Denis Gagne of Genesis Tribute the Musical Box Talks ‘Lamb’ Tour
Denis Gagne, singer of legitimately world-famous Genesis tribute band the Musical Box, chose not to see the actual Genesis during their final tour. "Of course part of me wishes I could have gone," he tells UCR. "But the other part of me said, 'I’d rather keep the memories of what I saw in the past.'"
That might as well be his band's mission statement: helping fans preserve the memory of prog-rock's greatest act at their peak.
"I thought for a long time that Genesis was not going to be playing again," says Gagne, who joined the Musical Box in 1994, one year after their formation in Montreal. "Even when they did the reunion in 2007, that was a surprise — I never expected Genesis to do it again.
"One of the reasons we did this is to show something that wasn’t happening anymore, especially the [Peter] Gabriel era," he continues. "Everyone kept saying, 'We want to see Genesis with Peter Gabriel,' and Peter always said he’s not coming back. We made jokes about it: We put the show together because we wish we could have seen it, and we still don’t see it, but we get lots of people to see it. [Laughs.] We want to keep the music alive, just like any great music out there, including classical stuff — just because Mozart has been dead for over 200 years doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to what he did."
There are tons of Genesis tribute groups out there, but no other treats this music with such reverence — or brings so much clout. As their Facebook notes, they're "the only band licensed and supported by Genesis and Peter Gabriel," with both Phil Collins and Steve Hackett having guested during their shows. And for their upcoming live run, featuring a full-LP performance of 1974's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, they'll continue to recreate that Genesis tour through costumes, period-specific instruments and the surreal original slideshow.
Ahead of the trek, launching April 7, Gagne spoke to UCR about earning the Genesis blessing, savoring Collins' live cameo and keeping the band's spirit alive.
The real Genesis, of course, just finished their final tour. Did you happen to catch any of the shows?
I didn’t. I think it depends on everybody’s way of looking at it, but I want to remember the Phil I knew before. It’s personal, I guess. I’m sure you catch what I’m trying to say. I want to remember the beast behind the drums. Of course part of me was thinking, "They’ll never be onstage again. Maybe I should go see them." It was not an easy thing. I’ve been a fan since I was 10 years old, so it’s been a long time.
How many times have you seen them live over the years?
The first time I saw them was the Abacab tour in ’81. I was too young before that. In ’81, I’d just turned 15, and it was a two-hour drive from my place. My parents let me go. My friend's mother drove us to the concert — it wasn’t like I could go to Montreal by myself. The first two times I saw them, I was just a kid. Maybe I saw them four times, five at the most. I saw Peter a lot more than I saw Genesis — that’s for sure.
Peter, of course, hasn’t released an album of new material in 20 years. But he recently had his band in the studio, and there are rumblings that he’s near the finish line.
Well, last time I saw Peter was when he did the tour with Sting, and I talked to somebody I know — one of his technicians — and he told me, "The last thing for Peter now is to release a new album and tour with it, and then he’s going to retire," and that was how many years ago?
That was six years ago!
[Laughs.] Exactly! I’m thinking, "Is this still happening, or did he forget about it? Like, 'I’m too old, so I’m not going to do it.'"
He was actually at the final show in London, and everyone online was hoping he’d get onstage and sing for the final show. I suppose he just wanted to be there and support the guys.
I also thought maybe he could have and maybe he should have, but I know enough about Peter [to know he’s going to say], "Nope, this is behind me. I’m just going to watch my old bandmates do their show." That’s fine — that’s who he is. He’s like, "This is in the past."
I was shocked on the Sting tour when he sang the snippet of "Dancing With the Moonlit Knight."
He did it on the last night of the tour, and the only reason why he did it is because he was pissed about Brexit.
Really? I never saw that comment. That makes sense.
Exactly. When you know what [the lyric] "Selling England" is about, it was like, "There she goes again!" Britannia and all that. Again, I was told by somebody I know that he was pissed and went for it. Otherwise, he doesn’t want to do Genesis stuff anymore. It’s behind him, in the past.
I understand when you initially got approval from Genesis to use the imagery and slides, someone within Gabriel’s camp helped you out. How did that work? Did you have a contact who was helping you from the inside, so to speak?
Well, we met the promoter who had Genesis coming over to Canada for the first time in ’73. We knew him and met him a few times, and we were trying to get through to them. At one point, he said, "Just send some stuff, and this person at [Gabriel's studio] Real World is going to get it." We were wanting to get an answer from them, but nothing was working. Once we sent some recordings and [Gabriel] heard what we did, it was almost instantaneous: "You know what, you have my approval." Peter told Genesis, "Let them use everything. Give them a hand." But also Tony Banks opened the door for us — he’s always been very helpful. We went to [Genesis studio] the Farm.
I didn’t realize Tony had been so helpful. So he's the one who got you into the Farm?
He wasn’t there when we went there, but he was the one who said, "Yeah, let them in." He’s been very kind. Let’s not forget that most of Genesis music is his music — he’s the main writer in the band.
People tend to not realize that because all the other members had much more solo success. But like you said, he’s really the chief composer when you get down to it.
His solo projects never really took off, so people don’t really see that he’s the main guy in Genesis, but he’s the main writer when it comes to music in Genesis — he’s always been. I remember reading something where he said, "I was always trying to make things more complicated while the rest of the band members sometimes were like 'Nah.'"
How did you actually find the slides? Did someone just stumble upon them by accident while looking around?
I’m not exactly sure — it might have been one of us who found the slides again. It might have been found by one of their guys. They were kind of lost. It was a pile of things, and at some point they just found a box and realized it was the slides. I don’t know for sure, actually.
You might not know this, but when they released the box set [in 2008] with 5.1 mixes, it was our lighting guy, the archive guy in the Musical Box, who did the slide show on The Lamb — you can listen to the album and watch the slide show at the same time. They gave us the slides, and we put them back in order. And when it was time for them to release the album again, they went, "OK, can you do something with this and help us out?"
It comes full circle...
What a discovery. I also know you guys got to listen to the isolated Lamb tracks. I imagine that had to be a surreal experience.
It was surreal. I went over there with Sebastien [Lamothe], the bass player. And again, this was all Tony’s doing. We had this crazy request: "Do you think we could listen to the tracks?" We were thinking there was no way. Tony said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll arrange something. I’ll tell our engineer to set you up." We went there for two or three days and sat at the board. The guy [Geoff Callingham] just loaded the songs — he was like, "This is how it works. Just come and get me when you need another song." We were just sitting there by ourselves in the studio, listening to the tracks. I’m a kid in a candy store. It’s like, "What?" We heard things that nobody ever heard, like some tracks I could not believe: "Broadway Melody of 1974" from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Peter sang the song four times completely differently! And when they did the mix, they picked lines from different takes — he sang all the lines differently.
Wow. I wish they would release that stuff.
No kidding! I’ve heard it all, and I was like, "Oh, my God! Holy shit, he did four different takes!"
I’m so jealous right now.
I’ll stop talking about this! [Laughs.]
No, I’m just happy to know it exists. Hopefully one day someone will clear house with all the alternate takes like Led Zeppelin and some of these bands have done.
Maybe they will now that they know they won’t do anything else.
Phil famously struggled to play "The Musical Box" when he joined you guys onstage in 2005. He talked about dropping sticks in crucial places and missing drum fills — but he was also very complementary of the band, saying that you played better than Genesis did. What do you remember about those rehearsals? Was there a sense of, "Maybe this isn’t going to work?"
He was incredibly nervous, seriously. It was a weird experience because we were the cover band while he’s the guy, ya know? And we’re reassuring him: "Everything’s gonna be fine, Phil. Don’t worry." It was just like you said. We said, "Do you want to do 'The Musical Box' with us?" He wanted to do "I Know What I Like" — I remember that. We were like, "We’re touring with The Lamb now, and that song was not part of the show during the Lamb tour. How about you play 'Musical Box' with us?" He never listened to the song again before the day of the show, and he played the song in his car on the way to the venue. He was like, "Oh, my god. What did I get myself into? Why did I do this to myself?" Our drummer at the time was giving him a few [pointers]: "Do it like this — it’s going to be simpler."
He was very, very nervous. He was sweating profusely. I was like, "Oh, my god — this is Phil Collins!" I remember a few days after that reading some stuff he posted on the net, like, "These guys were incredible and I played like crap." I think his way of looking at it was different than the way it was. Everybody felt like it was a great moment. I wear in-ear [monitors] onstage, and I don’t have the drummer or his voice in my mix. But for the first time, I wanted his voice in my mix and a little drums — I’m onstage with Phil Collins! Come on! I want to live this differently than the other gigs. It was really weird for me to get Phil reply to me: "Play me my song" and then "Here it comes again!" It was crazy! It’s Phil Collins, not some guy. I don’t want to put anybody down, but it’s the real Phil Collins. It was a really great moment. That was almost 20 years ago.
Watch Phil Collins Play 'The Musical Box' With the Musical Box
Speaking of Phil: This has always bothered me, but a lot of people I know — and people I’ve read online — say Peter and Phil sound alike. I’ve never understood that. Their vocals have always blended very well, but I don’t find them similar at all.
They’re not. [Laughs.] I think the reason why people feel this way is because, like you said, they blend well together. We also hear Phil sometimes doubling Peter — and especially on The Lamb, Phil sang a lot of backing vocals and doubling Peter on things like "Lilywhite Lilith." Both of them are singing the whole song almost. I think this is where the confusion comes from, but I don’t find that they sound anything alike.
The Lamb is one of the band’s most divisive albums from that era — some of the band members, including Hackett and Banks, were never 100 percent satisfied with it. As someone who’s immersed yourself in this album and production more than probably anyone else on the planet, how do you rate The Lamb within their catalog?
Ah, I don’t like these questions! [Laughs.] I love The Lamb, though it’s sort of the intruder in Genesis. To me, it’s the album that sounds the least like Genesis, but it’s a great album — don’t get me wrong. But they did something totally different with this album, and then they went back, even with A Trick of the Tail, to what we expect from Genesis, even though Peter was gone, with the use of 12-string guitars and all that. That being said, I love The Lamb, but it’s an acquired taste, if you see what I mean.
I think the lyrical concept is a big part of that. It’s so surreal and hard to latch onto.
The story — who knows what it’s about? Some people try to explain it on the net: blah, blah, blah. And I’m like, "I’m not gonna try. I don’t even want to try because, whatever I come up with, I know I’m gonna be wrong.
I’ve never followed it as a story. I just follow the beautiful imagery — that Alejandro Jodorowsky stuff Peter was drawing from.
I totally agree, totally agree. Trying to understand what it’s about — I even wonder if Peter could explain it nowadays. [Laughs.] He said it himself: Sometimes you play with words, and they might not mean anything. He’s just having fun with it, and we’re trying to find some deep meaning in what he’s talking about.
Have you stayed in touch with Peter or the band over the years?
No. Peter’s helped us, but he’s always kept his distance. That’s OK — I have no problem with that. It’s not like we’re buddies. I don’t have his email or his phone number. I’m not in touch with any of them. They’re helping us, and they’ve been kind to us. But I always have to go through someone else to get something, and it’s totally fine. They must get so many requests constantly, and it must be so annoying. I get it. He told me once: When you’re famous, there’s always someone who wants a piece of you.