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Conversation: ‘Going Back’ With Phil Collins

Released last week in America, Phil Collins’ latest album, “Going Back,” is his homage to the music idols of his youth. The collection of Motown and soul hits by the former drummer and lead singer of Genesis reached No. 1 on the U.K. charts last week.

I spoke to Collins by phone in New York:

A transcript is after the jump.
Here’s the video for “Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue),” the first track on “Going Back”:

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown and joining me today is Phil Collins. He is, of course, the former drummer and lead singer for the band Genesis, and has had a hugely successful solo career along with that. His new album is called “Going Back,” featuring covers of old Motown and soul hits. He joins us on the phone. Welcome to you.


JEFFREY BROWN: So, why go back and why go back specifically to Motown?

PHIL COLLINS: It’s what I grew up listening to. The music that’s represented on the record, which as you said, it has various soul things as well as Motown. There’s a couple of Dusty Springfield songs on there, there is a couple of Curtis Mayfield songs. It’s the musical backdrop of my teenage years and songs I always wanted sing but was never allowed to.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean, Never allowed to? Why not?

PHIL COLLINS: Well, you know, when I was 19 I joined Genesis and although everybody in the band were closet kind of Otis Redding, Nina Simone fans, it’s not what the band did. I joined Genesis because it was a job and I wanted to play and I wanted to work. Eventually I put some of my natural musical influences, like some of the soul things that I’d grown up with. Generally speaking it became something else. So since the age of 19, that door has always been locked in a way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think of these songs as having influenced you in your musical youth in some specific way?

PHIL COLLINS: Yeah. I think maybe it’s the reason, and I don’t know, but maybe it’s the reason why there’s a lot of urban R & B, hip-hop, rap guys that actually see something in my music and have an affinity for it. But my natural habitat is kind of to be around this music.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m curious how you think of it when you’re recording. I know you recorded with some very well-known Motown musicians, so is it a question of kind of recreating the songs or reinterpreting them? What is it that you are doing?

PHIL COLLINS: For me it was recreation. I’m perfectly honest about it. It’s a selfish record to make, you know. I just wanted to sing these songs and I wanted them to sound as they did.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? And you even used some of the old recording technology, I read, right?

PHIL COLLINS: Well, yeah. We did homework. We tried to record the drums in similar ways. We tried to use old hardware. And of course it’s difficult with the technology to get the same kind of rough edges that they had in those days whether they liked it or not. For me that was the fun part — that was trying to recreate the era.

JEFFREY BROWN: I see. So you think of it as a very personal thing, just fun for you. Because these are very familiar songs, sung by the likes of Stevie Wonder and all, so you’re not seeing yourself as in competition or reinterpreting something he did.

PHIL COLLINS: No. Really, no. No, I mean, at every point during the record or whenever someone said, you know, What is the record company going to think, what is this person going to think about if you try to take “Uptight”? I’d say, well, you know, for me it’s just, I’m making this home movie here, I’m painting this picture and if I end up hanging it up on my wall and nobody wants to see it, then that’s ok.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sounds like people want to see it. I was just reading that it’s No. 1 in England right now.

PHIL COLLINS: Yeah, it’s been out a couple of weeks ahead of America, and it’s doing incredibly well in Europe, which I’m very pleased to see, obviously, because it’s been a labor of love and these songs are very close to my heart.

JEFFREY BROWN: I didn’t know this until I was reading, but your own situation now with some neurological issues, you can’t play the drums anymore except, as I think I read, if you tape the sticks to your hands?

PHIL COLLINS: Yeah. I wasn’t too sure how I was going to play on this record until I started and it became quite clear, quite soon that I needed to tape the sticks to my left hand because of something that happened, and I had surgery but it hasn’t really worked, unfortunately. It’s something that happened on Genesis reunion tour. So I’m in a situation now where I can’t feel the end of my fingers on my left hand. The surgeon says, well, maybe just be patient and wait. But at the moment and for the last six months nothing’s changed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you before I let you go, because we’ve done a number of stories here over the years as we watch the changes in the music industry, and so you’ve been at this a long time and watched a lot of big changes in the distribution, you know, and the breakdown of the older studio system and the advent of online music. Where do you see us at these days? Are these good changes? Bad changes? What do you think is going on?

PHIL COLLINS: Without going on and on about it, but in my simple terms I think when the CD came into our lives that’s when the beginning of a few artistic problems and musical problems I think artists —

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what kind of artistic problems?

PHIL COLLINS: Well, I think that the two sided record had a lot to recommend it. You had to have a good strong opener on both sides. You couldn’t really bury material that was substandard, because people just take it off. Whereas now with the CD the first three or four songs are probably strong on most records and after that it gets a bit murky. So people will go and download the songs they know rather than buy a CD of someone that basically they may not be here next month, you know. We live in such a fast, transient kind of world now it seems that people, you know, they don’t want to listen to a whole album of an artist if they just want to take one or two tracks that they know that they like because they hear it all the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet here you are with an album taking us back to a great time of music.

PHIL COLLINS: Yeah, great period, you know, when everything was happening for the first time. I’m very glad that I grew up in the ’60s.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The new album is called “Going Back.” Phil Collins, thanks for talking to us.

PHIL COLLINS: Thanks very much, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m Jeffrey Brown for Art Beat. Thanks for joining us.

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