Procol Harum

the Pale

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Interview with Matthew Fisher

Thanks to e-mail, and Marcelo Pereira

Marcelo Pereira:
30 or 31 years ago, the concept of a quick 'evolution' or 'progression' was dominating a great part of the rock scene in the USA and England. Month by month, new albums were 'steps forward', explored new territories, showed new ways of working in the studio, introduced new sounds, etc. It looked like staying-the-same was a capital sin. A few years after, some groups still tried to be 'progressive' (and continued to do so for a long time), but the notion of a general 'evolution' of rock faded away. What do you remember about that feeling of 'going further' constantly? When and why do you think that 'movement' reached its limits?

Matthew Fisher:
I was never that interested in 'progressive music'. The only experimental music that I really enjoyed was the later Beatles albums. I personally never tried to be 'progressive', I just had a certain way of playing and was simply mixing my influences (Pop, R&B, Jazz, Classical, Blues, etc.)

Though Procol Harum is generally considered a precursor of 'symphonic' or 'progressive' rock, I think the band always had one foot firmly on R&B, and that made a great difference. In fact, one of the most surprising things in Procol was the combination of some virtues that seldom appear together. Was that a result of tensions among individuals, or a collective and conscious effort to assemble this and that, in the service of a global outcome?

I don't remember any tensions as far as the music was concerned. We all liked the way the other members of the band played and each contributed what they could. The R&B thing was probably what we all had in common, and was inevitable with Gary being the singer! I think all the while Rob and I were both in the band, we just 'did our thing'. I think the trouble with our respective replacements was that they were too worried about 'playing in a Procol style'. Rob and I didn't have to worry about that because we defined the style!

With all the due respect to other musicians, I think that the original organ and guitar sound of Procol couldn't be 'replaced', nor could the band, in my opinion, 'replace' the contribution you and Trower made to the musical decisions, beyond 'playing your parts'. Looking back, and leaving aside the details and incidents, do you think that Procol lost original members when the 'musical balance' couldn't be kept, or, on the contrary, that 'musical balance' was a victim of the departures?

Hmmm. I think I've more or less answered that one already. I think the 'musical balance' just resulted from the respect we had for each other and the material. For instance, neither I nor Rob played on the track A Salty Dog. This wasn't because we didn't like the song (far from it) but because we honestly felt there was nothing we could add that wouldn't 'take away' from what was already there.

When it came to making musical decisions, was there a 'democracy' or a 'hierarchy' in the band?

Not exactly a hierarchy. I suppose Dave and BJ didn't hold as much influence as the other three, but that was only because they didn't seem to want to. Musically Procol was a democracy all the while I was in it.

Did all members share the profits equally (leaving aside that problem of the song credits), or were some members paid by other members?

The trouble was that all the while I was in the band, there were no profits! The band had a succession of useless managers and that situation didn't improve until they signed with Chrysalis, which was way after my time. During my time in the band I believe such profits as there were, were split equally. However, the income from songs (particularly WSoP) made these amounts insignificant.

Is it true that you were about to rejoin the band some time after leaving, and finally didn't? If it's true, what happened?

I had a few problems with Procol around that time, concerning a Hammond organ which I'd lent them and which they had lost and also the matter of my producer's royalties for the Salty Dog album, which they weren't paying.

From Home to Something Magic, did you ever listen to some Procol song and think: 'I would really have liked to play it, I would have played this instead of that'? (You should know that many of us, fans, have dreamed of hearing you play in those records).

I think Home came out pretty well, because Rob 'expanded' to fill the gap that might have resulted from my departure. I personally don't miss me on that record! All the same, I'm not very familiar with those albums. We've played some of the songs on stage and I deliberately didn't listen to the recorded versions until I'd worked out a part to play. So rather than say I wish I'd played on the recordings, I can say I enjoy playing songs like Grand Hotel, Whaling Stories, Strong as Samson, New Lamps for Old, Nothing But the Truth, Piggy Pig Pig etc. (I'd love to play The Dead Man's Dream, but Gary can't remember how it goes!) I've no idea what I might have played had I been in the group at the time, though.

I have read that your participation in The Prodigal Stranger wasn't really like being a member of a group, but something like being a guest composer and player (much more involved than Trower, but a guest anyway), on a project that began without you. How do you feel about that album?

That's not quite accurate. I was very involved, although I didn't see all the tracks from their inception. My feeling is not that I didn't feel like a member of a group as much as it just wasn't a group. If the album sounds a bit too 'produced' I expect I'm as much to blame as anyone for that. With the benefit of hindsight I wouldn't want to do another album that way.

Would you like to work again with Brooker and Reid? If it were your decision, how would you like to do it?

On the one hand I like working with Keith and Gary. However, there are only 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year and I'm not as young as I used to be! I have to think carefully before I commit myself to anything that will take up a large chunk of my precious time. Another problem with Keith and Gary is that they regard Procol as their own pet project and don't really give too much away. I've no idea how many copies Prodigal Stranger sold, what advance they received, how much the album cost to produce, etc. Musically, I was strongly involved in the album, but from a business point of view I was an outsider. Of course, I wouldn't have had the necessary funds to invest in the project, but then there are historical reasons for that!

From a strictly musical point of view, I suppose I wouldn't mind working on another Procol album if it could be more like a 'real band' (the way it used to be). However, there is more than just the music to consider ....

Thanks, Marcelo!

Marcelo writes for the Uruguayan weekly, Brecha, on politics and occasionally music. Read his wonderful Procol Harum feature, A Romance at a Distance, written specially for 'Beyond the Pale'

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