Interview: Tony Banks

featured / Interviews / News / May 16, 2018

It’s hard to imagine where modern rock and pop music would be without keyboardist and composer Tony Banks. Starting his career as a founding (and still) member of prog rock legends Genesis, Banks became well known for melodies that bridge the gap between classical music and rock, most notably on Genesis songs like “Firth of Fifth” and “Horizons.”

Later, Banks was able to cultivate a successful solo career with both soundtrack work and fully realized classical albums showing up in his expansive discography. Modern Vinyl spoke to Banks about his varied career, as well as his latest classical release, Five.

Modern Vinyl: “Five” has a real cinematic feel to it, especially on a track like “Prelude to a Million Years.” Were there any film scores that had an influence on the record?

Tony Banks: Not really, but people have said how extracts from Five would work well with film, just waiting for the offer…

MV: I’ve been listening to some of your earlier work lately (the more pop and prog related stuff like “A Curious Feeling and early Genesis) and it flows really gracefully into your classical work; do you feel like you can write effortlessly in either direction, or does one feel more natural than the other?

TB: I approach all my writing in much the same way. I play around, normally on the piano, but sometimes using synths until I get an idea that appeals. These days, I record everything on the computer so I can go back and listen to what I have played, and [I] will often find something I like that I didn’t think was particularly special at the time. Sometimes, I find a whole chunk that I relearn or modify. If writing in the rock area, I will probably be more conscious of possible repetitions, choruses, etc., than in the orchestral world where I feel I have more freedom.

MV: Tell us a bit about your soundtrack work in the ‘80s, particularly on “Quicksilver” and “Lorca and the Outlaws.” How did you approach writing music for those films?

TB: Slightly different for the 2. For Lorca, I used as the main theme a piece I had around already, which I thought would work well in a space film, and put a few other bits together to see how the director felt. Pity the film wasn’t a bit better! Quicksilver I wrote more while watching the film. Had to do a lot of compromising with the director and others, involved conference calls, etc. Didn’t enjoy it that much.  Both films wanted songs, as well, which gave me a chance to work with other singers: Jim Diamond, Toyah and Fish. The song done with Fish was supposed to be used in the film but ended up being replaced by a different piece, which was a pity as it would have worked well and related to other music used in the film. Most fun for me was working with Toyah, having not written for a female voice before. Song was of course far too long to be used much in the film, but a bit made it in.

MV: Any chance we could get another Strictly Inc album? Do you look back fondly on that record, and what led to you working with Jack Hues (of Wang Chung)?

TB: After the release of Strictly Inc, I felt I wouldn’t do another rock album, but I suppose after all this time who knows? Jack Hues was suggested to me by Nick Davis, who has helped me as producer for many years, and we had a lot of fun making the record. A year or two ago, I put together a compilation album of what I thought were the best things I had done independent of Genesis called A Chord Too Far, which featured tracks from this amongst others.

MV: The artwork on your classical albums “Seven,” “Six Pieces for Orchestra,” and “Five” all share similar color schemes; who does the art and what’s the story behind their aesthetic?

TB: The covers are all the work of the artist Stefan Knapp. He is best known for large works used on the outside of buildings, etc. He used to live close to where I now live, and although we never met, I became friendly with his widow, and it was while looking at some examples of his work I came across that I thought [it] would be a great cover for Seven. Looking at more of his stuff, I was able to find images that worked well with the later albums. These pictures are actually about three or four foot square, but work really well in reduced format.

MV: Did playing live with Genesis for so many years influence how you write dynamics into your classical music? A track like “Reveille” goes through some strong mood shifts, specifically during the horn and piano breaks.

TB:I was always a strong advocate for the dynamic changes within Genesis, particularly present in the earlier years, so it is very much part of the way I write.

MV: Do you feel like, overall, “Five” is an optimistic album? Even during the big crescendos, I find the music never loses its joyous sound.

TB: It is, strangely for me, a very positive suite. Even the last piece, “Renaissance,” although it starts moodily, has an almost triumphant final few minutes.

MV: Due to your prolific career, you’ve got a huge back catalog of recorded work. If I wanted to introduce your sound to someone in their late teens/early 20s, what album or song would you suggest?

TB: Depends too much on what people like. On the more complex side there is obviously “Suppers Ready,” or from my solo career there is “An Island in the Darkness.”  For simpler but not entirely straightforward, from Genesis I would choose “Duchess” and solo, maybe “Red Day on Blue Street.” However, probably best to stick to the hits!

MV: When is the last time you played an actual Mellotron?

TB: Good question, 1976? Not my favourite to play.

MV: Are you planning on playing anything from “Five” live? Any other tours planned?

TB: Nothing planned.

Tony Banks latest release, Five, is available on vinyl at Amazon.

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Alan Miller
Alan is a songwriter and record store clerk living just north of Nashville, TN.

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