Originally founded in the mid ’70s, American symphonic trio Quill have been largely overlooked in the intervening period, but thanks to The Samurai of Prog covering unreleased Quill track The Demise on their latest album, Lost and Found, with contributions from ex-Quill members Keith Christian and Ken DeLoria, there is renewed interest in their music. Here, in an interview completed prior to recording, the composer of that track and Quill keyboardist Ken Deloria speaks to Youri Komarov.
Hello, Ken! Thanks for agreeing to recall the remarkable ’70s and to talk a little bit about Quill. If you don’t mind, let’s start at the very beginning. Please tell us about the foundation of Quill. What year and where did the band form? Were Jim Sides, Keith Christian and you the very first and only members of Quill?
Quill was formed in 1975. Keith and I started it when I discovered him playing slide guitar in a local coffee shop. I soon talked him into learning bass, because I liked him very much, and soon after that Jim Sides joined us as the drummer, after coming off the road with a club band. I had played in several club bands with Jim in the past.
Many years later (1993) we played a concert, our last actually, at UCLA (University of California, Santa Barbara) along with the English band IQ, the Swedish band Änglagård, and a local Los Angeles band. We had to hire a different bass player who was not as good as Keith at bass or vocals, but Keith was about to have his first baby that same week and could not commit to the gig.
In what city did this all happen?
Santa Barbara, California, USA. We later moved to the east coast to take advantage of the many more colleges that we thought would hire us for shows, but it was only slightly more successful. And a lot colder!
Were you a member of a band when you met Keith?
I had just left a stupid club band in the mid-west (also very cold!) and vowed NEVER to play in a club band again. I broke that vow once and it literally, nearly killed me. I hate that scene.
How did you choose Quill as the name of the band?
It actually came from a comic book character named Peter Quill, which was something one of the guys was reading. I wanted to call the band “Monarch”, which I though went well with the power and majesty of our live work, but the other two preferred Quill. I’ll get back at them. I’ll make sure Keith runs out of chips at my upcoming party.
Were all of you playing music in bands previously and did any of you have a musical education? If so, what institutions did you graduate from?
We all played in bands before, extensively, but none of us had studied music formally, except a small amount in grade school. Keith had the least band experience, opting instead to play and sing acoustically in coffee houses. But he got a Rickenbacker bass and learned it admirably, in a very short time.
Tell us a little about yourself. When did you begin to play music and what kind of music did you listen to in your youth? How did you come to progressive rock and whose music has had the biggest influence on you?
I started guitar at 12. I had a crappy guitar that was set up badly and my fingers would bleed every time I tried to play. I soon switched to keyboards at about 13. My dad supported me with first a Doric Combo Organ and, then later, with a duo manual Farfisa, which was also pretty limited. He died shortly afterwards. It wasn’t until I met a friend who was able to buy a Hammond and two Leslies that I suddenly, like overnight, could practically speak through the thing. I also got a Roland SH-1000 synth around the same time, and a 5’5″ baby grand piano. The combination of having THREE instruments sent me into the stratosphere.
I listened to the Animals, The Stones, then focused on Yes and ELP as soon as I discovered them. I was never a Beatles fan. Tommy, by The Who, was also a big influence and I wrote a rock-opera on guitar when I was about 15. It still is worth something, as it tells the true story of life. If I could have sung well (I decidedly DO NOT sing well) I might have made it into something. It was far beyond my developing intellect and growing spirituality, but I was reading a book every day or two on psychology and what’s now called “self help” books, so I guess I picked up some ideas.
What kind of music did Quill play in the early years? Was Quill a touring band? How did people receive your music?
The music was always the same as Sursum Corda (our first album) and then later, more music in much the same style, but we become a lot more adept at our craft and the music reflected a developing intensity. We also started to make sense of the lyrics. We never played any cover music and we never played in dance clubs. We played many times at shows of various types. People received the music very well, except in the rare situations in which we’d be paired with a Blues band and the audience couldn’t understand us.
Did any of you have full-time jobs whilst you were with Quill?
All three of us did at first. As the recording deal with the studio began to take place (no easy matter, by the way, because we were all broke), I became the full-time band leader, chancellor and business manager.
Did Quill ever support any well-known domestic or foreign bands and did you ever play outside the U.S.A.?
We never played outside of the US, but we did play as the “opening act” for many well-known US bands.
Can you name a few of the bands Quill supported and do you have a most memorable gig?
Änglagård was the best I heard on stage, but I missed most of the set being backstage working on logistics. We opened for IQ, as I already mentioned, but the guys were so difficult that we just left the theatre and went to dinner. Genesis was a big one. And I personally played solo piano at some jazz and blues festivals in stadiums to 40,000 or more, which was quite the experience. Always got a standing ovation.
Genesis? When and where was that?
Quill did not actually play in front of Genesis, but I did! So I usually just say Quill. The circumstances were such that I was running sound (along with 40 others) for a festival in the Oakland Stadium. I was the sound company boss at the time.
Everyone was late so I went up on stage (being a somewhat competent keyboard player), to test the keyboards. The promoter, Bill Graham who I knew well, asked if I could do something to keep the crowds from getting crazy. So I sat down at a nice 9′ Yamaha and started playing a piano rendition of Quill music. Time passed and still no sign of the main act. I launched into Take a Pebble (my adaptation) and the crowd went wild! I continued to play excerpts from Sursum Corda and a few ELP “nods”, as it were, until the bass player showed up and we played together for about 20 more minutes, just vamping on progressive-type figures. Eventually, when they were ready to come out, I left the stage, got a big group hug from all the guys, and a standing ovation from 60,000 people in the stadium.
So that’s the true story, but to shorten it I usually just say that Quill backed up Genesis. In spirit and in music, we did, but in reality it was just me, eventually joined by the bass player (I don’t even know his name).
A similar thing happened at the Long Beach Blues Festival. Opening act doesn’t show. Promoter asks me to play piano. I play for about 45 minutes, keeping the crowd from having to listen to cassette tapes (that’s all we had, back then). John Lee Hooker finally comes out and we jam for about three songs. I leave the stage, get another standing ovation (this time about 10,000 people) and life was good that day. Later John Lee and I had a catered dinner together in his dressing room, which was pretty cool, but I had to rush to get back to work. I mixed most of those bands that long day, but obviously NOT the segment when I played with Hooker. There were no iPAD remote mixes back then (ha-ha) and anyway, I was on the wrong side of the PA.
Tell me about the writing and recording of Sursum Corda. What inspired the album?
Incidentally, “Sursum Corda” means “Lift up your heart” in Latin. Conversely, “Sursum Corda” was a loose collection of ideas, both musically and lyrically. We were just learning how to write together and makes sense of an album project.
Quill were courted by a number of labels but to no avail. Which record companies did you come close to signing with?
We had a deal on the table with Capitol Records, but they wanted us to make hit songs and we didn’t want to do that. Otherwise, a lot of small labels, like Quest Records in Canada were interested, but Disco was coming into favour, progressive rock was dying out, and the record labels were becoming harder and harder to work with. They had reached the “end of their rope” in respect to funding artistic endeavours, and, at that time, just wanted to make as much money as possible. We also had a deal with Hansa Records “on the table” but Jim was so far gone with alcohol, that it made no sense to accept the deal. Make no mistake, we all drank a lot of wine. But Jim was the one it affected really badly and it nearly cost him his life.
Is Hansa Records the company based in Berlin? It’s a shame that the deal with Hansa fell through only because of Jim Sides issues with alcohol. If not for that maybe things would have gone in a completely different direction.
I agree. Hansa was ready to deal. Hansa was based in Berlin, and probably still is, but I’ve been out of touch with them for many years. Jim was ready to die. It didn’t make any sense and he (Jim) would have a new notion every day about adding some singer, or a guitar player, or something else that made it impossible to even discuss it seriously. As business manager, it was like following a moving target. I doubt he even knew what was going on at that time. I could not get him to show up sober for meetings. I eventually gave up. I really hate being around fall-down drunks.
The second Quill album was written shortly after the first one. In what year? Please tell me about this work. Did you release a promo version of it?
We wrote it almost immediately after finishing Sursum Corda, which means we started it in late 1977 and finished sometime in 1978. It took about a year of collaborative work together to finalize it. It was never recorded professionally, in a studio, but a passable tape from a warehouse recording still exists. It was long and a great challenge to play. I remember that in one hour, I had two times in which I could take a drink of water (or whatever), for about three seconds each. Otherwise, my hands were in constant motion. Incidentally, three songs from the piece were professionally recorded and received some local radio play. They were very good, in my opinion, and could stand alone from the rest of the piece without needing to understand the full story.
How did you come to the decision to disband Quill? Who initiated it?
In plain terms, the drummer reached an all-time low with alcohol and drug use, and it became impossible to continue to work with him. We thought about replacing him, but we were such a tight unit that that seemed like it would be very difficult. So we disbanded and went our separate ways.
Did you stop playing music or did you continue after Quill disbanded? I know a little about your career in professional audio products. What about Jim Sides and Keith Christian? Are you still good friend and in touch?
I sold my electronic instruments and bought a good, new grand piano with the money. I then launched myself into a career of working with sound and did many major tours as a Front of House mixer and system tech. I even learned to drive large trucks (semis). I did Heart, Pat Benatar, and many, many others (Sister Sledge, chic, Brother’s Johnson, BB King (about 100 times), Bobby Blue Bland, Miles Davis, Kool and the Gang, and on and on). There was no end to it. I lived on the road for about 6 months each year.
To this day, I play music whenever I can. My main interest is now improvisational and spontaneous creation, either alone or with others, using almost always a grand piano. Though I still love that Hammond and Moog sound!
Keith remained playing in various club-type bands in Santa Barbara, and Jim tried playing in a few bands, but his use of alcohol eventually landed him in a hospital for 6 weeks in a coma. He nearly died. Later, I employed him in a business that I had started and owned, and he had several more relapses into the alcoholic world. He now is part owner in some small speaker manufacturing company.
Keith and I remain the best of friends and I recently spent 9 weeks with him in my RV (Recreational Vehicle) parked in front of his house in Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, that is not the same case with Jim. We are not friends in any sense of the word. He is “an important man” who will gladly tell you just how important he is. When he came to work for me in 1986, he was more than three quarters dead. All our mutual friends have agreed that I saved his life. But he “doesn’t trust” me now. Ain’t life something, eh?
In the year 1993 Quill took part in Progfest ’93. Did that happen before or after Greg Walker released Sursum Corda on CD? What are your recollections about the collaboration with this famous prog guru and great friend of mine?
Yes, Prog Fest ’93 took place shortly after Greg re-released Sursum Corda. I funded most of the show as it was about to be cancelled, but Greg honourably paid me back over time. It was big fun for us and we wanted to quit our “day jobs” and go back into music full time. However, that was not to be.
If possible, could we talk about the new project involving The Samurai of Prog. Who suggested this idea and who took part in the recording sessions? Were you able to find a pair of Mini Moogs to re-create sound of the ’70s?
They contacted me, back in November I think it was. There was no way to say NO, and a thousand reasons to say YES. The music had been sitting on DAT tapes in a shoe box for many years. Their approach is not quite as gritty and hard as our stage show, but, on the other hand, what they’ve done in the outtakes I’ve heard so far, has far surpassed anything I could have done with the equipment of the old days. I believe that most of the equipment, at least at this pre-arrangement stage – is not vintage. Greg Walker aside (and I love him!), vintage equipment is not the essence of music. Music is the essence of music. It can be played on a modular Moog or a bamboo flute, and great music is still great music. I serviced enough Mellotrons to never need to see one again. Not that I don’t respect the original brilliance of the concept.
I had envisioned a much larger soundscape than I could lay down with just bass, Hammond and Moog. I was not able to meet with them in Sweden due to health issues (I’m wasting away from cancer), but Keith went to meet Stefan and laid on some bass and vocal parts. He had a truly wonderful time! I wish I could have been there, but with my strong personality, it gave Keith, who is much more mellow than myself, a chance to shine on his own. I’ll do what I can from long distance.
One special treat is that after the 58 minutes of The Demise is over, I will play a short “underature,” a sort of reprise of the main themes on a piano. Nothing heavy. Just a tasteful (I hope!) reprise of the themes and new way of looking at them. Somewhat like the ending of Jesus Christ Superstar, but in my style. Maybe it will help the listener to recognize that true music isn’t just Hammonds, Mellotrons, and Moogs. Maybe not. But it’s what I’m able to contribute and so that’s what I will do, health permitting. I’m supposed to finish it quite soon. It might open a few eyes.
Well…thank you very much Ken for taking time to talk with me. And all the best.