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InterviewsDoing the Slow Dance with Anthony Phillips

Posted on Tuesday, August 01 2017 @ 17:32:24 CDT by Steven Reid
Progressive Rock

Multi-instrumentalist and composer Anthony Phillips released his first solo album back in 1977, 'The Geese And The Ghost' still one of its creator's favourite works, along with the recently reissued 'Slow Dance'. With Esoteric Records joining with Anthony for an in-depth reappraisal of his catalogue through an expanded remaster campaign, Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid spoke with the man who'll never quite escape the tag, 'founder member of Genesis', to discover what came next…

Over the last few months the majority of Anthony's early solo work has been reissued in expanded, remastered format through the Esoteric/Cherry Red imprint. For any artist, having that opportunity to look over the first thirteen years of their solo career must have been an interesting journey. "I think the inevitable mixture of pleasant surprises and 'Oh dear, could have done better….'" is how the skilled and diverse composer begins as he describes how it's been to revisit his own music in this detailed manner. "In all honesty, I think the ones where I was left more to my own devices, rather than being under record company edict are my preferred choices," Anthony adds candidly, and he continues in that vein. "…Not that being pushed didn't in some ways have its dividends. Necessity can be the mother of invention." But surely even the musician who crafted and created these album must, if forced and having re-listened to his early work for the reissue process, have a favourite. "'Geese…' and 'Slow Dance' for me… if pushed."

To the label's great credit, not only have Esoteric reissued Anthony's albums from his 1977 debut through to 1990's 'Slow Dance', they've also really pushed the boat out with bonus discs, varying mixes, posters, detailed liner notes with new interviews with Anthony and clam shell boxes, or multi-panel digi-packs. "Yes, they're a great outfit," the guitarist and synthesiser man enthuses, clearly delighted with the thought and care his albums have received. "The talents and industry of Phil Lloyd Smee and Jon Dann, coupled with the sonically sensational Simon Heyworth and Andy 'Air-Miles' Myles in the 5.1 department has made the whole process a joy and a privilege!" For Anthony's fans the process of being able to delve deeper into these long favourite albums through the aforementioned 5.1 mixes has been both enjoyable and revealing. Has the experience been the same for the man originally behind them? "Ahhhhhhh……….partly deja-dit!" Anthony ponders, before expanding. "All of those things, but torturous! Torturous for them [Simon and Andy] and in part torturous for me as they set about the painstaking process of recreating those mixes!"

Ever modest and self deprecating, "That it's lasted better than I might have imagined and isn't quite as bad as I thought at the time," is the hugely respected composer's reply when asked if the process of revisiting, remixing and searching through copious amounts of recordings for bonus tracks, has revealed anything about his early work that Anthony hadn't quite realised before. However, with that hindsight it's perfectly possible that none of his work would ever have reached a wider audience, Anthony's first solo album, 'The Geese And The Ghost' coming a full seven years after his departure from Genesis; those years being a time of musical growth and expansion for the young musician. However, as Anthony himself alluded to earlier that album is still a strong favourite with a lot of his fans and the man himself. His reaction honest and simple when asked how he felt when it was finally released after what had been such a lengthy gestation. "Confused," he says firmly before adding, "but mighty relieved, as I'd all but given it up!"

From there Anthony experimented with various styles and approaches but for many it was 1981's '1984' that really illustrated a different side to his compositional style and sound. "As before, needs must," the man of many styles says with a glint in his eye when the topic of where the inspiration for that change of tack came from. "It had to be done at home - at least at the outset." Although there was much more to it than that. "Romance, lyricism, overt classicism were punishable by death at the hands of a vicious, vituperative, pathetic, juvenile press and so some sleight of hand was needed. Keep the rhythm going, be electronic and you might just get away with some quasi-classical chord sequences. I loved the challenge and some of it works quite well I think." However, not everyone agreed. "A lot of my friends thought I'd gone bonkers at the time! Odd album…"

After that the man known for composing and recording alone, released a number of collaboration albums, 'Private Parts and Pieces III: Antiques' with Enrique Berro Garcia, 'Invisible Men' with Richard Scott and 'Tarka' with Harry Williamson. To be fair Anthony had often worked with other musicians on his albums but how different was the experience of doing a more full-blown collaboration? "It really does depend who it is," is his reply when quizzed on whether there's a different spark and energy when creating an album as part of a more formal partnership. "I loved working with Mike Rutherford on our two times twelve string stuff or the more classical material… Quique [Berro Garcia] had a masterful technique and I was in awe of him and his sounds." Although, as he explains, not all of Anthony's most productive collaborations have resulted in albums being released. "I have worked very profitably with Joji Hirota, the fabulous percussionist and ethnic wind player on many TV programmes - mainly Wildlife - and have loved working with Sam Karl Bohn and Andrew Skeet in recent years." While the composer has a simple explanation of what makes for a strong writing partnership. "It is important that you compliment each other and don't overlap too much in terms of style, where you then end up diminishing each other's input."

Having started, quite logically, with his 1977 debut, Esoteric's reissue campaign has now reached 1990, with a wonderful expanded-remaster of 'Slow Dance', an album that very nearly didn't happen when a promised advance from Passport Records failed to materialise when the label ceased trading. Unfortunately by that time Anthony had already spent the money he'd been promised. Surely he must have been concerned at that point that the album would never see the light of day and that he'd be left heavily in debt? "Yes, for a nerve racking eight months!" Anthony says, still clearly pained by the memory. Most people would have hedged their bets and played it as safe as possible given the turn of events, but it would be fair to suggest that the composer with his back against the financial wall had different ideas. "It was a card I felt I had to play, as I had no obvious others," Anthony says honestly when asked why he decided to simply carry on and instead of scaling things back, hired more studio equipment and borrowed more money to bring in more musicians. With hindsight it was an inspired move, but surely it was a heck of a risk at the time? "Very much so, but as the album grew I began to sometimes catch a glimpse of how it could possibly get me out of the jam I was in." Although, as the risk taking slow dancer continues, some of the reward came not just from the musical results, but also from having the opportunity to revel in the freedom that his expensive, improved recording equipment and wider scope of electronic instruments gave him, describing it as, "Wonderful after the restrictive 80s!".

Once the album was completed Anthony went straight back into composing 'library' music and TV music work in hope of repaying some of the debt the album had racked up. But then, out of the blue, Virgin Records appeared on the scene to step in and not only release 'Slow Dance' but also carry out and earlier, full reappraisal of Anthony's back catalogue. Given the risks he'd taken that must have been a huge relief to the composer, but how did this sudden change in fortunes come about? "Through the auspices of my 'Guardian Angel', the lovely Simon Mortimer, who had first signed me to the legendary and much missed - note to Mr. Branson! - Virgin Publishing as a film and TV writer." His intervention resulting in "an advance which enabled me to pay off my debts… or most of them!" And after all that worry and effort, Anthony must have been delighted by how the album was received? "Ermmm….reviews were very mixed," he says with his trademark honesty. "The U.S. in particular was in general non-plussed by it. The album had serious devotees but selling an instrumental album that was in some ways sort of film music without a film, was a tough assignment for any record company."

The reissue of the album adds a disc featuring, among other things, some alternate takes of pieces that made the final cut - some with more organic instrumentation taking a stronger lead. Looking back now would Anthony alter that balance between organic and synthetic on the album in any way? "Yes," he says honestly, "a little more orch' and less synth'." Although with a chuckle he adds, "though it is hard to tell which is which!"

'Slow Dance' brings the reissue campaign up to 1990 and while playing his cards close to his chest, it would appear that the exciting news from Anthony is that more is still to come in this full remastered/expanded format… "Yes…" he begins coyly, "but I'm not committing yet to which ones will be getting the five star treatment." Although if Anthony still has decisions to make regarding his back catalogue, it would appear that how the composer moves into the future with new music is something on which he is equally unsure. "Not yet," he begins when asked if the five year wait for a new album will soon come to an end. "I'm still doing lots of library and song writing but I do have ideas for a proper guitar album and many, many songs and instrumental 'bits'… but which way to go?" And as has been the theme throughout, Anthony closes with the most honest and candid remark he could possibly muster. "It's been so long since I did a major work and frankly I am very daunted by it."

(Click here to read our reviews of Slow Dance - expanded/remaster)

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