Ask Carl Palmer what makes him great – probably the greatest rock drummer of all time – and he hesitates.
"I suppose thinking that I'm not great," he says finally. "I'm not complacent. I'm always looking for a bit more, a bit more. I've got a very simple philosophy, and I will explain it to you: I will carry on playing as long as I can maintain the way I play. If I can get better, great. But the minute I can't maintain, then I'll stop. I still think I'm progressing at the moment. From that point of view, I'm quite happy and feel quite rewarded."
Palmer is 60 now, and he's spent much of his career playing the drums with power, speed and dexterity in arenas, anthems and stadiums as part of two progressive-rock supergroups, first Emerson, Lake and Palmer, then Asia. If you want to hear him at his most extraordinary, he recommends the ELP song "Toccata," on the 1973 album Brain Salad Surgery. That track features an electronic-drum solo that confounded listeners and critics, who thought they were hearing keyboards.
For the past nine years, Palmer has been reinterpreting the ELP catalog, replacing Keith Emerson's keyboards with guitar and eliminating the vocals entirely.
His new CD, Working Live – Volume 3, features classics from the ELP repertoire, including "Pictures at An Exhibition," "Bitches Crystal" and "Nutrocker." His guitarist, Paul Bielatowicz, absolutely blisters the material, and Palmer matches him note for note. What used to sound majestic (or, to some, bombastic; it was called derisively called "art rock" back in the day) now packs a monster wallop. And he promises "the full-on Palmer approach" when he takes the stage at the Slippery Noodle.
"It's going to be loud," he said. "It's going to be the same as it always was. That's it. That's how I look at it. Four hundred or 4,000 or 400,000 (in the audience), it's the same for me."
Palmer said the point of this new band wasn't to replace the keyboards as much as it was to update the ELP sound. He thought instrumental music was a better way to go.
"It was experimental the first couple of years to see if it would all work, but due to the techniques and things that have been developed for guitar, and a very high standard of guitar playing, it's possible to play this music on guitar and not keyboards," he said. "I was determined to go that way, because I really didn't want to be involved with the synthesizer. Although that was very, very good, I just wanted to freshen that approach up."
He certainly wasn't going to attempt what former mates Keith Emerson and Greg Lake did when they came through Indianapolis without him earlier this year. Their tour featured medleys and truncated versions of ELP songs, most accompanied by recorded drums.
Palmer snickered at their "watered-down" approach.
"I think it was a very bad move," he said. "It reminded me of a bar band, a karaoke band using a drum machine. And I did tell them that recently when I worked with them on the 40th anniversary. I don't know why they did that."
Emerson and Lake asked him to rejoin the group, he said, but Palmer had no interest in going back on a full-time basis. "I made it very clear – we're still friends and all of that – that it wasn't for me."
Palmer likes what he's doing now. He found his current band mates at music academies and institutes in the London area. Bielatowicz taught at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music; Simon Fitzpatrick, the new bass player, came recommended by a former band member.
Did Palmer hold auditions? No, that's so 20th century. "I call up and see who they've got and who's really, really good," he said. "The standard is so high that you can literally call up and say, 'Who is the best of what you've got?' People know the standard I'm looking for."
Prospective band members get musical charts and CDs a couple of months in advance. They're expected to come prepared. Fitzpatrick came in for four days of rehearsals and the band immediately went on tour.
"When somebody comes highly recommend by somebody who's already been in your band, it's a given that the chap who's recommended will be able to do the job," Palmer said. "That's what it's all about."