Mike Atkinson

The Musical Box: interview with Martin Levac

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 2, 2007

Unlike many tribute acts, whose sometimes embarrassingly creaky impersonations don’t tend to earn them much in the way of artistic respect, The Musical Box’s astonishingly accurate re-creations of Genesis tours from the mid-1970s have brought them wide acclaim – not least from the original members of Genesis themselves. In advance of their Selling England By The Poundshow at the Royal Concert Hall next week, EG spoke to the band’s “Phil Collins” figure, the French-Canadian drummer Martin Levac.

The Musical Box are particularly known for the painstaking level of authentic detail which they apply to their performances. How did they set about doing their research?

“The original source material belongs to our artistic director, Serge Morissette. He’s a big Genesis fan, and he has been collecting things over the years: pictures, videos and live tapes. He put this all together, and we reproduced things as exactly as we could.”

Since video hadn’t really taken off in the 1970s, was there much footage available?

“Not much – but there are a couple of TV shows that they did at that time, with the Selling England songs, and also some footage from Shepperton Studios, where they recorded part of Selling England as a show. But for The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, for instance, it was much more difficult to get all these things together. Because they didn’t film anything, we had to scratch down very deep to get all the details.”

When scoring the music, does the band look to the recorded versions, or do they use the live versions from the bootleg tapes, which are sometimes significantly re-worked?

“The concept of The Musical Box is that visually, it’s a re-creation of the live shows – but musically, we want to get as close as possible to the records. So the parts we’re playing are from the original records, because everybody knows them. If we used the bootlegs, people wouldn’t recognise the exact same sounds that are played on the records. Genesis changed things as they went along – especially Phil Collins, who was a very jamming drummer. He had a very jazzy approach, so he used to change his parts all the time. He never played the same song twice the same way.”

Was there much input from Genesis fans? Did they have information to impart?

“Our musical director Serge is in touch with many people who are as crazy about Genesis as he is, so that’s been helpful over the years. In fact, it still is – because after this tour, we may plan to do A Trick of the Tail. Serge is working on this right now, getting all the visual stuff together.”

Considering that The Musical Box have always concentrated on the “classic” period from 1972 to 1975, this news comes as quite a surprise. After all, many Genesis fans felt that the band were never the same after Peter Gabriel’s departure…

“Times change. Back in 1975, when Phil Collins took the mike and came to the front of the stage, there were many people who simply quit Genesis and said it was never going to be the same. But there were also many others who discovered them in 1976-77. I spoke with a lot of fans, signing autographs after the gigs – and with everybody I spoke to, the message is always the same. They would be thrilled to see the Seconds Out tour, for instance. So, Trick of the TailWind and Wuthering… and maybe in five or six years they would be thrilled to see Abacab, I don’t know…”

As the drummer – and therefore the guy who represents Phil Collins – would Martin also leave the drum kit and take over lead vocals for the 1976-77 material?

“Yes I would. We would go through auditions, to find a guy who looks and plays like Bill Bruford in 1976. Then our approach would have to be changed, so as to adapt some of the live versions of the songs.”

On the current tour, the song More Fool Me at the end of Selling England was sung by Phil. Is that a song that Martin performs on stage?

“Yes I do. It’s quite interesting to perform that, because the reaction is very warm. We didn’t expect it at first, because of that original rage against Collins when Gabriel left – but that seems to have disappeared over the years, and people are very pleased to hear More Fool Me every night. When we don’t do it, they shout out for it!”

Genesis fans have always been a difficult bunch to please, in any case. There was even hostility when I Know What I Like became a hit single in 1974, as it was seen as too blatantly “commercial” a move. Even Selling England By The Pound was originally compared unfavourably to its predecessor Foxtrot – and yet it’s now considered by many people to be the definitive album from the band’s prog-rock period.

“Exactly, and it’s the same with A Trick of the Tail. Personally it’s one of my favourites, because I think they went so far into the music. Songs like Dance On A VolcanoRobbery Assault and Battery – musically speaking, it’s very interesting.”

Over the past few years, nearly all of the original members of Genesis – including Peter Gabriel – have attended a Musical Box show. On one occasion, Phil Collins even performed with the band on stage. Collins has since admitted to feeling terrified at the time, as he felt he could no longer play the numbers with sufficient accuracy.

“He was very nervous – but we had a chat together, drummer to drummer, and it was cool. He told me that his chops as a drummer were at their peak in 1977 with Brand X – but since then, he’s been concentrating on writing songs, and playing back beats, and that’s what he enjoys doing now. He told me that back then, he had to prove himself as a good drummer. He would listen to jazz and fusion stuff – but after that, he became a pop fan, listening to Motown and so on.”

“He ended the conversation by saying: well Martin, I’m gonna try and make you proud of me tonight. I said: you’re making me proud by just being here today! He was very kind.”

Having earned that kind of testimonial, it’s no wonder that The Musical Box have been attracting die-hard Genesis fans in their droves, at major venues all across the world. And if their efforts have been deemed good enough for one of rock music’s most notoriously picky fan bases, then perhaps that’s the ultimate accolade of them all.

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