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A Never Ending Reunion: An Exclusive Interview With MR. BIG Guitarist PAUL GILBERT

By Charlie Steffens aka Gnarly Charlie, Writer/Photographer
Wednesday, May 31, 2017 @ 7:11 AM

“So, every album and every tour is like a reunion to us, seeing old friends and playing music we love. But we never wear it out and get tired of it.”

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Paul Gilbert Photo Credit - Simone Cecchetti
Band Photo Credit - William Hames

Rock and roll veterans MR. BIG have started playing the first dates of what will become a worldwide tour in support of their new album, Defying Gravity. The band’s ninth studio album, set to drop on July 7th, features original members Eric Martin (vocals), Paul Gilbert (guitar), Billy Sheehan (bass), and Pat Torpey (drums). Matt Starr, who has been the touring drummer for MR. BIG over the past couple of years, was an integral part in the recording of the record due to Torpey’s recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Kevin Elson, who produced MR. BIG original classics (such as Mr. Big, Lean Into It, and Bump Ahead), joined the band in a Los Angeles recording studio, and in six days Defying Gravity was a done deal.

Guitarist Paul Gilbert talks about the experiences that he and the band shared in making the 11-track follow-up to 2014’s The Stories We Could Tell:

“We put this together really quickly, which worked for our advantage because there was a certain excitement of, like, ‘Can we do it?’ I think on maybe day three or day four of the recording sessions, we started to realize that we may not have enough songs.” Gilbert says that he would get up early in the morning with ideas for songs, and at noon he would bring them into the studio to present to his bandmates. Tracks like “Mean TGo Me” and “Be Kind” were two examples of the guitarist’s medium:

“I had the lyrics, I had the arrangement, but I didn’t have a demo. I just had to sit there with the guitar and go, ‘Okay, here’s how it goes. One-two-three,’ and then play it for them. And that’s a scary thing…stomping away on the ground and trying to make a groove happen. My audience is the band and the producer, and at the end I’d get the verdict: do they want to work on it or not? Thankfully, those two songs, they did.”

Lead singer Eric Martin used an approach similar to Gilbert’s when presenting material he had written. “He brought in a couple tunes and he’d just play them on an acoustic guitar and sort of look up at us like, ‘What do you think?’ And we’d say, ‘Yeah, we’ll see how it goes,’ and within an hour it would go from being this rough, skeletal version of a song to this complete, polished, sparkly-sounding production. When you first bring in a song and it’s that raw, you might as well be standing there naked. It can be intimidating.”

Along with its masterly instrumentation, Defying Gravity embodies the evocative lyrics and vocal harmonies characteristic of the group that was formed in Los Angeles in 1988.

“I think everybody in the band has a character to the way they play,” Gilbert says. “In fact, if you listen to a lot of modern recordings, the character is sometimes edited out and you get perfect drums, perfect bass, perfect guitar--but it almost could be anybody. But I think the way we recorded…it’s basically live and mostly the nature of just the kind of musicians we are. I think a lot of the stuff is dripping with character and I love that. To me, that’s big success and that’s one of the things that’s so enjoyable about playing with, for example, Billy Sheehan on the bass. Billy has the ability to play anything. It has its own character, even on the simplest things. It sounds unlike anybody else; certainly the human voice, fortunately, has that almost no matter what. I think Eric, especially, has all these cool harmonics in his voice that are really unique. I’m still flipping away, trying to have as much character as possible with my playing.”

“The challenge performance-wise we’ve had recently has been with Pat (Torpey), because Pat has Parkinson’s disease. Not only that, but his job in the band is the most athletic of any of us. Being a drummer you use your body more. But if you’ve got physical challenges, you have to be creative with your solutions. For the last album we did, we tried to program things, use MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), which is really the only solution we could think of at the time. But this time we decided to use our touring drummer, Matt Starr. Matt is young and powerful, and a great player and technician.” Torpey was in the studio every second of the sessions, teaming up with Starr, says Gilbert. “That was a much better solution than MIDI programming and all the modern technology stuff. It just made the sessions flow and everything work smooth. Pat still comes on the road with us, because not only is Pat the drummer of MR. BIG, but he’s also an important part of the harmony vocals. He’s actually a main harmony singer. So, he’s there singing, playing percussion. You know, sometimes he hops up on the kit and plays a couple of songs. It’s just sort of how he’s feeling. But he’s always onstage with us and we can still consider him to be the drummer of MR. BIG.”

“We’re in a good place, because in the early days, we were really trying to establish ourselves as a band, and so we kind of had a self-imposed rule of no other projects. So, it was MR. BIG album, MR. BIG tour, and it was over and over again. After eight years of that, anybody would be ready to lose their mind. So now we’ll do a MR. BIG album and a MR. BIG tour, and then we’ll go off and do our own stuff for a while, and then come back to it. So, every album and every tour is like a reunion to us, seeing old friends and playing music we love. But we never wear it out and get tired of it. For me, that’s the perfect balance. I’m glad that audiences accept that, because some people might go, ‘I don’t like when you do solo stuff. Just do MR. BIG all the time.’ Or, vice versa. ‘When are you going to do RACER X?’ Everybody has their favorite thing and we’re very fortunate that people will tolerate our endeavors in the different areas.”

The song “1992”, from the new album, illuminates the period of the band’s chart-busting sophomore album, Lean Into It.

The record company said to us, “Thank you, man”
Then they threw us right into the garbage can
But the good people listened and they pulled us through
I was Number 1 in 1992

— excerpt from “1992”

“I wasn’t thinking I wanted to make this music like 1992,” insists Gilbert. “That’s just the story of the song. I don’t really categorize it in terms of style or era. The musical language we speak was formed by the 60s and 70s, with the bands that we heard. But our actual goal was just to make it good, exciting, stuff that’s cool to play on the road. Whatever time that lives in, it is what it is.”

“It felt like I was a passenger on a bus that no one was driving. Sometimes you crash into a tree. Sometimes you go on this magical road that you never would have found otherwise, which is a strange metaphor. But what I mean by that is the thing that I can control happens when I pick up a guitar and make a sound with it,” adding that how people respond to that is completely unpredictable. “I have no idea if people are going to clap, buy the record and come to the show, or if they’re going to go, ‘I don’t like this. I’m going to buy the new PEARL JAM album.’ When we had this number one single it was great, but it also wasn’t like some plan we had where, ‘Okay, if we do this step, and this step, this will lead us to a number one single.’ It wasn’t that at all. It was just like winning the lottery, without ever even having bought the lottery ticket.”

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