Gary Pihl may not be a household name but to everyone familiar with Classic Rock his contributions to two of the most successful bands from the 70 s stands as a testament to his versatility and reliability and should not be overlooked. He started out in 1969 playing in a few bands in the San Francisco bay area before getting his big break by signing on to be the second guitarist in Sammy Hagar s band, a gig he probably never thought he d get as Sammy had already passed him over a few times prior. He ended up staying with Hagar for 8 years, his style perfectly complimenting Sammy s, pushing his boss and the band into becoming one of the tightest working units right up until the early 80 s. This would all end suddenly in 1985 when Sammy announced that he was about to become the new lead singer of Van Halen. What could have been seen as a negative situation turned instantly positive as Boston leader Tom Scholtz immediately enlisted Gary s help to assist in the completion of the Third Stage album. The album would eventually go to number one and Gary suddenly found himself with a new passion, one that has lasted 17 years. Boston released Corporate America in 2002 and followed that up with a year s heavy dose of touring. They are back on the road again this summer and have hinted that there may be a few surprises in the not so distant future.
Ryan Sparks, June 2004
CRR: Boston is getting ready to go out on the road again this summer?
Gary: Yeah we ve been practicing, we ve gotten the band together a few times already, we don t all live in the same state. I m the only other guy who lives in the Boston area besides Tom (Scholtz) although Brad Delp lives up in New Hampshire which isn t too far away.
CRR: Corporate America was released two years ago, are there plans for a new album in the near future?
Gary: Yes absolutely. We re always writing new songs. Anthony (Cosmo) our newest member is so prolific he writes about three songs before breakfast and they re all good (laughs). So we ve all got a bunch of ideas cooking and we re looking forward to see where that goes.
CRR: I heard that Tom is re-mixing Corporate America to be re-released, is that true?
Gary: We had the idea that we would re-release it with some new tracks. We were a bit disappointed with the sales and weren t really happy with the distribution of the last album and so the thought was to re-release it because not too many people knew it was out there and at the same time, because we re always writing new stuff the idea was to put a few new tracks on there as well which will be one more reason for people to buy it.
CRR: So it s not being re-mixed and it wasn t a case of not being satisfied with the finished product?
Gary: Oh no, the songs that are on there we like so we won t mess with those, we re just going to add some new ones.
CRR: People may remember you as the second guitarist in Sammy Hagar s band and before that you were in a Bay Area band called Day Blindness which released one album in 1969. How did you end up playing with them, did you grow up in the Bay area?
Gary: No I started out in the suburbs of Chicago but moved to the San Francisco Bay area when I was twelve. I kind of feel like I grew up in both places in a sense although people say "Oh Chicago, you re a Chicago blues guy?" but at ten years old I wasn t hanging out with Muddy Waters, but yeah with Day Blindness in 69 we were part of that San Francisco scene.
CRR: Was that your recording debut with Day Blindness?
Gary: Yeah I was only 19 at the time although when I was 14 we had Fantasy Records come to a battle of the bands that we were playing at, they liked us and brought us into the studio which at that time was in San Francisco, we recorded some tracks, they said "You re a little young, but keep up the good work and we ll keep track of you." We were thrilled to death; I mean I was only a freshman in high school. That band broke up as all high school bands do. With Day Blindness we did the one album and Ralf Gleeson the rock critic from way back then gave us a very nice review which was very nice of him to do. We changed some members and also changed the name of the band to Fox and actually released a single which didn t do very much but the two members in that band were Johnny Vernaza and Roy Garcia, Roy eventually went on to play with some local bands and Johnny A.K.A. Johnny V went on play in Elvin Bishop s band. I ll try to be brief with the discography but after that I joined a band called Crossfire and the two brothers Mitchell and David Froom were the keyboard players in that band.
CRR: Mitchell Froom really?
Gary: Yes The Mitchell Froom. He went on to some big things playing in bands and producing people like Paul McCartney, The Pretenders, Los Lobos and Crowded House where he played organ for them, he ended up marrying Suzanne Vega. That was a great band though and I wish we would have made it with them but it was never the right thing at the right time. While we in that band we were living in this town just north of San Francisco called Petaluma and also living there was Norman Greenbaum from "Spirit in The Sky" fame, of course it being a small town we ran into him. At that time he was about fours years removed from his last big song, this was in 74 and he had slowed down, he wasn t trying to be a rock star any more. He was playing the acoustic guitar and he wanted to do some gigs and he suggested us to go out with him. One of the shows we were at was a high school dance thing, we played first and then he came on with his acoustic guitar, we had done this at a couple of other shows and it went fine but for these high school kids they wanted to dance and he wasn t going over real well and we could see this, our drummer gets up onstage and starts playing drums along with him, Norman looks back and kind had this look on his face like what are you doing? The crowd started to clap and he looks at us and says "Do you know these songs?" so we said "Yeah" and we got up and started to play along with him without any kind of rehearsal, the Froom brothers are just excellent musicians, they have excellent pitch and they knew all the right chords whereas I was faking it. The crowd loved it so from that point on we became his backup band, we went into the studio and recorded some of own songs as well as some of his songs, we tried to get a record deal but it never happened. It was a great experience though.
CRR: How did you end up going from Crossfire to joining Sammy s band?
Gary: We did so many tapes with Crossfire for labels such as ABC, A&M and even Motown brought us in at one point. All these labels liked us enough to bring us in and pay for the recording which is unheard of nowadays but none of them would sign us. We had actually met Sammy because Norman was going off to do his own thing and we needed to find another singer. Sammy had just left Montrose, we asked him if he wanted to join our band and he told us that he had his own band but that he needed to do some gigs. He was actually the opening act for us because he was just starting out on his own so that s how we got to know him. His guitar player at the time unfortunately had died by shooting up cocaine in the bathroom of a gas station.
CRR: That was Scott Quick right?
Gary: Exactly. I never met the guy but he was apparently a real nice guy who had started hanging out with a coke dealer and the next thing you know he wasn t with us any longer. Sammy called me up and said "Hey Pihl are you into drugs?" I said "No why?". He said "Why don t you come down and jam with us?", so I did and while I was there Sammy s manager called up the rehearsal studio and said that there was a gig with Thin Lizzy and Queen that was supposed to happen but someone in Queen was sick so they couldn t do the show and they were looking for a band to do this show which was in two days and could we do it? Sammy looked at me and said "Can you be ready?" so I said "Yeah sure" (laughs). I went home and tried to learn all the songs that I could and then had two days rehearsals with the band and we did the show and got a good review so I felt like we squeaked by that one (laughs).
CRR: Was this around the time of his first album?
Gary: Actually his second album was out at the time which was self titled but we refer to it as the Red album. Just before he did that album, which was around the time that Scott died, he was going over to England to do it. He asked me if I was available and again asked me over to jam but then called me up a few days later and said that he d been working with another guy named Dave Lewark and he promised him that he would do the album over in England. He told me that if he still needed somebody that he d give me a call when he got back. Shortly after the album was done they came back to the States and Lewark quit for whatever reason, so Sammy calls me up again and says "Let s get together on Tuesday". Monday he calls me up again and tells me he ran into this old buddy of his, I can t remember his name, and that he d hired him instead.
CRR: He went through a few guitarists on those first couple of albums.
Gary: Yeah he went through a half dozen of them on those early albums. So I was reluctant to join him figuring he was going to kick me out after a couple of weeks. This other guy joined for about a month and then he quit. The third time was when I went down for the two day rehearsal before the Thin Lizzy show. I ended up staying with Sammy for the next 8 years until he joined Van Halen.
CRR: Sammy was known for writing songs about UFO s and other beings and I know he was talking about that recently in an interview but I heard him tell this story back in the late 70 s as well. Did he ever tell you about these experiences and did you think he was nuts?
Gary: Yes he did. When you hear him say it, he has a lot of conviction. He did do an interview recently in a paper where he talks about this but it was the same story he told us back then as well. To make it brief, he in essence was asleep and in his dream he felt like someone had contacted him and tapped into him. These days he uses the word downloaded, he felt that they were somehow tapped into him and they were taking information from his brain because they wanted to learn more about earthlings. Apparently he woke up in the middle of this and I can t remember if he said he saw a white light or whatever but he felt like he saw something. He was shaken by it and to him it was as real as anything could be.
CRR: I think that s where his song "Silver Lights" came from.
Gary: Right, to him it was a very moving experience. If nothing else it gave him a bigger world view like maybe there s something else out there. He s always been a spiritual person in some form. I don t know if that s what started it. In a song like "Three Lock Box" he invokes the trinity, the ebony porn Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. I think a lot of people could relate, I was brought up in a fairly religious home so I could relate to it. Since we lived through the 60 s, The Beatles had tried transcendental meditation and people were looking towards Eastern religions and the path to enlightenment, the environment in California (laughs) had something to do with it as well.
CRR: You played on so many excellent albums of his, like Standing Hampton, Three Lock Box and VOA. It seems like he really hit his stride when he moved to Geffen. What stands out for you most about your time in the band?
Gary: I d have to say the live performances. We never felt like we captured the feeling of playing live on record in the studio. There are a couple of reasons; Sammy is such a great live performer that it s tough to bottle that in the studio. I mean even if some people listen to the live stuff and think it s not that good, the band sounded like we were rushing or the sound wasn t that great, it was all about being there in the moment, his spontaneity made him so fun to work with. You never new what he was going to do onstage from one night to the next, he was an absolute ball of energy onstage. One of his best guitar solo s was on a track called "Young Girl Blues" which was a Donovan song and it was a slow ballad type of song and his solo was never the same twice (laughs), but great each time. It was very much his voice singing through the guitar. It was necessarily technically difficult, just very soulful. It was a pleasure to hear him do that one every night. Back when we were opening for bands like Boston it became the highlight of the set which almost seemed unusual for us because Sammy was the red rocker and we usually came out and played about as fast as we could play, then right in the middle of the set we d do that song and I think we gained a lot of respect because people thought we could really play. Now that I think of it that was my first impression of him as well. I mean the Montrose stuff is great hard rockin music but after you d see him do a song like that I realized he was much more dimensional than I d thought.
CRR: It made you realize that he was a bit underrated?
Gary: Yeah that really stood out. We made our very records very quickly. The last record that we did together VOA was done in 12 days. We did the basic tracks in 4 days, we all played together in the same room and we played through the songs. He was singing along with us for a scratch vocal just so we d know where we were in the song. The next 4 days he, Jesse (Harms) and I did all the vocals, Sammy doing all the leads and Jesse and myself doing the backgrounds. We had 4 more days to do the overdubs, adding solos or whatever and we were done.
CRR: You hear the level of spontaneity in those records.
Gary: Yeah. I remember doing a solo with him, we were trading off solo s and he said "O.k. Pihl let s go", so we had the backing track blasting in the studio and there we were trading off solo s. It wasn t a question of let me this mine or let me do that one over again. It was back and forth and that s how it always was, if we were going to trade off we d do it live because there s nothing like that. In our live shows when we would do "Bad Motor Scooter" we would trade off on that one. It was a case of gimme your best shot.
CRR: Trying to go one up on the other.
CRR: Did you do a lot of leads on the albums or were you doing primarily rhythm?
Gary: I d have to say he d do about 70% and I d do 30% something like that. The first single off of VOA, "Two Sides of Love" didn t sell real well but that was my solo. He wanted a prettier more melodic solo so he said "You do it".
CRR: Do you still keep in touch with Bill Church and Chuck Ruff who were in Montrose and later played with you in Sammy s band?
Gary: A few years back Sammy managed to get back together with Montrose for some shows with Ronnie, Denny Carmassi and Bill. Sammy s band would do a full set and then for the final 15 minutes Montrose would come out and play. It just so happened that we were in Minneapolis and we had a night off. We found out they were playing that night so I thought I gotta go. I didn t even remember Montrose was scheduled to play; I just wanted to go say hello to Sammy. When Montrose came out I was blown away because I d completely forgotten that they were doing this, so afterwards I got to go and say hi to Bill whom I hadn t seen in quite awhile.
CRR: Did you get up and jam with them at that show?
Gary: No it was Montrose that was enough. Sammy s brought me up with his band a few times. Sammy would hand me his guitar and I d play with his other guitarist Vic (Johnson). He s the nicest guy. Bill was keeping busy in L.A. doing session work and Chuck had re-formed The Chuck Ruff group and he was based in Reno where he was from. At one point we had we had everyone from Montrose except Ronnie in Sammy s band at one point or another, Denny Carmassi, and Alan Fitz Fitzgerald who played bass at the time.
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CRR: Fitz played bass in Montrose?
Gary: Yeah. Ronnie started the band with Bill and then they found Denny and Sammy, Bill was the first guy to get kicked out. I remember Bill telling me that Ronnie called him up and said something like Bill I m in a bad way, my wife left me, I m getting a divorce and by the way you re fired (laughs). So Fitz replaced him, after the second album Sammy got fired as well. I d kept in touch with Mitchell Froom and he had met Ronnie and had played with him in his band Gamma, Mitch had been working with another band at the same time and actually came up to my place to record some tracks, Ronnie was there helping out and he somewhat jokingly mentioned that he had never recorded with the same band twice (laughs). Ronnie had a lot of talent though; it s too bad he didn t stick with one band. He was a great player.
CRR: Other than touring with Boston who you guys played a lot with from 1977-1979 who else did you enjoy playing with?
Gary: Yeah we played with a lot of people. I d have to say AC/DC was a lot of fun, we actually got to do shows with both singers, when Bon Scott was in the band and then later with Brian (Johnson). They were always one of our favorite bands to play with, we loved their energy.
CRR: How did Sammy break the news to you guys that he was joining Van Halen, were there plans to continue and follow up VOA?
Gary: Oh yeah we were absolutely going to continue. VOA was our biggest success at that point. Sammy said "Next year is going to be even better". We were a great live band and he felt that he could do anything with us onstage and I attribute this to something Sammy said to me later after he d played with Van Halen for awhile, he said "You guys followed me like nobody else, I could do anything, break into any kind of tempo and you guys were right there behind me and it s not quite that way in Van Halen". I ll never say that I m anywhere near the guitar player that Eddie (Van Halen) is but they were a different sort of group, they played things their way. Sammy had that ability to be more spontaneous with us. We knew that he d met Eddie out in L.A. and he hated to break up the band but it was an offer that he couldn t refuse, he felt it would take him to a different place so what are you going to say? We basically said "Go ahead go for it". Luckily there was no bitterness and it worked out fine for me because Tom Scholtz had heard about it, our last show with Sammy was at Farm Aid. Eddie came out and jammed with us to end that show. Tom called me up when he was working on the Third Stage album and he had one more song left to be recorded and asked me if I d come out to work with him on it. I said sure because I was now out of a job (laughs). I flew directly from Farm Aid to Boston, so I wasn t out of work for a day. I thought how lucky could a guy get. He told me that there would probably be some touring involved if the album did well, which it did and basically I m still here (laughs).
CRR: Was this also around the time you were trying to get Alliance off the ground?
Gary: No that was after. We did that last song "I Think I like It" and then he mixed and mastered it and the album didn t come out until 1986. The tours for the first two Boston albums were so grueling, the manager booked every place possible with out many days off and really beat them into the ground, Tom wasn t sure if he ever wanted to tour again. When the album came out it was very successful, it went to number one. It was the first Boston album to go to number one, so at first Tom felt like the band had to do some dates just to let people know that we were still around and give them a chance to see the band, his idea was to do maybe a dozen shows or something like that but when the album took off we ended up getting booked for 6 months solid. We did a record 9 shows here at The Centrum (Worcester MA) so it was a very successful tour. Tom had warned me when we were working on Third Stage that we would tour for it and after that he figured it would take him 4 years to make the next record, it took him 6 years to make the first album in his basement and he felt that they had really rushed him on the second album, he wasn t happy with that and wished he could have gone back and re-mixed it. Third Stage took some number of years to do as well although he started The Rockman Company and the other band members were suing him at the time so he felt it was gonna take 4 years to do the next record, so I said "Ok" (laughs), I has just gone from doing a record with Sammy in 12 days to 4 years. We did some shows in 88 in Canada and after that point I became more involved in Scholtz Research building amps and stuff like that which was a good experience for me and I enjoyed doing that while Tom was working slowly on the next record.
CRR: Tom always seems to be involved in things other than music; he s always working on his inventions as well isn t he?
Gary: Yes that s right. So I knew that I had time available, I d get together with the drummer every once and awhile and we d hash out some ideas on tape. Tom would hear it and say "This is great I m going to work with this" and months later he d come back and ask me to do some solo parts here and something else there and then I wouldn t hear what he had done for months after that (laughs). He s very thorough and has great ears; he tweaks things to the minutest degree to achieve the sound that he s looking for, that s what takes a long time. It s not that he s slow he s just very thorough.
CRR: He s a perfectionist.
Gary: That s it certainly. I could see that I was going to have some time so I thought I d like to be in another working band with some other guys. The first guy I called up was Alan Fitzgerald who I d played with in Sammy s band. At that point Night Ranger had broken up or had stopped touring. I called him up and I hadn t seen him for many years so I called him up and told him I wanted to put a band together and asked him if he was in and he said "Yeah sure" then I called Dave Lauser and he was doing studio stuff and session work so I asked him and he agreed as well, Dave knew Fitz from even before playing with Sammy so they were good friends. We were looking for a few other people; I had met Bruce Day who was the bass player with Pablo Cruise at one point. I always thought he had a great voice and he played bass which was what we needed. I called him up and he decided that he was in as well. I wanted to have one other element, I knew this girl who was actually once the girlfriend of Paul Taylor, who went on to play with Winger and Alice Cooper, her name was Emi Canyn, she was married to Mick Mars from Motley Crue. She had a great voice and was a wonderful person as well. We called he up and she agreed to come up to Northern California to work on some tracks, after about 3 or 4 days she got a call from Mick who wasn t too thrilled with the idea that she was working with a bunch of guys, he asked her to come back home and she did. So Mick kind of broke up the spirit, then Dave got busy and Fitz got busy and things just kind of fell apart. It really fell apart due to logistics because we were all in different parts of the country. Unfortunately I had heard that Bruce Day was in a car accident and had passed away but I ve been unable to get that information confirmed. I ve been trying to find out from people that know him but no one seems to know for sure. So when we tried to get things happening again we had to look for another bassist and singer so we called up John Kalodner at Geffen and he said he would find someone for us, he had signed The Robert Berry Band, he had done an album with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer, he basically took Greg Lake s position and they did an album together called 3, he also played with GTR as well shortly before they broke up for good, so Robert was available. We all got together and the rest of us liked him immediately, plus he had a lot of song ideas. We ve done a few albums and are in the midst right now of doing another one.
CRR: What really stood out for me when I saw you guys live last year live is how much the vocals really stand out, they were amazing. It s pretty damn close to what you d hear on the records. What will you guys do for an encore this year; will you change the set list around a bit?
Gary: Oh yeah. We ll bring back some songs that we haven t done for a little while and we ll move some things around in the set. It s hard because we don t have time to play everything so we re trying to do things that we know that people have requested.
CRR: Any chance of a live album or a live DVD perhaps?
Gary: Yes to both. We ve been discussing these seriously. I d love to see them if for nothing else just for the historic value so we could get it down live for everyone to see.