Mark Tremonti: Unsung Hero

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Despite our auspicious surroundings, Mark Tremonti looks very comfortable. Today we’ve accompanied the Alter Bridge guitarist, and solo artist in his own right, into the depths of London’s Hard Rock Cafe, to a place they call The Vault, where we’re surrounded by the cream of their memorabilia. From handwritten lyrics by John Lennon to… er… Madonna’s credit card, you can’t move an inch without seeing something that leaves you in awe.

Most of the items are guitars, and you suspect this is why Mark feels so at home. Because, whether they used to be owned by Slash, Joe Satriani, Jimmy Page or Kurt Cobain, Mark is firmly in his comfort zone surrounded by six-strings. We at Hammer, on the other hand, aren’t so relaxed. In our excitement, we accidentally kick Joe Satriani’s custom axe onto the floor. Guilty looks are exchanged. “That’s OK, I won’t tell,” laughs Mark. “If it’d been Jeff Beck’s, on the other hand…” he says, eyeing up the bluesman’s weathered strat./o:p

In his early 20s, when his first band, Creed, became one of the biggest acts on Earth, this unassuming gent was thrust into the media spotlight. Despite Creed’s success, they were notoriously divisive and, after they split in 2004, Mark regrouped and formed Alter Bridge.

From here, we all know the story: AB slowly but surely began to change the perception of Mark and his former Creed bandmates, thanks to some brilliant hard rock albums and flawless live shows. In 2012, Mark released his first solo album, All I Was, under the name Tremonti, show- casing a heavier, more metal-influenced direction. Now he’s returning to the project with the release of new album Cauterize. It features the kind of melodically inclined light and shade with which he’s always delighted fans, while ramping up the influence of his heavily publicised love for Metallica and Slayer’s speed-metal riffage.

Do you want to sit on Freddie Mercury’s throne? We ask, as we sit down to pick his brains. “Nah,” he chuckles. “I wouldn’t do that to Freddie…” /o:p

He may not be Freddie, but Mark has seemingly morphed into that rarest of things in 2015: the guitar hero. Voted Guitarist Of The Year three years running by Guitar World Magazine, and the fourth greatest metal guitarist of all time by Total Guitar in 2011, it’s easy, listening to Cauterize, to understand why. On many of its 10 tracks, it’s like listening to the bastard son of James Hetfield and Slash being let loose. You wonder how long this kind of record has been pent up inside him.

“Well, it took me a while to get my hands on a guitar,” he says, when asked about his first experience with the instrument that would come to shape his life. “I went round my buddy’s house and his brother had one. I so wanted to go in there and try it, but my friend was like, ‘He won’t let you. He’s a dick!’

“Then I was obsessed. I’d seen Back To The Future with Michael J. Fox rocking Chuck Berry, which was so cool, and [1986 musical drama] Crossroads where Steve Vai and Ralph Macchio go at it [in a guitar duel], and it was one of the sickest things I’d ever seen. I asked my parents for a guitar for Christmas. First Christmas goes by; no guitar. Second Christmas; same. Eventually, a guy sold me his black imitation Les Paul for 10 bucks. I took it home, it played like shit, but I just sat there trying to learn how to play it. I didn’t take lessons, just started trying to write. Firstly with just my thumb!”/o:p

It was, says Mark, as he talks about his upbringing in Grosse Pointe, Michigan as the only music-obsessed member of his family, the archetypal piece of ‘tough love’.

“It was tantalisingly out of reach,” he laughs. “But my dad not getting me that guitar just made me want to play it even more. It made me want to get it with my own money, to play the shit out of it, to be the best I could be. If he’d said, ‘Hey son, here’s the best guitar in the world!’ I might not have appreciated it as much.”

It was this, along with being the first wannabe musician in the family, and a little sibling rivalry, that Mark classes as his earliest inspirations.

“None of my family were musical,” he begins. “My dad and my brother Dan are artists, but they never told me to turn it down… actually, my brother would tell me I sucked all the time! I’d play a lick and he’d say, ‘Can you play a whole song from start to finish?’ and I’d be like, ‘No’, all deflated. But now they’re fans! Dan even runs my record label. I sure showed him! Ha ha ha!”

Mark describes his first experience of playing with a band as “sloppy, nasty and mean” and “trying to be like Black Flag”. It wasn’t until he got to college that he progressed beyond “guitar for beginners”, but he struggles to pinpoint the exact moment he felt he became the sort of player those in the rock world place upon a pedestal. Possibly because of Creed’s terrifyingly quick rise to superstardom, and possibly because of the instrument’s omnipresence in his life.

However it happened, Mark is now one of the most successful and revered guitarists of the 21st century. Although the man himself isn’t entirely comfortable with the whole ‘guitar hero’ tag…

“No, I’ll never be thought of in the same way as Eddie Van Halen!” he shoots back instantly, after it’s put to him that he belongs in the same lineage as players of that magnitude. “I mean, I’d love to. It’d be an honour. But there are so many guitar players now and it’s already been done. Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton came out and did those things, and now you’re just copying or refining what they did. Look at Guthrie Govan [a touring guitarist in Steven Wilson’s band] – great player, but outside of the guitar world no one knows who he is.”/o:p

There’s an element of truth in that, of course, but when you think of the guitar heroes of yesteryear, you’re often struck with a picture in your mind of their image as much as you’re reminded of their music. From Slash’s top hat to Keith Richards’ legendary lifestyle, those things are all part of the makeup of the original superhero rockstar guitar player.

“Oh, trust me,” he sighs. “For years, I’ve had people asking, ‘What’s your thing, man? You gotta have a gimmick!’ Pfft! You’re looking at it! I put my foot on my monitor a lot, people imitate that! I bang my head a lot. I wear black t-shirts. That’s my thing.”

That kind of intrusion sounds like it would get annoying after a while…

“Nah, people just want what’s best for you,” he grins. “And if you look at the example of someone like Slash, you can’t take his guitar-playing away from him. He’s got the look, but he’s got his own playing style, too. He sits in with B.B. King, Zakk Wylde and us, and he kicks ass with all of them. So I respect that.”

That may be true, but there is a sneaking suspicion that Mark doesn’t quite feel that way about some of his other peers. On a couple of occasions, he uses the phrase “all about the music” with an edge that suggests that he has a very little time for bands that are, shall we say, slightly more image conscious.

“It’s like that show The Voice,” he explains. “Say what you like about the show, but it’s got a good concept. It’s about nothing but the voice! I thought rock was meant to be a reaction to all that other bullshit. The New York Dolls were cool. They had their own thing. But when people just try and replicate it? That gets old so quickly. We’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years, and I always focus on the power of the song. The flavour of the month comes out with the cool look and cool outfit, and are gone a year later.”

It’s also left you free to do whatever you wish musically. Someone like Marilyn Manson couldn’t make a country album. You’ve been able to straddle some very different styles.

“I still don’t feel free to do whatever I want,” says Mark, surprisingly. “I can do the metal thing now, but I’ve got a real melodic pop side that I don’t think people are ready for. When you pick up some of those heavier fans, it’s Slayer or nothing! I used to be one of those guys!”/o:p

Still very much a fan, Mark goes on to talk about his delight at being able to meet and play with some of his heroes. From Slash, to Hetfield, to Buddy Guy, and even a certain extreme metal godfather.

“That kid with a $10 imitation Les Paul would not believe it,” he says. “People say, ‘You must feel like you’ve made it’, but it’s the opposite. I feel humbled and scared hanging out with someone like Hetfield. Metallica are my favourite band. I’m like the kid on my first day at school sitting in the lunch room. Highlights? So many. Eddie Van Halen gave me a guitar! Buddy Guy gave me a guitar! Getting to hang out with Tom G Warrior! Celtic Frost are my second-favourite band. He’s a great guy. He wants me onstage with Triptykon, just to see how his fans would react! You know, the dark Devil guy and this guy who used to be in, what was perceived as, a Christian band. Ha ha!”

A Creed/Celtic Frost collaboration is an intriguing idea, but Mark has lots of projects already. As a family man with a wife and two kids, is it important to have some downtime?

“Oh sure!” he exclaims. “I’m now really into art. I used to buy paintings, but the next one I’m hanging up is my own. I’m now as obsessed by that as I was the guitar! I’ll paint for three hours, then play two hours on the guitar.”

Which is something your family have a history of. It’s come full circle.

“Yeah!” he chuckles. “My brother Dan is like, ‘If you become an artist, I’ll be so pissed!’”

Don’t worry, Dan. ‘Art hero’ hasn’t got the same ring to it. Plus, we need him. There are plenty of guitarists in 2015, but only one modern guitar hero. And his name’s Mark Tremonti.

CAUTERIZE IS OUT JUNE 9 VIA FRET12/o:p

Mark gives us a roundup of Cauterize’s most blistering riffs…

Flying Monkeys (main riff)

“It got its name because every time I’d see my tech, he’d be like, ‘Play that riff that sounds like the flying monkeys from The Wizard Of Oz!’ So I logged it in my computer as that. Now it’s Flying Monkeys. We’ve only known it as that for the last five years.”

Another Heart (bridge riff)

“The bridge riff for the first single, Another Heart, just happened. I was playing around with some demo stuff and that came out. I listened back to it, and I had to go and work it out again and grab the band. I knew that once I got all of us in the room playing it, it was going to be heavy.”

Arm Yourself (lead solo)

“Not essentially a riff, but I love the solo on Arm Yourself. It’s a finger-picked solo. So it’s a lead, but it’s kind of an anti-solo.You know? I try to make my solos have a narrative. I like them to tell a story. That’s tough and a skill, but I was happy with this one.”

Radical Change (verse riff)

“A straight-up speed metal riff! Hitting the open string real fast, giving it that ‘duh-duh-duh- duh-duh-duh!’ Just trying to make it flow good. To make it sound like the butterfly effect; the wings going fast. I like the sound of open strings when you’re getting some speed up; it just really makes the dynamic.”

Providence (bridge riff)

“It’s one of those cool polyrhythmic riffs. It’s really just hitting chords, but it’s got a really cool rhythm. I know in my head if it’s going to work with a riff like that, but it has to pass the test of me sitting there deadpan and playing it back to someone on the computer. If they go, ‘Whoa! Shit, that’s killer!’ then it’s in for sure! Ha ha ha!”/o:p