The Rules Have Changed for Musical Virtuoso Robert Berry
Special to Rick Keene Music Scene by Ron Roxtar
Robert Berry always strives to do his best. It seems he’s been good on his word since the release of 3.2 The Rules Have Changed. It is his best work to date.
This album is a follow – up for the original To The Power of Three album released in 1987 by super-group 3. Berry was bassist and lead vocalist on that album and was joined by two prog rock legends. Carl Palmer and the late Keith Emerson. For Emerson, Lake and Palmer fans, wanting a final taste of the legendary keyboardist Keith Emerson; they will get it through Berry’s brilliant playing on this new 3.2 album.
In his career, Berry has performed with some very talented people. Sammy Hagar, Ambrosia, Greg Kihn and GTR. Robert and I spoke at great length about the new album, the glory years of 3 and the fond memories and insights of his friend and fellow band-mate Keith Emerson.
Roxtar : Let me start off by saying I love 3.2 The Rules have Changed. It’s a great album. You yourself have said it’s your greatest musical achievement. Why is that?
Robert : You know it started out to become my dream come true. For 27 years I’ve always wanted to do a follow up album for To the Power of Three with Keith (Emerson) and Carl (Palmer). Keith had been poisoned by the idea of it because of some fans writing him letters saying he shouldn’t do rock songs or have female back up singers. They thought he was ruining his legacy. He was very susceptible to that sort of thing. He thought it wasn’t working out. The thing is we had a top ten record with Talkin’ Bout and Keith was the sound of that song.
Roxtar : It’s a really good song. How did you get this new album to happen?
Robert : Yeah well here’s the thing, the record company put out a live record of that tour we did. I was excited about it. Carl always liked 3 so he was good with it. Keith was like “Whatever it’s money in the bank.” When Keith sat down at night and listened to the live album he called me immediately and said “Robert, we were such a good band. We were on fire.” So I sheepishly said “Why don’t we do a follow up?” I told him if I got us the right deal I’d call him back. I got in touch with Frontier Records and the president of the label was happy about it because he’s wanted a follow up for over 10 years. Now here was a chance for it to happen so they jumped on it. I called Keith back, he got super excited and we started working on it. That was the dream for me. I was so happy. If this was the last thing I’d ever do with my friend I wanted to make sure it was a great one.
After he died, I still had all the materials we had laid out the perimeters for just sitting there. We had at least five songs written and at least 20% of Keith’s keyboards done.
Roxtar : So is it safe to say that there’s still some of Keith’s playing on this album? At least 20% of it?
Robert : I have to be honest. A few months after Keith passed away I called Aaron Emerson up and asked him to get in on it. I sent him some of the stuff we had been working on and he found it too hard to play. After all, anything Keith Emerson plays on is too hard for anybody. Aaron told me I’d have to contact the estate that sort of owned Keith’s music and so I did. A few months went by and I didn’t hear back from them. Finally I said “Look I’ve got this material and you won’t know what Keith played on so I’m going to release it.” They then got back to me saying we couldn’t use his keyboard parts because they wanted Keith to be credited as a songwriter. I was like “That’s crazy.” Everyone knows Keith is remembered as this keyboard virtuoso.
In being honest I had to redo it. The playing came through my fingers from the stuff that he played, but then again he chose the parts. He chose the sound.
It got me excited about the material again. My goal wasn’t to sell millions of copies or have another top ten hit. My goal was to have another album we could be really proud of. I decided I was going to finish this because we had it all mapped out and I can play all kinds of instruments. I also have a state of the art recording studio. It was like because I can, I do. So I decided to finish it up.
The reason why I feel it was my greatest achievement is because it was so emotionally hard to get past the loss of Keith and now hearing the lyrics more I realize what I was writing at the time. The lyrics sort of shifted after he was gone. I used to have these conversations in the studio by myself and it was like I was channeling Keith. I would ask myself “What would Keith do here?” and try to imagine our conversations much like we had done back in ’87, ’88 or conversations we’d had in these later days. It wasn’t meant as a tribute to Keith but when it was done I was really proud of what it was.
Roxtar : You say you didn’t want to make this a tribute to Keith but obviously in some ways it is. In some of what you were saying about the lyrics in particularly with the song Our Bond. You have the line I hold the love of who you are / the passion of your hands / brought to my ears the music’s blood / that became our bond / a good man may we honour him. Then there’s this complicated musical prog piece.
Robert : That was written just a few weeks after he died. We’ve lost so many great musicians over the last few years and people always talk about their music. With Keith it was a bit the same but people were really talking about what a loss it was because he was this great guy. This funny guy. He was the most famous person I ever knew and he was so accessible. People could walk up to him on the street he was just so friendly. People felt like they knew him as a friend like I did. I thought I needed to write something about how everyone feels about Keith. It was not just about the music but the man himself. I was touched by that.
I thought I’m gong to write something and at the same time I’m going to throw a little bit of Fanfare in there. A little bit of Talkin’ Bout in there. A little bit of Tarkus? I rearranged it all. Of course at the end you hear that piano piece. I kind of just left the note hanging there. So that was a tribute to Keith.
Roxtar : This is all incredible stuff you are telling me. Even more incredible is the fact that you played all the instruments on this album as well.
Robert : Yeah I did. It’s not something I like to dwell on but I did. I have my own studio because I’ve been re-creating music for Paramount and other film companies for years. So in this album I was recreating what I felt was the essence of Keith’s playing.
I have a lot of singer / songwriters I produce because they don’t have a band. They want a more one on one. I bring to life their vision. It’s called Soundtek studios. I spent my life building up this state of the art studio. I have five drum sets, over 130 guitars, every amplifier you can think of, super expensive microphones and soundboards, the latest pro tools. I have to have the best of everything because I’m only striving to do my best work.
It’s also like a museum with all the artists I’ve played with like Ambrosia or pictures of Keith and Carl people have never seen. I’ve got a letter from Ian Anderson telling me how much he liked what I did on a Jethro Tull tribute.
Check out Robert’s studio here : http://soundtekstudios.com/
Roxtar : So what about when you joined Keith and Carl to form 3? It was really the third incarnation of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. It was more like EBP. What was that like for you?
Robert : That’s an interesting question. Both Keith and Carl told me something that has lasted 30 years in my career. They said “We had Greg Lake in the band and now we want you. We want you to do your best work. Don’t try to be Greg Lake.”
That meant a lot to me. Especially with Keith because he wanted something new. For Carl it was kind of like doing Asia. We were doing some stuff that was progressive. He wanted it to be like the success he had with Asia.
Here I was the new guy and I was a Greg Lake fan so it never bothered me if I got critiqued for being the new guy. If people were saying they wanted Greg Lake and ELP back I understood that. The criticism never bothered me personally but it bothered me that it got to Keith so much.
The record company loved it. The new fans loved it and we had such a camaraderie onstage. They treated me like an equal. There were no ego clashes. We had fun and hung out together all the time. They made that happen because they made me feel comfortable. The thing was we were trying to forge forward with this music and into the 90’s. Then all the grunge music with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and all that came along and changed everything.
Roxtar : How did the fans treat you as the ‘new guy’?
Robert : I have to tell you at the time there wasn’t that much feedback back, but now 29 years later it’s fantastic about how good I was (laughing).
The thing is because we had a top ten hit we were getting younger fans. Of course there was the typical older intellectual ELP fans but I remember in New York seeing lots of younger fans in their 20’s. So those younger fans were fine with me.
Remember the great top ten hit from 3 Talkn’ Bout : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQ2Kh1W4l4U
Roxtar : I think another reason why it was easier for you was that it was a whole new band with the name change of 3. Even though you were joining established musicians it wasn’t like joining an established band.
Robert : Yeah exactly. Another thing to keep in mind was we had all new material that we’d written. So everything was new. People talk about it as a failed project but it wasn’t. It was really successful.
That’s another reason why the 3.2 album has been so well received. It’s a continuity to what we did before and with Keith’s contributions. This time we knew exactly what we wanted to do.
Roxtar : You’ve played with so many established musicians in your career. What’s the connection with Sammy Hagar?
Robert : In 1985 when Sammy left his solo band to join Van Halen he was signed to Geffen Records. That label was grooming me to be a Bryan Adams, Sting like artist. John Kaladoner the famous A&R guy, he had an idea for me. He thought he would give my stuff to Sammy’s solo band and they could hook up with me or he was going to give some of my stuff to Carl Palmer. He did both. Carl called me first and really liked my songs so we started to get a band together. Then David Lauser of Sammy’s band called me second so it was too late.
Years later after 3 broke up David called me back and was still interested in working with me. We met up at Sammy Hagar’s house and Gary Phil flew in from Boston since he’d joined the band Boston. Alan Fitzgerald wasn’t in Night Ranger at this time. He had actually been touring with Van Halen playing keyboards and background vocals behind the curtain. So we all got together at Sammy’s and it was magic. We became a band called Alliance. It’s funny you ask me about this because we have a new album coming out.
About the time that Sammy was splitting up with Van Halen in the 90’s he called me up and said “Hey I’ve heard the stuff you’ve done with David would you like to come and play bass with us in a trio called Los Tres Gusanos (The Three Worms). That was great because we played The NAMM show, Cabo Wabo and places like that.
Here’s the thing if you go to see his current band The Circle and there’s a keyboard part in some of their songs, well that’s me. I played the keyboard parts for Sammy’s band The Circle which is pretty much the Van Halen songs they do. I did about five songs for them but I think they only do about three of them. I play with Sammy every night, you just don’t see me (laughing).
Roxtar : Wow! So in a way you’re the fifth member of The Circle.
Robert : There you go.
Roxtar : I also wanted to tell you how much I like the video for Powerful Man.
Robert : Thank you. Yeah, that was done by a friend of mine who did a fantastic job. That video has a deeper meaning that people might think. The song itself has a deep meaning. It’s a song written about Aaron Emerson. When Keith was in ELP he was on the road so much he was never really at home. Someone like Aaron would see how his dad had this positive power over the crowd. For me, Powerful Man was about these kids who have rock star dads.
Check out the Powerful Man video here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmc87bd-xy4
Roxtar : How come Carl Palmer wasn’t involved in this new album?
Robert : You know initially Keith didn’t want to have him involved because we were going in a different direction. We were going to use Simon Phillips because he worked with me on an ELP tribute album. We did Carn Evil 9 that I rearranged to be a bit tougher. The thing is Carl is just so busy. He’s always touring and this guy’s got so many new ideas. It was Carl who got me into 3.
This time around he gave me his blessing and said I could even call it 3, but he didn’t want to be a part of it because he’s just too busy. I would have loved to have had him. I’m proud of him because he’s playing better than ever.
Roxtar : What’s your best memory of Keith Emerson?
Robert : You know I have to say I really remember the first time Carl and I drove up to rehearse with Keith. We drove up to his big mansion in Essex. There’s this big gate and Carl’s “Asking where is he?” All of a sudden we hear this voice saying “Hey guys I’m up here!” We look up to the second story windows and in one of the windows was Keith with his butt sticking out. He’s talking with his butt cheeks like “Hey how you guys doing?” It was so funny. Here’s one of the best keyboardists in the world and he’s talking to me with his butt cheeks out.
Roxtar : Okay Robert your stranded on a desert island. What are your top three desert island discs?
Robert : Oh man that’s a hard one. I’m so into many different styles of music. I grew up listening to a lot of big band stuff and I’m really into Mexican mariachi music as well. I do remember being in college and in my car I had two albums that I listened to over and over again. One was Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life and the other was Blow by Blow by Jeff Beck. That guy just blows my mind. As far as a third one is concerned I’d probably have to bring a Yes album with me. I mean Chris Squire is just all over the place. I think what Squire, Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe did was just phenomenal.
Roxtar : You spend a good amount of time on the road with Greg Kihn. How did that come about?
Robert : I was in Ambrosia for a while and that was fine. I was trying to get them to do a new studio album and they just weren’t interested. They weren’t even playing as much as I thought they’d be. They’re a great band and I love those guys but I want to put out new music so I quit the band.
Right after that I get a phone call at eight in the morning from Greg Kihn. He says “Hey Robert I guess you might have heard Steve (Greg’s bass player) had a stroke so I want you to be in my band.” So I sat up in bed taking it all in. Right after leaving Ambrosia and wondering what I was going to do next here’s Greg Kihn offering me a gig. Little by little we began writing together and after about six years I got Greg to do a new album called Rekihndled. I’m really proud of that album.
Roxtar : So if you’re not playing with Greg I guess you’re focused on this new tour for the 3.2 album.
Robert : Yes exactly. I’ve got some really great players in my band for this 3.2 tour. They have to be because of all the material we’re playing. We’re doing some GTR songs because I worked with them for a bit. We’re doing some of the songs from the original 3 album. We’re doing an Ambrosia tune and of course my version of Carn Evil 9. We even do a tough version of Roundabout from Yes. Then we do songs from the new 3.2 album. It’s a really hard set so the guys have to be good.
I’ve got Andrew Coyler on keyboards and he’s playing all of Keith’s keyboard parts so you know he has to be good. I’ve got my long time guitar player Paul Weller who got along great with Keith. On drums I have Jimmy Keegan. Jimmy was the drummer in Spock’s Beard for many years. He’s not just a great drummer but a great singer too. So yeah we’re out there playing some great stuff with great musicians.