A Gentle Giant in Captivity - An Interview with Derek Shulman



Recently, Dusty provided me a golden opportunity: in connection with the release of Three-Piece Suite -- a remastering of some compositions from Gentle Giant's first three albums -- their media team offered an interview with Derek Shulman, lead singer for the group, and now a high-level record company executive. Knowing my love of Gentle Giant, Dusty offered the interview to me. There was no constraint on content, only on the number of questions (an even dozen). So, with thanks to Anne Leighton (of Anne Leighton Media), who coordinated, here is my interview with one of progressive rock's most iconic figures, both as an artist and as a rep.

1. There has been a sort of minor resurgence of things Gentle Giant, including the induction of the band into the Portsmouth Hall of Fame, and the imminent release of Three-Piece Suite, a collection of compositions from the first three Gentle Giant albums, remixed by uber-engineer Steven Wilson. Can you tell me how these two things came about, and how all of you are feeling about them?

Portsmouth was the city in which myself and my brothers grew up. Our first band, Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, and then Gentle Giant, rehearsed, developed and resided in the city for the majority our careers. The city decided it wanted to celebrate both groups' success as "sons of the city" earlier this year. We were very humbled to accept the honor on August 23rd of this year.  

As to working with Steven Wilson... well, Steven had already worked with the band in remixing both Octopus and The Power & The Glory. We have mutual respect and in fact are good friends. Working with Steven is always a pleasure.  

2. Given the remixes of Octopus and The Power and the Glory, as well as the new compilation, and that members of GG have spoken highly of his work, are there any future collaborations with him coming up? If so, what are they? If not, would you like to see such collaborations?  

We certainly hope we will continue to see what we can work on together, assuming it makes sense creatively for us all. The one album we would love to rework is In a Glass House. Unfortunately, no one is able to locate the multi-tracks.  

3. You made the leap from recording artist to record executive, something which is actually quite rare historically. And you have had remarkable success in your new role (not least signing one of my favorite bands, Dream Theater). What brought about your decision to go into "the biz," how did you feel when you first made that decision, and how do you feel now? And if I might be allowed a "part b" here (and it is not a "trade secret"…LOL), how did/do you make your signing and other decisions?  

In simple -- and probably the most truthful -- terms, I had to put bread on the table to feed myself and my family. I knew I didn't want to form another band: I'd been doing that since I was in high school. I was offered the opportunity to produce artists, but life behind a console was not for me. I was offered a job at Polygram Records in early 1982 and decided to give it a shot.  

My first day in a "real job" in an office was a real eye-opener, honestly. I went from office to office, and as the day progressed and then ended I realized that I was not and never had been in the "music business"...it was in reality the "business of music." At the end of the first day, with the growing awareness of what I had gotten into, I was determined to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.  

So...35 years later, I'm still determined. But I guess I learned to survive the trench warfare of "the biz" in the meantime.  

My decisions on signing artists were and always are based on many and various factors. The biggest and most important artists are always leaders who are authentic and unique: leaders and not followers. Bands like Pantera, Dream Theater, Slipknot and Yes -- even Bon Jovi -- were "leaders." That being said, "the song" and the music are also extremely important in whatever style of music. There is also a fine balance of "unique" versus "commercial" in signing an artist. In any circumstance, any artist I would sign would need to have a determination, drive and complete focus to "make it." It is hard work for all concerned and the artist always must be able to deliver and play live, and garner their own fan following, if they are to have a real career. I tried in my own way to help the artists realize their ambitions by my experiences as a musician on the road.  

4. As you are undoubtedly aware, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has been "unfriendly" toward bands that are usually classified as "progressive rock" -- even some of those with successful commercial careers -- only a handful have been admitted, some only after many years of lobbying. The co-owner of one of the two sites for which I write (and on which this interview will appear) would like to ask, quite seriously, what you make of this.  

I honestly believe that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is fairly irrelevant. It is not just "progressive" artists who have been "snubbed." Deep Purple have just been inducted (with Yes) in 2016. With respect to "cool artists" like Joan Jett, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Sex Pistols et al, these artists are all inducted, whereas bands like Bon Jovi and Def Leppard -- who have been incredibly successful -- seem not to be "cool enough" for the HOF. I think the legacy of the artists will live on with or without the R&R HOF induction. Perhaps "prog" is considered not cool enough for the HOF? But the legacy of their music will live with on or without any induction.  

5. Now let's talk a little about Gentle Giant itself, and go right to the beginning. Can you put us "in the room" when the band began writing the material for its debut album? What influences were brought in? The booklet for Three-Piece Suite mentions Frank Zappa and King Crimson (mostly for the "freedom" with which they were allowed to write and record), but what about other influences, including rock, classical, jazz or other genre composers?

The influences for Gentle Giant came from the musicians in the band. The Shulman brothers came from a very musical background. Our father was a professional trumpet player and band leader. He loved jazz and classical music. There were always musicians and music in our house as far back as I remember.  

My brother Ray had classical violin training and was destined to join the national youth orchestra of U.K. Phil loved modern jazz, and played trumpet and tenor sax. I took in all the influences of classical, jazz and then early soul and R&B in my musical influences. I played alto sax, and my father bought my first guitar when I was 13 years old. This was it!!  

As a band we looked for musicians who wanted to push the brothers to be better musicians for ourselves first and then hopefully for the fans. We were incredibly fortunate to have recruited Kerry Minnear, who had just graduated from the Royal Academy of Music with a degree in composition. Gary Green was also a gem, in that he brought his brilliant knowledge and playing of the blues and R&B to the band. The ultimate find was John Weathers on drums who had impeccable timing and personality. He was the rock behind the intricacies of the band on stage especially.   

6. Did/does GG consider itself "progressive," as that word came to be used to describe bands like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, ELP and others? If not, how would the band have described itself? And do you even believe that "progressive rock" is a legitimate descriptive?  

When we started as a band, I don’t think the term "progressive rock" was even invented. As I had said, we were a bunch of musicians whose backgrounds and influences were multifaceted and diverse. What in fact GG was about was a stew of all the musical sensibilities and abilities of the various members, dripping into a funnel and served with a garnish of the term "prog."  

7. Can you put us "in the room" for the creation of a particularly complex composition like "So Sincere" or "On Reflection," with respect to initial ideas, writing, arrangement, harmonies and production?

The songs you have indicated are good examples of Kerry Minnear’s compositional and scoring skills. Obviously, these pieces weren't just jams in the studio. We wrote in various ways, but Kerry and Ray and occasionally myself would come up with a well-constructed piece, and embellishments would be made together in each other's front room. On songs like "So Sincere" and "On Reflection," Kerry really put to task the rest of the band's ability to read the score and present the music on record and on stage - which we loved doing.

8. How did the group decide how and when to use classical instruments and/or motifs within various compositions, particularly with regard to segues into and out of more traditional "rock" segments?

As musicians we loved to experiment. Whether with time signatures, orchestration or instrumentation. I think our restlessness to be as creative as possible made us think: why wouldn’t we introduce instruments that are not organically rock instruments? If they fitted the feel of the music then we just did it. Thankfully, we were all conversant with being comparatively decent multi-instrumental players, so we would put that to use as Gentle Giant. I also think that a certain amount of "ADD" was intrinsic in the band, so boredom was the enemy we kept at bay by utilizing our abilities instrumentally and vocally. We always loved to surprise ourselves and our audience into never becoming too complacent with the band.

For my final three questions, I promised my two brothers -- both fans of Gentle Giant -- that I would allow them each one question, followed by one of my own.  

9. My older brother (who has a B.S. in Composition, as well as being both a guitarist and violinist) wanted to ask the following: There was recently an article on progressive rock in which the writer claimed that none of the members of Gentle Giant could really "sing." Given not only the complexity of the harmonies, but that each of you had wonderful and distinctive voices, how would you respond to such a suggestion?

Well... the music -- and especially the vocal lines -- were generally part of the composition. So in fact there weren’t too many regular chordal patterned songs with a real pop vocal lines (verse/B section/chorus) on top. The vocal lines would generally weave in as an orchestral part would. I would say that at least we sang in tune, if not like Pavarotti.  

10. My younger brother (who plays guitar, writes, and sings, and has a kick-ass alt-rock band) wanted to ask: have you ever regretted your decision to switch from artist to executive?  

I loved my time being a stage and recording musician. The feeling of creating and performing is something that is indescribable. However, that being said, I also love the creativity of working with a young band who may appear to be "a piece of coal," and then ultimately helping the artist become the "lustrous diamond." I'm very fortunate to have experienced both magical and musical highs.

11. Finally, for myself, I am essentially duty-bound (LOL) to ask the obvious three-part question, not least for the members of Progarchives, the #1 progressive rock website in the world, and the other site on which this interview will appear: Do you have a favorite GG album; a favorite GG song; and is there even the remotest chance for some sort of actual reunion?

OK… this is not really fair as you know…But the memories of recording The Power & The Glory are still very vivid. We had come into our own by this time, and the writing and recording was one the easiest and most complete experiences for the band. We were a fairly (VERY!) intense band, so in that respect TP&TG for me.

My favorite song!!!??? "Knots" from Octopus. Say no more.

As to reunion: Why would anyone want to see 60++ old farts playing not quite as well as we used to? I/we would hate being a parody of ourselves, honestly. All we can hope is the legacy of the music we made together is still as relevant in the years to come.

Mr. Shulman, on behalf of all of the Gentle Giant fans -- both current and future -- who will read this interview, I want to thank you (so sincere-ly!) for taking the time to do this. We all wish all of you continued success in your current endeavors, and also want to give an extra shout-out (and love and warm thoughts) to John.