Philip Aaberg Q & A

 

7th May 2015

 

 An Exclusive interview - from Dusk #80 issue - July 2015

 
   

You were called by Peter to join the band for his first solo tour ever, although you hadn't played on the album. How did this happen?

When I started playing with Peter I was living in Oakland, CA. I quit playing in Elvin Bishop's band and was doing a lot of session work in New York and L.A. I did some sessions with Alan Schwartzberg and Tony Levin in NY, but I have no idea how Peter heard about me. I fielded calls from Steve Miller, The Pointer Sisters, Bette Midler, The Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, and several others about going on the road, before Peter's manager, Tony Smith, called me. I knew little about Genesis, but somehow had seen a video of Watcher Of The Skies filmed live at Shepperton Studios, and was very impressed with Peter's voice and ability to convey drama and seriousness of purpose while standing absolutely still. Tony told me the schedule. I said yes. I didn't even hear the record, so when I received a copy in the mail a while later, I was stunned. Such amazing music! A few weeks later I was working on a record by Mark Farner, of Grand Funk Railroad, and went with producer Dick Wagner up to Toronto to record overdubs at Bob Ezrin's studio. Of course, Ezrin produced that first Gabriel album. When they heard I was doing the tour, Wagner said, "Too bad. I was going to ask you to play with Alice Cooper". Ezrin said, "Good. Peter needs a 'jump' player like you", meaning someone who could go to any style and sound authentic. I was soon back in NYC for rehearsals. My wife at the time, Lou Ann Lucke, came to spend a few days there with our one-year-old son, Sean. One day they were walking through Central Park, and John Lennon stopped and spoke with them, bending down to talk with baby Sean.

Which was your first impression of Peter?

My first meeting with Peter was in Manhattan, in the brownstone owned by actress Ruth Gordon, where he was staying, oddly, I thought, with members of Genesis. I met Rutherford and Banks, and I remember them coming to the first gig. Peter was friendly, but most comfortable with the English friends who were there, of course. I remember him saying "Top of the Pops, Top of the Pops!" as a kind of in-joke. I had no idea what that was, so asked, and he told me about that English pop TV show. We had tacos, a very un-British food. Rehearsals were really exciting, because the band was phenomenal, and Peter was very open and fun to play with. I got along musically with Tony Levin and Steve Hunter particularly, and was very happy when the three of us got together last year to do a full length video and CD of Steve's music called Live Tone Poems. Alvino Bennett, of Dave Mason's band, played drums on that recording. At one rehearsal, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith was hanging around, and came up to me to ask where Peter was. I'm really glad he didn't remember a drunken incident when I was with Elvin Bishop involving me throwing fruit at Aerosmith from the stage wings and an apple sticking in guitarist Joe Perry's strings while he was soloing. Very glad. Peter was a lot of fun to play with, because at that point in his career, the theatrics were few, and there was quite a bit of interplay. My favorite times were when we'd work on tunes that were not on the album. Peter would bring in fragments that didn't even have full lyrics, and we would jam on them at soundcheck, usually bringing them out to play that night at the show! Some of those fragments showed up on his later albums fully worked out. His creativity was so great and spontaneous, and the band was enthusiastic. It was a blast.

Even if Larry Fast and Peter himself also played keyboards, you were the main musician on that instrument, as Larry was devoted to experimental sounds and Peter only played piano on a few songs. I don't think it was anything particularly difficult technically for you, but what was the more intriguing part for you, a skilled American musician playing for a very British artist?

I think I realized pretty early that no matter how great Peter's music was, and no matter how much I truly loved it, this was not going to be a long term thing for me, because I was looking for an outlet for my own composing, and Peter did NOT quit Genesis to start a band. This was Peter Gabriel, solo artist. So at the end of the tour, when he asked me to do the next album and tour, I declined. Also, as the tour progressed, and I knew the tunes better, it became more like a great orchestra, where each concert was good, but there were only a few points where there was much freedom. One of my favorites was playing blues with Steve Hunter on Waiting For The Big One because we are both blues players, and had a lot of fun playing off each other.Musically, playing with Peter and Robert Fripp inspired me to continue with my own music. What they were both doing at the time, although very different, was to combine elements of what I call New Music, minimalism, timbral experimentation, odd time signatures, with pop music. I found it really exhilarating and encouraging. My own music has some elements of that, but is very unlike it. The main reason I felt encouraged was that their music was very unlike anyone else's, and by sheer willpower they carried it off. It was very important in my personal development to see that. Although they were both kind of reserved in what I now see as a British way, I really enjoyed being around both Peter and Robert. While talking to Peter, I often found myself having to lean forward to hear the ends of sentences, because they tended to decrescendo, which also seems very British. It's possible that the words I heard Peter say most often in those days were "right", and "sorry". When we toured England, Peter invited me, my wife, and son Sean to spend a few days with his family at their house, a converted mill in Woolley, near Bath. We went into town and drank scrumpy, a kind of rough apple cider, and Peter cooked vegetarian meals. After that, my family did a short tour of England and Scotland. Peter asked me to do the next tour and album, and although I was pretty conflicted about it, I said no. I was so conflicted that I called him after the next album came out and asked to tour with him. It was his turn to say no, and this was absolutely the best thing for me, because I developed my solo career and have been very happy with that. I may not have done it if I stayed on as his keyboard player.

Can you tell us about the gear that you used on stage?

I had a short time to learn all of the music from the first album. I spoke with Larry Fast, and of course, he was to do all of the obvious synthesizer parts. I had no charts or scores, so learned all of the music from listening to the record. On a riser, stage right, I had a Hohner Clavinet and a Yamaha YC-45 organ. Below me was a concert grand piano and a Fender Rhodes electric piano. Sometimes I played them and sometimes Peter played them. At one dress rehearsal, the lights went down before we played Down The Dolce Vita. At that point, I jumped as high as I could from the riser, so that when the lights came up, I was in mid-air, about 5 feet above the stage floor. I then ran to the piano. Peter picked up on this and climbed onto the piano bench and jumped, so we'd both appear suspended in the air as the lights came up. Later on the tour, there was extraneous stuff on the stage, so I quit jumping because I couldn't see what I'd land on! It was pretty dangerous roaming around in the dark, and early in the tour, percussionist Jimmy Maelen fell from the stage and broke his arm. He played the rest of the tour one-handed, with a cast on the broken arm.

It was mainly an US tour, although in April 1977 there also were a few gigs in England. What do you remember of the tour?

As a band, we settled into a groove, but sometimes that elevated to a high level. One night in particular was memorable. We played 2 concerts at the Roxy in Los Angeles. There were a lot of musicians around, and I remember meeting Daryl Hall and Carly Simon backstage. I think Daryl had been working with Fripp at that point. The first show that night was primarily for industry people from the record company and so forth. The first few rows were filled with people who had no enthusiasm for anything, as far as I could tell. It was really a drag playing for them. In contrast, the second show was all fans, and they were wonderful. Peter and the band really hit new heights. Anyone who was there experienced something very great. Another high point was playing the Hammersmith Odeon in London, and having Phil Collins sit in on Back In N.Y.C. What a great drummer! We only had 2 opening acts through the tour, as I recall. The punk band Television opened for a lot of the shows, and I loved that music, although the band would have nothing to do with us. My theory is that they accepted the gig, but then decided it was hurting their "street cred", so talking to us was not going to happen. I think the music was from Marquee Moon. The other opening act was a knife-thrower and a beautiful young girl who assisted him and was strapped to a revolving wheel in his "grand finale". Attached to the back of the wooden wheel was a microphone. That was run through an Echoplex, and as the knife stuck in the wood, you'd hear "thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack" through the sound system. He played Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida as music for that part. Very surreal! Made even more surreal because the knife thrower had absolutely no sense of irony. He thought his own act was the coolest thing in the world. Peter's interest in Surrealism seemed strong, because one of our "field trips" was to go to the Salvador Dalý Museum, which at the time was in Cleveland, Ohio, where we had a great concert the night before at the Music Hall.

One of the most amusing moments on stage had to be the Barbershop Quartet for Excuse Me, when you joined as a singer at center stage. Can you describe that surreal moment?

Tony Levin has always sung in barbershop quartets. I have no idea how Excuse Me developed in the studio, but it was great fun to come to the front of the stage and sing 4 part harmony with Peter, Tony, and Jimmy Maelen. Fripp did some kind of goofy faux-banjo stuff, Tony played tuba. It was all very British music hall, with an odd time signature thrown in to be "modern". Fripp, of course, did all his playing behind the curtain. I think he really did feel that playing in someone else's band, even that of his great friend, Peter, was somehow not the thing to do. At least, that was his excuse. He asked to be billed as Dusty Rhodes, and that's how Peter introduced him. Of course, and I'm sure he knew this very well, everyone in the audience knew he was in the band, and when his signature tone came over the sound system, people went nuts. Excellent self-promoter is Fripp. One fun thing for me was pretending to be him when fans came up. I had rimless glasses and short, curly hair, and it started when fans would just say, "You're Fripp. Are you Fripp?". I'd answer in my very Montana voice: "Listen to me. Do I sound like Fripp?". They weren't convinced, saying "We hear he's very good at accents". So I'd just go along with them. When Fripp was discovered by fans, he'd refuse to sign autographs, saying "Don't belittle yourself". There were always a few girls dressed as flowers waiting outside the stage door.

What do you think of Peter as a human being and as an artist?

 

After I went on to other things, my family and I would always go backstage to see Peter, Tony Levin, and Larry Fast at his San Francisco concerts. Before Peter's career became huge,I sat in on Moribund The Burgermeister at a show he did at San Francisco's Winterland. Peter did a very nice thing a few years ago, when he asked all his former band members to write short bios of themselves, then passed them out to his fans in a brochure on his tour. I always eagerly await any new album from Peter. When I played with him, he was very playful, open, and ridiculously creative in our rehearsals and performances. We know we'll always get moments of genius, beauty, and pathos from him. He has always been a great inspiration to me. I can't name another great musician who has done more with his life to improve the world. He has awakened us with his music and work, always with great grace and dignity.

 

 

Mario Giammetti