier for me in a way. I sort of I am still pretty green to this classical world really and there is quite a lot of snobbishness out there. As I said, Classic FM are keen but some sort of approach was made to Radio Three and they dismissed it without even listening to it. It was just not going to be on their radar, simple as that so you know where you are from the start and you will get the same from some reviewers. On the other hand, some people seem to be more open to this kind of stuff so there is stuff happening and I think people are beginning to realise that there are only so many times you can perform the Enigma Variations (laughs). So you have to look elsewhere.
TWR: I have said ever since I heard Seven hat this music would lend itself enormously to being part of a programme not necessarily the whole thing but a couple of movements.
TB: I agree, I think that I had hoped that someone would have said let’s do one of the pieces, Black Down was definitely the best piece and I would have loved to hear that within an orchestral setting and within a concert which had lots of other stuff in it really. Because if you play just your own stuff you know you are going to get a certain audience. Whereas when I got to classical concerts, and I am sure it is the same for you, you may go to see one specific piece but sometimes it is one of the other pieces that really stands out for you and it introduces you to other things and I think that is more interesting, doing a programme of stuff rather than all just one person.
TWR: That’s what is so great about it even after all these years it is still an adventure and you don’t know what might take you completely by surprise and I am sure that this stuff would do the same.
TB: You can be surprised as you said.
TWR: In terms of production, has Nick (Davis) been involved with this one?
TB: Nick is probably the only person who carries over between the two orchestral projects really. He has been a great supporter and he likes what I do so he is always a good sounding board and you always know where you are with him.
TWR: How did you get in touch with Paul Englishby?
TB: It was interesting because Martin (Robertson) is someone who I see socially quite a bit and he said if you are going to do another orchestral album and he really recommended this guy and he had worked with him on a variety of stuff and he said if you are looking for a different arranger … and I said I hadn’t thought about it and I was quite happy with Simon Hale but I thought there was no reason to use the same person again and he suggested Paul and I met him actually at Martin’s wedding… third wedding actually (laughs) and he was there and we talked and got on quite well and I said If I do anything I will give you a call and he said, yeah, I’d love to do it and so I actually contacted him about a year later and I said do you remember when you made that rather drunken statement that you might be up for doing something and he was up for it.
I think he found it… I mean he is a pretty good composer himself he does film music and stuff himself and I think he was quite surprised. I think this was quite involved music for him. To do arrangements, he is usually doing them for simpler things, you know but doing something like this was quite involved music and he worked very hard on it and we did quite a bit of going backwards and forwards this time which I didn’t do with Simon. He would do his first draft and I would, there’s usually quite a lot to say after the first draft and getting the arrangements so that I was happy. A lot of the arrangement ideas were in the … not so much for the solo pieces but the others. If you heard the demos you would think it was pretty close actually. An arranger can do things, he understands the orchestra in ways that I don’t, you know, every little nuance and ranges and what they can do and how things sit together and orchestral combinations that hadn’t occurred to me.
TWR: That must have made things easier for you knowing that he could take care of , if you like, the technical issues of the orchestra…?
TB: Well also having him as the conductor was fantastic because that was another problem with Seven, not that there was any problem last time really but its just another person to communicate with really. I could talk directly to Paul and thrash things out together so we knew exactly what we were aiming for and he could get in there and do the conducting and we could talk to each other and we knew what we were talking about. It didn’t have to go through another process and that was a good thing and the session was fantastic fun this time really, things sounded good very quickly and quite easily. I didn’t come away with that awful feeling, oh… even when we got it back and did it again apart from one or two speed factors I was very happy with the result and I still am whereas with Seven there were a couple of pieces I was pleased with but others there were degrees of being slightly disappointed where they could have been better whereas this time it’s pretty good.
TWR: A couple of people have asked about the artwork to both albums because it is rather striking, did you use the same artist..?
TB: The same artist, it’s a guy called Stephan Knapp who used to live about a hundred yards away from where I live here but I didn’t get to know him at all and he died a few years ago but his widow is a friend and we had been round there quite a few times and I had seen this stuff and when I did Seven, the picture the originals are rather large square acrylic paintings which were perfect really, and they are quite bold designs which reproduced very well. Existing artworks in both cases but he did quite a lot and the first one I was looking for something with a slightly pastoral edge to it but not quite straightforward and this one he had one which was slightly less pastoral and slightly more of a city scape about it with the blocks the same way with the blocks worked in the Domino visuals on the last show which I was very keen on and I quite liked that effect so it is quite an abstract city sort of view and originally he had six blocks in it and so I thought that’s perfect! (laughs). Colour wise it is perhaps a little bit similar to the other one to me but that’s how it came and it is a very striking image and I think they do have quite a strong atmosphere with them.
TWR: How long did it actually take you to put the album together?
TB: Well I actually finished recording the thing about a year ago and the mixing was done a month or two after that because Nick was on holiday somewhere so we probably finished it in May. We weren’t quite sure if we were going to put it out ourselves without a record label or if we were going to with another record label and it ended up with Naxos again and by the time we had decided all of that it was getting too late to put it out last year, you know how things are! (laughs). It ended up being too late and I would have liked it to have been out because once you have got it out of your system you can think about everything else really. Prior to that, the actual writing and recording probably took a year, year and a half I suppose. The actual recording sessions took a week and all of the other stuff took about two or three months. The main writing was all done the summer before over a period of about three or four months and it was probably the most creative period I have had in a long time really, certainly since back in the ’70’s when things were coming thick and fast. It was really no effort and a lot of fun it was a good time.
TWR: And finally, the question which most of the fans, me included have, do you have any future plans either of your own or with the other band…?
TB: (Laughing) well with Genesis obviously Phil is the kind of… he is fairly indisposed these days both physically and mentally I think to doing anything. I think Mike and I would be happy to… well we can say that now with impunity now and if you are talking about the other band, the thing is with Peter ten years ago he seemed reasonably keen about it and then he thought about it and realised he would have to start sharing creative opinions with other people again and it was too much for him. Obviously Steve I know would always be up for it really. I think in all honesty, I think the chances of it ever happening are very slim. Whether anybody works with anybody else on a project I have no idea, we still see each other a lot and I don’t see why we shouldn’t do something but I can’t see it involving Phil. Never say never, I was quite surprised he did the last one, actually. I didn’t think that Phil would ever want to do it. I was pleased we did that tour and although the Calling All Stations thing was a lot of fun to do and to play it wasn’t so much fun in terms of other aspects and there was a bit of a damp squib ending with the cancellation of the American tour and everything so to do it again and just to find out that a lot of people still wanted to listen to us was great.
And with those final thoughts from Tony we bring this interview to
a close. My thanks to Tony for taking the time to talk to us, grateful thanks
to Carol Willis at TSPM for organising everything and to Jon Kirkman for his
technical assistance. Thanks also to the members of the Turn It On Again Genesis
Forum for sending in their questions for this interview.