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Robert Berry

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Robert Berry from 1998
MSJ: You have been involved with many of the Magna Carta Tribute album projects. What would you see to be the differences between them?
The style of each band demands a different treatment. Something like the Pink Floyd tribute was definitely more laid back and had to be done with class. The Rush tribute and the Yes tribute needed to be approached from a more aggressive angle. Jethro Tull has a roots folk element that still needed to appear within the harder edged production and Genesis needed to put all the above together to be true to the original but also fresh.
MSJ: What were some of your favorite moments on the ELP tribute album?
I would have an easier time sharing my least favorite moments. Having played with E & P I thought I would take on the harder pieces. How hard could they be after what we had played on stage together? Well it was quite a challenge. It took days to write the new arrangements and then I wanted to change the groove so I decided to do a rough drum and bass track just to make sure it felt right. Now I play a little drums but this stuff is complicated. After I had done the click track with the guide piano on it (which would not be used-just a guide) played the work drum tracks (which would not be used) and put in the guide bass part for Simon Phillips to get the structure from (which I thought I`d have to redo to get tight with the new drums) I had felt like the album should have been done. This stuff is complicated. So to give you the up side of all this meaningless work track when I got the drums back from Simon he had matched the bass perfectly so I didn`t have to redo anymore than about 5 notes for all the pieces. Vary rarely have I recorded bass first before the drums. This guy is amazing.
MSJ: What have been some of your favorite moments on these discs overall?
I must say that there have been three highlights for me (seems to be my lucky number). The first was when I finished Roundabout. I sent the track to Steve Howe who had agreed to put on the finale` guitar parts. He had faxed me back a note that said he thought the track kicked the original all about. Now I had played the original in Hush and that bass line was one of the things that got me into progressive music so I was very pleased. Having played with Steve in GTR I also knew that he didn`t hand out a lot of compliments so this, along with really enjoying the final version myself, was quite an honor. The second was receiving a letter from Ian Anderson saying that my version of Minstrel In the Gallery was one of his two favorites on the Tull tribute. Having produced a few albums for the band Tempest, which is a Celtic rock band on the Magna Carta label, this was like being knighted by the King of Celt.

My third was on this very project. I sent Keith Emerson a copy of Karn Evil #9 with the original mix I had done after finishing it. His comment was "I wish I had a band like that". He was blown away by the rhythm section and Jordan Rudess` work.

MSJ: You seem to have a wonderful gift for taking a song that is a very established standard and reworking it completely. This is an intriguing way to update the song, but yet, you seem to capture the charm and magic of the original, while making a completely new piece. The number that really comes to mind here is your version of Roundabout. How would you describe this process of maintaining the original tone while almost completely rewriting the piece?
Well completely rewriting the piece? I tend to not actually do that. What I do is change the inversions or the voicing of the chordal structure. I may change the bass note while retaining the same chord structure but this makes it appear to be a completely new chord. I have written a few new pieces like the intro to Minstrel and the quotes from 3 other Genesis songs in the middle of Watchers (that version only available on the latest Magna Carta compilation). I also changed the chords for the guitar solo section of Roundabout but that was so I could put in the style of solo guitar I wanted to play. Other than that I just take the parts that I like the best, expand on them, cut the fluff, a little super glue and there ya have it. The feeling of the original comes from being first a fan, then actually getting to work with a lot of the great musicians from the bands I am paying tribute to. I feel it is my job to not only do something fresh but something that the original band might have done if they were just releasing that song now.
MSJ: What would you consider to be your major influences?
My dad had a big band and my mom was the singer. When I was just a baby there was always a band practicing in my house. When I was 12 some guys in high school came into my dad`s music store and talked me into playing in their band. Influences? I didn`t have a chance to do anything but music. I was sentenced at birth. Just lucky I guess. The Beatles influenced production techniques. Lennon, Gabriel, Springsteen influenced me lyrically. My playing was influenced by Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, and Carl Palmer. I also really enjoyed what Sammy did with Van Halen. I`m into songwriting and some of those songs were so good. I was fortunate to work with Sammy from `95 to `98 right as he left Van Halen and before his new solo band. It is amazing to work with people that have influenced the way you do music. The list goes on and on. Really diggin` the late 90`s artist like Tool, Alanis. There are always things opening my ears.
MSJ: What projects are next on your slate?
I have a band called Alliance that puts out albums in Japan and Europe. It is in a late 70`s early 80`s style. We have not found a market for it in the US yet. That kind of things seems dead here. The players are so good though and again play in bands that I have enjoyed. On guitar is Gary Pihl who plays with Boston. On keyboards is Alan (Fitz) Fitzgerald who played keys for Nightranger (also played the keyboard parts for Van Halen behind the curtain) and on drums is David Lauser, Sammy Hagar`s drummer. I really enjoy working with these guys. What we do isn`t progressive but I feel it has depth and quality in the sound and song writing. I have something very big in the works for the end of the year but as not to jinx it I will wait until it is all signed up.
MSJ: What musicians would you like to work with?
I have wanted to do something with Geoff Downes. We have talked and I hope to get some songs together with him for next year. Tony Banks would be really something, big fan of his style. I also have always hoped to do writing and recording with John Wetton (are you thinking that I should have tried to join Asia yet?) Someday I also would love to have Jeff Beck play on anything I do. He has been a favorite of mine for a long time.
MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
I used to build all the smoke bombs and fire rings for my band Hush. At one concert at the San Jose Civic Auditorium (a very old facility) the road crew load the powder into the new bombs I had just built and got some gun powder between the base and the barrel. We started the show, the bombs went off, shot up to the ceiling and knocked the built in stage lights to the ground. That was funny but what wasn`t was that my bass player Gene Perrault had the hair burned off his arm. We were very lucky no one else got hurt. We also had a problem when I decided that we needed two small dry ice fog machines instead of one big one. Two guys would usually load the ice in and start the fan but with the two small units split on each side of the stage one guy had to man each unit. When they dropped the ice in and tried to put the lid on both machines blew the lid right off and a cloud of smoke filled both side of back stage. It was definitely Spinal Tap watching those crew members trying to get those machines under control.
MSJ: What was the last CD you bought?
I don`t buy CD`s. Clients at the studio usually bring them in and we check them out. Usually I tell musicians bring me a copy of your competition. Lets see what you`re up against. Kind of puts a perspective on where they think they are heading. Also lets me clue them in to how I feel they could compete.
MSJ: What was the last concert you attended?
Believe it or not I had never seen the Stones. So Karen (my wife) and I got tickets for our friends and thought we`d make a big night of it. It was outside and rained the whole show. I still loved it. They are truly amazing. I felt like I was seeing as good of a show as it was 20 years ago.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: The Early Years Volume 5 at
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