Mike Rutherford,
The TVD Interview

What do musical milestones mean to someone like Mike Rutherford? When you have invested nearly fifty years in one of the most iconic rock bands in the world, charted dozens of singles and sold 150 million+ albums, helped revolutionize the music video format, toured the world’s stadiums dozens of times over, and finally landed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame… where else is there to go? What else could you possibly do?

You just keep going. Mike Rutherford doesn’t like to live in the past. And while he is about to embark on a thirtieth anniversary tour with his band Mike + The Mechanics, he feels reflective rather than nostalgic. As Genesis was hitting their peak of worldwide pop stardom, Rutherford’s solo project became one of the most successful bands of the ‘80s. To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Living Years album, and the thirtieth anniversary of The Mechanics, Rutherford re-recorded his biggest hit, the Ivor Award-winning single of the same name. The remastered The Living Years (released on February 10) also includes rare recordings from a 1989 tour, the inclusion of which inspired Rutherford to embark not only on a 2015 Mechanics tour, but to give some brand new songs of his a live stage.

On top of all of these musical milestones, Rutherford published The Living Years: The First Genesis Memoir. Far from being a Keith Richards-style tell-all, the book does delve deeply into the inside story of his musical life, as one might expect. But it diverges from there into a personal fascination of his: the parallels he discovered between his father’s memoirs and his own, and the stark generational divide that colored the relationship between the distinguished naval officer from his rock star son. It’s a unique take on the usual rock star tell-all that keeps things interesting. 

As Mike + The Mechanics get ready to embark on their massive U.S. and European tour that kicks off at The Birchmere and ends in Belgium, Rutherford touched on a lot of different topics in our interview: from the transformation of Genesis from progressive rockers to pop superstars, to how he prefers to record his albums, to what it’s like to make old songs feel new again for audiences all over the world.

When I was in England some years ago, I went on a coach tour through the countryside. We saw all sorts of beautiful ruins and other ancient architecture. Then the driver stopped our bus by your old school and announced, very seriously, “This is the school where Mike Rutherford and Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks and Anthony Phillips formed the band Genesis.”

Oh! Charterhouse, yeah! We live a few minutes away, so it’s still part of our world, yeah.

Growing up in the ‘80s, the Mechanics and Genesis were all over Top 40 radio. Did you ever feel any conflict about going from prog rock to a more pop-oriented sound? It seemed like a surprisingly natural progression.

Funnily enough, it didn’t quite feel like that to us, because when Peter left, the first two albums after—Trick of the Tail, Wind & Wuthering—were more progressive, so it happened over two or three albums, really. And then I still sort of questioned… well, what happened was a change in public perception. In the ‘80s, MTV came in and the hit single was so everywhere. The singles then had such a huge profile that they overshadowed the rest of the album. Of course, the singles tend to stick in people’s minds, so I think what happened was quite natural to me.

Some would argue that the mid-‘60s to early-‘80s was a unique period of time in popular music where the album was what was most popular; everything before and since has been about the singles.

Yeah, that’s true.

Speaking of singles, I listened to the new recording of “The Living Years” and wondered, how does that song resonate with you now, so many years from the emotions that inspired it?

I think the new track is paying respect to the anniversary. You can’t beat the original one, ever. It’s still very special to me. In a sense, the reason The Mechanics are touring is because about four years ago during some live shows I couldn’t believe how well some of the Mechanics’ songs went down on stage because The Mechanics… we hardly ever toured! We never did much touring ever so, in a sense, it was a new thing for me to hear all these Mechanics songs played on stage… and the audience really connected with them.

And I’d read that you wished that the choir on “The Living Years” had a “better mix of people,” so this got you to fulfill that ambition as well with the new recording.

Yeah, I agree. It was slightly… well, in the video it was a bunch of kids, but we started out wanting some everyday people. A friend of mine had an African ensemble [the South African Isango Choir]—they actually do opera and tour the States—but they sang the chorus for me and it was great!

Another feature of the remastered Living Years album is the inclusion of live tracks from your 1989 tour. What was it about this tour that compelled you to include it in this deluxe edition? Or was it simply that you hadn’t toured that much and this is what was available?

I think, given that we hardly ever toured, I was surprised how good the live tracks sounded. They kind of got almost more life. The first two albums were done by who the band then really was and the songs live, I think, got better in some ways.

Were you directly involved with any of the remastering process? 

No, but I chose [the songs]. I listened to the guys talk, told them what I wanted to do, and they got down and did it. But they know what they’re doing better than me.

Given that I write for a magazine called The Vinyl District, I had been curious if you had been involved in the process or if you had an opinion about the current digital versus analog conversation among producers and musicians.

I’ve always embraced everything. When the CD first came in… for instance, those live recordings came out of a cassette. They were live board tapes. For example, in my studio, I like the outboard gear, but… I want the sound to be real, not out of a computer.

But… I do tend to record now on to a computer, but all the stuff going in is very sort of… any kind of processor any kind of application or distortion or effects… I only tend to use the real thing. There’s definitely a better sound that way.

Do you feel very strongly about that? I know you said you embraced everything.

No, I do. I can totally hear a difference. You just hear it more. I’m going back to the old drum machine, which is sixteen-bit and very hi-fi! [Laughs]

It’s become very trendy for studios to offer analog and more old school recording services and it sounds like you have both in mind when you record. It feels like everything that’s old is new again…

Exactly! Including religions! [Laughs]

I’d like to ask you about your memoir, which is being billed quasi-salaciously as the “first Genesis tell-all.” But it sounds like it’s much more personal to you and not so much an expose of the band. Is that true?

Yeah, I mean, there’s no point in doing that. You can’t be Keith Richards. [Laughs] The book got great reviews in the UK, because it’s not the regular kind of [rock and roll] book. The book is about a generational change from my father’s era—the Empire days and two world wars. They came out of that kind of shocked and stunned, and then we [the Baby Boomers] appeared having not had a war, and we had this long hair and drugs and music and it was a HUGE sort of cultural left turn… which we took. The book is, in a sense, about the band’s early days and the band’s career, but in a way it makes it more personal.

Plus, I discovered my father’s memoirs and published them, and I found his narrative and mine were quite similar with the traveling that we each did. So, the stories in my book are slightly more interesting than stories about just being in a band.

What is so intriguing about that generational divide, to me, is that you’re one of the Baby Boomer generation’s biggest musical successes. How do you feel that people of your children’s generation will view the Baby Boomers’ music in the coming years?

You know, my kids can find all the old music they want—and not because I’m playing it for them. And they like it—they like Elvis and The Beatles and all that.

There isn’t the same sort of stark divide, obviously, but I’ve wondered how that would have changed perceptions—especially of music and art—if the Baby Boomers and their kids were further apart, ideologically. 

I mean, in a sense, you kind of want that separation from your parents. And it’s kind of hard to… I think what happened was, in the ‘60s, for the first time there was a youth culture. Prior to the ‘60s, when a young man turned twenty-one, he became his father. That had been going on for years and years: they’d wear the same clothes, work the same job, when suddenly in the ‘60s, young men became anything but their father! That was a big change.

And obviously there was a huge impact from conscription being done away with. 

Yeah, I mean… I can’t imagine my parents’ life. Rationing and war… and then we come along and have these wonderful, golden years. We were so lucky that we had the time to do the living that we did.

You mentioned that there was no serious acrimony within Genesis, but I’m curious about what Mike & The Mechanics enabled you to do that you maybe felt limited by in Genesis? 

Well, that’s exactly what it wasn’t. The thing was… After twenty some-odd years, we just thought… maybe it was time for a bit of variety—maybe a wider musical platform to work from, have other drummers playing with you, other singers, and other writers. So, in a sense, it was a sort of innovation—a widening of a musical experience rather than, “I can’t do this in the band!” I’m sure it’s why the band lasted so long, anyway.

When you’re in a band, you spend every day for a couple of years together. You need the variety.

Genesis is almost like an open marriage, then?

You get refreshed, yeah, exactly. [Laughs]

Are you writing any new music right now? 

Yeah, I’ve got a few songs I’m sort of nearly finished with. When I’m on the East Coast, I’m going to start sounding them out on rehearsal days and try the odd one song a night live with the band!

When planning this tour that incorporates a little bit of everything—from Genesis to Mike + The Mechanics—was it just that there was an anniversary that you felt compelled…

No, the story really is that The Mechanics started again about four years ago and started playing and went, wow, these songs really connect with people. They went well in the UK and we thought we ought to try America.

So, it was really more that there was a creative spark that you wanted to keep going.

Well, we spent the last three years touring America and saw that they really worked very nicely. We’d sort of come out, having never toured, and we didn’t quite know what the Mechanics would be like live on stage. We had to prove we were a good band. We’re doing a tour after the American tour, which is sold out, which is great! I’m hoping for the same thing with America, but with the first tour, you’ve got to prove that you’re a good live band like the old days, forty years ago. I feel pretty confident that we are. It’s a great set.

I’ve often wondered about how history will treat the bands that got their starts in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I think the perception is going to transition from being about the personnel to being about the songs, like classical music. Nobody complains that Bach is dead; they just want to hear the music.

Good point—it’s the songs. When we disappear, the songs will go on. I’ve had the same conversation with Tony Banks, you know, about how when the composer dies the music goes on. I’m not sure about how we’ll be viewed, but a good song is a good song!

Mike + the Mechanics Living Years Deluxe Edition is in stores now via Rhino. Mike Rutherford’s memoir, The Living Years: The First Genesis Memoir, is on shelves now via Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martins Press.

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Mike + The Mechanics 2015 U.S. Tour Dates:
Fri., Feb 27 – ALEXANDRIA, VA – The Birchmere
Sat., 28 – BETHLEHEM, PA – Sands Bethlehem Event Center
Mon., March 2 – ANNAPOLIS, MD – Ram’s Head On Stage
Tue., March 3 – TARRYTOWN, NY – Tarrytown Music Hall
Wed., March 4 – NEW YORK, NY – Best Buy Theater
Fri., March 6 – ATLANTIC CITY, NJ – Borgata Spa & Resort
Sat., March 7 – BOSTON, MA – Wilbur Theatre
Sun., March 8 – HARTFORD, CT – Infinity Hall
Tue., March 10 – TORONTO, ON – Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Wed., March 11 – MONTREAL, QC – Theatre Maisonneuve at Place des Arts
Fri., March 13 – MUNHALL, PA – Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead
Sat., March 14 – ANN ARBOR, MI – Michigan Theater
Sun., March 15 – NORTHFIELD, OH – Hard Rock Live – Northfield
Tue., March 17 – CINCINNATI, OH – Taft Theatre
Thur., March 19 – MILWAUKEE, WI – The Pabst Theater
Fri.-Sat., March 20-21 – CHICAGO, IL – Park West

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