Yes, the legendary pop singer and mammoth drum talent Phil Collins is his father—there’s no point avoiding that little fact. But this rising son does things his way, exploring the boundaries of the spiritual and musical with his band, Sound of Contact.
What’s in a name? Sometimes the oldest and simplest questions yield unexpected responses. Case in point: one Mr. Collins, a prolific songwriter, drummer, and lead vocalist/frontman who has performed such songs as “Keep It Dark” and “Easy Lover,” orchestrated double-drummer showcases at various international venues, and collaborated with the likes of guitarist Steve Hackett, ’80s techno-pop songsmith Howard Jones, and Genesis recording engineer/producer Nick Davis.
Sound familiar? What might surprise you is that the above mentioned artist is probably not the same Collins you immediately thought of from the clues we’ve given you.
Meet Simon Collins, son of the pop icon and superstar drummer Phil Collins. Yes, the thirty seven-year-old musician’s anguished vocal squalls and musings on love and loss, not to mention the deep resonance of his concert toms, are sometimes eerily similar to his father’s. But it would be a cop-out—and just downright wrong—to reduce Collins the younger to little more than a series of genetic codes arranged in a familiar pattern, capable of manufacturing Face Value: The Sequel. Simon, a right-handed player who runs his own record label, Light years Music, is a multitalented individual with the desire to push the boundaries of rock, bear his soul, and groove skillfully over angular rhythms.
Whereas Phil gradually claimed his iconic pop-star status after years of trolling the underground with the onetime cult band Genesis, Simon’s career is operating in reverse. He has released three solo albums, including 1999’s All of Who You Are and 2008’s U-Catastrophe, which yielded two charting singles, and now leads the band Sound of Contact, whose conceptual debut, Dimensionaut, presents a sci-fi journey as a metaphor for spiritual transcendence. Clearly, Simon isn’t the artist some might have expected him to be.
MD caught up with Collins, who was in Los Angeles finishing up rehearsals with Sound of Contact, “shaking the cobwebs off and getting behind the kit to play again.”
MD: How often over the course of a single night’s performance do you play drums with Sound of Contact?
Simon: I play the middle section of “I Am (Dimensionaut)” and “Realm of In-Organic Beings,” and on “Möbius Slip” I go back and forth from the front of the stage to my kit. Actually, I’m going back and forth seven or eight times the whole show. We’ve created opportunities for me to do so by expanding on the songs and embellishing on certain atmospheres. It’s exciting to have the double-drummer thing live too. We’re playing venues now where we can actually fit two drumkits on stage. [laughs]
MD: As a youth, were you naturally drawn to singing or to playing drums?
Simon: Drumming is my first love, and I’ve been playing the drums since I was eight years old. My first kit, a red Tama, was a gift from my dad. When you’re that age you don’t have musical influences—you just listen to whatever your parents have lying around, and in my case I was listening to Genesis. Not much of a choice in that matter. [laughs] With all due respect, I learned from some of the best.
MD: In a drum clinic decades ago, Chester Thompson [Phil Collins’ live foil in Genesis and on his solo gigs] told a packed house that he added a paradiddle-type pattern at the end of his longer fills. Did you pick up on similar rhythms or concepts from watching him?
Simon: That’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that question, actually. I’ve seen that specific fill, but I don’t know how to articulate it. I don’t read notation. I mostly pick up things by ear. I did work on double paradiddles with Chester, however. I remember being on tour with Genesis when I was young, watching them play, thinking that this was some “great gig in the sky.” After the show, if there was a fill that either my dad or Chester had done that I wanted to have demonstrated, I’d ask them if they could show me how to do it. Chester used to practice syncopation exercises on his pad before each show and would go through some techniques with me.
MD: You’re in L.A. with Sound of Contact, but where’s home?
Simon: I live in the U.K., just down the road from Stonehenge. Not to get too hippie on you, but it’s a great place to be creative. I was in New York for Christmas with my old man and my brothers. My brother Nick, he’s also a drummer—a bloody good one. It was cool for us to hang out and talk music and drumming. Knowing [Nick] wants to get into the industry, we were making sure he has the path of least resistance.
MD: The track “The Big Bang,” from your 2008 solo record, U-Catastrophe, features a drum duet between you and your dad. Phil has been known not only for his technical prowess but also for the production value of his drum sound. How were these tracks recorded?
Simon: We recorded “The Big Bang” in two phases. I was in Vegas producing the album with Kevin Churko, and we were set up at his home studio, so things were more comfortable. First off, I wrote and arranged the song with Kevin. [Former Sound of Contact keyboardist] Dave Kerzner collaborated with us on the middle ambient section to complete the song arrangement but also to bring his unique sound design as icing on the cake. It’s worth nothing that I met Dave at the rehearsals for the Genesis reunion tour in 2007, in New York, and decided to record a cover of [Genesis’s] “Keep It Dark.”
I already had a very good idea of what I wanted to play drum-wise, and I had a good feeling about what my dad would play on the call-and-response sections. I also wanted to leave him room to explore and write his own parts alongside mine.
For the recording we cleared out the living room, which had a nice high ceiling and stone room sound. We recorded my drum tracks first, which in the final mix appear on the left channel. My dad is on the right. We then booked a commercial studio in Vegas for my dad’s drum production, and he flew out with his Genesis touring kit and drum tech, Steve “Pudding” Jones, for a few days to help finish it off. By the time he arrived, my parts were done and there were spaces for him to respond, perform in some loose jams in the heavy primal sections, and join me in unison on specific fills. It was all done by ear and feel.
MD: So instead of collaborating with your dad on a pop tune, you decided to record a drum duet.
Simon: My dad and I have had many offers from labels to do something commercial, such as a vocal duet pop single, but I always found it a cheap idea. I wanted to do something meaningful and musically challenging with my old man. A drum “battle” was the only way to go.
MD: How do you do this song live?
Simon: We used to have stems and did it all with a click track. Now it’s played live with [Sound of Contact touring drummer] Ronen Gordon, and it sounds great.
MD: Had you ever played on stage with your dad?
Simon: I was in my early twenties and I was on tour for [the Phil Collins solo album] Dance Into the Light. Ricky Lawson was on that tour. He was an amazing drummer, and I miss him dearly. [Lawson passed away unexpectedly in December 2013.] It was Ricky, Luis Conte on percussion, my dad in the center of the stage, and me. We did this Afro-Cuban drum thing. It was unbelievable. I remember they sat down with me to teach me the parts.
But the first time I had ever been on stage with my dad was on my fourteenth birthday. Actually, we did a couple of different dates. I was into skateboarding at that time and I had just broken my arm. Chester was on stage when my little kit got wheeled on. I played “Easy Lover” with the band with one arm, because the other was still in a cast.
MD: Sound of Contact’s debut, Dimensionaut, is a prog-rock concept record. What’s the theme?
Simon: We wanted to explore a character’s journey to enlightenment and his feeling of being trapped on this planet, of living in this human condition. It took a couple months of researching cosmology and quantum mechanics or quantum theory. The leap from U-Catastrophe to Dimensionaut was an organic evolution of wanting to step outside myself, for multiple reasons, sonically and spiritually. There have been a lot of eureka moments in my own personal spiritual path. All of this fueled me and [guitarist] Kelly Nordstrom, who’s been my right-hand man for my solo stuff.
MD: The title of your 2008 solo record, U-Catastrophe, must have been inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of “the Eucatastrophe,” yes?
Simon: Big time. I don’t remember how old I was, but The Hobbit was the first book I wanted to read as opposed to having to read for homework, if you know what I mean. It took me away to this world. “The Eucatastrophe” is Tolkien’s description for a turn of events that ends up in the protagonist’s well-being. For me that meant turning my life around. When I was working on U-Catastrophe, I was going through a really dark patch. I was struggling with my demons and made it no secret. Now I’m on a path, a spiritual path, to recovery, which is really about finding my way back to myself.
U-Catastrophe was, in a way, a concept album, although I didn’t look at it that way at the time. A lot of it was written from the subconscious. I was singing about things on that album that I wasn’t comfortable even discussing in public. Those songs were about love and loss and hope for a brighter future. In fact, the closing track of U-Catastrophe, “Fast Forward the Future,” with [Genesis guitarist] Steve Hackett, was a precursor to the progressive, futuristic sound that Sound of Contact has developed. In most cases, the songs appearing on Dimensionaut were the result of band collaborations, but some of the songs are based on real events in my life.
Right now, Matt Dorsey [guitar/bass/backing vocals] and I have a mountain of material, and we’re currently writing our new record. I want to get experimental percussion-wise on the next album. I’m in touch with different drummers. Being a solo artist is a very isolating experience, so it’s nice to have the opportunity to work with people you respect and have wanted to work with for years.
MD: Earlier you said that you were listening to and practicing Genesis songs as a young drummer. Which ones?
Simon: My favorite was the live album Seconds Out, specifically “Supper’s Ready,” the “Apocalypse in 9/8” section. I wasn’t trained. I took lessons for a couple of years and I just hated it. I was at that age, ten or eleven, where I just wanted to rock out and I didn’t want to learn jazz. It was too much discipline for my age and too much in the wrong direction. It was something that I, well, regret is a strong word, but it was something that could have come in useful. I remember my dad, when he performed with the Buddy Rich Orchestra, saying he was overwhelmed by the fact that he doesn’t read notation. He had to learn all of that by ear and make his own notes. I guess I’ve inherited that.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
On tour Collins plays a ddrum kit, featuring 7×8 and 7×10 concert toms; 7×10, 8×12, and 10×14 toms; 14×16 and 16×18 floor toms; and a 16×20 bass drum. His snares include a 5.5×14 Ludwig Acrolite and a 7×14 ddrum Vintone nickel-over-brass model. Simon’s assortment of Sabian cymbals includes 8″ and 10″ Paragon splashes, a 10″ O-Zone splash, 14″ Paragon hi-hats, a 16″ AAX Studio crash, a 16″ HHX Evolution O-Zone crash, a 17″ AAX X-Plosion crash, a 20″ AAX Aero crash, and a 21″ HHX Raw Bell Dry ride. He uses Vater or Vic Firth sticks, Tama hardware, and a variety of Remo Clear and Coated Ambassadors for his snares, toms, and concert toms.