Carl Palmer: Hidden in the Art

By Jeb Wright

Carl Palmer is back on tour with his solo band, preparing to release a new DVD and gearing up for a worldwide tour with Asia later in the year. 

This is great news for the iconic drummer, as it was only a few months ago that Palmer’s life was unexpectedly put on hold due to a severe case of the bacterial disease E. coli. 

Palmer was forced to do something he had never done in his four decade plus career–cancel a tour.  As he recovered, he not only began to take better care of himself, he changed his diet and came back better than ever before.   

Palmer is back traveling the world in 2010 reinterpreting Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s music. His solo band features screaming lead guitar instead of the conventional keyboard sounds most fans of ELP are familiar with. 

In addition to touring, Palmer has become involved in creating art.  Not the art of music, but fine art.  Along with the company SceneFour, Palmer has released a series of photographs that were created when he played drums with LED drumsticks embedded in them.  They were filmed using time lapse technology.  The results are rich, powerful and colorful tapestries featuring rhythmic colors never before seen. 

In the interview that follows, Palmer discusses his artwork, his upcoming DVD release, his battle back from E. coli and why Emerson, Lake & Palmer will never perform together again. 

Jeb: Before we talk music, let’s talk about your artwork.  This is a very unique idea.  How did it come about?

Carl: Somebody invented LED lights that you could place into the ends of drumsticks.  I can play with the sticks and you can obviously have various colored lights.  The company, SceneFour, got a hold of me and asked, “Would you like to have a look at these sticks?”  On one picture there is a skull type image that looks a bit like Brain Salad Surgery.  I carried on doing that. 

They are a great company and it is a brand new art form.  It was easy for me to do and it was very enjoyable.  It is stuff that I have never seen before.  You don’t normally see this stuff because you don’t normally have LED lights in your drumsticks.  I call it a hidden art form.

Jeb: What was your reaction when you saw the photos?

Carl: I’ll be very honest with you I thought they were very good.  I called the guys up after I saw them and told them that I thought they were good.  They said, “Carl, these are not good…they are exceptional.  We used these new cameras, which are the best you can buy, on you for the first time.  We have got all of these shapes which we’ve never got before.  Obviously, the cameras helped, but because you play the way you play, we got these new shapes.” I said, “Oh, well thank you very much.  This is a great compliment.”  They really are quite intense.  Even when they are small they still look good, but when you blow them up and see them at a reasonable size, then they are quite impactive.  I am very, very proud of it. 

Jeb:  Who had the idea to do this?

Carl: It was all their idea, they came to me.  I had done this before, many years ago, but I had these terrible light bulbs on the end of the sticks with wires.  I couldn’t hit the drums, I could only pretend.  It was all a bit silly.  It looked a bit Mickey Mouse, to be honest.  These sticks have lights built into the end of them and you don’t even see them until you turn them on.  This was something very different and it is a real art form.   

Jeb:  Where can people go to purchase these prints?

Carl: There is an actual website and if you put that straightaway into the browser, then you will come to a site called The Twist of the Wrist, that is the name of the tour and it is the name of the artwork catalog.  You can see all of the stuff on there. 

I am going on this Prog Rock cruise on the 25th of March, with Yes, UK, Steve Hackett and lots of other bands.  There is going to be a room on the ship that is like an Art Gallery.  The guys from SceneFour will be there.  After that we are going to get it out there and get it into a lot of other galleries. 

You can also see it and purchase it online.  There are ways that you can pay for it where you don’t have to pay for it all in one go; you can reserve pieces.  These are limited editions.  This is really a one off.  I have two programs of artwork that I am releasing; this is the first.  There will be one more and that is it. 

Jeb: How many did you make and how are sales so far?

Carl: We have sold, as of today, out of 200 pieces, we have sold 48; we’ve sold a quarter already. 

This is not like a painting.  It is an art form that involves rhythm.  I played the rhythm to “Tarkus” and to “Tank” and those two rhythms are quite distinctive.  When you play those rhythms there is an artwork that appears that you can’t see unless you’re in that dark room with the LED lights and those special cameras.  You’re not going to see that in concert because you’ve got lots of lights all over the place.  In this controlled environment, there it is.  It is new, really.  It is an art form involving rhythm and technology and it’s lovely.  I am a part of it and I am very happy.

Jeb: In other news, I am glad to hear you are feeling better.  You were very ill. 

Carl: I had E. coli and I had it really bad. It went into my lower abdomen.  I got it from a casino in upstate New York.  My immune system managed to tackle it at first.  It was about ten days into the tour and everything seemed to go down in my stomach and I was fine. 

When I got back, within two days, my intestinal area just blew up.  I got into a specialist in the center of London and they said, “Wow, this is really bad.”  They drew a line on my stomach and told my wife that if the redness and swelling went above that line then she had to call this number.  They had a quarantine room in a hospital ready for me to go into if that happened.  E. coli is highly contagious as it is bacterial.  It was eight weeks of absolute hell.

I got better and I got back on tour.  I just got back from a sixteen day tour of Europe and in February I went to Japan.  I feel fine now and I am on top of things. I have to say, those eight weeks I had to take these antibiotics that were the size of torpedoes.  You would take one and just fall over; you couldn’t stand up [laughter].  I managed to get through it, but it was hard.  I don’t want to get it again. It has changed my whole life.  I have become a Vegan.  I don’t eat any dairy, cheese, milk, meat or whatever.  I can’t eat anything that’s got a face.  I just never want to be this ill again.  

I can really see why old people die—I’m old too, but I am still strong.  I don’t know if I would be this strong a second time around.  Nevertheless, I’m saying that, where I am today, with the new diet, my tastes have changed from having E. coli so severely.  Fish and meat taste wrong to me.  I don’t know why that is.  It is not a moral thing to me.  I would have eaten all the cows you could send down the hallway to me.  I just no longer like the taste; that’s the problem.  

I actually feel more energized now.  Perhaps it is my diet.  It could have all been a bit of luck.  It could have been that God said to me, “Hey, you need to smarten up and change your diet.”  I have done just that.  I have more energy after my European tour than I had when I left.  It has to be the diet.  I have one more checkup with the doctors.  It will never completely leave my system, but I have to be super careful that I don’t trigger this again.  It’s the closest I have ever been to death; I’ll put it to you that way.  

Jeb: I knew you were sick but I didn’t know just how badly you were down.  

Carl: I cancelled a tour for the first time in my life.  I went in to the doctor on a Wednesday and I said, “I don’t feel so good. My English tour starts Saturday.  Can you give me something to ease the pain because my lower half is killing me and I can’t sleep at night?”  He said, “Carl, there is less than a ten percent chance of you playing on Saturday.”  I said, “No, no, no…let’s be serious.  Lets sort it out; I only have seven concerts.”  He said, “You won’t make one of them, buddy.  You’re in bed.”  

I felt terrible, like I had let myself down.  I have an impeccable track record of never canceling concerts, so canceling a whole tour was just devastating.  There was really nothing I could do.  The first three weeks after that was absolute hell.  Now, I am okay.  

Jeb: Were you sick when you recorded your new DVD? 

Carl: I recorded the new DVD, that is called Decades…it is not released yet.  We are looking at how we are going to release that.  It was recorded on the American tour prior to the year I got ill.  I picked up this disease when I was touring with Asia at the end of last year in the USA.  

Jeb: I love your solo music.  I love ELP, but the way you do it has all the guitar solos.  Sometimes, I thought ELP was missing a guitar player.  I think that element being there makes the music take on a whole different life.  

Carl: I’m obviously in agreement with you.  I didn’t want to play with a keyboard player again, as I had played with one of the best in the world, so what was the point?  I just figured that there was a way of rejuvenating ELP’s music, and reinventing the classical adaptations within a rock band.  

ELP would have had a guitar player if we could have found a guitar player who could play the parts.  What you have to realize is that it was not available then. Today, there are more great guitar players—I mean truly great guitar players—who are unknown than there are great keyboard players.  There are not many great rock and roll keyboard players. 

If you go to the institutes and academies here in London, then you will see seventy guitar students where you only have ten, or fifteen, keyboardists.  The guitar players are in front now.  Their technique has them miles in front.  It is amazing what they play. The actual technical abilities they have achieved over the last fifteen years are just phenomenal.  

Jeb: Your guitar player is totally amazing. 

Carl: His name is Paul Bielatowicz and he is from Poland.  He has been with me eight years.  The bass player is Simon Fitzpatrick, who is coming into his second year with me.  To be honest with you, he is the third bass player I’ve had and Paul is the second guitarist. 

I called up the Guitar Institute in Acton, and told them that my bass player was leaving me.  The guy I spoke to was the head of the bass department and he was my very first bass player Dave Marks.  I said, “Dave, who have you got?”  He said, “Carl, you’ve got a choice.  We’ve got two.”  I said, “Seriously, Dave, I just need one blinder.  I need someone who can play six string bass, chords and someone who has all of the styles.”  He said, “I know what you need and we’ve got two. I will send you a couple of sound clips.”  Both of the guys were phenomenal.  I picked the one guy partially because of the way he looked, but also for his technique.  They were giving 92% in the school for technique and they had to give this guy 97% because he was so phenomenal.  So, my band has two really strange looking guys.  One is really short and looks like a lovechild of mine, but he’s not.  He looks really innocent.  He is really small.  The other guy looks like a caveman [laughter]. 

They are both great musicians who are really born out of time because, obviously, Prog Rock is never going to be as big.  I know that I am now dealing with a delicatessen rather than a supermarket.  ELP sold to millions of people.  I believe this is a way of prolonging the music and bringing new adaptations to the music.  It is growing in Europe and in America, but I just really enjoy doing it, which is the main thing.  

Jeb: You play all instrumental selections from ELP.  Will you ever be tempted to play songs with lyrics? 

Carl: I am playing “Welcome Back,” [“Karn Evil 9”] which has lyrics.  We are doing an instrumental version of it.  We have the top line—the vocal line—being played on the bass guitar, while the guitar and myself are accompanying. 

I have done that with all of the songs on Tarkus.  We are now doing the complete version of Tarkus.  The lead lines are played exactly true to the melody and it works.  “Fanfare for the Common Man” never had any words and “Pictures at an Exhibition” only had the words we added.  It is all instrumental, but that is the way we have chosen to do it. 

I will give you a rundown.  We spend about two hours on stage.  We start off with “Peter Gunn” which we did in ELP and is a Henry Mancini composition.  We then go into “Welcome Back,” which is an ELP composition and we play the second impression.  We play “Hoedown” by Aaron Copland.  We play an original piece, which sounds really spooky without the vocals, called “Knife-Edge” which is an original by ELP.  We play “America” which is a tribute to the Nice, who I was a big fan of.  Keith [Emerson] played in The Nice.  The song was written by Leonard Bernstein. 

We’ve got “The Barbarian” by Béla Bartók.  We do a complete version of Tarkus.  We do the “Karelia Suite” by Bach which was made very popular by an instrumental band called Sky.  I don’t think they ever made it across the pond to America.  Maybe I can pick up some interest with it and get a car ad, or something, and get a number one single, who knows.  We play “Pictures at an Exhibition” and we do “Fanfare” and we end up with “Nutrocker.”  It is roughly two hours.  

Jeb: Do you still come out after the show and sign autographs at the merchandise table? 

Carl: We make an announcement, saying at the front, that after the show, we will come out and meet anyone and take photos without flash.  I won’t shake hands, but I will do a fist bump. I will sign an old album and then anything that you buy at the merchandise booth, we will sign.  

I don’t want to sign all of the old stuff, but I like to be able to let people get their old ELP vinyl signed by one of the original members as it is a great opportunity, so we do that. 

It lasts about 45 minutes and it is not a problem to do it.  If they want to buy some merch, then the least I can do is sign it.  If they want to take a photo without flash, as my eyes are usually very tired by that stage, then I am only too pleased to help. 

Jeb: A lot of artists don’t realize how much that means to your fans. 

Carl: I look at it this way, ELP won’t play together again.  If you’ve been a fan all of these years, then you can come see me and see the music played in a different style and in a different way.  You get the energy and you get the sentiment of what it’s all about.  If you’ve invested in ELP all of these years and you have the vinyl, then I think it’s great if you can get one of the members to sign it.  

What ends up happening is that I sign something and they will buy one of my CDs, or DVDs, and they get converted.  They realize that while it is different, it is really good and they like it.  They will come and see me again and that is the way that it goes.  

Jeb: You said ELP will not play again.  All of you are still out there and active.  Why won’t ELP play again? 

Carl: It’s very simple.  We did play in July of 2010.  We rehearsed for a long time to play that day, as we had not played together in twelve years. We rehearsed for five weeks, which I could never understand why we needed to rehearse that long.  Upon hearing the recordings, maybe five weeks was not long enough.  It wasn’t to the standard that I liked and I didn’t think it sounded that good.  I really enjoyed working with those guys and I think it was a terrific band.  I think it set a very high standard and it will always be a part of me.  I am still promoting that music and I am still playing it.  I just didn’t think that ELP had the legs to carry on as a full blooded, full on, top end Prog Rock band.  It had gotten tired, and it was tired and I don’t know why.  It is various things…people do get older.  If you get older then stop playing that music, as that music can’t be played any other way. 

Whatever music you play, then you need to give it your fullest.  We gave it our fullest; we gave it our best.  But, to me, it wasn’t as good as what it was.  If it was as good as what it was, or we had improved, then I would have stayed, but it wasn’t.  I had to say to the guys, “It was great.  I’ve had a great forty years.  Let’s keep the dream.  Let’s leave everybody with the dream.  We finished in our home country.  It’s a shame we can’t get to America, but I can’t do it anymore. I hope you all understand.”  And they did; that was it really. 

For me, it’s just a pride thing.  Unless it’s as good as what it can be, then I can’t do it.  I would have carried on if it had been as good as it was.  I don’t believe it was and I don’t believe it would have ever gotten back to that standard. That was a severe problem for me as it is part of my life and it is part of everything I do.  I can’t act anything out.  Every time I play, I play like it is the last concert of my life and I play to die.  I didn’t feel that ELP had that, collectively, as a band.  I believe we played as well as we could, but it wasn’t good enough.  

Jeb: Last one:  Steve Howe has left Asia.  What can you tell me about the new guitar player?

Carl: Steve wanted to spend more time promoting the jazz band that he plays in with his son, as well as his solo stuff and Yes.  We understood and told him to do what he needed to do and we parted on good terms. 

We started looking for some top end players; I won’t name names, as I don’t want people to be embarrassed. We did ask some people we’d played with before, like Steve Lukather, who has recorded with us before.  They all had stuff going on.  We looked at this guy named Paul Gilbert from Mr. Big.  We liked him and he liked us, but he was busy. 

Paul Gilbert came back to us and said, “I’ve got this guy I’ve been watching over the last few years.  His name is Sam Coulson.  He is a young guy, 27 or 28.  He is English.” We checked him out and he is great.  You can see him on YouTube where he actually plays with Paul Gilbert at some institute.  We checked him out and we gave him a go.  

We start with Asia in June in Norway and then we have the Sweden Rock Festival and we have some fly in dates in Europe.  We might get to America for a few weeks, we are not sure. We are looking at doing a ‘best of’ with some new studio tracks, or maybe a new studio album.  We haven’t really decided yet.  Asia will carry on, that’s for sure. 

Jeb: How is the legacy of Asia different than the legacy of ELP?

Carl: The legacy with Asia…Asia is not as heavy as what it should be.  If Asia were a heavier rock band then we would be a little bit bigger.  We play in the middle of the road.  We play a bit of Prog—not enough. 

We were at the beginning of a brand new movement.  Radio said that Prog Rock was dead and they wouldn’t play it.  In the ‘70’s it was a true art form and the radio was a true art form. Asia realized that we wouldn’t survive coming from the Prog Rock bands that we came from.  We knew we had to do something different. 

Once we decided to do something different we met David Geffen.  David understood where we were and what we needed to do.  We had the Prog pieces like “Time Again,” “Sole Survivor” and “Wildest Dreams.” For us, I would say that we were one of the first big MTV bands.  People don’t actually realize that, but we did it with the singles “Heat of the Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell.”  I think the fact that we managed to survive and come out the other side playing slightly more commercial music, yet still keeping a bit of the Prog Rock tag is the big legacy of Asia.  We used the technology at the time, which was MTV. 

The wallet of David Geffen also helped open a lot of doors for us.