Despite having collaborated with him for years, in some ways Marc Bonilla is still that kid watching as Keith Emerson took the stage in Oakland for 1974’s Brain Salad Surgery tour with Emerson Lake and Palmer.
Sure, Bonilla has worked with the legendary keyboardist as a sideman, singer, producer and sounding board for nearly two decades, beginning in the mid-1990s and continuing through the forthcoming Three Fates Project, due on October 30, 2012 via Varese Sarabande. But making the transition wasn’t easy and, in many ways, Bonilla remains very much in awe of Emerson’s mythical presence.
This isn’t Bonilla’s first brush with greatness, of course. Along the way, Bonilla has worked with Ronnie Montrose, Glenn Hughes, David Coverdale, UK’s Eddie Jobson and Chicago co-founder Danny Seraphine, among others, all while maintaining a separate solo career featuring such well-regarded efforts as 1993’s American Matador.
With The Three Fates Project, however, Bonilla has played a part in the realization of a life-long dream for Emerson — the true combining of rock and classical aesthetics. The album, which finds Terje Mikkelsen conducting the 70-instrument Münchner Rundfunkorchester alongside the Keith Emerson Band, took some nine months to construct beginning in Summer 2011 and includes a number of familiar ELP tracks as well as originals from Bonilla and Emerson.
Next up, Bonilla says, are concert dates in 2013 featuring the orchestra in Spain, with perhaps Moscow and Japan to follow. Bonilla says he will also return to the road in April with Jobson, again filling in on John Wetton’s memorable bass parts from the UK catalog.
But first, Bonilla takes us inside the emotional recording sessions for The Three Fates, his musical relationships with Emerson and Jobson, and the inherent difficulties of bossing around a childhood hero …
NICK DERISO: Three Fates takes the classical leanings of Emerson Lake and Palmer to its natural zenith, recording amongst a boisterous group of Munich musicians. I was struck by how generous Keith Emerson was, often ceding the spotlight to the orchestra and to you.
MARC BONILLA: He and I have had a very fruitful relationship over the last several years. I’ve always been a fan of his stuff, but he’s never really worked with any other guitar player. In fact, he was very leery of guitar players. For me, being as respectful as I am of his abilities, and his track record, I’ve always given him the right of way. But he actually, a lot of times, insists that I take it, so that he has a chance to be an audience — as opposed to being the performer. It seems to be a good relationship. We both seem to be fans of one another, so it’s a rare situation. I think that that’s probably why he will yield, because he knows I have his back on this stuff. He knows how much of a fan I am, and everything that I’ve done has always been for the betterment of the project.
NICK DERISO: Everything the two of you have been working toward comes together on the new album, which blends mythical ELP moments like “Tarkus” and “Fanfare” with original pieces. Even in this new context, however, your guitar work shines. I guess that’s because — as you say — the instrument didn’t play as large a role in the original context.
MARC BONILLA: For a minute, (guitar legend Jimi) Hendrix was asked to join (Emerson Lake and Palmer), because they had toured together. But I think Keith and he figured out that they were two captains of different ships, so it probably wouldn’t have worked. Steve Howe was asked to join for minute, as well, but he had gone off with (bassist) Chris (Squire) and formed Yes. So Keith wasn’t really big on guitar players. We went and toured in 1996, and we did a radical changing of a lot of the tunes, made them more guitar oriented — and that added these great bombastic qualities underneath that weren’t there before. Well, they were there when (ELP co-founder) Greg (Lake) would play a little bit, on “Karn Evil 9,” and things like that — but to have it in coordination with real bass and all of that was new. I did a whole new intro to “Lucky Man.” With every new instrument in the band, you want to be able to exploit it, not to the glory of the instrument but to the glory of the song. It’s an untapped resource if you just leave the arrangement as it is. So, he allowed me the latitude to reinvent the arrangements, trusted me that it was for the betterment of the songs — and I think it is, in the context of a four piece. I think he realizes the importance of the instrument, and allows me to shine when I need to shine, and that also allows him to shine a little bit more.
NICK DERISO: So, the plan now is to take The Three Fates Project on the road. That sounds like a tremendously difficult undertaking.
MARC BONILLA: It’s been an amazing journey, and we want to be able to let other people feel what it was like for us to really join two universes. The whole orchestra is basically borne out of the earth — you’ve got wood, brass, metal, all of these things from the earth. That’s what makes up your orchestra. Then, the electricity, it all comes from the sky. You have the amperage and effects, all of the things that you use in an electric band. When the two meet, that’s when the lightning forms. That’s when you’re successful at creating something that’s better than the sum of its parts.
NICK DERISO: Did you ever think to yourself: “This just wasn’t going to work”?
MARC BONILLA: It’s an incredible challenge to play, when you have two factions — rock and classical — it was scary to go in there. Keith had trepidations about it, because when he was doing “The Five Bridges Suite” (a 1970 piece with the Nice), the orchestra met him with a lot of resistance. Like, “who is this long-haired guy coming in here to tell us how to play stringed instruments?” He brought that in from that time, and also with (the 1977 ELP project) Works. There were real struggles with getting his piano concerto recorded properly. Terje Mikkelsen, the conductor, was an angel sent from heaven for us. He understood rock, he understood orchestral — and he knew how to meld both of these things. So he was able to provide an atmosphere where both parties could push the envelope. We were all collectively able to fuse the two things together so that they were inseparable. The arrangements on Three Fates Project are such that you can’t separate the band from the orchestra. In so many of the recordings when bands get together with orchestras, it’s the band with an orchestra way over there in the background, or the reverse — with a little teeny band. With this, the nervous systems are completely ingrained. You can’t separate them. One without the other, it wouldn’t survive. It’s a true example of symphonic fusion.
NICK DERISO: The work with Emerson over the years has been notable in that it celebrates the old ELP aesthetic, but at the same time it isn’t over reverential. For instance, there’s a very modern feel to the 2008 studio recording, despite featuring so much classic instrumentation — like that a huge organ sound.
MARC BONILLA: When we first started that album, we had been out tour and we were just having fun. We were approached about doing an album, and Keith said: “Let’s do one. We’ll write it together, and I want you to produce it.” I said: “If I produce it, I’ve got to tell you a couple of things: First, it’s going to be weird for me, because I am going to be telling one of my heroes what to do.” It’s always been one of those he-can-do-no-wrong type of things for me. But I knew what I wanted to get out of him; I knew what he was capable of. Guys, a lot of times, when they reach a level of rock iconism, they tend to rest on that alone and don’t push themselves to do other things. Keith’s not like that: He’s always wanted to push himself to different levels, and he allowed me to help him do that. That’s rare. He doesn’t usually let anybody tell him what to do. But we found a rhythm, once we got past that weirdness of saying “that’s no good enough,” and thinking “I can’t believe I just said that to Keith Emerson.” He had no problems with that, and after he’d done it a few times, there would be a hump where if I got him over that, everything he did was sterling. He would get into this turbo mode, and it was amazing the stuff that would come out of him. I came at the album as fan, and the things that I loved were the Moog — and we got the original in here — the organ, and the piano. In my opinion, those instruments are timeless. They don’t really age, and you can’t get that sound with digital synthesis.
NICK DERISO: You’ve also had a parallel musical relationship with Eddie Jobson of UK fame. Though they didn’t last long, it seems that band’s musical impact is starting to become more widely recognized of late. How did UK influence your own musical journey?
MARC BONILLA: The other guitar player in my high school band, one day after practice, said: “Check this album out,” and that was the first UK album. I knew Bill Bruford from Yes, and Eddie Jobson, wasn’t he with (Frank) Zappa? Allan Holdsworth, I heard on the Jean-Luc Ponty Enigmatic Ocean album — big fan. And John Wetton, of course, was in King Crimson. So, this sounded like a cool group. I remember playing it, and being completely blown away! My first thought was: “Keith’s got competition now.” Eddie was a huge fan of Keith’s; Keith is his idol. He’s made no bones about it. Growing up, the stuff was a whole lot more complicated metrically — it was like algebra rock. It wasn’t until I joined the band that I realized how to count out that opening part of “The Only Thing She Needs” (from UK’s 1979 album Danger Money). Eddie is one of those guys who is incredibly meticulous; there is no room for error — and that’s exactly the way I am, so both of us get along famously. We don’t want to let anything escape our scrutiny. He’s got a great sense of humor, he’s a workaholic — and he truly loves to hear that his music is relevant, because I don’t think he’s heard that enough in his lifetime. I would tell him that his music was life changing for me, and would go: “Wow, well, thank you.” He was genuinely flattered, because he’s actually a very modest individual. He has no idea about the effect his music has had on people. It’s been a great relationship with him, as well.
NICK DERISO: A favorite from the new album is “Morning Sun,” one of your originals.
MARC BONILLA: That was the first time I had written for orchestra — not as a soundtrack, but as a stand-alone piece. I was a bit nervous about how they were going to take it. The producer, Torsten Schreier, who is one of the most sought-after producers in Europe for classical, he looked at me after we had done it and he said: “You wrote this?” I said: “Yyyyeah.” He asked me how long I had been studying Mahler and Sibelius. I had not really listened to much of either of them. He was very puzzled, and he asked how long I had been writing for orchestra. I told him it was my first piece — and he told me it was very well done. For me, it was a tremendous validation. We spend our lives trying to out run self doubt. This was really rewarding for me. It was unsolicited comment from someone who really knows classical music. It actually felt like, “maybe I’m relevant.” That made all of the work I had done worthwhile — and I’m sure that Keith feels the same way. He claims it’s the most important record he’s been involved with since the first ELP album — and I think you can hear that on the record.
NICK DERISO: It sounds like a very emotional experience.
MARC BONILLA: This was very cathartic for everyone. For Keith, when they were doing Tarkus, he had always envisioned it as an orchestral thing. Years and years ago, when he was in his early 1920s, he’d always heard it as an orchestral piece. Really, most of his stuff was that way. He’s been chasing it all of these years, with synths, with organs — all of that stuff. Until now, hearing that, in full glory, with a band, it put tears in his eyes. He was in the back, weeping. We all were at one point or another, because it’s an incredibly emotional experience. It’s very powerful.
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