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The Ant Band - das Interview

The Ant Band: The Interview

Tom Morgenstern talks to GNC - A Light On The Hill

info & order | track by track | review | interview | Slow Dance project

The project for Anthony Phillips' 70th birthday did not fall from the sky, of course, and meant meticulous work, some of which took years. We spoke to Tom Morgenstern, in a way the project manager behind the project, on 21st December 2021 about the background of the project and of course the album A Light On The Hill.

it: Tom, before we go straight into details, please tell us something about yourself and what kind of fan of Genesis or Anthony Phillips you would describe yourself as..

Tom Morgenstern: I discovered Anthony Phillips and Genesis around the same time in 1977. I was just sixteen then. In fact, the second part of the title track of The Geese & The Ghost was presented by Winfried Trenkler on WDR 2, something that would no longer be on the radio today. I had recorded it on cassette, but immediately bought the record - it has remained my absolute favourite album to this day. Shortly before that, a friend lent me Wind & Wuthering and I thought the singer on both albums was great. Because there was nothing else by Anthony, I bought the complete back catalogue of Genesis in the summer, and shortly after that I started learning to play the guitar myself. I practised fingerpicking like crazy and my second guitar was a second-hand, cheap 12-string.

Actually, I wanted to become a graphic designer and was later enrolled at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Dortmund, but music already had me in its grip. In the 1980s, I played with my brothers in the Dortmund post-punk band "Die Zinnförster" and built an eight-track studio in the basement of my parents' house. That went really well without much publicity and soon I had no more time to study. At some point I gave that up and instead trained as a sound technician at the former School for Broadcast Technology in Nuremberg. Since then, I have been working full time for a large public broadcaster, which I am not allowed to name here, and for a few years now I have been running a studio for audio restoration and mastering officially as a sideline, but actually more for fun, and I am quite busy with it.

it: When the German Genesis Fan Club announced an Anthony Phillips event in 2013 and launched a call for music-making fans to come forward to play Ant's music at the event - did you come forward spontaneously or was it a longer process?

Tom: I'm not really a big fan of live performances - working in the studio was always more important to me. With the Zinnförster band, I only did the tech stuff for the first two years and then took over the bass when it became vacant. I preferred to leave the limelight to others. Our two grown-up children, Nina and Robin, both play guitar as well and God if I Saw Her Now in particular was always part of the family repertoire - so we didn't have to practise that at all. Both of them spontaneously wanted to join in and I signed us up straight away. Two months later I got the request to join the Slow Dance project. I already knew the people from other events and from the forum and knew that they were nice, so I accepted.

it: Which other titles were on the shortlist for you?

Tom: With Nina and Robin, apart from Stranger and Silver Song, I had briefly considered playing Lucy: An Illusion, but we were supposed to limit ourselves to three songs - God If I Saw Her Now was set. With the other band, Slow Dance had been set for a long time. Martin Brilla told me later that he would have liked to play Salmon Leap from the Scottish Suite, but for that you need a complete rock band with a drummer, and logistically we couldn't have done that

it: What did you think of your performance and Ants' comments afterwards?

Tom: The whole event had a very pleasant, cheerful atmosphere. The audience was very sympathetic and quickly forgave mistakes, nervousness and occasional incompetence. Ant was also in a very good mood and his comments, spiced with the finest British humour, were very funny, which contributed to the good atmosphere. Of course, he didn't slate anyone, he is British after all. But his commentary on Slow Dance was relatively serious. It's hard to understand in the recording I have from our performance, but he thanked us and said that this music had cost him a lot of time and meant a lot to him.

it: What happened in the first years after the event?

Tom: The four of us already had the idea in Welkers to record our version of Slow Dance in the studio, because we didn't think our performance was that good, despite the rapturous applause. That's what we did three weeks later at my place. But there were other talented musicians playing on the two days of the event, and I would have liked to invite them to further studio sessions, because the mixer recording didn't sound so great. It was probably a very strange situation for all of them to play their own pieces for Anthony - some of them were quite nervous and you can hear that. I had talked to some people about this idea in the years after, but it was more along the lines of "it would have been nice, if...".

it: One of your collaborators, Thomas Waltner, died unexpectedly in 2017, which is one of the reasons why you summarised the genesis of the performance in an article in 2014. How did his death change the project?

Tom: The more time passed since the Ant event, the less concrete the idea remained in my head. In the end, I didn't think it was realistic to realise it. Three quarters of the Slow Dance band had met from time to time at the regulars' Genesis fan table in Cologne, but it was too far for Sascha Krieger, our other guitarist. Thomas Waltner visited me at home in the summer of 2015 - he rode all the way from Solingen to Bergisch Gladbach on his racing bike to listen to The Geese & The Ghost in 5.1 surround (he didn't have such a system himself) and we spent a nice afternoon together. When the death news came, I hadn't heard from him for a while before and I was quite shaken. It was just unbelievable - he had just turned 52 and was always in top form.

Martin and I then went to his funeral service together, which took place in Thomas' flat in Solingen. There, where we had rehearsed Slow Dance three years before and had become a real band of four friends. There were all his vintage keyboards standing around, his furniture, record collection and books were still there - it all looked like he was about to walk in the door and apologise for being late. That was a strange feeling. His brother later offered me his Mellotron M400 for sale - I should have accepted this offer at the time. Martin then had the great idea to release our studio recording of Slow Dance on the first anniversary of his death as a tribute to him. It had been left lying around and had to be cleaned up and mixed first. Martin and Sascha had of course received all the intermediate mixes and made critical comments - so the old chemistry between us was back again immediately.

Tom Morgenstern in seinem Heim-Studio

it: You saw the performance of the Rocking Horse Music Club. Was that the starting signal for the continuation of your project?

Tom: Not really, that came a bit later. When I heard about the Rocking Horse CD, I was a bit disappointed, of course, because the guys had sort of beaten me to it. But I quickly saw that they were pursuing a completely different concept than what I had in mind. I hadn't heard the album yet when I saw the two live shows in November 2019 in the south of England. They were very well done, all excellent musicians, but it was also almost a small orchestra, so many people were on stage, three or four guitarists, several keyboard players, many singers - there was no boredom. The programme was not limited to Anthony's music, they played several songs from Mike Rutherford's Smallcreep's Day and also something from the early Genesis: One-Eyed Hound, I remember that - it was really great. After the show I had a brief opportunity to talk to Brian Coombes, the initiator and producer of the Rocking Horse album. I told him that the German fan club had put something similar together a few years ago and he said, yes, he had heard about it. So of course I immediately wondered if the Ant event might not have given him the impetus.

Anthony was there both evenings with his partner. During a break, I was standing in the queue outside the gents when he came out and headed straight for me, took a moment to look at me and then grinned and shook my hand (which I hope he had just washed), saying, "I know that guy". After more than five years, I had not expected that. He immediately asked me about Nina's condition - obviously our performance in Welkers had left its mark on him.

it: When did the idea come up to record an album explicitly for Ants 70th?

Tom: I always need a goal for projects - something has to come out of it. And a deadline is always great, because then it's harder to put off decisions. Because I'm a great procrastinator. I had his 70th in mind as a goal right after the Ant event, it was still a few years away at the time, it should be achievable. At the end of 2019, I met Martin in Cologne for the handover of the signed Rocking Horse CD, where we talked about my project idea again. Martin immediately contributed a few good ideas and so it gradually became more concrete. Three months later Corona was there and YouTube was flooded with these lockdown videos where musicians, sitting individually in their living rooms, played together virtually. My brother had also set up such an initiative and asked me to join in. In the end, it was amazingly good, there were even four different languages to be heard. So the technical prerequisites were there, now all that was left was for someone to say, let's do it - here we go. However, I still had some problems to solve before I was ready. I had more free time now than before, because thanks to working from home I had 70 minutes of commuting time a day, but I still had a long-term project of my own going on, and I had to reconcile that somehow.

it: How did you get other musicians interested in the project?

Tom: I wanted to have Nina and Robin as singers. Without them I wouldn't have started it at all. This was mainly for practical reasons, because I really wanted to produce the important vocal recordings myself. You have to coach singers directly during the recording, there's no other way. With Robin it was no problem, he agreed quickly, but Nina was very reserved at first. She is not a fan of Ant's music, but then she helped us choose the songs and we spent a Sunday listening to the originals together. She offered to analyse the lyrics and give hints on how the songs could be arranged (which turned out to be very helpful a few times afterwards). She has a Master's degree in English/American Studies and she enjoys that kind of thing. And then it didn't take too much persuasion to have her sing the two songs that ended up on the album.
I knew that I could rely on the other two survivors of the Slow Dance band, Martin and Sascha - and so I basically had the core of the ANT BAND already together. But the point was to reactivate as many of the musicians from the Ant event as possible, that was important to me. But I was also aware that there were other good musicians on the forum who were not there in 2014. That's why I had started a call in the "Homerecording" thread in February 2021, in which I had briefly outlined the concept and there was also an initial list of songs that might come into question. Within a very short time, about 15 people responded, most of whom stayed until the end. A few more joined later. In the end, there were 14 musicians (including Thomas Waltner and myself) - nine of them had already taken part in the Ant event, and two more joined us who had registered at the time but had to cancel at short notice. Three new people joined us, including the keyboard player and the drummer of the prog band Dawnation from Neubrandenburg, whose first album I had mastered last year.

it: The album also features Steve Hackett. How would you describe his contribution and what does it mean to you?

Roger Kings MailTom: It didn't seem to be a big deal for Steve - I had sent him our concept and he quickly agreed to play a solo. He didn't seem to care which song. Actually, we had thought of giving him Salmon Leap, but the guide track for it was far from finished and Steve only had a short window of time at the beginning of May. A few weeks earlier, however, I had had the idea to try F Sharp, the '69 demo by Ant and Mike that later became The Musical Box. To my own surprise, the piece was quite easy to play on the 12-string - I just had to figure out the correct F# tuning first, but the guide track was already ready. I can well imagine that Steve was even tempted to come up with a whole new solo here, because that was my only request to him. I think he did a great job. At the end of May I got the mail from Roger King with the download link for Steve's solo file and of course I immediately put it in and put a rough mix online for the others. Everyone thought it was great straight away - and Steve gave the ANT BAND such a big motivational boost. After that, things really took off.

it: The album was mostly recorded in 2021. You have never met completely as a band. Was that a challenge? What other hurdles did you have to overcome?

Tom: Coordination was a problem because it took me more time than I expected. We had a secret sub-forum set up by the fan club, which we also used extensively. But in addition, there were also many direct agreements between me and individual musicians via various platforms and channels that I don't normally use regularly. A few times I couldn't prevent two keyboard players from working on the same piece at the same time, because I didn't always know who was doing what. Sometimes, however, it was the chaos that produced sensationally good results, even if it was certainly frustrating for the musicians when I couldn't use their tracks in the end. The discussions in the sub-forum worked well. I quickly received constructive criticism for every intermediate mix I posted, which always helped me move forward. A Google Drive was our exchange cloud. Anyone who wanted to and had the time could download the guide tracks I had created, which had a predefined structure, rhythm and tempo, and upload their own recordings. In addition, so-called chord sheets were created so that not everyone had to pick out the chords themselves.

A big problem was that I didn't have time for the project in June because I had two other relatively complicated mastering jobs to do. But the guys bravely carried on without me. Unfortunately, the last guide tracks were not finished until the end of July, which was a bit shorter than planned.

it: The artwork is of course reminiscent of The Geese And The Ghost. Helmut Janisch, founder of the German Genesis Fan Club and also a big fan of Anthony's music, designed it. How did you exchange ideas with Helmut?

Tom: I wanted Helmut to participate from the beginning because I have always appreciated his work. Unfortunately, he didn't want to take part at first, because I already had a concrete idea for the front cover and had already made a few drafts for it. The garden gnome with Anthony's face was first up on the ant hill and the landscape that Robin's partner Stephi had photographed on a spring trip to Bernkastel-Kues was already in there too. I first wanted to make it look like one of those typical Peter Cross paintings with some Photoshop painting filters, but that didn't work.
Helmut said he was not good at implementing other people's ideas, but when he saw my last design, which was already a Geese parody, it appealed to him and he rebuilt my design from scratch. Only the dwarf he took over directly. And then he started to add all these lovely details, some of which are so small that you can only guess at them on the CD. That's why he had the idea of having posters printed with the enlarged artwork, which you can enclose with the CD. I do that now with all CDs sold via Bandcamp, folded by hand. When the front artwork was finished at the beginning of September, he wrote me that he wanted to do the rest of the artwork as well. That was fine with me, because I was already pretty busy with the music. The back side with the guitar-playing ant was all his idea, it just looks great. I had to photograph my 12-string Ovation, which Ant had signed at the event in Welkers, from different angles and he then put it in the ant's arms. By the way, the ant is wearing a cap with the motif of Private Parts & Pieces I on it.

it: The CD will be available online - when did you decide to do a "real" release and not just send it out privately?

Tom: That's what I had in mind from the beginning - nowadays it's not too expensive to have a CD pressed and distributed - but with a CD with only cover versions, the GEMA hits hard. But I still calculated it in such a way that I only have to sell about a quarter of the print run to recoup the production costs plus GEMA..

it: You don't want to make a profit with the album and donate the proceeds completely to the Corona Artists' Aid.

Tom: Exactly, I had put this up for discussion in our sub-forum and everyone thought it was a good idea. It fits the project perfectly and Timm Markgraf, the initiator of the Corona Artists' Aid, also happens to be a Genesis fan - what more could you want?

it: Anthony didn't know about the project until the end, but you were able to exchange information with his archivist Jonathan Dann. How important was that?

Tom: I've known Jonathan for a long time - I used to travel a lot in the UK fan scene and we met at the Rocking Horse concert. I contacted him because I wanted to make sure that Study No.1 in E Maj was really unreleased. Ant's complete oeuvre is rather confusing and it could well be that it is on one of his many library CDs with a different title. But Jon had confirmed that. I suspect there is an Anthony recording of it and that he hasn't released it is surely because of the incredibly difficult middle section, which he himself can't play accident-free - a funny imagination.
Jon had also listened to some intermediate mixes later and discovered five mistakes in the lyrics of Moon's Lament for the Sun and corrected them straight away. Nina then had to sing it again, after almost eight months. This is the vocal version of Moonfall, which is also still unreleased. I got the Masquerade demos through my UK contacts many years ago, but the sound quality was so bad that the lyrics are hardly understandable. Besides, the lyrics only make half sense if you know the title of the song and that the moon is singing its lament to its beloved sun. Before Esoteric Records announced the new edition of the two Archive Collections in October, which include the Masquerade demos as a bonus CD, the title was unknown - and Jon hadn't told us anything before. I thought it was great that he also agreed to write the liner notes. So our album almost got official status.

it: Now the album is "out". How does it feel and what are your expectations regarding the reactions?

Tom: There have already been first enthusiastic reactions from friends and relatives, but they don't count for much. I hope that the album will be well received by the fans. But I also know that not everyone will like it, because although we have closely orientated ourselves to the original versions in terms of structure and instrumentation of the basic tracks, some arrangements have moved quite far away from them. In Unheard Cry, for example, the 12-string guitar is almost original, but everything else around it is completely new - and perhaps sounds a bit strange - you might have to get used to it.

it: Can we expect more projects of this kind in the future?

Tom: It's hard to say - maybe it also depends on how well our album is received. It was a lot of fun, of course - but for me it was especially exhausting because it was already the third CD I produced this year, after the two Zinnförster CDs that came out in March and September on a Japanese label. Of course, that won't happen again, but at the moment I'm not really motivated for further projects of this kind.

And I don't see a comparable goal - Martin, who is also a huge fan of Rupert Hine, had initially suggested covering the Masquerade musical completely, but apart from two or three songs, that's not really good either. Anyway, I understood why it was never realised. - Tony Banks' 75th was suggested by someone from the ANT BAND the other day, the many keyboard players could really let off steam there, but I'm honestly not a big fan of Tony's solo stuff ...

it: Thank you very much for the informative talk and good luck with your album.

Tom: Was a pleasure, thanks!

Interview: Christian Gerhardts
Foto: Max Goldt

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