INTERVIEW: Mark Tremonti (September 2021)

While conditions still are a long way from normal, bands finally are back on the road. And with the means to promote them available again, that means a flood of new releases are hitting the market. One of the best of these is “Marching in Time” (read Live Metal’s review; buy/stream here), the fifth album by Tremonti, the metal band led by the renowned Mark Tremonti (Alter Bridge, Creed). While the record comes with the expected guitar heroics, it’s also a showcase for Tremonti the songwriter and, with an inspiration from an unlikely source, Tremonti the vocalist. Live Metal’s Greg Maki caught up with Mark on the new album’s release day (Sept. 24, 2021) to discuss its creation, the return of touring and more.

LIVE METAL: You’ve been out on tour all this month. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s probably seemed even longer to you that it has to me. How’s it been out there on the road playing shows again?

MARK TREMONTI: It’s awesome. It’s definitely different. Being onstage feels like we’re all back to normal, but as far as offstage, we’re living in our little isolation cubes, and we can’t see friends and family backstage. We can’t go to restaurants or go see a damn movie. We can’t do anything. When you see us onstage, we’re let out of our cage.

Does that lead to being even more energetic and fired up and ready to play the shows when you get out there onstage?

Oh yeah, of course. You’re sick of sitting in the back lounge of the bus. Yeah, it’s great.

I’m sure the crowds are really hungry for the return of live music, too.

Yeah. One thing I noticed is you play a festival and usually people are like, “You know, I’m just gonna go see my bands I like and all the other bands suck. I’m gonna leave and go home.” Now, everybody’s much more open-minded, like, “I might sit here and watch this band that I’ve never heard and this band, and I might be a fan of some new music.” I think people are more open-minded now.

You’ve been out with Sevendust, who you go way back with. Going on tour with them must be like a family reunion at this point.

Yeah, we’ve done more shows with Sevendust than any other band in the world, in my career at least. But even with those guys, they’re on their bus, we’re on our bus. We see them in passing, like, “Hey, brother.” But there’s no hanging out, having some drinks, watching movies—not doing the normal stuff that we would normally do.

Is there anything you’re going to be able to do today to celebrate or mark the occasion of the release of the new album?

No. (laughs) If it involves anybody outside of my bubble, no. I think the big celebration for us is just to see the response. We put a lot of work into this, and seeing the worldwide response is always a huge thrill for us.

Back at the beginning of last year, were you on tour with Alter Bridge when things started to shut down?

Yeah, it hit in a really bad place for us. When our last record came out, it was the best debut we’ve ever had. It was our first number one record. Our tours were doing better than ever, and things were just looking good for Alter Bridge. Then, all of a sudden, the world stopped, and it just took the wind out of our sails. I had told my manager, “Let’s just consider this a pause. We’re just pausing, and once this is over with, we hit the ground running right back into this record cycle.” That was fine for the first six months or so, but then when it started dragging on longer, we’re like, “Guys, we have to do a new album before we go back on tour. It’s just too old now.” So a record that we only got to tour three months on is now too old. That whole record cycle just got absolutely annihilated, which is a shame.

So you went home, and you were in kind of a holding pattern for a while. What were you doing during that time? Did you start to write the material that’s on the new Tremonti album?

As soon as I finish a record, I always hit the ground running on a new record. So as soon as “Walk the Sky” was done, I was writing this album. But I did go through a funk. When it was going on, I took about five months where it was tough for me to come up with anything creative. I just wasn’t inspired. One great thing was my wife, I found out she was pregnant during COVID, and that turned things around for me. But at the same time, you worry. You’re anxious, and you worry about it, but you also can’t wait. I think it ended up being great. It was a silver lining, the whole thing. I was home for every single day of (my daughter’s) life until a couple weeks ago, and I’ve never gotten to do that. But I kept myself busy. I painted my house. I moved from one house to another. I just kept busy as much as I could to keep my mind occupied.

Did you find that the pandemic and all the other crazy things that were happening in the world were influencing what you were writing about?

Just one song. I purposely tried not to make this a pandemic record, because I knew everybody else in the world would be writing pandemic songs. I could see a thousand country songs coming out about the pandemic and overcoming. I didn’t want to fall into that, because I know 10 years from now, people aren’t gonna want to listen to the pandemic record anymore. So “Marching in Time” is still a song that you can listen to in the future because it doesn’t scream pandemic. It’s just pretty much a father talking to his children and saying, “Don’t let what the world’s become change the path that you’re on. You should stay this good, pure soul and good spirit, and don’t let all the negativity in the world change that.”

Yeah. I have a 2-year-old, and we have another one coming in March. It’s a scary time to be a parent of a young child, isn’t it?

Oh yeah, absolutely. You don’t want them to turn on the news and watch people scream at one another and not be able to have constructive arguments. Everybody’s right or everybody’s wrong, it seems like, these days, and everybody wants to fight to the death over it. It’s just madness. I got to the point where I don’t turn the news on anymore at all. If something’s important enough, somebody’s going to tell me about it. I have friends and family that are all involved and all addicted to the news, and when they talk to me about it, I’m like, “Listen, I don’t watch the news. I don’t want to hear about it. If there’s something I really, really need to know, you can let me know. But I don’t want to hear these daily, trivial little arguments.” So, yeah, I try to keep my kids from that, too.

“Marching in Time,” the last song on the album. Do you set out at the beginning when you’re writing a song like that thinking it’s going to be a seven and a half minute, epic song, or does that just sort of happen?

No, it just happened. I had that verse written, and then I really dug it. I actually wrote that at a guitar clinic in front of a bunch of people, because I teach people the way I write, and that happened in the moment, which was great. When I went back and I found that idea again, I really loved it, and what I’ll do is I’ll set a drum loop, and I will write as many ideas as I can in that feel. Sometimes I’ll write 50 ideas that can fit that same time signature, that same tuning, that same vibe. And then I’ll go back through all those ideas and be like, “Alright, I’ve got six chorus ideas. I’ve got seven pre-chorus ideas. I’ve got this. I can do that. What are my favorites?” I keep chopping the bits down, and I got to the point where I’m like, “I like all these bits. I don’t want to cut these ones out of the song. How can I make them all work?” So the thing I’m most happy with about fitting into that song is the broken down section of the bridge. To me, that was the hardest part to fit in. Sometimes it’s hard in a song just to take space and let the song breathe, and that’s what I did. I just let it hang and then came in with that part.

Once it all worked out, I was very happy with it and kept it seven and a half minutes. I don’t like to edit things that don’t need an edit. Because if somebody is like, “Yeah, it sucks to have to listen to that long song just to hear these few parts that I like,” but most of the time you hear people saying, “I didn’t realize it was seven minutes until after the fact.” That’s what you want to hear.

I think it’s a perfect ending to the album, and I also think that the beginning of the album is pretty much perfect, too—that heavy start to “A World Away.” The beginning of it is almost like something you would hear in a hardcore breakdown, and then you go into that thrashy riff. What was the thinking behind putting that together and then also starting the album with that?

That song was rooted around those opening riffs. I had those riffs kicking around, and I completed that song, and when I finally heard all the songs we had recorded, then it’s time to start thinking about the order and all that stuff. I told my producer, “Man, this sounds like it could be a great opening track”—because those first 30 seconds grab your attention more than any other 30 seconds on the record. And that’s what you need, to grab someone’s attention right out of the gate. But then I told him, “I can’t have an opening track on a record not have a guitar solo. People are gonna bitch about it.” When I came out with “A Dying Machine” off the last record and that was the first song that the world heard—I wrote a solo for that, but it’s fingerstyle; it’s not a fast lead part per se. So people were complaining about it, and it bummed me out a little bit. I try not to write for other people. I try to write for myself. But having learned that lesson, I’m like, “It doesn’t change the integrity of the song if I add the solo to it, and it’ll keep everybody happy, so I’m going to write a solo to it.” So that’s one little, fun inside scoop story on that song: In its original form, it didn’t have a solo.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about your solos is that it sounds like you’re not just shredding to shred. They actually fit the song and service the song. Is that your thinking behind the solos?

Yeah, I want the solos to be a little song within themselves. If you strip them away, they still tell a story. It’s not just a bunch of techniques, throwing one behind the other. I like to be cognizant of the chord changes behind what I’m doing and the vocal melodies that exist over those parts that were already in the song so that when you hear the solo, there’s something familiar about it and emotional about it. If it’s an aggressive song that just calls for fast, aggressive stuff, that’s one thing. But I like more emotive solos, things that you can sing the melody of the solo in your head.

What have been your influences as you’ve developed vocally? I think, going back to the first album, you were always a good singer, but I feel like more and more of your personality is coming through in your vocals as you’ve gone on.

I think the biggest difference between the last couple of records was I became obsessed with Frank Sinatra, singing Sinatra stuff and singing big band stuff in the lower register. For most of my life, I spent struggling in the higher registers where I was pushing the tops of my range, and sometimes you can’t really control it as well. I think I did that because I was afraid of how my voice naturally sounded. I think a lot of people feel that way. They don’t like to hear their voice on a recording.

It doesn’t sound how it does in your own head, right?

That’s how I’ve always felt, so that’s why I pushed my voice out of my normal range so I didn’t sound like myself. But I’ve finally come to terms with my own voice and singing low, especially on the title track, “Marching in Time,” when it hits that break and I can sing those lower register parts. I enjoy doing that now, and I owe that to Ol’ Blue Eyes (laughs), Mr. Sinatra himself.

Are there any songs or parts of songs on this album or in the past where after you’ve recorded them, you’re like, “Man, how am I gonna pull this off live?”

Yes. I still feel that way about a few of them. Because when you’re recording a song—not musically, I’m talking vocally—when you record in the studio, you take one song a day to record. When you’re playing live, you’re playing for an hour and a half, screaming through all these songs. There’s a song on the record called “Bleak”—that chorus just destroys my voice when I’ve tried to sing it now. So I’ll be open and say when we do that song live, I might consider bringing it down a half step. Most people have no idea we’ve done that, but if you want to hear that song, it’s either I’m gonna just play that one song in the show, or I’m gonna have to tune it down a half step so my voice can survive an entire set.

I could keep asking you questions all day, but I’m just about out of time. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

No, just we’ll be touring on this record through to next fall and then switch gears to Alter Bridge next winter. Yeah, we’ll be out and about.

Buy “Marching in Time”
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