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Interview: Ray Shulman of Gentle Giant

Interview: Ray Shulman of Gentle Giant

Ray Shulman played bass and a list of other instruments in the progressive rock band Gentle Giant. The band’s 1974 release, The Power and the Glory has been recently reissued, with remastering by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson. I spoke with Ray about the remastered package and Gentle Giant’s past.

Hi, Ray. I’m very excited to talk with you about the reissue of The Power and the Glory. I know that you’ve had some interaction with Steven Wilson over the years. For example, you were credited with DVD authoring on his album, The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories).

RS: I’ve worked with him for quite a while now on a few of his Blu-rays and DVDs. So, we got to know each other quite well.

Did that have anything to do with him getting involved in this project?

RS: A little bit. Actually, I found out that he was a fan of Gentle Giant and he’d been dying to do the remixes for a long time. It just became an opportunity. The timing was right. We were ready. We’d had offers from other people who wanted to mix it in surround (sound) before and we weren’t very enthusiastic. But because I knew Steven and I really like his work, I like what he does – I like him as an engineer, as a producer and he’s a great musician – the time was definitely right.

I would agree. He’s done a wonderful job with the King Crimson back catalog and his other projects. What did he bring to The Power and the Glory?

RS: We were happy with him. What we said was, “Do whatever you want. Do it how you feel. Don’t be dictated to by our mix, by the original mix. Just go ahead and do it.” But on the other hand, he’s so respectful of the past. He won’t do anything alien. Like, for instance, he wouldn’t use modern reverb or anything like that. He definitely has a reverence and respect for what we did back then. But what he brought… obviously, the technology has moved on enormously since we recorded the album and, in a way, I think that his philosophy is, “mix it how you would mix it if you were working today, bring that technology to bear, but don’t let it dominate.” To me, it sounds more open and a bit deeper. I think our original mix is really good, but he definitely brought a depth to it and an openness to it that I really like. Also, just the fact that when he mixed it in surround sound, he mixed it in 5.1 and that opened it up a lot for me. I really enjoyed his mixes.

In contrast to the 35th Anniversary reissue that Derek (Shulman) put together, I noticed that Wilson included the instrumental outtake from “Aspirations” instead of the live version of “Proclamation.”

RS: Steven just found that on the multi-track and I think he really enjoyed it. What it was, we did a couple of versions on that track, “Aspirations.” It’s more or less a jam in the studio; it’s basically one take and we’d just overdub a vocal, I believe. But we did it and we just couldn’t get the feel right. I think we went to the pub and after we came back from the pub, we decided to take a last try. That’s how it was. I think Steven found the outtake on the multi-tracks and he wanted to include it.

The regular album version is great, but this one really lets you focus on the smooth integration of all the musicians coming together on it. It has a very immediate sound. I had another question about the track list for the remaster. In the past, members of the band have expressed unhappiness with the title single, saying that it was an afterthought, that the record label came at the end, looking for a single. Do you still feel unhappy with that piece?

RS: In a way, you’re right. It wasn’t really part of the album. The record company at the time was definitely looking for a single, something they could take to radio. So, I think we recorded about three different tracks. We can never find the other two tracks. I think we had three goes at writing a short piece, a three minute piece and “The Power and the Glory” is ultimately what we were happiest with, but it was never going to be included on the album. Nowadays, it just has historic value, as opposed to any kind of intrinsic album value. It’s kind of a rarity, in a way.

I agree that it doesn’t quite fit the album, but it also doesn’t seem to be that bad a piece.

RS: No, exactly. And also, I think that, with time, you kind of mellow. Things you were kind of militant about at the time… time passes and you can see some kind of value in it.

Can you tell me about the DVD and Blu-ray?

RS: Yes, what happened was that when I knew that Steven was going to mix it, I thought, “What’s the best quality audio you can put out there?” At the moment, it’s really Blu-ray for uncompressed surround sound and 96/24 stereo and it’s DVD, which is somewhat lower quality, but it’s still high end audio. When we decided to do that, for the visual side, you can do captions for each song: just the title of the song appears on screen. But because I work in graphics as part of my day job – I do some motion graphics – I thought I’d have a go at doing something. I started off…I think the first track I did was “Cogs in Cogs.” I made up some motion graphics for it and I sent that to Derek (Shulman) and Kerry (Minnear) and they were really encouraging. They said, “This is great. Carry on and do it.” Any kind of spare time, I’d try to do something for each track. In the end, we ended up with an album full of visuals. It’s not a strict interpretation of the lyrics really; it’s more an interpretation of the music. Derek wrote the lyrics and, obviously, every listener can interpret them in different ways, but I just wanted to give something just to accompany it. Hopefully, the people who buy it will appreciate that.

Looking back at when Gentle Giant originally made this album, how did you develop your arrangements? You guys were all multi-instrumentalists, so how did you decide on the roles and textures for a particular piece?

RS: Well, myself and Kerry were the main music writers and Derek was the main lyricist. In the early days, we used to collaborate more: one section would be my section and one section would be Kerry’s. As time developed, we wrote whole pieces on our own. Kerry’s pieces, he’s a classically trained musician, so he’d almost write them orchestrally and even if you learned the parts by ear, they could be on manuscript. He’d share out his arrangement as he demoed it. Then later, in rehearsal, you’d add your own touches to it. Likewise, with mine, I’d write on guitar and when it came to giving Kerry a keyboard part, it made the keyboard part kind of unconventional because Kerry would play a guitar line on the keyboard and then embellish it with different implementations. In the studio, we’d always record a basic track, with just a bass, drums, basic keyboard and guitar. Then after that, we’d really experiment and try all these newfangled instruments, just to have a go on. Or even older instruments; we’d bring a pipe organ into the studio, just to see if it added any kind of textural thing to any particular song. There were also new, electronic instruments coming in at that time, as well. So, you’d want to just bring them in, even if you hadn’t worked out a fixed idea. If the texture fit, Kerry would always come up with a part that worked. It was like that, really.

Listening to a piece like “So Sincere,” it’s like a roller coaster ride. It runs through a host of musical ideas.

RS: That one is particularly well written. That’s one of Kerry’s tracks and it’s a fine piece of writing, I think. On any level, you could transcribe that as a score.

That’s part of what stands out about Gentle Giant’s music. The interesting rhythmic complexity has a well-crafted sound.

RS: It’s good you said that, because, at the time, it was hard to get a mass audience into that kind of sophisticated arrangement.

I know that some of your later material tried to find a wider audience and transition. Bands like Yes and Genesis transitioned into a more popular sound. Was this a conscious attempt to move towards a more mainstream sound?

RS: It was, in a way. In order to continue, we always wanted to grow the audience. We were very aware that our early stuff was quite sophisticated. In a certain way, you almost needed to be a musician to understand it. As you say, a lot of our contemporaries were crossing over to a more mainstream audience. That must have been on our minds at the time, but there was always something holding us back. We could never quite fully do it. Even though on surface, we’d write a kind of commercial song, we’d always have to throw in something weird to entertain ourselves. But unfortunately, that also alienated the mass audience. It was never meant to be a mass audience kind of music. It should have just remained part of the underground, really.

Before I close, I’d like to hear about your more recent work. I know that you’ve worked a lot as a producer and as a composer. Can you tell me about some of these projects?

RS: I’ve done so much. Since the band, since 1980, I’ve done all kinds of things, always to do with music. When the band first broke up, I wrote music for advertising over here. It was very well-paid and I developed a knack for writing to order. I did that for quite a while, but I got bored with that. Then I went into production. In the late ‘80s throughout the ‘90s, I was in the studio all the time recording bands like the Sugarcubes, a band called the Sundays and lots of more independent bands. I enjoyed that for a while. After that, it was enough of the studio. I was spending so long in the studio, hours and hours, I really didn’t have any kind of home life. So, I decided to retire from production and the next thing I did was write music for computer games. I got into computers early on and loved them. I got into games and I started writing some soundtracks. And then, when DVDs came, I thought I’d learn how to do some graphics and I could work from home and make my living that way. And that’s what I’ve kept doing, really. I’ve had quite a diverse career, but it’s always about music and that’s where I am today.

It’s been a pleasure to talk with you and it’s been great to reacquaint myself with The Power and the Glory.

RS: Thank you ever so much.

        3 Comments on this Post

        1. Carl Johnson

          Great interview!

          Reply
        2. John Burns

          A very good interview, not sycophantic just intelligent questions for once. C’mon though Ray, can you not make a little trip to Paris for our GorGG do? Just a thought.

          Reply
        3. Matt Napolitano

          Wonderful interview with Ray. I just ordered the Power & The Glory reissue & can’t wait to hear it. I’m interested in watching the DVD graphics that Ray implemented to the music. A long, long time fan of GG….still my faves in the world of prog rock. The sophistication of GG’s music wasn’t only intended for musicians to understand, as Ray put it. I’ve never been a musician in my life but, my ears have always understood & appreciated this great music. I always GOT it & I know many other people & friends who get it too. I hope Wilson gets a hold of a few more GG titles to sink his technical skills into. Long live the Giant!!

          Reply

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