It's not every day you get to chat with one of your favourite musicians, let alone someone you've grown up following for years, but I had the pleasure of speaking to Mark Tremonti, Alter Bridge's lead guitarist who's currently touring and promoting his third solo album, Dust.
Dust exists as the second half of a double album session - to which I gave both it and first half, Cauterize, five stars each - marking the first time Tremonti has released such a body of material in quick succession. Both albums compliment each other incredibly well, their release dates being only 10 months apart, and together form a one-two punch of pure hard rock that's not been seen in decades.
You may know Mark as the guitarist and backing vocalist of Creed, twin-lead guitarist and occasional vocalist for the mighty Alter Bridge themselves, or perhaps just for Tremonti, his solo outfit that features all the most brutally heavy and furiously fast compositions he can think of.
I quizzed him on everything a lifelong fan would, resulting in the following in-depth interview that was eventually cut short, simply because of the amount of questions I'd prepared. Can you blame me?
Scott Tailford: With you having finished the second part of the Cauterize/Dust double album, how does it feel to be on the other side of such an ambitious project?
Mark Tremonti: It feels good man, we've been sitting on these songs for quite a while now. I held back some of my favourite songs for this record, so I wanted to make sure that it was strong. It was kinda tough to sit on some of these songs, so I'm glad they're finally out.
S.T.: Where there any that were initially intended to be on Cauterize, that were then held back for Dust?
M.T.: I made both of the track listings at the same time, so all the songs that are on Dust were meant to be on Dust, but some of the ones that were tough to keep up were the title track, My Last Mistake, Betray Me, Catching Fire - a bunch of my favourite tracks I had to hold off for the second record.
S.T.: Is this process of recording something we might see with Alter Bridge? That idea of putting out material that would spread across multiple albums?
M.T.: Well, we've just recorded 14 songs for our next go-around, so not quite as much, but still a healthy amount of music!
S.T.: Considering the flow from song to song and general album composition, how do you choose which tracks are going to open your records?
M.T.: During the mixing phase I'll make track listings. I'll just put my headphones on and listen to the beginnings and the endings of the songs, how they flow into one another, and once I feel I'm close I'll listen to the whole thing through and see how I like it.
With Dust, I actually redid it after we got the record mastered, I went back and changed the order, because I felt like it could be better. I used to have Dust last, and I felt like it needed to be much earlier. I think The Cage was number eight or seven on the listing which was moved to second - it just changed the pace of the record a little bit, and I feel it's stronger now.
S.T.: Speaking of Dust and that song's incredible vocal performance, you've come very far as a singer across all your projects. Are vocal warmups and practice something you're doing every day? And do you feel more confident as a frontman since touring with Tremonti as the lead singer?
M.T.: Yeah, I mean I think the best way to learn how to be a better singer is to just go out there and do it live every night. I think that's what's been the best for me. Y'know vocal lessons are one thing, but actually applying it onstage is the big thing.
I haven't really taken any lessons, I took one vocal lesson in the past 10 years and it was a Skype lesson with Ron Anderson, but I think the big difference is when I'm up there singing.
S.T.: Have you ever traded tips or vocal warm-up regimens with Myles (Kennedy, Alter Bridge singer) since becoming more of a frontman?
M.T.: Just when he'll see me warm up or something and he'll tell me I'm singing too loud! Just little tips like that, but we sing so differently, he's a very soft singer y'know? I think if he sang louder it would mess up all his placement, his falsetto would be all jacked up, so I sing more like a caveman (laughs) and he sings more like a trained opera singer.
S.T.: At the end of My Last Mistake, you go into an almost strained sort of register. I was wondering if you've ever played with heavier vocal styles, or whether you would ever go into something like that?
M.T.: I'm not really interested in doing the screaming thing, it's just never really been my cup of tea. I like bands that do that, but it's just not something that I personally think fits into what I do.
I mean I think that's about as far as I'll take it, straining for a note and growling through it, but I'm not gonna do the screaming vocals.
S.T.: To talk song names, I remember you saying that All I Was (2012 album) song Brains, was named after something one of your children had said. Was there anything on Dust or Cauterize that came about in a similar way?
M.T.: Well actually, Rising Storm should've never been called Rising Storm, it was just overlooked. It was supposed to be 'Lay To Waste'.
When I initially recorded the idea into my Garageband I called it Rising Storm just because that lyric naturally came out in one of the verses, it was just a passing melody idea. But we never fixed it when it went to mastering, so it got mastered as Rising Storm, so that's a little insight!
The other name I thought of changing was Tore My Heart Out, because we had another Another Heart on Cauterize and I didn't want two songs with 'heart' in the title, but we just left it the way it was.
S.T.: I remember when you released the original version of Wish You Well online (the song had been recorded in 1987 when Mark was 12/13) it blew me away how you'd managed to put it together at such a young age. I noticed that Unable To See's intro is from the Sound and the Story DVD, and I wondered if there were any other pieces of music on here that had lain dormant for any length of time?
M.T.: Yeah that little fingerpicked pattern from the beginning of that song, that's, I mean it could be 20 years old, I'm not even sure, it's been around for a long time. I've put that at the beginning of so many different songs and was like "Right, I'm gonna let it stick this time."
That song itself - Unable to See - has some of the oldest parts on the entire record. The chorus of that song comes from a pre-chorus of a song I'd written for the One Day Remains record, the first Alter Bridge record, so that's many years old, so there's definitely some history scattered throughout.
There's a riff in Catching Fire, the riff that starts the bridge I've had probably since I was in high school, it's so old!
S.T.: Is that the insanely heavy bit, where everything really kicks in?
M.T.: Yeah the super heavy part, and the part that introduces it. It's the same kinda progression of notes, just played heavier. I've had that since I was a little kid.
S.T.: How much does delving into that side of yourself and flexing those heavy metal muscles again impact writing for Alter Bridge? Personally I really love Peace is Broken's opening riff - does any of how you write songs for Tremonti carry across?
M.T.: Well I wanted to start the whole thing in the first place because I grew up listening to speed metal and writing a lot of speed metal ideas that never got to materialise in Alter Bridge. So when I did the Tremonti stuff all these riffs and these heavy ideas, I pulled them out right away with Tremonti to make sure that I got to show that side of my playing.
S.T.: How did you come across the right sound to differentiate Tremonti in terms of guitar tone? I really think you guys have one of the heaviest sounds going, and how much of that was a product of your input? Did anything get tweaked by Elvis (Baskette, producer) in the production room?
M.T.: I think it's just a combination of the way I play and the way that Elvis mixes. We turn the gain down a lot so it's real punchy, because if you saturate it too much it starts getting squishy and not as heavy, it doesn't cut as easily, so we tend to record the guitars with not a lot of gain on them.
S.T.: Were there any production tricks or insights that helped bolster the sound overall? Cauterize starts with this really great volume boost that really bursts out the speakers - is that something unique to that track or are there other sections of tracks you wanted to highlight?
M.T.: In the mixing process you always want to go bigger and bigger and bigger, and climax, show some dynamics, so it's just a way of stepping things up as you go, throughout the song.