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In The V.I.P. Room
an interview with
GARY BROOKER and GEOFF WHITEHORN of
PROCOL HARUM


 

 

Continued From Home Page

In The V.I.P. Room
an interview with
GARY BROOKER and GEOFF WHITEHORN
of PROCOL HARUM


interview written by Robert Silverstein

Back in 1967, Procol Harum turned the music world on to a bold new sound with their classic “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” Some of the most musically significant albums of the ‘60s and ‘70s followed including A Salty Dog, Home, Grand Hotel and Exotic Birds And Fruit. Although it’s been 12 years since Procol Harum reformed for their 1991 comeback effort, The Prodigal Stranger, they more than live up to their legacy with the 2003 release of The Well’s On Fire. Released on Eagle Records, the thirteen track CD spotlights the original Procol songwriting team of Gary Brooker and Keith Reid in prime form. Also in the 2003 lineup are Procol’s original keyboardist, the great Matthew Fisher (organ), Geoff Whitehorn (guitars), Mark Brzezicki (drums) and Matt Pegg (bass). Procol Harum are the masters when it comes to melding symphonic rock with scorching blues-rock licks and The Well’s On Fire is a splendid return to form. Brooker’s indelible melodies and piano work and Reid’s intricate word play reemerge as if they hardly missed a beat. And filling the shoes of one time Procol guitar icons Robin Trower and Mick Grabham, Geoff Whitehorn brings a fresh and powerful rock dynamic to the table. Read the CD booklet and you’ll see that there’s still something magic in play on The Well’s On Fire. The following interview with Geoff Whitehorn and Gary Brooker took place at the Bottom Line in NYC before the band’s performance there on Friday, May 9, 2003.

(editor's note) On May 9th, 2003 I had the rare opportunity to see Procol Harum live at New York's Bottom Line, the famous downtown theater that has sadly long since closed down. At that time, Procol had just released their 2003 album The Well's On Fire and were in prime form that night. Attending the show with me that night was photographer Richard Cervone and May Pang—both long time fans of the great Procol Harum. As expected the concert was outstanding and just before the show I had a chance to meet and interview Procol’s legendary singer / songwriter Gary Brooker and guitarist Geoff Whitehorn—the latest guitarist in a band that has featured guitar icons such as Robin Trower and Mick Grabham. As you can see from some of the pictures taken that night, Procol’s lyricist Keith Reid was there, along with keyboardist Matthew Fisher, who also played brilliantly during the show that night. This full length archive interview—first featured in the July 2003 issue of 20th Century Guitar—spotlights interviews with both Gary Brooker and Geoff Whitehorn, who were eager to discuss a range of vintage Procol Harum history.

Gary Brooker

MWE3: Gary it’s great to see you back in NYC. I think the last time I saw you play was at the 20th Century Guitar Lily's show with Roy Wood, Steve Howe and Ian McDonald. Do you remember that show?

GB: Annie Haslam... I remember Phoebe Snow! When was that?

MWE3: That was at Irving Plaza.

GB: When?

MWE3: In November, 1995.

GB: Ahh.

MWE3: It’s been about 12 years since the last Procol Harum album, The Prodigal Stranger. How did you hook up with Eagle Rock Records to make The Well’s On Fire?

GB: Well the CEO of Eagle is one of my shooting partners...drinking partners. And he lives quite close to me. But there was no pressure from that end. Apparently, a couple of these guys from his office probably knew that I knew him or knew that he knew me, vice versa...but it came from, if you like, the a&r people, the marketing people. They said, ‘we’d be interested in making a Procol Harum album. Because sometimes, if you know the boss, it just doesn’t work. You know what I’m saying? If he tells people, ‘you gotta put Procol Harum out’ and they go, ‘what the hell for?’...that doesn’t work. But when it comes from within, I think that was a good way of doing it. So they just said, ‘would you?’, and we said ‘yeah’. Read the lyric book.

MWE3: It’s a cool company. Have they put it out in England?

GB: They’ve got it for the world, yeah.

MWE3: The Well’s On Fire is a pretty cool name for an album. I’m curious how you came up with...

GB: An uncool one? (laughter) Well to tell you the truth, we usually get our titles from one of the songs. I mean, there’s a few exceptions, like Exotic Birds And Fruit for example. That was the name of the painting that was on the cover. It seemed to fit. Of course, the world’s changed a bit and often, if you’ve got an album out, the radio people might think that the one that you call ‘it’ is the main one to play. So that didn’t seem to fit any of the ones that we had. We didn’t want to push one forward like that. And anything we did want to push forward didn’t have a good album title, like...say “Shadow Boxed” would not have been a good album title. And so we then look at all the lyrics to see if there’s a line somewhere that will fit. Didn’t find one there. And then Keith Reid suggested that we call it The Well’s On Fire, which is a line from another lyric...

MWE3: Yeah I heard there was another song with that lyric in there.

GB: We haven’t written it yet, he’s written the lyrics. And we just thought, ‘will that fit’?

MWE3: Procol Harum albums always start off with a killer cut like “Nothing But The Truth” and “Whiskey Train” and fittingly, the new album starts off with “An Old English Dream” which is a brilliant rocker. How do you interpret the sentiment behind that song?

GB: Doom and destruction, it’s all over now! (laughter)

MWE3: It’s amazing that Keith lives so close to the old World Trade Center site. The Well’s On Fire song “The Blink Of An Eye” is a haunting reminder of that cataclysm.

GB: Well it’s either that or it’s the first V-2 that dropped on London in 1945. Could be either...

MWE3: Some of the Well’s On Fire songs go back a bit to the early days. “So Far Behind” another great song was first played way back in the ‘70s. Sounds like it could’ve been on Shine On Brightly or something.

GB: It does...Chris Copping reminded us about it just as we went in the studio. And I played it with him in Australia once. We made kind of a demo of it. So he sent it over to remind us. I found the missing third verse, which I’d forgotten about. And so we ran it up the flagpole, and it was alright. This band played it well. Played it in the studio. Yeah, that’s good, very ‘Procol-y’!

MWE3: Any special Procol rarities that you’re bringing out for this American tour? I heard you played “Thin End of the Wedge” recently once in New York.

GB: That was the last time we played it. That was in 1991. That was too evil.

MWE3: Are there lots of unreleased or unfinished tracks in the Procol repertoire?

GB: Nah...nothing.

MWE3: I heard that was an unreleased Procol song called “Last Train to Niagara”?

GB: Well, that’s the only one! (laughter) You had to pick that one, didn’t you? (laughter) It was a stage song where we incorporated lots of our songs in it in some way, hidden. There was a big song going on, but every now and again it went into a version of something else or...variations, really. It’s twelve minutes long. We cut it down from 53 minutes! (laughter)

MWE3: I reviewed the CD reissue of Broken Barricades which came out on the Gazza label. Is that your company?

GB: Gazza. It’s nothing really. It’s just that you put Gazza on it and get it pressed up down the road! (laughter)

MWE3: Is that the best sounding version of Broken Barricades? It’s one of the great sounding Procol Harum albums.

GB: It’s different. It’s got great guitar on it. Great guitar sound. There’s hardly any organ on that. Well, actually there’s a proper version that’s come out now, with the original artwork, etc. etc...It’s a digi-pak CD on Repertoire. When we put that out we didn’t have anything coming out. People kept saying, ‘when are you going to make a new album?’ So the best we could do is put out Broken Barricades. We couldn’t find any artwork so we thought we’d just stick a cover on. In fact, nobody wanted to buy it anyway so... (laughter).

MWE3: One of my favorite Procol Harum albums is Procol’s 9th. I was always interested in knowing how Procol Harum hooked with Leiber and Stoller, who produced the Procol’s 9th album. What was it like working with them?

GB: Awful! (laughter) Yeah, awful. They used to stop at seven in the evening, go off for dinner and never come back. (laughter) We were kind of 4 am people. And Jerry Leiber liked to light his cigarettes with red swan vesters. He liked to inhale the sulfer from them. Actually, he smoked a lot.

MWE3: You played at the George Harrison tribute concert last year. Could you offer any reflections of that concert?

GB: Very moving event. I was moved. I was very moved by Ravi Shankar’s daughter as well. She’s very beautiful and I’ve never seen an Indian conductor before. She conducted the Indian orchestra, yeah.

MWE3: What did you play there?

GB: Piano.

MWE3: Did you play your own song?

GB: No, no it was George Harrison...

MWE3: I thought you were going to sing your own...

GB: Except for Ringo! Who actually did “Honey Don’t”!

MWE3: You have a new song called “War Is Not Healthy”. Is that a Brooker - Reid song?

GB: It’s a Brooker-Reid song. It’s not finished. There was a bit of a war? (laughter) There was a bit of a scrap going on somewhere in the sand. Yes, it’s an improvisation of some sort. Managed to sort of sing to the Germans a couple of times.

MWE3: So it was an anti-war song...

GB: War is not healthy!

MWE3: I totally agree. I was reading John Lennon gave you a lift on New Year’s Eve in 1967.

GB: Yeah!

MWE3: You were walking down the road with your wife and he was driving...

GB: No, he was parked for some reason, I don’t know why.

MWE3: And he had “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” playing on a phonograph in the car?

GB: Yeah. (laughter) (he said) ‘Hey Gary!, come in!’ (laughter) He had a bottle of champagne in there...it was midnight. We got so fed up with the pub we were in or something that we said, ‘oh, we can’t wait for midnight, we’ll go walking home.’ And old Johnny opened his door on his Roller and (he said) ‘Hey Gary!, come in! (laughter)

MWE3: Those were the days...

GB: A little champagne and a smoke, and we toddled off home again.

MWE3: So any future plans for the band?

GB: Not at all. Get through today.

MWE3: One day at a time.

GB: Well we know what we’re doing for the next two or three days. Certainly. Well, Geoff Whitehorn needs a special mention in your guitar magazine. He did a fine job.

MWE3: And I love the Matthew Fisher-composed instrumental track on the new album.

GB: “The Signature”. Well, it’s his follow up to “Repent Walpurgis” as far as he’s concerned.

MWE3: It’s also the 30th anniversary of Grand Hotel.

GB: I didn’t realize it’s the 30th anniversary. It’s always going to be the anniversary of something. In fact, it’s the anniversary of something else, this weekend. Well, in 1977 when we decided we’d stop, we actually decided after the concert. We said, ‘that’s it, then’. Just like that. And it was actually in New York. And it was ten years to the day since “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was released. That was May the 11th, 1967. Here we are back in New York on that same weekend. Double anniversary.

Geoff Whitehorn interview

MWE3: Geoff I understand you’re a major Procol Harum fan from way back in the ‘60s.

GW: Yeah, I always was. I mean, I was at school doing exams when “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” came out. It was so radically different from anything else that we’d heard before. There was a whole kind of mystique associated with the band. I think I really got into them severely round about the period when Home was released, around 1970? Trower had sort of come of age at this point and I thought he was great. I was a major fan.

MWE3: Making this new studio album, your first with the band must be like a dream come true.

GW: Yeah, it kind of is. I suppose it’s been inevitable but it’s because someone started the ball rolling which happened when we got the offer from Eagle Records. Someone actually wanted us to make a record.

MWE3: How did the new album come about?

GW: We were ready. You know, we’ve had this lineup of the band for ten years. It’s been stable. We’ve been perfectly happily doing concerts around the world but obviously we haven’t had anything particular to promote. So the interest had to be there, I mean someone had to want us to do it, rather than us wanting to and then kind of hawking it ‘round, if you like. Yeah, the offer came first, so Gary thought he’d better write some songs! (laughter)

MWE3: Roland at ProcolHarum.com told me you're touring with 3 guitars this time, and in the past on your Procol shows we've basically just seen one instrument?

GW: He’s a good source of information.

MWE3: Can you mention which guitars are you using on the current tour?

GW: Yeah, sure. I’m using a Paul Reed Smith McCarty. Paul is a very good friend of mine. He kind of breathed on that one a little for me. That green one you see out there. It’s got the pickups from the Singlecut, a few little refinements. It’s a great guitar. And the other one that I’ve got with me is a kind of Strat type guitar with with a P-90 in the bridge and two single coils. It’s a Fret-King Corona made by Trevor Wilkinson in England. I always found the regular bridge Strat pickup to be a bit edgy.

MWE3: What about your current Marshall rig and have you had any feedback from fans about it?

GW: It’s just a stock Marshall DSL 100, the two channel thing. I mean, that’s completely straight. I’m using it with just a Dunlop wah-wah straight into the head. And I also use the Behringer V-amp2 DI’ed into the PA...we used it for bits and pieces on the album. I just switch between the two with a Roger Mayer “Crossroads” A/B box.

MWE3: You also have an SG copy by the late Sid Poole ... he was a friend of yours?

GW: Not an SG, a Les Paul copy. I’ve got two of them. They’re replicas really. I’ve got an old ‘57 Gold Top with PAF’s. He took that kind of as his template for his Les Pauls that he subsequently made, yeah. They’re as near as dammit to the real thing, in fact he even got threatening letters from Gibson asking him to cease and desist. (laughter) And yes Sid was a very good friend. I miss him.

MWE3: Any other favorite guitars?

GW: Oh lots!

MWE3: So you’re a big collector?

GW: No, I wouldn’t say that, but...well I’ve got that old ‘57 which kind of stays under the bed, at home. And an old dot mark 335. A ‘59 335 yeah...but no, I’m not really a collector. I seem to acquire these things. And then every ten years, have kind of a big sale. And then start again. I think I’ve roundabout 20 or so guitars. I’ve had more. (laughter)

MWE3: What about acoustics?

GW: Haven’t got one. Don’t own one. I borrow them. I used Gary’s Takamine for the album.

MWE3: I heard that when you played with Paul McCartney he gave you a Gibson acoustic?

GW: He didn’t give it to me, he lent it to me. Well I turned up with this kind of piece of shit, 30 dollar acoustic. That was literally the only one I’ve ever owned. It got broken. It was like an Aria acoustic. He said, ‘I don’t think that’s quite going to make it. Do you want to use my J-200?’ (laughter)

MWE3: Your first Procol Harum gig was on the Johnny Carson’s Tonight show following the release of The Prodigal Stranger back in 1991? Was Johnny there?

GW: He was! It was one of his very last shows in ‘91, just before he retired. That was literally the first thing I’d ever done with Procol. (laughter) Just a small audience to get warmed up.

MWE3: How would you compare your style, tone and overall guitar sound to earlier Procol Harum guitar greats Robin Trower and Mick Grabham?

GW: Well, I mean we’re all very much from that, obviously, British blues tradition, really. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a blues gig. It’s just that we happen to use a lot more chords. But if you kind of try and chase the chords too much, it doesn’t kind of sound like Procol anymore. It gets a bit white, dare I say it. Yeah, Mick and Robin were huge influences. I mean, I love them both as players. As I say, I have all the original albums on vinyl.

MWE3: Yeah I had the original “Whiter Shade Of Pale” single in 1967, when I was like 13.

GW: I was like 15 or 14 or something when that came out.

MWE3: Are you playing a little less intensively on this album than you do live?

GW: Well, it’s a different vibe, isn’t it? I mean you’re just kind of effectively playing for yourselves. There is no audience of course, it’s a different process. Although having said that, we did play it pretty much live in the studio. We fixed what was wrong and overdubbed what was necessary but it was done essentially as a band in about two or three weeks of recording.

MWE3: I know you listed Hank Marvin as one of your big influences.

GW: Hank Marvin, absolutely! Hank Marvin is probably the reason that I’m playing guitar to be honest. Hank Marvin and Eric Clapton.

MWE3: Any other favorite guitar influences?

GW: Oh yeah, everybody! But I mean...Richie Blackmore, Jan Akkerman...all sorts of people. Peter Green, of course, Jeff Beck. You name it. Larry Carlton, Lukather. Everybody, really.

MWE3: In the spirit of the first Procol Harum album, The Well’s On Fire closes with that great Matthew Fisher-penned instrumental, “Weisselklenzenacht (The Signature)”. Would Procol consider doing more instrumentals?

GW: I mean Gary will tell you a little of the story on stage later about that, but obviously Matthew had “Repent Walpurgis” on the first album, and after 35 years, he decided to write a follow up. (laughter) But I mean obviously, Matthew’s written other stuff for Procol since. I think each song is kind of a mini-instrumental in a way.

MWE3: Do you have a favorite Procol album?

GW: I really like Home. As I said to you before, I think that’s the one where Trower kind of came of age as a player. I said, ‘oh right, Rob’s really getting it now’. His progress from album one to album four, which that was, was astonishing! In three years, he just got so good. He really pursued it and he was really kind of polished the most on Broken Barricades.

MWE3: Do you speak to Trower at all?

GW: I never met him! (laughter) But that’s not actually quite true. When I was with Crawler, we opened for Trower quite a bit in the late ‘70s.

MWE3: You’ve also recorded several solo albums. Are they imports?

GW: Yeah, they’re my little secret I think. (laughter) I mean, I just sell them myself. You can get them through the Procol website, ProcolHarum.com

MWE3: I know you are also a major George Harrison fan.

GW: He was kind of the guy who kept it really succinct, melodic. Never did anything longer than kind of eight bars. I think he defined the art of the guitar solo, really as a compliment to a song. Never, ever more notes than was necessary and always something really original melodically. Great player. And obviously his slide work. No one’s ever played slide, like, as completely original.

MWE3: You also played with Paul McCartney on Pipes Of Peace. What was that like?

GW: It was great. He was actually playing bass on this particular track. I think it was called “Through Our Love” or something. Yeah, he was playing bass. I was just acoustic. George Martin, Sir George Martin was playing electric piano and Dave Mattacks was playing drums. It was just the four of us, just like a regular little rhythm section. He was great. He was a nice guy. Linda was there. All the little kids running around the studio.

MWE3: As an early Procol fan I was also greatly influenced by the drumming of the late, great BJ Wilson.

GW: Fantastic drummer!

MWE3: At the ‘70s shows I would fixate on him.

GW: He’s great to watch, yeah.

MWE3: I guess everybody misses him.

GW: Well, yeah! Certainly. Obviously, Mark’s doing a great job. Again, he was in the same sort of situation as me I think. He was a big fan of the band anyway. And then you find yourself in the ranks.

MWE3: What would you like to see the band do next? A new album or DVD perhaps?

GW: Well we have a DVD in fact, which was done purely for a TV show in Copenhagen, Denmark. And it became a DVD. Some extra footage was shot in Gary’s rehearsal room that we use. And it’s us, messing about basically, playing “Hey Joe” and things like that.

MWE3: How long is the tour going to be?

GW: We leave after Sunday. We sort of regroup and then we’ve got a whole bunch of stuff to do in Europe. We’ll be back here on the West Coast in July.

MWE3: Did the album come out in Europe?

GW: Yeah, it was worldwide on Eagle. Released on 03/03/03. 3rd of March, 2003.

MWE3: You’ve said that Gary likes to dig out some sacred Procol Harum nuggets from time to time are there any rarities that you’ll be playing tonight or that you’d like to see revived?

GW: I guess Procol’s repertoire probably consists of something like 130, maybe, songs. I think we can probably play about 85 of them. Or have done, in the past. There’ll be more surprises next time we go out, ‘cause you don’t want to be playing the same set year in, year out. And of course now we’ve got a new album anyway. The whole kind of texture of the thing has changed, you know? We never know what we’re going to play. We do have a set list, but I don’t think we’ve ever stuck to one. It keeps it fresh. It keeps it fun. Keeps us on our toes!

For a very special and memorable night, thanks to Gary Brooker and Keith Reid, Geoff Whitehorn and Procol Harum @ www.procolharum.com, Jon Paris and Eagle Records @ www.eaglerockent.com, Roland Clare, Richard “Hollywood” Cervone and May Pang @ www.maypang.com




 
 
 
 
 

 

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