INTERVJU: Mark Tremonti från Alter Bridge

Alter Bridge har släppt sitt sjunde album “Pawns & kings” och bjuder på en del längre kompositioner. Vi ringde upp herr Tremonti i Florida och pratade om bl a just långa låtar, skivomslag, att aldrig tröttna på “Blackbird” och att få tummen upp från hjältar som Paul Stanley, Rob Halford och Robert Plant:

My friend Tom is a security guy that used to work for Creed back in the day and now he works for Metallica and Robert Plant and everybody. He was working with Robert Plant, driving him in a car and he played him the Sinatra record and he loved it. He said that Robert loved it and really enjoyed it and he said he was a big fan of the record. Just that Robert Plant heard my record and enjoyed it blew me away.

They say that the new album in some ways is kind of a reaction to the previous one. In what way is “Pawns & Kings” a reaction to “Walk the sky”?

I think if it´s in any way a reaction, we´re just trying not to do the same thing all the time, says Mark. We introduced some synth pads and stuff on the last record and the record before that and I think we wanted to stay away from that on this record and do something different. On this one the focus was to strip down the production and make it real direct. Don´t put any layers in there. Me and Myles would double our guitars and that´s it. Everything is what it is. I think if there´s anything layered on this record, it´s going to be vocals and background vocals. We´re just trying to make it more direct. What you see is what you get.

Does it happen frequently that you feel “Man, we´ve kind of done this before.”? It has to be a constant challenge as a musician, to feel that you´re evolving in every possible way?

I live that every day as a songwriter. When I´m writing songs, it gets harder and harder as years go by, because you can´t go down the paths that seem like you should go down, because you´ve gone down that path before and you have to carve yourself a new path that´s just as meaningful to you. The chord progressions that you love so much and you´ve used so many times, you can´t use them anymore. You´ve got to reinvent yourself all the time and it´s get tougher, but that means we try to mainly introduce new things but still have that familiarity of that thing we were initially passionate about with our songwriting and that´s that melodic approach.

Last time we talked we talked about your Frank Sinatra record. Is there anything from your experience with your daughter that came into the Alter Bridge album?

Not so much on the Alter Bridge record. I was just writing a song the other day that she influenced a little bit, but not on this record. I don´t want to force things. She´s an inspiring little girl and she inspires me to be a better person. She definitely doesn´t inspire me to write a heavy metal song. I´ve got to wait till she goes to sleep and get in that room by myself. If she solely influenced my record it would sound like a 60´s free love record.

When I read about the album title “Pawns & kings” the first time, I thought the artwork would easily be a chess board or something like that, but it really isn´t. Tell me about the artwork!

Me and Myles got on the phone with my brother Dan and we just started shooting ideas out and as we go we all kind of google images and throwing them at him saying “This is cool. Let´s incorporate this and that.” The initial idea had… of course you want to have some sort of pawn and some sort of king, but you don´t necessarily have to have a king, but just have a crown that represents the king. I found some really cool images online. Crowns with really elongated spikes on them and then the initial artwork had wings that was coming off the pawn and the king on the back, but it was like “You know what? We can´t do wings. Wings have been done a million times and we´ve done wings on Blackbird.” Wings are really cool, but don´t overdo the wings. We turned those wings into the bridge in the background, so it fills the same space, but it´s kind of a cool thing. Our first record had a bridge on it, so it harkens back to that artwork and we have the actual date of the conception of the band on one side as you´re entering the bridge and as you´re going out you have the release date of this album. My brother is real big on hiding things on records, so likes to hide things in the artwork. I told him that I love when you see almost like sunrays coming off it and it goes round in a circle, but instead of sunrays he created these daggers and he created these little people on the daggers.

How do you feel about chess? I asked Myles and he said he kind of felt not intelligent enough to play chess.

I love chess! Absolutely. I think it would be a good tour promotion to have chess vs Alter Bridge days. I´d be down. I love chess!

Did you start out playing really young?

Yeah, my whole life I´ve played. Whenever I had a Christmas up in Chicago or whatnot, I´d play with my cousin Scott all the time and we´d fight for being the family champ. My grandfather played and he was a great chess player and he beat everybody real bad. One day my brother beat him in like a four move victory. It´s always been around.

Is chess playing something you can adapt to your own life? It´s about seeing things before they happen and always being three moves ahead.

I think anybody could. If you eat healthy today you´re going to feel better tomorrow. If you work really hard on a record for two years straight, it´s going to be a solid record. If you work really hard for two months, it´s not going to be such a solid record. Chess kind of gives you the cause of effect of thinking things through and working hard at it.

Two songs stand out for me. It´s also the two longest ones, “Sin after sin” and “Fabe of the silent son” For me those two songs are really Alter Bridge and where you come together as a unit. Tell me about those songs!

I´m glad you chose those two. One comes from my original idea and one comes from Myles. “Sin after sin” was a song I worked on for a long time that I was very excited about. I created the demos for it. I called Myles and said I wanted to write a song that´s almost psychedelic and doomy. Something that´s real slow and heavy. I created the song. Myles created “Fable of the silent son” and when we got to the studio… wit every song we bring in, the band puts its own spin on the whole song. Myles will take whatever melodies I have for “Sin after sin” and adapt to whatever he´s thinking. We all sit and do what we can to make it Alter Bridge. I thought it was cool for “Fable of the silent son” to be as long as it was. When you listened to the demo it didn´t sound long. When we put down the final arrangement it didn´t seem long. It didn´t seem like “Ah, we need to cut this part.” I know when we were playing one riff section of the song, it reminded me of “Blackbird” where it goes on for about a minute and a half straight and when you´re just playing it it´s like “Is this part too long?” and then when Myles puts his vocals on it it´s like “No, that´s perfect. We´ve got to tell that story.” Neither of those songs are long because we wanted to put a long song on the record, it´s just because it serves the purpose of that song to tell the story in that way. With “Sin after sin” I could´ve put that riff in half. There´s really three or four sections that could´ve been one instead of four. I think it needed to be like that. I didn´t wanted to be a cut base simple song. I wanted it to lead up to something.

Could you see the band making longer songs? A longer song also takes you on another journey.

I enjoy that and I wouldn´t mind doing an eight track record that have six to eight minute songs. It´s kind of liberating as an artist. Every record you do is “What´s the single going to be? What´s the radio single? We have to edit this. We have to chop this.” You have to kill your songs to jam it down everybody´s throat for three and a half minutes. To me it´s complete BS. I don´t believe in it. I´ve said to the guys so many times on so many records “Let´s not think about radio singles. Write for a good record. Let´s not kill our songs because we´re trying to make them short. If a song´s short, let it be short, because it was meant to be short. There´s not a single song on this record that we said “This needs to be a single. Let´s cut it short.” and only two songs came in under four and a half minutes on this record. These songs are what they were meant to be. They breathe, they flow, they are not chopped up to be the next commercialized rock song at all. I´ve had to follow those rules throughout my career, but the older you get, the more you´ve done it, the more you feel “I don´t care about these damn rules! Let me do my thing.”

The older you get, the more you feel that you don´t care what other people think. It´s quite interesting looking back on your life when you were like 20 and you were more focused on what others thought of you.

Yeah! Every little thing back then was so important. You shot a music video and it was like “Wow, I hope the music video looks cool and that people like it.” If they don´t, they don´t. Not one thing is going to make or break you.

I remember talking to you and Myles several years ago and you both said that “Blackbird”, which turns 15 this year, was the essential Alter Bridge album. Do you still think that?

Yeah, I still think it´s probably the most important record we´ve done. I think “Fortress” would also be up there with “Blackbird” I think “Blackbird” is the essential Alter Bridge fan material, but I think “Fortress” is just a more mature version of that record, but it´s missing a couple of key songs from that record. “Blackbird” is the best song we´ve ever done.

When you´re writing songs for a new album, is the song “Blackbird” always hovering above you? That it has to come close to it or best of all, be better than it?

I think what “Blackbird” did for us, was open that door to all those type of songs we´ve put out since. There was no “Blackbird” on the first record, there was no “Fortress”, there was no “Fable of the silent son” It opened the door for us to… and that´s what I think Alter Bridge excels at… when I do the Tremonti band, other than the last record´s title track, we don´t do a lot of super long atmospheric song and I think that´s where Alter Bridge thrives. That type of song and I think it´s all because of “Blackbird” introduced us to that more epic, kind of big atmospheric, telling a tale kind of song.

In two years Alter Bridge turns 20. Older bands can usually admit that they´re bored of playing certain songs. Do you think there will ever come a time when you feel “Oh damn, I´ve got to play Blackbird again!”?

No, I think the fact that we all go do different things and then come back to Alter Bridge keeps it fresh and exciting. We´re not just constantly doing Alter Bridge. I haven´t played an Alter Bridge show in what seems like forever. I don´t know when it was the last time. I don´t see myself ever getting sick of that song.

Last time we talked you were about to do a Sinatra show. What was it like? It´s something that is totally different from Alter Bridge and Tremonti.

I think doing this professionally for so many years, gave me the mental fortitude to kind of stay calm. I remember doing rehearsals and everything was great. It was fun and we were just having a good time, but once the lights go down, walking into the venue, trying to rush by everybody to get backstage and some of your friends already having drinks and hugging me and stuff, I had to calm myself. I told myself “Do not let any kind of nerves ruin this great night. I don´t know when the next time you´re going to be playing with Frank Sinatra band members on stage.” From that moment it was like a switch went off and I was calm as a cucumber. The Sinatra thing is way more exposed. When you´re singing it and there´s no backup vocals, there´s no effects, no nothing but your voice. It was very personal and you feel naked up there in a good way. It was an emotional show and once it was over I couldn´t wait to do it again. When I´m at home that´s what I´m listening to these days.

Could you see yourself doing somebody else´s songs like that?

Yeah, absolutely! There´s a singer called Kurt Elling that I´m a big fan of. He´s much more of a jazz singer than Frank Sinatra. I think Frank would´ve really liked Kurt Elling. Who knows. If I practice those kind of songs I´ll be like “Hey, I want to record one of these Kurt Elling songs!” There´s a song called “Norwegian wood” that I love. He scats a lot and I don´t think I can pull off the scats.

You´re a KISS fan. Have you heard the unreleased Paul Stanley track “Betrayed” from “Creatures of the night” they just released?

No, but that´s great! Speaking of Paul Stanley. When the Sinatra record came out I came across Paul Stanley giving compliment to my record, so I posted that. We didn´t reach out. He was just nice enough to say something nice about it. Anytime I big hero like that can put it on, it will gather more attention for Take a chance for charity and the record. Since then, I have a friend who played The Demon as a wrestler and he´s friends with the guys in the KISS camp and he´s been talking to Peter Criss about doing something for the charity.

Getting thumbs up form a guy like Paul has to give you goosebumps, right?

Oh, it´s amazing! When we went on this last European tour with Tremonti we opened up for Judas Priest. I walked into the catering and I saw Richie Faulkner and I think he´s an amazing player and then I walk into the catering and Rob Halford´s having lunch. He sees me and he stands up and says “Come here and give me a hug!” and he said “I´ve got to tell you, I love your record and I think it´s a beautiful record.” I said “Which record?” and he said “The Sinatra record. I can´t stop listening to it.” Then another crazy thing happened. My friend Tom is a security guy that used to work for Creed back in the day and now he works for Metallica and Robert Plant and everybody. He was working with Robert Plant, driving him in a car and he played him the Sinatra record and he loved it. He said that Robert loved it and really enjoyed it and he said he was a big fan of the record. Just that Robert Plant heard my record and enjoyed it blew me away. I want to keep doing it and I want to record another record.

Text: Niclas Müller-Hansen

Foto: Björn Olsson, Therés Stephansdotter Björk