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Take a Look at Phil Now: An Interview with Phil Collins

on February 16, 2016, 12:00am

Feature Artwork by Cap Blackard

Phil Collins is out of retirement. That much is true.

His health is back. He’s moved to Miami. He’s in the midst of a reissue campaign of his entire discography. There’s an autobiography due later this year, and he is looking to make some new music and play some shows.

But the reported tour and new album? Like many headlines from Collins’ life in recent years, they’re greatly exaggerated. They may happen. They’re likely even, but it’s still too far out to say. Right now, Collins’ biggest focus is embracing his new lease on life and taking advantage of the pop culture tidal shift that’s returned him to favor.

The reissue campaign of his eight solo records has been dubbed the “Take a Look at Me Now” retrospective, featuring new album photography of the 65-year-old Collins in the same poses as his former selves. First out the gate is 1993’s Both Sides and its much more famous sibling, ’81’s Face Value. Sure, Both Sides sold well at the time, but like much of Collins’ ’90s work, it felt the burn of dismissal: too saccharine for the era and relegated to the Adult Contemporary airwaves. Yeah, it is softer stuff than his most beloved, brooding hits, but it’s also Collins’ personal favorite.

Maybe now, after the decline and resurgence of public love for Collins, the world is ready to not only re-embrace him, but give some due consideration to the entirety of his discography. After all, his only crimes were being too famous and wearing his heart on his sleeve.

For Collins, looking ahead is indelibly tethered to looking behind. It’s in the spirit of these reissues that he spoke with Consequence of Sound‘s Art Director, Cap Blackard, to set the record straight on his coming out of retirement, getting hands on with the new editions, the near-miss in collaborating with Adele, and that incredible moment of ’80s excess when he guest-starred on Miami Vice.

Phil Collins Face Value Merger

These new masters are really fantastic, and reportedly you’ve been pretty hands on with the entire reissue campaign. What does all that entail from your side of things?

I think there’s a choice you make. Either you let the record company get on with it, and it just comes out pretty much the way it went in, or you get involved with it, and that depends pretty much on the personality of the artist.

For me, I didn’t feel good about just re-releasing the things. Even if they were remastered, I think that the fans who are completists, who want to collect everything that’s out there, I wanted to give them something new. So I had a discussion with the record company. We decided that we’d put a second CD in and that CD would be made up of bonus material. Live material to share how the songs developed and some demos. To top it off, I re-shot all the cover photography. So straight away when you looked at the disc, you’d know there was something different about this and that I was involved, because sometimes artists don’t get involved.

I really like the “Take a Look at Me Now” visual concept of redoing all the album art.

Yeah, that was something that only now I’m starting to realize was actually linked. I mean, “take a look at me now” is obviously a phrase from “Against All Odds”, but it was a phrase that was just thrown to me from the office in London.

They were like, “’Take a Look at Me Now’ is what we’re thinking of calling it. Is that alright?”

And I said, “Yeah, alright. If you’ve got to call something something, that’s fine.”

It was a very random decision, and it was done before the artwork was done, and the two actually worked together, but that was a mistake. That was a happy accident.

I scrutinized the new image for Dance into the Light, and you got it pretty spot on. That must have been a hard one to redo since it’s so much more complicated than the rest.

It’s so spot on that people will think it’s Photoshopped. Which is one of the reasons in the booklet or on the back cover, there’s going to be a strip of film which shows me trying to do it because otherwise people will think it’s just a Photoshopped head on top of the old photograph, and it really wasn’t.

I was really stressed out about doing that one, because I thought it was going to be really difficult to get everything in the correct position at the same time, and we almost got it the first take. I stretched and I limbered up to make sure I could get my leg up. One of those things where I was kind of thinking about it, and it happened quite easily in the end.

Phil Collins Dance Into The Light merger

Your last record, Going Back, was a photo of you as a kid — have you redone that one as well?

For that one, we didn’t even try that. We’ve got a new shot. It’s also an edited-down version of that album to 14 songs instead of 27 or whatever it was. I picked my favorite 14, and we start the album with [the track] “Going Back”, as opposed to finishing with it, because I think a lot of people missed that song. It really is a great version of that song; I love it.

On the second CD will be a live version of some of those songs from the four gigs I did in New York at Roseland Ballroom.

That record did have an expansive library of songs — different releases all over the place. So this is kind of the definitive edition?

Yeah. It’s called The Essential Going Back, which I think is one of those ’60s titles, you know?

I’m really glad that you lead with Both Sides for the reissues because it’s a record that I myself have neglected. Having the perspective of your new liner notes really opened it up for me.

Oh, good. I’m old-school, and albums are what you did, and singles were just flagships for the album. But of course, now it’s more songs than albums, and I don’t know how many people actually buy a whole album unless it’s by an artist that grew up in that era. There’s an awful lot of songs at the bottom of the CD that we could do without, you know?

Both Sides was an album that I think was overlooked at the time. I mean, it sold millions of copies, but for some reason, I get the feeling that it was a little overlooked. And it’s one of my best albums; it’s my favorite album anyway.

“I’ve Forgotten Everything” was always one of my favorite tracks on that record, and learning that that recording was almost entirely free-styled, or at least the lyrics were, made it even better.

Well done, because that’s mine, too.

When you know the atmosphere or the feeling of the thing, you know how it was done. You listen to it slightly differently knowing you’re getting something special. That album was full of those kinds of moments where I would just sing.

By this point, I was kind of refined in the way I was writing. Even with Disney where they’re “story songs” that have to move the script along, I would still do it the same way: I would write the music and be improvising as I was writing it, and then when I had a track that I could kind of sing to at home, I would sing lyrics. Although some songs, most songs, may not have been 100 percent finished, you had some idea of what you could do with it and then filled in the gaps.

“I’d Forgotten Everything” is one of those songs. I can’t even play it anymore because I don’t remember the chords. I only played it once. I sat down and sang it, and that is pretty much what you hear on the record.

Phil Collins Both Sides merger

You adopted drum machines early on as well as a lot of digital music technology. Are digital instruments still a big part of your arsenal for songwriting?

Yes. Drum machines free you from filling in all the gaps when you’re writing. It certainly changed Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford’s writing when we started using drum machines, because without them you kind of filled in all the holes with vamping along. And for me, I used drum machines to give you an atmosphere. So I’ll set up an atmosphere that I will then respond to on the keyboards.

There are certain keyboards that I use that are old-fashioned, that are out of date, but still have sounds on them that provoke ideas. So that’s how I’ll start working. I mean, “In the Air” is a good example of that. I set up a drum machine pattern that was kind of hypnotic and left it going for a little while and started thinking about it, and then you brought that chord in, and suddenly you’re in a place, you know?

Word is there’s new music on the way. How’s that going?

Well, I’ve got loads of bits — undeveloped bits that I will probably visit. My studio is being set up next week. So I’ll turn it on and sit down at a piano and see what happens.

I’m being encouraged to do this by my kids. My kids want me to write new songs. It’s in my house and during the day, when I’m not doing something and they’re at school, I’ll sit and start writing and see what goes on. I mean, I haven’t written in such a long time that I need to get back into the groove of it, the rhythm of it. And I’ve got lots of ideas. I’ve got lots of bits that I haven’t developed that are just sitting there, and I’ve even got some lyrics that need music, so I’ve got things to start on.

Your 14-year-old son is actively pursuing music. What’s that like?

Well, my oldest son, Simon, is on his fifth CD. I mean, he’s 39. He’s been doing that for quite a while, since he was 21 or so. So my oldest son does it, and now my 14-year-old has concentrated on drumming as opposed to soccer, which he was very good at. He just wanted to focus on music, and suddenly in the past few years, he’s developed into a fantastic drummer. And he plays guitar, and he plays piano, and he plays my stuff better than me. If I play something on the piano, he looks over my shoulder and is like, “How do you do that?” and I show him. He has a band that rehearses at the house, and it’s lovely to see it going on and be part of it.

Heck of a commitment at 14.

I’m his dad, so I’m giving him encouragement, but other kids who are in the band, their parents would prefer them to be doctors or lawyers. I mean, the whole band is going to Switzerland in February to do a TV show, and the parents are going with them. It’s an interesting time. We’ll see. Some kids go through phases. This is not a phase with Nicholas.

Matthew, he’s 11. He’s going to be a soccer player when he grows up because he’s a great soccer player. To him, it’s not a phase. This is serious. He announced at the dinner table the other day that in five years he’s leaving. He’s going to Europe to play soccer. We’ll see if it is five years. That particular part is open for discussion, but I’m encouraging him because he’s good.

Phil Collins Hello I Must Be Going Merger

You’re also working on an autobiography. What got that project going?

It has a release date in October. I haven’t finished yet, but it’s been fun to revisit the past. I’ve got a great memory, so there hasn’t been a problem remembering things and writing down the stories, some of which are great fun. One thing that kind of strikes me as I look back is how much I did work. I mean, I knew I toured, but I didn’t remember I toured that much … places I don’t even remember. It’s been an interesting experience.

I was floored when I heard that you were touring again. That isn’t an easy thing at all, and from all the reports of the past five years, your body has taken quite a beating. I’m excited that you’re feeling well enough for that.

I’m still hobbling around with a broken foot, but that will get better. This thing is accelerating a little bit quicker than I would like it to. I have said that I would like to do a few shows, and now people are saying, “You’re going back out on tour,” but I’m not going to go back out on tour.

I like the rhythm of my life. It’s very important to me at this moment of my life to be with my kids. I do not want to go back out on the road. I think doing some shows would be fun. I know I’m going to be doing that once the foot is better. There have been pictures of me with a walking stick, and that’s the reason I’m with a stick. It’s because of my foot — it’s not old age, you know.

Same thing with the record. People are saying I’m making a record, and I’m not. I haven’t written a song yet. I’m putting things with you in perspective. It’s not exactly as you read it. Things have kind of been elaborated upon to make a better story, but I’m not sure how that will take shape yet.

I’m glad we can set the record straight. I mean, it’s not like Rolling Stone doesn’t have a track record with taking liberties when it comes to reporting on you.

I remember the interview with the Rolling Stone guy. It may have been something I said. I was probably caught in a moment where I was very enthusiastic about the idea, but the truth is that I want to take things slowly. I don’t want to get back on that roundabout at the same speed that I was on it before.

Even if I can’t play the drums, I can still sing. Certain things are stopping me, and certain things aren’t. Doing a few shows is very exciting; I just haven’t gotten past the thinking-about-it stage.

Last year, a deluxe reissue of the record you produced for Frida, Something’s Going On, came out. It’s a fantastic album, and it struck me that it must be a strange scenario for you — with someone who loved your divorce record, and was going through her own divorce, asking you to come in and help her through that process on her own record.

Yeah. I remember there being a bit of tension. I don’t know which one she was married to, Benny or Björn, but they both came in one day to the studio. I could feel the atmosphere change. They were coming in to see what she was doing and to meet me — it was their studio after all — but the atmosphere kind of tensed up a bit.

She was a lovely lady, Frida. I’ve stayed in touch with her. She was thrilled to have had the opportunity to make an album that was her, because I think the girls were a bit manipulated in ABBA. I think she felt with Something’s Going On that she found herself, and I’m very proud to have been part of it.

frida - something's going on

That record has a lot of different styles and a lot of different songwriters. What did you help her bring to that?

I just got the special edition sent to me. It’s a few months old, but I just got it. I have to listen to it again. There are some songs I felt less close to, but she liked, so we did it. I have to go through them and see how things have stood up. On some songs, the way she pronounced her English was something we needed to work on. It was a fun project to do. We had a great time together — the band and everybody was very supportive, and she felt like part of a band. A real band.

Of all the projects you’ve been a producer on, what has been your favorite or the most rewarding?

It’s difficult. I was only a drummer on Grace and Danger with John Martyn, but that is a fantastic record. We became great friends, and I produced his next record, but production…

I was grateful to get closer to Clapton. I mean, we were great friends in England even before I produced two albums for him. I kind of felt like I brought him into this era, because sometimes some of his earlier albums — I’m not talking about Dominoes or Cream or even his early solo years, but Money and Cigarettes was a little lame. I think he was on automatic pilot, and I kicked him out of that and made him start writing.

I’m not a full-blooded record producer. If someone asks me to do things, there has to be a reason for them to ask me or for me to do it. I don’t work with anybody that I didn’t want to work with or didn’t know. I mean, Adam Ant came to meet me and pitch me the idea before I thought it was a good idea [Collins produced two tracks on Ant’s album Strip]. There’s always a reason why I go into the studio. I want to be sure that I could add something.

The recent buzz over the Adele collaboration — what happened with that? Word is she chickened out?

That’s what she said. I don’t think she chickened out because it was me. I think she chickened out because she had kind of wound the thing up before she was ready to go.

We met in London at her request, and she played me a piece of music. I liked it, and she said, “Well, finish it please.” I took it back to New York and started to work on it. Then she became a little bit difficult to get a hold of, and she said to me later, “I’m in a different place.”

She wasn’t ready to do the record, but that piece of music still exists, and someone suggested to me that it could happen in the future. I hadn’t really thought of it, but if she wants to work together in the future, I’m fine with it. She’s great. I think she’s one of the most important artists in recent years. She is such a strong person, and her musical identity is so strong. She’s there for good, you know?

miami vice - phil the shill

I’m a huge Miami Vice fan, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the episode you starred in, “Phil the Shill”.

Those early couple of series are still classics.

You know, I drive around the South Beach area and I try to remember places that we worked on. But it was 30 years ago that we did that episode, and Miami has changed hugely. It’s unrecognizable from the Miami of 30 years ago, and I can’t find anywhere that we worked. We only spent a week there, but it was a really intense week, and it was great fun.

Fred Lyle was the music director. I never met him, but I knew of him and spoke to him once on the phone, and he used my music very, very well. He used songs that I wouldn’t have thought. He used “Long Way to Go” and “Take Me Home”, and they were always used very sensitively. Eventually, they called me and were like, “We’d like you to be in an episode.”

And I said, “Fine, send me a script. Not a big bit, just a cameo?” And they said, “Yeah, yeah.”

Well I got the script, and I remember it was a summer day and I was in England. I went out to start reading it in the garden, and I turned over the page that I was in, and then the next page … and I was in like 90% of the script!

I called them and was like, “Listen, I can’t do this. I haven’t acted for ages, and I’m in most of the script. I thought it was a cameo!”

And they were like, “Don’t worry about it. Just come over. We’ll have a lot of fun.”

And it was. It was fantastic fun. I found that I was pretty good at it, and people were coming up to me and being like, “You’re pretty good at this. Have you done this before?” And I was like, “Only as a kid.”

That was in my imperial years, the mid-’80s, and it led to me getting the part in Buster, and it led to me getting a part in an Australian film called Frauds, which I starred in. Frauds was much better than Buster, but it’s an unknown film. It was great fun to do.

Be sure to tune back into Consequence of Sound on Thursday when we will exclusively debut a new live cut from Collins’ Dance into the Light reissue.

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