By Jeb Wright
Carl Palmer is a drummer’s drummer. He has spent decades honing and perfecting his craft. He remains intrigued and challenged by drumming even today. He remains teachable, and he has a longing to learn more. He is as much the student as he is the master — never satisfied with resting on his laurels even though he could do that and still leave audiences with their jaws agape.
He has achieved multi-platinum success with two bands: Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Asia. He has received awards of excellence and has a gaggle of amateur and professional drummers placing him on a pedestal, or at least a drum stool, in homage to his talents.
Palmer is currently on a global tour trek in support of his third in a series of live albums recorded as a guitar/bass/drums three-piece band. The album, simply titled “Working Live: Volume III,” takes ELP-like progressive rock and bashes you over the head with electric guitars where the keyboards and vocals once were. The Carl Palmer Band is not simply remaking ELP classics, however. The band is more interested in taking classical music and infusing it with what Palmer calls “hard-core prog.” The result is a unique blend of music that satisfies the snobbiest of classical critics as well as a guy who is more into heavy-metal guitar soloing.
In this interview, we discuss how technology had to catch up to Carl’s vision, and how playing with younger virtuosos helps keeps an older virtuoso on his toes. Palmer is a drummer, a visionary, a bandleader, a rock icon and man consumed with musical perfection and technical elegance.
You have accomplished excellence again with your “Working Live: Volume III” release. We all know that the drumming will be great, as it is a Carl Palmer album. I think people are really blown away by the guitar player in your band named Paul Bielatowicz. He has to play these difficult keyboard parts on guitar.
A: I had to sit down with a specialist who specializes in transcribing keyboards to guitar. It was really quite a long procedure. I have to tell you that if you had asked me that question 10 or 20 years ago, then we would have all said it would be impossible for a guitar player to accomplish what he is doing. The advancements in technique have come a long way. There are quite a few guitar players who can play that type of music. I am very fortunate that it has come along at a time when I wanted to do what I am doing.
Q: When did the idea first hit you to take ELP music and take it down to a guitar, bass and drum three-piece set up?
A: I wanted to play classical adaptations of music but I didn’t want to be compared to Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I didn’t want the keyboard or the vocal elements of the music, either. People in Europe have always liked this kind of music. I have found a niche market, and I realize that it is not a supermarket or even a delicatessen approach. It is very intellectual. You either like it or you don’t, but it has a harder edge to it. Playing classical adaptations on guitar put a new spin on it, and I am very pleased with it.
Q: I think this setup is one of the most unique projects you have been involved with, and that includes ELP and Asia.
A: It is very different, and it is being received very well considering this is only the second tour of America. In Italy, for example, this is an art form that they are all about. They either are very romantic or they are very hard-core prog; they think they invented it. We are scoring really big there. In America, it is very different than what I have been used to. It is going to take some time, but I am enjoying doing it. I will take the time because I am enjoying it so much and I will get my point across.
Q: One of the most impressive things is that you don’t realize that you are listening to a live album. When you do think that it is a live album, you are blown away with what is going on. I would imagine there are not a lot of overdubs on this thing.
A: The only time we overdubbed or corrected anything on this album was on “Pictures At An Exhibition,” as it is such a long song. There were certain places where crowd noises or other noises got in the way of the guitar, so we fixed that. The band is well rehearsed, as that is a policy of mine. As far as I am concerned, this is a true measure of what we are all about.
Q: In your other bands, you have been an equal member. This is all under your name. How is it different?
A: Obviously, whatever I say goes, and if people don’t like it then they can do one of two things: They can leave, or they can stay. I make all the decisions of where we play. I am older than the rest of the band, so I have more experience. Playing this type of music is a great opportunity for these young musicians, as there are very few outlets out there that allow this. If you have got instrumentalists, then this is the ideal opportunity for them. They might as well enjoy my experience and enjoy the music they are playing. I have to admit that is pretty much how I run it. I try to get other people’s opinions, and I try to understand what they think about their part. You have got to realize that my bass player is only 25 and my guitar player is only 30. I understand that, and it works out great for me.
Q: “Volume III” proves you are doing something correct. I think this album needs to be listened to from start to finish. What makes a live performance go from good to great?
A: That is kind of you to say; thank you. You have to remember that the equipment you record on today is far advanced, and therefore you can obtain live recordings, digitally, that are equal to a recording in a studio. What you are really talking about are great bands having a great night. The performance is always going to be better when it is played in front of an audience. I think that when you have great performances and you are well rehearsed, then you should be able to reproduce an album live on stage every night. For me, it is a magical process recording these albums. The technology is there today, and the technique the musicians have is there, and that was not always the case. It is all there now, and it has come to the forefront and allows you to make a great live album. Assuming everyone plays great and there is no feedback, or nothing breaks down, then you will make a good, if not a great, album.
Q: Will this project continue now that you have fulfilled your contract obligations?
A: I would like to play some original material as we move forward. I think the classical approach will always stay with this band, and I even have some ideas of some classical pieces I would like to record. There was a contract to make three live albums that we have fulfilled, but we really enjoy recording live, so we may continue recording live.
Q: Have you gotten any feedback from Keith Emerson or Greg Lake?
A: They have both been along to see concerts, though not on this tour; they have seen my band. It is very different for them, as there are no keyboards or vocals. They honestly don’t know what to say, although I know they enjoy it. I like nostalgia, and I played with Keith and Greg last July, and it was great, but I am very into playing with younger players who are at the top of their game, and that is what this band is all about.
Q: Are you comfortable with the way people idolize you?
A: I personally don’t need to be told how great I am. I also don’t need to be told if I played well. I know if I played well, and I know if I played badly. I think when someone compliments you on doing this or that, then that is nice. For me, the minute it is said, however, it goes in one ear and out the other, as I am only interested in what I think. It is very nice when someone says that I have influenced them, because I know how I feel about the people that have influenced me. I do like that. It is not my main priority to be idolized. As long as I know that I have done my best, then I am OK. If people want to idolize me after that, then that is OK with me, but it is not a priority.
Q: I hear you saying it is more about the art form and the craft.
A: Exactly. What I am doing with my band is just keeping alive what I did with ELP. I don’t want to just duplicate what I did with ELP. I actually only play three songs that were written by ELP. The rest of the music was recorded by ELP but has been done by dozens of other orchestras. I do keep some of that older stuff alive, and I am really proud of it. It’s more about being a classically based prog rock band. Prog is a word used to describe innovation, and that is what I am trying to do today. I don’t need to have vocals anymore, as there are plenty of bands with vocals today. This is an intellectual band that really goes balls to the wall. There is nothing romantic about it at all. There is a lot of feeling in the music, but it is also very technical.
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