Myles Kennedy is vying for the title of hardest working man in showbusiness.
As singer and guitarist with Alter Bridge, he is about to head off for a tour of Australia, but he’s spent the past year partnering Slash and the Conspirators on the guitarist’s second album. Their acquaintance goes back ten years, to when Kennedy auditioned for the role of frontman with Velvet Revolver. Still reeling from the break-up of his band The Mayfield Four, Kennedy declined to respond to Slash and Co.’s offer, preferring instead to teach guitar in his hometown of Spokane, Washington. The intervening years have been an exhilarating rollercoaster ride for Kennedy. After appearing in the 2001 movie Rock Star – playing a fan plucked from the audience to front his favourite band – Kennedy’s life has mirrored that of his character. In 2004 he was chosen by three ex-members of Creed to front a new band, Alter Bridge. And in 2008, rumours touted him as Led Zeppelin’s new singer after Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham invited him to rehearse.
Myles Kennedy as an aspiring singer in the movie Rock Star.
As befits a man with a tight schedule, Kennedy is on time, this despite haven woken up during the night with an idea for a new song that wouldn’t sleep. Dressed in industry standard black, long locks cocooned inside a beanie hat, he clutches a clear flask of herbal tea. In conjunction with hours of pre-show vocal exercises, he adopts a regimen of tea and no talking to preserve his four-octave tenor voice.
His policy of looking after his vocal chords clearly extends to the rest of him. At the age of 42, he is a picture of health. He is also the personification of humility, good humour and charm. All of these qualities reveal themselves over the course of the next 90 minutes as he talks candidly about his music, his life, his passions and his doubts./o:p
Drinking tea I see?
It’s my one vice.
I’m not sure tea constitutes a vice does it?
As much as I drink.
You don’t ‘drink’ at all?
I drink alcohol once in a while. I’m not much of a big drinker. I went through a phase a long time ago where I discovered I enjoyed it way too much and was, like, “You should probably be careful here”.
That was very sensible of you?
Yeah, I know. Is that what happens when you get older? I think so. I think that’s the thing.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
You know what it is? It’s boring (laughs).
How’s the Slash album going?
Yesterday was the final day for actually singing. The guitars are done. About a week a go I played my last guitar part. Slash has been done for a little while now, but he keeps coming in and tweaking things here and there. He’ll sit with the rough mixes and say, ‘I want to try this’. So I think it’s official. The tracking is done. Now we just mix and master. It’s a good feeling. Records are like huge term papers.
But more fun, right?
They’re way more fun. Although at times they’re not. At times, when you’re writing them, when you feel it’s not going to come, then you start panicking, and you can’t do that, because that shuts down the creative process altogether. Sometimes I let it get to me more than I probably should, because I want it to be good. I’m not the kind of writer who can go, ‘well, that felt fine.’ I just can’t do it. I’m just so obsessive.
Have you always been like that?
I think I have, especially when it comes to songs and music, because I love it so much. I kind of feel, if you get to make a record, it’s a wonderful opportunity, so I can’t half-ass that. I can’t think, [dismissively] ‘ah, it’s just a song, let’s just write it in five minutes and be done with it.’ This is a luxury, getting to document something forever, so I try to put my best foot forward.
How long has this album taken?
Exactly a year! Well, actually maybe just over a year. We were on the Ozzy tour here in the States, and that’s when Slash sent me the first music bed for a song that eventually became Apocalyptic Love. That’s really when the ball started rolling./o:p
From the outset it was always going to be a collaborative project, as opposed to the first album?
Yeah. On the first album – well, the two songs we did together – he would basically send me completed music, and then my job with Starlight and Back To Cali was to come up with a vocal melody and lyric. It’s the same process on a lot of these songs; some songs he would send a really cool part, like a great groove or something, and he’d be, ‘do you have anything musical that might be able to follow this?’ Like, there’s a song called Standing In The Sun where there’s just this great groove, and I heard a melody immediately, vocally, and then I just had to figure out where it would go. That was a funny one.
We were still on the Ozzy tour, I think we were in Phoenix, and I remember I was sleeping… A lot of times I’ll dream things. I’ll dream music or melodies or whatever, and this thing woke me up at like five in the morning. I’m like, [sighs] ‘I’ve got a show tonight, I can not get up and start chasing this song right now, this is not going to be good.’ But I’m glad I did, because it eventually became the chorus for Standing In The Sun.
My primary role is to come up with vocal melodies and lyrics. Slash is really gifted when it comes to riffs; it’s amazing how quickly he can put those out. Actually, [producer] Eric Valentine and I were talking about that, about how there’s just an endless pool of riffs that Slash is able to come up with. It’s a real gift.
Are you involved in the final mix?
I’ll go in and make sure, as far as my parts go, that I’m there for any sort of vocal edits or anything like that. I like to be there and know what it’s going to sound like. At the end of the day though, if Slash is really passionate about something, it’s Slash, and I always totally trust his instincts.
How does this album differ from the last one?
Well, the last one was really cool because it had so many different singers. I think the process was pretty similar with those folks, where he would send the music and you’d get these singers’ different takes on the stories that were told, and the melodies. That was a really dynamic record. This record, since it’s all him and I working on it together, obviously you have the same voice singing the songs and the same kind of style, lyrically and melodically, throughout. After all these years of writing, there are certain patterns I tend to follow, but it’s still got Slash’s signature sound.
He’s such a character guitar player: you can tell within one measure, ‘that’s Slash’. There’s no question. That’s a real gift, because a lot of players might be really great technically, or they might have a great emotional thing, but Slash has all that. He’s a great technician, he’s got an amazing ear, and his feel and emotion really resonate with me personally. But he’s also got that sound, and he developed that sound at a really young age. That’s the thing that’s fascinating. For me, as a singer, it took me a long time to find myself as an artist. When you listen to Appetite For Destruction, he found who he was by the time he was in his early twenties. That’s pretty impressive.
I read that Slash had some “dark riffs” on this record?
The riffs he brought in definitely had that ominous… There was a little bit of that on his last record. Nothing To Say, that riff. It’s really dark, like that whole My Michelle vibe, where it’s very raw, dark and moody.
Where have you been recording it?
We’ve been recording it at Eric Valentine’s studios [Barefoot Recording]. Same place where Slash did the last record. Which has been really cool for me personally, because that studio has a lot of history. It’s down here in Hollywood. Back in the 70s Stevie Wonder did part of Songs In The Key Of Life there. It’s a pretty big rush sometimes when we’re cutting vocals, I’m thinking, Stevie Wonder was in this very building cutting songs. I mean, it’s pretty inspiring.
/o:pDo you enjoy working with Eric?
Slash will say the same thing, all of us will: he is an absolute pleasure to work with, and just an amazing producer. I’ve never seen someone work so hard through every single day.
A lot of producers will simply oversee the recording process… Some guys won’t even show up! There are some producers out there, from what I understand, who will literally show up maybe a few days out of the whole thing. The engineer will do all the dirty work, record everything and then the producer comes in with fresh ears and says yea or nay, which I guess makes sense to some degree, having that fresh perspective.
Sometimes you can get too involved with a project and lose that perspective. But Eric is not only engineering it, he’s there all day long, sitting at that console and producing it. And he’ll mix it as well, and I think he’s even going to master it. He’s incredible. Just really such a very bright guy, one of those people who borders on being a genius. We feel grateful to have him be a part of the process again, on this second album.
Do you contribute original concepts for the songs, or are all the ideas instigated by Slash, with you adding your bits later?
Basically, as far as the feel goes, the whole vibe and the genesis of the song comes from Slash, when he sends his idea. Then, what I try to do through the melody and the lyric, is tell a story that fits where that’s going.
Does he ever have suggestions with regard to the lyrics, perhaps mentioning what inspired the idea for the riff or song?
Not really, as far as musical things go. Sometimes, if he sees the well is dry – which it has been a few times – he’ll text me. He said something not too long ago, like, ‘You know what would be a great idea for a song? Something about bullies.’ Which I thought was a great idea, although I couldn’t make it work with anything we had at that point, as a lot of the lyrics were already done.
I like it when people give me ideas, like, ‘Have you thought about this theme or this subject matter?’ Because sometimes you run out of inspiration. Once in a while, if there’s a part in the vocal melody where it goes down, he might be, like, ‘Would you maybe try going up here instead?’ It’s good for me, and Eric helps as well. Once the melodies are all down and the lyrics are all done, you can get so involved in them that just a little tweak here and there – like, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about maybe doing this here?’ – can help a lot.
When did you first meet Slash?
I first met him when I came down to do the Starlight session. That was, I think, October of 2009. We had talked a long time ago, back in 2002, when they were looking for singers for Velvet Revolver. He called one day, but I don’t think he really knew much about me. I think they were just reaching out to different singers, so we talked briefly back then.
But you didn’t follow up on the offer to audition for the group?
I felt like, at that point, I would be the wrong guy. I knew that there would be a high level of scrutiny, and that might be part of the reason. And I’d just spent five years in my first “real” band, The Mayfield Four. We’d done two records for Sony and, as a writer, as an artist, I was really second guessing myself. I was really disillusioned, and questioning whether I had the goods. I was really crestfallen. And I was really surprised when I got that call, because I’d gone back to Spokane and was really just kind of disappearing, and not sure what I was going to do. So that was a really hard decision. Especially as I was, and still am, a fan of what those guys have done.
It was a lack of confidence?
Yeah! For sure. The fact they called you in the first place was itself a ringing endorsement, and should have restored that confidence… Yes, it should have. But I think I was so fragile at that point. There are songs on this record that deal with that; that’s what Standing In The Sun’s about. And Liar’s about that voice inside my head that does not shut up, that haunts me all the time. In some ways that voice is good, because that’s part of what drives me creatively and makes me work as hard as I do, song-wise, because I never feel I’ve arrived, and I never will.
That said, you kind of ride this rollercoaster where there are moments when you think, ‘Okay, I’m doing okay’, and then you can just veer face-first into the depths of your own self-questioning. I think when they called I was certainly at that point where I was like, ‘I can’t carry that weight right now.’
How did you hook up with Slash for his first solo album?
From what I understand, what reminded him about me had something to do with my uncle, who lives down about an hour south of here. When Slash was putting the first solo record together, somehow someone at the studio got this picture of me playing an old vintage 335, and I don’t know the exact details, but my uncle’s, like, ‘Do you know this guy Myles Kennedy? He’s a singer, maybe you should…’. Something like that, something really crazy. Slash must have done a little bit more research and then called me. Then he sent me the music for what became Starlight. I liked it, so then he flew me down and that’s when we first met./o:p
What did you think of Slash?
I didn’t really know what to expect. Obviously he’s an icon. He’s Slash. I respected him as a musician. He has an incredible legacy, but when I actually met him and got to know him, he’s just an extremely down to earth, very genuine person. It’s been really nice.
How was touring with him?
Touring was fantastic. There were certain moments that were highlights of my career.
Is there one that springs to mind?
Yeah! There was one. Download 2010. That was funny because when we got there that day – and I’ve played Download a few times before with Alter Bridge and had a really great time – there was maybe 10,000 people out there. I forget who I was watching. Then I went back and got ready for the show and did my usual warm-up routine, so this was a few hours later, and I’m thinking maybe there’s 15,000 people, I don’t know. The minute I turn around and look out, I just see this sea of heads that goes as far as the eye can see. There had to have been well over 50,000 people out there. There was a lot of people, put it that way.
It was exciting. We were all excited, but at the same time you don’t know how it’s going to be received. Fortunately, the crowd was so warm, so receptive. So we really savoured that hour. That was a really special time, for sure.
Is touring with Slash much different from Alter Bridge?
It’s definitely different musically. It’s like Slash is very straight up rock’n’roll, very from the hip, and blues-based, which I love because that’s where I come from more or less as a musician. Alter Bridge has got a lot more metal in it, more of that metallic feel. A lot of that comes from [Alter Bridge guitarist Mark Tremonti]’s approach to guitar playing. His gift is for a totally different kind of riff. I’m really lucky because I play with two guys who, as far as I’m concerned, are among my favorite riff masters. They really are good at coming up on the fly with that stuff. It’s incredible.
Did you have any qualms about singing Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver songs with Slash?
Appetite For Destruction is one of my favorite records of all time. The first time we started playing Paradise City in the rehearsal space, chills were running up the back of my neck. I couldn’t believe I was hearing the guy that was part of this record play this, and I’m about to sing over the top of it… That was really exciting, really fun. Where it suddenly dawned on me it was not going to be that simple, was when we started to go out and play it for people. Obviously people are used to hearing it a certain way, and are going to be very opinionated about how it ‘should’ be sung and who should sing it and who shouldn’t sing it, and I totally get that. It really didn’t dawn on me until we were well into it, how it would be. It’s certainly been a learning experience for me. I’ve had to thicken my skin, I’m not going to lie.
What have some people said?
I try not to pay attention to what people say, to be perfectly honest, because there are people who seem to really like it and they’re just glad to hear the songs being played, and being played by Slash. But especially with the internet and the social media, occasionally something will creep through and they’ll make their opinion known and, like I said, I totally get that.
Has any one comment stuck with you?
There was one guy that flat-out wanted to kill me [laughs]. This guy was really upset and I was like, ‘Wow! Man, this guy’s really passionate!’ If you’re that passionate about it you’re obviously a music lover like myself, so I can’t get too upset.
Just as long as he doesn’t follow through with it…
Exactly! I really have learned over the years that I can’t really read a lot of that stuff. I don’t think my skin is thick enough. And even the good stuff kind of weirds me out a little bit. I remember, with the last Alter Bridge record, people were like, ‘You should read some of these reviews, they’re really good.’ And I can’t do it. It just freaks me out. I live in my little bubble, this weird little world where I stay focused on what I’m doing. As clichéd as it sounds, I just try and make myself happy and do the best I can.
Do you feel under less scrutiny when you’re playing with Slash? After all, it’s his project…
Actually, I feel under more scrutiny. When you go out there, standing next to Slash, you know there are people with their arms crossed thinking, ‘Can this guy do it?’ With Alter Bridge shows, people who come to our shows are fans, and so they already know what they’re going to get.
What future plans do you have with Slash? Is there talk of this being an ongoing partnership?
For the time being we’re just going to see how this year goes. He seems real happy. We’re all real happy. We all get along. There’s no drama. We’ll see how this unfolds./o:p
How’s the solo album coming along?
[Laughs] Man, I hope some day it gets finished. The music’s all done. The music’s all recorded. I recorded it with a good friend of mine who also mixed the last two Alter Bridge records. His name’s Brian Sperber. It’s just sitting there. The lyrics are done, the melodies are done. I just have to find a window to go in and do the vocals and finish it up, and then Brian has to mix it. I think at this point, what’s it been, two or three years since I set it aside? I’ve now got more songs I want on it.
Why did you want to do a solo album?
I’ve kind of been chipping away on it for a long time. Some of the songs I started back at around that point back in 2002, and they were very different. I knew a lot of the ideas I’d been fooling around with wouldn’t necessarily fit with Alter Bridge because they weren’t real heavy and just didn’t fit. I’m someone who sits around with an acoustic guitar a lot, coming up with things that are more geared towards a stripped down, ‘singer/songwriter’ approach. I’ve quite a few songs I felt I would like to document somehow, so that was the outlet for those songs./o:p
I understand Slash is playing on it?
Yeah. That was really cool. It wasn’t too long after we met one another. He offered… “If you want, I’d be glad to…” I said, “Absolutely, are you kidding me?” So there’s a song called Around A Bend, and he put a really cool solo over that.
Have you got anyone else playing on it?
Right now a lot of it’s just me going in there and failing miserably. I did my best to try and come up with as much as I could, [taps chest] from here, from my heart. When it came to detailing the arrangements, programming the drums, it was really super challenging. If I had to do it again, I’d rather have a band put in place. I think it would make the process go a lot quicker.
Are you still planning on releasing it on December the 21st, 2012 [the day on which, according to the Mayan calendar, the world will end]?
[Laughs] Probably not. I’ll probably hold off and see if we’re all still alive. Although I did like the idea of releasing it on the 21st, just because if the world does end, then if people don’t like it, I don’t have to know about it [laughs]. Then again, I never read my own press anyway, so I’m not going to know either way.
Did you deliberately avoid the grunge scene that was happening around you in the Northwest, back when you started out?
In the late 80s we’d started to feel it… Spokane’s about a four hour drive from Seattle, and we’d started to feel that something was happening over there that was really special. I remember thinking it was really cool that they’d developed their own scene. I thought, “Wow, it’s so far removed from everything else and they’ve got their own sound, their own scene…” For me to tap into that and try to be a part of that, I don’t think would have been genuine, because I’m not part of that scene. Even though Spokane is part of the Pacific Northwest, we’re not Seattle.
But I was inspired by the fact that they found their own artistic voice, and that’s what I wanted to try and do for myself. So I went as far away from it as I could, almost too far because I went and started playing in cover bands that were R&B-based, playing pop stuff. I knew that if I was playing that night after night, it would seep into me somehow and I would be able to add that to my feel. I was definitely searching, and definitely learning, and definitely making a lot of mistakes and being very silly along the way.
When I think of some of the songs I wrote back then, I’m, like, ‘Wow, that’s horrible!’ [Laughs]. It was horrible, but it was part of the journey, and I’m glad I went through it, because I think by turning away from that, not being influenced by it, it helped set me on my way, although I’ll be the first to admit it took me a really long time to find myself, especially my voice.
Did you like the music then coming out of Seattle?
I did. I thought it was cool. I remember hearing the early Soundgarden records, because friends would bring those over and I was, like, ‘Wow, that’s really different’. And Alice In Chains was interesting, because they had this song called Queen Of The Rodeo, which I don’t think made it to record, it was just a demo and it was a really awesome track [It finally appeared on the group’s 1999 box set Music Bank]. You could hear all the potential way back then. I didn’t hear Mother Love Bone until after [MLB singer] Andrew Wood passed away.
Let’s talk about some of your early bands… I’ll name them, and you respond with the first thoughts that come into your head.
[Laughs] I’m still proud of that name! It’s so juvenile. I think it’s where we were at the age of 15, writing silly songs about masturbation.
I was playing with guys I really looked up to, senior classmen. My first real rock’n’roll performance was with The Celiacs. Strangely enough, the first song I ever sang and played was Rock And Roll by Led Zeppelin. It was five years before I would sing in front of a mic again. I was terrified…
That was at a ‘battle of the bands’ event, yes?
Yeah. We started with Rock And Roll, and that was the only song I sang, and then everybody else in the band would sing a song. We did Wrathchild by Iron Maiden, Temple Of The Syrinx by Rush – which was a challenge for kids who had just been playing for under a year – and I think we did Fire by Jimi Hendrix. It was pretty wild, although we did not win./o:p
Bittersweet. Bittersweet was the first serious band I was a part of where we had goals. The drummer Zia and I had a friendship for a long time. He ended up being the drummer in The Mayfield Four. Zia is definitely one of the finest drummers that I’ve played with. He had this gift at a very young age, a very Bonham-esque feel. I also got to play with an incredible guitar player in that band. His name was Joel Tipke. I still consider him one of the best guitar players I’ve ever played with. He was a prodigy. By the time he was 15 he was incredible. I attribute a lot of my drive and perfectionist tendencies to playing with those guys, because I really had to fight to keep up. Cosmic Dust. That was one of my most musically gratifying experiences. I went to a music school in Spokane. After I got out of high school I went to a community college and took all music classes, and some of my teachers put this band together. It was a fusion band. It was just really intense jazz mixed with rock’n’roll, inspired by what Miles Davis did with Bitches Brew. It was a very special time, because these guys were so good. They were all nearly twice my age, seasoned pros. Some of the things that occur in improvisational music are so magical. You never know where it’s going to go. It could fall flat on its face, or it could be a state of nirvana, and there were a few of those moments where everybody’s building up someone’s solo and it crescendos to this release. Those were awesome times. Citizen Swing. That was the first band were I was going to try to sing in front. It was a good experience. The first record had some of the first completed songs that I ever wrote. I had a co-writer at the time who was mainly the lyricist. I was basically responsible for the music and the melodies. It started as a studio project essentially, where it was going to be as ‘Myles Kennedy’ and I wasn’t really comfortable with that, so I assembled a band, some of the friends I played with. The first record was definitely a hodgepodge of styles. Some of it was funky, some of it was pop and some was jazz. Once again, I was very much on my journey. I didn’t know what I was as an artist yet so I was still trying everything. It was probably too soon for me to make a record, to be honest with you. The Mayfield Four. I still look at it as very much a part of the journey. It was a very exciting part of the journey. Maybe the most exciting part, because we were these guys from Spokane, Washington. We weren’t from Seattle. As musicians we had a hard time being taken seriously by some of the other states in the Northwest, and so we really had to fight and work extra hard. We were really surprised when we got our first record deal. We’d only been a band for about nine months, and all of a sudden it all happened, that thing you dream of. We’re, like, “Wow, a record deal.” You’re really being validated for the first time. A real record deal. That was so exciting. I’ll never forget the first time that Sony-Epic wanted to sign us… Actually, this may have been when RCA flew us out. It was just everything you dream of. It was four or five in the morning. I was living with the other guitar player at the time. [In a whispered tone of disbelief] “Can you see, there’s a limo outside?” I’m, like, “There’s a limo outside?” “Yeah, there’s a limo outside to take us to the airport!” And I’m, like, “Oh my gosh!” It was just crazy. So we get in this limo and it takes us to the Spokane airport, and we get to New York, and it’s just this crazy, magical experience. The A&R guy was just awesome. He takes us to Scores, this strip club, and hands us all money and says, ‘You want that girl there?’ For a kid from Spokane, it was pretty surreal. Pretty rad. Then, when it came time to make a record, you discover the reality of the music business and record companies. Once all that’s pulled away, you realise it can be pretty heartbreaking. I got disillusioned pretty quick. I had to grow up. I understand you have what you consider to be a “lucky couch”, where you wrote Second Skin? I do have a lucky couch, this ugly, torn-up blue couch that’s still in my little studio. When I bought my house, they couldn’t get it out. It looks like it’s been in there since it was built in 1928. I don’t want to know what’s happened on that couch, I try not to think about it. But yes, a lot of Second Skin was written on that couch. Do you ever go back to the couch for inspiration? All the time. All the time. I still live in that house. My wife and I have talked about it, but I can’t bring myself to move, because I’ve lived there longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere, and so many songs have been written in that house. By no means is it a big, fancy house. It’s a very modest little place, and I love it to death. I can take my dog for a walk. We love it there. Just a lot of good musical moments have happened there. Are you still in contact with the others in The Mayfield Four?
What was your reaction when you got the phone call to go and play with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones? I got this text from Jason Bonham, who I hadn’t seen since we shot Rock Star together. He’s like, ‘I’ve got a favour to ask you.’ We’re on tour in Germany, we’d just done Rock am Ring, and I’m thinking probably someone wants tickets to a show. He calls me up, he’s like ‘Jimmy and John Paul Jones and I, we’ve been jamming and we’re wondering if you’ll do us a favour? Would you be interested in coming over this weekend? We just want to jam.’ I was on the phone and everybody was upstairs in the bus at that point. I don’t know how long it took me to actually say anything, but all of a sudden Mark [Tremonti] came down and saw my body language. Whatever the impact it had on me when Jason uttered those words was so heavy Mark thought somebody had died [Laughs]. He’s like, ‘Are you okay? Did somebody die?’ I said ‘No.’ I couldn’t really go into it with him at that point, but I think that speaks volumes for how I felt. What reservations did you have? I didn’t really have reservations, because at that point I didn’t really know what it was going to be. I was going to have a chance to meet the guys who basically wrote the blueprint for everything that I do – that most of us do, frankly! And I was so overwhelmed with that thought… It was crazy, it was insane. I couldn’t sleep for days. Then, when it actually happened, when I actually walked into the room, they were great at making me feel comfortable and at ease. It didn’t feel like a high-pressure sort of deal whatsoever. First person I met after saying hi to Jason at his hotel was John Paul Jones, and he’s an absolute gentleman and a sweetheart, so I think once I met him and Jimmy came in, I felt more at ease, though I’m sure it didn’t come across that way. When Velvet Revolver called you, you shied away because you didn’t feel confident. Yet when the biggest band ever in rock call, you’re like, ‘I’m there!’ Honestly I didn’t know what it was for. At that point it was all shrouded in mystery and so I, being rather naive, thought maybe they’re just wanting to play. They just want to jam, because they had a great experience playing at the O2, and it rekindled a thing. So I was, like, ‘Cool, that would be fun.’ I really didn’t know… Going on that first day, June 13th 2008 – Friday the 13th strangely enough – there was kind of this innocence and naivety on my part. I wasn’t sure where it was going and I didn’t really care. All I knew was this was going to be the greatest moment of my life, and that date may end up being that forever for me. I may never win a Grammy award. I may never ever be what is the definition of success in this business - I’ve been very fortunate and right now things are going well with music for me and I love it - but having got to experience that moment… I’ll be on my deathbed and I’ll be thinking about that. But as naive as you were, you must have at least contemplated where this might go? It was after we jammed that day that it was discussed what might happen… They were considering putting a project together. It wasn’t going to be ‘Led Zeppelin’. They wanted to play. I don’t think they knew how it was going to be defined. They were just guys that hadn’t played together in a while and wanted to play those songs. And they have every right to; if I was part of putting together what I consider the greatest music ever composed, I would want to play it. Were you actually rehearsing Led Zeppelin songs? Yes, that first day. I can’t remember what… I did actually write it all down in my journal right after when I was heading back, to keep it fresh in my mind. We played a bunch of Zeppelin songs, and they also had two really great pieces of music they’d been jamming. Somebody asked me, What was it like writing with Led Zeppelin… Well, it wasn’t really like writing with them. They were jamming something and I was putting my melody over the top. It wasn’t anything more than that. But for me, that was the big moment, because as much as I love Led Zeppelin songs, I didn’t create them. So to have an opportunity to put something over the top, if just for a moment, for one moment in my life, over something that is being played by what I consider the Mozarts and the Bachs of our time, along with the Beatles, for this goofball from Spokane, Washington, that was it for me. I can die a happy man. You said that the hairs on the back of your neck went up when you were singing Guns N’ Roses songs… So what was it like when you were singing Led Zeppelin songs with the band? I think I was nervous at first, and then, as the nerves died down, I tried to just realise what it was. I remember closing my eyes and thinking, ‘You’re about to sing No Quarter, it’s one of your favorite songs of all time, let’s just enjoy the ride. This is going to be beautiful.’ And it was. There was one point I remember months later, when we were back there after I’d toured with Alter Bridge for the rest of the summer. We spent another four or five days together, and we’d done a few more songs. One of my favourite songs is The Rain Song, and when we played that, I remember when John came in with the Mellotron part, the descending part of the second verse, I actually had to pull away from the mic because it was such an emotional moment. It was so intense. I looked up and I saw him playing that part, and I saw Jimmy… There’s still a part of me that’s hesitant to talk about it much. I don’t know why. I guess it’s kind of sacred in a way. You did some recording together; any chance those recordings might see the light of day sometime?
Were you disappointed it didn’t come to fruition?
I think I would have to be honest that, yeah there was part of me that was disappointed. But once it leaked out that ‘Led Zeppelin’ was working with a new singer – which was never how it was portrayed to me or how I thought about it – and everybody weighed in with their opinions, I realised maybe that would be such an incredibly heavy burden that I’d really have to ask myself if it would be best for me, because that band is so sacred to so many people. I totally get that. So, I think it probably worked out for the best in the long run, because who knows what would have happened for whoever they ended up working with?
But then there’s a part of me, as a fan, that would have loved to have seen them play. I didn’t get to go to the O2 thing, and I never got to see them live because they were before my time. Yeah, I have a lot of different emotions with that whole thing. There’s the fan side of me, and then there’s how difficult it probably would have been. But I do think it probably worked out the best for me personally, just because if I’d have stepped out there, it would have been a pretty tall order.
Are the rumours true, that your initiation into Alter Bridge involved a bungee jump?
It did. So, they effectively said you can’t be in the band unless you do this bungee jump? Yeah! I think they were just trying to flip me a bunch of crap (Laughs). Mark likes to see me squirm. He thought it would be funny. It wasn’t really a bungee jump. It was this thing where you go up 30 storeys and you’re hanging on this cable essentially, and then they release it and you swing back and forth. For someone who’s terrified of heights, that was a real drag. Fortunately I didn’t vomit.
Did you also do a more conventional audition, involving singing?
It was around Thanksgiving of 2003 . Mark had sent me a demo of some songs, and then I’d sent it back, and so it was agreed that I would come down and write, on, I think, January 2nd of 2004… We played together that first day, and then I never really heard anything. I didn’t know where I stood. I was staying at Mark’s house and still going to rehearsals, but no-one ever said, “Do you want to play with us?” It was just kind of like, we’re playing. I guess, a few weeks later when the bungee jump occurred, then I was officially in.
Were you a Creed fan?
You know, I wasn’t a Creed fan, per se. We toured with Creed. I remember one day during soundcheck watching them. The band was up there playing, and I remember thinking, “Wow, there’s something really unique and special about the way these guys feel when they play together.” I definitely gravitated towards that, and I loved Mark’s concepts. At that point I didn’t listen to a lot of what was going on in that period. I was still coming out of my ‘awe’ thing with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, though I was a huge [Tim] Buckley fan. Huge Buckley fan! But I wasn’t listening to a lot of contemporary music at that point. So I can’t really say I was a big fan. There was respect there. I thought what they did was solid. It was kind of the same thing we were talking about earlier with Slash, there was that character thing. Either you have it or you don’t. They had that. You could hear it: within a bar, I could tell Mark’s playing. It’s a very signature sound. I like that.
How does your songwriting differ with your different projects?/o:p
Yes, it’s way different in each thing. Sometimes I wonder if the approach I use is too dramatically different in each thing. But I feel that’s what I have to do to make it fit. Vocally, I tap into much more of that blues-based singing, inflections that I absorb from listening to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, and also Robert Plant. I use that in the arsenal with Slash. And with Alter Bridge, I tend to straighten it out a lot more. I use a different part of my voice. Not use as much of the high register. Yes it’s a very different approach.
Do you adopt a different approach writing songs?
Yeah, definitely. I think, with Alter Bridge, hope and perseverance tend to be the theme, although with the last record there was certainly more doubt and questioning coming in to play about my feelings on religion. That was a big theme on that record. Playing with Slash, that sort of thing isn’t congruent with the music. It just doesn’t work, so it requires me to touch on different themes. It took a little while for me to get comfortable with that.
I have a tough time with certain kinds of subject matter. I think it’s like that with any writer. You have some things you do better than others and so last year there were a lot of rewrites. I would finish a lyric and look at it and go, ‘No, it still doesn’t work.’ So I’d restart over and I just kept doing it over and over until I felt like it fit the song.
With your father being a minister, I know you have strong opinions about religion. Are you only now beginning to write about them?
Yes. It started about six years ago, where I started to question a lot of what I had accepted as absolute truth. Most of my life I was afraid to deal with it. I was afraid to talk about it. That’s the hard thing about songwriting: you put yourself out there, if you want to be honest. You can write stories, you can distance yourself, and some people are good at that, but I’m not. I’m really not good at writing about things I don’t understand and can’t relate to and then try and sing it. I’ve done it and I listen back and I can tell it just doesn’t feel genuine and doesn’t feel real.
It’s like I said earlier, you have the opportunity to make a record, be honest. Don’t try and pull the wool over your own eyes and don’t try and pull the wool over your fans’ eyes. It’s weird [Laughs]. I’m glad I did it because I’m surprised by how many people related to it. I was really surprised. I thought I was just going to piss people off. I gotta be honest here./o:p
Are you working on new material with Alter Bridge?
Always chipping away. Always stockpiling ideas. Yeah, I’m sure Mark’s writing.
At one point there were rumours linking your name with Aerosmith.
I heard rumblings about that, but no one ever called me.
There was no official approach?
No, not that I know of. It may have just been the timing of it, given what had just happened. Maybe the press and people assumed, if things aren’t working out with Steven, who else could there be out there? All I would say is there’s only one Steven Tyler and he’s a brilliant front man. Enough said.
Had they asked you, would you have gone along?
Okay, if it was kind of like the Jimmy and John Paul Jones thing, where I didn’t really know what was going on, a ‘Hey, you want to come down and jam?’ sort of thing… But if it had been ‘Aerosmith is looking for a singer’, probably not, because I know that I wouldn’t be the right fit there. I can sing and I can write and play guitar, but he’s on a totally different level as a front man: super entertaining, charismatic. My approach is different.
Are there any other artists you would love the opportunity to sing with?
That’s a really hard question, because I’ve been so lucky in the last few years. Stevie Wonder would be… I don’t know. If I was standing next to that guy trying to sing, I don’t know… He’s the guy for me.
How did Jeff Buckley’s Grace inspire you?
It inspired me so much that when I made the first Mayfield Four record, I had a bit of an identity crisis [Laughs]. I know that now. I don’t think I realised at the time, but I can hear that now. If it wasn’t for that record I would probably have gone down a different road, and I don’t know what that road would have been. It might have been more R&B based.
At that point in contemporary music, it really wasn’t cool to sing high and to be technically proficient, and when I heard that record in December of ’94, it was such a breath of fresh air. I realised, this guy embraced elements that a lot of bands embraced in the 80s, he embraced certain elements of say Led Zeppelin – very moody, very melancholy and very intense and profound things that I loved about that band – and did it in such a way where I felt it very compelling. I consider that one of the most important records for that reason.
You know you have those records along the way, that are kind of like guideposts where, as an artist, you’re not really sure where to go, then you hear something and borrow elements of that? Grace was one of those records for me. When I had the opportunity to go and see him play about five months later in Seattle, at the King Theatre, it pretty much cemented the realisation that, for me, music is subjective. One of the most important artists of that decade. He was a true artist. He was a true genius.
Do you feel that he liberated you, so you felt you could use your voice however you wished, as opposed to trying to fit within any conventions?
Yeah! Well, at the time a lot of people were trying to sing like Eddie Vedder. Everybody was starting to do this baritone thing. I’m not that singer. I’m a tenor. So when I heard a tenor who was doing it in such a way that was being kind of shunned at the time, that wasn’t considered cool anymore, that resonated for me. He was doing something that was very honest. It wasn’t clichéd. He was brilliant. That was important.
On the list of your favorite albums you include U2, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Obviously what you do now is very different from any of those artists. Have you ever considered going down those various roads?
Yeah. That’s kind of closer to where some of the solo stuff comes from. It’s more along those lines, stylistically speaking. Certainly not too far out, but, I guess, stylistically it’s more ethereal and vibey.
How badly does your tinnitus affect you?
I have to be careful, especially when we do the vocals, because that’s where I think I got it from, cutting vocals. I would turn up the monitors so loud just to help inspire me and get that intensity that I wanted from the vocal performance. I had to be real careful when we were tracking these songs, because I’d go back to the house and my ears would be ringing really badly. They ring all the time, but it was really loud, to the point where it’s like, I can’t do it.
It’s an exercise in restraint all the time for me. It’s an exercise in trying to not get so lost in the moment that you forget that these are the only ears you’ve got, and I don’t want to end up some day having to put all this aside because it’s too painful. There would be no point in living at that point. Music is oxygen. Like everything, you’ve got to do it in moderation.
Have you ever considered getting cochlear implants?
No, it’s not that bad yet. It’s interesting, because when I first began to suffer from it, it came out in the local newspaper in Spokane. It was also part of the reason why the Velvet Revolver thing didn’t happen, because, strangely enough, it was diagnosed as I was working on those demos that I never ended up sending in. That’s when I remember I was really blazing that stuff. For two weeks I remember going in and cranking the demos they sent that I was trying to put vocals to. I was just gunning it every night and spending, like, five hours in there, just being stupid, not thinking.
Then I woke up one morning, it was late summer so it was starting to get cooler outside, and I turned the air conditioner off in my room. The night before I hadn’t worked in the studio so I didn’t have the buzzing to mask this, and I’m like, “Why are my ears ringing?” What’s going on? Next day, same thing. It was right around then that I was also going through this weird point in my self-confidence, so when I also discovered I had tinnitus I thought, I definitely need to not do this. I’ll stick with teaching guitar for the time being.
And you were serious about going back to teaching guitar?
I did teach guitar. I went back to teaching for about a year and what happened was… I loved it, because it helps me as a player… But I was teaching at the back of this music store, Rock Music, and I’ll never forget this… If you recall, there’s a scene in Boogie Nights, the part where Mark Wahlberg goes to get the drugs from that dealer, and it’s all this craziness in the house and the guys are letting firecrackers off. There’s that moment where you can tell that clarity comes, and there’s this epiphany in Mark Wahlberg’s character. He’s just kind of staring into the distance and you can tell that he’s thinking, “This isn’t for me. I’ve got to go back to whatever it is… Making porn” [Laughs].
Well, I remember having a similar moment. I was teaching guitar, and there was this little kid, his mom would drop him off and he basically just didn’t do his lessons, didn’t care about guitar. He was just running around this little room and I’m like, “What am I doing?” I had that same exact epiphany, that same exact experience, like, “I’ve got to get back on the horse, I can’t do this.”
“You’ve got to buck up and stop being such a fucking pussy”, is what I said to myself. And strangely enough, within a few months, I got the call from Mark and those guys and that’s what got me back on the horse!
How did your involvement in the movie Rock Star come about?
Brendan O’Brien, who’d mixed the first Mayfield Four record, was friends with the people putting the movie together. They’d been looking for that ‘Thor’ character for a while. They wanted someone who could actually sing, and I guess I looked the part, whatever that means. I guess I look like a very over-excited little rock fan. That’s the funny thing about the movie, people have said, “Have you considered acting?” I wasn’t really acting in that movie! I was just being how I would have been when I was 15 being pulled up on stage. It’s something we’ve all fantasized about.
In the scene when your character gets pulled up on stage in front of a huge crowd, was that the first time you’d ever faced an audience of that size?
We may have done some festivals with Mayfield Four, but it was the first time it really felt like you’re in a real rock thing. Because we were dressed up, there was the pyro and the production. It was pretty cool.
Did the experience prompt any theatrical aspirations?
No. I discovered movie actors get up really super early in the morning. They get up about when I go to sleep, usually.
Given that your character in Rock Star is plucked from the audience to front his favourite band, did you have a sense of life imitating art when you were auditioning for Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones?
Yeah. My life has been very strange, with that whole Rock Star movie. It’s been crazy. I don’t know if there’s some sort of… [looks heavenward] I don’t know who’s running the show. I don’t if anyone’s running the show. But it’s really weird, because that movie is essentially what my life became… The whole ‘kid getting the lucky chance’ thing. One of the themes in that movie is the idea that Mark Wahlberg’s character eventually discovers he needs to be content as an artist. It’s fun to sing other people’s songs, to a point, but the most rewarding thing is making your own songs. So when you’re put in a role where you’re essentially trying to cover somebody else’s ground, and you have an artist inside you that’s dying to get out… It could have been really difficult, had I not been able to play with people who respected that, and who brought me into the fold, creatively. That’s where I consider myself most fortunate: it could have been, “We’re going to write the songs, you’re just going to be the mouth.” I couldn’t do that and I wouldn’t have lasted. I don’t consider this ‘the music business’, I consider this the songwriting business. It’s all about songs.
What do you think you learned from the whole experience?
[Deliberates for a long while] I think I learned to stop questioning myself. I think I learned that, no matter where you’re from or what parameters you put on your talent or your abilities, you might be surprised that that’s not necessarily the way it has to be. If you work super hard, which I do, you never know what can happen. You might get to live out that dream for just a moment, and that’s enough for me. That’s more than enough for me./o:p