Mr Big är bandet som hamnade lite i skymundan efter monsterhiten “To be with you”. Faktum är att de är så mycket mer än den där trallvänliga saken, som fick yuppies att vallfärda till deras konserter i början på 90-talet. Rocksverige ringde upp den alltid så underhållande och frispråkige Eric Martin, för att stämma av läget nu när nya “The stories we could tell” landat på världens skivdiskar. Det blev ett samtal om just historier, om hur han blev lurad av Rush, om hur han spydde ner Tokyo med Joey Belladonna, om att gå tillbaka till rötterna och självfallet om just den där monsterhiten:
We thought it was a great little song and, “Let´s put it at the end of the record.” It can be a curse, because even though I love it, I have to do a lot of explaining to people. We´re a multifaceted song oriented band, we´re like the Swiss army knife of rock.
What are you up to?
Eric: I just got off the phone with a dear old friend, Kevin Elson. He produced a bunch of our records, but most of all he produced “Lean into it” (1991), which was kinda the blueprint for the band back in the day. Anyway, I just thought I´d name drop Kevin Elson´s name and get him some press. He´s already famous but this can add some more fucking gold trimming around his name. (laughs)
He also did some cool records with Journey?
Eric: Oh god yeah, man! All the best shit! And Lynyrd Skynyrd! He grew up with them and he was in the plane crash (October 20 1977, Elson suffered a fractured left leg and ankle, fractured pelvis and right leg.). He was their live sound engineer and I think he did “Street survivors” (1977). He also did Europe´s “The final countdown” (1986)! Right now, he had just gotten back from Japan after working on some Japanese project. I had to cut him short and I wondered why he was calling me for? Maybe he wants to do another record? I´m ready! I just finished “The stories we could tell” and I´m ready to do another one. (laughs)
So, what stories can you tell?
Eric: What do you wanna know? I´ll tell you anything you want! You´re talking to mr Big mouth! (laughs)
Where did you get the title from? Did you just sit around talking about old memories and it just came to you?
Eric: Pretty much. Like sitting around the camp fire. We were at Paul´s (Gilbert) studio in North Hollywood and Paul and I was coming up with one of the last songs we cut, kind of this blues, rock song and it kinda sounded like “Going down” by Jeff Beck and I was trying to come up with something unique to say, instead of “Baby, baby!”, but I couldn´t think of anything. Some people say that you have to be more simple, but I´m the metaphor king, so we were just sitting around and then Billy (Sheehan) walked in and we hadn´t seen him for a long time. He was like a revolving door, doing The Winery Dogs, touring and working on the Mr Big record. Well, he walked in and we were sitting around working on this song. He plugged in and we were working on a couple of other songs as well and he goes, “Hey guys, take a breather for a minute! It´s time.” I always pack for a tour like six hours before I´m actually gonna go on the tour and we always come up with the title of the album, the last thing we do. To me, Nick, I fucking hate titles! We spend so much time writing the lyrics for the songs and then we have to have a title for the album that´s supposed to be the synopsis or the spirit of the album, which is “bullshiiiiiit”, so we were just talking about how many highs and lows that Mr Big has had over the years and kinda forgot about it for a little bit. The making of Mr Big and the demise of Mr Big and then we got back together. Then Billy goes, “Man, people just don´t know!” We sugarcoat it a little bit in interviews and throw a bait I the water, but most of the time we can´t really tell too many stories because then it would be like the survival of Mr Big. Anyhow, he said “Man, the stories we could tell!” and then he goes “Fuck man, that´s a good title!”. We went, “Yeah, that is cool! Let´s look it up and see if there´s any other records by that name!” There´s a Jimmy Buffet record called that and an Everly Brothers book, but we were looking at each other and we went, “Ehh, fuck it!” Then we turned to the blues song again and in a lack of brain cells after working o this record for so long, I went (singing) “The stories we could tell” and that was it. It was two magic moments in one.
The first song to get aired was, “Gotta love the ride”, what can you tell me about that one? It´s got a really cool groove to it.
Eric: There´s this groovy verse, very old sounding rock and roll and it has that half time chorus. I didn´t write it like that. Paul wrote the verse, music wise, and was doing it in Pro Tools and coming up with his part and while he was doing that, I got this acoustic guitar on the side and I went “Hey, check this out, I´ve got a chorus!”. In my head I was thinking that I had to keep it in the same ball park as the verse and Paul said “No, no, let´s make it half time!”. It´s always the three amigos (Paul, Billy and Pat) that go “Yeah, let´s try something different!” and I´m always going “No, no, no! Let´s not try to be Rush!” (laughs) But it worked out pretty cool. It came out pretty quickly and I love the positive spin on it lyrically, instead of me writing about love´s demise every fucking time! By heart´s been taken enough! (laughs)
What made you go with Pat Regan as producer? The last album was done with Kevin Shirley.
Eric: Kevin was great and I liked that he paid attention to the live feel and we didn´t want to do any overdubs. I got along great with Kevin on that and I was kinda cheering on the rest of the guys, “Look, no overdubs. Let´s just learn the shit and play it and let´s see what it sounds like!” Then in the end I was getting all squirrely, because I was telling Kevin that I wanted to sing it over again and he said, “No Eric, you had this dream to do a live record and there´s no overdubs!” and I went “No man, I gotta sing it over!” And he just said “No!” a million times. On the track “Laughing at it” I went “Oh man, that sucked!” and he left it. (laughs) And there were some lyrical stuff. When you write it down on paper it looks good, but then when you actually sing it, it sounds kinda cheesy, but he was just going “No, we´re not fixing it!”. But that´s not the reason why we moved on. I think we just moved on, as an evolution. We tried to get Kevin Elson, which would´ve been awesome, but Kevin was booked and that was kind of a shame. Pat Regan and Pat Torpey are old friends and were in bands back in the day. He did Pat´s solo album and then he did a couple of solo albums for Billy. He did our album “Get over it” when we had Richie Kotzen in the band and Pat is a genius when it comes to Pro Tools engineering and stuff. He´s got great ideas, but he doesn´t force them on you like a lot of producers. I like the fact that when we come to a brick wall or something, we look at Pat and he´s sitting there with this big grin going “I´d like to help you fix that!” (laughs) Pat also did a lot of live mixing on our live records, so he´s family.
All of you in the band along with Shirley, Regan and Elson, must have so many stories to tell about other bands?
Eric: You mean gossip? (laughs) Some of the bands that opened for us, like European bands that came over to the US, well, they weren´t really getting over. It was only a couple of weeks into the tour and they were flailing a little bit on stage and I always hated it when they would break into “To be with you”. They would actually play our little campfire song and they´d get a huge response and Billy and Pat were livid and I went “Ok, I´ll work it out.”… this is kinda gross, but I went “You´re getting a blowjob, but it´s not for you!” (laughs) We had this band Tall Stories open for us a few years ago and their lead singer Steve Augeri sounded just like Steve Perry and I really liked him and the band was good. Neal Schon is an old friend of mine and I got signed to a major deal on Capitol Records because of Neal. I remember one time Neal called me up and Perry had flew the coup and I thought he called me up to ask me to join Journey, but then he went “Hey, gimme Steve Augeri´s number! You´re friends with him, right?” and I was like, “No, you call him up and ask him if he wants to audition for Journey!”. That fucking crushed me! That´s a sad story that I shouldn´t even tell. (laughs) The stories of Mr Big goes from A to Z and we have tons and tons of stuff. I remember this one time when we were touring with Rush. We did back to back tours. First it was “Presto” and then I remember Alex and Geddy coming up to me and saying “Thank god for you guys, now women have started coming to our shows!” and then they said “Do you guys mind doing the “Roll the bones” tour as well and we said “Sure!”. Then we were at this gig and Billy Sheehan was holding court and he had a bunch of people back there, telling jokes and his own stories and I´m making fun of Rush saying that after the gig they probably put on their white coats and goes through the financial budget, like geeks. Then Billy´s looking at me and I go, “Ah Christ, they´re behind me, aren´t they?” and I look and there´s Alex and Geddy, shaking their heads and going “What?” Me and my big mouth. Then they invited me on their bus to drive a couple of hundred miles to the next gig and I´m sitting on the bus with their road manager and he goes, “You fucked up E!” Then the back room door opened and Alex and Geddy came out in white coats, glasses and they just did a charade for about half an hour. I was laughing, but I was also kinda scared. (laughs) My own manager was looking at me going “Don´t mess this up! It´s a big tour for us.” It was all jokes and they poured some Cristal champagne for me. Then we stopped like a hundred miles away from the gig and Neil Peart came up to me and I always felt like a total ignoramus talking to that guy. Everything that came out of my mouth when I was talking to him was like “Ehhh, hubba, blah, blah!” and everything he always said felt like “E=MC2”. Well, he put his hand on my shoulder and goes “Hey man, you´re a great guy and I love your band! You´re amazing players!” and then he gets off the bus, gets on his motorcycle and rides a hundred miles to the next gig. Anyway, that´s a little story!
I read somewhere recently that you said this new album is the one you´ve threatened to make decades ago. What did you really mean by that?
Eric: When we first started out, sitting at a Chinese restaurant in LA talking about it, I remember this vividly, I said “Wow, here´s a band where we´re all on the same page!” They asked me what kinda music I was influenced by and mentioned Free, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin and African American singers from the 60´s like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. I always felt like I had a hybrid of Otis Redding meets Paul Rodgers. Billy was into Spooky Tooth and Free and Pat was into Free as well and Grand Funk and a major Led Zeppelin fan. Paul was younger, but still not like he just listened to a couple of songs on the radio and not research. There are young people who listen to one song on the radio and go, “Ok, I guess that´s them!” and I go, “No man, there´s a history here!” and Paul was that knowledgeable musician. We all felt we had this blue tint over all this rock and roll that we like. When we did the first album, it was raw and a couple of bluesy parts and then it was “Lean on to it”, which was a polished record and “Hey man” maybe had a little bit of country soul in it, but it didn´t really get going for me or show the true blueness of what we were talking about. I thought we were gonna have a thematic kinda band like how AC/DC has their sound and that´s my opinion. The other guys have seen it and I haven´t had an e-mail saying “You´re an idiot!” I think we´re all in an agreement. There´s some borrowed stuff on this record. We call useable scraps we have for “sniglets”, which sounds like a dog food or something, but there´s like crap that I don´t know why it´s still floating around, but there are hundreds of “sniglets” that we wrote in 2011 and then there´s a plethora of “sniglets” from the past. I went back and Billy sent a hard drive of everything and I´ve kept some material. At the end of it, after I collected it all and wrote it, I was like, “Ok, here´s a theme!”, like this cool, funky, blues, soul rock and roll sound. Over the years every time we write, I always think of “Lean into it” as the blueprint, like I said earlier, and everybody loves “Lean into it” and it sounds good and it´s got great songs on it like “To be with you”, but on this new album I just said “Let´s do something different!”. Not to think this is the last record, because I see it as an evolution. A new, old sound… there was a message to my madness here… (laughs)
A song like “To be with you”, even though it being a huge hit, can it also become somewhat of a curse in a way?
Eric: That´s kinda out of your hands. “To be with you” to me, is a great song because it´s not formulaic. It really isn´t! It´s a folksy tune and kinda Beatles. My influences on that song was “Give peace a chance” actually. I wrote it when I was 15 or 16 years old, like the chorus and the music and all that, but in 1988 I got together with a write named David Graham, who was a writer from my publishing company, and we got paired up. Anytime you get together with somebody and I´m not downplaying David Graham, because his contribution was great and he came up with the “Give peace a chance” idea with bass drum and handclap and my version was more like CSN&Y. His contribution sparked it and it wasn´t a formulaic song like “Just take my heart”, but “To be with you” was raw and it was one take. We thought it was a great little song and, “Let´s put it at the end of the record.” It can be a curse, because even though I love it, I have to do a lot of explaining to people. We´re a multifaceted song oriented band, we´re like the Swiss army knife of rock. We´ve got harder stuff and then psychedelic stuff like “Green-tinted sixties mind” and then “To be with you”. There was another song called “Seven impossible days” that Paul wrote, that kinda had that sound and “Wild world” had it. That one was a record company decision, “Give us another To be with you!”, even though it was great, it wasn´t really our choice. “To be with you” definitely stands alone with what it is, but I still have to explain it to people that are not fans or are unaware of Mr Big´s career and that´s ok. In the 90´s when we were playing we had these yuppies coming to the shows and then you had the hardcore fans and they were kinda laughing at the yuppies going “They´re waiting for To be with you! This is their song!” (laughs)
Was there ever a band that approached you that you regret turning down?
Eric: There were two fucking huge ones!
I know of the Van Halen story, because last time I talked with you, we covered that one. (Read the story after the interview)
Eric: Yeah! Just to update the Van Halen story, I chickened shitted out of that one! I should´ve done the Van Halen thing and even though I didn´t even have that much conviction, I was just honored to be asked, like a baseball player, “Wow, I´m going to the show!” and I knew I was gonna be sent down to the farm team the week after, but I should´ve done it so I could have bragging rights to this day! You have these young guys and singers going, “Dude, you chicken shitted out! I would´ve been…” and I´m going, “Yeah, right!”. I might have said this to you, but David Lee Roth are some mighty big clown shoes to fill! The other one was Toto and I was in the band for ten days. After the first audition, I was in! Everybody loved me and it´s not that Jeff Porcaro didn´t love me, he just thought I was too green. I had three or four albums under my belt, but maybe I was just too immature for him or something, I don´t know? A year later I got in Mr Big. I talked to Steve Lukather about a month ago and one day, we talk about this all the time, one day next year we´re gonna do a project together. I´ve walked around with Steve at the NAMM show in LA and he knows all the big stars and all the great musicians and he´s introduced me to all the great musicians and Steve always introduced me as “This is the one that got away!” and it always made me feel great. I didn´t get the gig but it still made me feel good. That was like bragging rights! (laughs) He´s the shit! He played on my solo albums back in the 80´s and he was such a great hang. He´s super intelligent, but has kinda a kid like quality and I really got along with him great. I wish I had gotten to tour with Toto and do a record. They were doing the “Fahrenheit” album and I came in and he goes “Hey, sing this song!” and it was “I´ll be over you”. I was singing the whole thing and while I was singing it, I was listening to his vocal scratch track and I kept going, “Dude, why do you want me singing this for? You should sing it!”. When I didn´t get that gig and I was in Mr Big and we were in Milan, I drove with a fan friend about 75 miles to another part of Milan where Toto was playing and I got up on stage and sang “Hold the line” and “With a little help from my friends”. I´d love to see that on YouTube! So yeah, should, coulda, woulda! I felt more comfortable with Toto than I did with Van Halen. The fact that Eddie Van Halen said, when he called me, “I love your voice, but I hate your record!” and then when I talked to him again and he said it again, I said “You´re right, I hate it too!”
A record I really like, which I bought when it was released, is Signal´s “Loud and clear” (1989) and you did some work on that one.
Eric: Kevin Elson! You´ve gone full circle now. Look up now, confetti is hitting you and fireworks are going off! It was before he made the transition.
Was that something you noticed back then?
Eric: No! I don´t notice that kinda shit anyway. Even if I think I´m a big city fella, I´m not. I´m country and I don´t notice that. “Hey, that guy was hitting on you!” and I´m like “Really? I just thought he was being nice.” (laughs) It´s a great album and it´s full of melodic rock songs. Signal was good. I remember Kevin talking to me about some musicians getting together and maybe a getting a band together and maybe having me do the vocals or something. They were good. Signal reminds me of this band Harem Scarem. Fucking great band and I love Harry Hess! They are great musicians and we played a couple of times together in Europe. Man, have you got any gossip for me?
Gossip? No, I´ve got no fun stories to tell you.
Eric: But you talk to everybody!
Well, I talked to Dave Lombardo recently and also Scott Ian on the same night.
Eric: How does that guy talk? It feels like he talks like “Aaaahhhhrrrgghhh!”?
Nah, he was pretty cool and we just talked about the old thrash metal days.
Eric: Ok, Scott Ian, Anthrax… I´ve got a story! My first time in Japan and I was trying to behave myself. Trying to stay healthy and we had a bunch of club dates to play with Mr Big and we were campaigning and it was our first tour and then I run into Joey Belladonna. He and I painted the town red and then we painted the trashcans with a vomit kinda color, hours later. I didn´t feel good the next day and the band was a little upset with me and I went “Thank you, Joey!”
The story of the Van Halen audition:
Well, I was asked to… I was being produced by this guy Danny Kortchmar in 1987 (I think Eric means 1985.). We were recording in this studio called Record One and on one side is everybody who played on the Don Henley record (Building the perfect beast), with Danny Kortchmar producing. Just everybody who´s everybody is on Don Henley´s record and then next door, a little studio paid by Capitol Records, Danny Kortchmar is doing double duty and producing me, with this guy Greg Ladanyi. God rest his soul, he just passed away recently, and everybody from the Don Henley camp, who seemed they were taking a break from the “Building the perfect beast” album, to do my record, cocaine and all. (laughs). A lot of drugs and booze and they´re all doing my record. Kooch, who lives in New York City, we finished that record and Kooch was a really good friend of Steve Jordan´s and Steve I hung out with a lot making that record. The three of us hung a lot in those days and at that time, Steve Jordan was the drummer for the David Letterman Show and in the middle of 85, Eddie Van Halen was on as a guest and playing with the band. So Jordan and Kooch are all hanging out with Eddie Van Halen and Kooch goes “Hey, I´ve got this album that I have to play for you man! This kid is an amazing singer! You´re looking for a singer since Dave Lee Roth quit blah blah blah, here it is!”. Long story longer, I´m in this funky part of town in San Francisco, the whole bad sitcom and rats in the cellar (laughs) and the telephone rings. First it´s the answering machine, because I wasn´t home. I was probably painting the house that day. He goes “I gotta tell you man, I love your voice, but I hate your record!”, that´s what he said and he goes on “I absolutely fucking hate your record. I guy like you shouldn´t be in this fucki