Phil Shulman interview by Arlo West
Hello On-Reflection, Today 3/9/95 at 1:15pm est I conducted an interview with the former member of Gentle Giant Phil Shulman. Phil was an integral member of GG until he left the band in 1973 or 74?. He recorded at least four albums with GG including GENTLE GIANT 1970, ACQUIRING THE TASTE 1971, THREE FRIENDS 1972, and finally OCTOPUS 1973. Phil is a really nice person and has opened up a few new areas of interest and enlightened me to things that I didn't know about the man himself. So without further delay here it is as promised the INTERVIEW WITH PHIL!!!!!!
Arlo: Hello Phil?
Phil: Hello there!
Arlo: How are you?
Phil: Fine thanks. And you?
Arlo: Fine as well, First off I want to begin the interview by saying thank you very much for allowing me to do this...
Phil: That's no problem...
Arlo: ...and its nice to talk to you again, and before we begin I wanted to ask you a quick question about your sons album and how he's doing as well as his band?
Phil: Yes well the album's going to be promoted by a close friend who has always been a sort of patron of my sons he has actually helped to finance their recording over a period of years in various ways, and the next year or so he's going to have a bit of an advertising blow up on the album. Umm the great problem in this country is that ahh its like anywhere else I guess ahh its POP oriented in Britain and Damon is not into POP music and never has been. ( a collective sigh of relief ) you know, rather than versus ROCK music he's just into music you know, and umm its a reaction here again for what we'll call COMP rock or people who try to be a little bit more than three chords. Briton is terrible with it's hero's if you like, they're there to be sniped at at all times you know? What was regarded in America as a place that sort of heralds its heroes forever you know which is no bashing, in fact people like remembering you know? But here its like ahh as soon as you try to do something (uniquely different ) people are sniping you know? It doesn't work with Damon in the slight at all he's just into music desperately.
Arlo: It's probably especially true if you are original and trying to be unique sounding huh?
Phil: He's got attitude ahh.. a very good attitude towards music you know and he's not a baby anymore I mean he's 28 you know he's in a serious band he's been through the whole shlamoozel you know he's doing his own thing and he loves it you know.
Arlo: I see,
Phil: Have you heard the album yet?
Arlo: No I haven't yet you were supposed to send me a copy per our last conversation in 93 do you remember?
Phil: Ahh yes you know I had a few around but there's always someone who wants to swipe a copy from me you know (he laugh's).
Arlo: Well how about if I do this I will send you the two CDs that I released last year (I already sent Phil my first) and maybe it will remind you ok?
Phil: Ok well give me your address again and............... .........................................snipped out the address stuff here.......................
Phil: I promise you there you are?
Phil: I'm doing something with him at the moment myself actually it's got nothing to do with POP or ROCK music we're writing a piece about my childhood..
Arlo: Oh cool! (maybe a three friends kinda piece?)
Phil: ...it's very much what we'll call in the minimalist composer's sort of way a short melody continuoso's there's a whole variety of things going on there and we're right in the middle of that at the moment my son and I..
Arlo: Very exciting indeed..
Phil: It is very exciting and dramatic as wells as musical with umm dramatic voices being used etc., etc......you know? My original upbringing in Glasgow, Scotland was in a ghetto and my memory's still very strong of the ghetto which was called The Gorbals. Its considered to be what you would compare it to in the USA. Anybody who knows Great Britain at all and knows Glasgow will know that this is the, if you like, the hardest place on Earth. Its the equivalent of Watts (not sure I got this right) in Los Angeles or the damn East side of New York. It was a very hard place but.......
Arlo: Is that where the whole Shulman family comes from?
Phil: Ahh...no, Derek and myself was born there you know but he came to England when he was 1yrs old to Portsmouth and I was 10yrs old.
Arlo: So you were 9yrs old when Derek was born?
Phil: That's right.
Arlo: Isn't that something.
Phil: That's the formative word but tells you something my father was away at the war you see, (Very hearty laughter here) so there was quite a gap between seeing my mother and fighting a war you see?
Arlo: Phil tell me what's it like to have a son who plays music? I just had a son since we last talked and ah.....
Phil: Its delicious because in fact we meet on a level which umm..it is exclusive of course because we talk and we feel and sort of understand. Its just nice it's a lovely meeting point. Music is such a mysterious thing it contains a mystery you know...
Arlo: Do you see parts of yourself in your son?
Phil: Oh yes matters of me he's very much like me in some ways, He's just a little more ahmm violent and less umm .....he's.... I am quite extroverted in my personality nothing in particular worries me I don't think I've been phased in the past by personalities or people or situations but Damon he's a bit umm quiet lad but he can perform you know but he doesn't like blowing his trumpet or doing in fact he just likes making music basically you know? But your kid should be into music as soon as possible its a great meeting point with you youngsters if anything else goes wrong music will always be there.
Arlo: I've tried to play guitar and sing to my kid already and he started crying actually I don't think he quite understood what was going on ha haha .....
Phil: Ahh yes they do that....
Arlo: I know my voice is terrible but ha ha haa.....
Phil: Ohh its not that at all it wasn't the amplifier was it?
Arlo: O no it was acoustic
Phil: Acoustic was it ha ha....
Arlo: Ok let's get back to the Gorbals that was really quite interesting you were saying that it was a hard life etc......
Phil: Yes it was a notorious area I mean there were these very large tenement buildings of course and of which I was born into. life was poor and there was a kinda warmth as there always is with a common lot which was poverty and you had to look after yourself in a particular kinda way.
Arlo: Do you think that this affected your writing in GG in some way?
Phil: One can never tell that I think only other people can analyze that sort of thing but it made a big impression on me I mean I'm the one who experienced it. Of all the boys in the band in fact none of them had a similar experience.
Arlo: They were a little young to remember I would think?
Phil: Yes and also the fact that um after the war things improved quite radically the overhang in Glasgow was still from the 30s if you know anything about British history it was a very very somber time in this country. Great things were going on you know with great strikes and anti establishment and a variety of things...
Arlo: Almost like an Industrial revolution.......
Phil: Well it was quite close to at one time in the late 20s but ahh unfortunately it didn't work out so we still have the same capitalistic ahh.......... can you hear my politics coming through?
Arlo: That's OK its really great to hear your views on these subjects...
Phil: It's trivialized with a short conversation but lets put it this way my initial experience is what were writing about now you see and the combination of my experiences is the fact that..don't forget.. Well I don't know if you know but we're Jewish you see...
Arlo: Ahhh no I didn't know....
Phil: Derek, Raymond and myself were born into a Jewish family but I have no religion as such... religion was never forced upon us by my father which is unusual for a Jew..he himself had enough of it you see. Derek is fairly into it I think and Ray and myself have no religion. I've got the capacity for it but being a Jew coming from a very hard area of Glasgow and and a bit of Scotsman as well... my father was half Scots his father was Jewish and his mother was Scottish I was brought up as a Jewish kid with strong Scottish influences.
Arlo: This is an interesting aspect of your life I am sure a lot of people will be interested to know theses things about you. I wanted to ask you while we were on the subject of growing up and all about the concept of the album Three Friends. The concept of three friends really touched a lot of us here on the list. Can you reflect upon that period for a moment and tell us all how you came about making this album?
Phil: Yes it was ah very specifically...we didn't make the album we just recorded it of course im not being glib but that's a fact. The idea when I came down to England at the age of 10 I came down to a fairly working class area because there was people there with money. I teamed up as boys will with other lads who mucked about and played around and we went to what's called in this country a junior or elementary school. I made friends with various lads in the locality and we in this country at that particular time I think it was.... 1948 or something when I was about 11 we had in this country at that particular time a national examination called Eleven Plus which made all children in that particular age 11+ sit in examination to see what stream of schooling they required. Now myself and my friends were given a scholarship to a what's called here a public school not the same thing as in your country a public school here is a scholarship school a private school and I got a scholarship to a school called Portsmouth Grammar school and one other friend of mine went to a technical school and the other went to a secondary modern school which was for the vast majority of children. It was a bit of an age to be in fact you were actually selected and streamed for a whole life and project and there was no way out of it. Its exactly what happened to me and my friends. I still maintained my friendships with the other lads up to a point and you do have to separate at one time because I was embarked at the time I'm talking about the early 50s towards what we'll call an academic career my friends were embarked on different careers as laborers, tradesman, tradesman being engineers, shipwrigh ts, you had this part of the world where I was Portsmouth the dockyard was a great employer where some of my friends became apprentices and some laborers.
Arlo: Was it your idea to come up with the concept of this album Three Friends?
Phil: It was totally my concept I remember doing it. When you get into making a little album you couldn't possibly convey everything you want to say.
Arlo: It would take 10 cds to get it all then?
Phil: Your talking about a fairly large opera.
Arlo: I think so many of us here on the list can relate to this piece because it reflects our own lives.....
Phil: That's right. You know I did keep in touch with a few of my friends in fact one of them was a roadie for Gentle Giant named Frank Covey now Frank was at Junior school with me. Were talking about 11yrs of age we had kept in touch all the way through my 20s you know. Frank had gone into the dockyard and had become an apprentice or a boilermaker or something and left all that and joined the band on the road in fact we kept up our friendship. We actually employed him although our roadies were more like friends than employees.
Arlo: Speaking of roadies I have a question here from email@example.com (Rick Butler) USA
Did the band (or roadies) REALLY have groupies? Any funny stories?
Phil: well er ahh I am on the phone in my own house you know ( His wife is not far off I can hear her talking to someone ) Ha ha ha...
Arlo: It would be kind of hard to answer I guess?
Phil: Very hard...ha hahh ( you can sense uneasiness and also a great yearning to tell all ) But in fact before the band was called Gentle Giant we had a roadie who was in fact a very well known roadie with a very popular POP band called Dave Dee, Dosey, Biki, Mitch n Titch now you may not have heard of them but they were very popular and sold as many records as the Beatles in the 60s. This roadie came to us through the usual stages of shenanigans ( I never have spelt that before ) of management and his name was Brian West ( no relation to me ). Brian really fancied himself and before the gigs he would get his hair done where the group wouldn't you know? He saw himself as a pop star you know and it used to be that way they love coming on to the stage to mend a fuse or whatever you know. One particular gig Brian he loved himself so much I think it was in South Wales the place was absolutely jammed..this was with Simon Dupree by the way and The Big Sound.
Arlo: I just picked up an un opened virgin vinyl copy of your album the other day....
Phil: Your kidding...Ahh hard luck is it? ( he chuckles )
Arlo: Ha ha .... any ways back to Brian ( I think that that album will stay virgin well I only played it once )
Phil: So he was called onto the stage and the place was packed with these Welsh screaming dervish women who were wilder than anywhere else and I just couldn't resist kicking him into the audience he was bent down and just gave one to the ass and I swear to you man he didn't get away with his underpants they stripped him naked.
Arlo: A great roadie story! Another question from R.Butler was this
Were the roadies and band close enough so that they (the roadies) weren't offended by the words to "A Dog's Life"?
Phil: No "A Dog's Life" was written in particular for Frank Covey my old mate! He's a big old dog of a chap he is hes still around actually hes been busted quite a few times unfortunately...
Arlo: Now this didn't offend him?
Phil: No not at all the roadies got along great with the band but um we had temperament in the band and ah one member in particular (whom he did mention by name and I felt it wouldn't do any good to print) he could be bit headstrong or spiteful....
Arlo: I won't print that....
Phil: I couldn't give a monkeys actually ha ha....
Arlo: Ok I have another question here this one comes from firstname.lastname@example.org (Luuk Verhallen)
Where did they learned how to sing a cappella the way they did?
Phil: You must remember that myself and my brothers have always sung three part all the time with Simon Dupree its not really difficult if you have a good ear you sing. More importantly Kerry could produce marvelous moving parts you know rather than straight harmony he'd give you a part to sing which in fact was more fugal counterpoint if you like you know. Unlike the normal POP method of singing in 3rds and 5ths all singing the same lines Kerry's parts in fact made it certainly not easier because you had to listen to yourself all the time and almost disregard who's around you provided you can hear it you know? I think all the band had very good ears you can't sing if you can't hear you know. All musicians sing some of us have sweeter voices than others I can't tell you about that but all the band could sing reasonably well.
Arlo: Ok lets move on to another question this one is from email@example.com (Luuk Verhallen) and ClintC1641@aol.com (Clint ) USA since they were both asking the same question in a different way I've condensed them here and added a simple question of my own too:
There are some rumors about a reunion and I feel it is our task and duty to lobby Phil into it. Do you feel that their is hope of a reunion someday or do you think that the world should be satisfied with what they have for GG material?
Is there any chance for a reunion? The current music scene is really abysmal.
Phil: We lead such disparate lives now and different lifestyles different attitudes I think it's impossible.
Arlo: I kinda got the impression that logistically speaking it would take a great deal of money and effort just to locate you all in one place. Where you are all scattered through out the world makes it downright impossible to rehears and all that but it's every GGsters fantasy to see a new album I must say.
Phil: I'm sure but the practicalities are really difficult...I think I will leave it to my son you know...
Arlo: There is a mailing list on the internet called On-Reflection and it is dedicated to the memory of GG. Are you familiar with this?
Phil: No I haven't
Arlo: Well its a daily ongoing discussion of all things GG I get on the average of 5-10 pieces of mail a day from around the world. My question to you is how do you feel about this new uprising of all things GG?
Phil: You'd be a liar anyone would be a liar if they said they wouldn't be gratified by that of course.. it boosts not so much ego even because you get beyond that at my age.. its a case of its nice to know that something that was so awfully important to me so long ago is hitting other people you know?
Arlo: And still today here we are in the 90s and.......
Phil: That's nice! I wouldn't be the only one to say that believe me.. You've read Gary's interview in that magazine ( he is referring to Gary Greens interview from Proclamation #4 ) well Gary he's been in and out of a variety of things and different scenes for him it was the biggest musical thing as you read you know. All of the band would say it's gratifying to know there is still interest in us.
Arlo: Here is another question from:firstname.lastname@example.org (Arthur Krause 522-3106) Germany
Did you follow the progress of the band after your departure? If so, what did you think of the work they produced?
Phil: Um to begin with I didn't we had a falling out to say the least...it's a very personal thing so it's hard to go into but I didn't really but eventually about three years after I did and.....
Arlo: Before you say anymore there is a second part to his question he said:
If he could have been a part of each of the albums, what would he liked to have done differently if anything?
Phil: Well I certainly wouldn't have popped it off you know there's was alot of things which became very poppy to me ......
Arlo: That's the one thing that gets the most criticism on the list is the fact that they did pop up a little too much towards the end...
Phil: There was a reason of course as well because the guys that played I know what the feelings must have been one feels it ones self you know.. we played to great audiences and a whole variety of places playing Gentle Giant music..still you've got to eat you understand and live buy new things, new instruments, families etc we still didn't make what we'll call a reasonable breakthrough financially I'll be quite frank about it...and any attempt... I can see what happened.. and any attempt that band made towards what we'll call poppy or popping it up a bit was a way to rake some dough up....ahh it wasn't distasteful to them either I mean I'm sure there not that stupid to say that it was deliberately crap or anything like that....
Arlo: There is a lot of people on the list that are very critical about the so called popping up and Gentle Giants music tends to attract a very musically learned audience most of them feel that this was total crap Giant for a Day that is, and should never have been made.
Phil: Yeah that's absolutely right.
Arlo: I feel that... Well I spend a lot of time defending that album because I think that it's better to have that album than not..And there are some real good pieces on that one
Phil: On every album there is something worth hearing.You have to understand something else you see as the band went on making records and albums they eventually became self financing in terms of actually making the records where the record co. used to pay to make the albums now the band had to pay this I found out later..consequently what sounds often very thin and un GG like was I think often the case of simply finance. They made things.. and things were not..complicated you don't want things deliberatly complicated but more arrang ed and more fun had you been givin the time in fact to exploit an idea. But often I don't think they had the money not so much the time but money you see to exploit fully what often was a good curve or a good nut, a good seed and your right on GFaD there is one or two really good seeds that you could re arrange and make something of. I can see what happened they didn't have the finance.. they let go an album which was too thin.
Arlo: Ok that was very insightful and there will be a lot of attention paid to this I am sure. Here is another question from another member: (I am not sure who started this thread)
One of your fans here in the states has commented on seeing you play and remembers that the band actually had a Giant person who would dress up like the GG and dance around the stage. Was this true and did he actually die while on the tour?
Phil: No...... No No listen when we first went to the states this was lined up, the guy was lined up for us unfortunately before the band got there the guy died. I can only speak for the 72 tour but the guy actually was supposed to be the tallest guy in the US and well he died before we got there actually but that was the first tour but I can't speak for the other tours.
Arlo: Here is another question. What was it like to be in a band that was so diversely different in the 70s? Did you face a lot of skepticism and ridicule at first for being so UNIQUE?
Phil: Well skepticism always from the press especially from the head press the hip press the particular head guy who disliked PROG rock was a guy named John Peel in this country a DJ who hated any thing that looked.. I mean he despised YES, ELP or anything which tried something different and his victual didn't help in any way. However there were one or two journalists who rated the band terrifically but they wrote believe it or not for the more elevated press I mean one guy called Derek Joel who was a fairly well known jazz critic for the Sunday Times rated the band tremendous but that didn't really have an affect on the public in this country. But we were much better received as you can probably gather.. I don't know what your internet in terms of people contains for nationality but I'll wager very few are English.
Arlo: The majority are American I think and you guys were really big here but there are a few English as well as Norwegian and other countries as well.
Phil: The fact is in Europe we were very popular as well but you have to remember there was something else holding us back here (England) my brothers and I were very much remembered as what was called a POP group (S.Dupree) and its very hard to discard those old clothes and people were very suspect of the fact that we would get pissed off at what we were it changed things radically.
Arlo: One final question: You obviously have seen PROCLAMATION what do you think of Geir and his magazine?
Phil: Smashing he really has done a tremendous job his enthusiasm is very very captivating.
Arlo: He certainly is a true GG authority no doubt. Well Phil thanks a lot for granting me the interview and the people on the list all give you a collective THANKS see you again soon.
Phil: Thanks Arlo nice talking to you and I will send you Damons album and the rest of you should check it out also BYE BYE!!!
Well that's it as promised I hope I didn't bore you and there will be a real surprise lets say a BONUS TRACK sort of coming in your mail so you better get your UUdecode up to snuff all!
P.S. Sorry I can't spell for shit.