One might be inclined to think that an 86 minute album of guitar instrumentals could wear out its welcome and tempt the attention deficient among us to turn it off before it was halfway done. Certainly that has been the case with past releases from some of the flashier players in Guitarland, with their endless pyrotechnics and soulless runs of notes that overwhelm listeners to the point of aural exhaustion. But Anthony (Ant) Phillips is not that breed of guitarist, as evidenced not only by his wonderful back catalogue, but by the two dozen compositions that make up his gorgeous new studio release Strings Of Light, due for release on 25 October. Housed over two CDs, the set also includes an audio DVD with a 5.1 surround mix.
Immersed, as ever, in his TV library music composing, Ant finally made the time for a return to guitar and his first proper studio album (his 31st!) in seven years. If 2012’s City Of Dreams was a somewhat nebulous collection of swirling keyboard snippets, Strings Of Light finds Ant squarely in the territory he is most known for, ever since his teenage days as a founding member (and the essential leader) of Genesis, the band he left almost 50 years ago.
Admirers of Ant’s unique, pastoral playing will find much to celebrate here, but variety is perhaps the album’s greatest appeal. Light and shade radiate as Ant employs no fewer than seventeen guitars from his collection to weave these moods and textures into a rich mosaic of sound (and they’re all listed inside the booklet for the aficionados to pore over). Numerous 6-strings, 12-strings, a 16-string (a what?!), classical, guitarina, a good old Fender Strat – they’re all here, and in the hands of someone as skilled as Ant, these compositions glitter with life as he conjures their beauty from thin air. I spoke with this talkative, witty and talented man about his proud new creations, and some of the many creations of his past.
VT: Did you know there are fans who have already collected everything you’ve done who go full-on anorak and start seeking out your library albums too?
AP: Well, you never used to be able to get those, but of course that’s changing now, because the library companies are starting to release some of the tracks through streaming. I’m not sure that’s a good idea, personally. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a very separate world, and as you know we occasionally release selected tracks on solo albums, on compilation albums – but having selected them very carefully.
VT: It’s hard to believe that it’s been seven years since City Of Dreams, but I suppose that explains why this new one is a double…
AP: Yes, it’s not a long double, I hope people aren’t going to be put off by the fact that it’s a double. The album was just a little bit too long to fit on one CD, so there was the thought of maybe chopping one or two pieces out. But my engineer James Collins said ‘No, these tracks are all decent, you should keep them on’. I think each CD only comes in at a little over 40 minutes, 45 maximum. But some people when they think of a double, they think ‘Oh my god, this is going to take up so much of my time’. We see it as like a set, and you have a tea break. I don’t like to think of it in any way as too indulgent or overburdening for people.
VT: I actually loved the City Of Dreams album, I thought it had incredible atmosphere and I’ve listened to it a lot over the last seven years.
AP: That’s very kind of you. That is, I suppose more the other type of album, which is like a collage of pieces that you’ve got, and try to arrange in an order which has a flow. And you use repeated sections to create continuity. It was an album that divided a lot of people. It had its supporters, but there were a lot of people who weren’t particularly keen, so that one… I wouldn’t say it put me off doing solo albums, but it certainly didn’t encourage me to do more.
When people say ‘When’s the new rock album coming?’ it gets a bit daunting…
VT: You’ve gone back to guitar with Strings Of Light, and you use a lot of them!
AP: Yes, it had been a bit like with Field Day, I hadn’t really done much guitar stuff for a while, and I was getting very out of practice, doing all the TV/keyboard work. Obviously guitar is my principal instrument, if I’ve got anything I’m original at, it’s probably guitar – particularly 12-string. Therefore it seemed to make sense to go back that way. I had lots of material, I had bits and embryonic material in the cupboard, if you like, or the vaults. I think the other thing, to be honest, is that after not doing a solo album for quite a while, it was something relatively simple, it didn’t seem too imposing to take that on. Whereas when people say ‘When’s the new rock album coming?’ it gets a bit daunting. I’ve got lots of ideas for that, but the difference between having those ideas and putting them into practice and making them all work is monumental.
VT: Let’s go through a handful of the new tracks that really stand out to me. Winter Lights was the first to grab me, with that beautiful L’arrivée 12-string.
AP: Oddly enough, all of the material bar two pieces was brand new – as in the last couple of years, but there are two, Winter Lights and Shoreline, where the basic material is really quite old – in fact, very old. All of the development sections came later, but would you believe that the opening part of that goes back to 1971? And I didn’t find it any easier now to play! (Laughing)
VT: I know you’ve used that guitar on your albums before, because I’ve seen it listed in the credits. It’s just got such a beautiful sound.
AP: Thank you very much, I’m very lucky to have a lovely collection of guitars, and when it comes to doing this sort of work, you can keep them, and are able to keep a number of pieces in different tunings. Because obviously if you’ve got quite a complicated tune, but only one or two guitars, each time you’ve got to keep re-tuning. It takes time, and you’re going to break a lot of strings, particularly on the classical ones. So I’m very fortunate, and that is a lovely guitar, as are many of them.
VT: Diamond Meadows is another one I loved straight away, and that’s your Martin D12-35?
AP: Yes, that’s quite a difficult one for me to play because it’s got quite a narrow neck, and I’ve got quite fat fingers, so I had to work terribly hard not to block some of the octave strings. Also, we had it with slightly different strings to the others (for the cognoscenti: silk and steel, a more mellow-sounding string). But that one is in a very, very strange tuning. People come to my house and pick up these guitars, and you see them go white as they play normal chords and the whole world falls apart, and they think ‘that sounds terrible!’ You have to be very careful with a tuning like that, because some of the individual pairs aren’t tuned to the same note, they are tuned separately. What that means is that at times, you’re getting an eight or nine-note chord, so you’ve got this big, shimmery quality – which is why I wanted to call this one something that had that sort of effect of light. And then I discovered there was actually a T. Rex track called Diamond Meadows! (Laughing) So I hope dear Marc Bolan will forgive me.
VT: You use a lot of evocative titles, and scenic imagery. Like Castle Ruins for example. Have you ever had to go back and check that you haven’t already used a title?
AP: No, I think I’m fairly safe on that. With library music I do. It can get very repetitive with library music, because I do an enormous amount of pieces. But Castle Ruins I wanted to call something much more exotic, because it’s got a slightly Iberian quality to it. I looked up loads of names of castles in Spain – lots of lovely, florid titles, but they just all sounded a bit clever-clever and didn’t have that sense of desolation in the title.
VT: I know you’ve used mountains a lot in your titles. Mountain Voices, Blizzard Mountain, Misty Mountains, King Of The Mountain, and of course with Genesis – White Mountain. And even further back than that, Build Me A Mountain! Although that probably wasn’t your title.
AP: Well, I love nature, and things that are dramatic as well. Mountains, seas… anything dramatic or beautiful. The natural world is abundant, isn’t it? And some of these pieces are quite descriptive, it does seem more relevant than calling it Johnny Goes To Buy A Hamburger.
VT: What about The Agent Mulder Never Resolves A Single Case (from The Meadows Of Englewood)?
AP: Well, that wasn’t my title, that was Guillermo Cazenave’s title. He’s got a good point though, actually! (Laughing)
VT: I have to ask about Mouse Trip – that’s a fun, quirky piece right in the middle of the album…
AP: There’s a very famous play called The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie, which I’m sure you know is the longest-running play in London, so that was just a pun that came to me because it is a bit quirky. He’s a bit furtive, and then he really motors at the end when he’s getting close to the cheese. It’s just fun. In fact, it was damn difficult to play, I spent half of my life trying to play the difficult parts of that!
I think from the early days of Genesis when we experimented on The Knife and Looking For Someone, we were trying something that was different – not different in terms of everybody else, but different for us…
VT: Grand Tour made me look twice at the credits. I’ve never heard of a 16-string guitar! Where did you get that?
AP: Mmmm! A very good question. Well, it was custom made for me by Michael Cameron, because my dream was that rather than having a two-octave compass from E up to E, to try and stretch it to three, so you can go down below and then up at the top. So the idea was to go from A to A, which would have been three octaves. Never quite made that, it’s A and the top string is G. But it just means that you’ve got much more depth at the bottom, and you’ve got that extra height and sheen at the top. Nightmare to tune, nightmare to play, and it was an incredibly taxing piece which we did have to do in a lot of edits simply because of the tuning. Coincidentally, the new album by a band called Big Big Train who are friends of mine is called Grand Tour, but I can honestly say that I thought of that before I heard of their album title!
VT: And they covered a song of yours too, Master Of Time.
AP: Brilliantly – absolutely brilliantly! There are some phenomenal musicians in that group – first rate guys.
VT: The lengthy closing piece on the album, Life Story, is gorgeous, and I note that is played on a very old guitar (1931).
AP: It is. Funnily enough, I was rehearsing it on my Yairi and it felt really comfortable, but… I just knew the sound wasn’t good enough, you know? It was average. So I bit the bullet and bought this very expensive guitar which I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford from my TV music, and it’s a Francisco Simplicio, a very beautiful guitar indeed. And I never thought that piece was going to hang together, I always thought it would run aground, but mercifully it did come out making semi-coherence, or maybe nearly coherence.
VT: It’s a long piece, but you do those just as well as you do the short ones. Even really short ones, I’m thinking of all the way back to The Geese And The Ghost with the track Chinese Mushroom Cloud, which is one of my favourite moments on that album.
AP: (Laughing) Well that was an accident! That was playing the opening part of the instrumental The Geese And The Ghost, one of the sections at half speed. And everything sounded so bizarre that we used it in that way. But the longer the piece, the more dangerous it is on form. Because you could end up with something that sprawls and straggles and doesn’t have any coherence – and indeed one of the criticisms of a lot of prog would be that it’s too bitty, and it flies around unaccountably and leaves people sort of shocked with what’s going to come next. I think from the early days of Genesis when we experimented on The Knife and Looking For Someone, we were trying something that was different – not different in terms of everybody else, but different for us, and I suppose that began for me that period of experimentation with longer forms. Certainly with Life Story it was partly a question that I had a lot of different material that I wanted to try and fit into one piece if I could, but that was like a jigsaw puzzle. Do I have this bit here, or that bit there? Does it flow? Which is the best order dynamically?
VT: It does flow, and it’s a very fine piece and a lovely end to the album.
AP: Thank you.
VT: I’d like to throw five titles at you from your past that I’d like to hear more about. Not being purposely obscure, these are just some personal favourites. I recently did this with your old friend Steve Hackett and I almost stumped him!
AP: Oh did you? (Laughing loudly)
VT: First one is Arboretum Suite from A Catch At The Tables.
AP: Mmmmm, a lot of people like that, actually. I don’t wish to sound conceited at all, but that did have something, I know it did. It was done as a wedding gift for some friends, and it was done in a very relaxed way, but the last section, Lights On The Hill, has always been a popular track. Don’t ask me how it had that bit of magic, but it just did seem to!
When I left, I had so many ideas… Which Way The Wind Blows, God If I Saw Her Now, all these songs came out. It helps having an unrequited love affair…
VT: Second one is Sceptered Isle – a piece of library music, but I know it from the fourth volume of the Missing Links series, Pathways And Promenades. It’s a really striking piece of music.
AP: Yes… I’m struggling a bit with that actually! (Laughing) I remember the title, which is not mine, it was a library title, I remember the decision for that album was to put on things that had been used in other contexts so that people could get hold of these things. But it was a synth-based track… I can’t remember it well, I’m afraid! I couldn’t hum the tune at all.
VT: Aha! Next time I talk to Steve, I’ll tell him that.
AP: I’m hopeless.
VT: Okay, how about Meadows Of Englewood? There’s a candidate for an Esoteric reissue, it’s a long out of print title and difficult for some fans to find.
AP: Yeah, it’s a long tale, that one, a complicated story too. That was very much improvisation again, really, an inspired moment at the time.
VT: People also ask a lot about a deluxe reissue of Tarka.
AP: Well, that’s out of my hands unfortunately. Both Gypsy Suite and Tarka are co-works with Harry Williamson, and Simon Heyworth is very much involved in Tarka. So, that was not part of my Cherry Red deal, and in fact Simon has always been the one that’s sort of driven that album. And he at the moment is trying to plan his own reissue – it’s already been done in 5.1, and I’ve heard it, and he’s done a lovely job on it. But yeah, it’s taking forever to get that released, for which I can only apologize and say I’ve done my best, but so far there’s no daylight there. But it will be released eventually!
VT: Okay, fourth track, another favourite has always been Um & Aargh.
AP: Oh yeah! As you probably know that was a spoof of the A&R men at record companies who were pretty clueless, but full of… well, full of all sorts of things really. It was a bit of an angry stab at record companies at the time, actually, people coming up with these clichéd lines. My friend John Perry was told that his album was ‘too good’ to go out! Hence the lyric ‘this is much too good for the people, he said’. So that’s the story behind that. That was fun to do. Mock anger. Well, maybe real anger, actually! (Laughing)
VT: And finally, the beautiful Which Way The Wind Blows…
AP: That’s sweet of you, yeah. Well, I wrote a lot when I first left Genesis, we couldn’t write much in the last period, we were all tied up with being on the road, we were exhausted just doing the same material. Of course when I left, I had so many ideas… Which Way The Wind Blows, God If I Saw Her Now, all these songs came out. It helps having an unrequited love affair… as Mr. Collins found later to his great advantage!
VT: Thanks so much for your time today Ant!
AP: Really nice to talk to you, thank you so much for all the good vibes and for the continuing support over the years. I’m singing Sceptered Isle now! … No, no, I’m not. (Laughs)
It’s one of life’s great joys for the music lover when his or her favourite artists return from a hiatus to produce a collection of music such as this. I expect it will be a repeated listening over the coming autumn and winter – a period that Ant’s music lends itself to already. It is said that no two guitarists will sound the same playing the same song on the same instrument. I don’t know if that’s a universal truth, but I do know that nobody sounds the way Ant does when he commands these strings. These glorious, resonating strings of beauty, these strings of joy – these Strings Of Light.