Mike Rutherford – Flyin’ High

by Ralph Chapman

Even if the only thing Mike Rutherford ever did in his career, was play the bass in Genesis, his place in rock history would be cemented.  He may not have had the tone of the late, great Chris Squire, or the dexterity, but he was every bit as musical, and with his use of both space and restraint, dare I say, he was the finest progressive rock bass player, in terms of using the bass to support the song above all.  Supremely gifted, freely borrowing from both the Entwistle/Bruce approach as well as the incomparable melodicism of John Paul Jones and Paul McCartney, he was the band’s secret weapon, and listening to any given Genesis track and honing in on the bass, was always a quiet thrill.  At the same time, he was the band’s second most prolific writer, certainly post Gabriel, and one could easily argue that it was Rutherford, and not Collins who initially pushed the band in a more ‘accessible’, but no less exhilarating, direction.  When Genesis was just shy of their commercial summit with Invisible Touch, Rutherford launched, in 1985, a project called Mike + The Mechanics, as a second outlet for his songwriting.  Smallcreep’s Day and the very undervalued Acting Very Strange, Mike’s first two records outside of the context of Genesis, were, in a stricter sense, solo records.  Mike + The Mechanics would be a very different approach, drawing on outside writing collaborators – namely Chris Neil and B.A. Robertson - as an imperative, with a variety of vocalists in tow.  By the second Mechanics record, Living Years, the project had become a group, settling on Paul Young and Paul Carrack as the voices of the band, and the commercial success of the group gave Mike an entirely different creative course to follow over the next twenty-five years, thriving until the untimely passing of Paul Young in 2000 (though a Carrack-led album snuck out in 2004).  Surprisingly, in 2011, Rutherford re-launched the band with two new singers in Tim Howar and Andrew Roachford, and the ensuing record, The Road, though still featuring the contributions of stalwart writing partner, Chris Neil, was a very different sounding Mechanics record – smoother, poppier, and with Roachford, further steeped in soul and R & B, than even anything Carrack had done with the band.   So, 2017, six years later, a new Mechanics record has arrived:  Let Me Fly.  Chatting with Mike about the record had its frustrations.  Confined to about fifteen minutes and hampered by a poor connection, it was difficult to get as deep into the record as I would’ve liked.  It was clear from Mike’s enthusiasm, that he is proud of the new album and invigorated by not just the coalescing of the new line-up, but the arrival of new songwriting partners – namely Clark Datchler from the UK pop band, Johnny Hates Jazz.  Be forewarned, Genesis fans, there is barely a mention of his former (other) band.  Though, I did manage one quick question at the end of the interview about one Rutherford penned Genesis tune, a personal favourite of mine called ‘Like It Or Not’, Mike’s answer unfortunately, was a vague (and I mean really vague) recollection of it being ‘sort of a slow one, right?’ leaving that section of the interview on the cutting room floor.  The interview ended with an equally vague promise from Mike, that plummy English country gentleman accent still apparent in the thick static, to not only give side 2 of Abacab another listen, but also, Acting Very Strange.  To be a fly on the wall… But, no matter, Let Me Fly is out, apparently being well-received and a tour is to follow…it is great to have Mike Rutherford back and putting out new material – a legend, he is.

RC: Why a new Mechanics record?

MR: Firstly, I kind of restarted the Mechanics about six years ago.  Mechanics didn’t tour much and hearing the songs again was a nice process; but, after a period of time you get tired of the same old songs, so first it was just to play live and enjoy being in the band, but the other point was, I’m a songwriter, that’s what I’m all about really.  I really like playing live, but songwriting is really my main passion and it felt like it was time to do something.

RC: You didn’t simply want the Mechanics to be a vehicle for the past.

MR: It more important for me to write and record then to play live. I felt the need to put some new songs together to see what would happen.  The first album I did with Tim (Howar) and Andrew (Roachford), called The Road we had just met, we hadn’t really gotten together, these two new voices, it was kind of a starting out process, so now we’ve been together five or sing years, the voices, the tones, knowing how to write for them, it’s become a lot easier.

RC: Tell me about the song, ‘Let Me Fly’.

MR: It was the very first song I wrote with a new writer, Clark Datchler coming in. Clark’s from Johnny Hates Jazz.

RC: Quite an uplifting lyric.

MR: It’s about living your life, not looking back thinking ‘Christ, if only I had done that?’ You know what I mean?  Let me be what I can be.  It’s slightly an inspirational song, hopefully, saying, ‘Take life in both hands and see what happens.  Go for it.”

RC: Is that how you’ve lived your life as a musician?

MR: In places.  You try to do that.  There are moments where you’ve bottled things up in music and in life, then think ‘Why didn’t I just do what felt right?’

RC: The gospel choir was an inspired choice.

MR: I had this idea, and I knew where the track was going and I got this choir down, and I started to try and tell them what to sing, how to sing it, what to do, then I thought, ‘What the fuck am I doing? These guys do this all the time, that’s what they do.’  So I said to them, ‘Sing what feels right.’ And they came up with that and it sounds lovely.

RC: How did you two split up the lyrics in this new partnership?

MR: It was always different.  That song, Clark had the phrase ‘let me fly’. Other songs, I might have a chorus line, main hook, it all varied really.

RC: How about ‘Save The World’?

MR: It’s a funny title actually, to that song, because the chorus line is ‘I’m not trying to save the world.’-

RC: Exactly-

MR: But as a title, that would’ve been too negative.  But the meaning is, you look at these huge things we should do, but it’s more about worrying about things closer to you, a humble goal, something you can actually touch.  Sometimes these charity things for something around the world, wonderful events, what if we did something more local, that we had a feel for, that might be a bit more realistic, sometimes?

RC: As a songwriter, you seek out others to work with.

MR: I like working with other people.  I went back to the first Mechanics album where I got two writers, B.A. Robertson and Chris Neil, and in a sense, I would say that Clark Datchler covers some of that same ground.  You never quite know…there is a song called ‘High Life’, which I really like, an unusual song, written with a guy named Ed Drewitt, and I’m not pop really, but put us together and I think it worked really well.

RC: ‘High Life’ has this wonderful descending guitar lick that drags you in.

MR: That’s a good one onstage, it really goes down well, because there is a lot of space in there.

RC: Was it interesting working with someone that much younger? Ed being twenty-eight.

MR: When you get in a room with someone, age doesn’t much matter, but you do think occasionally, ‘My kids are older than him, all of them’.  But if something is working, it’s working, as long as you’re feeling the same sort of things.

RC: Where did ‘High Life’ start?

MR: I think backstage just noodling around and the whole guitar passage for the whole song, and then part of the verse just came, and I thought ‘What a crazy little thing, with odd little bits.’  Unlike what I’d normally do.

RC: It’s such a compact piece; the shortest song on the record.

MR: I tried to develop the song, a little more, but I couldn’t, it needed to be what it is.

RC: On ‘Save The World’, you have a lovely little understated guitar – and I’m curious, as a guitarist and bassist, how did you approach these songs?

MR: Yeah, the one thing, and it’s probably my fault, I’m a little bit under on this record– I wish I had done a bit more instrumental playing, (but) you get your head around a song and you forget that.  On stage, things can develop a little bit, which is nice. I’m not a lead player, per se, good enough to make the record good, I think.

RC: ‘The Letter’.  That song really sounds like The Mechanics.

MR: It wasn’t my intention, but there is a Mechanics sound, I’m not sure what it is.

RC: That’s one where there is quite an aggressive lead part.

MR: We haven’t done it live yet, and I think when we go to America, we have two lead guitar players, so I might try to make it a two-guitar part song, quite strong, heavy on guitar.

RC: You could really open that song up.

MR: You’re quite right.

RC: That track appears quite late in the album, and I’m curious how you sequenced the record.

MR: You sequence songs sort of four at a time, and I had the first four or five…I don’t know, maybe if I did it now, I would have moved it a bit earlier.

RC: ‘Love Left Over’, probably my favourite tune on the album. It hasn’t been mentioned much in the promotion for this record.

MR: I’d rather forgotten about it, until you mentioned it, actually. It’s an unusual song.  I wrote the song, basically Tim Howar and myself, and then Clark got involved.  It’s got a kind of space to it.  I love space.  This and ‘High Life’ have a lot space to it. There isn’t another track quite like that one on the album. I quite like it, actually.

RC: The twin vocal approach has always given the Mechanics a bit of a split personality.

MR: The first album we wrote and we didn’t know who was going to sing it, and we ended up with sort of five singers. Then the two Pauls, Paul Young and Paul Carrack stayed and became the singers. So, unusually, by default we ended up with kind of a R & B voice and a rock voice. It’s a great pleasure, on an album to have a variety of voice, on stage, a variety of voice, but with the Mechanics now, we haven’t had enough of the two singing together. The McCartney Lennon thing, the voices blending was fantastic, and these two, Andrew and Tim, work very well on stage.

RC: A track like ‘Not Out Of Love’, which was a co-write between you, Tim and Andrew, how did you decide who was going to take lead, when both can pull it off?

MR: It’s normally pretty obvious, it always was with the two Pauls, occasionally you get a song, well, that song it could have been either, you’re right, actually, but normally you just know.  On stage, it could be a two parter.  I never worry about the band, which is nice, they have more than enough to do.

RC: For the tour, how are you putting your set together?

MR: It’s quite a long set, about an hour fifty, which is a bit long for the Mechanics, but it doesn’t seem like it.  In the middle we do a couple of songs acoustically, which really sets a nice mood.

RC: May I suggest adding ‘A Call To Arms’ to the set list?  It seems for the time that we’re living in, an appropriate number.

MR: Yeah, it does, you’re dead right, actually.  You are very right.

RC: Lastly, with the passing of Chris Squire, John Wetton, and Greg Lake, you’re one of the (if not the) last great progressive rock bassists still with us. So, I wanted to ask you about your relationship with the bass these days.

MR: What I’ve learned about the bass, is, it’s all about a song, and if you get the bass right on the song it can lift it and change it.  It’s underrated, really. The right notes and the right feel and the bass can have a huge impact on the song.  I haven’t forgotten about that when I record.

RC: I always go back to a Genesis track like ‘Just A Job To Do’.  Your bass playing is mesmerizing on that.

MR: Oh yeah.  I like that. I love the bass.


Ralph Chapman can be reached at Ralph@bangerfilms.com