Down the farm with Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford
- Credit: Archant
As the guitarist with Genesis, he’s one of Britain’s most successful musicians – but Mike Rutherford still feels the need to carry on creating music. Currently rehearsing with his band Mike & The Mechanics for a European tour, Surrey Life went to meet him at his studio in Chiddingfold
He may be a rock legend, but away from the limelight there’s no doubt that Mike Rutherford is, at heart, the epitome of the true country gent.
Forget the red carpet, wild parties or backstage passes to the Stones and such; when he gets a bit of time off, he enjoys nothing more than escaping to the peace and quiet of his rural home, just down the road from Chiddingfold, where he lives with his wife, Angie, a former dressage rider.
The couple, who have three grown-up children, have resided in this idyllic corner of the county since 1980 – and although they no longer have their herd of cattle (yes, really…), they do have 17 horses, not to mention three dogs. So, come the weekend, you can often spot the world-famous guitarist taking a stroll through the Surrey Hills, the family’s two Jack Russells, Spot and Poppy, and terrier, Myla, in tow.
I’m not sure whether he wears a flat cap or not, or a pair of Hunter wellies, but if he doesn’t then he certainly ought to.
“I love being here in the countryside,” says the 62-year-old, who aside from a stint in London, has spent most of his life in the Surrey area. “It’s such a nice part of the world down here and it’s so great to come back at the end of a tour and just get away from everything.
“It wasn’t actually our intention to settle here, necessarily, but many years ago, when we left London, we found a house that we loved in Sussex – or at least my wife found it while I was away on tour. But when I came back, the ceilings were so low that I couldn’t stand up – because there’s also the fact that I’m quite tall. So I said to my wife, ‘Darling, are you serious?’ And she went, ‘Oh dear…’
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“So we only lasted there a short time, but then we found our current place, which we fell in love with, and have been here ever since.”
Rock ‘n’ roll history
Dressed today in a smart suit jacket, baseball boots and a dapper scarf, he looks every bit the embodiment of both worlds – the stylish rock star who could just as easily be at home presiding over his country estate – though, on this occasion, we are chatting over coffee at his recording studio, The Farm, itself a one-time dairy, in nearby Chiddingfold.
It’s a place that is steeped in music history; among the people to have recorded albums here are George Harrison and Eric Clapton no less – and, rather more importantly for the purposes of our interview today, also Genesis, Phil Collins and Mike & The Mechanics. Be that as it may, the scene before us is one of organised chaos, with a mixing desk the size of a small country surrounded by various music ephemera, random cardboard boxes and abandoned coffee mugs, and the occasional Genesis gold disc adorning the walls.
While the studio is still hired out by bands today, and is certainly equipped with the latest kit, it harks back to the glory days of a different music generation.
“We bought this place back in 1980 and have done all our albums here since,” says Mike. “These days, everyone tends to work in a small room with a computer, but this place is quite special. A lot of well-known people have recorded here, so it’s got a nice creative atmosphere and a pretty special vibe.”
Born in Guildford, at Mount Alvernia Hospital, the musician seems to have been inexorably linked to our county all his life. Having spent his early years in Farnham, the family then moved up to Cheshire, but soon returned to Surrey again where he was enrolled at the venerated public school Charterhouse in Godalming. It was to be a strangely double-edged sword. While he openly hated the strict discipline, and found the place unbearably authoritarian, it was also where he would meet his future Genesis cohorts.
“You must understand, to be in a public school in those days was pretty horrible: outside lavatories, very repressive, no freedom...” he says. “But if you had a connection with music – you know, being in a band – it was a great sort of escape.
“So because we all played an instrument, we automatically gravitated together. There was Peter Gabriel, who played piano, Tony Banks on keyboards and so on. In a sense, it was a kind of bonding – like us against the world, you know?”
The book of Genesis
In some ways, it’s a miracle they managed to keep going at all, given that the young Mike Rutherford was in trouble so often that he was frequently banned from playing the guitar. “Mind you, that’s probably what made me decide to become a guitarist,” he points out. In any event, the gang would usually manage to slope away to a quiet classroom somewhere for a bit of covert rehearsal time and there was even the occasional school gig, albeit “with the headmaster putting his hands over his ears.” Unfortunately, though, things went from bad to worse, and he was eventually expelled altogether.
“There was no one specific thing, no one great moment – the housemaster just didn’t like me really,” he reveals.
“I’ve been back since, though, with my two boys playing in various matches and so on, and all these schools are wonderful now – the atmosphere is so much more free and artistic. It’s a whole different sort of thing.”
Following his untimely departure from Charterhouse, he went on to do his A-levels at the rather more relaxed Farnborough Tech, and did well enough to secure a place at Edinburgh University. By that stage, though, their fledgling band had been offered a recording contract and music had become the priority.
Needless to say, by the time Phil Collins joined the group in 1970, they were well on their way to becoming one of the most successful British bands of all time, seamlessly morphing from their art-house beginnings, through all their various incarnations, to multi-platinum status. Hit singles such as Follow You Follow Me, Invisible Touch and Land Of Confusion became the musical backdrop for a generation, and the band are now among the top 30 highest-selling recording artists of all time, with some 150 million albums sold worldwide.
“The thing about Genesis was that our career was a slow-build,” says Mike. “It all came from doing live shows really; you know, in the back of a van, travelling around the country and then eventually America. This was prior to MTV, you see, when if you didn’t play in Detroit, they didn’t know who you were. So, it was never like we had a moment where we thought to ourselves that we’d made it. You just never get to that point. There was always another concert to do; a better song to write…”
Whether we will see them perform again, however, remains to be seen. The last concert they did was in Rome in 2007 when they played on a beautiful July evening in front of 500,000 people. It was, says Mike, a fitting way to end, but equally, he hasn’t ruled out the possibility.
“Put it this way, I think it’s highly likely that was our last show, but I said ‘never say never’ for years, and sure enough we got back together and did the tour with Phil. So I think it probably was our last show, but we’re all still in touch, so who knows?”
The Living Years
In any event, he already has his hands pretty full for the time-being with the other big music project in his life, Mike & The Mechanics, the band he created back in 1984 for a “bit of fun” that went on to sell over 10 million records worldwide.
“I had never thought it would be anything more than a sort of side project really,” he says. “You know, play some instruments, write a few songs… not a big deal. But then the first album was this huge success in America, which kind of surprised me too.”
The band’s eponymously named debut record, released in 1985, produced two Top Ten hit singles, Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground) and All I Need Is a Miracle. However, it was the release of their subsequent album in 1988, The Living Years, that saw them achieve global success, with the single of the same name becoming a No.1 hit all over the world. Written with fellow Mechanics musician, BA Robertson, the song was about a son’s grief for his late father and, in particular, all the things he wished he’d said. So was it about his relationship with his own father?
“Well, we both lost our fathers in 1986 and had young babies the year after, and we had both had problems with our fathers communicating,” says Mike. “So, yes, the song is really about the communication between generations and the importance of saying what you feel – before it’s too late.”
Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the song’s release and to commemorate the occasion, not only is Mike hard at work on a new book called The Living Years, based on both his and his father’s lives, but he is also planning to release a new, re-mastered version of the track featuring the band’s latest line-up.
Like Genesis, the group has gone through various incarnations over the years, with the original vocalists Paul Carrack and the late Paul Young now replaced on vocals by British R&B artist Andrew Roachford and Canadian singer Tim Howar.
“This version of the song will be very different from the original,” says Mike. “Because the original is so good you can’t really try to better it, but what you can do is something different. So as well as Roachford on lead vocals, who is such a hugely talented guy, we’ve also got an African choir from Cape Town singing along with us.”
Back on the road again this summer, with a European tour that will take in a local date at Epsom Racecourse, Mike says he can’t wait to play live with the guys again.
“It’s a great set list actually, with all our own hits – The Living Years and Over My Shoulder etc – as well as a couple of Genesis tracks and the Roachford song Cuddly Toy, so it’s all good stuff and a lot of fun.
“Plus, playing at Epsom Racecourse will have a personal resonance for me because of my own involvement in the horse world.”
Horses for courses
Indeed, not only was his wife a leading dressage rider in her day, who competed at international level, but Mike himself was an accomplished polo player for some 25 years.
“I have wonderful memories of it all,” he says. “My second game ever, I had this huge crash and knocked a load of teeth out. There were always plenty of accidents – I’ve broken lots of bits – my arm, my nose, and these are all false teeth… I miss the adrenaline, but then, things change; it’s a young man’s sport really.”
Of course, he’s not alone in his love of polo; it seems that many of the rock fraternity have an interest in the sport, especially here in Surrey where Kenney Jones, drummer with Small Faces and The Who, has his own polo pitch at Hurtwood.
“Well, it’s either cars or horses, but mostly horses actually,” continues Mike. “In fact, we nearly had a team at one stage. There was myself, Kenney Jones, the Police drummer Stew Copeland, and then we took Roger Taylor to see a polo match down in Cirencester thinking we might get him to be the fourth player.
“But in the first two or three minutes, someone fell off right in front of him and broke their arm, so Roger decided that it wasn’t for him after all…”
The musician also cites a mutual love of the equestrian world for sustaining what must surely be one of the most successful marriages in rock music history; he and his wife have been married for 37 years now. So what else does he think is the secret to their success?
“Well, as I say, one thing is that we share things – like sport – we do a lot of that together. And the other is to give yourselves space. I always joke that I’ve been away half of our marriage, but actually it’s not as silly as it sounds.
“I think sometimes a bit of space works because then, when you are together, you appreciate the time you do have. Our home life, and spending time with the kids, has always been the most important thing for us both.”
Although their three children – Kate, 34, a mother to two-year-old Lily; Tom, 32, who works in media marketing; and Harry, 25, a music producer and writer – have all flown the nest now, they regularly pop back to visit. “In fact, Kate and little Lily are just down the road in Cobham,” he adds. “So we’re enjoying all of that and love having them over here.”
Home sweet home
And with that, it’s time for him to escape the endless questions and head back home himself for some much-needed peace and quiet.
“I often think that’s one of the reasons I’ve survived so many years as a musician,” he adds, looking out the window at the rolling fields. “You come back from a year being lauded round the world, touring all these stadiums, and return home to the Surrey/Sussex countryside and just totally switch off. I wouldn’t change the country life for anything.”
My Favourite Surrey
Restaurant: The Crown Inn at Chiddingfold. I’ve been going there since 1978 – it’s near our studio so we’ve always popped in there during recording sessions.
Shop: Manns of Cranleigh. It’s this huge store in the middle of the high street that sells everything you can think of, and it’s the most wonderful out-of-kilter, out-of-time sort of place – a unique timewarp.
View: Probably up from the South Downs, behind Cranleigh, at the top of that hill. We like taking the dogs up there.
Place to relax: I have a friend who has this wonderful farm with a 60-acre lake in Cranleigh – he has a little boat that he takes up and down the lake.
Place to visit: Probably one of the golf courses – I particularly like Sunningdale because of the beautiful heathland there and the friendly people. It’s a top course but also very relaxed.