Interview: Gentle Giant on Barrett, bootlegs, Badfinger, Back catalog and the biz

The career of Gentle Giant spanned the whole of the 1970s, and their modest commercial fortunes closely paralleled that of their chosen (or assigned) genre. Beginning with their self-titled debut album in 1970 and running through their eleventh studio album (1980’s Civilian) the group charted a singular musical path. While they went their separate ways not long after the final album, their influence is still felt in a number of groundbreaking modern acts (Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater, and Izz to name but three).

In 2009 the members of Gentle Giant prepared digital versions of seven of their albums for release through the usual outlets (iTunes etc.) and granted a limited number of interviews in connection with that rollout. I spoke at some length with John Waters (drums, vocals) and Derek Shulman (bass, vocals) about the new digital releases and other topics.

It’s fair to wonder if the warm analog ambience of the original Gentle Giant LPs will translate to the “lossy” compressed format of mp3. Derek Shulman concedes that “If I’m talking as an audiophile, of course I’d find fault with mp3 files, because they literally make those sound waves square. And therefore some of the nuances — and some of the transients and different frequencies of the pure note — will be lost.” Yet, having listened carefully to the remastered versions, his verdict is that they are “quite close to what it we wanted it to sound like back in the day.” gentle_giant_1978

For audiophiles and/or vinyl fetishists, there’s some more good news. Shulman reveals that we’ll soon have new vinyl versions of many classic Gentle Giant albums. And those, he says, will be mastered “straight from the 24-track to the quarter-inch masters.”

Speaking of those masters, John Weathers adds some additional background. “We know a guy from Sweden who’s a huge fan called Dan Bornemark. He has his own studio. The master tapes that we had, most of them were retained by [keyboardist/vocalist] Kerry Minnear in the loft of his house. And he was approached by Dan who said ‘I want to digitize these, because by now the tape will be degrading. And I want to get it all before the tape “goes west.”‘ And so we let him. And that was the source of the [1998] Under Construction album. We gave him all of the master tapes; everything he wanted we gave to him. So he digitized the masters from the analog tape. So I think Raymond [Shulman – guitar, bass, vocals] actually digitally remastered them for these releases.”

The band’s earliest releases are not part of the current reissue project. “EMI still retains the rights on the first four albums,” explains John Weathers. “The rest were either owned by the band or have come back to the band.” Derek Shulman adds that “we’re currently in the process of speaking with them about getting all of the stuff back into our grubby little mittens. I think we are in the process of talking with both EMI and Universal and the other company that had the band signed, but there are some issues.”

Gentle Giant is most often pigeonholed in the progressive genre. Asked how the band thought of themselves back in the day, John Weathers observes that “it was a nice blend of medieval, a bit of jazz in there, a bit of blues, a bit of rock…it was just a very interesting band to play in. We were quite a cross-section of quite a lot of the bands that were around.”

We followed along like sheep. Everybody was doing it. Genesis did it. — John Weathers

Derek adds, “We didn’t think of us when we started the band in any particular way other than to assemble a bunch of musicians who were like-minded in their desire to do something different. And what that different was,” he admits, “we had no clue! As far as we were concerned, we were just a band of musicians playing together, putting ourselves personally to be better for ourselves. And if we garnered a fan base, that would be even better. But as far as trying to be a part of a culture, we didn’t even know what a culture was!”

Toward the end of the 70s, the band’s style changed to a less ornate, more streamlined and straight-ahead approach. I ask if that was down to changing interests on the part of the band members; desire to gain more mainstream success; pressures from the record company; or a combination of all of those.

gentle_giant_derek_shulman_1976 “I would say you’ve summed it up absolutely perfectly,” concedes John Weathers. “The band weren’t going in that kind of direction, but there was pressure from the record company. They wanted a hit. You know, the whole punk thing had happened, obviously, and they were just looking for big-selling records. And when the record company says ‘we want something a little more commercial’, you just gotta get in line and do what you’re told. Otherwise, there’s the door and you haven’t got a record contract. And in those days the independent record companies didn’t exist. So you had to be with a major record company to get your name out there. We kind of followed along like sheep. We did what we could. We thought, ‘if we can get a hit here’…I mean, everybody was doing it. Genesis did it.”

Derek Shulman observes that “we were evolving, and we continued to evolve, which is why we stayed together [as long as we did]. But 30 years later, if we had, who knows what kind of band it would be? We’d probably be playing oompah music in Austria or something. But we continually evolved, so the influences inside and outside of the band were obviously very important to us.” He admits that “yes, we wanted to become as popular as some of the bands who used to back us up on tours.” Still, both Weathers and Shulman remain quite justly proud of all the Gentle Giant albums, and both single out Civilian (1980) as an underrated record.

Syd Barrett blew the whistle on Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. Yeah, the scumbag! — Derek Shulman

The roots of Gentle Giant go back to an earlier band featuring three Shulmans (Derek and Ray plus brother Phil): Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. That band was pigeonholed, too, but as a simple pop group. The brothers’ grander ambitions led them to concoct a now-legendary psychedelic single “We Are the Moles” and release it pseudonymously as, well, The Moles. Though a fine single, the gambit failed in large part due to the group’s unmasking by one Syd Barrett, leader of a rival group called The Pink Floyd.

we_are_the_moles Derek Shulman explains that Barrett “blew the whistle on Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. Yeah, the scumbag!” he laughs. “The song was getting a lot of attention, and people thought it was a Beatles outtake. And we didn’t let on that it wasn’t. Syd Barrett thought ‘this band’s gonna jump ahead of Pink Floyd, and so we’re gonna blow the whistle on ’em!'” Looking back, Shulman reflects that the project was a bit of a “hey, let’s have a laugh and see if we can get some publicity.” On some level it did point the way toward the future sound of Gentle Giant.

The legacy of Gentle Giant continued into the new wave era, albeit not in a way most listeners might expect. Derek Shulman reveals “a little known fact about John Weathers. His drumming was probably one of the very first samples used on a record, one by the Human League. John did some sampling for their producer Martin Rushent, who did the Human League’s big hits, and I think his samples are all over these early techno records.”

For a band that didn’t shift units in massive numbers (1975’s Free Hand was their only album to break the Top 50 in the US), the band has inspired great fan loyalty. One reflection of that hardcore fan attitude can be measured by the number of Gentle Giant bootleg recordings in circulation. The band was always aware of these; they went so far as to “steal” the title of one concert bootleg for their own official live album, 1977’s Playing the Fool. (John Weathers: “It was the first bootleg that appeared, and we were certainly quite flattered at that time.” Derek Shulman: “We saw the link, so what a name to call a live album!”)

Both Weathers and Shulman have long adopted a laissez faire attitude toward bootlegging. Derek Shulman believes that “if the fans want to put these things out, that’s okay. I’m not particularly thrilled by the fact that some other people would benefit and profit from something that is not theirs, but as far as trading and making things available to fans, let ’em enjoy it. That’s fine by me. I’m not hard-core about any of that stuff.” Weathers seems keenly aware of many of the titles, leading to suspicions that he collects them himself. Reflecting on the methods often employed by tapers and traders, he observes that “it’s flattering that people go to all that trouble and have it in their collection.”

After Gentle Giant split, the various members all stayed involved in music, albeit to varying degrees and in different ways. Weathers toured with Welsh legends Man for thirteen years. He continues to record to this day, despite some medical problems that make drumming impossible. He builds his drum parts on computer, and “thanks to Dan Bornemark I have all of the samples of all of my drum kit, all of the original recordings, so it’s actually my drum kit that I’m programming.”

Short answer: I needed a job. — Derek Shulman

After having served in the dual role of member and band manager in Gentle Giant, Derek Shulman crossed over fully into the business side. Now a highly respected and high profile industry executive, Shulman is unique in his ability to understand both sides of the equation: music and business. Though his original motivation was simple (“Short answer: I needed a job”), he saw advantages in “joining the enemy,” as he puts it. “I was also intrigued by how and why a band like Genesis, and Kansas could become as popular. So to work at a record company, a music company, I’d find out. And I did, to a degree,” he declares with great modesty. Shulman was responsible for signing Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Def Leppard, Tears for Fears, Pantera, Nickelback, Slipknot and a whole host of others. He attributes his success to his time in Gentle Giant: “Number one, I can relate to the musicians. And number two, I get the respect, as someone who knows the business side of it. So I can help out on both ends. That’s what I want to do.”

gentle_giant Our interview ends with a side trip reminiscence into Weathers’ early days as musician. The Welsh drummer had a falling out with his parents, and left home (Swansea) for Liverpool around 1962. Once there, he “stumbled straight into the Merseybeat thing; that’s where I kind of got my grounding. It was in that whole scene. I’d go to The Cavern and watch bands and stuff like that.” Though he never saw the Beatles there — “Love Me Do” had just taken off — he was close friends with another Liverpool group with Swansea roots: Badfinger (known originally as the Iveys). He reveals that “they beat me up once!”

Badfinger beat me up once! — John Weathers

“Yes,” he continues, “their guitar player had a brother who was a roadie, and he was bad-mouthing me. We got to a gig one afternoon to set up, and he was there. So I started giving him a hard time about bad-mouthing me, because there was no substance behind it. There was a little bit of pushing and shoving, and all of a sudden the whole of Badfinger jumped on me and gave me a good kicking. Luckily one of the doormen happened to come in and put a stop to it.” Weathers goes on to say that was quickly “water under the bridge. Two weeks later we got back together again, and they were all apologizing for being so silly; they had thought I was going to beat up on their roadie! They were great guys, absolutely splendid guys.”

Though Gentle Giant reunions (beyond their organized press availability for this reissue project) are unlikely, fans old and new now have access to high quality, band-sanctioned digital versions of many of their albums. A whole new generation can discover the joys and intricacies of In a Glass House (1973), The Power & The Glory (1974), Free Hand (1975), Interview (1976), Playing The Fool – The Official Live and The Missing Piece (both 1977) and 1978’s Giant For a Day. All Digital versions include bonus tracks (some of which will be familiar to fans of the aforementioned bootlegs) and bonus artwork.