The former Prong axeman, Monte Pittman, is getting ready to release his heaviest album to date.
Over the last fifteen years, Monte Pittman has become widely recognised as Madonna’s lead guitarist. However, he is also an accomplished solo artist, and his own material most certainly packs a punch. Pittman is getting ready to release his latest studio album, Inverted Grasp of Balance, on the 23 September via Metal Blade Records.
National Rock Review recently caught up with Monte Pittman at home in Los Angeles to discuss his latest offering, his many different music and teaching projects, and life on the road with Madonna.
NRR:Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us here at National Rock Review, we really appreciate it.
Pittman: Thanks for having me.
NRR: So you are about to release your new full-length album Inverted Grasp of Balance on the 23 September via Metal Blade Records. I was just wondering could you tell us a little bit about the album and the inspiration behind it?
Pittman: It’s a continuation of my ongoing musical evolution I guess you could say. I wanted to make the heaviest, fastest thing I could. When I did The Power of Three, I recorded the album and then I played it for Bryan Slagel at Metal Blade and then that’s what got me signed.
This is the first time I’ve had everybody there to give me some guidance from the very beginning. Then itâ€™s the first time going like OK, I’m gonna be on Metal Blade Records so let’s be on Metal Blade Records.
NRR: Obviously the band that you have put together for this record is incredible. You’ve got Richard Christy on drums, you’ve got Billy Sheehan on bass. What was it like working with those guys and what did they bring to the recording process?
Pittman: Amazing. I gave Richard a demo and I programmed the drums and I said just do something like this, but if you think of it however a drummer would do it, just as long as you give me the craziest thing you can and then that was it.
Then the same with Billy, where I would kind of show him something and he would say well you know I would play it kind of like this. I’m like yeah, yeah, yeah however you would do that.
So I just kind of gave them what I’m thinking as an idea and let them bring it to the table the way they think it would best be handled because I’m going to think as a guitar player and I need somebody to think as a bass player and to think as a drummer.
NRR: Do you have any plans to tour with this record and if so would you take the same band out on the road with you?
Pittman: If they want to come with me they are more than welcome. I mean those two guys are really busy, so I don’t know what their scheduling would be of course, but would love to if they could do it. I don’t have any plans yet, you know if anybody will take me out on the road I will go play.
NRR: A lot of people are saying this is your heaviest album to date, was that the intention when you went out to write and record this album?
Pittman: Yeah, it is, a lot of it comes from playing the stuff from The Power of Three live. Then you say like OK man I wish I had something like this in the set list. You just want to always keep updating your material. I wanted to do some things that people wouldn’t expect from me on one hand and then, on the other hand, something they haven’t heard me do in a while. You know because I got to do some of this with Prong, but Prong that’s Tommy Victor’s band and I’m either following him or you know on one of the albums I play bass, a couple of the albums I play bass.
Then I had a band in Texas growing up and we were heavy, but then we also did like funk stuff. In a way, it was cool that we had a variety of things that we could do, but what hurt us was that sometimes people were like well what do we do with you. That’s kind of always been a theme in my life or in my career.
When I started out, my first album was acoustic guitar and vocals because that was something I could go and recreate anywhere and not have to worry about a band. But then again because you know I play guitar for Madonna and since I’ve played with her, we’ve touched on just about every kind of music there is you know so, there’s positives and negatives to all that.
NRR: This album has come in quick succession from your last album. Are you constantly writing all the time, do you ever stop?
Pittman: Oh always. I especially write as I end an album, you know when I get the final master and I deliver the album then it’s kind of like where will I go from here.
You listen to that album and then think what do the people want to hear next, so then I start working on that. One thing that I don’t want to do now for the album that will follow up Inverted Grasp of Balance is to make demos for it because then I sort of get married to those.
So I’m just going to kind of keep it in my head and I have all of my notes, and then eventually I will sit down and I will say like OK I will make a demo, then the process will start for that. I will make a demo and then I will forget about it and then I will come back and listen to it with fresh ears.
My mind just starts spinning when I write. I will try to go to sleep and then the riffs are just going on and on in my head (laughing), or I will be in the shower, it’s always when I’m in the shower I come up with lyrics when I can’t write them down. So I’ve got to get out, get on my phone, dry off and then type up the lyrics (laughing).
NRR: What’s your favourite track off the new album and why?
Pittman: That’s a tough one for me, I mean I love them all. I think “The Times Are Changing” was my favourite, that or “New Blood Keeps Us Alive” or “Guilty Pleasure”.
“Guilty Pleasure” and “New Blood Keeps Us Alive” are two things that I was proud of with the songwriting, because for “Guilty Pleasure” …and I’ve always wanted to hear this and maybe someone else has done this before and I just haven’t heard it, but I was like what would it sound like if there was a song that almost sounded like something off Cannibal Corpse “The Bleeding” but there was singing, but then the song went somewhere else where it was more broke down.
Because you know anytime you hear a song with blast beats on it is just death metal. Then my friends, they don’t necessarily like the same kind of music that I do so, they will be like yeah I like the music, I don’t like the singing though. So I’m thinking what if you put those two together because maybe they shouldn’t go together and anytime you do that with music you can come up with something really cool.
Then for “New Blood Keeps Us Alive”, if you have a song where it is kind of like the power ballad sort of thing, where at the end it kicks in and it’s heavy. The beginning is clean guitar but I don’t know of too many songs where that beginning part is like a real deal stripped down acoustic, like something that like Ray LaMontagne would do you know, something like that and then kick in like super heavy. So I always wanted to hear a song that did that and then I never heard anyone do that.
NRR: I’m a big fan of your Pain, Love and Destiny album.
Pittman: Oh, thanks.
NRR: I was just wondering, would you ever consider doing another non-metal album again?
Pittman: Yeah, I want to keep everything balanced you know, that’s very important to me to be able to provide material for everyone to listen to. Not everyone is going to like everything and like one person will like one thing you do, one person will like the other thing you and that’s one of the things I love about what I’ve done and it wasn’t really planned out like this it just sort of happened this way. But yeah somebody will tell me I love Pain, Love and Destiny or l love something off The Deepest Dark and it’s just like two polar opposite sort of things.
NRR: Could you walk us through guitar setup on this record, what were you using, what were you playing?
Pittman: It was ESP Guitars and I used one guitar throughout the whole album and it’s my white ESP V. I had a black ESP V and when we were getting ready for the last Madonna tour, she told me, she was like give me some new inspiration, give me some new guitars to play, some new things to try out.
So I had all of my ESP’s out, I had my black V there and I was like here and it was just the way she dressed that day, she was in all black and in a black leather jacket and all this, and I was like try this one. Then she played it and I’ve always wanted to know what it would be like to see her with a Flying V. She started playing it and she just started digging into it and I was like let me see your phone for a second and then so I took a picture of her, I was like that’s what you look like with this guitar.
Then I tried to get her another one, but they didn’t have one so I just gave her my guitar and then I got one to replace it and it was a white V and that guitar sounds so killer. So that’s the only guitar I used for the whole album and I’ve never done that before, I’ve always used as many different things I can to stack them on top of each other.
NRR: I know that you also teach guitar and you give lessons and stuff.
Pittman: Yeah, I teach online.
NRR: When did you first pick up the guitar yourself and do you remember your own first lesson?
Pittman: Yeah, I first started taking lessons when I was 14, I got my first guitar when I was 13. My guitar teacher’s name is Robert Browning and he still teaches there in Longview, Texas. He taught me, he still teaches and I still ask him about stuff (laughing), you are always trying to figure it out. That would suck if you figured everything out on a guitar and there was nothing else to learn because that’s part of the fun.
Luckily a lot of my friends here in L.A. are just ferocious guitar players and then I can ask ..what was that thing you just did (laughing). So if anybody wants to contact me for lessons, you can reach me at email@example.com, just e-mail me and set up lessons. I’ve got several different ways of doing it and I do it online.
I recently started playing the guitar for this pop group called Karmin, and that came from mutual friends. They said hey my friends they need a guitar player, would you do it, it’s really poppy but …and I checked them out I was like you know what I’ve never done anything like this and it’s complete the polar opposite of what I’m doing and I love doing that kind of stuff. So I was in Malaysia with them and giving lessons to my students and they are like it looks different where are you right now? I’m like oh I’m in Malaysia and they are like what time is it there? I’m like oh it’s three in the morning. They are like do you need to go to sleep? I’m like no, I’m taking naps in between this is what I do, I’m fine.
It’s great, I’ve got a whole system where I’ve got all my lessons all written out and scanned and so we will go through what we are doing and I will e-mail it to them. What I like about that is that I can e-mail them what we are working on, because if you give a student papers in person they always lose it (laughing). Then I will have to write it out again and sometimes I’m like wait why did I write that out?
NRR: You’ve also been performing with the L.A. Kiss house band, I was just wondering what has that experience been like?
Pittman: That has been a lot of fun. I mean it’s a trip when you are playing “God of Thunder” and Gene Simmons is out there on the field signing things and he looks up at you and gives you a thumbs up. But that’s cool and getting to play all those kind of songs in an arena, because if you don’t know about what L.A. Kiss football team does, it’s like a concert and a football game altogether. When there’s a touchdown there is pyro and it’s exactly what you think of it’s Kiss’s football team. There’s a lot of hot cheerleaders (laughing). I was like does most teams have this many hot cheerleaders?
Yeah and it’s great, I love working with them, they’ve had a great season this year too. They have us where we can go and play corporate parties and private events too, so if you want to hire us you know go to L.A. Kiss’s website and that would be great. Gene’s been talking about it in interviews and stuff like that.
NRR: Obviously, you’ve been working with Madonna for the last 15 years. I was just wondering could you walk us through how that connection first came about?
Pittman: Well I started teaching her guitar lessons and she took it so seriously. Sometimes with a student you teach them once a week or whatever, I was going over to her house two or three times a week. I was just working with her until she had something else to do, we would play the guitar for hours.
Then I guess it kind of came, like a month later after her first lesson, she invited me to come and play on David Letterman with her. Then I just started following, if she travelled I would go, like if she went to London I would go to London and just teach her. Then she was going to go on tour again, and she hadn’t been on tour for like seven years because I didn’t know what she was up to at the time. She asked if I would come and play the guitar for her, she knew that I already knew all of her songs because I was teaching her her songs. I thought maybe that’s that but she just keeps calling me back.
NRR: What’s your favourite memory of being on the road with Madonna?
Pittman: I mean there’s always a lot of laughs, a lot of good times, it’s a lot of hard work, she demands a lot out of you. There are times we have rehearsed for like twelve or fourteen hours out of the day, where you take out your ear monitors, you know how you hear each other and like your ears are numb.
I think probably my favourite was when we played Live Earth in 2007 and Spinal Tap played. They said if anybody has a bass in any of the bands, they wanted to get as many bass players together because they were going to do “Big Bottom”. I did that and I went on stage and Metallica was there too, Lars is the only one who didn’t come out.
So Metallica plays and afterwards Robert comes up and says hey how does it go? I’m like it goes like this and he’s writing it down on his wrist. A few minutes later he’s showing it to Kirk and like James is watching over the corner of his shoulder. I see that one thing is wrong and I’m like do I say something and I’m like hey actually it’s on this fret then you play it here and here, they are like oh ok.
Then we are all getting ready to go onstage and my other friend who plays with me in Madonna, he was just like did you just teach Metallica how to play a song (laughing). So that was an amazing experience.
So I mean everything with Madonna, we’ve gone all over the world and played, it’s hard to just pinpoint one. Of course, when I first started playing with her that was a trip, those experiences all at once.
NRR: Obviously you perform all different styles of music, you must have quite an eclectic taste. I was just wondering what’s the one album in your record collection that you couldn’t live without?
Pittman: Oh man, that’s hard because now with the way we listen to music you’ve got everything at your fingertips. I mean â€œMaster of Puppetsâ€ was that album that did it for me, so I guess I mean that’s one album I definitely would never want to live without. I guess I will go with that one if Iâ€™ve got to go with one, I’m just grasping at straws.
NRR: What else do you have in store for the rest of this year?
Pittman: I don’t know (laughing). I’m gonna keep teaching, the album is coming out now so hopefully somebody will pick me up and take me out on the road, a lot of tours are already booked, so that may not happen until next year.
The group Karmin they may have a couple of more shows to do, they have an album coming out too, so if they need me and call me back I will definitely be there for that, but I don’t really know which is kind of the first time I’ve not really known what’s going on.
NRR: I’m sure something will turn up definitely.
Pittman: There’s going to be something, it’s all around the corner.
NRR: That’s great and thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us.
Pittman: Thanks so much for having me.
NRR: Hopefully I will get to see you over here in the UK sometime soon.
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Photo: Â© Stephanie Cabral