Mike Rutherford had a lot working against him when he revived Mike and the Mechanics in 2010. Not only had it been 15 years since the band — best known for their songs “The Living Years” and “All I Need Is a Miracle” — scored a hit, but original singer Paul Young died in 2000 and his co-frontman Paul Carrack went back to his solo career four years later. But with help of new singers Tom Howar and Andrew Roachford, the guitarist and songwriter has re-established the group as a busy live and recording unit.
When Rutherford phoned up Rolling Stone earlier this month to chat about the band’s new album Out of the Blue (which features three new songs and re-recordings of their old hits), he was about to play his 20th straight theater on a grueling tour that took him to every corner of the U.K. And that was just the start of an odyssey that would soon travel all over mainland Europe. We spoke to Rutherford about the history of the Mechanics, what drove him back to it and what the future might hold for his other band, Genesis.
Before you started the Mechanics, you made two solo albums. What did you learn from those experiences?
I learned I wasn’t a singer. I also learned that I love co-writing. When you work in a room with someone, things happen. On your own, it’s just not as much fun.
You do sing on those albums. It’s not like you don’t have any sort of a voice.
I believe anyone can sing, but you need to start young. It’s harder later in life. Also, I had written songs with Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, pretty good voices.
How did the idea come about of putting a band together?
I didn’t think about a “band.” I thought, “I’ll start writing again,” since I was used to writing with Phil and Tony [Banks.] I asked my publisher to name a couple of songwriters. He gave me a list of 10 people and the first two were Chris Neil and B. A. Robertson. That was the start. I do believe you do something and it tells you what to do next. I wrote these songs and went to Montserrat to record them and came back with 10 or 12 great-sounding songs, but no vocals.
I thought, “Fuck, who is going to sing it?” I hadn’t gone that far. I had to find some singers. In some sense, I was lucky with the keys for the voices, but the sound of the Mechanics was already there. We had four singers on the first album and then the two Pauls [Paul Young and Paul Carrack] took over. We had a nice run of success for a few years. That’s how it started, really.
At the start, did you see the group as more of a touring unit than a recording one?
I think so. I wasn’t really sure what it was, to be honest. After the success of Genesis, you had the Peter Gabriel success, which was incredible. And then the Phil Collins success, even more incredible. Someone else coming out [of Genesis] and doing that to that degree was pretty unlikely. I wasn’t expecting too much. The success of the first two singles [“Silent Running” and “All I Need Is a Miracle”] surprised everyone, me included. We never did tour much, really. I’m trying to remember why. Genesis was coming around again quite soon.
When you made the Living Years record, did it feel different because suddenly there was a big spotlight on you?
Yeah. On the first album, I had no idea what I was doing. The second one was slightly more fun because I knew who was going to be singing and who was going to be playing instruments. It was a slightly more comfortable process.
When you were writing “The Living Years,” did you think it was going to be such a big hit?
Not really. Looking back, I do remember the producer, Christopher Neil, shaking my hand and saying it was one of the finest things he’d ever worked on. It rang a bell in my head since he had good ears, but I didn’t think it would become so successful.
Most everyone has either lost a parent or they’re scared that day will come, so it really strikes a chord.
What I’m finding now is that initially when it came out, people came to me and said they had lost contact with their parents or had problems with their parents. Now people are saying that, actually, they are close to their parents, but they hear it together and it’s a reaffirmation that it’s an important time.
Do you think in some ways the song became too popular?
You can’t be too popular. Normally hits that popular become parts of people’s lives when they are 17 or 25 — that song reminds them forever of that time period. This song has that, plus it has an emotional connection which I’m humbled by.
The single “Word of Mouth” could have been a hit in America, but it didn’t connect here like it did in Europe. Why do you think that is?
We had a problem in America, though I’m not complaining, but we came onto the scene with “Silent Running” and that was on rock radio. Then “Living Years” was a lighter kind of song and I think rock radio didn’t quite get it.
You were pigeonholed as a ballads band.
Just like Foreigner and “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
I think that Beggar on a Beach of Gold is your best record.
I like it as well. We play that track “Beggar” every night. It’s an nicely balanced record.
It was the same thing as Word of Mouth where the album just didn’t connect in America. Did that frustrate you?
I accept life as it’s given to me and I’ve had a wonderful run. We seemed to have our time with the first two records. They really hit. After that, we lost our way in America.
Tell me about writing “Over My Shoulder.”
Me and Carrack wrote that. I had a drum loop, which was quite quirky, and then I found a simple guitar riff, a strumming thing, and I put the two together. It’s a weird, silly song, but it’s got something to it. I can’t categorize it.
It’s a had a real second life.
In America? I know it’s huge in Europe.
When I go on YouTube, there’s so many people covering that song along on acoustic guitar. It’s sort of become a standard.
It’s a funny song. I sometimes play it onstage and the crowd loves it and sings along. I sometimes think, “This is a quirky, little weird song that somehow connected.”
By 1999, do you think that musical tastes had shifted so much that it was hard for the band to keep reaching a mass audience?
I think something had changed a little bit. We had our moment where we really sort of flew. You have a moment in time where everything works, normally quite early on. We had our time, I had felt. Looking back, I’m not sure the records were as good. Word of Mouth was good, but it didn’t quite deliver in the same way. After Beggar, it didn’t peter out, but what we were doing wasn’t as original.
When Paul Young died, did you think the band was over?
Yeah. We did one album [Rewired] with Paul Carrack that wasn’t very good. I was aware when we were doing it that actually we should probably have stopped then. That’s because the Mechanics are a combination of two singers: an R&B voice and a rock voice. You needed both. I thought it was time to end the era.
It’s interesting you didn’t think Rewired wasn’t good as you were making it.
I didn’t have the guts to say, “This isn’t up to speed.” When I hear it back now, there are nice little bits, but there’s no overview.
After that, did Carrack decide it was time to just be solo?
We both agreed, really. It was the natural end. And his solo work started to take off a bit. He never had a great solo career up to then, which he deserved, really. It was a good time for him, so it was a mutual sort of thing.
And then many years passed. What made you decide to reboot the band in 2010?
I hadn’t really thought about it. I did a bit of writing and I thought, “This sounds like the Mechanics.” I went back to how the first Mechanics started, which was I wrote some songs and recorded some songs and I saw where it took me. In a way, this time was easier because I knew what I wanted. I wanted an R&B voice and a rock voice. I had a clear vision for what was needed and it came together nicely.
Tell me about finding Tim Howar and Andrew Roachford.
I had met Andrew before and knew his voice and his sound. He came down one day to my house. He thought he was just going to meet me to have a chat. I thought, “Well, I don’t do chats.” We just plugged in and started playing and wrote part of a song that first day. It worked nicely. In his mind, he thought Genesis was very highbrow. He’s thought we were very conscious of music and musicality and where chords are, but I’m so not that way at all. I’m about making noise and seeing where it takes you. He liked that. We didn’t worry about wrong notes and that sort of thing.
Tim came down later on. He’s from the theater world, but he’s a chameleon actually. He’s got a wonderful voice. We did the first album, which was OK. We’ve gotten better since then. We kind of met during the album. While the album was happening, people came on board. We restarted. What was interesting was we started to do a couple of live shows. I realized that the Mechanics never toured. All these great songs like “All I Need Is a Miracle” and “Silent Running” hadn’t been heard much.
The first gig we ever did was actually at my 60th birthday party at a club in London for my friends. I’ll always remember that the band was slightly nervous. It was a lovely, old funky club in Piccadilly. The front few tables were Ringo, David [Gilmour] and lots of people. [The band was] slightly nervous about playing for them, but it was a great evening. That started off the live stuff and we’ve been going ever since.
Were promoters skeptical at the very beginning because you had two new singers?
Live Nation were a little too brave, actually. The Mechanics didn’t really have a live audience. Live Nation thought, “These songs are on the radio all the time.” The first tour was quite tough in English theaters the size of the [3,600 seat] Hammersmith Apollo. They weren’t very full, lots of them. It was quite tough for me. The band was great. I did love playing. But then we went back and regrouped and booked some smaller theaters and built it up. It’s nice now. We’ve pretty much sold out this tour and the band is really clicking.
It was like you started a new band. You had to find your audience on the road.
At first I was like, “Wait a minute. I’m at this age doing this again. Is that right? I’m playing some theaters that I played [with Genesis] in 1972. Hang on. Should I be here doing that again?” But it’s been great fun.
At Wembley Stadium, the audience must be like a huge mass of people. At a theater, you can really connect with people differently.
In a way, a theater is harder. At stadiums there are no individuals. It’s just a crowd. In theaters, you’ve got people and can see what’s going on. But it’s gone very well.
You did two very brief American tours. How did that go?
OK. I enjoyed it. But the trouble we have in America is what you said. With Word of Mouth and Beggar on a Beach of Gold, we don’t have the same history of radio play and hits as we have in the U.K. and Europe.
There’s basically three big songs in the States and that’s it for most people.
That makes touring a little harder.
You played that Eighties cruise the other year. How was that experience?
I did one night [laughs]. I was on the boat for one night. That’s all I did. It was something to remember. It was St. Patrick’s Day. It was like I had a dream, like it wasn’t real [laughs].
Might the band try and tour America again at some point?
You never know. We don’t have plans. I worked quite hard last year on the new record. A whole new album is a lot of work these days and what you get back … I don’t mean in terms of money, but in terms of response. The new album Out of the Blue has three new songs and the old hits re-recorded. I always worry about doing things too many times, but watching these two guys sing the songs all those years, they have changed them. They have their own versions, in a nice way. You can’t beat the originals. Those are classics. Some of the songs have gotten longer with other sections in them, so it made sense to do that. And then three new songs and six acoustic songs. It’s quite nice.
I’m sure you also play differently then you did 30 years ago.
Absolutely. It’s definitely justifiable. Everyone seems to like it.
How did it feel to go back in the studio and do those songs again, but with different singers?
It was nice. It’s vocal-led. If it wasn’t a different voice, you wouldn’t be doing it. It makes the song go somewhere else. It’s still the same song, but it’s got a different texture to it with a different voice.
You saw Phil Collins play one of his solo shows, right?
Yeah. I came to see him in Oakland last year.
How was it?
Great! I really enjoyed it. The old Phil was back. I really enjoyed it. His son was drumming great.
Yeah. Phil is seated, but the crowd doesn’t care.
If you’d seen him beforehand you might have kind of wondered, but it really works. And if someone is drumming Phil’s parts, who do you want more than his son? He’s great.
I spoke to him a few years ago and he said he’d love to play in Genesis. Do you think that’s possible?
I always say, “Never say never.” Look, if you asked me two or three years ago when Phil was retired, I would have said, “No.” But there’s no plans. Let’s establish that. I’m going to go on tour with Phil for six shows in June. That’s with the Mechanics. It’ll be quite fun for us. But never say never. The fact that he’s back on the road is quite interesting.
Do you miss playing the songs? There are things like “Watcher of the Skies” and “The Musical Box” that you haven’t played in almost 40 years.
Yeah. What’s interesting is that I used to do Genesis and the Mechanics alternating. I’ve just done Mechanics now for the last eight years. I rather miss the alternating part, the Genesis songs.
How do you feel about Steve Hackett’s show where he goes out and does Genesis songs?
It’s what he chooses to do, really. It wouldn’t work for me, if you know what I mean. He was in Genesis. He wanted a solo career. And now he’s playing Genesis. It’s his choice. I’m sure it’s good. But for me, I wouldn’t … I do three Genesis songs in a two-hour set. That’s enough for me, I think. That feels fine.
I think of a band like Yes right now that’s just Steve Howe and other people, but they attract big crowds and they keep the music alive. There’s never been any thought about you and Tony and maybe other people doing shows, maybe not even calling it Genesis?
That wouldn’t get me going, really.
I wouldn’t want to do it. Having done it with Phil, Peter and Tony, I wouldn’t want to do it with other people.
Do you think the hardcore fans should let go of the dream of a reunion with Peter Gabriel?
That’s a problem. They always talk about it, but I don’t know what we’d do, if you know what I mean. If Phil was drumming it might be a different story, but he’s not drumming. People love the idea, but they haven’t thought it out as to what we’d do. You never know, but that’s a harder one, I think.
What are your future plans? Do you want to record another Mechanics record?
Last year was busy for me. When you go a tour and you finish the tour it’s like, bang! You’re free! Your spirits can soar. You’ve got no worries. Doing an album, until its finished, it wears you down a little bit. That was last year. This year has been very full-on. After June, I’m going to have a bit of time off, actually.
Nice. What fills your days during your time off?
Normal everyday life. Family, friends, grandchildren, a bit of cycling, a bit of golf. I do push myself quite hard work-wise.
Do you still play polo?
No. That’s gone now. I’ve broken too many things. It’s a young man’s sport. In terms of work, I do work pretty hard. Tonight we’re doing a show in Salisbury and then we’re driving to London for the BBC and we’ll play four acoustic songs on Radio 2 and then fly to Dresden in Germany the day after. I love doing it, but I do push myself too hard. I think I need to slightly ease back a bit between things.
I was looking at your tour schedule. It’s the tour schedule of a young man in a new band.
[Laughs] Spot on! It is a bit. In Genesis, we traveled very comfortably. It was private planes and we were whisked away. On the Mechanics tour, there are no private planes. It’s a little harder.
Are you sleeping on a tour bus?
No. I can’t do tour buses. The crew go on a tour bus. We just sort of go on an eight-seater big van with televisions. It’s fine.
I saw your show in Times Square a few years back. I’d love it if you came back to America.
You never know. The thing about the Mechanics is that it’s a collective. When this finishes, our drummer, Gary Wallis, goes back to Tom Jones. He’s his musical director. Tim goes back to the playing the lead in Phantom of the Opera. Andrew has an outfit. Everyone is doing things. I like that.