The Carl Palmer Interview
By Shawn Perry
Of all the drummers that popular music has produced, Carl Palmer has to rate as one of the most unique. His style - a combination of precision, speed and finesse - continues to astound audiences and fellow musicians alike. Yet, Palmer, especially when he's playing with Asia, also knows how to serve the song in a more restricted capacity for the greater good of the finished piece. This may be due in part to the fact that the 56-year-old drummer excelled at music at a remarkably young age, learning all aspects of his craft and becoming a prodigy of sorts. At a mere 20, Palmer was already a music business veteran when he accepted an invitation to join Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1970.
He would go on to become an internationally acclaimed virtuoso with ELP, equipped with a exceptionally disciplined musical vocabulary, range and aptitude. Nine years, a half-dozen best-selling albums, and multiple world tours with ELP placed Palmer in the pantheon of legendary stickmen. When ELP disbanded in 1979, Palmer enjoyed continued success with Asia, whose debut album went on to become one of the biggest sellers of the early 80s. But it was short-lived, and Palmer would eventually return to the ELP fold for another run in the 90s.
Unfortunately, ELP charted some rough seas during the changing musical climate of the 90s. Things looked promising at first, but the trio would produce only two mediocre albums in the span of seven years before tossing in the towel shortly after a tour supporting Deep Purple. Lesser players might have called it a day, but Carl Palmer carried on, forming his own band, touring Europe incessantly, and teaching at various drums clinics throughout England.
When word leaked out that Palmer was venturing to the United States on his own for a round of shows this summer, I rang him up to discuss the tour, as well as his colorful past and busy future. As it happened, it was the drummer's birthday, and he was caught off guard by my call. Nevertheless, he was gracious enough (and seemingly anxious) to talk. Having been an avid follower of ELP for quite some time, I was equally anxious to get the skinny on a few tidbits that had been on my mind. Palmer was alarmingly quick, forthcoming and honest in his answers. He spoke with an air of excitement that reminded me of his drumming. You can only imagine what a thrill ride our chat turned out to be.
Let’s talk about your upcoming tour, your very first solo North American tour, in fact. You’re going out as a three-piece and celebrating the music of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. What can you tell me about it?
I’ve had two albums out on the Sanctuary label in America under the Carl Palmer Band name — Working Live - Volume 1 and Working Live - Volume 2. Really the celebration of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s music is only part of what is going on. I’m actually playing a lot of classical adaptations, music by Aaron Copland, Prokofiev, Bartók, Carl Orff. The amount of original material from ELP is quite small. I play “Tank,” which Keith and I wrote. I play a section “Tarkus,” which we wrote as a band. And I play part of the title track from the Trilogy album. So in an hour and 50 minutes, there’s possibly three or four Emerson, Lake and Palmer original pieces.
I’m assuming these arrangements are much different than the ones you did with ELP.
There are no keyboards; I just have two guitars. The whole approach is completely different. Some of the lines we can’t play. We’ve had to rearrange and reconstruct some of the material. So, yes they are different.
And no vocals?
That’s right — my band is an instrumental band. It’s a progressive rock band, but I’m not trying to duplicate or do anything that ELP did. I didn’t see the need for having a singer. This is a smaller market being an instrumental band. I think it’s a unique area because it isn’t jazz, it isn't soft American jazz, it isn’t bebop, it’s nothing like that. We’re a progressive rock band playing classical adaptations instrumentally.
Tell me about the band.
We have been going for about five years. Over the five years, I’ve had a couple of lead players and, as we speak, I’m on my third bass player. I lost a guitar player in a car accident — he’s still alive, but he developed a very bad ear problem.
So you’ll do the tour in America, and then what — A tour of Europe? A new album? A long vacation?
Just last week I was in Spain for five days. I did a short tour there in the major markets. Prior to that, I was in Germany and Austria. I did seven days over there. In Europe, we don’t really go out for five weeks at a time like bands still do in America. We tend to go out for between seven to ten days and play key markets in a country. And then just move on to another country which is literally a four-hour car drive away. This week, I’m getting ready for my tour. We also completed work on a new Carl Palmer Band DVD. It’s a live DVD recorded a year ago. We‘re working on a deal to release it in America and that could be by the end of this year. You should have it in your hands very soon, hopefully.
You mentioned that your band is a progressive rock band. Do you listen to any of the newer progressive rock bands playing these days?
I’ve listened to bands like Porcupine Tree, Spock’s Beard, and Dream Theater. ELP toured with Dream Theater back in ’98. I have a good insight to what they're well about. They were the first of those young bands back then. I’m not very good at listening to progressive rock bands with singers anymore, unless they have really good lyrics — it has to have a good strong meaning, whether it’s political or religious or whatever. I thought Spock’s Beard in their original format was very good. I think the playing and arranging of these bands is excellent these days. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get played on the radio. It is, you know, a dying art. That’s why I’ve decided that to be playing totally originally pieces all of the time really wouldn’t cut the cake. It would almost be better to play the classical adaptations that Emerson, Lake and Palmer played. That way, I can cross over, become more of a cultural event, and play with orchestras later on.
Let’s take a step back in time if you will. I was pleasantly surprised to read that your family played a big role in your musical development. Do you think you would have become the musician you are without that type of support?
I think every musician needs a support system behind him. If the family is encouraging, I think that is one way of developing faster and understanding it much more quickly. Yes, they played a fundamental part in getting me going.
I was also intigued to learn that you and Buddy Rich became friends when you were young.
That’s very true. I have a double anthology album that came out about four years ago. There’s a track with Joe Walsh, something with Mike Oldfield. There’s also a piece of music I recorded with Buddy Rich at Ronnie Scott’s club in London, with me playing drums in his orchestra.
Did you learn a lot from him?
I learn a ton of stuff from everybody. I’m a piece of blotting paper. I can walk out of my house today, walk down to the local bar on the corner, and if there was a drummer there, I could learn something from him too. He might be a terrible drummer, but if you stay long enough, I’m sure he’ll play something that’s good. I learn from everybody.
You were somewhat hesitant about joining ELP when you were first approached. And then Greg Lake came along and said you were damaging him as well as yourself if you didn’t join. Do you think Greg was right?
At the particular time, I had a very strong group (Atomic Rooster), which musically was where exactly I wanted to be. My only apprehension in leaving Atomic Rooster is that, you have to understand, it was kind of my band, I started the group. We had Robert Stigwood as the manager. The whole deal with ELP was slightly up in the air. I didn’t want to be in any other format except a trio. And it if it was going to be a trio, then I was very, very happy. There was talk of guitar at the beginning of ELP, and I wasn’t that keen on it. I’ve only been in one successful band that wasn’t a trio and that was Asia. So that was the apprehension on my part at the very beginning. But then I played with both of them. I enjoyed the music and I still do. So I thought maybe I’d give it a try. I had an agreement with the Atomic Rooster that I would disappear for a while and give this a shot and if it worked, it worked; and if it didn’t, it didn’t.
As ELP developed, there were several labels attached to the band like “supergroup,” “overblown,” “pretentious, and “pompous.” Did any of those labels ever bother you?
I think it was all true. I can't deny any of it, it’s all absolutely true. The thing is, when you look at it today, it’s rather ludicrous to say we were pompous, we were overblown. The shows we did then were overblown, but when you consider what’s being done today, all we did at the time was set an industry standard and hope people would improve on it. Unfortunately for the naïve people who are in the music business, they thought it was overblown and it was too big. But compared to what’s happening today, we did absolutely nothing but set a standard.
Yes, we were pompous — we’re English! You have to be pompous. We came from Great Britain. We weren’t a blues band. We weren’t a rock band. We played classical adaptations similar to what I do now. We played folk tunes, we were quite eclectic. We dealt with technology, we didn’t have a guitar player, and we never played 12-bar. Sure, we were pomp because that’s where we come from. We’re not from the South, we’re not from the Mississippi — we’re English! (laughs)
Personally, I loved it all — interpreting classical pieces, flying pianos, drum synthesizers. How did you come up with that?
I just figured there was a hole in the market, but obviously you can see it’s been taken much further by large companies like Roland and Yamaha. I was interested being able to hit a drum and trigger a sound. I eventually got with a guy who was from the London School of Electronics and talked to him about it and what I was after. He said it could be done by hitting a drum with a specific microphone set inside the drum. You have that microphone go into a box, which would be a box of tricks, and that will trigger a sound. He said that it is possible. How flexible it would be, how reliable — we don’t know.
I started working with this guy called Nick Rose and we developed the very first electronic drum. Unfortunately, it was so far in front at the time. We used it on “Toccata” (a classical piece by Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera that appears on ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery). A lot of people thought those sounds came from the keyboard, but I couldn’t be bothered doing a thousand and one interviews saying no that’s the drums, it’s not the keyboards. All those weird and wonderful atmospheric, avant garde sounds that you hear were all triggered by the drums. They were all preset, recorded and synthesized sounds which I had. It was just a way of trying to move my instrument forward.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get the credit for it at the time, which I would have liked, but I didn’t expose it that way. Suddenly, people like Bob Moog started making electronic drums which weren’t very good. People Billy Cobham started using them and they weren’t very good. What I had was a little better, but it was a case of going into a manufacturing situation to put them out to the mainstream. But I didn’t have time for that so I kept them for myself. We only ever used them on that one piece of music. And that’s what it was all about: being totally experimental and dealing with technology.
Let me ask you about a gig I just happened to be at: The California Jam. What are your memories of that day?
That was a double header between Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. We had problems with Deep Purple about when they wanted to go on. They wanted to go on late at night, and we said, “Ok, that’s fine.” Then they changed their mind, they wanted to go on earlier, and then they changed their minds again. So we eventually just walked on in the late afternoon and played into the sunset. As it got darker, our set finished and we came off and then they came on. They were all a bit drunk and mad, I believe. I think they’re great people, Deep Purple, so don’t take this wrong. It was a bit chaotic at the time. That’s all I remember about that to tell you the truth. I don’t recall seeing any of the other bands. We just flew in and flew out, doing what we needed to do. I was only there for about two and half hours in all.
How would you describe your transition from ELP to Asia, with the music much more simplified and commercial?
It was an opportunity to actually beat radio in America, which was dying because of MTV. Emerson, Lake and Palmer music was not getting any prime time radio airplay — possibly at two o’clock in the morning in Nacogdoches, Texas you might hear something — but basically it wasn’t getting played.
MTV was embracing new groups. And David Geffen was keen on having great musicians playing some commercial music and some prog rock pieces, but obviously a lot shorter. Asia had exactly that. While I had to strip back my playing for the singles, people have to remember that we also had songs like “Wildest Dreams” and “Time Again.” These were complex, six and half minute pieces and it wasn’t straight-ahead playing. “Heat Of The Moment” was a very basic drum part, but that’s what the song needed. So we had a lovely mixture of the prog rock, which was now six to seven minutes long instead of 20 minutes long, and we had the commercial overtone which could get played on the radio and you could make a video and you could get it on MTV. That’s really what happened in Asia. I did have to play simpler, but there was no other way of getting these singles out there. The music was simple because it was the commercial aspect we were going for on those particular pieces.
The first Asia album is one of my all-time favorite albums. I wish Emerson, Lake and Palmer had had an album with that kind of mix, musically. Emerson, Lake and Palmer had one single on an album — it would be a folky song like “C’est La Vie,” “From The Beginning,” “Still…You Turn Me On,” and “Lucky Man.” We never had things like “Only Time Will Tell” or “Heat Of The Moment,” which were great rock songs. Asia managed to do that and have a prog rock overtone. We lost our way completely on the second album. The third album, which was slightly better, got overlooked by the record company and it didn’t do anything.
There have been rumors about a reunion of the original Asia. But you issued a press release saying it wasn’t happening any time soon. Do you foresee it happening at all?
I do see it happening in a certain way. As far as Asia is concerned, I am quite happy to play in Asia for the 25th anniversary. But I don’t want to do just Asia tunes. I would like to do the entire first Asia album. And what I think we need to do is blow our own trumpets and say that within this configuration of the original Asia, you have people who have actually changed the face of music from a prog rock point of view. You have someone from Emerson, Lake and Palmer, you have someone from Yes, you have someone from King Crimson, you have a guy who made the first video that aired on MTV. The make-up of the band, before you get to any Asia music, is quite historical. So for the original band to come back together and play Asia music, the first album, coupled with something from ELP like “Fanfare For The Common Man,” “Roundabout” from Yes, “In The Court Of The Crimson King” (King Crimson) and “Video Killed The Radio Star” (The Buggles) — all in the show, I think you’ll see what I would consider to be one of the finest prog rock shows ever. Here are the original people who played this music together in an original band that happened 25 years ago which had nothing to do with these other bands that they were also in. I think it’s kind of a unique situation. I think it’s possibly something the American public would actually enjoy. It is purely a musical statement. And under that banner, I have no problem at all playing with Asia.
Back when you were involved with Asia in the 80s, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake recorded and toured with Cozy Powell, What did you think of that?
I thought it was a great idea. It was perfect from my point of view — from a business structure — it was absolutely wonderful. If they hadn’t gone out with Cozy Powell, I couldn’t have gotten the record company to spend the amount of money on the back catalogue that they spent. I’d already made 16 albums which Cozy was promoting for me and the band, so it was a much better thing for them go out with him than to not go out at all.
Let’s talk about another reunion – that of Emerson, Lake and Palmer in the 90s. Did you enjoy that period of time for the band?
I thought the albums we made were rubbish — In The Hot Seat and Black Moon, which was slightly better. In general, the actual writing was below standard. I thought the playing was good, but the creative sources were down.
I happened to catch the final ELP gig in San Diego and remember you guys played exceptionally well that night. At the time, did you know it was your last show together?
I’ve never known when the first show is going to happen and I’ve never known when the last show is going to happen. Emerson, Lake and Palmer don’t break up; we just stop. We might stop for 12 years at a time, but we just stop. We don’t fight, we don’t argue over money, we don’t argue over women, we hardly ever argue over music. We might have argued over two bars of music for 12 years.
With that said, is it inevitable another ELP reunion will take place?
I have no plans at all to play with ELP as we speak right now. I don’t think we’ll be together again in any shape or format. On the other hand, I’ll tell you right now, I doubt that we’ve made our best album. We always talked about making a great album, but unfortunately we never managed to do that. Don’t forget that ELP have made more bad albums than good albums. We had a DVD out last year, which was nice, and we have another one out this year from the Isle of Wight festival in high definition. There’s nothing else in works.
So you believe ELP could have accomplished more had they continued.
ELP could have accomplished a lot of more. What you have to understand is that the first nine years that we had together were unbelievable. The albums – Pictures At An Exhibition, Trilogy, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Tarkus, Brain Salad Surgery — are absolute industry standards. But when you get down to things like Love Beach and In The Hot Seat, you can see where it got lost. Every band has its day, and possibly from a creative point, we might have had our day.
Maybe you guys will reunite at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame some day.
I doubt that. Emerson, Lake and Palmer doesn’t really get acknowledged like that. When G8 happened, they called the Floyd and the original guys got back together again to do that, but we don’t have that kind of industry recognition where people contact us to do things. It’s unfortunate because if we did we might have played at Live 8. I would definitely play a charity show with ELP and I would definitely like to be in the hall of fame. But it’s not something I think about. We’re almost lost in that area.