Home / INTERVIEWS / Interview: Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Rhapsody in Color, DNA in Light

Interview: Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Rhapsody in Color, DNA in Light

“It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise… And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. (George Gershwin, “Rhapsody in Blue”) [quote]

George Gershwin spoke of seeing musical notes in color, as did Franz Liszt, Rimsy-Korsakav, Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder and Tori Amos. Artist Wassily Kandinsky said he painted what he heard. David Hockney based the background colors and lighting design for sets of Broadway musicals while listening to the actual arrangements. So it’s of little surprise in catching up with Carl Palmer, the iconic drummer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer/Asia fame, that he speaks of a very similar creative process.

Performers with a propensity for the canvas have become increasingly popular in recent years. The connection between music and art seems quite natural, and when done well, makes for an incredible process.

But Carl Palmer does not use paint, he uses sound and light.

I caught up with the legendary drummer as he was loading up his tour van with his band-mates. For his stature in rock ‘n’ roll, Palmer is refreshingly humble. A polite Englishman from Birmingham, he hops on every question with ease and enthusiasm. I feel as if I’m speaking with an old friend. Not entirely what one might envision watching old footage of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s extravagant concerts with their elaborate staging; Grand pianos, Persian carpets and Palmer’s signature stainless steel drum-kit which rotated 360 degrees, boasting an old church bell from the Stepney district of London, as well as giant Chinese gongs.

Palmer’s contribution to rock ‘n’ roll history is undeniable. Emerson, Lake & Palmer were instrumental in the creation of prog-rock, as well as stadium rock, playing consecutively sold out shows at Madison Square Garden in the 70s, touring the globe, and rivaling Led Zeppelin as the highest grossing live band by the end of 1974.

Today I’m talking to Carl Palmer about his artwork, though I’d be remiss to not discuss his love of teaching drums to special needs kids or how his music has stood the test of time, a virtual anomaly nowadays. Palmer’s discovery of a new art form, however, is on the radar. Not new in it’s inception but rather in its execution.

The landscapes of Palmer’s paintings remind me of what music might look like on paper or canvas. Blasts of color, shapes and spontaneous designs, made from the heat and light of drumsticks, create dream-like scenes out of the swirl of colors created by his own hands.

Palmer walks me through the artistic process. As he’s describing this, I’m picturing his epic 70s drum soloing and I’m beginning to understand how his foray from drumming to art has been so fluid.

Kristen: Your artwork is a slice of naturalistic, abstract technology. For instance, your piece “Eruption” looks like a supernatural dreamscape. I also loved your piece “Infinite Space”. It literally looks like how I would envision infinite space. No one piece looks at all the same. Could you talk a little bit about how you discovered this medium of modern art? How did you envision this process?

Palmer: Well, what we have here is a new way of actually creating the art using light. In other words, I paint with light instead of paint itself, as it were. The patterns are created with LED lights that are actually built into the drumsticks. The drumsticks have four, self-simulated colors, a red, a yellow a blue and a green. Each one of these paintings was constructed in a similar way, where I would be in a pitch-black room with the drums and there would be one other person with me with handheld cameras slow-framing everything that I’m doing at different angles and moving around as I play. So I’d be playing different rhythms, say “Tarkus” or “Eruption” or “Stones of Years” and the camera man would film it from different angles. I could then look at what shadows and shapes were being created by the heated LED lights on the end of these sticks. Then I could construct where the cameras needed to be and where we were getting the best visuals. The lights reflect off of the chrome of the two gongs as well, creating eerie, shadowy, ghost-like figures.

We were able to capture a new, hidden kind of art this way. We can play the same rhythm more than once and it will create a slightly different picture every time. The paintings end up having their own DNA. The beauty of this is that you can physically play the drums with these sticks like you would with normal sticks, unlike the 70s when I started investigating this and I was using actual light bulbs and could only mime (chuckles). These sticks are available to everyone now. It’s been in the making as an idea for years and now technology has caught up, creating a difference of explosions, the colors reacting differently due to the actual speed of the camera. It takes a bit of time, but you can get some really outstanding results, and at the end of the day, it’s a new art form.

“Eruption” by Carl Palmer

Kristen: I want to transition to music for a moment. I know you feel very strongly about keeping music in schools. You spoke in an interview about a very fascinating experience you had teaching deaf children and how they were able to visualize rhythm. I wonder if any of that may have informed the art you’re creating now?

Palmer: I’ve done a lot of drum clinics and taught master classes for many years, but for the past nine years, I’ve started to develop programs with the Deaf Association of Great Britain to teach deaf children how to play. This proved to be really good because they can visually see and feel what’s happening. So that automatically went across to blind children and then the whole thing kind of generated itself to children with special needs and using rhythm as a team sport. So we have groups of ten challenging other groups of ten. I really enjoy doing it and I’m quite privileged, because every time I’ve done this, I’ve had people with me who know sign language. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the art that I do, it’s just another way of using rhythm to get the message across. It’s incredibly rewarding. With the deaf children, they can visually see the rhythm. In that same way, the paintings that I do are visual rhythm.

“Orchadia” by Carl Palmer

Kristen: Nowadays, folks can create songs in their bedrooms. How do you feel about the state of music today? Do you feel like the internet and technology has bridged a gap or created one? Do we have too much freedom or has the leveled playing field helped the industry? How do you feel about new styles of music coming out right now?

Palmer: Well, I think with every positive, there comes a group of negatives and there’s no doubt that the internet has helped people tremendously. For the record, I make a point of going on Youtube, for example, at least once a month and I’ll spend a couple of hours investigating new drummers to find out what they’re playing. Technology is a big part of the educational process now. If you’re good, you’re obviously going to improve quite quickly, unlike when I was starting, you had to hope that if you saw a television show, the camera would point to the drummer or the sax player for a quick minute. But this way, it’s really good. And obviously now people can record themselves, so technology has helped them immensely in this area. You can record something quite quickly at home, get demos up and running, etc. People have even been known to get record deals from their bedrooms or wherever. So now all these things are all possible and they’re are all being done and it’s been helpful.

On the other hand, when I started recording, there were things called concept albums. You had to listen to the whole album to understand it. A lot of people won’t listen to 40 minutes of straight-up music anymore. People would rather download a track or two on Spotify or iTunes, etc, so they don’t actually understand the complete concept. If you took, say, one 3-minute piece of “Tarkus” or “The Dark Side of The Moon” for instance, you wouldn’t really understand what it was all about. So from one point of view, it’s been really good. From another point of view, people don’t really get into the artist as a complete entity. Things have changed. The industry has changed. People don’t buy things as much. People are used to streaming music, getting stuff for free, etc, but most musicians need the money to reinvest into what they do. On the other hand, there are many more styles of music now and many more influences. So there are lots of positives, I have to say. And there’s obviously quite a few negatives as well, but overall the most important thing is that the number of fans of musicianship is a lot higher today than they were in the 70s when I first had my success. All the literature that’s available now, all the DVDs, Youtube, educational tools, etc. doesn’t necessarily mean that the players are original, but it means they can get very good, very quickly. Staying in touch with pod-casts, for example, allows you to watch stuff that’s going on that might be miles away from where you live. So staying in touch and being up-to-date with what exactly is going on is very important. The thing about the particular art form that I do is that it’s brand new. It hasn’t been done. It’s there and it’s ready to go. So this is a new way of using technology.

Kristen: What other mediums of art interest you and what are you presently working on musically?

Palmer: Mostly at the moment, I’m painting, but I’m actually looking now at making short video clips using the same frame method as with the LED lights. We have a thing in England…I don’t know if you have it here…but people collect Art DVDs and they become like lithographs. They become special art films and there are collectors of these films. So I do see taking this to the next level and having a complete video section of all the pieces of art so you’re actually seeing it in real time. At the moment, half of the catalog has already been sold, which I’m very happy about. I’ve done one lithograph which I’ve brought out on tour and that’s called “Stones of Years” which is the first song that happens in the Tarkus album which is the very first concept album from Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I’ve made if available just for this “Twist of the Wrist” tour. We’ve sold out of ‘Tank’ at the moment, but we’re looking at making it a bit bigger to be hung in different galleries.

“Tank” by Carl Palmer

I’m also touring with the Carl Palmer’s Emerson Lake & Palmer Legacy. It’s a band that I’ve had for twelve years. We play a lot of classical adaptations which are driven along by a lot of original material from Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I’ve got Paul Bielatowicz on guitar and Simon Fitzpatrick on bass and we use a certain amount of film during the set. It’s a cinematic approach to playing so we play things like Mussorgsky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition” and some black and white footage of the Russian Royal family. So there’s a connection between film and music because I’m very interested in art in general. So you know, the music is underpinned with something else and we’ve used quite a lot of footage throughout the whole two hours so there’s something happening on the screen that connects directly to the music.

Kristen: I was a watching an interview where you stated that the best music is created by people who want to make music for themselves. In other words, you weren’t as a band necessarily concerned with going mainstream, but it was a luxury that Emerson, Lake & Palmer did. Could you talk a little more about that?

Palmer: Yes. Well, it’s the same today. I mean, when Emerson, Lake & Palmer started, we really made music for ourselves and if we liked it, then that’s exactly what we wanted to do. It was accepted globally and that was very nice thing. I think that whatever you do in any art form, you’re kind of making it for yourself and if people happen to like it, then that’s great, and if you can make a living out of it, then that’s absolutely marvelous. You couldn’t ask for any more really. The whole thing with Emerson, Lake & Palmer was exactly that and today I take the same approach. I mean, the band is more of a delicatessen than a supermarket. We play for a small amount of people who really enjoy this prog-rock art form, which is still really popular. Obviously, it’s not as popular as it used to be, it doesn’t get played on the radio at drive time. But at the end of the day, it’s another art form and it’s a British art form which we brought to America similar to how Jazz was brought from America to England. I’m proud to have been part of that movement. It’s been a big part of my life. What I’m doing now is exactly the same thing, but I’m using younger musicians who are on the cutting edge and it’s worked incredibly well. We started in February of this year in Japan and we’ve been to Mexico, South America and all over Europe. I’m taking some pieces like “The Endless Enigma” or “Infinite Space” and I’m playing the actual rhythm which is a kind of DNA in light and getting it onto a canvas which was just another extension of what I do. I couldn’t be happier to tell you the truth.

“Endless Enigma” by Carl Palmer

Kristen: A lot of young kids are discovering prog-rock and appropriating it to their time. How do you feel about keeping prog-rock alive?

Palmer: Yes they are. You’re absolutely right. There’s a small revival of it. And I think “Cruise to the Edge” tends to kick things off. There’s a festival in August in Philadelphia called Yes Fest and you’ll have some of the big bands. You’ll have YES, UK, Steve Hackett, etc. Most of these bands are leaders in that one area or you’ll have one of the members from one of these well-known bands who are now doing different things but keeping the music alive in a newer way using younger musicians, similar to what I’m doing myself.

“The music will always be there. It will never be as popular as what it was, we all know that, but it will always be there as an art form and there will always be people who want to come and see it.” – Carl Palmer

Kristen: I watched a studio session of Emerson, Lake & Palmer practicing Karn Evil 9. As a musician, I now how painstaking getting something right is, but you guys were creating this masterpiece that had to be close to perfect. How did you maintain patience through that process? Can you talk a little bit about how band’s can achieve longevity? Is there a secret to getting along with your band-mates while achieving that level of playing? Do you have any advice for up-and-coming musicians?

Palmer: Well, longevity is something that you have to work at everyday. You have to work at whatever instrument you’re playing. It’s a constant focus. You need to be up-to-date, you need to be stimulated, you need to be working with good people and you need to be working with people that are at the same level as you so you keep improving. It’s a lifestyle really and it involves everything from practicing personally or rehearsing with a band or going out on tour. It doesn’t matter how much you rehearsed in the rehearsal room, when you go out on tour and play, then you’ll understand what the public think and you’ll understand their reaction. If you’re experienced enough you can then start to change the show around, change the set list or even change the arrangements of music.

Music is a constant learning curve to be honest with you. There’s no one thing you could say to any one person: “This is how you do it”  because all the time, it’s changing. I do think the one way you can propel yourself musically is just to be enthusiastic about what you do and if you can retain that enthusiasm in whatever way suits you, then that will stand you in good stead. – Carl Palmer

Kristen: Is there any particular artist that intrigues you at the moment?

Palmer: The last piece of art that I bought was a piece by Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is quite a good painter. His colors aren’t what you might call accurate, but he doesn’t need to be because you understand everything he’s putting on the canvas and he really delivers. I’ve bought quite a bit of his work recently, but I bought one particular painting of his called “Motel Pool” about two years ago. I was very impressed with that piece, very impressed with the colors. He’s in quite a few art galleries. He doesn’t really talk much about his art, but there’s no doubt that Dylan has got a definitive style and he’s a natural at what he does. He’s quite artistic.

Kristen: On that same note, are there any bands out there right now that you’re fascinated by?

Palmer: I’m quite attracted to a band called “The News” right now. They’re a three piece band. They’ve got really great piano, keyboards, etc. I’ve seen them at a couple of concerts. Glastonbury was the last one I actually saw them at and I definitely felt like they were on the cutting edge. They could play, they could sing, they really delivered. I’ve been fascinated by them for a long time.

Palmer collaborated on his “Twist of the Wrist” project with the SceneFour Art Collective based in Los Angeles who have worked with drummers such as Jose Pasillas II (Incubus), Rick Allen (Def Leppard), Stephen Perkins (Jane’s Addiction), Kash Waddy (James Brown) and Matt Sorum (Velvet Revolver, Guns n’Roses).

The culmination of what Carl Palmer has been creating for years has come to fruition in this beautiful collection of artwork. You don’t want to miss these explosive synaptic creations of sound and light.


About Kristen Damasida

Writer and Photographer for Virago Magazine, Kristen grew up listening to vinyl and highlighting the dictionary. Her work has appeared in IrockJazz.com, The East Harlem Journal, Boston's Culturehive, the Ithacan and other publications. Her love of music cannot be eclipsed by her love of words. She's been coined the "Akira Kurosawa of Blogs" by such people as herself. An aspiring musician, she has a serious penchant for peach-flavored anything, multi-tasking, slow-paced thrillers and dreams of going back to South America, laying on the beach, and drinking from a coconut.

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