Invisible Men & Alice
Anthony speaks to Geoff Parkyn about the Invisible Men album and the Alice musical.
This interview originally appeared in issues #31 and #32 of Genesis information Magazine.
Invisible Men has been out in the US for a while now, hasn't it?
Invisible Men came out in the US in late autumn, after an enormous amount of trouble with the cutting. The Americans rejected two cuts, saying that it didn't sound like the original tape they had heard - but it was cut at The Townhouse, which is about the best place in London, so that was very strange. Ian Cooper was very good about it though, he did it again once, but the second time he was a bit beside himself - he just didn't know what else to do!
I think sometimes the Americans like to flex their muscles, that was my opinion on it - I won't say that they don't know what they are talking about, but we got a whole list of notes back from the cutting engineer in New York, saying things like ; 'This doesn't sound good', comments which weren't technical at all, but actually becoming quite subjective and critical - and I think something like that from a cutting engineer isn't really on.
They suggested remixing it - so it had taken them three months to realise it wasn't the cutting but it was actually the basic sound. But then finally having decided it would cost them money to remix it, they decided to put it out - three months' delay for nothing. That is a bit frustrating but I suppose the album coming out in June in the States might not have been a particularly good idea. The fact that it came out in September wasn't such a particularly bad thing actually, but it was a bit of an odd saga. You lose momentum when things get held up.
Especially for you, because by then you were working on another project.
Well, that's right - and financially there was a lot hinged on the album, and whilst it was all up in the air it was very difficult to get involved in anything else which required an outlay of cash, because quite frankly there wasn't too much. That's the difficulty with albums; very much all your eggs in one basket, and if it doesn't come off obviously it can leave you fairly high and dry. In the case of Invisible Men we have just about broken even on cost, but in terms of making a profit and having money to mend the garden fences, feed the cat; that sort of thing we are now looking to the UK Europe and Japan to actually sell some records.
And that's due out here in the UK on Friday?
Yes, Friday the 13th! Very apt - I don't know whose idea that was!
What label will it be on?
It's on a label called Street Tunes; a small independent, but in some ways it's better to be with an efficient independent label where there is a bit of energy and dynamism; as opposed to an amorphous biggie who give you all the lines and then do nothing. John Glover who runs Street Tunes is a very nice bloke who is very enthusiastic about it and has a tight efficient unit. They are doing a 12" single, so anything can happen - I don't personally think it's a hit.
Which track is that?
It's Sally which the Americans picked up on and changed the running order of the album so it was stuck on first. I thought there were others which were much more obvious.
The one I actually like best is Going For Broke. To me that particularly stands out.
Really? Well, that's a powerful track. I suppose the fact that everyone disagrees means that there isn't one sure-fire single. If everyone starts agreeing and saying 'That's definitely it' then I suppose you have got a good chance. I don't think there is anything that obvious or clear cut, so were one to make it I think it would have to be a bit of luck. There are two or three that were thought of very visually in terms of video; and one has to do that really.
You could do a good video for Golden Bodies, couldn't you?
Well, Golden Bodies; Love In A Hot Air Balloon and another one - all full of very visual interpretations. A good video will make or break something at the moment.
Unfortunately it seems you don't get a fair hearing now without a video ready to promote it.
I think that's sad in a way. On the other hand some very good videos are done, and it creates a whole new art form. There are a lot of cliches already creeping in but some of them are superb - and I am as much a sucker for them as anyone else, I must admit! I've always liked films; odd images and stuff. I just hope I get an opportunity because some of the tracks are funny, witty and not too serious - like Love In A Hot Air Balloon and Golden Bodies are really very tongue-in-cheek.
We recorded so many songs and whittled it down, spent far too long on the album and by the time we got to the end some of the "poppy" ones were just palling so badly - from palling to appalling! That is the difficulty. As you know, I like to work in all different styles and to keep the freshness going, but that album went on too long and the "poppy" stuff was great fun to do initially, but by the time I'd been at it for six months and we were going through the overdub stage; then the vocal stage; then the mixing stage, some of it just died a death for me. That's where people like Phil Collins are so good - a quick turnover with no time to get bored with anything. If you can get that momentum going, I think it's tremendous. I hope in the future that is something I will be doing - and Alice has been good because there has been no time to get stale or bored about that!
Alice is your new musical that's just opened in Leeds..
Yes, and we had to move quite quickly - the whole thing was done in three or four months.
Have you written all the music for it?
Yes, I had a fair amount of help from Richard Scott in shaping it at the start, but from my M D, John Owen Edwards in the middle and later part. John didn't want to be credited, but we have co-credited him on one track - there is something that I was given the words for - yet another pastiche, there's a lot of pastiches in Alice, a very distinctive start; a bluesy cabaret soul singer. John came up with some rough things that were just so good, and I'd never written anything in that style before. He is credited on that; but he really helped to tie up the loose ends, used all his technical know-how for all the linking, the keys; the vocalist - just things you don't think about if you are writing for yourself.
Were you working to a set storyline?
Some of the songs came from writing Masquerade. Richard Scott said to me; 'You can't waste these songs' so we had another crack at them. It was Tony Smith's idea; which was to do something based around Alice In Wonderland. We did a demo tape with three or four from Masquerade and some new ones; but it was quite a loose idea. At that point there wasn't a proper storyline or a "book" as they call it.
Initial interest came from David Puttnam and he thought it was great; but after a few months there wasn't any follow through. Then we heard Carl Davis and Alan Wells were doing an Alice, so we were a little dispirited. Then an Alice in the States lost $2 million on Broadway, so we were a bit "schtum. Don't mention ze var".
How it came about was by chance really. I had singing lessons from the same guy that Mike Rutherford from Genesis had; John Owen Edwards. During the time I had singing lessons we were always chatting about things - it was always hard to stay on the work really. He was very involved in classical things; he is an arranger an I found I was getting dragged into classical composers. At some stage through all this rambling, the idea of the musical came up - I mentioned this idea and theme - and he remembered it when he was up in Leeds working on things. He mentioned it to them; and they were looking for a musical.
How does the storyline differ from the original?
Well; John Harrison; the director, came down from Leeds and quizzed Richard and I, and we had the bare bones of a story but neither of us had written any plays before, so he got Nicholas Hytner the young blue-eyed boy of the operatic world, to take it to the theatre; to guide Richard along and shape the story. Originally it was a wild a idea involving trips to Venice - there was going to be a love affair in Venice - and I do love Venice as well!
This got phased out, and Nick is a bit of a radical; his effective contribution was to get a lot of the stuff that was playing safe out of it; and to make it a bit more radical. He didn't feel it should be presented in a conventional style. The characters from Alice are there in some form or another interpreted in our own way, and it's quite fun sitting in the musical and hearing some of the erudite people saying; 'There's the caterpillar' they can obviously log it. It's not that obvious, though, and we have written in a love affair as well; and the overthrow of the evil queen, which I thought was a good idea.
I think Alice In Wonderland as it stands which is just a series of random adventures; a kind of dream world; it's a bit difficult as in a sense there's no end, except for waking up from a dream. I think in musical theatre musicals are all about very simple ideas. Richard became interested in the relationship that Lewis Carroll had supposedly had with Alice, and his aim was to try to have a two tier world; (1) to develop the relationship between the two of them and (2) was the dream world. It's not as divided as that in the musical though, the two just intersperse, but there is a character written in who gradually leads Alice out of her super-technical; stereotyped; synthetic world; back in to the past; where she is then emancipated from these 1984 "shackles" if you like - and she meets all these reprobates who lead her astray and into a land of passion and dreams and love in the end.
So it is fairly simple; but I think that gives it more of a theme; a continuity and the feeling of something developing and building to a climax that I don't think is there in the original story. We haven't copped any of the "prostitution of Lewis Carroll's marvellous work" which we could have done.
Will there be an album from this?
Well, I hope so. It's too early to know yet. I don't feel anyone would do an album unless the musical gets to London. It's not out of the question, though. Somebody might think the music is great; and think that the rest of it is not right. You just can't say.
If you take Jesus Christ Superstar, that was merely an album to start with, and the stage show was only picked up on later...
Yes, and a lot of people had grave doubts about that to start with, didn't they. A lot of people didn't take royalties - they just took session fees. If this gets to London we can be relatively assured of a record. Beyond that I think it would take a lot of keenness from one of the record companies to do it because it would cost a fair amount of money for a cast album as you are paying all these extra session fees for lots of people. I suppose it could be prohibitive as you would be looking at £30-40,000 but I do hope it happens!
There are good melodies and we definitely worked with a very different style of writing and I learned so much. You can only have a few moments where the action freezes; where you have your normal song; the rest of the time the action has to develop through the songs; and therefore things have got to have more sections with quick changes and colour, and the vocal style has to be different as well. We used to call it the "declamatory" style but that is it - that's the only way you can get it over.
And also I suppose you have to tell the story and changing scenes through the lyrics.
That's right exactly. It can be very difficult - I think Richard did an incredibly good job. I wouldn't have liked to have written the lyrics, but it is fascinating world to work in. Musically I was given a marvellous brief - in terms of a challenge I couldn't have asked for any more really. It covers the whole gamut right through from modern synth; electronic pop; right the way through to pastiches of things like Charlestons, and stuff like that.
The other thing is having your music choreographed is the ultimate ego trip - it's never happened to me before. People say to me 'What's it like?' and I say it's absolutely wonderful. Heather Seymour who did it is very good, she did Monty Python's "Meaning Of Life" the Every Sperm Is Sacred scene, and she did the film version of Annie. I just love the idea of people dancing to my music; the first day of rehearsals was an experience I will never forget - going into different rooms and hearing some people singing, then other people dancing to it - it is very difficult to be critical really.
So did you spend a lot of time in Leeds while all the rehearsals were going on?
Well, the Leeds period was very short. We had a week's music rehearsal in London; three and a half weeks in Leeds, during which time just about everything had to happen. Obviously the music had to be written and thank God not too much of it had to change. We had to arrange the entire show while we were up there. You can see that again it is a totally different thing - you can't arrange any of the music until you know A) what's actually in, B) dramatically how it is going to be couched, and C) what changes to make with verses, choruses, bridges - you have to be so adaptable and so quick, and that is where your experienced musical director comes in. They have control of the techniques and understand how the linking happens because there are so many things that come into play, such as scenery changes.
We had about a week to do the entire arrangement, and in the end the keyboard players, it's a rock band you see, were mostly working from the rehearsal score; didn't have time to write out a complete keyboard part. It was just frantic and I have never had to work so hard in my life before actually. I never realised when I got to Leeds it was going to be like that, but it was because of the smallness of the operation - we didn't have a full time arranger, which you normally have, you see. John, our musical director was doubling as arranger as well. In the day he was with the singers, I was at home arranging and in the evening he would come and join me. But I had not written "band" parts for musical before - you have to know all the technical things like repeats and funny signs - so we really had our work cut out up there!
But I am sure after a while you remember it as being quite exciting, and then start to think you would like to do something like that again.
You are quite right - but there was a point where I was having to work very quickly, very inspire din terms of writing other parts, and very neat with writing music. I can write music very quickly but illegibly for myself, but only I can read it. I think to write quickly and neatly is a practised art. Also trying to be creative and writing inspired parts, for say; back up guitars. Apart from that, yes it was terribly exciting. The cast were very enthusiastic and that kind of team atmosphere is really something I haven't experienced for a very long time. Even doing albums just with a few friends doesn't have the same kind of momentum with all the different elements coming together - absolutely wonderful.
Possibly with theatre work the sound quality of the music isn't taken as carefully as, for instance, at a rock concert?
It was underestimated and we knew that. In the dress rehearsals the production team just sat there with their mouths open!
In a lot of ways musicals would suit you because you can spend your time writing and working on other projects, and then have someone else go out and perform them.
That's quite right. Apart from any other reasons I just know how bored I'd get by having to go over the same material. I have to keep being creative and doing new things.
Well that always strikes me as the worst aspect of taking a band on the road. Never mind a different hotel room every night or months away from home, but playing almost the same set every night.
That's why I feel for the improvising bands; the jazz bands; it's a completely different ball game because for them there really isn't that compositional structure, it all in the playing. The live playing is the key thing. I take my hat off to the Genesis boys because just doing the same thing for all those months - you have to be very tough, very resilient I think. Which I'm not, I'd get bored. I still wouldn't rule out touring - if I could get my Argentinian mate back from Argentina for a few selected acoustic things; I 'd do it. There isn't a great deal of encouragement because the records don't sell a great deal. If there's more opportunity for working in the theatre, then I'd definitely take it because it is a way of life that could definitely get under my skin, I think.
Surely it is also exciting to see a larger interpretation of your work extending, as opposed to the studio work being the completion.
Yes, finishing albums has been a bit of a dead end in a way for me - because that's it. But then here is a show living through other people's performances of it.
Do you have another private Parts & Pieces album in the pipeline?
Well, it's done actually. Private Parts & Pieces IV was finished last September I think it is the last of the archive material, some of it stretches back to the last days of Send Barns. It was doing the album with Quique, I put down a lot of twelve string, and I had some synthesiser ramblings from the 1984 era which hadn't got on that, so PP & P IV is a mixture of those two. More acoustic than synth.
It's good now, because I have no archives, which is great because I haven't spent any time on the twelve string for ages and I actually can't wait to get back to it. I am toying with doing something based around Peter Cross's first book. Pete's getting a lot of interest now from a big American publishing house; Random House; and I think his career is going to go up and up. It may well be that we get the chance to do a large scale musical around it.
Will the Invisible Men be an ongoing project?
Well, I have no choice but to go on with what is paying the bills. I would love to keep all the projects going because I feel different people like different groups of material. But I worry a bit that in trying to spread myself I am not particularly known for any particular area, but I can't really judge that one. It keeps my freshness - being able to nip from the acoustic guitar area into the synth area; and then hopefully back into the theatre - I would love to keep it all going.
I suppose you would quite like Quique to come over and do some more acoustic duets?
I would love to, but again he is stuck in Argentina, and he writes to me all the time saying how much he misses being here. It is difficult for him to get back, and the other thing is that the Private Parts & Pieces albums simply don't sell enough at the moment. In strictly financial terms, it is not actually viable for me to split it with someone else; which is terribly sad but if one is to keep the series going ; then it has got to be done. It is that or don't do it; and I think the answer is to carry on doing it. I have just been hoping that in one particular area I would crack it; whether it be songs, theatre work, or films, whatever; and hope it can feed the other areas.
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