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Simon Collins' "U-Catastrophe" Celebrates 15th Anniversary
The son of a famous musician, Simon "found his voice" and made his own mark on his excellent third solo album.
Welcome to another issue of Michael’s Record Collection and thanks for spending some time with this newsletter today. If you’re like me, it’s always a joyful occasion when the progeny of a musician you love has immense musical talent of their own. Such is the case with the likes of Wolfgang Van Halen, Natalie Cole, Rosanne Cash, Jakob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Miley Cyrus, and the subject of this week’s newsletter, Simon Collins.
The son of Genesis drummer/vocalist Phil Collins, Simon hasn’t produced a huge body of work, but it’s a matter of quality over quantity. He’s released four solo albums to date and recently collaborated with Kelly Nordstrom on the first eMolecule album, The Architect, which I wrote about previously. He also put out arguably one of the greatest progressive rock albums of the 2010s, with 2013’s Dimensionaut — recorded under the band name Sound of Contact with Nordstrom, keyboardist Dave Kerzner, and multi-instrumentalist Matt Dorsey.
My favorite Collins solo album, U-Catastrophe, celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. I caught up with Simon to discuss it and other topics, many of which are covered in the video at the bottom of this newsletter.
Let’s get to that story.
Simon Collins released his third solo album, U-Castastrophe, in 2008 on the boutique Razor & Tie record label. It was a deeply personal record and a much more refined overall statement than his first two releases — 1999’s All of Who You Are and 2005’s Time for Truth. And, to me, it represents his finest solo effort, although they all have their virtues.
U-Catastrophe celebrates its 15th birthday in 2023, so it seemed like a good time to discuss it.
It’s not a concept album, and it doesn’t follow a consistent theme, but it involves issues that were important and autobiographical for Collins at that time. For example, multiple songs deal with his concern over global warming and environmental issues, while others are more personally related to his life, such as “The Good Son” and “Us (Love Transcends).”
The album, Collins said, was recorded while he was sober, but he was still deeply involved in his recovery struggle to overcome addiction. His personal connection with the lyrics and subject matter made for vocal performances in which Collins transfers the depth of his emotions to the listener.
“I think you can’t be a facsimile. You’ve got to be living proof of what you’re singing about,” he said. “I was singing about things that I wasn’t even comfortable talking about before on U-Catastrophe. It’s a personal album. And in my opinion solo albums should be intimate. They should be personal. They shouldn’t be a work of fiction. But that’s just my opinion — ‘shouldn’t’ might not be the right word.”
Collins worked with co-producer Kevin Churko on the record over a four-month period in Las Vegas. He would fly in for three-week stays and record a song over the course of a week.
In addition to singing the vocals, Collins wrote the bulk of the material. Churko contributed writing to seven of the 12 songs, with Kelly Nordstrom contributing to “The Good Son,” Dave Kerzner adding to the writing for “The Big Bang,” and Debora Lucyk contributing some lyrics on “Eco.” Collins also played keyboards and contributed sound design on all but one of the songs (“Unconditional”), played piano on five songs, played drums on eight songs, played guitar on “Disappearing,” provided sampling for “Eco,” added additional guitars on “Between I & E,” and programmed the drums for “Fast Forward the Future.”
Singing his own songs was not originally in Collins’ plans when he started thinking about his future music career as a teenager. He had envisioned others singing his songs and he even auditioned some singers.
“I never actually wanted to be a vocalist solo artist,” he said. “It was more about writing and producing and stuff. The idea was always kind of like what Massive Attack has done. You know, they write and produce their own material and they have different singers come in and sing on different songs.”
It’s probably for the best that Collins ended up singing. While his voice doesn’t sound exactly like his father’s, there are moments when his phrasing and when he sings in certain higher registers when you can tell the two are closely related. This was probably most obvious on his cover of the Genesis song “Keep it Dark,” a song that Simon covered in 2007 to pay tribute to his dad’s band.
Churko not only co-produced, but also played guitars, bass, and added backing vocals on all tracks except “The Big Bang.” He also played keyboards on eight songs, programmed drums for two, drummed on “Between I & E,” and programmed strings for “Eco.”
Nordstrom and Dave Kerzner played on the bulk of the songs. Nordstrom played guitar on six tracks and added additional guitar to five others. Kerzner played primary keyboards on three songs, added some synth to two more, and provided sound design to five tracks.
Special guests on the album included former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, who provided an excellent solo on “Fast Forward the Future,” and Simon’s dad. Phil Collins played drums on “The Big Bang,” a frenetic instrumental that features both Collins men hitting the skins.
The album kicks off with the title track, “U-Catastrophe,” which is pulled from the word “eucatastrophe” (coined by writer J.R.R. Tolkien), which is a turn of events that shifts an otherwise doomed situation into one that can be conquered, creating a happy ending or outcome. The song absolutely rocks, and for my money it’s one of the best in Collins’ catalog to date. There’s a little of his electronic influence and some nice guitar crunch from Nordstrom, but it’s also got a memorable chorus.
“All I’ve Left to Lose” is another rocker. Collins belts out his vocals, which Churko made him record one line at a time to maximize the feeling put into each and every word on the album.
“Disappearing” is one of three songs Collins had written before recording began for the album — he wrote the other nine in the studio on the fly. It’s a bit more industrial and a little less straightforward rock than the first two tracks. It’s one of his environmental songs on the album, along with “Eco,” and his vocal is cutting and fierce, while serving the song.
“Powerless,” another one of the songs written before the recording sessions for the album started, shows the softer side of Collins’ vocals. His drum work shines on this one and keyboards provide depth and texture.
A pulsing keyboard sequence introduces “Go (Only One I Know),” an uptempo song that shows his electronica influences and features some of his best drumming to date. It’s followed by “The Good Son,” the third song that Collins wrote ahead of recording U-Catastrophe. It’s an emotional and extremely personal song.
Now we live in two worlds apart
But I had to find my way
No matter how long or far
Where I'm loved is where I'll stay
I found a way to heal my heart
The time and space to understand
The line was deep I had to draw
I couldn't live my life in mother's hands
It’s one of the album’s highlights, with a fantastic vocal performance by Collins, an ear-grabbing chorus, and a deep well of conflicting emotions packed into a five-minute pop song.
“Unconditional” is a straightforward pop number. The bouncy track provides a stark contrast in feel after the emotional heft of “The Good Son.” It’s a three-and-a-half-minute expression of love and appreciation, presenting a positive reaction that contrasts nicely with the song before it.
“The Big Bang” is an instrumental, and if it seems to have a huge drum sound, there’s a reason. Simon is joined by his father on the track and the two bash their way through an energetic song. There’s just something cool about Simon and Phil Collins drumming on a song together, and it seems like something that should have happened sooner and far more often.
“I always wanted to do something with him, but we always had that understanding together that we’d never do the vocal pop duet thing,” Collins said. “Drumming is our bond, so I’m like, ‘Why don’t we do something like you and Chester Thompson used to do? A drum duet, or a drum battle, whatever you want to call it.’ So, he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, that sounds good.’ So, I wrote all my parts and left spots on the track for him to do his call and response stuff.”
Phil flew out with his drum kit to Las Vegas to record the song with his son and, once in the studio, the elder Collins asked Simon what he wanted him to play.
“I mean, you’re Phil Collins, do your thing! You don’t need me to tell you what to do,” Simon said with a laugh about his conversation with his dad that day. “But he was respectful in that sense. He said, ‘This is your album, this is your track. How would you like me to play on it?’ He did say that the song was way too fast for him. It was about 142 BPM (beats per minute), which is fast for a drummer.”
Simon said Phil blasted his way through the song and broke his wrists while doing it, which must have been extremely painful. But the track is a special one for the father-son drum duet, and it provides a bit of thunder from the listener’s speakers/headphones when played at high volume. Kerzner’s keyboards also shine on this track.
“We got his last proper take as a drummer,” Simon said of the recording session, adding that his dad had to tape his drumsticks to his wrist to perform on his Motown covers album, Going Back, which came out two years after U-Catastrophe.
“Eco” is my favorite song on the record and one of my all-time favorites that Simon has been involved in. The song is an obvious critique of man’s treatment of the planet and it captures all of Collins’ anger over the issue. And yet, the song is more than just raw emotion. It’s also a catchy track and shows Simon’s versatility as a vocalist. The sound bite samples in the song were taken from live footage of a demonstration against logging old growth forest.
“I have a bit of a an environmentalist history, where I’ve played with my band at logging protests and stuff like that,” Collins explained. “So, the samples you hear on that song are actually taken from live video footage, where we were actually at a creek, and they were there cutting down all the old growth areas. We had a massive amount of people there. So that’s where the samples come from.”
“Us (Love Transcends)” is a gorgeous ballad, that shows Simon knows his way around a love song every bit as effectively as his old man does. The arrangement on the song is more sparse than most of the album but it’s a song that requires (and delivers) atmosphere. Collins’ delicate piano in the bridge section is stunningly beautiful. This is a song that should have been a smash hit on the singles chart.
“Between I & E” is probably a close second behind “Eco”’ for my favorite song on the album. I’d buy this album five times over just to hear the chorus of this song alone, which is well written, thoughtful, and delivered with an emotional vocal performance.
Somewhere between immensity and all eternity
We'll find inside us the peace and silence to let it be
Somewhere between insanity and our humanity
We'll leave behind us the greed and violence, set us free
“Fast Forward the Future” is the album’s longest track at just over six and a half minutes. It’s a melodic song with a fantastic bridge section, and it features an impressive guitar solo from Hackett. Simon said that he made no cuts to it and used the entire solo.
“Steve is an amazing, amazing human being. He’s such a kind and lovely guy,” said Collins, who had previously lent his vocals to the “Apocalypse in 9/8” section of “Supper’s Ready” on Hackett’s Genesis Revisited II album. “He's great to work with.”
Of Collins’ four solo albums (and they’re all good in their own ways), U-Catastrophe is the one I revisit most often. It’s relatable, chock full of raw emotion, and features some of Simon’s best vocal performances and strongest writing. It’s the album on which he fully arrived as a solo artist and showed that he’s undeniably got the talent to become a star in his own right.
“I’d have to say U-Catastrophe is my strongest solo album that I’ve done,” Collins said. “Kevin (Churko) was amazing to work with. Sonically speaking, just in terms of the sound quality of the album, it’s top notch. And also I’d say my vocals are strongest compared to the albums before it. I really found my voice on that album and it took a lot of work. That’s a strong album. I’m really proud of that one.”
All I’ve Left to Lose
Go (Only One I Know)
The Good Son
The Big Bang
Us (Love Transcends)
Between I & E
Fast Forward the Future
Simon doesn’t have a big web presence but you can keep up with his eMolecule project at emoleculemusic.com.
For my full conversation with Simon Collins, check out the video below or download/stream Episode 115 of the Michael’s Record Collection podcast. In addition to U-Catastrophe, Simon spoke about his musical beginnings, going on tours with Genesis as a child, collaborating with Howard Jones and Steve Hackett, his varied musical interests, the rise and fall of Sound of Contact, the concept behind eMolecule’s The Architect, and much more.
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