Apr 09, 2015
An Interview with Boston’s Gary Pihl
In the 70s, the most popular city in Massachusetts raised a rock band that stole the city’s name and the hearts of listeners around the world. Now, almost 40 years later, the band refuses to surrender stadiums, airwaves, and their loyal fans.
BOSTON is known for their contagious, ageless singles, like “More Than a Feeling,” “Peace of Mind,” “Rock and Roll Band,” and “Amanda.” Their 1976 self-titled album remains one of the best-selling debut albums in U.S. history. BOSTON went on to release five more studio albums. The band traveled the world with a dreamy spaceship. With them, the world mourned the loss of their original lead singer.
The greatest American rock band continues to conquer the scene.
Founder, guitarist, keyboardist, chief-songwriter, and producer Tom Scholz has performed with many talented musicians who have helped contribute to Boston’s incredible legacy, but no one more than the band’s lead guitarist Gary Pihl.
The endlessly talented and wise Pihl took time out of his busy schedule (preparing for another fantastic tour) to speak with us before Boston’s SunFest debut. In the interview below, Pihl shares with us his path to BOSTON, his philanthropic side projects, and the “glue” that has kept BOSTON in our ears and hearts all these years.
In your upcoming tour, you have a good chunk of Florida dates. I believe five, including West Palm Beach. Do you look forward to anything in particular when coming to Florida?
The audience. Whatever it is, Florida has something special in the water. Everybody is just so friendly and ready to rock whenever we get there. We always enjoy going to Florida.
What can SunFest fans expect to see and hear on Sunday, May 3?
Certainly we will be playing some of the hits that everybody likes, but we will also be playing some songs that we haven’t played for quite awhile. Of course we have a Facebook page and we had asked for recommendations, so people wrote in with a whole bunch of songs that we hadn’t played in a long time. We have a bunch that we are going to throw in there that will be audience favorites.
For this tour, will you have seven members on stage?
Not quite on stage at the same time.
Our drummer, Jeff Neal, is a high school teacher up in Maine, and he is such a dedicated guy. We said, ‘Gee, we got some dates for the band starting in April and into May,’ and he said, ‘Oh gosh, I’m still in school at that time! Can you find an alternate drummer?’
So that’s exactly what we did.
There are normally six of us in the band, but our seventh person is an alternate drummer and his name is Nick D’Virgilio. He is an excellent musician and he’ll be with us in Florida, for the first month of shows. Then Jeff will take over and do the rest of the tour.
I know many talented musicians have shared the stage with BOSTON over the years. Do you still need rehearse as a band? Do you have any fun induction rituals?
Is there a hazing process, is that what you’re asking? [Laughs.] Not quite.
But you’re exactly right, we’ve had some wonderful musicians over the years. Everybody is very professional when they come in, prepared, and they know the songs.
They all say, ‘Yeah, I know these songs backwards and forwards, I hear them on the radio so much!’ We’ve been blessed to have some terrific musicians with us on all our tours.
The other side of the question is yes, we definitely rehearse, and we’ve started already. Even though we’ve played the songs all these years and everybody knows them, there’s a special chemistry that happens when you get everybody all in the same room, and play, and get that groove going. That’s something you can’t replace through iChat or Skype. You have to be there in the same room and do it.
What is challenging now that wasn’t, say, 20 years ago? What has become easier?
Oh boy. In my mind, everything keeps getting easier. At least we are really able to enjoy ourselves and the fans.
I guess that’s what the difference is. When you’re a band just starting out people don’t know your songs. The first time you play a song in front of people, you don’t always get that wild enthusiasm, because it’s the first time they’ve ever heard that song. But now people obviously know all the songs we’re playing. Even our newest album [Life, Love and Hope], which came out now two years ago, people know that because it’s been two years. But I guess that would be the challenge, that whenever you have a new album people don’t know [the songs] and you have to pull it off, make sure it sounds as good as the record.
But to play all the old songs that everybody is really familiar with, and to look out in the audience and people are smiling and singing along, there’s no better feeling than that in the world.
You just brought up “Life, Love, and Hope,” which leads me to my next question. What are you most proud of on that release?
Well, certainly the title track. And we do that one live. I think [fans] are going to enjoy that.
I’ve read about your two side projects, December People and Color Three. Can you tell me a little about those bands?
Yes, I’ll start with Color Three first.
One of the terrific musicians we’ve had over the years is Kimberley Dahme. She’s a wonderful singer-songwriter, lives in Nashville. She has toured with us [BOSTON] many times, but she has had her own musical career.
One day a promoter was putting together a big benefit show in Chicago for the veterans and they called her up and said, “Would you come and perform at this [benefit]?” Of course she said, “Yeah, sure!”
And the promoter said, “But you know, it’s a big show. There’s going to be 100,000 people or something. Could you put together a band, to make it a little bigger event for yourself?” And she said, “Uh yeah, okay? Sure?”
So she called me and Jeff, our drummer from BOSTON, and we said, ‘Absolutely, lets do that!…Should we have a name for the band or should it just be Kimberley Dahme?
Kimberly said, ‘Actually, my son came up with a name! He wants to call us Color Three.’ And we said, ‘Okay, that’s fine!’
Of course, we are all songwriters, so we put together an album’s worth of stuff and recorded it. Our thought was that maybe every show we do, we do as a benefit, for some cause, which ties me into December People.
Every show we do as December People, we do as a benefit for a local food bank. My buddy, Robert Berry, who’s played with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer –right now he’s in the Greg Kihn Band–, but he wanted to put together something for the holidays where we would play traditional holiday songs but in the styles of classic rock bands.
We start a song that sounds like The Who doing “Pinball Wizard” with the acoustic guitar but instead we go into “Joy to the world!” And of course the audience gets it right away. They laugh and clap. We do “The Night Before Christmas” that sounds like “Stairway to Heaven,” and we do “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” that sounds like ZZ Top. Instead of “Uha, ha, ha,” we say, “A-ho, ho, ho! You better watch out, you better not cry!” with that bluesy ZZ Top feel.
The audience loves it because they get the joke, and every show we do is a benefit for a local food bank. We just do [December People in] November and December. It’s a lot of fun!
Not that you’re looking for a break from BOSTON’s music, but it must be a breath of fresh air to play seasonal tunes.
Exactly! Especially at that time of year. Robert always says, ‘It’s the happiest time of the year!’ It’s a great way for us, and the audience, to give back to their local community, and that was his idea.
We could donate to any number of charities, but the local [angle] is something that hits home with everybody. We all have homeless and undernourished people in our own communities. It’s a great way for us to help the local communities.
And we have some other terrific musicians in that band! We have Jack Foster, from the Jack Foster band, Mike Vanderhule from Y&T, Dave Medd from the Tubes, and Robert plays in the Greg Kihn Band. All these other bands, including Boston, usually don’t play around Christmas time so we all have the time off.
It’s a great way for us to get together, have fun, and try to do something good for the community.
In your bio on BOSTON’s website, your band mate Kimberley Dahme says, “In my opinion, [Pihl] is the glue that holds Boston together.” You can certainly say yourself, but what do you believe is the glue that has kept Boston successful all these years?
It’s the music, no question about it.
It’s something so many people have either grown up with, or found recently. There’s a couple of BOSTON songs in video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. We’ll have 12-year-old kids say, ‘Gee, I just found this new band called BOSTON on Guitar Hero. I want to go see them!’ It’s been an amazing ride. We get a real range of people, but it’s always the music that they’re attracted to.
But I’ll have to say Tom Scholz [is also the glue]. The writer of all this music is a really special guy. He’s a terrific guitarist and keyboard player. He’ll always end up on those lists at the end of the year, the ‘Top 100 Greatest Guitar Players of All Time.’ Tom’s always on there. But he’s also on the ‘Top 100 Keyboard Players of All Time.’ There’s nobody else in the world that’s on both of those lists, except Tom. Then you throw in the fact that he wrote all of these terrific songs.
The first album was the biggest debut selling album ever. He’s a special guy and has been great to work with. I’ve known him since 1977, when I was in the opening act at the end of BOSTON’s first tour. Of course, that was the Sammy Hagar band. I played with Sammy for eight years and we were the opening act at the end of [BOSTON’s] first tour. They liked us, and we liked them. And they said, ‘Hey, you guys should open up our entire second tour!’ So that’s what we did.
From 1978 in to 1979, we traveled all around the country as the opening act for BOSTON. When people come to the show and I meet them afterwards they say, ‘Hey, I saw you in ‘78!’ and I say, ‘Well, I was there but I was in the opening band…’ and they say, ‘I know! You were with Sammy! It was great. It was awesome!’
And as a matter of fact, I looked ahead to the SunFest schedule, and Sammy is playing! It’s a small world to hear Sammy is going to be at the same show I am.
If BOSTON disbanded today (which we are all glad is not the case), what would you want to be remembered for by your band mates, and by your fans?
Well certainly by the band mates as a team player. That really goes back to my days with Sammy [Hagar] as well.
When Sammy was looking for a guitarist, and I’m sure Tom was probably the same way, you get lots of guys that are technically way better than I’ll ever be. They can play a million notes per hour. That’s not me. I’m not one of those extremely flashy guys, but I hope that I play the song well. That’s what Sammy taught me. [He said,] ‘Well, we got other guys who can play circles around all of us, but they’re not playing the song.’ That’s what I’d want to be remember for, for being a team player.
And really the same thing for the audience as well: Yeah, Gary’s a great musician, but he fits with the band. It makes it part of the synergy, the sum is greater to the equal of the parts. That’s what I hope we could all be.
What advice do you have for other musicians?
I’ve had a chance to meet some young musicians growing up and they ask me, ‘How’d you get your first break? What happened? What did you do?’ That’s my chance to tell them my story and I hope that will help them in their life and career, no matter what they do.
The first thing is my dad wanted me to go to college. Of course I said, ‘Oh dad, I want to be a rock musician. They don’t teach rock music in college.’ He said, ‘No, but they do teach music, and if you really love music you should go to school to learn it. Do whatever you want to do.’
He didn’t say be a lawyer or doctor, or this or that. He said, ‘Do whatever you want to do, but go to school to learn how to do it.’ He drove me over to a local community college to sign me up and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll go.’ But once I got there, I loved it. This is the story I tell to young musicians or just young people that I meet. One of the guys sitting next to me, in one of my classes in the music department, was Johnny Colla who went on to play sax with Huey Lewis and the News. You never know who you’re going to be sitting next to in school.
Just go to school to learn whatever it is you want to do, whatever you love and enjoy doing. Be the best you can at it. That’s the advice my dad gave me and I’ve tried to pass that on.
The other side of it is kind of a sad note. When Sammy was looking for a guitarist, I was in the in the San Francisco area with him. When he called me up to come audition, he said, ‘Hey Pihl, you into drugs?’ And I said, ‘Well no, why?’ And he said, ‘Well, my first guitar player overdosed by using cocaine in the bathroom of a gas station. So I’m looking for some guys who aren’t into drugs.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, okay. That’s me.’
That’s the other advice I’m able to give young people. They look at rock stars, and think, ‘Oh, it’s all sex, drugs, and rock and roll, yeah, sure.’ But no, that’s not the case. I got my first gig, my big break, with Sammy because I didn’t do drugs. And I’m glad to say I’ve been married here for 39 years! I met my wife in high school.
Those are things that I try to tell young people. Those things mean more to me, to perhaps influence someone else’s life and say, hey, here’s how I did it. And tell [young adults] the truth, here’s the real truth behind this. That’s as important as playing for 100,000 people.
Last question, when are you happiest?
I gotta say on stage! Although my wife might say, “On stage?!!” She’ll appreciate that. Again, we met in high school, and [performing music is] what I’ve wanted to do my entire life. So she’s happy to see me happy. Yeah, up on stage, looking out to the audience and people smiling and singing along, that many people having a good time. There’s no better feeling than that.
I get a lump in my throat and sometimes can’t sing the parts. That’s my happiest moment that I get to do every night on tour.
BOSTON will perform on the Tire Kingdom Stage on Sunday, May 3, 2015.