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INTERVIEW: ROBERT BERRY – December 2018

| 20 December 2018 | Reply

 

According to a recent press release: “Robert Berry is a multi-talented producer/songwriter/vocalist/instrumentalist.  When it comes to creating music, he does it all and does it very well. While he’s best known for his time as the vocalist/bassist in the Emerson, Lake & Palmer offshoot, 3, that featured Emerson and Palmer, he’s also served a stint as the front-man in Ambrosia, along with current long running relationships performing and recording with the band Alliance (which features members from Sammy Hagar, Boston and Night Ranger) and currently as writing partner and touring bass player with 80’s icon Greg Kihn’s band. He is also the leader of December People, which has produced four albums of Christmas music arranged in the style of various classic rock artists and performs these arrangements around the holidays.  The band includes members of Boston, the Sammy Hagar Band, The Tubes, Y&T, the Greg Kihn Band, amongst others.  And, this busy musician has also released five solo albums since  1985 and produced and performed on The Wheel of Time, an album billed as a soundtrack to the Robert Jordan fantasy series The Wheel of Time. Berry also has contributed songs to a number of film soundtracks, including the Anthony Michael Hall film Out of Bounds. The Rules Have Changed features contributions by Keith Emerson. The album is not only an excellent musical achievement, it is also noteworthy for being the last musical project in which Emerson was ever involved prior to his untimely passing in 2016.” We get Robert to discuss new music, touring, and much more…

Toddstar: Robert, thank you so much for taking time out to speak with me, I really appreciate it.

Robert: I appreciate it as well. I’m in my recording studio here. I’m actually in the middle of a recording session where I’m producing a girl from Malaysia, an album. And I said, give me a little time here to do this interview. And she’s like, “Oh,” because she’s been following the success of the album, so it’s actually kind of fun for her to know that right in the middle of her recording session I’m doing an interview with you. So I’m glad to be talking to you.

Toddstar: Awesome. Well you brought it up so let’s jump into it. The new album from 3.2, which is extension of 3, came out on Frontier Records – The Rules Have Changed. Robert, what can you tell us about this album that a fan might not grab the first or second time they listen through?

Robert: That’s a good question Todd. One of the things I sort of learned about it myself – I’ve been doing over 100 interviews in this thing – people seem to be really interested in it. It was Keith Emerson’s last work, of course. They want to know, how was he to work with. We heard that he was having trouble playing, you know and fans are criticizing him. He was incredible. He had all kinds of ideas. He could play better with his left hand than most keyboard players can with both hands so nothing was really stopping him. We were energized from a great record contact, artistic control, everything we wanted to do it the way we wanted to so he was happy. But the main difference, I think people would find this interesting, that I found is … going back to the first album of 3 with Keith Emerson, Carl Palmer, and myself in 1987; we had a top 10 record in ’88 and had a successful tour. When we first got together, Carl and I had been trying to start a band for a year but we just couldn’t find the right players. So I had songs that Geffen Records was developing with me and stuff, and then when we got together with Keith, he had stuff that he’d been working on, we put them together, we added our input of the band, and we put that out sort of getting to know each other and getting together and touring. By the time we were done with that tour, we had learned a lot about what the fans would accept, what we liked of what we had done on the first round, what we didn’t like, and how we would proceed. Unfortunately, Keith’s fans were very hard on him and the reason we broke up was Keith just had too much pressure from his fan base that he shouldn’t be playing the songs. He should be playing with Greg Lake and ELP. Anyway, moving ahead 30 years, we actually started with the musical bits together. We didn’t start with the songs. The melodies and the lyrics and stuff were things that I was writing to the musical bits and filling in the missing pieces. So the continuity of this album is so much better than the first album and as a body of work of course it has a meaning because we lost Keith right in the middle of it. He died in the middle of this album and that affected my lyric writing quite a bit. There is a continuity about life and longevity , and all kinds of things we had learned along the way in those 30 years that sort of bring this together in a very palatable kind of way. That’s the only way I can put it. I didn’t realize it at first. It was just developed and we had a plan and I fulfilled the plan the way we had talked about it. When it was all done and people started asking me questions, that is really why this album is different than the first one… it pays respect to the style and the sound of the first one, but it also brings it into the present.

Toddstar: I’d rather have the answers come from the head and the heart rather than rehearsed.

Robert: I’d rather talk to you than have a planned … well the answer to that is this … A, B, C. You know? I just don’t do that. You probably get some things I shouldn’t say that way too but oh well.

Toddstar: You gave me a good segue in there, Robert. You spoke of the lyrics. I know that you said that the music was kind of forming and coming together and it was organic on the front end of it, but every song writer that I’ve ever talked to, they kind of have ideas of a lyrical approach the song may take as the song is forming or as the music is kind of coming together. Did you find yourself going into a more personal or even in some of the lyrics, because of Keith’s passing, a darker path than you may have gone originally?

Robert: You know, I’ll use the first song on the album “One By One” as an example. When Keith and I decided to do this, he said, “Well, I want to call the album One.” And at the time I thought, this isn’t a really good idea to have a band that somebody called 3.2, which is in software language the second version of three, point two, have an album called One. Then the album cover would have three, two, one on it. And it was already confusing enough. But I didn’t really want to discuss it with him then and I thought, as we do more work, something will come up that will be a really great title, I’ll say, “Keith, we should use that.” And that’s the way those things develop. So I decided though to write a song, “One By One,” lyrically I started writing about whatever one by one and you march through life and things happen and whatever it was really about and then we lost Keith and I decided to finish the album on my own and those lyrics got rewritten a bit and more about we have plans in our life and things change. So I don’t know if that’s a darker thing but it definitely made me search my soul; by the time I had the strength after just being so sad about the loss, six months later, I had come to a different place in my life and it is expressed in the lyrics on the album. “The Rules Have Changed” went to a darker place because that song was written after Keith died and was originally called “Down in the Hole.” So the dark place that that was about originally changed a little bit as time went on. I wouldn’t say a dark place but definitely a deeper place.

Toddstar: What was it about this album that steered you to use the title of that track, “The Rules Have Changed,” as the title? When someone’s buying an album they don’t think of all the song titles – the first thing that hits them is that album title. What made that stand out to you being the real important part of this album?

Robert: Funny enough that this is my last chance to do an album I dreamed of doing for 27 years before Keith and I started working on it again. And it’s my last chance to do Keith Emerson’s very, very last work he ever did. And that was all super important to me and the reason I finished it and the reason I wasn’t sure I wanted to release it because I felt the weight of, what are people going to say? I finished this by myself – are they going to just hate it? I spent a year doing it, do I even know if I have anything good? I don’t know. But for the last song, the song “The Rules Have Changed” that I wrote for it, I had lost another friend a couple months later to the same cause that took Keith and this was Trent Gardner who was in a band called Magellan, a great friend of mine, wonderful keyboard player and writer and singer. He was a really dynamo kind of guy and I thought solid as they come, steady as a mountain goat Carl Palmer used to tell me. I called Trent Gardner steady as a mountain goat. But he left us the same way as Keith. It just knocked me off of my feet. And I started writing this song, “The Rules Have Changed,” because in my life, my music life, they really had changed. I was producing different albums of Trent Gardner, finishing an album with Keith Emerson, they were both gone within months of each other. And that’s how that song came about. And that’s why I say funny enough, it’s not inspired just by Keith but the pain and the struggle I was going through with what had happened hit me again with another friend of mine not long after.

Toddstar: Listening through the album, if you listen to the nuances of the music which really does bring in the not necessarily the spirit but the essence of the first album, really kind of helps round it out in a modern sound without losing sight of that original course. You played with a lot of different players through the years. What was it about working with Keith that made you want to come back to that sound and that essence after all these years?

Robert: It was a couple things that were important to me. First of all, I started as a keyboard player, and when I was in like a junior high band I guess it was my dad had these organs called Thomas organs, he sold pianos and organs at a little music store. And Thomas organs made a deal with Bob Moog to put out a little Moog synthesizer that went on top of their organ. It was a little tiny thing and it had ten buttons on the front, all based on the Moog sound. And I got one of those and of course what are you going to play? You’re going to play “Lucky Man,” right? What else had a Moog in it? The Beatles used one but I did “Lucky Man.” And then as a keyboard player in a band to start with, you look at other keyboard players with some great players in Jon Lord and Deep Purple and all these guys, but they weren’t showmen. You looked at Keith Emerson and you’re all, son of a gun, look at that guy. He’s like a knife thrower; he was the Jimi Hendrix of the keyboard. And so he inspired young guys to really think, wow, playing keyboard on stage is cool. You don’t just stand behind it and play, you can really get into it. There was that history as a fan and the guy that inspired me but also we had a top ten record. My song, “Talkin’ Bout,” Keith took and made that Emerson sound which in 1987/88 we had an instrument called the Roland D50 keyboard, it was brand new and he made that the sound of the record. And even today, there’s not been a keyboard that’s come out that had fresher, newer sounds than that. Other people have recreated things but that’s the sound. And it’s not used that much because it’s Emerson’s sound. So to bring that D50 sound back and, of course, a lot of the later ELP stuff really revisited that big sound that they had on “Fanfare For The Common Man” and different things, some of the Tarkus stuff that were highlights of ELP so I wanted to bring that big Emerson sound back. Of course, which he was all for and provided not only in the sound but in the chord structure of how he made it that made it big. So that was all important to me so that’s … I happen to have a Moog here, not the little tiny one, I’ve got the memory Moog, a bigger one. I have the D50, all the stuff that we used back in 1987-88, I have that plus the newest equipment too down here so, after Keith was gone I was able to fill in those blanks that he hadn’t finished out.

Toddstar: Keith is definitely an influence. You have somebody like me who was a whole four years old when Brain Salad Surgery came out, yet it’s still one of my Top 10 albums of all time. Normally I’m a metal guy, but that album just stands out, it always has and always will.

Robert: Yeah, at the time we were gaining a new audience as was Yes and Genesis, you know? It wasn’t really the pop Genesis, it was the crossover, I forget which songs they had, but before Phil Collins became the pop star. And of course Yes had “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” and all that – they were AOR songs within the progressive thing and that’s kind of what I bring to 3 and the prog market is more of an AOR kind of thing. The fancy plan and the song all meshed up together. Whereas Asia was kind of the song with a little bit of plain in it, they got a little pop. I think we have a little bit more Pink Floyd in this or something, I don’t know. A little grandeur, a little more depth than just a pop song with a few progressive riffs in it. The reason I think you liked Keith in the old days is because he was just going for it all the time. I mean, both hands. It was like two separate people up there. His left hand was as active as any bass player. His right hand was as active as any keyboard player, and they were working independently. It was amazing.

Toddstar: You’ve done so many other things, Robert. What is about these different projects that really keep the spirit in you to play music alive. You’ve got the 3.2 release, last year you did a really cool project out there when you did All 41 with Gary Piehl, Terry Brock, and Matt Starr. Everything still sounds so fresh and new. You’re not one of these guys that has one sound and that’s the way you’re going to sound forever and always. How do you keep that juice flowing and that spirit alive to keep putting out new music?

Robert: Phrase it this way, I’m the luckiest guy you’ve never heard of. And if you have heard of me, I’m never happy with what I’ve got. I want to know what I’m going to do tomorrow. Last year, besides All 41, I put out a Greg Kihn album, I worked with Greg Kihn writing and producing this album with him, and that’s very simple bonehead rock and roll, but it’s a lot of fun to do and he’s a great guy to work with. And it was important to me that we did a real Greg Kihn album. During the time I’m finishing up my 3.2 album which is really a lot of depth and complexity to it, I’m doing this very simple Greg Kihn album and I’m in the Greg Kihn band, I tour with Greg, and I feel like I have not achieved the kind of success I want to achieve. And that doesn’t mean I want to be a household name and I want to make a billion dollars and be a big star kind of thing. I like to be able to go out and play my history in music which, 30 years of music from the first 3 album to the new 3.2 album, I played with Sammy Hagar in the middle of that, I played with Ambrosia, with Greg Kihn now, and I did a whole tribute series for Magna Carta that is very clinically acclaimed stuff, a Yes tribute and a Genesis / ELP tribute and I’d like to go out and play that. If I could play that in smaller places, like 250 or 300 seat places across the country, go out once a year and actually shake the hands of the people that bought the records and that like what I do, I think I might feel successful then. It’s not like I say about the hit record and about the money, it’s about getting out there with the fans of the music and saying, “Hey, thanks. I’m really glad you like what I did. It was a labor of love, I love doing it, and that you like it brings me so much joy I can’t tell you.” That would make me feel successful. Right now I don’t feel successful.

Toddstar: I think we have two different definitions of successful because, again, I look through your resume so to speak and you’ve mentioned Sammy, you’ve mentioned the Greg Kihn band Rekindled album. I actually got to talk to Greg after that album was finished off.

Robert: He’s a great guy.

Toddstar: You venture into so many different musical venues, such as December People. People know more about you than you think. It’s a lot of fun. But let’s go back to these names like Gary Pihl, Sammy Hagar, Keith Emerson, even Greg Kihn, everybody knows who Greg Kihn is. You know all of these guys, these guys are your friends, these guys are your peers. What’s it like for you when you have a fan come to you and they’re star struck?

Robert: You know, I sort of don’t pick up on that. I was at a musician’s party here in the Bay area last night, they do a Christmas party where all the musicians show up and there’s no fan base there, only musicians which you’d think would either be a lot of fun or super boring, right? One way or the other. Just a bunch of guys, we do it every year, we hang out. About 150-200 people show up and one guy come up to me and goes, “Man, you are the guy that inspired me around here. You keep doing it.” And he said something and I’m like, “Well, if I’m that big of an inspiration for you, you need to reset your goals” I told him and he laughed. My whole thing is honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever be… it’s not being happy, I’m very happy, I love what I do and I’m sort of thrilled that I get to do it with all these great people and it hasn’t ruined me. I’ve never done drugs, I’ve never had that kind of problem. I always manage to find a great band to work with. But I haven’t had that one thing to make me think, okay, I’ve done it. That’s what I wanted to achieve. And I don’t know if I ever will because I love doing it so much. I can’t think of the saying, it’s the chase, not the catch, something like that. I’m saying it’s going for the challenge of it. It’s like waiting for that present on Christmas and it’s sitting there in the box in anticipation can be much more exciting than getting it and opening it up because even if it’s a new guitar, you play it and okay, the excitement’s kind of over, I get to use it now. So I’m always kind of in the wrapped present stage. It’s always what can I do next? What’s exciting? I actually love the process. I love the studio. I have a great studio here, Sound Check, where I produce people every day and I get to play all these instruments with them because mainly I do song writers who come in and want me to do their tracks. Working on their arrangements and everything. And then I get to go out and play live. What I’m not doing right now and I’m working on is a live tour of my history in rock, 30 year history, and that will be really great. But still I’m out there with Greg Kihn and that’s fun. He’s a wonderful guy, just a great guy to work with. The present’s always still wrapped for me.

Toddstar: You mentioned a 30-year career. By math, you’re working on four decades. What song or two from your catalog has held up the best over the years?

Robert: You know, we didn’t mention the band Alliance and Alliance is the band I have we mainly released in Europe and Japan and it’s Gary Pihl from the band Boston, guitar player, drummer David Lauser from the band Sammy Hagar, Alan Fitzgerald from Night Ranger and was the bass player on Montrose in the old days and myself and we’ve put our four albums now and we did one called “Road to Heaven” and that song I think would still be exciting to anybody that hadn’t heard it yet. It’s not progressive at all, but it has elements of the perfect blend of keyboards and guitar and the hard edge that I like in things and the groove and it’s a rock album. But I think that would. You know, when I listen to the first 3 album, we have a song called “Desde la Vida” which is quite long. It started with Keith and Carl, Keith and I finished it up together and it’s kind of a masterpiece more in the ELP vein, but that lasts, stands the test of time, along with the hit “Talkin’ Bout” that we did. Boy I’ve got so many albums I’ve done I’d have to think about anything more than that. I have a song on All 41 album which is more like an Alliance song. And I think it’s a hidden gem on there, it’s a real rocking tune and it’s unfortunately I didn’t get really more mileage on that when we did the prereleases and videos and stuff, it’s called “Down Life’s Pages” and I think that song would stand the test of time. You’ll have to check that out if you have that album.

Toddstar: I have that album and I know exactly what song you’re talking about.

Robert: It’s a little different than the rest of the album, too. It’s more like an Alliance tune, it’s rocking, it’s fast, and it’s got that Gary Pihl guitar stuff in it which I just love the way he plays. He plays in Boston but his real style is so different than Boston. What he does on his own is just amazing.

Toddstar: Robert, I know you’re a busy guy so I’ve got one more for you before we cut you loose. If you could go back, forgetting your catalog for one minute, but if you could go back and be part of any one album in the history of time, what album would you have wanted to be a part of?

Robert: Well, you know, that’s a great question too. You’ve got some tough ones here. You’re making me think. I could take ten minutes to think about that because I have favorites. It’d be amazing to do an album with Jeff Beck, you know? I see him play and I swear that guy doesn’t know how to play guitar, he just is the guitar, you know? It just comes out of him, it’s crazy. Chris Squire was a huge influence on me as was Paul McCartney. I’ve done some things with Simon Phillips on drums. I could put a band together but the album, that would be really tough. Being a part of Yes on Close to the Edge would be wonderful. I would love to have been in Van Halen with Sammy Hagar. You know they had keyboard set that Eddie played. I sure could have been the keyboard player in that band. In fact, I’ve got to tell you something. If you see Sammy’s band, The Circle that’s touring all around, it’s not only a fantastic show, his 50 years in rock or whatever it is, but when the keyboards come out for the Van Halen stuff, that’s me playing keyboards. It’s prerecorded. I’ll tell you another inside secret here. I have a recording of one of the Led Zeppelin albums of just the drums. I’m a big John Bonham fan he counts off the songs… one, two. You hear him counting it. So when I did these tracks and Jason has to put the headphones on, you hear the count off and then he plays the keyboards I’ve done, I use John Bonham on the count off for Jason Bonham’s in-ear monitors. So every night when you see The Circle play, you’ll know that’s me playing the keyboards. It’s John Bonham counting off his son playing those songs, which … even though they’re Van Halen songs, still. Jason said, “Wow, man. That was really cool. Thanks for doing that.”

Toddstar: I was going to say, I don’t care who you are, that’s cool.

Robert: Certainly inside information that nobody but Jason knows… until now. I can’t say enough good things about working with Sammy and the dynamo that he is but I just love The Circle show. I used to sit on the stage with Van Halen and hear the sound check and the show and everything was amazing, but to see Sammy do his history is really something.

Toddstar: I’ve seen The Circle a couple times and you’re absolutely right. It’s amazing to watch. Robert, I can’t thank you enough for the time. As a fan of your legacy and of your music and especially of the 3.2 release, The Rules Have Changed, I appreciate you taking time off for us. And hopefully we’ll get you out on the road and over here in Detroit soon.

Robert: That’s the plan next year. And Todd, I want to meet you in person and then shake your hand and thank you. Like I said, I want to get to know the people. Honestly, you’re doing more than just listening to the album, you’re helping me promote it, you’re giving it some good reviews and compliments. I’m just amazed at how it’s been received and how nice people have been about it, so I owe you at least a handshake if not a guitar pick.

Toddstar: I’ll take you up on both of them Robert. We’ll talk to you when you come through Detroit.

Robert: Great talking to you. See you later.

ROBERT BERRY LINKS:

OFFICIAL SITE

FACEBOOK

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Todd ‘ToddStar’ Jolicoeur

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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