Mike Rutherford Talks Genesis, Phish and _Lamb_

Dean Budnick on February 24, 2015

“Since doing the book and the documentary, I know more about me than I ever did—I studied up,” Genesis co-founder Mike Rutherford declares with his wry humor. The book he’s referring to is The Living Years, the 2014 memoir first published in the U.K. that’s set for a U.S. release in February. The documentary is Genesis: Sum of the Parts, which premiered on Showtime this past October. The film reunited Rutherford with his Genesis bandmates Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Phil Collins and Steve Hackett, and while there are no immediate plans for any reunion shows, Rutherford will tour North America with Mike + The Mechanics for the first time since 1989, in conjunction with the book’s publication.

The Living Years is framed by the discovery of your father’s unpublished autobiography and connects his experiences as a naval captain with your life on tour. What led you to that approach?

I read my father’s book and I thought, “There’s something here.” It was my wife who then had the idea that I should address my dad’s unpublished memoirs as a way to do something with my story. It seemed like a natural choice, really, and a reason for doing it. At the start, I didn’t even know the similarities in our lifestyles

Did the band give you any feedback on the book? Some of the humor comes at the expense of Tony Banks, albeit in an affectionate way.

The feedback was all pretty good, actually. There was a moment after Tony first read it when he had a slight wobble. It lasted about 10 minutes, actually—“I’m the whipping boy!” But it’s all done in love and everything I said I would say to anybody in front of them—that’s part of how we operate. It’s funny timing because we just did this documentary, and before we started it, the book came out and I think it reminded people what a good time we had together.

The film has raised questions regarding the possibility of a reunion, although Phil seems to be giving some mixed messages about his ability to perform, given his physical ailments.

Phil has a problem drumming at the moment—that’s very much unchanged. Injuries at our age take three times as long to go away as when you’re younger, so that’s a problem for him, really. There are no plans, but I would never say never.

Apart from that, we spent a couple of days together and did the documentary—the original five—and it was great fun. So this whole journey of the book and then the documentary has been a nice reminder of how we still get on.

I went to see Pete last night at a show in London and we were saying that he left the band 39 years ago—that’s two-thirds of my life—and then, we’d discuss the parts like it was yesterday.

In your book, you describe him when he was younger as “slightly not-of-this-world.” Has that changed over time?

He lives a life, and thinks a life, a bit outside the box, which is why I think he’s done so well musically and culturally and humanitarian-wise. He was always a little bit outside the box. I think that’s one of his main strengths and he hasn’t changed really.

Genesis’ songwriting was quite unique from the start, and you explain that you pieced together the various band members’ contributions because you didn’t know any other way. Were there any groups you looked to for inspiration at the outset of your career?

No one really, maybe King Crimson a bit. In the Court of the Crimson King came out when we first started writing professionally and it was pretty impressive, but apart from that, we always quote our influences as The Beatles, the Stones and Motown—you can’t really hear it, but that’s where we came from.

We were just all strong writers and we pasted what we had together, like a collage. We weren’t really in control of it sometimes, and the results were surprising. That’s almost the charm, really. I think “Supper’s Ready,” which is on our Foxtrot album and was one side of the album, is probably one of our finest moments of doing that.

Until reading your book, I didn’t appreciate the role that Genesis took in the creation
of Vari-Lites [the automated, variable color stage lighting].

It’s a nice story because we were outside the box, so when lighting companies said, “It can’t be done,” we said, “Why can’t it be done? That’s not good enough.” Until then, a red light was one red light— that’s all it did. It was a huge revolution. We funded and evolved it from the word go. The first couple of tours, it was chaos—lights falling down, blowing up. We were the guinea pigs, but we would get what was a real special effect. For us to go on tour in 1980, 1983 with the Vari-Lites was pretty impressive and, at the time, so unique, whereas now everyone’s got them. It’s become the industry standard of lighting.

In 2010 Phish inducted you into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How familiar were you with them? Did you hear that they had discussed covering The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway for one of their Halloween shows?

I didn’t know that much about them until then. Lovely guys, really nice and I like the way they operate, which is their live shows are a bit loose, a bit free and they do different things. It’s also quite original that they’re not afraid to do other songs that they like.

In the book, you describe a moment in 2007 where the five of you got together and discussed performing The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway on tour. That eventually leads you back on the road with Tony and Phil, but how close did you come to touring with Peter and Steve?

I’m not sure it was ever very close, to be honest. Lamb is something that hangs over us. It’s a piece that would be great to try and develop, to make it a live show on the stage. The story is quite meandering, although in ‘74 or ‘75, it was very adventurous. We just met to discuss whether we might do it. I think what happened was Pete had a three-year touring plan of his own and we thought, “That’s too far away for us, so let’s do the three-piece band.”

As for the sweep of your career, what do you think is the greatest misperception about Genesis?

I think because of that whole MTV thing, a hit single was played to death in every restaurant and bar, and people had this image that we do short songs, not long songs. But we’ve always done a complete mixture of both. There’s a sense that the complicated songs with Gabriel were years and years ago, and then with Phil and the hits, we changed. They kind of forget that when Peter left in ‘75, the next three albums with Steve are pretty progressive, too. There are also some great longer songs on the last three or four albums, like “Domino” and “Home by the Sea.”

The documentary was my idea because other people don’t tie it all in like you think. They don’t know that Peter was in the band. They don’t know Phil ever played drums. People would say to me, “You’re Mike of Mike + The Mechanics and you were in Genesis?” So now, they can get the whole picture.