Melody Maker interview 1976
An interview from Melody Maker magazine, May 8 1976. Written by Harry Doherty. Submitted by Patrick Little.
Returning home to England has always been a bit of a comedown for Gentle Giant.
Across the world they're acclaimed as a major rock act. In America and Europe, they play in front thousands, score hit albums and create a fuss generally reserved for 'stars.' At home, they struggle in comparison. It was down to playing at yer [sic] University of East Anglias and not even managing to fill 1,000-capacity halls. Records weren't selling as many as the quality dictated they should. Gentle Giant were decidedly Second Division without too much hope of promotion.
A decision was made to concentrate on the home market, even to compromise if that was needed to break it. The band's last album, Free Hand, did healthy business and a short tour towards the end of last year attracted fairly large audiences, who went away happy with what they'd seen and heard. The tide, it seemed, had turned.
And now Giant are back again, quietly confident that they'll crack Britain once and for all. The band has been on the go for six years now but has played only two major tours in Britain prior to the current one, a surprisingly sparse run on native soil for such a hard-working unit.
Gentle Giant - Derek Shulman (vocals, saxes), Ray Shulman (bass, violin), Gary Green (guitars), Kerry Minnear (keyboards), and John Weathers (drums) - are the first to admit that the lack of attention paid to Britain is a prime reason for their relative obscurity here.
From the start, Giant explored their strengths, and work in Britain was not one of them. They struck gold in places like Italy, Germany, and then Canada. Through the Italian and German successes they branched out into other European countries and through Canada, they managed - as Nazareth did recently - to find a substantial market in America.
'We really kind of neglected England,' said Derek Shulman. 'We realise now that that was the wrong thing to do. England has remained the most important country of all to break in. People still look to the charts here and measure an act's success from how well they're doing.'
But there were also other reasons for Giant's meagre acceptance here. An outstanding one was that the band was imageless. While bands like Yes and Genesis were hailed for their intricate musicianship and presentation, Giant, in the same bag, were given the cold shoulder.
Though they were acknowledged as a band of competent and sophisticated musicians who 'did what they did well,' the critical reaction to them and their work has rarely been more than lukewarm.
Derek Shulman agreed. 'Yeah, we haven't sort of figured in any mass appeal as such in the past. We haven't put ourselves out on a limb and said "Here we are". There is no real image to back it up. It's our music basically. Simply, we're not into that hyped up bullsh*t thing. We're down-to-earth musicians and that's basically why it's harder to get our sort of thing across.'
'If we were banging our heads against a brick wall, we'd still continue to try and put over our stuff to the people.'
But acceptance in Britain has meant that Giant have had to come to terms with what audiences here expect and have to attempt to reach such a position without totally losing sight of what the original concept of the band is about - musicianship.
They had to strike a balance whereby they could still feel musically satisfied and find commercial success.
[Derek:] "I think there was probably more of an unconscious, rather than conscious, effort to do that. We've been playing a lot on stage and that's one of the reasons we're successful.
"We've been creating a lot more rapport with audiences so we unconsciously have that feeling of stage feedback when we record. That came across on Free Hand, which was much more raunchy than anything we'd ever done.
"Even more so on Interview, the new one, because when we recorded that we still had this adrenalin thing of doing a tour in our systems.
"We started to find that we were writing on a level where you're satisfying yourself musically and also satisfying other needs for mass acceptance. That means that we were coming up with melodic lines that would be instantly recognised by 13- and 14-year-olds who wouldn't want anything deeper.
"Things started to work on various surfaces. There was the top one, which is the instant chart song thing; a deeper surface, which has the melodic appeal; and an even deeper one, where things could be worked on.
"We've got to the stage now where we can do an instantly recognisable melodic thing which lots of people can identify with.
"That situation only happens in England. Bands like Yes and ourselves and ELP are quite strict musical bands. The music is structured rather than very loose but it is still very emotional.
"That's probably why we've been put in the same bag as Yes but over the past three years, since John (Weathers) has joined, we've developed a total direction of our own. We've integrated all our personal styles into what makes, I think, Gentle Giant unique."
Shulman explained that this uniqueness stemmed from the varying backgrounds of the band members. Kerry Minnear had a strict classical background, possessing as he does, a degree of music from the Royal Academy of Music; brother Ray was also a trained classical musician with an interest in jazz; Gary Green was into the blues; Weathers was funk and Shulman himself was into rock.
"It would be nice to be recognised as a major force in your own country," he says. "We've just come back from Europe and we're a big deal over there but here it's like the 'Gentle who?' bit. We can live with that and decide to do something to change matters."
To Shulman, Interview represents the changes in Giant. There is, he feels, a lot more melody and no over- indulgences.
"Before Free Hand, we stepped back and reappraised ourselves and decided that we would have to use more melody to be both happy with what we do and for people to accept us on the level we want to be accepted on.
"People will hear things now and think they're nice first time, whereas there were times when we'd say 'well, listen to it three or four times and see what you think.' "We've also never been content to go out and say 'here's our music and if you don't like it, tough luck.' We enjoy performing. England has been a bit loth in the past to accept things like putting on a good show.
"It generally resented the fact that we were putting on a show and preferred to accept that if you were in jeans and a t-shirt, you were into your music.
"We've always put on a good show. It's a part of the whole structure of what we are about.
"We'll keep hammering on and trying to get through to people. It would have been easy to say 'here's an album, we'll do one show to promote and then concentrate on Europe.'
"That was suggested to us, but we said 'no', we want to do the whole bit.
"You see, I don't think many people know us. That's the trouble. It's really strange. After six years, we still feel like a new band here."