Who: Neil Carter, musician, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, music researcher, teacher
Bands: Gary Moore, UFO, Wild Horses
Neil Andrew Carter (born 11 May 1958) is a musician who has worked in diverse genres throughout his 40-year career. Classically trained, he became a professional rock musician at the age of 17 and initially had his first “mainstream” experience with singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan.
He subsequently played guitar and keyboard for the hard rock band UFO, blues rock guitarist Gary Moore, and Wild Horses. He is credited for co-writing a number of Gary Moore’s songs including the worldwide hit “Empty Rooms”. At 30 he left the rock world and has in recent years developed a different career as both teacher of woodwind (saxophone and clarinet) and as an ABRSM examiner. 2010 saw a return to rock with Gary Moore, playing festivals across Europe and a tour of Ukraine and Russia.
Heavy Profile has the honour to interview Neil, an iconic multi-instrumentalist in the rock world. His talent, style, and high quality of playing is hard to ignore. In this interview we want to hear Neil’s thoughts about music and of course his time with Gary Moore, UFO and Wild Horses. There is plenty to talk about so let’s get started.
1. Hi Neil! You are best remembered as a right-hand man for Gary Moore both live and studio in the 80’s. You have played in all of Gary Moore’s legendary albums from that time.
Do you have a favourite Gary Moore album or a song where you participated? Would you like to share some memories about the time spent in the studio or producing the records?
I think ‘Wild Frontier’ is my favourite album with perhaps ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ the best example of the songs from that period of Gary’s career. Ironically it’s the song (and actually the album as a whole) I had the least to do with and I think I only did a few bits of backing vocals on that track. My favourite song overall has to be ‘Empty Rooms’ as it is the most personal.
I did contribute on all the albums but the more Gary worked with Peter Collins as a producer he bought in other keyboard players like Andy Richards who used Fairlight’s and the most up to date (and expensive) stuff. Gary also liked working with different musicians and there was always a wide range of talent on the recordings. He usually did demos of the songs and I used to go to his house and spend time on them with him, or we’d go to a studio near Heathrow airport and demo them there.
Over the years we recorded in different locations including London, Los Angeles, Denmark and Ireland. We spent a month together in Dublin working on the songs for ‘After the War’ soaking up some of the Celtic vibe. Gary was very precise in the studio, especially about the solidity of time and drummers were put through their paces as he had such a keen sense of ‘meter’. There is a tendency for some players to slow down/speed up which is unfortunate but it was something that drove him mad both in the studio and onstage. And once you start obsessing about these things in the studio it just seems to get worse. Which is why, as time went on, he used programmed drums as they were always accurate despite the loss of natural ‘feel’.
I thought it made his move to blues somewhat ironic however as the essence of the style is much ‘freer’. With Gary it was always about the guitar and he needed a solid backing to express himself comfortably and unobtrusive keyboards. I always enjoyed playing rhythm guitar more onstage but apart from the live recordings I didn’t play a single guitar ‘note’ on the albums. Quite logical I suppose though!
2. You are a multi-instrumentalist. Do you have a lead instrument or are they all equal to you?
As being a keyboard player and a singer myself I’m especially interested in your relation with synthesizers. Did you have any special and favourite synths in the 80’s? What qualities made them your favourite?
I am, principally, a clarinetist and I suppose that has always been the case even though I stopped playing for about 10 years in the 1980’s. All the other instruments sort of came by default and I would say I have varying ability on them. I’m self taught on the guitar and it may shock some to know that I really don’t consider myself a keyboard player in the true sense.
I always felt that people like Jon Lord, Don Airey etc are ‘proper’ keyboardists and I just did what was needed to fill the sound out. It suited UFO and Gary (up to a point) but I tend to play more like a guitarist would. I am not a soloist or virtuoso and actually, if I’m honest, it has always been my least favourite role. I felt apprehensive replacing Don Airey in Gary’s band for that reason but then I came to Gary with other strings to my bow which is what he needed at the time.
As far as keyboards go, what I found interesting was the advent of samplers and I had the very first one available then proceeded to the Emulator 2 and Akai rack mounted ones. By todays’ standards they were basic but it meant I could reproduce the studio sounds live. The last tour I did with Gary in 2010 I had more sophisticated samplers and managed to replicate some of those original sounds, including the ‘Empty Rooms’ piano which was played originally on a strange Pearl keyboard we were given in Japan.
My ‘workhorse’ in the old days was an Elka ‘Synthex’, a both large and heavy keyboard, which I used for quite a few years (it had a very useful ‘pad’ sound which worked well with the guitar live). It eventually went to the municipal ‘tip’ as I got fed up falling over it after I stopped playing. I don’t regret that, but apparently they are now retro and worth a bit!
I always enjoyed singing and I still do but my range has decreased slightly over the years and I never touch the guitar these days although still love guitar shops and the instrument itself. I live in Lanzarote and there are some decent guitar places here surprisingly. I occasionally think ‘shall I get one’? But it would probably end up sitting, unplayed, in a cupboard! I do a fair amount of wind playing and, as a music examiner, I have to play the piano so I keep that up to a degree!
3. You left the rock world in the 90’s. Was there a specific reason behind this decision? Did you want to do something else in your life for a while? Have you missed your time in the world of rock later?
The ‘leaving’ was rather enforced on me although I was complicit to a large degree. I honestly felt I’d achieved everything I wanted to and after Gary went off to do his blues album I had absolutely no idea what to do next. So I did some writing, wondered if Gary might want to do another rock album, but it was plain to me after I saw him at a concert in Brighton that wasn’t going to be an option. He did try to involve me in the writing of his second blues album but it’s not my style of music and, although it was a kind gesture on his part, my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t want to join another band at that stage and I had just met my long term partner therefore being at home suited me perfectly. So….I started playing classical music again and fell into other work including theatre and teaching which took me on to my second ‘career’ if you like.
I look back on that time playing rock with great affection but I wouldn’t want to be doing gigs and travelling now. When I did ‘go back’, after swearing I never would, my instincts were correct and I felt like a square peg in a round hole! But, it was very interesting on several levels and nice to make people happy who wanted to hear Gary play songs from the rock period again. The only problem was juggling that with my actual job…we headlined Sweden Rock one weekend and on the following Monday at 8.am I was back at school teaching. It was surreal I can tell you.
4. Gary Moore is considered to be the all time best rock guitarist. What kind of memories do you have of him? How would you describe him as a musical partner? Many of us miss him.
I think about him a lot and I still have quite vivid dreams about him. We worked very well together most of the time and he was a very funny, warm and intelligent man with a razor sharp memory. I’ll be honest and say there was sometimes a dark side to him and I always maintain that with people who possess that amount of God given talent there has to be some sort of price to pay; usually in how you get along with the ‘mortals’! Gary could be quite moody but none of us are perfect and he always expected the best of people because that’s what he expected of himself.
There was no one, for me, who came close to him as a guitarist though and his ‘gift’ was immense. The 85-87 period was very exciting as things were becoming successful and the band nucleus of Gary, myself and Bob Daisley was really solid. It was difficult on that final tour in 2010 as he wasn’t in the best shape but I’m glad we got to play together again. I was very shocked and saddened at his passing.
5. Bob Daisley and Friends released a tribute album for Gary Moore last October. On the record you sing all the lead parts of the single Empty Rooms. How did it feel to sing those parts this time?
The arrangement of the song is very mature in my opinion. It’s very organic and bluesy with your singing in the spotlight.
Thank you. I approached it with some trepidation as I had never sung that song, and also hadn’t been in a studio for many years. I did feel very ‘responsible’ and my main concern was that it would do his memory justice as that track is special to so many people. I’m happy with how it turned out.
It is different in approach but that is a good thing and all it was ever intended to be was an affectionate ‘nod’ to Gary not to replicate the original. I think with that arrangement, which was all down to Bob, it sits comfortably alongside the blues songs and doesn’t stick out like it could have done. It was great Bob put together that album and I hadn’t heard of a lot of the songs so I found it interesting.
6. You have also worked with the legendary UFO-group in the beginning of 80’s. You did three records with them: The Wild, the Willing and the Innocent, Mechanix and Making Contact. Would you like to share some of your memories from that time?
Well it was a relatively short period of time given it’s their 50 years anniversary this year! I was lucky to be in the band while they were still doing reasonably well but unfortunately drugs and the wild lifestyle were taking their toll and there was a rapid decline at the end of my time. I wasn’t ‘whiter than white’ but I could never come close to some of the group in their excesses.
We did extensive touring in the USA with Cheap Trick, Ozzy Osbourne and Rainbow. It was fantastic playing the massive venues in the USA, headlining the Reading Festival and recording in Queen’s studio in Montreux. I got to see a lot of life in those three years I can tell you! Also it’s when I began writing and I’m pleased with some of those songs especially the ones on ‘Mechanix’. I actually feel UFO suited me the best musically and I think they had some brilliant rock songs but a number of factors held them back from achieving the success they really deserved.
As far as ‘memories’ go…well it was a rollercoaster with some very funny and frankly quite ludicrous scenarios. Pete Way and Phil Mogg were like the ‘terrible twins’ and had an evil sense of humour and usually Andy, the drummer, was on the receiving end! There were also some not so funny moments with a few disastrous gigs and after show fights (usually involving Phil) but I’m glad to have been a small part of the history of the band. I think Phil deserves his ‘retirement’!
7. You also played with the band Wild Horses. I noticed that the producer of the debut album is the legendary Trevor Rabin. What do you remember of him and the recording process? How did he guide you in the studio?
Poor Trevor…I don’t think he knew what he was getting into as those two could be wild! What I do remember is some very late sessions, often not starting until 10 or 11pm because Brian Robertson felt the ‘muse’ was only on him after hours (and the rest of us feeling it was bed time)!
Trevor did his best and he’s a very nice and talented guy but he was up against two forces of nature in Brian and Jimmy. Some of it sounds ok though and he is such a good musician, just a bit of a strange choice perhaps and I’m not sure the album is as ‘gritty’ as the band actually were live.
I sort of have it in my mind that he was ‘up and coming’ and EMI put him forward but I could be wrong. He went on to bigger and better things, deservedly so, and was a lovely chap.
8. You also have a background with classical music. Could you tell more about your relation with classical music? How has classical music itself and the classical training affected you?
I have had a weird ride really and this a rather long but I suppose perinant reply! I was useless academically and only wanted to play music so threw myself into learning and practising with a view to going to music college. There was very little contemporary music played at home, and both my parents leaned towards the classical side, but once I discovered Roxy Music, David Bowie and Queen my imagination was fired.
At 16 I left school and, although I had a further education place sorted, by then I’d got the rock and roll bug so jumped ship and went ‘professional’. Which in real terms meant my parents supported me and predicted doom and destruction for the rest of my life, which on reflection was quite understandable.
That said I was incredibly determined, and also lucky, so kept the rock career going for 13 years, proving to them that I wasn’t completely mad. When the ‘end’ came I went back and did all the classical training I should have done at 18…by then I was 31. I took my teaching and performance diplomas and eventually became head of woodwind and brass at one of England’s top independent schools. It was a position I ‘fell into’ but it suited me perfectly.
So in answer to your question, classical music has always been there for me and I suppose helped in some respects with the songwriting. It was sort of natural I would go back to it and I have had a much longer ‘second career’ doing it. Now the only work I do is music examining (classical and jazz) which I love and keeps me from stagnating in my retirement.
9. Although you have left the music industry, is there still a chance that you would return and even make a solo album at some point?
It’s difficult to respond to that because I always said ‘never again’ and then had to eat my words in 2010. I don’t know. I get occasional bursts of enthusiasm and think about recording the songs that never saw the light of day, even redoing a couple of ones I co-wrote, but it passes quickly! I have so much time on my hands now, and I could do, but I feel I’ve sort of ‘closed the book’. People have suggested I write my memoirs as so many are doing…but half of it I can’t remember and I am seriously lacking the self discipline to do it. But you never know one day I might think ‘what the hell…’!
10. Free word
What can I say, thank you to everyone who has followed the music I’ve been involved in and I’m pleased to have given you some of my ‘thoughts’ on a life that feels a very long time ago now.
‘Keep on rockin’ as a wise man once said!!
Thank you for the interview!
Interview: Pekka Montin
Edited: Aili Viitanen