“Choosing the guitar was all about finding my identity. I was a real late bloomer, a small kid who couldn’t keep up with my peers at sports. So when I got into music I was really dedicated. It made it easier to exist as a troubled adolescent – it was an outlet.”
Myles Kennedy is reflecting on how he got to where he is today. And right now it looks like a great place to be. TG meets with the Alter Bridge frontman and guitar ace Mark Tremonti in London, following a jaw-dropping comeback gig. The band have just played a clutch of anthemic songs from their long-awaited second album Blackbird, in front of a sold-out crowd of hardcore fans at a packed Camden Underworld. It’s only the second time they’ve ever played the new material live and they should sound rusty, but tonight they’re on fire. It’s certainly a long way from Rapscallion…
“They were my first band,” laughs Myles, “and the first song we wrote was called The House That Jack Built. I’m really ashamed to admit this – and I must add that I didn’t write the lyrics, the bass player did – but the song was about masturbation, apparently. I only wrote the riff, so I’m not responsible for the content!”
Well, we all have to start somewhere, and for Mark Tremonti, inspiration came from a certain face-painted lead guitarist: “It was Ace Frehley. My big brother Mike listened to KISS and I didn’t care about anybody else in that band except for Ace. I wanted to play a black Les Paul like him – that was it for me.”
Mark’s family also helped him to hone his writing skills… “I remember the first good song I ever wrote; I didn’t want to show it to anybody and I never named it. I wrote it about my brother because he’d gone through some problems at the time – I still have the tape of it that I recorded on my four-track.”
The original Alter Bridge axeman caught the heavy metal bug from an early age, but before finding his future bandmates in Creed, he suddenly found himself alone as a metalhead in high school: “I grew up in Detroit, so it was very common to listen to Metallica, Slayer and Venom – all the heavy stuff. The first gig I ever went to was Iron Maiden at the Silverdome where I was surrounded by people who were into the same things. But when I was 15 I moved down to Florida and became the outsider again. Nobody had even heard Metallica at the prep school I went to. I had to wear a tie!”
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While mark was struggling to find acceptance among classmates who favoured Janet Jackson and C+C Music Factory records, Myles was dealing with his first ever gig in his hometown of Spokane, Washington involving another band with another dodgy name… “We were called Saliax. It sounds like the name of a medication, doesn’t it? I’d only been playing guitar for a year at this point. We played Zeppelin’s Rock N’ Roll, Maiden’s Wrathchild, The Temple Of Syrinx by Rush and [Elvis Presley’s] Jailhouse Rock. We started off all right, but then we just tanked!”
Mark’s first gigs, on the other hand, involved devil worshipping in a church. Well, kind of… “Once a month they would have concerts at this church in town and it was weird. All these hard rock bands would play in this cafeteria in a local church playing songs like Shout At The Devil. I was only 13 years old at the time.”
Mark’s days of playing churches are long past now, and while Saliax may not have made the grade, those aware of Myles’ pre-Alter Bridge band The Mayfield Four (who released two albums in 1998 and 2001) won’t be surprised to hear that the singer plays guitar on and co-wrote every song on Blackbird. But his talents were something of a revelation to Mark…
“I had no idea how good he was!” Mark admits. “He would stay at my house after he first joined the band when we were practising, and one night I went by his room and could hear the sound of a guitar playing. I thought it was a tape or a CD at first. He was much, much better than I ever thought he would be. I thought he was just a rhythm player!”
The guitar addiction that would equip Myles with the skills needed to win a full-time slot with Alter Bridge began in the basement of his childhood home: “I would sit in the same spot on the carpet to learn stuff,” explains Myles. “When we moved three years later, there was this indent from my ass on the carpet where I’d been playing guitar for eight hours a day!”
Myles learned his guitarchops on a heavy diet of jazz fusionists, but as his aspirations advanced, it was the late Jeff Buckley that gave him the confidence to be a frontman: “I’m a tenor and that wasn’t really the flavour of the month, so Jeff had a massive effect on me.”
Mark’s inspirations, however, are still alive and shredding and he’s even been lucky enough to meet quite a few of them. “Once it was me, Vinnie Moore and John Petrucci in a room with some guitars, but John had a broken arm, which was pretty frustrating for him. I said, ‘I bet you just wish you could play right now!’
“I also got to jam with Buddy Guy in his bar in Chicago” says Mark. “It was early in my career, and my playing wasn’t as solid then. So when he invited me onstage to play Happy Birthday for his assistant with him I was terrified. The band was playing in F, which is an uncomfortable place to solo because it was a half step off from my comfort zone then!”
Despite a practice regime that sees him playing for up to eight hours a day on tour, Mark can now share the guitar load for the first time ever. Blackbird is the sound of a heavier and more layered band because of this, most notably on the album’s eight-minute title track. “We worked on that track for about a year,” Myles reveals, “and I think it needed that time to evolve. We really wanted to orchestrate the guitars carefully so it grew into something special.” That song is also of particular significance to Myles; not long after its completion, a friend of his passed away. “The song is about me wanting him to find his peace, which he did.”
Although dark themes exist on Blackbird, the Alter Bridge message is ultimately one of hope. “It’s one of the reasons I thought it would be great to be part of this band,” says Myles. “The music has such a powerful and hopeful vibe. There’s aggression, but there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”
And in that message is a reflection of the men behind the music – men without an ego in sight. “There are too many great musicians out there playing on the same stages for there to be egos,” Mark says candidly. “I guess some bands might play a show with Van Halen and think they’re hot shit. But if we played with EVH I wouldn’t be able to believe it at all!”
This article first appeared in Total Guitar Magazine issue 169.