Innerviews, music without borders

Daryl Stuermer
On the Go
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2007 Anil Prasad.

For 30 years, Genesis and Phil Collins have relied on guitarist Daryl Stuermer’s virtuoso skills to help deliver their revered sounds to sold-out arenas and stadiums worldwide. He replaced Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett in 1977 and has shared guitar and bass duties with founding member Mike Rutherford on almost every tour the group has mounted since. He recently reunited with Genesis for its 2007 Turn It On Again tour that brought together the line-up of Rutherford, Tony Banks, and Phil Collins for the first time since Collins’ departure from the group in 1996. Stuermer also serves as Collins’ guitarist of choice, having played lead guitar on every tour and album he’s released since beginning his solo career in the early ‘80s. In addition, Stuermer has several co-writing credits on Collins’ solo material. Banks and Rutherford have also used the Milwaukee-based musician on their solo efforts.

Stuermer’s career goes well beyond the Genesis realm, having contributed to albums by an impressive array of other musicians, including Jean-Luc Ponty, George Duke, Joan Armatrading, and Philip Bailey. Stuermer’s stint with Ponty from 1975 to 1977 was particularly significant, having played on two of the jazz-fusion violin legend’s most revered discs, including 1975’s Imaginary Voyage and 1976’s Enigmatic Ocean.

Stuermer’s recent solo albums directly reflect the influence of his work with Genesis and Ponty. Rewired: The Electric Collection is a compilation of expansive fusion-oriented instrumentals from several of his earlier solo albums. Go, his all-new release, has an even rockier, riff-oriented edge to it. After several previous solo efforts in which he explored contemporary jazz territory, Stuermer chose to throw caution to the wind and take an uncompromising approach that’s sure to please progressive rock and fusion fans alike.

Go is the album a lot of people have been waiting for from you. Describe your decision to pursue a crunchier direction for it.

Most of my albums prior to Go featured combinations of things like nylon string guitar songs along with medium-tempo softer pieces and some heavier tunes. I got a little softer along the way and I think part of the reason was most of the time you only get airplay on contemporary smooth jazz or traditional jazz radio when you do that. So, what I tried to do was focus the songs in an area where I thought I’d get some play. It turns out I didn’t get airplay because they still thought I was too heavy and edgy. [laughs] It’s funny how that works.

At this point, I chose to challenge myself and went back to my earlier roots. During my early days in the ‘70s, I had my own jazz-fusion band and we played things like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea, Jeff Beck, and Santana pieces. I felt that now was a good time to revisit that direction. The first move towards that was releasing Rewired: The Electric Collection, a compilation of heavier stuff that serves as an invitation to where Go was headed. I sat down and  wrote stuff that was more hard rockin’ and edgier than anything I had previously done. It’s not that I didn’t like my previous solo albums, but I felt like this shift in direction was a natural progression for me. I really tried to stay focused and I think the album has my best playing to date on record.

Did you feel emancipated by the ability to let loose after your previous direction?

I think so. When I was initially talking to Inside Out, the label that released Go, the guy over there said “I want you to be yourself and let yourself go a little more than on previous records.” I thought “Wow, this is a record label saying this to me?” I was really surprised. [laughs] It was their encouragement that got me to feel like I can explore this direction again. My very first solo record Steppin’ Out came out on GRP and it was a little more on the jazz-fusion side. It was a little too rock oriented for them which is why I never did another album for them. So, for someone to tell me to go ahead and do what I do best was a great opportunity.

You worked as an independent artist between Steppin’ Out and Go. What were the challenges and rewards of that situation?

When you go independent, it allows you to make music you want to make, but the problem is you have less distribution and marketing than you would with a label. Most of my record sales prior to this have been pretty much off the Internet and when I play live shows. When I play live, I do what a lot of artists do, which is sit at a table and a line of concertgoers buy CDs and I gladly sign them. When we approached Inside Out and they called back and said they’d like to do something, I felt they had great distribution and better marketing than anything we could do on our own. We also wanted to go with a label that was into what I was doing and wasn’t just worried about radio airplay, because frankly, it’s really tough to get any instrumental music on the radio these days unless it’s smooth jazz or traditional jazz. And even those radio stations are very limited in what they do. I also wanted a label that would stay within a progressive area. Progressive means a number of different things to me. It can mean jazz-rock instrumentals, jazz-rock vocals, or prog rock along the lines of King Crimson and Procol Harum. My band in the early days would play stuff in the prog-rock vein. Next, I got involved in jazz-fusion, and then it was a mix of all of those elements. And obviously, Genesis is more about progressive rock and pop. It’s hard to define and label these things, but I wanted a label that appreciated all of it.

Describe the creative process behind the pieces on Go.

I have two ways of writing a song. I either write it on guitar or I do it on a keyboard. I’m not much of a keyboard player, so what happens when I write on it tends to be more melodic, simpler, and vocal-like. The chords also tend to be slower due to my limitations on the instrument. [laughs] If I write the thing on guitar, it tends to be more riff oriented, complex, and technical. How I usually start everything is with a drum pattern. I have an old Linn 9000 drum machine and sequencer that I use. I’ll take that and write a pattern and then play guitar or keyboard on top of it and that’s pretty much the process.

How do you physically capture those initial ideas?

I don’t record things right away. I just play around with ideas and then I’ll use ProTools to record them. Next, I listen back to the ideas, move them around, and figure them out. After that, I put that skeletal structure into a sequencer and use it to start writing the song. Once I have the basic ideas down, the arrangements flow from there. I pretty much arrange everything on the sequencer and guitar and then bring the results to the other musicians. I’ll say “Here’s the basic thing” and “Now, I’d like you to put yourselves into the song” because I want to have their personalities involved as well.

What are the biggest challenges you face during your creative process?

The biggest one is that I want to avoid making a guitar player’s record. I want to be listened to by guitar players in addition to everyone else. The problem with some albums I hear by guitar players is they tend to be all about the fastest riff or the fanciest kind of thing they can do, as opposed to being about the song. I want the song to be interesting first and then I want the guitar parts on top of that to be energetic and expressive. I don’t want the guitar work to just be based on a clever riff. It has to be musical to me. There are excellent guitarists out there that I like but I’m not as interested in their music as I am in their guitar playing. I want to have both ends of the spectrum represented. I think guys like Eric Johnson do it right in that his songs are really good and he has great playing on top of them. I admire that kind of record and I hope that’s what I accomplished with Go too.

Tell me about your guitars of choice on Go.

The main guitar I used is the Godin LGXT. It’s a fantastic-sounding solid body that has both magnetic and piezo pickups, as well as 13-pin synth output. I think it’s great to have a guitar that’s multi-faceted. If I want an acoustic sound, I use the piezo pickup. If I want it to have a Fender Strat sound, I use the pickup selector to choose a single-coil. If I’m looking for a Les Paul sound, I’ll just use the humbuckers. The flexibility is amazing. I also play a Gibson ES-346 on the record which has a combination of a Gibson ES-335 and a Les Paul sound. The decision to go with the Godin or the Gibson was down to subtleties. Sometimes I didn’t know which one to use and one guitar simply felt intuitively right for a particular song and I used it.

Was the entire album assembled on ProTools?

Yes. I recorded everything in my studio, except for the drums. I had to do those elsewhere because I don’t have a drum room. It was the first time I had done pretty much everything myself as far as mixing for a solo album. I had previously mixed an album I did with my old band Sweetbottom, which first got me into the mixing process. I took the opportunity to give the record an edgier sound because my previous albums were smoother sounding. I wanted it to sound more like what you’d hear if you saw my band live.

How has your work with Genesis impacted you as a guitarist and composer?

I worked with Jean-Luc Ponty from 1975 to 1977. There was a roughly three-year period with him where I focused on jazz-fusion guitar playing. My sound was straightahead and conventional. Once I got into Genesis, a lot of different approaches opened up for me. One thing I discovered in Genesis was effects pedals. [laughs] Before that, it was pretty much plug straight into the amp and play. When I got into effects pedals, that changed my playing because you have to play differently to accommodate overdrive and delay. It’s very different from going straight through an amp. You have to pick differently and know when to lay back on the sound. You also have to know when to dig in a little harder for a sound. It was great to have a whole new area of color open up for me.

As for impact on me as a composer, I think Mike and Tony are really great writers who know how to set up a landscape of music with unique colors and sound, especially in the early days. The way they put music together really influenced my guitar playing, the sound of my playing, and the way I write. What I’m doing now is going back to using those types of sounds, including the effects and amplification when I write. I’m combining those things and exploring the guitar in a more technical way with more energy.

Contrast playing guitar in Genesis to playing live with your own band.

When you play a solo with Genesis, you play pretty much the same solo every night because it’s a signature of the song. It’s a set thing. It’s a case of this is exactly how the solo will go, this is how long you have to play it, and you have eight, 16, or 32 bars to play. When I play with my band, I play solos differently every night in that I may go off and do an improvisational thing. I go as long as I feel like going, though I don’t abuse that right. [laughs] I try to keep things tasteful. In a way, I think I’ve morphed into a different kind of guitar player in recent years. I do some similar things that I did before, but I’m letting loose more than I did previously.

What went through your mind when you realized Genesis was reuniting with you as a core participant?

I remember when it first happened. I was in Glasgow, Scotland with Phil on his First Final Farewell tour in October 2005. I heard the guys were going to get together to have a meeting to discuss what they wanted to do. At the time, that could have meant the group with Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett, or the group with me and Chester. I didn’t know what they were going to do. After they had their meeting, I was in the lobby bar having lunch and Mike and Tony came out of the elevator and came over and we started talking. However, we didn’t talk about Genesis touring or anything like that, we just had a good time. The next day, the manager came up to me and said they want to do the band with you and Chester, with Phil singing as usual. So, I thought that was great. For years, people were asking me “Is Genesis ever going to get back together?” My answer was always “I don’t know, but probably. I don’t see why they wouldn’t at some point.” I’ve always had that feeling, so it wasn’t a surprise when it happened. I was just excited that they finally decided to do it. [laughs]

Were you surprised when Banks and Rutherford did the Calling All Stations tour without you and Thompson?

I was on tour with Phil at that time in 1997 when I heard they were doing that. The first thing that struck me was Genesis without Phil Collins doesn’t seem like Genesis to me. It was almost like the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger. I guess they thought “We’re going to get another singer and go on the road.” When I heard they weren’t asking Chester or me, I felt they were deciding to do a totally different group. They were saying, instead of just the fact that it’s not going to be Phil, it’s going to be something totally different. If they had asked me to do it, of course I would have done it. But at the time, I was on tour with Phil when they were rehearsing to do this other band for Calling All Stations, so in a sense, I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t ask me and Chester to do it. But I was surprised they were doing it period. I thought “Wow, they’re actually going to do this without Phil.”

When Peter Gabriel left the band back in the ‘70s, people thought “God, what are they going to do?” But I think the difference is that Phil came from within the band—from within the family—and became the singer. That’s why that worked. Phil was already part of the band chemistry and he did very well. [laughs] It was also great in that Peter did so well on his own. I think Peter was stronger in his solo career, and Phil becoming the singer of Genesis made the band even stronger and helped it appeal to a wider audience than it had before. Also, the fact that there are no bad feelings about it was a nice thing. It wasn’t a split caused because they didn’t like each other. Peter just had different ideas about where he wanted to go and the other guys decided to go on as Genesis. Everybody is still friends unlike a lot of other bands. As far as Calling All Stations, it was a whole different situation when someone came in from the outside.

What did you make of Calling All Stations?

To me, it felt like a Tony Banks solo album. It has pretty much the flavor of a lot of his records. I only heard the album once before it came out when their manager played it for me. I said “It’s a good album, but I just don’t know if it’s Genesis as far as what people perceive Genesis as being.” Ray Wilson obviously doesn’t sound like Phil and that’s what most people identified Genesis with, unless you’re a fan from the Peter Gabriel era. Ray has more of the Peter sound than he does of the Phil sound. As far as the general public, the album probably didn’t hit it as much as a previous Genesis album might have. I don’t remember a lot about the songs, but I remember thinking “These are good songs, but I don’t think it’s the Genesis I know.”

Banks said one of the motivations for the Genesis reunion tour was his belief that the band’s profile has waned in recent times and that it isn’t as recognized for its contributions as it should be. What’s your take on that?

That’s right. I think they also want to capture some new fans as well. A lot of the fans on the tour are from ages 35 to 60, but I have two girls who are 19 and 26, and even their friends say “Genesis is cool.” [laughs] And they didn’t really grow up with it. My girls grew up with Phil and Genesis, but their friends didn’t because we were an older generation band. Now, it’s almost retro-cool to be into a band like Genesis and identify with some of the music or at least enjoy it because it is very different to what’s going on elsewhere. Having said that, sometimes a young person will ask for my autograph and I ask “Who should I make it out to?” And he’ll say “My dad, because he really loves your band and he’ll be really excited I talked to you.” The fact that they’ll give the autograph to their parents is kind of funny. [laughs]

I think the main reason they want to do this tour is because they want to do the tour. [laughs] They wanted to get together again because it was always fun and always such a great band. The guys get along great. This isn’t a band where egos are flying around. The chemistry between Mike, Tony, and Phil is excellent as writers, though they aren’t writing anything new for this tour. I almost feel like they are going out there and saying “We’re going to give you one more tour.” When we did the 1992 We Can’t Dance tour, none of us knew that was going to be the last tour. In 1994, when I was on tour with Phil, he said to me “You know I’m not doing Genesis anymore, right?” I said “No, I didn’t know that!” [laughs] He had made the decision two years after the 1992 tour because he got very busy with his own solo career and other things in his personal life.

I always felt it was a little unfair to the fans that the 1992 tour was it. I always feel like you have to say “This is our final tour, wink, wink.” [laughs] You never really know if it’s your final tour, but you want to say this is probably it, so you might want to come and see it. I think the reunion is just that. It’s a family reunion and everyone is getting back together again to feel the vibe we had before. It really is fun and the fans are always great. They wouldn’t do this tour if they didn’t want to. They don’t need to for financial reasons. I was always crossing my fingers that they’d want to do another tour because Genesis is my favorite band that I’ve ever worked with. I’ve worked with other great bands, but this has always been the best in almost every way. The people, music, and show are great, and they really treat you well.

Are you treating the tour as the last kick at the can for this line-up?

Nothing has been said about whether it is or not, but I’m assuming it is. However, it’s one of those open-ended things. When I started with Genesis, I said to them “When do you think the next tour will be?” And they would always say “We’re not sure there will be another tour.” So, I’ve had this feeling from 1978 onwards. It always almost felt like every tour was going to be the last one. We’re touring Europe and America now, and maybe they will add Australia, Japan, or South America at some point—you never know. If they were to tour again after this, they would have to say “Let’s write some new music, put out an album, and do another tour” as opposed to do another reunion. You can’t just keep doing reunions. [laughs]

What challenges did you have to overcome when you initially approached Genesis’ material in 1977?

I think the main challenge related to the fact that I came from a jazz-rock fusion background, and rhythmically, Genesis is very British in its rhythmic feel. They might play a rhythm that feels a little stiff to me as a jazz-rock guitar player because I need things to swing more. But with Genesis music, you’re not supposed to swing at all in a sense. So initially, when I’d sit down and play a Genesis song, I’d have a bit of a hard time because I’d say “I wouldn’t play it this way, but it sounds so great playing it this way that I have to work on getting rid of the bounce that I might infuse otherwise.” Also, before I played with Genesis, I didn’t use any pedals other than a volume pedal, which may have had a wah-wah in it. When I auditioned for Mike, he had a big pedal board sitting in front of me and I’m thinking “How am I going to use this? I don’t know what any of these things do!” [laughs] Those are a couple of examples of obstacles I had to overcome.

What gear do you use to replicate Hackett’s guitar parts?

When I first joined in 1978, I used Colorsound Tone Benders—which Steve employed for his nice, long sustain and any kind of overdrive. Today, Fulltone makes a pedal called the Soul-Bender that’s a replica of the Tone Bender—but it’s much less noisy and it’s true bypass—which is what I use now to get Steve’s sounds. But I’ve also moved away from some of the classic sounds, which is why I use the Radial Tonebone Hot British Distortion pedal for its fatter, more modern sound. I used to employ Echoplex tape delays, but they would break down all the time, and they were pretty inaccurate in terms of timing and tempo. These days, I use the Boss DD-5 Digital Delay.

What are the most challenging Genesis pieces for you to play?

Nothing I play in Genesis is very technically hard to play, but I would say “Supper’s Ready” is challenging because it’s a big arrangement with lots of things to remember. When you’ve been out on tour for three months or so, your mind might wander for a second and suddenly you go “Uh oh, where am I on this song?” [laughs] That’s more of a challenge than anything I play on the guitar. I should also mention “Domino,” which is one of my favorite songs to play bass on. It has a challenging bassline that I had to get to grips with. But in general, the biggest challenges in Genesis music are more mental than they are physical.

Is it difficult to constantly switch from bass to guitar during Genesis shows?

I’m so used to it that I have fun with it. It’s a nice break to change to another instrument. It’s harder to go from bass to guitar than guitar to bass because when you play bass, your hands expand more. Then when you switch to guitar, the strings seem so little, small, and close together. Sometimes that’s a bit of a hassle. I would hate to play something technically difficult on guitar right after I play bass because I have to physically change how I play. The bass is a lot of fun and over the years with Genesis I became a better bassist than when I first started. I used to play the bass only with a pick because I was used to doing that with guitar. Now, I’m comfortable playing both with a pick and my fingers.

Collins has said the band sometimes relies on you to teach them how to play their own songs correctly. Describe how that scenario works.

I think I’m the only one in the band who works on the songs in advance of rehearsals. [laughs] I’ll spend three weeks before we get together with board mixes from earlier shows, and I’ll run through the material and practice all my parts. I’ll even learn some of the keyboard or bass parts. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a fun and satisfying process for me. The other guys in the band are more comfortable just coming in and starting from scratch. Not me. I have to be totally prepared and ready to go. I could probably almost play the entire show on the first day—it’s just the way I approach things. So, it’s true—a lot of them will ask me what went wrong if a song falls apart during rehearsals. Occasionally, we’ll be waiting for Phil to sing a specific line that cues some musical thing, and he’ll stop and say “What’s going on here?” And I’ll say, “You forgot to sing blah, blah, blah.” And he’ll go “Oh yeah, that’s right!” So, they look at me almost like I’m a musical director. But there’s no big ego trip here or anything. It’s just the way I am.

My approach is similar to what I did when I originally auditioned for the band. I came in totally prepared. They sent me four songs to learn and I went to New York and sat down with Mike. It was just Mike with a cassette player playing through a monitor, along with a pedal board and guitar. I sat down and played the songs exactly the way they were written on the record and I got the gig from that. I said to Mike later “I know there were at least four other American guitar players who auditioned and they are fairly good players. What was it about me that was better?” He said “You knew all the songs!” A lot of the guys came in and said “What style do you want me to play?” To me, it was obvious what the style was. All you had to do was listen to the songs. He also said the other guys didn’t even know the songs and weren’t that well prepared. On top of that, Mike and I got along very well personally, so he thought I was the right guy for the job. So, I always have to come in prepared. If I’m not prepared, I feel uneasy.

Tell me about the collective band leading approach Banks, Collins, and Rutherford employ.

In Genesis, all three of them play the role of band leader, but they don’t get in each other’s way. This band is a real democracy in that sense. Their approach is so easy and casual. However, when Phil works with his own band, it’s not casual. [laughs] He is much more of a perfectionist in his band. He wants things specific ways. There’s also a difference in that there are a lot more people onstage with Phil. On the last Phil tour, we had 17 people altogether, including four horn players, two guitarists, a percussionist, keyboard player, drummer, and singers. It’s a lot harder to be the leader of a band that size, so Phil is a lot more intense and a little bit more of a stickler about how things are done.

When it comes to Genesis, everybody knows their role so well that there’s not much to say. Sometimes Phil will talk to Chester about how to play a certain rhythm, or Mike will talk to me about the intricacies of a part, because sometimes when you hear an album, you don’t pick up every single nuance that’s going on. Mike might also say things like “Daryl, why don’t you play guitar on this one and I’ll play bass?” That came up during rehearsals for “In Too Deep,” in which he suggested I play nylon string guitar. That’s pretty much the discussion. The three of them put together their set list, which I think is an agreeable process, and they make things happen. They’ve been together so long that I think they can talk to each other without having to talk to each other—it’s all shorthand to them.

What are your memories of working on Banks’ The Fugitive album?

I think I learned more about Tony working with him on The Fugitive than working with him on tour because he’s much more relaxed in his own settting. Tony trusts me as a guitarist and doesn’t feel he has to tell me a lot about what he wants on a particular song. I also realized that it was a keyboard player’s album, so I didn’t try and play like it was being made by a guitarist. I considered myself a secondary instrument to the keyboards. I also enjoyed working on the record because Steve Gadd, one of my favorite drummers, played on it. I wrote out all the drum charts for the album because none of the guys in Genesis write music. It was a lot of fun to do. I’ve known the guys in Genesis so long that it’s easy and painless to work with all of them in solo contexts. They trust me enough that they know I’m not going to play something that shouldn’t be there. At the same time, I feel like I have a certain amount of freedom to go somewhere else as well.

Outside of Genesis, many know you for your work with Jean-Luc Ponty. Reflect on your days working with him.

It was a great time for me. I was in my early 30s and making the jump from my local Milwaukee band to Jean-Luc Ponty in 1975 was fantastic. I was always a fan of his when he was with Frank Zappa and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Even getting the audition was a big thrill. I was playing with Sweetbottom in a Milwaukee nightclub five nights a week. Zappa’s Mothers of Invention came down and sat in with us, including George Duke and Chester Thompson. George liked the way I played and said “If you ever come to Los Angeles, give me a call.” So, our band took a break and a few of us went to Los Angeles to visit. We called George and he said “Jean-Luc Ponty is looking for a guitar player. Do you want me to call him to see if I can set up an audition for you?” And he did. I went over to Jean-Luc’s house and got the gig. The biggest thrill was a few months later when I went out on the road with him. I worked with him for three years and when we were on tour, we got to do co-bills with people like Return to Forever and Weather Report. It was great to be a part of that scene. There were a lot of wonderful moments.

I played with Jean-Luc again not too long ago when he had a gig in Milwaukee. He asked if I wanted to play a few songs and I did. It was great because I hadn’t seen him in 16 years. We did three songs, including “New Country” which was a difficult song to play. It was from his 1976 Imaginary Voyage album and was the biggest selling song he ever did. I was lucky enough to play on it. We’ve stayed in touch over the years and email each other every once in awhile.

You shared guitar duties with Allan Holdsworth for Ponty’s 1977 Enigmatic Ocean and its accompanying tour. What was that experience like?

Allan is the most original guitarist I’ve ever seen. When he was given a part to solo on, he would start very slowly and work his way up until he became the Allan Holdsworth we all know. I was just amazed by his technique and playing. I had never seen anyone do what he does before. I had seen guys doing hammer-ons using the right hand, but Allan was doing it with his left hand too. He’s just a total natural and I don’t know where half of his ideas come from because I had never heard anything like that before. Previously, I had heard Allan on a Tony Williams album called Believe It and was impressed. So when Jean-Luc wanted to have two guitarists trading back and forth, I was happy with that arrangement and it turned out to be an amazing experience. I was always thinking “Wow, where did that come from?” when Allan soloed. Everything he does is so unique and unconventional. I don’t think the guy can play badly.

Was it a challenge for you to integrate your guitar style with his?

It was, but it also opened up some things for me. I thought “Oh God, no matter how good you get, there’s always going to be someone like Allan who’s going to show you something you never thought of.” Allan is such an incredible, technical player and it was natural that his influence would seep into my own playing. I think his influence even appears on my Go record. I’m playing more fluidly and adventurously than I’ve ever played before and I would attribute that to being inspired by Allan.