From the opening strains of “Prelude to a Million Years,” you’ll recognize the work of famed Genesis keyboardist, composer, and founder Tony Banks. The fluid harmonic movement, the lack of clichés, Banks has always had a cinematic approach in his best works. And on 5, his third classical release, he comes across as a confident orchestral composer.
Released at the end of February, 5 features an orchestra, plus a few soloists, with supportive piano parts played by the composer. Fans might long for some exposed piano and/or synth showcase moments, but this is a piece for orchestra, and Banks remains within the ensemble for the duration.
We caught up with Tony via phone so he could share his creative approach and methodology for writing and recording this new music.
How do you approach this kind of writing? Do you sit at the piano? Do you use technology?
I normally start with the piano and have a string pad going along with it. I just improvise and let ideas come. I use [Steinberg] Cubase to record MIDI data, so I play it back and find something I’m interested in; that’s my most common way of starting. Sometimes I start with a string sound or a combination of the string with the flute, or something like that.
Are you using the instruments that are bundled in Cubase, other plug-ins, or outside hardware?
I use various kinds of things. Doing this orchestra project, I used a lot of the [IK Multimedia] Miroslav Philharmonik collection. I also use a lot of Vienna Symphonic libraries, particularly the oboe and woodwinds. I still use a few old Emulator sounds that I never weaned myself off of; some French horns and trumpets and such. I know I can do the whole thing using software now, but I’m an old fashioned type: I have these old boxes and I carry on using them.
For my last two orchestral albums, I’d do demos and then we’d go into the recording studio with the orchestra and start from scratch. This time I decided I wanted to try and do it more like I’ve done a lot of stuff—whether it’s on my own or with Genesis—where the demo is much more finished. So, the actual tempo changes and everything that occur in the piece are all defined and I go into the studio with my demo. In fact, the piano part that was on the original demo actually made it right through. Then we’ll replace a lot of the sounds with real orchestral sounds, and we’ll add to the rest of it and record everything separately.
So, I had a trumpet player in, and then I had a sax player in, and a choir, and then strings. We recorded it in sections, with them each playing along to my demo. In this way, it’s much easier for me to control everything as compared to when you go in and record the whole thing in one pass. When you record with an orchestra, if you’re recording a piece they’ve never heard before, you’re expecting them to both learn it and to play it with some feeling in a session of a few hours, and come up with something that you can use. But this way, you can scrutinize each part and get everything just as you want it. I just find it a much more satisfying way to work and I’m very happy with the result.
I also worked closely with an orchestrator, a chap called Nick Ingman. He’s an experienced orchestrator over here who conducted the orchestra. When he came onboard, I’d done pretty extensive arrangements on all the pieces. So, his first job was just to transcribe what I’d written. And then some places we wanted to substitute some of the piano parts for another part for the orchestra. Sometimes I had pads going on things because I can’t stop myself having them. I wanted to make the string parts so they contained both moving parts and the more sustained strings. He fiddled around a bit, and worked his magic on it.
But while we were doing this, we went back and forth quite a few times. That’s the great thing about using computers: You can say, “How about this?” and somebody would say, “No, that’s no good,” and you change up as you go. We modified a few things as we went through and ended up with something we were all happy with.
When we went in the studio, I didn’t have the shocks that I sometimes had in the past. Many times, when you go in with an orchestral score, you’re spending the first half hour working out all the little errors in the scores. That didn’t happen this time because we’d already perfected it. You already know exactly how it’s going to sound. The process sounds artificial but the result doesn’t sound artificial at all. It sounds like an orchestra playing together, and that’s the most important thing.
Being the third classical project you’ve done, did you find that you were able to get to this point because you are that much more comfortable now, compared to the first record?
You do get more used to it. Making the first one was quite a traumatic experience; classical attitudes of classical musicians, not necessarily terribly accommodating like people from the rock world. So, the first time around you feel you’re fighting uphill, slightly. But I had an excellent arranger, Simon Hale, who’s quite a well-known musician in his own right. As for the second one, I kind of worked out a way of working, which was much better.
This time I worked out another way, which I think is probably the easiest way for me to work, and if I was ever to do another one, probably the way I would do it again; or something very similar because it means I’m in control and I feel more confident. I didn’t have that kind of feeling, sometimes, that I’ve let something go by that I shouldn’t have done. By the time you get to the end of the record, you’ve run out of time, money, and patience, really. [Laughs.] But this time I felt still very enthusiastic about it.
Yeah, the clock is ticking and you’re just trying to get it down, period.
That’s true. It’s just one of those things. We worked out, quite definitely, how we were going to do this [album] in advance. And that’s one thing Nick Ingman is very good at, is knowing how long he reckoned each section was going to take. It was invaluable because we don’t really know, sometimes. We left ourselves a lot of time for certain things.
We spent a long time on percussion because that was the one area I hadn’t really focused on in my demos. Orchestral percussion is slightly out of my zone. Apart from a few timpani and cymbal crashes, I hadn’t had much going on. So, we spent a long time doing that and we could perfect it. When you’re doing everything together, you just overlook certain things because you cannot concentrate on every single part.
Would you say that the percussionist offered any insights or collaborated?
I don’t think anybody really collaborated. We had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted, but, obviously, we asked sometimes what they could do in little bits and pieces. But to be honest, all the parts were pretty much written by the time the guys came in. They’ve got to do their interpretation of it and they have some ideas.
The chap I’ve worked with quite a few times, who’s a saxophone player, Martin Robinson, was very keen to use the instrument the duduk on the record somewhere. So, I have this little bit, which is on the final piece, “Renaissance,” where he could try it out and see if it worked, and it actually worked fantastic, so I was very into that. But it wasn’t something I had done on my demos or anticipated doing. I’ve got a different sound there. So, you do take onboard stuff. But when I’ve done solo records with guitarists, people sometimes contributed more in compositional terms perhaps, in terms of their solos, than anybody did on this particular project. Pretty much everything was defined before we started recording.
How would you describe your writing process? Do you play around with harmony? Do you hear a melody? Is it all of the above at different times?
Normally I just bang around on the piano, really. I think the harmony is very important, and some degree of melodic movement as well. But quite often, this is true for songwriting I’ve done; often the top line is something I do afterwards. Sometimes it’s very integral to the piece, obviously. But when it’s not, a lot of different melodies could work on a particular foundation that you’ve got, and so you improvise various different lines.
For example, on the piece “Ebb and Flow,” where the saxophone/soprano saxophone has the main melodic line, the section is repeated a few times, but each time it has a different melody on top. I just improvised and played lots of different things and then put them together in a way that I felt made sense and worked. Sometimes I would try not to use the piano so that I’d have something different, and I would just play strings and keep it very slow. I might introduce a lead instrument on top of the strings like an oboe or a flute. But these things may not last in the end. Sometimes the composition changes very radically from the original idea. It’s a very fluid process that slowly crystallizes out into a final piece.
And the technology really makes that so much more possible nowadays.
It does. The way you can work nowadays is fantastic. In the old days, you had to keep a lot more in your head and you could forget things; just trying to remember what you did could be difficult. So now, you’ve always got it there. And the great ability you have now, you can try out anything you can think of. You can instantly change a key, or tempos—all that makes it so much easier as a writer. The ability to get inside a piece and just move little bits and pieces around without having to affect the whole thing.
And you’re conversant enough in Cubase to do most of that for yourself?
Well, I can do what I do. The trouble with all these programs is they’ve got hundreds of things that you can do that I probably never do. I know what I can do and certain areas that I’m good with. I’m obviously in the basic editing pages and everything, and I work entirely using the piano-roll editor.
The other thing I use a lot is the tempo track, because when I’m doing it like I’m doing now, where I’m actually controlling the whole orchestra tempo, you can add little nuances and some rallentandos, and also sometimes markedly different tempos and more fluid tempo changes. I got quite good at doing all that kind of stuff. The only audio recording I do is when I want to record the MIDI part as a sound file to take it further, if you’d like.
Do you keep up on technology and gear, reading or otherwise?
Not really, no. I used to be very dependent on my roadies and staff back in the day. They’d often say, “This is something new that’s come out.” So, in the days of Genesis I used to be very much into whatever was new. Also, every instrument seemed to have a couple of songs in it. So, you’d use it, and then the next one would come out. But now, I have no idea what’s going on. I don’t like everything on the computer. I’m very good at certain bits of it, and completely useless at other bits. I think I’m probably how most people are actually. You never know everything.
Of course. Your role is the music first and foremost.
That’s it. You don’t need to know how to build a car in order to drive one.