Keyboardist for ‘Genesis’
By Dominic Milano
This article originally appeared in Contemporary Keyboard in October 1976
Tony Banks is a difficult person to describe. By all means he is a master of subtlety and taste, sitting quietly behind an unassuming set of keyboards, content to be a part of the overall group sound rather than a pyrotechnic soloist. He even declares that he is limited in how far he can go in terms of technical ability; yet his playing, while laid back, is a driving force that is integral to the powerful sound of Genesis.
The group itself was formed in 1966 as a writers' collective, dedicated to making tapes with which to sell their songs. When it seemed evident that no one was interested in these, Genesis, then composed of Mike Rutherford (bass), Tony Banks, Peter Gabriel (vocals), Anthony Phillips (guitar), and Phil Collins (drums), was formed. A year later, Anthony Phil lips left and guitarist Steve Hackett joined. In 1969 they put out an album called "From Genesis To Revelation" [London, PS-6431, which (although it was admittedly weak) served as a solid foundation upon which the band built its reputation. Today, after seven LPs and the controversial departure of Peter Gabriel (the former focal point of the band) before the release of "Trick Of The Tail" [Atco 36-129] (one of their strongest albums to date), Genesis has established itself as a British progressive rock group of the same caliber as such monolithic entities as Yes and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer.
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How did you get started in music?
I was taught piano at school from the time I was eight. I was quite forced into it by my parents, so I didn't enjoy it much at first. But after a while, I began to like it, at least I did until I was thirteen. I had a bad teacher then—she was completely wrong for me. I lost all interest in classical music. That's when I started picking up songs off the radio by ear, Beatles songs and things like that. I found this much more entertaining, and so didn't concentrate on the classical side of things at all. But about sixteen months later I got a better piano teacher and became interested in classical music again. It was then that I started thinking that I really wanted to do something with music. I had never thought about it before that—there were so many people who were technically better than I. I never thought I was a good performer, and I was more interested in the composing side.
Did you go on to study music in college?
No. I didn’t go to a music college. I went for physics and philosophy. I did very little music while in school. But all the same, Genesis was originally formed when I was at school. We were sort of half-heartedly making tapes; we even made one LP called "From Genesis To Revelation" [London, PS-643]. It was all very new to us. We weren’t really a group. We were just people who wrote songs and made tapes in hopes that other people would record them. No one else would record them, so we decided to try and form a band of our own. We were still thinking of ourselves as songwriters though.
Was piano the only instrument you were playing at that point?
Actually, on the tapes and on the LP itself I borrowed an organ from an old guy who is a friend of a friend. I used it on the sessions, but I never played it. I just sort of used it to build the music up. So if the chords were C, F, and G, I just played C, F, and G. I didn't know what I was doing on it.
What kind of organ was it?
It was a Farfisa. A very cheap one. What was interesting was that it was a semitone sharp to the other instruments. On one song, I came in on a chorus without anyone else playing, and suddenly we noticed we had a key change. We all liked the effect and kept it in the final version on "From Genesis To Revelation," but originally, it was completely unintentional.
When was it that you branched into the multi-keyboard setup you’re using now?
Before the "Trepass" LP [ABC, X-816], we started rehearsing a lot. And then we began to play 'live,' and were considering going professional. So we went around to our parents and got a bit of money off them. Not very much—£150 [approximately $260] each. So between four people we had £600 to buy equipment with. We spent 350 quick ones on an organ—a Hammond organ. I had no clue as to what I was buying. We went into the shop, and the first organ I saw I said, "Yeah, I'll have it." I really didn't want to try it in front of people. Fortunately, I was very lucky. I got a Hammond L-122, which is a very good organ for anyone to start with. Slowly I got into playing it. Mostly I was treating it like a piano; it took me quite a long time to get used to it. I still prefer the piano to the organ, I must admit.
But you don’t have a piano on stage with you.
No. I’ve thought about it on many occasions. In fact, the last time we rehearsed I brought along a piano. But I just couldn't cut it. There were too many instruments. I don't like using a lot of instruments on stage. I use four as it happens, and even that's too many. I prefer to use just one or two. The grand piano is a very difficult instrument to fit into a group lineup, particularly a group of this kind where playing is quite full. I think piano works best where the drums play sparse parts, the Elton John kind of thing. There have to be gaps. If the piano plays at the same time as something else it tends to get lost, because it's an acoustic instrument. Also, I’ve never been happy with the amplified piano sounds I’ve heard. No one has really made a grand piano sound like a grand piano on stage. It always sounds wooden.
What keyboards are you using now?
A Hammond Model T Organ—I'm not sure why I use that. I never really tried other organs but Hammonds. I'm not very good at going into shops and saying, “I’d like to try this." I can’t tell a thing when I'm in a shop. You've got to take it back and put it through your own equipment. I like the T, though. It's a bit like the L, but has a little more range and versatility for being a small organ. I really didn't want to use a C-3, because it takes up so much space. I use an RMI electric piano, which I run through an MXR Phase 100 and a Fender Blender fuzz box. It's the instrument I use most. You can get some very nice organ tones on it, as well as percussion tones. I use a Mellotron, a small 400 on stage. I have tapes with strings, brass, and voices. That's because of the particular lines in the set we're doing now. On the albums I use any tones I can get hold of. The other instrument is an ARP Pro Soloist, which I have stuck with on stage for about three years. I feel for my own purposes I don't need a more complex synthesizer. You can change tones so quickly on this one. The last time I used an ARP 2600 was in the studio. If you take a 2600 on stage, a lot of its subtleties get lost. You have to compromise every tone you use. One is almost trying too hard if he uses a 2600—in the kind of music I'm doing anyway—when he could get away with using a preset synthesizer, which is really just as nice.
You manage to get a wide variety of timbres from the Pro Soloist.
That's because it's so easy to change on it. The only thing about it is that it's only a single oscillator instrument. I think they ought to make a similar instrument with two oscillators in it. Its versatility would be greatly magnified.
Why do you have the Pro Soloist's output running into the back of your organ?
That's just the way it's wired—for convenience. I have all the instruments' outputs coming from the organ.
How do you amplify your setup?
Everything goes direct into the PA except for the organ, which goes through an unmodified Leslie that is miked off stage. I send this back through my monitor system as well. I also run the Mellotron and the ARP through the Leslie. That obviously gives them the Leslie effect—it adds a sort of churning sound to the Mellotron brass. You get a meaty sound using it through a Leslie. With the ARP it has the effect of taking off some of the top; making it sound less electronic. It gives it a voice. I also use an Echoplex on all the instruments, particularly the Mellotron. It gives them more life.
What type of mics do you use on the Leslie?
At the moment I'm using Shure Unidynes. I can't remember what I used in the studio last. We go through quite a lot of microphones. At one stage I was using two Leslies with the Unidyne. What I really like to use is two Leslies with directional mikes so you can single out the sound from the top and the bottom of the Leslies. Because when you use both, you get a heavy beating effect.
You mentioned that it took you a long time to adapt to playing the organ as an organ. How have you adapted to the other instruments?
Well, I think I have a certain approach. I tend to use the Mellotron a bit like the left half of the organ, and the ARP like the right. There is no general rule in that at all—I just find the ARP gives me much more color for lead lines. Also, since you can only play one note at a time, you obviously can’t play chords on it. In the studio I have, at various times, built up chords. And I've used the Mellotron to do single-note lines as well. But I find that the Mellotron, when you play just one note, tends to sound a little too "Mellotrony" for me. It's nice at times but you have to be careful how you use it. I find that the RMI is the instrument I play most naturally. The nice thing about it is that you can sustain notes with the pedal. So you can build up a chord starting out low and going high, and the notes will sustain all the time. Yet they do fade very gradually, so any new notes you play will come out with more emphasis than the notes previously played. I use it quite a lot with the MXR phase shifter, which adds a Leslie effect, but is a bit more gimmicky I suppose.
Who have been your influences?
I don't really know. I’m not influenced by keyboard players, particularly. I suppose the few people who were around when I was getting interested in being a keyboard player—like Mike Pinder. There weren’t that many other people doing interesting things then. When I saw the Nice on stage, I was amazed by the whole band. They were the first band I ever saw 'live.' That influenced me quite a bit. And I liked Matthew Fisher [of Procol Harum fame] at the time, especially on albums like "Shine On Brightly" [A&M, 4151]. It's just that he was playing without being technically brilliant at all. He was playing some very interesting things—you know, just nice. I decided that that was the direction I wanted to go in because I could never be so technically impressive. I decided to go into the other side—the compositional type thing. I suppose I was also influenced by classical styles. I use a lot of the Rachmaninoff crossed-hands things. It's difficult to say, really. I'm just parts of little things; not just keyboard players. I like the way the Beach Boys built up their songs.
How do you go about composing?
Write a lot of things on 12-string guitar, because I'm pretty bad on it and I make a lot of mistakes. Mistakes are quite good. You’d be surprised at the sounds you can come up with. On the piano, though, I know pretty much where I’m going all the time, which limits the surprises. But the two things really have to be approached in different ways. What I do at home is play for hours on end, just improvising. Sometimes I may play for four or five hours and get nothing. At other times various sorts of things can be happening in the back of my mind.
Do you leave a tape recorder on while doing this?
No. I've tried using a tape recorder once or twice, but I haven't the patience to listen through it. I get bored listening to tapes.
Do you practice at all?
Practice? No, I just play. I'm more interested in the compositional aspect of music than I am in actual performance. I've got a limit as to how good a performer I can become. I’m a nervous kind of person. When I’m in front of an audience, I tend to play much worse than I do on my own. I get stiffer. I think this is a problem—I don't know if it's something I can overcome. But with writing, I f eel that I can do much better in that direction. I am more at home with it. I can take my time with it and get it wrong, and then get it right. Whereas with performing, you have to get it right every night. That can become quite a strain.
Do you do any warm-up exercises before gigs?
Oh, yeah. I get my fingers working. We do a sound check, and that's when I do that. I don't have any particular patterns that I do. I go through a few things that are difficult for me in the set, and play some things as fast as I can to loosen up.
So you don’t carry a practice keyboard around or anything like that?
I thought about doing that just to keep my hands supple because you find that you can get into ruts. You go through a sound check and play around a little and then you do the gig. You aren't really playing enough to stretch yourself. But I haven't carried a practice keyboard around.
What about problems with moving your instruments?
I've never had that many problems. I used to have a lot of trouble with the Mellotron Mark II that I used to use. In the end we were having to rebuild it every gig, sticking wood in it and things. It was really incredible. It was fine just so long as you didn't expect too much from it and treated it with a certain amount of disgust, which is how they like to be treated. I still think Mellotronics could make better instruments if they got a few things together. It upsets me sometimes. I always thought the idea of the Mellotron was great, but it hasn't been realized yet. I haven’t had that much trouble with the 400 yet. What I've had more problems with is the organ, because what you have is a cycle-dependent motor that causes problems everytime you go from England to the United States.
How would you like to see the Mellotron improved?
First I'd like to see them get the tapes so that there are no idiosyncrasies between the notes on it—so they all had even tones. Then I’d like to see them make it so that all the different instruments were in tune with one another, which would be the best thing because I get so bored having to tune strings and brass. The two are almost a half a semitone out from one another. It's a very difficult thing to do, because you can't put marks next to the pitch control—as the instrument gets hotter the tuning tends to go down. I’ve found that the only way to do it is to tune before each number. It's kind of a drag because you can’t relax between numbers at all. You've got to keep things tuned up. Those are the things that would make a big difference to me.
Do you use any equalization on the Mellotron?
As I say, it goes direct to the PA, so the soundman does whatever he feels he has to do. On stage I always take off a lot of treble and add a lot of bass. Using the echo—that's the main thing. The echo is short delay, so you put it into stereo. It‘s the size of the Mellotron sound that's important. If it's mono it sounds a little dull. But if it's in stereo, even if the sound isn’t particularly good or if it's a bit out of tune, it adds a dimension to it making it more pleasing to the ear. In the studio though, I use a thing called a parametric equalizer on it. It’s like a graphic equalizer, but much more sophisticated.
What sort of drawbar settings do you use on the Hammond?
I’m not very subtle with it. I tend to use most of the preset tones. And I use the percussion as the main thing with a few of the bottom drawbars pulled out on the top manual, plus a few of the higher ones pulled out a bit less. I don't think about it very hard, really. I put the percussion tone up so that it dominates the sound. I like that tone. I'm not very subtle with the drawbars; I prefer to use another instrument to get different tones.
Do you play the bass pedals at all?
I do use them quite a bit. Both Mike [Rutherford] and Steve [Hackett] have Moog Taurus bass pedal synthesizers. They’re really nice. So they play bass with those more than I do on the Hammond, but there's one section where it's difficult for either of them to play, so I do it on the Hammond. Its bass pedal sound is quite nice, but I don't think it can compare with the Taurus sound.
Do you have any advice for young people starting out in the business?
Don't. [Laughs.] It’s a very difficult question. When we started off, we were just playing clubs, building up a name and being quite happy to play in front of five people if they were enthusiastic. We were playing for no money in the hope that our music was strong enough so that if people could hear us they'd like us. In England now, it seems imperative to have a hit single. And in the States, it seems that a lot of bands just play other people's music. I even saw a band who did some of our music, which was quite amusing. I mean they played it very well technically, but it was a strange experience. I've never played another person's music on stage. There is no reason why—it’s not that I didn’t necessarily want to. It's just that we are trying to put across our music more than we are trying to put across our playing
"Genesis - Dance on a Volcano/Firth of Fifth - Tony Banks Cam"