Dave Oberlé, percussionist and lead vocalist with the band Gryphon (seen here at the front) chats with Kevin Cooper about working with Gandalf’s Fist, his heated discussions with Malcolm McLaren, their plans to release a new album and their forthcoming tour of the UK
Dave Oberlé is the percussionist and lead vocalist with the band Gryphon, who are a British progressive rock band formed in the 1970s, best known for their unusual medieval and Renaissance sound and instrumentation. The band was formed in the 1970’s when two fellow Royal College Of Music graduates, multi-instrumentalist Richard Harvey and the woodwind player Brian Gulland began the group as an all-acoustic ensemble, mixing traditional English folk music with medieval and Renaissance influences. Shortly after this, the duo was joined by guitarist Graeme Taylor and percussionist and vocalist Dave Oberlé.
The band retired in 1977 to pursue other musical activities before reforming for a one-off reunion in 2009. After the band had split, Oberlé went on to help launch the heavy rock magazine Kerrang! He now spends his time in the production of heavy rock bands via his label Communique Records and also runs Small Blue, a computer software company.
They continued to tour after 2009 and in the spring of 2016, it was announced that Richard Harvey was leaving the band due to a cramped schedule. Shortly after Keith Thompson on woodwinds and Rory McFarlane on bass joined Gryphon as they now prepare to tour the UK.
Whilst busy rehearsing at home for the forthcoming tour, he took some time to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi Dave how are you?
I’m fine thank you, how’s yourself?
I am very well thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
It’s a pleasure. You have caught me at home rehearsing to backing tapes at the moment (laughter) so please do fire away.
Just how is life treating Dave Oberlé at this moment in time?
Life at the moment is pretty good, not bad at all thanks. It is nice to be putting it all back together again. As you may know Richard (Harvey) resigned from the band about ten weeks ago now so there was a little bit of a panic initially but we have managed to find somebody to replace him but as you can imagine, Richard is very difficult to replace and his shoes are very big shoes for someone else to step in to (laughter). However, we managed to find Keith Thompson who has previously played with the likes of Frederick “Freddie” Douglas Waits, who both Brian (Gulland) and Graeme (Taylor) know quite well and Keith is, I have to say a very accomplished woodwind player.
We have also recently replaced Jon (Jonathan) Davie our bass player with Rory McFarlane, who is at this moment in time out on the road with Katie Melua. Anyway that has enabled us to actually manage to put the thing back together (laughter). However, because of that it has made things slightly more difficult (laughter). But having said all of that we are getting there, we are most definitely getting there.
What was the rationale behind Richard leaving the band?
To be honest with you Richard has so many other commitments on the go at the moment, it looks as though he will be working over in America for most of next year. So from Richard’s point of view it looks like he will have his hands full both writing and touring in America. Also one of the major problems that we were faced with is that Richard lives in Thailand for six months of the year which meant that we had basically become a part-time band which for us really doesn’t work (laughter). We have recently signed up with Rock Artist Management and so Pete Barton is looking after us now and since Richard made his decision in a lot of ways it has made it a lot easier to be able to move the band on and become an all year round band rather than one who plays for two months in the summer.
So with the band losing old members and gaining new, what is the long-term plan now for Gryphon?
The plan is to expand the fan base, expand the audience and get back to where we were because I still have this belief that, misplaced or not, Gryphon is actually unique; there is nothing quite like it. And I think that from that point of view it is certainly something worth pursuing. I accept that it is not everyone’s cup of tea and in fact we were actually labelled as a musician’s band, simply because of the complexity of the band. It is not always that accessible to somebody who is listening to the band for the first time; maybe the first and second albums are but as it progressed on from there it got more complexed, more progressive based I suppose.
I think that you have to take into consideration the bands links with Yes. Personally I have often thought that the band is not instantly accessible but it is the sort of thing that if you listen to it people do begin to warm to it.
Didn’t I once read in Melody Maker that you were described as being the medieval Slade?
(Hysterical laughter) that’s right. It was actually Chris Welch in Melody Maker many years ago now who actually described Gryphon as being the 13th Century Slade. Which is something that we have been trying to live down ever since (laughter). Bless him; Chris was always a great fan of ours actually. He was a great friend and help to us. It was quite weird at the time at the beginning of Gryphon because we came out of nowhere really
Didn’t the band have rather classical beginnings?
Yes that’s right; Richard and Brian were both graduates of The Royal College Of Music who shortly after leaving invited Graeme to join them and then some time later along came me (laughter). We were a classically based folk band to start with who were using a lot of very weird medieval musical instruments. We were finding old folk songs and Gryphonising them and turning them into something slightly different (laughter). After we had been doing that for almost two years we released our first album in 1970 aptly entitled Gryphon; I know not very imaginative was it (laughter). Shortly after the album was released we were approached by Sir Peter Hall to write the music for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Tempest which we were more than happy to do.
From that point on everything just took off for the band. At that time we were being looked after by a publicist called Martin Lewis and it was Martin who had built up our publicity for us. We were all over the National Press, we were on the television, we were everywhere and all of a sudden the whole thing just took off (laughter). I have to say that back then you really could get away with murder. I think that the interest in the band was more to do with the instrumentation because nobody was really using medieval instruments in a contemporary way alongside electronic keyboards, drums and that sort of thing. It was a very interesting time.
How did the band come to know and tour with Yes?
Richard and Brian were both at college with a certain Rick Wakeman who introduced us to the management who were looking after Yes. Things really did take off then as we were invited to support Yes on both their American and UK tours. After that we did rather a lot of support gigs and doubleheader’s; all that sort of thing. We toured with the likes of Caravan, Renaissance, Steeleye Span and all manner of bands. I have to say that there was some great music around at that time.
What is it like having the band back together, does it feel right?
Yes it does, absolutely one hundred percent. There was however a certain amount of trepidation because everyone has gone off and done different things and for us to get back together after forty years, which is a little bizarre anyway, everyone was saying that it must be like getting back together with your ex-wife (laughter). But it wasn’t it was actually very simple, very easy and we all slotted back into it very quickly. So, the answer to your question is yes, it was relatively straight forward and in fact since we have been playing and been rehearsing it has got easier. It is almost now getting back to the same sort of feel that we had when we started.
Back then we were a bunch of unruly schoolboys when we first started who really didn’t give a toss about anything at all as it was always a bit of a joke (laughter). Whereas now I think that with all of the experience that we have now got we are all more serious about the task in hand. Having said that the humour is still there and we still don’t take ourselves too seriously and hopefully that comes across to the audience. The standard of the musicianship within Gryphon is incredible. We have some incredible people playing but we don’t have any prima donnas. Everything is balanced and works really well. Everything works really well and we are all happy.
You have mentioned new band members Roy and Keith, how are they settling in with the little time that they have had?
They are both settling in very well. Fortunately they were both fully aware of what type of band Gryphon is, the music is not that easy as there are lots of tight signatures, tempo changes (laughter) together with all sorts of things happening. So luckily both of them are very good readers and they are able to literally just sit and play it. It is now a case of them getting back up to speed without the music which is a real memory job, instead of them sitting there thinking ‘what happens next’ or ‘what are we doing’ (laughter). So in answer to your question, yes they are both fitting in very well and things are most certainly looking good for the future.
After the huge success of your mini-tour last year am I to take it that you are looking forward to getting back out on the road and touring once again?
Oh yes (laughter). The success of the mini-tour last year was actually the grounding for us to carry on with it. We thought that last year was a toe in the water because you can’t come back after forty years and expect everyone to suddenly rush out to see you because firstly a lot of those fans no longer go out to live gigs and secondly most of the promoters of today most probably weren’t even born when we were happening. However, what has been encouraging is the number of messages that we get mainly from eighteen to twenty-four year old guys saying ‘I have just discovered your album in my dad’s record collection’ and for me that is brilliant.
It means that there is another audience now out there that is growing underneath the Silver Surfers who are our audience. So we are looking at this over the next few years to try and expand our fan base and also more importantly expand the audiences who want to come out and see us playing live. The problem that we are faced with is that because of the state that the music industry is currently in there is no longer a college circuit to play anymore; there is no longer a working man’s club circuit to play anymore which is a real shame as they were both great grounding areas for young up and coming bands.
Do you still get that buzz out of touring or is it now a necessary evil?
(Laughter) well at my age I don’t really relish the thought of touring whereas back in the 70’s we all used to pile into the back of the van and we would drive back from Manchester at two o’clock in the morning and get back home just as the sun was coming up (laughter). We all used to lie on the speaker cabinets in the back of the van. These days I would much rather have a hotel (laughter). That is the only difference. The touring is fine, we can cope with that but as we are all in our 60’s now we have to be reasonable sensible about these things, you can’t expect that it is going to be as it was in terms of your own stamina more than anything else (laughter).
Most of the guys have kept themselves pretty fit and we are in reasonably good shape. However, whether we could do a thirty date tour is another question (laughter). I definitely don’t relish the idea but yes we probably could. It is all down to the motivation of the band and as we are rolling along that motivation is getting stronger. I think that touring now I would actually enjoy a thirty date tour but it would have to be slightly more comfortable than what it was (laughter).
Those glorious days of driving up and down the motorways in an old, battered Transit van (laughter).
Exactly (laughter) we had a green one with aircraft seats (laughter). I think that it is the same generally, the pub circuit, the club circuit, it is getting more and more difficult to get gigs, wherever you go, even for the more established bands. The problem is getting people to put their iPads down and actually leave their house in order to keep music live; keep supporting live music. It is difficult but hopefully I think that there may be a renaissance again where people suddenly decide that rather than sitting watching clips on YouTube they might just go out and see a live band again. I really would like to think so.
It would be even better if you could get bums on seats who actually left their iPads and iPhones at home. The problem is that they still take the bloody things to the concerts with them.
I know, that does my head in, it really does. I have got an iPhone, and iPad and all that but I tend to use them really for publicising the band on social media and that sort of thing, but yes, I totally know what you mean. I have been sitting in parks, sitting on trains and even in restaurants where you see people sitting opposite one another on their phones; I hate it, I absolutely hate it (laughter), but they are useful up to a point.
Is there any sign of new Gryphon material on the horizon?
Obviously what happened with Richard threw a bit of a bomb into the camp but basically having regrouped and talked about it, what we are going to do is to start writing again at the beginning of October. Some of the band have been writing on and off for the past few years so the plan is to get a new studio album out by probably April of next year. That will be an ideal time for us to then get back out onto the road and tour the new album. The main reason for us recording a new studio album is that the reality of this is we can’t expect people to just come along and keep listening to the old stuff. However having said that for most bands that is exactly why people keep going along to see them (laughter).
But the truth of the matter is that we need a new album. We really do need a new album to take out with us to showcase the new Gryphon if you like. I personally think that in terms of direction we are probably going to head along the Red Queen To Gryphon Three route which was actually our most successful album. Also it was our only album that got released over in America and it is the album that we took to America in 1974 when we supported Yes. So if you can imagine a progressive rock band playing medieval instruments you will be getting reasonably close with a bit of luck (laughter).
I know that hindsight is a marvellous thing but taking you back to 1977 when the band split, was it the right time?
Yes, I have always believed that it was the right time, yes indeed. For our last album we were signed to Harvest EMI and our producer at that time was a guy called Mike Thorn. Obviously as you are aware The Sex Pistols had arrived on the scene and the whole punk thing was beginning to rise up. It was becoming perfectly obvious to us that people no longer wanted to go out and see progressive rock bands with huge light shows and dry ice. A lot of the audiences were far happier watching four guys with a single light bulb hanging over them (laughter). It was a totally different thing. I have always felt that had we been six months further on then we may have survived it just as bands like Yes and Genesis managed to do; they managed to carry on.
The Sex Pistols coming along was a renaissance in music. As soon as The Sex Pistols came along everything changed. So for us to try to carry on would most probably have been suicidal really. I don’t think that the promoters would have picked up on it, there was a new thing in town and we didn’t quite fit that. We could have probably carried on gigging, we were still very popular in Holland and Germany but for a band like us that had managed to get to a certain level whether we would have been able to maintain that, I very much doubt that, I don’t think so. So it was the right move for us to stop at that point. The two different styles of music simply wouldn’t mould together.
The irony of the situation is that it was our producer Mike Thorn who was pretty much responsible for getting The Sex Pistols involved with EMI Records. If you can remember the whole Bill Grundy fiasco with The Sex Pistols, after that show aired on the TV a lot of the bands that were linked to Mike for whatever reason were blacklisted because of the stink that it had caused and quite a few bands did actually go down at that time. Whether or not it was because of lack of popularity or whether it was because of political things that were going on inside EMI who knows. But the end result really was that a lot of good bands simply gave up.
With Mike’s connection with The Sex Pistols did you actually get to meet them?
Yes we did, we would run into them at label meetings and that sort of thing. But I have to say that they were on a different planet to us. I remember having a conversation in the pub round the back of Manchester Square with Malcolm McLaren about what music was seeing as we were trained musicians and as soon as I said that a battle would ensue (laughter). It was never in anger, it was always reasonably friendly but he would never ask me a question such as that (laughter). I was personally interested in punk purely because of what was happening; this new music had suddenly changed everything within the space of six months.
I think that it was the same for other bands including a lot of the bigger bands, they were all looking over their shoulders thinking this is something completely different. But of course they had already got large established fan bases and selling millions of albums anyway, so they managed to survive the storm. What I am very interested to see now is the rebirth of progressive rock which seems to be the trendy thing and is coming around very quickly at the moment.
On that subject you have recently been working with Gandalf’s Fist, are you enjoying that?
Yes I am, I really am. I think that they are a bunch of very talented guys and their latest album The Clockwork Fable is fantastic; it’s pretty spectacular really especially when you think that the majority of the album was cobbled together in somebody’s bedroom (laughter). It is absolutely amazing and I have to say that Dean Marsh is a very clever man indeed. I may be doing some live work with them next year because they are going to be playing at a couple of festivals which will be really good. I will turn up and sing my bits (laughter). So as you can see I am keeping my hand in as much as possible.
I really do like the new, younger, up and coming new progressive bands because in a way they are still locked in to the late 70s and early 80s feel of progressive rock but obviously you have now got the technology to be able to produce anything. Certain parts of their music does actually remind me a little bit of Gryphon in a lot of ways. So yes, I was very chuffed when they asked me to sing and do a little percussion on the album.
Gryphon were formed in the early 70s and here we are some forty odd years later talking about a new studio album and a UK tour. Does it surprise you just how warmly the audiences still react to the band?
Absolutely, and I think that it is testament to the fact that when Gryphon first started and at that point was unique, we could go into any folk club and the diehard folkies really weren’t that keen on the band. We weren’t singing with our fingers in our ears or singing traditional folk tunes like we should have done. We were taking a traditional song and rewriting the music for it and doing something completely different (laughter). So I think that a lot of the traditionalists weren’t overly impressed with the band. But what we did do was to grab people’s imaginations mainly because also of what we looked like which was, well god knows really what we looked like looking back at some of the pictures; I wouldn’t dare dress like that now (laughter).
The music was interesting, exciting, eclectic, complex and full of so many different influences. Don’t forget that I had originally joined Gryphon from a heavy rock band and then had to adapt my kit to work with an acoustic band and begin to play all of these weird and wonderful instruments. It was all a bit difficult to start with but I think that the sound that was produced was something that just grabbed people’s imagination and I think that in a way it still does. It’s timeless because of the instrumentation more than anything else. Using instruments from three or four hundred years ago with contemporary instruments now is always going to make people think ‘what the hell is that’ and I think that is what keeps people coming along to see us playing live.
Also the talent that was involved in the band and is still involved in the band is enormous so people are impressed with the actual playing as well so who knows what it is (laughter). It would be very easy for me to say that the reason that we are still so popular is down to the fact that people have stayed with us. We do know that there are fans who have stayed with us over all of that time and our website has been hit over a quarter of a million times. And it was that which kicked all of this off a couple of years ago now. All that I can say is that we must be doing something right in order to keep all of these people interested in what we are doing.
Which do you personally prefer, performing or producing?
That would have to be performing which I think always comes first and foremost with any musician. I have got a lot of mates who are fantastically good musicians who just happen to be fantastically good producers too (laughter). Production is fine, I really do enjoy that side of things but from a personal point of view actually being out there and performing in front of people is what gives me the buzz.
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
Gryphon wise I would say that would probably be playing a gig supporting Yes at Madison Square Garden in New York. At the end of the gig the whole auditorium lit up with peoples cigarette lighters and there was a huge revolving sign at the back of the halls saying “New York Welcomes Gryphon” and it was at that point that I thought ‘Yes, this is it. This is the start of something big’ (laughter). I think that as a moment in time that will probably be it for me.
Who has musically inspired you?
There have been lots of bands who have inspired me; The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Beatles, Yes, Genesis, Caravan, Fairport Convention, lots and lots. I have also been inspired by classical music as well. My mother was a pianist so I was bought up listening to all sorts of music and I am particularly fond of Vaughan Williams. As I have said earlier I also like a lot of the newer Progressive rock bands that are coming out as well.
What was the first record that you bought?
The first LP that I bought was Wheels Of Fire by Cream. I was a great Cream fan basically because I loved Ginger Baker’s kit more than anything else (laughter). As a drummer you would see it and think ‘oh, I would like one of those’ (laughter).
Who did you first see performing live in concert?
The very first band that I saw performing live was whilst I was attending Technical College down in Surrey in 1970. They had a great entertainments committee there so they were putting gigs on all of the time and I believe that it was Deep Purple. Seeing Deep Purple playing live also continued my interest in heavy rock.
Back in the early 80s how did you become involved with Kerrang! Magazine?
When the band split up I went off and I found myself working initially for Melody Maker for a while before I changed camps and moved to Sounds (laughter). Then out of Sounds Geoff Barton, myself and a couple of other people launched Kerrang! It went on to run for eight years with us doing it and then it all got a bit corporate and it wasn’t quite the same thing that we had launched. Back then it was a little angry and a bit off the wall and I have to say that the readers loved that but the record labels didn’t. With our contacts we were able to get directly In touch with the bands. When they came over to the UK, rather than us having to go through the record companies the bands would come to see us first so we were able to get the lowdown on what was actually happening rather than what the record company press release told you was happening (laughter).
Quite often we would publish it and we would get all of this shit from the record companies threatening us that they would be withdrawing their advertising (laughter). Funnily enough the readers loved it and most of the time within a few weeks the record companies would be back advertising with us again simply because of the power of Kerrang! Magazine which at that time had a quarter of a million readers so it wasn’t something that they could ignore. They rapidly began to learn that whatever press releases they sent over to us needed to be very carefully worded because otherwise we would quote the band as saying “actually that’s not how it is at all” (laughter). There were a lot of bands that we championed especially here in the UK, bands like Girlschool and Motorhead. It was a great fun time and I really did enjoy it.
So, as you can see I have had experience on all sides of the fence; as a musician, being involved in the music press and also running a record label. So my breadth of knowledge now is reasonably comprehensive I think which does help me when I have to deal with people in all aspects of the industry. I don’t suffer bull-shiters lightly (laughter).
Do you have any ambitions left to achieve?
If we are talking about musical ambitions then the answer will be probably not. I am quite happy with the way that things are going. I would love to be approached by a major artist who would like to come and play on my album, I think that every musician has that at the back of their mind. However, in reality I think the possibility of that happening at my age is pretty negligible. I am steering all of my energies into Gryphon at the moment in an effort to get them back to where they once were. In terms of ambition I am reasonably ambitious but over the years I have done lots of things and have got lots of T-Shirts and just how many T-Shirts do you need (laughter). It’s rather like when people win millions on the lottery, how many millions do you need?
Probably my only regret is that when Gryphon split I didn’t stick around within the music industry. At the time it wouldn’t have been that difficult for me to have gone off and joined a punk band (laughter). However, that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. Having said that, I did do a session for Wire on their Pink Flag album and that was about as close as I got in getting involved in the punk scene (laughter).
At what stage in your career did you feel the most musically satisfied?
That would probably have been around the time of the Red Queen To Gryphon Three album. Just from the point of view of my contribution to the album and the other music that we were making at that time. Early to middle Gryphon would be when I was both at my happiest and most creative.
What was the last song that made you cry?
Now that is a difficult one. Oh god I can’t actually think of one. I have to be honest and say that I can’t actually answer that. I know that there are lots of sad songs around but the last piece of music that I listened to that made me cry was Variations On A Theme (Thomas Tallis) by Vaughan Williams.
I have to say that I am really looking forward to seeing you play at The Robin in Bilston.
That’s great it would be good to see you. We love playing The Robin it’s a great little venue and for us, those sort of intimate gigs are quite important. Whenever we play at a festival it is just a sea of faces and you are either good or not, depending upon the conditions. However, I really do prefer the smaller gigs and playing The Robin in front of three hundred people, well there is far more connection with the audience which I feel is really important.
On that note Dave let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me. It’s been fantastic.
No problem Kevin, thank you so very much for asking me. I am so very chuffed and delighted that you asked me about this. Give me a shout when you get to Bilston and we will have a chat, a jar and it will give you the opportunity to meet the rest of the idiots (laughter). You take care and bye for now.