Mr Big's Paul Gilbert - Summer 2017

Named after a song by the same name by the band Free, Mr Big have enjoyed a career spanning 28 years, releasing 9 studio albums along the way. The members Eric Martin (vocals), Paul Gilbert (guitar), Billy Sheehan (bass) and Pat Torpey (drums) have all had success both as solo artists and as part of other high profile bands. However, with a new album due on 21st July, their focus is now firmly on Mr Big. Created in only 6 days, it’s clear from the songs we’ve already heard that this is going to be a very strong record, one that maintains the Mr Big blueprint of catchy hooks and strong harmonies yet also sounds incredibly fresh. The title track Defying Gravity provides the listener with the clear message that even after all these years the band can still fly. Together with a South American and UK tour on the horizon, this is a really exciting time for the band. We catch up with Paul Gilbert at his home in Portland, Oregon to hear all about how they managed to create such a great album in less than a week. Despite it being an overcast day, Paul is in great spirits… 

The new Mr Big album Defying Gravity

I’d like to talk to you about the new album Defying Gravity but I would just for a moment like to focus on you. As well as being the guitarist for Mr Big, you have an incredibly successful solo career. What do you get from Mr Big professionally and artistically that you don't get as a solo artist?


Well it’s band so it’s interesting to play with people and have a certain sound or flavour that’s unique. No matter what we do we sound like Mr Big, and when we did this new album that’s one of the most exciting things – we did some writing together but some of the songs we brought in were songs we had written on our own, and to hear a song sort of transformed into a Mr Big style… instantly within half an hour of rehearsing or something, it just sounded like Mr Big! It’s exciting! It’s like meeting an old friend! Of course the individuals are amazing. Playing in a band with Billy Sheehan (bassist), there’s really no limitations with what he can do, so that’s always fun. Eric has of course an amazing voice, it’s very unique, and I really like singing harmonies with everybody. When we first got together as a band I think a lot of people focussed on Billy and me and all the crazy stuff we were doing, but by the time the second album came out, we had discovered everybody in the band sings, and we started putting songs together with a lot more emphasis on the vocal harmonies. Songs like Green-Tinted Sixties Mind, Just Take My Heart, To Be With You of course, and still now that’s one of my favourite, most enjoyable things about being in the band is singing with the guys. Sometimes we’ll do acoustic radio station visits, that kind of thing, and you know, on acoustic guitar I’m pretty much crippled as a guitar player! I can hardly play anything on acoustic! But I still have a good time because we sing together and that’s something that’s so enjoyable to me.


You wrote much of the material on Defying Gravity. As a highly successful solo artist, how do you decide what material would be right for a solo venture and what would be right for Mr Big?


Well, I don’t write a lot of stuff in advance for either thing. I’m not really driven to write most of the time. One of my biggest breakthroughs as a writer was the crazy idea that it might be an enjoyable process. I sort of dreaded it so much and I force myself now to enjoy it and have a good time. Basically the way I do that is just to decide that if I’m not enjoying it I’m not writing the right thing. I have to change what I am writing until I’m enjoying it. I have to make something about it interesting to myself or what’s the use? That method’s actually worked pretty well. With the Mr Big record in mind I’m thinking about how Eric sings and how Billy plays, how we all sing together and what our audience likes and that just gives me a general direction to aim for. I’m not very successful! I wrote a couple of songs we didn’t use (laughs) but luckily some of them seemed to work! When we play 1992 live, it really goes over great! 


As you’ve sort of indicated, the nature of the band is such that the material you all individually bring is discussed and shaped as a band. How did this process work for the new album and how easy was it to cross the finish line on each track?


This time we had a pretty tight schedule so usually we will make demos and listen to the demos and sort of decide there which songs we’re going to work on for the record. This time we didn’t have time to make demos so it actually turned into a pretty cool thing because whoever wrote the song, for example, if Eric wrote a tune he would play like a busker’s version of it. He’d have an acoustic guitar and he’d stomp on the ground, create a rhythm and sing along with it. Any harmonies or production stuff we would just sort of have to imagine, but he’d get the core of the tune across, and from there he’d look at us and go ‘what do you think?’ and we’d say ‘that’s great, let’s try it!’. And within about an hour and half the some would have evolved with all of us playing on it and it would have a higher energy and it would have all the bells and whistles on top, and that was an exciting process to listen to and be a part of. To see a song really in its most simple version and then adding all this stuff on to make in to a Mr Big track. The same thing happened with my tunes. I had some of them demoed but after I saw Eric doing it I thought I don’t have to make a demo. There’s no rule that says you have to do that. I had a couple of songs, one was Be Kind and another was Mean To Me, and those I just brought them in and finished off the lyrics before breakfast and brought them in and said ‘I’ve got a tune, do you wanna hear it?’. That was exciting, especially because there was no demo. It was such a quick transition from something that was such a simple presentation to something that was complete and big-production sounding.

You recorded Defying Gravity in 6 days. Was it always planned to produce the album so quickly and if so what was the driver for this? 


Well everybody has got their own stuff going on, including our producer (Kevin Elson). We had 6 days when we could all be together and before we did the record we thought ‘is that enough? I don’t know! Let’s just try’. If we don’t do it now who knows when the next 6 days period will come up! So we thought let’s just throw ourselves into it and do the best we can. We were able to do all the basic tracks, get all the songs together, I got every guitar solo finished except for 2 which I had to pull a couple of all night sessions on the tour I was doing after that. I would get back from the gig and pull up Pro Tools on my laptop and over-dub 2 solos then. But we really got the majority of stuff done in 6 days and Eric was then able to spend more time with the vocals afterwards. It sounds more impressive when we say 6 days and most of it really was done in that time but we still did a lot of the vocals, some guitar solos and mixes afterwards. It bled into a longer session but 6 days was when we were all there as a band. 


Do you now more than ever need to think about costs and the general economics of creating a record? Did that play a part? 


It’s nice when it’s less expensive and actually studios aren’t that expensive these days, and we are working for free! (Laughs) When I do my solo albums I probably worry about that more because then I’m paying the musicians but with Mr Big we’re just paying for the studio and that’s not that much at all. I don’t keep that close an eye on it. That’s what my manager is for – he’ll yell at them! (Laughs)


Let’s talk about some of the new music. We've already had a taste of the album in the track 1992, an opportunity for Mr Big to reminisce about when you were number 1 in the single charts with To Be With You. What made you as a band want to take a look in the rear view mirror?


Well that’s one of my tunes and I had the title first. I wasn’t thinking specifically of that, I was thinking of when we had our number 1 hit. It was an amazing time and of course the number one hit was not my song, it was Eric’s song. But I remember that because it was such a big part of our career and our story as a band – I’ve heard him talk about it and I know a lot about his process of writing it – and then that sort of became about writing a story about him in a way, about how he wrote it and what we experienced going through it and how it affected our success as a band and how we carried on from there. If you’re going to be nostalgic about something that’s a nice thing to be nostalgic about. We were all kind of blown away. We wanted to be successful but we didn’t set out to be a pop-singles kind of a band. We wanted to be a rock band and tour arenas, and so to suddenly be at the top of the charts looking down at Michael Jackson and Maria Carey for 2 weeks, that was an amazing thing that we did not expect but we enjoyed a lot. 


Lyrically Mr Big have been very open in the track 1992, both about being number 1 and also subsequently perhaps the sense of being let down by your record company, the exact words being ‘The record company said to us ‘thank you, Man’ then they threw us right in the the garbage can’. A what point did your relationship with the record company begin to sour and how did this make you feel?


These are first world complaints! It’s hard to complain too much when ‘oh, we had a number 1 single and the record company isn’t being nice to us and we wish they would’. Basically what happened is that it was 1992 and that same year Nirvana came out with Nevermind and the rock trends were starting to change radically from bands that big hair and wore sort of glitzy outfits – I don’t even know how to describe what we were wearing! – but there were bands like Poison and Britny Fox and Winger, and we were kind of lumped in with them. So suddenly Nirvana and Pearl Jam comes out and the record company decides this is the new trend and anything that is not this new trend we’re not really into that anymore. And that was in America. In other countries, To Be With You had taken off in places like Indonesia and Asia, so suddenly we’re going to places I’d never heard of. I remember doing a show in Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur and it was such an amazing lesson about the world! I’d never even heard of Kuala Lumpur and it’s a major city in the world. It’s something I should have heard of if I’d paid attention in school. At the time, it was against the law to have long hair, or at least to have long hair as a performer. We all had really long hair. The promoter said ‘I’m so sorry guys but you’ve got to pull it back into a pony tail’. And I was just incredibly relieved because I thought I’d have to cut it! It had taken me a long time to get my hair that long, so I was like ‘hey, give me the hair tie, I’ll put back in a pony tail no problem!’ (Laughs). But the funny thing was that there was a local Malaysian support band and they came out on stage so I though I’d check them out, and they had long hair and it wasn’t pulled back. I went to the promoter and said ‘I don’t wanna cause any problem, I truly don’t have any problem wearing the pony tail but I’m just curious why the opening band gets to have their hair out?’. And he looked at me as if to say how can you not see this obvious thing? And he said ‘Oh, because and their hair is neat.’ (Laughs!) I guess our hair was somehow unruly and promoted rebellion or something. We had rebellious hair! It wasn’t just the length, it was the style. The things you run across in your rock ‘n’ roll experiences, they’re always fun! The key is to have a sense of humour! 


Fast forward to the present day, how does this compare to your new record company Frontiers SRL? Just to add a bit more to this question, it would appear that so many established artists are turning to Frontiers SRL. What is is about the record company that's creating such a draw and successful partnerships?


I wish I had more direct contact in order to answer the question. To me the perfect world is me with my hands on the guitar being a musician. I’m happy to meet the people that are in the record company and I do know some of them, but most of what they do is through our management, and my manager does the wonderful job of keeping me with my guitar in my hands, concentrating on writing songs and playing shows. Occasionally with my solo stuff, because that’s a little smaller level, I do have to get involved with things. The record company will call me up and say ‘Hey, we need a bio. Can you write me one?’. I’ll have to write a bio about myself. I suppose maybe I’m qualified to do that sort of thing. In the old days we never had to write our own bio or organise our own photo sessions, and actually with Mr Big we still don’t, but for my solo stuff I’m a little more hands on because nobody else will do it so I have to. 

After more than a generation and 8 albums, it's clear from the new material we've heard to date that Mr Big are still pushing boundaries in terms of technical delivery and also the subjects you sing about. What continues to inspire you after all these years?


I can only speak for myself as a writer and a player but I love playing music and it’s just so interesting to me. I’m so happy that that is my job and my hobby and allows me to be interested in something all the time and never bored. There’s always something new in music and I think that’s the main thing of it. It’s just such an interesting art, it’s an emotional art but there’s things about it that are intellectual. You can look a the music theory side of things – that’s interesting, you can analyse how other people wrote songs and get ideas from that and do your own version. I’m also someone who’s a visual artist. When I was a kid I drew a lot and I just drew a design of a Mr Big t shirt, and spent the last 2 days with pencils and paper. With that sort of thing I liked the result but the process to me isn’t that interesting. I sort of dread the process and I’m glad when it’s finished. With music it’s almost the opposite where I love the process and I never want it to be finished. I never want it to end. I can just sit there and tinker all day.


Let's move on to the Autumn tour. Mr Big are playing an 18 date European tour throughout October and November. What can fans expect from these shows?


It’s going to be amazing because this whole year we’re touring. We’ve already toured the States and after that we’re going to Mexico and South America, all through Japan and Asia. So by the time we get to Europe, we’re going to know what we’re doing! (Laughs!) And really, sometimes the first week can be a little rough, getting new songs together, even though we’ve rehearsed them, playing them live you’re trying not to be distracted by just the energy. There’s a whole energy that there’s no other way to reproduce it than by actually getting on stage in front of an audience and it takes a little while to get used to that. Especially with new songs that haven’t quite yet been melded into your DNA. But at this point we’ve already worked in 2 of the songs. We’re doing 1992 and Everybody Needs a Little Trouble from the new album. We’ll probably throw in a couple more by the time we get to Europe and there’s some crazy things worked out in the solos that Billy and I do, and a lot of harmonies. Maybe I’ll even have figured out something cool to wear by then! (Laughs!)


A new album and a tour in 2017 is big news for Mr Big fans. At the risk of sounding incredibly greedy, what can fans expect next from Mr Big?


I think we’re maybe doing some recording of some of the live shows during the tour. If that’s the case it could always turn into a live record. With any band, we’re not going to become actors. We don’t think we have any dramatic movie plans! It’s basically as rock bands do: you do an album, you do a tour, you keep the process going, you keep expanding the material and keep trying to improve as a performer. And it’s just been a great tour so far. We’ve already started it. Everybody’s playing great, Eric’s really singing well, so we’re living the dream being in a rock band.


As our conversation draws to a close, it is with huge anticipation that we await the launch of the new album Defying Gravity on 21st July. A new album from Mr Big isn’t just an album – it an event! And quite rightly there is already a huge amount of anticipation building. Together with an autumn UK tour, 2017’s second half is providing us with plenty to look forward to!


To preorder the album and to find out more, head over to www.mrbigsite.com. In the meantime, enjoy the video below to the title track Defying Gravity.