Interview with Robert Berry
In the months before his untimely death in 2016, legendary keyboard player Keith Emerson had been working on a follow-up to the successful Emerson, Lake & Palmer offshoot project known as 3.
Reunited with original singer Robert Berry, Emerson's final work seemed destined to remain unfinished. However after months of grieving, Keith's family encouraged Robert to resume work on the album. The result is Robert's new release, a collaboration with Emerson under the band name 3.2.
Here the DPRP's Patrick McAfee speaks with the much travelled multi-talented producer/songwriter/vocalist/instrumentalist about his career and how he managed to complete the new album, The Rules Have Changed.
Robert, congratulations on the 3.2 album. It is outstanding. It was such a surprise to receive a follow up to the 3 album thirty years later and it was well worth the wait. It is such a great and natural follow up to the debut album. Also, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.
Hello Patrick. Great to meet you here and I am honored by your comments on 3.2. As you know, it was a labour of love.
I would like to start things with a few historical questions. The mid to late 1980s must have been a very exciting time for you. A young musician from Northern California suddenly working with multiple prog rock legends. First with Steve Howe in GTR and then 3 with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer. Looking back, what are your feelings about your time in GTR? Though I know that some of that material was released in other forms, do you ever regret that your time working in that band didn't result in an officially released album?
Ah yes, my time in GTR. As a guy that had a local band that did fairly well, I had my sights set on something bigger. I wasn't expecting it to be that big of a jump though. When I met with Steve we seemed to click right off. He was a gentle soul and of course a very creative guy. I seemed to have the missing piece to his songwriting, as when we started to write together the songs seemed to have some magic. You can hear my take on those songs on my album Pilgrimage to a Point. I really felt that GTR needed to have more of that incredible Steve Howe guitar on it and I set out to make sure that happened.
Unfortunately after I left the band they re-worked the recordings and the songs became a little lighter in style. One of my songs, Young Hearts, that had this big guitar intro actually wound up being done with plucking violins. The band just seemed to lose the thread of what, at least I thought, GTR should sound like.
Do I regret that I quit? Yes I do. For me that band had the greatest players, the greatest style, and of course one of my favorite guitar players, Steve Howe. My problem was mainly the friction I had with Max Bacon. Now Max isn't a bad guy, but he really didn't want me singing. Every time I went in to do my vocal harmony parts he would double me on the same mic. And he sings louder than me so - well you can imagine. I disappeared in the mix. You would think that it's not a big deal but my agreement with Brian Lane, our manager, was that on every album I would get to sing one song. I gave up my possible solo career at Geffen to join GTR. I knew that me singing wasn't going to happen. I really enjoy singing and feel that on some songs my vocal style fits better. I do regret it not working out. I am in touch with our drummer Nigel Glockler quite often and we both reflect on our time with GTR in a very positive way.
I am a fan of the 3 album and I think it has some truly outstanding material on it. I lived in Pittsburgh PA at the time of its release and I remember Talkin' Bout getting a lot of airplay. It was a really great radio track and it was also great to the see the video on MTV at the time. I have always thought that you and the band did a great job of mixing pop elements with the more expansive prog rock sound on the album. Considering that Emerson and Palmer had worked together for so long prior to that point, was it difficult to be the new guy in the trio while recording the album?
Great question Patrick. You would think that I would be smothered by two of the greatest musicians of all time. But no! They always said that they wanted me, to be me. Not Greg Lake and not anything they'd done before. Both Keith and Carl were looking for something fresh. Carl especially wanted an American-sounding voice and Keith was looking for a little of that Asia success. We not only got along like 3 old friends, but all 3 of us always had ideas for new music and performances.
It was actually me that talked Keith and Carl into using a small studio called Easy Hire to record most of our album. I knew the equipment and they trusted me to get it right. Carl and I produced it together and Keith did the arrangements. It was the best of all worlds for me and I am very proud of that record. I do feel like a few of the songs probably pushed it a little, to pop right off the bat. The ELP fans would have responded a little more favorably to another Desde La Vida-type piece and possibly nothing more commercial than Talkin' Bout. But all in all, it was very successful.
I had the opportunity to see 3 in concert back in 1988 and I was really excited for the future of the band after that show. As much as I enjoyed the debut album, your live performance took things to another level. There was an energy there that was really exciting. Why didn't the band continue at that point, and prior to exchanging musical ideas with Keith Emerson in 2016, was there ever any interest in reforming 3 previously?
The reason 3 broke up so soon after our tour was that the die-hard ELP fans of Keith were very critical of him playing "songs". They wanted the longer, more complicated, epic pieces. They also wanted Greg Lake back but I totally understood that. Keith did not take the criticism well. There was even a guy that wrote him a letter criticising the female background singers and saying that is was embarrassing for Keith to have female backup singers in scantily clad outfits in his band.
I'm not sure how many guys would say that but this guy got to him. He left his phone number on the letter that he had sent Keith, and Keith called him. You have to remember that Keith was defined and defined himself by being a great keyboard player. He lived, ate, and breathed everything about music. He was the worlds greatest player and performer on keyboards. No one did what he did on stage. And the pressure really bothered him. No matter what I did he wasn't going to change his mind. I wrote The Last Ride Into the Sun trying to get him back on board. But his mind was made up, or tainted I should say, by a few fans that felt they knew better than Keith.
I have spoken to Carl over the years about possibly doing something new, and he was mildly interested at one point. It just never seemed to be the right time. And truthfully, how could we ever do it without Keith's playing? Keith was the sound of 3, Carl was the pulse, and I was the voice.
You play all of the instruments on the new 3.2 album, but the Keith Emerson style keyboards are uncanny. The work stands not only as a testiment to your talent, but also as a wonderful tribute to Keith. Knowing that the album represented his last work, how important, or even daunting, was it to capture his style so vividly? Also, Keith's family had some wonderful things to say about the album, which must have meant a lot to you.
First off, the statements from Keith's family meant the world to me. It has been my quest to honour the man, honour his writing, and honour what we had together in music. What really got me is that his family felt him in the music too. I can't even express how that made me feel.
What I don't think I'm getting across very clear in some of the interviews that I've done, is that I actually had Keith's playing and writing on about 20% of the album. We had worked a lot on style, concept, music intros, bridges, etc. Five songs were really laid out in an outline kind of form. I say outlined because if you looked at my ProTools recording screen you'd see all the places with sound and then all these places in between, where I had to write the "song" part of the composition. In having that, it gave me a springboard from which the complete song could grow. It took some doing to make full songs that had depth and meaning but that was what I was up against.
It took me a year to write, record, and mix the album once I had decided to resume working on it. After Keith's death I had decided there was no good reason to continue. It took a phone call from Keith's son Aaron and some prodding from the record company to get me to resume working. It was so important to me that you'd feel all the feelings that I was going though and all the musical ideas we had talked about in the final product. Some of the songs I had to rewrite several times just to think it was what it needed to be. When it was all done, I had no idea if I had it right or not.
I have read comments from folks over the years who thought that the mix of pop and prog on the original 3 album was uneven. I actually think that those people would find much more to like about the new 3.2 album. The pop and prog mix is still there, but this album is impeccably consistent. When writing and recording the 3.2 album, did any of the feedback on the original album play into the end results of this follow up?
What you have to remember is that 3 was put together very fast. Carl and I had been trying to start a band for over a year but Keith's involvement was new to the process. I believe we worked a few months in Keith's barn writing, and then went into Easy Hire Studio to do a few demos. We also did the video to 8 Miles High. That is what we presented to Geffen. About six months into it, we were signed and ready to finish up the recordings.
Geffen had invested in me with some straight rock songs I had and wanted them on the album. We also had been working with a female writer/singer named Sue Shiffren for a few weeks and we liked her song Chains. My straight rock songs and her pop hit were not really the right blend for the first 3 album. Don't get me wrong, I like the tunes and think we did a great job with them. But we were a little heavier than those.
With the 3.2 album Keith and I knew exactly what we wanted to do. We had not only learned from the experience 28 years before but both our lives had taken us to many corners of the music world. We planned it out and set out to accomplish the plan. I was determined to get some hot Emerson playing on the album too. I felt that since 3, Keith had not been challenged enough to get the best out of him. Sure, his arm was sore and he had some stiffness in his fingers, but we both knew he would get around it and we could develop songs that he would be able to play without a problem.
Was there ever any thought to Carl Palmer playing on the 3.2 album and since its release, have you corresponded with him at all about the finished product?
After Keith was gone, I had asked Carl if he'd want to work on it. He politely declined as he is the only surviving member of ELP and is dedicated to his ELP Legacy. It is quite good if you haven't seen it. Two great guitar players in Paul and Simon. I've actually seen them twice now and really enjoy the energy of the band. Carl is playing better than ever. I have not heard from Carl about the 3.2 release. He is so busy touring all the time, that I bet he hasn't even listened to it. But with all the fantastic reviews in the press, I'm sure he's seen the response. I look forward to speaking to him about it when he's back around.
The 3.2 album feels like a natural follow up to the original album, but it also sounds very modern and fresh. As I listen to tracks like Poweful Man and Somebody's Watching, it makes me wish commercial radio was more like it used to be. This album deserves to be heard by people. With that in mind, a lot has changed in the 30 years since the 3 debut. What are your thoughts on the current music industry and what do you feel is the best way for artists such as yourself and others to get their music noticed these days?
I like what you're saying Patrick. Keep it up!!! The music business today? UGH! And we were on such a positive note. Well, I am very disappointed in the powers-that-be in letting these streaming services ruin a great career. I do not know how a young band can make any money playing music these days. You have to sell shirts, thumb drives, and ball caps to make a little profit. It seems like something that cost so much to do, should also reap the benefit of making a living at it. But where you used to get, let's say a $1000 check for your music, now you would get $75. Maybe not even that much. Something needs to change, but I don't see anybody big enough leading the charge. Maybe it is just too hard to undo now.
I have to say that I would love to hear these new songs as well as tracks from the original 3 album performed live. Also, you have released some fantastic solo albums over the years. Is there a chance of any live shows around this release?
Originally there were no plans. Then this guy comes along and says: "I want to put you on a world tour next year. Are you interested?" Of course I had to think about that for two minutes. I am planning on a tour next year but there are not dates set in stone yet. The set list will contain songs from 3, Pilgrimage, Dividing Line, and 3.2, along with my Magna Carta tribute series of critically acclaimed tributes. For being the first time out on tour, it will be like a greatest hits set. As long as they have heard the new 3.2 album, fans should know every song in the set.
I am big fan of your December People holiday albums, as well as the great Magna Carta tribute albums that you were a big part of back in the 90s. All of these albums are extremely well done, but also very fun to listen to. Do you foresee releasing any other albums of this type in the future?
I am totally focused on 3.2 right now. There is only this one chance to get it right. It can never happen again. But if you know my career, you know I can't sit still for long. I have done quite a few albums over the years.
Last question on a fun note. What are a few of your desert island albums?
There are so many I listen to now at the studio when clients are talking about style. Things like Evanescence, Fall Out Boy, even some of the younger hip-hop artists. But if I was going to be on a desert island, I would only need a few things. A bag of Ruffles potato chips for one, a Yes album to suck up the Chris Squire bass playing, a Jeff Beck album (Blow By Blow) and possibly one of my old favorites, the Stevie Wonder album Songs In The Key Of Life. I know I'm all over the map, but wait a minute, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Beatles. Okay I'm better now. It is hard to pin it down for me.
Robert, thank you again for taking the time to answer these questions for DPRP. The 3.2 album is a special release for many reasons, but most notably for its high level of quality. The song writing is excellent, and though it is essentially a solo album, from a performance perspective, it has a true band feel to it. Fans of Keith Emerson and the original 3 album will love it and I hope that others discover it as well.
Just remember that Keith had played on it originally. To get the rights from his estate to do the album, I had to agree to take his playing off. But because I do play keyboards and I have all the right pianos, Hammond B3, and synths, I spent many, many hours replaying his parts exactly as he had them. If I could play them to you side by side, you would not hear any difference. Not that I can play as well as Keith, but I had him right there laying the foundation for me to build upon. My one regret is that he wasn't there to finish it up.
Robert Berry website: http://www.robertberry.com
Robert Berry Wiki page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Berry
Robert Berry Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Robertberrymusic/
This interview is published in conjunction with Patrick McAfee's review of the 3.2 album. Read it here!