Charterhouse blues -Mike Rutherford: Interview

John Walsh meets Mike Rutherford
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At the top of the BT Tower, the floor has just started to move. Eggy canapes and champagne flutes in hand, a throng of groovily informal record retailers from Our Price and Tower Records contemplate a dizzying view of night-time London, as Centre Point and Cavendish Square slowly revolve beneath them. "God, I wish I'd got up later this morning," says one of Virgin Records' promotional desperadoes with feeling, as bits of BT carpet slide alarmingly between his feet. "Or possibly gone to bed earlier..."

Last night was, by all accounts, a killer. The record company's honchos supreme were up until 4 am in Manchester's Ramada Hotel with Genesis, one of the jewels in their corporate casket (along with the Spice Girls, George Michael and the Rolling Stones). After a gruesome schedule of airwave interviews in Glasgow, Newcastle and Manchester's own Piccadilly Radio (and the prospect of Birmingham and Cardiff still to come) to promote the release of the band's 15th studio album, Calling All Stations, the team of shaggy musicians, clean-cut "product managers" and local promoters unanimously elected to go for it. Drinks in the bar, supper at Mick Hucknall's restaurant, nightcaps in hotel suites and ingestions of stimulants not usually found in the mini-bar have all taken their toll. Tonight, by contrast, we're all as demure as Salukis. Five hundred feet above London, the rock 'n' roll gods with the Biblical name are settling for a quiet supper of breaded pork, poached salmon and mixed veg. Everything is cool, hushed, discreet. This is the place where a bomb went off in the Gents in 1971; but when, after supper, there's a loud bang outside, nobody turns a hair. Tony Smith, the band's manager - a burly, spade-bearded ringer for the artist Peter Blake - wanders over to the window and notes, with a certain metaphorical irony, that we are above the fireworks...

How true. Genesis celebrated their 30th birthday this year, with no great fuss. It was in the Easter holidays of 1967 that four public schoolboys, in rival bands at Charterhouse, decided to team up and record the five songs that was their total repertoire. And for three decades they've been the band you could bring home to your mother, confident they'll never puke on the furniture. With Peter Gabriel on vocals, they were the polite face of British avant-garde rock. With Phil Collins as front man, they were raspingly romantic, all sonic pools and tweety psychodramas. They became America's favourite English band since Fleetwood Mac, their albums pillaged for hit singles that never took off in Britain. It makes your head spin to think that Genesis have sold 100 million albums, without much assistance from hype, airplay or nods to fashion. And every record has outsold all previous ones, in America, Germany, Holland... In the maelstrom of rock music they represent "product consistency" to a spooky degree.

The band lines up for photographs, alongside Virgin's bigwigs. They look an unusual trio: one laddish Scots brigand with an earring and a handshake like a mantrap, one leanly-handsome, potentially irascible gym teacher and one gangling adherent of a gloomy religious sect. Respectively Ray Wilson (vocals, the new boy), Tony Banks (keyboards) and Mike Rutherford (guitar), they are two-thirds the past and wholly the future of Genesis the Next Generation - that difficult pop concept known as "the second 30 years".

"Everyone I talk to has a Genesis story to tell," says Rutherford. "Fans, retailers, DJs. No matter what their age, amazingly, they want to tell you about a concert they saw, or the song they fell in love to..." This is perfectly true. My first sighting of the band was at a draughty evening in Wimbledon Town Hall in 1970 - not the perfect setting for Peter Gabriel's my-face-is-a-flower theatrics, but it won over us spotty prog-rock fifth- formers. Seven years later, I courted a bank manager's daughter called Elizabeth with the tune of "Follow You Follow Me" running round my head. Their first Top 10 hit single after 10 years, it was a love song of unbelievable drippiness ("In your arms I feel so safe and so secure/ And every day with you is such a perfect day to spend...") but rode along irresistibly on a syncopated see-saw of six notes. "That was the first one all the girls liked," notes Rutherford. "All the male fans who'd been telling their girlfriends `No, no, Genesis are really good' could suddenly say, `There now, that's one of theirs'..."

Rutherford may be a rock squillionaire and a descendant of the poet Shelley, but you wouldn't think either from his clothes (loose murky brown shirt, murky T-shirt, tan but murky moccasins), his demeanour (modest, polite, diffident) or his waistline (non-existent). Twenty years of comfortable wealth shading into Croesus-like opulence, and he looks like he lives on cherry tomatoes and lettuce. His painfully gaunt frame is emphasised by his long face, the face of an El Greco martyr. His alarmingly sunken blue eyes, his reluctant beard, the long wispy hair raked back from his Tefal Man brow - it's not a crowd of features that yell "rock 'n' roll" at you. He talks very quietly, with a Zen-like focus and honesty. The only note that hints at his vast riches is struck when he mentions his favourite sport. "I'm completely hooked on polo. Very serious about it. It's an incredible adrenalin thing. The only problem is that - well, over the years I've broken legs, smashed all my front teeth. Now, when we're starting a tour, I'm not allowed to play for a month before rehearsals. No point in having a guitarist with his arm in a sling." Didn't he have to consort with some awfully chinless people? "No, the polo world's a nice mix of people, who don't talk about work. All ages, rich and poor." Poor? "Sure," said Rutherford breezily. "If you've got just two horses, you can get out there and do it..." Only two, eh?

Rutherford is also the Mike of Mike and the Mechanics, the band he started in the mid-Eighties, as a way of keeping sane after years of Genesis and the sonic pools. The Mechanics played pub-rock songs, with rough edges and choruses. They were precious close to (dare one mention the word?)... "Pop," says Rutherford. "Of course it was pop. But the Mechanics stuff and the Genesis stuff, they don't fight for mastery of my soul or anything. They are both projects of different kinds. When I've finished one project, I start thinking about the next. I don't have unfinished material hanging over from one session waiting to fit into the next. It's all fresh starts." But only a very deaf person could listen to the new Genesis record and not notice how the classic Genesis sound has been invaded by the idiom of the Mechanics - songs, with hooks and choruses driven by chugging guitars and drums.

"It's true the album is a bit darker than people might expect from us, a bit rockier, but it seems to be going down well," says Rutherford. "People think we're finding our roots again. But I - we - didn't set out with a plan about a new sound. I was occupied mentally with getting a new singer integrated. Breaking in a new drummer, too..."

Both of which used to be, of course, Phil Collins. Collins's departure from the band last year was not an acrimonious split. In fact, it seems, to all concerned, to have been long overdue. Collins's wildly successful and lucrative solo career made his determination to stick around with Rutherford and Banks slightly embarrassing, like a million-quid transfer footballer insisting on coming back and playing with his old team every Saturday.

What did he miss most about life with Phil? "Actually the hardest thing in the first week or so was doing without his cataloguing skill," says Rutherford, dead-pan. "The way we work, I never say, here's a song, here's the chords, here's a riff, even an idea. We just go to the studio, plug in and take a risk. We jam along for half an hour, an hour maybe, tape it, play it back and listen. And sometimes, if you're lucky, you create a moment when you know you've got something special. Phil used to keep notes. He was brilliant at knowing what was being played when, which bit was when." Noting my incredulity that the rough-diamond Collins could be such a librarian, Rutherford laughed. "It's true, he was really organised. And in the first week, when I tried to do it myself, I completely messed it up. But also, of course, what I miss is just him, a very dear friend."

Ahhh. The Genesis chaps are legendary in rock circles for their frightfully English decency and lack of rancour about each other's little displays of egomania. Peter Gabriel remains close to Rutherford and Banks. They all have gorgeous old manor houses in the same village in Sussex. They record at the studio down the road. So it's refreshing to find an apparent world of difference between the two remaining founder-members. "Now Phil's not there, it shows how far apart Tony and I are. Musically, we're at extreme edges. It's only through Phil that we could meet in the middle, and that was Genesis." How are they different? "In musical taste. Tony's not very rhythmic, he's more classical in approach, more chordal. I don't think he really understands what a drummer's there for... whereas I'm the opposite, I'm crude, I'm more about dynamics and excitement. I suppose we complement each other. Together we write something that I couldn't do on my own and he couldn't do on his own." Had he and Banks ever taken a swing at each other? "Oh yeah," says Rutherford. "We disagree most of the time about things. But we try not to fight about it as we get older because it's more aggravation than it's worth. We started out as friends, after all..."

The lyrics are probably the last thing you should start inspecting on a rock album, but in Rutherford's case they carry a special interest. Listen to the words on Calling All Stations, and you'll hear a constant leitmotif about solitude, abandonment, being left or sent away, and a counter-note about being true, standing by you, being stronger, being there. It's intriguing to find such vulnerability radiating from such rich, successful, settled middle-aged heads. "Why do I feel it so difficult to let my feelings unfold?" runs an unmistakeably Rutherford line. Why did he? "Mmm, yes, that song `If That's What You Need' is very personal. It's written to my wife. It's about communicating, something I'm terribly bad at. At home, I mean. She has practically to drag information out of me, and feelings and facts. A lot of the early lyrics avoided expressing feelings. But now..."

Didn't there seem to be a lot of angst and pain and suffering in the whole record? "There isn't a concept running through it," he said. "Though there is a lot about communication. I have this pet thing about how global communications are moving so fast now, throwing information at you, making everything available to you, and yet I feel it's leaving us more and more isolated."

Rutherford's life is generally thought to have begun at Charterhouse. In fact, he grew up around Cheshire, the son of a Royal Navy captain with whom (judging by the evidence of a Mike and the Mechanics song) he never gone on. His mother was "nicely eccentric. She'd let you do absolutely anything. She would say whatever she wanted to say. She wasn't embarrassing to anyone who knew her..." He has one sister, Nicola, four years his senior, now living in Glastonbury ("I can't imagine how she ended up there; there's nothing hippie about her at all"). At seven, he was sent away to boarding school, the Leas school in Hoylake. Why? Rutherford went rather quiet. "It was... It seemed the right route to take". Had he been OK? "I hated it," he said with sudden vehemence. "I was very unhappy there. I wouldn't send my children to boarding school. But I developed a rebellious streak".

The streak widened at Charterhouse, which Rutherford attended "just as it was at the turning point between being a really nasty repressive relic of the old British educational system, and becoming something recognisably better". He had been someone's "fag" (or servant) but "when the time came at which I could have had younger boys fagging for me, it was suddenly banned. But by then I'd been... nudged out". You mean expelled? Told not to come back? Asked to leave? "It was all very mutual. I just had a housemaster who I didn't get on with, who thought I was disruptive. I didn't mind. I was dying to leave. I was always running away."

One looks at the long ravaged face of this musician, who has spent his life with his sixth-form friends, who finds it hard to communicate with his wife of 20 years, and who has turned a lot of tunefully wistful space music into mountains of cash, and you think, this whole thing has been about boarding school. All the lyrics about being left, abandoned, sent away... Would you say, Mike, taking the broad view, that you had a happy childhood? Instinctively, he selects an image from schooldays that binds up the corners of his life: music, togetherness, solidarity. "Yeah, it was happy. Sitting there with the others, listening to Pick of the Pops for an hour on Sunday nights. It was incredibly important. You try and describe to people today how important it was, and they just don't get it."