Lucky Man: Interviews Greg Lake of ELP, King Crimson

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Greg Lake (photo credit: Lee Millward)

One of the most accomplished artists of the rock era, Greg Lake has done far more than just be the middle initial of legendary prog-rock trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP). As a founding member of progressive pioneers King Crimson, Lake was around for the birth of the genre, and has gone on to a distinguished solo career, as well as stints with Asia and Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. spoke with Lake recently to catch up on what he’s up to lately.

NOTE: An edited-for-space version of this interview appeared in the December 2012 issue of Tell magazine. The following is the complete interview.


Tell: I understand you are touring the UK?

Greg Lake: Yes, in November.

Tell: So right now you’re just between shows, is that it?

Lake: I’m recovering from the Olympic games.

Tell: OK (laughs). Did you actually go to the games?

Lake: Well, you know, strangely enough, some of them took place right outside my house because I live in a place called Richmond Park, which is just outside of London, and the marathon and the bike races all went by my house. I could see them from my bedroom window! I watched the rest on TV, you know. It was amazing—you know, before the games took place, actually, people in this country were all sort of almost dreading it because of all of the confusion and chaos and so forth. But when it happened, it was refreshing. It was really lovely.  Do you know what it was, I think, Howard? You had all these athletes achieving these incredible feats of human endeavor and contrasting with all of this sort of celebrity culture, where you can get famous for nothing. And here are all these really incredible human beings. All of them were humble and self-effacing, and it was such contrast to the sort of “Big Brother”, Paris Hilton, overnight-celebrity-for-nothing culture. And it was so refreshing to watch.

Tell: So that was a nice little diversion. Why don’t you tell me a bit about the show you’re doing now?

Lake: Well, the show is called “Songs of a Lifetime” and it came about, really, because I’d just finished writing my autobiography called Lucky Man, and during the writing of it, these songs would pop up from time to time that had obviously been important in my life—not only songs that I had written, but songs that’d had a big influence upon me or someway had steered my destiny. When I got to the end of it, I realized that what these songs represented was the journey that I had been on through my life with the audience, it’s what we shared together, really … and I thought, what a nice idea it would be to make a concert out of these songs, because of course each of them has got some kind of story behind them. And then it occurred to me of course that we’ve all got stories behind the music we like, not only ELP and King Crimson, but any music that you like, and people have got their own stories. And I thought what a great idea it would be to have a show where we played the songs, and I’ll tell my story behind the songs and other people could tell theirs. And so we can sort of have an exchange of memories in that way and so I thought of the title “Songs of a Lifetime” and that’s what it really is—it’s just the shared journey through the music  that formed my career, basically.

Tell: So are you touching upon the distant facets of your career, doing some stuff from Crimson as well as from ELP and your solo work?

Lake: Yeah, yeah, I mean, they’re bits and pieces from everywhere, and songs that had nothing to do with ELP and King Crimson, but were influential in my life. I do a song by Elvis, for instance. There are various things. The strangest thing is, when I thought of the idea, because it’s a very exciting idea, I decided to do a one-man show, because it’s a challenge. I’ve been in bands and I’ve done all that, and in a way, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to top the things I’ve done in ELP or these things were monolithic really in terms of performance—you know, California Jam: 300,000 people; the Olympic Stadium, Montreal, with our own symphony orchestra: 80,000 people. We used to play shows like that on weekly basis! And so, I’m always interested in new challenges, something that is realistic anyway. And this is realistic, the idea of doing a one-man-show. However, it is very, very difficult to keep an audience entertained for—well, to be honest, for 10 minutes, let alone two hours. It’s quite a daunting challenge. And I didn’t want it to be one of those sort of “legend in his own lunchtime,” sitting on a stool, folk songs on a guitar (sort of thing) … because, that’s boring. It’s alright maybe for one or two tunes, but after that, you go and get a drink! It’s just boring. So the thing  was is I decided to make a heavily produced show with a lot of surprises and shocks and for it to be entertaining. So at the end of it all before I left England on my way to play the first concert I sat on my sofa in England and I thought “Oh dear God, what have I done?” What would happen if they didn’t like it? I’d be stuck then with a tour, being alone on the stage, three hours a night, with people not really liking it. That was a terrifying moment. Thank goodness when I played the shows, it was instantly obvious that it was a great idea, actually. The show was fantastic. I got a standing ovation every night, more than one, and people laughing and people crying, and it’s really a rollercoaster of emotions. And I was absolutely stunned at the response to it.

Tell: Your songs move people. Some of the acoustic stuff you’ve done is very moving, and I’m sure that is very affecting for an audience.

Lake: That’s very kind of you to say so, and for me as an artist, the most important thing is not the fame or the money or anything like that—it’s knowing, because music passes between one soul and another, and when you’ve written a song the success really is in knowing that that has happened, that the music has come out of your soul and reached another person’s soul. And doing concerts like this, and listening to the stories that people tell—some of them very tragic, some of them very happy—it makes me realize that to at least some extent I’ve been successful in those terms and it is an extremely gratifying thing to know. And so it’s lovely to think that the songs have touched people. It feels so lovely to know that sometimes they’ve made people laugh. To me, I think it was a great era period in history full-stop. It was a time of inventiveness, where the youth found a voice, they found a voice where they could express how they felt and the way they wanted the world to be, creatively, through music and fashion and art. And it was a great age to be young. And I think the “Songs of a Lifetime” is an expression, a retrospective look, a journey, traveling back through that journey. And it is nostalgic. And I don’t care if people think it’s corny, because, to me, it’s lovely to look back. It’s lovely to relive those great moments.

Tell: Sure, and you’ve have a very full career, filled with wonderful achievements.

Lake: I’m not ashamed to say, I’ve been very lucky. I’m not sure about talent. My view on talent is, you’re lucky if you know what you want to do when you’re very young, because, like I was, by the time was 14 or 15 years old, I was a really good guitar player. It was only because I started at 12. I picked it up so young, that by the time I was even 15 and I looked really young then, people went, “This kid’s a genius.” Well, of course, I wasn’t a genius. All it was, was I put in three good years of work, had a great guitar teacher, and I was very flash. When I was about 15, I was Jack the Lad on the keyboard. And so that luck has a lot to do with it. I was very lucky that my parents succumbed to my wishes to have a guitar, because if the answer had been no instead of yes, my life would have been totally different.

Tell: Legend has it that you didn’t really play bass until you were in King Crimson—is that true?

Lake: Yeah.

Tell: And did Robert Fripp show you the ropes?

Lake: Him and I grew up together, we went to the same guitar teacher. So I knew everything Robert knew and he knew everything I knew. We actually got to know each other because Robert used to follow me around when I was the guitarist in my local band in Dorset. And we went to the same guitar teacher, we used to practice our guitar lessons ‘round each other’s houses. So we grew up together, Robert and I, and when it came time to form King Crimson, Robert actually had a band called Giles, Giles & Fripp, and they were a really wacky bunch.

Tell: I have that CD. It’s very … whimsical.

Lake: It’s very strange! And they were very strange. It was all about paraplegic people—the strangest, sort of off-the-wall humor. There was a bit of the Monty Python about it. But anyway, the fact was that the record company didn’t like it, and they were going to drop them, and they said to Robert, “Look, unless you get some sort of relevant music going, and you’re able to have a broader appeal, we’re not going to be able to work with you.” And so Robert said, “What do we need?” And they said, “Well, you need a lead singer.” And so I was the only lead singer he knew! (laughs) He called me up and said, “Greg, would you consider coming up and forming a band together, because we’ve got this record deal, and they want me to have a lead singer, and you’re a good lead singer. How about it?” I said “Sure, that sounds great, they have a record deal.” And he said, “The only one thing is, we want to keep the band down to a four-piece. I’m already playing guitar—would you consider playing bass?” So I thought to myself, “Well, how hard could it be? Four strings instead of six, right? And I’m still the lead singer.” I thought, “OK, I’ll do it.” I didn’t really give it a lot of thought. And of course, when I went to do it, I just thought I could knock off the bass the bass really easily, not realizing of course that playing bass is a whole art form in and of itself—it’s a whole world in and of itself. It’s a different role. It’s a different perspective. And I had a hell of a lot to learn very quickly, and it was a very rude awakening to the world of bass playing. But I very quickly understood what the game was after a few very brutal lessons from Mike Giles, and (laughs) there we are. Still, I think one big thing about it was that having been used to playing guitar with such a lot of sustain on the strings, when I went to the bass, at that time, all bass players used tape-wound strings, and they were very dull and they didn’t sustain, and I was very frustrated by not being able to play sustaining notes. And one day I came upon these wire-wound strings called Rotosound, and there it was. I cracked it, because there they sounded like the low end of a Steinway grand piano. And that together with my sort of half-guitar/half-bass style brought about a new way, really, of playing the bass at that time. It was more percussive, it was more guitar-orientated, and it was kind of a mix of bass playing and guitar playing in a way, which is part of what made that style of music what it was, playing units and lines with guitar, being able to play chords on bass for example, or more melodic, sustained things—all of that was possible because of more sustain on the strings—and this sort of guitar-playing approach to playing bass.

Tell: And in ELP, you were in a trio with a lot of space to fill.

Lake: Yes, in ELP, it became really useful, because making something like Pictures at an Exhibition sound full with only three people is a real challenge, it’s not easy to do, and that’s where that extra sustain and that extra tonality and percussiveness came in really useful.

Tell: You mentioned that you’re doing your autobiography. Is that going to be a digital release, or a physical book?

Lake: Well, here’s what it was: I went on to do a USA tour a few months ago, and I released volume 1 of it as an audio release. My intention is, or at least it was then, to release it in three audio volumes on a USB stick. I released volume 1, but what happened was, they turned up late in the tour, so I’m now mixed with whether to release the whole book as an audio volume, one complete audio volume, or whether to split it into three. I’m now toying with the idea of not doing the three volumes, of actually doing just one audio volume and one printed book. And I still haven’t made my mind up, to be honest. And that’s how it will be. In the end, it will be an audio book and a printed book.

Tell: So, are you still going to put it out as a USB stick?

Lake: Yes, it will be available as a USB stick at my shows.

Tell: Tell is a tech-oriented magazine. Are you embracing the new technology?

Lake: By new technology, what do you mean?

Tell: Smart phones, digital recording, things like that.

Lake: Oh yeah. I mean, I’ve run Protools for the last eight years. Yeah, I use technology. I try not to drown in it, because I think that there comes a point where you’ve got to be careful not to actually mask or in some way devalue the currency of what you’re trying to do by smearing it in too much technology. So I try and keep a sort of balance with technology, and I use it really where it’s most effective and try and leave it out where it isn’t. Because I think there’s a lot of value in very simple personal intimate personal analog contact. There’s something great about just hearing the guitar playing in and of itself. That’s great. Or a human voice just playing without treatment. But there are points in the show where I do employ a series of stage technology. And then it’s very effective. I think it’s like all things—I’ve always felt like this about all types of production, and that is it shouldn’t be gratuitous, it shouldn’t be smeared over like marmalade on a piece of toast. Really it should be used sparingly and dynamically, because then it really is effective. And I think that’s where the one weakness, the one regret I have about technology is when people use it as a substitute to real creativity. I think you’ve got to be careful when you use them not to let it dominate you, because technology really, it can start to become the focal point of the whole thing if you’re not careful. It also in a way allows too much freedom to the individual where, for example, in making a record, I sometimes end up being everybody. I’m the drummer, the bass player, the guitar player, the keyboard player, the symphony orchestra, the oboe player, the tympani—you can be everybody now. And the only thing is, you don’t play that tympani quite as well as a real player would, and so what you end up with is this devalued currency, this lowest common denominator, and I think one’s got to be careful with technology not to fall in that trap of, as I say, devaluing the creativity. I’m sorry if that sounded a bit …

Tell: No, I’m right with you there.

Lake: It’s too easy to use technology to mask and do things that sound like a French horn section, but it isn’t, and it isn’t as good, and the timbre isn’t the same. There are all these things where you’ve got to be very careful. Also, you can spend an inordinate amount of time with technology, and therefore, when you go in to make an album, 18 months later, you’re a fantastic computer operator but you’ve only written two songs.

Tell: There’s something to be said for just putting a microphone in front of a guitar, right?

Lake: There certainly is! There’s also something to be said for people who are into the technology doing that, and musicians being musicians. A problem—well I say a problem, it’s a problem and a benefit—is that the musicians became their own engineers, their own producers, their own everything. And unfortunately, nobody is everything, nobody. The records I made in the early 70s wouldn’t have been made by one person, couldn’t have been made by one person. It was this collective assembly that made it so powerful.

Tell: Absolutely—it was the combination of the talents involved. Speaking of which, you did some shows with Keith Emerson in the past year. Any activity on that front, or are you pretty much flying solo at this point?

Lake: Right now, I’m really committed to doing this “Songs of a Lifetime.” I just think that it’s got a lot further to go, and I’ve really enjoyed doing it. It won’t last forever, but while it does last, I’m urge everyone who is interested in that sort of music to come and see it. I’m safe in saying you won’t see anything quite like it. It’s an unusual show.

Tell: And with the interactive aspect of getting people to speak from the audience, it’s never the same show twice.

Lake: It never is. It isn’t mainly that—I don’t want to spoil it for people, but there are surprise elements in it that you certainly wouldn’t be ready for. I think what happens is, when people leave the theater—and this really was my original ambition—when people walk out, I want them to be saying “That was incredible. What we just experienced was just one guy standing there doing that.” And that is the thing. I want them to feel they’ve had a great evening’s entertainment, and by and large, I think that’s really how they feel.

Tell: Any plans to do a DVD or a concert recording of this show, Greg?

Lake: Yes, I think we are going to do one somewhere on the British tour. But I feel I’m also going to go play Italy after that, and maybe some of the other European countries. They’re putting in the dates right now.

Tell: It sounds like something I think your fans would really like you to capture.

Lake: I think it should be captured. The only thing I would say about it is, I think it is worth doing as a DVD, but it is the live experience that I think is the lovely thing about it. It is a moment of theater, because it’s part me playing the songs, it’s part the way the audience react with them. You get moments—I’ll tell you one which was incredible.  I was playing one of these shows in the United States and a guy stood up in the audience and he said “I used to be a DJ on the radio many years ago, and I used to do the night shift. One night I’m sitting there and I’m playing my records and talking, and the phone line was open so people could call in and request something. The phone rang and this gentleman got in the phone, and in a very deep voice he said, ‘I wonder if you could do me a favor?’” and the DJ said “Sure, what is it?” and the man said, “My daughter is dying and she asked me, would you play ‘Watching Over You’.” And that was a song I’d written as a lullaby for my daughter. So he said “Of course I will.” The caller thanked him and put down the phone. Anyway, he found the record and he put it on and he played it. And he didn’t announce what it was publicly, what the request had been, he just announced the track and played it, and he said that an hour or two after that, the phone rang again. It was the man who’d called before. He said, “I just phoned to thank you. My daughter died when you played the track.” And the audience was … there were people crying listening to this story. And I’m on the stage, and it’s like a wave of emotion just flooded through the whole theater. And I said to him, “I just don’t know what to say to you … but it just means so much to me that it brought just that moment of comfort. What a wonderful thing that you told me this story.” That’s what is incredible. And five minutes later, somebody asked me about Brain Salad Surgery. So I had all the album covers by my side. So I picked up the cover to Brain Salad Surgery and of course they looked at the cover and everybody clapped because they recognized the Giger skull (Note: This album’s cover was designed by artist H.R. Giger, best known for designing the creature for the Alien films) and I started to talk about the reason the skull was there. And I said, “By the way, look at this.” It’s a gatefold album cover, and I said, “It’s very good for sifting seeds.” And of course they all cheered.

Click here for further info on Greg Lake and “Songs of A Lifetime.”

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