Phil Collins Interviews

GQ 1996
ANDREW CORSELLO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEPHANIE PFRIENDER

 

he timid knock comes just five minutes after I've been shown to what's known as the Blue Room, where every surface, floor, wall, ceiling, bed-sheet, lamp shade, bathroom tile, grouting of bathroom tile is sky blue. The place, which Phil Collins and his entourage have rented for the past two months, and where he's just finished recording his latest album, is a castle of sorts, thirty minutes from his new home in Geneva and set high in the Alps, overlooking the French city of Annecy.

"'S me!" comes a wee, English-accented voice from the other side.

"'Me'?"

The answer: a skilled flourish of a knock that begins with a brush of fingertips and ends with a tricky mordent struck on the knuckles.

"Sounds like some wanna-be drummer," I say.

"Heh-heh."

"Phil?" I venture, opening up, and it is. "How'd you know?"

"The voice, Phil, the voice",sheer and steely, as when he sings, though stripped in speech of the insistent glimmering edge that, in much of his music, makes him sound sincerely pissed off. Phil Collins's speaking voice is, in fact, distinctly pleasant.

"Well, first off," he says, stepping in, "I feel ...I feel like 1 know you." His manager, it turns out, has dug up some clips of mine, including a lengthy autobiographical essay published last fall that, among other things, offered a glimpse into my love life. "You must realize how rare this is for me," he continues. "I mean, coming into these things, it's usually me with a stranger who already knows everything about me. All the personal business, all the ... messiness, you know?"

By this he no doubt means his transition over the past year, at the age of 45, from one life to another: from England to Geneva; from his second wife, Jill, to his 23-year-old Swiss Miss, Orianne; from his twenty-five-year attachment to the art-rock band Genesis to a solely solo career.

"I'm the one with the questions now," he says, grinning at the role reversal. This questioning of the questioner is a rare pleasure for Collins, a man who feels that the hue and cry of the British tabloid press-He doesn't just overdrum his arrangements, goes the refrain, he's a bad husband, too!-has driven him from his homeland and his former self like a tinnitus. In fact, in "Wear My Hat," perhaps the most infectious tune on his new album, Dance Into the Light, Collins sings a tongue-in-cheek tribute to his overfamiliar fans and their unquenchable thirst for gossip/autographs/bodily contact, etc.: "She said, `Listen babe, you don't know me. /No, you don't know me-but you owe me.' "

"Ask away," I say.

"OK. How's Jen? I want to talk about Jen!"

Two minutes into it with Phil Collins, and he's grilling me about girlfriends.

"She sounds lovely," he offers.

"She certainly is," I say. "We're good friends."

"Oh," he says, "I know how that goes." Collins, it turns out, is one of those people who have no qualms about plung-ing into the personal. Yours. His. Whatever. It's endearing, actually. "An interview," he says, "is an awfully artificial way of communicating, don't you think?" And then he'll just chat you up. He's loath to hold forth; he's no Sting. Phil's is a quizzical, hesitating intelligence; he brings more questions than answers to the table. Some are for you, but many others are regardless of you, sprinkled randomly into the air of a room. How does love work? Why does it break? How do you heal? Can song take the place of tears? His question marks settle on the surfaces of things like dust, lending every conversation he enters an air of bewilderment. "I'm just trying to figure it all out," he'll say plaintively, more to himself than to you. "Some things you can't explain."

"But you - I mean you can suggest them," I suggest.

"What are you suggesting?" he asks.

That he's not a "verbal" lyricist, that the best of his lyrics and music work to create an atmosphere, rather than to articulate something. Take "In the Air Tonight" - perhaps his best - known tune. The song is no more than a pall, a bitter, unspecific feeling rendered but not explained. It hints. It stays vague. Phil floats through its verses as a kind of all-seeing phantom, "I don't know if you know who I am", telling someone (a man? a woman?) in slicing, metallic tones that "I know where you've been." The gist being, "You may fool them, but I know all about your lies, and you got yours comin'." What was the offense? What was the relationship? Best left unsaid; the song creates an emotional hollow into which the listener pours his own circumstance.

"I don't even know what it's about," Phil says. "In America people are always coming up to me on the street and asking [of the line, 'If you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand'], 'Is it true that you saw someone drowning and didn't help?'"

"Maybe you repressed the memory."

"Egh. It's just a very angry song about my [first] divorce. Of course, there's no way for someone listening to know that."

"But what you do know listening to that song," I say, "is what this guy is like and what he's feeling."

"He's pissed."

"Righteously. The listener thinks, Yeah, I was there, too. And I also saw what you did, you bitch. You know?"

"Mmm," Phil says with a wry little grin. "Is that what you think?"

"'Take Me Home,'" I say, changing direction, "is similarly evocative."

"It's about an inmate in a mental institution."

"What? How the hell am I supposed to know that? I don't need to know that. I don't want to know that."

"But that line 'I've been a prisoner all my life' is a giveaway. "

"I didn't take it literally."

"You're awfully worked up about this, aren't you?"

"Look, I was 17 when No Jacket Required came out, OK? I didn't know what the hell was going on in my life. And the great thing about that song was its blank-slate quality. My friends and I used to get stoned and sit like freakin' zombies with that tune on repeat - we're talking hours, sometimes - and you'd come on sounding positively murderous, screaming, 'I've been a prisoner all my life! Take me home!' And we'd go, 'Yeah, man, we're, like, prisoners and shit!' Because in our own sub-verbal teen way, we were in it, whatever 'it' was, and we got it."

"Well, I don't know what that's all about. I guess at some level I'm not supposed to. Beyond a certain point, the music isn't mine anymore. It's yours. And what you take from it, you take from it. It probably means something that the words to a lot of my songs are spontaneous. I'll have the music, and then I'll just turn the microphone on, press Play and Record and sing. And whatever comes out ends up being the melody." Soon thereafter, apropos of virtually nothing, Collins takes on a faraway, reflective look and then careens into the deeply personal.

"You know, a song is like a kid. You bring it up. And sometimes something you thought was going to be fantastic, by the time it's finished, is a bit of a disappointment."

"How often do you see them?" I ask, referring to the two twenty-something children from his first marriage, who live half a world away from Geneva, in Vancouver.

"I haven't spoken to them for a year. Every day I wake up wondering if this is the day they're going to call me."

We discuss this at length.

"Call them," I implore.

"I'm not sure they want that. You see, without going into the real gory detail..." Collins begins, then does.

"Will you marry a third time?" I ask when he finishes.

"I've been a long-distance father," he says ruefully. "And I would like to marry and have more children. I would like to try and do it right."

The crucible of the past year - the second divorce, the move, the giddy press attention surrounding both informs much of Dance Into the Light.

"I've spent the last year and a half going through a very public separation, hiding in hotel lobbies," Collins says. "I never quite understood what the big fuss was about, but it certainly affected what kind of album I ended up putting out."

Not surprisingly, most of the new songs refer to free-dom of one kind or another. Following in the footsteps of his former Genesis band mate, Peter Gabriel, Collins has even written a tune about the liberation of South Africa. But unlike Gabriel's "Biko," and despite the circumstances underlying his current songwriting, Collins's "River So Wide" and many of the album's other songs sound as if they were conceived more in joy than longing.

Accordingly, Phil's longtime studio engineer, Hugh Padgham, has taken Collins's voice out of its usual stainless-steel casing and in the process given the album a softer, less menacing vocal presence. Collins, for his part, has taken a few cues from Paul Simon and imported all kinds of African percussion and rhythmic configurations. This means real rather than machine-programmed drums, which in the past have sometimes made Collins's arrangements sugary and overly dense. There's air moving through these tunes, a playfulness that was not the case with, say, "You Can't Hurry Love" seems amused and not at all cutesy. More often than not, only the voice gives away the songs as Collins's. Those who cheered the Guaranteed Phil Collins- Free Weekends that peppered the radio waves in the late '80s would do well to retest their tolerance for the man.

"I recently saw a TV program in which a young, radical journalist was interviewing Ice-T at his home," Collins says by way of addressing the question of whether he's as able now as he was in the mid-'80s to capture the young, urban "demo" that makes and breaks pop artists. "And the guy asked, 'What do you got in the record collection, Ice?' And lo and behold, all my albums were there. The guy said, `Aw, come on, man, what is this bullshit?' And Ice-T jumped on him and said, 'Don't mess with Phil, man. Don't you fucking mess with my Phil.' What can I say? I was flattered that the guy even knew I existed."

 

 

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