Mark Tremonti's fretting hand never stays still; having completed touring with his solo band Tremonti, he's been back in the studio recording the new Alter Bridge album, due this September. And Mark was kind enough to take a break from mixing it to give Total Guitar the lowdown on an album that finds the band pushing their own high standards again.
The band will make their live return to the UK, the place that embraced Alter Bridge first, with an arena tour in October featuring Shinedown and Halestorm as support.
Total Guitar caught up with Mark for a preview on the new Alter Bridge album, tour and how his rig is looking these days.
Alter Bridge, Creed and your solo band… you've been on the road a lot for several years. How attuned have you become to what kind of things fans respond to live and has that influenced the next Alter Bridge album?
"We actually talked about that a lot on this record. We talked about how these songs would translate live and we reminded ourselves that whatever we put on the record, we have to play. So we've got to make this fun, and if you have an album full of ballads you're going to be outing yourself to sleep everyday. So this record is a very high energy record, fun to play and I think it will translate very well live."
'AB III' was quite a dark album in places, is this more upbeat overall in terms of mood?
"I don't think it's as dark as 'AB III' but listening to it, a lot of the lyrics are still on the darker side of things. But there's definitely a few uplifting concepts and themes on there as well. There's apocalyptic lyrics… all kinds of moods."
Did you spend longer in preproduction on this album to work in more detail on the songs?
"We had a lot of time in preproduction, probably the most we've ever dug into a record in preproduction mode. Elvis [Michael Baskette, longtime AB producer] did a really great job at challenging us on this record. We came into the studio with songs that we thought were well structured and ready to go. And he agreed but we decided to just try and a mess with some arrangements, change time signatures. We constantly took parts, that we knew were good parts, but wanted to see if we could make them better. And it really pushed us to make a better record."
Was it comparable to the process of making 'Blackbird'?
"With 'Blackbird', we had even gone into the studio after a longer writing process. With this album it was a very short writing process before preproduction because when we got together [to write] we were putting together at least one or two songs a day arrangement-wise. So it was a matter of weeks before we said, Let's go to preproduction and get arrangements on these things.
"That's the quickest time we've ever gone through the initial [writing process] which is probably the most important process; getting the outlines for these songs down. But then after that we really dug into the songs, made preproduction really count."
When we spoke to you around the time the Tremonti album was coming out, you mentioned a desire to experiment with your approach to writing guitar solos, to write them with a singing Gilmour-esque approach in terms of a strong melody. Has that panned out for this record?
"Yes, on one solo in particular. There's a song that has the title right now of 'Bleed It Dry' and I wanted to sing it in my head and see how it translated on the guitar. I heard David Gilmour would do that. There's no shredding in the solo, that's what I tried to keep away from on that. Now go on a reflex but try to go off of pure melodic approach, vocal phrasing. And that's kind of how that solo turned out and I'm very happy with that way it turned out."
Is it true you sing lead vocals on one of the songs?
"Yes, when they were working on vocals Elvis told me that Myles wasn't really connecting with one of the songs and they started talking about me giving it a go. Elvis said, 'Let's take a negative and give you a chance to take that song that he's not feeling and sing it.' So I wrote it about a fictional apocalypse. Right now it's called 'The Waters Rise' and I'm glad to be able to have done it."
It sounds like you're still looking to push yourselves and try new things as a band…
"Yes and I think that's one of the main reasons we wanted to do that, to let the fans know that we are doing new things and to expect new things and surprises."
Is this a heavy, full-on album in terms of the guitars or did you strip things back on any songs, such as an acoustic approach?
"It's a pretty aggressive record guitar-wise, there's not a whole lot of acoustic on there. There's maybe two or three songs that feature acoustic guitar parts. There's actually an nylon acoustic intro that features on there – another surprise we threw out there with Myles.
"I don't think he's ever featured on a big guitar intro to an Alter Bridge song. It's called 'Cry Of Achilles' and he played me the part when we were putting the album together and I said, 'Man, we've got to turn that into a song for sure!' And it's a big nylon string intro that he does and it's fantastic, it's one of my favourite songs on the album."
Did you change your rig much for this album?
"I didn't really change it, there's the Cornford RK100… I love that amp and I brought it in to see what Elvis thought and he's a huge fan of it as well now. I think that's going to be mainly 70 per cent of my rhythm tone and my lead tone as well. Of course we always use the Boogie tucked in there and the [Bogner] Uberschall – so it's a combination of the three of those amps, depending on the approach and the song, those are the main amps."
You used the Cornford on the solo album too, it's certainly proved versatile for you in the studio…
"Very versatile. For me it's the best for the lead and rhythm stuff in the same amp, and it does it well."
You streamlined your live rig for frontman role in the Tremonti band, are you looking forward to going back to your full quota of gear on the Autumn tour?
"Yes, it's such a different world. My main rig for Alter Bridge, it just sounds so big for me onstage. When I was in the centre of the stage it was hard for me to get that rig to work for my solo stuff. I found that it's funny having to hear vocal and guitar at the same time, I'm not picky at all for my solo stuff.
"It could sound awful and I'd be able to get through a solo show and not complain about it. But with the Alter Bridge stuff, when you're not able to sing and your guitar is your only voice, you've got to have it sounding great up there. I'm much pickier with the Alter Bridge guitar tone."
Have you been tempted to integrate a Cornford live or is that purely a recording amp for you?
"That's a special amp, I played another RK100 that didn't sound as good as mine so I definitely don't want to mess that thing up. I want to keep that thing forever. Things on the road tend to get abused."
Have you still got your Dumble Overdrive Special and are you using it on this record?
"That's in the studio right now, Elvis is reamping songs as we go. I have a feeling on the song I just heard, he reamped the song with the Dumble and it sounds nice and Dumble-esque."
Do you tend to use the Dumble magic quite sparingly in recording?
"For most of the songs on the record it wouldn't quite do the job on the heavy stuff, for the cleaner lead parts it's perfect. You can't get a better soulful tone than the Dumble."
Looking ahead to getting back on the road, does your US rig vary much from what you use in Europe?
"For the first time ever I've duplicated my rig, for Europe and the US. I used to fly my rig all over the place. Now I have an A and B rig which sound pretty close to one another. They both sound great but I have a few different amps; in one I have my Bogner Uberschall and in the other rig I have a Voodoo V-Rock. For my lead tone in the other I have a Bludotone [Bludo-drive] in one and then another Uberschall that has the Purple Haze mode on it. It gets too expensive to keep on buying Bludotones so if I have another amp sitting around I'll just use the next best thing I have."
Is the Axe-Fx still in the rig?
"No, I still have one at home. I never heard it onstage, it would always be tucked into the front of house mix and it added a nice depth to the lead tone. But for some reason my tech had a problem with my rig one day and was trying to find [the source of] some kind of noise. They just started unplugging stuff and everything that wasn't completely necessary they unplugged that day and since then we haven't gone back."
Are there still plans for a second Sound And The Story tuition DVD from you focussing on this forthcoming album?
"Yes they were in there filming when I was playing solos and they got Myles' performances as well. [Fret 12] are going to follow us out to Europe for this run and get some live shots, get all the interview portions of the DVD done then me and Myles have got to set aside a few days, I think I may go out to Chicago in September to film all the instructional stuff.
"The plan was to teach the whole record so as a guitar player you can play the rhythm and the leads, and hear it from the guys that made it. When I make a DVD, I want to make it the way I would have wanted it as a kid. Not made by somebody else, but made by the artist. Because it always gets skewed some way differently from how the artist played it. It always makes things ten times harder when you have to relearn something to get it right."
It's good to see that because some artists don't like to demystify what they do…
"From doing this kind of thing and asking other guitar players to do it as well, I don't think it's a matter of them not wanting to give their tricks up or anything; people get nervous when they have to sit down and talk about it. A lot of great players are terrible teachers, especially the bluesy kind of guys [who will say], 'I just sit down and do my thing'. There's a certain mojo they have but they don't really know how to explain it. I've just been watching these [tuition] DVDs my whole life so I know exactly what I would want."
You're touring Europe with Shinedown and Halestorm in October, have you played together before?
"With Halestorm it's just been festival shows but I've got to know all those guys pretty well through Eric [Friedman] who's in my solo project, he's really good friends with them. They actually crashed at my house one night when they were passing through town and we've done a bunch of shows with the Shinedown guys over the years. I'm really looking forward to the tour."
Do you plan on touring regularly with the solo project too?
"I'm going to keep on touring that as much as I can, whenever I have breaks in my schedule. I think I'll just have to look at Alter Bridge's schedule first, then see where the gaps are. And I'm sure Myles is going to go out with Slash so I'll have ample opportunity to do some more of that. I think in September we'll get back together and start working on some more tunes."
How has the solo experience affected your approach as a live performer?
"It's given me more confidence on the vocal side of things for sure. I've learned how to use my voice much better. When you get out and sing it's much more different than singing in the shower, or your rehearsal room. Getting out there and singing live, you learn how to do things differently and I've picked up a few tricks along the way. Hopefully it will vocally help me with what I'm doing in Alter Bridge."
Now you're more aware of looking after your voice, are you being even more careful to live a healthy lifestyle on tour?
"I can't eat for about an hour and a half before the show so I'll get real strict about that. I have to drink a ton of water all throughout the day. I still have my beers onstage but the night before you have to get at least eight or nine hours sleep. So when everyone's up all night in the back lounge you have to cut it short.
"Before I go out on tour I have to get all kinds of healthy supplements to make sure I don't get sick. I remember being on an Alter Bridge tour and getting sick and not being able to sing the backups, I could hardly get a word to come out of my mouth. I can only imagine how bad it would have been if I was singing lead."
Do you still like to try and jam with fellow guitarists from bands when you're out on tour?
"Everyone can hear me playing because I always have a room backstage where I have an amp and guitar setup. I'm not shy about it so if anyone wants to jam – come on in. Usually there's someone who wants to jam now and then and it's always cool to learn new tricks from different players."
Nottingham Arena - 16 October
Birmignham NIA - 17 October
London Wembley Arena - 18 October
Cardiff Motorpoint Arena - 20 October
Glasgow Hydro - 21 October
Manchester Arena - 22 October