Greg Kihn, Sammy Hagar, Ambrosia, GTR with Steve Howe are just a few of the world renowned musicians and bands that multi-instrumentalist Robert Berry has worked with both on stage and off but perhaps it is his association with the great Carl Palmer and the late Keith Emerson in the band "3" that has been one of his greatest accomplishments and with the release of "Third Impression" things have come full circle.
Robert recently spoke about the new album, his relationship with Emerson, the Corona Virus, his charitable work with December People and the future of touring.
"When "The Rules Have Changed" came out a couple of years ago, Keith and I were working together and of course he died right in the middle of it and it took me about a year to get the strength up because it was an emotionally tough time to do that album and finish it," he explained. "It was put out and I hate to jinx anything but to rave reviews; it was really well received with open arms. I was worried that people would say; how dare you finish this after Keith is gone? That wasn't the fact, they said, thank you for doing this, it was his last work, we appreciate it, you did a great job; they were really excited about it and it sold a lot of copies and the videos did well. A year later the record company calls me and of course that was last year which I call a leap year because there was no 2020 (laughs) and they said, hey, we want you to do a follow-up. I said, I don't want to do a follow-up because Keith is not here to work with and I just don't think it would be right. They said, well, let us put it to you this way; we have just about everybody on our label and they have Yes, Journey, Whitesnake, Foreigner; all of the 80's big bands, they have them on their label, Frontiers. We can't tell you what they sell but we can tell you that your album did very well and you really need to do a follow-up. This sort of shocked me that they were that strong about it and I said, I have one song left called "Never" and it is nine minutes long and it was too long to fit on "The Rules have Changed" and honestly I am just kind of keeping it to myself as a little memento and a trophy of the time that Keith and I worked together. I said, if I can write seven songs that I think Keith would have liked to have worked on and that I'm proud of and I can record them and get them to a level that I think is what I would do and he would have done; then I'll finish "Never" and then we will talk about maybe putting out the third 3.2 album. So, that's the reason the "Third Impression" has finally been released."
"They really wanted the first album that Keith and I did, "The Rules Have Changed;" they were bugging me for 10 years and I knew Keith wasn't ready to do it and then all of a sudden he was and the same with this one, I really didn't want to do it. Since I write and record every day here in my studio and I work with clients every day; that keeps my creative juices flowing. I'll write things down or put them in my phone or wherever and I'll start a song when I have a few minutes here and there. I'm always creating and I had to at least test the waters on this and see if I was capable of putting out something I was proud of. The day before it came out, I was a little uneasy (laughs) because I had this great reception on "The Rules Have Changed" and I thought, oh I should've just left it alone I'm going to ruin it now because everybody is going to say; what the hell is he doing? Luckily it wasn't like that and it came out a few months ago in March and there's a video for "The Devil Of Liverpool" that was released too."
Emerson was widely considered one of the best if not the best rock keyboardists of all time so, with his passing; how was Berry to finish this latest release? Did he pressure himself or have difficulty doing those remaining songs up to the standards he set?
"There were a couple of interesting points that I thought of after the fact because it is really natural for me to do a "3" album or a 3.2 album; it's part of who I am and part of what I do," he said in reflective tones. "Before "3" started in 1987 I played in GTR with Steve Howe from Yes and I brought a song with me that I had written with the Robert Berry Band called "Talkin' Bout" and I did it with GTR and Steve did the fanfare kind of part on guitar that I had originally done on keyboard; kind of an Emerson fanfare kind of thing. When I left GTR I brought that song with me and brought it to "3" and Keith took to it right away because it already had that built-in Emerson fanfare thing to it. So, I already had the Emerson DNA kind of started in me because I was a big fan, I was a keyboard player when I started and I'd play "Lucky Man" but I couldn't play "Tarkus" because it was too hard but I was a fan. So, when we worked together in "3" we really worked together; they always treated me as an equal. I had 10 years of piano lessons so, when I was rehearsing or writing with Keith I'd be watching what he was doing; ah, that's what he's doing, ah, that's how he does that. Every day was like a piano lesson (laughs), he didn't know it but for me it was like a piano lesson but I was always a fan. So, we come up 27 years later and we're working on "The Rules Have Changed" together and I have this Casio keyboard in front of my Pro Tools in my studio and Keith had a nice Casio keyboard in his bedroom and I'd play "Chopsticks" and then he'd play something really fancy and we'd write these songs and come to a meeting of the minds and it was just his happy place, a great time; obviously I learned the hard way that he wasn't that happy at the time and had no idea but he was happy with the music we were doing. That album comes out, it has Keith's DNA on the album because he was part of it; on the first album Keith was the sound and half the writer, I was the voice and half the writer so, I knew the sound. So, now on the third album I have the Moog, I have the keyboard and I'm capable of playing the parts; I'm no Keith and I can't play like him but the stuff that was the "3" songs wasn't the "Tarkus" and "Karn Evil 9;" it wasn't the super hard Emerson stuff, it was more orchestral than hard hitting. I was actually sort of pre-disposed to know this style because it is part of who I am and what I had developed with Keith and Carl. So, it really wasn't a struggle, it took me a year to get the album done but it wasn't a struggle to follow the parameters that Keith and I had set up and we spent many hours talking about it; things we had set up for the previous album. Things like tougher rhythms, powerful keyboard sounds; a little of this and a little of that and when I sat down to do it I added one more parameter to it and I think it was the most risky one but it turned out to be maybe the most important. I decided that since Keith only had this one nine minute song on it that he and I had worked on; half this album needed to lean toward what I would do in the future and what I do more on my own than with "3" is that I like the perfect blend of guitar and keyboard. Yes and Asia are half keyboard and half guitar and my music is half keyboard and half guitar and what I did on this album was, I took half and made it keyboard heavy like "3" and "3.2" and on the other half I had both. The first song on the album is called "Top Of The World" and starts with a minute of acoustic Celtic guitar. I took a chance of sort of blowing people out of the water and have them saying; what the hell? I was expecting keyboards, forget this album; or they are going to stick with it and listen to it develop into the keyboard sections. It was not a calculated risk it was just one that I had to take because I wanted to be genuine about my effort and it worked. People are liking it according to the reviews and a lot have said that it's better than the last album which was not something that I was expecting and of course everyone loves the song "Never" which was the one that Keith and I worked on together."
Progressive rock and blues music may possibly be the two hardest genres to market as both are not what is considered "Radio friendly" due to content and/or length but Berry doesn't necessarily agree; preferring a more fan friendly approach.
"There's a couple of answers to that; first, my first professional band around town here was called Hush. This was the late 70's and we were a progressive rock cover band, we played Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Pink Floyd and people danced to us (laughs). I still can't believe it, we played "Roundabout" and they danced; of course they just kind of swirled around and did some Hippy dance and it was really weird (laughs). Keith and I, one of our parameters in the 3.2 stuff was that the rhythm had to be tough. We had to have tough rhythms and strong rhythms; we don't want to say it was dance-able but that's more of a today's kind of sound. My parameter is that my progressive rock has to pop which is what Yes did in the 80's with "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" and some of the Genesis stuff but I don't want to be that packaged and that pop about it. I want the music to be more orchestral like ELP or Yes but then I want that chorus to come on and give you something to take home. That gives me an AOR (Album Oriented Rock) progressive sound and that piece of it along with 30 years of gathering a fan base like a blues guy would; there's just enough people that if Yes plays they will fill 5,000 seats. Enough where if ELP plays they might go out with Jethro Tull and fill six or 7,000 seats. I don't want to play any bigger than 2,500. I want to actually play 250 to 350 size places; that's what I really love. The sound is better, you can see people's faces, you can thank them and honestly, maybe you don't make huge money but it costs huge money to have a couple of semis and all of the equipment that it takes to play a 5,000 or 10,000 seater and there's also the crew. In the small places you bring out three guys; a drum tech, sound man and a stage guy and in the big places you've got to bring out 10 guys, hotels, two semis; it's expensive! I prefer to play to those 250 to 350 fans in each little city that likes prog and there are enough of them; have you ever gone to a Rush concert? I was always amazed at how many girls go to Rush concerts; what the hell? How did that happen? (laughs) A progressive band with a weird voiced singer; I like Geddy I think he is incredible but his voice is unique. They are a three-piece band that sounds so good and they stayed true to their sound and kept their style evolving a little bit each time and that's the way it is done. That's the way you pack those five and 6,000 seaters every couple of years or year after year; so, there is a big enough fan base for any kind of music including the blues and progressive rock (laughs)."
"Someone said," he continued; "Did you do any Facebook Live or Zoom concerts last year?" "I said, no because I go out and perform live for one reason and that is so I can thank people for letting me have a life in music. I don't go to make money on T-shirts because usually I lose money when I go out on tour. I go because I want to see those people who let me do what I love to do and I'm still doing it and still creative because they've always bought just enough albums and just enough stuff where I can be successful but not be Tom Petty (laughs); I'll never be successful enough where I don't want to do it (laughs)."
The pandemic caused the music world to grind to a halt and Robert felt the impact as well but his outlook and attitude helped him push through relatively unscathed.
"I was supposed to be in Europe last year; my first tour under my own name, Robert Berry 3.2, a tour of Europe, Germany and Italy and we were so excited about it and of course last year was closed down. This year we are hoping something will happen but nobody is sure enough about it; I think maybe 2022 I'll be back with the European thing but I just don't know. I'm ready, I have a guitar player who might go or might not; he's one of those who is still a little uncertain about the Corona Virus. Me, I've lived almost normal the whole time, so I'm not worried about it. I got my first vaccine and soon to get my second and at that point I'm fortified or at least that's how I feel about it. Because I've been a singer all of my life, I can go back to my coat that I wore at Madison Square Garden in 1988 and it has Purell in the pocket. I've always had to be careful my whole life so, I say, think like a singer and you won't catch this thing because you won't get a cold or the flu or anything. Especially with the mask; if you're really worried about it wear the mask around people with a little Purell in the pocket and you're gonna be fine but people coming to a 5,000 seat concert hall; I'm not sure we're ready for that this year. Maybe 250 or 300, the smaller places; there may be enough people who will say, oh yeah, I'll go there even though it's small; because there's certain people who aren't worried about it. People who are worried about it, they may not come and especially in progressive rock, you need to have everybody to get a good house full of people."
What do you get when you cross Christmas and holiday music with classic rock? You get December People; one of the most interesting, rocking sounds around and all for a good cause.
"I have this band called December People and there's a lot of famous guys from some famous bands and we do mash-ups between the biggest classic rock songs and the holiday Christmas songs that you know and love. You can sing "Jingle Bells" done like "Hot For Teacher" by Van Halen and it fits like a glove. "Stairway To Heaven" is "The Night Before Christmas," Tom Petty's "Runnin' Down a Dream" done to "Silver Bells." Look that one up on YouTube, look for December People doing "Silver Bells" and you're gonna say, damn that could've been the original hit." We've got Gary Pihl guitar player from Boston, David Medd the keyboard player from The Tubes, David Lauser drummer from Sammy Hagar, myself and Jack Foster who is a solo artist and we do it for charity. We go to the smaller venues, 500 seat or 1,000 seat theaters and we feel that if every little town or city, the smaller areas, could take care of their own homeless and hungry not statewide or countrywide but just the smaller areas that we could stamp out the problem. It's not that expensive, there's always a few empty buildings and we can stamp it out if we can just get each little area to take care of their own. We do a little bit of that here in the San Jose-Campbell area but it's just not organized enough to say look, we're just going to take care of these people. We just need people to man this and we can take care of this problem; that's December People. I'm hoping November/December that, that is the first thing I take out touring wise. We have half an album done and if it looks like we can tour I'll get the other half done because it doesn't take me long. The guys may not come in the studio this time but we'll get it going if we can play. Honestly, I have never found the right manager for December People. I've had a couple of them and no one has been able to break it and if I could find the right one and either grab what Trans-Siberian won't do because there's not enough money or one that has the connections to put us into the theaters; that's all I need is the guy who sees the beauty in the music and the band who can get us out there but I haven't found it yet."
Not one to ever sit still, Robert is always looking to the future and now that he has finished "Third Impression;" what's next?
"I've got something fairly big brewing for next year and like I said, this is the last 3.2 album. I have to move forward; I just can't just stand still and rest on what's already happened."
That's it for this week! Please continue to support live and original music and until next week....ROCK ON!