And Then There Was One...
Tim Goodyer pays Genesis' legendary keyboardsman a visit to hear all about life in one of rock's most longstanding and influential bands and their 16th LP.
Nearly 20 years of rock keyboard-playing have made Tony Banks a unique figure: a virtuoso musician whose enthusiasm for new sounds and new musical styles has never been dulled, and whose influence over fellow artists has been immense. As his 16th album with Genesis is released, Banks has plenty to say.
Songwriting, cult success, pop stardom and filmscoring have made Tony Banks' name one of the best known and respected among rock keyboard players.
It all began in 1969, when an album titled From Genesis to Revelation, produced by Jonathan King, was unleashed on an unsuspecting and largely unappreciative record-buying public. The album contained the songwriting endeavours of five young hopefuls, among them Banks, Mike Rutherford and Peter Gabriel.
Since those humble beginnings, much has happened to both the music and the line-up of the band, but Genesis have enjoyed one of the most consistently successful careers of any in rock music. I spoke to Banks at Genesis' own Surrey studio on the eve of the release of their 16th album, Invisible Touch. It's perhaps the band's most overtly commercial offering to date, with many of its pieces sounding more like out-takes from a Phil Collins album than anything else. There are some surprises, though, notably the beautifully textured 'Tonight, Tonight, Tonight', and an avant-garde instrumental titled 'The Brazilian', which brings the disc to a close.
Coincidentally, Banks has a new solo offering, Soundtracks, in the record stores, too. It showcases Banks' most recent composing, programming and performing work, and abounds with the sort of hot-paced sequencer patterns so beloved of the film industry for chase scenes. With Banks at the controls, though, the music goes through a number of dramatic structural and melodic shifts, unexpected but never so contrived as to be unwelcome.
'All the stuff I did for the soundtracks album I'd actually done before the Genesis album', the keyboardist explains. 'People would say "what have you been doing while Phil's been making money and Mike's been doing so well?" so I just wanted to get these things out.
'There were a couple of films that I'd done the soundtracks for over the last two years. One of them, Quicksilver, came out in America and didn't go down very well over there, so they're not even bothering to release it here.
It's a shame because I didn't think the film was that bad, though quite honestly, I thought the rest of the music for it was. I tend to be difficult to please but I felt that it was everybody's second best. So I thought I'd take my part out and put it together with the music I'd done for another film called Lorca and the Outlaws.'
Banks' own efforts at singing have taken a back seat to the talents of Toyah and Jim Diamond; Toyah's 'Lion of Symmetry' and Diamond's 'You Call This Victory' are both taken from Lorca and the Outlaws. But curiously, it's Marillion's Fish that takes the lead in 'Shortcut to Somewhere', from Quicksilver. Marillion frequently stand accused of being no more than a poor man's Genesis, so the association is as intriguing as it is unlikely.
'The idea of a collaboration with Fish was like walking into the problem, which was quite nice', says Banks. 'It simply amused me, really, because they've always been compared with us.
I like the approach of Marillion's music more than the result. There's no doubt that Fish's voice does bear an uncanny resemblance to Peter Gabriel's in the old days, but the way he gets to that kind of sound is completely different. There's no contrived way of doing it, it's just the way he ends up sounding.
'The song we've done together is quite strong, and if it gets a chance to be released as a single, it'll do quite well. But with a joint thing, the problem is always getting permission from the record companies to release it.'
In 1986, the output from an ageing Genesis consortium is prolific. Aside from Banks' Soundtracks, it's responsible for Rutherford's successful Mike & the Mechanics project, and for Phil Collins' even more successful solo work. In the light of all this activity, I wonder (needlessly, as it turns out) how 'Invisible Touch' the single will fare. My concern is anticipated by a perceptive Banks.
'There is a danger of saturating the market', he concedes. 'I'm a bit terrified, suddenly seeing the competition from our own buddies around like Peter's 'Sledgehammer', Mike & the Mechanics, and obviously Phil who doesn't stop selling. But, for me, Genesis is a combination of the three of us. I probably take it the furthest from the mainstream, and I suppose Phil brings it closest.
'I'm proud of every song on this album. I feel very strongly that all the songs are products of the combination of the three of us being in the same room at the same time. It's what I've had brought out of me when I'm working with Mike and vice versa, and I tend to make Phil do things that perhaps he wouldn't do on his own.
'I think it works better because we're doing different things on our own. When we get back together it's like friends getting together again, and things seem to happen a little bit differently. It's terribly difficult to find out why things work. It's worked for us for a long time whereas most other groups don't manage to stay together for any length of time.
'We're a fairly unique group in that we're all involved in the writing of the music. In every other band it's one or two people that look after the writing. When all of you are involved and one of you goes, it changes the whole.'
How does this three-way writing team work?
'It's improvisation, really, just like you'd do on your own, but with the three of us. When I'm writing a song I'll sit down and play the piano for hours and things will evolve that I'll try to develop. We do it the same with the three of us. We've been playing together for so long and know each other so well that there are assumptions you can make. I don't think you can get just any three people, put them in the same room and expect them to come up with the right songs. A thing only works if you think the result works.'
"It was depressing, having a Synclavier lying around useless for so long... The more expensive an instrument is, the more likely it is to go wrong."
This level of maturity obviously makes songwriting a civilised process, though it wasn't always that way, as Banks recalls.
'The three of us have actually been in the same group since 1969. In that time the emphasis has shifted around within the band quite a few times. Ever since we first became a five-piece, we've tried to maintain a situation where we'd all be writing together and trying to listen to each other. With the five of us there was a tendency at certain times for those who shouted the most to get their own way. I tended to be quite a loud shouter, as did Peter. We used to have quite a few arguments in those days and shedding the extra members made things a lot easier.'
A controlled amount of friction between songwriting partners can be a useful factor in bringing out the best ideas from those involved...
'I think friction is the wrong word because we all used to care a lot about everything. We'd argue about one bar or something and people would storm out of the room. I don't think it's an unhealthy thing, but I don't think it's essential either. I think it's something that can help, certainly, but we used to argue about the most stupid things. We argue much less now. We probably avoid the arguments because we know where they're going to come. I know that if I start using diminished chords I'll get "a look". That doesn't mean I can never use them again; I can slip them in without anyone noticing, but I know how hard to push and whether or not to really go for something.'
In 1974, the line-up that put Genesis on the back of a thousand denim jackets included guitarist Steve Hackett and frontman Peter Gabriel. To many, Genesis was Gabriel, and his departure marked the end of an era. Twelve years on, Banks reflects on the split.
'Peter and I were very close friends and we both felt very strongly about things. We got on very well and when he decided he wanted to go, I did try very hard to persuade him not to. I think it was a necessary thing and, as it's turned out, it's worked very well. We had to lose somebody and Peter was the only one who had any chance of a successful solo career. The rest of us had been completely in his shadow at that stage... but we had the self-confidence that if we lost one member, we could still produce music just as well, as long as we could get over the problem of who sang.'
Auditions were held to fill the post, yet it was Collins who subsequently stepped into the singing spotlight. But Gabriel's departure deprived Genesis of more than just its voice.
'Peter's very good with sound — he always was. He was always the one that would like to do something that was a bit bizarre, even for the sake of it. At times I find that he almost goes too far that way, and I get a bit irritated by it. I love his last three albums in particular — I think they're tremendous. But with the fourth album, one month I thought I loved it and the next month I thought: no, this is too much, I can't take it. It was overworked. My favourite is definitely the third one — all those drum sounds and everything.'
Curiously, the percussion sounds that have marked one facet of Gabriel's innovation turn out to have their roots back in the Genesis days.
'It stemmed from the new technology combined with Peter's insistence to try not to use cymbals. But it's something we used to discuss in the old days: cymbals occupy an awful lot of the sound spectrum within a song. As soon as you stop using cymbals, you can start to use the resonance of the drums to a much greater extent because you can actually hear them. As soon as you've got that ambient quality back, you can start compressing them and lifting them up.
'A drummer will keep on hitting cymbals as he's going along, at rather random intervals. They get all these cymbals that are supposed to sound different but, to me, there are only three: little ones, big ones and dustbin lids, and the dustbin lids are the ones you've really got to avoid. If you use them as a sort of punctuation mark they add such a lot when they come in, but if they're there all the time, you can't add to them.
'As a keyboard player, when you're trying to produce nice wide sounds that have got sparkle to them, a cymbal will make it all appear dull. You lose all the top and the keyboard becomes mellow. And when you do want a mellow sound on a piece with cymbals, you've got to brighten it up so much that on its own it sounds so bright it'll still show through.'
Banks' reputation as a musician is based firmly in his classical background and use of the piano. Yet conversely, the Genesis sound we've come to know over the last decade relies heavily on synthesisers and sequencers. Have we seen the last of the piano and its disciplines?
'I don't actually practise piano at all now, but I still like playing it. One of the nicest things I recently acquired was a piano-to-MIDI interface. It means I can use my CP70 and play any other instrument from that. Unfortunately I was only able to use it on a couple of things on the album because it came so late, but I think it's the most exciting thing that's happened for a long time.
'I don't care what people do with all their keyboard touches and things, they just don't feel like a piano to me. I used to hate the feel of a Rhodes, for example, but I liked the sound, so I occasionally tried to play it. With the DX7 now, you can get that sound with a reasonable touch, but it will be even better to have the DX7 sounds played from an ordinary piano keyboard.
"The greatest thing about the Pro Soloist was the touch-sensitivity. It was years before anyone came up with a system that improved on it."
'Most of my synthesiser sounds these days come from either the Emulator II or the DX7, but I use a lot of other things like Prophets, Synclavier and a Super Jupiter — anything that's lying around really.
'A lot of the sound qualities are created by using effects, though, particularly the Yamaha REV7 reverb. I find it better than the AMS for keyboards because you've got a wider variety of possibilities. It makes an instrument find its space. On its own the DX7 is a bit crude and naked, it needs something else and it responds to help better than almost anything else. The REV7's perfect for providing that.'
The sophistication of contemporary digital technology marks a far cry from Banks' early days, hunched over a grand piano, Hammond organ, Mellotron, and perhaps an ARP Pro Soloist preset synth. But even then, new sounds were a prime consideration.
'When I had the Hammond I tried to get as many sounds out of it as I possibly could', affirms Banks. 'With fuzz-boxes and things it sounded as if we had synthesisers before we actually did.
'Now you've really got to take time to explore instruments. Say you get something like a DX7, which is really a pretty simple instrument. There's no way you can begin to explore all its possibilities, there's just too much variety. And if you get into samplers, obviously the scope is even wider. Sometimes it's easier when you've got a more restricted format because you know where you stand. When you've got totally open possibilities, things can get a bit frightening.
'But you can just stumble across things. With the Emulator, in particular, a lot of the sounds I use are ones I've stumbled across. I find the Emulator a useful tool for composition, too. What I often do is switch it on while we're improvising, and I get 17 seconds of everybody doing their thing and not even listening to each other. Then I play through it and sometimes there's something there. You edit out a few seconds and you've got something you can work with. On the new Genesis album there's a number called 'The Brazilian' that's got what sounds like a sequence pattern going through, which was done like that.
'On 'That's All' on the last album I got the main riff that way. When I played two notes of one of these samples at the same time, this riff evolved out of nowhere that didn't seem to be in either note individually. It was played over an octave so the two parts were related by half-speed, but the effect was a riff.
'Another time I was trying to sample a cello sound off a disc and I sampled four notes. By playing them all together, they interweaved and I got this repeating pattern. You can use an Emulator in hundreds of ways, and I haven't touched the sequencer yet.'
The subject of sequencing is often a sore point with the classically trained, but Banks offers an objective view.
'With every instrument you buy these days, you're paying for so much guff that you're never going to need. Synthesisers all have sequencers built into them, but you can only use one of them at a time and it's often easier to have that as a piece of outboard gear anyhow. It wouldn't be that expensive when you consider you've paid for the thing ten times over already. I'd prefer to put more money into sample length or something.
'I've always hated sequencers but I've always been fond of using bass patterns so you can build up from there. The trouble is that they're so abused in pop music — that's what makes half of it so dull to me. You've got your rhythm machine, then you've got your bassline and the interplay between them is exciting for about ten seconds, then it goes on like that with an adequate voice and chords on top and that's it — that's your song. If you consider a drum machine to be a specialised sequencer, then I think it's got a lot to answer for. What was that album, Oxygene? That's a long time ago now, but I found it boring then.
'The secret of using sequencing well is incorporation. There's another track on the album called 'Land of Confusion' where I use a whole sequenced bassline. Originally it was an addition to the song but it ended up being one of the major aspects of it. I find that quite exciting, I must admit.
'I'm not prejudiced against sequencers any more, but I think they're a dangerous tool.'
Strangely, for a musician with classical roots, one thing that's always characterised Banks' use of sounds is distortion. Even the FM trend of clinically-clean synth sounds gets its share of mistreatment this way.
"I don't care what people do with keyboard touches, they don't feel like a piano. The DX7 has a reasonable touch, but it'll be better when you can play its sounds from a piano keyboard."
'I've always liked fuzz-boxes. Get an expensive instrument and put it through a fuzz-box and it sounds as cheap as all the others. The advantage of fuzz is that it gives you a limit. A clean sound can get louder and louder and you never reach that point, whereas with something that gets to a distortion point, you know when you're hitting it. You just don't get that excitement with a clean sound.'
As Banks starts to recount the metamorphoses his keyboard setup has undergone over the years, he speaks quickly and with a rashness that belies his public-school education. At times he seems afraid there isn't enough time to say all he feels he has to, and his conversation flits from instrument to instrument with disconcerting ease. With a typical disregard for convention, Banks begins his tale with the old Pro Soloist.
'The greatest thing about the Pro Soloist was the touch-sensitivity on it. It was years before anyone else came up with a system that really improved on that. You had to replace the pressure pads every so often because they got compressed, but the fact that you could control the vibrato manually rather than using delayed vibrato was great. If you were playing an oboe part, you could bring it in when you wanted it. The Pro Soloist oboe sound with vibrato and echo would have fooled anybody at the time, I reckon.'
ARP's preset monophonic was followed by an ARP 2600 system and later a Quadra in Banks' ever multiplying array of gear. What was ARP's secret at the time?
'I think that was a matter of recognising the initials. It's a terribly arbitrary way a lot of people buy instruments — particularly now. I liked the Pro Soloist a lot and then David Hentschel, our producer at the time, had access to a 2500. Then he got a 2600 which I used a couple of times. I found the way of synthesising from basics quite easy to do, and I learnt about synthesisers using that machine.
'But poor old Quadra. He was great because he was MIDI before there was MIDI. It had four sections though I could only find a use for two — it was a combination of the poly with the lead. I used to like sending the poly through a fuzz-box and then playing lead with it, so you got the aggressiveness of the fuzz with the definition of the lead. On 'Abacab', which was all done using the Quadra, it gives a very positive sound.
'I also had a Prophet 5 which I switched to a Prophet 10 and still use. The 10 had the advantage that you could get big sounds out of it by combining four oscillators at the same time. You can get organ-type sounds. I know it's easier to use an organ, but I was trying to keep the number of instruments on stage to a minimum, and you could get organ sounds as well as big synthesiser sounds out of it.
'I like the Drone setting on it, too, something Sequential didn't put on the T8 for some reason. I used it on things like 'Mama', where you've got a bass note going all the way through. It meant you only had five notes for each chord.
You have to be careful to take your hands off all the time, because if you touch a note in Drone the noise is so awful, or if you play too many notes at the same time, suddenly it'll just go mad on you.
'I find that a useful technique on MIDI too. On 'Tonight, Tonight, Tonight' it's all a MIDI thing with a marimba all the way through, but at the same time I was playing the Prophet 10 on Drone so the chord would float over from one part to the next — so you're never quite sure where one stops and another starts. It's so big, though, that's why I'm using the Super Jupiter a bit now.
'I've had a basic Synclavier system for a long time. I bought it instead of the Fairlight originally because it was promised that they would have the sampling section out in a couple of months, and I thought the basic synthesiser part was better than the Fairlight's. As it transpired, it didn't come out till about four years later and when it did you had to mortgage your house in order to put a down-payment on it, so I avoided it.
'At the same time E-mu brought out the Emulator 1 which was nice 'n' cheap by comparison and was pretty good. I had such trouble with the Synclavier — it was about two years before I could really use it properly. There was lots wrong with it and I couldn't get anything done about it. I got extremely angry: it was depressing, having an instrument that represented such an incredible outlay lying there useless. Since then, I've always thought that the more expensive a piece of equipment is, the more likely it is to go wrong.
'The Mellotron was bicycle chains and vacuum cleaners, but it produced a sound that was totally unlike anything else. They'd cornered the market for about ten years if only they'd realised it, and they never made the most of it. That instrument had the potential to be stunning. Yet even the basic sounds weren't good enough, apart from the strings and I suppose the choirs.
'You can still use a Mellotron in such a way that nobody knows what it is. It's very difficult to distinguish half these instruments these days. I think people will come back to using real choirs and I think there's a lot to be said for that, too.'
Banks closes with a considered word of warning: 'Keyboards are fascinating but one mustn't get too much into the technicalities of them. What's important is what you can do with these things.'
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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