Derek Shulman interview by Jason Rubin
An interview with Derek Shulman, conducted by Jason Rubin, Spring 1991.
About the Interview
Gentle Giant was, is, and always will be my favorite progressive group. When I discovered them, they were on their way down and I was just beginning to get into the genre. My close buddies were getting into Yes and I was not quick to get on the bandwagon. I was, am, and always will be a Brian Wilson fanatic and I could not easily make the transition from the "pocket symphonies" (not my term) of Pet Sounds to 20-minute opuses with obtuse lyrics and long guitar and synthesizer solos.
And yet it was due to Brian's sphere of influence that I first heard Gentle Giant's music. I was watching an episode of Don Kirshner's Rock Concert one day specifically to see Jan and Dean. As it turned out, they were on last so I had to watch the whole show, which also included Herbie Mann and Gentle Giant. The program aired the two short promotional films (later to be known as videos) from Giant's 1978 album, Giant for a Day: Words From The Wise and the title track. I can't describe what I liked about the songs or the group, but I did like it very much and promptly bought the album.
That summer, an older friend of mine turned me on to Giant's earlier catalog, including 1971's Acquiring The Taste, 1972's Octopus, and their most popular album (and rightfully so), 1975's Free Hand. I knew I was hooked when I began scrounging through import bins to find their eponymous first album from 1970 and what I consider their groove-to-groove best album, 1973's In A Glass House. Although they released only one more album after Giant For A Day, I knew that Gentle Giant's music would remain alive in me.
One day, I decided that I would publish a Gentle Giant newsletter, a chance for collectors and aficionados to come together to share stories, trade tapes, and get to know each other. I would call the newsletter On Reflection, after a song on Free Hand. Outside of my close friends, I didn't know anyone else personally who was into progressive rock and while we all came to know bands like Genesis, King Crimson, Nektar, and ELP, to us Gentle Giant had to be one of the most obscure groups on the planet (having been born from the ashes of Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, an even more obscure British soul band of the late '60s). I despaired of reaching any significant number of people with so narrowly focused a periodical so I decided that On Reflection would cover the entire genre of progressive rock, the editor's oft-stated bias notwithstanding.
Needless to say, I never entertained any hopes that I could ever meet any members of the band or even see them perform live since they broke up just before I became old enough to patronize the clubs in which they appeared. They had all gone their separate ways and while lead singer Derek Shulman's whereabouts were the best-known (he was President of ATCO Records), it seemed unlikely someone like me with my little rag could get an audience with him. But a subscriber named Louie Mastropasqua has what is known as balls, and with his initiative and, I believe, a contact somewhere at the label, the appointment was made.
I took a train down to New York City, met up with Louie for a beer, and then we walked down to Rockefeller Center. As we sat in the reception area, I became extremely nervous. I was about to meet and talk to Derek Shulman! What would I say? What would this progressive- rocker-turned-major-label-executive be like?
When we finally went into his office, he was tired. It had been a long day, but I think he appreciated being with people who didn't deal with him as the big executive he was but rather as the performer he had been in his "glory days." He showed us gifts that other Giant fans had sent him over the years. Clearly, while he was responsible for the signing of such common bands as Kingdom Come and Cinderella, he never lost his pride in Giant's uniqueness.
At the end, we took pictures and he signed autographs for us. No matter what else happens with this newsletter, I said to myself, this has made it all worthwhile. And I still believe that. When I was feeling down on progressive rock, down on the newsletter, down especially on all the lousy newer bands who sounded just like the '70s bands, I always found something fresh and exciting about Gentle Giant - and I've never forgotten the thrill of meeting its leader.
Bands have copied Yes, Genesis, ELP, and others, but no one has ever copied Giant's style of white hot chamber rock. Their mix of violin, cello, vibraphone, recorder, and brass on top of the usual progressive arsenal of multiple keyboards, guitars, bass, and drums - plus the highly complex four-part vocal lines that linked the group psychically with Brian Wilson - has never been duplicated. It was, perhaps, the key to Giant's credo, printed in the liner notes of Acquiring The Taste: "It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular."
If we accept that progressive rock is a '70s genre (and I know there are many who do not and perhaps never will; but I certainly do), and we note that Gentle Giant's life span was from 1970-1980, then it is clear that the band Derek Shulman formed with his brothers Ray and Phil (which also included the multi-talented Kerry Minnear, guitarist Gary Green, and a succession of drummers: Martin Smith, Malcolm Mortimore, and Giant's definitive beat-driver, John Weathers), was, on reflection, one of the definitive progressive bands. A Gentle Giant newsletter wouldn't have been such a bad idea after all.
Derek Shulman, former lead singer (as well as saxophonist and occasional bassist, percussionist, recorderist, and anything else that was required) of Gentle Giant, has led a life that appears fraught with contradictions yet retains a common thread: a strong belief in the power of music.
In Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, a late '60s R&B outfit he formed with his brothers Ray and Phil, Shulman was Simon Dupree, a face behind a name behind a series of Top Ten hits. Seeking further challenges, the Shulmans put together a new band, Gentle Giant, that had no rules, no limits, and no formulas. This group of six, then five, musicians created some of the most complex and intriguing progressive music ever performed, working behind the shit-eating grin of a mythical giant whose face graced nearly all of their recordings.
Operating in defiance of the growing establishment of corporate rock, the band eventually took a stab at conventionality that Shulman admits was a mistake. And so the leader of a restlessly creative progressive group became in time the vice president of A&R at Polydor Records, where he brought to a far greater prominence than any he had ever known the likes of Bon Jovi, Cinderella, and Kingdom Come.
His success at launching hit acts led to his present role as president as president of Atco Records [he no longer is at the label, which became East-West Records. ed.]. In his corner office overlooking downtown Manhattan, where MTV plays silently on a television and platitudes from the likes of AC/DC's Angus Young and NWA are scrawled on a wall in the reception area, Derek Shulman seems a lifetime and a universe removed from Gentle Giant.
It was in this business environment that Louis Mastropasqua and I sat with Shulman and asked him to take us back to the days when, as he put it, the stakes weren't so high; when it wasn't a fiscal crime to experiment musically. And so, as we sat on his couches and talked, the subject of progressive rock and what it really means - then and now - was introduced.
DS: We wanted to be experimental, not "progressive." The difference is that the early bands, they did it for themselves. Now we produce [the newer bands]. And that's why the earlier bands were more successful, because it was them and not the record companies that directed them.
We started in 1970. And it was towards the end of the 10 years we were together that there became a name for it: progressive. But when we started, it was just, "OK, let's get together and made some good music." It wasn't like, "Let's try and do this kind of a thing."
LM: A lot of bands do that now. They say, "Let's get a band together and sound like Yes." But that's not progressive.
DS: That certainly wasn't the case when we started. I think that began to be true in the mid-'70s. There were a bunch of copy bands, like Kansas. I liked what they did and I'm glad they were successful but they didn't sound like the real thing. They weren't original. That's not derogatory to what they did. They got the formula down and they Americanized it, homogenized it, which is fine but I didn't get off on Kansas' music. I did get off on Frank Zappa's music, that was a real inspiration to me. The original Zappa, Hot Rats and that stuff. But Kansas will never be an influence.
You see, when Yes or us or King Crimson, we just did it because we wanted to do...I don't know what we wanted to do. It was like a reaction to the pop '60s and the success thing. And we wanted to do something different, something better. We didn't know how better, but more stretching. We didn't know where it would take us. It could've flopped and we'd have been sweeping streets in 1971. But luckily we made a living out of it.
LM: Can a new band in 1991 made music that's complex and intelligent and make a living out of it?
DS: It's going to be hard. See today, as opposed to when we started, you need a bigger hit quickly. We had a lot of time to develop. But now, the amount of money that goes into making and breaking records is monumental. The stakes are much higher now. And if you don't hit quickly, then you're out.
LM: You have some big sellers on your label. Couldn't you use some of the money they bring in to subsidize a band that may not offer as big a return but maybe make better music?
DS: Good and bad doesn't enter into it. Look at MTV. It's not about music, it's about business. So understand that. There's only room for certain kinds of music. Throw too much different stuff against the wall and it's not going to work for you. I have a business to run. It's not just my face I'm feeding. I've got 75 employees. And they don't care if it's AC/DC or Joe Blow; their paycheck is every second Friday.
JR: Let's get back to Giant. Your roots are in R&B but in the two years between Simon Dupree and Gentle Giant, the music changed. Was the new direction decided upon when you were auditioning people for Giant or was it just the others bringing in their own styles?
DS: Yeah, that's really what happened. My roots are still in R&B. I mean, I love R&B. In popular music, if you don't have that R&B feel, you'll never groove. So yeah, I love R&B. That was our background we became a pop band in Simon Dupree. And we had pop hits and we started doing that pop Top Ten thing, which was really a turning point for the band. We never toured the States but we were a killer live band. I remember how we used to go down. We were massive. But when we had the hits, it started going downhill. It almost became a millstone around our necks. So we said, "Ok, let's get rid of this mantle and do something totally different." So we threw it away to a degree.
And so when we got the other guys to join, particularly Kerry, we had R&B and pop flavors from the first band and then all the other flavors were merged in this amalgam of what came out onto vinyl at the time, Gentle Giant. There was no direction, there was no set "Let's sound like this." I mean, we loved some bands. As I said, I think Frank Zappa was a real influence, and some of the jazzier people. I'm one of the most pop-oriented persons in the band and Kerry obviously is a classically trained musician; he was a protegee of Michael Tippett. And Ray was a classically trained violinist and he also had a real jazz feel, our dad was a jazz musician. Gary came from the straight blues school. He didn't know what anything but a 12-bar was so we had to teach him more than three chords. But he was a great player, is a great player. So we had no direction, no.
JR: Before Giant became headliners in their own right, the band opened for the likes of Black Sabbath, Yes, and Jethro Tull, among others. I've often found traces of those bands' styles within Giant's music. did you constantly search for new sources of inspiration or did you just draw on your own backgrounds?
DS: In those days, you know, you'd steal from each other. You'd hear a lick that you liked from another band and you'd put it in your band or the feel or groove or a riff and made it your own. That's what the '60s and '70s were about, basically.
Touring with Black Sabbath was a nightmare. Actually, looking back it was one of the funniest periods of my life. They were on their second or third tour and we couldn't have gone down worse, no band could've gone down worse of they'd tried. This was our first time in America. It was in Los Angeles and we had somewhat of a cult underground following there. But it was clearly a Sabbath crowd. And during on e of the quieter songs, you know when the violin and cello are playing, a cherry bomb was thrown on stage. And my brother Phil - who was losing it on this tour anyway, he's had enough - he made us stop the song and he pointed to the audience and said, "You're a bunch of cunts!" And the boo that went up was unbelievable, it was the funniest boo I've ever heard in my life. We couldn't carry on. It was so bad, it was funny.
The next time we were in LA, though, we were touring off of Octopus, and we wee supposed to do two nights but the lines were so enormous, we ended up playing eight nights. It was like one of those things you dream about.
We also did a whole tour with Renaissance, they opened for us in 1975. We did a lot of gigs with Yes, Tull. Actually, Tull were great, they were really helpful to us. Their stage show was an inspiration to what we did as well. Ian Anderson and those guys were very creative when they were first going.
JR: Most Giant songs are credited to Shulman, Shulman, and Minnear or Shulman, Shulman, Shulman, and Minnear but I suspect that the balance of power shifted from song to song. In general, how were the songs composed within Giant?
DS: The way they were done was so diverse. Each song was more or less a one- person inspiration. And what we did was to get 3/4 or 2/3 of a song, the major parts, on tape, and then me, Ray, and Kerry used to get together and move it from there. It was never actually getting together and strumming a guitar. Occasionally that would happen, but that was very rare.
JR: And then for the live shows, the pieces would be dramatically rearranged.
DS: Oh yeah, as afar as we were concerned, making a record and doing a show or a tour were totally different. So when we hit the road, the pieces are for a live audience. And records are different to playing live. You can listen to records over and over but live, that's it. That's something I try and do in my capacity here, to make sure bands understand that they need to stretch out. A lot of the new bands don't understand that.
JR: Why didn't Kerry sing his leads live?
DS: He had a very weak voice, in terms of projection. I mean on tape, when we actually recorded the records, the signal-to-voice ratio was pretty heavy on his voice. He's got a great voice but it's weak. You wouldn't have heard it live, you would have just heard the instruments. Also, he wasn't very confident singing live, he was always nervous about that. We had a band with a lot of instruments and if you turned up his vocal, the rest of the thing would feed back. It would have sounded awful.
JR: After the relative success of The Power And The Glory and Free Hand, one would think that there would be more pressure on the group to be more accessible, yet Interview was very complex and took a long time to make. After Interview, the music did become much simpler. Was the group unanimous about how to proceed musically during that time?
DS: I think Interview was the start of the erosion. I think the creative juices wee starting to wane a little bit. I actually think during that period of time, subconsciously, we knew we would never be as big as, say Genesis. Which is not to say that we didn't do well, we did very well in lots of markets. But we weren't going to be...Madonna, if you like.
LM: Did you want that?
DS: Yeah, sure. Of course. Every band that gets on stage wants that, no matter what they say. Of course we wanted that but again, I guess what I'm saying is that we realized we weren't going to do it on our own terms. So I think Interview was the start of the slide towards the realization that this is a business now, and that's also a part of what the business had become. I was managing the band at the time and music business became a major business. When we started, FM radio was a freeform format and during the time that we were together it became AOR and they started playing the hit tracks from records and crossing over to singles.
JR: Punk and new wave did in a lot of progressive bands, who tried to stay alive by incorporating the stripped-down approach of those styles to their own music. Looking back, do you think Giant should've plowed ahead with the music that defined the band or was the risk worthwhile?
DS: We were caught between a rock and a hard place. I think, actually, looking back, it was good that punk happened and made those bands take risks and make mistakes because you either did it and survived or you didn't survive and you said, "I don't want to do this." Looking back, I think the last two or three records we shouldn't have made, I'll say that almost categorically. The Missing Piece wasn't bad, I quite enjoyed that record. I think Giant For A Day was real contrived. And Civilian was like, we were flagging by then. We did a tour and the whole thing but we were bored by then.
It was two or three years where it wasn't the be-all and the end-all and when that happens, you have to stop. We were making a very good living, but we cut it off. We had another record to deliver to Columbia here and Chrysalis in the UK, but after that tour we just looked at each other, literally, and said, "Let's break up." And we did, at a minute's notice, after the last gig on the tour. So I think punk was a good thing for us and for others for a lot of reasons. Because some of those bands wee getting tired and old and some of the music was getting redundant. Maybe it was time to move on.
JR: Do you still see the other guys?
DS: I speak to Ray every week. He's got a great situation, all the guys are doing well. Phil has a little gift shop near Portsmouth. He was a teacher and he went off and did all sorts of things. Ray did music for commercials and as a sideline, he starting producing these indie bands. He doesn't like the commercial aspect of the business, which I think is great. And everything he touched [Ray has produced hit albums for the Sugarcubes, the Sundays, and Ian McCulloch, among others. ed.] became big. So he's in demand but he's probably been more altruistic than any of us out there. He could do all these big bands if we wanted to but he doesn't do it. He's got enough money so he can say no.
Kerry got into gospel music. He was always pretty religious - not badly religious, but he's Christian. And when the band broke up he decided to give himself full-time. He did a lot of God music, if you like, in Cornwall. Now he wants to do more of a movie thing so he's trying to get back into it. He's teaching now. I saw him last year. Gary I've lost track of. He was in Chicago playing clubs but it's been several years since I've spoken with him. And John Weathers I saw a couple of years ago. He's in Wales with the group Man. He's a drummer and drummer's drum. He's great, he looks the same as he always has.
JR: In your opinion, which were Giant's best albums?
DS: I think Octopus was a great record. Free Hand was almost great. The Power And The Glory, not great, it lacks energy to me. In A Glass House was a strange record. That's become a favorite but it was really a horrible time for Gentle Giant. That was when Phil left and it was a real weird period. Making that record was tortuous. But because of that, when I reflect back on it, it was actually really creative. Columbia thought it was a piece of shit and they put it in their vaults.
JR: Do you ever have the desire to perform again? Would Giant ever reunite?
DS: Occasionally I get the urge but I'm an old fart. Who wants to see an old fart on stage? That's like Las Vegas. The old bands are tired, go see the new ones. If Giant got back together and toured, it might burst your bubble. It wouldn't be the same. The chapter's closed. Leave it alone.
Up until two months ago, I had Yes on my label. I have a box up there with tapes of Billy Sherwood [of World Trade; he almost joined Yes before the eight- member reunion project happened. ed.] singing "Lift Me Up." Yes is a business proposition. I wouldn't want to do it for that. I'd rather sell shoes. If you're going to do it for music, then do it for music, not for business.
LM: Each member of Genesis is a corporation unto himself.
DS: If truth be known, Phil Collins is a crooner, like in the '30s and '40s. I don't like him, personally - I like him, he's a great guy, I don't care for his music. But the guys get old and the creative juices run dry.
JR: Robbie Robertson said that it's easy to be a genius when you're 20; it's a lot tougher when you're 40.
DS: Yeah, you've got family, you've got other responsibilities. You've got a wife, kids, dogs to support. You can still write 20-minute songs but you'd have to be totally irresponsible. I'd love to be, but I'm not.