Robert Berry discusses the challenge of upholding Keith Emerson's legacy on new album '3.2 The Rules Have Changed'
30 years after the original '3' album, Robert Berry talks about the challenges of translating the late Keith Emerson's work on the sequel album '3.2 The Rules Have Changed'
Thirty years ago, rock legends Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame) combined forces with American multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Robert Berry to form the progressive rock band '3'. With their powers combined, they produced the prog-rock gem 'To the Power of Three', released in 1988 via Geffen records. The first single from the album, 'Talkin' 'Bout' reached #9 on the Billboard charts and the band toured the US to support the album. With the success of the first release, Geffen Records urged the band to go back into the studio to begin work on a second album, but Emerson felt uncomfortable with Geffen’s momentum stifling and the inconsistent strategy that ultimately cut the first album's success short, consequently prompting the band to put up their gloves. At the time of their breakup, several songs were already written for that second release, some of which were later released on Robert Berry’s solo album, 'Pilgrimage to a Point'. Ultimately, 'To the Power of Three' remained the trio's only collaborative work for three decades.
Nearly three decades later, in October 2015, Robert Berry started speaking to Keith Emerson about releasing the long-delayed follow-up album. Along with renewed fan interest in the band and some help from Frontiers President, Serafino Perugino, Robert had sparked revived enthusiasm from Emerson for pursuing the project. The exchange of musical ideas and song collaborations, which Robert reveals happened mostly over email and telephone, paved the way for the new '3' album, titled '3.2 The Rules Have Changed'.
Unfortunately, on March 11, 2016, Emerson met with a tragic end, taking his own life in his Santa Monica home. The legendary keyboardist had been suffering from a significant amount of nerve damage in his later years, hampering his playing, leaving him, as his then-girlfriend Mari Kawaguchi put it, "depressed, nervous and anxious".
Emerson’s untimely death made the album an uncertainty. Robert was left with Emerson’s final musical ideas for the project. From old cassette tapes, keyboard parts written over the phone, to long discussions about style, the framework of the album was set and ready to be produced.
After several months of grieving and rumination about what to do with what had now become the late Emerson's final compositions, Robert finally decided that the responsibility of monumentalizing Emerson's legacy was now in his hands. What followed was an intense set of sessions in the recording studio where Robert individually recorded each of the different instruments on the tracks, precariously trying to maintain a balance as he tried to be as faithful as possible to Emerson's keyboard parts. "What would Keith do?" was the constant mantra that Robert kept in his head as he filled in the blanks between the unfinished parts that would ultimately go on to become '3.2 The Rules Have Changed'. The album spans nine tracks and is a touching tribute to Emerson's legacy while continuing the sonic theme that was established 30 years ago on the original '3' record.
I spoke to Robert Berry recently to discuss the upcoming album and the mammoth task of upholding Emerson's legacy. Robert was holidaying with his wife in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and he painted quite a picture as he elaborately described the beautiful unhindered view of the deep blue ocean from his hotel room. With the album release just around the corner, it was a well-deserved breather after weeks of constant tinkering in the studio. I first asked Robert about the title of the new album. '3.2' was self-explanatory as it was a follow up to the original '3' album, but 'The Rules Have Changed' is what I was curious about.
"Oddly enough, that title came about after another friend of mine who died just a few weeks after Keith died," Robert revealed. "His name was Trent Gardener and he had a band called Magellan, which is a progressive metal band. He was a very good friend of mine. I was still recovering from the shock of losing Keith. You have to understand that for me, losing Keith had so many different aspects to it. He was my most famous friend, the guy I had a top 10 record with, a funny guy and a lovely person that I spoke with on the phone over the years and I really enjoyed his company. Plus, the follow up '3' album... it was all lost when I lost Keith."
"Then a few months later, I lose another friend and I'm thinking 'Whoa! Things have really changed. What is going on?' Both these guys were great musicians and Keith was the absolute best. So I started to write a song and the initial name of the song was 'Down in the Dark Hole'. Then I thought 'That's a terrible name!'. And as I worked through the lyrics, it became 'The Rules Have Changed' and that just seemed to fit as the right name for the album at that time."
I offered my condolences to Robert as we briefly shared praise for the inimitable Emerson while discussing the recent spate of tragedies from the music world that saw musicians taking their own lives after battling depression. I asked Robert if he saw any signs at all during all his time discussing the new album with Keith.
"I will say quite the contrary," Robert said. "The reason we were finally doing the follow-up '3' album was that a record company put out a new album called '3: Live in Boston' which was our live performance on the radio, and Keith actually got a copy of it. He listened to it, called me up and said 'Robert, we were such a good band. The excitement! The fun! I don't know why we left it all behind.' But, of course, Keith got a lot of criticism when the '3' album first came out from Emerson Lake & Palmer fans."
"So he was excited and when I talked to Frontiers Records, I got Keith a lotta money. I got us a great advance for the album. He was excited about that. He goes 'Who earns that kinda money any more?' And I tell him 'You're Keith Emerson!' What do you mean? He had also talked about the style [of the album]. He wanted it to be within the confines of what we wanted to do, and Frontiers gave us complete artistic control, they gave us a year to do it. Keith was so happy that he said 'You should be my manager.' Jokingly, of course!"
"We had all these things, all these ideas. When we spoke about it, he was happy. And he always had a joke. He always had a funny bit or something silly to say... well not always funny, but he thought it was funny," Robert recalled fondly, with a soft laugh, before his tone turned grim. "I spoke to him a week before he died and the only thing was that he had five concerts to play that he didn't really want to do. He was not happy about it, but he couldn't cancel them. So he was gonna do that and he was just excited about going to see his grandkids. So no, I had no indication. On the contrary, I had every indication that we were gonna do something fun, something he was excited about and something he was gonna make good money with. That's also important you know, it's tough these days to make an income through just music."
"There were a few things I knew he was upset about, but nothing serious," Robert concluded.
We also discussed the sound, themes and lyricism of '3.2 The Rules Have Changed'. I'd had the chance to preview the entire album and I pointed out to Robert that while the album stays thematically true to the original '3' album, the length of some of the songs were longer and it felt like many parts of the record were fleshed out with greater detail. I asked Robert if this was because he spent a lot more time in the studio compared to the original album.
"That's exactly right!" Robert said, much to my delight of having deduced that much correctly. "But also, if you go back 30 years, I was the one trying to keep '3' together. I had written two songs for the second '3' album back then. Both were on my solo album 'Pilgrimage to a Point'. One was called 'The Last Ride into the Sun'. So you can see what I had sort of stepped in and thought we should do. Now you bring it forward 30 years, Keith and I had many phone discussions about how we wanted to keep some of the past while bringing in the present."
"After Keith was gone, my job was to weave all these things together and I kept saying to myself 'What would Keith do here?' And if he did that, then what would I do? I was sort of like an actor. I tried to play both parts in my discussion with myself and with all that, I felt like Keith was sort of working through me. I honestly felt like he was with me and guiding me. Because we had spent so much time on the phone with him playing parts on the piano, and myself playing other parts... sort of working songs back and forth... So I still felt his presence."
This blending of the old and the new was perhaps best exemplified in the lead single from the album, 'Somebody's Watching' which is the only track which has been teased so far. The track begins with samples of a beeping alarm and camera flashes - sounds that are ubiquitous in today's times. Yet the second the keys kick in on the intro, it instantly transports you back to the prog-rock nostalgia of the original '3' album. Listen to the song below.
But two tracks other than the lead single really stood out for me. The first was the track 'Our Bond', which, as I pointed out to Robert, had a fair bit of Spanish in the lyrics, similar to the track 'Desde la Vida' from the first album. I asked Robert if he wrote the Spanish parts himself, which resulted in a hilarious revelation from the multi-instrumentalist. "You know... I hope it's correct. Because on the first album... Carl Palmer speaks Spanish, so he helped me translate. There's a huge progressive music following in South America, in Spain and many Spanish speaking countries. And we wanted to do something for them, and Carl was excited to translate it."
"Now, on the new album, I did it myself. I got a translation program to do it. Because I don't speak Spanish," Robert admitted. "I would like to speak Spanish, but I don't!" he snuck in a joke quickly. "So I translated with this program, and I learned it phonetically little by little, and then I had to sing it and get comfortable. I'm still waiting for someone in Argentina, let's say, to tell me if I'm saying the words right," he said with a playful chuckle.
"I hope that translation software is coming in handy in Mexico," I said.
"See that's the other thing," Robert chimed in. "The Spanish in Mexico is different from the Spanish in say, Brazil. So I just had to go with it." With a note of seriousness, Robert added: "I just had to do the whole album the way I felt I needed to. I felt like it was coming through me. I just had to be comfortable with it. When I was finishing it, I wasn't even sure if it was ever gonna be released. It was a very hard thing for me to finish. Very emotional. So I thought I'm just gonna do this for me first of all. The Spanish was part of that. I just did it the way that I felt was right."
The other track that stood out for me is the penultimate track of the album - 'This Letter'. It's a song that unmistakably stands out from the rest of the album, opening with jangly acoustic guitars and arpeggio flourishes, it's an intimate, folksy confession that runs through a good three minutes before the signature Keith Emerson-reminiscent keys kick in, ultimately culminating into a glorious chaos of progressive rock notes. I enquired if the song's distinct arrangement was because it showcased more of Robert's own songwriting as opposed to Emerson's.
"First of all, I'd like to say that Greg Lake got to do an acoustic song on the ELP record so I get to do one," he started in his typical jovial fashion, before giving me the low-down on the song. "Keith and I had talked about possibly doing an acoustic guitar number. Unfortunately, I was ready to send him the first part, the guitar part, a day or two before he died. I had it written. I was feeling extremely good about it. Because it's about things in life that come our way that's just inexplicable and the love that we share... we can't really explain how we connect to our loved ones - my beautiful wife for instance or children... It's just something magical."
"I said to Keith 'that's what it starts with' and at the end, I want you to fill everything and just make it this great Keith Emerson loud and crazy kind of playing. It was a lot of fun and it sort of expresses the parts we don't understand 'cause it's so wild and crazy. Unfortunately, he never heard that song," Robert said, before revealing that the song was inspired by an incident from 10 years ago when Emerson was on the verge of being a grandfather, rather regretfully because he didn't want to be old. But a decade later, Robert recalls how Emerson would pine to spend time with his grandkids. This primal, inexplicable human connection is what brought the song to life.
Another curious fact about '3.2 The Rules Have Changed' is that unlike the original, ELP member Palmer is curiously missing from all the credits. When I asked Robert about why the third member of '3' was not on board, he assured me that they had Palmer's blessings for the project, but he chose to sit this one out. "Interestingly enough, over the years, I had spoken to Carl about doing a second '3' album, and we both felt that Keith would never do it. Because in 1988, Keith got criticized for playing songs that Carl had written. Because Carl had already been in Asia (the band) and he was playing his songs. But it was only Keith that received severe criticism and it was very hard on him at the time. So that's why he didn't want to continue," Robert revealed.
"Over the years, I talked to Carl and we thought 'well maybe we would', but he was so busy. And then in about 2015, I talked to him again and said, 'Carl, I've been talking to Keith about this. I think we're making a new album. I know you're busy, but how about I came to your hotel room with digital pads and my computer, and you can just play the drum parts on pads and I can go back and fix it in the studio.'"
Mustering his best impersonation of Carl Palmer, Robert went on: "He said 'Robbie, I don't want to play on pads! I'm a drummer. I don't play on pillows and coffee tables!'"
"Of course, Carl had his ELP (Emerson, Lake & Palmer) legacy going, which is really fantastic. It's all very fresh, with all-guitars and no keyboards. The musicians are fantastic. Carl's truly dedicated to it, and I'm proud of what he's done, having re-invented all of it but he's also honored it, with history in it. So he made it very clear that he was happy with the news of the new album but it wasn't right for him now. He was totally dedicated with ELP."
'3.2 The Rules Have Changed' is due out this Friday, August 10 via Frontiers Music. You can pre-order the album here. It's an album that not only marks the resurrection of '3', but is also the story of a long and eventful friendship, and the bittersweet journey of one friend giving all that he's got to uphold the legacy of the other — the legendary Keith Emerson.