Gary James' Interview With Keith Emerson of
Emerson, Lake and Palmer
Keith Emerson is synonymous with keyboards and vice-versa. As one third of the highly successful band Emerson, Lake and Palmer, or ELP for short, Keith Emerson's place in Rock is assured. Keith Emerson has consistently won the overall Best Keyboardist award in the annual Keyboard Magazine reader's poll since the magazine debuted in 1975 and holds a seat of honor on their advisory board. He was honored at the Smithsonian Institute, along with Dr. Robert Moog for his pioneering work in electronic music. Keith Emerson was the first artist to tour with a Moog synthesizer and is regarded as one of the top keyboard players of the Progressive Rock era. Some refer to Keith Emerson as the greatest, most technically accomplished keyboardist in Rock history. These days you'll find Keith Emerson on the road with his band, The Keith Emerson Band with band members Marc Bonilla, Travis Davis and Tony Pia.
Q - Keith, with all of the talk about how bad the economy is, have you seen any difference in ticket sales in the market places you're performing in?
A - I've never been one for investing. While I feel very sorry for those that have lost a lot due to the current crises, the old song "Buddy Can You Spare A Dime" is most prolific now. But, I've no doubt it'll pick itself up and start all over again as the other song goes. I don't play either of these by the way. People will always want music as much as they need plumbers. Sooner or later it'll be "I'll fix your bathroom if you play me a tune."
Q - At one point, you were living in the Bahamas. Why the Bahamas? Was it the taxes?
A - Well, the tax thing was an issue at the time. But, Chris Blackwell had a fine studio, Compass Point. I had a boat, went spear fishing, water skiing. It sure beat the hell out of bad weather and a language I couldn't understand. The environment was an inspiration regardless of what people say about "Love Beach", which I think is a good album.
Q - You now live in Southern California. Is that because of the weather or because the music industry is located there?
A - I found a small condo just after the earthquake of 1974, so property was cheap. I was divorced and had little money, but I was working on a great TV series; Iron Man. That, along with a loan from my uncle, which I soon paid back, caused me to settle there.
Q - I've heard many horror stories over the years about bands being cheated out of money. Did you avoid that?
A - No. It's an occupational hazard.
Q - You once said "I've gone through Hell and back." What were you referring to? The rigors of touring?
A - I once said. It doesn't apply today. And no, the fact that an operation didn't turn out the way I thought it would. But, I'm very happy with my playing now, although it's always an on-going challenge to perfection. Who couldn't be inspired by the guys I'm playing with now; Marc Bonilla, Travis Davis and Tony Pia.
Q - Why did you think Punk music was a welcome change in the music business? It certainly didn't make a lasting impact in the U.S. And, as a technically proficient musician, how could you take Punk musicians seriously? They couldn't write. They couldn't sing. And they couldn't play their instruments all that well.
A - Well, first of all, I think to imply serious is enough to put anyone off. The moment you regard yourself seriously causes some sort of damage. Music is made up of so many emotions. The far opposites being extreme happiness to extreme sadness with stuff in between. There is always a risk factor in playing music and Punk met it head on like a Jazz musician. Listen to Eric Dolphy, Jazz saxophonist and you'll understand that there are no wrong notes.
Q - Was the Isle Of Wight Festival a turning point in your career? And why would that have been? Hendrix was there, wasn't he? Did you get an opportunity to speak with him?
A - Not at that occasion. I was too anxious to get off the island before it sank. I knew Jimi anyway...toured with him, jammed with him, so there was no point in hanging around. Everyone had their own trip back then and it was short term. I suppose the Isle Of Wight was a turning point for ELP because it got us noticed very quickly to a large audience that thought it was the new Woodstock. But I had no doubt that ELP would have made it with or without Isle Of Wight. We just would have had to work harder and longer. Certainly the camera team had no faith in us along with the press, until we blew them off stage with the cannons! Sometimes people just don't listen!
Q - Would you agree that no other group has followed in the footsteps of ELP? And why do you suppose that is? Is it because the complexity of the music you were performing?
A - There are so many fine musicians around today capable of far more complexities. Combining complexity with listenable, agreeable music is another dimension. I've seen so many keyboard players that overstep the mark with super fast technique. It's very impressive to see, but after about ten minutes it becomes boring. There's no melodic value. It's an art to combine simplicity with complexity in order to appeal to a wide range of tastes. In order to do this, you have to be sympathetic to all musical forms. Whether or not these forms can be made up of the same chemistry as ELP is another matter, but I'm sure they could follow or even go further.