Art is Long, Car Rides are Short: The Keith Emerson Interview

At age 69, keyboard legend and virtuoso Keith Emerson has slowed down his pace, but ever so slightly. He no longer tours on a level commensurate with his 70s work in Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In fact, his recent performance at Moogfest 2014 here in Asheville was a one-off show, not part of any tour.

Emerson remains vitally involved in music, to be sure. His witty and eminently readable autobiography Pictures of an Exhibitionist was published in 2004, and in the years since ELP effectively ceased operations (save for a reunion concert – another one-off – in 2010), he headlined Moogfests in 2004 and 2006 when the festival was held in New York City. His most recent projects of note include albums and tours with the Keith Emerson Band (featuring Marc Bonilla on guitar and vocals) and an ambitious 2012 album with that group called The Three Fates Project.

At times feeling a bit like a paparazzo, I followed Emerson for much of Moogfest; a mutual friend had promised to do what he could to secure me an interview, though the where-and-when would remain very fluid until the last moment, owing to Emerson’s packed Moogfest schedule. He sat for an extensive Q&A in front of a large audience, did a full concert, attended a press release to announce the unveiling of a modular synth that clones his own Moog, and met with his friend and sometime sound technician André Cholmondeley for a podcast interview.

In what would end up being his final few moments in Asheville this trip, I managed to score several one-on-one minutes with him while we were in a car being driven from one of his appointments to the next. I asked him if – back in the early days – the monophonic nature of the modular Moog (the capability to play only a single note at a time) forced him to rethink or otherwise modify his fast and fluid playing style.

“Not much further than if you were a solo violinist,” Emerson told me. “You can squeeze a lot of things out of the Moog. But it’s just a question of knowing the instrument. It is monophonic, but it does augment the normal keyboard rig, whatever a normal keyboard rig would consist of. And it doesn’t have to be anything exotic.” He noted that the Moog occupies an important place in music history. “Quite honestly, I think the Moog has defined what has become known as progressive rock music today. There’s an awful lot of bands who really want to have a Moog synthesizer. Because it just completes the sound.”

“But,” he replied, circling back to the original question, “I had no problems in thinking that the Moog synthesizer would be able to endorse all of the qualities in music which I was aiming for.”

Having experienced several days straight being barraged with questions about synthesizers and other keyboard instruments, Emerson was happy to talk about his prowess on other instruments. “I did dabble at an instrument that I found in Turkey, something called the zurna, which is a double-reeded instrument. It’s very difficult to play,” he laughed, “mainly because you need the lungs of someone who could blow up a truck tire. So that didn’t last very long.”

He also plays a bit of harmonica, but “I wouldn’t say I’m a very good harmonica player. I can play a bit of blues, which is quite handy sometimes.” He also claims the ability to strum “a few chords” on guitar.

But being Keith Emerson, after all, the conversation soon came back ’round to synthesizers, specifically the Moog, invented by the man who would go on to become a close friend and associate of Emerson, Dr. Robert A. (Bob) Moog. Emerson shared his thoughts on the Moog synthesizer. “It is an innovation. And it’s now coming to be more acceptable not only by the classical orchestra but by most bands.” He recalled that “in the beginning, the Moog synthesizer was considered a threat, because the Musicians’ Union reckoned that it could replace a lot of their players.” And, he added with a sly grin, “I don’t think audiences really understood that what was coming out of that keyboard was actually being played by someone. I think a lot of people in the sixties thought that it was coming out of a tape recorder or something!”

Emerson’s voice won’t be familiar to most fans, as he never sang on ELP records. But he did sing on record…once. He laughed heartily as he recounted the story. “On the soundtrack for Nighthawks with Sylvester Stallone. Sly, as he allowed me to call him, said, ‘I want you to do a version of “I’m a Man.”’ And I said, ‘Why not get Steve Winwood to sing it?’ He said, ‘No, no no.’ I suggested a lot of people, but nothing came up. So in the end, I said, “Well, I’ll sing it.”

Emerson continued. “So I went into the studio, and it was a big party, actually. They made a party out of my recording “I’m a Man.” After about the fourth take, and after about the second glass of wine, I began to think I’d missed my true vocation. I was definitely a great singer!”

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.