The late, great Boston vocalist Brad Delp was commonly referred to as “the nicest guy in rock ‘n’ roll,” but current Boston/Alliance guitarist Gary Pihl could also fit that bill. He played with Sammy Hagar from 1977-1985, he’s been a member of Boston since 1986, and he continues to participate in a charity project called the December People with fellow staples of the classic rock scene.
Regardless of what each project calls for, his professional and passionate approach to the music is what makes every collaboration worth listening to. I had the opportunity to speak with Pihl recently about his career and what fans can expect when they dive into the long-awaited new album from Alliance.
MNOD: How did the idea for Alliance initially come about?
Pihl: Well, I had played in Sammy Hagar’s band for eight years and became really close with David Lauser and Alan Fitzgerald. Sammy came to us and said that he received an offer he couldn’t refuse from Van Halen, but he added that we were a great band and should continue on with something different. We had opened for Boston with Sammy in ’77, ’78, and into ’79, so I became friendly with Tom Scholz. Tom called me and asked if I wanted to come play on the last song of 1986’s “Third Stage,” which I did. I thought I would just help them finish the album and that would be it, but I ended up joining the band full-time, and, 30-something years later, here I am still in the band. After “Third Stage” was finished, Tom said that it would take a few years to make the next Boston album, so Alliance came together when David, Alan, and I started working with Robert Berry, and everything just clicked. We actually jammed together in Sammy’s home studio and it sounded great. Robert had also played with Sammy in Los Tres Gusanos in 1996 and 1998, so we were all familiar with each other.
MNOD: Because your schedules don’t allow for regular collaboration, how does your working relationship play out when you do get together?
Pihl: We’ve known each other for a long time, so it’s really not that different from the way it’s always been. The charity project, December People, actually allows us another opportunity to get together, because we play holiday songs in the style of our favorite rock ‘n’ roll bands such as The Who, ZZ Top, and Led Zeppelin. We’ve been doing that for about 10 years now and it’s a lot of fun. The way that music is shared now allows for files to be shared throughout the world, but we’ve always been about working together in the studio. That’s where the magic happens.
MNOD: Do you find yourself doing things in the studio that you don’t necessarily have to worry about replicating within the live setting?
Pihl: Not really. We try to play and record all in one room, because we want the finished product to capture what we really sound like as a live band. There’s nothing fancy or anything that couldn’t be pulled off on stage. Our keyboard player, Alan Fitzgerald, is semi-retired, but, if we do play live again, we hope that he could be a part of it.
MNOD: Your latest album, “Fire and Grace,” was released on May 24. What was the creative process like on this project?
Pihl: Last December, we had some ideas and guitar riffs together, so it was just like the previous albums. The title track was completed in one take, because we knew that we had gotten it on the first try. I’d love for fans to be able to see inside the studio, because they would see just how we’re able to create something out of nothing.
MNOD: How did you come to join Sammy Hagar’s band?
Pihl: I got asked to fill in for a couple shows opening up for Queen and Thin Lizzy, but Queen ended up pulling out of the bill. I went home and learned all the songs before the show. The shows went well and I think we even got some good reviews. Sammy ended up calling me and asked if I was into drugs. I said ‘No’ and then Sammy told me that his last guitar played died shooting up in a gas station bathroom. I thought I would have played those shows and been done, but I ended up sticking around for the long haul. No one ever really told me that I was hired, I just became a member of the band.
MNOD: That period was an especially prolific one for Sammy, as you guys churning out one album after another. What was he like to work with during that time?
Pihl: With Sammy, what you see is what you get. He’s great on stage, he’s personable, and he’s always in a good mood. We just got better and better as time went on, and had a great time doing it. You never really know how long you’ll last, but we had a good run and wish it hadn’t ended.
MNOD: “Three Lock Box” is an album that has always stood out to me. What do you remember about the making of that record?
Pihl: We loved the songs. Sammy was writing a lot on the road in those days, because we would be on tour for nine months and in the studio for three making the next record. We were always anxious to play the new stuff and we knew that Sammy had really gotten it on that record. He still plays the title track in his sets today, which is a testament to how strong that record was.
MNOD: A lot of fans consider “Standing Hampton” to be the best of the bunch given the strength of its singles. Do you have a favorite from that era?
Pihl: Not exactly. Each album is special in its own way. The latest album was always our favorite, because we felt that it captured us as a band at that time. We had a live album called “Loud and Clear” in England and “All Night Long” in the US, which I thought really captured us as performers.
MNOD: When Sammy announced that he was joining Van Halen, you found yourself getting the call from Tom Scholz about the Boston gig. How did that scenario play out?
Pihl: Sammy and Tom (Scholz) are completely different guys, but, luckily, I had experience opening for Boston before becoming a member of the band. I already knew the guys, so it was a natural transition. It was a lot like entering a new marriage, because we had a lot in common and it was easy. Tom is an incredible guitar player who usually ends up on a lot of “100 Greatest Guitarists” lists, but he’s also an amazing keyboard player. There aren’t too many guys who would end up on lists for both guitarists and keyboardists, but he’s one of them.
MNOD: Do you still enjoy being out on the road with Boston after 33 years?
Pihl: Yes, I never get tired of the stage. There’s no better feeling in the world than going out there and seeing people singing along word for word to those songs every night.
MNOD: Who were some of your influences as a guitar player in the early days?
Pihl: Every player out there, really. Duane Eddy, The Ventures, Clapton, Beck. I couldn’t help but be interested in all of those guys. I was in a band in high school and we used to go to a pizza parlor to see a band called The Warlocks play. We knew that their guitarist was great, so we started talking to him and he ended up giving me guitar lessons. Not every great player makes a great teacher, because you need to be able to convey what you’re teaching in a way that is compelling for the student. This guy was both a great player and a great teacher. That guy was Jerry Garcia, who ended up having a pretty nice career later on.
MNOD: Is there anything that you haven’t gotten to do yet in your career?
Pihl: I’ve had two opportunities with Sammy and Boston that make me feel very blessed. The charity component of December People is really the last piece of the puzzle, because I love being able to support local food banks and give back to the community.
Alliance’s new album, “Fire and Grace,” is available now wherever music is disseminated, but do us all a favor and pay for a physical copy.
See http://www.garypihl.com or www.robertberry.com/alliance.html for details.