Mark Tremonti was once in Ozzy Osbourne’s road crew. Well, briefly. The Alter Bridge guitarist was at college in Clemson, South Carolina, when he saw a sign-up sheet promising the job to the first students who put their names down. It was 40 dollars for eight hours’ work, but to the 18-year-old finance major from Detroit it was the chance to get close to his heroes.
“They asked for volunteers to stay until two in the morning, and I said: ‘I’ll stay’,” he recalls. “It was no extra pay, but they said you’ll get to meet Ozzy or go on his tour bus or something. I did get to go on his tour bus, he wasn’t on the bus… I pretty much sat in the back and wrapped up cables in big huge boxes. But I got to see the show. It was Sepultura opening up, I think, and Alice In Chains was on that bill too, so it was pretty awesome.”
Tremonti’s bandmate, Alter Bridge singer/ guitarist Myles Kennedy, turns towards him curiously. We’re in the upstairs bar of a smart hotel in West London. It’s quiet as the morning’s well-heeled guests file in and out, and gold trolleys of expensive suitcases linger in the foyer.
“What tour was this?” Kennedy asks.
“It was…” Tremonti thinks, “maybe No More Tears?”
“So Zakk [Wylde, guitarist] was playing?” the singer asks, raising his eyebrows.
“Of everybody, I wanted to meet Zakk Wylde,” Tremonti says. “I got to hold his guitar, and a guy came to me at the end of the night and was like: ‘Oh, Zakk was looking for you!’”
He rolls his eyes. “Like, sure he was…”
Kennedy totally gets it. Back in 2001 he appeared in the film Rockstar alongside Wylde. Jennifer Aniston and Mark Wahlberg were the Hollywood stars, but Kennedy was far more excited to meet the Ozzy/Black Label Society man.
“He was so cool!” he gushes. “I mean… after we were done shooting he was like: ‘Hey, come on my trailer and we’ll have a beer together!’ So I’m sitting having a beer with Zakk Wylde, and he gave me a box of his guitar strings. I kept one set. I actually gave the rest to another guy I met in Spokane who named his son Zakk after Zakk Wylde, so I was like: ‘You should have these…’”
That’s Kennedy and Tremonti for you right there: proper geeks at heart, who happen to be two of the biggest and least egotistical rock stars of modern times. You don’t interview them expecting dirt or salacious gossip. If you looked up the term ‘nice guy’ in a dictionary, those two would be two of the first entries.
This probably makes them sound terribly righteous, but they’re not. Kennedy and Tremonti were music nerds first and foremost, and they still are. Sitting side by side on the sofa, they look like two friends you’d find in a record shop, probably doing a deep-dive through the speed metal section (Tremonti) and jazz racks (Kennedy).
“We just keep our nose to the ground and do what we do,” says Tremonti, modest to a fault, “because we love writing music.”
“I think both of us, we’ve never felt…” Kennedy searches for the words. “I’m not cool. I mean, neither one of us is cool, I don’t think. We kind of embrace that. We don’t try and put on a front. And that’s something that as a frontman I really struggled with, because a lot of times people expect the frontman to be this very charismatic and cool guy. But you learn to do ‘you’.”
“I dunno, I’m not really me as a frontman, I’m more like a WWF wrestler!” Tremonti says with a chuckle, flexing his inked biceps with a comically butch grunt. “With me it’s like turning on a light switch when you hit the stage. I try to be like Popeye when he eats his spinach up there.”
Both men have had a lot of practice lately. The tour for Alter Bridge’s previous album, 2016’s The Last Hero (which reached No.3 in the UK chart) – was their biggest ever, and included two sold-out nights at London’s Royal Albert Hall with a full symphony orchestra.
Alongside this, in 2018 Kennedy released his solo debut, Year Of The Tiger (an intensely personal reflection on the death of his father, and his mother’s fortitude in the face of it), while Tremonti made his first concept record (the dystopian fantasy A Dying Machine) and wrote a novel to accompany it.
Then there was the new Slash record, Living The Dream, Kennedy’s third with the Guns N’ Roses guitarist. Meanwhile, bassist Brian Marshall sold houses with his wife (part of his parallel life as a real-estate broker), and drummer Scott Philips worked on other gigs including the supergroup Projected, which also includes members of Sevendust and Tremonti’s self-titled band.
All that, in addition to things like family time (Kennedy is married, and the rest of them all have children), and stopping to draw breath once in a while.
Somehow it’s all led to the reason we’re here today: to talk about the new Alter Bridge record, Walk The Sky. So how did they feel, coming back to the day job after such a consistently packed couple of years or so?
“Good,” Kennedy says, looking calmly upbeat. “I mean, personally, having the opportunity to do a solo record that was more acoustic-based was great for me, because it kinda let me get that off my chest. And then when it was time to shift gears and do a rock record, I was ready to turn up the distortion and riff out. So yeah, it felt good to me.”
“We have the luxury of starting anew every time we get back together because we’re doing these other projects,” Tremonti adds. “I think if we just stayed in one band it’d get stale. We’ve been able to branch out and do other things and you bring new experiences back into Alter Bridge.”
Aren’t you at least a bit knackered?
“There can be an element of that when you’re constantly on the go, switching from tour to record to writing and press,” Kennedy says. “It’s a big commitment, and I think we knew what we were embarking on when we decided to do these various projects. You really have to enjoy the process.”
“You’re not shovelling shit any more, at least,” Tremonti says. He’s not speaking metaphorically. Spending much of his childhood on a farm in Spokane, Washington, Kennedy saved up for his first guitar by shovelling horse manure.
Over in Detroit, meanwhile, the young Tremonti earned extra dollars working at the Octopus Car Wash. These blue-collar roots had a lasting impact. “My [step]-dad would give me a dollar for every stall I cleaned,” Kennedy recalls. “When you’re not shovelling horse manure with a pitchfork any more, you’ll take that any day of the week.”
For all the contrasting side hustles the band’s lead pair have busied themselves with, latest record Walk The Sky still sounds unmistakably like an Alter Bridge album – neither leaning on the singer-songwriter sensibilities of Year Of The Tiger (which gleefully capitalised on Kennedy’s fondness for the likes of Jeff Buckley and Chris Whitley), nor the metallic meat of A Dying Machine.
Given the subject matter of Year Of the Tiger, you wonder how Kennedy’s mother reacted to it, and how it’s affected his creative endeavours since.
“Good question,” he muses. “When she spent some time with the record, and called me and told me how much she enjoyed it, it was a bit of a sigh of relief, because it’s such a personal story. I was concerned about [showing] respect to her. But I think she realised that although a lot of that record was about loss, it was also a tribute to her fortitude through the whole process.
"She might be one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. She loses her spouse, but she’s got these two young boys in tow and she’s like: ‘I’m gonna look out for these little youngsters. I’m not gonna let them down.’”
For Walk The Sky Kennedy and Tremonti wrote songs separately for the first time, sharing demos in a Dropbox folder during the run-up to recording (with longtime producer Michael ‘Elvis’ Baskette) in an intense five-week blast.
Billed as a kind of “spiritual follow-up” to the dark disillusionment of 2010’s AB III (which was loosely based on a character struggling to find their place in a world full of doubt), it blends melodic, muscular hard rock with contemplative lyrical introspection. A sense of understanding and acceptance, perhaps, without suggesting that the world is all roses.
This was, at least in part, informed by Kennedy’s time spent reading up on Eastern philosophies and the work of [US mythologist/writer] Joseph Campbell. His own cultural digest is an interesting mix of science and spirituality. He’s just finished a book on the future of genetic engineering, and has also recently re-read Ram Dass’s Be Here Now (the spiritual leader’s 1971 book on spirituality, yoga and meditation).
Today he refers to his stage self as “a vibe merchant”, but he is attuned to the gnarlier realities of 21st-century living as well; the Zen-minded yin to Tremonti’s sci-fi and fantasy-reading yang.
“There’s so much bad shit in this world,” he says bluntly. “There’s so much divisiveness, and it’s such a difficult time that we’re seeing. And I’m like: ‘Y’know what? Enough of that. Let’s just come together under the umbrella of music and let’s… This is our rock’n’roll church, and let’s break bread together with some rock’n’roll.”
This brings to mind a lyric in Tear Us Apart: ‘Don’t let the world tear us apart.’ On one level it’s a very simple, unremarkable line, but it feels like an underlying ethos of the album.
“I totally agree with that,” he says. “Because that’s what’s happening, the world is tearing us apart. We’ve gotta figure this out. And I think one of the ways to do that is through fellowship, coming together under a common theme. Whether it’s sports, music, art, film, we need to keep coming together, away from these things (he holds up his mobile phone), these phones.”
Not that it’s a total Zen-fest, or that they’re philosophising at the expense of straight-ahead heavy rock pleasure. “Oh no, that would be the worst!” Kennedy says, laughing. “In fact, if you did a rock album solely of just total Zen…"
“You think of Jared Leto,” Tremonti cuts in. “You see him backstage, and he sits with his fans and he almost seems like a religious leader."
Still, Alter Bridge incite their fair share of fan adoration. VIP meet-and-greet packages at gigs go for up to $175. At the Royal Albert Hall shows last year, they signed autographs for fans from as far afield as Russia, Brazil, Japan and New Zealand. Lifelong fans have formed friendships through the band.
There have been marriages. There have been tattoos of the band’s faces on various body parts. But like we say, Alter Bridge are music nerds themselves. They’ve been rock and metal fanboys all their lives. So when they see such displays of devotion, however weird it might feel, you feel there must be a big part of them that gets it.
“Yeah. I mean, we were those guys. We were those fans,” Tremonti says. “When I met some of my heroes when I was younger, I remember being speechless. So when you have a younger person coming up to you and acting that way, you get it…”
He stops, and adds quickly: “I don’t believe that I’m in the shoes of the people I used to look up to, but we appreciate every single one of them [our fans] for going out of their way to find someone to babysit the kids, or taking time off work, or coming to another city to see us for show after show.”
“Absolutely. It says a lot,” Kennedy agrees. “I mean, we have fans that follow us all over the world. And the fact that they’re that devoted is… It blows our minds, it really does. There’ll be times when I look at them while we’re playing and register how happy they are, watch them interact with each other, and know that some of them didn’t know each other before they came together. You thank your lucky stars to be a part of it.”
It’s almost time to part ways. The two men have another day of promo in London before heading off to Paris and Berlin. Later this year the full band will be back in the UK to play shows, with the prospect of enhanced production.
Indeed, for a band so enamoured with the big-scale theatrics of Metallica and Iron Maiden (Kennedy even worked an acoustic cover of Maiden’s The Trooper into last year’s solo tour), Alter Bridge’s shows have always been rather strippedback, “letting the songs speak for themselves”.
This time, however, things should be different. “You always try and learn from the best, y’know,” Kennedy says. “Have you seen [French metallers] Gojira’s shows? Like, wowwww! It’s so good. It’s tasteful. It’s like the metal of the future. I have a feeling that the brothers [Joe and Mario Duplantier] had a lot to do with that. They’re both such visionaries.
"So yeah, there are a lot of things we look at that make us think: ‘Hey, we need to up our game a bit.’ But we’ve got people now that we’ve met who are really great. The things we can’t do, we’re integrating them into the family, and I think that’s gonna help a lot.”
“We’d never had that band member that’s the visual visionary,” Tremonti adds. “We’re always so focused on the music, it’s so hard to come out with the visual aspect. But we realise how important that is. A lot of the times it’s something last-minute: ‘Oh, let’s throw some fireworks in there’ or something.’”
Some pyro, CO2 cannons, shoot someone out of a cannon maybe…
“Now you’re talking!” says Kennedy, beaming. “We’ll shoot Mark out of a cannon while he’s playing his guitar solo, finger-tapping!”
You read it here first, folks.
Alter Bridge's UK tour kicks off this Saturday in Nottingham. Tickets are on sale now.
Alter Bridge UK tour
Dec 14: Nottingham Motorpoint Arena, UK
Dec 15: Manchester Arena, UK
Dec 17: Glasgow SSE Hydro, UK
Dec 18: Birmingham Arena, UK
Dec 20: Cardiff Motorpoint Arena, UK
Dec 21: London O2 Arena, UK