Alliance – Gary Pihl (Boston)

Alliance has a new album out called Fire and Grace. Their first album was released in 1996 and although they all play regularly with other bands throughout the years, this group stays solid in the background. The core members include guitarist Gary Pihl (Boston), drummer David Lauser (Sammy Hagar) and bassist Robert Berry (3, GTR). I enjoyed speaking with Gary Pihl about playing with Alliance as well as some of his Sammy Hagar and Boston experiences. Pihl has a generous spirit which comes through the music. He also shares some cool stories including his connection to Bruce Springsteen’s first guitar which you can read about below.

Fredda Gordon: You play with so many musicians. What do you like about working on the Alliance albums?

Gary Pihl: A lot of things. Certainly working with guys I’ve known for a long time. That’s one of the best parts of being in a band. You trust the other guys, or girls depending on whose in your band, to do the best for the song. It’s not about how fast you can play or your virtuosity but what’s going to make the song better.

For instance, Dave Lauser, our drummer, will sometimes tell me “In this one section strum the guitar like this.” So, here’s the drummer telling me how to play guitar, [chuckle] but I take his word for it. Whatever he says I’m going to try because I know he’s got something good in mind and I’m going to give it a go.

The title track of this album, “Fire and Grace,” was a song that we all came up with. I had a guitar riff, Dave had a great drum groove and Robert said “I think I have some lyrics that might fit with this.” It was one of those spontaneous things. We were in Robert’s recording studio, we hit the record button, went out in the room, and we wrote that 4 minute song in 4 minutes. Just played it through. That was it. Take one. Done. That’s the magic about working with guys that you know and trust, and you’ve worked with before. You just go for it. That’s the fun part about being in a band.

FG: You’ve worked with Boston for a long time with huge success and so many hits. Is it hard to carve a space out for yourself separate from that?

GP: That’s why I’m doing this other project Alliance.

You probably know some of my history. I joined Sammy Hagar’s band in ’77. Then when Sammy got the call from Van Halen in ’85, I got the call from Tom Scholz to work on the Third Stage album and then that tour, and then after that tour was over Tom came to the band and said “Now, its going to take a few years to work on the next Boston album so if anybody has any solo projects you want to do, now is the time to do it.”

That’s when I called my old buddies from Sammy’s band, Dave Lauser on drums and Alan Fitzgerald on keys. Geffen Records had tried to introduce us to Robert Berry when Sammy was about to leave for Van Halen. Sammy had always said “Geez, you guys are a great band, you need some other singer. Plug him in and keep going.” To that end, Geffen had put us in touch with Robert, but I got the call from Boston so had to leave and we kind of went our separate ways at that point.

When Tom said “go ahead, do whatever you want,” I thought that was my opportunity to strike out on my own.

FG: And, you’re still doing that years later.

GP: Unfortunately, we are so busy with our other bands that we don’t get to do Alliance music very much. It’s been a long time for just the 6 albums we’ve accomplished here.

FG: You mentioned Night Ranger and I read that you had left your place to Alan Fitzgerald and then you came home and there was a band there. What did you think about that at the time.

GP: I was a little surprised, but not too much. I was in Sammy Hagar’s band at the time and I had some recording equipment in my living room. My wife was nice enough to forgo buying furniture so I could buy recording equipment. I would record demo’s for myself and friends. Around that time… it’s a small musical community and Ronnie Montrose was telling me about some guys in a band that I should check out, maybe I’d want to help them, produce them. At the time their name was Stereo. I thought they were very good but I got busy with Sammy’s band. We went to Europe. Alan Fitzgerald had left our band and said “I’m in between groups at the moment,” and I said ‘Look, I’m going to Europe and I’m taking my wife and if you want to stay in our house that be great. You could kind of watch the house’ and he didn’t have any place to stay. And I said ‘You know how to work the recording equipment, go ahead if you want to use it.’

That’s exactly what he did, connected with the other guys from Stereo and put a band together. When I got back they had recorded several songs. I was surprised he was that quick to be able to put together another group. I’m sure [it was] through Ronnie Montrose because he had played in Ronnie’s band, and so they all connected there. I liked what they were doing and said ‘Let’s do a better job of recording some of your songs,’ so I recorded a whole bunch of them with them as an engineer. One of them was “Sister Christian.”

FG: I love that song.

GP: Yeah. They got a record deal and re-recorded the album for real in a real studio. I was glad to help “Fitz” and the guys.

FG: Do you do engineering work now? Do you miss it?

GP: It’s a time intensive thing so I don’t miss it in that sense. Of course, these days you can record an album on your laptop computer, everybody is an engineer depending on how much time and effort you want to put into it. I certainly do that for my demos and and song ideas. And I also still help out some friends here in my little home studio, other singer-songwriters that I enjoy working with some of which are people that have never made it in the business or other members of Boston that I’m always glad to help out and record their ideas.

FG: Do you write music?

GP: Yes, I do. On the new album here from Alliance, Fire and Grace, I wrote 2 songs. Dave Lauser wrote 2 songs. As I said, the 3 of us collaborated on Fire and Grace and then Robert wrote the rest. He is definitely more prolific than Dave and I are.

FG: What was your first meaningful musical experience?

GP: I was in a band in 8th grade and we played at the 7th grade dance. That was my first paying gig. I think we made $15 as a band, the three of us, so 5 bucks. At that point it was like ‘Wow! This is a lot more money than I could make from mowing lawns or babysitting or something. So I felt like a professional musician at 8th grade. And, after the show a bunch of 7th grade girls came and asked us for our autograph. ‘Hey, this is pretty cool!’

FG: Instant stardom.

GP: That’s right.

FG: Was there music in your house when you were growing up?

GP: Yes. Actually my parents were divorced when I was about 5, and I lived with my mother, but my both parents sang a little bit. They weren’t professional or anything like that. My grandmother played organ, cousins were always in the high school bands, one of my cousins went on to dance with the Alvin Ailey group and went to Julliard. She turned out to be very gifted. The whole family had some sort of music.

FG: People who make it professionally seem to grow up with some music.

GP: If both of your parents are even a little bit musical you have a chance of being musical yourself. But, the other side of that is… I was warning my son because at one point he picked up guitar and was playing in a band in high school and I said ‘It’s a really tough business to make it as a living but you certainly have some talent. It’s really hard especially if your parents have any degree of success. Think of Bob Dylan’s son Jacob. Jacob is great but he’s not Bob Dylan. Or, Julian Lennon, he’s not John Lennon but Julian’s pretty good.’

Then my son said “Of course, it goes the other way around. Billy Ray Cyrus, his daughter is Miley Cyrus who ended up much bigger than her dad.” You never know, it could go either way.

FG: So, is he in music?

GP: Not any more. He still plays with friends, jams here and there just for fun, but never really pursued it professionally, not like I did. In fact, when he was in college, his mom, my lovely wife, said “Do you want to take a year off from college and pursue music for a while?” and, luckily, he said “Nah, I’m going to get my degree now and if I want to I’ll continue on in music.” I was glad because it’s so hard to make a living in music. When I worked at the company Tom Scholz started, Rock Man, where we made electronic products for electric guitars, I would travel around the country demonstrating these products and so many people would come to me afterwards and say “I don’t care about being rich and famous, I’d just like to make a living playing music.” I’d said ‘That’s really hard, because what are your options? Yeah, maybe you could play the Holiday Inn, some sort of nightclubs, or this or that, but how long you want to do that for?’

When I went to college and was a music major, the music teachers assumed you were going to end up as a music teacher because performance was so difficult. For classical music you had to be extremely gifted to pursue that as a career and they really had no idea how you would go about trying to pursue being a rock musician.

FG: Speaking of that, so much has changed in how people put out music. It used to be only radio stations and record companies. Now with online it’s more accessible but much more content. Do you think it’s harder to make it now than it was then? Easier? Different?

GP: I don’t have a good handle on that. You’re exactly right that both radio and record companies have completely changed. When I was growing up AM radio was where top 40 music was played. That was it. FM didn’t exist, or it was jazz or classical music, and AM was king. You had to get on AM radio to have a hit. The top 40 was everybody. Not only the Beatles but also Frank Sinatra and Patti Page and people like that. Luckily that broke apart and FM radio became popular for rock music. Then they started separating the charts by types of music and that helped.

All of us baby boomers were buying records and that demographic really changed the industry. Bands would sell lots of records. Radio was still the way to reach the masses because you just couldn’t tour around the country fast enough to get around to let everybody know about your music. Now that’s split apart into different formats, one of which is classic rock. Thank goodness for that because they still play Boston music. [chuckle]

The fact that now we don’t have big record labels, and bands can’t assume that they’re going to sell records, makes it very difficult to make a living. I don’t know the statistics about the number of people making a living [in music]. Bands with guys like me that have been in classic rock bands still tour. And we see new bands playing. We see some big concerts and some clubs, but there seem to be fewer than when I was in my 20’s. Again, as I traveled around the country demonstrating our products, I would usually go with one of our sales reps and invariably they would say “Oh, there was a great club here that I used to play at,” or “They had the greatest bands at this club and it’s gone.” The whole industry has changed from top to bottom.

For teenagers, the YMCA used to have bands play on Friday night. I remember doing that a few times. I can’t remember what kind of money I made. Not much, if any. $20 bucks or something. But there were places to go for teenagers as opposed to night clubs where you have to be 21 to get in. And, if you were in a band you could play there. That really doesn’t exist anymore.

FG: And, festivals are popular now.

Are there up and coming bands you noticed?

GP: When I’m driving in my car, I’m a button pusher, I listen to everything from classical to country to rock to alternative to Hip Hop. Anything. I like just hearing what’s being played. Every once awhile, there’ll be a song and [I think] ‘Wow! That’s a great song’ and I wonder who it is. They don’t always tell you. I have to ask my kids ‘Who’s that?’

There’s a lot of good music that I hear on the radio and I keep asking my kids ‘How do you find out about new music?’ It’s word of mouth, friends will send you something – a link to this or that. And, with services like Spotify or Pandora, if you put in some band it will suggest other bands.

FG: How many kids do you have?

2 boys.

FG: The other one isn’t into music either?

The older one started to play guitar and the younger one played bass for a little while. Neither one of them was going to make this a career. I’ll tell you a quick story. When my son was about 10 he was thinking “Maybe I want to play guitar,” which was about the age I was when I first picked up a guitar. I was telling this to one of our sales reps [for Rock Man] when I was out traveling with him. I have several nice guitars I could let him play as he’s learning but I want to get him a cheap guitar like I had to struggle with as a first guitar.

A few weeks later, I got this guitar in the mail that this sales guy, Herb, had sent me out of the blue with a little note saying “Hey, here’s a first guitar for your son.” I thought ‘That’s awful nice for him to do that,’ and I gave it to my son and he played it for awhile. This was a cheap, 60’s Japanese guitar. [My son] took lessons at the local music store, I wanted him to get lessons from somebody else. He stayed with it and then saved up his money mowing lawns and bought a better guitar.

Awhile later, one of my crew guys called up and said “You don’t happen to have a Kent guitar, do you?” ‘Wow! As a matter of fact, I do!’ and I told him the story. The crew guy said “Yeah, I’m working with a guy and that was his first guitar. His mom bought him that for Christmas back in ’66, $69.95 is what it cost, and he’s looking for one and can’t find it.” He asked “Is it single pick up? Sunburst?” I said ‘Yeah.’ He said “This guy will pay anything for it, what do you want for it?” I called up my son and said ‘somebody wants to buy your first guitar.’ My son, Scott, said “Well, we didn’t pay anything for it, it doesn’t seem fair to charge somebody else, we’ll just pass it on to whoever it is that wants it.” I called the crew guy and told him. He repeated “He’ll pay anything.” I said ‘So, who is this for? Whose guitar was this?’ He says “This is for Bruce,” Bruce Springsteen’s first guitar. So that guitar ended up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now my son can say “My first guitar is in the Hall of Fame.”

FG: That’s a great story. Speaking of big names, who are your guitar heroes?

When I started I really liked the instrumentalists. Back in the day that was Duane Eddy and The Ventures. Surf music and that kind of stuff. That’s what I really enjoyed. Then the Beatles and the Stones and the whole British invasion happened, so all those guys. You gotta include the top three British guys, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. And then Hendrix, of course. I got a lot of wonderful influences from all the guys at that time.

FG: Is there anyone you would feel nervous playing in front of?

Not really, especially in a band because you’ve got the rest of the band playing. The most nervous I ever was in a performance was when I was in college. I was in several vocal groups, mostly choruses, or a chamber chorale, about a dozen of us, and I had to sing a song on my own in front of the class. I think I was the most nervous because singing is not my first love [chuckle]. I certainly enjoyed doing it but was so nervous. It was classical style, it wasn’t a rock song where I could kind of shout it.

FG: I know you worked with Brad Delp. It’s such a tragic loss and I wondered how it felt/feels to play the music he sang without him.

When we got the news we were saying “Wow! we may never perform again,” because how could you replace somebody like that. Besides being one of the best rock singers ever, he was such a friend to all of us. We always called him… in fact, it was Sammy Hagar who gave him the nickname “The nicest guy in rock and roll”. But somebody had sent us a link to the MySpace page of Tommy DeCarlo, just a guy from South Carolina who sang along with Boston songs and put it on his MySpace page because he liked doing it. He never had been in a band before. Somebody saw it, and told us about it, and we saw it and ‘Wow, this guy’s great…’ One of the management people called him up to come audition. Of course, I’m sure that phone call was pretty strange for Tommy to get. ‘Hey, this is Boston, we want you to come audition for the band.’ He’s probably thinking “Bobby, is this you? Who is this really? C’mon!” ‘No, no, really, it’s Boston. We want you to come up.’ He’s worked out great, he sounds terrific and, again a really nice guy. Comes off as the guy next door, you know, like no pretension at all.

FG: He kind of was.

Exactly right. He’s working at Home Depot. Like the movie with Mark Wahlberg, Rockstar. Get the call and all of a sudden he’s in the band.

FG: That’s at least a good story to come out from something terrible.

What happened with Brad, I think, we’ll never know for sure, but we do know that in 2006 we were rehearsing to do a special tribute show for the football player Doug Flutie and one day Brad came into rehearsal with a bandage on his baby finger. We said ‘Oh, Brad, what happened?’ He says “I was riding my motorcycle. I was not going fast, I was coming up to a stop sign, I’m slowing down, there were some wet leaves on the road. I hit the leaves the bike slid out from underneath me. And the next thing, I woke up in the hospital. I looked over and my helmet was cracked.” I was like ‘Holy smoke.’ So, obviously, he had a concussion. At the time we didn’t know anything about concussions or brain injuries. You got knocked out and now you’re ok. He certainly seemed fine.

But now, as you know, the NFL are very conscious about head injuries and how it affects your brain, not only at the moment, but ongoing. You are 10 times more likely to commit suicide if you had a concussion. If you watch football games they are very very conscious about this. If you have a head injury or concussion you’re out of the game. You have to go through protocol to get back in. Not like the old guys ‘Hey! Are you ok? Yeah, sure, no problem.’ At the time, in 2007 we had no idea about that. Three months later he took his own life. Which was exactly the same thing that happened to the singer in INXS. He had a concussion and three months later took his own life. If we had known we could have maybe prevented it and back then we just didn’t know.

FG: Yeah. Wow.

GP: We certainly miss him. I had known him since ’77 when I was with Sammy’s band. We opened up the end of Boston’s first tour and then we did the entire second tour as the opening act so we got to know the guys pretty well and Brad was one of the nicest guys ever.

FG: What do you do when you’re not playing music?

GP:Photography is always been a hobby for me. I particularly like landscape photography a la Ansel Adams. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him or not.

FG: I’m a photographer and familiar with him.

GP: To me Ansel is just the greatest and so I enjoy landscape photography and I even have a couple of large format cameras, 4×5’s.

FG: That’s impressive.

Serious weight to carry around. These days dragging around a digital camera is much easier.

FG: Do you show your photographs anywhere?

Not really, no. Way back in my 20’s I had been doing this for a while and, of course, was in bands. I was busy doing that rather than photography. I was living in California the time and friend of mine said “Hey, there’s a photo contest at the county fair. You should enter some of your stuff.” I said ‘Ok’ and took some pictures off my wall, they were just thumbtacked on the wall, and exhibited them and won a first and a third prize. So I can now say I’m an award-winning photographer. It was just the county fair but to me it’s still an award.

FG: It is an award! You’re creative on guitar, you’re creative with a camera.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about Alliance?

We’ve only done 2 gigs in our entire career because we’ve been so busy with other bands. But, this summer I have off so I was telling the guys in Alliance, ‘Hey, I’m available, if you guys are available, we can do some shows.” You mentioned festivals, and that’s exactly what I think we should do because when you go to festivals you assume you’re going to see some bands you’ve never seen before. I think that would be a great venue for us where people might recognize us from our other bands and now they get to see us on our own. Our record label is based in England and they have festivals over there and in the US and I’m hoping we can do something here this summer.

Interview by Fredda Gordon. Photo courtesy of Alliance.