interview by Michael McCarthy
As you may recall, I wrote a concert review of a Mr. Big show I caught at Mohegan Sun Casino a few weeks back. Finally getting to see them live after being a fan since 1989 was a dream come true. I’d seen almost every heavy metal band back in the day but never Mr. Big. They just didn’t come around. Not that I was aware of anyway. In any case, just seeing them live was an incredible experience for me. If you would have told me that I’d be interviewing the band’s lead singer, Eric Martin, a few weeks later I never would have believed you. Because, for me, Mr. Big is as huge as Aerosmith and Bon Jovi. That’s how highly I regard them. It’s been that way since they debuted. So, imagine if you won an hour long phone call with Steven Tyler or Jon Bon Jovi. Wouldn’t that blow your mind? Well, that’s how I felt doing this interview, which will be obvious when you read it below.
Mr. Big’s new album, Defying Gravity, is out tomorrow on July 21st, 2017 via Frontiers Records. It finds the band reunited with Kevin Elson, the mastermind who produced their first four albums: their self-titled debut, Lean Into It, Bump Ahead and Hey Man. The amazing thing about these four records is that they’re all flawless. From start to finish, I can listen to any of them and they still sound as vital and refreshing as they did when they were originally released. That’s a tall feat when you consider how out-dated so many heavy metal bands from back in the day sound when you listen to them these days. Of course, I still enjoy that stuff, but I have to be in a certain mindset. I do not need to be in any particular mindset when I listen to Mr. Big. To me, they’re a fantastic classic rock band, not unlike Boston or Journey, two bands they match in melodic prowess. Whether you’re a longtime fan or you only know their 1992 #1 hit “To Be With You,” I think you’d love Defying Gravity and would love it if you’d listen to their new singles below and give it a shot while reading our in-depth interview with Eric.
Since it’s a long one, we’ve posted the interview in two parts. Part one is here. Click here for part two!
MM: First of all, I have to say, I finally saw you guys live after all these years at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut in the Wolf Den and you guys blew me away. I had the bar set pretty high because you’re one of my favorite bands and you guys went way beyond my expectations.
EM: Oh, right on. You had the bar set pretty high. So, who are the bands that you like?
MM: Who are the bands that I like?
EM: What’s the music that you like?
MM: I like all kinds of music. I like everything from French pop like Mylene Farmer and Vanessa Paradis to electronica like Bjork and as far as rock bands and heavy metal bands go I’m a big fan of Enuff Z’Nuff –
EM: – Really? Wow. What a trip. I mean, I love Enuff Z’Nuff, too. When we first started to headline, Enuff Z’Nuff came out with us on the road. They’ve got a checkered past and everything, but great music and great live group. This was with Donnie Vie – and who is it? – it was the original band. Great stuff. Anyway, sorry. Digressing already.
MM: So, was that your first time playing the Wolf Den at Mohegan Sun?
EM: I’ve done it a couple times before with a side project called Scrap Metal. It’s Gunnar and Matthew Nelson and Kelly Keagy from Night Ranger and Mark Slaughter and Kip Winger. We have a little side band. We play our hits and stuff and I’d done it twice before, but never with Mr. Big and, yeah, we were on fire that night. We’ve had gigs that we come off the stage and we go eh, it was OK. But that one we were all collective. We agreed, oh man. When you play there, look, it’s in a big casino and it’s got this Disneyland facade behind you. You’re in a John Wayne movie. And then our sound engineer, Michelle, she’s been with us about ten years and she goes, “Oh, man, I hope this is gonna sound good. I’m worried about the sound.” It all came off great. There was no problem.
MM: I know you were doing a U.S. tour at the time. Has that ended now?
EM: Yeah, it was pretty quick and painless. Over in a heartbeat. We did 15 to 16 shows and we had a couple of television things in New York and then that’s over. At the moment, we’re on a little hiatus. We’re gonna do some rehearsing and then we’re gonna go to South America. That’s our next stop. And then Asia and then Europe and then swing back around to the United States again in 2018.
MM: I know you guys are really popular in Japan and I once read that you were bigger than The Beatles over there. Is that true?
EM: You know what? A lot of bands go to Japan the first time and they go, oh my God, the fans treated us like the Beatles, man, the crowd’s going crazy. And they say we’ll be back. And none of them come back because it costs a lot of dough to come to Japan, actually. And we continued over the years almost going there twice a year since 1989 to do promo and to play shows. We campaigned for decades. We felt like we had this family bond with our fans. Grew up together. A lot of the fans have become my friends over the years. And, yeah, there’s huge loyalty. When the music climate changed quite a bit in the late ’90s in America, Japan and the rest of Asia kept Western rock ‘n’ roll alive. And this was way before internet and e-mail. They would write letters and they’d put stamped envelopes and I’d be in my room writing postcards and letters after every show.
MM: At the Mohegan show you did “1992” and “Everybody Needs a Little Trouble” from the new album, Defying Gravity. Once the album is out, will you be doing different songs from the album or adding more songs from it?
EM: Yeah, yeah. We’re definitely working on that now. We’re trying to get maybe five or six going.
MM: That’d be really cool.
EM: I know. It’d definitely be cool to me. I mean, I don’t mind playing “Daddy Brother” and “To Be With You” and all that stuff. But I do like something new to sing about.
MM: I just read on Wikipedia that you wrote “To Be With You” when you were in high school. Is that correct?
EM: I was about 16, 17 years old and it was just this simple musical piece and a little lyrical idea. I had a girlfriend – well, I wanted her to be my girlfriend but she was… Her name is Pat, Patricia. And she read me poetry and she was gorgeous. And for the ’70s, she had this gothic look to her. Cleopatra looking, you know? And I fell for her immediately. And I wrote the song about her. I wrote the majority of it and later on in life – I want to say it was 1987, 1988 – I’d got a publishing deal and my publisher invited me to work with one of their songwriters, this guy David Grahame, and him and I got together and he goes what do you got? And I reached into my bag of cassettes and said I’ve been working on this song for years. This song I wrote when I was a kid called “To Be With You.” Maybe we could do something with this one? I remember him saying, this is really great. Maybe we ought to put a bass drum and hand-claps like “Give Peace A Chance.” And it worked. Mine was like – I’m not gonna say John Denver, but it was very Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Sing-songy chorus, but it didn’t have the groove, so Dave brought the groove and he added a couple words and then we both came up with this idea to modulate during the solo and then come back down to the standard key and it just worked out great. But, yeah, it all started when I was 16, 17, trying to impress my sister’s girlfriend. And, also, the song was written about this particular woman who dated everybody else around me.
MM: My last girlfriend kept telling me I was too nice. Maybe that’s why she broke up with me.
EM: Yeah. It’s funny you said that because I had tons of girlfriends in the early days and they were always like, you’re too nice, I like the bad boys.
MM: Defying Gravity originally was supposed to come out on the seventh, but now the CD comes out on the 21st and the vinyl comes out on August 18. What caused the delay?
EM: [Laughs] You’re funny. First of all, you’re talking to a musician so we’re, [makes funny voice] um… What caused the delay? [returns to normal voice] It was probably something with the Japanese release, European release, American release – it was probably whoever gets it first. Maybe not a bidding war but maybe some kind of weird shit right there.
MM: Any idea why it’s gonna be an extra month for the vinyl?
EM: I have no idea about that. I’m actually glad it is gonna be released on vinyl, but I don’t know. If you talk to Billy Sheehan, he might know. He’s the Wizard of Oz. He knows everything.
MM: I was wondering, though, since the album is around 50 minutes long, is the vinyl going to be split over two records and have everything? Or are they going to drop the last track or something to make it fit?
EM: I don’t know. This is not my expertise at all. I just got a record player. I’ve never been asked that question before. I might wanna research that. Is that a problem that they can’t fit enough songs on the record?
MM: I’m not sure.
EM: It’s only eleven songs.
MM: But the last one is 7 minutes, right?
EM: Oh, the “Be Kind” song? Yeah, that probably – if they’re gonna make it fit, they’ll get rid of the big jam at the end, you know?
MM: Yeah, we’ll see. Now, Kevin Elson produced the new album. I believe it’s the first time you worked with him since the first four albums. Why did it take so long for you guys to reunite?
EM: Ironically, I haven’t got an answer for ya. I’ve been pushing for Kevin Elson for years ’cause my whole theory was, if it ain’t broke, you know? He did an amazing job for us. And somebody in our camp decided we should work with other people and I always felt like that was the beginning of the kiss of death right there. Because he was kind of our fifth Beatle. Nothing against Richie Zito or Pat Reagan or Kevin Shirley, they were great with what they did. I love the records that they did, but Kevin Elson sort of helped us define our sound, you know what I mean? This situation was weird, too, because we really wanted to work with Kevin Elson, but at the time Kevin was super busy and he only had about six days to a week of a window to work with us. But we held out and we did the record in about six days and Kevin mixed it in about three and went on to do his other projects.
MM: I was surprised to hear it was recorded in six days. Is that a record for you guys?
EM: Hey, look, you and me both, man. You talk to the other guys in the band, Billy, Pat and Paul and they were like, oh, man, we love the challenge. I wasn’t prepared. I haven’t been in that situation in a long time. I feel like I can get out of a jam sometimes, but it felt like my back was against the wall. I didn’t have my shit together at all. I was scrambling for tunes. With The Stories We Could Tell album we did prior to this one I had a lot of material or a lot of riffs and ideas for the band. But Billy and Paul were on the road. And me and Pat Torpey pretty much arranged and took all the ideas from the band and kind of molded it into some songs. But he was just telling me he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the time. So, it was kind of a stressful album, but we did have months to work on it. But on this one I was freaked out because I only had three songs. But when I brought them into the studio I go, “Guys, I’m sorry.” Like I was supposed to save the day or something. Paul goes, “I’ve got seven songs, man. We’re good.” And even Billy brought in four or five songs. Two made it. But, man, everybody stepped up. But, ironically, I did write a couple of songs. One in particular, “Everybody Needs A Little Trouble,” everybody was – this is the story that I’m sticking to.
EM (CONT’D): One of the songs I brought in was kind of a heavy Evanescence type song and everybody in the band – they weren’t getting it. Or they weren’t seeing what I was seeing. When I go up with guys who know music theory and I’m trying to explain what the song is about, it’s like me going into a garage saying that my car is broke down and I go man, it sounds like this, it sounds like that. I don’t walk the talk when it comes to music. I’ll write it and give it to the guys and they’ll do their thing with it. I don’t know if I’m making sense, but it wasn’t making sense to the guys. They started working on some instrumental idea and I thought it was an insult. Long story short, while they were doing that I had a riff idea of Paul Gilbert’s, which was kind of a Bo Diddley kind of riff that he kept playing that he stuck on a CD for me. This was the beginning of the year and I went through it and wrote “Everybody Needs A Little Trouble.” The outline of it. And I was telling Kevin, can we drop the instrumental idea and do this one? “Yeah, cool.” Everybody was relaxed and comfortable.
There’s a video of us talking about the making of “Defying Gravity” and the one that came out first was the one with me in it in the beginning and I had a deer in the headlights kind of look because I’d just sang “1992.” Paul gave me the lyrics. I listened to his demo and then he taught it to Pat and our touring drummer Matt and Kevin and then he goes, here it is. And we did it and like 10, 15 minutes later the videographer [was] sticking his camera in my face going what are these songs about? You know, I’m like what? [Laughs] And when you see the other guys they’re calm, cool and collected but I was a frickin’ mess. It took me the whole U.S. to process the record. So, when you guys got the music, even though I sang it and wrote some of it, I was looking at it with fresh ears like you guys. I’m digging it now. I wasn’t digging it then. I was freaking out.
MM: I think it’s one of your best ones in years. You’ve had another guy who’s like the fifth Beatle, André –
EM: André Pessis.
MM: Yes! He’s been writing with you guys since the second album, I think.
MM: Did he help write anything on the new one?
EM: Um, yeah. Him and I are lyrical partners and he comes up with some music once in a while – like he has for my solo records – and him and I have been working together even before Mr. Big. When I got together with André he was working with Jonathan Cain of Journey. And I used to sing Jonathan’s demos. When he would write a song for Journey or something, that would be me singing on it. Steve Perry would also completely make it his own. That was a couple times of that. But André and I, yeah, we’re each others muse. We both live outside San Francisco in Marin County and we get in a room and tell a bunch of jokes, the corniest jokes ever. Two nuns walk into a bar, that kind of thing. Shoot the shit about religion and politics and love and love’s demise. War. Peace. Anything that comes up. By the end of the day, we’re got a couple of ideas and we write on it. We’ve written songs together that are, like, hey, you guys have gotta have this song out in a couple of days. And I like that kind of pressure. But when we did the Mr. Big album it was a lot more pressure. Because if you’re writing songs for other people it’s not your own. You definitely want to make it great and everything but it seems simple. But when you’re writing for yourself, and trying to better yourself, you don’t want to write the same song twice. Him and I and Paul Gilbert wrote “Defying Gravity” and “Everybody Needs a Little Trouble.” And a song called “She’s All Coming Back to Me Now” and this kind of political mumbo jumbo of a song called “Nothing At All.” That’s what we wrote together. But Paul Gilbert, he’s a writing machine. He wrote tons of songs. “1992,” “Mean to Me, “Open Your Eyes” and “Be Kind,” that sort of bluesy, swingy kind of doo wop song at the end of the record.
EM (CONT’D): It’s a unique sounding record. I’m glad you dig it. At the time I was thinking, oh, it’d be great to have a Lean Into It kind of album, do like the “Daddy Brother,” do like the fast tune, do the country song, do the ballad, but it didn’t come out that way. It’s just a collection of really unique songs. Some cool time signature songs that Paul’s famous for. And also on the solos that he did, all the ones he’s done before it was premeditated and pre-production, put together in great details. But this one was an improv. Big time. Even when he was doing “Everybody Needs a Little Trouble” me and Billy were filming him and then somebody came in and said Chuck Berry had just died. Oh, man. Paul just goes, oh, man, here’s what I think Chuck Berry would’ve done if he would’ve been in my size 13 shoes and ripped out a Chuck Berry kind of solo. Nothing planned. Right from the mind to the paper to bashing out the A chords or whatever.
MM: Did Lanny Cordola or Marti Fredricksen contribute to writing any of the new songs?
EM: No, they didn’t. Lanny Cordola, he was Pat’s guy for a long time and Pat wrote a bunch of songs with him on one of our albums called Actual Size. And he was a quirky writer. Pat and him wrote “Cheap Little Thrill,” if you want to check that out. Really supersonic space and weird words in and it was super ambiguous. He’s a great writer, but, no he didn’t work on this one. And Marti Fredricksen is an old pal of mine. Worked on some solo stuff together. No, nothing really came together for this one.
MM: I’ve read that Marti Fredricksen is a huge star in Japan.
EM: I don’t know about that. I don’t have my pulse on the street about every musician, but Marti – I don’t know how he is now – but when I first met him I was doing an album called Somewhere in the Middle, one of my solo albums. And Marti and I wrote that song and he looked like a surfer kid from L.A. Then after us working together he went on to work with Joe Perry and Steven Tyler. He was in that camp for a while. He produced the 9 Lives record. He got his foot in the door. He does a lot of work. He produces a lot of work in Japan. Japanese artists and all of that.
MM: I know he’s been on a lot of J-Pop stuff I listen to. Someone was telling me he does something with one of those crazy Japanese game shows, but I don’t know for sure.
EM: Could’ve been. Before Mr. Big got back together, I’d seen Paul Gilbert at some clinics over the years and popped my head into a music store and we were talking and playing. And I went on Youtube and there’s Paul Gilbert on a Japanese variety show cooking. Cooking. And playing rock ‘n’ roll music.
MM: They have people do weird shit on those.
EM: Oh yeah, but they keep rock alive, you know?
MM: Absolutely. And I’m grateful for it.
Click here for part two of our interview with Eric Martin and order Mr. Big’s new album, Defying Gravity, today! At the time this post is being published on 7/20/17, you can get the deluxe edition, which comes with a DVD of videos, interviews and more, for only $8.99, which is less than it would cost you to download it!
Extra special thanks to Amanda Cagan for arranging the interview and to Eric for taking the time to do it!