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Exclusive Interview with Carl Palmer

By Lorraine Kay

Q. Obviously, most people know you as the drummer from Emerson, Lake and Palmer and later as the drummer for Asia. And you have played with the most incredible musicians in rock and roll history and then some. But let’s talk about this new band – this Carl Palmer Band, the one that played here a few nights ago. It is an all-new band. So, how do you rate the musicians in this band and what can you tell me about them?

A. I think you have to realize that the standard of the musicianship that’s in the band at the moment is incredibly high. Obviously the music is well-known and it is part of the staple diet of America’s radio in a way and a lot of people know what Emerson Lake and Palmer did in the past. So if you get great music and you’ve got great musicians playing it – it’s everything you could ever ask for really.

Obviously, it is always better to have great material to play and there is a wealth of material from Emerson, Lake and Palmer. So it is not all original classical adaptations but on the other hand we are Europeans, anyway, so we would draw from a wide range of material and our outlook is quite eclectic in general.

So when you do experiment with classical music and you’re not using keyboards and you’re using guitars then obviously you have people who are aware of what their instrument is all about. And it has been said already that it is a case of not only duplicating it, but trying to improve on it. Of course, the guitar, for me, brings an awful lot to the table. There are things with keyboards that you can do that you can’t do with guitars and vice a versa. The keyboards obviously are a lot more orchestral sounding. But on the other hand the guitar has a bit more of a rock element, with more excitement, dare I say. You could even say it’s slightly cruder at times because you don’t have all these various harmony structures going which you can produce by using midi keyboards.

But nonetheless at the end of the day if the music is good and the players are good then the overall picture will be very positive. And I think that is what we have at the moment. And both Stuart Clayton and Paul Bielatowicz enjoy playing the music so that shows within the structure of the music and everybody gets the benefit of it then. I mean I don’t think you could play this type of music if you didn’t enjoy playing it. Because it’s not the easiest type of music to play but if that’s what you enjoy then it’s one of the most rewarding forms of music. And it’s something I hope we can count on doing for a long time.

Q. How did this incredible trio come about?

A. Basically, the original Carl Palmer Band was Shawn Baxter and Dave Marks. But Sean Baxter was involved in a car crash. It was quite severe for him. We had to stop working together mainly because of a hearing difficulty, which he had subsequently after the accident. He had a seatbelt cut into the side of his neck, which triggered a hearing loss situation that spread rapidly to the other ear. It was horrendous. He couldn’t even tune his guitar. It was a bad problem. There was nothing one could do. We played together awhile, and recorded a couple of albums and that was it. He just couldn’t deal with the live performances.

Paul came to me by way of another chap who is a guitar teacher. Paul is a guitar teacher as well. He came under recommendation.

It is much better when looking for musicians to ask other musicians. You know – who is up and coming? Who is the best guy that you know around and available? Who is teaching at the school that is really good? You go through the process like that.

Stuart Clayton was recommended to me by Dave Marks, who was the last bass player. We had another bass player between Dave and Stuart called John Weedcroft, mainly because Stuart wasn’t available at the time. So it was sort of waiting to get the right people. And we’re lucky that in Europe, I suppose, that there are quite a few young musicians out there who want to play this kind of music so it is a very healthy situation not only for the music situation regarding prog-rock but also quite healthy for me when having to look for other musicians.

Stuart doesn’t actually teach at a school like Paul. He has been involved with publishing and I believe as we speak he is writing book number seven on bass playing. So he has done an awful lot like that and I think a lot of his material gets used at various institutes or schools around the UK.

Q. During the concert you said that this band has been playing in Europe for the past five years and that this was the first time it had played in the U.S. So how long has this group been together?

A. We started in March of this year, the trio that you see at the moment. Paul has been with me two years last February. So he is bordering on two and a half years. So Paul is the second lead guitar player and Stuart is the third bass player.

Q. Are you planning to do a CD with this band?

A. I think that as far as new material is concerned I am always looking at that possibility. There are two albums out there at the moment. There is probably no great rush to do that. There is also a DVD going to be available. So at this moment in time I am just holding off on that until we see where we are. We need to play a bit more. But we are gathering material now as we speak, and that makes it a work in progress, as they say.

Q. I don’t think I would get an argument from anyone in the audience the other night that the show you put on was totally awesome. How would you rate it?

A. I think that the band has reached a standard which is quite high and is acceptable to us, even if we feel it hasn’t been a great night performance-wise, it is still of a standard which is relatively acceptable to me personally. When you have that occasion – when it is really good and it confirms what you normally can hit on a night-to-night basis – then it is obviously incredibly rewarding. I would say Friday night was probably above average as a performance – as far as everyone was concerned. I think when you reach a certain level of musicianship you are able to reproduce a certain standard night after night anyway. It is rising above that standard that is the actual challenge that everyone seeks. And that’s what it is all about. But, Friday? Yes, I was happy with Friday.

Q. I noticed that you didn’t speak to the audience from behind your drums and kept walking to the front of the stage to a microphone on a stand, why was that?

A. You have to understand that the music is quite intense. Instrumental music with no vocals at all. When you have music that is that intense, there are a few little comedic things here and there that go on, but generally the music is to the wall. It’s powerful and there’s a lot of pressure and you’ve got to concentrate even if you’re a listener. If you’re playing it, that’s another level again. So to completely counteract the solid force of live music that is coming at you all the time, and there aren’t many ballads, you can well appreciate I try to hit the other end of the spectrum by being slightly cute – to slightly humor the audience – to be friendly – to be down to earth – to be real about what’s going on. The only way to do that is to actually come to the front and get their attention and then you get a counter balance between the music being very serious and me being slightly jovial at the time.

Q. I understand that you practice a lot and never stop striving to be even better – as if that were even possible.

A. I have a philosophy, first of all, if I can practice five days a week that’s definitely good for me. I don’t like to play any more than an hour and a half a day. And sometimes I split that up into 45 minutes slots. So I have a situation where at the moment I am still improving. My feet are getting better and various new techniques, which get developed by other drummers. You get to hear about them and there’s always odd little things that I need to just hone in on, tune and tighten up and adapt for my own personal use. So there’s always things like that going on.

There’s also the actual creative side of playing. If you still think that you’re creative then it’s very important that you maintain that creativity and to do that you need to stay fresh. You need to learn new techniques. So they all revolve around the same kind of deal really. That’s what it’s all about – keeping your enthusiasm high.

I am at a stage where, fortunately enough, I am still improving. If I get to a stage where I am practicing to maintain the standards that I’ve got then I will live with that as well. That would be okay. I would be unhappy about that but I would be okay. If I am at a level where I can’t maintain my standard and I am practicing, then I will just stop and that will be it. It will be all over. But I feel that whilst I am still in a go mode, as it were and things are still happening I am happy to carry on and do what I have got to do.

There are many challenges still left for me personally to do and play. That’s my general philosophy on the overall picture of the way you play, what you do, getting better and maintaining the situation.

Q. I remember the old ELP was very theatrical and acrobatic as it were. With Keith’s piano flipping around and trashing the organ and Greg’s own stage antics. I noticed that you still use a lot of visual things while you play. In the early days did you do that to keep level with the other two members of ELP or is that just your natural style of playing?

A. It’s my natural style of playing. I ‘m definitely showy. I definitely like to add an entertainment element. With Emerson, Lake and Palmer I had the gongs and the revolving drum riser and I played the tympani and all of that. But obviously, I’m kind of restricted in what I can carry around.

So, I am trying to build that entertainment aspect into the actual drum solo itself. Whether it is doing little tricks with the sticks or whatever it might be, I just think it’s very important to the public to be not only impressed with whatever techniques you have. I just think it’s good to entertain them as well – to show the light-side of it.

If you’ve got tricks or anything that you can do that are entertaining I think that they are well received. I try to deal with the people that aren’t drummers that just come along to hear the music and they want to see a few fireworks here and there. And that’s fine. I believe that’s what music is all about. I’ve always had it in my playing. It’s just been part of me, really. Except maybe it’s there to keep me entertained – I’m very selfish like that. I’m sure the public gets the benefit of it as well. That’s for sure.

Q. I understand drummer Buddy Rich was a mentor and friend of yours. What kinds of things did you learn from Buddy and how has he influenced your development of your own style?

A To be honest I think that he was probably one of the greatest technicians that was produced here in America. As far as the actual technical side of playing he was a world leader. Obviously, things have changed over the years.

We never had that standard in Europe at all. So one had to look further afield and it happened to be America where this chap existed. He had been a child protégé, as you know, and his playing, in general, just offered new, fresh, dynamic, inspirational ideas every time he played. He just seemed to have that level, which was above everyone else and no one had actually managed to get close to that.

Actually, since he had his fame and since he passed, as you know in the mid 80s, there are many late drummers who have come up to a similar level experimenting with different techniques and things. There are probably more European players, which are unbelievably good compared to what there used to be years ago.

The thing was, somebody had to set the standard from a technical point of view. And he set the standard, which was high then and it was incredibly high right up until the day he died. So what you could get from him was just a complete sort of dictionary-diary of what could and couldn’t be done.

I think that was the blueprint for everyone just to take it further. That was the thing. He was incredibly inspirational to us, to the global drumming fraternity as it was.

Q. Are there any musicians with whom you would like to work, but haven’t gotten to yet?

A. There’s a couple of people but they are both dead, unfortunately. I haven’t given it much consideration to tell you the truth. I know that there would have been people from the past that I would have liked to play with. I would have liked to play with Dave Brubeck. That would have been great – the original Dave Brubeck Quartet was one of my favorite all-time bands.

People like Miles Davis – I’ve been extremely fond of over the years. The whole progression from the kind of cool west coast jazz to that electronic thing. I had a lot of admiration for him Even somebody like Elvis Presley – I was really impressed by what I saw in him.

There’s lot of people I would liked to have played with but that wasn’t the case. I think as far as younger people today – there are some great musicians out there and there are some great bands. One of my favorite bands is U-2. I think they are an incredible band, great longevity. Just an overall sound that they’ve got is just most rewarding. You know it is them immediately when you hear them.

There are a lot of people out there, really that I am influenced by and whom I’d like to work with at some stage.

Q. Certainly you cannot play with everyone you would like to, but I am sure there are those that you like to listen to as well. What was the last CD you bought, and/or, what have you been listening to lately?

A. I bought a live CD of Buddy Rich playing just a few days ago in San Francisco.

Q. As busy as you are, though, do you get to go to other people’s concerts? What was the last concert you attended as a fan?

A. Just prior to this tour I went to see the group Depeche Mode.

Q. Speaking of playing with other bands and musicians, I understand that the four original members of Asia – Geoffrey Downes, Steve Howe, Carl Palmer, and John Wetton – will be touring again. What can you tell me about this latest reunion?

A. Well it’s going to happen in September. There’ll be 30 concerts throughout the U.S. It’s to do with our 25th anniversary. There’s no idea or plans to record a DVD or any recordings. It’s just a nostalgic trip through America. We’re going to play the whole of the first album which was number one for nine weeks. Then we’re going to play some music from our past because we think we all have a historical past, which is worthy of putting into the show along with the first album. We’re doing the “Court of the Crimson King” by King Crimson. We’ll do Roundabout by Yes. And Video Killed The Radio Star” from the Buggles and “Fanfare For the Common Man” from Emerson, Lake and Palmer.. So it’s really just to come out and say “Hi.” It’s the 25th anniversary and that’s all that’s planned as far as that project is concerned – at the moment. It should be an interesting and rewarding concert. We’ll see a bit of prog-rock history from the UK, cause we’ve all got fairly good pedigrees within that band so we can play our pasts and we can play something we all created together. So, again, it should be an interesting and rewarding show for all.

Q. I understand that you enjoy teaching, besides influencing thousands of young musicians through your recordings and concerts, what does it mean to you to share your knowledge and experiences with other young musicians over the years.

A. I don’t really get involved in teaching very much. I have a company called Drum Clinics UK. I only teach for about one month a year and maybe in that month there’s only about 16 or 17 days that I might teach. It really depends, each year is different.

But I teach other things from drum circles – which is basically a team building situation. I’ve worked with people and corporations like Mercedes Cars.

I also teach in specialized areas. I work with the Deaf Association of Great Britain and the Blind Association of Great Britain, teaching in schools. I’ve developed a program for both of these associations and I do that.

I also have maybe four or five master classes each April where I teach maybe 20 to 30 professional drummers or drummers who are thinking of turning professional.

And then I do the final thing – the drum clinics – where I just go out and set up my drum set and kind of show off for an hour and a half or whatever.

But, I do most of the serious teaching with the deaf children and the blind children. The rest I do just to give something back to the community, really, in the UK. I don’t really go out of the UK to teach much. But three years ago I came over to America and did a couple of drum clinics with Danny Carey from the group “Tool”. So, occasionally, I come out of Europe to do it but I really dedicate that time to working in the UK to be honest with you.

Q. What do you think is the most important thing that you could tell an aspiring musician?

A. You have to realize you can’t really do this for money. I understand that everybody’s got bills to pay and things. I would say you’ve got to love your instrument and love what you do. If you love what you do your enthusiasm will maintain itself and you will stay high on what you are doing.

And at the end of the day just remember to look at all forms of music. Because the more music you understand the more you will be able to correspond with other musicians. The more networking you will be able to do and the more knowledge you will have.

And who knows – you never know. I love classical music but I don’t want to be a classical percussionist but I manage to use classical music in a certain way that enhances what I do. So I think it’s having an understanding of all forms of music, as much as you can. I think it’s inspiring. I think it will keep your interest high and I think that’s what you have to do really.

You have to just maintain a high standard through enthusiasm and the only person to enthuse you is yourself really. You can’t really believe what’s been written about you – you just have to be your own judge and be honest and be up front with yourself. And that’s really what it’s all about to maintain a successful musical career, I personally think.

Q. What other projects do you have planned for the future?

A. There will be the DVD and there are already the two albums, which are now being distributing here. We are looking at coming back as the Carl Palmer band – back to America the last week in April and the whole of May. So we are looking at another four to five week tour, that’s for sure. In the meantime, we have work in Italy July and August. Stuart is carrying on work in the South of England and Paul is going off to Africa and then I start rehearsals with Asia and playing in September and October. Then we have a tour in England in November as the Carl Palmer band. We are pretty active.

Q. And now for a fun question. And this could be a tough one for a drummer, but what has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?

A. I have been spared the dying drummer thing. But, there have been some potentially dangerous incidents. There were many times that I was playing somewhere in the 70s when people came up to me and said “we can’t start the concert until we reinforce the stage because your drum set is too heavy.” I guess that was a bit Spinal Tappy at the time. But the set weighed just over a half a ton so that was a problem with that it the stages started collapsing and moving. Well, It didn’t actually collapse but it did move. So that was a funny moment, the weight of the drum set holding up the concert

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