Robert Berry has been around for ages, with a solid body of work under his belt, yet the American artist seemed to have entered collective consciousness only in 2018, when "The Rules Have Changed" – an album credited to 3.2, a new version of a band called 3 – saw the light of day. 3, of course, was the group in which the 27-year-old Robert joined forces with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer only to see their “…To The Power Of Three” become the trio’s only longplay, despite some chart action back in 1988.
Neither that creative union nor the previous attempt to work alongside Steve Howe in GTR turned Berry into a star he could have been if he pursued a solo path; nothing could derail it either. In the following three decades, the veteran has released a string of high-quality, melodically rich records – under his own name, with hard rock unit ALLIANCE, and with the Yuletide-themed DECEMBER PEOPLE, – taken part in various projects, and produced other people’s work. Still, his latest offering, which brought Robert to public attention, somehow eclipsed it all – for all the wrong reasons, perhaps, as this attention focused on the fact that it was Emerson’s last-ever work, even though Keith’s parts had been withdrawn and Berry played all the instruments on the album, proving once again his versatility and talent. The resulting acclaim might be a cause for a bittersweet pride, but the American is too humble to press for his rightful status – and yet it’s time for him to step forward.
It’s also time for us, who’ve known each other for nigh on twenty years, to finally sit and talk.
– Robert, as far as I know many people associate “The Rules Have Changed” with Keith Emerson rather than you. How do you feel about it?
One of the reasons for this is that I was involved in the very last thing that Keith ever worked on and it made it… I hate to say it but – it made it special. It’s also because of how good it turned out – and it really turned out to be a splendid album representing his last efforts. People ask me about Keith, and I’m happy to talk about him. Whatever they want to talk about, I let my mouth go.
– As tragic as this album’s creation was, it feels like you’re finally emerging from the shadow of giants to become famous in your own right.
It’s interesting because I always felt like a good team player. As a guy from San Jose, California – which is Silicon Valley: my studio is half a mile from Netflix, half a mile from eBay, two miles from the new Apple headquarters, I’m right here in the middle of it – I was just fortunate to get to work with such incredible musicians. I was fine being part of the team. I still am! I’m a good team member; I give everything I’ve got to whatever I’m involved in.
But for the first time the album did so well all around the world, and the reviews were so good on it, that I got a call from a couple managers saying, “You’ve got to put this on the road. We’ve got to do something with you. You’re the world’s best kept secret in progressive music!” And I thought, “Well, I’ve never really thought about that.” The first manager called me in the middle of last year, and he promised me he was going to do everything: “In six months you’ll be touring the world!” He was a total con artist, and even with all the experience I’d had I couldn’t read this guy. Nothing happened, so he ruined the momentum for me right when the album was super hot, the idea was hot, and everything was happening.
And then another guy came along, who manages BRAND X, Norman Bedford, and he said, “Let’s build this the right way. Let’s build it the way that 3 was re-building Emerson, Palmer and Berry. Let’s get out there, play smaller places – 500-seat theaters, 1,000-seat theaters, whatever – and put you on the map.” I thought, “That sounds like a good deal.” I felt good about that, I’d like to go shake the hands of the group of people that have been my supporters with things I’ve done – like you. We’ve known each other for so long. I’d like to see the faces of those people instead of playing bigger places and maybe being an opening act for a tour. I’m pretty excited about it actually, and you’re right: for the first time I’m doing my 30-year history of music on tour, and the album is… I did it with Keith, but it really became my album because he’s gone. So I feel empowered by the whole thing.
– How important for you was it to connect this album to 3? “The Rules” sounds more bombastic to my ears than “To The Power” which was more pop-oriented. I see the commercial point of it making it a 3 record, but there weren’t three players; there were two, and then only one – you.
It is different indeed. Let’s go back to 1988-1989, when 3 had an album out and we had a Top 10 single, “Talkin’ Bout”; we were on tour, all sold out, people loved it – except the Emerson fans. I’m not going to say, “the ELP fans,” because Carl Palmer never got any criticism – they saw that it was an ASIA kind of thing – but Keith got criticized really heavily, especially by a couple of guys who wrote letters and made him feel like he was ruining his legacy. You probably read this: one guy told him, “I can’t believe you have scantily clad female background singers” – which surprised me because I thought that was a good thing – and it made Keith turn away from the project. He broke it up. For 27 years I have wanted to do another album with Keith – and Carl – because we knew what we did wrong and we knew how to do it right. We had had so many years of experience with so many other projects – successes and failures.
And failures are just as important in your life on the way to becoming something special as successes; sometimes the successes ruin people – they have no more ideas, they’re just floating on a cloud; but when you fail, when you have some problems, you fight through them and you learn. And I felt I knew I had come that far with all the things I had done, and I was sure that Keith and Carl both had tough times while being successful. But Keith had had a tougher time than Carl. Him being in the U.S. wasn’t the best thing for his career; he should have gone back to England where he was king, where they know how to treat artistic music and artists. Here, it’s flavor of the month, and that didn’t suit him well. But when a live album [2016’s “Live Boston 88”] came out, and Keith called me and said he couldn’t believe how good we were, I talked to him about doing another record: we wanted to do the follow up 3 album that was never done – but, again, we wanted to do it right.
For the first album, I had songs that Geffen was grooming me with for a solo career – as I always said, it’s a “Bryan Adams meets Sting” kind of thing: straight rock with a little creativity in it – and Keith had pieces, because he was always writing or borrowing from the classical themes, so we put it together. I wrote words and melodies to his stuff, and he arranged my stuff – it was sort of pre-conceived music, and only half of it worked in an honest Emerson, Palmer and Berry way. Now, for this album we sat down and we made an outlined form: “Okay, what do we want to do? What should this be? How are we going to accomplish what we should have accomplished the first time but with what we’ve learned now that we want to do?” And Frontiers Records, I have to say, gave us complete artistic control so we could do what we wanted. So this album was conceived from number one to one hundred (laughs), while the first one was two fifties put together to make a hundred, if that makes sense. So it was really a second 3 album. Except for when I was left with it on my own it got a little tougher and, I think, a little bit harder – but I already had a lot of Keith’s writing and some of his playing, so I had to figure out how to match those together and also make this album bring the 1988-1989 sound and style into 2018-2019: I wanted it to have a piece of both. That was our plan, really – to bring the 3 sound into the now.
– Wouldn’t it be better to call it not 3.2 but simply BE: Berry-Emerson? A good name for the band, isn’t it?
BE? That’s true! (Laughs.) Honestly, I didn’t finish it as a tribute to Keith; I finished it as – (sighing) how do I put it? (long pause) – as the album I always wanted to do, and that’s why I stuck with the 3… We decided to call it 3.2, and, in fact, Keith always wanted to name the album “1” – and I didn’t want to do that because THE BEATLES had “1” and there’s a bunch of “1’s” out there – but we never discussed it past that. I thought, once we get the album done, something will come along for a title. “3.2 – 1”? That just didn’t make sense to me, you know! (Laughs.)
– How much of the responsibility was there on your part? I assume when Keith was gone, his parts became too precious for you to play around.
The stuff he wrote and the stuff he played, I couldn’t ever change that, so I had to retain what he contributed already. Five of the songs were written: of course, there was no drums and bass, but I had the guide vocals, a sort of metronome track and some of Keith’s playing – and the rest of it was me plonking out the writing that we did on the phone: I’d do it very roughly, figuring that he would take the next step with it – the step that was really locked in by him. And I felt it was sacred ground, like you said, it could not be changed. So the puzzle for me was to make what we already had fit into something a little bit tougher than the first 3 album and also to have a lot more continuity than the first 3 album. Even though the sound goes from, like you say, bombastic, a little harder and more aggressive, it also goes to an acoustic song, and it has the song “Our Bond” on there which has a lot of quotes from Keith’s history and my history with Keith together. It took me a year to do! I had to keep stepping back and looking at it, thinking, “What would I do here with it just coming from my heart and soul, and what would he say about it?” That’s how I kept the balance of our plan, of what we wanted to do, but when it came right down to it it became more of how I wanted to finish it, of course – because I was left (laughs sadly) with all the missing pieces, all the puzzle parts, and I had to put them together.
– You’re a classically trained pianist and you’re well-versed in jazz, but was it physically challenging for you to reproduce Emerson’s parts, be faithful to them and not make them your own in any way?
I did have to re-play Keith’s parts – as you know the Emerson estate would not let me use his playing. That’s very sad for me because, when I was a young guy, and I started as a keyboard player when I was 12 years old, Keith Emerson was the king, and he was the only guy that was a showman on the keyboards. There’s a lot of good players – I really loved DEEP PURPLE’s stuff with Jon Lord – but Emerson threw the organ on its back, he stabbed it with knives, he played it backwards: that’s something that no keyboard player ever did, and he was an inspiration. And now I’ve got this album here that I’m just so excited to get out and do, and they’re telling me they want him remembered as a composer… It broke my heart. And it’s not going to happen, is it? Everyone’s going to say, “Oh, yeah, he wrote stuff,” but everybody knows that he borrowed from the classics, too. They know that but they also know that Emerson was the greatest keyboard player ever: performance-wise, on-stage ELP was incredible! You can’t try to rewrite history like that!
– Did you ever see them live?
You know I never saw ELP. All my friends have, but I was one of those guys that had a tape recorder in their mom and dad’s garage; I was trying to figure out how Ringo Starr got those drum sounds or how LED ZEPPELIN got their guitar sound. With one microphone, I was trying to mike up things, record and learn how to play, but I didn’t really go to many concerts. I did see YES a few times, they were my favorite band, and a few other bands. But mainly once I started touring with my band HUSH, and we would open for everybody from RUSH to TRIUMPH – that’s when I started seeing bands play live, but I never got to see ELP.
But back to your question about technical effort. Sometimes you can practice with scales and exercises, the things on the piano that train your fingers and your muscles, but there’s other times, like with me: when I want to play something, I just start working the part – and I work it, and I work it, and I work it. And that is the practice: working on the part. I play keyboards every day in my studio; I play drums every day; I do a lot of producing of singles for songwriters-singers – they come in, and I do all the instruments for them. So it’s not like I didn’t play keyboards, but I was playing Bruce Hornsby stuff, easy stuff, not Keith Emerson stuff. (Laughs.) So I had to keep working and working it until it wasn’t just playing the notes. He was a very… fluid player but had an attack like hammers – ba ba bam! – he was really powerful. And that was the hard part – to get that… I wouldn’t call it rigid because, again, he was very fluid but it was just… When I first went to his house, in the studio in the barn, he had taken my song “Lover To Lover” and done an arrangement of it. It was just a straight rock song, Bryan Adams-meets-Sting as I said, but Keith made it into what would become a piece on the 3 album, and when he’d played it back to me he had it on his 8-track Atari tape recorder. I was like, “Wow! Listen to that! What kind of sequencer did you use?” Now, sequencer is something you play a keyboard into, and it autocorrects the time and makes it perfect. But he’d go, “Sequencer? I played it by hand. I don’t use a sequencer.” That’s how perfect was his playing, and his attack, and his timing: it was really incredible!
So I couldn’t put that piece of it in a sequencer and bring Emerson alive in the music – I had to play it the right way, and that was the challenge. Because I do so much music and so much producing, I can hear the little nuances and the little things that I had to perfect, and I believe that’s why people say, when they hear the album, “I can here Emerson in there.” If I played his parts and his sound, and I played how I recreated it, you would not be able to tell the difference. I did show that to one guy, Anil Prasad of “Innerviews”: I had him come in, because he’s very critical and he’s a scholar of music, and I had to check it with somebody that wasn’t my friend, somebody who would say, if they wanted to, “This is terrible!” What he said empowered me.
– You said you finished writing some songs in terms of top lines, as opposed to backing tracks, before you were left alone?
There were five songs that we were finished with the writing: they had the melody and they had words – but those lyrics changed after Keith was gone. I didn’t even know the frame of mind I was in until I look at the words now, and I see I just had to express honestly where I was at that time, because when I started to finish the album, I didn’t finish it to be released. I thought, “Well, okay. My dream was to do another album with Keith, and I’m going to do it, and I’m going to make it what I call my “Sgt. Pepper’s”: the best album I could ever do. That was my plan. So I let my inner feelings and where my mind and my heart were at after losing him influence the lyrics and the melodies at that point, but the words changed a lot, melodies not so much – we really had those locked in on five songs. What I wrote afterwards was, for instance, “The Rules Have Changed,” the title song.
– Did you feel somewhat betrayed when Palmer asked for money for his contribution instead of just helping you out and investing his time to get paid afterwards?
No, and I’ll tell you why. (Laughs.) This goes way back… When I first got with Keith and Carl, I was nobody – I was a guy from San Jose who used to be in a band and had a little bit of a tour, and did well on a regional, not even national, level – but they said they liked what I did, and that empowered me, that made me an equal team member with two of the greatest musicians in the world, which was really something. But Carl also told me something else that stuck with me, because I’m your typical musician, I’ll play for free – we’re just kind of nuts, we love playing music. So he looks to me and goes, “Never be ashamed to make a small profit.” Carl was the business guy, he made things happen, and it was amazing. He was a dynamo – he still is: look what he’s doing – he’s all over the place playing all the time. He always has something going; he can’t help himself; he just has to move forward. And I understood why he wanted money to do it, because he wasn’t involved in the creative part, especially on the new album – he was just going to play drums if I could get him to play drums.
Now, you probably know that Keith and I wanted to use Simon Phillips, and we hadn’t even talk to him yet. I had done an ELP tribute album [1999’s “Encores, Legends & Paradox”] for Magna Carta with Jordan Rudess and Simon on keyboards and drums respectively, and I laid out a click track and the keyboards stuff, and Jordan played so incredibly that I couldn’t believe it, but Simon sent me back a drum track that was so energetic, so happening, and he was a friend of Keith’s. It had nothing to do with his last name starting with a “P” – like “Powell” and “Palmer”! (Laughs.) He had the power and the groove that I loved, and Keith did too. Keith liked the rhythm – he’d like it to be more solid than ELP was; ELP was, let’s say, more frilly. Of course, we never got to that point.
So Carl was just going to be hired, and he wanted a lot of money, and the record company said, “We’re not going to pay him that kind of money to play on three songs!” which was fine with me. I always say, “I can, so I do” – and I did, although it’s not the way I wanted to do the album: I wanted it to be a team effort with the greatest guys I know.
Well, he could have. And I have to tell you I’ve been called four times now as a possible John Wetton’s replacement in ASIA. The first time was before 3 got together: John was incapable of doing ASIA at that point – that’s why Carl first called me. He said, “Either we’re going keep ASIA going or I’m going to start a new band.” I got called over the years, but it’s never happened; it’s something I wanted to do but not anymore. I’m so done with that dream, and I think they’re ruining it, especially this year. I hope it works for them, because they’re all great guys. I especially have wanted to work with Geoff Downes. I worked with him in GTR in 1986-1987, and I liked what he brought to ASIA: that kind of playing, the sound, the writing – that was important to me, that was the reason I wanted to be a part of ASIA. I’d never want to replace John Wetton – he was a lovely guy, he sang on one of my DECEMBER PEOPLE albums, he was one of my favorite writers and singers – but if they needed somebody, I’d love to be in ASIA with Geoff. He’s solid not only as a keyboard player but as a human being.
– Speaking of ASIA… They delivered a perfect blend of album-oriented rock and prog, and that’s what you’ve been doing, correct?
Yes. Because my band, ALLIANCE, is AOR, and my progressive rock has AOR hints in it, almost like Steven Wilson has. He doesn’t just do long, extended pieces with all kinds of time changes and stuff; he’ll anchor them with a little more of an AOR section, and that’s what I like. I don’t know if it’s my style or just where I’ve landed, but that’s what I do.
– At which point of your transition from AOR to prog, you began calling yourself “Robert” instead of “Bob” as you were referred to on HUSH records?
(Laughs.) That was a looong time ago. My dad’s name was Bob – I love him, although he’s gone now – and I had no problem with him being called Bob, but they called me Little Bob! (Laughs again.) And I didn’t want to be known as Little Bob.
– Well, that would be very bluesy: Little Bob Berry!
There you go! (Laughs.) A B.B. King kind of thing. But when HUSH was getting sort of popular, climbing up the charts a little bit, and then it started to fail, a friend of mine said, “You know, all the comedians are named Bob – Bob Hope, Bob Newhart, Bobcat [Goldthwait], there’s probably a bunch of other ones – but how the movie stars are called? Robert Redford, Robert De Niro. I think you’ve made a mistake here!” (Laughs.) So I thought about it and said, “You know I don’t like really being called Bob.” Just because you can spell it forwards and backwards, it means nothing, and my given name was Robert. That’s what my mom called me when she was mad at me: “Robert Berry, get over here!” (Laughs.) So I started using that, and immediately – it sounds silly – there was more respect for me as an artist; it started opening doors for me in ways that the guy in HUSH never could open.
– How comfortable are you with the “prog” label that’s usually attached to you?
I don’t like the term “prog”: a lot of what I think of as real prog music is a little light and just rambles on, and the lyrics usually don’t mean anything in my mind… I don’t know what I would call what I think I do, but I live in the prog community. They’re the ones that like my music, although the people that like my ALLIANCE are more straight rockers, because that’s Sammy Hagar’s old band, but even those guys seem to like my more progressive things like “The Rules Have Changed.” So you tell me what is it – we’ve been friends for twenty years now: do you consider me a prog artist?
– I don’t. To me, progressive rock stopped progressing a long time ago. But since you do what you do, and I don’t like labels either, it’s simply Robert Berry music to me.
Uh, I think that’s a good thing. Because I had so much training – I majored in music in college, I had all those piano lessons you know about – I can’t help but take the music somewhere emotionally that fulfills the need. I don’t know how to explain me. I’ll tell you this: like Keith and Carl said, “We like what you do, and you do what you do,” and I have found – especially with “The Rules Have Changed” – that when I do things the way that’s important to my heart and soul, the fanbase or the new people hearing the music connect with it more, because they hear and feel the honesty in it. I don’t know… It just feel like it makes a big difference to do it exactly in a way that artists feel it should be done. And I always said this: if you do something the way you want to do it and you have two fans, those fans will be your fans for life; but if you fake it for 50 fans, they’ll be around for that album and then they’ll move on because you’re not being real.
– In terms of defining yourself, could you pinpoint a single piece of music that would be a quintessential Robert Berry song?
Oh boy… (Long pause and a sigh.) That is tough for me. After saying that I have to be me and that I have to come up with the way that I feel and the way I think it should be, I don’t think of me in terms of what I do – it more comes out of me, it pours out instead of me taking it in. The other day, my good friend Rob Fowler, who does my website, said, “I’ve put up all the albums. Want to put the new ALLIANCE album up there?” So I looked at the page, and there were, like, twenty albums up there, but I don’t think of me as a guy that has put out twenty albums. I don’t take it back in, but I’m a guy that wants to know: What am I going to do tomorrow? What can I do to be successful or to fulfill that dream I have of staying viable and not putting out the same album I put out in 1988 or putting out something meaningless because I have no more ideas? I can always put out an album but I want to have ideas for it to be fresh.
A lot of people have come to me about my song “The Last Ride Into The Sun” because I wrote that for the second 3 album that was never released, but I can’t answer your question. I’d have to have all the albums in front of me, look at all the songs and go, “Well, that one!” (Laughs.) I have a song on the new ALLIANCE album that’s called “Time,” and if there’s any song that ever talks about the way I feel personally, it’s that one, because I don’t feel any different right now than I did when I was 18. If you’re a guitar player, bassist, drummer, whatever, and we’ve got a band together and we need to write an album, I have ideas every day, all the time, all day long, and I also don’t have to get my way. I say, “Hey, what do you think about this?” “Eh, I don’t like that.” “Okay, what about this?” “Oh yeah…” As I said, I’m a good team player. I guess I’m fortunate that I still have ideas.
– What’s interesting is that there’s a runaway theme on many of your records. You had “Runaway” on a HUSH album; something about running away in “Middle Of The Night” on “Back To Back”… What is it with this escapism thing?
(Laughs.) Well, “Middle Of The Night” is about a stalker, but what do you write about a stalker? I just had this idea for a video, and that’s why I wrote “Middle Of The Night”! But “Runaway” was just a good theme – that was before BON JOVI had their “Runaway” – I re-wrote mine before I did the showcase for Geffen Records in L.A. in 1985. Geffen really liked that song, so they sent me to Canada to work with Bruce Fairbairn who was producing AEROSMITH and they put it in a movie [“Out Of Bounds”] – otherwise, that song would never be heard of again – and then they wanted me to use it on the 3 album. But as much as I liked it, I don’t think that was one of the songs that was right for 3 – that wasn’t right for Keith Emerson to be playing. It didn’t have the complexity and the possibilities like my song “Talkin’ Bout” – I had written “Talkin’ Bout” for GTR and didn’t let them keep it – that was perfect for Keith to take and do his style and his thing to. But John Kalodner at Geffen really liked “Runaway” and kept it alive.
– I would expect you to cover Del Shannon’s “Runaway” at some point but, instead, you did “C’mon Everybody” and “Eleanor Rigby”…
Yes, on the “Back To Back” album. At the time, that had no purpose – that album was songs that I had in my drawer at the studio that HUSH couldn’t do. But I always loved THE BEATLES, so I wanted to do a heavier version of “Eleanor Rigby” – I don’t know why, I just wanted to – and because I had a studio and played a lot of instruments, I just did. As for “C’mon Everybody,” I liked that kind of rockabilly, early rock, which is like the stuff that Greg Kihn does, and I wanted to try and do it. But I also wrote a bunch of songs that the band couldn’t play because they had more groove to them or more harmonies. Because I’m always writing, and I even have a whole rock opera that no one’s ever heard before. I’m not saying it’s good (laughs) – it’s not, it’s probably terrible!
– I liked what you did for “The Wheel Of Time” game, though.
That’s different, yeah. That was a labor of love. That was a very deep thing to get involved in, because I couldn’t read Robert Jordan’s books – they were so heavy, and I’d have to totally immerse myself in them – so I read an overview book that talked about all the characters and what it all meant, so I understood it. But, boy, to read the books and do that soundtrack! But back to “Back To Back” story: a record pressing company from Taiwan was trying to get into the studio business, and they found me through a merchant marine that I knew. They said, “We’ll give you 500 hundred free records if you try us out,” so I took all of those songs out of the drawer, put them on one reel-to-reel tape, and sent it off to Taiwan. Two months later, these albums came back, and Rob Fowler, again, did a cover for it. “Back To Back” has two front covers: my picture on one side with the songs, and my picture on the other side with the songs. Nothing special. (Laughs.)
Rob sent that to “Billboard,” which still was a big magazine, to “Cashbox,” which is gone now, and to “Record World” – and it got “Pick Of The Week” in each one. I didn’t know he’d done that, so I was like, “What’s going on here?” “This is a really good album,” they said. “What?” Rob had also sent the record to some managers, and then: “Herbie Herbert, JOURNEY’s manager, wants to talk to you.” “What?” It just shows you what can be done when you have a friend who really believes in you. What Rob did for my career… (almost choking) I can’t even explain it; it was amazing – he opened all these doors. At that time, in 1985, the album was good, but I listen to it now and go, “Uh, that’s okay, but I’ve come a long way since then.” (Laughs.)
– Running through your discography might be confusing sometimes. “Takin’ It Back” shares some songs with “In These Eyes”; “You Do Or You Don’t” migrated from one record to another… What was happening there: were you trying to update those tracks or find a better context for them?
Yeah. “You Do Or You Don’t” was another song that wasn’t right for the 3 album – and it is one of my favorite songs that I’ve written – because that’s more of an Americana kind of tune, so I wanted to use it in a more guitar and less keyboards form. That’s why I re-did that one. Actually, I didn’t really re-do it – I put it out the way I’d originally written it before we put it on the 3 album. But “In These Eyes” and “Takin’ It Back” were done when I didn’t have a record contract with anybody; I had a little bit of interest from this company in Germany.
“In These Eyes” was only released in South Africa, as I had a friend with a record contact over there. And in South Africa, if you are on that label, evidently, it would get played on the radio because they controlled it. Canada has the same kind of thing, where 40 per cent of artists on the radio have to be Canadian – and it’s just fantastic! They have exposure, and here, in United States, you can’t get any help at all. This South African company put the album out, it started to do well, and then apartheid blew up, and everything changed over there. (Laughs.) That album went away. “Takin’ It Back” was released in Germany a month, maybe two months, after that came out, but that company went bankrupt. So the possibilities disappeared for both those albums. That didn’t stop me from trying to do something else, but it really hurt at that time. How do I move forward without any momentum?
– Another song that puzzles me is “Heartache”: its riff is basically the main riff of Jeff Wayne’s “War Of The Worlds.” Was it a conscious use of that?
Someone else has said that to me, and I have no idea what that song is. “Heartache” is something I wrote that THE ROBERT BERRY BAND would play live – I had two female background singers and a pretty big band – and then I recorded it for that album, but I’ve never heard that other song! Someday I’ll have to listen to it but I’m so far past that album that I never really paid attention. It’s bound to happen, but I’ll be shocked – I’m surprised they haven’t sued me then. (Laughs.) Although I made no money and the record company went bankrupt, everything was gone, so it didn’t matter I guess.
– You have a song titled “Somebody’s Watching” and another one, “Somebody Watchin'”: two very different pieces.
Yes, very different. The one with Keith, the new one, was written because of the frame of mind that I had. I thought, “Well, that’s sort of part of where I’m at and what I’m thinking about, and how I’m working on this album,” and I felt like he was with me. I couldn’t help it. When you hear the album, it’s like he’s there; and I felt that in the studio too. So I thought about it: “I have this other song, that’s more rocking and stuff. Should I do this?” But again, I have to do what I feel is right, what I feel is honest, what really applies to how I’m feeling. You’re one of the only guys that’s heard the original “Somebody Watchin'”! (Laughs.) I have a friend that has that album and he loves this song as well as “Let’s Start Livin'” – is that the name of it? – on “Takin’ It Back” but nobody else has that album. So I felt like I needed to write this new “Somebody’s Watching”: it was more personal and more connected with the time, with the frame of mind I was in.
– Given how prolific you’ve been over the years, why there was a lack of material for the first 3 album? You had to re-record “Runaway” and cover “Eight Miles High”?
Geffen Records wanted us to do “Runaway” because they had invested money in me and they thought it was a good song for the band. At the time, I was so incredibly happy and feeling empowered that I was working with these two super famous, great musicians that I never sat back and thought, “What’s the best material for this album?” We also had a song “Chains” written by somebody else [Sue Shifrin and Bob Marlette. – DME] that shouldn’t have been on that album: it’s a great song but not really right for Keith. He had some musical parts that he would play for us, and then I had to write melodies and lyrics for them. I even gave him the words for “On My Way Home” and although some of the melody was in his playing, some of it I had to make up to fit the lyrics, but I felt Keith should have that as it was his tribute to Tony Stratton-Smith, his manager. Those things sort of came together.
(Laughs.) I know that’s kind of strange but I played with GTR the year before that and, because I had a lot of ideas, Steve Howe and I immediately connected. I re-wrote some of his songs and, according to him, did it very well; he really enjoyed that part of it, and I started talking about my guitar collection. I told him I had a Rickenbacker 12-string, and he goes, “Oh, yeah. It’s a special kind that I’ve never seen before. You should bring it back with you next time.” So I did, and it was in my flat when Carl Palmer came there. He asked, “Oh, what’s that?” and I said, “It’s my Rickenbacker, because I’ve always loved this ‘Eight Miles High’ thing.” And Carl said, “Uh, that’s good. I bet Keith could really do something with that.” “Yeah?” I’d pulled out my old drum machine, and Geoff Downes had loaned me keyboard equipment, so Carl came up right there, in my flat, with a “Tum-taka-tum, taka-tum, taka-tum, taka” beat, and I did the riff on the 12-string, “Ding-ding-ding-ding, ding-ta-da-ding ta-da-ding,” and we left it at that. Then we were in the rehearsal room, working on the 3 stuff, and we said, “Maybe we should do that song?” I also thought it’d be cool, because Keith had those big chords, that big sound in his hands, and the tone of the GX-1, the big Yamaha keyboard, that if he took that riff and made it a keyboard thing… So it just developed, and Brian Lane, our manager, said, “I’ve got a guy that’s going to do a video. I want you to do ‘Eight Miles High’.” “What?” “Yeah, I love that! It costs me a thousand pounds, this video, and that is cheap. Let’s go!” We went into the studio, with all these lights and everything, and this couple of cameras, played the song four times and then edited it together. Brian took that to Geffen Records, and John Kalodner got on the airplane two or three days later to sign us. He said it was great for Emerson and Palmer to have that kind of energy and be rocking like that. It was really interesting, the way that turned out. I know it seemed strange for us to do that song.
– If you joined GTR, what would your role be in the band?
Keyboard player and guitar player. I had to play guitar next to Steve Howe: see, Steve doesn’t like playing power chords and I do, so I got the easy part of the guitar stuff. (Laughs.)
– Did you, an American, find it interesting to play with Englishmen? Were there any incompatibilities?
You know, I really only had one problem. Carl would always say, I was the most English-personality American he’d ever met: I’m not sure what he meant by that but I always took it as a compliment. I hope it was a compliment! (Laughs.) I got along with GTR great, and I still am in contact with our drummer, Nigel Glockler, who also played with SAXON; in fact, I saw him not too long ago. I liked [bassist] Phil Spalding, this crazy guy, but [singer] Max Bacon was different: he was very competitive and didn’t want me to sing on anything. My deal was, I’d give up everything to play in GTR with Steve, one of my heroes – Keith Emerson and Steve Howe: my two musical heroes, right? They’re one of a kind, the best of the best – but I wanted to sing one song on each album. Brian Lane said, “Yes, okay, let’s do it.” Remember, Geffen was grooming me for a “Bryan Adams meets Sting” solo career – that’s kind of who I am, so they got me right, because I’m a singer. But Max didn’t even want me to sing background, and whenever I sang the background harmonies, he would stay at the mike with me and sing so loud and so clear that they couldn’t hear me. He just made my life miserable.
And one thing that I’ve always done is I have to be able to give 110 per cent. You don’t have to use it all but I have to be able to give it. I want open arms; I don’t have to be in control, but give me a chance. If you don’t like it, we won’t use it. And Max didn’t want me to get a chance because, who knows, maybe I’d take over the singer’s position? Which would never happen, because I can’t sing like Max Bacon (laughs), but he just made it really tough for me. So I quit.
– You had a lot of freedom with 3, so I was amazed to hear you play “Standing In The Shadows Of Love” in concert – I’d never pinpoint any of you as a great Motown fan.
That was Carl! Carl wanted to do that! (Laughs.) Again, we were a new band, and we wanted to start as a new band, even though Carl and Keith were the most famous guys in the world music-wise. We played clubs! 1,000-2,500-seat theaters, very small. And we jammed! Where ELP was structured, we had open ends, and “Standing In The Shadows” was one of those songs where we’d go on and on: keyboard solo, guitar solo, drum solo. On “Eight Miles High” we jammed, too. Carl and I would go to the front of the stage, and Carl had a rhythm stick which looked like a guitar but when you hit pads on it, it made drums sound, or he would be smacking my bass with the drumsticks, and I’d be hitting the rhythm stick. We had fun, so as much as Keith wanted to leave 3 behind he always said, “We had fun in 3”.
– Playing “Desde la Vida” on-stage immediately after “Fanfare For The Common Man” was a bold statement from the very beginning, in a progressive kind of way, wasn’t it?
(Laughs.) Well, we were confused. With our first album, we went out there and we had our fishing lines – we had five or six different baits on each: worm on one, piece of candy on another, apple pie on the next one – to see what people liked of us and what we liked doing because, as I said, it was a brand new band. It wasn’t a continuation of two huge stars in music – we started over. We talked a little bit about this: when McCartney left THE BEATLES, he had to do an album, because he’s prolific, and he had a song on it called “Junk” – and how could he top the old band? He had to pull the plug and start over. Of course, he had “Maybe I’m Amazed” on the album, which was a fantastic song, but he had some real junk on there, too.
– Actually, he wrote “Junk” for THE BEATLES back in 1968.
Really? But if you look at the album, it’s not entirely great, but there’s some great stuff on it. In my opinion, he couldn’t do the whole album of “Maybe I’m Amazed”; that would be competing with his status in the old band, and he had to start over. So Keith and Carl were starting over, and I was starting new. That’s why we had so many different parameters going. And I’ve got to tell you, the audiences loved all that stuff live, they had a lot of fun with us, they couldn’t believe they were seeing Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer playing like that and having fun, too – right up close where they could see the whites of their eyes. (Laughs.)
– Given that fun: many ELP fans hate the “Love Beach” album, but I like it. What do you think about it?
Never heard it. I’ve never wanted to visit it. I bought two albums when I was in high school that I really liked: one was Jeff Beck’s “Blow By Blow” and another was Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions” because I just loved what was in there. Part of me being who I am – that sounds terrible (laughs) – is that I don’t listen to that much music, since I started working in a professional studio at 17 years old. I don’t have the radio on in the car; I’m in my studio five days a week, with people – producing and playing, and listening to their songs – so every day is like going to college for me, because somebody will bring in a song that, maybe, doesn’t have the greatest words or a song that has the greatest words but, either way, we have to make it the best we can make it. So sometimes we fix the words, sometimes we don’t; the music might be lacking emotional content to support the melody, or the melody might be busy or wrong: every day we have to look at these things with fresh ears, eyes and emotions, and I just don’t have the time to sit down and listen to music afterwards, although clients at the studio will bring in their influences and we’ll study them. That’s where I would hear whatever is coming out.
My guidepost and my learning was the production process. When I sat there with the client, I’d say, “Who are we going to knock off the charts?” Some girl came in, “Sheryl Crow.” “So let’s put on some Sheryl Crow and compare your song to hers. Oh, see her stuff has a groove and she’s got a real hook, and your sounds more like folk music. Do you want it to stay folk?” “No, I want it to say something strong.” And that’s where my listening comes from, and that’s why I say I haven’t listened to “Love Beach” – although I probably should because it gets so much criticism. I can imagine Keith and Carl playing on something that doesn’t fit them, but not Greg Lake. He wrote some great stuff and had a wonderful voice, and played really well – maybe that’s what people are missing on that album – but I’m just making it up because I don’t know; maybe it’s a great Greg Lake album, lyrically and melody-wise and all that, but it’s not so great as a Keith Emerson-playing album possibly.
– You play with another Greg, Kihn, and with ALLIANCE. How many projects are you involved in at any given time?
People think I can’t keep a job, huh! (Laughs.) ALLIANCE was the band that John Kalodner set me up with at the same time he set me up with Carl Palmer, and I had to make a choice: either I was going to be replacing Sammy Hagar in his old band – and, of course, I’m not Sam, but it would be what ALLIANCE became – or I was going to go and sort of replace Greg Lake in ELP. I picked the deal with Carl, although I wound up with Steve Howe – it’s funny how things moved me along.
Greg Kihn came along at a time when I thought I had no more possibilities. I had played with AMBROSIA for a while, but I couldn’t get them to do a new album – and it’s really important for me to work with guys that still want to make records, as I’m prolific – so Greg called me one day: “Hey, my bass player had a stroke, so I need someone. Do you wanna?..” And I said, “Wow! Right when I was thinking I wouldn’t have any more opportunities to get on a big concert stage – this is great. Sure!” And I’ve got to tell you, because I can play complicated music, it doesn’t mean that that’s all I like – I like the real simple stuff, too. And Greg’s very simple: any more than three chords, and you’ve done something wrong here.
As for other projects, my own band 3.2 is what I’m focused on now, and I’m finally going to do me – my 30 years of music – and I’m excited about that. I feel empowered by it. I hope that people will come out and see it, and I know they’ll enjoy it because I have a lot of material that they’re going to know. Even some of the tribute stuff, like “Karn Evil 9” and “Roundabout”- we’re going to do it.
– Would it be right to call you “a musical chameleon”?
Yeah, I guess so. Music is my life. My parents had a band, and I was in a band before I was born. Music is just music to me. I love music. I’m a guy who likes all kinds of music as long as it’s done right. So I guess “a chameleon” is the right way to put it.
– And the ultimate expression of it would be DECEMBER PEOPLE.
Well, yeah. (Laughs.)
– I know that you do it for charity, but at the same time it’s a musical joke, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. A very complicated and sophisticated musical joke. When people come to see us, they get the joke. We’re taking all the biggest parts of famous songs from famous bands and injecting them into the holiday songs as if that band would do that song. It’s a lot of fun, I’ve got to tell you, the audiences just love DECEMBER PEOPLE. You already know the holiday songs; you can sing “Jingle Bells,” right? And you already know “Hot For Teacher” by VAN HALEN. But you have never heard them morphed together. So that’s where you get the joke.
– How do you approach these mash-ups? You check harmonies and arrangements for compatibility?
Yes. Yes, I do. But it’s very difficult. I have about twelve songs that aren’t good – that have never been on an album because they didn’t work. One of the hardest for me – although you’d think it would be easy – is a ROLLING STONES song: I can’t get it to work right.
– Try a Grinch scenario, perhaps, and use “Sympathy For The Devil”! It will undermine the whole idea of Christmas, though.
Definitely! It sort of has a chorus (sings): “Pleased to meet you…” But then I’ve got to sit back and I have find a song that has a little bit of a storyline in it. That’s why I did “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas” as “Stairway To Heaven”: it worked perfectly because there’s two stories there. When I started off, I tried simpler things: we mixed “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” with AC/DC, and it fits like a glove! It’s hard to believe – it’s funny! We have four albums out. All available on robertberry.com.
– What about “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”?
Sometimes I’ll put two or three of them together too, so these are all good ideas for a little medley.
– Back to the beginning of our conversation: do you or don’t you feel that “The Rules Have Changed” overshadowed, in the public eye, everything that you’ve done before?
I put my heart and soul in every album I’ve ever done but something about this one seems, even for me, the most honest record of all. I can’t tell you why; I just haven’t quite put my finger on it, except that I was in such a shock when Keith died – it hit me really hard in ways that I didn’t understand, and I was unguarded. I think that’s why it overshadows everything else. It put my skill set, what I’m capable of, to the test… But I love “Takin’ It Back” – there’s a lot of things on it that I’m proud of, although nobody’s heard it; “In These Eyes” has some stuff on there – “Tender Touch” is a song about my dad, and it’s very important to me. But “The Rules Have Changed” has put it all together.