There was no harder-working rock star in the 1980s than Phil Collins. His solo career exploded in January of 1981 with the release of his debut single “In the Air Tonight,” the first of many massive hits he’d score throughout the decade. He also continued to record and tour heavily with Genesis and even established a career as an actor with a starring role in the 1988 movie Buster. Somehow, in the midst of all that, he also made himself available as a producer and drummer for an enormous cross-section of recording acts, including Robert Plant, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Adam Ant, ABBA’s Anni-Frid Lyngstad and many, many others.
Two years after reissuing his entire solo catalog in deluxe album packages, he’s turned his attention to this period of collaborative work with the upcoming four-disc box set Plays Well With Others, which lands on September 28th. Collins phoned up Rolling Stone to talk about the new collection, his ongoing Not Dead Yet world tour, his health and the possibility of recording his first album of original songs since 2002’s Testify.
Whose idea was Plays Well With Others?
I don’t remember. It’s been on the cards for a couple of years. I think probably around the time of the reissues someone came up with the idea because it seemed like an interesting thing to try to do. It’s a bit of a minefield because of all the licensing. I came up with the songs that I wanted to have on the record and then I left it to the lawyers, really.
Are there any songs you couldn’t get because the rights got too complicated?
Not that I know of. The only one that I wanted to put on was a Steve Winwood track, but he was going to do a live album and he just said that he’d rather keep it back. That was going to be on the fourth CD from the Party at the Palace set. That was a good pool to cull from. Otherwise it was just a question of going through my playlist of things I’ve collected over the years. Most things, I believe, were included. I can’t think of anything that was left out.
Did you sequence it yourself?
It’s pretty much chronological. That seemed the best way to go. I didn’t really sequence it myself. I kept dipping back in to give my opinions, but most of it is chronological. Some of it will be of less interest to people, stuff that’s on [the first CD] will sound a bit more dated, but it’s a bit of a completist set.
I like that you start with your pre-Genesis pop band Flaming Youth. Not many people have even heard that music before.
No. Good luck to them [laughs]. Some of it is pretty dated, but I had to include the stuff that sounds dated as well as others. There were some things in the 1970s which I remember doing, like an album by Colin Scot, the stuff that John Anthony, the Genesis producer in the early days, he hired me to do lots of that stuff. That probably stands out less. But for me, I think CD two, three and four stand up better than CD one. But it’s all there. If you don’t like it, skip it.
There are lots of songs on here with Brian Eno. Did you first meet him at the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway sessions?
Yeah. He was upstairs doing Taking Tiger Mountain and we were downstairs doing The Lamb. Peter [Gabriel] and some of the other guys were big Roxy [Music] fans. I didn’t count myself in the Roxy Music camp, but when it came to calling him down to sort of put some vocals through his synth I got sent back up as payment to play on a track on that album of his. I guess we got on very well since I got lots of calls from him to do Another Green World, Before and After Science and Music for Films. They were great sessions to do, very informative as to a new and different way of working. It was a long way from Genesis.
How did you wind up on John Cale’s “Pablo Picasso?”
Again, I can’t remember how this stuff happened. I remember the studio. I remember the day. It was me and [guitarist] Chris Spedding and maybe Brian Rogers was on bass, I can’t remember. [It was Pat Donaldson.] But I got called down to play on that album. It was interesting because he was one of those artists that did the vocals at the same time as the track and he had his hands over his ears with the headphones and he was screaming into the mic. It was interesting. I haven’t seen him since. That’s the only time I ever worked with him.
How clearly do you remember establishing the drum sound on “Intruder” for Peter Gabriel?
Like it was yesterday. That was at a time when Peter didn’t really have a band since he couldn’t afford an American band full time. I was at a loose end and going through a divorce. I think I’d done most of my demos for Face Value and said, “If you need a drummer, man, I’m around. I’m free.” He took me up on the offer and I went down to his house in Bath along with a couple of other people. [Bassist] John Giblin was one and [guitarist] Jo Partridge was the other. We just kind of lived there for month and played every day and helped him prepare some of these songs that were going to be on the third album.
Steve Lillywhite wasn’t convinced by me, I don’t think. He wanted to audition me. Anyway, that happened at a rehearsal room near London Bridge. I turned up at the town house in London, Shepherd’s Bush, and we started routining some of these songs that we’d been working on in Bath. The first thing happened when I got here is that Peter said, “Take away the cymbals. I don’t want any metal on the record.” I thought that was a little stubborn on his part, but it’s his album.
We started putting tom-toms up where there would be cymbals and I started to play around the drums, getting comfortable. [Engineer] Hugh Padgham started getting a sound. I had asked Hue, as I usually did when I was working with an engineer, to let me hear what they were doing in the headphones. I heard this sound being achieved and I started playing with the sound that I was hearing. And so I started to play like a John Bonham type thing [imitates the “Intruder” drum pattern with his voice]. And Peter said, “What is that you’re playing?” I said, “I’m just playing with the sound.” He said, “I like that. Give me that for 10 minutes.”
So I did. At the end of it I said, “What are you going to do with it?” He said, “I don’t know yet.” So I said, “Can I have a copy of it?” because I felt part ownership. I got a copy and when it turned out he was going to adapt one of his songs to fit the drum part I said, “Can I have a credit, at least? If I can’t use the thing, I’d like to have a credit.” He agreed to that and I started my very strong friendship with Hugh Padgham and we went from there to do my records and Genesis records. The rest is sonic history.
It’s amazing that you found time in the Eighties to do all these outside sessions when you were going back and forth between Genesis and your solo career, playing an absurd number of concerts the whole time. How did you even have time?
I don’t know. I had a patient wife, I guess. It was one of those things where, and I mention this in the sleeve notes, it was like Mr. Incredible on the way to his wedding seeing something happening and thinking, “I can do that. I’ve got time for that.” A lot of it was just great playing opportunities. That’s really it. Obviously, there’s only 24 hours in my day. If someone called me and asked me to do it and I had the time available, I’d do it.
You were famously cut from George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, so you must have been happy when Paul called you up to play on Press to Play. You finally got to play on a Beatle record.
Yeah. Hugh Padgham was engineering that record. I guess Paul wanted to use some different people. I got the call, took my drums down and we did this song, which wasn’t one of his best songs, but [Pete] Townshend was there playing guitar. That was great because when Pete Townshend smiles as he’s playing, you know you’re doing something right. Wix Wickens, who is now in Paul’s band as a keyboard player, he was at the session too. It was an interesting day. Linda McCartney was still around — she took a photograph. I got a lovely photo album sent to me from her. It was just after Live Aid. I remember that. We did that, and of course the George Harrison thing I documented quite accurately in my book.
How is the tour going? I know you were in South America a few months back.
We did Europe last year and then South America. We’re doing America in October, just a few weeks. We’re supposed to be doing Australia early next year. Just picking three weeks off at a time. It’s great fun, I have to say. I didn’t think I’d ever say that again. I’ve got my son [Nicholas] playing drums. That adds to it. He’s been totally accepted by this band of hard-knocks like Leland Sklar and my group of musicians. They all accept him as an equal. They’ve all been very proud and supportive. It’s all gone according to plan. As long as we can think of somewhere to go and we get a few breaks, we’ll keep doing it.
Was it an adjustment the first few shows to be seated all night? Did you worry that would change the dynamic of the live show?
Yeah, I did. In the old days, I ran around like crazy. I was worried that is what people would expect. Actually, there was an English reviewer that pointed out there’s a kind of growing-old-gracefully thing to it. I go onstage and I stay seated the whole night. The band picks up some of the slack in terms of the energy. It means that people are focused on the music and I am too. So far it hasn’t been a problem at all. It’s been very positive, if anything. It’s kind of a little bit different to me, but it’s physically impossible for me to stand for two and a half hours without going through real pain. It’s all gone well.
I’ve seen some great videos of you doing “You Know What I Mean” with Nick. What brought that back into the show?
I used to do it when I first started doing solo things. It is a lovely moment in the show. People respond to that kind of sentiment. We’ll bring that back. In South America we did one long set and because they were stadiums we didn’t do it. We’ll be doing that in America. It’s a lovely moment. It shows he’s got a bit of depth as well as playing drums.
I also like that you’re doing “Can’t Turn Back the Years.” What brought that back?
That’s one of my favorite songs I’ve written. In fact, we didn’t do that either in South America, but we will be bringing it back to America. I think it’s perfect for an arena. Again, it shows what Nic is capable of because that’s a drum machine part that really doesn’t change. He has the kind of discipline to play that as if it was a human machine. I know that doesn’t sound very exciting, but it’s one of those things that doesn’t move. It’s gotta be the right tempo … there’s all kind of little subtleties to it and he grabs them and makes it work. I’m very lucky to have got him playing drums. When he’s playing kit drums, he sounds a lot like me. He’d say he’s got a lot of Chad Smith and John Bonham in him, but he’s also got the attitude that I had. He brings the sound out of the drums. Everyone in the band is constantly surprised. They kind of look back and it sounds like I could be there playing. All that helps me from not having to turn around and say, “Don’t do that. Do this.” He’s got it all. He gets it.
With a song like “Can’t Turn Back the Years,” do you ever find it hard to sing because it’s so personal and goes back to a painful period in your life?
No. It gives you somewhere to go. I love the song. That album [Both Sides] is chockablock full of my favorite stuff. I don’t find it difficult. I’m not one of those people that re-lives it. You do kind of re-live it a little but, but not to the point where you go home and cry yourself asleep.
Are you at all surprised that after all these years since your most recent album you’re still able to fill stadiums and arenas?
Yeah. I think, if I was truthful, that was one of the reasons I took my time in coming back. I just didn’t know if there was an audience anymore. I think the reissues helped prove that there was and the critical review looking back at my career and coming back with different … as you know, I was not the critics’ darling. But suddenly I was being reevaluated and I think that made me feel a lot better about myself. I did this radio show in London when these European shows went on sale about a year ago. They went to a commercial break and when they came back they all sold out. It was 15 seconds. I was like, “Oh, my God, I better be great now.” It was the same thing in America. I felt I’d left America behind since it’s such a huge, vast, transient music scene. It just shows there are people that still want to hear it since you don’t hear it too often every day.
Are you writing new songs? Are you thinking about maybe recording an album?
I will have to. Someone said yesterday it’s been 16 years since a new album. I didn’t realize it was that long at all. I do have a little studio in my house. There is myself and my Mrs. and we have an office in the same room, so the busier the office is the less chance I get at going in there. I make notes. I’ve got lyrical ideas. I make notes and I keep them in a place that at some point I’ll get to them.
How is your health? Are you getting stronger as the years go by after your surgeries?
Not particularly, no [laughs]. But the health is OK. I’ve got this paralyzed foot. A back operation left me with a paralyzed right foot. I still have a bit of a problem playing drums. But in general, the health is good.