The Gary Wright Interview
By Shawn Perry
One of the first concerts I attended as a youngster was that of Rick Wakeman at the Anaheim Convention Center. Memories of the actual show are a bit hazy, but I do recall who the other two acts on the bill were. One was British blues band Savoy Brown, and the other — who actually opened — was Gary Wright.
At the time, I had no idea who Gary Wright was. His solo album, The Dream Weaver, hadn't hit the airwaves yet, and I was at a loss when he came out on stage with a keyboard hanging around his neck. Of course, the very next year, when I saw him play with Yes and Peter Frampton at Anaheim Stadium, I knew a little more about him because the album and the two singles it spawned, "Dream Weaver" and "Love Is Alive," were smash hits. It would be several years before I learned even more about him.
Slowly, but surely I connected the dots. I saw his name on several of George Harrison's solo albums. I heard Spooky Tooth's "Evil Woman" and found out Wright was on it as well. In fact, he was with that band before he had solo career. The more I picked up, the more intrigued I became. Turns out Wright's from New Jersey, not London or Liverpool as I was lead to believe. He has a degree in psychology. Most surprisingly, he's as responsible for the emergence of the synthesizer as a mainstream instrument as Keith Emerson and the aforementioned Rick Wakeman.
More recently, I heard that Wright continues to be an active and working musician. He's releasing new music and still plays dates with Spooky Tooth. In fact, I spoke to him just prior to his departure to London where he and Spooky Tooth were to play at an Island Records 50th anniversary concert, a week-long celebration alongside U2, Grace Jones and the Wailers, before embarking on a short hop through Europe. Over the course of our discussion, I discovered more about the man and his incredible career than I ever imagined. Gary Wright has truly weaved his dreams into reality.
You currently have two new records out — Waiting To Catch The Light, and the EP The Light Of A Million Suns. Tell me how those came together.
Waiting To Catch The Light I did several years ago. It's a collection of songs that I'd written, and kind of my goal in doing it was to create kind of an atmospheric, ambient music kind of an album that basically would be for people who want to mediate or really just chill out. That was the purpose of that album, to create something like that. It was done on all vintage analog synthesizers, which is kind of rare, so it has a certain warmth to the sound of it, and it was done all on analog tape. It's been very well received so far. People are picking it up in spas, and people are writing good reviews on iTunes — it got picked up by iTunes — so I'm quite happy with the way it turned out. It's getting played on those soundscape cable radio stations as well.
Is this your first instrumental album?
I've never actually released an instrumental record. This is the first one that I've done. The only kind of semi-instrumental record, although I wouldn't call it instrumental, was an album I put out in '95 called The First Signs Of Life. It was African world music.
How do you approach making an instrumental album as opposed to an album of regular songs? Is it different?
It's totally different because you're just going into the studio, and you put up one kind of sound. Actually, I did everything in real-time. It was like there was a lot of overdubbing; there was very little overdubbing. I'd set up one synthesizer and have a little sequence going. And then I'd have a Fender Rhodes, and then maybe another kind of lead sound. So I would go back to keyboard to keyboard to keyboard, and play it all live.
How did you come with the titles of the instrumentals?
That's a little tricky. I have a notebook filled with song titles. Some of those get pretty ethereal, and because I wanted to make this album an ethereal kind of album, I chose titles that work for that kind of thing, like "Silent Choirs For Snowflakes," "Stones, Stars and Sages," these kind of esoteric titles that work well with the music.
So certain pieces of music, tones and sounds evoke a visual that you're able to draw a title from?
Exactly. I listened to all the tracks and went through my list of titles, and I said, '"Stones, Stars and Sages" will go great with this one,' "Silent Choirs For Snowflakes" would go great with this song.' I just matched them all.
The Light Of A Million Suns is a four-song EP that opens with a new, updated version of "Love Is Alive," which features a duet with your son Dorian. How did that come together?
Dorian, at one time, was working on making his own solo album, and he did. We got together with this producer named Dakari, who's from Florida. He'd done some stuff with some of the boy bands that Lou Pearlman had. He's a real good producer. So we decided to do an updated version of "Love Is Alive." I shelved it for a while. Actually, I had originally done it with a group called C-Note. I decided I'd rather do it with my son, so I put Dorian's vocal on it and finished it up. I thought it was really cool. He's got a great voice. Doing it together was really exciting. I was actually thrilled and thought, "People have to hear this." I don't want to sit on this. I put this together with three other tracks that, for some reason or another, didn't make it on to albums I had put out. So I put out this EP.
I saw you play recently and you did some new unreleased songs from a forthcoming album.
Yeah, that's right. I'm about two-thirds through with it right now.
When can we expect to see this record? Do you have a title?
The working title is Connected. It all depends on my touring schedule this summer. I'm going to Europe twice to do some dates with Spooky Tooth. So, if I finish this summer and can get it out by fall, I'll release it around September or October. If not, I'm not going to release it until January or February.
It seems like you're on a roll right now.
Yeah, I feel good. You go through those phases in your life. Being on the Ringo tour last summer was a lot of fun, and it gave my career a big boost. So I've been concentrating on it a lot more.
And your voice still sounds great. What's your secret?
I've just been blessed with a voice that hasn't gone away. I do really look after myself physically. I mediate — I've been mediating for over 30 years. I do Hatha yoga as well. I exercise, doing cardio vascular stuff, you know. I lead a healthy life. I eat well. I never smoked. It's a question of taking care of the instrument.
In addition to your solo career, you mentioned playing some shows with Spooky Tooth in Europe.
Island Records, the label that Spooky Tooth first signed to, is doing a 50th anniversary celebration in London, starting in the last week of May. It's a week's worth of concerts, all at Shepherds Bush Empire in London. Various artists over the years who were on Island and made it what it was, will be performing, including Joe Cocker, the Wailers, Spooky Tooth; I think U2 are gonna be there, Amy Winehouse (editor's note: she cancelled), Paul Weller, a bunch of people all on Island. So we'll be performing. And then we have six shows in Germany that we're gonna do. Then we're going back in September to do another eight shows, and then again in March of next year. So I have two parallel careers. One is in Europe with Spooky Tooth and the other is here with my solo career.
Does this lineup include Mike Harrison and Mike Kellie?
Me and Mike Harrison are the only original members, and we have three other musicians: Steve Farris, who was the guitarist with Mr. Mister; bassist Shem von Schroeck with Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald and Don Felder; and Tommy Brechtlein is our drummer who worked with Chick Corea. All really A-list musicians.
So no Ariel Bender or Mick Jones, huh?
Well, Mick is involved with Foreigner.
I don't think I'm alone when I say that Spooky Tooth is one of the great underrated bands of the late 60s/early 70s. And also one of the few British bands from that period (apart from the Jimi Hendrix Experience) with an American in their midst. In my research, I read that you first went to Berlin to earn a degree in psychology.
I have a degree in psychology, but I did post-graduate work in Berlin.
How did you go from that to becoming a member of English band like Spooky Tooth?
I had always been involved in music while I was in college, playing on weekends and stuff. Even in high school, I played in bands, so music was a great love of mine. My career actually started when I was on Broadway when I was 12-years-old. So I was in school and I was studying in Berlin, and I just decided to put my studies aside because I had been doing it for like six years. Straight from college, I went to about a year of med school, so I just thought I'd do something I'd really enjoy doing, and that was putting a band together and touring around Europe. I did that for about four or five months.
When we were in Norway, playing in Oslo, Chris Blackwell (Island Records founder) was there with Traffic on their maiden gig. He saw me and we had a friend in common who was Jimmy Miller, who produced Traffic. He also produced Spencer Davis' "Gimme Some Lovin" and "I'm A Man." Jimmy was a friend of mine from New Jersey, where I grew up. So Chris invited me to go over to London, and he put me together with these four other musicians who were in a band called the VIPs. I came up with the name "Spooky Tooth," and the concept was a two lead vocalists kind of band, sort of blues rock. That was the beginning of Spooky Tooth.
So you had Jimmy Miller, who was also producing some great records with the Stones, and you're coming up with these incredible songs like "Evil Woman," "Waitin' For The Wind" and "Better By You, Better Than Me." It just seems like you should have been a lot bigger.
There was a lot kind of freaky circumstances that played against us. The second album we did called Spooky Two did really well. It was in the charts in the States and all over the world. We were the number one band in Germany at the time, 1969. Then we did a project that wasn't our album. It was with this French electronic music composer named Pierre Henry. We just told the label, "You know this is his album, not our album. We'll play on it just like musicians. It's just for France, a little tiny market." And then when the album was finished, they said, "Oh no no — it's great. We're gonna release this as your next album." We said, "You can't do that. It doesn't have anything to do with the direction of Spooky Two and it will ruin our career." And that's exactly what happened.
I left and the band virtually split up. Greg Ridley joined Humble Pie at that time. That was it for that incarnation of Spooky Tooth. I did some solo albums, went on my own and I played with George Harrison and a bunch of other people. It wasn't until like 72 or 73 that we reformed with Mick Jones and did another three albums until the band finally disbanded.
I think if we could have definitely been like one of those bands, like Jethro Tull and all those people who were our contemporaries. I think the band didn't have the steady momentum and upward drive. It stopped and started, broke up and then went back and broke up. It never really got enough behind it to really catapult it to success.
As you said, some of the members went on to other things like Humble Pie, Mott The Hoople and Foreigner after Spooky Tooth. You went solo and became good friends with George Harrison. Do you remember the day you met him?
Yes I do. It was when I was asked by Klaus Voorman, a friend of mine who had played on my first two solo albums. He called me when I was in the studio producing an artist and said, "George needs a keyboard player. He's doing his new solo album. Would you like to play?" And I said, "Sure." I went down to the studio and they were doing All Things Must Pass. The first track I played on was "Isn't It A Pity." George asked me to come back and play on the rest of the whole album, which I did do. It was a fantastic experience because toward the end of the album, the rhythm section was George, myself, Ringo, Eric Clapton and Carl Radle, who was in Eric's band. It came from a huge rhythm section initially to a very small one, and I played through the whole thing. It was an incredible experience. We became close friends and went to India together. George really was my spiritual mentor. He introduced me to Indian philosophy.
You also played on some of Ringo Starr's early hits as well.
Yes I did. "It Don't Come Easy" and "Back Off Boogaloo."
Did you ever get to work with Paul McCartney or John Lennon?
No. John had asked me to play on Imagine, but I couldn't at the time because I was on the road with Spooky Tooth. I really regret not having done that.
So you knew him and McCartney?
I've met all of them. The closest relationship was with George, then next Ringo. I briefly met Paul, and John, I met a couple of times. He was always really nice.
I saw a clip of you, Mick Jones and George Harrison from the Dick Cavett show. It seems like George was a big champion of your music.
He was very, very kind. He tried really, really hard to help me in my career by producing a couple of songs on my second album and having me on the Dick Cavett Show. It's funny how karma or fate has it, because I really had to do it myself because it wasn't until The Dream Weaver, which I did myself, that I had the success.
Exactly. With everything that was going on in those days, including those early solo albums which had players like Alan White, Klaus Voorman and your friend George Harrison, how did you arrive at the concept of an all-keyboard album like The Dream Weaver?
When Spooky Tooth broke up finally in 74, I moved back to the States. I'd been living in England for seven years. I had all my keyboards that I had played on stage. I had a clavinet, a mini Moog, a Fender Rhodes, an ARP String Ensemble, an organ. I was putting these songs together, and I had a little rhythm machine as well. I started writing and all of sudden, everything started to take shape, and I thought, "I really don't need guitar. It sounds full and fine the way it is." I decided to make that decision and go to the studio and not use guitars. Do it all on keyboards. It actually worked to my advantage because the people marketed the album that way and it became a real plus.
Did you ever think it would become such a monster hit?
Not at all. I never thought that "Dream Weaver" would have been a single. I thought "Let It Out" or maybe "Love Is Alive." And "Love Is Alive" actually was released as the first single, and it didn't happen. FM radio at that time was all over "Dream Weaver" and they were playing it all the time. So they released it as a single and it went up to Number One or Number Two, it depends on which chart you look at. And then they re-released "Love Is Alive," and that went to Number Two.
You also had a hit in the early 80s with "Really Wanna Know You." Where were you at with your music at that time?
That was the last album I did for Warner Brothers. I was working with a producer named Dean Parks. The song was written by myself and Ali Thomson, who's a Scottish writer. He had his own career on A&M and he had his own song called "Take A Little Rhythm, which was a hit in the late 70s/early 80s. We just came up with this song. He had these chord changes, and we put it together. It was a departure from "Dream Weaver" and "Love Is Alive." A lot of people like it even more than "Dream Weaver" or "Love Is Alive." A lot of people will e-mail me and tell me that. It was a different kind of departure. My vocals were different too.
In addition to the hits, your use of synthesizers was pioneering. Now, of course, you strap on a Roland AX-Synth Shoulder Synthesizer and you're good to go. Would it be fair to say you have a penchant for cutting-edge technology? In other words, are you a gearhead?
Yeah I am. I've always used technology as a source of creative energy to write my songs with. Specifically, on this album I'm working on now. You heard two of those songs I performed on stage. Those just came from grooves and sounds that I heard from my Korg M3. I get inspired to write songs just by hearing those kind of things. Immediately, melodies will pop into my head.
That's not to say I can't write in the old traditional way of sitting down at a piano or an acoustic guitar and strumming chords and singing melodies. I never like to limit myself to one or the other. It's good sometimes when you have a song that you've written out on guitar, which is a complete song with great chord changes and everything. Then you're fooling around with some of these things and a groove comes up and you go, "Oh that will fit perfectly with this song." So that happens a lot too. So I guess I'm a huge fan of technology as far as using it for creative purposes.
Is there any possibility of writing songs for a new Spooky Tooth album?
Yes, there's definitely a possibility. I just haven't had the time right now. That will probably be something I'll do next year.
As you continue to record and perform, is there anything else you'd like to accomplish?
I'd like to write a book, I think, about my experiences and the friends I've had and my journey as an artist. That's something I'd like to do at some stage.
Very cool. Speaking of books, I wanted to tell you my girlfriend gave me a copy of Autobiography Of A Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda. I want to crack it open and see if I can get inspired as well.
It's a fantastic book and you won't want to put it down when you start reading it. Even, not from a spiritual point of view, but as a piece of literature, it's a total classic and a great read. I think you'll enjoy it.