The Acoustic Storm Interviews
Procol Harum has been recording and touring since the late 60\’s. The British band was one of the first to incorporate classically-inspired melodies into their music, starting with their hit, \”A Whiter Shade of Pale.\” There\’s a wealth of information about the group at procolharum.com.
Out on the road in support of their 2003 release \”The Well\’s on Fire,\” Procol Harum keyboardist and singer-songwriter Gary Brooker sat down for a rare one-on-one interview with The Acoustic Storm before a recent concert at the Center For The Arts in Scottsdale, Arizona.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Let’s start with the origin of the band’s name.
GARY BROOKER: We got named after a cat, a little Burmese Brown…that was its pedigree name: Procol Harum. It didn’t sound like anything, we didn’t really know what our music was, what box that fit in either. It didn’t fit anywhere, sort of an ambiguous name like that; it did have sort of a Latin sound to it. We found out a couple months later that if we had spelled it right, it would’ve meant \”beyond these things,\” which is just sort of a happy coincidence. But we’ve always been happy with our name; I suppose every band is. I’m just glad we weren’t called Strawberry Alarm Clock or something. It would’ve been a bit embarrassing 35 years later.
ACOUSTIC STORM: \”A Whiter Shade of Pale\” is probably still the best-known Procol Harum song. Can you talk about the inspiration for that?
BROOKER: I was inspired I think by Bach. I was trying to play ‘Air on the G String’ by ear. I already knew the first couple of bars, but I really liked what the bass line was doing in it, and I carried it on and played something over the top, Bach-like. And the words were on the piano so I just sang them like the Blues over it…that was it. It took just a few minutes.
ACOUSTIC STORM: One of the band’s bigger sellers in the U.S., at least, was the album recorded with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. How did that come about?
BROOKER: I think it gradually grew from a \”Whiter Shade of Pale,\” and then on our second album we had a long piece, which was quite unusual for a rock/pop band at the time, you know; it was about 18 minutes long on our \”Shine On Brightly\” album. And then on our third album we had one called \”Salty Dog\” which had an arrangement for strings in a classical way, rather than a pop way. And when we got invited to play at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, we played there with an orchestra and a choir that was seen by somebody with the Edmonton outfit, and they invited us to play there the following year.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Procol Harum has always had a Classical bent, if you will, and more recently, you’ve composed music for ballet.
BROOKER: I didn’t think that I’d like to do a ballet, but the Royal Danish Ballet did ask if I’d like to do one with this American choreographer. So that’s what you would call a commission. I’ve always liked Classical music but I’m not a Classical musician by any stretch of the imagination. With Procol Harum, I think I was sort of putting in some classically-oriented chords with the first songs I wrote. I thought it added a bit of power to the rock of it. And I think that Matthew Fisher, who came in and played organ, he always picked up on those bits as well. If he heard a little reference or something, he recognized what I was on about. And so he amplified it even more, and help me out on the organ with what I was doing on the piano.
ACOUSTIC STORM: On the latest Procol Harum album, \”The Well’s on Fire,\” you have continued your long-time collaboration with lyricist Keith Reid. That’s an unusual situation; somebody that does not perform, but only writes lyrics for the band.
BROOKER: Yeah, well I think a lot of bands would have better lyrics if they had someone like that working with them. Keith and I started off together in other bands. I was about 19, and thought I’d have a go at writing songs when I met Keith, and so we’ve always worked together. People often ask if it’s words first. Yes, words come first and the music usually comes after. But he’s written all the ones on our new album as well as he has on every Procol Harum album. And we’ve always been quite happy to work together; I find his words easy to sing. I know that they’re not, because I sometimes think about it. I should’ve really given up when I looked at some of his opening lines, but it always intrigued me. I mean something like \”My amazon six-triggered bride\”, you know, I’ve found a great opening line. A lot of people might have balked at having to write something to that, but I’ve always enjoyed it. There was always a lot of fantasy in it, but he’s got a great train of moral thought going through it as well, which makes it powerful to sing.
ACOUSTIC STORM: How about \”A Whiter Shade of Pale,\” did Keith discuss with you what he was trying to express in that song, or did you just take it at face value and then write music around it?
BROOKER: The latter. He’s never told me anything about his words or what he means and I never asked him either. I know that they mean something to me.
ACOUSTIC STORM: What kind of thoughts does that song evoke for you? It is somewhat abstract, and definitely not a typical \”I love you\” song.
BROOKER: Well, there seems to be a girl somewhere amongst it all. That’s all I can see in it, I don’t know what it means. If everybody knew what it meant it probably wouldn’t have lasted so long. It does mean something; it’s got an atmosphere in the lyrics and an atmosphere to the music as well, it’s got an atmosphere to the vocal I suppose. It all just comes together every time. It’s never been difficult to sing, or boring.
ACOUSTIC STORM: You alluded to \”A Salty Dog\” earlier. That album seems to be more introspective than some of the other Procol Harum that’s been recorded over the years.
BROOKER: We’ve never thought very hard about any of our albums, that’s the thing. Sometimes I’ve thought we should try something with a lot of continuity in its sound and content, but it never comes out like that. I think from the writing side you’re always trying to write something new and it’s the same now as when we did \”Salty Dog\”. There was a lot more collaboration amongst the band members on that. You know, Matthew wrote two or three, Robin (Trower) wrote two or three, and I wrote the rest, how ever many that was. Twice as many as them I expect. But it’s the circumstances of the studio and what’s there, you know. When we made \”Salty Dog\” in fact, we were in Abbey Road and they have lots of other instruments around there and we picked them up and played them, so you’ve got a bit of variety in there. I think it was the first album that we didn’t produce ourselves, but Matthew Fisher was in charge of the sound and the recording and that was his touch on it.
ACOUSTIC STORM: You played \”Conquistador\” during the sound check, is that still part of the band’s concert repertoire?
BROOKER: Well, we haven’t played it for a long, long time, that’s why I thought we’d play it in the sound check just to remember how it went, and you could see we were having a very difficult time remembering how the ending went. So we haven’t played it in a while, and I don’t know why, but I suppose you’ve always got to leave something out. That’s the trouble, it’s not a question of what we should play, it’s what to leave out.
ACOUSTIC STORM: That tune definitely has a different flair, and perhaps there’s a historical reference. What was your inspiration for that one?
BROOKER: It had a bit of an evolution. It’s one of the only Procol Harum songs which Keith wrote the words to the music. I found this word, conquistador, and thought, this is an interesting word and I had this musical idea, and Keith wrote it. But it had nothing to do with what was on the Edmonton album; it was a song on our first album and written very early on. When we were going up to play that concert with the Edmonton Symphony, we were flying up there actually, and I thought that we haven’t really got a fast song amongst all the stuff we had arranged, all that I had orchestrated, so I had to think about what might fit and we hadn’t that many albums out yet and not a lot to pick from. I suddenly thought ‘Conquistador’, but not just like it is on the first album, it’s got to be more. So, we put that beginning in, because it’s like Conquistador, the Spanish conquerors, you know, a bit of a Spanish flavor to it. So that kind of gave it a lot more character I think. People seem to like it.
ACOUSTIC STORM: As a keyboardist, what made you want to incorporate acoustic piano into rock? Over the years, it’s helped to distinguish the sound of Procol Harum.
BROOKER: I grew up on things like Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, most of the stuff I like, I mean Chuck Berry, they’ve all got piano in it. But way back then, it wasn’t that easy; I had to persevere a lot to be able to play piano in a rock band, because they were out of tune, you know. Pianos were always in the corners of pubs covered in dust. So it wasn’t an easy instrument to play in a group in the 60’s, you know, the Golden Days (laughs), but I persevered. The technology of it has changed; I used to play a Grand piano in the 70’s, but that was always difficult. It has to be in tune with the Hammond organ, because you can’t change a Hammond organ’s tuning. So if the piano was a slightly different pitch, we would have nightmares. These days with digital pianos, it’s not a problem to get the volume you need, plus they’re always in tune. But I do go for the sound of a proper acoustic Grand piano. And try to get it.
ACOUSTIC STORM: There’s something about the acoustic piano that’s soulful in its own way.
BROOKER: Actually, on our new record, we got a gigantic piano and I had the one I use on stage set up as well, the digital one, and tried both of them. I’m afraid that the digital won out. It sounded more like a piano than the real piano. So the piano on the new record is a digital one, but you wouldn’t know it, really.
-Transcribed by Dave Cooper