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interview: Kerry Minnear of Gentle Giant

By Anthony Garone

The keyboardist from Gentle Giant tells us what he's been up to lately.

A Friendly Disclaimer

The following interview content with Kerry Minnear  of Gentle Giant is in a pretty different format than you might expect because of the nature of how Kerry and I met and conducted an informal interview over the weekend of October 3, 2015. It was not filmed, no audio was captured, and it was completely impromptu. This may seem less like an interview than any other interview you’ve ever read; however, I’ve never claimed to be a journalist, nor even a storyteller. I can assure you I will do my best here to describe the experience I had talking at great length with Kerry.

Also, Kerry did review his answers via email and helped with some corrections and misrememberances. (Is that a word?) He has given his “thumbs up” for this interview.

This is a long-form article because it is such a personal story and I’m writing this as I’m coming off a bit of a high from the events that have taken place just hours ago.

Never heard of Gentle Giant? Check out our Discover post about Gentle Giant!

BACKGROUND

Gentle Giant is a band very, very close to my heart. Their music was food for my soul when I was growing up. From contrapuntal multi-part vocal pieces like Knots  and On Reflection , to atonal power rock like Proclamation  and Advent of Panurge , to beautiful ballads like Think of Me With Kindness  and A Reunion , there is seemingly no end to the breadth and depth of their music. There is a sweet mix of nostalgia, awe, and mystery for me when I think of these (and other) GG songs and the musicians behind them.

Most of their music was written by Ray Shulman , Derek Shulman , and Kerry Minnear , which made these guys heroes to me. As a guitarist, I have paid particular attention to how Gary Green  contributed electric guitar parts to this music, even when it seemed juxtaposed or anachronistic amidst medieval and baroque moments sprinkled throughout GG’s diverse musical portfolio.

Many of my musical influences have also listed Gentle Giant as a significant influence. Mike Keneally called them out specifically in our interview with him as he spent an entire summer learning every GG guitar (and probably keyboard) part he could. Many friends and family musicians have spent hours talking about GG’s music with me and the influence the group has had on them. All this to say: GG is a non-trivial part of my life.

GORGG

It turns out that GG is a non-trivial part of many other people’s lives as well! This summer, I received an email from an Israeli guitarist named Yehuda about our mutual efforts in fighting our way through playing the King Crimson piece, Fracture . After a few months of back-and-forth communication, he asked me if I listened to Gentle Giant, to which I emphatically replied, “Yes!” Then he informed me that he’s an organizer of an event called GORGG [Global On-Reflection Giant Gathering], which is an annual gathering of the GG mailing list members, including original GG members Kerry Minnear, Gary Green, and Malcolm Mortimore . He said, “Consider yourself invited,” and I immediately booked my travel.

Make Weird Music gift boxes for Kerry Minnear and Gary Green

I made some custom gift boxes as a token of appreciation for Gary and Kerry. The boxes contained a handwritten card, an Amazon gift card, and a USB flash drive containing videos of the  Steve Vai interview,  Mike Keneally interview,  Harnch for 4 guitars, and several GG-inspired songs I’d released (namely Pune  and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentle Giant ).

What Have I Gotten Myself Into?

The insanity of doing all this didn’t hit me until a couple days before I had to fly to Montreal for GORGG. “I’m going to spend money I don’t want to spend to fly to a place I’ve never been to meet a bunch of people I don’t know based on an email invitation from another guy I’ve never met who lives on the other side of the planet.” The idea of traveling to new places is exciting to many people, but not me. I’m what you might call a “homebody.” I don’t speak French, I don’t like flying, and I’m uncomfortable traveling without a business purpose or without my wife.

The only guarantee I had of a good time was a ticket to see Three Friends , a GG tribute band consisting of Gary Green, Malcolm Mortimore, and several other talented musicians who’ve formed to perform music by Gentle Giant. My flight landed at 5PM on Saturday, October 3, and I had to check in to my hotel and get to the venue by 7PM–or was it 8PM? The concert ticket email (written in French) had both times listed. It was a hectic evening made a little more stressful by an unexpected traffic jam on the freeway as the bus was heading from the airport to downtown Montreal.

Three Friends Concert

The concert venue doors opened at 7PM and I waited an hour amongst people (primarily speaking French) all of whom seemed to have a buddy to hang with. I hadn’t felt so lonely in quite some time.

The opening act, The Moulettes , blew me away (more on that in another post coming soon) and Three Friends performed. Three Friends were great, too! I’d never seen/heard Gentle Giant music performed live, so it was a real treat to get ~2 hours of it amongst ~1,200 enthusiastic fans. At some point during the show, I saw Kerry Minnear sitting about 10 seats to my right and my stomach clenched in nervous excitement. “He’s here! He’s really here!” I had no idea at this time how this would be the very tip of the iceberg in terms of my interaction with him over the course of the next two days.

After the show, I saw a guy with a GORGG shirt and introduced myself. He said to meet in the “hospitality room” at the hotel after the show. I didn’t know where that really was and I was pretty exhausted from traveling all day, so I just went back to my hotel and got some much-needed rest.

Meeting Gary Green

In the morning, I found the hospitality room. No one was there. I waited in the lobby until I saw a guy wearing a Gentle Giant shirt. He was a college-grad filmmaker named Morgan Miller  who made a great music video based on Free Hand .

Pretty funny.

Soon, I met a few other super-friendly people (namely Phil Nomore) and then Gary Green and his wife. I nervously pulled the gift box from my jacket pocket, thanking him as he opened it up. He was touched and gave me a big hug, thanking me for the gift. It was so welcoming! Then someone suggested we get a picture together.

We had a nice conversation and then went our separate ways for a morning activity and lunch. I went with Phil, “twosheds”, and his wife, to a pub to watch a soccer game on TV. Then we went to a small coffee shop to see The Moulettes play again, where Malcolm kindly introduced himself and Kerry ended up sitting down at the same table as me. Feeling slightly overwhelmed, I gave Kerry the gift box and he put it in his pocket, thanking me quietly. About 15 other GORGG attendees filed in over time. The place was packed.

Meeting Kerry Minnear

After The Moulettes slayed us all with a wonderful acoustic set, approximately 20 GORGG people left to find a pub. Drinking is a frequent activity at GORGG. On the way to the pub, I saw Kerry looking around calling my name.

“Antony? Antony?” (This is how British people say my name.)

“Yes?” I replied.

“Thank you so, so much for the gift. I am deeply moved and would love to do an interview.”

“Wow, thank you, Kerry!”

“Here’s the thing, I don’t like being filmed and broadcast on YouTube, so can we do it informally? And what do you want to talk about? I’m a pretty boring interview.”

“Hah, I doubt that!” I said. “I’m asking people questions about creativity, motivation, finding their own unique voice, composition, and those kinds of things. It’s a way for me to learn myself as I do these interviews.”

“Oh, wonderful. I should be able to answer those questions. But, can we just do the interview now, instead? While we’re walking? I’m probably only good for about 20 or 30 minutes of conversation.”

“Sure!”

He then introduced me to his wife, who also thanked me for the gift. I was astounded at their humility and down-to-earth nature.

Kerry and I ended up talking for ~90 minutes about a variety of subjects. I’ll try to recount them here as best I can. I did not expect to do an ad-hoc interview and had brought a suitcase full of video, audio, and lighting equipment just in case either Gary or Kerry found the time to do an interview.

Interview Summary

Keep in mind that this interview was not recorded and is not a direct transcript in any way. What I’ve written below is a best-attempt at capturing Kerry’s words by memory on my flight back home from Montreal.

I’d consider it a synthesized recounting of events and conversation, at best. He is a man of Christian faith and is humble beyond description. He specifically doesn’t want to be “quoted” or committed to a misspoken statement. So, I will do my best to summarize what we talked about and try to recall what he said as he said it in a way that synthesizes a lot of our casual conversation.

What Happened After Gentle Giant?

After Gentle Giant disbanded in 1980, everyone went their separate ways. Ray [Shulman] went on to make techno music and did well with that. He used the pseudonym of “Head Doctor” and was part of a larger crowd of floating musicians doing these sort of techno releases for discos and clubs. After doing music for TV adverts he went on to do video and DVD work, like building interactive menus and assembling DVD content for Marillion, Queen, and some Hollywood stuff. He’s done all the artwork and video stuff for our recent releases, too, like The Power and the Glory remix DVD  and the new Octopus remix DVD . He and I experimented with working together but our ideas were so different and distractions plentiful it meant we couldn’t make it work at that time. That was a few years ago.

Derek went on to work in the music business. He was always the business person behind Gentle Giant, which was great for us and difficult in some ways. He managed our salaries, helped to use record company advances effectively. The record company would give us a sizable advance and Derek would split it up. The priority was of course the studio time, and the left over money covered our living costs.

Another great thing about Derek managing the financial affairs was that when he wanted a raise, he would make sure we all got raises, so none of us would have to ask for more money. Derek still retains a lot of the creative control over the band. Ray is the whizz kid of dvd authoring and illustrations. My wife does all the bookkeeping and paperwork.

As for me, I wanted to use my musical capabilities for something different than the rock band performance context. Between 1980 and 1985, I was part of a Christian evangelistic team, working throughout the United Kingdom. Their musical director had stayed with me for a time when the team came to Dorset and eventually the family and I moved to Cornwall where the team were based. We went to churches all over England across various denominations, although I don’t think we entered any Catholic churches, which is a real shame because the Catholics had been responsible for the last major revival throughout England some time ago. I mostly lived off of royalties and “love gifts” from other believers who contributed to the cause.

In 1985, we couldn’t afford to live that way anymore. We had young children to think about, so we moved to the Midlands and I began teaching music to children, while also producing music for children’s educational TV. I never really told anyone about my work with Giant, although a couple of students did find out and we had fun talking about that. But, I didn’t use my experience with Giant to get ahead except for one job where it was relevant to have experience with percussion arrangements and band-leading. Teaching children was just wonderful - except when I had students that did not practice or put the time in that was required.

We’ve been living in a typical English leafy suburban town near Birmingham for some time now, although we both miss the countryside. My wife’s mother is close by as are our grown-up kids, so I don’t imagine we will be moving too far away.

What Are You Up To Lately?

I retired a couple years ago and my wife also retired, so we have been spending a lot of time at home, helping our children out with their lives and taking care my mother-in-law. It’s an ordinary life, really. We have a couple of grandchildren and we get to see them often.

As far as music, I play very regularly at church. I play more guitar now, and some bass. Our church is about 100 people with 4 drummers (not at the same time like King Crimson), so I don’t play drum. For the most part, I volunteer and participate where I am needed. I fill the gaps.

Speaking of King Crimson, they were the first rock band I ever really heard. They had amps and electric instruments and made all sorts of raucous noise! It was wonderful!

I don’t like leading the church band or choosing the music because I’m too picky musically. If I get music from someone else, I just play it to the best of my ability and try to create an environment where people can experience and meet God. There can be a fine line when playing some of the pad patches because it can almost feel manipulative playing certain chords and picking bass notes that have real resonance and impact on people. But, I do what I can and serve honestly.

Are You Writing Any New Music?

In terms of composing, I’ve been in a bit of a dry spell and I’m working through that. It has been the cause of some anxiety because I know what I used to do with Giant and that work set a personal expectation of a standard for my music. Perhaps I am a different person now or I’ve evolved. I am still looking for that person inside of me. Nowadays, I start to compose and I don’t seem to have any ideas that really pull me in and show real cause for mental investment. If it isn’t worth the investment, I don’t find much reason to do anything but put it to one side.

I am usually composing on the piano when I do try to compose. Sometimes I’ll just play some chord progressions and let a finger or two wander and do what they wish, but nothing in the past couple of years has really been fruitful. It’s been a challenge for me.

One of my daughters was involved in Lord of the Dance , the Michael Flatley  thing, and just recently has sung with Dave Bainbridge ’s Celestial Fire . And my other daughter is singing in another band. I thought it would be nice to be able to write some nice contrapuntal songs that the four of us (my son is a drummer but has joined us on vocals occasionally) could perform together, so I promised myself and them that I would write some stuff in my retirement, but it just hasn’t gone anywhere.

I have a studio upstairs in the loft at home and a way of recording the piano downstairs. Most ideas start at the piano and if there’s anything worth investing in, I’ll take that idea to the computer upstairs where the rest of the instruments are. It’s not a very convenient workflow. Perhaps that has affected my lack of productivity as well.

I still have my old white cello, though the bow is broken and the instrument is quite beat up after someone borrowed it. I’ve got my Tokai Stratocaster copy, which I got very cheap for 80 quid somewhere, and I would love to upgrade, but I really dislike the instrument shopping experience. I’ll try a strat or a tele in the store and bring my Tokai to compare with the new guitar and say, “No, this isn’t as nice as my Tokai.” Those guitars are looked upon favorably in the market, it seems.

Most of my gear is pretty low end and most of my friends have nicer equipment than I do, which is something I probably need to change. I’m looking at getting some new gear, like a better Strat, maybe a Tele, and an Avid Eleven Rack.

What do you listen to for inspiration?

I love a lot of the early church music, such as William Byrd. I am a big fan of Bach. I like a lot of choral music and classical music. A friend here at GORGG just gave me a CD of Gabriel Faure’s piano quintets, which should be nice as I’m already familiar with several of Faure’s works. I don’t care much for modern pop music or much of the church music nowadays. The choruses and the songs are often difficult to sing and uninspiring.

Interesting Tidbits

Kerry also shared several interesting facts about his life that I thought would be worth noting:

  • He owned a Lotus Super Seven Series 4  (I have always wanted a Super 7 and even owned a kit for a replica!)
  • Knots was not written on paper. They recorded it one layer at a time in the studio under Kerry’s guidance.
  • He once went to play Experience  on a Mighty Wurlitzer organ  wearing a black cape and got stuck in the organ pit when he couldn’t find the ‘up’ button
  • While driving the tour bus through Arizona, he slammed on the brakes upon seeing a roadrunner  crossing the road, which woke up the entire band and he was so excited to tell them what he’d seen.
  • His vibraphone  was bought from his percussion teacher at the Royal Academy of Music , I forget whether he said he still had them, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t.
  • He doesn’t feel that Gentle Giant fit within the ‘prog rock’ genre. It’s too constrained a category to define what GG was going for.
  • Despite living an hour from Robert Fripp  and being in the touring circuit at the same time as King Crimson, Kerry and Robert have never met.
  • Kerry is a big Peter Gabriel  fan, but the two have never met. They were recently in the same room at the 2015 Prog Awards where Gentle Giant won a lifetime achievement award, but Kerry and Peter didn’t cross paths.

Wrap-Up

Kerry and I spent many hours getting to know each other personally that weekend. I could not believe what a kindred spirit I’d found in him and I feel that we have developed a new friendship that I hope will endure for years to come. I am so grateful for the experience I had at GORGG and the open arms with which everyone welcomed me. What a great community! Next year’s GORGG can’t come soon enough…

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