By the mid-’80s, Phil Collins had become a household name in pop music circles. His career began in 1970, when he joined Genesis as a drummer. For the next six years, he fulfilled that role with supreme efficiency. After Peter Gabriel departed from the group in 1976, Collins became Genesis’ lead singer. Three years after that, he decided to record his first solo album.
It was around this period that Collins met Hugh Padgham and a young guitarist Daryl Stuermer – two collaborators that would become instrumental to his career throughout the ’80s. Collins found instant success with the release of his first two solo albums, Face Value and Hello, I Must Be Going!. But his next release would propel him to another level of stardom. No Jacket Required spawned five singles, including two number one hits “Sussudio” and “One More Night.” For the album’s 30th anniversary, we spoke with Stuermer and the man behind the boards, Hugh Padgham, about crafting this timeless record.
When and where did you first meet Phil Collins?
I first met him in 1979 by the Townhouse Studios in London when I was working on Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. It was on this record where we discovered how to do the live drum sound that went on to become a big hit on Phil [Collins] “In the Air Tonight” record. We got on very well, and he was impressed with the work I was doing on Peter’s records. So when he decided to do his first solo album, Face Value, he rang me up. We really enjoyed working together, and we made five of his solo records together.
My first time meeting Phil was when I got the job with Genesis, and I came over to England. I met Mike Rutherford first, because when I auditioned for Genesis, it was just Mike and I. I flew into New York and auditioned for Mike. I was one of only five American guitarists at the auditions. After I got the gig, I had to fly to England for the first rehearsal. I already knew Mike from the auditions and Chester Thompson from some years prior to that. There I met Tony Banks and Phil was the last one to enter the studio. He is a really easy person to get along with. When he walked in, he seemed like he was a special guy. He just had a certain presence. I felt that way with pretty much everyone in the band as well.
Coming off of Phil Collins’ second album, Hello, I Must Be Going!, three years had passed and the sound of popular music was constantly changing. What was your and Phil Collins’ approach in making this new album?
I remember that I was so busy at that time. We never really spoke. Obviously, there was a three year gap, but between that time, I did a Genesis record with Phil, and he had gone on tour for himself and Genesis. Everyone was working during that time. He had demoed these songs at home for this album.
As I look back on it, we were trying to embrace the latest technology. Simmons electronic drums came onto the scene, and we were trying to be on the cutting edge by using them in our songs, I suppose. For instance, on two or three songs, we used a guy by the name of David Frank, who was a New York guy and a part of a band called The System. The System was pretty hip at the time. We thought we should bring him in to do some programming and it was the early days of programming where you could program the bass and drum machines. Although I’m very proud of the album, sometimes, it’s like when you look back at the ’80s and you look at what kind of haircut you had, and you cringe a bit. [laughs] A couple of sounds on the record sound a bit cheesy now, but I’m not complaining because we did sell 25 million copies of it. [laughs]
How much did the popular records from that time period influence the sound you and Phil Collins were trying to create on No Jacket Required?
I think it’s pretty well known that “Sussudio” was kind of a tribute to Prince. That’s the only really obvious one for me, because Prince released Purple Rain at the same time we were working on this album. Purple Rain was a pretty seminal record at that time. We enjoyed the influence of Earth, Wind & Fire and their horn section.
How did your and Phil Collins’ relationship with Earth, Wind & Fire evolve during this time? Was it his idea to seek them out to contribute to this album?
It was very much Phil’s idea to have them on the album. I loved Earth, Wind & Fire, but Phil loved them, in particular their horn sound. When we made Face Value, that’s when we first started our relationship with the Phenix Horns, but it was a pretty rocky relationship at some points. It’s funny looking back on it now, but when we first met them, in 1980, Maurice White, who was the head honcho of Earth, Wind & Fire, did not like his horn section working with this white English bloke.
I always remember that we were at a studio called The Village in Santa Monica, California. This is where we did the horn section overdubs and this was for the first record and not No Jacket Required. Maurice came down to visit and it was quite a tense atmosphere. The guys didn’t mind at all; they loved it. Also, on the first album, Face Value, when it was released to the radio stations, they were quite perplexed because horn sections were thought to only be a part of black music and you didn’t really get a horn section in white pop music much. There were some exceptions, but for pop radio to play pop songs that had a black horn section on it was incongruous. Saying that, Blood, Sweat & Tears had a horn section as well.
When you were working with Phil Collins, Daryl Stuermer, and Leland Sklar, who were coming up with the majority of the ideas, melodies, and arrangements for the songs on the album?
In 1980, Maurice White, who was the head honcho of Earth, Wind & Fire, did not like his horn section working with this white English bloke.
For the most part it was Phil. When he wrote “Sussudio,” he definitely had the Phenix Horns in mind. He tended to have reasonable ideas for songs. He did reasonable demos for his songs, and then we would talk about them in the studio. Most of the songs were done on an overdub basis. So, for instance, on day one, Phil would come in with his demos, and we would start to recreate them. Then, we would decide to bring Lee Sklar in, and he would fly in from the States. He would play on four or five songs, and maybe more, actually. Things would get added on and overdubbed as it went along.
Daryl, how did you become involved in the making of this album?
He actually called me at one point and said that he had some songs written for a new album. This was back in 1984. He hadn’t finished all of the songs for the album. Some of the songs were halfway done, and some of the songs were totally finished. He asked me if I could come over to do the demos with him, because he didn’t play the guitar. Thank God he doesn’t play guitar. [laughs] A lot of guys in the band didn’t get to play on the album because he plays the drums, keyboard, etc. So he had me come over to his place and put some guitar things down on his demos to see what it would sound like. Then, he told me he had some songs that weren’t quite finished. From there, he would play me things, and he would ask if I had any ideas for a middle section for certain songs. That’s why I actually ended up co-writing songs on the album.
What was your studio routine and the studio atmosphere during the recording process of the album?
We spent about three to four months recording this album. Phil lived about an hour away from London from where the studio was located. So, we would start at eleven o’clock in the morning, and I don’t know how much you know about Phil, but he is a real workaholic. We would start working, and we would have a quick break for lunch and supper and finish at eleven o’clock at night. So – we would’ve gone from eleven to eleven for five days a week, and we imported people as we saw fit, really. We recorded the whole album at Townhouse Studios, which unfortunately, doesn’t exist anymore. Unlike some people I’ve worked with, Phil was really into the process of learning studio techniques and that kind of thing. To be honest, we were joined at the hip in the studio. He would never want to leave me to carry on and do stuff without him being there. Sting would leave me if we were mixing a record, whereas Phil wanted to be there the whole time, which was great.
Our whole production approach was that less was more, because the more stuff you had on the record, the more it gets cluttered up, and therefore, the less you can hear what’s on it. Songs like “One More Night,” for instance, were really, really simple. There was hardly anything on it. Making simple songs is sometimes harder than making more complicated songs because there is so little there. What is there sticks out like a sore thumb, so it all has to work well and marry together.
I was just coming in to play music the way I thought it should be. Phil would come up with ideas and tell me that I should try it a certain way, but he first lets you go. He lets you put some things in there in the way you feel it, then he would give you some ideas from there. We tried different guitars, guitar parts and layering effects. Our bass player, Leland Sklar was there with us during this process as well. At that point, Phil had already put down the drums, drum machines and keyboard parts before we even got there. So, when we came in, I was playing guitar over tracks that were laid down prior to our arrival.
What were some of those techniques Phil Collins learned from you in the studio?
Compression was probably the main one. The big drum sound that we had on “In the Air Tonight” is often prevalent on bits and pieces of No Jacket Required. It had a very highly compressed room sound from the mics in the live room that were compressed up to give it that big sound. Also, vocally, we had this Limiter, which was made by a company called Allen & Heath, and they had this thing called a mini-Limiter. When Phil was singing, he would always sing through it. Nine times out of ten when you’re recording someone’s vocal, you would have a Limiter or a compressor on it to keep the dynamics within a certain range, and in those days, when you were using tape, it was even more important. He discovered that if he sang in a very guttural way the Limiter would really grab hold of it. You can hear it on his vocals, not so much on the ballads, but on the more rocky ones. It’s a very distinct sound, really. Also, he loved to have a tape slap echo or a digital delay on his voice. A bit like John Lennon always used to do when he sang. John Lennon didn’t like the sound of his voice, so he always used to cover it up by having a big slap delay.
What was your and Phil Collins’ technical approach and recording techniques in making the ballads?
As I mentioned before, it was harder making simpler sounding songs than the rocky type of songs. I have an interesting story about the making of “One More Night.” We recorded the song, and I knew it was a catchy song and had a chance of being a single. We were mixing it, and I just really wasn’t happy with the sound of it. I remember someone came to pick it up to take it to America to be mastered. We sent it away and it came back the next night, and they had to take it to America on the Concord or something. The reason why I wasn’t happy with the song was I just couldn’t get it to jump out of the speakers.
We used to mix on a SSL state logic desk and that had its own compressor built into the stereo mix bus. It wasn’t pokey enough, so I took out the SSL one and inserted these Allen & Heath Limiters, which you would never normally do because they were only semi-pro audios. The noise figures weren’t that great. As soon as you would compress something, you would pull the floor noise up quite a bit. So, suddenly I put the compressors over it and the whole thing sounded really, really great. I had to balance the whole song around the fact that it was going through these compressors. It worked, but I had to be careful with not producing too much noise because it was a quiet song. It was the first and last time that I mixed through these compressors. I don’t know what made me think of using them, but I did and that was it.
Can you delve into the process of making of a few songs from the album?
Many people thought the song “Sussudio” mimicked Prince’s song “1999.” Phil never ran away from that idea.
Many people thought the song “Sussudio” mimicked Prince’s song “1999.” Phil never ran away from that idea. He said he was definitely influenced by that song. He was a huge fan of Prince. I remember when I first had the demo for “Sussudio” there wasn’t a bass part on the song at all. The bassline in the song changed how it first sounded, so it actually ended up sounding less like “1999” after the bassline was laid down. It was a synthesizer bassline. A guy by the name of David Frank did that bassline. He was from a funk band called The System. There were great horn parts on the record, too.
“Take Me Home” is probably my favorite song on the album. We always end our shows with this song. I wasn’t there for the singing on the record, but Peter Gabriel sung background vocals on it and Sting is singing in the chorus. I put a guitar part on there that sounds a little bit like bagpipes. We did that in the studio using an effect called chorusing. We did it on the actual mixing console.
“Only You Know and I Know” was a song that Phil already had a demo for, but he didn’t have a middle section for it. Sometimes, when you’re writing a song, you get caught up in the verse and chorus, but you don’t have a middle section. You’re so close to the song, yet you don’t know where to go next. This is what he brought me in to do. I started coming up with an idea, and I took that idea from a song I had already written, but I hadn’t recorded it. It ended up being the bridge of the song. I came up with the guitar solo in the song as well. It kind of sounds like two guitars playing at the same time, but I played one guitar with the regular solo sound, and I played the other guitar where I used this octave device, so it sounds like two guitars trading back and forth.
Daryl Stuermer and Leland Sklar made numerous musical contributions to this album. Talk to me about the experience of working with them in the studio.
First of all, we knew them pretty well by that time, although Lee didn’t play on Phil’s solo album but Daryl did. The thing with Phil is, the one instrument he doesn’t play is the guitar or bass guitar. When Lee came in, there would’ve been a basic bass on the demo. We’d play him the song, and because he’s great, he would come up with a bassline for it. Then, we would say, “OK. I like that.” or “I’m not sure about that one.” I was a closet bass player, so I would be in there with Lee checking out things. Sometimes, he’d play a line and it might include playing high notes on the higher strings on the bottom end of the fret board, so it sounded a bit thinner. Then, I would say, “Let’s try that on a lower string higher up the fret board, same note, different place to get a different sound.” The reason we were able to get people like Lee and Daryl in is because they were bloody good players, so you had to give them the freedom to come up with their ideas first or else there is no point in inviting them in. The same applied to Daryl. We would work together to get the best bits from our collaboration.
Daryl was always known for his blindly quick solos. Sometimes, we would say, “Daryl, we don’t want 300 notes in a second.” [laughs] But the records wouldn’t have been the records without their input. It was a great thing. The same thing applied to the Phenix horn section. There are less guest appearances on this album than any other album we did. Obviously, Sting is doing backing vocals on “Long, Long Way To Go” and the same day he came in, we were able to get Peter Gabriel and Helen Terry to sing backing vocals on “Take Me Home.”
As you look back thirty years on the significance of the album. What are your feelings about the impact it has made on popular culture?
In those days, we were so busy. I didn’t really have an idea of the impact it made. I guess the best idea I had of the impact it made was when it was nominated for all those Grammy Awards the next year. We ended up in New York for the Grammy Awards, and we won a couple of Grammy’s. For me, getting a Grammy for the best produced album was a great accomplishment. I was an engineer-turned-producer. As I started off in the game in the early ’70s, I had no concept of becoming a producer. Being a producer was like a God and I didn’t ever think I was going to become a God. [laughs]
It’s my favorite Phil Collins album of all time, because there isn’t one song that suffers. I can listen to that album from start to finish without skipping one song. I can’t say that about a lot of albums. There are many albums that I love, but this one is hard to stop playing. I felt honored to be part of the co-writing on the album, and I’m glad it won some Grammy’s, because at that time, the Grammy’s still meant something.