Suite Success:
An Interview With Tony Banks

Tony Banks has been an integral part of Genesis since the group's inception in the late 1960s. Despite being classically trained as a pianist, the keyboardist and songwriter's solo efforts have been geared predominantly towards pop music over the past 25 years. In 2004, Banks released Seven, his first true classical album. Seven was recorded with the legendary London Philharmonic and tested the musician in ways he could have never imagined.

On April 17, 2004, World of Genesis' own Dave Negrin sat down with Tony for a very candid interview to talk about the new album, the challenges he faced in its creation, his solo career, his days with Genesis, and what lies ahead.


Tony Banks in 2004

World of Genesis: Seven would be an ambitious project for any artist due to its size and scope. How different was it composing full orchestral pieces for a more traditional classical album versus scoring a movie?

Tony Banks: To be honest, the way I wrote it was, in fact, the way I would write a solo album or something I suppose, but without feeling that I need to tie ends up in the same way. So, you can let things kind of run a bit more and not worry too much about repetition or trying to get a particular song. Certainly not song style or anything. But I’ve done that a certain amount. Particularly, on the last album (Strictly Inc.) with “
Island in the Darkness,” and over the years with Genesis pieces where we let things kind of run from section to section. So, I found that quite natural… Quite easy, really. I found it liberating in a way. I find it almost easier to write like this than to write a song, I think.    

WOG: I know that musically you came from a classical up-bringing. How long have you wanted to do a project like this?

TB: I don’t think I ever really thought about it that much until I did the soundtrack for The Wicked Lady, and I heard the orchestral version of the themes. I thought, “This is interesting!” But, I’ve always shied from the combination of rock groups and orchestra. I’ve never heard that done successfully. The idea of doing a totally orchestral piece only came up in the past five or six years. I just thought, if I never did anything else again, I would like to do something like this once in my career. That was my feeling. 

WOG: How much did your keyboard demos evolve by the time Simon Hale worked with you on the orchestration? Did the final product come out the way you expected it to?

WOG: I understand that the other older piece you used, “Neap Tide,” was originally recorded for the Strictly Inc. project. Do you often find yourself revisiting older, unused compositions or demos as part of your songwriting process either as a solo artist or with Genesis?

TB: Well, sometimes, yes. For example, going back over the years, the song “Tick of The Tail” I had written about five or six years before (it surfaced in 1976). I just felt that at the time when we did that record… Particularly, at the time, because we had lost Peter’s (Gabriel) input on that album, and he had been quite good at these little quirky songs like “Harold The Barrel” and stuff, I just felt that the song “Trick of The Tail” could fill that role slightly. So, I kind of brought it out of the moth balls, and we did it, and it worked pretty well. 

So, I’ve never been frightened to use old pieces. There are a few pieces that just keep rearing their heads. So, when I am playing and writing for a new record, I get an idea. I’ll just sort of hear a piece that I’ve had before, and I’ve got the old tapes around, and I think, “Well, that might work well on this project.” You know? We’ve done it many times with Genesis. I mean, “Supper’s Ready” had lots of bits from before or
The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway album with “Anyway” which was written five or six years before. You kind of bring in these other things and it’s a slight difference of style that you wouldn’t write quite that same way. They can work pretty well, and if you still like it 20 years on, that probably means that its got some merit.  

WOG: In addition to the challenges of composing a full score of orchestra and what I can only imagine must have been the tremendous cost of retaining the services of the London Philharmonic, what elements of Seven caused you the greatest stress?
TB: That varied a little bit from piece to piece. Some of the pieces were very close to the demos. I mean, given the fact that they were done using synthesizers. The two pieces that were done without any piano base, which were the second piece, “Black Down,” and “Earthlight,” are probably the ones that changed the least, because there was never a piano involved. I wrote them using string samples and oboes and all the rest of it. Obviously, they got a bit embellished once we started scoring them. A lot of that came from Simon (Hale), but then we kind of let the ideas bounce between us a bit. We tried one thing, and then tried another. Once we were in the studio, we tried other ideas as well.

If you have the demos, in terms of the form – the melody lines, the chords, and the structure are absolutely the same.  A lot of the arrangement ideas are there. I obviously could have done it all myself. The reason I wanted to get someone like Simon involved was because I felt that if I did it myself it would probably not sound authentically orchestral. I just wanted it to sound a certain way, so people didn’t say, “Oh God, this is a rock guy trying to write for an orchestra!” I felt the pieces were sort of there, and with the right arrangement, it could really sound convincing as orchestral or even classical pieces. That was my idea.   

TB: The most difficult piece far and away was the final piece, “Spirit of Gravity.” It’s quite complicated in terms of the way the timings work and also goes through a lot of changes. Some of the bits, the orchestra had quite a lot of trouble with. Originally, I recorded four of the pieces one time (with the orchestra), which included that piece in fact. At the end of that period, I was really not that happy with them. There was a couple that sounded alright, but this one in particular and one of the others didn’t sound very good. I knew I was going to have to come back to it. It really took a few months trying to organize myself and getting absolutely clued up as to what the sound was going to be like.  Also, changing the conductor and getting Nick Davis in as well, which I found helpful.

Tony Banks: Songwriter

WOG: How were Simon Hale and Mike Dixon selected for the project? 

All of these things helped a lot to get a good result, I think. But that piece, “Spirit of Gravity” was still difficult even the second time around. It was just… I don’t know. There were some fast bits in it. A lot of the orchestra has no problem in playing complicated pieces, but it is very different when they kind of know the piece. When they are doing most pieces that the orchestras play, they’ve heard it a hundred times before. If there is complexity in there, they know it, because they have heard it before. So, if they were doing “The Rights of Spring” or something, they’ve heard it a hundred times. With this, some of the way the changes work, the tempos and things, we were constantly trying to get it right. It was quite difficult.

TB: Simon I got through Nick Davis, actually. Nick is someone who I have worked with over the years for a long time, and he was very enthusiastic about this project when I first came up with it. He suggested a few names of classical arrangers who worked both in the classical world and in the rock world who would understand what I was trying to do. He also wouldn’t be too patronizing, which was the other thing that I worried about. I also thought he wouldn’t try to change things too much. I listened to some of the pieces that he had done, and I heard a piece that Simon had written on his own, for himself actually, which I thought was nice. I liked the arrangement of it. I met him, and we got on very well. We could really communicate. He and I share some similarities. We both talk very fast (laughs), and our minds tend to move very quickly from one thing to another.  A lot of things did not have to be spoken, because you knew he got it. That made a big difference with me. I have worked with a number of people over the years. Some people tend to understand everything very quickly and others you really have to go through things with. The result can be good that way, but its just a different way of working. It was a very easy way of working with Simon.

The orchestra seemed to find some of the rhythmical ideas quite difficult in it, too. I don’t know why, but they proved very difficult.  The most difficult part of all, which I am probably least satisfied with on the album, is the big theme at the end of that section which was supposed to be done basically on the brass with the strings arpeggiating behind it. We tried for hours and just couldn’t get it. The strings just couldn’t get the two in time. I don’t know why, it was easy enough on the synthesizers (laughs)! Also, it seemed to get slower and slower. So, that caused me the most grief. So, while I think the piece works well in sections, and still probably stands up, it’s the one that is probably the least close to my original hope for it, because, it was supposed to be the final piece and the big piece and the one that the whole album would build to. I would like to try and do it live some day and just get it that little bit better.

WOG: Are there things that you learned during the making of Seven that will impact the way you record future projects?

TB: If I was to do another classical project or an orchestra, I’ve learned an awful lot about how you go about it, really. It’s just very, very different. Having heard it all back and knowing what works and what doesn’t work, you learn so much, I think.
So, you do get some of his character into the pieces. The final product sounds very close to a version I would have imagined but, obviously, there were some arrangement ideas that I would have never thought of. I would put that, in reflection, as something I might not have done that way, but all in all, I am happy with the result. 

"With an orchestra, really, you are pretty much
stuck with what you’ve got. You can’t just change it."

Tony Banks circa 1973

From the point of view of doing anything in the rock world, I don’t know if it would change me much, because it was just such a different experience. They way we worked with Genesis and on my solo albums, pieces have tended to evolve very much. You kind of start with a piece in a fairly rough form, and you slowly develop it in the recording studio – embellishing it. You can replace anything at any time and improve anything at any time. You can add, and chop, and change. With an orchestra, really, you are pretty much stuck with what you’ve got. You can’t just change it. 
WOG: In the press release for Seven, you mention that “The Gateway” was written some twenty years ago as a possible idea for a film theme that was never used. Was it intended for The Wicked Lady?

TB: No, there was no particular project in mind for it. After I had done The Wicked Lady, and it had gone quite well… The film was not a great success, but the music went down quite well, and I had hoped that I would do another film. I had one or two offers at the time, but the Genesis projects tended to get in the way. I was involved with one other project, for the soundtrack for the film 2010, which I was actually sacked from during the process of it. This was one of the pieces I suggested, although it wasn’t the main piece.

The main piece, I ended up recording as “Red Wing” on the album Soundtracks, which was the first piece I suggested for 2010.  I was going to do an orchestral version of it and everything, but unfortunately the guy didn’t like it. So, that didn’t happen. “The Gateway” was one of the other pieces on that tape, and I’d always just seen it as a possible film theme. I hadn’t written it particularly for that film, but I had written it in mind that it would work well as a film theme. I never got the chance to use it. It was still around when I did this, and I have always liked it a lot. Because it was written 20 years ago, it is a slightly different style, perhaps, in some ways, and I wanted to use it.   

There is no separation between the instruments. That’s the biggest difference, and that is what I really had to learn the hard way. It was my first time, and I realized all that was not there (in the recording), and what could I do? That was the biggest challenge. 

WOG: By what criteria will you judge whether Seven is a success?  If the album is not well received commercially, will you undertake a project of this size again?

TB: I honestly don’t know. I don’t really see this as being a commercially successful project unless, for some reason or other, something from it got used in a film or a TV project or something. Fundamentally, it’s going to appeal to some of the people who like what I have done in the past and maybe a little beyond that with some people who like to give classical style pieces a bit of a chance. The
Naxos label is quite a significant label in England in terms of having a bit of a following of its own, so those sort of things might lead somewhere. I don’t really know. I had to get this out of my system, and it’s been quite a long birth! At the moment, I don’t particularly feel like doing that again right at this minute. But I am writing pieces, and I’ve got a couple of pieces that could definitely fit into this vein again. I probably wouldn’t rule it out. I’m really waiting to see. It would obviously help me a lot if anything were to come from this. In terms of people thinking they would like to use one of the pieces or the style of the pieces and wanted to use me on a film or something. That might inspire me to do it.

Click Here For Page Two Of The Interview With Tony Banks

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