He Ain't Heavy...
Is heavy metal really all mouth and trousers, or is there music in there too? Gary Moore's keyboardsman discusses technology and the changing face of rock with Tim Goodyer - quietly.
The grand tradition of rock keyboard players dates back to the 60s, the Hammond organ and players like Graham Bond and Gary Brooker. Neil Carter, currently the keyboard player with Gary Moore, reveals things ain't what they used to be.
HEADS-DOWN, NO-NONSENSE, MINDLESS boogie - this is the stuff. Never mind yer intellectual minimalism, yer trendy jazz or yer arty-farty new age, let yer hair down and rock. A few beers, a larf with the boys and down to the front of the stage where the air guitars are out and the band are throwing some shapes - the old "one foot on the monitor" was always my favourite.
"We still do that one", says a sheepish Neil Carter, one hand hiding his eyes in embarrassment. Carter, currently the man behind the keys with Gary Moore's band, has taken advantage of a break from his hectic touring schedule for a short holiday - and an interview. Presently sitting in a busy London restaurant, we're trying to discuss the intricacies of rock 'n' roll over the sound of Miles Davis blaring from the in-house music system, I want to know all about powerchords and steaming Hammonds, I tell him.
"We don't have any steaming Hammonds", he replies. It seems that, even in rock, the times they are a changin'.
"The organ was a stalwart for many, many years", he concedes. "You're talking about Jon Lord, Rod Argent and people like that. When I joined Gary there was a lot more organ, it played the major part of what I did; songs Like 'Nuclear Attack' and a lot of the stuff from Corridors of Power relied on it. I mean, I took over from Don Airey so there was a lot of that conventional style of keyboard playing but, as time's gone on, we've done away with it.
"It comes down to the direction you want to take - if you want to carry on with the same old ideas and stay with the rock stereotype, do it, but Gary wants to get away from that and cross over to as large an audience as possible and that means broadening your horizons."
Before joining forces with Moore, Carter spent three years with British rockers UFO.
That followed a two-year stint with Wild Horses (formed by ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson and ex-Rainbow bass guitarist Jimmy Bain) - a fine pedigree for Moore's right-hand man. But I wondered what had become of the traditional role of the rock 'n' roll keyboard player.
"The problem is that it's difficult to define what makes a rock 'n' roll keyboard player", Carter ponders. "I don't really see keyboards as rock 'n' roll instruments and, certainly, the way we're using them isn't rock 'n' roll. I wouldn't even class Gary's music now as rock 'n' roll, it's rock but it's moving into the realms of people like U2 and Simple Minds. They have an edge that gives them a mass appeal and that edge is very important, it's still part of the music but it attracts a much wider audience than, say, Whitesnake.
"I think Gary would agree, it's his songs as much as his playing that people want to hear. The emphasis has shifted to encompass the charts because that's very important. Establishing a direction that involves a slight Irish influence and his guitar style is the way he wants to go. And I'm totally behind him, I love the music."
The music - currently an album entitled Wild Frontier and a single 'Friday on my Mind' - make unashamed use of the latest gimmickry the recording studio has to offer. On stage the drums are, of course live, but on record man and machine have worked side by side to create the rock heartbeat. Live too, sampling has become a lot more important.
"The pipes and the opening drum sequence on 'Over the Hills' are sampled into the Emax so I can play them live - without that we couldn't do it. There's me holding down a key on the Emax and the drummer playing along with that. There's also an a cappella vocal section in the middle. There are no tapes but then who knows, the way things are going at the moment anything could happen. I still think there's a very long way to go. There are new areas we can move into in music and that makes it more interesting for me.
"I think you've just got to drag everything up to this decade, it is very important."
In Carter's company, Moore's music has matured from the adolescent doodlings of Colosseum II and the bravado of Thin Lizzy, striking a balance between showmanship and good, old-fashioned tunes - not that the showmanship has been neglected, you understand.
"I love that side of it. I'll probably come over as a Philistine for saying it, but I do enjoy it. As a person I'm very insecure but I find the bigger the audience, the more I come into my own. I can't sit down and jam, but give me an audience of 20,000 people and that's what I enjoy.
"With rock you've not only got to worry about all the technicalities and the music, you've got to worry about what it takes to perform live - you've got to worry about your throat holding up, your appearance, relating to the audience... And all that is very important. With certain people I've worked with over the past few years I've felt rather out of my depth technically but, on the other hand, they couldn't do what I have to do. They may understand the technical side much better than me, they may even understand the playing side as well but I've got to perform. And out of the two, I know I'd rather do what I do. I'm not a muso by any stretch of the imagination, I do it because I enjoy it.
"We did some shows last year with Queen", he recalls with a grin, "there was Queen, Marillion, us and Level 42 and I was the only one without an Emulator II. Queen had two and Marillion had two — I was so depressed."
On a more serious note: "For this tour I wanted everything to look a lot more modern, up until now it hasn't really been necessary to carry loads of keyboards around. I don't like that old thing of having keyboards everywhere, I'm trying to break away from the stereotype image of rock keyboard players."
In pursuit of the modern image Carter names E-mu Systems' Emax as his main instrument.
"We did think about some other samplers but the Emax appealed to me more because it seemed more of a 'road' instrument - and it has been very reliable so far. For about ten minutes I looked at the Prophet 2000 but that went out the window, I looked at the Akai S900 and then someone suggested the Emax. I didn't even spend too long with it in the shop because you play through all the factory sounds and that means nothing. What I needed it for was sampling my own sounds so I just had to get it home and get on with it.
"It's so logical and easy to use, so user-friendly. When I go back to the Mirage with all its hexadecimals and Nyquist frequencies it's all so much hard work. I do it all by trial and error. With the Emax I read through the book, understood it and I was off. When you look at most of the musicians who are working with the bloody things you can't believe they understand or begin to want to understand about all these things. The Emax made so much sense to the musician in me. Either that or I'm being very naive. I can't take too much time out for the theory, at the time I had a hell of a lot to do in a very short time - a whole album's worth of stuff for the tour.
"I couldn't do without the Emax now. If I hadn't gone into sampling already it would have become absolutely essential anyway. Whenever he's recording, Gary likes to get as much as he can into a track, he likes to utilise a lot of different sounds so I then have to sift through them. You can't have the kitchen sink in there because there are limits to what you can physically do on stage, so I have to selectively go through and decide what's going to be the most useful. I suppose nearly 50% of the sounds I use live are sampled from the recording sessions. It isn't really poaching other people's sounds, all I want to do is to be able to reproduce what went down on record."
The Emax may be the most important instrument in Carter's setup but it's not getting things all its own way. For a start there's a Mirage to help with the sampling, an Elka Synthex to provide a few analogue textures, an old Korg Polysix and an even older Pearl electric keyboard ("a funny little electric piano with some very unusual sounds on that I can't find anywhere else; I don't know how many were made - they certainly don't make them any more").
"Alongside the Emax my main workhorse is the Synthex", he reveals. "It's a little bit coarse, it has a bit of an edge to it, and that really suits our needs. It's not the most ideal keyboard because, if you're somewhere like Paris and the thing goes down, getting another one is... Forget it, you can't get another one. Also it's getting old now and it's becoming less reliable and it's going to be very difficult to replace. But I like it, I like its sound. There are certain sounds on there that I can't find on anything else, I had a Prophet 5 for years that had a good space to it and I used it a lot, but the Elka's really nice by comparison."
Once the heat of touring dies down Carter hopes to rationalise this unlikely collection of instruments. Once again the key is sampling.
"My eventual plan is to get another Emax, sample all the other keyboard sounds into it and try and get away with just the two Emax's - or maybe two and one rackmounted one. If I could keep the old keyboards at home I could sample the sounds I need and then take the samplers out on the road. By and large everything is so worked out before we go out on the road I know exactly what I'm going to need. I very rarely have to change anything once the tour starts.
"The only reason for keeping the other keyboards at the moment is memory space; there are so many times during the set that I don't get time to load a new disk into the Emax, and there are so many sounds on so many songs. It's ridiculous. I'm often to be seen frantically changing disks mid-song."
By the time you read this, Gary Moore will have taken his show to the far East and Carter's thoughts will be on the show rather than on samplers. That's today's rock 'n' roll. Gone are the Hammonds, Solinas and Minimoogs of the '70s, replaced by the same hi-tech innovations that have revolutionised many other avenues of contemporary music. But Carter has a few words for those of you who're still dedicated Hammond fans:
"I've got a lovely Leslie at home", he says with a glint in his eye. "It's been modified: it's got JBLs in it and it's so loud and so present. I was using it live with a Korg BX3 up until the tour last year. If we ever went back to using the organ I'd get that out again."
Interview by Tim Goodyer
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!