By Warren Kurtz
Goldmine spoke with guitarist Gary Pihl about Alliance’s new album, Fire and Grace, with bassist and keyboardist Robert Barry and drummer Dave Lauser. Pihl also discussed his work with Sammy Hagar (beginning in the ‘70s), Boston (since the ‘80s) and the classic rock Christmas music touring group, December People.
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GOLDMINE:Thank you for all your music over the years... enjoying the new music from the Fire and Grace album. The song “Uncertain” is dramatic and filled with Robert’s keyboards.
GARY PIHL: Most of the songs were written by Robert or at least co-written by him with Dave, me or both of us. This one is written entirely by Robert. I am very pleased with all the songs. It has been a long time coming. We have been working on them, on and off, for the last six or so years, whenever we had a chance to get together to jam on some ideas. It wasn’t until this last year that we said that I was not on the road and neither were Dave or Robert, so we should get together and finish the album. We had established our Alliance sound on previous albums and I think we took a lot of chances on this album with styles that people may not be expecting. So, the songs are a little different, one way or another. I tried to approach the guitar a different way with different solos with a wah-wah or slide and on one song I played two notes at a time rather than single notes.
GM:Is that one “Raise Your Glass” where I hear a pair of strings, possibly a mandolin?
GP: I am glad you picked up on that. A mandolin has four double strings as its concept and that is the sound that I wanted. I don’t happen to own a mandolin, so what I did was to put a capo on the neck of my 12 string acoustic guitar to make the notes really high and it got the sound that I wanted. I thought, wow, there it is. The capo technique reminded me of George Harrison’s work on The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” He put a capo real high. I forget what fret he used. His sounds like a guitar, but I wanted a mandolin sound and used that same technique.
GM:The song “Time” is very powerful.
GP: Robert writes lyrics that can have multiple levels of meanings, like “Raise Your Glass,” people may think it is a drinking song, but when you listen to the lyrics, there is a lot going on. He is a very thoughtful lyricist. He really takes a big picture of things. It is always interesting to read his lyrics and see that it takes a different light, when you think about it. “Time” covers a lifetime of thinking and searching. He is very connected with his family and his community. Both of his parents were musicians. Now his son is a musician.
GM:How about your family?
GP: My wife, Marilee taught kindergarten to third grade, close by in Boston, for many years and has retired. Our sons are Scott and Cory. Scott was musical throughout school and is now a software engineer. Cory just passed the bar in New York City and has chosen to join the military to be a JAG lawyer.
GM:That is wonderful. So is “Real Thing,” a catchy anthem with more of a “We’re an American Band” type of sound.
GP: Yes. That’s Dave’s song. As a drummer, he’s not necessarily a guitarist, but darn, he knows chords. He offers what he is hearing and asks us to try this and do that. I always listen to him and I think that is one of the joys of working with these guys is that nobody has an ego, for example, saying that I’m the guitar player and I’ll play what I want. I’m glad to have a drummer suggest bending this and play the open strings. He’ll come up with some ideas and it works. I am always glad to take advice from someone who hears something in their head. Trying to match it on guitar is always a fun part for me.
GM:“Reason to Walk Away,” to me, is the most Sammy Hagar-like song.
GP: It is up-tempo like some of the stuff we did back in the Hagar days.
GM:“Change of Heart” starts out slow and then the catchiness comes in.
GP: We tried to be a little moody with that one. We were in the studio, turning down the lights to get the vibe going. We’ll do anything it takes to try to get into that mood and atmosphere.
GM:Your composition “I’ll Have Some of That” and one that you co-wrote with Robert, “Fast Forward to Last Night” are both strong blues-rock numbers. My favorite composition of yours is one you co-wrote with both Robert and Dave, the title tune, “Fire and Grace.” It has the type of electrifying intensity that reminds me of the first time I heard “Achilles Last Stand” on Led Zeppelin’s Presence album.
GP: That’s high praise to have something compared to Led Zeppelin. Thank you.
GM:Let’s talk, for a moment, about Robert and Dave. In our November 2018 issue of Goldmine, Robert’s 3.2 album, The Rules Have Changed, was given a five star top rating as a 30th anniversary follow up to his work as the band 3 with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer on their 1988 album To the Power of Three. I also know that Dave was in Sammy’s band with you.
GP: Yes 3.2 has the last songs that Keith Emerson was involved with and people are glad that Robert took the time to finish those songs and make them available. Robert is very proud of that and it was a great experience for him to work with Keith for those years. Dave, of course, still does gigs occasionally with Sammy, when Sammy is performing as Sammy Hagar and The Cabo Wabos, as opposed to Sammy Hagar and The Circle, where Jason Bonham is the drummer. Dave will also do studio sessions in California. The three of us, along with a couple of other guys, have a charity band called December People. In November and December we get together and play Christmas songs in the styles of our favorite rock bands. For example, we start out on acoustic guitar, sounding like The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” and then we go into “Joy to the World.” It is the correct chords and melodies of the holiday songs we grew up with but now it sounds like The Who, ZZ Top, or Led Zeppelin, and the audience gets it because they applaud when they recognize what style we are doing. Every show is a benefit for a local charity, mostly on the west coast.
GM:The style that you are describing reminds me of The Ventures’ Christmas Album when they go from a snippet of “Walk, Don’t Run” into “Sleigh Ride” and in your case you go from Boston’s “Foreplay” into “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
GP: And there were a few years where I couldn’t make it because of Boston.
GM:The first time I saw you was at a Boston concert in Cleveland in 1978 when you were with Sammy Hagar as the opening act. At the time I was working at Peaches Records and Tapes where we would play Sammy’s live All Night Long album, so I was excited to see you live. Donna, my wife since the following year, wanted to see Boston. I was also writing music articles and Donna and I went back stage after the show for my interview with Tom Scholz. All Night Long included Sammy’s composition “I’ve Done Everything for You.” Who knew that this would become a hit by someone else in the next decade.
GP: We were thrilled when we heard that Rick Springfield was going to cover that. He had a hit with it and we didn’t, but that’s the way things go sometimes.
GM:And then the reverse. I love your version of Donovan’s “Young Girl Blues,” also on All Night Long. In addition to seeing you as the opening act for Boston in 1978, I saw you again in 1979, opening for Nazareth and I wrote that your version of “Young Girl Blues” at that concert was even better than what you did at the Boston concert.
GP: I remember that Donovan composition being one of our best songs. As an opening act, you remember, it is pretty much all up-tempo songs. In the middle of “Young Girl Blues,” which was a long and slow song, Sammy would do guitar solos. He would say about himself, “I’m not much of a guitar player. I get by.” As you probably saw, he didn’t play guitar on about half the set, he just focused on being the front man, but on that song, he would do a great guitar solo, different every night. It was nice to be able to do that in the middle of a blazing up-tempo rock and roll set.
GM:After Donna and I got married in late ’79, we moved to Dallas for the early ‘80s and heard “I’ll Fall in Love Again” from Sammy’s Standing Hampton album. What a great album you made, with multiple songs from it on the radio in Dallas.
GP: Well, thanks. For some reason we had pockets of popularity. St. Louis, for example, was always big for us, and if we knew what that secret was, we would have taken it to every town across the country. Certainly, the bay area of California, where we were based out of, we did well and southern California, where Sammy grew up, we always had good fans down there. But we would go down south to a place like Mississippi and they would ask, “Sammy Hagar? Is he one of the Hager twins from Hee Haw?” We would say, “Do you remember the band Montrose? Well he was the singer from that.”
GM:I had always hoped that the Hagers would have crossed over to the pop charts because they were the coolest young regulars on the show.
GP: One of them came to one of our shows. He was a nice guy who loved what we were doing.
GM:You shifted from Sammy Hagar’s group to Boston for the song “I Think I Like It” on Boston’s Third Stage album. What a great power pop song, reminding me of our hometown Raspberries, and Brad Delp’s vocals were great, as always. In the album notes Tom wrote that you, “came in off the bench at the last minute and in the winning shot.”
GP: In 1985, Sammy announced that he was going to leave our group to join Van Halen and as you know, we opened for Boston. I got to know Tom and the guys, and we kept in touch over the years. I even helped Tom demonstrate some of his electronic products at the NAMM show for the National Association of Music Merchants where people show off new things that they invented. It is only open to music store owners. I was a bit of an electronics geek myself, so we had that in common. He called me up and said, “Hey, I heard you are out of a gig now that Sammy is joining Van Halen. I’ve got one more song to be recorded on our new album, Third Stage. Would you come back here and play on it?” Of course. Are you kidding? I’d crawl back on my hands and knees to do that. I left from Farm Aid, our last gig with Sammy, at Champaign, Illinois and flew directly from there to Boston and started working with Tom on that last song. At that time, that is all that he was offering me, was to play on that one song. I was staying with Brad for a few weeks and worked on it there. When it came time to record, I went to Tom’s house to his studio, down in his basement, where Tom recorded the first Boston album, the biggest selling debut album ever. I figured he was going to be watching me like a hawk. He set up the recording equipment and said, “OK, you know what you are doing. You know how to punch in the music. I’m going to go have a sandwich for lunch. Go ahead man.” I said, quivering a bit apprehensively, “Oh, OK.” I just put down my parts and that was it.
GM:Deepest condolences on Brad from me, Donna and our daughter Brianna. It was so sad. I visited a painted rock memorial for him in the Wakefield/Saugus area north of Boston.
GP: Sammy said, when we were opening for Boston, that Brad was the nicest guy in rock and roll. Here we were on tour with them, nine months across the country. One day we came to the sound check and Brad is pushing my amplifiers up the ramp on to the stage. I asked, “Man, what are you doing?” He said, “Well, I feel so bad that you guys sometimes don’t get enough time for sound check, so I wanted to help your crew get your gear on faster.” What kind of guy does that? The lead singer for the headlining band is pushing my gear up the ramp. That’s the kind of guy he was. He was always glad to help people and the nicest guy you would ever want to meet. I met him in 1977 and knew him all those years. Before he passed away we were going to do a special show in Boston for Doug Flutie, the football player, a hometown hero. There was going to be a Doug Flutie celebration event and he was asked who he would like to play at the event and he answered, that of course, Boston was his choice. He is a bit of a drummer and he actually sat in and played a song with us. We were rehearsing to do the show and Brad came in and his hand was all bandaged up. He said, “I was in a motorcycle accident and I got a couple of stitches in my finger. I think I’ll still be able to play guitar but it kind of hurts. I wasn’t driving fast at all. I was coming up to a stop sign, the road was wet, I was only going about 20 miles per hour. I hit the brakes and the bike came out from under me. I landed back on my helmet and it hit so hard that it cracked the helmet.” Think how hard that is. We didn’t think anything of it at the time. He said, “It knocked me out. I woke up in the hospital a little while later, wondering, ‘Where am I?’” So, he had a concussion. Here is my theory. This was about a dozen years ago. We didn’t know anything about concussions, like football players where someone might say, “Oh, he got his bell rung. He’s out for a couple of plays, but send him back in.” Now we learn that if you have had a concussion, your chance of committing suicide is significantly increased. We see this with our NFL guys. The same thing happened to Michael Hutchence from INXS. He had a concussion, a brain injury, and months later he killed himself. It is too late now to know, of course.
GM:On the 1994 Boston album Walk On, there is one of Donna’s favorite newer Boston songs, “Livin’ for You,” the only song from that album to make the 1997 Greatest Hits CD that she has played in her three Subarus over the decades. A live version of the song is also on the 2002 Corporate America album, with you on keyboards, as a bonus track.
GP: Tom really likes that song. There is a compilation of Boston bands and that song is on there too. In that configuration of the band, nobody else was available to play keyboards, so I said, “OK, I’ll play.” There are a few songs that I play keyboards on in the band because there are so many keyboard parts and Tom can’t play them all live. Brad played a bit and our new singer, Tommy DeCarlo, is a really good keyboard player, so he will play some stuff when he is not singing. I still play keyboard parts on Boston songs going between guitar and keyboards and there were several songs in Sammy’s band that I played keyboards on.
GM:In 2003, we saw you with Boston at Lake Tahoe, near where we were living in Nevada at the time. It was a real special time for us, because we brought our daughter Brianna with us, who was home from college, and said, “We want you to see what we saw when we were your age and dating.” You were there, Brad, Fran Cosmo, his son and more. You just mentioned about Brad helping the roadies in the ‘70s. Well, the three of us were in the fourth row, 25 years later, and we see who we thought was a roadie, looking like possibly Tom’s brother, and then we realized when he began playing the guitar, that it was Tom for a pretty funny and amazing opening.
GP: I am glad you appreciated that. We got a kick out of that. The crew would be walking around and then Tom surreptitiously would sneak on and start doing stuff like he’s a crew guy in a baseball cap and a t-shirt that says “crew.” Every once in a while there was someone in the front row who asked, “Tom, Tom, is that you?” They weren’t really sure that it was him and didn’t really want to bother him. Then he played guitar and then we call came on. It was always a lot of fun.
GM:“Life, Love & Hope,” from the latest album of the same name, is another new favorite with Tommy DeCarlo on vocals. We saw you in St. Augustine perform that song in 2014 and I saw you again in Orlando in 2015. I think Tommy gained confidence from show to show transitioning from being a former manager for The Home Depot to truly being a key entertaining part of Boston’s shows, owning the stage and feeling more confident.
GP: Yes. He had never been in a band in his life when we called him up. He had always enjoyed Boston and he told us that he had been to a few Boston concerts and actually got to meet Brad because he was waiting around by the back door at a show and Brad saw him waiting there and went over to say hi and sign some stuff for him. He was always a big fan. Just for fun he got some karaoke back up tracks and sang a couple of Boston songs and put them on his Myspace page on the internet. Somebody told us about it and said that we had to check this guy out because he is really good. Tom’s wife Kim was looking at this online and Tom heard it and came in from the other room and asked, “What recording is that?” Kim said, “It’s this guy, Tommy DeCarlo.” Tom asked, “You mean this is not Brad?” We got ahold of Tommy because we were going to do the tribute to Brad. One of us called him and he thought it was a prank by one of his friends, that someone from the band Boston would be calling him, like a movie scene from the film Rock Star with Mark Wahlberg. He did the tribute with us and at that point we had no idea if we would ever play again, thinking, “How could we ever replace Brad?” Maybe that’s it. Maybe the band is over, but our management was there and said, “You know that guy is really good. You could take this on the road.” Michael Sweet from Stryper was also a vocalist for us that night, a local guy. He called us and said that he is a huge fan of the band and Brad, when he heard that there would be a tribute concert, and if we needed some help, he would be there. So, he sang a couple of songs with us. We thought it was a good combination. Michael doesn’t sound like Brad at all, but he is a fantastic singer and guitar player in his own right and had platinum albums with Stryper. So, in 2008 we took both guys out and we split the vocal duties about 50/50. Michael was running around the stage and Tommy was like the new kid, standing off to the side and sang his parts. The next time we went out was four years later. Michael was busy on a world tour with Stryper so Tommy did the whole show and began gaining confidence and comes across so genuine, just singing his heart out and people really responded to him like the guy next door. We did four years in a row, we are definitely not touring this year, but I hope that we will in the future. Tom used to say that he only wanted to tour when we had new songs, but with classic rock radio, we have found that people aren’t as interested in the new songs versus the classics.
GM:In the meantime, will there be some Alliance shows?
GP: I am very hopeful for that. We have talked about it for North America and Europe. We had done our one and only Alliance show at Sammy’s club in St. Louis. It was fun. Dave and I had been in Sammy’s band for so many years. Robert had already played with Sammy before at Cabo Wabo, so we already had that connection. I hope to see you and Goldmine readers if we get to your area. Thank you for this interview.
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