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| 13 June 2019 | Reply


According to a recent press release: “Alliance is one of the best melodic hard rock bands you’ve probably never heard of even though the band has collaborated together for nearly 30 years and counting. Featuring longtime and current Boston guitarist Gary Pihl (a Boston member since 1985 who’s performed on the band’s last four studio albums and who also did a lengthy stint as Sammy Hagar’s guitarist prior to Hagar joining Van Halen), former Sammy Hagar drummer David Lauser (whose ties with Sammy go back to Hagar’s earliest musical days and who performed with Sammy for years in his solo band and with Sammy’s Waboritas) and Alliance lead vocalist/bassist/songwriter Robert Berry, who is also currently the bassist with the Greg Kihn Band and formerly with the Keith Emerson/Carl Palmer trio 3. During those 30 years, the band has released five highly regarded albums – Bond of Union (1996), Alliance (1997), Missing Piece (1999), Destination Known (2007) and Road to Heaven (2008) – all of which reveal their amazing musicianship, well-crafted songwriting and tight ensemble playing. These talents are again on full display with the release of the band’s sixth and latest album, the brand-new Fire and Grace (Escape Records).  Melodic, driving hard rock at its finest, this is one great record.” We get guitarist Gary Pihl to discuss new music, touring, and much more…

Toddstar: Gary, thank you so much for taking time out for me. I appreciate it.

Gary: Hey, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

Toddstar: Well, it’s an exciting time in the world of Alliance and the three of you right now. You have a new album coming out. What can you tell us about the album Fire and Grace that fans of the band who’ve hung around since 1996 with you guys might not grasp the first or second time they listen through the album?

Gary: Well, one thing, actually, that people have pointed out to me that I hadn’t paid a whole lot of attention to was that lyrically, I think just about all of the songs have a very positive message. I’d certainly notice that on songs throughout our time, but when somebody said, “Yeah, I think you really have got a theme going here, always upbeat and positive,” I said, “Gosh, you know, I think you’re right.” So that’s something that I learned about it too. I think that’s a great position to be in. Instead of thinking about all the bad things in the world, and there are plenty of those, to try to take a different tact on it.

Toddstar: With this album – the sixth album for you guys – what’s it like when you guys can whittle some time out of your busy schedules? David [Lauser], Robert [Berry], and yourself are all very busy with your side projects to be able to do Alliance albums. I laugh about Boston being a side project for you, but, how hard is it for you guys to kind of put the music aside for long stretches? It’s been about 10 or 11 years since the last album.

Gary: Right. Now, we have gotten together in between then, and to run through a few ideas. But unlike some bands today, where you can send files across the world and play on it in your own studio, we really want to wait until we all get together, because for us, that’s really special. You know, somebody will come in with an idea, we’ll start playing it, and it’ll just evolve right there on the spot. For us, that’s the most fun of the whole thing. In fact, I wish that we could have our fans see us in the studio creating the songs, because again, for me, that’s where the magic happens. Somebody has an idea, and again, it just takes off on its own, and becomes something better than what you originally thought it was going to be.

Toddstar: Do you find the satisfaction as not only an artist but as a writer when you have that kind of a workflow in the studio, versus doing, say, a Boston project?

Gary: Again, certainly, for me, I really enjoy that process of working with the other guys, and that back and forth and trying things. Even our drummer, Dave, will tell me, “Oh, strum the guitar like this, or change that chord to major or minor,” or something. And you know, I do not get offended by the drummer telling me how to play guitar, because I know he’s got a good idea. He’s hearing something in his mind, and I’m just there to make the song better. Again, that’s the great part about it, is that we all just want the thing to be better. So you leave your ego at the door, you know?

Toddstar: All you guys have a reason to have egos. It’s kind of cool to watch you guys put everything aside over the last 20-plus years to be able to do this project, still crank it out and still enjoy putting new music together.

Gary: Yeah, I certainly feel blessed to, again, be able to work with these guys that I really admire as musicians. But of course, as you can imagine, we all like each other as friends, too, or else we wouldn’t be sticking around together. And of course, I first met Dave Lauser in Sammy Hagar’s band. Well, I’ll give you a little history which you probably know. We were in Sammy’s band, and then he left to join Van Halen. Back in the early days of Sammy’s band, we got to open up for the first two tours for Boston, so that’s when we got to know those guys. When Tom Scholz from Boston heard that Sammy was leaving our band, he gave me a call and said, “Hey, heard you’re out of a gig. I’ve got one more song to be recorded on our third album,” that they were working on, Third Stage. “Why don’t you come back here and help play on that?” Of course, I said, “Oh, absolutely. I’m not doing anything.” So I left from our last gig with Sammy, which was Farm Aid One in Champaign, Illinois, and flew directly from there to Boston to start working with Tom. After a couple of weeks, he said, “Gee, I think we work well together. Why don’t you move back here, we’ll finish this album, we’ll do some touring, and who knows what?” And well, I’ve been here 30-something years. That album came out in ’86. We did a tour in ’87. At that time, Tom said, “You know, it’s going to take a few years to make our next album. If you want to do any other projects, now’s the time.” So I called up my old band mates from Sammy’s band, Alan Fitzgerald, alias Fitz, and Dave Lauser, and asked them if they wanted to put something together. Of course, Fitz had been working with Night Ranger, but he had some time off, and we said, “Yeah, great.” When Sammy announced to us that he had an offer he couldn’t refuse to join Van Halen, he said, “But you guys are a great band, you know. You should just get some other singer and keep going.” We were on Geffen Records at the time, and the folks there introduced us to Robert Berry, who had been on Geffen with Carl Palmer and Keith Emerson. Robert and David met each other at that point. When I was talking with Dave about putting something else together, he said, “Hey, we should call up this guy Robert Berry and see if we can put something together with him.” So we actually met at Sammy’s recording studio, and were jamming on some song ideas. We just fit right away. It just seemed like we’d known him all our life, you know? Liked the same kind of music, the same style, and of course he was a great player, great singer. So it just all worked right away.

Toddstar: Well, you guys definitely are a cohesive unit when you listen to the albums. The worst part is we don’t get many opportunities to see Alliance live. You guys aren’t able to get out there and play. How hard is that for you guys, to know that you’ve got all these great songs, this catalog, really, that you really can’t deliver live to the fans?

Gary: Again, we’re old-school. We want to get out there and play, because that’s the fun part, you know, of seeing how people like them, see if they like them or not, you know? Like, are they going to applaud or are they going to boo us after this song? But hey, that’s the way it goes sometimes. Again, I certainly love my time with Boston, but I wish that the four of us in Alliance had a chance to get together a little more often too. But well, that’s life sometimes.

Toddstar: What do you think of the term supergroup, because you guys really kind of are a supergroup?

Gary: Well, that’s nice of you to say. I think the other guys are super players, and so I’m just proud to be a part of it. But yeah, you’re right. We certainly have all had great experiences on our own. We’ve all had platinum records and all that for other projects. So it’s nice to have that validation that what you’re doing and what you’ve done has been liked by a lot of people. In a way, it takes some of the pressure off of Alliance, in that we’re not dependent on it. Like, oh, we’ve got to make this work, or that’s it, that’s the end of our career, or something. It’s like, well, no, we have careers beyond that. So this is just sort of icing on the cake, if you will.

Toddstar: Gary, how do you approach playing and recording music with Alliance differently than you would a Boston project? Do you have a different mindset even going into the studio?

Gary: I do. It starts with, for me, the guitar sound. Now, of course, as you know, Boston has such an identifiable sound, and part of that is because Tom Scholz invented the amplifiers that we use on stage, and of course in the studio, because he’s a heck of a smart guy. So that’s the sound we’re going for with that band, and I love that sound. But for Alliance, like, well, I want something else. I want people to say, “Wow, that sounds like Gary Pihl. Not Gary when he’s with Boston, but Gary when he’s with Alliance,” just as I had a different sound when I was playing with Sammy’s band. So I was definitely looking for that, for my own sound, something that would fit the style of music that we wanted to play. I’m not sure how to categorize it, exactly. Of course, the English folks break it down. They call it melodic rock. But to me, it’s just rock, you know? They want to put a category on it, like melodic rock. Okay, well, we certainly do have melodies. But to me, it’s that combination of American rock, like kind of rootsy rock, like Springsteen or Tom Petty or Mellencamp, and some of our favorite English bands, like the Stones or Zeppelin or something like that. So again, we’ve grown up listening to, of course, bands from all around the world, but certainly those English bands were our favorites. Then for me personally, yeah, a more bluesy, again, americana sound is kind of what I’m going for, as opposed to heavy metal or country or jazz or whatever, you know? So I start there. I start with that sort of tonality of guitar sound, which for me means not many effects. You know, I’ll use a wah-wah pedal sometimes, but I’m not going for full-on distortion, or phaser, weird echoes, or anything like that. It’s pretty much guitar into the amp, just turn it up and play.

Toddstar: I think that that’s what rings through when you play, and if you go back to these albums, it is, again, to strip back these subgenres, it is just a rock guitar sound. It isn’t melodic, it isn’t heavy, it isn’t yacht rock or whatever. You just have a good rock sound when you play true to yourself.

Gary: Yeah. Well, thanks. Yeah, that’s certainly what I’m shooting for here. To that end, I’ve even built some of the amps that I’ve used on our records. I’ve always been interested in electronics, and so I’ve built some tube amps that I’ve, again, actually used on our records. So that’s always fun, you know? It’s like, dial that in. It’s like, hey, there’s nobody else in the world that’s going to run through that amp, because that’s the only one that exists, you know?

Toddstar: You throw names out there… Tom Scholz, Sammy Hagar, Robert Berry and David Lauser. You mention these names and you toss them around, but who’s out there that you still want to collaborate with? Who’s out there that you’d love to do something with, either in the studio or a writing session or a live session?

Gary: Oh, you know, everybody. There’s so many other great musicians in the world, some that are well-known, some that are not so well-known, that I just really appreciate. When I’m riding in my car, I’m a button-pusher, you know? I’m always trying to hear the next new song or something. Again, it could range from, again, country to classic rock to alternative, new stuff. There’s so many great musicians that have something to say. It’s like, wow, that’s really interesting. I think I hear where this guy is coming from. Yeah, it’d be great to work with all kinds of people. That’s tough.

Toddstar: What some people may or may not know about you is, you actually worked on some of the early demos that actually resulted in the Night Ranger project. Or, well, now it’s a band. I mean, I’ve been around forever.

Gary: Right,. Again, Alan Fitzgerald was in the Sammy Hagar band with us, and he left originally to go back with Ronnie Montrose, so he played on the Gamma album with Ronnie, but then left to form his own band. It just so happened that I was going to go to Europe with Sammy. We were going to do a tour over there. I think Fitz was sort of in between places to stay, and I said, “Here, you can stay at my place, and I’ve got some recording gear if you want to…” Because he said, “Yeah, I want to write some songs.” I said, “Well, here, you know how to use the gear. Go ahead, use it, stay at my place.” So while I was gone, he had put together Night Ranger. When I got back, he said, “Yeah, we’ve got these songs, and we want to do a better job of recording them.” So I said, “Yeah, I’d be glad to help.” So we recorded a whole bunch of demos there. They did some live gigs. I actually went and mixed sound for them, as the sound man for them. One of the songs we recorded there in my living room was “Sister Christian.” I thought they were great. They had good songs, good arrangements, and of course all terrific players. So it was a lot of fun working with them just there in my little home studio.

Toddstar: Another thing that some people don’t know, and I was able to see you guys a couple years back, you put together a Christmas band called December People.

Gary: Yes, and we still do that. We just did that again this last December. Again, as you know the concept, Robert had come up with this, where we play traditional holiday songs, but in the styles of our favorite classic rock bands. And yeah, the audience gets it, because they said, “Oh, that sounds like Tom Petty, or that sounds like AC/DC,” or whatever. It’s very family-friendly, everybody can sing along with those Christmas songs, because we all grew up with those, and every show we do is a benefit for a local food bank, usually. As it turned out, this last December, we did some shows out in California, and that was our chance, since we were all there together, to finish up the Alliance record. We had some songs that we’d already worked on, and then we each brought in some other new songs, and wrote, actually, the title track together right on the spot, Fire and Grace. We each had some ideas and just started playing, and it just came to life right there. So that was how we finished up the album.

Toddstar: That’s awesome. Two birds, one stone.

Gary: That’s right, yeah.

Toddstar: What’s the one thing about you, Gary, that you wish your fans knew that they maybe don’t?

Gary: Gosh. I don’t know. I guess I don’t know what fans know about me or not. But I’ll tell you one thing that I tell young musicians when they ask me this. “Well, how did you get that first break to join Sammy’s band?” Again, I was in local bands, playing in clubs, and we were always looking for a singer. We heard that Sammy had just left Montrose, and so again, a friend of a friend, we got his phone number and called him up, and we said, “Hey, would you like to join our band? We’re looking for a singer.” He said, “Well, I’ve already got a band, but I need to do some gigs.” Anyway, he actually came and we did some shows together at some clubs as he was breaking in his band. He went through about six guitar players in a short amount of time, and our band was about to break up, and so our manager said, “Hey, why don’t you join Sammy’s band? He’s looking for a guitar player.” I said, “Well, you know, he’ll just have me for a couple weeks and kick me out. What’s the point?” He said, “Well, why don’t you give him a call, talk to him?” So I was talking to him and he said, “Well, hey, Pihl, are you into drugs?” I said, “Well, no. Why?” He said, “Well, why don’t you come down and jam with us? Because my last guitar player died by shooting cocaine in the bathroom of a gas station.” I said, “Oh, man, poor guy.” So I go down to audition, jam with the guys, and while I was there Sammy’s manager called up and said, “Hey, there was a gig with Queen and Thin Lizzy. Queen canceled. Thin Lizzy’s going to headline. You guys could open up for them if you have a guitar player.” So Sammy turns around, looks at me, and says, “Hey, Pihl, can you do the show? It’s in two days.” Of course, I said, qyhs, I could do it. I could learn the songs.” So that’s it. I learned all the songs as fast as I could, and we did the show, and we actually got good reviews for the show. I was saying goodbye to the guys at the end, “Well, you know, I guess I’ll see you around,” and of course they said, “No, no, no, you’re in the band.” It’s like, nobody even really told me, you know? But anyway, so that’s my advice to young musicians, is yeah, don’t do drugs.

Toddstar: That’s good advice to anybody at this point. Gary, going back through the history of time, and you’ve played on so many iconic records and iconic songs, but going through the history of time, what’s the one album that resonates with you so much that you wish you’d been part of it, whether it was writing, recording, or just sitting there while a band recorded an album?

Gary: Oh, man, yeah, there’s so many of those. Certainly, all my heroes growing up, the English invasion, the Beatles and the Stones and the Animals, and then Led Zeppelin and Cream, and of course Hendrix, Jeff Beck. Just, gosh, there’s just too many to think about. I would have loved to have just watched. In fact, you know how, especially as teenagers, we idolize our idols, and you know, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to meet like Keith Richards or Jeff Beck or somebody?” I was thinking, “Well, what would I really ask them?” It’s one thing to say, “Hey, you’re the greatest, I love what you do,” but yeah, what question would you ask these people if you had a chance? It’s like, oh, man, I don’t know. But I certainly enjoy reading biographies, which of course gives you a little bit longer insight into what they’ve done. I’ve read biographies of Eric Clapton and Hendrix, although it was … What’s his name? The bass player. Not Noel Redding. Yeah, Noel Redding. His biography about his time with Jimi. And X-Rated, from … Davies, Dave and … Oh, shoot. Ray Davies. Anyway, so I’ve read a bunch of biographies. And of course, Springsteen’s, and Dylan’s, even. That to me is interesting. Like, where do these people come from? How do they get started? What was their motivation? What influenced them? Certainly, as you read these, yeah, a lot of us have the same sort of influences and experiences, but you know, a lot of guys didn’t. A lot of guys came from some different position or mindset, experiences, again, family history, that sort of thing. So it’s always interesting to me to see and hear where these guys came from.

Toddstar: Oh, cool. Well, I know you’re busy, and you’re trying to get out and promote the new album from Alliance. But my question to you is, as you’ve said in the past, things with Boston take so long between albums and between projects there. Back a couple of years ago, you released All 41. This year, now you’ve got the new Alliance project. What’s next for Gary Pihl? When can your fans jump out there and hear more recorded music or see you live again? Is anything coming up? Anything on the horizon?

Gary: Again, I really hope that Alliance could do some gigs this summer, because Boston won’t be touring this summer. So we were all talking about it. It’s like, “Well, how can we make this happen?” I would love to get on some big festivals, where there are a whole bunch of bands and a lot of people there. When people go to big festivals like that, they usually assume that there are bands there that they’ve never heard from before, and of course, Alliance is not very well-known. So I’d love to go to a show like that and perform for folks that, again, have maybe never even heard of us. But we just enjoy playing live, and because we have performed together with December People, and of course in Sammy’s band, that I think we would do a good job of playing the songs live. So that’s what I’d really like to do this summer.

Toddstar: Cool. Well, hopefully you guys’ll land something. I’d especially like to see you out here at Pine Knob, just north of Detroit. I think Alliance is a band kind of built for that stage and that type of venue.

Gary: Yes, and I’ve certainly played there a few times with Boston.

Toddstar: Well, listen, Gary, I appreciate your time. Been a fan for a long time, and it’s been an absolute honor to speak with you. I can’t wait till Fire and Grace is out there for everybody to wrap their heads, hearts, and ears around it.

Gary: Well, thanks so much. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. If we ever get out in your area, please let me know.

Toddstar: Sounds good, Gary.

Gary: Okay. Take care.



Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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