It’s a rainy day in New York, and London-born, Switzerland-based Phil Collins is making the most of his time stateside. The 59-year-old singer/songwriter/drummer has brought his two youngest sons with him for a summer vacation. They’ve visited the Alamo in San Antonio-collecting artifacts from the 1836 battle is Collins’ abiding passion these days, a hobby he can clearly afford, having sold 11.2 million albums as a solo artist during the Nielsen SoundScan era alone, while Genesis has moved 9.3 million albums in the same period.
But he also has a new record to promote: “Going Back,” a collection of vintage soul covers, will be released on Atlantic Sept. 28 in North America and Sept. 14 in the rest of the world. It was recorded with musicians including three alumni of legendary Motown session players the Funk Brothers-and one of the music teachers from his 9-year-old son Nicholas’ school.
“I wanted to keep it a low-key, low-profile album,” Collins says of the self-produced set. “I wanted it to be fun.”
There were other, more practical reasons for keeping the recording simple. While he has a hearing ailment that has “leveled off,” a nerve-induced problem with the grip on his left hand meant Collins had to tape his drum sticks to his hands during recording. He doesn’t think he’ll fully play the instrument ever again. Which makes the cover image of “Going Back” all the more poignant: a photograph of a well-scrubbed 12-year-old Philip Collins, poised over a drum kit.
In an interview with Billboard, Collins reveals his love of Motown and why Genesis is finally over.
How did the idea for this album come about?
I didn’t really have any desire to make another record. I figured it would be the most difficult thing to do; to do another record and then still maintain the time that I want to spend with my kids. As soon as you start making a record, things start getting lined up: the promotion, possibly even a tour. So I was ready to do nothing. But Tony Smith, my manager, mentioned as an aside one day, “Why don’t you think about doing a Motown covers album?” And I thought, “Actually, that is something I’ve always wanted to do.” And it sounded like it could be fun. So I started to work on demos in my studio at home. That took about nine months.
What are some of the songs you recorded?
The first song I decided to do was [Holland-Dozier-Holland’s] “In My Lonely Room.” One of my favorite bands in the ’60s growing up was [British R&B group] the Action, and they did that song in their set, and it was the B-side of their first single. When I worked with Lamont Dozier in the ’80s on the music for “Buster” [the 1988 British film in which Collins took the lead role], he’d mentioned that “In My Lonely Room” was one of his favorite songs that they had written, because he’d written most of it himself. And it was a darker choice-not many people knew the song.
How did you go about creating an album of Motown and soul classics that didn’t sound like it was made in 2010?
We tried to use the technology of today to get it to sound like the technology of yesterday. We did a lot of research into how they recorded things back then. In fact, when we were mastering the record in New York, at Universal Mastering East, that studio coincidentally is the storage venue for all the Motown masters. So as a treat they gave me two or three songs to listen to in isolation-I could hear the drums on “Dancing in the Street.” That was incredible.
You’ve said that these 18 tracks are “pretty much the Action’s set list.” What was it about that band that spoke to you so much?
I wish I knew. [Initially] they only did covers, but they did this material in their own way, but still holding the original material with reverence. And they had a fantastic drummer, Roger Powell, from whom I take an awful lot of influence. And we’d always go down and see them at [legendary London venue] the Marquee because we knew we were going to hear the songs we liked and new songs we could then take back to play in our school band. They were thought to be one of the next big things-they were produced by George Martin at the same time as he was working with the Beatles, which was unusual for him. They were without a doubt my biggest influence.
In your first band, Flaming Youth, then in Genesis, you didn’t have the opportunity to explore this side of your musical tastes.
No, never. That’s one of the reasons I did this record. Those couple of pages were torn out of my book. You usually go through a phase, certainly in America, where you’re a bar band or playing clubs, and you’re trying to infiltrate the material you’ve written quite slowly in amongst the covers. I remember seeing Yes doing the same thing-when they started they were an incredible band. But I was just never in that situation, because Genesis never did anybody else’s material.
As your solo career took off in the early ’80s, you were also putting in time producing other artists, notably Eric Clapton.
I met Eric in the late ’70s when I was working with John Martyn, and we became firm friends. We were kind of country neighbors [living outside London]. I used to gravitate to his house pretty much every day. We used to go to football together, we played music, played pool and billiards into the night, did lots of naughty things . . . It was great fun. I don’t think he actually knew what I did though. And one day I was playing Hammersmith Odeon. And I invited Patti Boyd, who was then his wife, and Eric to the show. And he was kind of blown away when he found out that I was actually in his business.
How did your relationship become a professional one?
Eventually, because I was starting to become pretty well-known for the sound of my records as well as anything else, he rang me up one day and said, “Do you fancy producing my record?” He said, “[Producer] Tom Dowd’s been talking about trying to get some Phil Collins sound on the record somehow. And I thought, “Well, I know you, so I might as well miss out the third man and go straight to the boss.” That became “Behind the Sun.”
You also drummed with Robert Plant on his first solo U.S. tour and famously played both the London and Philadelphia Live Aid shows in 1985. Were those kinds of gigs as exciting to you as being in the studio and recording?
Oh, yeah. Doing stuff with Robert and Eric was far more exciting for me than working with Genesis, frankly. I even played on something with [Pete] Townshend, for an artist that he was producing. And that was around the time that Moony [Who drummer Keith Moon] died. And I remember saying, “If you ever need a drummer, I’m there. I’ll leave Genesis in a moment if you needed me for the Who.” I would have died for that job.
You won an Academy Award in 1999 for “You’ll Be in My Heart” from “Tarzan,” as well as seven Grammy Awards and two Golden Globes. And this year, Genesis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and you received the Johnny Mercer Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Which of your plaudits means the most?
The Oscar was well up there. It’s not often that an English drummer gets an Oscar. So I’m very, very proud of that. But the Johnny Mercer Award is from your peers, and it’s a songwriting thing, so it’s not a bullshitty award. Some awards you get if you turn up and show your face.
What key changes have you noticed in the industry in the 40 years since you joined Genesis?
To see a lot of the smaller labels disappear or get gobbled up by the bigger labels, that’s a shame. It was a bit of a shock at first to see the demise of the record stores. But to me, I’m still having to do the same things I had to do 10 or 20 years ago. Although the amount of records that it takes to chart-that’s a big surprise. I grew up in the day when the Beatles sold 1 million singles in a week. And all you’ve got to do now is sell about 10,000 singles and you’re in the charts.
What does the future hold for Genesis?
I think Genesis are no longer. I don’t foresee me doing any more Genesis shows. Not because I don’t like it or don’t want to. But it doesn’t fit in with my life and wanting to be with the boys, and taking onboard [my other interests like] the Alamo and writing a book about that. And the other stuff that I’d like to do-and that includes doing nothing as well. But also, I can’t physically play the drums. I don’t want to sound like a spoiled kid, like I’ve had my stuff and I don’t want to do it anymore. But I have done it all my life, and now I’m enjoying another side of life.
You set up the release of “Going Back” with a short run of shows in Philadelphia and New York and at Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival earlier in the summer, and you’ve said you might do more if the album does well. Beyond that, would you consider doing a greatest-hits tour?
Well, I would say, “Never say never.” But I don’t think I would do it in a traditional touring way. If I ever did anything else like that, it would be a couple of weeks on, three weeks off.
Will you do another album of original material?
I haven’t got the material yet. That kind of thing starts to answer itself when you sit down in the studio and try to write. I’ve got two or three things that I really like that I’ve already written. They’re very dark, very sad, some of them. But I’m still at the same point that I was: If something was to come up behind me and surprise me, I’d put it out. Whether I’d put it out in the traditional way is another question.