Interview: Carl Palmer

I was asked to have a chat with legendary drummer Carl Palmer (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Asia, Atomic Rooster) to cover his visit to Southampton Solent University on 24th October 2013, for the university’s official website. As a drummer myself, and having met Carl a couple of times before, I was more than happy to help!


Today you are at Southampton Solent University, lecturing music students, and you have conducted master classes and drum clinics around the country. Considering the sheer scale of some of your shows, why do you decide to come to such intimate venues to talk and teach?

This is my second time here (having previously visited in 2010). I think when you get to a certain stage in your life, it’s good if you can actually direct or inspire younger talent. I think there’s many, many pitfalls today, and this is obviously a great place for learning. I think the facilities are superb, but I think every now and again, that a little bit of injection from the actual working world of music, is definitely inspiring and motivating for students. Coming here every day, you don’t understand the complete minefield it is when you walk outside. It is just unbelievable, this business. So for me, it’s giving something back.

What differs between you and the current generation that you really think students today should know?

This generation is great with I.T.. Yes, I have got a Facebook. Yes, I am on Twitter. I’ve got a general website. I’ve got a website where you can check out my rider and how big the stage should be. I’ve got an art website. I’ve got all that kind of stuff. But what I do, more than what you do, is pick up the phone.

I picked up the phone and called Robert Stigwood Organisation, who managed The Bee Gees and Cream. I called him up and said “I have this new band called Atomic Rooster. Could I come over and speak to you? Are you interested?” He says “I tell you what. You come round and we’ll have a chat.” Within about two months, we had got a record deal, a brand new Mercedes van and we are gigging our socks off. If you don’t ask, you won’t get. 

Over the years, particularly when you were starting out in the Sixties with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster, you have bounced around numerous bands. How come you couldn’t stay still? Was it music tastes, or setting your sights higher? Or both?

I can truthfully say that when I joined the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, had a number one album and single… yes the money was good, but it wasn’t exactly the music that I wanted to play. If you don’t think you can be the best, don’t do it. If you only want to make a living, you can. But there’s only so many times you can roll the dice when you’re young, to become the next Coldplay. If that’s not your target, to be that big, then what is the target?

You have had performed highly extravagant shows and tracks. Have there ever been any points that you have had to stop and say, “hang on, that’s too far!”?

We were considered to be over the top at that particular time, but when you take that blueprint [pointing at a screenshot of Emerson, Lake and Palmer performing ‘Fanfare For the Common Man’ at Olympic Stadium in Montreal] and you measure it out today, with bands like U2 and The Rolling Stones who actually have two sets that leapfrog, because it’s so big, I don’t think we were extravagant, and I don’t think we ever reached the ‘over-the-top’ standard. I think we were ‘just right’.

At least the blueprint was being laid down. People were understanding that you needed a certain amount of eye candy. You needed to play well. You needed good material, good sound and good lights, but if you could add a production to that so it just brought it out a bit more, then obviously… isn’t that fantastic? And we could afford to do it. We were quite happy to make money and put it back into the band.

Today you demonstrated a ridiculous solo, solely on a hi-hat. If it is possible to get so many sounds out of minimal equipment, what are the merits of having monstrous drum kits?

Well, I don’t have such a monstrous kit now. I have a four tom-toms and two bass drums and about six cymbals, so it’s changed completely. I think that the older you get, the more you realise what you do need and what you don’t need. This was a great period, and I played that set for seven years [pointing at the video above]  it couldn’t have been wrong!  But music changes and style changes, and I feel comfortable playing what I would consider just to be a ‘double’ drum set. I don’t need to use a 6”, 8” and 10”. I can get away with using a 13”… well, not get away but I’m satisfied with it. A 13”, a 14”, a 16” and an 18” is just right for me.

I think it’s just… you couldn’t eat the same dinner every night, could you? That’s all it is really. It’s just a change. A change of environment and a change of approach, and I suppose changing as a person.

What was it like to perform at ‘Cruise to the Edge’ (an intimate prog-rock festival on a cruise ship, sailing from Miami, around the Caribbean) and how did you get involved?

The promoters wanted to have the complete blueprint of English prog. They wanted people like Yes, who they got. They wanted UK. They wanted Genesis, and got (former Genesis guitarist) Steve Hackett. They wanted someone from ELP, so they had me! They then had the complete blueprint of this art form, with the people who started it. Even though they weren’t the complete bands, individual people from each one of those bands were there with their own projects. For them, that was very important.

What musical achievement are you most proud of?

I think it’s the fact I’m here today! I think every day’s a new day. Some achievements are obviously more valid than others at the time of when they happen, but when you look back, I think even my mistakes were an achievement, because I learnt from them. So for me, it’s staying in the business as long as I have and being able to do what I wanted to do without being told or dictated to. I think that that’s an achievement in itself – being here today because I want to be here.

I’ll be with ELP Legacy for the whole of next year. I start on the 25th of January in Skegness. Then I go on to Israel. Then I take a couple of weeks off, and then I start in America. Then I will reach me first cruise, The Monsters of Rock Cruise, which will last until April 2nd. I stay onboard and carry on then with The Moody Blues Cruise, which goes on for another five days. I come off that and go to South America. In June, I’m in Japan with Asia. I’ll be with Asia for the rest of the year in the studio. July and August we will be playing what we call fly-in-fly-out dates with my own group, and possibly something with Asia. In the end of August, September and part of October we will tour Europe and America with Asia. That’s as far as I’ve got.

I’m very impressed at how many dates you managed to remember and list!

I play 90 a year! It’s enough. I don’t need any more than that! Some people play as many as 200. 97 is the most I’ve ever done. That doesn’t count any of the lecture dates and clinics that I’ve done. It’s not consecutive days, and I get breaks in between. If it was like, 90 straight days then I couldn’t do it to be honest. So yeah, that’s enough. It’s worth it.

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