Collins has been the percussive power behind the progressive rock band Genesis for eight years. His smooth, earthy style reflects jazz as well as rock influences.
The last two years have seen Phil’s role in the band expand to include lead singing. He’s also moving into new areas of musical expression founding an exciting fusion band called Brand X.When neither of those bands are occupying his time, he fills in with session work. “Last year was an amazing year for albums,” he says. “I did about 15 albums with different people which keeps my chops up.”This year’s Genesis tour finds Phil playing drums only a quarter of the time the band is on stage. Their newer material requires Collins to sing most of the time, and he won’t sing from behind the kit. I asked him how he felt about that situation.
“It’s a bit frustrating, but I do get a chance to play on some of the more interesting pieces. There’s a couple of instances when Chester (Thompson, guest drummer with the band) and I play together which is very strong. I’m quite happy to play with two drummers because I think that’s an experience in itself— trying to get that happening.”
Phil agreed. “Chester and I compliment each other better. I think that’s basically because Bill is one of those players who plays himself. If Bill’s playing something, once he’s done it two or three times, he’ll play something else. I’d do a fill where I would usually do a fill. He would, just by chance, do one as well, and so it goes completely haywire for four bars. With Chester, we’re both more aware of each other, I think.”
Collins feels that drumming is a lot easier for him than singing. Playing is second nature. “When you’re playing with a band, from behind the drums it really sounds like it’s all happening. When you get in front of the kit, it sounds very different. The group doesn’t sound as beefy. It was strange at first to sing with that sound. You find you’re listening to it rather than being a part of it.”
In the studio, Phil mikes all his drums separately. “On stage that gets a bit out of hand. The bass drum is miked individually. There’s one mike for the snare drum and hi-hat, one mike for each pair of tom-toms, and a couple of overhead mikes to pick up the cymbals.
“Live, I prefer to have more control which having fewer mikes gives me. When you’re dealing with 40 channels of music at one time at a gig, your fourth tom-tom might be out of balance with the rest of the kit. That’s not the kind of thing the sound engineer can pick up on in a concert. In theory, I would like to have two overhead mikes that are turned up and I just play. Then I’d know that whatever balance I’m putting out, he’s getting.
“I love to play small gigs where the audience hears you, and not the system. When you’re playing in 20,000 seat auditoriums, you have no alternative. What you do is almost inaudible. It’s just whatever comes out of those speakers.”
I asked Phil how he achieved his bright, crisp studio sound. “I don’t dampen any drum. That’s the big difference between me and a lot of other players. If I had my way, I would record the bass drum a couple of times with the skin on because I think it alters the sound.
“I do tend to tune the drums a lot tighter. In the studio, I used Premier concert toms on the last two albums with the heads very tight, and the bottom ones quite flappy.
“There’s a tendency on stage, to tune the drums so they sound good from where the drummer is — a loose sound which doesn’t project through a sound system if you’ve got a loud band. I tune everything tight because it really cuts through and is more melodic that way.”
Phil’s current set comprises Premier 22″ X 14″ bass and 8″, 10″, 12″, 13″, 14″, 15″, 16″ and 18″ concert toms. His cymbals are all Avedis Zildjian — 14″ New Beat hi-hats, two 22″ Chinese sizzles, a 22″ heavy ride and 18″, 16″ and 14″ Brilliant crashes. His hardware is Premier and heads are Remo. He uses Phil Collins sticks which are made for him by Professional Percussion in New York. He also plays Premier 25″ and 28″ tympani, Asba congas, Slingerland timbales and Remo Roto- Toms.
“I’ve got four snares, one for each occasion. I’ve got a Ludwig Type 400 orchestral snare drum which I use most of the time because it’s sharp and has some depth.
“I think in America when you’re a studio musician, time is of the essence. With so much music being made so quickly, it has to be there straight away. The person will have a snare drum sound that he got from the last session where a cigarette pack was taped on and all the nut bolts are finger tight. It will sound like what everyone thinks a snare drum should sound like. Everything’s done for convenience.
“I did a session with Robert Fripp in New York with a live kit, and the guy ended up liking it because it was different.”
Collins feels his versatility is a positive factor in his playing. “I’ve made sure that I didn’t get trapped in any one particular area,” he says.
“One of the reasons I started Brand X was because there was a certain side of me that wasn’t coming out in Genesis. Because I did Brand X, it made me want to do Genesis. The sessions fit in between.
“In Genesis, there are a lot of things that demand heavy playing, and a lot where you have to be light.
“We play a lot of different styles. We play a few things in time, almost fusion music. At the other end of the scale, we play very straight, almost Elton John songs. I don’t want to play on one like I would on another. I prefer to play what is right for the song, as opposed to playing what’s me, because I don’t know what is me.”
Brand X have been touring England and the U.S., and have been relying on guest drummers to sit in for the missing Phil. Collins’ status with the band at present is, “Father figure, I suppose. I’m kind of in the group, but I’m not playing with them. It’s a weird situation that developed.
“When the group started, it was a fun thing, although we were all dead serious about it. We could only do it when I wasn’t playing with Genesis.
“The original idea was for me to do the recording and for them to do the touring. Now they’re getting well known and have to tour. They can’t find a drummer that’s prepared to tour without recording. So I’ve stood out of this next record they’re making. They’re going to get Chuck Burghi who used to play with Al DiMeola.
“We have this unwritten understanding that if ever I want to come back, which I do, then the gig’s mine. It’s just a question of waiting and hoping that they’ll keep together long enough for my situation to develop so I can do whatever I want as well.
“I think next year I’d like to tour with them. It’s one of my ambitions to tour the States with them.”
Does this mean Genesis’ tour schedule will be lighter next year?
“It’ll slow down a bit. That’s not to say it will stop, but we’ve been touring constantly for the last eight years. I think we’ll definitely record and play some dates, but it won’t be month on month like it is this year.”
Is it more difficult playing in a band such as Genesis whose sound is so textured as opposed to Brand X where the playing is freer?
“With Genesis, you’re aiming for a specific mood. I don’t really find that much difference. Brand X is more of a playing band, whereas Genesis is more of a composition band.”
Mentioning his fluid playing style, Collins is amazed. “I always think I look very awkward,” he says.
“I look at Bruford and he’s got a great stance, the way he sits. It’s just that some people look as if they have authority. I sit there slouched, I’ve got very bad positioning, and being left-handed always looks a bit weird.
“Some drummers sit up dead toward the front and all the tom-toms are set up in the usual way. I tend to sit more diagonally. I don’t like the way I look — it’s a bit odd.
“I very rarely see myself on TV or something, but when we made a film, I remember looking. The arm movements are fluid, but at the same time, it’s a bit awkward.”
Phil obviously stays in good shape. He confirms this. “There’s a first division football team in London called Queen’s Park Rangers. I go training with the chief executive. Prior to rehearsing and touring, we work at least twice a week running, sprinting and jogging. I make sure I do 35 pressups a day.
“You have to approach it like a sport because 2 1/2 hours on stage is quite a long time for continuous energy, especially when you’re playing with Chester.”
What about diet?
“I do watch what I eat here. Americans are much more diet conscious than we are in England. I think that’s because of the amount of junk that’s about. At home, I mostly eat home-cooked food.
Phil taught himself to play drums at an early age. “I was playing from the age of six along with records. That’s how I taught myself. When I was about 15, I went to learn to read from Lloyd Ryan in London, and I stayed with him for about a year. I learned the basic rudiments, then I stopped.
“I LOVE TO PLAY SMALL GIGS WHERE THE AUDIENCE HEARS YOU, AND NOT THE SYSTEM. WHEN YOU’RE PLAYING IN 20,000 SEAT AUDITORIUMS, YOU HAVE NO ALTERNATIVE. WHAT YOU DO IS ALMOST INAUDIBLE. IT’S JUST WHATEVER COMES OUT OF THOSE SPEAKERS.
“I went back to Frank King when I was about 17. I was with him for a couple of years. I liked the way he taught. He taught a lot of people — Brian Bennett of the Shadows, Bobby Elliott of the Hollies and Bruford went to him for a while.
“To me, there are two types of players. You have Tony Williams who obviously just sat down and started playing and liked it. Then there’s Carl Palmer who was taught and it shows. That is the basic difference — one is an intuitive player and the other is taught. Because of that kind of difference, I’ve always shied away from being taught.
“I’d love to be able to sit down and read music. I can bust through chords on a piano, but it would take me a long time to read a chart.
“Rudiments I found very, very helpful — much more helpful than anything else because they’re used all the time. In any kind of funk or jazz drumming, the rudiments are always there.”
I asked Phil how he felt his playing had changed over the years. “Hopefully, I’ve gotten better at leaving out things and not overplaying. In the early days of Genesis I was trying to put everything into everything.
“Cobham was a very early influence, and I tried to play like him on tunes that didn’t need to be played like that. Now, I’m quite happy to leave blank space where everyone thinks there is going to be a fill. I get quite a kick out of that.”
Phil felt a bit disillusioned when he saw one of his favorite drummers recently. It seems his hero spent too much time displaying great licks and not enough time playing along with the rest of the band.
Says Phil, “It was so staggering, but at the same time, it wasn’t totally right for the music. I think that makes a difference — the immature from the mature players.”
What does Collins think of soloing? “I wish I could solo better. The only times I’ve ever soloed was when the equipment broke down and I was stuck for something to do. Then you just start getting somewhere when the equipment comes back on and suddenly everyone joins in and you haven’t had a chance to do anything. I don’t think I’m a very good soloist anyway. I can’t remember ever listening to a solo back.
“I used to do a solo with Brand X which was good. It was more like an extended fill. There was a sustained chord instrument playing to add a melodic edge to it.
“I’m much more into that. I much prefer freer playing with other people and trying to solo in that context.
“It’s very easy to do what an audience wants, you see. When rock drummers do solos they tend to be very boring. I’ve always felt drums should be melodic. Even when playing very simple stuff, there should be some kind of melodic approach to them.
“There seems to be this big either/or situation. You either play very fast ticky tacky jazz, or you play really straight ahead. To me, to be a drummer, one should be able to do as many things as you can do. I’m really interested in percussion and tuned percussion.”
Phil adds a fast bass drum technique to his repertoire. He says, “I used to use two bass drums years ago, and then I stopped because I read that Buddy Rich said that hi-hats are very important. I thought, ‘Yeah, he’s dead right.’ So I threw the other bass drum away and started using the hi-hat.”
He says he always concentrates on trying to do as much with the one bass drum as he used to do with two. “I have quite a lot of good speed on the bass drum. I’m more a foot player in some respects than I am a hand player. I’m very conscious of what the hi-hat is doing all the time. Tony Williams is great at that.”
With a slowdown in Genesis activity, where would Collins like to see the band musically go from here?
“On this album, the songs are quite short. It was good fun, but it doesn’t really set a precedent for what we’re going to do.
“We’ve always done different things. There’s some improvisation on “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.” I’d like to get back into that. That’s one of the essences of what we do — the variety of material. I like to keep the variety, but at the same time try to get some more instrumental stuff back in.”
Phil writes music with both bands and takes an electric piano with him on the road. At home, he has an old upright and a new grand. He figures the grand will inspire him to do some serious writing.
“One ambition is to do my own album which will have a lot of variety. I write songy stuff, as well as some from the Brand X area. I’m also hip to what Eno does — those kind of soundtracks which I’ve always been interested in — two or three minutes of just mood.
“The album, when it does come out, will have a lot of different styles on it. That’s what I want to try and do next year, if possible. I’m looking forward to doing it.”