An in-depth, history packed discussion with keyboard ace Michael Clay from the legendary Texas prog group Hands. By Pete Pardo
Discussions in prog circles regarding the elite masters of the 1970's usually rotate among the bands that made it big, either with album sales, FM radio hits, arena tours, or line-up longevity. Such acts as Genesis, Yes, E.L.P., King Crimson, Gentle Giant, or even Jethro Tull, might usually be a part of these discussions. One band who was not quite as lucky to have hit the "big time" as the above mentioned groups, but possibly came fairly close, is the Texas band Hands.
While this complex and influential band remained extremely busy with touring and recording (they opened up for Gentle Giant on numerous gigs), that major label deal always eluded them. The band's sound drew from contemporaries of the time such as Kansas, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Frank Zappa, Dixie Dregs, King Crimson, Happy the Man, and of course Gentle Giant, and featured a myriad of musical instruments that came together to form a highly unique sound.
Not until a few short years ago had any of the early-recorded material been released, and since, a renewed interest in the band has occurred. One can only wonder what might have been had that opportunity come knocking for Hands back in the 70's, but on the eve of a new CD chock full of recently recorded material being released, the possibility of major recognition seems in store for the band.
Michael Clay, longtime keyboard player for Hands, recently was kind enough to share some frequent communications with me via the Internet, and gave us a superb, in-depth look at this fabled and legendary band, past, present, and future. For the first time, here is a complete look at Hands.
Sea of Tranquility: The band Hands has been around since the early 1970's, and has quite a storied history. Can you describe the early days when the group first came together?
When I arrived at High School in 1971, I was the only person I knew at the time that ever listened to Lizard by King Crimson, Spirit and Beethoven in one sitting. I met a girl named Dianne Barreyre who had heard of Crimson. We became friends and she introduced me to her older brother Michael Barreyre. He was into all sorts of strange music that I had not heard, and was also studying the guitar in a serious way. After a time Michael and I decided to form a band and play some of the music we'd been listening to. He had a friend, David Carlisle, who had a Rickenbacker bass and was into Yes, the Moody Blues and Crimson. We used to hang out together with some of my friends from high school (Michael and David were older and long out of high school) and formed a sort of…artist clique, you might say. We called ourselves the Crimson Cult after King Crimson. We were very much into Abstract Jazz like early Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, and progressive bands such as Yes, KC and the like. The one album that we held up as a milestone and played the grooves off was Close to the Edge. One night at a party we were fortunate enough to hear Three Friends by Gentle Giant. That had an immediate effect on our cult and it swayed us more in the direction of tight, composed rock rather that the loose, abstracted jazz we were so fond of. Classical music was also a big part of our listening experiences those days. Michael was very knowledgeable about classical as was I and those standards were our guide in terms of discipline and dedication. So there was always a lot of respect and admiration for schooled, trained musicians.
I had met guitarist Ernie Myers at a mutual friend's party. He had been playing with John Rousseau, a drummer, and some others above a drive-in movie theatre projection room. They had also been playing outdoor gigs at East Hill, a popular place at the lake for kids to get stoned and what not. So Michael Barreyre, David Carlisle, John Rousseau and myself decided to get a band together. I asked my good friend Sonny Solell to play sax in the band and that was the beginning of the decade of progressive music. We called ourselves Ibis after "Flight of the Ibis" by Ian McDonald and Michael Giles. We played one or two gigs, I think, and after the second gig which was at a place called Deb's Danceland, we decided that Carlisle wasn't going to cut it. In the meantime, Dianne Barreyre, who had introduced me to her brother Michael, was dating a very talented guitarist and singer named Steve Parker. He came and sat in at the last gig of Ibis and when we got rid of David he agreed to come on as the bassist. He was not really a bassist but had a great voice and learned the bass very quickly. We changed our name to Prism shortly after that. Prism had a few original tunes but mostly we did covers. John Rousseau searched through the paper and found Paul Bunker, an ex SMU violinist. Paul played viola mostly and he read music very well. We had a few jams at John Rousseau's house and afterwards Paul joined permanently. The band played several club gigs and did very well with our strange set list of Zappa, Mahavishnu Orchestra, King Crimson, and Jethro Tull, as well as Johnny Winter, Allman Brothers, ZZ Top etc. Tensions at this point between Michael Barreyre and the rest of the band reached an unworkable stage. While all this was happening, Ernie Myers had moved to Los Angeles, California, where he met Skip Durbin, excellent woodwind player, at a party thrown by some of the Eagles. They hit it off and Ernie convinced Skip to move to Texas saying that they would eventually be part of Prism. Not long after Ernie's return to Texas Michael Barreyre left the band, and we subsequently replaced him with Ernie. Long before Michael left, Sonny Solell had decided to leave the group but he still let us rehearse at his place. He remained an ally of the band for years to come. The band added Skip on woodwinds and Prism was complete. We played several gigs and slowly the cover tunes faded and originals took over. After moving rehearsal venues two more times we then heard of the Canadian band Prism, who were going to release their debut soon. Since we didn't have a deal at that point, and being afraid of reprisals by their label Arista, we decided to change our name. After what seemed like an eternity we decided upon Hands. We were playing all original music by that time and had done a couple of high profile gigs, sow e changed our name roughly around the time that we were finishing up the first recordings for what would become the first CD, Hands. Later on we added Tom Reid on vocals and became a seven- piece. After a while, in 1979, I decided to leave the band. Paul Bunker left some time after that and Hands then hired Mark Menikos on violin and Shannon Day on keyboards. The band recorded several of the tunes we'd worked on while PauI, Skip and I were still part of the band. The songs they recorded are many of the tunes that make up Palm Mystery. Hands finally disbanded in late 1980.
Sea of Tranquility: Talk about the state of progressive rock around the time of the Hands recordings, especially in your home state of Texas (an unlikely source of prog music I would say!)
At the time that the recordings for HANDS, our first release, were made, what you would term progressive rock was pretty huge. What we were doing, although we tended toward the obscure later on, was to emulate bands that were then very popular. Bands such as ELP, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Yes flourished in those days. When Hands was a going concern, Yes was selling out Memorial Auditorium which seated 25,000 people, as was Jethro Tull. ELP had to do two shows in large 20,000 seat auditoriums. Most of this music was British but there were some American acts such as Kansas and Zappa that did really well. (Although I don't really consider Zappa progressive rock) Jazz-fusion was big at the time as well with Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Weather Report. We, the band and our clique, never really made the distinction between rock, progressive rock and jazz-rock. Because there were so many progressive acts in the mainstream we just considered it a way of doing rock music. We were never consciously doing progressive rock with a capital P, but felt that some rock was better than others in our eyes. Our members liked a lot of other bands that were not termed progressive as well. I just don't think that those bands influence made its way into our sound. For instance, we were (and still are) great Beatles fans but their sound never found its way into our music. I love John McLaughlin almost obsessively but I could never incorporate his sound into what I was doing. A lot of us liked heavy bands like Black Sabbath, Mountain, Cream and so forth, but these great bands never found their way into our vocabulary. The point is we were not trying to do something apart from what was very popular and mainstream. I do not think progressive rock is actually a style per se. It is really more of a process much like the fugue is not really a form in music but more of a procedure. You can approach anything "progressively." Take for example the Dixie Dregs, who were at times doing what I would call progressive country. It is simply pushing whatever you're doing, be it Metal, Country, Blues, Rock, to it's logical (and sometimes illogical) extreme. We loved Zappa, King Crimson, and Gentle Giant. Their voice found their way into our music so we sound more like those artists than others, but we didn't emulate them because they were of a particular style.
Progressive rock in Texas was/is like it is everywhere else in the nation where there is a huge metropolitan area inhabited by baby boomers and the generation that immediately followed. As I stated earlier, a great deal of progressive music in the seventies was also mainstream music that was readily available. I bought In the Wake of Poseidon by King Crimson in a grocery store if you can imagine that! So there has always been a healthy appetite for progressive music in Texas. I saw Gentle Giant five times in Dallas, and have seen Tull and Yes too many times to count. Zappa is another act I caught live more times than I can count, mainly in Austin, a place Zappa loved. In north Texas, due to the proximity of University of North Texas, (formerly North Texas State University) a prominent jazz school, there have been rich opportunities to see all kinds of Jazz. I was very influenced by seeing Weather Report live. Seeing the late Bill Evans was also a life-changing event for me. Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock were also on hand to blow me away. Also, there is a well-established classical music culture here due in some part to the Van Cliburn competition. As you know, the kinship of classical music and progressive music is all but assumed.
As far as the progressive climate for today, I think it's good for bands that are established and have some history in progressive rock. New bands touting the progressive label have an uphill battle, but they can make it here, as there are plenty of fans willing to buy all kinds of product if only they can find out about it. The same is true for Austin, a town known for root music and country but is really just like Nashville in that it holds incredible musical diversity. One would expect that Texans were predisposed toward country and blues music. Those genres are here to be sure but in no way capture the lion's share of the listening public. There are actually more country format stations in New York State than there are in Texas. Texans, I believe, don't really care about genres and labels as much as say Los Angeles or Chicago listeners. The crossover from wildly divergent charts is very much a dynamic here. We are not so much concerned with stylistic purity, but whether something is genuine and well executed.
Sea of Tranquility: What are some of the your favorite songs from the 2 Shroom releases, and why.
Personally I like "Triangle of New Flight" from Hands. I find that song oddly beautiful. Also, I enjoy the distorted bass solo in "Dreamsearch"; a rare moment where production, emotion, and musicianship happily intersected. From Palm Mystery I like "New Skies" quite a bit. It is Skip's best song in my opinion. I also like "I Foreign I." That song captured our great pop sensibilities and strange humor all in one piece.
Sea of Tranquility: How close did the band come to ever scoring a major label album deal during the early years?
Back in the 70's, during the first go-round, we came very close to a major record contract with Ken Scott and his production company. He was very interested in our music but our timing was bad since he had just invested a lot of money into Happy the Man. An investment he didn't recoup. I think Ken Scott's progressive experience can be heard on The Cars albums. If we had had Scott, I think we would have done at least as well as Happy the Man or Gentle Giant. Our band lived only to record and tour. If we had received even modest notice from the industry we would have stayed together, but I think the Sex Pistols, Clash and others ended our hopes of becoming mainstream. When Robert Fripp released his solo album with short hair and a suit, and talked of becoming a small mobile unit, it signaled a great change was in store for me.
Sea of Tranquility: Once the band split, how busy did the individual members stay in the music industry?
Right after the final Hands disintegration in 1980, Skip Durbin, flutist and woodwind player, moved back to Los Angeles where he was originally from. Paul Bunker, violinist and guitarist, moved to the desert of Southern California ala Captain Beefheart, and we really don't know what's happened to him. I think Skip saw him a few times in the early 80's, but that's about it. Skip has continued his musical involvement by playing in various live groups of all styles, studio sessions and composing and playing film music. He is also a film editor and does very well with that. Skip has a great interest to play on the new record but as of this writing he has been unable to get to Texas to record his parts. He is a major part of the sound and I hope we can get his tracks down very soon.
In 1980 I joined a band called Non-Fiction. We had a bluesy female vocalist named Karen Selden and a straight-ahead rhythm section. Non-Fiction played a strange, blues-tinged, cheesy science-fiction version of what would have been called new wave music. We had interest from Danny Hutton's (of Three Dog Night fame) management company and we backed up Fear, Lee Ving's LA punk outfit, at the Rancid Scum Square Garden in Dallas. Drugs and poor, unprofessional musicianship eventually cratered the band. Concurrent with Non Fiction, Ernie played in a band called Cottonmouth, a driving southern rock style band. I don't think it lasted too long. After the demise of the first Non-Fiction, Ernie and I formed a band called The Fun Guys. I had also returned to school to finish my music degrees. The Fun Guys were a snappy, power-new-wave line up that had elements of Talking Heads, League of Gentlemen, Split Enz, Police and other power pop, power New Wave influences. That band was the acorn for what would eventually become our greatest commercial success – The Elements. The Fun Guys were three ex Hands members and Paul Hollis, drummer from the defunct Non-Fiction. We eventually replaced him with John Fiveash, the final Hands drummer. Ernie Myers, John Fiveash, Steve Parker and Michael Clay were The Fun Guys for about four months. Our only gig was a bar mitzvah at a Ramada Inn.
At that point, Charles Vessels, the husband and manager of Karen Selden from Non Fiction, called me. He had assembled two great guitarists, (Chainsaw) Mike McCullough and Gary Compton,plus ex Non Fiction bassist Bill Farrell. Because Charles had worked extensively with Three Dog Night, Toto and Elton John, he had gathered some major label interest for Karen and some of her songs. Charles Murdoch, executive at Elton John's Rocket records, was forming a new label – Mega Records. The label was backed by Rocket that was backed by (I think) WEA. Murdoch had offered a deal to Vessels and ordered him to put the band together. John Fiveash, Steve Parker and myself defected to Non Fiction. (v.2.0 as it were) It was an unhappy scene as Ernie was not invited to play by Vessels, and The Fun Guys were just starting to sound promising. Non Fiction was then Karen Selden, Mike McCullough, Gary Compton, Steve Parker, John Fiveash and myself. Power ballads and power arena rock ruled the day as evidenced by Toto, REO Speedwagon and the like. We were no different but incorporated a few "progressive" elements into the music as well as extensive Police, XTC and synth-pop (Duran Duran, Human League, Eurhythmics, etc) influences. Strangely enough, Derek Shulman of Gentle Giant had just moved to Dallas after the final Gentle Giant demise. He was looking to get into producing and management. I had the label call him and consider him for producer, and for a brief wonderful time, he was the producer slated for the Non Fiction debut album. Mega Records stiffed him when they thought (erroneously) that Hugh Padgham would be interested in producing. A fact that Derek wouldn't forget and would come back to haunt us later. We all went to LA and recorded the record at One Step Up studios where the Eagles had recorded the Long Run. The album was poor and lifeless due mainly to drugs, infighting at the label, and the misplaced production of Jerry Marcellino. It charted briefly, we toured for about a year and then the inevitable disintegration.
Concurrent with the above history, John Rousseau was gaining knowledge and becoming involved with video and film production. He continued to play his drums and worked with other bands and recording projects. He remained in close contact with Hands members and took part in jams and writing sessions. At one point he staged a massive performance at his wedding involving about 12 musicians from the entire Hands history.
Skip Durbin continued to hone his skill as a film editor. He played on many recording projects, collected instruments and continued to compose. He gained work doing film music for art films and documentaries.
After the Non Fiction heat-death there was a lull. After a period of time I had the idea of putting a Police style band together. The success of the Police, the new King Crimson album Discipline, Oingo Boingo, and a host of other creative bands, lead me to think that quality music could be done and very successfully at that. We could do great songs but just not in the epic format of earlier Yes, King Crimson influenced progressive rock. With that The Elements were formed consisting of Ernie Myers, John Fiveash, Steve Parker, and myself; the original Fun Guys, two thirds of Hands.
The history of the Elements is long and storied and deserves an article of its own. We were together close to 8 years (longer than Hands) and had no less than two major record deals fall apart. One deal went awry because of Derek Shulman who had risen to power at Polygram. Derek still held a mild grudge over being stiffed by Non Fiction's management. We backed up Culture Club, Jason and the Scorchers and Francis Canon, and we were handed awards by Don Henley and at one time were the most popular local band in Texas along with the Nelsons. The Elements officially ended in 1988-89.
After the Elements Ernie went on to play with the excellent Safety In Numbers. They developed quite the local following and garnered good rotation on local alternative rock stations.
Steve Parker continued to raise his children and get back to his acoustic guitar skills. John Fiveash did studio work and raised his family. Skip continued in film work, as did John Rousseau.
I went on to do television music, namely America's Most Wanted and Cops and several award-winning commercials, as well as furthered my classical piano career, which continues to this day. I've played with significant orchestras and chamber ensembles in Boston, San Francisco, and Dallas, in addition to publishing classical compositions and several piano pieces for young to intermediate players. This work is my first love and continues and enlightens my involvement with Hands.
Around 1993-94 Ernie Myers and Steve Parker started to play acoustic guitar oriented music. Later in 1996 they added John Fiveash and Steve Powell, ex-The Fact bassist, and formed All the Tea In China. They play melodic, progressive, acoustic style pop; strong melodies and excellent musicianship in the manner of Dave Mathews and Neil Finn.
Their CD Steep can be heard at their label's website, Ridgeback Records. They continue to gig and release CDs.
Mark Menikos, the former and current Hands violinist, plays in the Celtic band Brothers Three. They have won awards and headline concerts and festivals featuring Celtic and folk music.
Rex Bozarth, current Hands bassist, is a professional bassist and string player. He plays many symphony, opera and studio gigs, and plays in the Jazz ensemble Trio Blanc.
Sea of Tranquility: When did discussions regarding the band getting back together take place?
The idea was there after the first release of Hands, the CD that contains so much of our archival material. We were unprepared for the positive response that we would eventually get. Earnest talks containing real plans and agendas didn't materialize until 1997. That summer, we brought everyone together who were involved in Hands in the past, that had an interest in the project, for a monster jam that lasted a whole weekend. John Rousseau, the original HANDS drummer, had access to a television studio where he produced his video work. We assembled there over a blistering hot weekend and worked on ideas, jammed and actually rehearsed. It was fun to get together with everyone after so long. Although many of us had continued to work together long after Hands, it was strange to have everyone (almost) in the same room with the purpose of reinventing some progressive music.
Sea of Tranquility: How has the Internet helped in Hands gaining exposure the last few years?
The Internet has helped Hands to the degree that it has helped the so-called "Indie movement" and provided an alternative distribution model. Although the lion's share of our sales have not come from the internet, it has certainly provided us with a continuum of exposure that wouldn't be possible with traditional press and promotional efforts. Through email and websites we have a very direct contact with fans and industry professionals. Most people do not mind getting an email every day but they would certainly mind getting a phone call with the frequency and depth of my web campaigns. In that way, the web is useful. The negatives of the web are that so much music tends to devalue music in general. Things appearing only on the web are perceived as cheap or free and having little value. This is seen in a lot of people's attitude toward MP3s and the like. People that would never think of buying a CD, making copies and distributing without the consent of the copyright holder for profit or notoriety, are freely distributing MP3s often without consent of the copyright holder. I don't think this is from lack of respect for the artist or composer, but a mentality that says that things that are on the Internet are cheap or free and to some degree…disposable. The yin and the yang of the Internet have yet to be balanced in my eyes. I have confidence that it will be brought to equilibrium.
Sea of Tranquility: Can you go in depth for us regarding the upcoming new CD?
When the original Hands recordings on the first Shroom release started to gather steam in 1996-97, there was a feeling among Ernie, Rich at Shroom Productions, and myself that the world had indeed changed again. It was now fashionable, in certain circles, to utter the name of Progressive rock again without being stoned to death as a dinosaur. For years I had gone "underground" with my love of Yes, Kayak, Jethro Tull, Godley and Crème, and the venerable Gentle Giant and King Crimson. It became clear to me, and to Rich and Ernie I think, that there was a market for our musical thought from ages back. There probably always was a market for Hands; we simply had no way to get to it. With the advent of the Internet and the rise in stature of the indie movement, a crack was opened into that market. I think the idea for a new CD first came from Rich of Shroom fame. It made sense to Ernie and myself because it is so rare that all the original people in Hands were still available in some form or another and still playing music. I think the desire to show those who had bought the original Hands music that we had not stopped, had not devolved, but rather evolved and were all very much alive in the music world, was the driving factor behind the new music. That was the beginning of the idea and that idea floated in the ether for some time before anything was written. At some point, Ernie and I decided to write some tunes. We got together several times with an eight track, guitars and a keyboard and recorded what we had been working on individually. Those demos became the basis for the new CD. Concurrently, I worked on a composition that was sort of a sequel to "Zombieroch" from the first Hands CD. This was written out in classical fashion and I simply entered the notes into my notation program and later turned it into a sequence for demo purposes. We then took a song Ernie had written several years earlier, 91-92 I think, and sampled it into the computer and then rearranged the parts. We also added some intro and a coda. Then, I decided that a song I had written in 1991, a four-part suite called "Leaving", was suitable for Hands. With that tune the lineup for the new CD was complete.
The process for recording this monster has been daunting to say the least. The world is not the same as it was in 1975. Back then all we ever did was play and rehearse. "The BAND" was an exercise in tribal dynamics as well as a musical effort. Our worlds revolved around one another. However, today everyone is a professional. Their careers, understandably, consume a great deal of their time. Some of the guys have wives and children. Home ownership and the realization that there is more to life than being another Gentle Giant has directed the efforts of all the mature Hands players. Given those considerations, that we are able to turn out the level of music on this CD, in any quantity at all, is nothing short of a miracle to me. The players are now able to accomplish in one studio session, with little rehearsal, what it would have taken us months to do back in the seventies.
We are shooting for a Spring 2001 release. I think we can make that. As far as titles, we do not have one as yet. We may title it according to the CD's loose concept; that of entering a large house or structure. The songs are ordered to represent various rooms of the house and, of course, that house and its rooms are a metaphor for stages in life both private and public. Accordingly, the CD begins with the song "Knock/Enter" and ends with the suite "Leaving." To be sure though, this is a loose concept album and at least two of the songs are only linked in a vague fashion. The songs are, I believe, the logical progression from the early Hands music. In other words, what would we have sounded like if we had kept going and absorbed the influences of the years passed. We'll never know that sound for sure, but I think this is a very good approximation. It is definitely Hands. The sound is unmistakable, but it is Hands progressed, Hands anew, and ripe in concept and execution.
Sea of Tranquility: Any plans for live gigs?
Yes, most definitely. We were scheduled, tentatively for this year's NEARfest but we will have to await 2002 to make an appearance there, and are still trying to get a Progfest gig final and I hope to have a confirmation on that soon. Progday's organizers want us to play at their festival on Labor Day. We will play a CD release event here in Dallas at a venue yet to be determined, and are also considering several small club and medium size hall type gigs in Austin and Dallas. I don't think you can sell or properly promote a CD without live performance unless you're Madonna or the like.
Sea of Tranquility: How do you see Hands fitting into today's prog scene?
I hope to carry on somewhat in the spirit of King Crimson - a band that has a long history but continues to re-invent itself with every turn. I don't think there's any point to playing retro anything. Even classical music must be re-created anew with each performance. To try and sound as we did in the seventies would be futile and, I think, probably impossible. Once we find this new band's sound then I think we can safely determine where we want to go with it. The prog market, so-called, is wide open. Your own magazine attests to its vast variety. So I think we'll have people that consider themselves prog fans liking this music and some that are into new music, maybe alternative fans, finding themselves into it as well. We definitely have a history and one that we are proud to build on, and Hands will always serve the music and the fans of that music. Inside the album Acquiring the Taste, there is a credo served up by the, then young, Gentle Giant members. It states that they have done their most creative work at the risk of being very unpopular. I'd like Hands to pick up that same guidon and carry it past where, I think, Gentle Giant may have laid it down. Whatever space in today's prog scene that is concerned with genuine musical thought, artistic excellence, and a purity of purpose, is the space that Hands will inhabit.