By Michael Mckenna
It's not everyday that an opportunity comes along to interview a member of several legendary rock bands. I recently talked to Gary Pihl, the guitarist who has played with BOSTON for the past 30 years, who formerly played with Sammy Hagar and recorded demos for Night Ranger and the awesome list of legendary musicians he has shared the stage with, whose influences set him on the path that he follows today.
Michael: Who were your musical and non-musical influences when he was younger?
Gary: "In the those early formative days when I was still at home with my parents, I was exposed to the music of Duane Eddy, The Ventures, Everly Brothers and of course, The Beatles, Hendrix, Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. I enjoyed listening to all the different styles of guitarists. I really liked the guitarist from The Ventures and all the changes he used in his work. I made a promise to myself that someday I would be like them. On those non-musical influences, my parents were my main influence and they told me that my chances were slim to none that I would be a rock star. I never gave up. I attended Jr. College and studied music with a bunch of very enthusiastic teachers who pushed me hard. One of my classmates was Johnny Colla, sax player and sometime guitarist with Huey Lewis & The News."
Michael: Your early career exposed you to some of the greats ever to take the stage; Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, Eric Burdon & War and Quicksilver Messenger Service. What gig stands out as the most memorable from that era?
Gary: "Most definitely it has to be Janis Joplin! We were playing in a big arena that night opening for her and all the positive energy that surrounded her along with seeing and hearing her play was such an inspiration for me and it was a big thrill for all of us in the band."
Michael: Your 8 years playing with Sammy Hagar took place in the middle of a major resurgence in rock music. What event hits you from those days?
Gary: "Getting together with the former Montrose vocalist, Sammy Hagar was the next step in my music evolution. I remember going to the U.K. with the band when The Sex Pistols were hot and punk was all the rage. We were classified as "Heavy Metal" in England. Everyone over there was sporting the shorthair punk look, as versed to the long-hair rock look in the States, so we all went and got our hair cut short. That evening, we were playing with Ted Nugent and he came out on stage and said, "You guys look weird." We were just a bit ahead of the curve for the U.S crowds with the hair that took off here some time later in the 80's. As a member of The Sammy Hagar Band, we opened for BOSTON's first tour in 77 and played their entire tour in 78, so I made some great friends and established lasting relationships in the band that included one of rock and roll's geniuses, Tom Scholz."
Michael: 1985 took you to New England to become a member of BOSTON, how did that all come about?
Gary: "We were playing Farm Aid 1, Sammy was leaving to go to Van Halen and I thought I would be unemployed. Well, that didn't last long as I got a call from Tom Scholz to come to Boston and play on the final track, "I Think I Like It", for the 3rd LP. He offered me a 4 year gig from the door that ended up turning into 30 years. This was a dream come true for me going back to that day when I heard "More Than A Feeling" for the first time.
Michael: You are known as a master at multi-tasking when it comes to all the logistics connected with the band on a tour. How do you juggle that job and your job as a guitarist and musician?
Gary: "I'm following in Tom's footsteps. He's more than a band mate and musician, he's a friend, mentor and teacher and the smartest guy I know. I have learned so much from him over the years and that process continues daily, weekly and yearly. He is one of the 100 Best Guitar & Keyboard Players of All-Time as he made both lists. He's an awesome engineer and producer. There's no limit to what he can do! Just following his lead makes things so much easier for everyone involved."
Michael: What's your opinion about downloading music online to buying a physical CD?
Gary: "It's a wave that has been growing exponentially that has changed how we do things in this industry. I can say that I know the record sales people are not to happy, but one has to change with the technology and the times. The Indie bands and smaller acts are really benefiting from this as online sites are a big advantage to those musicians."
Michael: Your latest LP, "Life, Love & Hope"is getting good airplay. Why was December 2013 the right time to release this effort?
Gary: "Tom is always working on new material, he has a studio in his basement where we sometimes get together. His brain is always in gear working on new and creative material and when he has enough, he records it! Yes, The dynamics have changed in later years!"
Michael: Why after all these years have there been NO official videos, TV specials or other appearances by BOSTON?
Gary: "We have been accumulating footage from our shows in recent years. The new technologies also allow us to take some of the older clips to upgrade and digitize them on both the audio and video side. There has been some talk about a possible future release of these archives!"
Michael: Which BOSTON classic is your favorite to perform to a live audience?
Gary: "My personal favorite is the title track from the LP "Walk On". It's a long piece, very difficult to play with all the changes and it gives us the freedom to be able to improvise and create new sounds and bits that are very interesting to us and the audience."
Michael: Everyone in BOSTON both plays and sings. Is this a positive or a negative when it comes to recreating the BOSTON recordings faithfully when the band performs them live in concert?
Gary: "It's a definite must for us. People ask us if we ever use pre-recorded sound bites or vocal tracks. The answer to that is NO! We try to faithfully recreate as close to possible each and every song the way it was originally done in the studio in a live situation."
Michael: Are there any surprises in store for us when you play the Sands Bethlehem Event Center?
Gary: "Quite a few people ask us on our Facebook page or on other social media to do many songs that we haven't performed in a while. We can't do everything every night, but sometimes we may pull out one of those favorites from time to time. For this gig, I'm not going to be the one to let the cat out of the bag! You will have to wait and listen!"
Michael: You are also involved in another band, the "December People." Tell me a bit about that project!
Gary: "When BOSTON is not touring around the holidays, I get together with Robert Berry (Ambrosia & Greg Kihn Band), Mike Vanderhule (Y&T), Dave Medd (The Tubes), Jack Foster (Jack Foster Band), David Lauser (Sammy Hagar Band) and we do a unique Holiday Show of Christmas Classics done to some of rock's biggest hits like you get Joy To The World, for example, as if it were being performed by The Who (Think "We Won't Get Fooled Again" with the lyrics to Joy To The World ), it's amazing! We usually do shows all around the country to benefit local food banks to help those who need it the most. It's very rewarding."
Michael: You are also involved in another project, a nonprofit organization that is very close to your heart. Would you like to tell me about it?
Gary: I am on the Board of Directors of Kidz B Kidz, an organization powered by kids that teaches children about empathy, empowerment and the importance of helping others. We bring children together to hold art parties to draw. In schools and after-school programs, we inspire kids to be empathetic by sharing the feelings of another child who is sick. We tell "our story" about Usher Syndrome and encourage other kids to tell "their story" or feelings by drawing a picture. In children's hospitals we empower children who are sick by creating healing moments drawing a picture. It is a wonderful escape from the reality of being ill and an incredible form of expression. It also brightens up those drab green hospital rooms with art from kids their own age. It's a wonderful thing that these kids do for other kids and it warms my heart to see it when it presented to a sick young person.
Michael: Gary, I want to thank you for this opportunity to learn more about you and this little bit of something that we can give to our readers.
Gary: "It was my pleasure and I hope to meet you in person in the next few weeks. Thank You!"
Note: As a writer/journalist, I can honestly say that this was one of the most memorable interviews I have ever done. We were both so much at ease with each other like we were old friends and were just catching up with the times. I look forward to our meeting and our continued friendship in the future.