Gentle Giant has just released a compilation retrospective of their first three albums titled "Three Piece Suite". The band had a creative career that spanned the entire decade of the 1970's through mid 1980. From the outset, Gentle Giant wanted to be different and not fall into the rut of playing the same radio friendly pop hits over and over. The formation of the band morphed out of the group Simon Dupree and the Big Sound when brothers Derek, Ray and Phil Shulman - who are all multi-instrumentalists - got together with Gary Green and Kerry Minnear - who are also multi-instrumentalists. The original drummer Martin Smith, played on the first two albums. Smith was replaced by Malcolm Mortimore for the 3rd album "Three Friends". After getting injured in a motorcycle accident, Mortimore was not well enough to play on the support tour for the album, and at that point, John Weathers eventually became the final drummer. Gentle Giant produced 11 studio albums in its lifespan and shared the stage with acts such as Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, The Eagles and many more. The new release Three Piece Suite features original album mixes and the Steven Wilson re-mixes from the surviving masters of the first three albums. I recently spoke to Kerry about the new release and his career.
R.V.B. - Hello Kerry... this is Robert von Bernewitz from New York. How are you doing across the other side of the pond?
K.M. - I'm doing very well, thank you. How about you over on that side?
R.V.B. - We're doing pretty good over here up north. Down south of me, they're in a little bit of a panic mode.
K.M. - I think they are... bless them.
R.V.B. - Have you been down that way in your travels?
K.M. - Yes I've been right down on the bottom. It has all been very strange lately... hasn't it?
R.V.B. - Yes. There are bad storms and fires going on everywhere... droughts. Here in the greater New York area, we've been kind of lucky. The weather has been pretty good.
K.M. - How about you over there?
K.M. - It has been a bit of a mixed summer. A bit of rain but nothing extreme. So we've been very fortunate too. I'm quite excited because right up from me is a church. They had a funeral for a war veteran who used to fly spitfires. they had a lone spitfire come in and do some dips over the top of the church. I was in the garden watching it and it was quite moving. It happened about a half an hour ago.
R.V.B. - Oh wow! That's exciting.
K.M. - I knew the funeral was taking place. He was one of the last remaining pilots from the 2nd world war. the spitfire kept skimming over the top of the church so it was quite dramatic.
R.V.B. - You guys over there have a great history with the war. It happened right in your backyard. I heard people are still finding shrapnel and other war items in the woods. Over here we haven't had a major war on our turf.
K.M. - I know exactly what you mean. The spitfire planes played such a vital part in our efforts. It makes a gorgeous noise and has always been a favorite of mine.
R.V.B. - I see. Thank you for taking this time with me... I appreciate it. Gentle Giant has made quite a mark here in the States and I'm sure over in Europe as well. Most of the music community that I'm associated with knows the name Gentle Giant. They're a prog rock favorite. I know that you've done some shows at the Long Island venue called the Calderone. Do you remember playing there?
K.M. - I knew it existed because there are recordings from there. I haven't got a visual memory of it... haha... I must confess. My memory is not as strong as some of the other members of the band. I know there is a very good recording of our show there. That's going to be released at some point as well.
R.V.B. - You have an interesting background... you studied music. How did you originally get involve with music?
K.M. - It's all I could do Rob. (Hahaha) In those days we didn't have people who advised us on what we were going to do. When we left school we used to go and see the head master. The head master in my school saw me on a one to one basis and said "What are you going to do with yourself? You like music, don't you?" He knew I was in a band at the school. In the end, he arranged for me to have these interviews at three of the music college's of England. The best course for me was at the Royal Academy of Music in London. The head master started it off and thought it was a good idea. I've never really been a driven person... I tend to drift. I need people around me to give me a bit of energy and point me in the right direction. That's exactly what he did.
K.M. - Yes. My dad was a singer. He used to sing tenor in a classical sort of way. My mom played the piano, but not to a high standard. It was me who really started to get into rock and roll... The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and all the other 60s stuff.
R.V.B. - Did you get to see any of the 60s artists live?
K.M. - No. I never really gave it any consideration. We were out in the sticks. We lived in the countryside in a place called Dorset. The closest place to see them would have been London. That would have been a heck of a trip... so I wasn't that keen. I was a timpani player in the orchestra... the kettle drums. I used to play for the county orchestra. I got a lot of pleasure from doing that. I was in the national youth orchestra for a while. My interests were classical and pop... running along side of each other... being in a band and the orchestra as well. I got a pretty wide catholic view of music. It was all embracing.
R.V.B. - You are a general all around player who plays a lot of instruments. You studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music. Did you study other instruments there as well?
K.M. - I went there to study as a percussionist. I took some composition along with me, to strengthen me along in that area. They took my compositions to someone who could read them. They came back and said "We think that you could study composition." I took percussion as a joint session along with piano. I got a good all around grounding in instruments. Bass and guitar was all self taught. I enjoyed the compositional study most of all. I wasn't studying to be a weird contemporary classical composer. I was studying how people composed throughout history. I went back to the 16th century and found out why they wrote like they did... why certain things were comfortable for them and other things weren't.
K.M. - Exactly. My friends at the academy were in those groups. A chap called Cornelius Cardew... who was quite well known until he was run over by a car. One of his lessons was where they would just spin a coin on a wooden desk for a half an hour. What should have been a lesson, was learning about the atmosphere of listening to a coin spin. They were trying to make you think outside the box. I can do without it, to be honest. Hahaha.
R.V.B. - Going back to the roots of the baroque era is a good way to see the development of music through the years.
K.M. - I really enjoyed it. It wasn't quite as off the wall... if you like. It was a more traditional kind of course. It taught me counterpoint... studying people like Bach.
R.V.B. - Do you think that any of the professors that you studied with had made a real impact in your music?
K.M. - I suppose in what they gave me in way of information. None of them were encouraging me to go into music. I knew I wanted to go into a rock band as opposed to an orchestra. That is one of the reasons they switched me to composition at the beginning... not percussion. I didn't want to be in an orchestra. They used to say things like "It's a bit of a closed shop. You are going to have to be lucky to get anywhere." I didn't meet with an awful lot of encouragement. Also, just being in a place where there's always people practicing. You walk along the corridor and there'd be someone on an organ practicing. There would be someone doing some weird construction in the concert hall. I was surrounded by people who were gifted and doing weird things... and lovely things. It was a great environment and it enlightened me with all the different things that could happen at once.
K.M. - Apart from the school experiences, I did join a band in Germany for four months. It was a bit of a disaster and I came home licking my wounds. Then I got a phone call from Phil Shulman... who had been talking to a friend of mine. My friend told him that I had just finished studying composition. The call was out of the blue really... saying to come down, we're starting something new... come down for an audition. So I went down with a guitarist friend of mine and we auditioned together, and I got the job. I felt grateful because again, I'm not a driven man. I joined up with three very envisioned brothers. They were very determined to do something new. All I had to do was write some music. It was what I liked doing.
R.V.B. - You say that in jest but it was a very important role. There was a lot of diversity involved in Gentle Giant's music. I'm fascinated that with all the talent in the band, that could all play different instruments. How did you work out who was going to play what?
K.M. - We became aware at who could play what. Ray and myself were the main writers. That's generally how things kicked off. Because we knew what people were capable of, we tended to write for them... with them in mind. Although I must say, It was my first experience of recording music... when I joined the band. When I first started hearing how the boys sang together... we got some really good sounds. I tended to focus on the vocals more. There was a conscience decision made before each track was written. We could easily assign different parts to different instruments, once we were under way. Some of the earlier tracks - especially on the second album "Acquiring a taste" - were put together in the studio. They were not practiced before going into the studio. We put a click track down and put in bits and pieces as we went along. It gave us plenty of time to think "What would sound good on that? You could play clarinet, can't you Phil?' That kind of thing would happen in the studio. As much as being in our minds when we were actually writing. The arrangements were quite a collective effort... as we went along.
K.M. - Our management arranged our first tour with Black Sabbath. It was a total mismatch. We were in the States for about two months. Then we were off for another month with Jethro Tull. That was much more successful. The audiences were much more akin. We did play in front of a lot of people which gave us great experience. I found it quite tricky because of the mismatch of music styles. The crowd didn't seem to want to listen to what we were doing. We knew we only had a half an hour... and half the PA... only had half the lights... we still but a lot of energy into it. We were determined to make an impact on anyone who was willing to give it a chance. We did build a lot of initial support, especially on the west coast where we did The Hollywood Bowl. That was our first gig on the west coast - which is not bad for a new band - is it? When we went back, we found that there was a fan base. That was enough to sell out the Whiskey Au Go-Go. So something came out of what we thought was a fairly difficult tour. We got a foothold at least. Jethro Tull was a much better match and we went on to tour with them in Europe.
R.V.B. - As you produced more and more albums, you had more and more material, and more and more experience, did you find gradual change in acceptance?
K.M. - Yes I did. In quite a lot of areas, we managed to headline... to go on our own right. That makes a big difference. We were extremely popular - for reasons I can't really explain - in French speaking Canada - towards the peak of our time - to 20,000 people in Quebec and Montreal. Then we would go back to upstate New York and find that we were back to the clubs again. It was kind of a weird patchy thing going on. I guess it's just the nature of a band that tours. We never had a single that was big. That might have brought us up to a different league of people's awareness. It was always something we were aware of.
R.V.B. - You had a very steady touring itinerary and you stuck to it through good times and bad. You did gather a following or a cult following. In my circle of musician friends, everyone knows Gentle Giant. One of my drummer friends saw you at least five times.
K.M. - That's nice. I am aware that we meant something to some people. The majority of my friends - for example - often have a listen on Youtube to see what we did. They're a little bit confused. (Hahaha) For people that it means something, it's precious to them in some way. I'm very grateful for that because in some ways there is a continued interest. Here we are chatting about a new release. It's really a result of the hard work.
K.M. - Yes there are. They're a bit like a diary and there is a bit of nostalgia attached to it. It is so long ago and I done so many different things since. These were the most exciting musical times for me. I particularly like the album Three Friends. The whole philosophical approach to life and how were all different. We're brought together at school time and then we go off and do different things... then we all die. (Haha) There's a lot of things that are in common and then there are a lot of things that takes us apart. I really enjoyed that album. Individually, there are tracks where you go through periods of liking things. There are certainly some things that Ray wrote that I tend to enjoy as well. He wrote in such a different way than myself. In general, I'm please with a lot of what we did. Especially some of the counterpoint stuff... the way the parts flowed around... instead of writing in a chordal' way. I'm so glad that we did that because that did set us apart.
R.V.B. - What are you proud of in the mark that Gentle Giant made?
K.M. - We were quite isolated and we lived in a place called Portsmouth on the south coast. We weren't into other music or other bands. I listened to a lot of classical music but not the other kind of prog rock stuff. If I'm proud of something, it's that fact that although we were isolated, we managed to find something that was unique. I suppose that's part of the reason why it's unique. We weren't influenced by anything. We were totally self absorbed. I also suppose just holding it together for 10 years. We did go through some strange periods. Especially towards the latter parts of the band where we weren't in the same experimental mode... if you like. We still all get on really well when we see each other. I'm very proud of that. It can be quite a divisive thing for some.
K.M. - Yes it was really great. It was the first time in that combination. I've seen all of them at different individual events... the three Shulmans together and myself. There was also the drummer from their previous band, Simon Dupree. It was good fun. It was a little bit surreal but it was very nice.
R.V.B. - It's another example of getting recognition for your work. So things change and you had a great run of 10 years. How did you adapt to the change of not having the band and seeking something else?
K.M. - I was fairly unsuccessful in finding something to do - in terms of work. I have a Christian faith and for five years I joined an evangelist, who was based down in Cornwall. It's on the foot part on the bottom of England, in a delightful part of the country. I was involved in helping with the music. It was a very different experience from what I'd been used to. Then I moved to the Midlands and that's where I am now. I became a teacher of instrumental music - piano, guitar and drums. I taught in two schools as well as privately. What they call "par protracted teaching" which is where I pop in to teach at different places. Then I managed to get some television work, writing music for television programs that were educational. It wasn't high profile stuff but it was for education. It was all lucrative and helpful. Now I've reached retirement age. For the first time in my life I can actually go back to full time writing. If I could think of anything to do. (Haha)
R.V.B. - Well that's a good thing to do.
K.M. - I'm struggling to find something that matters. I don't want to throw out stuff that's like something else. It's always nice to think that you're contributing something fresh. I think it was something that we always managed to do in the band. I still have that desire in me. I don't thinks it's arrogance... there's so much good stuff around. I've got two daughters that sound lovely when they sing together and I really love to come up with stuff for them. so far, it's all been a bit of a blank. I've been at it for four years so there's really no excuse. I've been retired for four years now. It's been lovely to have the interest in the old band still. It's still keeping something alive in me with the hope I can still follow it up with something that is valid and interests people.
K.M. - I'm in suburbia Rob. Birmingham is the second biggest city in England. I'm on the bottom of it. I'm a bit separated from it and it's a bit next to the countryside. I love to be in the countryside because that's where I grew up.
R.V.B. - It's sounds like you're enjoying yourself. It sounds like you have a lovely family... you have your Christian faith. Do you have any other hobbies?
K.M. - I love going to live music concerts. I've got a mate - who is my best man and a trumpeter with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He's married as well - he treats me to the Proms classical concerts. I'll treat him to something up here in Birmingham. I really do enjoy that. I've got a functions band, that's actually my sons band. He's a drummer. He formed a band with his old school mates. They let me play keyboards for them. That's been fun. It's mostly music related... and people in music. That is my main interest. I kind of keep fit. (Haha)
R.V.B. - You're a very talented guy who has made a mark on people with music. The music community is proud of your accomplishments..
K.M. - I love what music is capable of. I love how it can transcend what people are trying to say. So often, you can say it better with a few phrases than you can with the most coherent speeches.
K.M. - That's right... some of the original multi-tracks. We've been a bit limited on how we could present this new CD package. I think it has worked out really nicely actually, thanks to Steven Wilson. There was a race to get rid of the multi-tracks. They were big and heavy. Nobody ever anticipated them ever being needed again. When the band disbanded, it was like "Who wants these??? not me!" They ended up with me. I didn't realize what value they had so I had put them in my loft. It was damp and the wrong place for them. They weren't complete, even at that point. Honest Rob, I hadn't lost any. (Hahaha) Some albums are completely missing, like In a Glass House, which we would dearly love to re-mix. We can't find them anywhere. There is an incomplete collection of them and they're not in my loft anymore.
R.V.B. - Thank God that you saved what you did.
K.M. - I do feel a bit guilty even though I know I haven't lost any. You say "Why are they incomplete? Why have we got any of them if we haven't got them all?" It's very strange. Gary gave them to me when he moved to the States. Things are still turning up and we're still keeping an eye open.
R.V.B. - Thank you very much for taking this time with me, I appreciate it.
K.M. - I appreciate it also. Thank you so much. Bless you my friend. Thank you very much.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission from this site.
Special thanks to Anne Leighton
For information on this site contact musicguy247(at)aol(dot)com