It's a good time to be a fan of the legendary progressive rock band Gentle Giant. With the release of the box-set Scraping the Barrel, the DVD Giant On the Box, and the recent remasters of Free Hand, In a Glass House, The Power and the Glory, and Interview, there are plenty of interesting things happening in the camp of a band that has been retired for about 25 years. Pete Pardo recently visited with former Gentle Giant front man Derek Shulman at the offices of his record label DRT Entertainment and spoke about the CD release schedule, the band, and his life since the breakup of Gentle Giant back in 1980.
Read on for the full article!
Talk to any serious progressive rock fan, especially one who has been into the genre since the 1970's, and chances are the name Gentle Giant will come up more than once. This beloved band, who in actuality were together a mere 10 years and released 10 studio albums and one live record, continue to strike a chord with listeners young and old to this day, and their music has stood the test of time not necessarily with the mainstream audiences, but with those who enjoy challenging, quirky, and clever art forms. Never as huge as bands such as Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, or Jethro Tull, perhaps their success peaked on a similar level as King Crimson or Van Der Graaf Generator in terms of album sales and tour attendance.
Gentle Giant on stage
However, their uniqueness remains a testament to the individual skills of each member and their ability to work together to craft music that almost defied categorization, and certainly set them apart from the rest of the prog rock fraternity of groups that Gentle Giant always found themselves lumped in with. Former Gentle Giant singer (and multi-instrumentalist as well I might add) Derek Shulman tries to explain what made the band stand out from the rest. "It was like this big funnel really. We all had these varied influences, whether it be pop, classical, rock, jazz, or whatever, and we just came together and created what we did. A lot of the bands who were doing prog rock back then were doing long songs that in many cases were just filler, but we never tried to impress anyone with our talents, maybe we were just trying to impress each other! (laughs) What to us just seemed like some clever songs really touched a lot of people it seems, which never fails to amaze me" states Derek.
As the 70's drew to a close, Gentle Giant found themselves altering their sound a bit, relying on pop clichés and commercial sounds rather than their classic & complex style that drove albums like Octopus, Acquiring the Taste, Three Friends, Free Hand, and In a Glass House to near legendary status. Albums like The Missing Piece, Giant for a Day, and Civilian were drastically different, and it was obvious that this was a band that had lost their way and were perhaps falling under a combination of record company pressure to produce hits, the oncoming punk movement, and burnout. While these albums contained their fair share of strong material, there was obviously something missing, as if the spark fizzled out. "We disbanded in the summer of 1980" says Derek. "It's been well documented about our breakup. The creative juices just weren't flowing. I was living in Los Angeles at the time when we broke up. We weren't really sure what direction to take. I don't regret the decision we made to disband, and I'd do it again if we were to do the whole thing all over again"
Derek Shulman and Pete Pardo
I asked Derek how he feels about the last album, Civilian, especially considering that a few short years later while he was working at Polygram Records, bands they had on their label like Rush, Uriah Heep, Rainbow, Scorpions, and Def Leppard were putting out music that was not too far removed from the sounds created on Civilian. "Civilian was done with less passion than some of the other albums. As it turns out we as a band were just not good at being rock or pop stars. We would have loved to be as popular as a Genesis or Rush or Yes. In hindsight, I sometimes think that Gentle Giant was wrongfully put into the progressive rock category. Much of what we did was very clever, but we certainly didn't do these long complex tunes like Yes or Genesis did".
Which takes us to Derek's life after the break-up of Gentle Giant. Derek has made a very successful career for himself since the band parted ways back in 1980. "Shortly after the breakup of the band I went to work for Polygram Records in the promotions department, and began my career on this side of the fence. It was funny how many people who I met while working there, especially initially, who were avid fans of Gentle Giant! Eventually I became the Vice President of A&R for Polygram, and later on moved on to ATCO/East-West Records as President of that label for a few years. As I was meeting and helping sign a lot of pop and rock bands at the time, I began to understand how and why Gentle Giant remained sort of a cult band, and a band like Genesis became huge. Some bands or artists just have a huge drive or passion to become popular, which is what makes some successful and others not. I wish I could have done that for Gentle Giant looking back on it".
While with Polygram, Derek was influential in discovering some acts who later became extremely successful. "I signed Def Leppard, Cinderella, Kingdom Come, and Bon Jovi while at Polygram. In fact, Jon Bon Jovi still to this day is one of the hardest working people in rock & roll. He had such a strong desire to succeed back then, and he still does to this day.
After much success with Polygram and ATCO, Derek decided he wanted to move away from the big corporate environment to a much smaller label, where he could once again focus on discovering bands and really concentrate on the music once again, which he felt he had gotten away from a bit while in his lofty positions with the big boys. "I helped get Roadrunner Records their start basically", states Derek. At Roadrunner, he discovered Nickelback and SlipKnot, two acts that became mainstream successes for the label. After a few years, he decided to start from scratch and do something on his own, which became his current label DRT Entertainment. A band on DRT, Clutch, he really admires because "They have the same attitudes towards to their music as GG did back in the 70's, as far as not wanting to compromise their music, which I can really relate to and appreciate" says Shulman. " I'd like to offer my experience to a band like Clutch. I can certainly see a band like Clutch selling Gold records at some point. They are a very organic band. DRT is focused on rock bands, and we are focused on the music, which is something I felt I was getting away from when working for Polygram and ATCO in the end of my tenure there". How often do you hear something like this these days from a record company executive?
As Derek states how focused DRT Entertainment is on strictly the music, that is no more evident than the fact that he has spearheaded the remastering and reissuing of much of the Gentle Giant catalog on his label. The first two album to receive the treatment were Free Hand and In a Glass House. I mentioned to Derek how good these remasters sound compared to the older CD's that have been available on the market all these years. He replied, "Back in 1974, we were mastering the records organically, but that was the sound, a very dry sounding record. We cut the record as we recorded it. Now we have incredible electronic gear, and we can tweak sounds, frequencies, and we can do so many things to the original recordings to bring life to them. The remastered CD allows you to actually hear the individual instruments as if you were live in the studio, hear all the counterpoint, the sax, the keyboards, etc.. I'm very happy with the way Free Hand and In a Glass House came out. I'm also happy with Interview as well. I always liked that album, most of it anyway. I think some of the songs on Interview are quite good, but a few are awful! In general I'm very happy with what is coming out of the new remastering process".
What or who prompted the band to remaster the bands catalog? "Well, it's something we'd wanted to do for a while, but I don't know what really prompted us to do it at this time" states Derek. "Gentle Giant was a chapter in our lives, and certainly an important part, but not necessarily the zenith of all our lives. I don't really bask in the glory of the Gentle Giant years so to speak. I guess I got over my fear of dipping into the past. The rest of the guys have been more in touch with dealing with our years in the band. Plus, we need to make sure that Gentle Giant CD's are available in every store, and now they will be".
"The schedule for the remasters is for the rest of the year, so we have Interview, Power and the Glory, The Missing Piece, Giant for a Day, and the live album Playing the Fool set to come out a few months apart from each other here in 2005. Then, we are going to do a compilation of stuff from the first few albums that were on Vertigo. At that point we will be tapped!" laughs Shulman. "You asked earlier why I am doing this, well, I'd like for my kids to be able to go to the record store and buy Gentle Giant CD's! At least now we will have stuff in the bins again, which is good for new fans of Gentle Giant as well".
The topic of the additional Gentle Giant goodies that have been released into the market recently came up as well, specifically the Scraping the Barrel CD box set and the Giant On the Box DVD. Derek amazingly replies, "I'm just surprised; again, that so many people are interested in our little twiddlings and things. It's scary actually. The Scraping the Barrel set was really well put together though". Regarding the material available for the DVD, Derek replied, "We were one of the first bands to do a rock video, even before Queen actually. We did 3 videos for the Giant for a Day album. There is a second DVD planned, which should have some later 70's live material on it, with the videos, and some other stuff. We were one of the only bands that were ever given the footage from our appearance on the Don Kirschner's Rock Concert. They actually always filmed over that stuff, which is why you don't see video collections of all that footage available now, which is really a shame. All that history is gone; you'll never see it, all those great bands and great appearances, gone. Gary Green asked for ours after we went on the show, which is the only reason we have it now".
Derek comments on Gentle Giant's everlasting legacy among their faithful fans. "It's really just so amazing to see just how many people Gentle Giant touched, and I'm always surprised to see and hear about how loved the band was and still is. I don't think I ever realized just how much so, or maybe I didn't want to realize. At the same time, we have all moved on from those days, and although the fans would love for us to reform, it's not going to happen. It's a part of my past, and I have fond memories of it, but I have moved on. It was a different time, a different era. I see so many bands that are still playing after 30 or 40 years, and they are just a shadow of their former selves, and in some cases it becomes a parody. I don't want to be one of those bands. There's no doubt in my mind that we could go out and do another record or do a few shows-the talent I'm sure is still there, but Gentle Giant was part of a different time, and our music captured that time. I would never say never, but it is highly, highly unlikely for us to get back together. It's almost too tempting at times, and we could pull it off, but all that doesn't really matter. People have an image of the band when we were all 25 years old, and we have obviously grown older and moved on with our lives. I do think that some of the groups who are still playing today after 30 or so years are just grinding it out. I don't know if the fans realize that or even care. As a group, Gentle Giant were never going to just grind it out. Our music was created with a passion, whether it was done without thought or highly calculated.
I asked the question, how about if the fans agreed to drop the chants of a reformation forever in exchange for just one more show? Derek replied, "I don't think so. Like I said, I'll never say never, but I just don't see it. The problem is, it would never just be one show. We'd play it, than say "well, maybe one more!" (laughs)
Derek, Kerry Minnear, Ray Shulman 2005
Derek and I spent some time talking about the current state of the music industry today, and how many young bands he sees trying to make it to the big time. "Being a young struggling musician or band is just as tough today as back when Gentle Giant were together in the 70's" says Derek, "but the attention span of listeners has changed, and in reality it hasn't been about just the music for quite some time, image has been a part of the music scene for ages". He quips, "It's all about marketing the product. The bands that really influenced pop culture are not the ones that were created by the record companies, but homegrown bands that played from the heart. That's why music from bands like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, U2, Yes, Genesis, or even Gentle Giant stand the test of time. Even a band like Pantera, who were a great extreme metal band, was very creative and inspiring, and Darrell "Dimebag" Abbott, may he rest in peace, was a genius on the guitar. Slipknot as well, they play very extreme music, but are very creative. I think in general, metal bands for the most part intrigue me a little more than pop bands, as they seem to have more to say these days. Dream Theater is another band I signed back in the ATCO days, and they always really focused on doing something different, and still do".
Our conversation concluded with a little bit of reminiscing, as I asked Derek about the ill-fated (I used the word "interesting") tour with the mighty heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath back in the early 1970's. Derek recalls the events still with as much question and puzzlement today as he did over 30 years ago. "Interesting is not the word to describe that tour! Some of the crowd liked it, most didn't. It was perhaps the most ridiculous pairing of groups ever in the history of show business" exclaims Derek, as he recalls the almost disastrously humorous events. "For the most part we got booed off the stage. I've never seen so much excess in my life as I saw with Black Sabbath on that tour- it was just mind blowing. The amount of partying and abuse was just incredible, and some times it seemed like they played one gig, indulged in whatever they were doing in massive quantities for many hours, then had to take four days off to recover. I once saw Tony Iommi collapse face first on stage in the middle of a performance. It was just so much excess. At a show at The Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, we went on stage and the Sabbath fans were shouting "get off, we want Sabbath" and we were just getting set to play "Funny Ways". We pulled out the cellos and violins, and the crowd starting heckling immediately, but we were gradually starting to get past it, when someone threw a cherry bomb on stage. My brother Phil, who was still playing with us at the time, made sure we all stopped playing and said we needed to get off the stage. As we were leaving the stage, Phil grabbed the mic and said the crowd "you guys are a bunch of fucking cunts!", and the boo that went up after that was enormous! To this day I'll never forget it! We were sort of vindicated later on, as we thought we were never going to play Los Angeles again after the cherry bomb incident, but later on the Octopus tour we were able to sell out consistently there, so something clicked with the fans.
Derek and Pete Pardo
Yes, Gentle Giant clicked with many fans over the years, and still manages to even today. To all the long time fans, enjoy the remastered CD's and other merchandise, and to anyone who hasn't yet experienced the mastery of this band, take a walk to your local CD shop and give them a try. On reflection, you'll be glad you took the opportunity to experience their power & glory, as only Gentle Giant could deliver.
Photos courtesy of Pete Pardo and the Gentle Giant Website