Garry Peterson of The Guess Who reflects on a six-decade careerSean Malin September 28, 2018 0 COMMENTS
Garry Peterson is totally safe. When he tells me this early in our conversation, I sigh with relief: Peterson lives in North Carolina, where Hurricane Florence has carved its treacherous path over the last two weeks. We had never met, but I was still worried about him.
It has been 48 years since the Winnipeg-born band The Guess Who, which Peterson drums for and co-founded, released the first of its era-defining hits, “American Woman”. Since then, Peterson has seen a number of musicians come and go from the group with the tides of fame. For the current outfit – which includes lead singer D# (pronounced “Dee Sharp”, not “Dee Hashtag”, says Peterson), guitarist/songwriter Will Evankovich, bassist Rudy Sarzo and keyboardist Leonard Shaw – he has taken on the roles of the veteran and his bandmates’ anchor to a cultural legacy as deep as any in American rock-and-roll.
The Guess Who’s latest album, The Future IS What It Used To Be, cannonballs that legacy right into the modern era with ten improbably sprightly, radio-ready pop rock tunes, including the joie de vivre-filled single “Playin’ on the Radio”. In support of its release by Cleopatra Records, Peterson spoke about returning to the band’s roots and the shocks he predicts long-time fans will feel when The Guess Who plays The Canyon Santa Clarita on October 4. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
It sounds like I’ve caught you listening to music.
Garry Peterson: AXS TV has a music series and the next one up is Ringo Starr. I have been going back and filling in the blanks about the rock music from the time that I became the drummer of The Guess Who. It is interesting to go back now and say, “How did these guys happen?” It’s like studying your own history.
When I read interviews you have given over the last 50 years, you always seem to be talking about the guys who were around before you: The Beatles, Chuck Berry. You even did a Tribute to Buddy Holly.
GP: Listening to those great, great artists is what really inspired a lot of us to become rock musicians. When we first heard Chuck Berry or Fats Domino or Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, we [heard] the beginnings of rock-and-roll. Of course, with rock – like any great house – the foundation is laid and then you build the structure. It is still growing!
It seems like we are losing those guys every day, though.
Do you still have bands or artists from that period that you admired at that time, or came to love over your 50 years on the road, that you still have not met? Is there a rock bucket list?
GP: I never made a bucket list because I always understood that this was business. Most rock bands are like ships passing in the night on a big ocean. Even some of the times when we opened for somebody, we could not see them because we had to travel. I never met any of the Beatles, and that would be wonderful. I did get to meet Charlie Watts. These people are so guarded, and rightly so because of where they are in their careers. If you have not really met them in those early years, you can’t do it later on. Now you can kind of fill in the blanks based on their social media about who they really are, but when we were kids, our pop music was only delivered to us via records and the radio. It was kind of magical that way.
The single from your new album, “Playin’ on the Radio”, is a look back at that moment in time.
GP: Yes. The song was designed to take people who are our contemporaries in age back to that era. I cannot tell you how many times I have been signing an autograph and a young person comes up and says, “Man, I wish I had been alive during that time.” Back then, you knew about Chuck Berry, but you’d have to wait until his next release to find out what kind of guitar he was playing on the radio or what he was wearing. That was our pop culture. Now we’re trying to give fans young and old that glimpse back in time.
You live in North Carolina, but other members of the band live all over the country and in Canada. How closely are you involved these days with mixing the records, writing liner notes, picking out the album cover, et cetera?
GP: The picture on the cover of the new album was my idea. It is a still picture from our video shoot for “Playin’ on the Radio.” When I saw that still shot, I thought, “This reminds me exactly of when I was a kid waiting for the latest The Fireballs record.” It has that vibe to me – it is so cool, and so reminiscent of the early days of rock-and-roll because we are actually playing live and singing in that shot. Normally you just pose with your instruments for the cover, but we were in action. Then, of course, the opening cut of the album –
“When We Were Young”.
GP: That was a groove that I started to play with our bass player, Jim Kale, at one of our sound checks. We recorded it on an iPhone; then [Will and D#] ran with it.
You have been playing music professionally since you were a toddler. At this point, your longevity is such that it is easy for people to write you off as a nostalgia act. But when I listen to the songs on The Future Is…, especially your drum riff on “When We Were Young”, I sense that you are still trying to evolve musically as a band.
GP: We went back to an analog studio in Nashville, first of all. As you pointed out, we all live in different places, and at this point in our lives, we have children and grandchildren and dogs and cats – we have responsibilities! It’s not a bunch of guys living in a house somewhere doing an album. So it was a little more difficult putting this album together, but as I look at my life now, I am still learning how to be a good rock drummer. I really believe that.
What do you learn from contemporary bands you hear playing on the radio?
GP: I am always listening. I listened to Guns N’ Roses back then. Now everybody knocks Imagine Dragons, and it sounds like what I remember, just recycled in a certain way. I listened to a band called Fun. that I thought was much like The Beatles in a lot of ways. I’ll also listen to lots of country music. I warm up by playing to Latin jazz. When I am on an airplane, I might listen to Duke Ellington with Ella Fitzgerald, or Mahler or Prokofiev, you never know. I even played Mahler’s “Fifth Symphony” with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Up until recently, the opening of our shows was “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff. There are so many places to get inspiration. So much music, so little time, I feel.
What is the energy you and The Guess Who were trying to capture when you recorded this new album?
GP: We wanted to take people back to that magical era of rock-and-roll. After we had finished and I began practicing it – in fact, right after I talk to you, I will go over the album again just for my edification – people kept asking what my favorite song was. But it has so many songs with good pop sensibility on it that it just became whichever song I was practicing that day. I like every cut on the album, and I can’t remember saying that about many of our albums.
Your songs have become essential parts of the soundtrack for that era. Will we ever get The Guess Who’s jukebox musical?
GP: I don’t think so. But I would love to do some of the songs of The Guess Who with a symphony orchestra. Not so much the pop hits; I think we have deep cuts on those albums that would sound spectacular if done with an orchestra. The Guess Who was a kind of schizophrenic band. We had some pretty wild stuff that, if orchestrated, could leave you with a whole new experience.
Tickets for The Guess Who’s national tour are available here.
Tickets for The Canyon’s upcoming shows are available here.
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