Mike + The Mechanics Reach New Sonic Heights With Let Me Fly

Mike Rutherford is one of those musicians’ musicians who’s essentially been hiding in plain sight all throughout his career, even though he’s penned and performed some of the biggest hits of the rock era with both Genesis and Mike + The Mechanics. In recent years, with Genesis essentially in the rearview mirror save for reissues and other archival material, Rutherford, the consummate songwriter/guitarist/bassist, has focused his energies on ensuring Mike + The Mechanics remains a going concern.

To that end, Rutherford (at center in the above band photo) and his Mechanics have collectively tinkered under the hood to engineer the quite-fine-indeed-sounding Let Me Fly (The End/BMG), out on April 7. From the uplifting choir on the title track to the off-kilter pulse of “The Best Is Yet to Come” to the hard jangle of “High Life,” Let Me Fly soars with the modern/retro blend that’s often been the hallmark of Rutherford’s sonic CV.

“I’m comforted the people who’ve heard it have given a very nice reaction to it,” Rutherford admits. “And that’s encouraging, because it’s about me proving to myself that I can still do good music. You always do the hard work, but you’re never quite sure if people are going to like it or not.” (Mission accomplished, Mike!)

“Plus,” Rutherford continues, “since we’ve been out on the road a good bit over the last 5 years, I felt we couldn’t keep playing all the same songs, so I had to write some new songs. And now that I know the two voices really well [i.e., M+TM lead vocalists Andrew Roachford (at left in the above photo) and Tim Howar (at right)], I know how to place the right songs for them. We’ve achieved a nice balance there.”

Rutherford, 66, called in across the Pond before an M+TM soundcheck in Perth, Scotland to discuss his approach to Fly, how he thinks you should listen to it, and why he no longer sings his own material. Say it loud, say it clear. . .

Mike Mettler: The creative vibe and energy that Let Me Fly has makes it feel both modern and timeless all at once.

Mike Rutherford: It’s definitely got that. I think it’s like the first couple of albums [i.e., 1985’s Mike + The Mechanics and 1988’s Living Years] in the way we approached the songwriting, but I think it has a much better quality overall.

Mettler: The way I understand it, you guys recorded things separately, and then sent files around to work on individually. Did you ever record in the same place at any point?

Rutherford: Well, not really. Rather than go in with a dozen songs to record, we worked on three or four at a time — rewriting some of them, throwing out others. It all came down to the writing. That’s why I think the writing quality on this album was much, much improved.

Mettler: “Let Me Fly,” the song itself, has a certain character to it that makes me feel like I’ve known it for years.

Rutherford: Well, that’s very good to hear. I had with me another set of ears — Brian Rawling [David Bowie, Tina Turner, Cher], a producer-type guy who would come in and ask questions like, “Is that song really good enough?”

Mettler: So he was in more of a quality control kind if role?

Rutherford: Absolutely — and I don’t mind that. I’m a great believer in, if a song is good enough, no one says, “Are you sure?”

Mettler: You said this album feels and sounds like the first few albums to you. How come? Many of the songs start with a minimalist feel to them before the next layer of instrumentation kicks in.

Rutherford: Yeah. I went back to my home demos — which is how I start — with the “character” guitar parts, loops, and beats, and then I build the songs around that character and the vocals.

Mettler: The title track has that amazing, uplifting choir on it. How did that come about?

Rutherford: I wrote it with Clark Datchler [former lead singer of Johnny Hates Jazz] as the last thing we did for the album, and the choir for it became an idea of mine later on. I felt it should be an uplifting song — talking about, “don’t have any regrets in life, try to be brave, and see what happens.”

Mettler: Is that a Mellotron sample I’m also hearing on that track?

Rutherford: That keyboard sound? Many of the keyboard sounds you hear on the album are actually done on my guitar synthesizer.

Mettler: Ah, well that makes sense, considering the source. In terms of how you’d like your listening audience to receive this music, how would you like people to listen to the album — CD, digital, or vinyl?

Rutherford: I’d say just listen to the album as a whole; it doesn’t really matter what format. It’s nice to hear it all at once, because it’s designed that way. There are four or five tracks that all run together quite nicely.

Mettler: I can see that. For example, I like the way “The Letter” and “Not Out of Love” flow together in the back half of the record. I can’t really hear them coming any earlier in the running order.

Rutherford: I quite agree. I spent quite a bit of time with the sequencing. It becomes clear as you’re going along as to what it should be.

Mettler: I also really like the “sliding doors” concept behind “The Letter.”

Rutherford: That was originally from a famous Noël Coward stage play from way back, and I love that idea in life. In fact, there are a couple of songs on the album that have the same theme — about certain things that happen in life that you can’t ignore.

Mettler: As in, you’re not expecting certain things to happen, but they do, and they change your outlook on things.

Rutherford: Absolutely. Just like in “The Letter” — that letter was written, and then he found it, and now he has to deal with it.

Mettler: The melody line in “The Letter” sounded like a callback to the “Silent Running” chorus — was that a deliberate thing on your part? [“Silent Running” was M+TM’s debut single in 1985, ultimately reaching #6 on the Billboard Top Singles chart.]

Rutherford: Not really, but it did seem to come out a bit like that. It does have a bit of a similar feel to “Silent Running.” Some things in a number of my songs can sound the same, because that’s the thing I do, you know.

Mettler: What that says to me is you’ve created a sound that defines you, and we recognize it as soon as we hear it. In a way, you’ve created your own genre identity. And the Mike + The Mechanics sound is very specific to this collective.

Rutherford: A lot of people say that. I don’t know what it is, but it’s the way I write, and the way I want to do things. There are certain songs you hear and you go, “That’s a Mechanics track.” And that’s great because character can be hard to define, but you think of it as soon as you hear it.

Mettler: For you as an artist, you’ve had your foot in a number of camps — obviously, the Genesis universe has a certain feel to it as well. . .

Rutherford: Yeah, that’s right.

Mettler: . . .and there’s also some Mike Rutherford solo albums. Has any thought been given to doing reissues for Smallcreep’s Day (1980) or Acting Very Strange (1982)?

Rutherford: Yeah, possibly. Now that I’m on a new record label, BMG, we might start discussing doing stuff like that. I’ll have to have a chat with them about it.

Mettler: Smallcreep’s Day would be a perfect album for [longtime Genesis producer/engineer] Nick Davis to get his hands on and do a higher-res surround sound version of it.

Rutherford: And he could improve the mix of it too, since mixing has improved so much since those days.

Mettler: [Genesis keyboardist] Tony Banks has done 5.1 reissues with some of his own solo catalog recently [via the Esoteric Recordings label out of Britain].

Rutherford: Yes, he did that with The Fugitive (1983), so it’s a thought, yeah.

Mettler: As we’ve talked about before, I love the surround sound mixes Nick Davis did for the entire Genesis catalog.

Rutherford: Yeah, we have. They’re good.

Mettler: Has there been any thought of doing that for the Mechanics catalog at all?

Rutherford: We have thought about it, yes. We do have a lot of good live stuff too, so there is some thought of doing it with that material. It would be nice to do.

Mettler: I really like how the tide takes me in and out of Let Me Fly’s “Save My Soul,” which would be a perfect track for 5.1.

Rutherford: That would be nice, yeah.

Mettler: I know you said any way people listen to Let Me Fly is fine, but how would you feel if people stream the record?

Rutherford: That’s what people do now, and some of it is a shame, because I like listening to a body of work. But then again, if someone likes a song, that does mean something. If you can reach someone with good music — with just one song — that is an achievement.

Mettler: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the numbers, but on Spotify, the most popular Mike +The Mechanics track is actually “Over My Shoulder,” which has over 17.3 million listens. [“Over My Shoulder” was a single from the 1995 M+TM album Beggar on a Beach of Gold.]

Rutherford: Wow, and that’s more than “The Living Years”?

Mettler: Yeah — “Living Years” has 6.9 million.

Rutherford: Hmm. I wonder why that is. It was a popular radio track.

Mettler: What I find encouraging is the new Let Me Fly track, “Don’t Know What Came Over Me,” already has over 160,000 listens.

Rutherford: I like that song — it’s like a cup of coffee. It has a quirky feel to it. I like the idea of someone whose life is generally OK, but then they had a “mad night,” and he can’t remember: “Oh God, did I do that?” It’s an out-of-character move, but you can’t take it away.

Mettler: “High Life” is another highlight for me. It plants a different flag in the middle of the record.

Rutherford: Ahhh, I like that one. It’s a “different” track. When we do that one onstage, it’s particularly popular. We all come out to the front of the stage for that one.

Mettler: Speaking of live, we were lucky to see you play New York in 2015 [on March 4, 2015 at the then-named Best Buy Theater in Times Square, which has since been renamed the PlayStation Theater]. How was the touring the States experience for you? Did you get the kind of reaction you were expecting?

Rutherford: It was like the UK, but about 40 years later. It was like when I was 19 or 21 with Genesis — going around the country in a van, playing every night, proving you’re a good band, and then doing it again. There’s no shortcut to building that following. So I thought it was a start. It was great, and we’re talking about maybe coming back next March.

Mettler: I’d like that. I constantly hear from people who are discovering Genesis music for the first time. Why do you feel new listeners are coming into your life’s work at this point?

Rutherford: It’s still interesting music. There’s something unique about it. I suppose with all of this Spotify stuff, it’s easier to find all that music, isn’t it?

Mettler: Easier than when we had to seek it all out one album at a time back in the day, that’s quite true. Do the songs change when you bring them to the stage?

Rutherford: They have, especially “The Best Is Yet to Come.” On the record, it’s a bit subdued in how it’s performed, sung, and produced, but live, it’s become more U2-ish, and rougher. Some songs go somewhere else live, and some don’t.

Right now, we’re doing about an hour-and-50-minute set, and we’re playing six new ones. As long as you balance it, do you know what I mean?

Mettler: I do. And I hear the gentleman on the Let Me Fly cover made a big sacrifice for you guys to get that shot, right?

Rutherford: He had to shave his hair back. Whenever you put a picture on a background like that, you have to cut around hair, which is always difficult. His was a bit longer, so he just shaved it.

I like the cover. It’s the first cover I’ve liked in a long time, actually. Covers can be a funny thing sometimes, but I’m really proud of it.

Mettler: Was that your specific idea for the shot?

Rutherford: Well, I had an idea like that, which we had to shoot ourselves. I felt it had to be somewhat reflective of the song.

Mettler: The design reminds me of the Hipgnosis style. [Hipgnosis was a British design team known for creating iconic album covers for the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, 10cc, Styx, UFO, etc.]

Rutherford: Yeah, and probably because it’s saying something rather than just an image. It also works really well when it’s small, which it has to do in this day and age. But I also like seeing it in the bigger, more tangible format.

Mettler: Would you ever consider stepping up to the mic again and singing some of them yourself?

Rutherford: Nope! Not again. (MM laughs) That’s why I started the Mechanics after Acting Very Strange. If you’ve got a great song, you need a great singer to sing it, and it’s not me! It’s a no-brainer, really.

Mettler: Do you sing on the demos?

Rutherford: Oh yeah, all of them.

Mettler: Would you ever consider releasing them in deluxe edition packages?

Rutherford: Definitely not! (MM laughs again) Some things should always remain in-house.