Kerry Minnear: Keyboardist / Composer For Gentle Giant

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Kerry Minnear is the keyboardist for Gentle Giant, a British group who, since their forming in 1970, have gained recognition as one of the foremost arranged bands to come out of England in the last decade. Their success hasn’t been as widespread as that of ELP or Yes, yet Gentle Giant’s music, with its frighteningly tight Webern-like harmonic structures and textures coupled with English Renaissance and contemporary rock influences, continues to amaze those who have taken the time to listen.

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The 28-year-old Minnear got his first taste of the rock scene after his graduation from The Royal Academy of Music in London when he joined a German-based band called Rust. As he recalls, "It was awful. I joined purely on trust, because I was green. When I got there I found they couldn’t play. And I did the first gig by ear—they just told me what tunes the keys were in." He left after four months.

Upon his return to England, Minnear was quickly enlisted by vocalist Derek Schulman and his bassist/violinist brother Ray, who had just quit a singles group called Simon Dupree And The Big Sound, to form what was to become Gentle Giant. Since that forming, Minnear has co-authored all the band's material with the Schulman brothers, and has added his own unique style of keyboard playing to the Gentle Giant sound.

Today Gentle Giant consists of Derek Schulman (vocal, bass, lyrics), Ray Schulman (bass, violin, vocals), John Weathers (drums), Gary Green (Guitars), and of course Kerry Minnear. It is only recently, after a total of seven album releases (Gentle Giant; Acquiring the Taste; Three Friends; In a Glass House; Octopus; The Power and The Glory; and Free Hand), that Minnear and Gentle Giant are gaining the wide acceptance that they so richly deserve.

How did you get started in music?
When I was seven, my parents began to pay for me to have piano lessons. But I was a typical student at that age in that I showed no interest, really. I never practice during the week, except for about an hour before my teacher came so it wouldn’t sound as bad as the last week. That went on until I was about fifteen, when I needed and extra O-level, what we call Ordinary-level exam, in order to go in another two years at the same school. So I thought I'd cover myself from any failures I might have in the regular courses, science and the like, by taking music, which I found quite easy. I got very involved in it.

Was the piano the only instrument you were playing?
I had about a month's worth of cello lessons, but piano was my only instrument as such. However, from age 16 to age 18, I was playing timpani in the orchestra at school. That was how I got introduced to most of the music I love—orchestral music. A timpanist quite often has a lot of bars to count before he comes in, and during these bars you can get a good look at orchestration just by observing the things that are going on around you. I suppose that was quite important to me. Anyway, I wanted to go to the Royal Academy of Music in London and take timpani or tuned percussion as my first study. So I went to be interviewed and took some compositions along to back me up in case I flopped something because of nerves. The interviewers decided I didn't want to be a professional timpanist and that it would be a much better idea if composition was my major. So that's what I did. For 3 years I took harmony, counterpoint, and composition as first studies, and second studies of piano and tuned percussion. That was really a complete reverse of what I'd had in mind. They're pretty good that way. They see the potential in you, and steer you in the proper direction, rather than the one your ambition might steer you in. From talking to music students in the States, I've found that the American attitude is more lax than the English when it comes to directing students. A student can pretty much take any direction they want. That can be good in ways, but at that age, ideas aren't that clear, and very often it can be more confusing than anything else.

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Who are some of your favorite composers?
I'm a bit stuffy, actually. My main loves are Romantics and Pre-Romantics, although I do like some contemporary. I suppose you name him and I will like something by him. If you take any composer, there are going to be things by him that don't impress you as much as others. I like the English composers very much. Elgar, Vaughan-Williams—pretty conventional contemporary writers. I do like Tchaikovsky, I'm afraid, and also Bach and Handel, all kinds of folks.

Do you listen to rock and contemporary groups?
Groups? I don’t get much of a chance to listen to them. We don’t get much free time to sit at home. For instance, we had four days off after one tour, and the last thing I wanted to do was sit down and barrage my ears with music. So really, is not fair for me to say anything except that I respect other arranged bands like Frank Zappa's band, at least some of their work; also Chick Corea, and other players who are extremely good at what they do. All the usual people that respectable musicians should like. But I don’t think there's anybody I would go out of my way to buy records of. I find that there's so much classical music that I want to listen to that if I do get any spare time, it's usually dedicated to that.

What equipment are you using now?
Well, I've got four keyboards immediately surrounding me. There is a Wurlitzer electric piano, which will shortly be replaced by a Rhodes, and on top of that is a Hohner Clavinet. This, of course, causes problems, because there's a transformer in the Wurlitzer and the Clavinet is renowned for its ability to pick up just about anything. So there's a bit of buzz that comes from this combination. Then underneath that, I usually hire either a Hammond C-3 or B-3, and I have a Minimoog on my right.

How do you treat the Minimoog?
I tend to use it more as another instrument than as a Minimoog. I'm not particularly a specialist in freaky sounds. So I try to find a sound that is suitable for the passage that I want to play. That's just a general attitude have towards synthesizers. It's just one more interesting sound that is still very useful in a musical way, as opposed to in a soloing way.

And the Clavinet?
Well, I have this system where if I've heard of a new instrument, I hire it for a session in the studio. Then we make a decision on whether it's worth getting one or not. I hired a Clavinet for something in The Power and The Glory. I liked it because it was so clear. I didn’t know how the pins were then. I mean, the Clavinet works on the principle of hammering the strings down on a pad, and the things between the keys and the strings are made of thin metal. They can bend very easily. This can cause you to get some very dull notes because the string isn’t being struck right. So before each gig I have to do a complete overhaul on the instrument. It's a bit of a nuisance, but it's the clearest of all the keyboards. It can cut through the worst row on stage, which is something I've always wanted as a keyboard player. Early keyboards have suffered from mediocre tone, especially at high volume. You get swallowed up by everybody's overtones. The Clavinet will cut through that, though. I tend to use it as a harpsichord, rather than in the funky fashion. What I'm taking to lately is duplicating what I play on the piano, which is situated just under the Clavinet, to get a combination of the two. There's a tuning discrepancy that thickens things out a bit too, which I like.

The Hammond?
Up until now, I treated that a little sparsely, because I haven't had a decent organ sound on stage. I've always avoided it whenever possible. But I just discovered with a Leslie tapped by a mike on stage I can get a pretty good monitor sound, with the Leslie sound as well.

Do you use any other amps besides the Leslie?
We're going to revise the keyboard setup, trying to simplify it and improve it at the same time. I just tried some Peavey amps and they seemed to work rather well. I might turn to them in the future. But at present, I'm using Marshall amps to monitor the organ and a British make of amp called H&H for the other keyboards. The speakers are Electro-Voice. All of it direct-feeds into the PA, but for the stage there are two 4x12 cabinets. One of the things we have to improve is our stage monitoring. I don’t get to hear much of what Gary Green is doing. The only time we ever hear each other is when somebody makes a 'live' recording.

Are there any plans to do a 'live' album?
The idea of sacrificing the opportunity to release new material for something that we've been playing for several months seems a little dull and premature. We might eventually put out a double album, where half of it would be 'live' and half studio. But we treat the two things totally differently. We feel people go to see a group 'live' to be entertained, whereas on record you can get a way with a lot of contrast. If you have too much contrast 'live', it can become rather weary for your audience. You have to balance the mood throughout the act so you're actually building something, or lulling, or just doing something positive.

Do you have a favorite instrument?
The grand piano is my favorite keyboard. What I'd like to do is get some bobkin, a whiz kid, to build a thing that would let me sit there on stage with a grand piano and make all the other instruments sound from the piano's keyboard. Simplicity is what I am after. I don’t want to do what Wakeman is doing, which is having a dozen or more keyboards and the kitchen sink at hand. With all those keyboards you usually get one technical problem every gig. That is something you don’t want while you're on stage playing music.

You used to play a Mellotron?
Yes, but I ditched it mainly because of its poor quality workmanship. Some bands get away with using them, but I find the tuning discrepancy and the lack of tonal equality in the upper range of the keyboards is just too much to bear. Also, 'live', we tend not to have those lulls where the Mellotron takes over and gives the rest of the band a break. You know what I mean—those big fat chords, ethereal pauses, and the dim lighting. We haven’t got any sections like that, so really, it was a very big thing being lugged around just to support the Moog. Yeah, we had ideas of having custom-built tapes and all the usual things people think about when they got Mellotrons, but we got rid of it anyway. I think they've got very poor quality heads, so you finish up with an instrument that spends most of its time in the shop being fixed. They're alright in a studio, in any static position, but when you take them out in the road it's horrible. You tune up the rest of the group with some notes and then others are out. When you try to tune at a compromise it's not good enough. The road is frustrating that way. It not only does things to your instruments, but where technique and ability are concerned, they go off on different tangents. It's limiting, really.

What kind of practicing do you get to do while you're on the road?
If the roadies remember, they put a dummy keyboard in the dressing room that I can limber up on. All I do then is some awkward exercises, trying to get coordination and the fingers to work in different ways. Contrary-motion scales and things like that, that I think I've forgotten. My warm-up is really based in the fact that I want to be able to play what I think, as soon as I think of it. It's the essence of jazz, although I don’t actually play anything very jazzy. I think it's important that if you get an inspiration onstage, you be able to just play it, without worrying too much about transferring it from your mind to your fingers.

Do you do more than those exercises when you're at home?
Yes. I tend to sit for a long time with a tape recorder on, and just keep playing anything that comes into my head. Any mood that happens, I make the best of. And that's how I write. For instance, after a tour, we normally get about two months to write, rehearse, and record an album—Free Hand took seven weeks from the moment we knew we had to make it until it was complete. What I do is just sit at the piano for an hour and a half to two hours, never longer because the sound of the piano becomes very dull on the ear. If you try to keep bashing away for long periods you finish up with this sort of colorless noise in the background, and suddenly you realize you're making it yourself. It's time to go out for a drink or something. But playing like that is probably the best fun I have. John Evan (Jethro Tull's keyboardist) does the same thing. I think it's the most pleasure both of us get, I mean, when we're on our own not trying to impress anybody, just relaxing and enjoying playing. You know, I find that it's expected of me as keyboardist to be somewhat flamboyant and show off occasionally. It seems totally wrong. I get a lot of pleasure from just playing drivel sometimes.

Much of the Gentle Giant's music seems to let everyone in the band "show off" at the same time. Is that a conscious effort?
It is, in that the original arrangement allows for that. If a song is written with certain section, the mood is chosen first by the writer. Then he gives us the parts. If I’ve written it, I'll give out the guitar part to Gary Green as I hear it, the bass part to Ray, try to get the right feel on the drums for John Weathers, and the vocals we leave until last. It's normally a question of reproducing what the inspiration was. After a few plays through, they start adding their own little quirks to what I have given them, so we end up with something slightly different than I intended. But that's good because we are a group and not an orchestra. We're not there to play somebody else's music, we're all a part of it. So if I write a song, I'm quite prepared for it to finish up with a completely different feel on the records than it had on my tape recorder. That's why, I suppose, it sounds to a degree like everyone is showing off. They're really playing their own part in their own way. We know it will all fit together, because it was originally constructed in quite a rigid way by one person. It gives us the freedom to move within a certain section, a certain number of notes.

What techniques do you use in recording?
We normally play the tracks through as a group, and then add the overdubs later. But we use a strategy in that we haven’t over-rehearsed. John as a drummer, for instance, is quite keen on the idea that he shouldn’t have heard the numbers too much before he goes into the studio. This is so he doesn’t start premeditating his breaks and losing the excitement of the music. It's a bit vague, but we know how many bars there are at this tempo and that. If John wants to add a cross-rhythm, Gary and I will play along on guitars and keyboards and that will go on a tracer track, which would be rubbed off at the mix-down.

Does this approach of not over-rehearsing reflect any interest in freeform music?
Free form is not something that I have a great deal of interest in—not free form from the word go, where something might happen or might not. When it does it's great, but it seems a waste to sit for three quarters of an hour waiting for five minutes' worth of something that really works. If you're on your own it's great fun, but to perform that kind of thing is a bit suspicious. So when we construct our music, it's got a rigid foundation. We can express our own part in our own way. I just have to accept the fact that things are going to come out different than they were originally intended. It's in the nature of the way we work.

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