Easy Lover Easy Rider: Action Bronson Interviews Phil Collins
The writing was on the wall for Phil Collins fans long before he officially announced his retirement in 2011. 2002’s Testify was the pop star’s last album of original tunes, and he sang his hits on tour for the last time a few years later. As omnipresent in the ’80s as Madonna and Prince, the actor-turned-drummer-turned-reluctant frontman had begun extricating himself from the spotlight with the cheekily named “Finally” farewell tour. Eventually holed away in his Swiss chalet, he drank, watched cricket, and focused his attention and royalties from 150+ million album sales on acquiring the world’s largest collection of Alamo memorabilia. But there was a good explanation for the retreat. A spinal cord injury resulting from decades of performing, and the fallout from unsuccessful reparative surgeries, left him unable to write his name much less drum duet with Chester Thompson. Couple that with hearing loss in his left ear and the dissolution of his third marriage, and it’s apparent how pop’s Mr. Nice Guy ended up living a dismal existence.
Still, interviews Collins gave around his retirement were shocking in their bluntness. He told Rolling Stone about suicidal thoughts — “I wouldn’t blow my head off. I’d overdose or do something that didn’t hurt” — and relayed how tired he was of being misunderstood and disrespected. “I sometimes think, ‘I’m going to write this Phil Collins character out of the story.’ … Phil Collins will just disappear or be murdered in some hotel bedroom.” He offered FHM an alternative scenario: “I’ll go on a mysterious biking holiday and never return. … I don’t think anyone’s going to miss me.”
Collins’ sentiments were unnerving if understandable, but to hear the iconic songwriter internalize hate from rock critics and, naturally, Noel Gallagher was the part that was so disheartening for fans like me. Genesis’ We Can’t Dance was the first album I ever bought, despite the fact that I didn’t yet own a stereo (I ended up playing it on a Panasonic tape recorder). It’s not my favorite Genesis album, but it led me to the band’s earlier albums, to Collins’ and Peter Gabriel’s solo catalogs, to John Martyn and Brian Eno, and to prog and jazz and indie rock and ultimately everything else. I still regularly return to Collins’ first five solo albums, especially the eerie, eclectic Face Value with its Earth, Wind, & Fire horns; Indian strings; banjo and slide guitar; and the gated snare sound that went on to define ’80s pop-rock. I’ll go to bat for the mawkish ballads of his late career, too.
But just as I resigned to never seeing the guy sing “I Don’t Care Anymore” again, Collins announced his unlikely unretirement. He’s back together with his third ex-wife and eager for their two teenage sons to see him onstage now that they’ve watched his career highlights on YouTube. Crown Archetype will publish his autobiography this fall. Those tens of millions of dollars worth of Alamo artifacts have been donated to the state of Texas.
The first order of business for Phil Collins’ comeback is Rhino’s Take A Look At Me Now reissue campaign for his eight solo albums. They’re being rereleased in pairs with bonus demos, live tracks, and reshot cover portraits that mimic the originals. (No Jacket Required and Testify are next up on 4/15.) It could be a particularly receptive musical climate to reenter, 14 years since his last original solo album. A genre-agnostic, critic-averse Spotify generation has been led to his work lately by influential admirers like Kanye West, Lorde, the Weeknd, and Pharrell Williams. Not that Boomer singers could expect to hit the Hot 100 without Rihanna, but one can certainly imagine Collins headlining Bonnaroo or the like if he wanted. He nearly contributed to Adele’s blockbuster 25, remember.
Collins’ 13 Top 40 solo singles from the ’80s are beloved especially by R&B and rap artists. Urban Renewal, an under-the-radar 2001 German tribute album, saw artists like Lil’ Kim, Kelis, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Montell Jordan, and Brandy covering Grammy-winning songs like “Against All Odds” and “Another Day In Paradise.” Since then the list of rappers who’ve sampled Collins has grown to include Nas, Cam’ron, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Wale, Wiz Khalifa, Lil B, and more.
That’s why I asked Queens-based phenom Action Bronson to play interviewer when Collins visited New York City last month. The imposing Jewish/Albanian-American chef-turned-rapper spit over “Another Day In Paradise” and “Sussudio” on his 2012 Party Supplies-produced LP Blue Chips 2, and sang and danced along to “Easy Lover” in a recent episode of his food travelogue Fuck, That’s Delicious, which now airs on the Viceland network. He is a diehard Phil Collins fan. Bam Bam and Phil hit it off immediately, talking music, cuisine, and, eventually, pimple-popping YouTubes.
COLLINS: Alright, so what do you want to know for Christ’s sake?
BRONSON: Let me ask you, did you feel like Patrick Bateman’s assessment of the career of Genesis and Phil Collins was correct?
COLLINS: I don’t know. We were all sent the book, and at the time I kind of thought, that’s just what we need, another serial killer movie. But I didn’t read the book. I was living in Switzerland, and someone said to me, “Have you seen American Psycho? You’ve got to go see it because they do lots of things to your music…” So I watched it and I kind of enjoyed the film, and I have to watch it again to see if I was offended or not.
BRONSON: I don’t think it was offensive, I think it was pretty good. The transition of coming from behind the drums to behind the microphone — I watch people like Don Henley sit there and play the drums and sing, and I wonder… It seems extremely difficult to have that rhythmic [component and also] be able to sing on stage… Does that just come to you?
COLLINS: I could have done the singing and the drumming together like [Henley] does… The thing is, I mean, he didn’t do it for a whole set. He just did it for a couple songs, and if you do that it’s OK. Like Levon Helm used to do with the Band, and the way he set his kit up, you could almost see the side of it so he was in touch with the audience. But normally a drummer is cut off from the audience with the drums, and that’s one of the reasons why I got thrown at the front. Because we all kind of thought after Peter Gabriel it would be very important for whoever replaced him to connect with the audience the same way. I was kind of pulled, screaming and shouting, to the front of the stage because I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to stay behind the drums, but we literally couldn’t find another singer.
BRONSON: And thank God you did, huh?
BRONSON: [Laughs] I would say that you would have to focus so much on that — like the drums are so intense and vocals are so intense that I couldn’t imagine doing both at the same time.
COLLINS: Well, I used to do “In The Air Tonight” from behind the drums. I used to wander around the stage and end up at the drum kit, and that’s intense. I mean that’s the most intense thing because [makes percussion noise] and then you’re singing, “Ah,” you know. I never had a problem with coordination because I did it at school, where I was in my school band and I used to do some singing. So the coordination thing kind of came early. It’s just the visual thing and the connecting with an audience, I think. In the end, you’re the link.
BRONSON: Absolutely. It feels like the most important thing when I’m out on stage, the connection, just looking people in their eyes and just seeing them look at you and just the little nuances out there makes everyone feel much better.
COLLINS: Things you would not see if you were behind the drums, the tom-toms, and the cymbals.
?BRONSON: Me being a big food guy here, I wanna know, when you touch down in New York City, what is the first thing you have to have? What do you crave? What do you eat as soon as you get into New York City?
COLLINS: I love Indian food…
BRONSON: Oh, me too.
COLLINS: And I love Japanese food.
BRONSON: Me too.
COLLINS: So, there are a couple of Indian restaurants… I can’t tell you their names because I don’t remember their names. The Indian food in this country has changed a lot, because they just don’t like spices so much in this country.
BRONSON: It’s true.
COLLINS: So I have been going to lots of Indian restaurants over the years, and it’s just a little bit of spice. In England, it’s blistering.
BRONSON: Some of my favorite places in the world are in England. In London, Lahore Kebab House?
COLLINS: I don’t know it.
BRONSON: Oh you gotta try that place, man. The shish kebab with the lamb and the minced garlic and the mint, it’s to die for. It’s absolutely to die for.
COLLINS: [Laughs] Well, it takes someone else to come into London and notice that kind of thing. People everywhere have got their own favorite restaurants, but here I’ve got a couple of Indian restaurants that I’d go to and I trust. If I ask for a vindaloo, it’s going to come like I expect it, you know?
BRONSON: You want that vindaloo to be extremely simmering.
COLLINS: I made a mistake [at] one that used to be on the corner near Central Park South and Columbus Circle, this was years ago, but I went in there and I said, “I fancy a curry.” I said to the guy, “Listen, I want a vindaloo, but I want it hot, OK? Don’t par me off with any of this little spice thing.” He said, “OK, yeah, you want it hot?” So, I said, “Yeah,” so he went away and ordered it and he came back and clunked it in front of me and I started to eat it and it was unbelievably hot.
BRONSON: He overdid it. [Laughs]
COLLINS: This chef came out to look, you know, and I found out it was an English Indian chef from England, so when I asked for it really hot, he really threw it all in. I was thinking it was an American chef and, therefore, I had to encourage the heat…
BRONSON: Yeah, add a little bit leeway.
COLLINS: But I couldn’t finish it.
BRONSON: I had that issue one time. Tried the hottest pepper in the world, I was just eating chicken wings covered in this, I could only get past two. That was it!
COLLINS: I love hot peppers.
BRONSON: Ripping my whole mouth apart.
COLLINS: When I was [living in Los Angeles], the Mexican food truck used to come around at lunchtime. There were these chilies — and I love jalapen?os, but these were big ones. Well, I ordered two of them, went to the car, sat down in it, and I never felt so bad in my life.
BRONSON: [Laughs] You just sit there!
COLLINS: I put the seat back and I thought, “Oh my god, I’m going to die.” I mean this was the hottest thing. I couldn’t believe it. I was just expecting a little, spicy jalapen?o.
BRONSON: I love that!
COLLINS: Anyway, what are you up to now?
BRONSON: I was actually filming my show today. Filming my food show. It’s called Fuck, That’s Delicious.
COLLINS: Oh, yeah? [Laughs]
BRONSON: So we were just at Peter Luger’s, one of the best steakhouses in the world. We had an interesting experience, a unique one. We didn’t eat in the restaurant; we ate in the parking lot across the street with the J train as the backdrop and it was nice. It was beautiful.
COLLINS: Table was set up?
BRONSON: Yeah, it was a nice, white cloth. Everything. It was gorgeous.
COLLINS: Wine, or…?
BRONSON: We didn’t have any wine. I had to come here, I didn’t want to get all crazy, you know?
BRONSON: That’s what I’ve been doing. Just working on some music, too. That’s it. I’m really focusing on this television stuff.
COLLINS: With the food channels there’s a lot of interesting guys doing it. It’s not the thing that I would necessarily watch, but I came into contact with one the other day and it was a different take on it.
BRONSON: It’s entertaining, right? I think usually you wouldn’t be able to sit down and watch a full cooking show, that’s what you would think, but once you start getting into it, you’re like, “oh wow.” Your mouth starts watering and you go nuts. It’s like, “I want this,” and you just become addicted. It’s like those — I don’t know if you’ve ever seen these things, I’m a little sick — those pimple-popping things on YouTube?
BRONSON: It’s a little sick, but trust me, it’s addictive.
BRONSON: It’s crazy! I don’t want to creep you out.
COLLINS: What is it? I know what it sounds like, but what is it?
BRONSON: It’s just people squeezing pimples. [Laughs]
COLLINS: Really? It’s come to that, has it?
BRONSON: It’s really come to that!
COLLINS: Do you cook?
BRONSON: I do.
COLLINS: What is your speciality?
BRONSON: Everything. Life, honestly.
COLLINS: You cook a bit of everything, do you?
BRONSON: I do. I grew up cooking a lot of Albanian food. I learned traditional French food. Mexican, working in the kitchen with Mexicans. Indian, because I love it so much. I just picked up a lot along the way.
COLLINS: And probably mix a few ideas together?
BRONSON: Oh, for sure. There’s no rules.
COLLINS: And where do you record when you record?
BRONSON: I usually record in Brooklyn in Greenpoint. It’s a nice studio overlooking the city, has a nice skyline view.
COLLINS: So you write?
BRONSON: Yeah, I write.
COLLINS: And you have a band?
BRONSON: No. There’s a lot of sampling involved.
COLLINS: No! [Laughs]
BRONSON: Listen, I’m being straight up with you, there is.
COLLINS: Well, of course there is. It’s flattering, that’s the way it is.
BRONSON: Exactly, it’s because you’ve made music that is literally a perfect bed for anything! It’s good to be rapped, sang beautifully by a songbird, whatever. It’s timeless stuff.
COLLINS: You know, I’ve got a folder on my iTunes of “In The Air” covers and it’s just…
BRONSON: I can imagine! [Laughs]
COLLINS: I’ve got schmaltzy saxophone players and I’ve got lots of rappers doing it and Lil’ Kim and all that lot. People that have done it on records and some quirky things I’ve been sent and told about.
BRONSON: One of my favorite songs is “Easy Lover,” you and Phil Bailey. It makes me get up and boogie, man. It really does.
COLLINS: There are some songs, “In The Air” is one of them and “Easy Lover” is another that…
BRONSON: Everyone probably mentions “In The Air,” you have such an extensive catalog that it’s almost offensive to mention just that.
COLLINS: Well, that’s very nice.
COLLINS: I don’t get tired of it because I’m grateful for any kind of song like that. A song like that only comes around every now and then in a person’s career, but “Easy Lover” still sounds good.
BRONSON: Timeless, unbelievable.
COLLINS: And that’s George Massenburg, he was the engineer on that record. He used to engineer all of the Earth, Wind, & Fire records and I wanted to meet him and he’s actually a nuclear physicist.
BRONSON: No shit!
COLLINS: He’s got the degree for that. He used to make his own studio, you know, when he came in. He’s a very studious guy. Friendly, but studious. He’s just got this fantastic sound and we’re still talking about it.
BRONSON: You can’t mimic that sound these days. Everyone searches for the ways to make it sound like it did back in the day. It’s just hard to do it.
COLLINS: I guess I never thought of that.
BRONSON: Because you lived it, you did it.
COLLINS: Yeah, but if I was recording now…
BRONSON: Would you do it the same way as you did back then?
COLLINS: Oh, yeah. I wouldn’t change the sound on those things.
BRONSON: But would you use new methods like the way they’re doing now electronically mostly? Or analog?
COLLINS: More traditional. Well I toyed with the idea, but I think in the end, it’s what we call “mutton dressed as lamb,” you know. It would look like I’m just trying to do it to get into this particular moment and me in my natural habitat probably wouldn’t be that. I did ask Pharrell Williams to remix the whole album Face Value because I thought it would be interesting to see someone like that’s take on it.
BRONSON: Yeah, for sure.
COLLINS: But he said, “Well, why would you want to do that?” So that was the end of the conversation. [Laughs]
BRONSON: [Laughs] He didn’t just say, “OK”?
COLLINS: No, he’s a fan apparently, but he said, “Well, I don’t want to touch that. You know, why would you want to do that because that’s kind of what it is. I wouldn’t want to fuck with it.”
BRONSON: But this is a new day. You want to hear some new shit.
COLLINS: The jury is out. People like to have stuff the way they know it.
BRONSON: Of course.
COLLINS: I mean we remastered it. We remastered all the albums and took all the photographs again, which was interesting.
BRONSON: Great idea.
COLLINS: It’s a simple idea and I kind of thought, it’s got my handprints on it. It’s like, “Phil’s involved with this because at least he’s done the artwork.”
BRONSON: Are you reissuing everything on vinyl?
BRONSON: Amazing. I need all of the reissues, honestly.
COLLINS: We’ve done the photographs for all of them, except for Going Back, which is my tribute to Motown. It was basically a visit, a trip down memory lane, because I did all of the songs that I listened to in the ’60s when I was growing up, which was a lot of Motown.
BRONSON: Which brings me to the question that I really wanted to ask you. When you’re just sick of everybody’s fucking bullshit, you get in the car, what car are you driving in and what are you playing? Saying, “Fuck the world, this is my time. Don’t mess with my time.”
COLLINS: Wow. Well, you know, at home, I mean, Miami is my home, I don’t put music on in the car. I would do it if I was working because then I would be listening to mixes.
BRONSON: Is that more of a meditative time, you just drive and you just absorb everything?
COLLINS: I’m not listening to much music at all. I get exposed to music through my kids and stuff they’re listening to. I’ve got a 14-year-old and an 11-year-old and I’ve got three older kids, too, but the two that live with me, one of them has a band and they play stuff and I listen to it because they play in the house and they listen to stuff. The only two bands I can remember are OneRepublic and Two Door Cinema Club, but there’s lots of other stuff that they listen to, and they’re writing their own stuff. But normally, I go back to things, artists that I know I like, like Bruce Hornsby and the keyboard player Joe Zawinul, who I got to know, wonderful guy who played with Miles Davis. He had Weather Report, that was his band. So it depends. The other day I had to approve a CD of songs for the Motown album and it got me listening. I was suddenly in front of the computer with the iTunes on and I thought, “Oh, let’s check that out. Check that out.” It’s lovely when I do go back and listen to stuff. Sometimes when I’m on holiday, Lily, my 26-year-old, she’s an actress, she will put her iPod on and I’ll say, “What’s that?” and she’ll tell me. There’s a lot of good stuff out there, but I live under a rock.
?BRONSON: I feel you.
COLLINS: Really, I mean, I used to feel bad about it that I wasn’t listening, and then I heard an interview with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, and he said, “You know, quite honestly, I don’t give a fuck about anybody else.” [Laughs]
BRONSON: That’s right! [Laughs]
COLLINS: That’s a little bit how I feel. You do what you do, and people do what they do, and when you come across it, when you discover it, it’s great, but I don’t go looking for it, which I would have done if I was a lot younger. [Just in] my activities on school runs and football runs…
BRONSON: Those feel good though, right?
COLLINS: It’s fantastic!
BRONSON: I bring my kids to school every morning. It helps me wake up. It helps me get going.
COLLINS: Do you not find that you’re stereotyped [as a wild rapper]?
BRONSON: Yeah, of course.
COLLINS: I mean, “how would he get up at 6:30 in the morning to do this?”
BRONSON: Of course I’m stereotyped. I get up at 5 o’clock, no matter what time I go to sleep, it’s 5 AM every morning. I drive an hour to take them…
COLLINS: An hour to school?
BRONSON: Because there’s traffic in New York in the morning!
COLLINS: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
BRONSON: The hustle and bustle, oh my god, it’s a mess.
COLLINS: Yeah, I have 45 minutes.
BRONSON: It’s a mess and plus parents decide to leave their cars blocking everything, blocking the whole street down the block. It’s a fun time. We get to hang out a little bit and talk in the morning. It’s good to get them going, get their brains going.
COLLINS: How many kids you got?
COLLINS: Boys? Girls?
BRONSON: A boy and a girl. You can’t get anything else, right?
COLLINS: One of each! Three.
BRONSON: Unless science does something.
COLLINS: Rodney Dangerfield — “How many kids you got?” “Three, one of each.”
COLLINS: Yeah, the school runs kind of … I broke my foot, so I can’t drive. Otherwise my foot would go on the accelerator and just not come off. It’s going to be interesting. I can’t feel it yet.
BRONSON: I broke my ankle over here, too, that’s what started my music career pretty much.
COLLINS: What’s that?
BRONSON: I broke my leg in the kitchen while I was working and I just starting doing music.
COLLINS: How long ago?
COLLINS: Oh, wow, recently.
BRONSON: Actually, the anniversary, the five-year anniversary, was January 31. Thank you, everybody.
COLLINS: [Laughs] Five years!
BRONSON: Five years since it happened and it’s stronger than ever, so you don’t worry about that. Trust me, you’re going to be doing all kinds of kung fu soon.
COLLINS: We’ll see. Hopefully the nerves will regenerate because it’s numb.
BRONSON: You doing rehab?
COLLINS: Physical therapy, yeah. I do that. I was doing that every day before Christmas. Since Christmas, it’s been a bit busy. I had back surgery, which has been going great. I had a big problem with my back. I fell so I broke it and now it’s numb, but it will regenerate, they say, given time.
BRONSON: Are you going to be ready to perform soon?
COLLINS: I’m not planning anything, but I’m thinking about it. [This past weekend, Collins sang at a fundraiser for his Little Dreams Foundation in Miami. -Ed] I want to wait for this, but yeah, my kids really want me to get out there and write some new songs because they’re sick of the old ones, so I’m thinking about it, but I’ve got a nice life at the moment. I’m with my family. I’m back with my third wife, which is a lovely story, and I’m with my two boys, but I don’t want to go away and say goodbye. Things can be done differently nowadays.
BRONSON: You can bring them with you, right?
COLLINS: When I was growing up, you went away like you went out to war. You didn’t know if you were going to come back. It was months you were away for. Now, with Billy Joel at the Garden, you can do things different.
BRONSON: I saw him. It’s incredible what he’s doing at that age. He’s still a young man, but he’s nonstop. That show is nonstop.
COLLINS: I haven’t seen it, but I think it’s a great idea. It certainly gave me a little food for thought. I’ve talked about it to a few people. Somebody told me today that McCartney and the Stones do that as well, they go out for bursts of time. I wasn’t really aware of that. So that might be the way to do it if I were to bite the bullet.
BRONSON: I think that’ll be incredible.
COLLINS: What’s next for you?
BRONSON: Next for me is the show.
COLLINS: How much have you done?
BRONSON: We have the first eight. The first season is done. Now we’re starting to work on the second season.
COLLINS: Good luck.
BRONSON: Thank you very much. You know, music, I’m doing a lot of festivals this year, shows all over.
COLLINS: What do you do when you do a show?
BRONSON: It’s just me and a DJ and I’m just literally rapping for an hour and a half. It’s interesting.
COLLINS: What does the DJ do?
BRONSON: He just plays my song. I go out in the crowd. I get crazy with them. I climb things. They’re not used to a 287-and-a-half-pound man climb all kinds of contraptions, doing wild jumps and stage diving. It’s fun. People enjoy it.
COLLINS: I’ll bet they do. So he has the tracks and you sing to it, I mean, you rap to it?
BRONSON: Yeah, just the music, no words over it. Nothing. Just me with the microphone and just my vocals and the music.
COLLINS: That’s enough.
BRONSON: Yep, that’s it.
COLLINS: Well good luck.
BRONSON: Thank you, you too.
COLLINS: And the show … It’s called Fuck, This Tastes Good?
BRONSON: Pretty much.
COLLINS: Oh, Fuck, That’s Delicious! [Laughs]
BRONSON: [Laughs] There you go! Thank you for having me, for real.
COLLINS: Much love. Good stuff.
Phil Collins’ remaster campaign concludes 4/15 with deluxe reissues of No Jacket Required and Testify. The other albums are out now via Rhino.