Courtenay Hilton-Green - Lead Vocals & Flute.
From commercial standpoint US didn't have any well known Progressive Rock bands, with maybe an exception of Happy The Man, but when we dive into underground we can actually find many groups, that were not keen to play psychedelic or blues oriented sounds but were rather highly influenced by UK Progressive bands like King Crimson, ELP, Yes, Genesis and many others, that were gaining popularity during the early '70s. Lift were definitely one of the best US Progressive bands that recorded a remarkable organ driven Prog Rock of highest order. Production is not in the same league as above mentioned groups, but that was due the circumstances. Maybe some collectors will agree, that their "raw" sounding production adds a special vibe. The band never actually officially released an LP, but it was unofficially released in small quantities and thanks to the worldwide collectors it survived for years to come. I tracked down one of their members and we talked about the LIFT years, what influenced US Prog bands and what are they currently working on. Chip Gremillion is still very musically active and will be releasing something special in the following weeks.
Make sure to enjoy "Caverns Of Your Brain", which was recorded around 1974 and embodies truly remarkable technical abilities of their band members.
When and where were you born?
A long time ago when the galaxy was in a far, far different place.
I was born in 1954, in New Orleans, Louisiana.
How old were you when you began playing music and what was the first instrument you played?
I was about 9 or 10 years old and started playing guitar.
What inspired you to start playing music? Do you recall the first song you ever learned to play?
I was always fascinated by sound particularly musical tones even as a toddler. Ironically, when I was about 8 years old I saw the film, 20,000 leagues Under the Sea. When the scene with Captain Nemo (James Mason) played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor on the Nautilus pipe organ, it just mesmerized me. I suppose the truth is I was always destined to become a keyboard player.
The real inspiration that trigged my interest in playing music occurred on Mardi Gras Day in 1963. My family was visiting friends for the day and the family we were visiting had two teenage sons. All day they were playing albums on an old console Hi-Fi. Elvis and various Doo -Wop albums were the music of the day. Then I heard music that literally spun me around and I sat in front of the speaker for the next 15 or so minutes. It was the first three chords of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles. The sound of “Meet The Beatles” was so different! It was like magic to me. My parents always wanted me to take piano lessons. I wanted to play the guitar, so as much as I hated piano lessons, I took them to get guitar lessons. The first song I learned on guitar was “Walk Don’t Run” by the Ventures… followed by “Please, Please Me” by the Beatles.
Were you a member of a band as a youth and what types of music did you play? Who were some of the artists you shared the stage with?
I formed, or was a member of a number of bands from the time I was 12 through 18. Every band I was part of at the time was strictly a pop cover band. I actually worked in several cover bands with LIFT drummer, Chip Grevemberg and LIFT bassist, Cody Kelleher years before we formed LIFT.
At first I played guitar, but I guess around 1967 organ became a main instrument in a number of popular songs. It was always easy to find guitar players and most of them better than me… so with a few years of piano lessons as my credentials, it was simple to guess who the “organ player” was going to be. In a Gadda Da Vida, Light My Fire, House of the Rising Sun, along with Born To Be Wild, Magic Carpet Ride were all some of the first rock keyboard songs we performed. By 1968 the combo organ sound had given way to the mighty Hammond B-3 and the Farfisa I had just couldn’t replicate that sound even with a single rotor Leslie and light use of a distortion pedal. So in late 1969 I acquired a Hammond L-100 and a 122 Leslie. That was heaven and all I would ever need! (Until I heard King Crimson, ELP and Yes.)
At that stage of our career we didn’t often perform with any other groups local or otherwise. There really were no venues or events back then to accommodate multiple bands, in a single venue except occasional weekend jams in the park. One version of one group I was in played one or two of those. Chip Grevemberg and I had been playing together a while by then and Cody was on bass at that point, but it was still a couple of years before we formed LIFT.
When did you begin writing music? What was the first song you wrote? What inspired it and did you ever perform the song live or record it?
The first song I wrote when I was about 12 was more folk rock. My sister and me were both on guitar and singing. Strictly a family gathering type of thing… never recorded. The first songs I was inspired to write were the four songs that LIFT recorded. The real inspiration for those was to prove to myself I could do it and the growing influence progressive music was having on us as a band. We truly did want to compose and play something other than the Blues, Rock and Jazz so prevalent in New Orleans. By the time LIFT was performing the four tunes on the “Caverns of Your Brain” LP, (I hate that title) we were definitely the only band doing progressive music and one of few bands doing original songs in New Orleans at the time. I remember giving a ride home to the lead guitarist of one of the popular local rock bands and he asked me why we played such crazy music. Before I could answer, he promised me I would grow out of it and get back to good blues-rock. I guess not… Just to be clear, there are a great many blues artists that I love, we just didn’t want to be another Southern Rock band.
What's the story of Lift?
Well, as I mentioned I had worked with Chip Grevemberg as a drummer and Cody Kelleher on bass in other groups several years prior to the formation of LIFT. I moved from New Orleans to Pensacola, Florida from the latter part of 1970 to mid 1972. That’s where I met and played in a couple of cover bands with Courtenay Hilton-Green our lead vocalist. I moved back to New Orleans in the summer of 1972 well immersed in ELP, Yes, Moody Blues & Pink Floyd. As soon as I got back to New Orleans I contacted Chip Grevemberg and Cody Kelleher. They were not currently working with anyone and we all soon realized we were all on the same wavelength as for as our love for progressive music. It was sitting around Cody’s kitchen table in early June of 1972 that LIFT was born. Our only goal was to cover progressive tunes as well as write our own tunes with the end goal being to “make it” as a progressive band from the south. From 1972 to 1973 I wrote the four tunes on “The Caverns album,” but we did not perform any of them until after the recording session and we called the four songs our “album set.” We thought we were going to sign with a label and go back into the studio with sufficient time to properly record the songs as our first release. Well we all know that didn’t happen.
Lift grew a fan base and remained quite popular in many circles. To this day there are people in New Orleans that are still fans of the band.
In the fall of 1975 we relocated to Atlanta in hopes of getting to a broader platform from which to launch. There were rumors that Eddie Offord was going to build a studio there and the music scene there was more generic so our “unique style” would stand out rather than being an anomaly. Things went south, pun intended, very quickly. But we got into the studio one last time with the original lineup. We drove to Philadelphia and in one night recorded Simplicity, Tripping Over the Rainbow, and an instrumental titled, “To Undulate Rapidly”. It seemed like everyone especially the producer who booked the session was blown away. We heard a rough mix playback that actually sounded really good and we left the studio with promises of tapes to follow. Never heard another sound or received a copy of the tape. It just seemed all downhill. Shortly thereafter Cody and Courtenay left the group. We immediately began looking for replacements but it took almost a year and a half for us to find the three members who formed the second version of the band, Mike Mitchell, Laura “Poppy” Landres and Tony Vaughn. The specifics of those meetings are already published so I won’t go into detail, but needless to say we had the equivalent of a creative explosion once we got together in early rehearsals.
Chip Grevemberg - Rogers Drums, Chimes & Tuned Percussion, Gongs.
Chip Gremillion - Hammond B-3, Mellotron 400, Moog & Arp Synthesizers, Piano.
Who were members of the band?
LIFT had two distinct sets of members. For simplicity I’ve always referred to these two groups as the “New Orleans version” and the “Atlanta version”. The original line up in New Orleans version of the band that recorded the “Caverns LP” was; Chip Gremillion, Hammond B-3, Mellotron 400, RMI electric Piano, Moog Sonic Six & Arp Odyssey synthesizers, Yamaha 9’ Grand Piano; Richard Huxen, electric guitar, steel guitar, six and twelve string acoustic guitars, JRH custom pedal board; Chip Grevemberg, Rodgers Drums, Gongs, Temple Bells, and assorted percussion; Cody Kelleher, Rickenbacker Bass & Fender Bass Pedals; Courtenay Hilton – Green, Vocals & Flute.
The Atlanta version of the band was; J. Richard Huxen, Lead, Steel and Acoustic Guitars, JRH Custom Pedal board & Vocals; Chip Gremillion, Gulbransen Paragon Organ, M-300 Chamberlin, Vako Orchestron, RMI Electric Piano, Minimoog Synthesizer, Roland SH3 Synthesizer; Chip Grevemberg, Rodgers Drums, Paiste Gongs, Temple Bells, Chimes, Wood Blocks and assorted percussion & vocals; Michael Mitchell, Electric 6 & 12 String Guitars, Mellotron 400; Tony Vaughn, Fender Bass, Bass Pedals & Vocals; Laura (Poppy) Pate, Lead Vocals, Arp Pro Soloist Synthesizer and assorted percussion.
What label did you sign your first recording contract with? What songs, if any, did you record? Were any of these songs released?
We never signed with Guinness Records as they released the bootleg LP, so I suppose you could say we “signed” with Synphonic as that was a sanctioned release.We never signed with any label actually.
Is there a story behind the name?
It’s simple really. The evening Cody, Chip Grevemberg and I were sitting at Cody’s kitchen table deciding what we wanted to do as a band we realized we needed a name… something that would reflect the enthusiasm we felt for what we wanted to do and how we wanted our music to make people feel. We were having a few beers and I went to the plastic trash can and lifted the top to toss in the empty can and noticed that the plastic lid had the word LIFT printed on it. That name was unanimously and immediately chosen. We also appreciated the irony of the fact that we were playing a European style of music and LIFT is synonymous with elevator in the U.S. Hopefully anyone familiar with the artwork on the 1990 Synphonic CD, will see the tie in.
Who were some major influences?
Early on, I would say Moody Blues and King Crimson. That really stirred my desire to move toward melody and orchestration. I don’t think those influences are obvious on the “Caverns” CD, but with the forthcoming release of my composition “Inception” performed by The Samurai of Prog, those influences may be more apparent. I also was very influenced by, Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman and always loved Tony Banks composing and chord structures. I suppose it was all sort of a “gumbo” as there would always be a bit of Greg Allman in there too.
Did you play many gigs? What were some of the venues you played? Who were some of the artists you appeared with?
We played a great deal around New Orleans from small private clubs, to concert clubs and College University shows, but always as a single act.
Cody Kelleher - Rickenbacker Bass & Taurus Pedals.
What was the writing and arranging process within the band? Did anyone else in the band write?
For the “Caverns LP” and CD, I was the only composer in the group. By that I mean I would have the fundamental structure of the song and the name. It varied a little, but Cody, Chip Grevemberg would create a basic drum and bass track to the song structure sometimes with my input and sometimes they would just nail something down on the first go. Richard would basically follow the chord structure and then stylize the part based on his intuition. If I remember, we worked closest on Caverns and Tripping over the Rainbow. Courtenay wrote the lyrics for Buttercup Boogie and Tripping Over the Rainbow on his own. Chris Young wrote the lyric to Simplicity and co-wrote Caverns with Courtenay and me.
In the “Atlanta Version” of the band we recorded three songs. Richard Huxen composed, two songs, “Perspectives” and “The Masque”. Mike Mitchell wrote, “The Waiting Room”. Both also penned the lyrics to their respective songs. Greg Walker used “Perspectives” as the opening track on his “Past, Present and Future” double LP. He was always a big supporter of LIFT music.
In 1974 your only recorded album came out “Caverns of Your Brain”. Would you share some recollections from the sessions?
The sessions were very intense. I remember I was on crutches because I tripped and dislocated my right knee… there is a picture somewhere of me at my B-3 standing with crutches. We had three days to actually record and mix. The other two days were spent setting up, or breaking down and dubbing tapes. I noticed that lots of comments from listeners and reviews mention the energy level and speed of some of the playing. Looking back, I’m fairly certain is was in part adrenaline, but also a keen awareness of the clock and our producer Sonny Fox, as laid back as he was, kept us aware of the need to keep moving.
How pleased were we with the final product?
Well for us at the time we were recording a demo tape to submit to the record companies. We never intended this to be a finished album. There were additional vocal overdubs that never got recorded due to the limitation of time. Overall, I think we are all happy with it… I certainly was very pleased when I learned it even existed from Greg Walker’s phone call to me in 1989.
At the time of Greg’s call my wife Anne and I owned a video production & marketing company in Palm Springs, CA. I got paged and I didn’t recognize Greg’s name, but thought it might be a new production project so I took the call. When he asked me if I was Chip Gremillion from the band LIFT, I literally thought it was joke. He proceeded to explain that he had tracked down my parents who were still in the New Orleans area and they gave him my phone number. Greg is the one who informed me about the 500 bootleg LP’s and how those had been bootlegged yet again. “LIFT is a cult hit” he said. That phone call definitely qualifies as one of the strangest moments of my life. Long story short, I drove to meet him and agreed to let him re-master the tapes for CD. He did a superb job!
How did the distribution work out?
I don’t know… You’ll have to contact Guiness Records for that.
All distribution before the 1990 Synphonic CD was technically illegal. However, if not for the original 500 LP’s being pressed by Guiness Records, LIFT as of today would not exist at all except in the memory of the band members and fans in New Orleans. The part that is the most humorous to me is that there were only 500 of the original LP and a bootleg LP of that was made and a second 500 LP released. I’d say that proves the staying power of our music as there is a bootleg of a bootleg of a virtually unknown band.
Perhaps I titled “Inception” properly as with the release of “The Samurai of Prog” arrangement could be the beginning of a much larger awareness of our music. Now that would be a story!
Do you think that bootleg reached any critics?
I have no way of knowing how many critics were aware of the release of the bootleg LP. Since Greg Walker released the CD in 1990, critics have largely been very kind, if not enthusiastic about our music. It’s the same for the 2001 release of, “The Moment of Hearing” CD that contains both the New Orleans and Atlanta recorded material.
There seem to be more reviews of the 1990 release of the “Caverns of Your Brain” CD by Symphonic recorded by the original New Orleans line up. Just from my reading of the critics reviews and the number of them, I would say there is a slight preference for the music of the original New Orleans group. It seems that is mostly due to the raw energy of the music. Also that CD was released in 1990 vs, The Moment of Hearing released in 2001 which features LIFT music from both the original New Orleans band and also studio recordings made by the Atlanta line up in 1977. For me it’s all LIFT and the later music while not as “energetic” is more sophisticated in its arrangement and depth all largely the result of a more diverse talent pool brought by new members, Mike Mitchell, Tony Vaughn and Laura “Poppy” Landres.
Was there any special concept behind album making?
Not really… Just play your ass off! We were there to record a quality demo in order to pitch to the labels. The truth is we were just excited to get time in a studio of the caliber of “Studio In The Country”. It was a state of the art Westlake Audio designed facility. As I mentioned, we had five days in heaven as far as we were concerned.
It was pretty much a “1 or 2 take” deal except for a couple of overdubs and a couple were never done that should have been. Courtenay never got a chance to do harmonies on most of the tracks and I know he would have liked to have additional time. Vocals are the last thing to record and when you are up against a hard wall as far as time when time is up, it’s up. Those 5 days included set up including all mics, recording, mixing, tape dubs and tear down. Ironically, Kansas came in on our heels and recorded their Grammy award winning “Lefoverture” album. I always joked with engineer Lee Peterzell that he cut his chops on us and won the Grammy with Kansas… We were fortunate to work with Lee again when we recorded three of the four “Atlanta version” songs a Pyramid’s Eye Studio in 1977. Perhaps there is no such thing as coincidence.
What do you think about artwork, that was used?
The EYE has it… It’s pretty bad in my opinion. But I can see some poor graphic designer trying to determine what to put on a “psychedelic relic”. Find some tacky 1970’s clip art and there you have it. When Greg Walker approached me with the idea of releasing the CD, I provided him with the original artwork we had intended to put on our first album. It was conceptualized and drawn by artist friend and LIFT fan, Elis Bullock of Pensacola, Florida. I remain grateful to this day for his work. That cover art caught the idea and music of the band.
Would you share your insight on the albums’ tracks?
We played our asses off and had fun!
Simplicity. (Combined with Caverns, my favorite piece on the album) Would have liked to complete the synth overdub in the first part of the synth solo and the vocals on all songs.
Caverns (see above)
Butter Cup (Fun to Play)
Tripping (Yes it was a nod to Genesis)
There wasn't so many progressive rock bands in US. What do you think was the main reason?
There are people with far more expertise in musicology and the history of rock in America than me. That is a great question for a University Music Appreciation Class. My first thought would be that America is such a large country with each area having its own style or type of rock in place, already firmly established. I mean in the South it was Southern Rock, Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, or Blues Rock, B.B. King, Johnny Winter etc. The west coast was The Beach Boys, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Starship, etc. The North East seemed to adopt Progressive Rock with the greatest enthusiasm. Also, there was a great deal of other musical styles coming from England so Progressive Rock had a great deal of “air play” to overcome.
Have you been involved in any musical endeavours following the dissolution of the band?
Chip Grevemberg and I teamed up with a New Orleans keyboard player and worked up a set of “Heavy Pop”. But, by that time I was done and felt I needed to get on with my life. My wife Anne and I had been great friends for quite a while she had been a part of the early New Orleans years and I wanted to get married and settle down for whatever was next. By the time “Inception” is released by TSOP as part of their Lost & Found double CD, Anne and I will have been married 36 years.
Would you discuss some of your most memorable moments that happened to you as a musician?
That depends on who is going to read this… For the most part it was all a wonderful experience.
Thank you very much. Last word is yours.
Let me thank you for your interest and appreciation of our music. It seems a true blessing to me to have LIFT remembered because of a bootleg release of a studio session. And now with “Inception” part of the Samurai’s upcoming CD it is almost unbelievable. Inception was to me, my best compositional work with LIFT... and because of a dedicated fan’s recording of a live performance 40 years ago this work is being professionally produced and released seems almost miraculous. I still don’t believe in coincidences.
Thank YOU very much! This has been a enlightening last few months for me musically. Just the exposure to and work I did with “The Samurai of Prog” to bring “Inception” back into the light of day after 40 years of non-existence has been a phenomenal experience for me. The exposure to the current vibrant world of present day Progressive Music has been a delightful shock. I had no idea any of this existed.
Time to start practicing again.
Interview made by Klemen Breznikar/2015
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