Phil Collins Talks Music and Concerts: ‘I’m Not Ruling Anything Out’

By Brian Ives 

In the past few years, it looked like Phil Collins had closed the door on his career; health issues prevented him from playing drums, and he seemed to have lost interest in making new music. Happily, that may have changed: to hear him tell it, he’s been re-energized by his children’s interest in his music, and his reconciliation with their mother, his ex-wife Orianne Cevey. He has been doing select interviews to promote the reissues of his solo albums. Deluxe versions of 1981’s Face Value and 1993’s Both Sides are out now; 1982’s Hello, I Must Be Going! and 1996’s Dance Into the Light will be out on February 26, with other albums to follow. He’s also considering a return to recording and playing concerts and would even consider working with Genesis again, but he’s non-committal about any future projects.

In our wide-ranging conversation, Phil spoke about the reissues, but also about his hectic ’80, where he balanced a superstar solo career with fronting Genesis and working on the side with artists including Eric ClaptonRobert Plant and Frida Lyngstad of ABBA. He also talked about the critical treatment he’s gotten from critics, and why it doesn’t bother him as much anymore.

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A few years ago, Genesis reissued the catalog, and now you’re doing the same with your solo albums. And you’ve reshot all of the album covers.

Well, I’m kind of enthusiastic about this. I was a little dubious at first about reissues, because — even though I’ve got a lot of friends in record companies — record companies tend to reissue things, and artists just let them get on with it. However, some of these albums are very old, and everybody’s mentioned the remastering is a huge improvement from the original [CD release]. Face Value is 35 years ago, and a lot’s happened in technology in 35 years.

Talk about re-creating the album covers with current photos of you.

I was involved with the project; it wasn’t just a record company thing, and I wanted my fingerprints on the whole project. So we did that for every album, we reshot the artwork and wrote some sleeve notes, chose the bonus material, and obviously, when you start doing that, you — in theory — get a chance to right some of the wrongs you’ve made.

With Both Sides, which we re-released on the same day as Face Value, there was one track where I was wondering whether it should’ve gone on: “We Wait and We Wonder.” The rest of the material was very personal. “We Wait and We Wonder” was more of my thoughts on the situation in Northern Ireland.

So I thought, “Should I take that song off? I’ve got an opportunity now to do that.” But then you start thinking about things like, “Well, should I rewrite the lyrics to something? ’Cause I can sing that better.” And then you start digging a big hole for yourself.

But it was great to listen to things that maybe you haven’t listened to for a long time. I’ve come across “I Don’t Care Anymore” on Hello, I Must Be Going, and “Do You Know, Do You Care,” these are songs that I haven’t heard for a while. And they sound great, you know.

I guess you’ve been through this before; I remember when Genesis first released the Archive 1967-1975 box set in 1998, Peter Gabriel had re-recorded his vocals for the live stuff — which was two of the four CDs. It was pretty obvious and the fans knew it.

I didn’t actually realize that, or maybe I don’t remember him doing that.

I think it was mainly because he wore that flower costume and couldn’t get the mic close enough to his mouth, so he had to “add” to the vocals.

Oh yeah, well, tell me about it. “Slippermen” was the one where he could barely get a microphone near his mouth. But that’s something I haven’t done with any of this stuff. I think it is opening a can of worms, and where do you stop? At one point in the beginning of this process, my manager and I asked Pharrell Williams, who’s a bit of a fan, to remix all of Face Value. I thought maybe that’d interesting to do.

And Pharrell came back, apparently, and said, “Why would you want to do that?” Because he likes it the way it is. So we just remastered it; we didn’t fool around with it.

I’d agree with Pharrell. It seems like you’re always really a tough critic of your own work.

Of course. Yeah. I’m English, I’m riddled with insecurities.

Sometimes you capture a thing. “In the Air Tonight,” for example, sounds as good today as it did then. But on one hand, I listen to stuff every tour to see if we’re playing it right, to see if there are any other songs we could do that we aren’t playing. Most of the time I’m not listening to [my music], so I kind of have painted it into a particular corner, and I always think it could be better. When I’m reminded of how many it sold and all this, then of course I think, “Wow. Okay.” But I don’t think about it, so…

In your recent interview with Rolling Stone, you said “I am no longer retired.”

I was on medication during that interview, I have to say. [The writer] came to Miami, and I was just over the back surgery, so I was definitely on medication. But no, I wouldn’t say I’m “not retired.” I don’t remember saying that, but I guess if I did, I’m sorry, and if he paraphrased something, then that’s what he said.

But I think I’m entertaining the idea of doing some shows, whereas as recently as two years ago, I would’ve said, “No, no, I’m not interested.” In the last year, I got back with my third [ex-] wife, Orianne. We missed each other; we realized we made a mistake [by getting a divorce]. So I’m living in Miami with her and the boys, and I’m really spending time with the boys. That’s all I wanted. Because I wanted to bring ’em up; that’s why I retired.

They’re constantly saying, “Dad, write some songs. We’re not bored with the others, but write some new songs.” And it’s weird coming from Matthew, who’s 11. He’s pushing me: “Do some shows. We wanna come.” ’Cause he doesn’t remember; he was a baby, you know [when I last toured].

Nicolas is a drummer. He’s been playing all his life, since I gave him a drum set when he was two. And I stood up behind him and he played it. I’ve got a video of this. And we watched some of it the other day. He had this natural ability when he was that old.

Anyway, he’s got a band and he’s doing shows. I mean, he’s 14, and he’s got school, but he plays gigs in Miami, and they rehearse at home. And he said, “Come on, get out there. I wanna come and see what it’s like from the back.” So they’ve been very encouraging, and I think that now I’m living with him I can think about, well, okay, I can do a week or two somewhere, have a couple of weeks off and then a week or two somewhere.

But touring is very different now. I’m old school. “Touring,” to me, is when you packed your bags and went away and didn’t come back for months. Nowadays it can be done differently. Billy Joel is a great example,  how he does Madison Square Garden in New York once a month. That’s another way of doing it. I’ve gotta get used to the idea that things can be done differently.

In that same Rolling Stone interview, you talked about getting in the studio with [bassist] Lee Sklar, and, I’m guessing, [guitarist] Daryl Steurmer, along with drummer Jason Bonham.

That was, like, September a year ago. And we got together—I kind of thought I’d mix things up a bit, and I asked Jason Bonham to play drums, which was very interesting, because he came in with a total ballsy attitude. He’s a great guy; I’ve known him since he was a kid, but he came in and just played things differently, which was interesting. It was good.

Yeah, and Daryl, Lee, [keyboardist] Brad Cole, they’re all really close, and so we have a lot of unsaid stuff when we start playing, and we’re really ready to play a show in two days, three days. It’s me that’s holding things back; it’s me trying to remember the words or whatever. But it did give me an idea. I could do it; I’d love to do it, if we could work it out.

Because of the back surgery I’ve got a completely numb right foot; I have to wait for the nerves to regenerate. This is why I had the operation, because I was in agony on my right side, and the doctor, a surgeon in Miami fixed it.

So, who knows about shows? I’m just setting my studio up, literally, this week, next week in Miami so I can do it on my own, you know. And then I’ll see what happens.

I know how important being a drummer is to you. But even if you can’t play anymore, couldn’t you still get joy out of going out, just as a singer, and playing shows to people who love your songs?

Yeah, I’m realizing this. A few people have said, “If you don’t drum, just go out and sing.” In the end, that’s what people are expecting. Some people don’t even know I’m a drummer, frankly, especially the fans that are kinda new. So yeah, I can picture it. I can picture me walking onstage and everybody going “Yeah!” you know. I can picture it. And I can smell it. I’d like a bit of that.

I can’t play drums the way I used to. I have to just get on with that situation. But I think I should get a little drum kit set up in my house and start playing and see what I can do, and see if I can do what I used to do, or see if I can play drums for a start, but in a different way.

When you were working on Face Value, were there songs that Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks thought may have been good for Genesis? 

Well, it has to be remembered that I didn’t know I was making an album. We were in my house. My studio was in the master bedroom, but a second bedroom we just moved in to do Duke, to write Duke. And it this point it was early days in the solo careers for them, so we came in and said, “Let’s write a couple of songs each, the rest we’ll write as a band.” I remember playing them pretty much everything that I wrote on my own.

Tony Banks has claimed that I didn’t play “In the Air Tonight,” which I don’t agree with, but I mean, he’s adamant. Well, he has to remember that “In the Air Tonight” didn’t really sound the way it did on the record. I mean, there was no drums. I was singing, but it wasn’t the master vocal. I know, ’cause I improvised the words, so they would’ve been there. I think it was maybe so simple that it didn’t register with him.

But they chose “Misunderstanding” and “Please Don’t Ask,” and “Misunderstanding” was a big hit in America.

There’s a live version of “Misunderstanding” on the Face Value bonus tracks.

That live version of “Misunderstanding” was from the Final Farewell tour [Collins’ 2002 tour]. And then I decided to do “Invisible Touch,” because that song was one of my favorite songs, and I had quite a lot to do with it, so I kind of felt it was okay. I’d never played Genesis stuff on any of my tours; it was kinda fun to just suddenly throw one in. And the audience enjoyed it.

Generally, you guys always kept Genesis and your other careers totally separate.

In Genesis, we wrote all the songs with nothing prepared; we just used to go in and play, just jam for days, weeks, and I used to record it on cassette just so we had a record of it, and suddenly things would happen. And that was an exciting thing that was on its own.

So we felt like solo careers are completely different. As you get older, and it doesn’t matter quite as much, things aren’t quite so precious. You kinda think, “That song is good, I co-wrote it, put it in [the setlist].”

So, during the era of Duke and Face Value, you also played with Robert Plant on his debut solo album, and did a few shows with him. How did you have the time to do all of that?

Yeah, I went on tour with his first solo tour, but of course he had the second one, third one, whatever he had to do. So yeah, I couldn’t do anything else other than the first one. I’m writing an autobiography, and I have been for the past four or five years; it’s coming out in October. I’m referring to these tours, and I just can’t believe… ’cause I remember doing it, but I don’t remember it being that long. And these dates just go on and on and on, and then I come back home for two weeks, and then I’m out with Genesis for…and it’s unbelievable, the amount of stuff that I did.

Still, a lot of people fronting a band and with a solo career wouldn’t want to be a backing musician for someone else; you also played with Eric Clapton a lot around that time.

I love to play, and also these were great gigs. I produced two albums for Eric, and then we took it out on the road, and it was the best band I’ve ever been in, Eric, [bassist] Nathan East and [keyboardist] Greg Phillinganes. We used to call it “The Heaven Band.” Man, it was wonderful. I had so much fun.

And then Robert calls. I’d never met Robert; I saw the first Led Zeppelin gig ever, when they were still called the New Yardbirds. I saw them at the Marquee. I’d already seen John Bonham in Tim Rose’s band, so I was already a fan of his before Zeppelin. Anyway, Robert calls, and I’m thinking, this is the guy that played with John Bonham, and he’s asking me to be his drummer! So these things happen… you’re given opportunities. For example, Frida was so sweet. Face Value influenced her; she listened to it all the time, apparently. And she’d just gone through a divorce with one of the guys in ABBA. It was great to work with her. She was such a sweet lady.

I have a mixtape somewhere with a bunch of your sessions outside of your solo career and Genesis, I think it’s two tapes long.

At the end of all this process of reissues, there’s gonna be an anthology put together of the people I’ve played with, and I’ve gotta choose material from Robert’s, for example, and choose material from Eric’s stuff. I just got a list of people I’d played with and it’s two pages long. God knows how… I don’t know how I did it all, frankly. It worked, I did it, but I can’t work out how I did it.

Was Face Value the first time you worked with with Eric Clapton?

Yes. I’d met him in 1978, so just prior to Face Value. I was working with John Martyn, and we went to a pub together. I think John had ulterior motives to get something to wake him up. But anyway, we met in Guildford, which is where I lived, and Clapton kinda lived nearby, and we became great friends, and actually for the first six, nine months he didn’t know what I did. ’Cause, you know, we’d just have a few drinks. He hadn’t heard of Genesis, ’cause it was outside his field.

Anyways, eventually we got to play together. But I invited him to the house because I had these couple of songs written to play, “The Roof is Leaking” and “If Leaving Me is Easy.” And he just sat there on “If Leaving Me is Easy,” listening, and he played a couple little things at the end. And afterwards I said, “You didn’t play much.” He said, “Nah, I didn’t wanna ruin it.” Which is quite ironic, but…

Anyway, he played on “Roof is Leaking,” which we mastered from a cassette, ’cause the early version I had of it was on a cassette, and that’s on the extra CD. And that’s really the way it should’ve sounded, that particular song. But yeah, that was the first time we played together.

It seemed like playing with Eric Clapton was your third project, after your solo stuff and Genesis.

It was. We did a little American tour, which was fantastic.

There’s some fun scenes in the Nathan East documentary that you were interviewed for, watching you guys play live.

I’ve never seen that documentary!

There’s a scene where Greg is playing a key-tar and he and Nathan and doing this dance while you and Eric are on the drum riser just kind of laughing and having fun.

It was a strange thing, because of the mixture of musicians. I felt we were in a kind of Cream thing because we were doing old Cream songs, and I grew up with that stuff. So I’m playing Ginger Baker; I’m basically Ginger Baker for the night. And these other guys, Greg and Nathan, were like Earth, Wind and Fire. They kinda did all these dance moves, which wasn’t really Eric’s thing, but that’s why we were laughing. I mean, Eric just let us do whatever we wanted to do.

In a way it wasn’t really “him,” but at the same time, we all had such a great time. We used to go on trains and go shopping together. It was just a real close band, like bands were. We were friends as well as guys who played together.

When did he ask you to produce his albums?

I used to go, pretty much every day, to his house, and we’d have a few drinks and we’d have a laugh and watch a bit of TV. But in 1983 I think he asked me to produce his album, and I went back to listen to Money and Cigarettes, which was his latest album at that point, and I just felt… it was just sitting there. There was no one prodding him saying “You can do better than this.”

So when I came on board, I encouraged him to write. I had a home studio, and I was really into the fact that you could express yourself. And so he bought a home studio, which I don’t believe he ever used, but he got a little cassette player, which he did use. And he started to write, and that started Behind the Sun.

We finished the album, and he rang me up and said, “I’ve got a song and I need to record it.” I said, “Well, we finished.” He said, “Well, it’s just me and a guitar.” So he said, “I’ll come ’round to your place.” So he came ’round to my house, which is not a professional studio.

And he played the song, “Behind the Sun.” And I said, “Okay,” so I’m suddenly getting a guitar sound, you know, for Eric Clapton, because prior to that it’d been a great engineer doing it, and I’d just say, “Yeah, that sounds good.” Now I’m saying, “Is this all right?” Terrified.

Then he sang, and I’m recording it, and then I put a couple lines on a little string synthesizer, and that was it. And we mixed it at my house and delivered it, and that was the last track on the album. And it was really summed up the whole thing because he was going through a separation with Pattie. And fantastic experience, to be thrown into the deep end like that.

Talk about your second album, Hello, I Must Be Going!

Face Value set a benchmark for me where I just could say anything; anything goes. It’s what was happening for me. So Hello, I Must Be Going! was a little difficult at first, because it’s the second album, and what are you gonna write about?

I was angry by this point, because my partner was not being very cooperative, and then the lawyers started getting involved. So “I Cannot Believe It’s True,” “I Don’t Care Anymore,” “Do You Know, Do You Care,” you can tell what they’re about. And actually, that album is better than I remember it being. I’ve kind of rediscovered it myself.

The drum sound on “I Don’t Care Anymore” reminded me a lot of “In the Air Tonight.” I spoke to [producer] Hugh Paghdam, and he said that you guys developed that drum sound when you played on Peter Gabriel’s “Intruder” [which Paghdam engineered].

We played around with the microphones; they were kind of inside the drums. And so it started being very small, and then we had mics outside, so it became very angry, and then it came back to being small at the end.

Your drumming sounds so distinct: I know part of it is how you record the drums, but a lot of it is your technique as well.

Yeah, it’s a mixture of both. I realized that I have a personality that comes out on the drums. You can tell when it’s me. I hit the drums hard. And I’ve been playing 60 years; I’m 65, and I’ve been playing since I was five years old. There has to be a personality coming through the instrument. That’s what you hear. I’m really pleased that my personality came out. I can tell when Eric’s playing the guitar. It’s a similar kind of thing I think.

No Jacket Required was the biggest album you ever did. Did you know that you had a huge hit on your hands?

No, no. I’m always surprised. Which kind of keeps me grounded a bit. But you know, when that was doing well, I was not looking back; I was thinking: we had a tour to do, so what songs were we going to play? Oh, really, the album’s doing well? Okay, great. It kind of crept up behind me.

I remember I was sitting at the GRAMMYs. I don’t know how many I was nominated for, but I was sitting next to Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. And we played “Sussudio” live at the show. And Michael Jackson said to me, he said, “Who did the horn arrangement on that?” Here I am with the guy, and he’s actually talking to me. Great memories, great memories. That album did very well.

The next Genesis album was your biggest success with the band: Invisible Touch. I spoke with Mike Rutherford about this, but I was wondering your take: what do you think would happen if you did a music video like “Land of Confusion” today — making fun of a sitting Republican President?

Incidentally, it’s the only GRAMMY Genesis have ever won, and it’s for a video we weren’t in. Go figure.

Spitting Image was the team who put it together, and they were completely irreverent and cynical and very English in their way they pilloried people. It wasn’t the American way at all, and everybody really took to it like a duck to water. If you did it today… and it’s still relevant, wouldn’t it be great to do that with Donald Trump? He’s just crying out for it.

I’ve always felt that you take music critics way too seriously. Do you agree, and do you still let critics bother you?

Yeah, yeah. I’m much better nowadays. I used to phone people up. Or write a letter. I wrote a letter to a guy that did a really scathing article on me in San Francisco. And in Indianapolis, I remember we did a Genesis show, and just before we left town the paper was put under my door, and I read it, and I saw the review. It listed songs that we didn’t play, and it listed people in the band that weren’t there.

And I rang the guy up. And I said, “Can I speak to so-and-so?” I said, “It’s Phil Collins,” and he said, “What, really? The Phil Collins?” I said, “Yeah, listen. I just read your review. You’re not very good at this, are you?”

And I laid into him, ’cause 15,000 people were there, but 250,000 people that buy the newspaper weren’t there. They think [the show was] crap. “Oh, good thing we saved our money, ’cause the gig was crap.” And that’s what I always think. It’s not like it’s ever gotten to me personally, it’s just sending out a message that this was rubbish.

And so I kinda used to get much more bothered about it. Now I know…  I know what’s gonna happen; I know what they’re gonna say. So I don’t get surprised by it anymore.

I have two colleagues in their thirties, and they had no idea that the critics ever didn’t like you. They just know that they like you.

Yeah, this is something that I’ve got to really sort out. Because I read everything, whereas most people don’t even know it exists. If you go online looking for something, you can find it. But if you don’t do that, and you live your life, it’s like, “Yeah, I like what he does.” So that remark is right on the button. I gotta sort that out.

But when someone like David Crosby says he loves your music, that must feel great. He told me that when you first met him, you started singing him songs from his first solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name. True?

Oh, he was very impressed with that. I said, “I love If Only I Could Remember My Name.” I met him at the Atlantic Records 40th anniversary concert. I’d been trying to get him on Face Value, but of course, he had his problems then. But we became very great friends, we still are. He sang on “Another Day in Paradise.” We got on so well, he said, “You know what? I got lots of lyrics, and I would like you to put music to some of them.”

So he faxed me these lyrics [for “Hero”], and I sat down at the piano and started playing and did a demo for him with his lyrics and my music, and that’s what’s on the album. And he did it on Thousand Roads, which was his next solo album.

But yeah, “Music is Love” and “Orleans” [from If I Could Only Remember My Name] and all this stuff, this vocal stuff, which is what I loved of him. You really could tell when he was arranging the vocals; it was always very different; he threw in all the stuff that no one else thought about.

He was very much a Byrd.

Yeah, yeah. I mean that’s what I grew up with, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Younger Than Yesterday, that was a great album; I play it all the time. So I was really familiar with his stuff, and he said, “Wow. If Only I Could Remember My Name, you’re about the sixth person that I’ve met that’s even heard of that record.” So he kind of knew I was serious.

The other night, Tony Banks posted a photo of him, you and Mike Rutherford going out to dinner. I know you’ve said you want to do a solo thing next, but would you rule out working with them again?

I’m ruling nothing out. And I’m treading very carefully on what I do next. I’ve said this, and I just realized that everybody said, “Well, is a solo album coming? Are you doing a tour?” Whoa, whoa, whoa! I haven’t written anything for a long time. I wrote one song when Orianne and I broke up, so you know what that’s about. But I’ve got lots of bits, and I think maybe that’s what I’ll start when I get home is to see if I can develop these bits. And do it gently and see what happens.

I’m very reluctant to write songs enough for an album; suddenly it’s “[I] gotta put this on an album,” then suddenly you’re back on the roundabout.

And you don’t want to do that right now.

It’s not like I don’t wanna do it, I’m just… I’m scared of doing it. Well, it’s like going [mimes lighting a match]. It’s gonna lead to me going around the world talking about it. It’s gonna lead to: “You should do shows.” And so I just… I don’t know. I’ve gotta sort it out, same as the other thing. I’ve got a lot of sorting out to do! [laughs]

A lot of people have spoken about your potential collaboration with Adele; have you spoken to her since 25 came out and said, “Hey, maybe next time”?

No, I’m very grateful to her for saying she “bottled out,” which inis an English term, it means she got scared. She realized that she approached me a little early. And I, of course, got right on it the same way that I do. So yeah, sure, go home, and I didn’t work on anything else for like three weeks, four weeks, and I kind of was trying to get in touch with her, and it was very difficult. She was going through some stuff. She was moving; she had just had the baby; that was still very fresh. She just came to me too early.

And so I emailed her once and said, “Are you waiting for me, or am I waiting for you?” And she said, “Oh, it’s too early.” But of course, if you hadn’t read what she said, it looked like it wasn’t good enough. But it never got finished.

Still, it must be gratifying to hear that Adele, or Taylor Hawkins from the Foo Fighters, or Questlove from the Roots, thinks so highly of you.

Of course it’s gratifying, yeah. And that’s one of the reasons why I think with me being absent for a few years, it’s possible to be rediscovered. And I certainly am finding that Both Sides, which came out at a time when Nirvana was happening, I’m meeting journalists that actually said, “I don’t know what I was doing at the time, but I missed that album. I listened to it last night because I knew I was doing this interview, and it’s great.” And that for me is one of the reasons why I think it’s a good idea to put stuff out, so that people can find it.

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