Ray Shulman interview by Thomas Wictor
It was the high point of my career as a music journalist, the fulfilling of a life's ambition. Ray is my favorite bassist, and I'm extremely lucky to have spoken with him, even if it was only by telephone at 2:00 A. M. Los Angeles time.
My title of "Contributing Editor" meant nothing, really; I had no pull at the magazine at all, a point driven home when a couple of weeks after I turned in the article, the editor was replaced by a new guy who said that Gentle Giant was yesterday's news. I told him I had been assured that all articles in the can would be published.
"Tom," he chuckled, "that's what they always say. Never believe them. When the new editor comes in, he kills all the articles left over from his predecessor. That's just the way it is. If you don't like it, well, maybe you're not the sort of writer I can work with."
So the article was killed. I never had the courage to tell Ray myself.
This is the complete, unedited interview--every word. It's never been published. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed conducting it.
The unpublished interview
RS: Okay, I've got my coffee. Okay, you can start.
TW: Okay, let's see. I guess the first order of business is, could you tell me as much about your background as you think is relevant to Bass Player magazine.
RS: Um, okay. Now, how far do you want me to go back? [Laughs.]
TW: Sure. Well, I know you played violin, and from the album credits I know you've got a lot of musical brothers too. So are you from a musical family?
RS: Yeah. My dad was a trumpet player, a professional trumpet player. Um, let me get out of range of the computers here. Everything is crazy, unfortunately. Is that better?
TW: Yes, that's fine.
RS: Yeah. Um, my dad was a trumpet player, yeah. A kind of jazz trumpet player in a way, so it was always around. In fact, that was my first instrument, which I took up as a small boy. And, uh, probably the next was the guitar.
TW: So trumpet, guitar...
RS: And eventually the bass. In fact I played guitar in the first band, which was Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. That was with my brothers Derek and Phil.
TW: And this was in which part of Britain?
RS: This was in Portsmouth.
TW: And so the violin came along later?
RS: Oh, sorry, no. The violin was my second instrument after the trumpet. I'm sorry. I never did the violin in the band until Gentle Giant, really. And so my first instrument after the trumpet that I was classically trained on was the violin. And I probably took that through--well, what's the name of it--Grade Eight here. I don't know if you have Associated Board there or anything. We have kind of test levels of skill called Associated Boards and they come in grades.
TW: When you say classically trained, do you mean you were trained with the idea that you'd be a professional musician?
RS: That's why I did the violin initially. And I think that's one of those things that-- Once rock and roll comes into your life, that kind of goes out the window. [Laughs.] The first kind of idea was I was going to be a classical violinist. With the violin, there's just so many huge, huge hurdles, technically, to get across. You've gotta be absolutely dedicated to it. And once the idea of being in a kind of rock and roll band, a pop band, the whole idea of a classical life was not in it, was not really on.
TW: Well, it's so hard to condense all of this, and so much has already been written about Gentle Giant that I would assume you would find pretty rubbishy, just because people always seems to want to put words in your mouth.
RS: That's right.
TW: So, um, for example, it says here in this history of rock music in front of me, that you were "mathematically inclined art-rockers." Would you agree with that?
RS: No, not at all! What, you mean with Gentle Giant, you mean?
TW: Yes sir.
RS: No, not at all. Really, what happened was, the three of us, the three brothers, were in a pop band called Simon Dupree. We had quite a bit of chart success in England. I don't know what you'd call that kind of band. We started off as a kind of R&B band, in Simon Dupree, and went on to turn more into a pop band, just through management changes and a general change in direction. By the end of the sixties, we'd had a really quite big hit single called "Kites," and it kind of changed everything. And also the whole mood of the sixties was changing, obviously, toward the latter end of the sixties, where a lot of kind of exciting music came from America, especially from California. It's obvious that you can't help but be influenced here. It's obvious that we wanted a change, and we were lucky enough to have a manager who kind of sponsored us for a year, plus we made enough kind of out of the pop group to kind of take a year off and just kind of start again, really.
The most fortunate thing we probably found was actually getting Kerry, the keyboard player. That was probably the biggest revelation for us. And really the biggest change for us, because it was really like-minded people, and he just had had a very bad experience with a pop group that went to Germany and came back with no money, but before that, he came from the Royal Academy. He studied under a guy called Cornelius Cardew. He's pretty much like a John Cage type. He was his professor, and obviously influenced him in the more avant-garde type of music, and the whole idea of improvisation being part of music and different ideas just to set off creativity, whether it be putting a load of musicians in box, or you know what I mean? It was just a whole different way of thinking about the creation of music.
And so Kerry had that whole influence of Modern, and also another thing he studied was medieval music. He brought really those two things to us at a time when we were looking for any idea. And so it really brought us a credo of, "Whatever we want to do, let's just do it." So we eventually kind of... I don't know how it... It came about because we really weren't under the pressure to kind of make commercial music.
TW: So being commercial wasn't a priority?
RS: Well, unfortunately as the band goes on and you start to kind of do well, the pressure obviously came from record companies and managers to do better. That always meant to soften things up and not be so experimental. In retrospect, obviously you do at the time whatever you can to survive. Certainly there were compromises made.
TW: There is a definite evolution to your sound, comparing, say, In a Glass House to Interview.
RS: That's right.
TW: Which is the sort of approach you would prefer yourself?
RS: Well, um, probably the purest record in terms of our career was Acquiring the Taste, our second record. In terms of just experimentation and just being happy with the record that came out.
TW: Would that mean that that's one of your favorites?
RS: It is one of my favorites, yeah.
TW: That's interesting. From a bass player's standpoint, it seems that the work on In a Glass House or Octopus has the sort of... Okay, on In a Glass House, "The Runaway" is--to me--pretty much the apex of Gentle Giant from a bass player's standpoint.
TW: I was just wondering how important bass was to you. I mean, Acquiring the Taste doesn't have the same sorts of really fast, complex stuff you did later. Do you know what I'm trying to ask?
RS: Oh yeah. Yeah. I suppose it's probably a lot down to the drummer we were working with at the time too. We've just uncovered some tracks pre- to the first album, and I can really see now that the first drummer we had in Gentle Giant, Martin Smith, was really quite a jazzy drummer, and it's like, you know, quite a three-point type jazz drummer. And that's bound to have an influence. And by the time John Weathers was in the band, I think that intense a band was the real band. I think that's probably the drummer we always wanted.
TW: Everyone listens to Gentle Giant for different reasons.
TW: It sounds like the musicians in the band, you in particular, played the music for different reasons too.
RS: That's right!
TW: It's really fascinating that no can seem to agree what the music really means.
RS: Yeah, well, it was also really changing at that time too. That's why I find it so hard to kind of go back. People ask me about it, and obviously things that were going on in your life have an influence too. The decisions you made back then... I don't know, you probably wouldn't even recognize the reasons why you made those decisions.
TW: Well, we are talking more than twenty years ago, now.
RS: That's right.
TW: So it's probably unfair to demand an answer off the top of your head now.
RS: Yeah. And I've seen answers we gave in articles back then, and now I think, "No! It couldn't have been that. It was obviously something a lot more banal than that."
TW: Well, we writers are always looking for meaning in things, when maybe there wasn't one, other than--
RS: That's right. I mean, who knows? Maybe you could've just seen something that day or whatever. I don't know. Or also it could have been a pressure from outside that influenced something.
TW: Well, Gentle Giant disbanded in 1980, and in the intervening seventeen years, a myth has sort of grown up around the band. What's it like to be a part of that?
RS: Well, the weirdest thing is actually... Personally, it's flattering in only one way, that people remember the band. The rest of the time, it sort of inhibits-- Not inhibits, but... Well, it inhibits what you do as far as those fans go. I've even had one fan on the phone say to me, "What's it feel like to have your best work behind you?" I don't think he meant it in a spiteful way, but for him, my best work was behind me.
TW: Well, you've produced, you've played bass on other people's albums, and the diehard Gentle Giant fan would listen to [Ian McCulloch's] Candleland, for example, and say, "Where's the Ray Shulman I knew and loved?"
RS: That's right. It's just different, that's all. It's like... Everything's different. You like changes, and you just can't go backwards. I personally can't write music now like I did in Gentle Giant, because it's all about environment. You can't influence time. I've always found that you can't deny music that's happened. That's why music changes. Even when music is supposed to be retro, it's different. I don't particularly like retro music; I've never liked trad jazz because of that reason. Music changes and everything influences you. Some bands in Britain at the moment sound like some bands did twenty years ago. The music I like is new music, as long as it's been influenced by the last twenty years and doesn't deny the last twenty years.
TW: You understand that you're breaking the hearts of the diehard Gentle Giant fans, who are wondering when there's going to be a reunion.
RS: [Laughing.] Right.
TW: I mean, you do have your own life and you've moved on, but--
RS: That's right. I'm certainly in touch with Kerry. I speak with Kerry quite a lot. Obviously my brothers too. But for me there couldn't be a reunion because I couldn't do it. There's no reason why the others couldn't, because that's a personal choice of their own. I certainly couldn't make music like that again and I wouldn't want to, because for me it would be a lie.
TW: It would be a lie?
RS: Yes. For me, it would be a lie. I mean, we created original music, but as it got on toward the end of Gentle Giant, it got much more to do with commercial business. We were in a band and we had to maintain. Half the friction in the band toward the end was the whole idea that we had to maintain the type of group together, which maybe half the group didn't understand. It was probably why at that time, at the end of the band, I found I was getting a little resentful of my brother Derek who seemed to spend more time on the business than actually concentrating on his singing. But in retrospect, I realize that if he hadn't done that, there wouldn't have been a band, and so I've kind of softened toward his position at that time, even though at the time, toward the end of the band, it was very tense and a lot of friction was caused, because the energy seemed to be going in the wrong area, but when you look back, you think, "Hang on: He was dealing with the business of it, the business kept the band going, the business paid everybody's wages." So it's really funny to look back on it that way. And when you read that from a fan's point of view, they obviously don't ever see how things really were. I don't know. Things obviously seem a bit rosy to them.
TW: Well, one of the reasons I wanted to speak to you was because as a bass player, you played with a certain melodic and rhythmic sense that few others have. What I was wondering was--
RS: Yeah, you know, the weird thing is that I haven't really played-- Since the band finished, I've rarely played bass, because my interests really went back to composition. First of all, the first thing I did after the band--for a living--was to write music for TV commercials. And at the time, I had to learn a whole different bunch of skills, really. This was mostly writing to commissions and then later obviously into MIDI and computers. This was something I was really fascinated with, and the overall composition was really much more attractive to me than that single instrument.
TW: Blasphemy! Blasphemy!
RS: [Laughing.] I know, I know, I know! It's terrible. I do feel that way sometimes. It doesn't mean that I don't love live playing or anything, because I do. It's just what I'm interested in... I mean, to me... I got fascinated by the technology, fascinated by the... More to do with the overall composition and created it all myself than being an individual instrument. I've never really been into being a virtuoso of anything. I think it takes such a dedicated person to become a virtuoso.
TW: At your peak, playing bass for Gentle Giant, was it the sort of thing you had to really practice?
RS: It wasn't so much practice, because we played so much. We were always playing. Basically, when I composed in those days, I did it more from a guitar point of view than bass. Also playing in the band all the time... Also, you're around the people you're working with all the time. So you get that dedication anyway. The motivation is that you have to keep doing it because you're in a band. You make music all the time. Once you become on your own, then you decide, "Okay, I am a bass player." It was just kind of a life-choice of that time, really. I wanted to choose being more of an overall kind of composer.
TW: So can you talk about your career since 1980, then?
RS: The first thing I did was TV ads. I did a lot of commercials here, for all kinds of things. You know, obviously a load of rubbish, but good kinds of soundtrack stuff, you know, quite sound-scapey stuff. Did a couple in America for Nike. Air Jordan.
TW: Okay. You mentioned the MIDI technology.
TW: Well, what's that all about?
RS: What, you mean... Well, basically, that started to exist really at the beginning of the eighties. I forget when MIDI first came in. It was about '82, or something, wasn't it?
TW: Something like that.
RS: Yeah. And so when I realized what I could achieve on my own--at least through multi-tracking via MIDI--it just became a whole new exciting prospect.
TW: So at this point, that's what you're doing right now?
RS: No, in fact, from writing commercials I had a chance meeting with a person who actually went on to form One Little Indian Records, with the Sugercubes, etcetera. And I met him--he was just working as a tape op in the studio at that time. And we talked about... This was very much the start of the kind of indie scene in England too. A lot of kind of good noise bands were startin' to happen. A lot of good American... This is pre-Sub Pop and all that, when a lot of the bands started here and it started getting interesting in indie music. We just started making records with different projects and he had always wanted to start a record company, so I came in as an in-house producer, just for fun, not for... I didn't know what I wanted to do, so it was like, "Oh, yeah, we'll go and make a record. We've got some studio time, I'll go and make another record." And really what happened is that the Sugercubes record, which probably took about eighteen months because they were living in Iceland at the time, that record-- I played all over that one! [Laughs.] Played guitar and bass on that one. And it just took off here. Really ended up as quite a surprise. And then it did very well in America. I think they went on tour with Life's Too Good. I enjoyed the experience working with other musicians.
TW: So after the Sugarcubes--
RS: I did a band called the Sundays, who also did very well in America too.
TW: And you were playing on that as well as producing?
RS: No, on that one I just produced. And then Ian McCulloch, and lots of other kind of smaller acts.
TW: So is this what you do nowadays too?
RS: Nope. Nope. In fact, it seems I can usually do something for only about five years, and then it's either boring or... Certainly with production, I found it eventually unfulfilling. Really, because all you're doing a lot of the time is dealing with other people's work and encouraging them, which is obviously a very important job, but when you want to compose and when you want to play, it becomes frustrating. My kind of philosophy in production was I was making their record and not my record. I've always felt that. I don't particularly like producers' records. I've never liked the sound of producers' records. I've admired them. Obviously someone like Trevor Horn, you say, "God, the amount of skill he has, etcetera." I don't deny it. But it's never been the kind of record I wanted to make. I never wanted to impose-- I never wanted to make a Ray Shulman record with somebody else. The whole idea was to bring the best out of them, because that's what I expected a producer to do for us.
And also, it just might be that the thing that eventually turned me off production was spending the hours in the studio. You basically have to spend twelve, fourteen hours a day in the studio, weeks on end, and if you want a life outside that, it's like, ah, it's very hard. It's very difficult. And so really I gave up producing to start doing audio for computer games, which is like an avenue where I can-- It's a dramatic kind of music-writing la film. And there are certain obviously technical requirements that you have to learn as far as the way computer imagery is generated. And that's what I'm up to at the moment.
TW: Audio for computer games?
RS: Yeah. In fact I have a company called Orinoco Sound Source. I work mostly out of a studio called Orinoco, with a partner, and we've done a lot of audio. In fact, a lot of speech; we have a troupe of actors we use and we have sound effects people.
TW: Boy, that's just about as far as you can get from being a bassist in a rock band in the seventies.
RS: That's right. I do a lot of the composition, which is both... Because now, they've got... Computer games have proper cut scenes and proper animation. That's one of the reasons I like it. It's like little exercises. It's like film music on one hand and in-game music on the other, which has to be a whole different mood setting.
TW: I've spoken to several people I consider to be the bass giants who are no longer playing, and I always get a little twinge. I always want to yell "Pick up your instrument, you!"
RS: [Laughs.] I know, I know! In fact, other people give me shit for it too! [Laughs.]
TW: Well, I guess no one has any right to tell someone else how to live their life.
RS: No, no. And it's hard to know... I'm not sure... It wasn't that conscious either. Decisions aren't that conscious, are they? They happen over time. They happen by accident. And then you haven't picked it up for six months, because you're doing other things. You're playing keyboards all the time or you're programming, and it just happens, and you go, "Wow, I haven't... The bass has been in the closet for... Oh dear!" Also because you're not playing with anybody. The bass is meant to be played in an ensemble, and I haven't played in an ensemble. And also people forget the kind of... I haven't played in an ensemble since Gentle Giant. Maybe on one or two occasions I played live with somebody. But that's another... When you think that it's been, you know, I suppose whatever it's been--seventeen years--since I've played in any kind of ensemble. There's no reason to play the bass. It's not a particularly good instrument to play in isolation.
TW: I would assume that hearing "Why don't you go back and give us more of what we want from you" might get kind of tiring, even if it's well intentioned.
RS: Well, because, I mean, also... Because they're... Another thing about having a fan base to a certain extent is that they feel they want to put pressure on you, yet they forget that at the time you were creating the music, you ignored all pressure on you. The whole thing was to ignore every kind of pressure so you could try as best you could to make it pure and just do what you felt like doing. You never listened to anyone who said, "Why don't you make a record more like the second record, the one I liked?" You have to ignore that. You can't listen to one voice. You've gotta always trust yourself. So it's hard to take now, even though I do understand it, of course. I'm very flattered by it, but it wouldn't be something where I... I'd never kind of heed what people say; you do what you think.
TW: I interviewed a bassist once who no longer plays, and when I asked him why not, he said, "The music's out there. If people want to listen to it, they can buy it. It exists."
RS: That's right. It exists. You can't reinvent it. That's why I'm saying how can you go back? How can you? I'm living a different life now. I'm not living with those people who I created music with. That's essential. That's another thing: You have to be living with the people you create a band with. In fact, the way the band went, the way we kind of started living separately in different countries toward the end of the band, of course it influenced it. It didn't influence it in a good way. That's why the purer albums were at the beginning, when you had to live with each other. You had to kind of take care of each other. That's what makes a band. That's true of all bands, isn't it? The better you do and then it suddenly splits up. People are going to have different families and different responsibilities to those families who want to live somewhere else. You're no longer in each other's pockets. A proper band has to be in each other's pockets. You have to live together.
TW: I guess we forget that the people making the machines are human beings.
RS: That's right.
TW: They're not just machines that you just plug in to make pretty music for us.
RS: [Laughs.] No! That's right.
TW: The composing you do now, is it incidental music or actual songs?
RS: No, it's not songs. It's very much filmic. It's really like film-score music. But the great thing about that is that it can be any style. It can be quite stylized. That's the great thing about it. You get to write all kinds of music. I've made techno records. I like techno music.
TW: That's interesting. I mean, it's not--
RS: [Laughs.] I know! It's not particularly bass-playing. It's all synthesized.
TW: Well, okay, can you-- I mean, I know I keep harping on the same thing, but I am writing for a bass magazine.
RS: Yeah, I know.
TW: So the bass that you played with Gentle Giant, when some up-and-coming young kid listens to it who's never heard it before, he might be totally blown away.
TW: The bass you played for this band was quite unique, I think, and one wonders, um, how did that come about? Was there anything you did specifically?
RS: I don't... I'm not sure how the... Let's see--
TW: Did you ever sit down and say, "I'm gonna play something that nobody else has ever played before."?
RS: No. Absolutely not. No. No. No. Most things were just like the way you think and the way you interpret music. And you have to... It's not a conscious thing where you say, "Oh, I'm gonna write a kind of perverse bass line here." I mean... It breaks into two as well in the band. Some bass parts, or some parts of bass parts, were pure left hand of Kerry.
TW: Oh really?
RS: Yeah. Some of them. You have to say, yes, they were. And likewise myself. They were my left hand parts. And then you've written the other bits as counterpoints. That's the way we were thinking at the time. Very much into a kind of... You know, playing with different times and different rhythms. And the bass was just all part of that. It was never just an anchor part. It was never meant to be just an anchor. It was just another part. We didn't think of it in terms of a bass guitar, particularly, it was just the bass part. That's the way I approached it in my own compositions too.
TW: This was a very heavily orchestrated band, wasn't it, with lots of doubling of parts.
RS: That's right.
TW: Well, technically, it would be harder to play those parts on a bass guitar than other instruments, wouldn't it? I mean, I've learned some of them, and the fingerings are unbelievably hard sometimes.
RS: Oh, well, I think the violin probably helped even though it has a different intonation. In fact, the violin, just in terms of technique, was very useful. More in dexterity than anything else. I know, the violin's in fifths and the bass is in fourths, but as far as technique goes, the violin was very helpful.
TW: Well, when I play some of those parts, it seems like there's a lot of almost like Barre chords.
RS: That's right.
TW: It just seems like these parts were very carefully thought out.
RS: Well, they were... It's... I don't know. It's hard to remember. I mean, they were very carefully thought out, but it wasn't like I suffered over it or anything. It's funny because it's hard to even think of my favorite bass players at that time. I've always liked kind of, all bass players! [Laughs.] I love Chuck Rainey and the people who played on Aretha's records. I mean, that's bass-playing. But it wasn't what I did.
TW: Well, it's good that your point of view come out.
RS: Well, I would never want to deny... I mean, I love virtuosity. Someone like Stanley Clarke or Jaco [Pastorius], God rest him. Of course they're unbelievable and you're kind of awestruck at that technique, but it's never interested me to become a virtuoso.
TW: And yet some people would say you have.
RS: I don't think so at all, really, and that's not being modest. It's being realistic. I think it was never quite in the band to be that, and perhaps if we'd have been that, we would've carried on. There again, people don't understand the pressure from the record companies. When they saw that--particularly toward the end--when they saw that bands like Genesis and Yes getting quite massive, the pressure was certainly on the business side for us to do the same. And I don't think it was ever possible for our music... The more it was compromised, the more was taken away from it. We didn't do songs, particularly. We did pieces of music. There again, I'm talking from now, and I understand it now, but at the time I didn't. Everything became life threatening and serious at the time. It was a matter of survival. You know, "Are we going to make another record? Can we keep the band going for six more months?" Stuff like that. It's so hard to talk about it now with any kind of... [Blows out loud puff of air.] Pfffffffffff! [Long pause.]
TW: Any kind of...?
RS: [Laughs.] Bit foggy. But you know, just trying to be realistic about how it was. You know, it's easy to be rosy and "Oh, yes, we were making this lovely music together and it was great." Well, sometimes it wasn't. The pressure was there. "We just can't make another record like we made in the first four," or whatever. "These have to be tempered with radio play," etcetera, etcetera. Which was, especially toward the end of the seventies, becoming a lot more AOR orientated. It was until punk shook it up, you know.
TW: Well, it doesn't sound like it was a particularly sad thing that the band stopped when it did.
RS: No. No. It seemed to be right. You know, "This will be our last tour." We didn't kind of just fizzle out. We said, "We'll do one more tour." And I really loved it, and I loved touring, etcetera. I really did. But I haven't toured since. That's another thing. I haven't really played live and I haven't toured since and I haven't missed it a bit. But I loved doing it at the time. And I'd never deny that.
TW: Well, they'll want a current photo of you at some point for this article.
RS: Ooooh! Okay. [Laughs.]
TW: So do you have that old bass in the closet anywhere? [Laughs.]
RS: Uh, I do. It's certainly there.
TW: So what they'll do is, my art director will have a photographer contact you. So they like to have the bass in there. Um, Roy Orbison's bass player, for example, is a tavern owner and he hasn't played for years, so they sort of put the bass on the bar in front of him.
RS: Right. Okay.
TW: It's not like you have to pose or anything. You don't have to put on your bell-bottoms and jump up on the table or anything.
RS: I'll lay it across the keyboard.
TW: Perfect. Well, um, I guess that's about it.
RS: Well, hopefully it'll make sense in the morning.
TW: It makes absolute sense. I hope I didn't stir up any old ghosts or anything.
RS: No, no, not at all.
TW: Well, thanks a lot, then, and I'll send you some copies when it comes out.
RS: Thanks a lot, Tom. 'Bye.