If there were such a thing as progressive rock royalty, Carl Palmer would be walking around with a crown on his head. As much as anyone, Palmer’s band Emerson, Lake and Palmer came to create prog-rock as we now know it, as well as symbolize many of its perceived excesses. 15-minute solos? Check. Entire albums of classical music scored for rock band? Yup. Sci-fi stories of futuristic dystopias? Most definitely.
Palmer is currently on tour with his ELP Legacy band, a project he’s been helming for 11 years in various forms, which presents instrumental versions of ELP material, replacing Keith Emerson’s keyboards with lead guitar. Palmer is also taking the opportunity of this short U.S. tour to debut his first art project, called Twist of the Wrist—basically a medium that captures the motion of his drumming. We caught up with him this week by phone as he walked around Annapolis, MD, where the Annapolis Collection Gallery is showing his—yes, we had to say it—pictures at an exhibition.
An edited transcript follows…
Weeping Elvis: How did the Twist of the Wrist project come about?
Carl Palmer: It started last year, from an idea that I had from the 70s. It’s basically painting with light. I play drumsticks with LEDs on the end. We do it in a pitch black room. I play things like “Endless Enigma,” “Tarkus,” “Tank,” whatever. You see the light, you see the shadows. … I have 11 canvases. The kind people of Annapolis bought three of them. Annapolis is one of my favorite little towns.
W.E.: How did this band first come together?
C.P.: The band started in 1999-2000, something like that. I’ve had the group together 11 years now, coming into my 12th. This has been a great experience. These players [Paul Bielatowicz on guitar, Simon Fitzpatrick on bass] are at the top of their game for prog rock. It’s obviously very demanding. We’re playing “Tarkus,” “Pictures at an Exhibition…” It’s a niche market; it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, but I never had the players.
W.E.: Speaking of which, how challenging was it to rework some of the ELP songs for an instrumental three-piece?
C.P.: The challenge was to find people to play it. ELP could have been a four piece if we found [a guitar player] to play it. Lately there’s been so much more technology for keyboards, but the players haven’t jumped forward. But the guitar players have just [improved immeasurably]. It’s a way to being the music to new music to younger people. It’s a bit more metal. But it’s revitalizing the music and giving it a new lease on life.
W.E.: What’s your take on the history of ELP and of progressive rock? You were one of the biggest bands in the world, fans filled stadiums to see it, but critics never got it and punk tried to kill it. What’s the legacy?
C.P.: Well, remember radio went corporate, there was no radio time given to prog rock anymore. Everyone had to get on the new bandwagon. Genesis went on and got poppier, [as did Yes].
W.E.: Does that explain your involvement in Asia? How do you compare and contrast that with ELP?
C.P.: Prog rock was not going to take root in the 80s when Asia began. So we had to be a little more commercial. We had to do a bit more music which was radio friendly. At the end of the day this is what we do. At the time it was nice to play with those guys. [But we are] making a new album at the end of this year.
W.E.: But it must be gratifying to see that there’s still an audience for progressive music in general.
C.P.: It’s making a small comeback as we speak. We just did the progressive rock cruise [in the Caribbean, with Yes, Steve Hackett and Tangerine Dream]. I would say that there’s a small revival. Its’ not on the airwaves, but the music is recognized as an art form. I think it’s here to stay. Prog was invented in England, just like jazz in America, [and it will continue to change]. The music will live on, but not exactly in the same way. It’s appreciated by more intellectual types.
W.E: What do you like to listen to now? Are there any current bands you feel are really carrying on what ELP helped to establish?
C.P.: My listening is quite eclectic. Porcupine Tree, Elvis Presley, classical. I listen to all stuff all of the time, [although] when I’m on tour I don’t listen to a lot of [other] music.
W.E.: How about drummers?
C.P.: Once a month I got on YouTube and I try to see all the new drummers people say are great. And that’s a great key for keeping me on top of my game.
Palmer appears tonight at the Howard Theatre in Washington, DC. See other dates here.