Nostalgia has swept the music globe in recent years, with acts both great and small riding the wave and reuniting. Tour packages are aplenty celebrating the anniversary of classic albums, and even the birth of classic groups. Having ventured down the inevitable solo path, the original members of Mr. Big have reunited to see if they still have the magic. Rather than merely exploit past glories though, the band have elected to record and release a brand new studio full-length. With cuts like "Undertow" and "Stranger In My Life", they arguably still do have that magic.
Issued on January 21st through Frontiers Records, "What If..." is the seventh studio album from reunited hard rock heavyweights Mr. Big, its North American release in February imminent. This is the group's first in roughly ten years (since August 2001's "Actual Size"), and the last studio full-length from the outfit to feature guitarist Paul Gilbert was March 1996's "Hey Man". Recording began in earnest during September 2010 at The Village in Santa Monica Boulevard, West Hollywood, spanning three weeks. At The Cave Studios in Malibu, California, Kevin Shirley (who's worked with the likes of Iron Maiden, Rush and Aerosmith) handled mixing duties. Mr. Big members have touted the material as being in the vein of April 1991's "Lean Into It". A music video was filmed for the track "Undertow".
February 2009 was the month in which Mr. Big's reunion was announced, followed by several Japanese shows in June marking the twentieth anniversary of the quartet's self-titled debut. An October 2009 live CD and DVD entitled "Back To Budokan" was taken from Mr. Big's June 20th performance at Tokyo's Budokan. A world tour begins in South America during March 2011, and will venture into Europe during the early summer.
On November 30th at 11:45 GMT, Hit The Lights' Robert Gray telephoned Mr. Big guitarist Paul Gilbert to discuss "What If...".
Paul Gilbert: Hello? This is Paul.
UG: This is Robert Gray from Ultimate-Guitar.com.
Oh cool. How are you doing?
I'm doing well. How are you?
I'm doing great.
Would it be ok if we began the interview?
Mr. Big reunited of course and performed at some reunion concerts, particularly in Japan during June 2009. How did performing these reunion concerts lead to Mr. Big writing a new album?
We did a pretty long tour, actually; we played in Japan, Europe, Southeast Asia, and we just had really good times. We thought we'd like to do it again, but that if we did do it again, then we'd need some new songs because everyone's heard the old ones. We wrote some more. We wanted to play some new ones too, so we thought "Let's head back in the studio and make some more".
Compared to when you were last a member of Mr. Big in 1997, what was the vibe like this time around?
I found it a lot easier. We all have had not only a lot of musical experiences, but we've just grown as people. We had a really good producer in Kevin Shirley, and dude, I really enjoyed it. I really had a good time making the record.
How did Mr. Big come to sign an album deal with Frontiers Records?
Oh boy. That would be a question for my manager. I'm much more familiar with the guitar solos and that kind of thing, and he does the business. I don't really know anything about that. If we knew that kind of stuff, we wouldn't need a manager (laughs). We could do everything ourselves. It's enough work to just take care of the musical part.
That's fine. Once Mr. Big decided it would write new tracks, how did things take shape from there? Entering the rehearsal space, and writing songs?
I think with the creative process, initially you just take all of your ideas and spill them out, and that's what we did. Pat, Billy and I all live in Los Angeles, so we got together. We came up with about a hundred different riff ideas, and sent them over to Eric. After we came up with so many small ideas, we started putting them together into bigger ones, picking our favourites.
Writing the riffs for 'What If...', did you have any specific influences?
Let's see... Our influences span across our whole lives, like the music we grew up with. You could never lose that, because that's the roots. We were definitely thinking about the tour though; we were thinking about going to all the places we went to on the last tour, and were just thinking about those audiences and what they would like, and what we would have fun playing. We really had the picture of the live show in mind when we were writing.
Would you deem 'What If...' Mr. Big's heaviest album to date?
I think 'What If...' is definitely high energy. I don't know. There's high energy aspects in all the records, though I think there's probably less ballads, especially than... I'm trying to remember. I haven't really analyzed it that way. It's funny, because I'm having trouble with the question. When I think of the albums, I never think "That one's heavier" or "This one's heavier". I just think of the songs as one. I don't normally judge records that way.
Would you attribute the uptempo nature of 'What If...' to Mr. Big's reunion shows? Mr. Big could've written a load of slow tracks if it had wanted to, but as you said, the album is "high energy".
You said "if we wanted to", but I don't know if we're in control that much. We really write what we feel, and that's what we were feeling at the time. I think we never really steered one way or the other. If there was a record that had more ballads on it, then it wasn't because we planned beforehand to write a bunch of ballads - that's what just came out. For us, it was a very natural process. That's what happened when we got together and wrote some music. I think we had done touring pretty recently, so those memories were fresh in our minds. I think when you've got the live show in mind, it definitely gets you excited about things.
In interviews, Billy has talked a lot about how 'What If...' was written together, in that Mr. Big's members wrote in the same space and jammed together as was the case with earlier records. How did that help the flow of the album?
I think it just makes it where all the songs really have a Mr. Big sound. 'What If...' doesn't sound like four solo albums glued together; it sounds like every song is a band song.
Do you feel that a Mr. Big song having a group sound is very important then? Sometimes, do group tracks sound like solo tracks as opposed to a group effort?
This is a new question for me, so I'm thinking about it (laughs). I suppose the most important thing is that the songs are good, but secondly, if they have a characteristic Mr. Big sound then that's cool too. I don't know, because I don't analyze it this much. This is the interesting part of doing interviews; sometimes I get a question, and I go "Well, I've never thought about it before" (laughs). I've written both ways, and I write both ways. It is a band and it is Mr. Big though. I know when we write together it definitely has the flavour of everybody's writing styles mixed together, and that's cool.
When you write material with Mr. Big in mind, do you prefer to write alone or do you prefer to write with the group's other members?
I don't know if I really can write for Mr. Big when I'm alone because I have my own style of writing, and it tends to go in a slightly different direction. Even if I wanted to I can't really control it, but sometimes I wish I could (laughs). If I'm by myself though, things go a certain way. That's one of the reasons I really like to write with the other guys; I know that if we write together, it's gonna fit with what we do. Everybody's gonna be happy with it, but if I write something all by myself, everybody might not be as comfortable playing it. That's why it's cool writing together too.
Would you say 'What If...' is musically in the vein of 'Lean Into It', something which many press articles have said?
That's very nice of you - 'Lean Into It' is our best record from the old days. To me, it's similar in that it's all of the original members. 'What If...' is a cool rock record, but it's also all new songs. To me, it really stands on its own as a new record.
Even though such comparisons are being made, would you say that you can tell 'What If...' was recorded in 2010 as opposed to back in the old days?
It's modern in that we made it just a couple of months ago, but I'm actually not that familiar with modern music (laughs). I'm still very influenced by the bands I grew up with. I think when I'm playing guitar or when I'm writing music, I'm still very influenced by The Beatles, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and a lot of other sixties and seventies music. I think maybe Eric and Pat might be more familiar with newer music. I know Billy listens to a lot of stuff that's not rock and unusual stuff, but I don't know. I'm not really trying to be modern. I'm just trying to do what I like; I don't really care what era it's in, or if it's similar to new bands. There's certain emotions that I like and certain sounds that I like, and whether they're trendy or not, I can't help it. I just write what I like.
Is there a different approach to recording guitar parts for Mr. Big as opposed to on your solo albums?
In general, no because I'm just trying to play what's good for the song. I guess probably the biggest difference though is my last few solo records have been instrumental records where the guitar takes the place of the lead vocal. In Mr. Big, I'm certainly not doing that because there is a lead vocal. I'm doing maybe more supportive rhythm guitar, and I love doing that - that's a blast. It's more of a balance with Mr. Big. I just do some rhythm guitars and I do some solos, whereas with my instrumental records, it's solos all the time.
Do you have the same influences in writing that "supportive rhythm guitar" you spoke of?
Oh yeah, man. When I learned all of Van Halen's songs when I was a kid, I learned the rhythms much more than I learned the solos. Most of the solos on those songs were improvized, so I can tell that even if I learned them, they weren't really meant to be learned. They were more what the guitarist felt at the time, but the rhythms usually would be consistent and repeat, so those are the parts I would learn and latch onto. I've always loved rhythm guitar.
How would you describe your lead guitar work on 'What If...'?
My lead guitar work is an answer to what Eric is just saying. Eric takes the lead for most of the song, and then when the guitar comes in, it's just hopefully a continuation of what he's doing emotionally. If I can give it some variety or give it some excitement and that's part of the song, then I'm happy.
"Our influences span across our whole lives, like the music we grew up with. You could never lose that, because that's the roots."
In recording 'What If...', what gear did you use?
I used a bunch of Ibanez guitars. I've got a new Ibanez Spider one that I like a lot. I used an Ibanez Pat Metheny model that's a hollow body guitar, I used a vintage Ibanez Artist from 1979, and I had an Ibanez twelve-string - actually, it's about twenty years old now. I think I had it made around 1990, and I used that for the song "All The Way Up". For amps, I had a Marshall Vintage Modern 212 combo. I used that for the whole record and just a few pedals: my 'Fuzz Universe' pedal, my Majik Box, my Ibanez Airplane Flanger, an MXR Phase 90, and a H.B.E. Detox EQ. That was the main equipment.
One track that stands out on 'What If...', probably because it's slower than the other tracks, is "Stranger In My Life". Kevin Shirley described the composition as a "killer ballad".
Yeah. "Stranger In My Life" is a song which Eric brought in, and I really like it. It's interesting because I think sometimes people see Eric as sort of a pop guy, and that's really a heavy song. To me, it has a lot of Zeppelin-y chords and it's a little bit dark, and it has a real heaviness to it. I was proud of Eric, and thought "Ah, cool - he brought in a heavy one".
Could you tell me about what you brought into the songwriting process for 'What If...'?
I would say the ones that I had the most to do with... Again, most of the material we had beforehand we owe to Billy and Pat, but some of the riffs on "Undertow" I had beforehand, and "As Far As I Can See" was a riff I was messing around with beforehand. Actually, "I Get The Feeling" is the one that was mostly mine. I demoed that myself and brought it in.
When each of you listen to Mr. Big's material, can you tell - without even thinking - which member wrote most of a given track? Where they possess a certain flavour?
A little, especially because I've written with the guys so much. We all have habits. There's certain places that I tend to pull songs, certain places that Billy tends to take them, and with everybody. Yeah, I think I could probably tell better than anybody... I mean, the other guys in the band could too because we all know each other's writing styles really well.
You mentioned "Undertow", which Mr. Big has recorded a performance music video for.
Yeah. I like the overall driving rhythm of "Undertow", but I also like that the chorus really lifts it up and has a lot of harmonies, and that's actually one of my favourite parts of Mr. Big. Not only is Eric a great singer, but I really like the fact that the rest of us can do harmony vocals as well. I think from the old days, songs like "Green-Tinted Sixties Mind", "To Be With You" and "Just Take My Heart" had those big background vocals, and live that comes across great. I was really happy that with this record we could do that a lot too, even though "Undertow" is a dark, kind of heavy song. The chorus still has these big harmonies and great melodies, so that's one of my favourite ingredients of the Mr. Big sound.
How did Mr. Big come to name its reunion album 'What If...'?
The concept for the album's title is just that any time you think of anything new, it begins with the thought "What if...?". If you're writing a song, if you're thinking about playing guitar with a drill (laughs), if you're thinking about building a new building, or you're thinking about inventing a light bulb or whatever it is, it all begins with that moment when you think "What if..?". The idea then flows from there. It's just the first step of creativity.
Is 'What If...''s title also reflective of Mr. Big's reunion in general? Maybe the group's members thought "What if we all get back together"?
Yeah, absolutely. Again, that was an idea that at one time we didn't think was possible, but then at one point all of us thought "What if we did get back together? How would that be?".
A well-known group like Mr. Big probably had quite a selection of producers to choose from, but the group chose Kevin Shirley. Why did Mr. Big feel that Kevin Shirley would be the best man to produce 'What If...'?
He's an amazing producer of heavy rock records. He's worked with Iron Maiden and The Black Crowes and Led Zeppelin, a lot of our heroes, so for me it was a huge honour to work with him. He's worked with Rush and all these cool bands, and I really liked what he's done. Actually, a Black Crowes record called 'By Your Side' (January 1999) is one of my favourite records, so I was excited to work with the guy who produced that.
Was the reason Mr. Big opted to work with Kevin Shirley also due to his mixing skills?
Yeah, and that's good too. I like that the producer and the mixer are the same person, because the producer spends a lot of time with the music and becomes really familiar with all the tracks. That way, when he goes to mix it, it's not like he has to learn the material from the start - he already knows what's going on.
How would you describe Kevin Shirley's role in the studio?
His role was to keep things really high energy; even when we were in the studio, he was able to make it feel like we were doing a live performance. He'd come in and almost yell at us, and just go "Come on. You're onstage; do this with fight, do this with anger". He would not let us be like normal studio musicians. He kept us a rock band.
Can you see Mr. Big possibly working with Kevin Shirley again?
Oh, I'd love to. I really dug it, and thought the process was great.
Do you feel Mr. Big has a future in terms of recording more studio material, and touring?
Yeah, I think. As long as we're having a good time, and the music's cool. It's an amazing experience to be a member of a good rock band.
So for the foreseeable future, Mr. Big is permanently back together?
"I really had a good time making the record. We all have had not only a lot of musical experiences, but we've just grown as people."
How would you say the music industry has changed since you originally left Mr. Big in 1997?
There's one word: internet (laughs). I don't really follow it that closely. I just don't feel like I have control over it. The one thing I do have control over is making music, and fortunately, I have a manager whose job is to look at the business part. All I can really ever do is try to play good guitar and write good songs, and if I can pay for a good dinner with that, then I'm happy.
Where does Mr. Big's reunion leave your solo career?
In the old days, we were much more strict about the fact that we could only do Mr. Big, and we tried to not do solo projects. I think now we're a lot looser about that, between Mr. Big albums I'll still do solo albums now and then. I like that because I still like doing crazy guitar records, and my musical tastes are really wide. There's a lot of stuff I want to try that might not fit with Mr. Big, but there's still a lot of stuff I want to try with Mr. Big too, so it's really satisfying to be able to try everything I want to try.
In terms of your solo career, is there anything in the works?
I'm on tour right now with my solo band, so I'm in the middle of the works (laughs). Right now, I'm sitting on a bus in Slovenia, and we're gonna do a show tonight. My bassist went to the venue and said it's really cool, so I'm excited about the show.
You released 'Fuzz Universe' not too long ago, but is there a new solo album in the pipeline?
There's no time at the moment. I just finished recording parts for the new Mr. Big record, I'm on tour, and I got another Mr. Big tour coming up in 2011. I still have to sleep between all this (laughs).
(Laughs) Definitely. In closing, what do you feel the future holds for Mr. Big?
Our goal has always been to be a live band, and that's one thing that's comforting, that no matter how the internet might change things or the music industry might change, there's still nothing that replaces the excitement of a live show. I think that's where Mr. Big really shines, and that's what we enjoy the most. I think 'What If...' really gives us a license to go out and do more live stuff, and we're really excited about doing that as much as we can in 2011, and playing the new songs.
Are there any Mr. Big dates pencilled in for 2011 which you can discuss?
I'm not sure what's been announced yet or how much is confirmed, but I know our managers are working on Japan, South America and Europe, and I think they're trying to get dates in North America. Basically, we're just trying to play everywhere. When the dates are confirmed, they'll be announced.
Do you have a message for the fans of Mr. Big?
Well, let's see.. First of all, thanks for waiting all through the last fourteen years for a new record, and hope you like the new one. We really had a great time making it, and I think the songs will sound really cool live. What else? I think we're just really proud that it's all the original members, and that we can really give you the sound that Mr. Big began with, and continue that on.
Thanks for the interview Paul.
Alright. Thanks a lot.
The best of luck with everything.
Interview by Robert Gray
"We came up with about a hundred different riff ideas."