Keyboard player Tony Banks has been the foundation stone of Genesis' music for almost two decades now but has not experienced the same level of success in his work outside Genesis as past and present members of the band, Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and Peter Gabriel. With two solo albums and numerous film scores behind him, Banks is set to bounce back into the limelight with a fresh, new solo project. Brian Jacobs poses the questions...
Did you write all the songs before you went into the studio?
"Just about. The one suggestion Steve made, which I considered doing, was a vocal version of an instrumental track I'd done before on my Soundtracks album. Steve adapted the song and I wrote lyrics for it in the studio. I wrote all the lyrics during the recording of the record, partly because I didn't know what singer I was going to use. I specifically wrote the lyrics for the songs Jayney sings with her in mind. The songs which Alistair sings, I pitched so they all worked for me and just hoped for the best. It tends to be the way I've always worked with Genesis. Also, I had extra songs and didn't want to write lyrics for those I wasn't going to use.
"Most of the songs were written in the three or four months before recording and a couple of the songs I'd had for a long time. I tend to get bored with songs, so if I haven't used one within a couple of years of writing it then I'll probably forget about it. That's one reason I like to record: it flushes everything out of the system and then you can start again.
"I like all different types of music, though with Genesis I tend to get associated with the more ambitious pieces like 'Domino', 'Mama', 'Tonight, Tonight, Tonight' and 'Savage', which are probably my favourites within Genesis, but I also made an important contribution to songs like 'Land Of Confusion' and 'Throwing It All Away', which I love as well.
"I enjoy writing in all different areas of music and on this album I wanted to write things with more clarity than I had done in the past. I wasn't so interested in instrumental pieces. In the time that I've recorded three song albums, I've also done two instrumental albums and several film soundtracks. I can write and play that type of instrumental music in my sleep, and hope to continue to do so, but I don't think people are very interested in that side of my work. My vocal material is a way of getting people interested in things that I do outside Genesis.
"I like to do a variation of songs on an album. I had a shortlist of about 14 songs - there are 11 on the album - and there was an emphasis on slow tracks, so I put all the faster ones on the album. I slightly regret that all the songs are either in 2/4 or 4/4 - I would have liked a track in 3/4 or 6/8. It's good to have a variation of rhythm. I always think about the balance on a record. Some people say it's good to put loud songs or soft songs next to each other, as people get into that feel, but I like the contrast. A soft song will always sound softer if you put it next to a hard song."
How do you set about composing songs?
"It varies a lot from track to track. For me, composition is a matter of improvising as much as you can and then being able to pick something out from that which is good. Most of the time I'm happiest fiddling around on acoustic piano and getting ideas that way. For a song like 'I'll Be Waiting', I got a drum pattern which I thought was good and started playing slow, sustained chords on top of that. These days I use the Atari sequencer like a tape recorder and put a song down very quickly after I've written it, which I like, as I don't have to work for several weeks transforming it into something else."
Do you score everything out?
"I'm very lazy. I can read and write music but I'm not very good at it. The great advantage of sequencers is that they can write out music for you. On 'Throwback' I did a keyboard brass part and I wanted real brass players, so I printed it out and sent it off to the brass players. It makes life much easier for me. Whenever I tried to write things out in the past, it took forever."
Which songwriters do you admire?
"Sting, as a lyricist, is tremendous - particularly on the Dream Of The Blue Turtles album. I think he has great all-round ability as a musician, and he has good writing ability both as an instrumental and vocal writer. Kate Bush is sometimes brilliant and sometimes not so brilliant. And obviously Peter Gabriel, though it's difficult to talk about someone as close as that. In terms of sound, Peter's one of the most imaginative performers around. His use of sound is probably his strongest tool. Peter's last album [So] was great but the one or two before that were the high points for me - more ambitious songs and startlingly original sounds."
What are the main differences between your past solo albums, Curious Feeling and The Fugitive, and the new one?
"Curious Feeling was a concept album, written at a time when concept albums were still allowed to be written. I used one singer and it has quite a strong instrumental feel to it. In many ways I think it's the best thing I've ever written - and that includes all the material I've done with Genesis. It wasn't very well produced, which didn't help, but it did very well as a single item and it was musically and lyrically interesting.
"The Fugitive was a slightly different approach, where I sang everything. I wanted to do that once in my life! I purposely kept the vocal lines straightforward, so that I could sing them. The album still has quite a strong instrumental bias, but it was a little more stark. I like the record very much.
"Some people I know play everything with sequencers but it isn't crucial for me. I could have played every song on the album by hand."
"This new album uses singers who can sing better than me, but follows on from The Fugitive and that type of music to some extent, streamlining the music still more and making certain to get across the real purpose of the song, rather than worrying too much about the flowery stuff. In the old days with Genesis, we used to go into the studio and play anything, and so things got over-complex and overelaborate. I like that, and I think there's still room for that kind of music, but you realise there are bits which don't help get the essence of the song across. You can remove those parts and the song will still come across just as well. On this record I was aiming more for that approach. Whether it succeeds or not, we shall see."
What equipment did you use on the new album?
"My normal answer would be 'anything I can lay my hands on'. My main instruments are the Yamaha CP70/80 electric grand, the DX7, plus the Emulator II and EIII. I know the EII better, so the more ambitious sounds on this album are from the EII. The Kurzweil modules have various digital sampled sounds, and the acoustic guitar sounds on the 1000PX are really good. I also use the D50 - it has lots of beautiful sounds which can be accessed without editing. In terms of effects I use a lot of Rev7, and recently I started using a Boss chorus.
"I used the Steinberg Pro24 sequencer this time, mostly as a recording system, so that I could record and multitrack at home and put it on tape later in the studio. You can quantise on it, which I think is a terrible tool that shouldn't be allowed. It does something curious to the music. We played some parts again by hand, as it sounded better, particularly with real drums.
A sequencer is a good tool for organising your work, because you can record the piece and then edit as you want. I find it a great tool but a dangerous one as well. Using sequencers, you gain something and you lose something. Some people I know play everything with sequencers but it isn't crucial for me. I could have played every song on the album by hand."
On Genesis' Invisible Touch LP you experimented with phrase sampling. Did you continue that on this album?
"The two tracks which contain a lot of that are 'Big Man' and 'Thursday The Twelfth', and most of what you hear on the latter track is sampling. That was the first track I used it on - 'The Brazilian' and 'It's Going To Get Better' just used repeated, looped phrases. I find using sampled phrases is a good way of starting off an idea. You can play them backwards, slow them down, speed them up, play chords... just see what sounds good. It's a different kind of composition - you just have to be aware of when it sounds interesting.
"I do a lot of sampling. The track 'Thursday The Twelfth' is mainly me playing one Emulator II keyboard sample, apart from bass and drums. I like to record a bit of music, chop pieces out, put bits in the keyboard, play it and see what happens. I've found that even if the idea isn't perfect it can send you in a new direction, it inspires you and it's really exciting. I really love doing that sort of thing. Also, if you want brass or strings sounds without getting real musicians in, the factory samples are very good in those situations. When I'm working out brass parts I tend to use a sampled trumpet sound, though I tend to find I need to do my own brass samples. There is no one definitive brass sample. You need hundreds of different combinations because in different registers they all sound so different."
Do you ever combine samples with synthesized sounds?
"Combining sounds is something I've done from the very beginning, and MIDI is so good for that. You can put two sounds together and create a third sound which owes nothing to the other two, particularly with unison sounds. I've always liked using piano type sounds through fuzzboxes - that's always been quite a big part of my sound, particularly evident on Genesis songs like 'Abacab' and 'The Brazilian'. On 'Queen Of Darkness' on this album, the whole basic track is a DX7 through a fuzzbox. I love the modulations that a fuzzbox creates. If you play 4ths and 5ths you get a really aggressive guitar-like sound."
Do you programme your own keyboard sounds?
"To be honest, I don't create sounds on the DX7 because there are so many available. I get lost when I try to programme the DX7, I find the D50 easier. If I really want to create a sound from scratch I use an old Synclavier system or I go back to instruments like Prophets. I have a Prophet 10 which I think is great for bigger types of sounds. I'm very suspicious of all the sounds which are available - there's no way you can begin to use them all. And within the context of a record, by the time you have the snare drum at the levels required these days you can't hear anything else anyway!
"It's difficult to know in advance what will sound good on a track. You have to accept that a sound which is good on its own might not fit well into a record. That's often the problem with sampled sounds: you can get great sampled strings but on a record they sound very percussive or metallic, whereas a warm synthesized string sound can be a lot better. It varies so much from track to track. I find that rather than modifying sounds or starting from scratch, I work from a bank of about 40 sounds on each instrument and use tones which I like. If you've got 10 instruments and 40 sounds on each then you have 400 sounds, and it'll probably get you through a record. If I'm looking for a strings pad, there's no point in searching for hours for something new - you may as well use a sound you used before."
What other Instruments do you use?
"I use a Roland Super Jupiter, as it's got a better bottom end than the Prophet. There was only 'analogue' for such a long time, and some of those sounds have stayed with me. Even with digital machines I tend to make them sound like my old analogue synths.
"I originally bought the Synclavier in the days when the decision was between that and a Fairlight. When it came out you needed a third mortgage on the house to buy it! The original Synclavier was a great digital synthesizer with some great FM sounds. It's still a more sophisticated instrument than later cheaper instruments like the DX7, and you can control the sound better. It has a much better character to the sound - very resonant, almost like a voice.
"I use an ARP Quadra, which I recently had MIDIed. I was using 2600s then I bought the Quadra, which could get that same sort of sound and was polyphonic. It came out the same week as MIDI, so it was immediately obsolete! They only sold about 12 pieces. But I found it a good tool and I have used it a lot, but not on this record."
"There are certain instruments which I love, such as the Roland Vocoder. I used it on this record and extensively on The Fugitive. I've just had mine MIDIed. I like instruments you can use without doing anything at all to them. You need instruments you can work on for hours but also instruments which immediately sound good when you sit down and play them."
Have you used the Minimoog very much?
"I've never used the Minimoog in my life - I'm probably the only keyboard player of my generation who hasn't! The Polymoog I used a lot and the Moog Taurus bass pedals, which are still the best for that big, fat bottom end sound, even though they're 15 years old. They always add another dimension to a song and they're marvellous live, because they have such wonderful resonance."
Of the instruments you own, which one do you prefer most?
"Probably the Emulator II - on this new album it was the instrument I used most of all. I usually answer that question by saying 'piano', but it sounds boring I If I could only keep one instrument though, it would be the acoustic piano. I've always been a pianist most of all."
Has technology affected your music?
"I think sampling is the main area that's affected my composition. With the piano you have notes, chords and rhythm, whereas with sampling there are many other facets to consider. A lot of random elements start to come into the music, which I like. Also rhythm machines: when composing on the piano you tend to put in a lot of rhythmic parts to keep the rhythm going, while if you use a drum machine you don't have to keep a pulse going and it gives you more freedom to play against the rhythm. The sequencer is the other area of technology I've started to get into. I like the fact that you aren't tied to the sound until you finally put it onto tape."
Do you have a home studio?
"I have a room at home which an outsider might think is a studio. I occasionally bring in a 24-track and do some work with that. I do a lot of work now with a sequencer, and I also use a piano. I don't think there's any synthesizer piano which is right for me, and so the acoustic piano goes onto tape along with vocals, of course. The Synclavier is MIDIed, so that goes down straight to tape. I have done a couple of film soundtracks in my studio as I can do most of the engineering myself, but I couldn't record vocals or real drums, though drum samples are getting so good you can do without real drums. I can record most things in my studio, but my home set-up is fairly basic - it's only my instruments which make it look good."
Do you use your studio to prepare for Genesis tours?
"No, the main use is for writing and putting things on tape as a demo or as a preliminary for a record. Genesis has its own studio, Fisher Lane, which is like a glorified home studio. Our ambition when we came into this business was to have our own studio, so we wouldn't have to worry about time. We don't take long in the studio compared to other groups, and the ability to write and record in the studio on Invisible Touch was a marvellous facility."
"Genesis is one of the few groups where every member is equally important as a writer to the end result."
How do you differentiate between songwriting for solo albums and for Genesis?
"That's quite easy, as the last two Genesis albums were done in the studio, entirely from scratch. We thought that since we are all doing individual projects it would be nice to keep it that way. From early Genesis through mid-period to more recent work, nearly all the songs have been group efforts written on the spot. We enjoy working together, and it's a good reason for us being in the studio together. There would be no point if we came in and did three of Mike's songs, three of Phil's songs and three of my songs - it wouldn't be any different from our solo albums. The other advantage of working together is that we're enthusiastic about every song. You can name any track off any Genesis album and I feel a part of it. Genesis is one of the few groups where every member is equally important as a writer to the end result - the performance is another matter."
How do you write and arrange songs with Genesis?
"For the last two albums we had no idea what we would do, and so we improvised. Usually, we switch on a drum machine and play around. A lot of the arrangement comes at the same time as the writing - the way it sounds is very much part of the composition. Once we have something on tape we add whatever occurs to us. We like to leave everything to chance - we aren't very methodical people. If something doesn't happen within a short space of time we leave it and go on to something else. We have a lot of faith in each other, so sometimes we leave a gap in a song. Someone might add something to it later which sounds right, and you work from there. But most of the arrangements come from the original composition."
As a keyboard player, your chord voicing is unusual. How do you evaluate it?
Interview by Brian Jacobs
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