This article originally appeared in La Stampa as “Rutherford: ‘I Genesis? Siamo ancora tutti qui, ogni progetto è possibile'” on 29 May 2015. Interview by Marco Zatterin, translation from Italian by MR Net.
Mike Rutherford leads the way to the dressing room, a small room with two chairs, in the immense labyrinthine back room of Brussels’ Cirque Royal. The rest of the Mechanics are in another room across the hall, eating, laughing. Singing. The drummer, who has played with Pink Floyd, is lying down on the couch, looking more dead than alive.
“Coffee?”, the British musician asks politely. “Thanks, but it’s late”. The door closes. He is tall and still thin, composed. Very “British”. He’s 64, but a young 64. Like he could be Keith Richards’ nephew. His voice is deep. His elegance is old fashioned and reserved. In the mirror you can see reflected the musician who founded Genesis at the end of the 60s with keyboardist Tony Banks and with Peter Gabriel singing (until ’75), then would welcome drummer (and singer) Phil Collins and, briefly, guitarist Steve Hackett (until ’77).
Rutherford played the bass, but with time and defections, he took over all of the guitars. Genesis have sold hundreds of millions of records, going from dreamy prog to rhythmic pop in the span of three decades. After a final album in 1997 the band said enough, save a brief return to the stage in 2007. They are legends to millions, adored in Italy, but they were never really “cool”.
But let’s get back to the “here and now”, that is to say to Mike and the Mechanics (who started in 1985 as a side project to Genesis) and the world tour that the band started in Virginia on the 27th of February. Thus begins my conversation with Rutherford, one hour before they are set to take the stage for a very well-structured concert that is very “80s”. They will also play two Genesis tunes, “Turn It On Again” and “I Can’t Dance”, which go well with the evening’s other hits, “The Living Years” and “Silent Running”.
So, how has it been going?
Very well. In the UK we’ve been playing in venues that we played in 43 years ago, and I find I’m asking myself “Is this right? Is this what I should be doing?” Maybe I should be thinking that I’ve had enough, thank you very much, and that’s it. In reality, this is my life. I had stopped with the Mechanics a decade earlier when Paul Young died. So I had thought that was the end of the story. Then, something like five years ago, I wrote some songs that were “Mechanics songs”. So I wanted to see what would happen if we started up again. I found two new singers and they we had some great years. It was a real restart, also because the Mechanics never really played much live. These songs, however, work very well live and I was happy to hear them again and see the audience’s reaction. In the past few years I’ve started to tour again like I did when I was 19. You play in a city, and the venue isn’t sold out. Then you come back, and there are more people than there were the first time.
Is it difficult to say to your children, to your family, that you feel like a 19 year old?
This is something I like to do. Angie, my wife, said to me “If you’re going to do this, make sure you’re having fun”. She’s right.
Pete Townshend of The Who has just turned 70. He said he still hopes he dies before he gets old.
It’s interesting to note that we are the first generation who made a business of rock and roll. There are no precedents and, I believe, we are all a bit surprised at what we have achieved.
On the other hand there’s Eric Clapton, who finds touring intolerable. Townshend is always saying he hates going on tour…
Pete Townshend likes big statements. He doesn’t really mean it, or else he wouldn’t do it. Eric, I don’t know. He’s done so much in his life. I don’t look too far forward, I don’t make plans.
You wrote an autobiography called The Living Years in which you talk about yourself a lot, and about Genesis and your father. Was it a way of putting things right from your past?
The book was something really special. I am fascinated by the cultural change that happened in England in the 70s. The essence of the book is that, until my generation, boys wanted to be like their fathers when they grew up. My generation started to defy their fathers and become more distant. For the first time, we had our own economic affairs, our own jeans and our own music, and we tried to change our parents. It was very important from a societal point of view.
Things changed to the point where the confrontation really softened. My own children and I had a very different relationship.
Also, communication has really changed.
When we were on tour in the 70s, I used to call home every three days. There was a call to England booked for seven in the evening. Then on the fourth time you’d forget to do it. Now contact is continuous.
Do you think this is a loss or a gain for the world?
No one is in the “now”. They are all somewhere else. I have lived in a village in Sussex for 35 years. The people who live there, almost all farmers, live in the “now” and never “elsewhere”. We, on the other hand, have an incredible lack of knowledge because we’re always thinking about what might happen in the future.
Do you think it’s a new way to approach knowledge, or is it destroying it?
I don’t know. It’s good to know that there are still many things to learn. The danger is that your mind can be subjected to too many things, continually.
Music is also changing. Now everything is intangible, save the niche of vinyl.
In the 70s, records came out and lasted three months. You needed to produce as much as possible. Then MTV came along and allowed a hit single to lengthen the life of an album, so you could be around for a few years. Before you needed to make a record and tour every year. It wasn’t a grand affair…
What is the solution? You have new songs. You don’t have an album. And you’re on tour.
Everything moves more slowly. I was thinking about going into the studio last September, but then there was the Genesis documentary that took up a lot of time. We lost our momentum in the autumn. I don’t know what use it is to make an album, but I like writing songs and I have six ready to go. I think they’re very good. In the beginning, with the new Mechanics, we didn’t know how to work because we didn’t know who would be singing. Now I know the voices, everything is more simple. I started a collaboration with Clark Datchler, he was in a band called Johnny Hates Jazz. Do you know them? They were the ones who did “Shattered Dreams”. The new songs are very different from the old ones. First of all, they are very much built on the voice, the melody comes first. We have some strong lyrics now, not just sound bites.
What inspires you, what interests you?
Situations, the things we see around us. We work without any constraints. One song we have is called “When The World Stops Loving You”. But it’s not talking about a pop star who is getting older. It’s about the fact that, when everything’s going well, life seems easy. And when things go badly, that’s when you really find out what love is.
There has always been a social aspect in the music that you write, also with Genesis. A sense of responsibility. I’m thinking about “Tell Me Why” and “Driving the Last Spike” about the men building the railway. It wasn’t always obvious, but it was there.
Also with Peter Gabriel there was that awareness, he did it in his own way. That was an approach where within the dreamy lyrics, there were little comments on the situation.
And how do you see it?
I believe that the first objective of a song is to incite an emotion in the person who is listening to it. Either through the music or the lyrics. That’s it.
Will you release these new songs with the Mechanics?
Yes, definitely. They will be easy to record because they are driven by the voices. In the past, I found myself with fantastic pieces of music, but the vocal melody wasn’t good enough.
Can we expect an album next year?
Yes, definitely. I think so.
Mike and the Mechanics have been around for 30 years. Your complete discography is not always easy to pull together in one place. Tony Banks is reissuing his material. Will you do the same?
Probably at the end of next year the rights to my material will return to me. I would like to do something. “Smallcreep’s Day” (1980) I don’t have, and the rest are scattered about in different places with different record companies.
It’s difficult to bring them all together, across record companies and continents?
No, not really. I sold the rights for five years. Next year I’ll get them back. That will be a good moment to do something.
You cite “Smallcreep’s Day”. It’s very different from the Mechanics. Do you feel like the same person who made that album?
It’s not easy to say, you can’t change things, unfortunately. As an author, I never look back. It’s been twenty years since I’ve heard Smallcreep’s Day.
Anthony Phillips (the first Genesis guitarist) said he would like to do something with you like a Smallcreep’s Day 2.
I just received a whole package of his new things. It looks really nice.
He would like to work with you again.
It was very fun to do, that record.
You have two singers. How do you choose to whom to give the lead?
If you’re a songwriter and you can’t sing, it’s a bit of a swindle. With the Mechanics we have two singers, one rock voice and one R’nB. With them it’s easy. The decision makes itself. It’s obvious. There is only one song that sounds good with either voice, and that was “Beggar on a Beach of Gold”. Paul Carrack sings it well, but not like Paul Young.
You tried to sing as well. How did that go?
It didn’t work. I wanted to try it. But I knew that it wouldn’t work. If you have a nice song, you have to have a nice voice to sing it. That left me out.
What is the difference?
A nice voice gives a song credibility. It happened when Phil Collins sang Gabriel’s songs. The voice changed, but not the quality.
Going from one to the other, from Collins to Gabriel, did it change the songs? The tone or the speed?
Not much. Just a little.
On your 2007 tour the songs seemed different and slower.
They weren’t slower. The only difference was that some of them were brought down a tone.
Speaking of Genesis. When you’re asked about a reunion, you say “there are no plans, but never say never”. You’ve been saying that for years, and it’s never happened. The question then becomes, why not?
I said it before 2007 too, and then it happened! Now I say there’s no plans, but no one knows what’s around the corner. We are all still here.
You don’t miss writing with Banks?
Yes, of course I do. But it takes the right situation to do it.
You don’t find yourselves playing together, not even on the weekends?
No, it’s never happened. I have a very busy life. I’ve been on tour since February. Now I’m going home, and will think about working with the Mechanics again. I want to write and record. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for other things.
In your opinion, which Genesis songs were the most difficult ones to write?
I don’t know. “Selling England by the Pound” was very difficult. It was the time, there was no particular reason.
And the most difficult song to play, which did you always worry about messing up?
I would say “Supper’s Ready”, the beginning. I had to use the guitar and the pedals at the same time, arms and feet busy at the same time doing different things.
Traditionally, Genesis always played the same set every time. You also do this with the Mechanics. Why is that?
For us it was always important to play a well-structured set, like a theatre production. Once something worked, you didn’t want to change it. During the English part of the Mechanics tour, we played two new songs, and that made us more nervous. We had to be brave, and it was fine. Next time we’ll play three new songs…
According to the website Setlist, Genesis have played Los Endos 659 times. Did you ever get tired of it?
No, because every night was different. It changes depending on the place and the audience. It was never the same.
The last European concert was in Rome, summer 2007. What do you remember about it?
Italy was where it all started for us, for Genesis. Then, in the mid-70s the problems started with the revolutionary periods, assaults, smashed doors. We came back many years later and played stadiums. I always felt there was a connection between the country and us, that if we needed to end, we should end there. Rome was fantastic, I have great memories of it.
The Circus Maximus…
And the sunset over the Vatican behind us. It was an extraordinary moment.
What remains your most beautiful memory of Italy?
Without a doubt, the Rome concert.
How do you explain the chemistry that came together there?
The Italians have a romantic and emotional side that is reflected in our music.
A classical spirit, a bit like the Opera?
That too. They are emotions that succeed in creating a direct contact. It’s the chords and the sounds, also because in the first few years, most people didn’t understand our lyrics.
The best place to finish, you say. And to start again?
True. You never know.
Ps. As I entered the Cirque Royal, I heard several minutes of the soundcheck from outside. It was a strange music, familiar, but different. It seemed like Afterglow, or Fading Lights from Genesis, or both. But maybe that was just a suggestion.
Mike and the Mechanics
The Brussels concert.
1. A Beggar on a Beach of Gold
2. Another Cup of Coffee
3. Get Up
4. Silent Running
5. Seeing Is Believing
6. Let Me Fly
7. Turn It On Again
8. The Road
9. Everybody Gets a Second Chance
10. Cuddly Toy
11. I Can’t Dance
12. The Living Years
13. All I Need Is a Miracle
Encore: Over My Shoulder