Paul Gilbert takes time out of the current Mr. Big tour to discuss their much anticipcated new album, Defying Gravity.
Guitarist, Paul Gilbert, must be one of the hardest working men in rock. In the style of a Mr. Big song, he’s a guitarist, a teacher and father to a little boy. In addition to his solo career, teaching work and extensive clinic tours, his long-time band, Mr. Big, have just released their ninth studio album and are in the midst of a world tour.
National Rock Review recently caught up with Paul Gilbert to talk about Mr. Big’s new album and their current tour.
NRR: I’ve been listening to the new album and I absolutely love it. I think stand outs for me are “Everybody Needs A Little Trouble” (I really enjoyed that one) and “Mean to Me” I really do love that crazy riff that you open it with, that rhythmic piece. On “Be Kind” – I love the fact that you’re playing a bit of slide guitar on there.
Actually, one thing I noticed is your tone on this album sounds a little bit more creamy, bluesy than it has been in the past. Is that something you were going for?
Paul: Thank goodness! I think that every rock guitar player can’t help but have some exposure to the blues just playing the instrument. The instrument is built for the blues, in a way. And certainly the players that I grew up listening to were like second generation blues people. People like Robin Trower, they we listening to BB King, that’s sort of how I got my BB King is by getting it second hand from Robin Trower, getting it from Pat Travers. Van Halen was listening to Clapton. Of course, Clapton was listening to Robert Johnson. But it all sort of goes back to the blues guys. In my own blues exploration I found that although I love the way guitar players play the blues, we also, we guitar players tend to have the same way of approaching it because we have the same instrument. So I started listening to a lot of horn players, well I shouldn’t say a lot, I researched a lot and found two guys I really liked. Johnny Hodges who used to play with Duke Ellington and a clarinet player named Jimmy Hamilton. I listened to them a whole lot and they wouldn’t do anything crazy. It wasn’t like Ornette Coleman weird stuff, but they just played really melodically and really text book what blues should be but not on guitar and when I would try to figure it out on guitar, it would be really different from stuff that I’m used to. So that was my research that ended up becoming songs like “Be Kind” or ended up informing how I play even when I’m playing a metal song.
NRR: On some of the interviews I’ve been watching about you guys doing the new album, it’s been mentioned a few times that you did it in 6 days, and you did it live in the studio. Is that a different feel for you? I always wonder when that red light comes on and you know you are all in it together, you’re doing one take, do the nerves get going or are you past that now?
Paul: When you are recording in six days the red light never goes off. Everybody in the band, we’ve been musicians for a long time. I think it was the perfect situation for us. Of course, I can say that after the fact. Beforehand, we were a little worried, going “oh man, can we get it done?” But we thought let’s go for it and I think having that limitation, I know that for me it made me work much harder to get songs together and prepare beforehand. Normally I might be a little more relaxed about it but this time I was like “oh man, I really gotta get some music together”. Just about every record I’ve ever done, usually the best song is the song that you write the night before the recording session, because you’re excited about it, ‘cos you are thinking about it and you know I think that is the case for a lot of musicians. That last minute pressure – even though it might seem like cramming for a test, it actually gives you an energy that you can’t start to create any other way.
NRR: With the writing, did you all bring stuff to the table and then would you just bring something in and jam on it and then maybe build it out from there?
Paul: Well, a little of both. I had enough time, I demo’d about four songs but I had a couple more that were just some lyrics and a real rough arrangement and I didn’t have any recording of at all, so I just had to sort of say “ok guys, this is called “Be Kind” and it goes like this” and they watched me do a kind of busker’s version of it and I’m just trying to sell the song that way. And Eric did the same thing. He didn’t have time to do demos so he’d just go “let me play it for you”. And that was so cool because it would go from that one man band version. And within an hour and a half we’d have this full production with the band and it would be…., actually the busker’s version could still be pretty cool but the big band version just had a lot more power to it and a lot more depth and so to see that transformation of the song so quickly was really exciting. And that definitely motivated me. The song “Mean To Me” – I had a very small idea for that and after seeing half of these songs develop so quickly I was like “I think I can put this together before breakfast. And so sometimes I would just write the first verse ‘cos I thought if the band doesn’t like it then why spend the time beating yourself up over three verses. And then the band did like it so I was like “oh, now I’ve got to finish the verse”.
NRR: Another thing I noticed is that Eric doesn’t seem to have lost any of that range in his voice. A lot of guys when they get a bit older, it seems like bands are tuning down. It doesn’t seem like you guys are having to do that at all with Eric.
Paul: Well, that’s nice of you, thank you! He’s doing great. We just finished up the US tour. He’s singing – I mean, he always sings good – but he’s been particularly strong. I’m a fan of his so I appreciate that, it’s nice to hear.
NRR: National Rock Review saw you at St Charles in Illinois when you played there and we really enjoyed the show. I think one of things I noticed as well that I quite liked was the audience was a good mix of the guys who looked like they’d been with you forever along with a few young kids in that room as well, watching. It must be nice for you guys to know that you’re still having an impact on a younger generation of listeners. You are across the generations and these new kids now are coming to see you.
Paul: Of course, it’s good to see them in the audience and I do a lot of online teaching – I have online guitar school, that people subscribe to. I realise, besides, a lot of the teaching that I do is motivated by the fact that people want me to do it. I never really set out to be teacher, it’s just that people always ask “can you show me that?’ or “later on, can you do the video, the instructional video…” so I sort of got pulled into it but it’s turned out to be something I really enjoy and it’s taught me so much. And, in the end, I realized that one of the most important things about teaching to me, is that allows me to help the music that I love survive. Because as music trends change, of course, the people who can play 70s rock, they’re not going to be around forever. And I don’t want that music to be forgotten. I’m just passing on the torch. I’m trying to make it as easy as possible for people who are into it to do it and to do it right. And it’s funny, when I was a kid, classic rock was not called classic rock. It was just rock. That was a label that was stamped on it later. And obviously, the classic comes from classical which probably also wasn’t, when Bach was writing his Goldberg Variations, I doubt that he thought “I’m a classical musician”. He probably had some different idea of what his style was called. I’m so happy that music can survive and I want the same to be true for the stuff that I love.
NRR: Bands like The Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty – these bands are badged as Classic Rock bands now. If you read Tom Petty’s biography, back when he started, he was the outcast. He was the guy doing something no-one had ever heard of and it’s great that these bands are still going today and that people can go and see them do their thing. I do wonder whether some of the bands today will have the same longevity and they’ll still be doing the same thing 30/40 years down the line. I hope so, but I just don’t know.
Paul: A lot of the time it’s the younger generation’s job to annoy their parents with their music. Of course, some of their music is annoying to me especially if the guy pulls up in the big truck and it’s just boom, boom, boom. And you can’t even hear a note, it’s just like really huge bass music. And I thought well if that guy gets to be like 65 years old, what music is his kid going to play to annoy him?
NRR: You seem to be such a busy guy on so many fronts, with the teaching, and I know you do a lot of clinics and demos. Do you think in today’s music world that’s just the life of someone who wants to make their living as a musician. Is it now not enough just to have the band anymore? Has a musician got to do that stuff outside?
Paul: Everybody’s got their own path. The music business is very much do it yourself. Even more now because the record companies are less involved than they used to be. So a lot of times, I remember in the old days, record companies would write the bio. Now, if I do a solo album, I write my own bio, which is weird because I have to pretend I’m a journalist and write about myself. And I’ll call up photographers and say “hey can youdo a photo session?” There’s a lot more jobs that the record company used to do that now I have to do. And part of that’s good because I have more artistic control. And part of that’s bad because of less time to play the guitar. But it is what it is. I don’t worry about it. For me, to think that what was going on in the seventies and eighties is like something that should be the standard that should always be is a ridiculous thought. Because look at music throughout the history of human beings. What were human beings doing a thousand years ago? There were no records, there were no electric guitars, no record companies. But I’m sure people had music. And I’m sure… I loved what happened in the seventies. That to me, vinyl – all the music that was important to me was on vinyl. I don’t know if that matters that it was on vinyl, just a coincidence of when I was around. So to me all those changes, the thing that really makes me happy and secure is that when I pick up my guitar that E chord that I learned when I was eleven years old, it still works. It still sounds so good. I don’t need to delete it and download E chord 3.0. It’s not like a computer that you’ve got to toss away and like I’ve got to relearn this. Everything that I learned on guitar is still valid, it’s still works and to be a musician is so satisfying that way.
NRR: I’ve fallen into the vinyl trap a little bit over the last couple of years. What I enjoy about vinyl is it’s tangible. I like the sound of it, but also what I like is it forces you to put some time aside and listen to a record from beginning to end. Listening to the new album it sounds like you guys put some thought into someone listening to it in that format. Do you still do that? Do you still think how are we going to sequence this for someone who’s going to sit and listen to this from the beginning to the end.
Paul: I think that’s a habit that’s just ingrained in us because we all grew up with vinyl. I remember the first time I got a CD and I was blown away because you could skip over the bad songs relatively easily, you know, just pick your favorites. But in retrospect, I’m calling it the songs you don’t like as much, but as a kid there were so many interesting songs that I might have passed over but I didn’t because you didn’t want to have to get up and do the needle. So you’d listen to that song that wasn’t the hit and then maybe after few listens you’d start to go actually I really do like that one, I’m glad I gave it a chance. There’s certainly something magic to vinyl. I just like the idea, you have to maintain it. You have to maintain the experience. You put on an album, one side lasts maybe 15 or 20 minutes and then it’s over and so the music stops and it makes you pay attention like “oh, I got to go turn this side over” or “I’ve got to pick up another album” and it keeps you focused on it a little more and not forget about it.
NRR: Yeah, it’s forced me to really go back and make sure that I put time aside to go and listen to music and listen for 30 or 40 minutes and I think that’s quite a nice habit to be in. If you’ve got Spotify, or anything streaming like that, it becomes a bit of a pick and mix where you can just choose whatever you want. And it lost a little something for me.
In terms of touring it must be a little different for you these days than back in the old days. I know you’re still a relatively new dad, right? So do families travel with you on the road or do you try and break up the touring schedule so you guys can have time at home in between?
Paul: I do ask my manager to try to give me a least a week off between legs. And it’s hard because my boy definitely misses me when I’m gone. It’s my first time trying to deal with that. The last solo tour that I did, it was a clinic tour, but I was playing a lot of music, and that was in Europe and he did come out. My wife brought him out and stayed with me for about ten days on the road, and had a great time. I’m still new to it and just working it out but fortunately, you know in the old days you had to do everything on the phone. Now there’s Skype and FaceTime and you can communicate a little more that way. But still it’s definitely a challenge.
NRR:That’s going to be great experience for him when he grows up. The rock n’ roll lifestyle on the road, right? As a two year old..?
Paul: I certainly never got to go to Italy or Japan until I was in my twenties. And he’s been before he’s three, so he’s getting a lot of experiences.
NRR: When we saw you live, one of things that stood out to me, and what really comes through on the new record, is how much fun you guys all look like you are having again. Particularly, you playing with Billy – the two of you seem to be almost telepathic now. So much of the call and response stuff you do on stage, it’s great to watch. Are you really enjoying it? You look like you’re having a great time again with the guys.
Paul: Absolutely. It’s always just great to play with great musicians and people that are from a similar music generation. I’m the youngest guy in the band but I grew up with that era of music. And that’s our language. Course, if you’re a classical musician you read the score. But our language is those references so if I play an Allman Brothers’ lick or a Jimi Hendrix lick or a Robin Trower lick, he knows that language and so does everybody else in the band. And so having that common language allows us to really enjoy and communicate easily.
NRR: What really gets me going when I’m watching a band is when the band looks like they are having a good time. And you guys definitely looked like you were having a good time. It’s great, I love the fact that’s it’s all for one and that Pat’s still there with you despite the troubles that he’s going through, which is just fantastic because he looked like he was having a great time as well. It was really enjoyable.
Paul: Yeah, and we need him. Pat is a founding member of Mr. Big, and not only his drumming but his singing and just his personality. Being in a band, a big part of it is just making decisions. What songs are going to be in the setlist? What are the arrangements going to be? How to not only to play the drum part but deciding on how the drum part goes. And then getting involved in both the touring and the recording, it’s important that he’s there. Drumming is just one part of it.
NRR: He does a lot a backing vocals too, right?
Paul: That’s right. He’s the main voice.
NRR: I like “1992” the song, given the “we were number one in ’92…” When you started up the band, did you ever have it in your mind, did you ever think that far forward? What will we be doing in 2017? You’ve been going for so long now and you are still making new music.
Paul: I rarely look forward in the future more than about three months. I’ve always been optimistic and hopeful but for whatever reason, you get an idea, if the band is really good and people are responding to it and your’re making records, you get the idea “hey, this might work for a while”. You just do what you can. It’s funny because when you’re a kid and you tell people “I want to be a rock star” people kind of raise an eyebrow and go “OK – good luck!” For me it’s been really consistent with great opportunities. Once you meet some professional musicians and you’re in the business there’s always stuff to do. Like you said, I’m very busy. And I’m greatful for that, but at the same time it’s never felt like a business that’s really unstable. If anything it’s been the opposite. I know people who are in other industries and if they’re out of a job, they’re surprised. If I’m out of a job, it’s like “of course”. Fortunately it hasn’t happened yet.
NRR: You do have a particular level of talent that helps in that respect, as well. Which is always nice.
Paul: When people are given the idea that this is never going to last, it makes you work harder, because you think “well, I’ve really got to make sure this lasts.” I’ve got to perform, I’ve got to make sure the show is great, got to make sure the album great. Of course, some people do have some natural born whatever. They look great, they’ve got the right hair or they’ve got a great voice. Maybe they don’t have the work ethic that some people do. For me, I came from Pittsburgh which is steel mill town, and the culture there is work hard, physically work hard – and I don’t mean muscles – and the idea that you put the time in. That was just an obvious thing, of course you put the time in. How else do you expect to get results?
NRR: Yes, I read a lot of music biographies and musicians’ interviews, and there’s a thread through everything that I read with virtuistic players such as you or Steve Vai, or musicians in bands like Keith Richards. What comes out in all of them, is this focus and this single minded idea that “this is the only thing I want to do” and the hours that have to go in behind it. I think Steve Vai said he practiced around 12 hours a day and if he practiced anything less than 12 hours, he would get kranky because he felt like he hadn’t done enough. So behind it there’s a level of talent but that can only get you so far. It’s the guys who really put the work in that are the ones who rise to the top. That’s how it feels to me, anyway.
Paul: That and wearing the right shirt at the right time.
NRR: The right shirt, and the right hair! The hair was important back in the day, right?
Paul: Yeah it was!
NRR: In terms of what’s on the horizon for Mr. Big, there’s a European tour coming up.
Paul: We just did a lot of touring. We just finished the States and then we’re going to go to South America and Mexico and Japan and through South East Asia for a bit and then Europe. And maybe even more like China next year, so a lot of touring coming up.
NRR: And you yourself, any other solo projects coming up on the side?
Paul: All I have scheduled right now is G4, which is a camp which is a week long with Joe Satriana. The other guests are Phil Collen from Def Leppard and Warren Demartini from RATT. Those guys I think are great. And, of course, Joe is amazing. I’m only doing that for a couple of days so that’s just a quick little fly in. But I really enjoy those camps. I’ve done my own camp called The Great Guitar Escape and I’ll probably do one of those next year. That and then in between being a dad, and the online school. I’ve done over 5000 videos now.
NRR: You are submitting videos every single day. That must be a lot of work for you to get through all of that.
Paul: I did one right before I spoke to you today. Besides it being work, it’s music and it’s, although I get to sit in the teacher’s chair, in a way it’s hanging out with other musicians and getting our fingers into music and finding out what’s important and what works. I’ve learned so much about my own playing and music in general from teaching so I really look forward to every video I get. I think this is great, I get to explore some new thing in rock.
NRR: Do you feel Artist Works has expanded your musical horizons just getting to interact? One thing that’s great about it, in terms of it being online, is the fact that the teachers can interact with the students, even though it’s an online school. Has it helped you? Has it taken you in any new directions or just the fact that you’re playing everyday with different people or interacting with them, do you think that’s helped?
Paul: It helps a lot, both. Sometimes the question, I might not know the answer to, so I get to go research it. And every video that I do, I do a little performance at the beginning and so sometimes it’s something that I’ve got ready to go, sometimes it isn’t and I’ve got to practise a little bit. And also, having to teach I have to take knowledge that might be something that’s just an instinct and I’ve got to break it down into something that I’m able to explain. And explaining instincts is a real challenge but when you do it, it makes you realize oh that’s what the really is. And then you can improve on it once you’ve got it in front of you.
NRR: Yes, watching the videos of you, you can see you think “right I’m going to slow down to try and work out what I was actually doing with the picking there” and then go back and work it out for yourself.
Congratulations on the album, I genuinely really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the live performance. I hope you guys carry on having fun on the tour because you certainly did look like you were having fun when we saw you so I hope that carries on.
Paul:Yeah, the tour’s going great so far.
Mr. Big’s new album Defying Gravity is available to purchase now via Amazon.