Monday, August 4, 2014

Gary Pihl's tenure in Boston is 'More Than a Feeling'

Boston is currently touring the U.S. behind new album "Life, Love and Hope."

When a band has such an iconic back catalog as Boston, one of the biggest challenges it faces is getting fans to become as well versed with its new material.

Turns out, however, it's not just a challenge for the fans.

During my recent interview with Boston guitarist Gary Pihl, he mentioned how founder Tom Scholz even took a lead vocal spin on the band's new album, "Life, Love and Hope." When I asked him which song that was, Pihl momentarily came up empty.

"Oh, shoot! I can't remember the name!" he said.

OK, we're just having a little fun with Pihl here -- no doubt it was just a momentary mind glitch in a busy morning of phone interviews for the longtime Boston guitarist -- but it does serve to illustrate the point that nothing the band does going forward will likely ever overshadow the shock and awe created when its debut album dropped in 1976. It remains one of the greatest rock debut albums of all time.

And, as it turns out, Pihl does have perfect memory when it comes to the very first time he heard Boston. (Pihl was a member of Sammy Hagar's solo band from 1977-85. He became a member of Boston when Hagar joined Van Halen.) Most every music fan has a good story about where they were and what they were doing when they first heard a great new band. Trust us, Pihl's story is better than your's.

Here's our chat with Pihl, who will be performing with Boston on Tuesday at USANA Amphitheatre in Salt Lake City.

DOUG FOX: Well, it looks like you’re about halfway through the big summer tour -- so how’s everything going so far?

GARY PIHL: It’s been going very well. We’re just thrilled to death that people seem to like our new album because we’re playing a couple cuts from “Life, Love and Hope,” and people seem to like ’em. Then when we get to the classic hits, the people are singing along and smiling, so there’s nothing more that we could ask for.

FOX: How are the new songs translating to the stage?

PIHL: They seem to be very well received. Of course, people don’t know them, so they’re not singing along with them yet, but we hope that they will in the future.

FOX: One of them that you've been playing is an instrumental, right?

PIHL: Yeah.

FOX: Well at least they can’t sing along to that, you can’t hold that against them! (laughs)

PIHL: That’s true, yeah. (laughs) They should be playing air guitar for that one!

FOX: But which guitarist would they follow?

PIHL: You've got to bring a buddy so they could play the opposite part, you know? (laughs)

FOX: So I understand that you have, like, four guitarists on stage every night -- what’s it like to divvy up the duties like that and with that many people on the same instrument?

PIHL: You know, it’s great because it sounds just that much more like the records. On the records, of course, Tom will double track them so you have two rhythm guitars and then, of course, often two harmony lead guitars going on at the same time. So it’s nice to be able to really capture that live.

FOX: So, an individual guitarist like yourself, obviously I’m sure you play pretty much the same part every night, but on different tours do you ever take on different parts or do you pretty much stick with the part you've kind of learned over the years?

Tom Scholz (left) and Gary Pihl, the two main guitarists in Boston.
PIHL: Most of the time I’ll stick with the part I know and I've done. But every once in a while we’ll change something up, like, ‘Oh, you do this so that I can be playing this other part.’ Or there may be a keyboard part that needs to be played, so we’ll kind of move things around. Of course, Tom is the real keyboard player in the band, but three of us play keys on a song that you’ll hear there as well.

FOX: Now I know that Boston is a very technical-oriented and extremely perfectionist in nature, obviously stemming from the recordings to begin with, but I know you bring that to the stage as well. But I’m wondering, once you get locked in to everything -- as I imagine you are at this point in the tour -- do you pretty much stay with the same setlist every night or is there still some latitude that you guys change things around every so often?

PIHL: We usually try to stay with the same setlist, but every once in a while we’ll throw something new in just for fun or whatever, just ’cause we can. But as you can imagine, at the beginning of the tour we make a list of all the songs where we say, ‘Well, we've got to play this one, we've got to play that one.’ And then friends, relatives, fans will tell us, ‘Oh don’t forget to play this one, you haven’t done this one for a while, for some number of tours’ or whatever. So we’ll try to put in something that we hadn't played in a long time -- again, trying to figure out, you know, you don’t want to play all the fast ones together or all the slow ones together, so you try to mix and match throughout the set and have it build intensity as the set goes along.

FOX: Is that a fun process to try to piece together a setlist? I know you guys have a great problem in that you have so much material that people want to hear and that you’d love to play -- but do you find that it’s difficult to piece that together?

PIHL: It’s only difficult because we just can’t play them all. You know, we wish we could, but they don’t let us play all night.

FOX: Now, I've been a Boston fan from the very first record -- I know that’s not saying much, I mean, who hasn't? -- but what I was realizing was that despite 38 years of fandom, I've only had the opportunity to see the band twice -- once was the “Don’t Look Back” tour and the other was the 20th anniversary tour in '96. But as I was thinking about that it dawned on me that you were playing guitar both nights, even though the first time you weren't even in Boston yet.

PIHL: That’s right. When I joined Sammy’s band in '77, one of the first things we did was to open up the end of Boston’s first tour as Sammy’s manager knew Boston’s manager, and they liked us and we liked them, and they said, “Hey, you guys should open the entire second tour,” the “Don’t Look Back” tour, which is what we did. So, yeah, I've been on every Boston tour, but the first two I was in the opening act.

FOX: Awesome. At the time of the "Don’t Look Back" tour, Sammy’s band was just starting to get it rolling. I was wondering, as a support band, were there any lessons you learned -- whether it be about music, the business or staging concerts -- from watching a headliner like Boston every night at that point in your career?

PIHL: Absolutely. Sure. Again, we were starting off, although Sammy had certainly had success in Montrose, and the other guys had been in other bands as well, so we had professional experience but not on that scale of a huge tour like that. So it was learning and just a great experience to be on the road with the guys and seeing how it was all put together. And evolve really -- back when we were doing those tours in the late '70s, technology was always improving. You know, the sound systems were getting better and better. Then, of course, wireless guitars and wireless microphones came along so the technology has improved every year since then.

FOX: And Tom’s had a big part in that.

PIHL: That’s right. I think we are the only band in the world that plays the amplifiers that we have built.

FOX: Do you build them new every tour?

PIHL: No, no, it’s mostly the same stuff that we've been using since '87. Tom, of course, had the Rockman company, and that’s where he invented the outfit we’re using. And for the '87 tour, that was "Third Stage," we took out all this gear, and it’s still there working fine. And it’s got THAT sound, so that’s all we need.

FOX: I've always wondered, how did Sammy break the news to you guys that he was joining Van Halen? How did that go down?

PIHL: You know, he gathered us together one day and said, “Ah, you know, I hate to say this, guys, but I've got an offer I can’t refuse.” He said, “Van Halen, obviously had lost David Lee Roth and so they were looking for a singer and so they asked me to do it. How can I turn that down?” Of course, (we told him), "You've got to do it, that’s going to be great for your career.” And of course at the time we had no idea what we were going to do, we couldn't go on as the Sammy Hagar band without Sammy. But we certainly wished him well, and he tried to help us get other gigs and all that. Luckily in my case, because I had been on those tours with Boston, I got the call from Tom to work with Boston. I was lucky -- I wasn't out of work for a day. I mean, how lucky is that? But he tried to put the other guys together with the record label and other artists, and it didn't quite happen exactly like that, although our keyboard player actually went on to play with David Lee Roth of all things.

FOX: Who was that?

PIHL: That was Jesse Harms. He played with Roth there for a while on David Lee Roth’s solo album. And then Jesse also went on to play with ...

FOX: He played with Sammy again later didn't he?

PIHL: Yes he did. Once Sammy left Van Halen then he brought back David Lauser on drums and Jesse Harms on keys. We all keep in touch. Sammy, what you see is what you get. He’s a friendly guy, always in a good mood, fun to work with and so once you’re in, you’re friends for life.

FOX: Yeah, I think I saw you on some of those birthday bash videos, too.

PIHL: Yes, I've been down there several times, so, again, he’s a great guy. I've always enjoyed working with him.

FOX: Yeah, I can think of a few examples of major bands plucking replacement members off of groups that opened for them previously -- but your's has to be one of the best stories without being out of work for a single day.

PIHL: Yeah, how lucky can a guy get, you know?

FOX: That first Boston record is so iconic -- it’s one of those debuts that when it comes out and you hear it on the radio it really makes you sit up and take notice that, hey, there’s a new sound or something really exciting is going on. I was wondering if you could remember the very first Boston song that you heard and what your feelings were about it?

PIHL: I can tell you exactly where I was. I was driving down the street in my hometown, (and) I pulled up to a stoplight. So I stop at the light, and there’s a car in front of me. So the guy in the car in front of me jumps out, runs back to me -- and I see that it’s somebody I know, so he must have recognized my car -- he runs back and goes, “Hey, turn on the radio, you've got to listen to this. This is Boston! Turn this on quick!” So I turn on the radio and sure enough here’s “More Than a Feeling.” It’s like, “Wow! What is that sound?” So, yeah, I’ll always remember where I was when I heard the first Boston cut.

FOX: Wow, that’s an amazing story. What town were you in at that time?

PIHL: That was Petaluma, California. It’s just north of San Francisco. The Bay Area is where I met Sammy shortly after that and the rest is history.

FOX: Well, did you grow up there?

PIHL: No, I’m originally from Illinois, born in the suburbs of Chicago, but moved to California. My parents got divorced, my mom moved to California, my dad moved to New Jersey. And I was 12, and they said, “You can choose, whatever parent you want to live with.” I said, “I’m going to California. Sorry, Dad!” So from here I’m a young teenager going to high school in band, my Mom comes home from work one day and says, “Oh, I work with this woman” -- my mom’s a secretary and she said, “I work with this woman in the office and she just moved out here from New Jersey and her son plays guitar, too.” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, everybody’s son plays guitar.” And she said, “But he’s a little older than you, and he stayed in New Jersey, he’s got a band.” You know, blah, blah, blah. And so years later, my mom says, “Well, geez, didn’t Adele’s son do well?” And I said, “Adele? Oh, yeah, the woman that you used to work with.” And she said, “Yeah, Adele Springsteen!”

FOX: No way!

PIHL: So I tell this to my dad and he goes, “Well, I work with J. Geils’ father.” What are the odds of that, you know? (laughs)

FOX: That is amazing. So, you've been in the band 29 years now, right?

PIHL: Yes.

FOX: I was wondering what does a member of Boston not named Tom Scholz do between albums and tours?

PIHL: (laughs) Actually, I’m in another band called December People and it's guys from other classic rock bands like me and we get together in the Holidays and play traditional holiday music, but in the style of classic rock bands. So we’ll do “Joy to the World” as if The Who were doing it. At the start of it, it sounds like “Pinball Wizard,” but instead of “Pinball Wizard” we’re singing “Joy to the World.” And every show we do is a benefit for a local food bank. That’s the reason we do it, you know? And so, obviously, that’s a labor of love for us all and we really appreciate the chance to give something back to the community.

FOX: Now, your role may be bigger than others’, from what I've heard at least, do you actually work with Tom in the studio, you know, when he’s working on things like that? How does that actually work, with the songwriting in the band? I know it’s mainly Tom, but ...

PIHL: Yes, it’s really mostly Tom, although, any number of us will have strong ideas that we’ll present to him, and sometimes he’ll use them, or sometimes he’ll use part of one or rearrange the rest of it or whatever. But he’s the real creative genius behind the whole thing.

FOX: Right, but you are involved to some extent in between time -- you don’t just all show up at the end and have to learn everything that you've never had anything to do with?

PIHL: Right, yes. Tom plays most of the parts, but there’s usually guitar playing where he’ll say, “Here, play this part.” So I’ll do that. So we’re all on there and obviously the singers are definitely there, although on this new album, “Life, Love and Hope,” Tom actually sings the lead on a song.

FOX: Right. Which one was that again?

PIHL: Oh, shoot! I can’t remember the name!

FOX: Was it “Love Got Away”

PIHL: Yes, that’s it.

FOX: Well, I’m pretty sure that the last time you were scheduled in the Salt Lake City area, the “Corporate America” tour, Tom ended up injuring his back the night before so our show got canceled. So just take it easy between then and now, OK?

PIHL: Yeah, I’ll tell him to stay off the roller blades!

FOX: Thank you, Gary. I've really loved talking with you. You have some great stories that I had no idea about.

PIHL: Thanks. And I’m really looking forward to the show and if you can make it, stop by so I can shake your hand, so I can meet you in person.

FOX: Well, I would love to do so, and I definitely plan to be there.