A musician's path can take a wide array of varying courses, but the path Monte Pittman
's musical career has taken is arguably more atypical than others. Metal outfit Prong
has utilized his services upon two full-lengths, so in light of that, one would expect Pittman
's other accomplishments to be in a similar vein. While all musicians usually enjoy material from different genres, the fact that a group like Prong
shares a musician with the live bands of both pop superstar Madonna
and American Idol finalist Adam Lambert
seems unlikely in theory. However, it's true, and has been for quite some time.
relocated from Longview, Texas to Los Angeles in 1999, working at a guitar store as a salesman. Disenchanted in that position, Pittman
quit to become a guitar teacher. One person who became a student of the man was British film director Guy Ritchie
, who had received a guitar as a birthday gift from his girlfriend at the time - pop sensation Madonna
would later buy Madonna
a guitar, and Pittman
began teaching her guitar lessons as well. In November 2000, a month into Madonna
's guitar lessons, Pittman
appeared on the "Late Show with David Letterman
", performing an acoustic rendition of "Don't Tell Me
", the second single from 2000's "Music
". Since then, Pittman
has been a member of Madonna
's live group, participating in the following world tours: "Drowned World Tour
" (2001), the "Re-Invention World Tour
" (2004), the "Confessions Tour
" (2006), and the "Sticky & Sweet Tour
" (2008-9). Also, he has appeared in some capacity on the following albums: 2003's "American Life
", 2005's "Confessions On A Dancefloor
", and 2008's "Hard Candy
", as well as the 2007 "Live Earth
" charity single "Hey You
" and "It's So Cool
" (from 2009's "Celebration
In a bass capacity, Pittman
has performed as a part of heavy metal band Prong
for the last decade, appearing on: "100% Live
" (2002), "Scorpio Rising
" (2003), and "Power Of The Damager
" (2007). With Prong
's Tommy Victor
drummer Steve Sidelnyk
was a member of The Citizen Vein
, an outfit fronted by American Idol finalist Adam Lambert
. Supporting Lambert
's November 2009 album "For Your Entertainment
has been a member of the man's live group ever since. An acoustic affair, November 2009's "The Deepest Dark
" marks the guitarist's first solo album.
On March 18th at 21:00 GMT, Hit The Lights
' Robert Gray
telephoned Monte Pittman
to discuss his time as a member of Madonna
's and Adam Lambert
's respective live groups.
UG: Hello. Can I speak to Monte please?
Robert... Ok, it's working now (laughs). I just got your email, and... I guess the ringer was off or something.
Oh, ok. How are you Monte?
I'm good. How are you doing?
I'm good. Would it be alright if I began the interview?
Yeah, sure. Sure.
In 1999, you received a phone call from Guy Ritchie, who wanted you to provide him with guitar lessons. How did that lead to you giving Madonna guitar lessons?
"When I met Madonna for the first time, she was a student of mine, and we then became friends."
I moved out to Los Angeles from Texas, and worked at a music store in Los Angeles, but that wasn't cutting it. I used to teach guitar in Texas. It turned out that at the time, there weren't a lot of local guitar teachers in L.A. because most people would go to the Musicians Institute. Just as luck would have it, I got a call from Guy Ritchie's assistant. He just said "I need to get lessons for my boss", and didn't really give me any other details. It turned out that his boss was dating Madonna. Me and Guy hit it off really well, and he was a great student, really wanting to learn. From having a guitar teacher coming to the house, and from Guy playing all the time I guess, Madonna started playing. Then like anything, once she takes on a new hobby or has a new goal, she takes it to the extreme. By the time she was gonna go on tour, she said "Why don't you just keep on teaching me? I'm gonna need a guitar player, so why don't you play guitar for me?", and that was it. I've been playing guitar for her ever since.
What were your initial impressions of Madonna?
Not that I didn't know her music, but I wasn't a Madonna fan. Of course though, everybody likes a Madonna song from some point of her career. When I met her for the first time, she was a student of mine, and we then became friends. That's how I thought of her - I wasn't freaking out because it was Madonna. It was cool though; I was like "Oh yeah, Madonna". When this happened, she hadn't really toured in seven years as well, and I didn't know that she was even still making music because I hadn't really heard her recent music. You can tell from her work ethic how she got where she is though, because once she sets herself a goal she doesn't stop until she achieves that goal.
These days, how proficient would you say Madonna is on guitar?
I think she's at a good place in terms of where she wants to be. She's not trying to be the next Steve Vai; she wants to play for fun, and wants to have a couple of songs in the show where she can play the rhythm guitar parts. I mean, there's really only so many chords you're gonna play in a conventional song, whether it's rock or pop music. She can do that. If she's working on songs for an album, she can figure out the chords or find out what the chords are, and then take whatever the chord progression is home and play it on a guitar, and work on her vocal parts. A lot of it is I think for fun; it isn't like she wants to get really good, and maybe someday sell a million albums (laughs).
(Laughs) Has learning guitar helped her in terms of songwriting? So she can contribute more on that level?
Yeah. I think she has a different perspective of seeing the way that a song can be written, absolutely. Any time you learn a new instrument, no matter who it is or what it is, it's gonna help you see songwriting from a different frame of mind.
Financially speaking, how well were you doing as a guitar teacher back in 1999? Were you doing alright, or were you just getting by?
I was actually doing really good. Before I left for my first Madonna tour, the 'Drowned World Tour', I had many students off and on. With all this private teaching all day, every day, all week, I had to turn people away, and had to teach some people once every two weeks. I think it was probably as good as you can just about do in a situation like that. Before that, I was working at a music store, and I was just barely getting by because of all the politics of working in a music store with those who worked there before you. I was making commission, and you gotta make X amount of dollars before you even make any of your commission. If somebody who's worked there longer than you has even talked to some guy before... they could've talked to some guy two months before you did, and then that guy will just walk into the store and they'll get your sale. That's why I was just wanting to give up, and just thought "I'm not really making any money doing this". I'd hear people play "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Enter Sandman" and "Stairway to Heaven" all day, and maybe wouldn't even want to play guitar. I was actually at a point where I was probably on the verge of saying "I just wanna give up. I'm done with this". There's been a few times in my life where that's happened, and that's right before something major changes.
You initially appeared with Madonna on the 'Late Show with David Letterman', performing the song "Don't Tell Me", and this led to you joining her band.
That was the first time I played with her. I probably knew about that appearance two days before, and she had only been playing for a month. I didn't know what to expect. If you play on 'Letterman', it's extremely cold; I played there with Adam Lambert back in November - a few months ago - and it was colder inside Letterman's studio than it was outside, which was in winter. I waited in the dressing room, where someone just brings you down, and you walk out. I didn't really have time to think about anything - I just walked out, and the audience isn't that big. We just did our thing, played a song, and everybody just completely flipped afterwards.
Would you say appearing with Madonna on the 'Late Show with David Letterman' was your big break?
Yeah, I would say so. That was the first time I had played with her on TV. Yeah, I guess you could say that was the big break looking back. It would be either that, or the 'Drowned World Tour' - on the 'Drowned World Tour' on the song "Ray of Light", she had me follow her around onstage. There were certain performances that were really good which stand out; I remember playing at Earls Court in London, and remember that being a good performance. My first performance with her in Barcelona was good, and when we filmed the DVD in particular, boy, that was a good one - that's the one that's documented. Either appearing on 'Letterman', or playing "Ray of Light" on the 'Drowned World Tour'.
How would you compare performing live with Madonna to more conventional live performances, considering what's involved in Madonna's live performances?
I also play with Prong and Adam Lambert, and with Prong shows and Adam Lambert shows, I think there's a lot more playing involved - the band is what the performance is. For Madonna, the band is only part of the performance because dancers are also part of the performance. In that respect, you have less pressure and also, there's so much more going on. I always say that where Madonna concerts are concerned, it's not what you play but what you don't play. There's a couple of times where I've done guitar solos, but there's other times where I could've done more guitar solos. Sometimes I just don't hear it, though if I don't hear it, I could force it if I wanted to. People say "How come you're not playing more? How come you're not playing during this part of the song? Or on this song?". Just because I'm sitting there with a guitar, that doesn't mean that I have to play guitar all the way through the show or the song. Sometimes less is more.
Would you say that mostly rock fans tend to ask you such questions?
Yeah, I guess so. For her, it's all over the place. She has such a variety with her music that you wind up playing just about every style; of course you have pop and rock music, and we've touched on a little jazz, as well as rave type music. I mean, you name it and we've either done it, or will be (laughs).
Were you already a part of Madonna's live group when you performed with her on the 'Late Show with David Letterman'? Or did that performance lead to you joining Madonna's live group?
She had a promo tour at the time where she only did a few songs. She didn't necessarily have a band then, but I guess you could call those playing with her part of her live band. One of them was Mirwais (Ahmadza), who produced 'Music' (2000). He played, and Steve Sidelnyk played drums. The 'Drowned World Tour' was the first time that she made a band that was a real band, with Stuart Price on keyboards, Marcus Brown on keys, and me on guitar.
How many Madonna songs did you have to learn in preparation for the 'Drowned World Tour', and how much time did you have to learn them?
Well, we learnt more songs than what we actually played. We'd play for about two hours. I don't remember the number of songs, but really it was about twenty songs or so. There's a few songs where sometimes you'll work it up, and once you get to playing the entire set, you'll notice a song that doesn't work - where the dynamics of that song kinda bring everything down... I know we tried the song "Swim" from 'Ray of Light'; we tried that a few times, and it's a difficult song to make work live.
What are your memories of subsequent Madonna tours you've been a part of since the 'Drowned World Tour'?
Every Madonna tour has different memories, which all blend in together now. There's been good people, good shows, and good crowds. Going to places that you never thought you'd go to is really cool; touring with Madonna is as good as it gets.
When you're performing Madonna songs live, are there certain tracks where you can particularly express yourself?
Yeah. Everybody has their part, and the show has what everybody brings. On the 'Sticky & Sweet Tour' , there was one part where I did have a guitar solo, and it worked. There's then an acoustic section, and then there's actually a section where we played part of a Pantera riff.
(Laughs) Sorry, I just can't help laughing. Thinking of Pantera and Madonna coming together is quite funny.
"Every Madonna tour has different memories, which all blend in together now. There's been good people, good shows, and good crowds."
(Laughs) We played a riff from "A New Level" (from 1992's 'Vulgar Display of Power') right before the last song. The track's main riff was something that I taught to her on guitar, which she liked, saying "Oh, that's really cool" (laughs). That came from the fact that Dimebag was at a Prong show, and we were talking. He asked about one of the songs, a song called "Cut-Rate" (from 1994's 'Cleansing'), and the middle part - the solo part - is pretty much as fast as you can play. Of course live, we play that even faster than it is on the album (laughs). After two hours, sometimes your arms feel really tired. He asked about that, and kept saying "That's one of my favourite Prong songs. You have to stay on top of the string - stay on top of the string". I said "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Ok", but then years later, one day we were playing that and I realized what he was talking about. Sometimes when you pick, your picking will go off of the string just from having to play fast. It doesn't necessarily need to go past the string, so if you focus more on just going to either side of the string, it's a lot easier to play much faster. Since that just dawned on me during one show, I've never had a problem with it. I didn't have a problem with it before, but it was quite hard to do. I passed that onto Madonna, and then she came back in another lesson, had learnt that lesson, and was saying "You have to stay on top". I passed on something that Dimebag Darrell taught me to Madonna, which is really cool. From that point, I said "I gotta show you some Pantera". I showed her "A New Level". She thought it was cool, and she kept playing it in rehearsal. I thought "Yeah, right. That'll never make it into the show", but it turned out that it did. I think that was the easiest song she ever had to get licensing for (laughs). They just said "Yeah, sure".
When playing live, you use Orange Amplifiers.
Oh yeah, yeah. Orange make the best amplifiers, better than anyone else. They're definitely the best sounding, and best road-worthy amps. I've used them for several Madonna tours, and I've never had one problem with them at all. Mine have been all over the world a handful of times, and I've never had any trouble with them. As a company, Orange are always reinventing themselves and are always producing better and better gear. I saw The Hellacopters play at the Hultsfred Festival in Sweden, where Prong played too. I saw them, and I fell in love with that band there. I loved their guitar sound, and they used Orange Amps. I was then in Santa Monica a couple of months later, and I was waiting around for something. I thought "I'm gonna plug into one of these. I wanna see what it sounds like". I plugged into an AD 140, and thought "Wow, this is a good amp. Sonically, it has a great clean sound and has great distortion". It's rare that you come across that, because unless you get an old Marshall... With an old Marshall, you don't have channel-switching; you can have a good, clean channel, but you have to turn the knob for the distortion, and the same with Mesa Boogie. There's either a good, clean sound or good distortion, but there's not both. Anyway, I played through this Orange Amp, and was thinking about it. It's one of those things where you play an instrument or an amp, and you keep thinking about it later. I went back for that amp, and got it that night.
Could you talk me through your contributions to Madonna's noughties albums?
Yeah. I co-wrote a song with Madonna called "Easy Ride", which was on the 'American Life' album, but I didn't play on that - they recorded that in London. With the next album, 'Confessions on a Dance Floor', I helped her with a bunch of demos in the early stages of that album and played on the last song, "Like It or Not" - that's the one that made it onto that album. I played on a much earlier version of "Get Together", but the song changed so much. With 'Hard Candy', I played on all of the Pharrell (Williams, The Neptunes) sessions that were the beginning stages of that album, and there's one song that got leaked. I don't know if that song got a complete overhaul or not. We also did a song called "It's So Cool" which is on 'Celebration', Madonna's third greatest hits album. It's a digital bonus track I co-wrote with her and Mirwais. There's also "Hey You", which was just a charity song for 'Live Earth'. Then there's the live product released for the 'Drowned World Tour', the 'Re-Invention World Tour', the 'Confessions Tour', and the 'Sticky & Sweet Tour', and hopefully more to come.
Could you talk me through the formation of The Citizen Vein?
I wanted to start a rock band in Southern California. You could be playing all over the place, and be playing every week. You should be able to live off of that technically. You can go from San Diego to Las Vegas; you can drive, play, have a really good band, and have a big following, especially if you get together a supergroup. That's why I wanted to make a supergroup of superstars from local groups, so I used to play these local shows in LA. With The Zodiac Show, you play on the first Saturday of every month. One month would be David Bowie, another would be Prince, and so on. Everybody dresses up like some part of that musician's career, and plays David Bowie songs or whatever. You have different singers for every song, and some of these singers are some of the best singers that I've ever heard. I said to a friend "Look, I wanna start a rock band. Who's the best singer in LA you know of that I can start a band with?". He said "You gotta try Adam - you two guys would be perfect".
I looked around and tried to find him, but I didn't have any luck. I was then doing a Zodiac performance, and Lee Cherry - who puts on The Zodiac Show - knew that I wanted to meet up with Adam. He had Adam come in to do a song, and when Adam came in for a soundcheck rehearsal, his voice just filled the room. I just thought "Wow". Then afterwards, we talked. I said "You're really good. I think you're the guy that everybody is telling me about". He replied "Oh yeah? I think you're the guy that everybody is telling me about who wants to start a band", and said "I wanna start a band". We just started writing. Tommy Victor, who plays guitar and sings in Prong, was looking for a bassist at the time, and we made a deal. He said "Look, I'll play bass for your band if you'll play bass for my band", so that's how that happened. That led to me doing Prong's 'Power of the Damager' album, which is now looked at as being one of the best Prong albums. We then got Steve Sidelnyk, Madonna's drummer who's now with Seal, to play drums.
Because we all had gigs with other bands, it was hard to get everybody together to play a show. What I would do is write a song, and send it to Adam. Adam would put vocals on it, and then we would all send the song to each other. Everybody would learn it, and we'd maybe do one rehearsal where we just ran through the songs. We'd then get shows booked and just play the shows. Everybody was good enough where they could just come in and do the show, and it didn't have to be perfect because whatever we did, we got around it. We tried, tried and tried - we tried to do something with it. Even with having connections, it's still hard. Adam was also in 'Wicked', the musical production / theatre play, and then Adam said he was gonna go on 'American Idol'. I remember saying to him "Go on 'American Idol'", and I know a lot of his friends were telling him that too. He eventually decided he was gonna go after he went to the Burning Man festival in Nevada (laughs). And so he went. We all knew, all his friends knew, that once he went on that show, that would be it. Now he's a superstar. We just played in Singapore last week, and Sony presented him with a Gold plaque, a Gold record. Also, I've put out my own album, an acoustic album called 'The Deepest Dark'. Instead of releasing it through a record label, I put it out myself on CD Baby and iTunes. I'm my own boss. 'The Deepest Dark' is already better than any album I've ever worked on, and is the greatest thing I've ever been involved in. I did an acoustic album because with The Citizen Vein, we'd have to call around everybody, and by the time everyone got back to one another, the venue had already filled that spot. I'd write stuff, and Tommy would go out with Prong sometimes with and sometimes without me - he also plays with Danzig, and played with Ministry. Adam would then have to go away for a few weeks to appear in 'Wicked' in another city, so I thought "I'm gonna go back to the whole reason why I wanted to start a band". I decided to make the first album acoustic because it's just me (laughs). I don't have to call anybody else to do a gig, and that's turning out to be really beneficial.
Will any recordings cut with Adam Lambert as a part of The Citizen Vein ever be released?
We talk about that a lot. I mean, you never know. Another plan is to do Adam's next album with the band that we have now, and write and record the album as a band. I would guess yes. I think it's safe to say that one day we will, because it isn't like we don't like the music. He has his solo act, I have my solo act, Tommy's got Prong, Steve's got another group, and The Citizen Vein is still kind of the supergroup mentality of what we were going for. Also, one of The Citizen Vein songs called "The Circle" wound up on my record. Prong wants one of the songs on the next Prong album, and Adam could do one of them on his next record. But yeah, I hope something is released. I know one of the things that got released was claimed to be Adam's first album ('Take One'); me and Steve played on that, and Marcus Brown put piano and bass on it. That was just something we had done as a session, and then after Adam came in second on 'American Idol', they then released this under Adam's name and tried to pawn it off as his first album. I don't know. Crazy things happen when you start having success. I remember Henry Rollins talking about when he first made it with Black Flag; when he came back from a tour, all his friends turned on him and he hadn't even done anything. The fame and the money doesn't change you, but changes more the people around you.
Do you feel Adam Lambert should've won the eighth season of 'American Idol'?
"I would love to see Adam play with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and Jason Bonham too. I think he can sing with anybody, and can sing anything."
Oh absolutely, yeah. I guess it doesn't matter. I mean, the only thing really that would be different would be seeing his face on promotional material for when they're doing auditions. I don't know what else would be different. I don't know what kind of financial rewards there are if you come in first or second. It's none of my business, but he did win if you think about it.
How would you describe Adam Lambert?
He's really creative, and is a sweet, loyal guy. His parents raised him right. He has a vision, like the acoustic version of "Whole Lotta Love" that we did out near Palm Springs. We thought "Man, we shouldn't be messing with this (laughs). We don't need to be doing an acoustic version of "Whole Lotta Love". We're gonna get trashed for this". To this day, it's the most popular thing that we did. One of the cool things was that it kept the integrity of the song. Something kinda happened towards the end where we just jammed and improvised, and not in a rehearsal room, but in front of a large audience. The YouTube video of that got roughly twenty-four thousand hits in less than twenty-four hours, which is great. He has a very unique vision, and one of his strongest points when he's singing is that he can take a melody, do his own take of that melody and come up with something new to it. What I used to do on purpose was write something, give him a melody I didn't really like, and say "Here - sing this", and he'd sing it differently (laughs).
There was discussion in the press of Adam being a possible fit for Queen. Do you feel he'd be a good fit for Queen?
Yeah, oh yeah. If you wanna hear Queen music live, then you gotta have somebody sing it. Who else would you get? I'd love to hear them do something some day. It isn't like they have much time.
Yeah, you're right.
Brian (May) is probably in his early sixties...
They are knocking on a bit, yeah.
That's not to say he's lost his abilities. I wouldn't be surprised at Brian May being better than he is now at a hundred.
I don't mean in terms of their abilities, but in terms of his physical ages.
I mean, yeah. I would love to see Adam do that. I would love to see him play with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and Jason Bonham too. I think he can sing with anybody, and can sing anything. I think Adam's got a big career in front of him. I'm there to do my part, and help him out in kicking ass all the way.
Thanks for the interview Monte - it's really appreciated.
Thank you. If there's anything else you can think of, then hit me up.
I will Monte, definitely. And all the best with everything.
Yeah, you bet man. Thank you. Let me know when it comes out.
Will do, and take care. Bye.
Have a good night. Bye.
Interview by Robert Gray