The Carl Palmer Interview
At a time when many of his peers are slowing down or throwing in the towel completely, drummer Carl Palmer is going strong with little intention of stopping. Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy band, which features the drummer, Paul Bielatowicz on guitar and Simon Fitzpatrick on bass, have been touring regularly, playing ELP classics with a harder edge to audiences throughout Europe, the States, even the high seas. For 2014, they will be part of two music theme cruises — Monsters of Rock (alongside 80s hard rock bands like Ratt and Tesla) and The Moody Blues Cruise, which will also include the Moody Blues, Roger Daltrey, the Zombies and many others.
Always the innovator when it comes to percussion, the drummer has developed a sideline of sorts, merging his drumming with lighting and photography to create Twist of the Wrist, an adventure in percussion art and a unique visual medium that keenly illustrates Palmer’s explosive drumming. It’s projects like these that keep things fresh. And while Palmer carries on with Asia, he explains in the following interview why Emerson, Lake & Palmer have likely played their final notes together, even as the music lives on.
Let’s talk about some of these festivals you’re playing next year, specifically the cruises — like The Moody Blues Cruise next April.
Tell me a little about that. What do you have planned?
After I finished the Prog Rock cruise, I thought, “Yes, I’d like to do this again.” But I wanted to do the Monsters of Rock. And they thought that was quite a strange thing for me to ask, but my band was kind of heavy metal-ish anyway, and I’m very interested in metal music — always have been. So I said I’d like to do that one. I agreed to do that one and then got the invitation from The Moody Blues to join them on their cruise. Justin Hayward is a friend and I don’t know whether he requested it or the fans and/or the promoters and the media’s talked about it, but anyway … it came along and I’m doing the two cruises back-to-back.
It’s interesting that you’re doing these two festivals back to back, playing for really two different audiences. Do you foresee any challenges with that?
Yeah, I think, you know, that obviously a challenge will be we have to get the right program, the right repertoire for each cruise. Obviously there will be more metal on the Monsters of Rock Cruise and I can tone it down a bit more and do things like “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which is a bit more kind of romantic. You’ve got to get enough music to be able to full fill both of the cruises and get the most out of them. It’s a challenge anyway, and I’d definitely like to take the Monsters of Rock challenge because I believe we’ve got a strong enough repertoire to sound as heavy and metal as most of the bands. And I don’t see any problem at all with the Moodys’ cruise.
On the Moody Blues Cruise, part of the appeal of that is that you and the Moody Blues and Roger Daltrey and some of the other acts played at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970. Any plans to commemorate that show?
Well, I’ve known Roger quite well. I played on an album that he put together to honor Keith Moon many years ago. I was also in a band called The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. So we know each other. And I will definitely be talking to him or having dinner with him one night. Who knows what might happen? We might do something together, we might not. I just don’t know yet. But yes, he’s a very nice guy. I’m looking forward to seeing him. I haven’t seen him for a few years. The Who was the very first professional rock group I ever saw in my career. I saw them at Afton University in Birmingham, where I’m from. So I was always really impressed by the band and they left a big impression. I was always a big fan. So it’s great to see him again after all these years. I’m really looking forward to that.
I saw you and your band at the Coach House here in Orange County. As a longtime fan, I was really knocked out with the musicianship, not only of yourself but your guitar player Paul Bielatowicz and bassist Simon Fitzpatrick. As you said, you kind of have a heavier sounded on your delivery with the ELP songs. How did you arrive at that kind of style?
Well, to tell you the truth, Shawn, I did want to use keyboards. I wanted to use guitar because I wanted to go for that metal edge, which has always been on my mind. One of the forms of music I’ve really not played a lot of is kind of that heavier edge, sort of metal-y sounding music. And of course, ELP’s music played on guitar, it does have more of a metal edge to it. That’s a little bit more mod, a little bit more up to date. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s music, because they were the iconic versions. But I just thought that this was the better way for me to go, because I’d always got this in my mind that the toughest of our life should be brought out even more in the music. So that’s how it sort of came about really, because the guitars really do supply that.
Anyway, thanks for your comments by the way on the band. I do think I’ve got two of the finest prog rock musicians that England has produced. They’re what I call “out of time,” you know, because if they had been successful during the period that I started, they would probably be like legends by now, you know. Nevertheless, I’m playing with them today, which is the most important thing. They are phenomenal players.
You’ve played these cruise festivals before and I’m wondering, when you’re not playing, what are you doing? Are you playing shuffleboard on the deck or hanging in the casino or swimming in the pool? Are you mingling with the passengers or how does that work?
Well, to tell you the truth Shawn, if you go to www.carlpalmerart.com, you’ll see that there’s various sort of paintings that I’ve sort of created by using light. On this particular cruise, that I played this year, I had an art exhibition and I did a couple seminars, I did a couple of chats and things with the various people that sort of turned up. We displayed the art, we did some general sort of chats to journalists like yourself. There was a Q&A I did in one of the reception rooms downstairs. You know, lots of kind of signing of stuff and things. I tried to basically do as much networking as I possibly could because I think it’s a chance for the fans to actually get close to you and see what you’re all about. And I have plenty of product to show them, the art being something which is completely new. It’s five days; I played twice. I think I got off the ship twice. The time goes quite quickly, to tell you the truth. Everyone was looked after well. We had a really great time to tell you the truth. I mean, that’s the only reason why — because it’s so well organized — I’ve decided to sign up for it again for not one, but two.
Actually, I was going to ask you about your Twist of the Wrist art project. How did you come up with this concept of percussion art?
It started way back in the 70s. I was attaching light bulbs to the end of the drumstick and there was a cable going down to a battery. But I couldn’t actually physically play the drums because the light bulb would break. But, you know, I could mime. I got a photographer to take pictures and created some really unusual arcs of light, shadows and whatever. Anyway, as the years went by — as a matter of fact, one of these photos, one of these pictures, made the second page in the local newspaper in my hometown, Birmingham. It was obviously a picture they’d never seen before. But you couldn’t really play the drums. It wasn’t connected to the art of music in any way. It was just a physical thing you could see. Anyway, about 10, 15 years later, somebody developed an LED drumstick where the actual lights were built into the sticks and you could play. So I got the sticks, had a look at it and we started to film it on a couple of cameras, show a very slow sort of shutter speed. We put it into the computer, we had a look at what was going on and we realized that, you know, this was a new art form. This was painting with light, using rhythm or patterns to create the overall composition. It started from there and it’s proven to be really successful. So, it was a gradual thing, really, over about 25, maybe 30 years.
I looked at some of the photos on your web site and they look really cool. You’ve been winning a lot of awards and accolades lately, which I know is really nothing new because you’ve consistently topped drumming polls since the 70s. But you’re winning these awards like Afrika Festival Rock Legend Award and the Las Vegas Rock awards, which are a little different. How does it feel to be recognized for this body of work that you put out over the last 40-plus years?
It’s always a great thing when people recognize what you do, you know. I’m always more than grateful for that because, you know, I don’t expect it because there are a lot of people doing it. Obviously, I try to be the very best I can and maintain a real high standard. So, for me, it’s always a lovely thing when it’s recognized. And I’ve managed it to get it from all sort of walks of life really, whether it’s the Hall of Fame or whether it’s Afrika Rock Festival — I mean, it’s lovely to be called a legend and all that, and I really like it. I’ve had some unusual things, like I’m lecturing this month at the university here, I’m lecturing on business. I’m doing a Q&A with the students in Southampton at the university. They gave a fellowship from the university, which is very nice, and things like that are kind of important to me because if I can pass on any knowledge that I’ve got to younger people, it’s always a great thing to do. And I believe all musicians should do it. And if people recognize me for what I’ve done, then that’s just great, really. I mean, I don’t expect it, but it’s lovely when it happens. And obviously I do appreciate it.
Absolutely, and you do deserve it.
Thank you very much.
What’s going on with Asia these days?
Good question, Shawn. We’ve just come back from Bulgaria where we played —actually, I’ve just come back from Bulgaria with my own band, believe it or not. Then we went on to five days in Italy. Prior to that — and that was a first in my career — I played in Bulgaria with Asia. So I played with Asia in Bulgaria, but two weeks later I’m in Bulgaria with my group, which was a first in my career. So that was quite a funny thing to take place. So Asia played in Bulgaria to 4,000 people in an amphitheater. We used an orchestra and it was very, very nice. We had two sets; one set with the orchestra, the other set without. And we played. It was a phenomenal success and we were met by the mayor and all that stuff that goes on. As we speak, Asia has now gone back into the studio. We’ve been in the studio for about the last three weeks, something like that, laying down some tracks — drum machine type things, trying stuff on the acoustic guitar, piano, also trying out the new guitar player Sam Coulson. We’re just, you know, experimenting. When I get back from Poland in November, I’ll probably spend the rest of that month in the studio and I’ll put on the drums to whatever track we’ve finally agreed on, and we’ll take it from there. Basically there’s a new album; there will be a tour next year. We will tour in America. We will actually play in Japan. So, yes, quite a full year for Asia. Obviously not all planned out yet, but I think, as I speak at the moment, there’s about seven weeks that we’re actually sort of touring between America, Japan and Europe.
I’m not going to ask you if ELP’s going to reunite, because I think know the answer to that question. . But I am going to ask you — are you in touch with Greg Lake and Keith Emerson?
Well, I’ll tell you what. To be honest with you, Shawn, to be completely openhearted on that, you know, personally I had to stop ELP. I had to kind of leave it and say it was time to hang it up. We’re all quite old. I can understand that. But I think, for me, really, to be honest with you, it was a case of we couldn’t reach a standard that we’d left off 12 years prior to that. If we could just have met that standard and maintained that, I’d have been very happy, but it seems to be very difficult for quite a few of the people involved, you know, to get to that standard and to maintain it. So it seemed right to finish it where we did in 2010, much to my regret, obviously. But I think that’s just the way things to and I think it’s better to come away like that and say, “Hey, we had a great time and played all this great music. “ Because I always believe that the actual public understands a lot more than we give them credit for. They know when a band is not playing as well. They know when a band is at the top of its tree. And something like ELP that had a very high musical standard, there’s no way that we could fool our fans that we were playing as well. They all knew exactly what was going down. And the last concert at the High Voltage was nostalgia, really. And that was fine. It was good to do it for that. But it’s not good to carry on and I think a lot of them would agree with me anyway.
Are you following Keith and Greg’s activities?
I had an art exhibition probably six weeks ago now in LA at a place called Mr. Music on the Sunset Strip. I obviously invited Keith along because he lives down in Santa Monica. So yeah, he came along and he told me about his conducting thing that he’s trying to do and that he’s getting along well with that; that he’s having lessons for conducting or whatever. So I know all about that. And obviously I know what Greg has been doing because he was involved for a short period of time with the same management as Asia. I don’t believe he is anymore, so I’m not exactly sure what’s happening there. But yes, I know what they’re doing, more or less.
I’m going to let you go, but before I do, you said you’re going to Poland. What have you got going on there?
Yeah, well I’ve got Poland, I’m leaving on the 11th. I’ve got Poland on the 12th, 13th and 14th. What it is, Poland over the years is kind of a — the economy’s really strong there — but in Poland, believe it or not, there are some of the biggest musical retailers that you could ever imagine. They’ve got huge music shops, like three floors with big sound stages, whatever, they’re really very cool places. I’m there for three days. Over the period of that week, there’s a very big drum festival, which lasts the whole week. They normally have people go along and give master classes, give talks, give drum classes and do whatever. Anyway, I taught there many years ago at the conservatory of music. I’ve done maybe three or four days there in the past. It would be better if we could actually perform as a band. So I’m performing with my group three concerts, the 12th, 13th and 14th, yes, just for three days. So that would be it. As I said, after that I’m directly in the studio. But it’s a big annual event each year, in November, that happens in Poland. As I say, it cycles every seven years and I do it.