In the year 2017, if someone unfamiliar with mainstream rock and metal were to ask me, “Who is the definitive band and gold standard of the 2000s?” My answer would be short and simple, “Alter Bridge.”
More so than ever, musicians of this caliber are few and far between. Case in point, the band’s fifth full-length LP The Last Hero is the jack-of-all-trades: top to bottom, it possesses gorgeous displays of melodic songwriting, cathartic interludes of progressive musicality, and highly emotive performances that achieve newfound heights of heartfelt authenticity. The lyrical landscape reads like a novel in the vein of Rush’s most prestigious work yet the relentless ferocity within the instrumental attack recalls the likes of Metallica in their prime. This diverse palette of styles and influences forms a titanic barrage of sonic intensity that is best described as Alter Bridge.
Over the past year, the band has toured across the world and headlined some of the biggest shows of their career thus far. In fact, I covered their performance at the Starland Ballroom this past May and found myself in complete awe of their technical wizardry and artistic eloquence as songwriters. I mentioned this last point since Alter Bridge is set to release their new live LP Live at the 02 Arena + Rarities on September 8. In my opinion, be prepared to witness Alter Bridge take the crowd into the palm of their hands and put forth an orchestral display of melodic metal decorated with virtuosic songwriting, unbelievable vocal range, and emotionally riveting guitar solos.
In an exclusive interview with The Pop Break, I spoke with Alter Bridge frontman Myles Kennedy about the band’s latest LP The Last Hero and his approach to creating memorable moments in a live setting. From beginning till the end, we explore the depths of his songwriting process and analyze the origins and compositions of tracks such as “The Last Hero,” “Crows On A Wire,” and “This Side of Fate.”
The Last Hero being your fifth full-length record, could you take me through the early stages of writing this record? Were there any new sounds or challenges from a musician’s standpoint that the band wanted to pursue? Also, were there any core strengths that you wanted to build upon from the previous records?
I think one of the things that we learned from Fortress in particular was the idea of having a certain amount of spontaneity during the course of writing and getting together. Mark and I always try to show up prepared with very strong ideas so we’re not just completely flailing about. As far as the arrangements go: we’ve really learned not to beat those into the ground and that became evident during the Fortress pre-production sessions. It keeps things fresh and maintains a certain sense of spontaneity that shines through on these records.
More than anything on this album, I think the lyrical themes and concepts were a little bit of a departure from things that we’ve done in the past. A lot of it was inspired by the political climate and state of the world. That was a little bit risky because you don’t want to alienate anybody so you want to be careful with how you convey those concepts. I feel like we did that. Instead of standing on some sort of a platform with an agenda, we stood there simply expressing a universal frustration, no matter what side of the fence you were on that would hopefully resonate with you.
Going off your last point: The Last Hero sounds like the most personal and intimate record of your career. I hear this balance of emotions such as apprehension and fear yet there is a strong sense of hope and optimism. Could you take me through your lyrical process and how the outside world provided your album with an identity?
Yeah, we always try to have that optimism shine through. I think that’s an integral part of our approach. I can understand a personal aspect coming through. As a songwriter – both personally and lyrically – I’m always trying to tap into things I feel, can relate to, and have experienced. If it’s a story that I’m telling, I try make sure that it’s something that I’ve experienced at a certain point in my life or an emotion that I can convey honestly. My approach to singing is emotive and I’m not interested in singing something that carries no weight. It would make my job difficult in a live setting if I don’t believe what I’m singing about.
I have seen your band multiple times and twice on this current run for The Last Hero. One thing I noticed about the new material that I thought was impressive; you played some beautiful leads and solos – more so than the older material. Would I be correct in saying that The Last Hero has been the definitive guitar statement of your career or in Alter Bridge thus far?
Yeah, I think that is very fair to say. I probably played more leads or leads that were maybe, I don’t know how to articulate that, but I definitely spent more time focusing on leads for this record. On every previous record, I would go into the studio with Elvis on “Lead Day,” and I would always improvise. Whatever happened is what happened, which is cool and I would probably do that again in the future. There were some solos where the improv did happen like the solo in “The Writing On The Wall.” If you take the first solo on “This Side of Fate” or the solo in “The Last Hero,” those were solos that I had planned out in advance. I basically composed those solos so that was a definite departure for me.
Speaking of – “This Side of Fate” sounds really fun yet so challenging to play with the acoustic interludes and complex picking patterns (once the song transitions around the 2:40 mark). How did the skeleton of this song come together and what inspired that level of complexity in both your playing and Mark’s playing as well?
Mark had that verse and chorus idea and that was one of the first things that we worked on together. We were actually Skype writing together and it worked out perfectly because that whole middle section – the Queen and Muse inspired thing – was something that I came up with a few months prior. We basically put all of that together in one session. I think that was maybe the first or second song that we put together that made the record. I’m really thrilled with how it turned out. The only problem with that song: we are getting ready to incorporate it into the live setting. It’s a complete monster for me, especially when I hit the middle section as a vocalist and guitar player. To play and sing that at the same time is a bit of a challenge (Laughs). That will take a lot of rehearsing on my end but I’m up for the task. It will be really cool once it is all said and done.
You mentioned before that you composed most of your solos prior to recording. What inspired that change in your approach? Were there any players or new techniques that you learned over the last three years? I know you possess a strong sense of improv.
You know, what I think it was for me – even though I was happy with solos that I’ve done in the past: I never really felt like I ever put my best foot forward with a few exceptions. I’m very proud of my solo on “Blackbird.” A lot of the solos – not to diss them or anything – but I would listen back to them and say to myself, “You know you could have probably done better if you spent more time on them.”
I would be in the studio trying to finish lyrics for those records and because the lyrics came to me so quickly on this record; it opened a window when I was in Orlando working on the record to spend my evenings planning out some of these solos. More than anything, I just wanted to make sure that the statement I made with the solos was something that I could live with at the end of the day (Laughs).
A song like “Cradle To The Grave,” I wanted to ask you about the distorted and acoustic riffs underneath your vocal melody in the first verse. They compliment your voice so well, which adds to the dexterity to the song. Did you write those riffs and what was your immediate reaction like when you came up with that vocal melody?
I was really happy with how that song turned out. I think that verse melody is kind of a haunting play on what happened in the guitar part, which had been extracted from something that I brought in. It’s funny, when you hear what that part originally sounded like prior to when I brought it to the band, it’s a lot faster and different but it really turned out nice. With the riff Mark has going on during the chorus, in fact, I think the melody that happened for me – hearing his riff made it a really easy and painless process.
Sometimes when you are coming up with melodies, you never really know which one is going to stick. I think that might have been the first one I heard when he played me that riff. It was a pretty easy process overall compared to some songs where melodies could elude you for a little while. Mark and I are both firm believers in the fact that the melody is paramount. We both do our best with whatever we bring – whether he brings a melody in or I bring a melody in – we make sure it is as good as it could possibly get. That is just our M.O. and always has been.
“The Last Hero,” the title track itself possesses that balance of challenging riffs and progressive time changes, yet also contains those gargantuan melodies that are essential to Alter Bridge’s sound. How did the band react to the early stages of this song – Mark, Brian, and Scott? How did you approach an epic of this proportion?
That was an interesting one because a lot of parts in that song were pieces that I had sitting around for years – maybe not years – but stuff that I had written for at least 18 months or so. They were just fragments: everything from the first riff up until the bridge. The verse, the chorus, and that riff and all that – those were all just little parts in 6/8 that I had in what I call the 6/8 catalog. Elvis was really instrumental in helping arrange those parts. He really helped the song become whole and I would say that he was the adhesive for it. And the bridge, to me, highlights how if you bring in an idea and you bring it to a group of guys you trust, in terms of their writing and arrangement chops, how it could be taken to the next level.
After the guitar solo, it shifts into that heavy and very Metallica esque guitar part. That is a signature Tremonti riff because Metallica had such a profound influence on him as a writer. To me, that is such an important part of that song and it is the zenith of the song for me. Everything else is building up to it and once that riff comes in, even when we play it live, you just see all of the heads bobbing. It’s so powerful and I’m so proud of how that song turned out. To me, I’m as proud of it and that song is right there with “Blackbird” and “Cry of Achilles” – these very epic journeys that would not be what they are – it is proof that keying up certain people together could make something truly special happen. I’m really thrilled with how that track ended up coming to life.
I spoke with Mark about two years ago and around that time, he mentioned how Elvis acquired a whole new recording setup and console at his studio. Were there any differences in Elvis’ approach for this record? In terms of his new soundboard, how do you feel it added to or evolved the sound of your band on The Last Hero?
Elvis is this sort of Renaissance man where he could do it all. He’s not just good at helping with the song structures and getting good performances: he is also an incredible engineer. I trust him in that sense for getting great tones. He puts a new board in that he likes: I never second guess it and think to myself, “Oh, is this going to change our sound?” I know that he knows what he is doing. In fact, he has this incredible ability to hear things that most people can’t. You have to be really careful around Elvis (Laughs). If you are talking and you don’t think you are within an earshot of him, he can still hear it (Laughs). You can whisper something and he can still hear it from across the room and most people can’t do that (Laughs). I don’t know how that is possible after years of bombarding his ears with massive amounts of volume but he still has it. I trust Elvis and his senses when it comes to sonics and I’m extremely pleased with how the record turned out.
One of the songs – “Crows On A Wire – the lyrics, “Cause they’re waiting just like crows on a wire/ They pry and conspire, that’s all they do.” That metaphor is so universal when it comes to being taken advantage of. How did you formulate that sort of image like a crow on a wire and apply that type of metaphor into a song?
What I do – I try to have my antenna up all of the time for lyrical hooks. I literally have a stockpile of phrases that I have heard in day-to-day life and I will write them down. I was watching a documentary about some Hollywood mogul and there was a part where they were talking about – he did something and the journalist mentioned something else about how people were waiting like crows on a wire to do something. I was like, “Crows on a wire! What?” I wrote that down and I knew it was going to be a good song title (Laughs). That’s where I get a lot of things and ideas from. I will just be waiting for it to come to me from somewhere in the universe. If I come up with a phrase when I’m in a dream state, I will wake up and write it down on my phone. You always have to be ready and waiting for something. That is very important as a writer.
Another song like “Poison In Your Veins” those lyrics are just as heavy or even heavier than the song itself, which is one of the heaviest sonically on the record.
It’s funny; we haven’t played that song in a while. Where I tend not to look back, sometimes songs with my original intention from a lyrical concept – it will either become more vague as far as what the original genesis was and what was trying to be conveyed. When I hear that song and step back now and listen to it from a listeners perspective, it is kind of a challenge to overcome and move past any fear or internal cage that you build for yourself where you limit yourself, your potential, and your possibilities. It is a theme that comes through in a lot of our songs and a lot hard rock in general: the idea of persevering and overcoming. It’s very congruent with the sound of hard rock to me in a lot of ways as opposed to just anger and angst. The idea of music being motivating and uplifting is a beautiful thing and we definitely try to tap into that with a lot of our songs.
The guitar intro for “Show Me A Leader,” could you take me through the process of composing the skeleton of that intro and how that builds into Mark’s seven-string riffs and Brian and Scott’s gallops?
That intro came about when I was in a hotel room and I had been touring with Slash and the guys. I had gotten sick and I was super bummed because we were playing in Seattle and I wanted to have a really good show that next day but I knew I wasn’t going to be firing on all cylinders. Sometimes when you are in that – I don’t want to say a darker headspace but just a headspace that isn’t necessarily ultra happy (Laughs), that is where a lot of your best ideas will come from. That is where it happened. Within a half-hour, I pieced it together. When I brought it to the band, like we tend to do with our arrangements, we started to bounce ideas off one another. I don’t know if it was Mark or Elvis’ idea to bring in the seven-string but that certainly added an entirely new twist to where I was coming from originally with the chord progression. It just backed it up and gave it real depth. It’s a fun one to play live, that is for sure.
It’s hard to believe that Blackbird is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. Harkening back, what does the album and the title track continue to mean to you personally and what sort of inspiration do you feel when reflecting back on those songs?
I think that was a career defining record for us and in many ways that is where it really started for us. We had been a band long enough at that time where a certain level of trust had evolved. As writers, that could be an important part of the equation. “Blackbird,” the title track in particular, I don’t think we had any idea just how much it was going to resonate with people over the course of the next decade. I don’t think we had any idea of just how many tattoos we would see with either the logo or with the song lyrics or even stories from fans about what that song did for them in their lives. It is pretty amazing and man, it is a career defining song for us. It is surrounded by a group of songs like “Rise Today,” “Ties That Bind,” and “Watch Over You.”
If you ask Mark, he would tell you that it is still his favorite. For me, I am kind on the fence between that record and the most recent one but it’s definitely in my top-two for sure. I think everybody would say the same thing. Our drummer Flip has the Blackbird wings tattooed on his forearms so he must really like it as well (Laughs). When you tattoo something like that on your body, it is there for good so you better like it and be proud of it (Laughs).
Who actually designed the “Blackbird?” That has become such a defining and iconic image for Alter Bridge.
I think Mark’s brother Dan came up with that if I remember correctly. But yeah, it is very iconic and I love it. It is very simple but very powerful and obviously, easy to tattoo because we have seen so many of them out there so that is definitely a good thing.
I would imagine that you have been asked this question a lot over the last few weeks. With Chris Cornell’s passing, what aspects of his songwriting, his lyrics, or guitar playing – whether it was Soundgarden, Audioslave, his solo material, or Temple of the Dog – has stuck with you and inspired you the most while reflecting on his legacy? (Editors note: this interview was conducted before the passing of Chester Bennington.)
Wow, there are so many things and so many of us are in debt to his legacy and what he accomplished. I think the single biggest thing that I got from him – I did a few interviews a few days ago and I don’t think I really had enough time to digest what had happened and really think about it. There was something he said during an interview in the early 90s when Seattle was blowing up and everyone was moving to Seattle in hopes of becoming rock stars or whatever it was. During that interview, essentially what he was saying, don’t move and leave your community. Build your own scene, do your own thing, and develop your own way of expressing yourself.
That was the most important thing that I learned from him in the sense of trying to establish your own identity. To be honest with you, I think Soundgarden was such an incredible force in music and he was such an incredible force in music and he leaves such a massive hole, what he accomplished musically really became a part of a blueprint that a band like Alter Bridge follows. Just like Led Zeppelin, Soundgarden took it to a different place and I don’t want to say a better place but a different place. A band like us, we try to take that and extend the branch and offshoot it into a different territory as well.
But at the end of the day, I am very aware that he was one of the architects for that and it is really sad that his legacy kind of ends there. I would have loved to seen what he would have continued to do as a writer. I thought he was really doing some interesting things. He was one of those artists who wasn’t interested in necessarily repeating himself over and over. He wasn’t interested in making Superunknown time and time again. He was similar to David Bowie in a sense; I never got the feeling that Chris necessarily made a record or the kind of record or where every single song had to be something that his fans loved. He was just trying to be an artist and capture that moment, not look back, look forward, and continue to evolve and express himself in an honest way. That is something as an artist that I will try and do my best to carry that torch and live with that same set of ideals. I think that is a very brave thing to do and a very beautiful thing to do in terms of expressing yourself in an honest way.
That was a very powerful response. There is definitely a heartfelt authenticity and musical correlation between your music and your band and what Soundgarden stood for, the integrity.
I think that is the key word – what you just said, it’s that integrity – the artistic integrity. He even said, I guess he played in a cover band early on and he stopped playing in a cover band and decided he would work a day job because he would rather make his own music rather than play other people’s songs. To him, that wasn’t what being an artist was about. He definitely walked the walk and look how it ended up for him in terms of the decades of music and profound impact and influence that he had on rock n’ roll.
Over the last year or so, the band has really been able to spend the most time that you have had together in years. Having more availability to collaborate, how do you feel that open time to write and tour benefited The Last Hero and Alter Bridge overall during the last two years?
For me, I think it has been incredibly obvious that it has helped us to improve in a live sense and be a little more consistent. Each night you learn something new about yourself as an artist – what to do and what not to do. It’s good ol’ repetition. So yeah, we have toured a ton on this record more than I can remember touring behind any record in a quite while. It’s really helped us become a fine tuned machine.
You guys played the Starland Ballroom a few months back. Towards the end of the show, you subconsciously lost yourself on stage and you were soloing and trading solo’s back and forth with Mark. As a guitarist, how do you get into that zone where the notes just echo across the room?
You know, it doesn’t always happen. Like we were talking about earlier, my goal as a musician is to try and be authentic and be honest. I think you are probably referring to the guitar duel that we would do. For me, because I don’t really plan it out in advance and to stand in front of a thousand people and try to extract something from the universe is challenging. You just have to close your eyes, get on the wave, and try to ride it out for as long as you can (Laughs). Sometimes you crash and burn and sometimes you do something that you couldn’t have done if you had planned it out and been prepared. During those few minutes, I’m always flying by the seed of my pants and hoping that I’m onto something. From what you just said, hopefully you felt some emotion from it (Laughs) because I was definitely giving it everything that I possibly could.
I definitely felt a Govn’t Mule and The Allman Brothers soulful and bluesy style of playing echoing from your guitar playing.
Wow, that is great. Govn’t Mule is one of my favorite bands and Warren is one of my all-time favorite players. If it harkened to any of that, I take that as a huge compliment.
Most definitely. I could speak on behalf of the audience, I looked around at the crowd and on top of all the amazing songs: everyone was mystified by the musicianship on stage.
Well, that is really awesome and thank you for sharing that. I really appreciate it, man.
In terms of future musical output, since the band is firing away right now and sounding better than ever, what excites you the most moving forward with Alter Bridge and beyond?
I think it’s just to see how we evolve. It’s going to be interesting: Mark is putting out another record next year and I’m working a new batch of songs for my second solo record: the first one having never been released (Laughs). One of two things could happen when you are writing as much as we both are: you could either drain the well or you could learn more about writing, and learn more about how to evolve and where to take things. It could either be good or bad (Laughs). I’m just excited to have the opportunity to do that. Not everyone gets to do that. Most people who set out to become recording artists discover it’s a very long and difficult road and it’s not for everybody. Somehow, we have managed to have this opportunity and managed to cultivate our creative side. It’s exciting every morning to wake up. Right now, I’m sitting here on my couch and I have my two favorite guitars next to me. After I get off the phone, I’m going to write all day. That’s an awesome thing to get to do and we will see how it all plays out.
That is the embodiment of a songwriter.
I feel like that’s what I am put here to do so I will just keep doing it.
Check out Myles Kennedy and Alter Bridge’s new record Live at the O2 Arena + Rarities is out today. Click here to order.