Myles Kennedy can still remember the exact day he auditioned for Led Zeppelin. It was Friday, June 13, 2008, 24 hours before his band Alter Bridge were due to appear on the main stage at the Download festival.
Alter Bridge were riding high on the on the back of their second album, Blackbird, as close to a full-blown stadium rock record as this century had thrown up so far, and Kennedy was a key part of their success. An unashamed belter, his to-the-back-row-and-beyond holler was a throwback to the glory days of the 70s and 80s.
That’s probably why Jimmy Page decided to get in touch with him. Zeppelin themselves were in a rather strange place. Their high-profile reunion show at the end of 2007 had sparked a huge appetite for a tour. The only problem was that Robert Plant point-blank refused to do it. Searching around for a potential surrogate, their eyes settled on Kennedy.
“It was Jason Bonham who reached out,” says Kennedy today. “I hadn’t talked to him in years, since we did the Rock Star movie together. He called me when we were on tour and said, ‘Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and I are in London jamming, and we were wondering if you’d be up for coming in?’”
Kennedy thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. And so on that fateful Friday, he found himself walking into a London rehearsal studio to be greeted by Page, Bonham and John Paul Jones. “I was completely freaking out, as you would,” remembers Kennedy.
Introductions were made, nerves were calmed, gear was plugged in and the quartet began to play. At first they jammed on a few old Zeppelin songs, but then they began to ease into material Kennedy had never heard before – nothing more than sketches with the singer scatting over the top, but new material nonetheless. When they finished, Kennedy announced he was going to get a cab to the station to get a train to Birmingham ahead of Download the following day.
“Then Jimmy said: ‘John and I are going to drive you to the train station’,” says Kennedy. “On the drive, Jimmy and John Paul told me what they were considering. It was a new project, it wasn’t going to be Led Zeppelin, and would I be interested in perhaps singing with them? My answer – and this is the dumbest answer of all time – was: ‘Well, yeah, you guys are pretty much the shit. [Embarrassed laugh] I cannot believe I said that.”
There was a second, four-day rehearsal the following September, but Kennedy kept his expectations in check. He knew they were trying out other singers, among them Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, and that Page and Jones were the sort of people who like to keep their cards close to their chests anyway.
“They were just trying to figure out what was going on with all the Led Zeppelin stuff, and trying to see if the whole situation was appropriate,” says Kennedy. “I heard back from their managers a few months later, and they’d decided not to do it.”
He shrugs and smiles philosophically. “Man, it would have been amazing. But just to have been in the same room as those guys was something I’d never even dreamed of.”
That’s a typical Myles Kennedy response right there. Where the majority of people who might have found themselves in that situation would show a flicker of annoyance or frustration at having such a grand opportunity snatched away, the Alter Bridge man takes the path of modesty every time.
It puts him in an odd place. Since guitarist Mark Tremonti, bassist Brian Marshall and drummer Scott Phillips recruited Kennedy to join the band they’d formed from the ashes of the reviled post‑grunge outfit Creed in 2004, Alter Bridge’s ascent has been a slow but steady one. Their new album, The Last Hero, reached No.3 in the UK charts, and they’re one of only a handful of straight-ahead rock bands who can confidently fill out arenas (in Europe, if not their native America).
But Kennedy doesn’t always seem at ease with the role of larger-than-life frontman. Sure, he can belt it out onstage, and he’s steeped in the history of rock’n’roll enough to know how to keep thousands of people engaged every night. But offstage, though he’s never less than friendly, he’s quieter and more reserved than you’d expect; nervy even. Not for him the self-aggrandisement that comes with the job. If he is a rock star, he seems like a reluctant one.
“I’m a guitar player, that’s how I see myself,” he says. “The frontman thing… I think I’ve become accustomed to it now, but I still feel more comfortable if I have my guitar. Some people thrive on fame and love the way it feeds the ego. But I think that’s very odd. To be so famous – which I’m definitely not – that you can’t go to the grocery story is kind of unthinkable.”
Isn’t being famous and relishing the spotlight part of the job of being a rock star?
“I would agree with you,” he says. “But the days of David Lee Roth and Steven Tyler I think are gone. It’s partly down to the way the business is – kids don’t want to be rock stars. But also, people want great music first and foremost. It’s about the songs. At least it is for me.”
In many ways, Alter Bridge is a strange fit for Kennedy. After leaving school, he enrolled in college to study music. It was there that he fell in love with jazz, learning the theory behind the music and soundtracking his life with the likes of Steely Dan’s Aja and Miles Davis’s landmark 1959 album Kind Of Blue, as well as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
His first professional band, Cosmic Dust, brought together jazz, funk and rock, allowing Kennedy free reign to take things off into the sort of places he would likely never go with Alter Bridge. Successive groups Citizen Swing and The Mayfield Four found him reining in the jazz, but incorporating more soulful elements into proceedings.
“But I’m a rock kid at heart,” he says. “Queen, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses – those were the bands that made me want to do this.”
Kennedy grew up in Spokane, Washington, in a religious household. His parents were Christian Scientists, and he was raised in the church – something he describes as “pretty hardcore”. When he was four, his father died.
“As a Christian Scientist my father wouldn’t have surgery,” he says. “They believe that God’s will, through divine power, will heal everything. He held steadfast with his beliefs and wouldn’t see a doctor. He passed away.”
After the death of his father, his mother remarried – this time to a Methodist minister. Kennedy found himself transposed from one religious denomination to another.
“They’re both still Methodists,” he says. “But I have issues with religion. My stepfather, he’s awesome. He’s a liberal thinker, but it still doesn’t work for me. I’m with Karl Marx. Religion is the opiate of the masses.”
If Kennedy isn’t haunted by his father’s early death, it certainly remains in the back of his mind. “I think about death a lot. I think it’s because I lost my dad when I was so young. It messed me up. It made me very anxious. I’m an anxious person, and that is a big part of it.”
How does that anxiety manifest itself? Are you talking anxiety attacks?
“Yeah. I don’t have a ton of them, but I do have them occasionally and they suck.”
Where do you think they come from?
“Sometimes it just happens. But you know what, one thing is that I’m a people pleaser by nature. I want people around me to be happy, and I sometimes probably try a little too hard to make them happy. When I sense that they’re not, I get concerned. That’s sometimes difficult.”
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You can hear traces of that anxiety on The Last Hero. Its worldly and personal concerns may come wrapped up in familiar arena-sized choruses and deceptively hard-edged guitars, but they’re still there if you listen hard enough.
The song that trailed the album, Show Me A Leader, couldn’t have been more timely. ‘They’re selling another messiah here tonight,’ sings Kennedy. ‘But we’re all way too numb and divided to buy it.’ The singer insists that it’s a general broadside at those in power rather than specifically about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but it could easily be aimed at either of the presidential candidates – or more likely both.
“We’re just trying to take the pulse of what a lot of people around us are thinking and saying,” he says. “People are generally disillusioned with that whole process. There was a time when people trusted leadership implicitly – you didn’t question things. Then Watergate and Nixon went down, and people became more cautious. The world is in a dark place right now. You can’t just stick your head in the sand over it.”
The album’s other key track, the slow-burning Cradle To The Grave, finds Kennedy addressing bereavement and mortality. “That song deals with a few things that were going on in my life,” he says. “As the lyric was being written, my mother-in-law was very ill. It basically analyses the idea that as time goes on, the people we care about and have had around us in our lives for as long as we can remember won’t necessarily be there. It’s coming to terms with the brevity of life. Unfortunately, by the time we recorded the vocal, she had passed away, so it was pretty heavy. It was hard to sing. It was difficult to even listen back to the song.”
Personal obstacles aside, Alter Bridge’s rise hasn’t been as smooth as it might look from the outside. Early in their career, they had to buy themselves out of their deal with their label Wind-Up Records. It’s not the only time they’ve been through a debilitating business situation.
“We’ve been through so many record labels, so many managers and business managers,” says Kennedy. “We’ve had a lot of battles on that front. There are times when the music business beats you down. Where you wonder exactly why you’re doing this.”
So why do you carry on playing in a band? Why not just jack it in?
“Because of the music. How much joy we get out of making and playing music, and ultimately seeing how that music has an effect on another human being and just feeling that you do have a purpose on this planet. That trumps any of those business issues that can be such a pain in your ass.”
So do you feel like Alter Bridge are now a successful band?
“Yeah, I feel like we’re successful. We’ve managed to build up a passionate and solid fanbase that has stuck with us for all these years. That’s really all you can ask for at this point, especially with how challenging the music business has become, especially for rock’n’roll bands.”
Are you frustrated that you aren’t bigger than you currently are in America?
“No. We spent so much time building the UK and mainland Europe, which has worked. The States is a different market. Hard rock just doesn’t have the interest it used to. There are a handful of bands, younger bands, who can play arenas there, but a lot of the time they’re doing big package tours. We’re still able to play theatres and decent-sized venues, so we’re doing alright.”
Okay, are you frustrated that you haven’t made that mainstream breakthrough? That you‘re still a niche band?
“You’re right that we haven’t made that huge breakthrough, but feeling frustrated? No, actually, I really like it. I like the idea that we can play to this many people, who really passionately dig what we’re doing.”
When we ask what people get out of Alter Bridge that they don’t get out of other bands, his answer is endearingly earnest.
“The songs. The emotions seem to resonate with people. They’re universal, for lack of a better word. Some bands have those gimmicks which hook people in. We don’t have that. I guess our hook is just the songs, and being as genuine as we can be.”
Once again, that’s as good a self-appraisal of Myles Kennedy, reluctant rock star and nearly member of Led Zeppelin, as you’ll get. For a man who is in one of rock’s most consistently successful bands – two if you count his membership of Slash’s side project, with whom he’s made two full albums – he’s got every right to carry an ego with him.
“I never wanted to be that guy singing in the spotlight,” he says. “I started off as a guitar player. I knew I could sing to a point, but I also knew that I really didn’t want to be the centre of attention. That’s the hardest thing for me. I’ve grown used to it, but it’s been a learning process.
“Speaking for myself, I’m not hardwired for a situation where we would have massive success and you get recognised everywhere you go. It’s just not in my DNA. That’s not something I’d deal with well. In fact, I think if that were to happen, I probably wouldn’t last very long.”
7 Records That Changed My Life
Queen – News Of The World (1977)
The first album I bought was Queen’s News Of The World, when I was six. They always played We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions at ball games, and me and my friends had a little baseball game going. We lost, but then someone started playing this in the background, and suddenly I didn’t feel so bad. It was an early introduction to the healing power of music [laughs].
Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue (1959)
I’m a big fan of jazz, and that’s the textbook jazz record. It’s perfection. I was studying music when I first heard it, and I was listening to the college jazz station when [opening track] So What came on. I was still kind of a rocker, but the melodies were so good that it transcended all that. And it’s the record where I kinda learned how the birds and bees work, if you get what I’m saying…
Guns N’ Roses – Appetite For Destruction (1987)
If aliens landed tomorrow and I had to play them one album that defines hard rock, it would be Appetite For Destruction. I think what’s so great about that record is how real it is. The stories are so believable because they lived them. All the emotions are genuine.
Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life (1976)
Songs In The Key Of Life by Stevie Wonder was the album that changed the way I wrote music. I heard it when I was 20 or so, and I was a rock guy, writing riffs and whatnot. But when I heard Songs In The Key Of Life, I was blown away. I took a different avenue, took things into more soulful territory.
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971)
Around the same time, I heard What’s Going On. The emotion in the music, that Marvin Gaye was conveying in the sound, it was so different. I’d heard nothing quite like it. To be that socially aware and put those things on a record at that time, it takes balls.
Chris Whitley – Dirt Floor (1998)
I’m going through a massive Chris Whitley phase. He was an American singer who did kind of a modern version of the blues, but there was an authenticity I heard in his voice and guitar playing that I hadn’t heard before. You can hear his brilliance shine through.
Earth, Wind & Fire – The Essential Earth, Wind & Fire (1999)
This is the album I’d want played at my funeral. They’re funky as fuck, their horn lines are brilliant, it’s very positive music. What better way to go?