Multi-talented artist Marc Bonilla talks about Keith Emerson, and his journeys in the music and Rock culture

"Music is an incredibly powerful and versatile creation. It's in everything if we just take the time to listen. To sharpen our ears. It's been used to rally armies and instill unity in nations. It's been used to sooth people's fears and anxiety and sung as lullabies to make our children feel safe and secure."

Marc Bonilla: The Knight of Music

Marc Bonilla has played guitar and toured with Warner Bros. recording artists Toy Matinee along with producer/composer Kevin Gilbert as well as recording two critically-acclaimed guitar instrumental albums for Reprise, “EE Ticket” and “American Matador” and has released a third highly-anticipated album “Celluloid Debris” (2019). He has also produced, recorded and performed with several artists including Keith Emerson, Ronnie Montrose, Glenn Hughes, Danny Seraphine, Slash, Rob Halford,  David Coverdale, Peter Frampton, Sammy Hagar, Paul Rogers, Joe Perry, Edgar Winter, The Chi-Lites,  Robbie Kreiger, Don Felder, Felix Calvaliere, Mickey Dolenz, Steve Lukather & Steve Porcaro, Rick Wakeman, and many others. Over the past 26 years he has composed and performed for numerous television shows and major motion pictures. Marc’s close association with keyboard wizard Keith Emerson of ELP fame began in 1988 when the two met for an album project produced by Kevin Gilbert, which was released as “Changing States” and “Hammer It Out”. Marc and Keith joined forces with Glenn Hughes and Ronnie Montrose in 1998 and toured under the moniker “The Boys Club” resulting in a live album “Live From California”. Marc joined the Keith Emerson Band and produced, co-wrote and recorded the album “Keith Emerson Band featuring Marc Bonilla” in 2008. Shortly thereafter the Keith Emerson Band toured Japan and Europe and released the live DVD/CD “Moscow”.

In 2016, Marc helmed the “Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert” in L.A. with such notables as Jordan Rudess, Brian Auger, Steve Porcaro, Steve Lukather, Eddie Jobson, Vinnie Coliauta, Skunk Baxter, Gregg Bissonette, CJ Vanston, Philippe Saisse, Joe Travers, Troy Luccketta, and several others. In celebration of Keith Emerson's 76th birthday, The Keith Emerson Estate and Cherry Red Records announce the long-awaited release of The Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert on March 11, 2021 (the 5th anniversary of Keith's passing). This official 3-disc set brings you the historical 2016 tribute show in Los Angeles featuring a once-in-a-lifetime lineup of musical luminaries performing music from Emerson, Lake & Palmer, The Nice, Emerson, Lake & Powell, The Keith Emerson Band and the Three Fates Project. All proceeds go to the charity The Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, which was close to Keith’s heart. Artists, crew and all involved have donated their skills and time gratis for this worthy cause, which afflicts thousands of musicians annually.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Special Thanks: Bill James (Glass Onyon PR) & Marc Bonilla

How has the Rock music and Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

It's proved to me that if you want to learn about the true history of society, do not listen to the historians as only the winners write the history books. Rather, listen to the music of the times. It has always given me a more accurate and fuller understanding of the sentiment, passions and trials of any given period in our lives.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

As far as my sound, description has to come from the listeners, as music affects everyone differently, depending on their life experiences. One song or one performance can evoke a countless supply of images based on the sum of each individual's memory of moments, feelings and events in their lives. And so music is like water - it assumes the shape of whatever vessel you choose to pour it into.

My musical philosophy has always been to keep it simple. Not necessarily in composition or structure, but rather in the conception of ideas which come to any composer or player. Contrary to what many believe, the music does not come from you, but rather through you. Once you start believe that you are the origin of it, you have branded it a finite source. It's much like going into the desert with a canteen of water - at some point you are going to run out and experience what they call "writer's block". But, if you look at music and inspiration as a river which flows alongside that desert, then at any time you can go dip your cup in and drink from it. It is an endless pool of resource, and so the concept is simple: Stay close to the water and always trust that it will be there when you need it.

As any composer will attest, there will be times when you listen back to something you've either written or recorded and think to yourself, "I don't remember writing that! How the hell did I come up with that idea?" The truth is - you didn't!  It came through you. From where is anybody's guess. But the object is to trust in that bond and it will never let you down.

"It's proved to me that if you want to learn about the true history of society, do not listen to the historians as only the winners write the history books. Rather, listen to the music of the times. It has always given me a more accurate and fuller understanding of the sentiment, passions and trials of any given period in our lives." (Marc Bonilla & Keith Emerson, Borrego Springs 2008 / Photo by Michael Tweed)

Why do you think that the late great Keith Emerson music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Keith is a modern day composer. Right up there, in my opinion, with the greats of our day. Not only was he a tireless technician with respect to his manual dexterity, but also his ability to evoke such emotion from his music. And emotional content does not age. Just as Ravel's Daphnis Et Chloe will always give me chills, even though it was written over a century ago. Keith's compositions and delivery of those compositions stir something in all of us. There is a certain nobility to his music and at the same time as sense of humor as if he's giving you a wink as he performs.

What has made you laugh and what was the best advice Keith Emerson ever gave you over the years?

Keith never gave advice. I don't ever think he considered himself worthy of dispensing it, strangely enough. But he influenced and made me aware of things through his conduct and his steadfast pursuit of perfection. He was constantly practicing. He always brought a portable mini-keyboard with him, which made no sound, just a set of keys, which he would exercise on when we were on the tour bus, plane or hotel room. And when he hit the stage, that performance gene would always kick in. He would always take it up a notch and nail it in performance. And he would always trust that musical force I was speaking of earlier and spontaneously create on stage in the middle of a song. It kept us all on our toes, I can tell you that!

I remember one night in Vienna he started playing a piece of music as an intro to Touch and Go, which was absolutely mesmerizing. I crept over to him during the piece and shouted at him, "What's that?" He replied, "I don't know! But I'm not gonna stop it now!" Luckily, Keith Weschler, our sound technician, recorded it and I scored it out and had the rest of the band play it in the studio, which became the song Blue Inferno - with the original performance included in the track.  So looking back at events like that, I always get a chuckle out of the way music is sometimes created literally out of thin air.

"Keith is a modern day composer. Right up there, in my opinion, with the greats of our day. Not only was he a tireless technician with respect to his manual dexterity, but also his ability to evoke such emotion from his music. And emotional content does not age." (Photo: Marc Bonilla & Keith Emerson, 2008)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, tours and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

There are countless stories! First one that comes to mind was in 2006 flying into Rome with the Keith Emerson Band. It was the last game of the World Cup finals between Italy and France. As we were flying over the city, I looked out of the plane and saw absolutely no cars on the roads - not one! It was apparently the last minutes of the game so when we landed in Rome, no one came out to open the plane hatch so we could disembark. They were all in the airport watching the end of the game! And all of the Italians in the plane were going nuts because they wanted to get into the airport to see the end of the game. Remember, this was before cellphone access to the Internet. Finally, one lone figure came to let us out of the plane and it was like sardines pouring out of a fisherman's net. There was no one in the airport that we could see. But way down at the end of the terminal we finally found the entire population of Rome International Airport crowded around the only TV set in the place - a bar. By the time we got down there, they were doing the final kicks - first France, then Italy until one of the goalies missed. It happened to be France who eventually missed and the place erupted like the end of WW2! I've never been hugged and kissed by so many strangers in my entire life! Keith turns to me and says, "Well, when in Rome..."

Needless to say, that night's performance was electric as everyone was filled with national pride for winning the World Cup. At the end of the night, they wouldn't let us go. We did so many encores we ran out of material and had to repeat Honky Tonk Train Blues again. And still they wouldn't let us go! So Keith, in a moment of sheer brilliance, had apparently learned the national anthem of Italy "L'Inno di Mameli" and promptly started playing it. We all joined in as well and everyone in the crowd began to sing and cry. Well, what are you going to do after that? Everybody turned and went home to continue to celebrate! Keith was always thinking.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

It's hard to fairly compare music from the past with contemporary music of today as the world situation will often reflect in that music - for better or worse. Each decade holds a different sentiment and some of those sentiments you'll have a better connection with and some you won't. So there will always be what you will consider "good music" and "bad music" depending on your point of view at the time.

But with regard to progressive music, what I seem to miss most is the attention to thematic development and compositional heft. The progressive music in the 70's was so much more about melodies and themes. Bands like ELP, Yes, Gentle Giant, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Focus and artists like Vangelis were such innovators of timeless themes and inventive rhythms. But they all served one purpose and that was they were all servants of the music. No single player was greater than the music they were imparting. I think today we sometimes overlook the importance of melodic development and settle for groove, effects and image. I think auto tuning has been overused to the point where it has bleached out a large portion of the humanity in vocals. Now maybe its use is indicative of the present culture, but I also think that some of the best performances have also been the ones that have retained the flaws of the performer.  It doesn't have to be technically perfect.  But it does have to be emotionally perfect. None of us are perfect and I think we connect better with another if we can recognize those similar flaws. It's a part of the bonding process. If we filter all of those imperfections out, what's left to grab hold of that we can identify with that highlights our individuality?

"As far as my sound, description has to come from the listeners, as music affects everyone differently, depending on their life experiences. One song or one performance can evoke a countless supply of images based on the sum of each individual's memory of moments, feelings and events in their lives. And so music is like water - it assumes the shape of whatever vessel you choose to pour it into."

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

I've learned to listen. I've learned to have a conversation with other players. Not to talk over them. Otherwise you're all participating in multiple and simultaneous soliloquies. And then no one is actually having an exchange of ideas. Music is language. And language is subject to punctuation and pause. It's not reciting the alphabet. Rather, it is picking and choosing your letters wisely and forming words and sentences with them in a cohesive fashion so anyone can understand them. It is truly a universal language. But, you have to learn how to listen in order to know how to respond.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

Music is an incredibly powerful and versatile creation. It's in everything if we just take the time to listen. To sharpen our ears. It's been used to rally armies and instill unity in nations. It's been used to sooth people's fears and anxiety and sung as lullabies to make our children feel safe and secure. It bonds all of us together.  Animals of all species use it for survival, whether it's the rhythmic chirping of a cricket, the mating calls of the whale, or the territorial warbling of a mockingbird. It's a necessary tool for survival and connection. And it also spawns other forms of creation - art, dance, film, literature, etc. It is the catalyst for creation in so many ways. It should not be an elective in school, but a compulsory requirement. If we were all given the choice of an instrument to play when we were young, whether it be drums, piano, guitar, voice, flute, trumpet, or anything else, and we were encouraged to be expressive with it in our own way - conventional or experimental, I think we would all be better off. And in better balance.

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