Procol Harum

the Pale

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home

Matthew Fisher, interviewed for 'Shine On'

'Who's the arsehole playing organ?'

This is Part Two of a Matthew Fisher interview that was transcribed from a taped conversation conducted just before the Redhill Party in 1997 by Paul Carter, then of the UK's Daily Express, who was preparing an article on the forthcoming concert. Paul also conducted interviews with Keith Reid and with Gary Brooker, which were published in Shine On and later archived at BtP. Matthew's interview was never published in Shine On; it appears at 'Beyond the Pale' for the first time thanks to the author, who sent it to us at the end of March 2008. Part One is here

Paul Carter
You left the group early in 1969.

I was always leaving. I was always upset at the fact that people took so little notice of me. I'm afraid it was quite ridiculous. If you take a record like A Whiter Shade of Pale, you can go through with a stopwatch and time it, how much is instrumental, how much is vocal. It's about 50/50. Even with the bits where Gary is singing, you can still hear every note I'm playing behind him. To me, it was a semi-instrumental record. It was a vocal/instrumental record, a duet as far as I was concerned. Yet nobody seemed to bloody notice me. I was getting quite sick of it. I thought what is the point: all you ever read about in the papers is Gary, Gary, Gary, and who's the arsehole playing organ? I thought I deserved just a little bit more attention than I was getting. I felt it was getting me nowhere and I might as well proceed with Plan B and get into production.

That must have been very frustrating, because if you meet a Procol Harum fan, the first thing they say is that if you take away the Hammond organ sound, the thing is dead.

Procol Harum means different things to different people. I've a feeling that to 99% of the population it just means that one record. There are some diehard Procol fans around who've stuck with them and can quote all sorts of lyrics from all sorts of records and know the whole repertoire. But they're the minority. I was only talking about people in general. That's not what bothers me. I don't pretend to be omnipresent on everything that Procol did. I didn't even play on the Salty Dog track. I didn't think there was anything for me to do. It was just Gary and the strings, which he'd arranged. Best thing he ever did. I'm only talking about A Whiter Shade of Pale when I feel I should have got more recognition.

What about your career after Procol?

There's not a lot to say. I never really made it as a producer. I did a few albums but I suppose the only real success I had was with Robin Trower, and how much of that was down to me I wouldn't like to say. I have a feeling, probably not very much. Rob didn't really make it on the strength of a hit single, he made it on the strength of getting out there and playing and working hard and coming up with a good album just at the right time. I can remember the first time they recorded Bridge of Sighs. They started running it down and I said: 'Cor, this is a bit good, isn't it?' And I asked Rob, does this one go down well live, and he said Oh yes, and I said: 'Ah, thought maybe it did.' It had that sort of riff like Howlin' Wolf's Smokestack Lightning, but slowed right down. I don't think I can claim too much credit for Rob's success.

You've done some work on your own, haven't you?

Yeah, I've done a few albums. About four albums.

Have you been pleased with them?

No, not really. It's always the same, once I've finished things I tend to hate them. I hate the sound of my voice. But at the same time, at least it's me. I've never wanted to have another singer in to sing my songs. I've never found anyone I really liked that much, who sang in exactly the way I would like to sing. I've known a lot of really good singers, but I've always felt that they'd be taking it somewhere else that I didn't want it to go.

By default, I just did my own thing and suffered the consequences. I suppose I just got locked into this survival bit, just wanting to stay alive, pay the mortgage and all the rest of it.

So how have you done that?

Well, I'm not doing it any more. My kids have grown up and I've got a divorce. But I was making these albums: I made two at the beginning of the 70s and two at the very end of the 70s, and around that time I got involved in building a studio here, which never became a proper studio, it was always just a thing in my mother's front room. Then I split up with my [business] partner very acrimoniously, who more or less did everything he could to ruin me, although he didn't quite succeed. So after that I wasn't really free to do anything much else. I wasn't free as an artist, I wasn't free as a songwriter, I wasn't really free as any kind of musical entity. But I did have a studio. So I got into hiring the studio out. I did whatever I had to do to pay the rent.

I started getting interested in computers, and it got to the point where I was beginning to think maybe I was more interested in the computers than I was in the music. What happened eventually was that my marriage split up and I found myself at a rather loose end. My wife threw me out of the house and I came back to live at my mother's house, where I still am, and I started thinking about well, I've always had this sneaking feeling that I'd like to go to university. Suddenly, having been slung out, I thought, well, if that's the way it's going to be, I want to do what I bloody want to do. So I went to Cambridge.

I was quite surprised when I managed to get in. it was a college called Wolfson, studying Computer Science. I did a three-year course, finished about two years ago now. It was around the same time that they started getting together again to do the Prodigal Stranger album.

Gary approached me about that just before my marriage broke up. It was quite strange because I'd had a sudden change of attitude. It arose out of the fact that I'd been to have acupuncture, which unblocked a lot of things for me and made me look at things differently. It brought me face to face with the fact that I'd left Procol for lots of reasons, but one of them was that I was fed up with travelling round and round and I wanted to spend more time in recording studios. And then I suddenly realised after this acupuncture that I'd spent twenty bloody years in recording studios now, maybe it was time for me to think about doing something else. So if Gary had rung me up about two weeks before, I'd have said No, no, don't think so. But ringing me up just after I'd gone through this change of attitude, I was much more open and thought, yeah, that might be a laugh, why not?

And did you enjoy it?

Yes, I did. I started to get bored with it again after a while. But then Gary has, that's the impression I get, because he's not doing it any more or at least he's taking a break from it. But it was a great buzz at first: being on stage after God knows how many years and playing the old songs again. I really enjoyed it.

Gary did say to me that you've had some major reservations about performing with orchestras.

This is another of my changing things. I'd have probably been really into it about thirty years ago, but I suppose in my old age I'm becoming a bit of a rock and roll purist. I suppose I think of it from the point of view that they wouldn't want us to play on their records, so why do we want them to play on ours? Because let's face it, we do what we do best, and they do what they do best, and it's not the same thing. I like orchestras on records when you're containing it and you're not letting them dictate the whole feel of the thing. When you've got the groundwork all done and you tell them, we just want you to do this bit here. In a studio you can do that, you've got tracks recorded and there's nothing they can do to make you play it any differently. They can either play along with you, or if they don't play along with you, you don't use them or you keep their tracks down in the mix. But the idea of all coming together and playing it at once, it just doesn't make sense to me, it doesn't ring true.

Gary said there was one occasion when you were going to have the reunion with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and you almost pulled out of it.

I didn't do the Edmonton one, no. There were lots of reasons why I wasn't there. We'd been having a few hiccoughs with negotiations between me and the band about various things. It just seemed to me that they wanted me to go off and do this tour when there was still some unfinished business that we hadn't sorted out.

What kind?

Just to do with the record, contracts and things, nothing big. But I'd got a very big exam coming up, the one that could very well decide whether I got into Cambridge or not, and I thought why do I want to go off and do this gig when I don't even like the idea of playing with orchestras much, with people I can't even get what I want from so far as negotiations are concerned? Did I want to jeopardise this incredibly important exam in this situation? And the answer was no.

Did you enjoy the Barbican concert?

Yeah, yeah. There's a difference between not having any predisposed enthusiasm for something and not actually enjoying it. You try to go into these things with an open mind. It's not the kind of thing that I'd have wanted to organise, but I'll come along and play and see what happens. It was good, it was a laugh, and the orchestra played well.

A lot of people have talked to me about the importance of BJ Wilson to Procol. What do you think he contributed?

This is very difficult. I think BJ was an incredibly talented drummer. When he first joined the band, we were all knocked out with him. He was a terrific player. I think he probably peaked at around A Salty Dog, Home, maybe even Broken Barricades. He was absolutely at his best and, yes, he was incredible. But after that I think, for me, he started to lose it. He started to lose it generally. BJ was always a raver, he was always the one who did everything that musicians do, only much more so. It was always too much alcohol, too much dope, too many strange women, everything. He was a bit self-destructive that way. It was a great shame because he was also an incredibly lovable person, as well as being incredibly talented. But he really sort of destroyed himself, you know? For me, part of the pattern it took was that his drumming started to get what I would call silly. It was like he was trying too hard. I tend to like drummers who just lock in there and get a nice groove going. BJ started to get a bit fancy, pompous, like he felt he had to do something strange and that no other drummer would do. I wasn't there, so this is only how it struck me at a distance. When I was in the band he was great. This was all after I left. But observing from a distance this was how it seemed to me and it was very sad. But as I say, he was very, very talented and a very lovable person.

Did you feel a bit ambivalent generally about Procol's music going into the 70s?

Yeah. To be honest, I didn't care too much for anything they did after Rob left. I bought the albums up till then even though I wasn't in the band, but after Broken Barricades . . . [I lost interest]. Grand Hotel and Edmonton and all that stuff didn't really do a thing for me. I'm not sure if it's that I didn't like the way the songs were going, or that I didn't like what BJ was doing, or that I just missed what Rob did. I certainly noticed the difference after Rob left. There are some musicians who have this way of holding everything together. With him not there, it all started to fall apart. Dave Bronze is the same. When someone like that goes, it's like someone has pulled the ground from under you. I'm not knocking anyone here, but after we played with him, being with anyone else is very different.

Read Part One of this interview here

Matthew Fisher's BtP page

More about Shine On

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home