Greg Lake Radio 2 Interview, 5-26-04
Matthew Wright: Now I am joined, it is my pleasure to introduce to you, by one Mr. Greg Lake, he of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and formerly of one of my all-time favourite bands - not that ELP aren't a good band - but King Crimson as well, when you savagely walked out on them on their second album, wasn't it?
Greg Lake: (Laughter)
MW: Cruelly leaving them in the lurch!
GL: (Laughs) No, it wasn't like that at all, wasn't like that at all. But it's very nice of you to mention it!
MW: So Emerson, Lake & Palmer, if Bill Bailey (British comedian and proghead) was here now, he would be in, sort of, absolute ecstasy; I mean, arguably the ultimate prog rock band in terms of performance; would you go along with that? Live performances?
GL: The band was known for live performance, I suppose, but it was a lot of things, it think it was the diversity of the music which was probably the thing which marked ELP apart from other bands, you know, on the one hand it was sort of classical music; on the other side it was really tough rock music.
GL: But yes, it was quite a dramatic stage act, I suppose; I never actually saw it of course, being up there doing it but yes, they tell me! (Laughter)
MW: Because I never... I was too young, I'm afraid to say, to actually get to see you in the glory days of the 70s. You played bass; you played guitar in King Crimson; you produced the albums as well. What were you doing on stage, just moving around from different instruments?
GL: Yes, I just swapped between guitar and bass guitar. I began my career as a guitar player, six-string, electric and then went on to bass, really, in King Crimson, but yeah, it's one of those things. In a three-piece band you have to be as sort of, as flexible as you can be, you're obviously limited; there's only three people and you've got to try and cover as many bases as you possibly can.
MW: Why were you so intent in going three piece, because I know there were rumours you were going to get Jimi Hendrix at the time - I know there were reports that Hendrix would have joined the line-up then it would have been HELP, an interesting moniker, but why the determination to make things difficult for yourself?
GL: No, I don't think that was it. There's a strange thing about three-piece bands and you'll hear it if you listen to funny you mention, Hendrix was a three piece; the police, another three piece; ELP another three-piece band. There's a thing about it where you can hear each player very distinctly because there's only three of them and so there's this, it's a different - the identity of the music is much clearer in a way, than if you have, say, a six piece band and the music becomes very much an ensemble, whereas with three people - Cream, another example ----
MW: I'm thinking right up to date, Keane, of course, are a great success at the moment, another three piece band and I can see what you're talking about; it pares things down a little bit.
GL: It does and there's a certain type of power that you get from three separate energies as opposed to one conglomerate energy, that's the best way I can describe it really. You can almost start - your mind almost starts to join in with all three players simultaneously because you can identify them.
MW: Did you improvise?
GL: More in King Crimson, yes. We often used to play things where there was no key established and no time signature; we would just start, you know? Which is very interesting because it's based on listening rather than playing. I think the art of that is to listen to what people are doing and then to play instinctively, you know, not to think about what you're playing but to play instinctively, but the playing is in the listening.
MW: So an incredibly fast response from ears, brain, down to fingers?
GL: It sounds like that when you talk about it, but in actual fact it's like rather like walking; you don't think about it, your eyes just see what's happening and off you go.
MW: When you say see it, you would follow what people are playing, see their hands playing notes, you could actually see the movements they were making or ----?
GL: A bit of both but mainly listening ----
MW: Intriguing stuff.
GL: You'd hear someone's mood and you'd identify the mood and you could see where it was going, you know, and it becomes predictive, you could almost predict what's gonna follow because of what's taking place and then you start to influence the direction and then you become more assertive and you take over for a while and they listen to you and that's what I enjoy about freeform music, not that I pay an awful lot of it. I suppose that's what jazz is supposed to be.
MW: Absolutely, except it seems that there's always structure under there somewhere. Now, you're in here, ostensibly, to talk about ELP, "Collected Works". Everything, I say not everything, some of the better moments, or the more refined moments stacked together on two CDs?
GL: So they tell me.
MW: Now when you were assembling the album, hearing them back, what kind of memories, any particular tracks that stand out for you?
GL: Do you know, to be honest, I didn't select the tracks on this record (manic laughter) But you know, all of the music of ELP has got memories for me, all of them. I don't really have, you know, people sometimes ask me what's your favourite album or... I don't really have one. We put everything into every record we ever made and that was it; once it was done, it was done, and I never really go back and listen to them. The only time I ever really get in contact with the music is when we play it live.
MW: And when you were rearranging a classical piece, did you literally sit down and work out, de-compose it if you like, break it down into individual parts and then work out how you can fit the rock vibe, the rock rhythms and so forth into it?
GL: Precisely. People often think ----
MW: Can I be really cheeky here as well? Presumably you collect all the royalties for them as well (laughter)?
GL: In some cases, you do. If the composer has been dead more than 100 years, I suppose, because you did that interpretation, arrangement. But in the case of classical music, people think it's clever or highbrow in some way, but it isn't. If you take eight bars of almost any classical music, it's relatively simple; it's just like any other song. It's just a question of learning it and then applying rock sentiment to it and it's not difficult (laughter) it's really not! (laughter)
MW: I'm thinking it must be harder because in classical there's so many layers, you know there's parts for violin ----
GL: The only thing that's difficult is when you get a piece of classical music where its strength is based on its volume of players and then you've got to do it with just three people, that can be difficult, is to make something sound so big with so few people, usually there's ways you can fiddle it.
MW: And then ELP broke down towards the end of the 70s and re-formed in the 90s?
GL: Well, we were up and down all the time really - I mean the band essentially stopped in the late 70s; 1979-80. I think we'd just burned out really; we'd done so much touring, and so many albums ----
MW: You were doing two a year at times?
GL: We were doing two a year, but we were on the road more or less all the time. I mean, we would stop for a week or two, but it was more or less non-stop and because it was a three-piece, it all had to come from just the three people and I think we just got drained, simply drained and we stopped and then everybody wanted to do solo projects and while and that happened.
MW: That was "Works 1," everyone had different sides.
GL: Yes, "Works" was an album made up of three separate sides and one group piece, really, which I love, which was "Pirates," which was never that popular but which I though was great.
MW: I actually was quite keen to play that one, but I'm getting ahead of myself. And they out-ruled me for that one. And then you re-formed in the 90s for the Albert Hall.
GL: Yes, we did a whole bunch of touring then, in fact, yeah, we did two or three world tours during the 90s.
MW: And then fell apart again. Because I've just read this Keith Emerson saying, "I haven't heard from Greg Lake, I don't know if I expect to." (Laughter!)
MW: So it'll be the 35th year and ----
GL: Yes, its' the 35th year and there's a, sort of, a definitive DVD being prepared which I think will be fun because there's stuff on there which I didn't even realise had been filmed. It's astonishing, you know, when you see this footage, you think, "However did that get filmed? I never saw any cameras!" You know, and all this stuff turns up, but I think it will be a good DVD and so hopefully, there'll be a chance to get the band back together for that.
MW: And so there's no bad feelings, it's still a possibility?
GL: Oh, yes, there's no bad... it's rather like a family, I have to say, I mean, we've been ----
MW: Well 35 years?
GL: 35 years, it's a bit like a family, you squabble but you love each other, it's that kind of relationship, really. And I must say, the only squabbles we ever have is about music, basically, you know?
MW: What, the direction to move on in?
MW: Because I would imagine with all the modern technology there is there now, back in the days when you were touring in the 70s you did quadrophonic performances which was, you know, totally avant-garde and ahead of its time, and now with sequencers and stuff like that, you can do so much, today one guy can sit in his bedroom and knock out whole lavish instrumental albums so it must open up opportunities for ELP to try different things?
GL: I think part of the beauty is that I'm still a believer in actually the live playing, I love to hear players really play, it thrills me. I went to see The Who the other night at the Albert Hall and they were fantastic and that was live players playing in real time.
MW: I've got my Grateful Dead t-shirt on now ---- (laughter!)
GL: There's nothing quite like it. The only thing with technology is that it becomes dangerous when it becomes a substitute for playing and for feeling, you know, you switch a switch and off it goes. It's great if it's used with discretion.
MW: The last time I saw you play, you mentioned The Who there, the last time I saw you play was probably just a few months ago, just before Christmas, when Richard Desmond, the owner of the Express Newspapers and well-known German hater, that he put on this concert for the Teenage Cancer Trust and you were playing bass in a scratch band with Roger Daltrey and Simon Townshend, Peter's brother.
GL: That's right.
MW: Enjoy that?
GL: It was fantastic. I went on to play on The Who's latest single, "Good Looking Boy" (sic)----
MW: Obviously written about you!
GL: Obviously written about me! How kind you are!
MW: You can pass me the 20 later!
GL: If they could only see! No, but it was a fun gig and Roger just said, "Do you wanna come and play bass, we're doing this Cancer Trust thing?" but afterwards I heard that they raised £400,000 and, you know ----
MW: This is a small do, just so the listeners understand, this is a very, very small do, of what, a couple of 100 people in the audience?
GL: There really weren't many but there were people there paying £10,000 to come up and sing "It's All Right."
MW: That's right, I forgot, the auction gave people the opportunity to sing hits; it was fantastic.
GL: Yeah, it was a fun thing to do and for me, a particular pleasure playing through all The Who's hit songs and "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" with Gary Brooker.
MW: So after spending so many years on the road, what do you do? I mean do you find yourself being antsy and that you need to get moving and doing things ----
GL: I do get a bit like that. I do have a studio in my house and I still write and record quite a lot but it's quite an isolated experience and I do miss being in a band, you know.
MW: And going back on the road?
GL: Yeah. It's not so much the road, you know, the travelling is a drag but it's the actual playing and performing, it's a wonderful thing, it's a shared experience and when it stops the lights go out and it's kind of bewildering. It must be like those Hollywood stars that get old and can't act, you know, you get this sort of feeling of disconnect... you've been disconnected in some way.
MW: And that's often when the tragedies happen, isn't it and people sort of drink and drug themselves away?
GL: That's right.
MW: But you seem to be in rude health; is that the fly-fishing that keeps you healthy?
GL: (Laughter) Yes, I do do a bit of fly fishing yes,
MW: It's the best way to unwind!
GL: And as you quite rightly point out, a lot of rock'n'roll musicians do because it's, I think it's a diversion rather than something boring, you know, you can actually go out and I don't know. I enjoy it anyway.
MW: Okay, lovely talking to you. As I said, I wanted to play "Pirates", because I thought I might be able to sing along but I've been overruled mainly because "Karn Evil Part 2" (sic) does begin with probably the greatest opener of all time. Greg Lake, pleasure talking to you. Here it is.
(Plays Karn Evil 9, 1st Impression, Part 2)
(Many thanks to Lisa for taping, transcribing, and sharing this interview!)