In the 1970s, Gentle Giant were one of the premier innovators in the Progressive Rock Genre. While not as commercially successful as contemporaries Genesis, Yes or Pink Floyd, they were arguably more complex, including trademarks such as vocal counterpoint and overlapping arpeggios. They've influenced just about every Neo-Prog band, including Spock's Beard, Echolyn, Porcupine Tree and Dream Theater. Now, thirty years after GG disbanded, guitarist Gary Green has assembled some new musicians (including former drummer Malcolm Mortimore) to tour the music for a new audience under the moniker Three Friends (titled after the band's third album). SOT's Jordan Blum spoke with Gary over the phone about the project, the music and the man.
Jordan Blum – Sea of Tranquility: First let me say I'm thrilled to speak with you. I'm a huge fan of Gentle Giant.
Gary Green: Yeah, absolutely. I'm happy to do it.
JB: You guys did some very amazing stuff, man.
GG: Oh well, thanks.
JB: Sure. So speaking of that, how did you guys write and arrange the music of Gentle Giant?
GG: Well mostly the credit for that should go to Kerry Minnear and Ray Shulman, at least for the writing. As for the playing…
JB: Very true. Gentle Giant really set themselves apart from contemporaries because of their constant instrumental shifts and vocal counterpoints.
GG: Yeah, that was mostly Kerry when they were proper vocal arrangements. You know, when you hear like three or four vocals going on at once. Things like "Pantagruel's Nativity" and "On Reflection." He had a real knack for composing and he learned in the classical style to do it properly at the Royal Academy of Music. He was able to work all that stuff out, although most of those arrangements were written out after the fact. The trick was playing them [laughs].
JB: You guys were arguably the most complicated of those first generation UK prog bands. You guys were probably the best musicians.
GG: Yeah, we seemed to have gotten that reputation.
JB: What do you think of the Neo prog bands that have taken Gentle Giant as a major influence? Bands like Spock's Beard, Echolyn. They do a lot of that vocal counterpoint trickery. Are you a fan of those bands? Have any of them ever contacted you?
GG: I am. I like the fact that the tradition is being carried on. It's essential to progressive music in general. I always think, you know, the more people playing whatever kind of music is a great thing. It's fantastic that they saw us as influence but you can only take that so far. Then you have to develop your own thing, which bands like Spock's Beard, Echolyn, Porcupine Tree and Dream Theater have.
JB: Yeah I love all those guys.
GG: Kudos to them for putting their own stamp on what they do. That's important.
JB: It's one thing to be influenced but it's another to be able to pull it off, which they all do, especially Spock's Beard and Echolyn.
GG: Yeah, they do. I've gotten to know Echolyn over the last three of four years. They're really good players. Brett Kull is a great guitar player and good writer.
JB: I'm a big fan of album long pieces like Thick as a Brick, so I love Echolyn's Mei.
GG: Yeah, good stuff. It's good to see that happening.
JB: So how did the Three Friends band come together? Whose idea was it? Was it hard to assemble the other musicians?
GG: Well, it's funny. It kind of fell fortuitously, in a way. It wasn't hard to get the musicians. It kind of started out of an idea of Malcolm Mortimer. He lives down in the south of England and he knew some people whom were he played with. They were friends of his, and were Gentle Giant fans and they knew some of the tunes. So he and Roger Carey and Andy Williams started playing some Giant tunes just for fun and it sounded pretty good. The following Christmas, about two years ago, I happened to be over and we had a jam, sort of, at Malcolm's place and it sounded really good. Like we could do something with it. That's kind of been an idea of mine for awhile now. I've tried a few times over the last several years to see if any other members of Gentle Giant wanted to do something. I always felt it was timeless and I always loved the music.
JB: Oh, absolutely.
GG: It has that kind of period stamp on it but it's still fresh today. It'd be a great opportunity. So I always wanted to do that and having not gotten much response from the other guys, I thought "well this music is too good to just sort of stay lying around." I've been to a lot of music festivals over the years and a lot of people would come up to me who, you know, cite Gentle Giant as an influence to them and inspired them to be musicians.
JB: Yeah, it's been an inspiration to me too.
GG: It should reach a new audience, a younger audience, who are hungry for something like that. I wanted to play some of the Gentle Giant catalogue that we never played on stage, you know, back in the day, for whatever reason, whether technical or because it wouldn't go over with the big crowds. There's a lot of material we never played live and I thought that since now we're older and not really aiming at that rock audience and all that mayhem, that we could take a little bit easier and try to play some of the more, not complicated, but tunes that are really nice musically but never got an airing back then, like "Empty City."
JB: That's great.
GG: Yeah, so this Three Friends project came together fortuitously like I said. So once we got the nucleus of the four of us, we decided it wasn't going to work without a keyboard player. Malcolm knew this keyboard player, John Donaldson, who loved that material and learned it very quickly.
JB: Wow, that's amazing.
GG: Yeah, and then, you know, we were Gentle Giant again, sort of. It wasn't a huge struggle to get the personnel. It just fell in our laps, which was wonderful. All the guys are great and we get along really well. There weren't any sort of big auditions. It started off as it should've, I'm glad to say, as a fun project and it became apparent that we were doing a good job of it. We could sort of pursue the idea of presenting faithful renditions of the tunes. That's pretty much how it happened.
JB: It sounds like these guys you met knew how to play the music already. Was it difficult for you to relearn how to play it?
GG: Some of it has been, yeah. As I've delved into it, the muscle memory kicked in a bit [laughs] so I could remember the fingerings that I played. That was helpful. As for the tunes we never really played back in the day, you know, I'd only really ever played them in the studio. When we recorded the original albums. So I had to learn them, not relearn them. Going into the studio, you know, you play three of four takes and then you kind of forget it, never to be remembered unless you bring it back out for a live performance, which in our case is now forty years later. So yeah, it was a bit difficult playing "Empty City" because I couldn't remember playing that guitar part at all. I really had to have a close listen and a cigarette and all that stuff. But it's been really enjoyable because I'm rediscovering those tunes again and surprises reveal themselves to me.
JB: It's sort of similar to what Dweezil Zappa is doing with "Zappa Plays Zappa." He's looking at the current music scene and his father's catalogue and thinking "this stuff needs to be played for a new generation."
GG: Yeah, that's true. It may not be true for every band but I think Gentle Giant music has a solid case and a good chance for being long remembered. That seems to be the case.
JB: That was the time when you actually needed talent to be famous, as opposed to now. I was raised on progressive music and hated the inferior music on MTV and radio, so I'm really glad you guys are doing this.
GG: Well, great. That's a lot of the opinions we run into. I'm not putting down simplistic music, you know, but this music is wonderful music and deserves to have its fair hearing, especially now. Information is so easy shared with the internet these days and as a result people who like idiosyncratic bands like Gentle Giant can find each other. There's a large nucleus of them who want to hear this stuff.
JB: Now, Kerry Minnear was with Three Friends until October 2009. What happened there?
GG: Yeah, Kerry never was one who enjoyed playing on stage. He didn't like touring, it kind of wore him down, and he wasn't comfortable playing live. We did a few dates with him. We did a mini tour in Montreal and played the FMPM festival over there and then we went to Japan and played four shows. That was really heavy duty on everyone and I think Kerry decided "I don't really like the touring." He liked that playing and performing but he couldn't take the rigors of going on the road and playing live.
JB: Yeah, I've heard it's tough.
GG: Yes, it is. I mean it's fine, it was his decision totally. I have no problem with that. Although when people ask me, I always say "we had musical differences" [laughs]. It's been some work. We didn't have Kerry when we started and we had to accommodate him back into the fold and we got comfortable with that for awhile and then when he left, we had to figure out how to face the project again. It puts a bit more of a burden on John because he's covering up loads of parts and multiple sounds. It puts everyone on their toes because it's a challenge to play as many parts as we're trying to put into it now.
JB: I've never seen a band like Gentle Giant switch instruments like you guys did. You all had your main instruments but the way you would switch to others was amazing. It's never been paralleled.
GG: Thanks. It wasn't that we were virtuosos on any particular instrument, you know. We always felt that the music is the thing that you serve as a musician. You shouldn't let your ego get in the way of making the music the best thing. We did a recorder ensemble, for instance, and none of us are recorder virtuosos but we learned the parts well enough. We could do that, but we probably couldn't have played anything else, you know, just the bits that we written to play. That's kind of how we approached it. Ray was an extremely good violin player, he'd studied as a kid, and Andy is a really good guitar player. In Kerry's case, he plays keyboards extremely well and he plays cello, not very well in his opinion.
JB: He played during the live performances of "So Sincere," right?
GG: Yeah. John [Weathers] learned a bit of vibraphone to play some bits and, you know, we were also thinking about the live show and what's good to look at visually. It is interesting to see people sort of switch off instruments like that, but ultimately, the point was to serve the music, to serve the tune. And if we needed, say, a recorder ensemble part or acoustic quartet, that's what we would strive to do. We didn't have very good skills on, say, recorder or cello, it but if that's the part that needed playing, we did it.
JB: The one thing that always impressed me was the "Octopus Medley" that you and Ray Shulman did. How difficult was it to play and how did you write it?
GG: Yeah, I suppose it's difficult [laughs]. It came out of an idea we had during one of our tours, either for In a Glass House or The Power and the Glory, and we were doing an Octopus bit during the show so we figured we'd put a medley in the middle that featured bits of Octopus. It began with "Knots," I think, and then the recorder solo and then the acoustic guitar duet was born out of representing different parts of some of the albums of Giant. We played a bit of Acquiring the Taste actually. It came about out of us wanting to play a bit of an arrangement of "Raconteur, Troubadour" on acoustic and then there was a lot of experimentation at our homes. We got together for rehearsal, etc. I think there are actually two or three versions of the duet, though slightly different of course. We played it well together and again, it was another thing that was really good to do live. That's pretty much how that came about.
JB: So Gentle Giant played the Tower Theater back in the 70s. What was that like and what do you expect the reception to be at the Keswick based on that experience of the area [Philadelphia]?
GG: You know, sometimes it's hard to recall specific venues. I know we went there but I can't remember when we did it. I know we didn't see the Liberty Bell [laughs]. I think we played at the Spectrum with Todd Rundgren back then. It's always been a great music town but it wasn't a place we visited all that much. I don't know, maybe twice or three times. It's nice to be coming back there. I know from the emails people send and prog fans I meet generally, there seems to be a lot of fans in that area of Pennsylvania. I mean there are fans all over the east coast but it seems to be quite concentrated in the Philly area.
JB: How did the Mahavishnu Project come to play with you at the Keswick show? Were you ever a fan of Mahavishnu Orchestra?
GG: I don't know how they came to be on the bill, quite honestly. I think it was to do with our agent who booked the show and thought they'd be good for an opener. I do know of them and I know the drummer, Gregg Bendian, he's a superb drummer. He also plays with the Musical Box, the Genesis tribute band. I'm pleased that they're on the bill. It's a good match and they're an extremely good band.
JB: Now I've heard that some artists can't listen to their own work objectively and appreciate it. I think it was Paul McCartney who said he could never listen to Sgt. Pepper as the rest of us do. Is that how it is for you? What is your favorite Gentle Giant album?
GG: That is hard. It's been far enough away in time now that I can listen to it without remembering some of the circumstances that went into recording it. At least I hope I can [laughs]. I can listen to them subjectively, somewhat, and I do enjoy it. I enjoy the writing of it; I mean I'm always a horrible critic of my own playing, as most players are. I don't particularly enjoy listening to myself, but there are several things on the albums that I like, that I'm happy that I did. I really like the live album because it really captures the band live and the spirit of the band and the atmosphere of a good concert, so that's a good one for me. As far as conceptual ones, I really like Acquiring the Taste for its bold statement and exploration and adventurousness. I think it's really good. I like a lot of them and individual tracks here and there. I really like The Power and the Glory as a complete album.
JB: Yeah I really like the conceptual continuity of that one. How it reprises a melody at the end that we heard at the beginning.
GG: Yeah it's hard to cherry pick though, you know?
JB: Yeah I can imagine. What was it like when Phil Shulman left after Octopus? How did that impact the sound? Was there a need, especially from the Shulman brothers with In a Glass House, to prove that you guys could still go on?
GG: I think it did affect the sound. We became a kind of harder band, a bit rockier. Maybe not as visionary. Phil was sort of an intellectual, he was extremely well read so he would draw influences from many literary and art sources. He would offer the band concept ideas, like the Three Friends idea. He led a lot of the early direction. He was bold enough and old enough, being ten years older than the rest of us, to sort of say "this is what we ought to be doing. We aren't going to be a normal rock band or a pop band. We have the talent to be something else." He really pushed for that and we perhaps lost a bit of that after he left. The instrumentation obviously changed. We used less saxophone after that and less acoustical instruments. We weren't sure what to do after he left. We had a brief moment of panic in thinking we would have to break up, but then we looked at each other and thought "this is crazy." We had stupendous writing and I think we ended up buying our first Moog Synthesizer after that to sort of try to emulate the saxophone lines he would play. That became a solution and that kind of digital and analog stuff was just starting to happen and technologies were changing. The band definitely took on a rockier edge, but you know, things change and you go with them. You can't stay at the same place all the time; you have to move on.
JB: That's very true. Now in the progressive rock circle, among fans, Gentle Giant is just as important as, say, King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, and ELP, but I think you'll agree that these bands were more commercially successful and well known amongst the general population. Why do you think that is?
GG: Well, I think that ultimately, they had songs and tunes that were more accessible to a wider segment of the public. Ours were certainly not chart driven music and at the time, intentionally so. That sort of already negated us from the arena, you know, deciding not to do that sort of "peddle/bass" kind of thing that Genesis might do. We sort of ostracized ourselves from having hits that way.
JB: Well I think that's very respectable.
GG: Thanks. Yeah, at the time it was intentional, but I don't think we knew what we were doing, really [laughs]. You could really mess up doing what we did.
JB: Yeah I mean I always kind of suspected that with you guys. I always dismissed Genesis after Steve Hackett left and they got more commercial, so I'm glad Gentle Giant never did that. My suspicion was always that you disbanded just as the 80s started and prog bands were doing that stuff, you kind of said "we aren't going in that direction." I think that's really admirable in terms of honoring your artistic vision instead of going for commercial success.
GG: Thanks. I mean we did kind of try in the end with pressure from record companies and forces within the band as well. We wanted to be a successful band but sometimes it's not written in the cards. We just couldn't produce those things that Genesis and ELP could. We were a different kind of band and we just weren't made for mass appeal, I suppose. In the end, it just wasn't that. We tried to make it so with the last three albums and it was rather unsuccessful.
JB: So I guess you're more proud of your early and middle period than the last few albums.
GG: Yeah, absolutely. We started to lose it with Missing Piece and, you know, Giant for a Day had a couple of good tracks a few good ideas but…
JB: Well it was just the trend of the time.
GG: It was too much of a departure from who Gentle Giant really was so it wasn't satisfying for either camp. It wasn't great for the true art rock and prog fans and it wasn't good for mass appeal either so it was like a failure, being in the middle of those two things.
JB: No I think you guys succeeded at being what you wanted to be and it's just that the times were changing but you didn't want to conform.
GG: People seem to regard it as a short period of time to be together, now, but ten years is really a long life span for a band.
JB: Yeah, the Beatles were around for about that long.
GG: A band might sort of peek after four or five years and after a huge album and a drive to do things and then it all becomes really familiar and it gets comfortable and then when that happens, that's kind of the death of it. You have to stop and retreat.
JB: I think it's very noble to stop the project when you feel it has run its course instead of dragging it out. It's nothing to be ashamed of.
GG: Yeah, I mean we felt that the last album was pretty good and had some good tunes and had a good spirit behind it, you know, in the harder commercial vein. And then it was enough.
JB: So what guitarists influenced you as you were growing up and during the years of Gentle Giant?
GG: Well the first reason I picked up the guitar was the Shadows with Hank Marvin and Cliff Richard. They had a sort of American counterpart [The Ventures] with a great song, "Walk, Don't Run." Those old guitar bands were really big in Britain. And then of course the Beatles happened and I learned a bunch of their tunes. Then I discovered the blues and Eric Clapton and John Mayall and, you know, I fell in love with it all and I still love it. It really formed the basis of my playing, even in Giant. I've never been what you'd call the "prog guitar player," like, say, Steve Hackett who has a totally different sound and approach than I do. But you know we were a different thing.
JB: Well I think that one thing that separated you guys from the rest was that you guys weren't really known for typical song chord progressions.
GG: Well there were loads of chord progressions but all the parts played them differently.
JB: There were a lot of arpeggios.
GG: Yeah I mean what Giant played wasn't like chords to a song with a voice on top. It wasn't that kind of music. It was more akin to classical writing like Bach. There's counterpoint. There's a melody line, a counter line to that, a bass line that's part of that, and perhaps another line. All those notes transverse the time and it formed what you could call chords, but counterpoint was really at the heart of what Giant did. We played very few songs with a standard chord progression.
JB: Exactly. Speaking of typical song chord progressions, Gentle Giant formed out of the Shulman's previous band, Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. Were you aware of that band and how did you get an audition?
GG: I was aware of theirs, actually, and I wasn't a fan. I was actually slightly horrified when I went to the guitar audition [laughs]. I went in there with my brother and I walked into the room and the bass drum had Simon Dupree and the Big Sound on it. I wondered "what the hell am I doing here?" because they were a pop band and had a few hits that I really didn't like, me being deeply into the blues. They were a pop band and that was a complete difference from where I was. But I realized that although I loved the blues, I wanted to stretch out musically and open up to more influences. As I got to know them better and better, they were much more than just a pop band. That was something they set up specifically with the manager to have hits and be a pop band and whatever that might've meant. They didn't have Kerry at that time and when Gentle Giant started it was just the three Shulmans and Martin Smith from the previous band. Then they got Kerry and that was the bunch that auditioned me. Kerry coming on board changed everything and the goal became music for the sake of music.
JB: In 1995 you played with an Italian band, Divae, at the Machiero Blues Festival, where you covered "The Boys in the Band." They also recorded an original track, "The Return of the Gentle Giant." How did it feel playing with them and having them dedicate a song to your band?
GG: Oh yeah, it was wonderful. They had that record coming out already [Determinazione] and as part of the promotion, they invited me to come play with them. We sort of concocted an instrumental medley based on a lot of instrumental bits of Giant. That's what we played at the festival and it was terrific. Malcolm and I were just in Rome a couple weeks ago playing with another band that had a guy there who wrote a book about Giant in Italian. Upon the release of his book, he invited us to come down to help launch it and play with his band, which was more of a jazz band, really. It had oboe and flute and trumpet and he played saxophone and bass clarinet and double basses. They did some really good arrangements of Giant songs, particularly off Acquiring the Taste. We did a couple of shows with them and it was really fun and good.
JB: About five years ago, you appeared on Back Against the Wall, a prog tribute album to Pink Floyd. Were you a fan of Pink Floyd and, since they were a different type of progressive rock, what was it like turning those songs into a more technical prog style?
GG: Well, I've always loved Dave Gilmour. He's a wonderful guitar player with a great touch. I saw Pink Floyd back in the 60s and I was very impressed by them. They had a sort of force that washes over you emotionally. The music itself terribly challenging and I know a lot of people call them a prog band but I don't see that particularly. They're a huge rock act and they're really good at that. I like all those tunes and Dark Side of the Moon has some really good writing and brilliant stuff. The whole project was put together by Billy Sherwood, who played with YES in one incarnation. He invited tons of people to play on it but I never got to meet any of them. I went out to Billy's house and played individual tracks of guitar, but on the album, you know, Tony Levin is on bass and Alan White is playing drums and Ian Anderson is playing flute and singing. It was quite a good band on the record but we never actually played live, which would've been intriguing.
JB: Going back to Neo-prog, have you played with any bands recently and who would you play with if you could?
GG: I haven't played with anybody recently. There was a long period after Giant broke up where I played professionally, till about '94 I guess, and then I had developed no feeling in my fingers. I had carpel tunnel so I had surgery on both wrists for that. I consciously stayed away from guitar after that since I didn't want to hurt the recovery, so I didn't play for about eight or nine years at all. Then I started taking it out again and fooling around with it and that's been going fine so far. And I haven't played with anybody because I've been out of the loop raising a family and being a regular guy in Illinois. It's only been within the last, I guess, ten years that I thought about trying to do this again. Now that the kids are raised and gone, it was a point in time when I felt that I could do what I wanted to do again. And this is a great project to kick that off with.
JB: I had no idea that happened. I'm glad you recovered and can play guitar again.
GG: Yeah, thank you. I'm enjoying it, that's for sure [laughs]. But again, I never considered myself a technical wiz on the guitar. My big strength is being part of the band and part of the rhythm section. My strength is rhythm playing and ensemble playing. I never really focused on doing solos, you know. I'll do them but that's not really my nature, to be that guy. I've never had that ego but I will do it. And consequently it sort of hinders me from approaching other people to play with them [laughs].
JB: There's always that debate amongst guitar fans on whether it's better to be more melodic like you and Dave Gilmour, who you know, isn't a technical wizard either, or just shred a ton of notes a second? I prefer the former, what you guys do, crafting melodies and playing tastefully and emotively.
GG: Those are always the kind of players that attract me in whatever kind of music it is. I'm not impressed with technique. I mean, it's fine and all but it doesn't serve a purpose. Why show a technique if you've got nothing to say? The whole point of music is that it's a language of its own. If you could describe music in words, it wouldn't be music. It's a unique art form and therefore it affects people in a way that no other art does. There's an intellectual effect it has on people and that's what it has to do. That's what should come out.
JB: That's why I love being a musician and being able to interview my idols, like you, and write about music. It's wonderful.
GG: Well, that's a good job you got there then [laughs]. Good music always needs champions and there's so much crap music around, as you know, that gets used for commercial purposes or whatever else. It's not about the music. I was just over at my brother's house, he's a jazz guitar player, and we have these kinds of conversations all the time, about melody and what music is. We started watching some Charlie Christian stuff on YouTube. Every time I listen to him I'm absolutely floored at how melodic the guy is. Just an unbelievable player.
JB: This is sort of off topic, but did you ever hear of Devin Townsend?
GG: No, can't say that I have. Don't know him.
JB: He's a solo artist that played with Steve Vai and had a metal band called Strapping Young Lad, which I never really got into. He's sort of always my example of a present day musical genius, a true artist, and he's very melodic. He makes art for arts sake and doesn't pander to the audience. If you're looking for someone like that today, definitely check him out.
GG: I'll try to remember that and check him out. I do admire that approach with people, whether musicians, photographers, painters, even plumbers and carpenters, writers, whatever. What you put into your work is important.
JB: Yeah I've been an advocate for prog since I was 13 and talked about Thick As A Brick in High School, and of course people couldn't comprehend how a song could last longer than five minutes. But I was always trying to expand my friends' tastes. As a matter of fact, in tenth grade, my music professor had us bring in something to share and, you know, people brought in rap music and generic, bland pop music, and I brought in "Knots."
GG: Yeah [laughs].
JB: And you know, no one my age understood it, but the professor did and he kind of nodded to me. He got what I was trying to do, to show my peers to look outside what MTV plays us.
GG: Well thanks for that, Jordan, that's great [laughs]. I hate being told what to do and what to like and what to buy. I don't mind being shown a suggestion but I hate being told that I should like something.
JB: When you're done this tour, what's next? A new project?
GG: Yeah, good question. Malcolm and I have been talking about that. We're trying to fit something in with people's schedules, you know. Our singer, Mick Wilson, is with 10cc, and all the guys are musicians who are always out with other things. We might have to figure out some alternatives to continue this. Ideally, we'd like to play enough throughout the year to make it our main thing but that's just not practical at this point, so we might have to think about a revolving crew, a cast of musicians, where people would be available to do stuff. It seems to be a kind of magic with the band and we do get on pretty well and you don't want to mess with the recipe once you've got it. It's hard to find it initially.
JB: The true beauty of music is when a bunch of musicians can play and think with one mind, like the way Gentle Giant could switch time signatures and instruments together, at once. That's rare.
GG: Yeah you've got to learn to play with people. It's great being a great player on your own but ultimately, the effect of people playing together produces a whole new dimension. It's rare to get a group of people together who can do that, sort of second guess each other. It's a precious thing so you have to look after it if you find it.
JB: Exactly. I'm really looking forward to seeing you guys on the 21st.
GG: Oh, good. Come up and say hello.
JB: Ok, that sounds great. I can't wait.
GG: Yeah, we're really excited about it and I look forward to seeing what you write up about us.
JB: I'll be sure to send it to you. I'm honored to have had this opportunity to talk to you. Thank you again.
GG: Oh, thank you, Jordan. It's been good.
Photo's courtesy of Ant, Jack Valentine & Veli Frey