Mark Tremonti: 'I Always Want To Create Music And Do The Best I Can'

artist: Alter Bridge date: 11/28/2009 category: interviews
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Mark Tremonti: 'I Always Want To Create Music And Do The Best I Can'
This interview with Alter Bridge and Creed guitarist Mark Tremonti took place on Veteran's Day, a national holiday celebrating and commemorating the soldiers who have fought wars in defending their country. Tremonti was a soldier of sorts and though he didn't have to dodge bullets, he did have to avoid enemy fire. In this case, the attacks came from Scott Stapp, singer for Creed and someone in the fiendish grips of alcoholism. The guitarist, a workaholic and someone passionate about his music, had grown weary of the vocalist's drunken antics and eventually quit the band to form Alter Bridge with frontman Myles Kennedy. Kennedy, a leading candidate for the Led Zeppelin reunion when Robert Plant bowed out, didn't bail on Mark, his comrade-in-arms, and together they've recorded a pair of metal-meets-melody Alter Bridge albums. One Day Remains and the followup, Blackbird, have both spawned big singles and on the group's third release, a live DVD titled Live From Amsterdam, they cover those songs and virtually every other track from these two albums. Tremonti, speaking from his home in Florida, talked about the new DVD, his fellow soldier Myles Kennedy, and what it feels like returning to Creed. UG: Before we start talking about Alter Bridge and the new DVD, it might help to go back a bit and fill in the holes on what happened with you and Scott Stapp. Did Creed get to a point where you felt the band wasn't moving forward anymore musically? Mark Tremonti: I think we got separated more and more; the communication kind of broke down. I'm always wantin' to go, go, go and create music and do the best you can. And at that point I think Scott's responsibility level was deteriorating with some abuses and whatnot that have been out in the press that he's talked about [mainly his alcoholism]. I love what I do; I've been passionate about it since I was 11 years old. Well, even before I bought my first guitar. And I just saw that the whole thing was paralyzed, you know? We weren't creating music; we were fighting all the time. All the people around us were filling our heads with, He said this; he said this and it just got to be somethin' that wasn't what I got into this for. We were selling millions of records but it was no fun at all. Me and Scott Phillips went back and forth everyday saying, I quit and I'd pull him back into it and he'd quit and I'd pull me back into it. We went back and forth and one day we finally looked at each other said, You know what? This is it; I'm done. I wanna go have fun. Certainly the success of Creed allowed you to start over in a sense. We used the success we had with Creed to afford ourselves the ability to go out and do somethin' without any restraints and with people that we enjoyed being with. So we started Alter Bridge. Did you know that this new band would include your former Creed bandmates Scott Phillips and Brian Marshall? Me and Scott Phillips have been together since day one. We've always been the constants since day one. Brian got kicked out of Creed for years but me and Scott Phillips have always been really close. I've really realized his value over the years when you play with other drummers and it just doesn't feel right. Right off the bat he knows where I'm goin' and I know where he's goin'. It just works. With Brian, he's just such a unique bass player; he just comes up with stuff that you wouldn't think of. He's in his own little world. He's got something unique that we like and he's just a great guy. The three of us just work very well together. Did you have any ideas about the kind of band you wanted to put together? Did you know what kind of a singer you were looking for? I just wanted to go out there and I knew we had the opportunity to find the best singer in the world that was available at the time. With the success that we had from Creed, I knew we had the ability to go out there and hunt for somebody that would be interested in making music with us. Before the band, it was hard to find the right guys because you gotta call talent agents and they ask who you are and to send your demos. And it's just we had the ability to go out there and find the right guy. We toured with Myles earlier in our careers with Creed and everybody back then was blown away by him and we never forgot about him and he was the first guy on our list to hook up with. About four or five guys came to my house and came to the studio and sang tracks and played with me on acoustic just to get a feel for the vocalist. And there were a couple of really great singers; a couple guys who could yell and scream and make it sound big and tough but at the same time they weren't very emotional. I wanted somebody that could deliver on all levels and Myles was definitely just an incredible singer. Obviously he's been hunted by some of the biggest bands in the world lately. I think he's one of the greatest singers in the world.

"We weren't creating music; we were fighting all the time."

You're talking about the possible Zeppelin reunion? Yeah, you know, Zeppelin and Slash just had him sing on his record and Velvet Revolver had called him to audition years ago. I think he didn't do that at the time because he had hearing issues and he wanted to take some time off. Now I think he's feelin' more confident with that and bein' more careful with it. And thank God cause now we got Alter Bridge. How would you describe the difference in dynamics in terms of writing with Myles versus writing with Scott Stapp? Well, working with Creed, an idea doesn't hit the table unless I bring it to the band. Once I bring it to the band, then we all embellish however we may. But with Alter Bridge, me and Myles, I'll have a verse and a chorus and he'll say, Wow, I've got this bridge. He'll bring original ideas. Where did he bring an idea that turned into a song? On Watch Over You on Blackbird, he had the verse and the chorus and I put a bridge to it. We both bring the original ideas to the table and that's the biggest difference there. Notwithstanding the fact that Myles plays guitar and Scott didn't. Were you particularly looking for a singer who played? No, absolutely not. When I called Myles I had no idea he could play the guitar like he does. I'm telling you honestly, I think he's a much better guitar player than I am. That seems to be stretching it just a bit. He's a brilliant guitar player; the guy's a jazz guy. He's got the best vibrato of any guitar player I've ever seen. And that's how I judge a guitar player by their vibrato and their feel. And he's got better than anybody I've seen. And he hides it; he's not a look-at-me kind of guy. I remember walking up to my bedroom one night when he was practicing down in the room. The first time I knew he could play guitar well was when I was walking by his room and I heard all this jazz goin' on and I thought it was a CD. And I stepped in and there he is blazin' away on just this ridiculous jazzy, jazzy stuff. And he'd kind of hidden it from me cause I think he just didn't want to step on my toes. He knew we had called because of his voice and not cause of his guitar playing and then that guitar playing kind of became our secret weapon. You talk about Myles' vibrato and in the Live From Amsterdam DVD you can see brief moments of that guitar technique. He would do these little fills between vocal verses and you really had a sense of what a strong player he was. Oh, he's incredible and he's holdin' back, too. I keep on tellin' him, We gotta show the world what you got, man cause he's just a phenomenal player. Moving forward, do you think you will try and develop the twin guitar thing more in the band? Oh, yeah. We did it a lot on the Blackbird record and like you said, he had all the little licks and fills here and there and we kinda shared a solo on Blackbird. But yeah, we'll keep pushing it. I'm definitely not the type of guitar player who is afraid to share the moment. I want him out there doing it. I want the record to be the best record possible and he brings such a different style to the music that we don't step on each other's toes. How would you describe the differences in the way you both play? I bring kind of the heavy metal/speed metal roots and kind of classical. And Myles he has the bluesy jazz roots and when we come together, he's coming up with things that completely just fill the space; fill the space perfectly without doing the same thing. Let's talk about some of those spaces by looking at some of the songs from the Live From Amsterdam DVD. The DVD kicks off with Come To Life from the Blackbird album. What is it about that song that makes it such a great set opener? At the beginning of a show you just gotta rock; you gotta hit em with somethin' that wakes em up and lets em know who's on stage and hit em with somethin' in the face as hard as you can. That's one of our heavier songs and it just fits perfectly with the opening of a show. We've got a handful of songs that we switch off spots and that was always kinda the one that delivered the best for us. Ties That Bind has what sounds like some Zeppelin influence in there. Are you talkin' bout the bridge? Actually when it breaks down and there's the tremolo picking part, that's Myles' part and I'm doin' the heavy rhythm stuff. To me, that's just more of a heavy kind of metal influence tune. It's probably one of my top three songs on the record cause I like the song and it's one of my favorites to play live. So given that combination, it's one of my favorites on the record. Blackbird shows the sort of quieter side of Alter Bridge with those picked guitar parts and the more orchestrated sections. That's my favorite song I've ever had anything to do with my whole career. Forty years from now if I'm still alive and I want to tell my kids what daddy did and my proudest achievement, that might be the song at this point. Unless something else comes out better. Did you feel when you were writing the song that all the pieces were falling into place? Yeah. The rhythm guitar line was probably one of my favorite musical pieces going into the record. We wrestled with it and wrestled with it day after day and it was really a tough song to put together. We had a lot of different choruses with it and I remember one day we really put it all together finally. Me and Myles kind of went to two different rooms and worked for about an hour putting together pieces, going through our laptops and coming up with ideas that could work in 6/8. And when we came back we had used Myles' chorus progression and melody that just fit great right off the bat. And then for the bridge I had some licks, he had some licks; we just played them over the top of each other and they fit perfect and that was it. And I think we all looked at each other and said, We got an album; this is it. This is the anchor song on the record and we can go in the studio. At that point when we finished that song that's when we said, We're ready to record. Metalingus is the other side of the band and shows your metal roots and that kind of thing. Is that your inner punk yearning to be free? Like I said when I was a kid I was into speed metal and I just love playin' heavy. When I write songs I'm a vocal melody guy and that's my number one thing I've always worked on my whole life is working on vocal melodies. And sometimes it's hard to do both to write a vocal melody and then at the same time be in a speed metal band. So I try and combine both the best I can but sometimes it's almost like you have to start two different bands. It's either got to be speed metal or it's gotta be a melodic band. We try and combine em the best we can. That really does define who Alter Bridge are. I think that pretty much the core of our sound is pushing the limits technically and orchestrating things as best as we can without losing melody and being able to grasp the song as a well put together song. We don't want to just be self-indulgent; we want it to be as fun as possible. Talking about the metal side, you guested on Michael Angelo Batio's solo records. You played on Burn from Hands Without Shadows and then more recently you played on Metallica Rules from his Hands Without Shadows Voices album. Is that you getting your guitar ya yas out? Well, that's fun. With Michael Angelo's CD, it's just speed. Play fast. Play something technical and have fun with it. With Alter Bridge or Creed, I try and tell more of a story with the solos and spend a lot of time on them and not just play for the sake of playing fast. But with Michael Angelo's record, he's known as the fastest guy in the world so you've gotta play fast. So right off the bat it's just speed. It's fun to have that outlet.

"We were selling millions of records but it was no fun at all."

Open Your Eyes is a ballad from the One Day Remains album and the song that follows Metalingus on the DVD. Alter Bridge is almost known as much for the ballads as they are the more aggressive songs. As a songwriter, I just like to do both. I like extremes; I like stuff that's either gonna make you feel really good and uplifted and has that big major anthem kind of sound. Or I like to have something that is dreary and makes you wanna sound like you wanna jump off a building. I like to have dynamics. If I want to write something heavy, I want it to be the heaviest thing, the darkest thing I can come up with at the moment. If I want to write something pretty, I want it to be the prettiest thing in the world. I don't want something to just kind of sound boring. Where does your sense of harmonic composition come from? Who were you listening to on a song level that moved you? I feel like I've always been in my own little bubble on the songwriting end of things with tons of different influences that I can't really pinpoint. I think some of the fingerpicking stuff [came from] Metallica and Tesla subconsciously. Because I remember listening to Tesla years after we had been out for a while. I went, You know what? I used to love all these fingerpicking patterns and they kinda sound similar to stuff I like to do. Like the intro to Love Song, I always loved that. Of course I learned it when I was younger and it was within the same kind of sound as some of the fingerpicking stuff that I enjoy. I think one of the first songs I learned on guitar was The Call of Ktulu by Metallica and that fingerpicking pattern; I practiced the hell out of that thing. And I think that's where I developed my fingerpicking style just with my thumb and my first finger and tucking my pick behind my second finger and it's never changed since then. I think Metallica was a huge influence. Chord change-wise with some of the heavier stuff, Celtic Frost is one of my favorite bands of all time. They come up with some of the drudgiest and heaviest sounding chord progressions of all time. And at the same time when I was younger some of the melodic stuff could have come from listening to Journey in my mom's car. Some of their stuff was just incredible. I think Neal Schon is a brilliant guitar player. You don't sound like Neal but there are certain aspects of your playing where you'll start a solo in a melodic fashion and then get crazy the same way Neal did. Yeah, absolutely. It's just that I never learned any Neal Schon stuff but I've always appreciated him. I mean the guys I actually sat down and spent the time learning when I was younger were probably like Paul Gilbert, Vinnie Moore, and Yngwie obviously. Back in the day I couldn't really pull off any Yngwie but I tried. And then when I got older, I started getting into Vai and Satch. And now that I'm much older now, I'm more into Warren Haynes, Robben Ford, and Larry Carlton; the guys with all the class in the world. How important was Zeppelin and Jimmy Page? Or Jeff Beck? Did you listen to them? No, I wish I had. I honestly never learned a Led Zeppelin song until we covered em in Alter Bridge [Traveling Riverside Blues which also appears on the Live From Amsterdam DVD]. I always loved Jimmy Page; I think he's one of the best part writers ever. My brothers made fun of me because I was a songwriter but I couldn't ever play anybody else's stuff. I'm the worst cover band guy in the world. I never played anybody's stuff. I could play a riff here or there but my brothers would be like, Can't you ever play a song all the way through? I can play my songs all the way through! So I never really learned a lot of other people's stuff until I did the guitar instructional DVD and learned licks. But when the PRS guitar thing kind of came through is when I really started getting into really trying to tackle as many guitar solos as I could to learn as many techniques as possible. Last year you released that instructional video called The Sound and the Story. What would a guitar player come away learning after watching that? What would they learn about you as a guitarist? Well just as much as I teach on the guitar, I hope people listen to the words that I say. Growing up, I was a huge fan of instructional DVDs; I mean I must have 150 of the things. These guys all seemed untouchable and it seemed I'd never be that good. And they start off with just these mega-riffs right off the bat. Kind of more of a showy thing sometimes. Ours is more of a documentary as well as an instructional thing where I talk about how difficult everything's been and how much time actually goes into it. That I still have tons of weaknesses and you always will and you just have to have patience and passion about it. I think every guitar player feels that sometimes they don't vocalize it. But another thing is growing up when I was watching these, I wanted to learn these guitar player's solos; not just their licks. Cause I learned all their licks and then you try and improvise and you got nothin' because you got these crazy sweep licks and these tapping licks or whatever they are and you haven't learned it in the context of a solo. So when you're a kid, you don't really know how to incorporate that and just do a free flowing improve session. So it was important to you to reveal your solos note-for-note? I wanted to take my actual solos and right from the horse's mouth show exactly how I play em; break em down into three or four sections and point out the riffs that might be tricky and just play it slow and explain through it. And then go and do the traditional guitar thing where you take a legato section and do 15 legato exercises; do a picking section. I actually did an alternate tuning and finger picking section that I could have gone much deeper into but the thing's already three hours long. You bring on some of your guitar crew. I thought it would be a good idea to show my little guitar circle and invite all my friends on there. I wanted somebody to buy this thing and be blown away with it and say, I hope another artist does this! I wanted somebody to buy it and not only learn from me but have a whole hour's worth of other views on the guitar. Like my buddy Bill [Peck] who is a brilliant tapper and I can't tap to save my life. So he's got a whole 15-minute lesson on tapping which you wouldn't have gotten if it was just me. You have Troy Stetina who has sold probably a million instructional products and he teaches better than anybody; I wanted him on there. Michael Angelo is just ridiculous. Rusty [Cooley] and Myles [Kennedy] are great; Myles is a great teacher as well. And he teaches the other solos so on this DVD you have every single solo from the Blackbird record. So it's just a very comprehensive DVD. Rise Today is the last encore on the DVD. What made this song such a great one to close the show? It was the big single off the new record; it's got a great breakdown; and it just has that end-of-the-show vibe. Open Your Eyes would be the set closer we would use most of the time and Rise Today would be the whole show closer. They were just the big singles and you have to kind of leave on a big note. It would be strange to put a track on there that people didn't recognize. On the flipside, the people who come to Alter Bridge shows know every song on the record usually. Whereas you would do a Creed show and you have a lot of people that are like, Ah, shit, I'll go see Creed and they don't recognize the album tracks. So we've got to be a little craftier with out setlists with Creed than Alter Bridge. But Rise Today always just kind of felt like an uplifting, cool, leave em wanting more kind of tune. You've come from a place of listening to the records of your heroes and practicing and overcoming your weaknesses to being an endorsee of Paul Reed Smith guitars. That have been a pretty heady moment for you when you received your own signature instrument. It was an intimidating moment actually. It was a big honor; that was one of the big things that spurred me into going out there and workin' hard. Because I felt like I didn't deserve it. At the time I wasn't a very great lead player at all. I had rhythm chops and I could write a song and fingerpick and all that but when I got that guitar, I was like, Man, I better go out there and deserve this. Because I thought people were gonna be on my ass; they're gonna be saying, This guy doesn't deserve it and I didn't want that ever to happen. So I just went out there and busted my ass to become the best player I could. It was almost after the fact that you got the PRS signature model that you really turned into a guitar player? My lead playing skills. Like I said back in the day I could play a Paul Gilbert picking drill and sweep from a Petrucci DVD and do these things. But when it came to running into a band getting up on stage and just improvising that just wasn't my thing. To be honest, I'm still chasin' that down so I could play under any conditions. At that point I was very green when it came to just flying by the seat of my pants. Everything for me was always composed and play it exactly how it was written.

"We used the success we had with Creed to afford ourselves the ability to go out and do somethin' without any restraints."

Can you now define what the Mark Tremonti guitar sound has developed into? I try and be as dynamic as possible. I think my core sound still lies in my speed metal rhythm chops and my fingerpicking from when I was a kid. I like to have that dynamic; I think it was an influence from Metallica and Master of Puppets. You listen to Welcome Home Sanitarium and you've got that clean verse and then it slams you in the face with the big dirty chorus. I always loved that so back in the days when I was writin' songs I'd try and fingerpick somethin' cool and moody and then hit you over the head with somethin' big and powerful. What kind of amps are you running now? For rhythm I use a Bogner Uberschall and a [Mesa/Boogie] Triple Rectifier; for lead I just switch to the orange channel on the Rectifier and use a Two-Rock Custom Signature 100 instead of the Uberschall. They [Two-Rock] souped it up for me a little bit on the gain side. And when I go to clean I just use two Fender Twins with a [TC Electronics] G-Force with a little bit of delay and verb on it. The reality is that finding a great guitar sound and an original one really takes a lot of time and experimentation. It's not just plugging into the first amp you find. Absolutely. It's something that when you're younger and working your nine to five job and having to buy guitar gear, every time you see an ad in the guitar magazine that says some new model amp has come out, you think you're not gonna be as good as the next guy because you don't have the newest equipment. But then you realize after years of doing this where you get free gear and have whatever you want, it doesn't really take more than just one core amp. Or maybe a clean amp and a dirty amp. Yeah. If you have a good clean tone and for me it has to have an open back. I like little combo amps for clean tones; 2x12 combos with open backs. I think the open back cabinet for me somehow makes it chime and just really feel nice and open. With a dirty tone with me, I think your rhythm tone and your lead tones are just so different. For me, for sure. My mids are dialed in so much more for lead; my low end is so much farther down on my lead. I like to use EL34s. I like a spongy lead and a tight, crunchy rhythm and it's tough to get all that outta one amp. You occupy an interesting position inasmuch as you were in a very successful band and then you quit. You started another band and found success with it and then returned to the original band while still recording and performing with the second band. How did it feel recording the Full Circle album with Creed? Does it feel different because you now are a member of both Creed and Alter Bridge? The biggest challenges I've had since breaking up the first time was having Alter Bridge not sound like Creed. Now the challenge is since we have all this new experience over the last six years where we've really come a long way as musicians and songwriters, is to not sound like Alter Bridge when Creed got back together. But we didn't want to just do what we did in the past; we wanted to make it much more dynamic and just use our new skills to tell a bigger story with the new experience that we had. We're more conscious of making the Creed songs shorter; make it easier to digest; and make it more sing along. It's more of a sing along kind of band whereas Alter Bridge it's whatever happens, happens; it could be a seven-minute song with 18 different parts if we wanted to. With Creed, we have a record label that expects radio singles and fans that expect the same and to be honest, I had tons and tons of ideas that were just sitting around waiting either to sell to another artist or to use for a rainy day if Creed ever got back together. That I didn't use [with Alter Bridge] because everybody thought it sounded too much like Creed. So I had all that material to go to. There is a big division of styles between Alter Bridge and Creed? When you recorded One Day Remains could any of those tracks have ended up on a Creed album? Umm, they could of, but I think we were just trying to be different as fast as we could. We only had three months before we got in the studio after Creed broke up to record One Day Remains. I'd say about half the record was written before Myles even showed up when I was just writing demos. I think when Myles and I spent years touring and working together and creating a new sound, I think the Blackbird record is really a better picture of what Alter Bridge will sound like in the future. That was more of all the parts in the right place and the players doin' their part that they'll do in the future. Have you been working on any new music for Alter Bridge? Every day. Once Myles gets down here [Florida] the first week of December we've got just a couple months to write and then we go into the studio. So I want to be more than prepared when he gets here. Like I said, a big difference between Creed and Alter Bridge is I'm gonna try and prepare for an entire record myself and I'm sure Myles is gonna do the same thing. So when we get together we can be the Power Twins, you know? Reading in between the lines, it sounds like Alter Bridge gets you off more musically than Creed does. Not necessarily, no. They both have their strengths and their weaknesses and make me happy and unhappy. When I tour with Creed, you're at an arena full of people screaming the songs back at you which is a tough experience to get. With Alter Bridge it's the same thing but it's a smaller level; it's a European thing and it's fun to go and do that. It's also fun to stay in the States and do big arena tours with Creed. They're both so different; they feel so different to me. And the biggest challenge now is going to make them sound different to everybody and have them be unique unto themselves. So that's gonna be the biggest challenge. When I talk to Myles I said, Now that I've done Creed and you're doing your solo project [a singer/songwriter kind of commercial hard rock record], we should push the next Alter Bridge record past any boundaries we've had before. And make it even more dynamic than the Blackbird record. And I think that now we've done these two projects it's gonna be even more of a challenge. Interview by Steven Rosen Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2009
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