I interviewed Bernie Tormé, guitarist to Ozzy Osbourne and Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan the other week, alongside John Howitt, session musician to Celine Dion and Anastasia. Also two corporate clients, Steve and Andy, who came to Bernie’s studio for a private masterclass, to get the inside track on music, creativity and business:
Bernie : In the course of my career, I have worked with a fair mix of class A rock stars. The music business is a great teacher of life skills such as negotiating, marketing, teamwork, high performance and so on, both how to do them well and occasionally the dark side of the force. We’ll be discussing these and other topics at the event. At the same time, I’ll be playing some music, which is always a lot of fun. I’m leaving the satanic art of business to Peter and John!
On Improvisation and Innovation
Peter : Given that Rock’n’Roll has its own conventions and that there are only 12 intervals in an octave and so on, tell me about your approach to the guitar when you are trying to come up with something new?
Bernie: For me, it is not an intellectual process. I try to go blank and start afresh. If then I spot something that I like, then I will refine it until I have something that hangs together for the piece I’m writing.
John : My American musical cousins call this “If you think, you stink”. It has to be fluid. Some jazz players spend so much time intellectualising how to move from one chord to another that they never produce anything of great value.
Bernie: I have applied the same general approach to lyrics. I’d play the songline over and over and just write phrases until they start to fit. I’d thought that this was fairly unique but I’ve since found that its not. It’s not exactly Bob Dylan, but then I think even he did that from time to time.
On tools for creativity
Peter : Are you aware of any techniques or approaches that assist you in the creative process?
John : I find that listening with new ears is a very important skill. For example, I have been listening again to Glenn Miller of late, noticing things that I’d never noticed before. I think that’s an underrated skill in business.
Steve and Andy : We work in a highly regulated industry (Railways) with a long history. Nonetheless, we need to constantly look for new ideas in the search for improvement and innovation. The idea of looking again at old practices in a new way is highly transferable to our environment. One of our difficulties is the ability to get people to empty their collective minds, due to the long legacy of our industry. So, getting our people to ‘escape’ from the ‘burden’. People tend to look towards their seniors or previous solutions which is not always the best way to solve problems.
Bernie : I can relate to that. Some bands I’ve been in have had a strong hierarchy – basically “it’s my way or the highway”. Big companies are far more complex, although it’s not as different as you would think. The core of a band is surrounded by a plethora of people involved and they don’t always act in the bands best interests, so even a band is a what Peter would call a complex adaptive system.
John : Can you (Steve and Andy) comment on the impact of the work we did for the kick off of a major IT project? Especially in regard to the value of music in that event.
Steve and Andy : Basically, in one day, we achieved as much as we would have done in 3-4 weeks of meetings in terms of developing a cohesive team that can work, learn and play together.
On whole brained musicianship
Peter : Where do you look in your personal search for inspiration re playing an instrument?
Bernie : Using pure intuition to create and a more intellectual process to judge your work. It sometimes helps to have a producer to fulfill this job as these two jobs require different sides of the brain – the right hand side for the more intuitive, playful style and the left hand side for judgement and evaluation. I also love getting my hands on another instrument to shift gears in my thinking and playing. I had a Sitar for a few years for example. It only had 4 or so songs in it for me, but I would not have had those songs without it.
Peter: What examples would you point to re an innovative approach to rock music?
Bernie : For me, Jimi Hendrix epitomizes innovation in rock music still. His willingness to explore sounds that were way beyond those being used by his contemporaries at the time still stands up to scrutiny. He had a playground approach to using equipment and effects that was totally alien at the time. If you listen carefully to Hendrix’s playing, you can hear hints of Steve Cropper, in the way in which he put in little fills and subtleties. He also fused styles in ways that others would not dream of.
On the music machine
Peter : Can you tell me about the good, the bad and the ugly of working in a rock band that is printable?
Bernie : NO, NO, NO Peter ! Suffice to say that some of the stories in the classic rockumentary ‘This is Spinal Tap’ are funny because they are not so far removed from real life. I may offer some ‘Rock’n’Roll life lessons’ at the event we are doing in London later this year, but only if you are very nice to me indeed!
Peter : OK, so what can business people learn from music?
Bernie : One of the difficulties is that once you hit a success recipe, management are interested in you repeating that for years unless you are the exception. For example it’s well known that Ozzy Osbourne is a great Beatles fan, but he has a great reputation for doing heavy metal and he knows that his fans expect that from him and he’s damn good at it anyway!
John : On the other hand, some bands split up because they don’t evolve. In your talks Peter, you discuss Madonna, Prince and Bowie as examples of that. Is it too far a stretch to suggest that some businesses fail if they don’t evolve?
Peter : Absolutely, for some businesses, stagnation is not an option, but it’s a fine balance.
Bernie : I spotted an opportunity when I was in Ian Gillan’s band. We had a top 10 album although the songs were written by someone else. I found a niche in helping the band repeat and improve on that performance for the next two albums.
Peter : What can business people learn from the music business?
Bernie : The music business is something of a basket case compared with the sorts of businesses you tend to work in Peter. I understand that you have had a fairly lucky life, working in Research and Development for ‘decent’ companies and in academia, where work is play. That’s pretty much a Rock’n’Roll lifestyle. But my understanding of most businesses is that they are not about that. In that respect management in the music business is no different to what happens in the ‘grind em down’ type of businesses that cause so many people to find work a chore.
Peter : I guess I do have the luxury of working for businesses that by and large have decent leaders and managers. My early years were spent at Wellcome Foundation, who gained 4 Nobel Prizes for its work in Tropical medicine etc. We worked hard all day because we could and we played hard all night as well. By modern standards, the company was poorly managed, but excellently led and I draw important parallels between this and the world of rock bands. Perhaps that time has gone, or maybe we are at the tipping point where capitalism must rightly be balanced by a proper sense of purpose if we are to solve important world problems. I have found that you get the best out of people by treating them as humane beings rather than human resources. The world’s greatest leaders in business understand that. The rest, well, perhaps they match some of the worst excesses of the music business.
So come along to “Monsters of Rock Business” and get yourself a supercharge of Rock’n’Roll Wisdom. In summary, Bernie offered me three points::
- If you want to innovate, learn to ‘clear the screen’ of industry limitations for enough time to see the future
- Accept that creativity is necessary for innovation but insufficient – perspiration is always more important than inspiration. Learn to sweat as well as glow.
- Know when to intellectualise and when to behave like an animal in business.
Let’s get the real deal out – here’s Bernie Tormé in action, causing some Trouble with Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan – it really does not get much better than this!
Bernie Tormé next appears at “Riffs and Myths of Leadership” in London. A unique blend of a leadership keynote, business to business networking, a live music performance and an opportunity to meet Bernie and John Howitt, star performers.
Peter Cook is Rock’n’Roll Innovation Editor at Innovation Excellence. He leads Human Dynamics and The Academy or Rock, and provides Keynote speaking, Organisation Development and Business Coaching. www.humdyn.co.uk and www.academy-of-rock.co.uk. You can follow him on twitter @Academyofrock