Welcome Back, My Friend…CARL PALMER
In 1970, a band from Britain forever changed the face of rock music. Yes was beginning and King Crimson was in their heyday. But then Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) entered the scene and featured a keyboardist as the lead instrument instead of guitar. The other distinguishing feature of the band was the nature of the percussion. Carl Palmer pushed the drums into a sort of co-lead role in the band, not content to merely keep time. The former drummer with Arthur Brown had been plucked from Atomic Rooster, a fairly successful band at the time, for this very reason. By 1974-75, ELP was one of the biggest bands in the world and by 1977 able to draw 78,000 fans to a show in Montreal which was later released as a live album. Carl was the first drummer on a huge level to incorporate electronic percussion. His work on "Tocatta", an adaptation of a classical piece, is simply fascinating.
Following ELP's first run, Carl formed PM and also played with Mike Oldfield (of "Tubular Bells" fame). The spotlight found him again as he returned to the public at large in the supergroup ASIA which had several hit records and was a huge concert draw. After yet another successful run with 3 (featuring Keith Emerson and Robert Berry along with Carl) and ELP in the mid '90s, Carl put together his own band and is doing versions of some of the songs that ELP used to play as well as other material. He is bringing the band to North America for the first time, starting in May and fans will again be able to see the foremost rock drummer today deliver the goods.
I first heard ELP in about 1972 and I immediately went, "What is this crap?" I was a KISS fan and couldn't see the point in 20 minute songs. My friend Dave, the ELP fanatic, kept playing me stuff however and by the time "Brain Salad Surgery" was released I was a convert. While it was easy to be drawn in by the velvety voice of Greg Lake and the manic antics of Keith Emerson, it was the combustible virtuosity of Carl Palmer that really piqued my interest. Listen to their live set "Welcome Back My Friends…" for a sample of drumming that will leave you slack-jawed. I've had the pleasure of seeing Carl play several times with various bands and each performance was something to be treasured. He is the rare breed of drummer that makes a performance entertaining but is not just flash and mirrors. He is as adept at doing a blinding roll or a complex pattern as he is completing a behind-the-back, high-in-the-air stick spin/toss. Performances always leave him and his audiences drained.
His new band has a bit of a twist. A guitar player takes the place of a keyboardist which sounds a bit odd at first on songs like "Hoedown". But you quickly adjust and in a lot of parts, the music is even more satisfying with the aggressive bent of a six-string. You can get a sample of what this sounds like from two excellent records, "Carl Palmer, Working Live, Vol. 1" and "2". Both records feature six and eight cuts respectively and for Palmer fans it's nirvana as there are two AWESOME solos on each one. Also essential for fans is "Do Ya Wanna Play Carl?" apparently taken from something his friend Buddy Rich would ask him when they would meet on tour. I delightedly spoke with the iconic drummer from his home in Britain recently, just before a trip to Spain for rehearsals.
antiMUSIC: At what point did you decide to head out onto the road with your own band?
Carl Palmer: I started about four years ago in 2001, and I've been playing in Europe ever since then. I'm off to Spain start of next week and I've recorded two albums on the Sanctuary label, the same label as Emerson, Lake and Palmer, "Carl Palmer Working Live Vol 1 and Vol 2" and I've been working steadily since July 2001, yeah.
antiMUSIC: I've seen two different lineups announced. First Paul Bielatowicz on guitar and Stuart Clayton on bass. Then your brother Steve Palmer and nephew Ian Palmer. Which one is on this tour?
Carl Palmer: My brother and my nephew…that's a different concert that we're playing. That's the concert I'm playing just with my family. My brother's a drummer, my nephew's a drummer…we're having a family sort of show. Nothing at all to do…they're not in my band, they're playing with my band. In my band on lead guitar there's Paul Bielatowicz, and on bass there's Stuart Clayton.
antiMUSIC: What are the backgrounds of these people?
Carl Palmer: Paul is guitar teacher at the Brighton Music Institute of Music here in England and Stuart has written four or five books on the bass guitar and teaches in the Cornwall area. Basically they've been in various bands but they're primarily teachers.
antiMUSIC: Why did you decide to try the ELP songs with guitar instead of keys?
Carl Palmer: I only play "Trilogy" and "Tarkus" from ELP, the rest of the tunes are actually classical adaptations that ELP also play. I play other classical adaptations that ELP didn't play. But I play "Trilogy" and "Tarkus" and both of those songs seem to have adapted very well.
antiMUSIC: Can you please describe the process of determining which songs would work and which wouldn't?
Carl Palmer: It's very, very difficult. All the music was written out for the guitars. It was very hard to determine exactly which would work and which wouldn't. It's all on a very trial and error basis, really. It ended up being those two particular pieces of music. I then found that "Tank" also worked with guitar. But I mean, I play something like "Hoedown" but that was written by Copeland. I play "Fanfare…" that was written by Aaron Copeland. I play "The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits", that was Prokofiev, so a lot of the pieces could automatically be redesigned for guitar because they weren't originally written for Emerson, Lake and Palmer anyway.
antiMUSIC: Were there any songs that were a particular challenge in trying to get down?
Carl Palmer: (laughs) Yeah, all of them.
antiMUSIC: How about some that surprised you the way they came out in this format?
Carl Palmer: None REALLY surprised me. I was always quite amazed that they could be played on guitar because a lot of the stuff is more conducive to keyboards but the guitar playing today is so far advanced you can get anything played on guitar now that you couldn't have been done 30 years ago, the actual ability is far in front now of what it's ever been. And it's incredibly exciting, the guitar. Sure you miss lots of harmony and bits and pieces like that. There's not as much structure in the music but where it lacks in structure harmonically it had a lot more excitement and the sound is a lot more freer because there's more space.
antiMUSIC: I would imagine since it's your band, we're going to be treated to a percussive tour-de-force? Are you doing one long solo or breaking it up over a couple of shorter ones?
Carl Palmer: Well, I do a piece called "L.A. Nights" that I wrote with Joe Walsh that was recorded on the Works album. I had recorded it with the ELP, and I re-recorded it with my band. I play a solo, a longer, elongated solo on "Fanfare for the Common Man" by Aaron Copeland. There are bits and piece all over the place.
antiMUSIC: Is there a signature Carl Palmer song that you just have to play?
Carl Palmer: To be honest with you I always start off in the same format: bass guitar, lead guitar. My program is fairly varied. There's no particular piece. I play everything that I can, to be honest with you. That feels like good for the band. I actually play "Barbarian" which was on the first ELP record which was written by Bartok. I play "Hoedown". I play "The Enemy God" like I mentioned. "Trilogy" is an original. I play that by ELP. "L.A. Nights" is one that I wrote. We do a version of "Flight of the Bumblebee. There's one called "Bullfrog" which is an original that I wrote. We play "Tocatta" which is by Ginastera. That was on the Brain Salad Surgery album. We also play a piece which was written for guitar called "Canario" which is on the Love Beach album. I play "Tarkus", which was an ELP original. I play "Fanfare…" which I mentioned earlier written by Copeland. That has a drum solo in it. I play a piece called "Carmina Burana" written by Carl Orff. They're all part of my career. They've been there somewhere in my life, at some stage.
antiMUSIC: Which one gives you the biggest workout in terms of complexity and physicality?
Carl Palmer: I think "Tocatta" is quite complex to remember and to play. That was written by Ginastera. But "Tarkus" is quite complex as well and that was written by ELP, so you know they've all got their moments. (laughs)
antiMUSIC: How has your drum setup changed over the years?
Carl Palmer: It's changed radically. When ELP stopped in 79, I went back to playing two bass drums with Asia. Played two bass drums from '81 right up until now. That's the biggest change really. I did have 2 bass drums before. I only carry one of the gongs now instead of two. Less tom toms. I mean it's changed according to the music really. I've got some less is more but I've still got four tom toms, two bass drums, six cymbals, gongs and sound effects and things so there's still a ton of stuff there still. Works for me anyway
antiMUSIC: Has the way you've approached playing, style-wise, changed at all? Have you found short-cuts or methods to improve?
Carl Palmer: No shortcuts. I've found that it's really true and its always hard work and if you do make a mistake, your apron you know, it's you're in the rue so to speak. You can't be covered up by someone else because there's only the three of you so any mistake is really going to stand out. I've found working with a guitar trio, you have to have a lot more energy put into to make it work, just the way it is, but I found it equally as exciting, in fact MORE exciting in certain areas, and I enjoy the rock feel you get with guitar. I think if there had been guitarists been around way back when ELP first began, I'm sure we would have used a guitar player in the early band. Just now you can because the technique is so good. And their playing ability is outstanding, and of course that means you have to play harder yourself, because it's more of a challenge, and the musicians are better than what you would have hoped to find a few years ago
antiMUSIC: You going out on tour is not the same as say James Taylor going out on tour. I know you generally keep yourself in quite good shape but how do you physically prepare for the rigours of the road and your nightly performances?
Carl Palmer: I'm playing all the time. After I put down the phone I packing my bag, I have three days rehearsal to try some new stuff, and we're off to Spain for three days and we just got back from five days in Italy. I'm in the loop all the time, to be honest.
antiMUSIC: How did you come to know Buddy Rich? And a lot of people have remarked at how direct and brusque he was. What were your dealings like?
Carl Palmer: I met him when he was playing here in England way back in '65. He was playing at a club and I managed to find out what hotel he was staying in and walked right into his hotel and asked if I could meet him and he happened to be right in the lobby and I shook hands with him and he became a friend. And I knew him right up until the time he died.
antiMUSIC: People say he was often brusque? Was he with you too?
Carl Palmer: No. My dealings with him were fine. As long as you were kinda polite, he was okay. He was a good man. I really enjoyed him.
antiMUSIC: I really enjoyed the 3 project with Robert Berry. I thought the record was fantastic and was fortunate to see you live. What are your remembrances of that project?
Carl Palmer: Can't remember too much about it. The band sounded okay. It was probably a little bit poppy. I think Robert wanted it to go in a more poppy direction, more commercial than what Keith and I wanted and it ended because of that.
antiMUSIC: Can you see any light at the end of tunnel in ELP taking another stab at it?
Carl Palmer: We have no arrangements; no plans to do that. We have another DVD which is coming out later on this year, which was recorded at the Isle of Wight. We've done new interviews for it. It's got high definition and the sounds real good. There are no plans to do any recording or anything like that or any touring. I guess if the right show came along, if it were charity, then yes we could look at starting to play together again. Apart from that I doubt that we would ever play again.
antiMUSIC: I'm going to be seeing you in Montreal. Besides the numbing cold, what are your memories of the Olympic Stadium show and why did you choose that location to end things off and record it?
Carl Palmer: It's a great location, Why not choose it, you know? Where else could we play where we could get a stadium that's empty and full of snow to make such a DVD? There's an obvious choice if you can get it. And beside the orchestra, there were 78,000 people. It was fantastic. We lived in Montreal for six months. My memories of that time were really good I have to say. I really enjoyed myself. I'm looking forward to getting back there
antiMUSIC: What can you tell us about the recent rumblings that Asia was going to rise again?
Carl Palmer: Ah, Asia will actually do something together again. We'll do something later on this year. End of Aug, September and we will come to Canada. Hopefully in America. It's the 21 Anniversary. It's just something we'd like to do. Who knows how long we'll do it for: 2,3,4,5 weeks. That's where we are. We have no plans to record. I wouldn't mind making a DVD. I think we'll play the whole of the first Asia album. And I think considering the people who are in the band, because the pedigree of each one of us is so long, and having so much time in progressive rock music with Yes, ELP, King Crimson, with the Buggles, whatever. I think we could actually put a great show together by playing something from all of our pasts, in the various bands we've been in and playing, as I said, the whole of the first Asia album. I think it would be, not only nostalgic, but historic sorta type of show, musically.
antiMUSIC: You've played complex music with ELP and more straightforward stuff with Asia. What is it about both sides of the coin that satisfy your musical appetite? And do you have a preference?
Carl Palmer: I'm into playing progressive rock music. I'm not into jazz in a big way. I could listen to all types of music. My outlook is quite eclectic. So I listen to all types of music but basically I enjoy playing classical adaptations in a rock format. I enjoy the trio format. I do embrace technology when it's necessary. I believe that the cultural crossover between the group playing classical adaptations and then augmenting with an orchestra, i.e. like ELP did, I find it incredibly rewarding musically. I myself with my band am playing with the Cypress State Orchestra. So I've have carried on that tradition really where I left off. I'm just doing it in a slightly different way.
antiMUSIC: Do you ever muse on the fact that there are very few rock drummers who can go out and command an audience solely based on his name? I mean, Mr. Peart is about the only I think that could do it. You don't see House of Blues presents Ian Paice or anybody of that nature. In a world of disposable musical entities, what is your ever-lasting appeal?
Carl Palmer: I don't know what it is to be honest with you! I haven't played in America since 1998. I'm really not too sure how it's going to go to be quite honest. Ticket sales are moving along quite nicely. People are enthusiastic about booking the band. They know it's instrumental. They know that I did not feel it was a great idea to stick a singer in front of the band or have a keyboard player. I figured I should take a chance. Do something new, that's fresh and I figured this was fresh, a fresh approach. Obviously using certain older material that people knew anyway, but I don't know why? I mean, I'm entertaining when I play. As I say, I haven't been there for a long time anyway. Times have changed. People's views have changed. I'm not sure. Maybe it's just because I'm good and people want to see if I can still what I used to do. All I can say is that I can do more. (laughs).
antiMUSIC: Thanks so much for this, Carl. All the best with your tour.
Carl Palmer: Thank you very much for the interview.
antiMUSIC and Morley Seaver thank Carl Palmer for taking up some of his valuable time for this interview.