Carl Palmer: Cruising!

By Jeb Wright

Carl Palmer has a reputation of being one of rock’s greatest drummers.  In fact, his rep is so big you can take the word ‘rock’ out of the pervious statement and just consider him one of the best drummers around today.  So, to think he would be taking on work as a drummer on a cruise ship…

The Love Boat this is not, however.  One cruise is a heavy metal cruise, and the other is put on by The Moody Blues, and is a prog-rock cruise.  While the latter may seem an obvious choice, Carl Palmer and heavy metal just don’t seem to fit together.  That is unless you have heard his solo band play.  They replace Keith Emerson’s keyboards with distorted, cranked up, loud and dangerous rock guitar, and the people on the Monsters of Rock cruise are in for a real treat when Carl Palmer takes the stage.

In the interview that follows, Palmer talks about how he got into the Cruise Ship Entertainment biz in the first place, and how much fun he is having sailing the Seven Seas.  He also takes time to fill us in with what we can expect from his band in 2014 and when we will be able to get another Asia album, once again, without Steve Howe on guitar, as he has left the band as of this writing.

Jeb: You are getting ready to embark on a number of rock and roll cruises, so I want to know how you initially got involved in this and how you got invited back. 

Carl: The first time was basically that I was sort of invited by Yes, indirectly.  The promoters of the cruise had heard about my band and they liked the idea of having part of the English blueprint onboard which is like Yes, Genesis, ELP, UK…this is like the major blueprint of English progressive rock.  I kind of completed a circle.  They couldn’t get ELP, because we are not together, but they could get me. 

It was a very successful cruise.  The actual people who were on there were the founding members of this art.  It was well balanced and well organized.  You had Steve Hackett, who was with Genesis, and you had John Wetton, who was with UK, and you had Carl Palmer who was with ELP, and you had Yes. 

The second time around…interesting again…they said to me would I ‘like to do another cruise’. I said that I would, but I said I wanted to do the Monsters of Rock cruise, which is a metal cruise.  I enjoy metal music and my band has an edge.  They said they would let me do that one.  Within about a week or two weeks of them giving me that particular slot, they had spoken to the Moody Blues, who were going back out again for another cruise.  I think it was at the request of one of the Moody Blues, maybe it was Justin Heyward, that they have Carl Palmer.  They had previously had Greg Lake.  Or maybe it was that the promoters said that they should use me.  Either way, I ended up with back-to-back cruises and I will have my sea legs for sure after these adventures. 

Jeb: Did you ever, to quote an Asia song, in your wildest dreams, ever think you would be hired to perform on a cruise?

Carl: I never thought I would ever be hired to play on a cruise ship, but the business model has changed within our industry, rather radically, over the last few years. 

The demographic that we play to does have a certain amount of money and they like to get away on short holidays.  It has proved successful to the point where the ship that is being used this coming year is almost twice the size of the last one. 

The original cruise, Cruise to the Edge, was only half sold to the people who were interested in Prog Rock music.  The other half were sold to general customers, punters as they were. They were told that it was a music cruise, but they were welcome to come along and that they would be given a discount on their cabins for the inconvenience.  A lot of them ended up getting into it and came along to the music stuff and now it has grown into a huge success, thus the need for the bigger ship. 

You have to understand that the business model has changed in general throughout our industry.  The casinos are not quite as popular as they used to be.  The bigger halls are not as popular anymore.  There are a very small amount of people that can play the big places and fill them. 

When you have a lot of congestion out there, which we have at the moment with a lot of big groups, a lot of middle size groups, and even a lot of below the belt bands touring at the moment, it gets tough, as there is only so much the marketplace can take.  Cruises were really a breath of fresh air and it is a great idea.  While I never thought I would be playing on one, it makes absolute sense. 

Jeb: You also get to be closer to the fans. 

Carl: There are two ways that you can look at it.  We have a private area where we can go and eat, or we can go to the restaurants, which are onboard; the main one is really huge.  I look at it this way, I am there five days and I am playing possibly two nights…on the Monsters of Rock, I am only playing once…but I figure if I am with all of those people, for me, the first day is a little bit hectic, as everybody wants to say hello to you.  The following day they have already seen you at breakfast once.  I could disappear, but I choose to be with the fans.  As long as they are not rude and they don’t keep asking me for an autograph every time I try to put the fork in my mouth then that is fine. 

I did quite a few seminars and I was selling my art on the ship and I did a lot of interviews in rooms where people could ask me questions.  I think it is a great sort of networking deal.  I think the fans appreciate you saying hello to them.  I really enjoyed it.  Whether I am going to enjoy it as much doing two cruises back-to-back remains to be seen!

Jeb: The Moody Cruise is returning to the Isle of Wight, which is pretty cool. 

Carl: It was quite a big deal in our day, the Isle of Wight.  It was one of the big festivals back then.  I actually don’t remember very much about it.  Emerson, Lake & Palmer were added to the Isle of Wight at the very last minute.  We played exactly 47 minutes because that is the amount of footage we have from that show because we filmed it. 

I don’t remember much about it.  We went in by helicopter and we left directly after our set.  It wasn’t really organized like you know festivals to be organized now.  I supposed it was on par with the Woodstock Festival, which was a groundbreaking festival, but it wasn’t the most organized. 

Jeb: You get to be on the Moody Blues Cruise with Roger Daltrey.  You worked with him on the album Raging Moon

Carl: I was in a band called The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, who had the “I am the lord god of all hellfire” line in “Fire” that became a number one hit. We were on Track Records that were the same label that the Who was on.  I toured with the Who when I was in The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.  I toured the UK probably a couple of times back then.

I know Roger quite well.  Apart from playing on the recording that you mentioned I have seen him from time to time. He’s kind of a big shot in the UK as far as organizing the Teenage Cancer Trust.  I know his manager, Bill Curbishly, as he is a big friend of mine.  I am sure I will be having dinner with him one night.  I am looking forward to it. 

As a matter of interest, the Who was the very first band I saw when I was 14 years old.  They were the first professional rock group I actually saw live.  They were the first group of any notoriety I had ever seen.  I have always been a big, big Who fan and really am looking forward to it. 

Jeb:  You are a very accomplished drummer and a very professional person.  Do you ever lose that thrill of meeting people you admired, like Roger Daltrey?

Carl: I will tell you what the deal is.  I was brought up in a family of a lot of musicians.  My grandfather was a professor of music and my father, a piano player.  My brother is still a professional drummer and my nephew was a drummer.  My great uncle was a drummer. My great, great grandmother was a classical guitar player.  There are a lot of professional musicians in my family.  It sounds rather blasé to say this, but I didn’t come into music to be famous, or make a lot of money.  I came into it to make a living and to be like the rest of my family were. 

For me, it was never sort of important to be in a rock band, or to be really highly successful.  It was important to be the best I could possibly be and wherever that would take me would be great.  It was very important to make a living and to be able to do this all of my life because that is what this is all about.  For me, what has happened has been absolutely fantastic and I do feel God blessed, and that’s for sure.  It was not something that I was looking for, but it happened. 

I have the same enthusiasm today as I had when I was a kid mainly because I didn’t expect to be as successful as I was and I didn’t expect to be as good as what I am.  I want to retain that.  For me, it is the best job I’ve ever had and it is the only job I ever want.  Whether I am famous or not, that’s another thing.  That is really the cream on the cake as it were.  It is fantastic that it has happened and it is fantastic that I’ve had all of these changes.  I didn’t set out to do that. 

All I know is that by the time was 13 and a half, I knew I wanted to be in a rock band.  I knew I didn’t want to be in the Birmingham Symphony.  I knew that I didn’t want to do what my parents wanted me to do.  I wanted to play music.  They sent me to music school.  I went to the Royal Academy and I went to the Guild Hall.  I always had the assurance of being able to read music, but I wanted to be a rock drummer and that is the end of the story.  Now, at 63 years old, I am sitting in my house and I am still a rock drummer and I am still having a lot of fun and I am successful.  For me, it is the way it should have been and it is the way I planned it.

Jeb: Are there any plans to record new music with your solo band?

Carl: When it all started, my question was ‘how can I make the Emerson, Lake & Palmer music live on?’  I have been very involved with that music, and have been all of my life.  There is an absolute plethora of great music.  I have introduced classical adaptations in my band that ELP never attempted.  I am playing a piece by Wagner at the moment, we are rehearsing it and it is called “The Ride of the Valor” from the film Apocalypse Now.  I am into classical music and I am into film music. 

I do believe there will come a time we will have to do original music.  When you go straight to original music today, and you don’t have the exposure that ELP had back in the ‘70s and ‘80s then it is very hard for people to understand what you’re trying to do.  If you suddenly play something like “Jerusalem” which was a hit for ELP, then people immediately recognize it. 

When you’ve got an instrumental band, then you have to be very careful, really.  If I come out with an instrumental that people have never heard, then it doesn’t ring the bell for people and get me to the place I want to be. 

It is possible that I will always go down the classical adaptation route.  It is what attracted me to work with Keith Emerson and it is something that I’ve always wanted to and I’ve managed to do it for many, many years.  There will be a new album.  There will be classical adaptations on that album.  I’ve managed to pick up pieces that relate to all aspects of my career. 

We are playing “America” on this cruise and “America” was the first piece of music by Leonard Bernstein that I saw Keith Emerson play.  I knew I enjoyed the way Keith played.  I play that song today and I’ve got a story to tell about it.  I call this The Carl Palmer ELP Legacy and it is a true legacy in depth of everything that has happened and everything that has got me to where I am. 

Believe it or not, the very first piece of music that I ever played with Greg and Keith was King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.”  I might even end up playing that one day with my band because there is a story to tell about that. 

When you’ve been a part of people’s lives, the way ELP’s music has been, and you’ve been part of that English progressive rock blueprint, then I think it is good to tell stories and to bring back music that means something to those people. I am going to stay where I am at the moment. 

There is a new Anthology album coming out in the States that includes everything that I’ve done, including when I played with the Buddy Rich Orchestra in Ronnie Scott’s club.  It was only released in Europe.  It was never released in America.  I’ve updated it a little bit as I’ve put some tracks on it from my Working albums.  There is a percussion concerto I recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.  It is a complete synopsis of my whole career; a real anthology.  There is a DVD next year called Decade.  People have seen that already, but this is an official release. 

I will record again at the end of next year, I would think. I’ve just come back from Italy where I’ve got a little bit of time off now. I am working with my band in November.  In this down period I am in the studio with Asia making a new album.  I am still quite busy. 

Jeb: Give me a hint of what Asia will sound like without Steve Howe this time. 

Carl:  Steve Howe wanted to leave Asia and we completely understood.  He was biding his time between Yes and Asia and he wanted to give his son some time.  His son, Dylan, is a drummer and has a jazz group.  I think he is trying to give his son a helping hand up the ladder and I understand that completely.  I think he wanted to attend a few guitar festivals and go and show off and let people see how well he can play.  I understand that as well.  I understood his position completely. 

We have a younger guy in there now, so it is obviously different.  We wanted some younger blood in there and we wanted to sound a little bit heavier.  It is classic rock and it is more in that Van Halen sort of area, or whatever you want to call it.  We have been softer in the recent past, so we wanted to rock it up a bit. 

We played Sweden Rock with the new band which is the big festival here in Europe.  We went down phenomenally well there.  We just came back from Bulgaria and we played in the big amphitheater there.  It’s working out okay.  Once we get through the album, then we will have a clearer picture of how it will all work.

Jeb: You are going on a Metal cruise.  A lot of people think of you as a prog guy or a classical guy.  They would think you are too smart for metal.  What is your connection with metal?

Carl: To tell you the truth, this is really kind of opening up my heart here…the only music that I’ve never played in any quantity, and I’ve never played it with the caliber of people I would want to play it with, is metal. 

Metal can be quite progressive.  The early Black Sabbath was the beginning of that and they are the founders of it.  Black Sabbath is from my hometown of Birmingham.  Tony Iommi is a big friend of mine and we’ve known each other for years. 

They were slightly progressive as well.  They were not bluesy like Led Zeppelin.  They were metal with a slightly progressive overtone.  They had slightly different tempo changes and this and that.  It was not regular stuff; it was very riff orientated and very strong. I’ve always wanted to be involved with that in some stage. 

ELP had a certain amount of metal attached to them.  Some of the bits we played in the beginning were very hard and I suppose you could have put a metal tag on certain sections of the music.  I’ve never actually been in a band where we would get that message across.

For the metal cruise, I am going to put together a package that will sound balls to the walls.  There will be guitar there all the way.  There are no keyboards or fiddly synthesizers.  There will be big fat open chords and it will be metal. 

If you listen to Dream Theater, on their latest album, you will see they are harder sounding than what they have ever been. I think there is a correlation between prog rock and metal music.  There is something in-between the two and it falls in the cracks.  That is what I’ve always wanted, but never managed to get there.  I am finding it easier using just guitars instead of keyboards.  I think keyboards can take away from the metal edge.  I think that is one of the reasons that I knew this all possible on the guitar because guitar players have advanced so much over the years.  I try to keep it on the harder edged side. 

Being on that metal cruise, I just hope I can turn a few people around and go, “Wait a minute!”  I play a piece by Sergei Prokofiev called “Romeo and Juliette’ which is unbelievably heavy.  On the Monsters of Rock, it might be the first one that we start off with.  I’m ready.  I enjoy that crossover. 

I did get invited to record the Black Sabbath album at one time.  Tony asked me if I would do that when Bill Ward stepped down, but the calendars were never in line and then, Tony got ill and things got put back and that made it even more difficult for me.  It is an area of music that I’ve never played all of the time and I would like to evolve with that.  I call my band a metal prog rock band; that is what I really consider it to be. 

Jeb:  I will end with this: We are just past the 30 year history of Asia.  Are you surprised Asia has lasted this long? 

Carl: To be honest with you, you would never think that music is going to last that long.  When we look at it now, we know that certain albums are a timeline in people’s lives.  They hear a tune and they go right back to that moment in time, whether it be a good time, or a bad time.  It really means something to them.  I never thought that the Asia album would have those sorts of legs, but you never do.  Who would have thought that the first ELP album would have been as successful as what it is. We had one rock tune on it called “Knife Edge” and one folky tune called “Lucky Man” and then on the other side of the vinyl there were three long church organ solos with no drums, no bass, no vocal and no nothing.   You just never know what is going to be successful and what is going to stay with people.

The Asia stuff had a slightly different coat of armor because it came out when everything was changing in our industry.  MTV was born and videos were a major concept to have attached to your single, or your album.  We were on the back of this new wave of excitement and technology.  Obviously, that propelled it and made it well known and helped us tremendously.  David Geffen of Geffen Records was a great help to us all.  For it to last this long, and to have people like it as much as people do, is a big surprise.  I just wish we’d had more hits.  That would have helped us a lot more!