Myles Kennedy: 'We've Really Worked Hard and It's Nice to See It All Starting to Pay Off'
Alter Bridge frontman found an open window of time to talk about "Fortress," how it was made and how unbelievably good it felt to finally be acknowledged for the music he's made with this band this past decade.
UG editorial team. A group of people who are passionate about guitar and music in general.
Posted on Nov 13, 2013 02:29 pm
With the release of "Fortress," their fourth album, Alter Bridge is finally garnering the attention they so rightly deserve. After 10 years and multiple tours, the hard rock quartet - vocalist/guitarist Myles Kennedy, guitarist Mark Tremonti, bassist Brian Marshall and drummr Scott Phillips - scored a number one debut on the UK rock charts and dropped at Top 20 in six other European countries. Fortress is full of the heavy riffs that have become their stock-in-trade - "Addicted to Pain," the first single, is a monster lick - but they've also pulled the curtain back on melodic anthems like "All Ends Well" and acoustic ballads like "Lover."
Myles Kennedy, preparing for an upcoming European tour, found an open window of time to talk about the record and how it was made. And how unbelievably good it felt to finally be acknowledged for the music he's made with Alter Bridge this past decade.
UG: What is your mindset like when you go into new album mode? How do you prepare to battle an animal like that?
MK: Yeah, right? The way I look at making a record is like the big term paper at the end of a semester but with a lot more pressure. Yeah, I think that something I do and I know Mark does it as well - and <b>Slash</b> does this also - is you're always writing and always kind of saving ideas. You're not just waiting until your tour cycle is done and going, "OK, we've got to make a record now. Let's start making ideas." By doing that it keeps you from being overwhelmed and putting everything off 'til the last minute.
Kind of cramming for that big test at the 12th hour.
It also allows you to go back and listen to everything you've collected over the period of time you've allowed yourself. And listen with fresh ears and be able to listen to it from a fan's perspective for the first time and go, "Oh well this idea sounds good" and I react to this for whatever reason. Once you extract those ideas, the good ones, you bring 'em to your songwriting partners and see if it works with them as well and then you're kinda off to the races. So that's how I look at it - generally by the time you're actually getting ready to go in and make the record, you're really just going back to the ideas and filtering through 'em.
Yeah, in some cases even farther. On "Fortress," there's a song on there called "Lover" and that idea I actually stumbed across that on a tape I had years and years ago and totally forgot about it and brought it in. I know with Mark it was the same thing and there were some ideas that have been around for years. But most of it is probably in the last year or year-and-a-half or something like that.
When you finally brought in all these musical ideas, did they suggest the direction "Fortress" might go in?
You just throw everything out there and see what gets everybody off. Then once you have a bunch of ideas, I think it's easier to step back and go, "OK, this particular song we like it but it doesn't necessarily fit with the rest of the record and the statement we're trying to make." The one thing with Alter Bridge that’s kinda nice is we try to make very dynamic records and records that aren't just all one flavor throughout.
<b>The "Fortress" album really does include everything from acoustic songs to very heavy riffs.</b>
It definitely allows you to utilize different kinds of songs. If you listen to "Fortress," there's a song called "All Ends Well," which is probably the most optimistic and almost anthemic of the bunch of bunch. Compared to a song like "Cry a River," which is very intense and kind of angry. So one thing I will say is we tend to - and especially on this record - and a limitation we put on ourselves is not to do what we've done in the past. If we had a song that reminded us too much of something we'd done on previous records, we would just go ahead and nix it 'cause we really want to try and push ourselves. And make it obvious we were not just falling into the same old formulas we've used in the past.
Mark Tremonti even said he wanted to make an "unpredictable" record.</b>
Yeah, that was definitely the goal.
If you came up with some amazing rap country song, would you try to include it on an album?
(laughs) For example, I love R&B and I love things that have a certain groove to 'em.
You’re a big Stevie Wonder fan.
Yeah, and I know in the world of Alter Bridge that's just simply not going to fly. So I wouldn't even attempt to bring something like that in. But I think with our fanbase we learned if it has a certain element of musicianship and it still has a certain rock factor, they allow us to get away with quite a bit. We've been pleasantly surprised on the new record with how well certain songs have been received.
hich songs in particular?
"Calm the Fire." We'd never really tried anything like that before because that stuff was more a tip of the hat to Queen or Radiohead and especially that intro. So we're lucky in that respect. But like you said if we put out a record that had a country-influenced hip hop track. I don't think that's gonna fly (laughs).
What you describe as being able to include different kinds of styles on Alter Bridge albums is very similar to what Led Zeppelin did.
Yeah, absolutely. I want to say this for Zeppelin - they were probably the most adventurous of any hard rock band I can think of. Because they did actually get pretty funky at times and they really touched on everything. I think that's why so many of us look up to them the way I do.
They were an unbelievable band but along the way they were hammered pretty heavily by music critics. Their third album was almost dismissed out of hand.
Which is unfortunate because that might be my Zeppelin record. I love that record. I always loved the acoustic side of Zeppelin and that's one of my faves for sure.
You're working again with producer Michael "Elvis" Baskette. Is that a situation where if it's not broken, don't fix it?
Yeah. I think we're just so comfortable with Michael. He's kinda like the unofficial fifth member of Alter Bridge at this point. I don't think any of us really wanna to make a record without him just because he's got so many great ideas and we totally trust his instincts sonically. He actually mixed this album as well and I feel like he just did a stellar job. So yeah, I could gush about all this for the next 20 minutes.
Will situations arise where Michael might say, "Myles, you can sing that better?" What is that dynamic like?
Sure, absolutely. That's why I trust him. Why would you bring in a producer to sit there and just tell you everything is great? You want somebody who's gonna listen to it ultimately from the listener's side of things and the fan's perspective and go, "You know what? That's just not gonna work and I know you can do better." Or "I think this part sucks. Let's rework this and let's talk about this" and that's what we want - we want him to challenge us.
It sounds like you were really challenged on "Calm the Fire" where your vocal just builds and builds throughout the entire song.
"Calm the Fire" in particular was an interesting one because that's an example of how well we work with Michael. The intro was actually something I had stumbled across when I was on tour last year and I saved it. We had basically the song with the whole band ready to go for "Calm the Fire" but I thought this one part would be really interesting. It was very stripped down and I was using my falsetto and it was very haunting. I played it for Elvis and he thought it was cool but then he was like, "You know on the second half of the intro, it would be great if we really gunned it and go into your chest voice." At first I wasn’t sure. I was like, "Well, I'm so used to hearing this just totally stripped down and very simple and very intimate."
That was a situation where Michael Baskette brought in an idea for a song you'd never thought about?
We spent an afternoon just experimenting and it turned out to be something we're really proud of and really happy about. I think that's a good example of how that works - we can come in with the skeleton of something and then Elvis will continue to push you and help you find a new approach. So we're really, really happy with how that turned out.
Are there synth strings in "Calm the Fire?"
Yeah, there are some keyboard pads. Basically he put those in and then we were trying to think of a Brian May guitar style with these single notes to go along with it. So it's very orchestrated and we just tucked it altogether near the intro. At first we couldn't wait to play it for the rest of the guys. Because it was so different, I wasn't sure if it was gonna be well-received or not. Then Mark heard it and he loved it and everybody else. There was actually talk at one point about the song even opening the record. We were happy with that one.
"Cry of Achilles" does open the album and features you doing some very cool acoustic guitar stuff on the intro. How did this arrangement come about?
That song was definitely a lot of experimenting. When I first came in and did the acoustic intro and then had the riff, we didn't really know where it was gonna go. So I remember we were all sitting in our room and it was a lot of bouncing ideas off of one another. Once the intro and the riff were done we were like, "Where do we go from here?" A lot of times when you approach it that way, you can really get frustrated because you just don't know.
That's a real challenge?
If you come in and you've got an actual chorus and verse part ready to go, then everybody's just kind of happy with the arrangement. But when you have an intro and have no clue and just an empty canvas, it's exciting but it’s also a really challenging task. So I think there were some moments where it was difficult but I think we wrapped it up in a couple days and that whole thing came together.
There are so many cool sections in that song - the intro, the verses emptying out and that bass guitar breakdown.
That particular arrangement was one we really wanted to be conscious of not just doing the standard, "OK, the verse is gonna be this and then we're gonna go into a chorus and then we're gonna do the bridge." We really shied away from that because there's kind of like a pre-verse when the first vocal comes in and then that verse drops down and then we have the actual verse. So it was a different take for us.
Do you have to tap into an emotion to sing a song like "Lover" as opposed to one of the rockers?
"Lover" is actually from a stylistic standpoint closer to what I did vocally on some of the Mayfield-era (Four) songs.
Yeah, it was kinda like a rewind there. But as far as going into a headspace, that's the challenging part especially when you're performing it and actually when you're writing it and the lyrical aspect. You allow yourself to fall into that emotion, which is always a bit of a challenge because it takes a lot of energy and a lot of effort. I'm not normally an angry person and there are a lot of songs on this record that are pretty intense and you can sense frustration, angst and anger. So tapping into that takes a little bit more for me than maybe somebody else who wakes up on the wrong side of the bed every day (laughs). But at the same time it's cathartic because life's not always easy and we all have our frustrations so it's kind of a nice outlet to work through things.
"All Ends Well" was one of the songs with a positive emotion and also had an amazing harmonic progression.
Yeah, I appreciate that. I'm glad you picked up on some of those things. The guitar part was something Mark had played and I loved it and thought it was really unique and had some unorthodox changes in there. I remember one night giving it a listen after we put it down for rehearsal that day and a melody just came to mind immediately and stuck with me. I went ahead and recorded it and got away from it for a while. The funny thing about that song is it almost didn't make the record.
There was talk it was too different from everything else and maybe too anthemic and whatnot. It's just like we were talking about earlier - would it fit the record? What happened was we were in rehearsal and Elvis was like, "What else do you guys have?" and so we played the music and I just kinda sang the melody over the top of it and Elvis really liked it and made sure the song made the record. Yeah, I'm really happy with how that turned out altogether. I think it's a certain part of Alter Bridge a lot of our fans have come to expect.
How would you describe that piece of Alter Bridge?
That anthemic and optimistic part of what we do has kind of come to be expected on our records. At least a song here or there so I'm glad Elvis pushed us to put that on there.
"Addicted to Pain" has that same kind of heavy riff that "Isolation" (first single from "ABIII") did.
The funny thing about "Addicted to Pain" was it came along early in the writing process. We knew with "Isolation" that people gravitated towards that song so once we had "Addicted to Pain" we were like, "Well, that probably will get a certain criteria we need to meet for a possible single. So that's great. We've kind of opened up the door now and we've got that bullet in the chamber. Let's just have a good time." Not a good time but, "Let's really push ourselves and not have to chase down that particular moment. Let's get very experimental and really mess with these arrangements." In that sense that song liberated us a lot and I think that's a lot of why "Fortress" turned out to be as - what's the word I'm looking for - musically adventurous as it did.
"Fortress" closes the album with a pretty sophisticated arrangement and lots of different guitar parts and tones. Is this the most guitar you've ever played on an Alter Bridge album?
Yeah, I think after almost 10 years we definitely figured out a really great way of tapping into each other's strengths and trying to bring those out in the songs and arrangements. That was one of those moments where we were trying to come up with a bridge and we decided, "Well, let's not do the standard and keep it the same time signature. Let's really surprise the listener and maybe completely mix this up and go into more of a stoner style riff."
What's happening in the solo?
When it came to the solo section, we wanted to utilize kind of the duelling lead approach that we'd listened to growing up whether it was Priest or Maiden. It was a lot of fun and that was actually one of the funnest songs to play just because of all the twists and turns it takes and all the different sounds. That's actually gonna be kind of challenging because we used a lot of different tones and a lot of different pedals. Elvis has this room full of pedals and we'd just sit there and experiment. So we're gonna have to figure out how we’re gonna pull off some of those sounds in the live arena.
You feel like you’ve really integrated your guitar playing alongside Mark Tremonti’s?
Yeah, I just think after all these years we've really kind of figured out how to utilize the two-guitar approach the best we can. That's probably the funnest part for me personally. I love that.
What solos are you playing on Fortress?
Yeah, there's a solo tradeoff in a song called "Farther Than the Sun" where Mark plays the first solo and then I do the second solo. There’s the first solo on "Cry of Achilles," which is me. It’s great. I love getting to play some solos here and there. I wouldn't want to be the lead singer and the lead guitar player. I've done that in the past and it’s actually a lot of - I don't want to say work - focus on you. So it's great to have a really awesome lead guitar player standing at your side to shift the attention.
You're going to tour Europe where Fortress debuted at number on the UK rock charts. That must feel remarkable.
It really is remarkable. We just got some of the numbers this week and really feeling like there's forward motion all over the world for the first time for this band. We feel a certain amount of momentum that’s really exciting especially considering how long it's taken us.
For some reason you think of Alter Bridge as a newer band but you’ve been doing this for 10 years now.
It's not like we're two years in as a band and all this happened. We've really worked hard and it’s nice to see it all starting to pay off. It's very rewarding.
You also just recorded the title song for Slash’s film, “Nothing Left to Fear.” Your performance on the Conan O’Brien Show was remarkable.
Oh, thank you very much. I appreciate that. It's funny because we were both a little bit - not a little bit - but we were both pretty nervous 'cause we hadn't played the song a whole lot. It's very exposed because it's just two guitars and very stripped down. It was fun. And anytime I get to play on Conan's show is always just a trip for me. It's probably my favorite of all those late-night shows. I used to actually time my writing sessions around when his show would be on. I never told him that but I'm a huge Conan fan.
Might we expect a solo record from you someday?
Someday when there's a window, I'll definitely get it done and get it out there. I went back to New York and listened to a bunch of tracks a few months ago. Just trying to kind of figure out where to go with it and what needs to be done. So we'll get it done one of these days.
Interview by Steven Rosen