‘Beyond the Pale’ took the opportunity to catch up with Procol organist Josh Phillips, just before he went out on the road with the band in March 2005. This conversation was not taped, but is here reconstructed as verbatim as possible from handwritten notes and memory, with occasional resequencing for enhanced coherence. RC
Greetings Josh; is this a good time to talk?
It’s always a good time to talk, if we’re taking about Procol!
We thought it would be good to bring the BtP readers up to date with your current activities.
Yes, my bread and butter these days is composing for television: we’re at Cannon Studios in Walton on the Hill. My partner, Dan McGrath, was Chris Evans’s producer, if you remember the Chris Evans radio show. I’m currently working on a quiz show for ITV, can’t say what it is until it’s launched. We’re very, very busy! But it’s nice to go out with the Procols.
Remind us how you got involved with the band?
I expect you know the story of how I was recording with Mark Brzezicki on the Isle of Man in about 1991, when Gary 'phoned up. [Josh then does an impeccable impersonation of the Commander’s telephone manner]. ‘Hello, this is Gary Brooker, I’d like to speak to Mark Brzezicki please.’ But I didn’t think it was the Gary Brooker, I mean, Procol weren’t playing any more, we all thought that. So I passed it over to Mark, and after a while Mark comes back into the control room and says he’s been asked to play an album with Procol Harum. I was amazed. ‘It’s true,’ he said, ‘that was their manager on the ’phone.’ So I had to explain to him that it had not been their manager, but effectively Procol Harum himself on the other end of the line. I urged him to take the gig: I said, it’ll be the most satisfying music you’ve ever played in your life.
Before Mark started to play live with Procol, he always had the headphones on, learning the songs. So I set up with him and played with him, on piano, Grand Hotel and so on. ‘How come you know these songs?’ Mark wanted to know. I told him that I grew up as a Procol fan.
What were your early musical experiences?
I played the piano, at the start. The first gig I ever went to was Curved Air, in 1972 … remember this one [Josh has live keyboards all about him … the music coming over his headphones is the baroque style figuration from Vivaldi … sounds surprisingly good over the ’phone]? Then the same year I saw Procol Harum at the Rainbow with the LSO, was it?
I was there!
It was fantastic. If it’s not too sycophantic to say it, I think – I mean I liked ELP and Genesis as well – but seeing Gary Brooker and Procol Harum in my formative years was the reason I wanted to play professionally.
And how did you come to play with the band themselves?
I first met the band during the recording of The Prodigal Stranger, here in the UK. I went with Mark to a session he was playing. Meeting Gary was … well, I’ve worked with a lot of well-known people and I’m not unknown myself, but meeting Gary was simply … ‘Well, what a fantastic bloke!’ Meeting Dave Bronze was great and he’s become a dear friend, and we’ve done a lot of work together.
And Matthew Fisher?
I got on with him very well, but he struck me as a serious guy, very serious about his music. And later when we met at a Big Country show, shortly before he went off to University and I’d been invited to play organ with Procol, I was hoping there was no bad feeling about me sitting in his place on those German dates, and I didn’t want to tread on his toes. And he just said, [Fisher voice] ‘No, I really couldn’t care less.’ He was very good about it. And he’s such a fantastic player. Nobody could fault his musicianship. He’s the original guy, and I’m honoured to be trying to replicate some of what he was doing. But I will be playing less flowery, I think, and taking it further in terms of using some other keyboards.
What’s your gear of choice, on stage?
I think you’ve got references on the website already to Heatwave, being in Quadrophenia and so on. Well I played keyboards live for three years with Big Country, and I played on various live recordings of theirs: Peace in our Time, Live in Russia. The live show in Berlin was my first gig with them, in fact: in front of 160,000 people on four days’ rehearsal. I was using all Roland stuff in those days … that was when my stand collapsed …
But on the present gigs I’ll be using a Hammond B3. Not my own, as it happens: I’ve got two Hammonds, an M100 which is in a garage in London, which I haven’t fired up for about ten years. It’s a spinet model, portable, and OK for rocking out, but for Procol music you need the full manuals. The other one is a TTR100, quite rare, built for portability: that’s the one I used in Germany with Procol in the 90s in fact.
You know that Hammond have now got a completely remade portable version of the B3? In fact there was a guy going to bring it down for the London gig, but we opted not to do that as they can’t supply one for the European shows as well. There just isn’t one over there. It comes in at fifteen grand … I mean, you can get an immaculate original B3 for four grand! Mind you, you need four people to lift it.
And on top of the Hammond?
I know Procol have toured with a VK7, and I’ve got one of those sitting here as well … but I’m not going to be using that. In fact I’ve parted company with Roland synths though that’s what I used for many years. They’ve become too much DJ oriented for my needs. But on the Procol tour I will be using the Yamaha Motif ES7. The VK7 has got some nice strings, but I can get the electric piano Procol needs out of the ES7 … listen …[plays]. They’ve been very good to me, just sent me one … I’ve been programming up some sounds for the Procol shows. [Plays the string opening for A Salty Dog, and Conquistador]. The idea is to replicate some of the sounds of the records, go a bit further than just using Hammond.
Doesn’t Gary already patch in string sounds from his RD600 on a few of the songs?
True, but when you do that the strings absolutely have to play whatever the piano does, you don’t have any opportunity to voice the chords differently. You’re a musician, you know what I mean. But I also feel that Hammond for a whole evening can sound a bit suffocating. But the sonic contrast is great when you come back to it after some other keyboards. And Gary is always on at me, saying, 'You don’t need to play all the time, you know.'
Procol is the great band for Leaving Holes …
‘Leaving Holes’, yes, I like that.
Any hints of what we should be expecting to hear next weekend?
Well I don’t think we’ll be playing Weisselklenzenacht or Repent … those are Matthew’s pieces, his signatures. We start rehearsing on Monday, and I was rather hoping there would be a setlist with me by now … but you know, to be honest, you could spend three days rehearsing five songs with Gary, and he’d eventually say, ‘Well I don’t think we’ll play any of those!’
In rehearsal, are you working from tapes, or charts, or what?
You mean how do I learn the songs? Well what are there, eleven, twelve albums? I know the songs already, but that doesn’t mean I know how to play them: anyway, I’ve just bought an iPod and I’ve loaded all the Procol albums on to that and I get them on my phones or in the car and I’m having a blast.
Where do you feel you stand stylistically in relation to Fisher and Copping, then?
I haven’t really thought in those terms. Well I think I’m a bit more of a rocky player than Matthew I suppose, and I like a bit more distortion in my sound. And when I play the piano, I play very like Gary [demonstrates a rolling piano style]. I just like the way he does everything: I love music with that type of progression, you know [demonstrates, with a rising semitonal bassline].
[There follows some discussion about the Palers’ Band, and Josh’s relish for the arcane harmonies in In Held 'Twas in I … demonstration over the telephone of the creeping semitonal piano progressions between In … and Held, the crazy augmented octave leaps in the organ solo from Autumn.]
So what’s that we’re listening to now ?
I’ve got an Apple G5 here, a huge computer, and it’s got this thing on it, the EVB3, a B3 in a box. I’m just controlling this from a piano, actually, a Yamaha P200, just using it as a controller. Listen to the Leslie on that. Yes, I can brake it, and start it again … listen to the bass rotor starting up on that … It’s absolutely incredible. And listen, here’s the Whiter Shade sound, just let me take off that percussion, yes … can’t tell you what the settings are here, I’m sworn to secrecy by Gary.
[There follows some discussion about Hammond registration, and Josh amiably challenges RC to send him a best-guess as to the authentic AWSoP settings; but by this time BtP had stopped taking careful notes, until …]
Glad you’ve sold out those Norwegian gigs so swiftly! Bloomsbury seemed to sell a lot more slowly?
The UK can be a disappointing place to play, when you encounter the New York attitude, you know ‘come on, impress me’. Whereas you could play in Sweden or somewhere, and you’ve got an audience with fans of every sort of music in it, they’re really prepared to listen to everything.
And as regards your standing with Procol, do you see yourself as a permanent member of the band?
Well my picture’s in there at the website! Seriously, I’m not the person to elbow my way into any band. And touring is not my main thing now. I’m just so busy with writing and recording in the studio. In the gaps on this tour I’m straight back to the studio to work: this week I have three major TV shows to write the themes for, and we’re going into Procol rehearsal on Monday. Of course if I was invited to record with Procol I’d love to. But I have to be pretty economical with my time, and I try to be a Good Dad as well! [Josh has a daughter of one year, and a son of three].
[There follows some chat about children, grand-children, and the cancelled shows at Budapest and Amorbach last summer for which your correspondent had tickets, before we return to the coming Procol tour.]
Well thanks Josh! See you next Sunday and we can buy you a drink or two.
Looking forward to that! All the best!
Josh Phillips's page at BtP