By Lee Zimmerman
Few bands in the rock ‘n’ roll lexicon can be called as distinctive as Procol Harum. Ever since they first formed some 50 years ago, the mix of Bach-like melodies, progressive overtures and the soulful vocals of sole mainstay Gary Brooker has continued to define a sound that has always stood apart from their contemporaries. Early classics like “Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Hamburg,” “Conquistador” and “A Salty Dog” are engraved in classic rock radio even as they continue to point the way forward for any number of keyboard-based bands that followed.
Still, Procol Harum’s been out of the limelight of late. While Brooker continues to drive the band — and the brand — it’s a relatively new group that he’s helmed for the past decade or so. Guitarist Robin Trower has long since departed, drummer B.J. Wilson passed on awhile ago, and organist Matthew Fisher and Brooker are reportedly still at odds. Even Procol’s longtime lyricist Keith Reid has left the fold, recently replaced by the legendary wordsmith Pete Brown, whose credits were prominently included on albums by both Cream and its bassist, Jack Bruce.
If any of these personnel shifts had adverse effects on Procol Harum’s excellent new album “Novum,” it’s not apparent whatsoever. Although it’s the first album in 14 years with the group’s collective banner on the cover, it perfectly captures their classic sound — that is, their piano-organ interplay, stinging guitar, high-minded lyrical themes, and of course, Brooker’s emotive vocals. Recorded with the current band — Brooker, bassist Matt Pegg, guitarist Geoff Whitehorn, organist Josh Phillips and drummer Geoff Dunn — it demonstrates the fact that the Procol Harum sound is still well etched in the musical firmament.
Goldmine spoke with Gary Brooker from his home in England and asked him about the group’s current activities and the new disc in particular.
GOLDMINE: The new album is brilliant. It manages to convey the classic sound everyone associates with Procol Harum with an approach that still sounds contemporary. How did you manage that?
GARY BROOKER: The answer to that is not to think about it too much. To do it quite naturally and say a few prayers, I suppose. We approached it in a different sort of way. From the start, when we were writing the songs, I got everybody involved, particularly our guitarist Geoffrey Whitehorn and our Hammond player, Josh Phillips. So we combined a lot of ideas, and I thought that would make it at very least something this band has created. We had somebody different doing our lyrics — Pete Brown — and apart from that, we didn’t sit around and try to follow fashions or anything. I think its just the way we’re playing today, and with the different influences of Matt and Josh, things came out pretty good. We were happy with the results. But we didn’t spend a lot of time on it really. We spent about five days writing and came up with 10 or 12 songs, which we then refined a bit with Pete to get the tunes worked out. Then we went into the studio and spent 15 days there recording everything in very live fashion, all playing together at the same time.
GM: It’s been 14 years since the last Procol album. Was it difficult to get back into the recording groove again?
GB: We have been playing live a lot. We weren’t sort of idle. We weren’t disbanded or all doing other things. This band has been playing live for ten years and we thought, well, hang on, we’ve never been in the studio together. So it was just something that needed to be done… hmm, I’ve forgotten where I was going with this…
GM: We were asking if it was challenging going back into the studio after all that time, if you felt rusty at all.
GB: Ah, right. When you go back into the studio, there are things you’ve forgotten about. But because we were playing things live, had we not played these songs together or if it was something Matt or Josh had not heard, then obviously we would have to write out the chords or explain the general idea. I had to get used to being back in the studio as well. Before we went in, we hadn’t really sorted it all out, or made massive demos of the songs. We just had to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything. We were still working out the things we all had to do, but we did it all together. The studio situation came quite naturally because we seem to be playing naturally and all together…not using overdubs and things.
GM: So how did Pete Brown come into the mix?
GB: I bumped into Pete infrequently now and again over the years. I met him first we he was doing the Cream thing. I had some associations with Jack Bruce, so I would see Pete from time to time, and when I saw him a few years ago, we started talking. He said, “If you ever have a need for lyrics, I’d love to have a go at it if you’d like.” So we gave him a call and said we’d be doing something very soon and would like to have him involved.
GM: Of course, your original lyricist Keith Reid helped you pen all those classic songs back in the day. Out of curiosity, was he on your list of calls as well?
GB: Umm. I think it’s nice to keep things all in one camp really. People might want to compare what Pete Brown writes with what Keith Reid writes, but they’re two separate people. I think Keith had come to some sort of crossroads with Procol and decided to turn left. We had been playing a lot together, but people’s paths separate based on their willingness to do things. And Pete was quite adaptable. If we needed an extra chorus or an extra verse, Pete was quite willing to shuffle away and go into a room and come back in half an hour with a new idea. Then we’d toss it out and try again, but he didn’t get offended or anything. That was one of his specs in the first place. He said, “I know what recording is all about, and if you want to change anything, let me know and we can work it out.”
GM: Of course one of the signature elements in Procol Harum has always been the grand, dramatic lyrical style, and it’s often amazing that you can throw yourself into some of these words with such passion and purpose. It’s a far cry from “Good Golly Miss Molly.” Can it be a challenge to keep the melody on track when the lyrics become so complicated and intensive?
GB: It always seems to come quite naturally and not be any effort at all. And if there was any effort, then you’ve never heard that song. (chuckles) With Keith Reid and with Pete Brown, there are songs that did not get anywhere. They didn’t become completed songs. They were lyrics that didn’t speak to me in someway. But you’re right. You do have to throw yourself into these things and believe in them in some way. I did believe in “Good Golly Miss Molly,” you see? I can throw myself into that. I can just imagine this girl is dynamite, this Molly. I would do anything for her. She’s fantastic. I wish I had met her when I was sixteen. Actually, I had met her when I was sixteen. I’m sure I came upon a girl like that at one point when I was sixteen. That’s what singing is all about.
GM: Speaking of singing, your voice sounds as sharp and soulful as ever. I have to admit, when I first heard “White Shade of Pale” back in the day, I actually thought you were a black soul singer. Maybe Percy Sledge or somebody. How did your style evolve? Steve Winwood once said he was influenced by Ray Charles. Where did your inspiration come from?
GB: Same stable really. I think I was listening to the same things as Stevie was. I was also a great Ray Charles fan. To the musicians in England, Ray Charles showed how it could be done. It was something to try and achieve…well, not really achieve, but to get anywhere near it would have achieved something. Of course, he sang and played piano. I’d forgotten he was blind as well. I had totally forgotten that.
GM: It was kind of a revelation to discover that you were actually a white rock band from the U.K. That’s meant as a complement of curse.
GB: I understand that. Of course it’s a complement. That’s what I really, really liked. I liked the vocals that were part of rhythm and blues. It’s a far cry from blues, mind you, but I liked the blues as well. Still, it’s more tuneful when you get out of the blues. You can get a lot more melody out of it, and I’ve always been interested in the melodic side as well. I also really liked Bobby Bland and people like that.
GM: Where did the title Novum come from? Do we need to brush up on our Latin?
GB: It felt apt. If you google your Latin, it will be quite easy to find. You can look up anything these days. I think it translates as something like “new idea.”
GM: Speaking of which, Procol Harum is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Are there any sort of plans to mark the occasion?
GB: Of course, to us it’s a major thing to have made a new album, especially after 13 or 14 years. This particular band has been together ten years, twenty years in some cases. It’s great to be able to make something new, and for it to come out in a pleasing way. I also thank the producer Dennis Weinrich for making such a great recording. He’s very good at producing and making me sing well. If he thinks I can do a better take, he’ll send me back out and do it. As far as it being 50 years, that’s amazing really. Of course, I never felt like doing anything else. So the fact that I’m still doing it is great, but of course physically and vocally you have to stand up the strains of the descending years, at least in my case (chuckles). Anyway, we’re going to be playing lots of concerts this year.
GM: Are you still doing solo projects as well?
GB: Well, I think now and again if things go a bit quiet. You just have to be in your bonnet about doing something and I shall do it. At the moment I’m very pleased with this Procol project. We actually want to go in and write some more and do another album. That’s the pace we used to have in the ‘70s, and there’s no reason we can’t still do that. You just have to have the inspiration and the will, and we’re feeling very fresh at the moment.