Procol Harum

the Pale

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Matthew Fisher

An interview of unknown provenance

Following is an interview with Matthew Fisher, the transcript of which was sent to BtP without attribution. Please mail us if you can supply the missing credits. (We understand this interview is also available here with illustration and date)

How did you start in music ? I would think you're classically trained ?

Matthew Fisher
My musical training was a bit patchy. I had piano lessons as a kid, but never practised hard enough. Later I started a three year course at the Guildhall School of Music in London, but left after two terms. I suppose I picked up a bit of knowledge on the way, but I would not describe myself as a classically-trained musician. In fact I'm rather glad I'm not, because I think too much classical training can destroy your natural 'feel'.

What were your early influences ?

I may have forgotten some of them after all this time - it's over 25 years ago - but I know that people like Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky were a great influence on me as a teenager, as well as Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Elvis, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, the Shadows, Bob Dylan and the Beatles - mainly John Lennon. As an organist, I was very influenced by Booker T Jones and Jimmy Smith, although possibly via English players like Georgie Fame and Graham Bond.

Procol Harum is considered by some as a precursor to the 'progressive rock' movement that flourished in the 70s ?

As far as 'progressive rock' is concerned, I think it's the worst thing that ever happened to rock'n'roll. Just because the Beatles did a few weird things on Sgt Pepper, everyone decided to take loads of acid and produce lots of really boring pretentious music. I never liked the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Barclay James Harvest or Gentle Giant (in fact I hated them when they were Simon Dupree and the Big Sound and made that dreadful record about kites) and I much preferred the Spencer Davis Group to Traffic. As far as I'm concerned, the best music of the late sixties was Motown.

In the early days of Procol Harum, was there a strong leadership from Gary ?

If Procol ever had a leader, it's probably Keith Reid, although he's not a musician. He's had more say than anyone in terms of policy and direction. All the while Robin Trower and I were in the band there was no musical leader - everyone just did their own thing, although BJ and Dave were sometimes directed by the others. After Rob and I left, Gary ended up being leader by default, but the idea of Gary leading the group in the earlier days was an invention of the media.

Is it true that A Whiter Shade Of Pale was actually recorded with session men replacing some of the band's members ?

Oh, I would have thought all this has been well documented by now, but for the record the line-up was Gary, me, Ray Royer, Dave Knights, and Bill Eyden on drums. Bill was a session drummer, who had been booked by the producer Denny Cordell, since he didn't like the drumming on the original demo. By this time we had replaced the old drummer with Bobby Harrison, but Cordell wasn't taking any chances. The song was recorded totally 'live', ie there were no overdubs (not even the vocal), and was mixed a few days later.

Who had the idea of this dual keyboard line-up ?

It was Gary and Keith's intention from the start, before I joined. I think it was because they'd been to see Bob Dylan in London playing with the Band - although they weren't called that at the time. Also Gary has always been keen on Gospel music, which often features piano and organ. I was keen to experiment with other combinations, just for a change, but the others seemed to prefer me to stick to organ.

In addition to playing the organ, you also sang a few tunes...

Yeah, back in the sixties I was very keen to have a go at singing the songs I wrote. These days it's not too important to me, as I've made a number of vocal albums on my own.

With the side-long 'suite' In Held 'Twas In I, Procol Harum were considered one of the pioneers of the progressive rock genre...

Keith and Gary had the idea of doing a long epic track, and decided to ask me to collaborate in the writing. At this point, they'd got as far as the 'life is like a beanstalk' bit, and weren't sure what to do next. I wrote the next bit for them and we went on from there. It all seemed a good idea at the time and it was fun to do. However, generally speaking, I don't particularly like listening to this sort of thing myself. I hate Bohemian Rhapsody for example, and I've never listened to Pink Floyd, except from the single Another Brick In The Wall. I prefer less pretentious music myself...

For A Salty Dog, you took over the production work, and in my opinion, this album had a much better sound...

The difference in sound between that album and the first two was due to a complete change in recording policy. The first two albums were done mainly at the old Olympic Studios, whereas A Salty Dog was done at EMI Abbey Road. I got fairly involved in the engineering side, and probably I didn't really know what I was doing. The first two albums tend to sound rather 'thin' and 'cold'. Personally, I think the Salty Dog album sounds a bit 'dull'. I think we'd have got a better sound if we'd used Geoff Emerick instead of Ken Scott, but in those days I didn't know the difference.

Why did you leave Procol Harum in 1969 ? Any regrets in retrospect ?

For all sort of reasons ... I think the main one was that I was bored with touring. I was more interested in working in the studio than playing live. I was very keen to learn all about recording and felt I was wasting my time sitting around in hotel lobbies all day. I don't regret leaving the band at this time ... In fact the only thing I really regret is that I ever joined them! Up until then my career was getting steadily better and better. With Procol it was all too much too much and things were never the same again. I like Home and a couple of tracks on Broken Barricades. I never took Edmonton very seriously, although it earnt me a little money ... After that I lost touch.

After leaving Procol Harum, you became a producer...

Yes, nothing of great note, though, apart from the first three Robin Trower albums, notably the second one, Bridge Of Sighs. The only 'day job' I've ever had was when I worked for CBS Records (now Sony) in New York City, which was in 1971 - 72. However, this was a music job so I don't think it counts. At the moment, I'm at Cambridge University, doing a three-year degree course in Computer Science. I've no idea what I'm going to do after that, but I think I'll probably find music rather boring after all that intellectual stimulation, in fact I'm already at the point where I couldn't stand spending the whole day in a studio listening to one song over and over again.

You've been involved in a few 60s 'All-Stars' concerts and events in the 80s as well...

That's right. These projects were instigated by a chap called Mike Ober, and are released on his Promised Land label. Personally, I wouldn't recommend anyone to listen to them, although I enjoy doing these sort of things for a laugh. In fact my attitude to playing with Procol these days is rather similar, although I would have to say that the standard of musicianship is a lot higher, and the results are worth hearing. The line-up is now Gary, myself, Mark Brzezicki, Dave Bronze and Geoff Whitehorn on guitar. We used Tim Renwick before Geoff as a temporary guitarist but Geoff is much more suitable.

How did this Procol Harum reunion thing, and the comeback album in 1991, happen ?

I think Gary's Echoes In The Night album may have started the ball rolling, so to speak. We made that album in 1984 / 85, and I think the main factor in me getting back together with Gary was when I split with my manager Ronnie Lyons - whom nobody liked. All the same, when Gary phoned me up in 1989 to see if I was interested, it was a complete surprise.

Do you see much in common, musically, between both incarnations of Procol Harum you've been part of ?

No, not an awful lot. For a start, Procol isn't really a band these days, and I'm not really a member. I simply get offered work with them from time to time, and if I'm available I do it. My life revolves around my university course these days, and Procol Harum is just a little sideline. If Keith and Gary had decided to re-launch Procol as a real band, with all members participating equally in the profits, I might have done that instead of coming here.

You've always been associated with the Hammond organ. Are you interested in modern synthesizers, though ?

I like using synths and samplers in the recording studio, but I've never got used to playing them on stage. In any case, Procol without a Hammond organ would be almost like having a different singer instead of Gary; it's part of the band's sound. Modern keyboards are fun to experiment with, but pianos and Hammond organs are a lot more emotionally responsive.

What do you think of today's music ? Do you listen to some of it ?

Most of it sounds 'overproduced' to me. For instance, I recently heard a live concert of Bryan Adams on the radio and thought it sounded really good. The records sound rather sterile to me in comparison, although the quality is very high. I'm really more concerned with songs, singers, grooves and personalities than sounds these days, as getting good sounds is so much easier than it used to be. I listen to all sorts of music these days. I was very keen on Elvis Costello in the 80s, and quite liked bands like Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Soft Cell, Tears For Fears, etc. These days, I'm very out of touch with what's happening in the world of music, but I get the impression I'm not missing too much. There was a lot of good stuff in the 60s, but there was a lot of crap as well (Herman's Hermits, Freddy and the Dreamers, the Honeycombs, etc.). Actually, I prefer listening to late 50s music, like Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, etc. This is my 'golden age'. I quite like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty.

Any solo projects ?

I'm planning on doing an album when I finish my degree course. This will not be for any major label, and I don't suppose it'll make any money or sell too many copies. It's just something I'd like to do. I don't know if Procol have any plans for another record, but I wouldn't have the time to get very involved in that right now.

Matthew Fisher's page at BtP

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