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Eric Martin of Mr Big

In 2009 melodic rock fans rejoiced when the original Mr. Big line-up (Eric Martin on vocals, Paul Gilbert on guitar, Billy Sheehan on bass and Pat Torpey on drums) announced their reunion to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their debut self-titled album.  A reunion tour in Japan followed but fans stateside were wondering if that would be it?

With so many years in the rear-view mirror the band decided to roll the dice on a new album.  The chemistry seemed to be there and with the help of producer Kevin Shirley the band was able to really get back to their roots with What If.., their first album together in fourteen years.  The album is a testament of their collective musicianship and was recorded in a way that truly captured the live, raw, energy of the band.  With a fresh new take on the genre the album ushers Mr. Big into the 21st century with a bang!

TWRY recently caught up with Mr. Big’s Eric Martin to discuss the reunion, the new album, and of course everything leading up to it.

Interviewed by:  Roger Scales

What do you think was the more difficult task in heading into reuniting with all four original band members to record What If… (the first MR. BIG album of all original material in almost 14 years featuring all original members): Building your personal relationships or meshing as a band musically?
There was no advanced psychiatrist to review our case; we didn’t do a movie and no reality show. We left our guns and daggers at home and we had a Japanese dinner at Paul’s house in the Hollywood Hills to first discuss getting the band back together. We had to really get to know each other again when we agreed to the reunion tour in 2009. We basically just sat around talking and drinking champagne and Pat actually said “Hey..I gotta film this because nobody is going to believe it!!” What you saw was four gigantic toothy grins and at that moment you could sense that time had healed all of those old wounds and scars and all of the negative feelings it all seemed to go away. We didn’t talk about any one past specific defining moment where it all went bad we really just focused on a brighter future and moving forward. After that dinner and then after the tour in 2009 we all really couldn’t believe how stress free everything went and how painless the process really was. We are all so much more tolerant of each other and patient with how we work. We discuss things now and have lots of mutual respect for what each of us brings to the table; just general good vibes!! At the end of the tour we all looked at each other and said we should do a new record. I was so happy that it was not a one shot concert and t-shirt reunion tour where we just say thanks a lot and part ways again. When we went into the studio we had the same vibe as we had at that first dinner back with each other.

What was it like working with producer Kevin Shirley on What If..?
My first introduction to him was on a conference call and he had this odd accent.  He’s originally from South Africa and spent many years in Australia and then in the UK and has also lived in southern US so it was a smorgasbord of dialect!!  He’s telling us how he really never heard of Mr. Big and was not at all a diehard fan but he listened to some of our live albums and he also read some interviews on how we got our name from the classic rock band Free and how influenced we are from the 1970’s blues and rock and the British invasion.  I must also add that I was a fan of Kevin’s work over the years.  His body of work is like a who’s who of legendary acts and albums.  Everybody in the band was convinced that he was the right guy for this project.  For Paul and Billy they were totally caught up with the fact that he had worked with Rush and were looking forward to hearing a lot of those stories.  It seemed a bit (at least initially) that each of us had a Chris Farley moment were we all sort of went “remember when you worked with Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden and Journey.. that was cool!!” 

What was the recording process like for this new album?
There was no pre-production for What If..  Paul and I got together and wrote some songs and recorded a few demos.  Paul, Billy and Pat wrote something like 112 ideas and sent them to me.  I had like a month to come up with this stuff but it was 112 ideas which meant maybe 10 songs..if you’re lucky.  The title of the album actually came from the whole process.  They would record something like ghetto blaster in the room and they say “How about this??   “No, no no how about this..” “Well what if..” and hence the name of the record!!  I also wrote about nine songs on my own, I think three made it.  This band is very much a democracy.  We basically jammed on each other’s demos and came into the studio and met with Kevin and went to work.  We recorded in a room the size of a garage!! It was filled with old tapestries and hippie shit.  I usually hate the studio but I was just psyched everything was getting off to such a cool start.  Then I walked into the control room and that’s when I first met Kevin.  Kevin had asked each of us to pick our favorite songs and then we would record them.  So I sort of turned the tables on him and said why don’t you pick them?  You’re not a fan of us, you don’t know who wrote what songs so you pick em!  So that’s what happened.  He picked what he liked first, second, third, fourth and so on.  Most of them made the final cut too.  We actually ended up picking the same ones Kevin did.  Kevin made lots of suggestions throughout the entire recording process, little stuff just to keep everybody honest.  Sometimes I hate producers and their role because they become like a fifth member of the band. In the past I would record my demos and be done.  Go read War and Peace, or go sit on a beach but just get out!!  Kevin told us that he wanted us to record as a live rock n roll band – ‘I want Eric singing everything with the band and no overdubs.  If someone makes a mistake or wants to change a lyric slightly change it and cut the song all over again from the start.’  We were all taken a back a bit because that’s not the way we work.  It was a real hectic schedule and I was getting a little pissed off at times because I wanted to be in there to do it but I wanted to work at my own pace. Kevin told me he wanted to treat this like a gig.  ‘I want the audience to feel the emotion and have a really raw feel to it. I don’t want to slick this thing down and makes this a pretty velvet type of recording, I want all the sandpaper.’  We were all cooped up really close together.  Pat’s cymbal was pushing up against the glass of my booth.  The energy came out with this type of atmosphere.  It was almost as if we were really pushing each other.  I was really trying to show off for the band to show them I still got it.  We did like 15-20 takes for each song, each time starting over if need be.  Towards the end we were cutting it really close because of a commitment Kevin had so sometimes we had to work on two songs a day and it was tough. At the end, we went to Kevin’s studio in Malibu called “The Cave” for final mix hoping to maybe fix something or touch up a song or two if needed.  I was there for like ten days and other than some harmonies that got added it stayed as is. Kevin didn’t want the touch ups, he wanted to leave things as they were.  When I hear the songs on “What If “ I hear what I sound like live.  That’s what we were going for.

Were all of the tracks for What If… written specifically for this record or were any left over from previous sessions?
One of the songs “American Beauty” is from like 1989. The music itself is from an earlier song called “Trapped In The City” that we used to jam on before we even got signed. I was telling Billy just the other day that we used to play this song for labels during our first run of showcases. So Billy whispers “no wonder we didn’t get signed right away!” I always thought that the track itself was strong one and suggested we look into that one again. We did and wrote some new lyrics to make it about a hooker with a heart of gold and jammed it out. The rest of them were all written leading up to this record. It was a fluke how they all came together kind of like a puzzle. I’m still amazed how that all worked out. We didn’t plan anything. We didn’t search deep in the soul and go we need to make a classic blues rock n roll record. When we had that dinner at Paul’s house and I had told the guys that one day we’re going to make another album and it will sound just like Lean Into It. I think we accomplished it with out really trying.

The video for the first single “Undertow” is a simple band performance piece without any heavy plotlines or any really artistic over play. Are there more videos planned at this time?
There is another video out there for “All The Way Up” which is another simple band piece..sort of like us hanging out at rehearsal space just jamming the song. It’s darker than “Undertow”, not a lot of edits but still simple. We are thinking of doing some more because when we start the tour in Europe and Japan in April we are going to be using a bigger stage than in the past and incorporate some video into the stage show.

What are the touring plans to support What If… for 2011?
We are doing a warm up show on April 2nd at the House of Blues in Hollywood and then we head out to Asia and Europe for April May and into June. We are hoping to play Australia and of course the United States this time around but nothing is booked yet. We are playing the big M3 festival in Maryland on May 13th but so far that’s just a single US show other than the warm up prior to leaving for Asia. More dates are coming I promise you that!!

Does it get tough to create a set list at this point in the bands career? For instance would Paul be opposed to perform tracks off Get Over It or Actual Size?
That’s a good question. I was actually thinking of asking Paul about that at our next rehearsal session together. Richie (Kotzen) played all of Paul’s parts on the older songs when we toured in support of those two records so that remains to be seen. I would love to do some material off those two records but we have a new album out so it’s kind of like a new beginning for the band. More than likely we will play from the Paul Gilbert regime and songs from that back catalog. I may sneak in something when I get the opportunity to play acoustic guitar in the set so you never know!!

Are you excited about Frontiers as a label and the amount of talent that is being amassed by Serafino in the past few years?
When I first met him I had heard that he was interested in me but wanted the Eric Martin from Mr. Big. When I did some of the solo stuff totally experimenting as a pop/punk guy he went with it but I could tell he wasn’t digging much of it at all. I could totally feel that vibe. He’s such a big fan of classic rock like Journey and Toto etc. He was elated when he heard Mr. Big was getting back together and immediately contacted us. I’m thrilled to be with Frontiers. They are really the only ones keeping the torch going and keeping the door open for rock. Having distribution in the US by merging with EMI is a key.

You played with the Tak Matsumoto Group in 2004, you have done vocals for Asashi Dry Beer commercials and you have recorded 2 albums in 2008 and 2009 (Mr. Vocalist I and Mr. Vocalist II) where you covered famous ballads sung originally by woman in Japan and also other international female artists. Does Japan (in general) have a deeper appreciation for the arts and music as part of their culture?
They are definitely loyal rock fans. No offense intended to any other rock fans in the rest of the world but Japan knows how to throw a party! They are gracious and so thankful that you keep returning to play there they will come out and support you. That means a lot to them. If you stop coming they could drop you like a hot piece if sushi!! Sony Japan had this bright idea that I was the representative of the American Rock world to sing Japanese pop tunes first performed by female artists. It’s a real novelty to me still in most ways but it sells records and they are real popular releases with the newer generation of fans and the much older generation of fans as well. To me it’s the perfect example of The Beauty and The Beast!! It’s similar to when Rod Stewart did The Great American Songbook series. I’m singing the Japanese songbook but in my own style. Before Mr. Big I used to sing a lot of soul. I don’t know how I got picked but we are doing a Best of Mr. Vocalist, a third Mr. Vocalist, a Christmas album is being planned and a mini tour is planned for some time after Mr. Big is off the road. It’s a trip!! It’s fun for me and a challenge for me at the same time. Japanese songs don’t always translate into English in the easiest of ways and sometimes because we have a totally different syllable system it loses something in the translation form the original version of the song.

The last time I saw you perform was in CT at Mohegan Sun in the Wolf’s Den playing with Scrap Metal a few years back. If time permits would you be open to the prospect of paying more of them?
In a heartbeat! I love hanging with all of those guys. Mark Slaughter has become my new best friend. Back in the day when I would see “Fly to the Angels” I would say to myself look at this poof!! With his brown leather jacket and that big happy smile and all the chicks dig him. All I could think was this guy has got to be jerk. Of course I was an idiot back then but that’s a whole other story! The first time I met him I said “Where’s your brown leather jacket?” We laughed for a long time about that one. The Nelson boys are fantastic to work with true pros. Having special guest singers like Joe Lynn Turner who is such an idol of mine and is now a great friend has been priceless. Joel Hoekstra is a shredder and now he’s playing “To Be With You” in Rock of Ages!! Fans dig it. I do miss them.

Mr. Big had two songs included on the Navy Seals soundtrack in 1990 “Strike Like Lightning” and “Shadows”. Were those tracks leftover from the first album recording session?
No, they are not even our songs. Those tracks had outside writers and were written specifically for that soundtrack. We were out on tour and had to fly to LA and bang them out real quick. Those songs were tough. Try saying Strike Likes Lightning five times in a row. I really thought Shadows was a cool tune though. That was fun at the time. Right around that same time I was approached to do a song for Caddyshack 2. The company that asked me didn’t know I was in Mr. Big at the time. The track on that soundtrack – “One Way Out “is an Eric Martin song but its Mr. Big playing on it.

One of your first bands, Kid Courage, actually opened for AC/DC when they played their first US dates in California in the late 1970’s. Do you have any cool Bon Scott stories?
Kid Courage was a cross between The Rolling Stones and The Tubes. We opened for all types of national acts that would come through the bay area. There was a place called the Old Warldorff in San Francisco. We were booked for this weekend gig with this new and upcoming band from Australia called AC/DC. We were trying to get as much exposure as possible so we took the gig. At this point AC/DC was not even being played on the radio. You were lucky to even have the record at this point. They came in and the dressing room at this place was a huge room with a bar, pool table and a few dozen hangers on a single garment rack. That’s it. They were all fit, strong looking type guys and looked a little shorter than the average bear if you know what I mean. They were really friendly guys. Angus was just sort of walking around checking everybody out trying to make friends. Bon Scott was really sweet. They did their soundcheck on that first night and I thought they sounded like a punk band. Bon’s voice sounded a bit like Paul Rodgers style to me at the time. After we did our set I was backstage just hanging out and the band was actually setting up their own gear!! The place was sold out but off they went to work. Angus was getting his stage clothes on and I was like what the hell is he wearing? That outfit will never work. Bon then asks me to shoot a game of pool and I said sure why not?? Drinking a few beers and playing pool and we got along great. Then Bon leans up against the bar stretches out his shoulders. Angus pops on Bon, and off they went to start their set!! Angus was playing a wireless guitar which at that time I had never seen before! How is he playing that thing? So they play their set and they just blew the roof off this place. The next day I went out and bought the record and listened to it. Read a few magazines at this independent record store in Berkeley called Rasputin’s and found out more about them. Now I’m a super fan! So the next day for show #2 I’m eyeballing Bon. Holy crap these guys are going to be superstars!! We play pool again and I’m totally different. Bon could sense this and he was like “Hey mate relax!!!” All I remember at the time was I kept thinking of was how comfortable he was in his own shoes. One other thing I remember about that 2nd show was during the set someone standing near me saying ‘man this last tune is too long.’ The song.was “The Jack”. I guess he was wrong!

The first big US arena tour for Mr. Big was in 1990 opening for Rush. That’s a tough task a real tall order. Looking back were their fans generally appreciative for the most part or did you have nights where the crowds simply were not interested?
They hated us at first. We had to work for their respect. I remember our first show with them I was thinking hey we are huge Rush fans, their fans must know this so they will give us a chance!! After our first song we could hear the booooos and “We want Rush!!” chants. At the time I was thinking..why did we leave the Winger tour?? I knew I had to do something. Our tour bus was almost always first to get to the venue. I started to hang out with the Rush fans pre show at the tailgates and started to campaign for Mr. Big. Then as soon as the Rush buses arrived and they would be off chasing them down I’d be left alone staring at their dust! I got the snake eye from Billy the first time I did this but after he heard the roar from the crowd he stopped as we had a song off the first record called “Addicted To That Rush” so I started to say before the song to the crowd.. are you addicted to Rush?? You could see that over time the crowd sort of liked to see Billy and Paul do their thing jamming at the end of each song. Rush has a lot of humor in their band so we were always trying to just get along with their crowd so I though that I could act a little crazy. Then suddenly “To Be With You” becomes a big hit while out on tour. More girls started to come to Rush shows which freaked out the guys because it was always just guys at Rush shows. Now the girls get to witness all of these guys spazzing out playing air guitar and air drums and acting like a spaz!! Geddy and Alex started to notice this half way though the tour and thanked us for bringing in more girls to Rush shows!! I knew they thought we were talented and nice guys but I think it was the chick factor that allowed Rush to invite us back when they went out on the Roll The Bones tour!! At that point the guys were ok with it as well.

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For more on Mr. Big:
What If… on iTunes
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