Ray Shulman in 20th Century Guitar Magazine

From The Gentle Giant Home Page
(Redirected from 20th Century Guitar)
Jump to: navigation, search

An interview with Ray Shulman, conducted by Lawrence Acunto, March 1998. Reprinted by permission. Transcribed by Merrigan Philip.

Key:

  • TCG: 20th Century Guitar
  • RS: Ray Shulman

The interview

TCG: We don't get as much Giant over here as I guess you do in Europe, but King Biscuit has just released the King Biscuit Flower Hour live recording from 1975.

RS: Have you heard it then?

TCG: About 211 times. It's interesting that this was was recorded in 1975 and Playing the Fool was recorded when, in 1976?

RS: I'm terrible with dates I just don't remember.

TCG: Wait, I've got it right here. It was 1976. I also got a chance to see you guys around that time. Do you remember a little theater called the Calderon?

RS: Oh yeah, for sure. I think the first time we played there was when we opened for Kiss. It was a very weird date to do.

TCG: I saw you there twice. Best shows I've ever seen. But the interesting contrast between the two live recordings is it seems that by 1976 the live show had expanded dramatically. Is that the case or was the King Biscuit show, because it was a live radio show and there were probably time constraints, cut back a little bit?

RS: The thing is it is hard to remember. The Biscuit thing was recorded in NY and I'm wondering whether we were on our own or playing with another band. That would account for things being cut back a little.

TCG: But even the massive drum solo is quite restrained on the Biscuit CD.

RS: Maybe it was a cut down show. It is really hard to remember. Though I do remeber something quite funny about that show. During the violin solo somebody cried out "You suck". The show was recorded down to 1/2 inch tape and the engineer when we mixed it for broadcast cut that out. I gave that little bit of tape with "you suck" on it to my girl friend, who is my wife now, and still have it. A very memorable concert that was.

TCG: Speaking of your violin solo, by the second time I saw you, you had really expanded that solo. You had speakers all around the hall and the violin was bouncing around everywhere.

RS: That was a sound system we had brought over. I guess compared with the technology we have today it was a very simple system but it was pretty clever then. It was a kind of bastardized Revox tape recorder with some extra heads and some electronics some guy made for me and I had some switching things. It was pretty elaborate for the time.

TCG: It sure sounded great. In addition to the King Biscuit CD, there is also Under Construction I haven't heard it yet. What is that about?

RS: I'll send you one Kerry Minnear is handling the marketing of that.

TCG: So, he is still involved with GG.

RS: Well, we've all pretty much stayed in touch. Not only on a friendship level, but because there have been so many releases, to take care of business.

TCG: Does it surprise you that seventeen years after the fact, Giant still has much of a following.

RS: It's staggering! It's very flattering. It's also hard to relate to sometimes.

TCG: Bout it is not ebough for you guys to say, "Hey, let's go out one more time"

RS: I don't think so because, probably for me and Derek, the disruption to our lives now, I can't see how it would be worth it. It would be very difficult. The whole process would take such a long time and you would have to give up what ever you are doing. We both have careers independent of GG.

TCG: From a fan perspective I don't think that is realized.

RS: No, obviously not. You do what you do and if someone said transplant yourself and do what you did twenty years ago...it's hard to explain. It would be quite an upheaval to our lives and not just our lives but our family's as well. There is a lot to take into account.

TCG: Looking back, particularly at a time when bands like Yes, ELP and Genesis were huge in the States, it seems GG never got the recognition the band deserved.

RS: At the time, it was very hard to understand why that was. Since the time, you can see that our music was a lot more difficult than their music and I think you get more reasonable as you get older anyway. At the time, you get much more outraged. Looking back , you can see it that it was not that kind of music.

TCG: Was Giant a success?

RS: It was a success because we had the most loyal fans any band could ever have. We were never content because we did see these contemporary bands go on to main-stream success and that's what we were in for, that's why we started the band. We didn't mean to be a sort of eclectic band. I don't know why that happened. Probably the people involved and the way we went about making music. We went into it to be a successful rock band. It just happened we made very difficult music and we enjoyed doing that. We didn't see any reason to compromise the music.

TCG: It is interesting in the liner notes of the Biscuit album that reference is made to the record company asking you guys at the time to become a little more commercial and a little more accessible. I get the impression this is about the time of The Power and the Glory and Free Hand and my initial reaction is that FH is GG's idea of commercial music, you missed by a mile.

RS: Absolutely, I think there was only a certain way for us to go. In Europe, for the record company it was ideal because we were never over-indulgent in recording costs we always recouped our money. So for them, we were a very solid band with a very solid fan base who would buy the record. We wanted more of course, we wanted to get a bigger and bigger audience. But maybe with our music, it was just not possible.

TCG: I came into Giant a little late, though I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard my first GG song. It was the song The Power and the Glory. Another interesting thing was recently meeting a young bass player working hard to learn Playing the Game. Another generation of fans. I grew up playing the bass and it was great trying to figure out your lines. They were amazing.

RS: I think the continuing interest in the band has a lot to do with Dan Barrett's internet site. I think he has really kept things alive and allowed others to discover it. As I said, it is really unbelievably flattering and we really appreciate it.

TCG: It is also great to see new music coming out. It was also fun going around and tracking down the occasional CD.

RS: One of the problems we had, especially over here, was record companies putting our records out on CD and we got absolutely nothing from them. That has been the biggest disappointment.

TCG: One Way Records over here has put out a lot of Giant CDs.

RS: One way is fine. They have licensed a few of our records.

TCG: I heard they would like to get In a Glass House out over here.

RS: Basically, on that one, we found out we actually own that tape and my brother, who lives in NY, is dealing with that. I don't know what is going on right now, but one way or another it will come out in America.

TCG: And that's the one that never got out here in the first place.

RS: That's right it never got released in America.

TCG: But didn't it sell really well here as an import.

RS: Yes it did, and it did really well in Europe too.

TCG: So what's behind "Under Construction"

RS: It was more or less prompted by a guy named Dan Bornemark form Sweden who is a fan. He's been phoning us since he was about 16 years old. He was really a pain when he first started but we got to be really close. He went around every tape vault in the U.K.-Polygram EMI and others and got all the old masters that still existed. He had his own kind of "save the tapes" project. Then he got all the band members to find any tapes we might have had around. Then he and Dan Barrett started compiling everything. We got about four CDs worth of music and got it down to 2 CDs. Basically, its demos, live tracks that were never released and the first bunch of tracks that were recorded before the first album including the first version of Nothing At All which was Kerry's first experience in a studio ever. Then I put together the package with some photos. It is an interesting record but is very much a fan's record with all of the demos. You will recognize the tunes and how they evolved from the demos.

TCG: You are also marketing this in a unique way.

RS: Yes there is a UC web site and we have been selling initially through the site so that fans can get hold of it first. Eventually, we will distribute it in a more traditional way.

TCG: Well, since you guys are not going to get back in the studio, this is the next best thing.

RS: Right. You can't go back and create music that you did so long ago. In order to create the music again, you have to be in that environment. Each album was a reflection of where we were emotionally and everything else and the changes that took place in the band.

TCG: You always used a Precision bass.

RS: Absolutely, yes.

TCG: You didn't jump on the Rickenbacker band wagon that was going around in progressive music at a time.

RS: No, not at all. I love the Precision Bass. I got everything I wanted out of it.

TCG: Do you still play?

RS: When the band finished, I got into writing music for TV and the necessity of composing, especially for TV, is you get on the computer. I got into MIDI real early and it is still the way I make music the most. I use live instruments when the budgets allow, but the're mostly orchestral instruments. But, live playing on my own, I really haven't, which I'm probably ashamed to say.

TCG: Not as ashamed as I am. Only because you were the most unique and inventive player around. I have to assume that in the sixties you played in the prerequisite blues bands, so I guess you know how boring it can be to the bass player. Your playing was liberating.

RS: I know what you mean. But funny enough, during those early days, I was a guitar player. My first instrument was violin, so then there was guitar and then I took up bass with GG. So, I never approached it from a bass point of view. I was a bass instrument but didn't necessarily have to play the bass part.

TCG: It was tuned lower.

RS: Exactly, yes.

TCG: I just remember picking out Mister Class And Quality?, easily one of the most demanding bass lines I had learned to date. Even after learning it, it was still a challenge to play.

RS: That has lot to do with Kerry's arrangement. When you analyze it, it is a whole piano arrangement split up. Once you do that you end up playing a very untypical bass part.

TCG: Was that something you would do a lot?

RS: Kerry wrote on piano or would go straight to manuscript, especially on the vocal arrangements. I wrote mostly on guitar because the keyboard parts might seem a bit strange because Kerry would take his keyboard parts from that. It was always a bit twisted in that respect, I guess.

TCG: All the writing is credited to Shulman/Shulman/Minnear. Did you guys actually work together?

RS: Initially, we did. Especially on the first three albums. Later it became much more on our own but we kept the credits the same because we felt we all contributed the same to the album. Kerry would come to me for advice and I would go for Kerry's advice. It was always very democratic.

TCG: Kerry's a classically trained musician but did all of you read music?

RS: Yeah Well Gary didn't read and John didn't read. I did because of the violin. So let's see, I guess that just leaves me and Kerry.

TCG: Because you said Kerry would actually write out all the vocals part.

RS: Yes he did , then the others would learn the part by ear.

TCG: So something like On Reflection would be written out.

RS: It would have to be. It is almost like a Fugue, actually. It was unbelievable that he could do that.

TCG: It was unbelievable to hear on record, it was even more unbelievable to hear you guys pull something like that off live. The last two albums you guys did...

RS: Probably unfortunate.

TCG: I am glad you said that. I had a lot of trouble getting in to them.

RS: I think there were a lot of business reasons especially the record company saying to get more commercial. You can hear that it just didn't work. I hated making the last record, I hated being involved with it.

TCG: But even on [../albums/giant.for.a.day.html Giant For A Day] you guys seemed uncomfortable.

RS: I know. It was like what do we do now to make things more appealing. We also felt we had been pigeon-holed by our fans and we couldn't break out of it. You can hear that frustration as well. It was very untypical of us to be like that. It also probably had to do with our own frustration, because as you say at the time our contemporaries were getting very popular. I think Acquiring The Taste, our second record was probably the purest in terms of making music. We just made music and it was never for any other reason. There were no business concerns because we weren't even known. I think that is when you make the purest music because you don't even have an audience.

TCG: Do you have a favorite album?

RS: I think "Acquiring the Taste" for that reason.

TCG: What was it like at the end.

RS: Kerry and my brother were very uncomfortable touring. Also, after the last record it didn't seem right. There was definitely the decision that the last tour would be the last tour. Once we knew that, we enjoyed ourselves. We decided to quit then rather than let it go on too long.