Nothing infuriates me more than hearing some old school rockers claim how no modern guitarists push the template for the instrument anymore. It’s like once Van Halen or Black Sabbath officially retire, the music world will cease to exist in a post classic rock apocalypse. Quite frankly, this is a fictional narrative, as the legacies of those groundbreaking guitarists will carry on by those inspired by their musical output.
Speaking of modern torchbearers for this six-string instrument from heaven, very few guitarists set the standard for excellence quite like Mark Tremonti from Alter Bridge. When analyzing the last decade of Mark Tremonti’s career, this virtuoso’s musical output has been nothing short of spectacular. Whether it’s Alter Bridge or his solo outlet Tremonti, Blackbird, ABIII, All I Was, and Fortress are some of the grandest hard rock masterpieces in recent memory. Unlike a majority of his contemporaries on modern rock radio, Tremonti prides himself as a songwriter pushing the barrier for metal through a mainstream outlet.
Look no further than Tremonti’s upcoming sophomore LP Cauterize, I’ve been fortunate enough to hear his single “Another Heart” on local rock stations WRAT and WDHA, which represents a breath of fresh air after hearing “You Shook Me All Night Long” for the millionth time. Set for release on June 9th, Cauterize recalls the enormous melodies of Alter Bridge but musically draws influence from the ruthless aggression of thrash titans like Metallica and Death Angel. Tracks like “Radical Change” and “Arm Yourself” are best described as portraits of relentless speeds, highly complicated guitar licks, and ferocious choruses of the most addicting proportions.
Just a few weeks ago, I attended a sold out show at the Starland Ballroom featuring the Tremonti band opening for modern rockers Seether. From my perspective, concert attendees could feel the lethal combination of tremolo guitar picking and double bass drumming pound away at their chest. As a frontman, Tremonti is clearly growing more comfortable as a vocalist as I truly believe he thrives in a live setting. There most certainly was a thrashy rawness to his voice on new songs like “Flying Monkeys” and “Another Heart,” which recalled the likes of …And Justice For All-era James Hetfield. When the time arrived for his guitar solos, the crowd itself gasped as he proceeded to fly across the fretboard. You could honestly hear the room silence itself so everyone could witness this man’s effortless note selection. The strength of new material such as the title track “Cauterize” drew the loudest crowd response and it seemed like the band received an overall warming reception from an audience not typically drawn to heavy metal.
Both as a songwriter and performer, Tremonti represents something best described as an old school throwback. When thinking back to the 1970s, most of the rock greats released an album or two a year, which seems impossible by today’s standards yet Tremonti has managed to maintain a rapid pace between all of his projects. While Cauterize is set to drop in a few weeks, another LP called Dust will be released sometime later this year. After nearly eighteen-years in the music business, it’s incredible to think how 2015 will be the most musically ambitious year of Tremonti’s career thus far.
In an exclusive interview with Pop-Break, I spoke with Mark Tremonti for an in-depth look into the recording process behind his upcoming albums Cauterize and Dust. Don’t take your eyes off the screen; this conversation truly covers all aspects of Tremonti’s creative process.
Let’s start off by discussing the early seeds for Cauterize and Dust. Were the first round of demos originally written between the last Tremonti tour cycle and pre-production earlier this year?
Some ideas were written years ago and some of the ideas were more recent. They are kind of scattered all over the place. Every time I put a record together, it’s just a matter of going through everything that I’ve ever written and figuring out the best way to put them together into a song. It could come from any year.
Were there any song ideas that sat on the back burner for a long time and you were finally able to incorporate them into a song?
Yeah, all of my ideas are just floating out there and ready to be used. It’s just a matter of finding the right time and moment. Sometimes a great verse will have a strange feel to it and it just doesn’t work with all of your other parts. The magic moment will occur when I come up with another part that just fits it right – I just have to wait for those moments to happen.
How are you able to balance quality and quantity when you’re sitting on 25 songs with massive potential?
I’ve written a ton of material over the years and it’s a great outlet to have the Tremonti stuff because a lot of my ideas would go to waste if I didn’t have multiple bands to be able to write for. Even after putting these albums together and recording these 20 songs, there’s still a ton of ideas that I want to get out there. It’s a never-ending pace to keep up with because I write every chance I get. There’s always a growing mountain of stuff that I need to go through and organize.
If you’re not touring and you’re just hanging out in the studio, what would you say is the average amount of time you dedicate to songwriting?
We took about 40 days to put these ideas together and organize them before pre-production. After a couple weeks of pre-production, the tracking process probably took about two months.
Since there was more time spent on pre-production and you had three different cycles for songwriting, how did your bandmates add their own flavor to this material? What were Eric Friedman, Garrett Whitlock, or Wolfang Van Halen’s biggest contributions or suggestions from a songwriting perspective?
Everybody helps with the arrangements. We will sit down and I’ll break out my ideas and we’ll start piecing them together and work on transitions and arrangements. Once we come up with our rough arrangements as a band, we’ll take it into pre-production. We try to put the arrangements together quickly and not waste too much time getting the meat of the song together. Once we get into pre-production, that’s where we really tear the songs apart and make it as interesting as possible and make the transitions as smooth and unique as possible.
There is a retrospective element on Cauterize for anyone who’s followed your career yet there’s previously unheard elements within the heaviness of the material. Would you consider this record to be a culmination for who you are as a songwriter?
Yeah, I’ve been songwriting since I was eleven-years old. It’s been one of the frustrating things for me as an artist – people have always considered me a guitar player but I’ve always considered myself a songwriter first and foremost. That’s what I’ve spent most of my time working on – writing vocal melodies and putting song ideas together. It feels good to sing over these songs that I’ve worked so hard on and to have people view me as a songwriter instead of just a guitarist because that’s who I really am.
Let’s talk about the musical and lyrical tones on songs like “Radical Change,” “Flying Monkey,” and “Another Heart.” The heaviness of those tracks really surmises the anger within your vocals at different points. Was there a rewarding feeling of being able to vent and get some things off your chest?
Some of the songs are fictional stories but with how heavy some of this music is – it’s hard to sing about happy things when you’re playing metal riffs (Laughs). Sometimes I’ll use my own personal experiences, sometimes I’ll look into other people’s lives, and sometimes I’ll watch the news and be inspired to write about what is going on in the world. The inspiration could really come from anywhere.
You have a solid ten-year history of working with Michael “Elvis” Baskette. Whether it’s Alter Bridge or Tremonti, what components of his production style are most critical in bringing out the best in your songwriting?
Yeah, he’s definitely the best producer that I’ve ever worked with. He’s just a master at what he does and he does it nonstop. He’s always busy. He’s just constantly recording, mixing, or producing. Like I said, he’s a master of it. I’ve never come across anybody that could match the quality of his production.
Elvis has definitely helped you achieve some massive guitar tones over the years. Does he apply a different approach for each project in terms of what he expects from the material? Has he challenged you even more now that you’re the frontman?
One big difference from the first record to the second record, he got a new soundboard – this big Neve console, which is the best of the best. It just sounds amazing. He recorded and mixed the album on that and it made a huge difference in terms of the overall tone of the record. It’s that and the fact we spent a hell of a lot of time on pre-production. When you put five heads together, it’s a real fun creative process. Elvis becomes one of the bandmates when it comes to pre-production, the arrangements, and transitions.
You seem to be growing more confident as a vocalist and I’d say this album really displays your vocal range. You always sang backup vocals but how are you evolving as a frontman since your debut?
This record was the first record that I’ve ever sung after being the singer on the stage. On the first record, I went into the studio and tried to do the best I could. I think after touring, your voice comes a really long way. You could take a million vocal lessons and practice in your room all day long. Until you get in front of a people and really push your voice night after night, at least for me, my voice came a long way just from doing that.
It’s well-known amongst Alter Bridge fans how Myles Kennedy dedicates a vast amount of time to warming up and warming down before and after shows to keep his voice on point. Were there any lessons or critiques from Myles that helped you transition or handle the full responsibility of performing for a whole show?
No, I think we’re polar opposites when it comes to singing. He’s a very soft singer and I’m a very loud singer. For me to hit the higher notes, I really gotta push hard and he’s really controlled and he’s a master singer. He’s trained for years and years and years and years. I’ve kind of just gone with the flow and figured out how to do things by trial and error. I’ve picked up some little tricks along the way. Until you get out there and experience it, you don’t really pick up on it until you’re doing it. You could take vocal lessons and you’re vocal teacher could say, “Oh, change your vowel sounds,” but it’s not going to sink in until you’re trying these techniques live.
Were there any vocalists growing up or even now that influenced your vocal approach for this project?
You know, I really can’t think of any vocalists that have influenced me. I’ve never tried to sing like anybody else and I’ve always tried to do my own thing. If I did do that, it probably wouldn’t really be rock n’ roll and it would be more of a bluesy thing or a gospel thing and something that would really challenge me to become a singer.
Going off what you said about the bluesier side of your vocals, I’d say songs like “Sympathy” and “Providence” display the softer side of your voice and your ability to merge your heavier tastes with your softer side.
Yeah, I think “Sympathy” was a very important song for the record. If you have ten songs that are nonstop heavy and fast, it would get boring. I think every record needs dynamics. That song really lifts the record and when it comes on, it definitely stands out because it has a different sound compared to the rest of the record. Right after “Sympathy,” you hear another song like “Providence” that you haven’t previously heard on the record. I think there needs to be dynamics on every record to make it something special.
Since Cauterize is the first part of this recording process, what should fans expect from Dust? I know you’re a big Metallica fan, are both albums similar to Load and Reload where they share similar tones or are both records completely different from one another?
It’s just part one and part two of this recording process. We didn’t go into it with anything pre-planned like it’s going to be a two-record thing. I just went into it saying, “I want to record as many songs as possible.” I had a limited amount of time with Elvis and I wanted to get as much off my chest as possible so I could clear my hard drives of all these ideas. I didn’t want to be this bitter old man looking back at my life later on and saying, “Man, I wasted all these good song ideas.” So once we went in there and recorded all of these songs, I didn’t want to put out thirteen songs on this record and have seven songs come out later and be considered B-sides. I didn’t want those songs to be called B-sides because it’s all stuff that I worked really hard on and the band in general – we really worked hard on as well. I looked at the whole batch of songs and cut them into two ten-song records that flowed with dynamics. If there were two mellow songs, one would be on the first record and the other would be on the second record. It’s not like the first record is heavier and the second record is softer, they are both similar records. They both have their strengths and dynamics.
There’s been a massive wave of momentum following your career these past four or five years. Whether it’s ABIII, Fortress, or All I Was, I’m personally enjoying the surprise element in both Alter Bridge and the Tremonti band. There’s no limit to how progressive, heavy, or dynamic either project could be. You alluded to it before with Dust; do you also expect the next Alter Bridge record to continue down this path of pushing the envelope?
With this band, there are no limitations with the heavier side of things. We could get as fast or speedy or as metal as we want. We don’t necessarily do that in Alter Bridge. Alter Bridge is definitely getting heavier and heavier but there’s definitely not the speed metal type of sound in Alter Bridge. It’s way more groove heavy. I think that helps to keep the bands sounding different. That and Myles and me couldn’t be any more different vocally.
Do you have a different approach as a guitarist for either band? Or whatever ideas come about organically are what you concentrate on developing into songs?
I just try to write the most convincing guitar parts and the most emotive stuff that I possibly can. I push myself a little harder when it comes to the heavy factor in this band. I approach the solo’s the same way as I would in Alter Bridge and I’m the same way when it comes to writing my guitar lines. I just try to write what fits the songs as best as possible.
You have a very packed schedule but what’s on the horizon for the rest of 2015 and early 2016?
We’re going to tour behind this record until we’re satisfied that everyone has heard it and we played it for everyone. Then I’m going into the studio with Alter Bridge in early 2016 and I’ll tour back and forth with both bands. Myles and me will schedule our tours at the same with Slash and Tremonti so we could get back together with Alter Bridge in the interim.