With a long and illustrious career, Mike Rutherford has achieved incredible success with not one, but two acts. As a founder of Genesis, he steered the progressive rock pioneers from their earliest Charterhouse school days, to the chart domination of the 1980s and beyond. He’s also the man behind Mike + the Mechanics, who, after weathering the death of original vocalist Paul Young, and the departure of key member Paul Carrack, are now almost a decade into their second incarnation, with singers Andrew Roachford and Tim Howar. We sat down with Mike to discuss new Mechanics’ album ‘Out of the Blue’, and have a look back over his incredible career. Taking the reins; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Mike, how are you today?
I’m very good, thank you. I’m about ten shows into fifty shows. I’m not sure that I said yes to fifty, but we are. It’s going well. The band are playing well. You know, the first three or four shows you’re getting the songs right and adjusting the order, and then you get sort of settled.
The Mechanics are fairly busy, touring-wise, so I would imagine that it doesn’t take you long to get into shape.
It doesn’t. We did the Mechanics in the U.K. two years ago. I think this is our fourth time out touring [with the current line-up], so I wanted to have something a little bit different. I wanted it to feel different to me, so we’re doing it with no support band; just us, set one and set two, and it works, and it feels very different. It’s nice.
With an extended show like that, is it difficult to put a set list together?
No, I mean, I always quite enjoy doing it. You know, you mix the old songs; we’re playing three new songs, and some different old songs. Some classics you’re always going to play; ‘The Living Years’, and ‘Over My Shoulder’, and then we’ll do a couple of Genesis songs – which is about right - and then we’ll do [Roachford’s] ‘Cuddly Toy’. So it’s a nice mix. And we do a small acoustic bit, so it’s just about getting the tempo of the set right, which I like doing.
The new album ‘Out of the Blue’, sees a number of classic Mike + The Mechanics songs rerecorded; had you any trepidation doing that?
You can’t try and replace the past. The original recordings are the master ones, and that’s what everyone grew up on, but I think that the story that the fact that these two guys, two great voices have been singing them, and they feel quite different, I thought justified doing them – which I wouldn’t have if we had the same old band. They have a different flavour, which is nice.
What was it that drew you to Andrew Roachford’s voice?
Paul Carrack and I sort of stopped it when Paul Young died, and I’d learned one thing; the Mechanics always functioned really well having two singers; an R&B voice - which was Paul, and is now Roachford - and a sort of rock voice, which is now Tim. So you need the ingredients, and I think the Mechanics, part of our sound is having a real R&B voice singing songs that aren’t very R&B; it kind of works.
On the new songs, you’ve gone for quite a minimalist production; why did you take that approach?
Well, the song will slightly control how you do it. You have an idea how it’s going to sound, but sometimes what you think is going to work, doesn’t work.
The songs are very contemporary sounding, which is a long way from where you first started out on the first Geneses album.
I’ve been going on a journey away from that for the last forty or fifty years. I never try and do anything intentionally, you know what I mean, trying copying yourself. I’ve always been a huge writer of drum machine beats. I did things like ‘Mama’ [from ‘Genesis’, 1983]; that was my drum machine beat. I’ve done that on the Akai for the last thirty or forty years.
Are you still using the same technology, or have you moved on now?
They’ve got a new one now, and it’s quite good actually. The one that I like using is deleted, so I had to buy it on ebay. So, it’s got the same feel as the old one, but it works with the computer. The trouble with the old machines is the screen’s so small, and with my glasses, I bloody well can hardly see it. Whereas nowadays, the screen it comes on the computer so you can actually see the thing.
Does the amazing success of the Mechanics ever surprise you?
Yeah, especially when you look at the stats; out of Genesis you had the huge Peter Gabriel career, then Phil’s [Collins] career, which was unbelievable. To have a third act that would have some notoriety and success, I thought was pretty unlikely. So, it makes it even more amazing, really. There was an American chart back in the eighties, and in the Top 30, there was a Gabriel record, a Phil Collins, a Mechanics, and a Steve Hackett record with somebody else from Asia; GTR, I think it was called. It’s very unlikely, but it’s down to songs; songs and voices really, that’s all it’s about.
Speaking of Peter Gabriel, you’re both appearing on a new charity single ‘The Crossing’, which has been billed as ‘Friends of Johnny Clegg'.
Yeah, I didn’t know Pete was doing it at the time. I was down in Cape Town, and I knew the guys doing it, and I played a bit of guitar. It wasn’t quite like [a session together].
It’s a long time since you and Peter were on the same track together.
True, I hadn’t thought about that, actually. We did a version once of, what’s it called – I’ve forgotten song! “You’ve got to get in to get out” [The Carpet Crawlers]. We kind of all produced it, a track from ‘The Lamb’, twenty years ago. That was the last time.
You did reunite with Peter for a special concert in Milton Keynes in 1982.
That was to raise money for Peter because WOMAD had gone wrong [Gabriel’s World of Music, Arts and Dance arts festival was in financial difficulty]. He was facing a lot of debts and trouble. But it was great. To be honest, I have one regret; we didn’t film it. I remember thinking, we may not be that good, but actually, we should have filmed it because it was such a unique moment in time. But yeah, it was fun. It was one my birthday too, I remember that!
We’ve talked about the line-up changes in Mike + the Mechanics, and back to the Genesis days, you’ve clearly weather a good number of personnel changes in your career.
When Peter left, we thought: “Well maybe that’s it”, do you know what I mean? And we had a singer in house we didn’t recognise was there until he actually got going. No, I mean, you say “a lot”, but not really. I mean, after Peter left, I never quite new why Steve [Hackett] left, because we were sort of doing okay. He wanted to do his solo stuff. But I think, my key is that even when Peter left, no one knew who wrote what; if you looked at the credits, it said; ‘Written by Genesis’. Pete was obviously a fantastic lyricist, but a lot of the music came from myself and Tony, as well and Phil, so when people leave, you know who the core of the writing is. So, it was a worry when Peter left, but the only other change was when Steve left, which I’m never quite sure why. He wanted to do a solo career before we were established enough to take time off.
The period that was staggeringly successful for Genesis was in the 80s and 90s, with ‘Invisible Touch’ and ‘We Can’t Dance’; it does seem to divide the fan base.
There’s a slight misconception. The radio started playing just singles. Every album we did always had a track about fifteen minutes long, which was a huge popular thing live, but obviously radio wouldn’t play it. So, the intention, along with MTV and visualisation, was that the singles were so high profile, nobody added the other songs on the album [to playlists]. Live, they were always very popular, the long songs. I think it was just a moment in time; the perception was that we sort of stopped doing long songs and just did short songs, but actually, it’s just the way the business worked. It was so high profile they kind of swamped everything else.
There are some amazing pop songs from that period though.
The ‘Invisible Touch’ album, and ‘We Can’t Dance’ and ‘Genesis’; writing wise, we were on a bit of a roll. We got in the studio, we didn’t take any bits in; we just jammed, improvised, and it just kind of came out of the box, and it just worked.
It’s now been 21 years since ‘Calling All Stations’ was released; what are the chances, at this stage of another Genesis album?
I’ve absolutely no idea. I saw Phil in America in November, and we’re all good friends. It’s interesting; Phil is back touring now, touring a lot; I never saw that coming. His son Nicholas is a lovely young man and a great drummer [Nicholas is playing drums in Phil Collins’ solo band], and I never saw that [coming either]. So I always say "never say never".
We spoke to former vocalist Ray Wilson a few years ago, and he was quite emphatic that there was meant to be a follow-up to ‘Calling All Stations’; what changed your mind about doing that?
To be honest, well, when you say there was meant to be, we discussed the idea, but no one ever said anything for certain. That was me, actually, not Tony [who put a stop to it]. I just felt that the mood had changed, and what Genesis needed to do then to make it work, was go back to the early days, and do album, tour, album, tour for about four or five years, you know, to get it back established again. And I just felt I couldn’t do that. I still enjoyed the Mechanics, and it just felt like what was needed was something I didn’t have the energy for. And so it was me really who sort of felt, we better put a stop here now.
The original Genesis guys all got together for the documentary ‘Genesis: Together and Apart’, in 2014; how was it making that?
It was fine. We all get on well. I went to school with Peter when I was 14, so we go back a long way. Nothing ever spoils that. So many bands fall out, but nothing ever, ever was a problem with us really.
Away from Genesis and Mike + The Mechanics, you had a brief solo career, starting with the release of ‘Smallcreeps Day’, in 1980.
That album, I have quite fond memories of. It was quite a nice time. The one after [1982's 'Acting Very Strange'], which I sang on, I don’t have fond memories of. It was okay, but I’m not a singer, so I did it once, but I wouldn’t do it again. ‘Smallcreeps Day’ was quite a brave song, I think. But it’s not available, I don’t know.
Is it fair to say that Mike + the Mechanics your main focus these days?
Yeah, but it works lightly. Everyone’s got other things; the drummer Gary Wallace, he’s in Tom Jones’ band, Roachford has a solo career, Tim Howard’s just finished the lead in Phantom of the Opera, so I like the way everybody’s got other things going. When the time is right, we regroup, and I like that feeling.
Is there still activity in the Genesis camp; dealing with reissues and merchandising etc?
Yeah, I suppose, but not lots. We have the same manager for years, all of us, so he takes care of a lot of it.
Do you ever look back to those early Charterhouse school days and wonder how you got from there, to the global success that so that you’ve all had?
Yeah, it amazes me. I don’t look back very much, but it does amaze me in a nice way. I think it was a nice time to be starting a band. That whole music scene was like a blank canvas; there wasn’t much on it, so you had time to build a career. And all the bands then – The Who, The Stones, The Beatles, The Kinks, they were all interesting sounds, original sounds, and the trouble is now, there’s so many artists, I can’t tell them apart sometimes. There are lots of it very good, but it was a nice time to be starting music, I think.
Finally, what’s next for you once this tour is done?
After we finish in May, we’re going to do half a dozen shows supporting Phil. He’s doing a stadium tour of Europe, so we’re going to do six of those, which will be quite fun. And then, a bit of time off, actually. When I’m writing songs, it’s always in my head; I’m not really in the room, I’m always a bit distant, and when they’re finished, it’s easier, so a bit of time off and then we’ll see. I’m a great believer that, I don’t make big plans; I think what you do now, will tell what you do next.
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Mike + The Mechanic's 'Out of the Blue' is out now, via BMG. For current tour dates, visit the official Mike + The Mechanics website.