Procol Harum

the Pale

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Gary Brooker interview, 2003

Ronnie DíAddario (special thanks to Long Island Press)

Ronnie D'Addario writes to BtP (May 2003) with the text of this interview which he gives us permission to reproduce from Long Island Press, for whom he wrote it. Read about his record on Homburg Records, listen to his Procol cover here (and a Matthew Fisher cover here)  

PROCOL A Whiter Shade of Pale HARUM play the IMAC in Huntington: An interview with Gary "Procol Harum" Brooker

"THE NEW SHIT IS GOOD!" The audience member who yelled that at Huntingtonís beautiful and acoustically excellent IMAC theatre last Saturday night was exactly right. Procol Harumís latest album, The Wellís On Fire is on a par with their early recordings. How many bands can you say that about? When a new song started, fans applauded in recognition the way other audiences reserve their exuberance for their favorite bandsí classics. The surprise and rarity of this occurrence no doubt fueled this fellowís enthusiasm. There was no, "Whelp, itís time to go to the bathroom," a remark I heard at a Paul McCartney concert a few years ago, when Paul performed, Rough Ride and Biker Like An Icon ("the new shit" at that time) on the Flowers in the Dirt tour.

When you mention Procol Harum to some people, (a lot of people), they say, "Who?" Then, of course, you must retort with, A Whiter Shade of Pale?" And they invariably will reply, "Oh yeah, I liked that song." You attempt to assist them further and query, "and Conquistador". A pained look of puzzlementÖ("The human face is a terrible place"). You realize you should have quit while you were behind and wonder whether you pronounced "Conquistador" correctly. Well, it just makes it that much more special for you and your fellow sophisticated admirers of superior music.

And thatís why the group sells out all of their shows and why the Bottom Line had to add another two shows for the next night, even though they had played there the previous evening. (By the way, they were less than thrilled at the treatment they received from "Jeff Who?," who ran the Bottom Line shows and who ignored them the whole night until the end when he charged them for the beers they drank. They humorously referred to this on the IMAC stage.) Michael, IMACís manager, told me that the Huntington tickets sold out so fast, he wished he had booked another show.

An album cut called Quite Rightly So from their second album got as good a response, if not better, than their two American hits. Matthew Fisherís percussive Hammond organ was extremely prominent in the mix on that song, which makes Procol fans skip the Light Fandango. That and Gary Brookerís voice, "as strong as Samson," (OK, enough Procol quotes!) as strong as ever, define the stately Procol sound. I had a chance to talk with "The Commander," as Gary is sometimes referred to, backstage at the IMAC.

Ronnie D'Addario
You have a wonderful stage presence. The audience is always very amused by your patter between songs.

Gary Brooker
I donít like to just sit there (blank expression) and not talk to the audience. Itís not enough to just play the music. You should try to relate to them a bit on that other level as well.

On your new album, The Wellís On Fire, on the song Shadow Boxed, you have the line, "Iíve been Chinese rocks." How does it feel once youíve been Chinese rocks?

Thereís always a bit of mystery around and Chinese rocks is one of them. One of many. I mean, how do you get shadow boxed, as well? But certainly, what it means is that youíre mixed up. Messed up.

Thatís the overall impression one gets from the song, but is 'Chinese rocks' an expression?

Iíve never heard of it, but Keith Reid (Procolís lyricist) may have heard it somewhere 'cause he knows more about words than I do.

You did a good job with lyrics yourself on your second solo album, Lead Me To the Water.

Lead Me To the Water was my only effort. I thought it was easy to write the words for that and so when I came to do the next album, Echoes In the Night, I thought Iíll have another go, but I found out that I used up all my ideas. (laughs) The lyrics on Lead Me To the Water, I found them easy to do, but once you have to start thinking about them, itís not so easy.

When you got the opportunity to do both words and music, was it the music that determined the shape that the lyrics took?

You know, I canít remember how it was done. Possibly I worked out the words and the music at the same time, with some give and take on both ends. I suppose I did have a bit more freedom, but then youíre starting from scratch. There have been songs that I wrote with Keith, where I had music that I had written on my own and it happened to fit a lyric that he gave me. And it matched the mood as well.

Do you feel ever that your melodies get too locked into the poetry-style meter of Keithís words?

Donít forget you can make the word longer or shorter. Fast or slow in phrasing. So you can make a two-syllable word last a long time if you want to or you can fit in four syllables over a short period. The meter of a song will dictate it in a certain way whatís going to go on. Keith Reid writes lyrics, not poems. Heís always been very certain of that. Theyíre meant to be songs. And sometimes itís just a matter of doing something a few times. The first time you try something, you think, "this isnít quite fitting, Keith. The whole thing is working well. The idea is great with the music, but those lines are too short."

Is he willing to change some of his words to suit your music?

Yeah. Well, heíll come up with a new idea, but by the time he comes up with a new idea, Iíve gotten use to actually singing it faster or shorter or longer and we usually end up with exactly what he wrote in the first place.

Your Dad played Hawaiian guitar and he died when you were pretty young. Have you ever written a song about him?

(Pauses and thinks) No.

Home Lovin'?

That was actually about Eric Clapton. About his life.

Your singing on that one seems to be more sensitive than usual.

Well, I was doing it with Eric Clapton and Iím not sure whether he knew (laughs). Youíd get a punch in the face. Better mind your own business. I never said to him that it was about him. That was recorded with his band. It was when he was recording his own album. Heís on Lead Me To the Water and Home Loviní.

On The Wellís On Fire, did you take advantage of computer recording, such as "copy and paste," or the ability to delete mistakes and change notes?

No. We donít do any of that. We did record all this last album with "Pro Tools" and we only used a click track on one song. Mark (Mark Brzezicki, Procolís drummer for the last decade) played a phrase and we used that as a loop. That was Matthewís idea.

(Note: Later on, I asked Matthew Fisher, Procolís melodically gifted organist, about his plans for a new solo album of which he was thinking of making completely computerized.)

Matthew Fisher
AhhhÖ Iíve got a bit of stuff written. You know, I wrote a lot of stuff when I was staying with Carol in New Jersey.

(Note: Sorry, Matthew fans. Thatís all I could get. He was whisked away to sign autographs. And now back to GB)

Why did you wait so long to record A Robe of Silk?

Whoa, this is not common knowledge and itís not something we shout around in case the people that we were signed to, the publisher at the time, says, "Hey, just a minute, thatís a 1968 song".

That fact is mentioned on your website. So Far Behind too.

Yeah, thatís an old one too, but I donít think we ever recorded them. The band that we had at the time, which would have been with Trower. (Robin Trower, Procolís guitarist for the first five albums and their 1991 reunion album, "The Prodigal Stranger.") We tried, probably, both those songs, but it didnít work. But this is a different band and weíre all more experienced. We have thirty years more playing or whatever. Robe of Silk, I kept it up my sleeve and pulled it out in the studio and nobody had ever heard it, so they played it fresh like todayís number. My idea, I said, "Letís start with a drum intro."

It has the feel of She Wandered Through the Garden Fence. I can also hear the lick from The Milk of Human Kindness on that.

Well you see what happened there was that Robe of Silk came before Milk Of Human Kindness and I put that lick in a later composition Ö quoting myself.

Since no one had heard the lick in Robe before, because you hadnít put it out.

Right. But it was great having it on the new album because it makes it some sort of reflection.

Gary, Iíve probably used up my ten minutes.

Um, keep going.

When I heard Phil Collinsís hit, Thatís All, I thought I heard The Milk Of Human Kindness in there.

Is that the one that sounds a little bit like it?

Yes. He is so huge and I wish Procol got the recognition they deserve because your talent is so beyond all those people.

Well, I never looked at life like that. Iíve never looked at my career like that. Iíve always felt grateful that one can do what you like doing and thatís how you make a living. I mean, we have a great time. You know, it would be lovely to be rich and not have to worry about how much it cost to make an album or when to do one. Or how youíre gonna finance a tour or something. It would be lovely.

Do you have any benefactors?

Well, no. I think we need a sponsor.

How about someone like Paul McCartney. Heís loaded and he has to dig you guys.

(Excited) Oh yeah! He is a big fan of mine. He invited me to his concert he had about three weeks ago.

Just so that Paul could enjoy some great music on a regular basis, he should finance you and give you whatever you want.

He wouldnít miss it. (laughs)

Itís settled then.
Well I avoided asking the typical, "What Bach pieces is A Whiter Shade of Pale based on."

(Laughs) Or "How did you get the name?".

(At this point Procolís manager, Chris Cooke, came by and gave me a smile and a friendly look that could only mean "Time's up." I thanked them both.)

Thanks a lot, Ron, and the next time you see McCartney, tell him to chuck a few million our way.

(Any of you wealthy Long Islanders out there [Does Paul still have a house here?], Procol is a real class act. How about it?)


More Procol History at BtP


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