Interview and Live Photos: Robert Cavuoto
The time is right for a new Mr. Big CD! The band convened in a Los Angeles studio for six days and completed their most exciting and adventurous CD to date – Defying Gravity due out July 21st. The band will also embark on a world tour to support the CD this summer!
Eric Martin (lead vocals), Paul Gilbert (guitars), Billy Sheehan (bass) and Pat Torpey (drums) reunited with their original Mr. Big producer Kevin Elson to develop 11 stellar tracks. While Pat was unable to perform some of the songs due to a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, Matt Starr filled in for him on a majority of the CD. Matt has toured with the band in the past and plans to head out on the road with them again.
Paul Gilbert truly comes alive and cranks up the energy level on Defying Gravity. Throughout the CD, he takes listeners on a journey, expressing himself, and his feelings; bending sounds as well as the listeners’ minds. A gifted guitarist who’s playing never disappoints whether in Mr. Big or in his solo band. He provides just the perfect amount of shredding, hard rocking riffs, and melodic solos on this CD to keep any fan of the band or the guitar happy. His jaw-dropping playing is always rich in technique and tone.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Paul to talk about the almost impossible undertaking of getting Defying Gravity completed in six days and the spirit of improvising on guitar.
Robert Cavuoto: I saw a clip on YouTube that Defying Gravity was recorded in six days. That sounds like an impossible feat?
Paul Gilbert: [Laughing] It was fun and we managed to do it. Before we did it we knew how much time we would have so I think we all were a little nervous. Billy’s always optimistic; he said he’s done records in 2 days! I was nervous but knew as a band we could do it. I got off the plane, went straight to the studio, plugged in my guitar, and started recording the first song. We had to work hard and to focus. We had a great reunion with our old producer Kevin Elson. In the old days, when we were recording we would have ping-pong matches during takes. There were no ping-pong matches during this record. It went smoothly and when everyone’s head is in the right place it can work.
Robert Cavuoto: Did band members share demos in advance of entering the studio?
Paul Gilbert: The night before the first session I was up until 5:00 am finishing my last demo, so nobody heard my ideas until I got to the studio. There were some songs I didn’t have any demos so for them I had to do an intimidating Buskers version of the song; stomping on the ground while playing guitar and singing; trying to interest the band to take it further. Eric did the same thing, he told us he had some song ideas with lyrics and then played them on guitar. That actually turned out to be something I enjoyed. You get to hear the songs evolve from a very raw version of the whole band playing it in 90 minutes. I was so excited by this approach that on some of my unfinished pieces of music, I decided to get up early and make demos for them. Two of my tunes “Be Kind” and “Mean to Me” were both done before breakfast on Day 4. My new drug is coffee, I tried coffee for the first time 3 or 4 years ago and it has been my vice ever since. A little before breakfast and I had finished songs. I’m worried that caffeine is a gateway drug [laughing].
Robert Cavuoto: Speaking of “Mean to Me,” tell me about the approach you took to writing that song as it has an incredibly unique sounding guitar technique.
Paul Gilbert: Thank you. In a way, I’m trying to emulate drums as that was my influence. When I was in Racer X we wrote a song called “Scarified.” There is a drum groove with a really cool double bass part; I tried to walk into that playing a similar rhythm. On Christina Aguilera’s first CD she has a few songs with very heavy double bass drum beats. I would fool around with my band playing a guitar version of that drum part. I was enjoying that percussionist aspect that I wanted to write my own song using that format; where you take the low E string and play it really fast and chunky similar to the bass drum part. Then the upper chord staffs would be where the snare is. So you separate them, the low E becomes the kick and the high staff becomes the snare. You create what would be some crazy drum machine program or a double bass drummer on guitar.
Robert Cavuoto: After listening to the CD do you wish you had more time to make any adjustments since you only had six days to make it happen?
Paul Gilbert: I’m really happy with it. After the six days, there were two solos that I didn’t have time to finish. They were a little beyond what I could improvise as the changes were a little trickier than I’m used to. They required a composition; I needed more time to come up with a melody. I was on the road and I had ProTool on my laptop so after a clinic at midnight in my hotel room I finished the two solos. Other than that everything else was done in six days.
Robert Cavuoto: Do you typically improvise all your solos?
Paul Gilbert: They were all improvised. I think those are the best ones. The other ones still have things that I like about them but they don’t project as much; they are smaller. The ones that are done live when you are at the moment; listening to the band they are listening to you, sit better. It’s really hard to top that. We recently did a video for “Defying Gravity” and I went to town on guitar during the filming and was improving on that too. There is a lot in there; every fill is different. When I watched it back, my fingers were all over the place. Ill memorizes solos but there is more spirit when improvising.
Robert Cavuoto: Does the same apply to when you are performing live that you improvise a lot?
Paul Gilbert: It’s all based on how important that melody line is to the song. A solo for “To Be with You” is basically following the vocal line; compositionally it’s important to the song. When I listen to my guitar heroes like on a Van Halen record, “Runnin with the Devil” the solo is the vocal melody and its meant to be like that. On the song, “Outta Love Again” is a “just going for it” approach and being as funky as possible in the key of E. You can tell the intention of the performer and where the spirit of it lies. If it’s improved I’ll keep it that way.
Robert Cavuoto: The CD is rich with great guitar tones that vary from song to song. For example, the guitar tone on “Open Your Eyes” is different than “Mean to Me”. Can you tell us about that tonal approach when recording?
Paul Gilbert: Thank you, it’s pretty much the same gear so I’m not sure what happens. I used a 1959 SLP 100w Marshall amp and it’s not quite as harsh and a little warmer. My go to distortion pedal is my TC Electronics MojoMojo and I had that on the whole time. For “Open Your Eyes” I think I was using a Catalinbread Karma Suture Harmonic Fuzz Pedal so that gave it that nasty Jeff Beck of the YardBirds sound. On “Mean to Me” I needed a tighter low end so I turned off the Karma Suture and cranked up the MojoMojo.
Paul Gilbert: If you asked someone what is the message of Led Zeppelin I; to me, it’s about musicians who are passionate about their instrument and making something exciting which blossoms when they play live. It’s not an intellectual message, it more emotional and powerful. Playing live is an event where people see it and groove together. The records make that possible and prepare you for what that event is going to be. The challenge for me at a concert is when people get so into the intellectual aspects of the music they forget about the emotional and musical part of it. I remember going to see a Yngwie Malmsteen concert and the audience was all guitar and hard rock fans. Nobody in the audience moved. If you told everyone to imitate a statue, they couldn’t have done a better job. I was getting angry as my instinct is to move to the music as it was moving me. I was digging it. The same thing happens at guitar clinics; fans come with that state of mind that they will learn something. What I really want them to learn is that I’m communicating music. It’s got the rhythm, grooves, and accents. This is not just for the mind but for the body as well. It’s for singing and feeling, those things may seem simple but shouldn’t be forgotten. Mr. Big is fortunate that we are able to combine that feeling and some primitive musical quality along with sophisticated stuff.
Robert Cavuoto: How did he get involved with the G4 Experience, and what can fans expect?
Paul Gilbert: A few years back I did the G3 Tour with Joe Satriani and it was a blast. We had a great time. The G3 Tour is not to be confused with the G4 Experience. This is a camp, Monday through Friday all day long. Joe does clinics and I try to jam with everybody. I get my guitar tech to set everyone up through one amp and plug everyone in quickly and efficiently. Once the jam starts it doesn’t stop; I’ll jam with a 100 people in a row. It’s intense as everyone is a little nervous and excited, so I make sure everyone gets three chances. If they were nervous the first time around they are better acclimated by the third time. That’s my favorite way to communicate with musicians. You can do Q&As but playing music together gives a better sense of where people are and what they sound like. I love it.
Robert Cavuoto: Are you going to jam with Phil Collen, Joe Satriani, and Warren DeMartini?
Paul Gilbert: Oh yeah, we jam at the end and that’s always fun. Although I’m in Mr. Big I have a reputation of metal-instrumental-type-of-guy. My world is in the rock band and happy that Phil and Warren are rock band guys who play with singers. They reside in that world too. I’m glad they are there so it’s not just about the guitar.