Gary Pihl is one busy man. The longtime guitarist for Boston since the Third Stage album of course was also known as part of Sammy Hagar’s band during the singer’s best era of solo material before taking over for David Lee Roth in Van Halen. Having toured with Boston, Tom Scholz knew what he had to do and recruited Pihl for Boston. Jumping on the opportunity, Scholz brought him into the fold where he never looked back. After joining Boston the other members that now included Pihl were told by their leader that tours were between albums that took quite some time so everyone was encouraged to find side projects. Pihl along with former Hagar bandmates Alan Fitzgerald and David Lauser as well as Robert Berry known for his work with Carl Palmer and Keith Emerson. In their collective “spare time” they have put out five albums, their most recent Fire And Grace that came out the last week of May. Pihl took a break to talk about Alliance’s new album and talking gear with Boston’s founder Tom Scholz.
Alliance is a great name for your project. It is a collective effort and everyone in the band knows each other prior to coming together. Until now, each of you weren’t the main focus of your other bands you’re known.
Yeah. I’ll give you a little background. Dave Lauser and I were in Sammy’s (Hagar) band together, who of course was in Montrose and Alan Fitzgerald – again, played in Montrose and was also in Sammy Hagar’s band. In ’85 Sammy gets an offer he can’t refuse – joining Van Halen. We, actually at that time, Sammy said you’re such a great band, you should just find another singer, plug him in and keep going. To that end, the record label Geffen put us in contact with Robert Berry. He had worked with Carl Palmer and Keith Emerson, also Steve Howe from Yes. As it happened, one of the tours we had done with Sammy was to open up for Boston. So I got to know the guys. Tom Scholz of Boston heard I was leaving the band and he called me and said, “Why don’t you come and help me finish the Third Stage album? There’s one more song to be recorded.” At that point that was all he was offering – just to play on the track. I left from our last gig with Sammy, which was Farm Aid I in Champagne, Illinois and flew directly to Boston to work with Tom. After a couple of weeks Tom had said, “Gee, why don’t you move back here. We’ll finish this album, go on tour and see what happens.” I’ve been in the band ever since. After that Third Stage album Tom said, “It’s going to take a number of years to make the next Boston album, so if anybody has any side projects you want to do now is the time.” So I called up Dave Lauser and Alan Fitzgerald and said, “Hey let’s put something together.” Dave remembered Robert Berry. We called him up and the four of us got together down in Sammy’s recording studio and jammed on our ideas. Robert seemed like the brother we never had. That’s how the band was formed.
You guys have a great chemistry on the couple of different albums I’ve listened to. I notice with the new one, Fire And Grace you guys are down to a three-piece.
Yes. Alan, alias “Fitz” had been on the road with Van Halen and Bruce Springsteen, Dan Fogelberg and I guess I can’t remember all the bands he’s played with. (both laugh) He said, “I’m taking some time off. You guys go ahead.” Of course Robert’s such a fantastic musician – he plays everything well besides bass, guitar, keys, drums and of course he’s a terrific singer. We said, well we can try to find a guy and keep going. Robert said I’ll try to play the parts I think Fitz would play with this.” If we do some gigs I would like to try to get Fitz out of retirement to do some shows with us. We’ll have to wait and see on that one. I’m glad you picked up on the interaction between us because we’ve known each other and played together after quite a while and we trust each other. We all just want to make the song better. For instance, the title track “Fire And Grace” I had a guitar riff I did and Dave had a cool drum groove and Robert said, “I’ve got some lyrics that will fit with that”. We were at his recording studio. We hit the record button and then started playing and we wrote that four-minute song in four minutes. It just all fell together. And that’s the beauty of being in a band working with guys you know and just going for it.
Three of you were with Sammy Hagar with Robert coming in as vocalist. Was it easy to get in sync with each other?
Robert just fit with us perfectly. We have the same influences. Like the same sort of bands and styles, so he fit in right away. He actually also played with Sammy and Dave in Cabo San Lucas. Of course Sammy has his club down there, so he jammed with Sammy and Dave down there. Robert and David jammed together. The other thing, I’m not even sure you know, but the three of us are in anther band with a couple of other guys called December People.
Actually I’m very familiar with it.
Oh you are?
Good. We play holiday songs in the style of other classic rock bands. Again, it was Robert’s idea and so we’ve been able to do that. Again it’s one more space where we get to perform together. Every song is like by a different band. (laughs) It keeps us on our toes.
It keeps everything lively and fresh.
And the reason we do this is every show is a benefit for a local food back usually.
That’s awesome. I realize Alliance started off as a side project. Was Alliance meant to be a studio band or a live band? I notice you guys have only played a handful of gigs over the 30-plus years you’ve been around.
It was really designed as a side project. At the time Boston only toured when we had a new album. For instance, it had been eight years between the second and third album. Tom had kind of warned us it was going to be a few years before the next Boston album and therefore the next Boston tour. And that was exactly right. It took six years for that one to come out. Even though I thought of Alliance as a side project, well I had six years. As Andy Warhol had said, you’re sometimes entitled to only 15 minutes of fame. I figured Alliance could have a six-year career between the next Boston tour.
You’re more than a musician. You wear multiple hats having your own studio early on even recording demos for what became Night Ranger. How do you switch between the artist hat and the engineer/producer hat you wear that may not always be welcomed because you may not be in charge of the actual production?
I was always one of those guys that had a soldering iron when things would break for the band. “Hey Gary, see if you can fix this thing.” Maybe just a guitar cord or something like that, so I was always interested in the technical side of things. I eventually bought some recording equipment when I was in Sammy’s band and put together my first home studio then. You’re right. Alan Fitzgerald was in Sammy’s band with me and then left the band to start Night Ranger and he was looking for an inexpensive studio to record the stuff. (laughs) Of course I didn’t charge him anything. I was just glad to help out the band. They recorded a bunch of demos in my living room. One of them was “Sister Christian”. And I always like the band and thought they had great songs and great players. They’re still around, too. I was used to thinking technically about stuff and I was interested in the sounds that you’re making and of course how to record them as well. To me it was all kind of the same thing about getting the sound. And to that degree, again, when I was the opening act for Boston – Sammy and I opened for them. Tom Scholz, of course was an electronics genius and I’d be asking him about his gear and how he got his sounds. Maybe I was bugging him. “Hey, how what’s this? How does this work? What’s this thing over here?” He was nice enough to tell me what he was doing. When he started his own electronics company called Rockman, he actually had me demonstrate some of the products at a trade show for him. We kind of kept in touch that way. We always had that in mind. For Fire And Grace, this new Alliance album I wanted my own guitar sound. I loved the Boston guitar sound – but that’s for Boston. I didn’t want to sound like I played guitar in Sammy’s band because that was that sound. So I built my own tube guitar amp to use on this album. Nobody in the world can sound like that because there’s only one of those amps – it was mine. (laughs)
What’s cool is I’ve listened to Fire And Grace, I’ve of course listened to Boston and even your Sammy Hagar stuff, but I can distinctively tell your guitar playing. When I hear Alliance I know exactly who’s playing when I hear it.
Thank you so much. That’s the highest compliment I could ever ask for. I certainly want my own style, my own sound. That reminds me: I had a buddy go see The Faces way back in the day with Jeff Beck and Ron Wood was playing bass. He said that during the show Jeff’s amp broke down like they used to in the days. And so there was a spare bass amp. So there’s Jeff, he’s going to plug into this bass amp and my buddy was, Oh my god, that’s going to be horrible – a guitar player plugging into a bass amp!” He said Jeff plugged in and it sounded exactly the same as his guitar amp. It was the player – not the equipment. It was the player.
Did you find yourself being harder on yourself when you’re listening to your demos and tracks being not only an engineer, but also the talent?
Oh yeah, because I’m listening for both things. If they sound right – not only if I like the sound myself, but how does it fit into the track with the rest of the instruments. Again – is there too much treble, too much distortion? How does it fit with everything else? That’s the producer’s side coming out too.
What is it like working with Tom Scholz? You guys have another business, Gearheads. You’re both engineer guys so both of you have the left and right side of the brain working at the same time.
Tom is the greatest to work for. When they put that list of “100 Greatest Guitar Players Of All Time” he’s on there, and he’s also on the list of “100 Greatest Keyboard Players”. There’s nobody else in the world on both of those lists. When you throw in top 100 rock songs “More Than A Feeling” and something else comes up on there. He designed the amplifiers they used on stage. He’s really special. It’s been really great working with him all these years. That first track that I played on back in the Third Stage album I was real nervous. Of course in his studio and I’m thinking he’s going to stand over me like a hawk, watching what I’m doing, I was a little intimidated. But when it came time to record it, the studio was in his house and so he said, “You know how to record. You’ve got recording gear. You know what you’re doing here. Just use this truck here. I’m going to go have a sandwich for lunch – you just record the thing”. He just left the room. I assume he was pretty smart thinking, “You know I don’t want to make this guy nervous about it”. Go ahead and do it on your own he laughed and left. I recorded my part. But I’ve certainly recorded other stuff when he was in the room. He’s of course very knowledgeable around the studio as you would imagine and make things go quickly and smoothly, so it’s always a pleasure to work with him.
How did Fire And Grace come about? It’s been 11 years between albums for you guys. I was wondering if you had the free time and came up with songs or had you been working on stuff over the years and finally found the time to record them?
That’s basically it. We had been working on stuff over the years and unlike other project bands you can email your tracks back and forth around the world. We only want to record stuff when we’re there together so we get that inner play between members. We would just have a day or two here and there over the last ten years and then finally last December we had done some December People shows, so we were all in California together. And we said look, we’ve got half a dozen songs recorded and each of s had more ideas and so we said last finish it up. Now is a good time, so we had a week or so to do it and finished it up. As I said, we wrote “Fire And Grace” on the spot and ha some other ideas on how we could make it all happen while we’re all together at the same time.
December People I’m guessing is pretty much a live project seeing that is seasonal theoretically.
Definitely seasonal. Nobody wants to hear Christmas songs in January. (both laugh) We do typically half a dozen, ten shows during the season although since Robert has a recording studio we have recorded CDs and songs at these shows as well – again, the profits going towards charity that we’re supporting. It’s nice being able to do it.
What do you guys plan to do with the new album? Will there be an opportunity to so a small tour?
We’re hoping to. We would love to do more gigs. I think one of the best things for us to do is festivals where there are ten or 20 bands over a couple of days. The audience goes knowing they are going to see bands they never heard of before – because we’re not really well known as Alliance. I think that would be a great place for us. Again, the audience would be receptive and they might connect us from our other bands as well.
Being the gear head that you are, what has been your take on all the technology that has taken over the music business since you got started in the late ‘60s?
It’s amazing how the technology has changed. Again, a good example of that is Tom Scholz’s first Boston album he recorded in his basement. At that time you had to go to a professional recording studio where equipment was very expensive to make a record. Tom was a smart guy and he was working at Polaroid and made some amount of money and bought his own recording gear and recorded it in his basement. That was completely unknown at the time and people just didn’t do that. In fact, when the record company heard his song they said, well, you can’t just record this in a basement. You have to go in a real studio and rerecord this. Of course Tom said, “no, no, no. This is the sound. This is it right here. I’m not going to rerecord it”. Again, that was the biggest selling debut album ever and so other people saw this and said, gee, if he can do it maybe we can do it too. In my mind that was the beginning of home recording. Equipment managers started to cater to that to make less expensive gear – or semi-pro gear. Now these days you can record an album on your laptop computer. It’s crazy how easy and inexpensive it is today compared to back in the day.
For better or worse at times. (laughs)
There’s no longer any quality control at times it seems like. Before there were very few bands on a label and now everyone has their own label and everything is all over the internet – whether you like it or not, which can be good for some bands and artists that got discovered that way.
Yeah, it’s hard to say of course. There was the whole issue of downloading songs, file sharing and all that stuff that has completely changed the record industry. Things are definitely different.
How do you feel you have changed as a musician over the years? Do you feel like you draw the same inspiration from what go you going initially? Do you keep up on trends either in music or lifestyle?
I hope I’ve gotten better as a guitar player over the years. (laughs) I’ve always been a guy that liked to listen to a lot of different styles. When I’m in the car for instance I’ll push all the buttons and listen to everything – classical to country to jazz, hip-hop – everything. I enjoy listening to all kinds of stuff. People sometimes ask me, “What’s your favorite current band?” I’ll say I don’t know – whatever’s on the radio. I have to ask my kids what it is because I’ll hear some song and ask who that is. “That’s so and so dad.” They know I don’t know the names of all of the bands that I really enjoy listening to.
– Dave Weinthal