A Few Words With...Carl Palmer

Interview & photos by John A. Wilcox

Carl Palmer is a cornerstone of progressive music. From Atomic Rooster, to Emerson, Lake &�Palmer, to Asia, to his current solo band, Palmer is the epitomy of power, precision, and style. Recently, this master of the skins sat down with ProgSheet in NYC and shared his thoughts on quite a few subjects. Enjoy!

PS: What was it about Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich that made them stand out to you as drummers?

CP: Well, first of all you have to understand that when I saw Gene Krupa, it was in the film Drum Crazy - that was the title used in Europe. The actual film here in America was called The Gene Krupa Story. That was the first real sort of drummer I saw on the big screen, playing with a big band doing all the necessary things that you needed to do. That was extremely influential � he was incredibly impressionistic as a player. I was only 11 years old and didn't know any better, didn't know any different. When I saw that I was totally enthralled by what I saw. It was when I left the movie theatre on that particular afternoon with my father I remember saying to him That's what I would like to do. That's what I want to be. How can you help me do that? He helped me, and I've walked down that path ever since.

PS: And as far as Buddy?

CP: Buddy was just an absolute fluke. I actually had an album at home called Buddy Rich Sings Tony Mercer. Tony Mercer was a well known singer at the time . I don't know why Buddy Rich was using Tony Mercer � anyway the first album I had of his was him singing, not playing. I got to hear about his playing via a teacher that I'd got, then managed to get an album called This One's For Basie There was a track on it called Jumping At the Woodside and I was smitten the minute I heard that. I thought he was the man for me, well he was at that moment in time. Until the next one that came along, and there were many more after him.

PS: What aspects of their playing were you able to apply to your own?

CP: Well, I mean, the technical approach of Buddy Rich, the precision was absolutely devastating. The showmanship of Gene Krupa was absolutely exhilarating. So both of them had quite an impact on me in some shape or form. One was musical & one was from show business really, being Gene Krupa, so they both had something there. It's probably Buddy Rich that was the most, the one that did it the most for me long term. But if it wasn't for seeing that Gene Krupa film I probably wouldn't have realized what I wanted to do. After seeing that film I was extremely sure that that was for me.

PS: Speaking of influences - the martial arts. A definite part of your life.

CP: Yes�.It was for about 17 years. 14 years full on and about 3 years on and off teaching.

PS: Was there anything about the martial arts that you were able to bring in to your playing?

CP: Actually, I think the actual discipline. It makes you very aware of what's going on, makes you quite astute to people, atmosphere around you. It tunes you into the human body. You understand what pain is and you understand that you can go through that barrier, and a lot of playing is painful at times. Physically it can be quite hard. You have to go through that and karate gives you that instruction mentally. You pick that up over the years, going through the pain barrier as it were, or determination barrier, whatever you want to call it. I haven't practiced for years upon years, cause I had both of my hands operated on and we think that it was to do with practicing karate all those years. I did take my exam at Tokyo University. I only got as far as Shodan, which is the first black belt, and a teaching certificate.

PS: Now let me ask you about the current band. Accompanying you are Paul Bielatowicz on guitar and Stuart Clayton on bass. Tell me a bit about them.

CP: Paul is a guitar teacher at the Brighton Institute of Music. Stuart Clayton is from the south east of England. He has written � I think he's on his 4th bass book as we speak. He's with the publishing house Sanctuary, which is quite a big publishing house - just to let you know how important his works are that he's done on the bass. They're both very young. They're of a very small breed � a relatively small breed of rock musicians that like to play progressive rock music. There's obviously very little outlet for people like Paul and Stuart. My band is an ideal vehicle for them to express themselves.

PS: I imagine you could've had your pick of players...

CP: There are many players that could be doing the job that they're doing. We have a really an abundance of young players of this caliber in England alone. I mean we're very, very fortunate there. Don't forget that the music I play isn't blues, isn't jazz - it's sort of classical adaptations, so it's kind of European in style. Paul has been with me for 2 years and I hope he stays for another 2 years at least, if not longer. There are so many players in England that we've got. The actual choice of players is fantastic over there. For this type of music anyway.

PS: When putting together this trio, what made you decide to go with guitar, bass, drums and no keyboards?

CP: Well I thought to have a guitar driven band, was the most honest way to go about things. Years ago, Emerson Lake & Palmer would've had a guitar player if we could've found one that could've played the parts. 30 years ago guitar players were nowhere near as advanced as what they are today. I thought if I were to do any music that was related to ELP, for me to use keyboards would be very, very silly after all those years. It wouldn't be a very honest approach, it wouldn't be new. It wouldn't be fresh, so I figured it was time to look at the situation a little deeper and I thought guitar would be the real way out because it's possible to do with guitar now.

PS: As you were putting together the live show, what were the factors behind deciding which ELP pieces went in, and which ones didn't?

CP: It's all to do with transposing from keyboard to guitar. Some pieces would translate musically very well and some pieces just wouldn't work as well as you'd want them to. So it was a case of trial & error. It took about 2 months to get the 2 hours. It took about 2 months to get that organized, to sort it out. I actually did all of the music with another guitar player who had just transposed for me and played me the pieces that I wanted to hear. If it worked, I'd get the music written out. I made a collage of all the music that worked - a library, and I put the band together.

PS: What would be some examples of pieces that didn't work?

CP: Well, there were parts of Welcome Back that didn't sound too good at the time. There was the English hymn Jerusalem that for some unknown reason didn't work. There was quite a few here and there that just didn't happen. It was just trial and error, that's all it is. You just have to keep trying until you find the pieces that work and pieces that you want to play.

PS: Let me get your thoughts on 4 bands you've played in: Atomic Rooster, ELP, Asia, your current band. What do you think are the strengths of each those units?

CP:Atomic Rooster was like a cult band in England and really sort of came from the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown as you probably know. I don't know really what the strength was there, all I can say that it was extremely different at the time. It was an organ trio. At the time, there was a group called the Nice, who were also a trio for a little while. We were kind of more �I would say, darker. We weren't playing classical adaptations, it was a darker sounding group. It was psychedelic, cause that was where it initially came from.

Asia was the other one you mentioned. That was basically about a corporate sort of rock sound, who also had a prog rock overtone with things like Wildest Dreams and Time Again. But had a high level commerciality with things like Heat Of The Moment and Only Time Will Tell.

ELP probably being a blend of all of it really. Having a classical overtone, of that very extreme European sound. Extremely eclectic, having the commerciality of things like From the Beginning and Still You Turn Me On - C'est La Vie, Lucky Man. Having the lead on technology. Using technology to really pioneer a prog sound as it were. ELP weren't an out and out prog band because we had these commercial sort of folky songs. It was an overall a complete package.

PS: And the current band?

CP: Completely different because -Instrumental! And playing classical adaptations. Playing sort of different music to what ELP played, but playing classical adaptations using guitar. It would've been unheard of years ago to even find someone that good to play the pieces. It's a niche market, it's something which is kind of unique. In Europe for example, I don't know of any other band that is kind of like that. That plays this kind of music, is instrumental & has that type of lineup. I don't know how many there are in America, so it's not super radio friendly. Radio doesn't really play that kind of complex music anymore like they use to do in the 70s & 80s. But it's intellectual music that's for sure. It's strongly based in the European sort of art form as far as music is concerned. That musical idea has usually worked in America and people have accepted it for it's originality and what it's all about. We're not a jazz group, we're not a blues band. It's a prog-rock classical rock band.

PS: Going back to jazz briefly - have you ever wanted to try a straight jazz project. Or does that hold no interest to you?

CP: I'm a rock drummer I like to play jazz for a bit of home entertainment. I've actually recorded with the Buddy Rich Orchestra and it's on an album called Do You Wanna Play, Carl - an anthology album of mine, which was never actually released in this country. I do do that & I like it. It's not my forte. My forte is and has been for many years, playing in a trio. I don't find jazz totally satisfying for me. If it was something like the Modern Jazz Quartet or the original Dave Brubeck Quartet, then those type of things I like an incredible amount & I could do something like that. Dave Brubeck plays some classical pieces, so did the jazz orchestras. I like music that has a classical overtone to it but I wouldn't want to play in a classical orchestra.

PS: What to you is the biggest reward of the musician's life?

CP: I think if you've recorded something and then you go to play it live. I think having that repertoire under your belt, if you're happy with it, then the greatest thing you can do for yourself is to go out, try to reproduce it, night after night, to the best of your ability. Some nights are better than others. That's the gamble, that's the art. That's the intrigue, that's what really, lights my boat, my fire as it were.

PS: Is there anyone you have wanted to play with, but haven't had the chance to yet?

CP: Haven't really thought about that to tell you the truth. There's lots of great players. There's one singer-songwriter who've I always thought was fantastic - I'd like to have been in a band with him years ago. A chap called Stevie Winwood. I've always thought he was incredibly talented. I enjoyed his band Traffic. But you know there's lots of them. I think Miles Davis is great, I could've played with him. These are just people I admire.

PS: Radio seems to be more tightly formatted than ever. Do you think that will ever change, or is that just a path we're on for the rest of time?

CP:I think America is� it's eaten up now, it's all gone unfortunately. When you involve the corporates to a level that you've let them be involved, especially with radio, then you pay the price really. American radio was considered a true art form to European 'cause you could get anything played on the radio. Emerson Lake & Palmer even made radio history by having WNEW - I think that at the time Scott Muni was the chap - play a whole side of Pictures, which was 20 minutes. That's when they had vinyl. I think those days are long gone.

PS: Please tell us 6 albums that you never get tired of listening to.

CP: 6 albums I never get tired of listening to. I don't think there's 6 albums I've ever listened to. No that's� The Four Seasons by Vivaldi, I love to listen to. I like to listen to Dave Brubeck - Live At Carnegie Hall. The very first album I bought Time Out. This One's For Basie by Buddy Rich. Arc Of A Diver by Stevie Winwood. I'd be lying if I said there was one more.


Thanks to Roz for the transcription!

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