There was a time they wanted to be with you but couldn’t stand to be with each other.
And yet hatchets have been buried and creative juices are flowing again – evidenced by the brilliant comeback album What If…
rushonrock editor Simon Rushworth caught up with lead singer Eric Martin as Mr Big return to the UK this month.
rushonrock: You’ve always been influenced by British blues rock but the new album takes that sound to a new level…
Eric Martin: I like to think so. It’s our true sound. I’ve got nothing against all the other records we’ve put out and the first album we did, in particular, was very cool. And Lean Into It was a good record. But then Paul quit. Now when I listen to the new record and compare it to what we’ve done in the past those early albums sound a little too slick and over-produced. The new record didn’t have any pre-production – a long time ago we would have spent weeks and months on the pre-production and jamming until we thought it was perfect. The record label people wanted to like every song and wanted it to be a hit for them. With this one we came together with the lyrics and the chords and we’d jam the song once or twice and then go home. That was it. Back in the 90s Billy and Paul would be in separate booths and I’d come in and overdub on the lead vocals but we didn’t do any of that this time. We’re a lot closer and a lot more focused. We weren’t ever going to do all of those dubs this time – that used to really piss me off and it was never what I wanted. We’re all influenced by bands like Free and Humble Pie. It’s the music we love and this time we thought let’s put our money where our mouth is. We ended up doing each track 15 or 20 times and then just picked the best take. I was blown away by what we ended up with. This is the kind of record Mr Big always wanted to make.
rushonrock: Are you pleased with the reaction to the new album then?
EM: We didn’t consciously set out to make a particular record and after we completed it we were all a little worried about how people would perceive us in 2011. I think Billy and I, in particular, were concerned. It’s a little scary when you do things so differently. I’m still affected by it now. But it’s a huge compliment when people hear the new music and ask us if it’s the album we actually wanted to record a long time ago.
rushonrock: Lean Into It is your biggest commercial success but is it truly representative of Mr Big?
EM: I suppose it was a record of the time. I remember To Be With You did, definitely, have tons of harmonising on it. But that record and those times were different. Everything was so detailed and had to be so perfect. No stone was left unturned and there was the budget to take that approach. There was so much money swilling around back then. With What If… we poured all our own money into getting Kevin Shirley on board as our producer and so straight away it was a record which meant so much to us. We recorded the album at The Village where everybody and his brother and sister have recorded over the years. You’re talking the Rolling Stones to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Lady GaGa. It was an amazing place with a greatr atmosphere. I also hooked up with Kevin in Malibu to lay down some vocals – talk about the liefestyles of the rich and famous! Actually it’s more like a place where a bunch of people who haven’t washed their hair knock around.
rushonrock: Kevin Shirley is still the producer of the moment – why were you so keen to have him handling What If… ?
EM: He loves Joe Bonamassa and so do we. He’s done a great job with the Black Country Communion records and we loved what we heard there. But he’s such a busy man we didn’t have long with him. We had to make that time count. Normally after I’ve finished a record I feel drained but with Kevin at the helm it went in a blur and was an amazing feeling. The other guys were in the studio more than I was but the whole process was so smooth. We wrote nine songs in a short space of time and they all came together. One of the main reasons we split up all those years ago was that we couldn’t decide on anything. This time we just let Kevin make the big decisions musically. And when he did make those decisions they turned out to be spot on! I really like his style. Our drummer Pat is a very stoic and meticulous guy but Kevin would just shout names down the earphones like Keith Moon or John Bonham and he’d urge all of us to play like our heroes. He kept telling us it’s all about expressing ourselves as musicians and that’s what we did.
rushonrock: Does it frustrate you or fill you with pride that for many music fans Mr Big equals one big hit – To Be With You?
EM: I love that song. If I went to my grave with people remembering me for that song I’d be a happy man. It’s the best vocal ever in my eyes. But if you talk to Billy, Pat and Paul they’d say the same thing. We all love that song. They all love that track as much as I do. When we wrote To Be With You Paul wrote Green Tinted Sixties Mind and it was great to have two such different and popular songs on the same record. At the time we were thinking a lot about the live show and we just wanted each song on that record to go somewhere different. The new album isn’t like that at all. There’s a flow to it and it’s a lot more rocking that the previous records.
rushonrock: Back in the 90s did you see grunge coming and could you imagine the effect it would have on the kind of music you were playing?
EM: From a personal point of view I was completely blindsided by grunge. We went to Seattle with Mr Big and the show was packed out but the people upstate were already starting to dress a little differently. The music climate completely shifted, almost overnight, and it really affected us and a lot of bands like us. A lot of my friends went back to painting houses but we were lucky – we had a big following in Japan and South East Asia which stayed loyal to us in the lean years! We still had places to play even if they were nowhere near home. But perhaps music needed a change of the guard at that time. Even if it was just so that we can fully appreciate what came before grunge.
rushonrock: How do you explain your sustained success in the Far East?
EM: Well we didn’t have instant success. We campaigned for years to make an impact there. In the real world it took forever. It’s like dog years when you look back at the length of time it took us to make a serious impression there. We first went out there in 1988 and played a few small clubs. It wasn’t until 1992 and the success of To Be With You that we graduated to the bigger venues but even then we didn’t make the Budokan. It was only a couple of years before Paul left that we finally played there for the first time. But the fans in that part of the world are extremely loyal. They’re full-on fans. They stayed together longer than we did in the end! Everybody got into our music in japan – the DJs, the media and the record-buying public. They just kept buying Mr Big records like they were gold! I can’t really explain it. But the fans stuck with whatever direction we went in – even when we went a little poppy. You can blame me for that!
rushonrock: How easy or difficult was it to reform bearing in mind the band’s past history?
EM: Priorities change. There was a bittersweet syrup that we all had in our mouths a few years ago. But after five years or more you kind of lost that taste. You lose the taste of hate. I hadn’t seen Billy for seven or eight years and hadn’t seen Paul for 12 years. When I saw Billy I looked him in the eye for the first time and said ‘it wasn’t the other guys’. Paul and Pat were in the room but they didn’t help or hinder the situation between me and Billy. Looking back I like to think we were just two perfectionists butting heads. Every time we’d ague or throw chairs at each other we’d always end up coming to the conclusion that we wanted the same thing. We always meant the same. It was just a total communication breakdown in the end. There wasn’t even any talking. Everyone in bands fights with each other but for too long me and Billy held it in and then it all just exploded. It was definitely me and Billy at the heart of the situation and that’s probably why Paul left in the end. Paul has always gone where the work is and he’s always been focused. All the bullshit fights me and Billy had or the wall of silence took its toll. Silence becomes a deafening roar. I don’t think Paul could take it any more and I don’t blame him.
rushonrock: Do you feel you and Billy could have handled things differently back in the day?
EM: I feel like I’ve totally wasted years of my life, both professionally and personally, through stubbornness and by not picking up the phone to an old friend. If I’m honest I was always a bit afraid to call Billy. I wanted to but I just didn’t have the courage for so many years. But I eventually emailed him and it was kind of no big deal. I kind of felt that I should have made the call a long time ago.
rushonrock: And what about Paul? How did you reconcile him and get the original line-up back together?
EM: When I did call Paul a long time ago, after he quit, I said if I’m the reason you left the band then I’ll change. Initially he said never in a million years would he go back to doing Mr Big again. But eventually he said if it’s painless and we can make it fun then let’s do it. But even then he didn’t want to do another record. He said let’s just take it one day at a time. He agreed to do a little reunion tour and told me that if it went well he’d have a think about the future. He has so much going on and so much on his plate that I wasn’t optimistic. But I started talking to Tim, our manager who was Paul’s manager, about what I wanted long term. I told him I didn’t just want a tour and T-shirt. I wanted a new record. I think the message got back to Paul and, when he realised there were going to be no more fights he was in.