Tony Banks

by Carl Wiser

Tony breaks down some Genesis favorites and talks about his latest orchestral album.

The intricate, elegant compositions of Tony Banks helped lead Genesis to renown in their Peter Gabriel progressive rock era, then to stardom in their hitmaking years with Phil Collins on vocals. When Yes made their leap from "Roundabout" to "Owner Of A Lonely Heart," it was by adding Trevor Horn and Trevor Rabin; Genesis lost two members - Gabriel and guitarist Steve Hackett - between "Supper's Ready" and "Invisible Touch," making the transition under their own power with the lineup of Banks, Collins and Mike Rutherford.

This formidable trio proved quite worthy outside the confines of Genesis. Collins laid siege to the airwaves as a solo artist, and Rutherford is still in good form with Mike + The Mechanics. Banks' output has been more varied, but lately he's been putting his efforts into orchestral music, with striking results. His latest album, titled 5 and set for release February 23, is his third in this genre. Banks recorded the five tracks with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and Choir, but he did it in pieces, recording different sections and compiling them in the studio with his piano parts.

Banks operates on a musical level few can comprehend, but he's quite good at explaining his motive and execution, which he does here for a number of Genesis tracks, including the mysterious "Abacab," the mesmerizing "Firth Of Fifth," and the efficient "That's All." Other topics include his cross-handed piano technique, Keith Emerson, and where we can hear his most extravagant chords.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): 5 is a wonderful piece of work. I'm intrigued by how you made it. You made demos of orchestral compositions, and I'm wondering how you did that.

Tony Banks: Well, I put down a piano part in most cases with a very basic string pad that was playing along with the piano. And then I took it apart and put it back together again using orchestral instruments and samples from various sources, and orchestrated the whole thing like that in the demos.

The demos become quite elaborate. You hear the demos, they don't sound so different from the final result, although obviously I had a bit of help with the final orchestrations from Nick Ingman, who's also the conductor. He did a lot of work.

Songfacts: How do you go about writing an orchestral piece?

Tony: Well, for me it's much the same as I've always done everything else really, except that I feel I can be pretty expansive. I don't feel the need for repetition and harmony, and can be a bit more exotic, if you like.

I find it quite refreshing. I can do whatever I want with the knowledge that I haven't got to try and keep it to five minutes, or anything like that, and I'm just writing as long as I like and just let the mood take it. It's more equivalent, I suppose, to the stuff I did more early with Genesis, back in the early '70s when we had pieces of music that went on for quite a long time and went through various changes. It's a way of writing that I find I'm very comfortable with.

Songfacts: And that way of writing, I'm just wondering how it even begins. If you get some kind of musical idea, if you need to be at a keyboard, how it even starts.

Tony: Well, various things really. If you take the opening piece, for example, the "Prelude To A Million Years," the first part to it is a kind of slow, big string sound. I started by improvising on a string synthesizer and got these kind of chords that I really liked, and it just developed into a pattern. And then it resolves into a sort of particular chord, which the piano kind of takes over, although the piano is not very prominent now in the mix. When I was writing it, the piano idea took over.

You try lots of things. Some things work and that's great, and then you try another thing and think, Well that's better, and then when you come to it again you take a bit out that you've put in there. It just takes shape, I suppose. It's just where the mood takes you on the day, and sometimes you get good days when things seem to work really well, and other days when you're fighting a bit harder. But, in the main, it tends to come fairly easily to me, to do this process, but a lot of it is self-editing. That's a very important part of the operation.

Songfacts: I was surprised how low the piano was in the mix. You did that, right?

Tony: Yes. In many ways, I was trying to not have any piano. None of these pieces really are piano pieces. They are orchestral pieces, and on some of the pieces we left the piano out completely - we substituted it with other instruments. Others, we felt it had to be there. I'd always thought it would be there a bit and it's surprising the difference it makes. It provides a sort of body.

I think in the old days they used to call this use of the piano a continuo or something, which really means it's there all the time but it's not particularly prominent. So, just for me, I never felt any of the piano on this was really solo material. If it became a prominent piece, in many ways I then substituted things like marimbas and harp and all the strings to play the parts, which was the original idea when I was writing the pieces.

Songfacts: Most piano virtuosos would lack the restraint not to put their piano front and center of their compositions.

Tony: Although I use the piano as a writing tool, it's not the piano I'm trying to promote myself as. I know I'm known as a keyboard player, I can't fight that, but on my last orchestral piece, Six Pieces For Orchestra (2012), I didn't actually play piano at all, and it had been my ambition since I first came into the business to have something that I wrote that didn't feature me playing on it. I've done that now, so with this one, I played on it a bit, but it's not a prominent thing. There's no real virtuoso playing on it, anyhow. It's the orchestral sound that's important to me.

Songfacts: "Reveille" does have that little piano figure that is reminiscent of a Genesis track.

Tony: Yeah, I suppose it's the way of playing, in a way. A lot of piano on that I double up with marimba and stuff, as well. In fact, originally, I separated out some of the piano part and played it on the marimba. It's a style of playing which recalls things like the "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway" where the two hands are playing almost percussively, alternatively. So, you appear to be playing faster than you are. I really like the effect. It's very rhythmic. I just find it's an exciting way to play.

Songfacts: Yeah. That's your cross-handed technique, where you're able to create this bigger sound. In terms of how you came up with that and where you used it, can you talk about how that developed through the course of your career?

Tony: Well, it's a classical technique that's been used many times. The first time I really became aware of it, there was a piece that was very popular for pianists to play when they were in reasonably early stages, not too difficult to play, a piece by Rachmaninoff and it's "Prelude in C-sharp Minor." It's a bit of a party piece for a lot of people - it sounds more complicated than it is. But it has this one rundown towards the end of the piece, which is where the two hands play in this manner, where the two hands play alternatively. In that particular case, it's actually playing in triplets, which is a slightly different effect.

For many people, it used to be, just how fast could you play it? And people tried as fast as they could. I always thought it sounded a lot better if you played it slower, because then you really got the feel of the rhythm of it. So, rather than sort of [sound of rolling tongue] which is what most people like to play it at because if you could it meant you were a very good player, for me, I liked the du-du-du-du-du-du feel. It immediately became something else.

When I was working with Genesis, it just seemed to be something that fitted so well into the rock world, because it meant the piano was sort of playing like a high-hat, but nevertheless making a kind of musical sound at the same time.

So it's something I've used over the years many times. Sometimes you hear a very fast phrase, you play the two hands separately, you can play a faster phrase than you could ever play with one hand. So, I've used it a few times over the years and this, perhaps, is the most recent example of it.

Songfacts: Many people have spent hours deconstructing your compositions, like trying to figure out how you play "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway," for instance. What's the song by another artist that you spent a lot of time deconstructing?

Tony, 1973Tony, 1973
Tony: Well, I'm always more interested in the harmony and chords, so The Beach Boys Pet Sounds was always a bit of a challenge for me. When it came out, there had been nothing quite like it in terms of the sort of harmonies it was using. So, the song that really puzzled me, and it still partly puzzles me, is the song "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)," which doesn't sound as complicated as all that but it just goes through all these key changes as it goes along. To me, it's just such a wonderful construction and beautiful piece of music.

So, that's the kind of thing that I find a little more difficult. I can do it, but they're certainly much more challenging. So much of pop music is very easy to work out: it's got three or four chords and you know roughly what it's going to do and what it does. But, the songs on Pet Sounds are much more complex. That was the first time I'd ever heard that degree of complexity in pop music.

Songfacts: You've talked about The Beatles also being a big influence, but like The Beach Boys, they're another band that didn't have a keyboard player, per se. So, what did you take away from The Beatles?

Tony: Well, it's all about the construction of the songs, I suppose. I just love the way that they did unusual things. Right from the beginning, they didn't use the chord sequences in quite the way that anyone else had. There were just some little changes they would have that made them more interesting. You take a song like "I Want To Hold Your Hand," the middle eight of that, for example, does something. The way the key changes at that point is something I hadn't heard before.

And they carried that on that way through their career. Well, certainly up to and including Magical Mystery Tour, with, I suppose, "I Am The Walrus" being one of the most adventurous songs they did harmonically. They were able to do incredibly simple things incredibly well, and they were the right age for me - they were my idols when I was 14 or 15. The Beatles were the thing for me.

So, it was bound to have a big influence on me and they just did so many good compositions. With so many groups, you'd buy an album and be a bit disappointed, but with The Beatles every track was great, barring maybe one or two songs, but apart from that, they were just fantastic.

Songfacts: Well, that sounds like the way you approached Genesis. It seemed like you were making your best effort to create something original and intriguing with every track.

Genesis, 1973Genesis, 1973
Tony: Yes, well, I think we were lucky at the time. In the early '70s, there was a real outlet for music that wasn't single-based. Our very first album, From Genesis To Revelation, we did in 1969 and that was an attempt at singles mainly. To be honest, we were trying to write hits and it didn't really work that way. Then, after that, we had a period when we started playing together with the possibility of playing live, and we started to get more adventurous. We decided we weren't going to worry about singles - we were just going to write what occurred to us and if a song became very long, it would become very long.

I loved where it could take you. And, I think, from a live performance point of view, it became very exciting. The audience could follow us through these pieces that went through a lot of changes and didn't repeat and react to the way you thought they were going to. It was just great freedom.

Songfacts: Absolutely. And, really the opus is "Supper's Ready." I would like to hear what you think about that song today.

Tony: It still really works for me. It's one of those things when we were playing along, it seemed to have a direction. The early part, the acoustic part, was a piece that I'd written on the guitar and I thought it had great atmosphere and it could go somewhere else. We'd already done the song "The Musical Box" on the previous album, and the idea was perhaps this to be the follow-up of "The Musical Box."

But, we were going along, and it was doing some nice stuff, and then we had this other song, it was a song of Peter's called "Willow Farm" that was a separate song. We were doing this pretty little bit in the middle of "Supper's Ready," and I thought, wouldn't it be fantastic if we stopped the song suddenly and just go into this "Willow Farm," really ugly little downward chord sequence that happens at the front of it. I thought it would just be such a great contrast.

Once we'd done that, it took on a whole other level. The drums were in there playing heavily and it became such a big thing. And, I think particularly, the climax which occurs with the "Apocalypse in 9/8," which is a sort of extended keyboard solo that ends in massive chords with fantastic vocal performance from Peter, it still really works.

It's 25 minutes, and I think if you've got the patience – unfortunately, not many people have the patience anymore – but if you've got the patience I think it's still rewarding now.

A beloved track among the Genesis faithful is "Firth Of Fifth," from the 1973 album Selling England By The Pound. A little under 10-minutes long, it was one of their most enduring live numbers, with Phil Collins handling the vocals after Peter Gabriel left. Not unusual for Genesis, the title is never mentioned in the lyric, which is filled with waterfalls, madrigals and sheep inside their pen. Tony was kind enough to unravel it.
Songfacts: How did you come up with the title "Firth Of Fifth"?

Tony: Well, there's a river in Scotland called the Forth, and the word for a delta, or inlet in Scotland is a firth. So, it's known as the Firth of Forth. It's sort of north of Edinburgh. So, I thought, forth, fifth, you know, Firth of Fifth.

We're talking about the early '70s here, so it was a little bit pretentious, in a way. But, it's quite a fun title. It's totally untranslatable, of course, so I'm always getting these questions from Germans and French people asking, "What does it mean?"

It sounds more profound, in a way, than it is because it was supposed to be just a slight joke, really, as a title.

Songfacts: Tell me about the lyric to that song.

Tony: Well, it's not my best lyric, I have to say. Mike and I wrote the lyric together, although it was mainly me - I won't put too much of the blame on Mike. I don't know really. It was just following the idea of a river and then I got a bit caught up in the cosmos and I don't quite know where I ended up, actually.

But, it just about stands up, I think, for the song. For me, musically, it's got two or three really strong moments in it and fortunately they really carried us along. It's become one of the Genesis classics and I'm very happy for that.

Songfacts: How did you play the open to that?

Tony: Well, I just played it on a piano. It was kind of difficult at the time. I remember in the studio we were in, it was very difficult to get the noise of the pedal out of the way, so I tried to play it without the pedal, which was a bit difficult to do because it's not the easiest thing to play.

But it was something I'd wrote and developed. I had this sort of arpeggio idea that I was working with. I'd written another piece which used a similar feel, which we never ended up using, and I just had this section of it, which I then developed and made this piece of.

I thought it worked really well as a piano piece on its own, and then it worked well with an arrangement, as well. So, it's just one of those things. With Genesis, we just did what appealed to us, really. We didn't worry too much how other people were going to respond to it.

It was a fun thing to do. It's a difficult thing to play live because, at the time, I didn't have a real piano. I tried to play it on the electric piano and that was quite difficult. I don't think it ever really sounded very good, but it was fun to try.

Songfacts: When I spoke with Mike Rutherford, he said that creating a dark atmosphere was something that came easily for him. What comes easily for you?

Tony: Well, the dark atmosphere, that was the general Genesis thing. I do like to create drama. I like dramatic chords - drama, beauty, moods. The mood of a piece is a very important thing to me, and I do like slightly more extravagant chords, perhaps, than many people in the business and, to be honest, many of the people in the audience as well. I love the way that you can do things. That's why I mentioned Brian Wilson before with Pet Sounds.

And, I like what you might call early 20th century classical music, where it was still conventional harmony but they started to get quite experimental with it - before it got discordant. When it gets discordant I lose interest. So, that's what I hoped to bring into Genesis: a more interesting harmonic approach to pop music than was generally the case at the time. Most people were still banging around on three chords. As much as I love the three chords, which so much music is built out of, I'm probably better at doing the more elaborate stuff. So, that's what I bring to the party.

Songfacts: Which Genesis song has the most extravagant chords?

Tony: Well, that's an interesting question, actually. We've mentioned one or two I suppose. "Firth Of Fifth" has quite a few of them. "One For The Vine" is a song I wrote which has a lot of them, and "Burning Rope," which is off the next album [And Then There Were Three... (1978)]. Those have quite a bit of that sort of thing in them. I've introduced it into other songs, as well. Even later songs like "Domino," the middle part in particular, I've taken the chords places where they weren't supposed to go.

I sometimes take it as far as I can and then I'd get a look. I used to get a look from Mike or Phil and they'd say, "You've gone too far this time." But, I would try to slip a few things in without them noticing. Even a simple song like "Hold On My Heart," the opening chords are pretty exotic, actually, and I crept those in without them really noticing what was happening.

I never want to be too straightforward, I suppose. It's a difficult one, this, because I do like simple music when other people do it, but I don't find it so easy to do myself. I find it easier to do stuff where it goes a bit weird.

Songfacts: One of the songs that seems fairly simple, but might not be, is "That's All." I would love to hear how that came together in the studio and your thoughts on it.

Tony: Well, we were just improvising in the studio and Mike was playing a bit on guitar. With the Emulator, I was able to sample bits and pieces as we were going along. I sampled this bit of Mike's, which didn't sound very good, so I actually slowed it down to about half or quarter speed, and it sort of played a suggestion of the riff that became "That's All." It wasn't quite the same, but it had a suggestion of it.

I played it on the piano like that, and I thought, this is really good. Phil went at it with a sort of "Rocky Raccoon" style drumming on it, which made it something it hadn't really been at all in the first place. Then I just wanted to keep it simple, chord-wise, and let it go where it would, rather than trying to combine it with another bit, which is sometimes what we used to do. We really let the song develop in itself, and I was pleased with that. That's a simpler Genesis song, but one that really works.

Songfacts: Why did you go with a homeless theme in the video?

Tony: I can't remember, actually. It was probably just "That's All," you know, the fact life's not so great and all that.

We were working with the people coming up with ideas for the videos. It wasn't my idea and I don't really remember why we did it. You're always looking for something in a video, in those days, anyhow, just to make it distinctive rather than just playing the song - which we did quite a few of. If we could find something else to do in it, as well, then I think it was a good thing to do. And, that slightly down-and-out feel seemed to go a little bit with the lyric, but it's not a perfect match.

Songfacts: You've never been afraid of a bum note. When you are working with an orchestra, I'm sure you're hearing lots of different things you might want to work on. What is that like for you?

Tony: Well, I have to get it right, I suppose. I think this is the reason why I've slightly changed the approach I've done on these three orchestral things. The first one [Seven: A Suite for Orchestra (2004)], I went in there, and that's what we did. We just got the scores together and then the orchestra played it back. Then we spent most of the time getting rid of the bum notes. We spent an awful lot of time doing that, because they would be in there, and by the time the session was up, we had to have it down and hopefully with no bum notes - that was my aim.

By the time I got to this one, I decided to record it, in a sense, more artificially, but hopefully it doesn't sound that way. So, I recorded all the parts separately so I could scrutinize every part. We made a big effort to make certain that the scores were just about perfect in terms of not having any errors in them, because that's normally where they come from. You get some errors from the score, which you can correct quite quickly once you hear them, and you get some players who persistently play the wrong note, but you can correct them too because you can actually hear them. When the whole orchestra's playing together it's sometimes quite difficult to hear. If it's one player that's just playing the wrong note, to pick out who that is, is sometimes quite difficult.

So, doing it this way made it, in fact, a lot quicker because you could scrutinize every part and get it right. I don't think there's any bum notes on there. Maybe I played a couple, but I think pretty much everything else is perfect.

Genesis, 1986Genesis, 1986
Songfacts: Is there a Genesis song where there's a bum note that made it to record and really stands out to you?

Tony: Well, the one I always think of comes at the end of "Supper's Ready" where Mike played the wrong bass note. It comes right at the end. I can't remember when we did the remixes whether we decided to try and correct it, and I think people got upset, is my recollection of that, because people got so used to it that you think it's not a bum note, but it was.

But, there'll be a few others. There's the odd line where someone's played something they shouldn't. But normally, you can pretty much get it right when you're in a recording studio. You've got the time and if you hear a bum note, then you can re-record it.

Songfacts: Is "Abacab" titled after the structure of the song?

Tony: That was the original idea and we went through various combinations of the song. In other words, you had Part A, Part B and Part C. We had various orders, and one order we had spelt A-B-A-C-A-B, you know, "Abacab," like that. But, it wasn't the final version of what we used. The final version was unpronounceable, so "Abacab" kind of stuck.

On that particular record, we were trying to get away from what was, at that point, traditionally Genesis, which was quite flowery and fantasy, and to go to something that was much more stark and abstract. That's why we went for an abstract art painting on the front and gave it this abstract title, Abacab, so, that it didn't conjure up any particular emotion at all. We started with a kind of blank canvas. It worked well as both a song and an album title, I think.

Tony's first concert was a good one: The Nice at the Marquee in London, 1967. He and Peter Gabriel went to the show, which Tony described as "staggering, incredible." On keyboards for The Nice was Keith Emerson, who later formed Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Emerson, who died in 2016, had a dazzling stage presence, but that's not what rubbed off on Tony.
Songfacts: The Nice with Keith Emerson was your first concert. How does your style compare to his?

Tony: Well, he has vastly better technique. He's a different kind of player, really. I was amazed by him when I watched him with The Nice at the Marquee. He was very flamboyant - he'd do all this stuff, and very impressive. But he was more of a player, in a way. I've always considered myself to be a writer rather than a player, although Keith did write and wrote some nice stuff. But, I always think he's more of a player than a writer, and that The Nice's best music was sort of arrangements of existing pieces: "Rondo," "America" and "She Belongs To Me."

I wasn't such a fan of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but their arrangements of Aaron Copland and things, that was probably the strongest things they did, in a way. So, I'd say he's more a player and I'm more a writer, and he was a much better player than I am, definitely.

Songfacts: Did you ever get the urge to levitate a piano or stab a keyboard?

Tony: No, I didn't, I have to say. But, he stuck the knife in the keyboard so that the note was sustained, and I did similar things with weights sometimes. Back in the days when all you had on stage was a Hammond organ, you had to find ways to get different sounds out of it. I used to do some of the switching it on and off stuff and all the rest of it, which was always quite fun to do. That was part of the thing that Keith did.

But, I'm very happy to be totally unnoticed on stage, which is not going to surprise anybody who has ever seen Genesis, whereas Keith wanted to be seen. He loved being up there and doing it, whereas I didn't really want to be a showman. I loved playing the stuff and I was very lucky to be up there with people who really could perform, like Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins in particular, but everybody. I was able to be there as an accompanist rather than a showman, so I never had a desire to have a levitating piano, no.

Songfacts: What's the Genesis song that seems most prescient today?

Tony: Well, it's tedious but "Land Of Confusion" is always pretty good, really. The world still seems pretty bizarre. You could do a new version of it today. The video, which was actually a really good video, you could do another one today with a completely new set of people and it would be just as relevant.

This also applies to another song which was on the same album, "Domino," which explored a similar theme but in a slightly deeper manner. It was darker, and that's still valid, I suppose.

But, in terms of prescience, I remember I wrote the song "One Man's Fool," which was on the Calling All Stations album [1997]. If anybody hears it now, they would assume that that lyric was referring to the bombing of the Twin Towers, but it wasn't. It was written four years before, and yet it sounds like we were recalling that. I was actually writing about a bomb attack in Manchester, in England, which was done by the IRA at the time, and the idea that people carry out these attacks and did they really believe that, all the destruction, that it really is worth it? But, it still works, unfortunately, because we have this kind of terrorism still out there.

I was quite proud of the lyric when I wrote it, and because the album wasn't a great success, it's probably got a bit lost. But, it's a lyric worth listening to, I think.

February 20, 2018
Here's our 2015 interview with Tony. 5 is available at
Photos 3,4,5 courtesy of the Genesis Archive

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Comments: 3

  • Ashlyn from Usa"I wasn't such a fan of Emerson, Lake & Palmer" -- haha I love you, Tony. :) But come on man, YOU are the much better player by far!
  • Agustin Silva D. from Santiago, Chile.Very interesting interview. Thanks.
  • Silvio Ciapica from ItalyA very beautiful interview, Thanks, so much
see more comments

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