Robert Berry – Last Man Standing

Alas, once there as 3, and now there remains one: Robert Berry.  Berry I a much in demand musician/vocalist and studio engineer that gained international renown with the band 3 that featured the late Keith Emerson, Carl Palmer and himself.  From his breakthrough with the Bay area band Hush, to a stint with Ambrosia to a member of the Greg Kihn Band, Berry has been able to carve a special niche for himself amongst fellow musicians and fans alike.  Earlier this year Berry released a new album entitled Third Impression under the moniker 3.2.  And while many will listen to Third Impression because of is work with Palmer and Emerson in 3, the tracks on the album stand on their won merits owning to no one but Berry himself.  One of the “busiest men in showbiz”, Berry allowed us to speak with him during some rare down time.

 

It seems like you’re constantly going all the time.

You know, it’s interesting.  35 years ago I thought I was busy and doing things. Life was good.  I’m probably 400 percent busier with more stuff going on now 35 years later.  There are just not enough hours in a day.  I’ve gotta knock off sleeping and cut that out of my life (both laugh).  Like today; I usually come in the studio about 10:30/11 o’clock.  I start my day with clients – whatever it is; producing a song.  Today I get up at 7:30, get up here and I’ve already mixed a song for somebody.  I talked to my social media people.  Paid them for another three months of taking care of Twitter, Instagram and all that.  Talk about being non-social – it’s confusing – a lot of that stuff.  They’ve got all this firewall stuff.  On Facebook you can put something that says I’m going to give everybody a million dollars and it will only reach ten people.  Facebook blocks something.  I don’t know how it works, but I’ve been very fortunate.  Right before I had my children; my daughter is going to be 30 this year – so it’s been 30 years.  Right before I that I thought, oh geez, I don’t want to have kids.  I not going to write anything but nursery rhymes, kid songs.  It’s gonna suck.  I wanted to have kids.  Musically I’m thinking this is going to ruin who I am. (laughs)  I’ve done more and have built more every year for the past 30 years. (laughs) Now this year, right now with the album doing so well, I’ve been talking with t-shirt manufacturers, graphic artists.  Also, people have been bugging me for vinyl, so I’ve been talking with a pressing plant.  I sent that stuff off to be pressed.  All those things had to be on the website.  I just talked to my website guy.  You know, I have to have this stuff available on my website.  I’m not going to be going on TV and the internet saying, “Hey buy my album.”  I’m not a salesman, but people have been asking for vinyl, so I want it available.  So he’s got to design that in.  That’s just the last two days I’ve been locked down with studio sessions.  I sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not.  I’m so energized.  It’s been great.  I’m so happy now.  I went on a tour and came to Nashville in 2019.  We did 27 cities in 24 days or something, and I would walk out every night without the band to start the show and I’d say, “I know bands usually come on playing and this or that, but I wanted to come out and thank you for letting me live a life in music”.  Not a lot of my friends got to do that. It was important for me to go out there and do that and thank people.  That’s the way I feel about it.  Talking to you about my career and the album and stuff… that’s a gift to me.  I don’t say, here’s some guy wants an interview to full up space.  I really appreciate it.  It’s something that I never would have thought I’d be talking to so many people and hearing so many nice things about the music.  I appreciate it.

You’ve got the new album out, Third Impression.  Have you been able to do any touring?  I realize COVID has thrown a wrench in everything.  Did you tour with 3.2 before all this happened?

We did.  The rules have changed.  2018 we toured through 2019.  2020 everything got shut down. I was supposed to be in Europe doing the European leg of the tour, and it would have been the first time for me to tour Europe under my name – Robert Berry history of music that we were playing, which was really amazing when we went to places and played.  People would bring albums and talk about the songs.  “We really loved it – the one you did with GTR, when you sang with Ambrosia.”  And they have all these little bits of my career that meant something to their timeline of their life.  It was a feeling I can’t explain.  It really was great and here I was going to Europe where most of the guys I played with – the biggest I guys I played with were from England.  Keith Emerson, Carl Palmer and Geoff Downes, Steve Howe – all these guys… I was looking forward to that.  That got cancelled in 2020.  2021, we just started that year.  It doesn’t look like Europe is doing as well as the U.S. with COVID, so probably won’t go there this year.  Maybe next year that tour will be reinstated.  We’re going to go out with a band called Big Big Train.  No touring, but yes we want to.

I’ve listened to Third Impression.  It has a very sophisticated layering of sound.  It sounds like a studio album.  It sounds like a soundtrack almost.  It’s one of those things you get enamored by listening to it.  I was wondering who difficult is it to replicate that in a life situation?

You know, the rules have changed.  The previous album was the same way. It has some big songs on it.  And when I decided I wanted to go on a big tour, I had to find a keyboard player that had four arms.  He had to be like Keith Emerson and cover everything.  And it just so happened, Andrew Colyer, who’s out of New York, who’s a guy I got to know the previous eight years before that kept sending me the albums of his band Circuline.  And I was really impressed with him playing-wise.  I got to know him as a person and he was sort of meticulous about everything. (laughs) This guy does not let anything fall through the cracks.  He knew how to do social media, he’s a great keyboard player, he’s a doctor.  This guy is way over the top good with everything he does.  So I called him.  Here’s a guy that if he says he can do it, he’ll do it.  And I asked him if he’d do the tour.  He said yes.  I said, wait a minute, you have to play the music Jordan Rudess recorded on, Keith Emerson has recorded on, Geoff Downes recorded on – myself, I play keyboards.  He goes, “I can do it.”  I said I totally trust you.  I’ve been listening to what you’ve been doing and I know you the person now.  And sure enough with all that soundscape you’ve been talking about he figures out.  Of course he listens to the multi tracks that I have off the ProTools, listens to the keyboards and what sounds are used and he figured out how to do it.  I had a great drummer, Jimmy Keegan from a band called Spock’s Beard, and my longtime friend and guitar player – who has played everything I ever recorded just about, Paul Keller.  These are guys  I can trust to really get the songs right and be consistent night after night.  That’s what solves the problem that you’re hearing of it being such a wide scope, like if we had gone that way there would have been a lot of different styles and sounds; working with Gary Pihl from the band Boston – that’s more of a straight rock thing.  David Lauser from the Sammy Hagar band, the drummer from our band Alliance is more straight rock.  The difference in the Emerson and Palmer stuff with 3; it was really quite a band.




A lot of the stuff on Third Impression has a bit of an improv feel to it.  How do you know when you’re writing music for Third Impression that it was time to end the song?  When you’re coming up wit the compositions do you kind of know how you want it to end, or is it one of those things that you take it until everyone knows it’s time to end and wrap it up?

That’s a really interesting question.  Nobody ever asked me that.  I’ll have to think about that.  In general, how do you write songs?  For me, I play so many instruments and I’ve written so many songs, have so many albums and everyday in the studio.  Like yesterday, I did this song for a woman named Paula – a blues song.  And I know the blues, I can do it.  And you know I play a lot of instruments, right?  The singer comes in and they play guitar and I do everything else.  That’s almost everyday Monday through Friday in sound tech when I’m not doing my own album.  Yesterday… Paula’s just a singer.  She didn’t even have music for it, but it’s a blues song, which is kind of a standard format. So I started writing chords with her.  I’d have her sing it and figure out the arrangement.  Then is start the bass, keyboards and drums, lead guitar – whatever.  Because of that, and doing at least a hundred songs every year for clients that way; when I write a song it just kind of comes out and I don’t know where it comes from.  I have sort of a model for myself, but it’s easier to fix an idea than get one.  So when I get an idea – I’m going to write a new song.  So, I was talking about you about being an introvert, being shy, but not on the phone.  So I’ll start with that.  That’s not great words, but I’ll put it down and I’ll sing it.  And maybe the song, all the way through the bass and drums and acoustic song will say, “Dave’s shy, but not on the phone.”  The I’ll go, “I can paint a better picture than that”.  And I’ll change it.  It’s still the same meaning, but it paints a better picture to a listener that’s no seeing you or know what you’re talking about yet.  And those things just sort of flow out of me, and a lot of Third Impression is the same way, especially on the solos.  I just let them rip with reckless abandonment.  I would play and play.  There would be some mistakes in there, but I’ll go back and fix them and them I’ll learn the solo and play it the way I want it.  The ending now… I can explain the rest of it. (laughs)  The ending?  That’s a good question.  I think there are certain things when a song starts to come out that I  say, I want this song to go here, or I need a solo in here.  It needs to be a little softer for a minute so I can express this.  Then those ideas are done, then I say is this going to fade out or should this have an ending on it?  I make that up.  It just happens when the song is almost completed, I believe.  Good question, man.

Not only being a musician, but also a studio engineer, does that get in the way to a degree?  Do you worry about micro-managing when working with an artist in the studio because of you being a musician?

I talk to musicians about that all the time.  I started when I was 12 years old.   Made a  four-track on a [Teac] 3340.  I had a little studio tape recorder and I was already recording through the channels and trying to learn drums and guitar.  I just wanted to do that.  My friends would come to the door, “Can you come out and play baseball?”  “No, I’m playing my piano, I’m working on something, I’m recording”.  When the four channel came out, I learned how to use it and I’d record three tracks.  When that was up, I’d record three more.  My point is, technology has been part of the creative process for me, so I can go between – I forget which side of the brain is the creative side and the analytical.  I can go from analytical to creative processes back and forth and it never bothers me.  But a lot of musicians, when they’re writing a song if they have to go and set the record level and plug the mic in and do this, it takes them out of the creative side.  Once you’re in the analytical side, you might as well be doing your books.  It’s hard to switch back over to the creative side.  It causes them writer’s block and all kinds of things.  For me it’s never a problem.  In fact, it’s part of the challenge in my toolbox I call it to say, hey, a drummer’s out there recording – I’m producing the band and his snare doesn’t sound right, his kick drum doesn’t sound right.  I not only know how to fix that as an engineer, but I know as a player how to fix that and talk their language.  It becomes fun for me and kind of invigorating to treat music and engineering all as the same thing, even though writing the songs are more emotional.  It has to come from the heart and that’s the only way it connects to people when you do something really personal from the heart.  The rest of it… I built speaker cabinets.  It’s part of music to me.




You were talking about when on tour people would come up to you and comment about how they enjoyed the music you made with Ambrosia and some of the other works you had done.  How are you able to create an identity for yourself outside of the artists that you are playing for? You’ve been playing with Greg Kihn for 25 years now, Ambrosia, GTR, artists that people are familiar with their music, stuff on Top 40 radio at one point.  But this is Robert Berry, not just the guy in the Greg Kihn Band or the guy in Ambrosia at one point.  I have music nerd friends that follow different musicians through their various projects, be it a hired hand or a member of the band, where a lot of people probably don’t know that.  You’ve got fans that bring you albums or asking for vinyl on all your material, not just particular bands.  How were you able to curate a identity for yourself?

It’s funny; there are two me’s.  There’s the me that – of course I write with Greg all the songs that we do as a co-writer with the Greg Kihn Band.  I’m good with that.  I just make sure everything happens.  Greg has an interview on Zoom or something, he’s in the studio every Thursday writing.  I’m part of his team.  Some people don’t even know that.  They go, “Oh my god, how long have you played for Greg?”  A long time. “Oh, I didn’t know that”.  Or Sammy Hagar – I played with Sammy Hagar for a couple of years.  Sam’s the show – he’s the guy.  It’s just great to be grabbing onto his coattails and go for the whirlwind ride.  There’s that and there’s things like when I was touring with Ambrosia and they’d come up when I was singing, “You’re the Biggest Part of Me” and afterwards they’d come up and say, “You sound just like you did when the song first came out.”  For the first six months I’d say that wasn’t me, it was David Pack – the great David Pack.  He wrote that song.  And they’d say, Oh, you sound just like him.”  It would like of disappoint them.  After a while I would say thank you. (both laugh).  I didn’t tell them it wasn’t my song because it didn’t serve any purpose.  I wasn’t trying to take credit for it, but people were there to be happy.  Why burst their bubble, you know?  Then there’s me, the artist who is much less than Sammy Hagar or Greg Kihn.  I have maybe gone a third of the way into the audience level that they have – maybe not even that with Sammy.  It’s huge.  I find to have ten people that like me – that really like me is more rewarding than having ten thousand where you’re opening for a band that doesn’t know your music and don’t know who you are.  It’s just really nice.  It’s just like readers of a magazine, a radio show or a podcast.  If you only have ten – let’s say you have ten readers and you’re interviewing me and saying, “this album is really good, so check it out.”  Those ten people are really close to you and like you.  They being you’re friends and when you’re saying check this out, they’ll probably check it out.  Maybe half of them will buy it.  If you have ten thousand readers or listeners or anything and a guy says this is good, you ought to check it out.  There’s still five or ten that will check it out because that big crowd isn’t as personal or close to them.  I kind of cherish the smaller, more personal career I have.  True, we play 150 – 250 seat places and I can shake everybody’s hand and they were there because they had albums from way back in the Hush days from the ‘80s and stuff I was amazed that they had.  It was very personal.  Then of course we headline “ProgStock” and about five thousand and because of progressive rock, those people knew my music, too. In general, playing to 150 to 250 people – that means a lot to me.  The personal connection –rambling on and answering your question quite right, I hope that makes sense.

Also I’d like to know is when playing with Greg Kihn or even when you were in Ambrosia did you feel like at times you were in a cover band to a degree?  You’re playing songs a lot of people are very familiar with and expecting to hear.

With Greg, no.  Greg and I have an album out and we’re working on a new one now.  His old songs are so infectious and easy to play.  We brought a new energy to them.  Ambrosia, that’s the reason why I left Ambrosia after a few years.  I couldn’t get then to do a new album and they just wanted to play the old stuff.  And that’s not what I do.  I need to hear toward what we’re going to do next – that’s sort of a motto of mine:  Just stay viable in the business and do something.  Greg is into doing something.  There’s a lot of ideas.  I was working on the studio down there.  We had the best time.  It might take three or four years between albums.  We have 15 songs now and only six of them are as good as the last album.  We’re no t going to put it out until we have 12 as good as the last album.  You would be right if I were to stay with a band that was only doing their past hits.  I just can’t do that.

A lot of times people are going in there to hear those songs, not that they’re not interested in the new stuff.  With certain musicians they almost have a stigma playing other people’s songs compared to playing their own songs.  When I was in band management I would manage some bands that refused to play cover songs in their set.  I tried to explain to them that’s how you build an audience by playing something they are familiar with and then you can introduce them to your stuff.  Music is hard because there’s a fine line of being in it for artistic expression and being in it for the business aspect. 

 

I do that with my own music.  The whole tribute series I did for Magna Carta Records has “Roundabout” by Yes in my own version, own style.  There’s “Karn Evil 9”, the ELP song that Jordan Rudess, Mark Wood and Simon Phillips did with me.  It’s a different sound, a different style than the original.  It’s my own style.  On “Minstrel In the Gallery”, an old Jethro Tull song, we did it in our own style.  I put those in my set because even though they’re done my way – I rearranged it and did it in more my style.  They’re still familiar for people.  The people that don’t know The Rules Have Changed or Third Impression, I want to give them something to make it an easy access to Robert Berry’s music.  So you’re exactly right. A cover tune isn’t a bad thing to do.  I had a funny story when Keith Emerson and I first met.  I was going to come back to California from here and he said let’s have lunch, I like your music.  We had a two-hour lunch and he was such a great guy; so friendly; so funny.  It was a really amazing lunch, but he goes, “Robert, if we’re going to start a new band, I’ve got to ask you one question”.  I’m like, oh… geez.  It was such a good lunch.  He’s going to say he want’s every third male child or something, you know?  And he said, if we toured, would you mind playing and singing a couple of ELP songs.  What am I going to say, Dave?  “Sorry?” (laughs) I said, of course.  It’s not only your legacy, but a lot of the audience that are coming to see us are big ELP fans.  Let’s make them happy.  We’re here to entertain people.  He looked at me and said, “Really?”  I said, yeah.  He didn’t expect that answer. ‘cause guys like Greg Reich wouldn’t do that.  I’m all into making people happy when they come to see you – that’s for sure.  It’s an honor.  Right?  If they’re coming to see you play, throw them a bone. (both laugh)  Play a Beatles song, I don’t know. (both laugh)

I was talking with a friends about songs you get tired of hearing because everybody covers them.  I believe the other week was the anniversary of “Brown-Eyed Girl” being recorded by Van Morrison.  As much as I love the song, I’ve heard it covered by so many bands. That, and I think every blues and feels the need to cover “Mustang Sally”. (both laugh)

There are a couple – even “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones.  Anybody can play that.  You know, it’s also fun if a band can have some fun and not take themselves too seriously all the time, I think that’s a great thing.

Oh yeah, you’ll usually hear one towards the end of a set or during the encore or they’ll so a medley of a couple of songs that go together really well, which can be fun for the audience and the band as well.

My problem was I have such a long history and so many albums out that I did a two-hour show and I’m singing a lot of the time and my songs the keys aren’t low, they’re high.  I didn’t have enough time to add every song into the set that I wanted to do.  There’s no way I could do a cover song that I hadn’t a little ownership in by doing it on an album before.  Like with Ambrosia, “Life Beyond L.A.” is something I have recorded before.  There’s only so much time.  After two hours, that’s all the singing I can do.

The first single off Third impression is “A Fond Farewell”, which is easily understandable first single.  Is it traditionally difficult what to pick out as the first single from an album?

I have almost never done it.  The record company does it.  I’m always surprised at what they pick.  What’s hard for a musician and an artist that puts the album out is what’s going to be first on the album.  What’s the first song?  Or even the running order.  It’s really, really difficult because we’re so close to it, we don’t know.  I’ll tell you why I put “Top Of The World” – I don’t know if you’ve heard the whole album or not…

Yes.

“Top Of The World”… 3 and 3.2, the band Carl Palmer, Keith Emerson and myself had was based on keyboards – Keith Emerson, the greatest keyboard player in the world, Keith died in the middle of the last album.  I had one song left that we wrote together and I had his parts on that I used for this album, but that was it.  That song’s nine minutes, so it’s a third of the album.  Where I’m going to go next is not going to be a 3 album or 3 style.  There’s three albums under the moniker 3 or 3.2 and that’s where it stops.  So, I thought I need to leave people, along with me and the fan base 3 has to what I might do next or I need to cut them loose.  Either way it works.  If they don’t like where I’m heading, then fine.  Not everybody likes everything.  So I decided to put “Top Of The World” first because it starts with a minute of Celtic acoustic guitar kind of stuff and the keyboards don’t come in for a while; and honestly it’s a pretty heavy rock song in the middle.  It just has a little keyboard stuff going on.  It’s not really in the style of 3, but it is in the style of me, which I;m the voice of 3, right?  I sort of tied it together a little bit. But I thought I’m going to take a chance with this and put that song first.  I got to tell you, people respond to that song so well that no one has said, “Well, that’s wrong for an album from a band Keith Emerson was in”.  Nobody said that.  They all say, I really like that song.  I like everything about it”.  That chance of me saying that will be the first song actually paid off.  It could have backfired.  They could have said this doesn’t sound like anything Keith would have been involved in.  Throw it in the trash.  But people didn’t, so I feel fortunate about that.  But the first single, when they picked “A Fond Farewell” I thought, interesting.  I had the whole album ready to go.  I didn’t have a song that doesn’t have 7/4, an odd timing to it and goes from a 4/4 to a straight beat 7/4.  I don’t have one.  I need to have one on this album.  I need to have one on this album and get something with a little more complicated timing to it – and that’s the song I wrote last.  I put it together.  It was bout saying fond farewell to kindness, but I think the record company thought I was saying fond farewell to Keith and to the band 3 since I’s the last album there will ever be, which is fine.  Whatever they read into the song is fine, but it was more a comment about the internet and how people act these days.  There’s just not enough kindness.  And then I had an idea for a video and they said, “We hate that idea”. (laughs) I said, okay, what would you do?  They said, “Well, we have an idea,”  Okay, I’ll give it a try.  And, I’ve got to tell you, the video they did for “A Fond Farewell” was amazing.  The last man on earth; the space station up there blows up.  It was really something.  Again, I think I just lucked out.  The timing, the people liking the album and the record company – the support they gave me.  It just worked out.

What I liked a lot about the album was that you used your voice as an additional instrument.  You weren’t singing over the music.  Sometimes you’ll listen to a song that’s very lyrically heavy, or that’s the main emphasis.  There seems to be an even balance between the music and the lyricism.

I appreciate that.  For me, because I play so many instruments, I write so many songs, I worked with so many people, I like the perfect blend of – first of all, the lyrics need to have meaning, but I also want a chorus people can sing.  I know that’s not popular in progressive rock, but in my progressive rock it has that AOR element.  You could sing the chorus.  Then I want to have the blend between guitar and keyboards.  I like kind of a half and half.  I don’t want it all keyboard or all guitar. I give each thing a kind of a third in my mind.  I love to sing, I love to write positive lyrics, I love to play guitar and I love the keyboards.  And if you listen to the album that way – even the drums get their little feature in places.  I’m trying to give equal time to things like that part.  You picked up on that with the vocals too, which is nice.  It’s not just singing all the time.  It’s not just playing all the time.  There’s a little something for everybody.

 

 – Dave Weinthal