Genesis' Tony Banks Talks Elusive Solo Success, New Box Set

Keyboardist-composer details four-disc 'A Chord Too Far' comp, explains how orchestral music gave him "new lease on life"

Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks resurfaces material from his overlooked solo career in a new box set.

In October, 1983, Genesis released their blockbuster self-titled LP, a slick set of artful pop-rock that went quadruple platinum in the U.K., spawning massive singles like "That's All." Four months prior, keyboardist and founding member Tony Banks issued his second solo album, The Fugitive, a slick set of artful pop-rock that barely cracked the U.K. top 50, withering into obscurity.

Banks, now 65, has spent the majority of his career walking that tightrope. In Genesis, working with dynamic singers like Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, he packed stadiums, but his criminally underrated solo albums became discount-bin staples.

In 2014, the classic Genesis prog-rock lineup — Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Mike Rutherford and Steve Hackett — united to compile the R-Kive box set, a blend of band staples and cherry-picked solo pieces spanning the past four decades. Now, building on that momentum, Banks is releasing his own four-disc solo compilation, the cleverly titled A Chord Too Far, on July 31st via Esoteric. The material, curated by the musician, showcases every facet of his compositional style, from Romantic prog (his 1979 debut, A Curious Feeling) to modern classical (2012's Six: Pieces for Orchestra).

Banks spoke to Rolling Stone about the joys and frustrations of his solo career, transitioning from the rock to orchestral realms, Genesis' Seventies "rivalry" with Yes and his plans for the future.

You have such a varied and rich catalog of solo material. Had you been approached to do this kind of collection before? What made you decide to do it now?
I hadn't really been approached. After we did the Genesis R-Kive compilation, I sort of felt it was time to do it. The record label, Esoteric, concentrates on progressive music, and they'd been very keen for a long time to do it. I was originally thinking of a shorter compilation, but they wanted us to do this four-CD thing, so I was up for it. I've really enjoyed doing it — it's nice to go back and see all this stuff.

Did you have any guidelines for yourself when you were structuring the track list? There's a really nice flow to the whole thing.
My feeling was that I was putting it together like all the songs are from the same period. There are 15 years or so between the albums on the first three discs, but production values didn't change much between 1978 and 1995. You can put the tracks together like that, and that gave me a chance to highlight certain tracks that weren't highlighted when I did the records originally. I obviously put out singles, none of which did too much, but I've put them a little further back on the records and tried to emphasize one or two tracks I think are strong. It's just a way of balancing with light and shade — an old-fashioned thing to do since not many people worry about the order anymore.

I've always just done what I do, really. Interesting harmony has always appealed to me, but I know it doesn't appeal to everybody. Once you get your foot in the door, it's easy. With Genesis, once we had the hit with [1978's] "Follow You Follow Me," it made it easier to put out more complicated things like "Turn It On Again." It just never really happened for me with the stuff I did solo. Maybe I never had a song that was quite strong enough to be a definite single. That's the way it is. It's an incredibly competitive world, and to get noticed is a very difficult thing. I'm also not very pushy myself, which doesn't really help.

But when it's all said and done, I don't really mind that much. I had the chance to make all this music, even though it wasn't terrifically successful, because I was with Genesis, really. Now it's all out there, and I thought it would be nice to put it all in one place for this box set. People who wondered what I was up to while Phil [Collins] and Mike [Rutherford] were doing what they were doing, now they'll have a chance to listen.

I know you've always had some regrets about certain songs, even during your time with Genesis. For example, I remember reading once that you were disappointed by the fact that "Anything She Does" from Invisible Touch wasn't released as a single.
God, we had quite a lot of singles off Invisible Touch and We Can't Dance. I thought it was a really good pop song, and by that point, we'd already had enough singles from that. I have no regrets about that. I like the way the song turned out — it was fairly lightweight material, but I thought it sounded pretty good. We had about five or six singles, and they all did really well in the States. It was a really exciting time for us.

I've always been fascinated by your relationship with and definition of the word "success." In the progressive-rock world, you're regarded as one of the greatest keyboardists and songwriters ever, a true composer, but you seem to focus on the commercial side as the true barometer for what success means.
You have to accept that you're working in the world of popular music, and the yardstick really is the [commercial] success. There were various stages in our career where if we hadn't had that commercial success, the band wouldn't have kept going. We wouldn't have been able to keep going. After Peter [Gabriel] left and Steve [Hackett] left, we were fortunate because we had, far and away, our most commercially successful period. If . . .And Then There Were Three. . . had not worked — particularly when Phil started having success on his own — there would have been little incentive to keep the band going.

You can't deny the importance of commercial success; it's part of what you do. For my own satisfaction, the songs I'm proudest of are probably not the biggest hits. I'm thinking of things like "Supper's Ready" and, later on, "Duchess." And when I got my own material, I didn't have many hits either. But I'm as proud of that as anything else I've written. But hits are what keep you afloat — it is your job, after all. It's as simple as that, really. I have friends who are good writers of music, but they've never been able to make a career out of it.

I know that after the Calling All Stations tour fizzled out, you considered retiring from music, at least on the rock side of things. Did the stress of that period really weigh on you?
Each of the solo albums really did a bit worse than its predecessor. When I put out [1995's] Strictly Inc., which was the last of my solo albums, I couldn't get any interest anywhere. I was pretty proud of it, thought it was a good record. Then we did the Calling All Stations album, which was fine — it did OK. But [the success] was obviously nothing like what we'd had before. Then I thought, "Well, maybe that's it; maybe I'll stop now." But I'd had in the back of my mind for a long time that, before I gave up, I would have a go at the orchestral music. I really liked the way a little theme I'd written many years before had worked for a movie called The Wicked Lady — I thought it sounded really nice with the orchestra. I thought I wanted to continue doing that, which gave me a new lease on life.

In a sense, my rock career did stop in the late Nineties, and the classical side of things has taken over. Strangely, it's been slightly high-profile [in the U.K.] over the rock stuff, which is nice for me because it gives me new interest and makes me more distinguishable from the rest of what I've done.

It was a fairly natural thing to do. Orchestras work nicely enough when the chords are a bit interesting, and you can play around more with structure. There's no real formula — you can do more of what you like in a way. It was a challenge for me to work with just the orchestral instruments, so that it was genuinely orchestral music.

Clearly you're very critical of your own work, which is important, really. But do you feel like you were ever able to truly achieve your vision on one of your solo albums?
I can genuinely say that I liked all the albums when I finished them and still like them all now. Obviously there are a few tracks here and there that I'm not too happy with. When I did A Curious Feeling, I felt that had an identity about it that I still think is one of the most sustained pieces of writing I've ever done. The 45 minutes of the album, as a totality, is the one of the strongest things I've been involved in. But in terms of the albums, I had high hopes for [1991's] Still — I thought that had the most potential to go a little further. That had a couple tracks I thought would be a little more radio-friendly. [Laughs] But it didn't really happen.

The first time I listened to The Fugitive, I was struck by the strength of your voice and how accessible it is. I know you wanted to work with other singers for creative reasons, but do you feel like you weren't confident enough to tackle more of it yourself?
I can hold a melody, but I don't rate myself as a singer at all. When I did the record, I was quite happy to sing it, and I thought it worked quite well at times. Then there's everything else involved with being a singer: You have to front the project, do the videos and come across in a certain way that isn't really comfortable for me. I worked with Peter and Phil, who became so good at it. Peter was a shy boy like me when he first started, but he found a way of coping with it all, and he did it really well. Maybe if it was a massive success, it would have changed my attitude toward it. I kind of wasn't aiming to be a singer; in many ways, I wasn't aiming to be a player. I really just wanted to be a writer, so I wanted to be behind it a bit.

People either liked my voice or didn't. Mike was always so rude about my voice [laughs]. He did his own singing on his record at that time [1982's Acting Very Strange], and he wasn't very happy about how his voice sounded. It doesn't come across that brilliantly, I don't think. I think he regretted it, and I understand his point of view. If you don't know me, my voice sounds better than if you know me. And if you don't speak English, you hear it in a different way. But it was fun for me. I went back to my favorite singers, like John Lennon, so you have a bit of that sneering in there. My voice is a bit more Al Stewart than that, so you work with what you have and try to make more of it. There's something about a singer singing his own songs: a sort of genuineness that comes across. It also taught me a lot about writing.

You talk in the liner notes about how your solo work freed you up somewhat because now you could work with other musicians outside of Genesis. If a song called for a different kind of vocal performance that Phil couldn't achieve, for example, you could track down someone else. Did you ever start to feel restricted, creatively speaking, during your time in Genesis?
You work with what you have. Phil is an incredibly versatile singer, and he probably could have sung any of the songs I've done with other people. Peter is different — he had his own way of singing, and he'd struggle with certain melodic lines. But he'd still make it sound really good because he has a fantastic tone to his voice. I never really felt [constricted]. We did some great stuff. And when we started working independently, we had that ability to work with other people — things like trying to use the female voice.

There's this interesting dynamic between your solo work and your work with Genesis. You were always responsible for writing a great deal of the Genesis tracks, which a lot of people don't realize, and those albums were hugely popular, while your solo stuff was more obscure. Then, in the trio lineup with Mike and Phil, a lot of the songs came through jams, so the process shifted. But did you ever find yourself wrestling with whether you should save a song for your solo albums?
Not really. We used to come to the rehearsal room really dry of ideas and just let things happen. But the nature of the instruments, to some extent, meant I was in control of the area I wanted to be in control of, which is the harmony area and some melodic lines. When we wrote together, Phil would play drums and drum machines and sing along; he wouldn't play keyboards or anything, even though he's a good keyboard player. Mike is always happiest setting up grooves and playing riffs and stuff. So in the end, I had to try to do what I could within that restriction. I used to really enjoy that.

Take a song like "Domino," for example. The first half of that, Mike is playing a riff on that all the way through, and I'm trying to do against that everything I could think of to make it interesting. We'd done that for years, if you go back to things like "The Cinema Show" and "Apocalypse in 9/8." Mike was always fantastic at setting up a groove, and that gave me the chance to do what I wanted on top of it.

It's safe to say that all the songs from the Genesis album onwards, none of them could have existed without us all being in the same room together and playing. It just needed that for it to happen. When you're writing in that kind of way, it tends to restrict what you can do, but in a good way. It meant it couldn't go quite as wild as I might have done. It made for an interesting result: Each of us was pulling in different directions, but we were able to write really concise pop songs like "Invisible Touch" and "Land of Confusion."

Your writing style has always lent itself well to visuals, but you haven't done much film scoring over the years. Do you still get offers?
Not really. Mike and I were approached to do [1978 horror film] The Shout a long time ago, and I was approached to do The Wicked Lady. I was approached to do a few films in the mid-Eighties, but we were so busy around that time. We did the Invisible Touch tour, which went on for a long time. When I decided I actually wanted to write film music, which was really after We Can't Dance, I couldn't find anyone who'd let me do it. So I didn't do anymore, really. I put myself out there — even got an agent and tried to do some TV stuff, but I didn't have the platform.

I've read that you were sent the script for The Terminator and were considered for scoring the film but didn't get the job due to a conflict on another project. Is that true?
As far as I know, they sent the script to lots of people. I was one of them. If there were 100, I was one of the 100 [laughs]. I couldn't do it at the time, but I'm not sure I'd have been right for it anyhow. Things have a happy way of working out sometimes. It would have been great to have done it, but I didn't. I still have the script somewhere.

I know you've been working on another orchestral album. What's your progress with that?
I was commissioned to write a piece for a classical-music festival [Cheltenham] over here. I wrote a 15-minute piece, which was just performed — that was quite traumatic but quite fun. That's the starting point. I've got that, and I've written two other pieces so far, and I'm thinking about the third one. Working on this box set has delayed everything a bit, but I'd really like to try and record that this winter and get it out. Something along similar lines to the last two [albums].

Another thing I've been involved in: There's this classical singer, John Potter, who approached me last year to set a couple poems by 17th-century poet Thomas Campion to music. I thought that would be quite fun, so I did that. He put them on a record [Amores Pasados] with some music he's done. He also approached John Paul Jones and Sting. These pieces are like classical songs. It's quite a nice little thing.

You reunited with Genesis for the 2007 tour, but you've obviously shifted to classical music in recent years. Do you feel like you've left rock music behind? Do you keep up with current rock music at all?
I've never really been connected as a listener since about 1968. There's so much music, and I'm totally disconnected now. People talk about these people, and I'm sure I've heard them. I keep the radio on. Certain acts I do like — I've heard Coldplay, and I like them. I hear of people like Kanye West, and I have no idea who they are or what the music is. It's probably not for me. It's normally for a younger audience than me. I'm 65 now. I don't feel I've moved away at all, though. I love the sound of heavy drums and stuff; I'd certainly rather hear heavy metal than any rap or anything. I still listen, but probably more to old stuff, I suppose. I think rock music has left me behind more than I've left it behind. I'm working in the orchestral world now, and that seems to be working for me. People seem to want me there.

It feels appropriate to at least mention Chris Squire, who passed away last month. You're both giants in the prog-rock community — did you ever get to know Chris?
I only met him when he was with Steve Hackett and they did the Squackett album [2012's A Life Within a Day]. I only remember him as the musician — the bass and the boots combination back in the beginning. Yes were rivals of ours in some ways. People used to say "Genesis or Yes or King Crimson," so you set up a defensive thinking about these people. I used to really love The Yes Album — when Tony Kaye was with them, I think that was the best [lineup], really. And Chris' distinct bass sound was an important part of that. For that early Seventies period, they were a great group.

Genesis diehards were thrilled when the classic lineup reunited for the Sum of the Parts documentary. That, coupled with the R-Kive box set, put a lot of hope in fans' minds that some kind of reunion tour could be in the works. Have you stayed in touch with any of the other guys since the documentary?
Of course, I've kept up with Mike all the time over the years. I've kept in contact with Peter — we were very close friends when we were young. We're not as close now, but we see each other once or twice a year and always get on alright. I see Steve at various occasions. I see Ant Phillips, the original guitarist, a fair amount. We have a mutual friend we meet at quite a lot. I have good relationships with all these people.

The main thing about playing together with Genesis is that Phil really isn't able to play the way he used to play, so that's the reason it probably will never happen. We all get on alright, but we'd probably drive each other mad now [laughs]. Peter and Phil have gotten so used to working on their own, and the compromises necessary to being in a group are more difficult. Mike, Phil and I knew how to do it, so that's why it worked OK for the last tour. But I think adding anyone else in might be too much anyhow. And it's probably better in memory than we are in reality, to be honest.