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How Mark Tremonti Turned Pandemic Blues Into Metal Gold

Wednesday, 22 September 2021 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Scott Diussa

On 2018’s ‘A Dying Machine’ melodic metallers Tremonti unfurled a fantastical sci-fi concept set in a bleak, otherworldly dystopia. Two years later, band leader Mark Tremonti found himself—much like the rest of the planet—living in one. Initially plagued by self doubt and creative inaction as Covid took hold, the guitarist eventually rediscovered his mojo and used that experience to fashion ‘Marching in Time’, possibly the most explosive, anthemic and emotionally gripping album of his storied career.

After five impressive records with the side band that sport his instantly recognisable moniker, not to mention countless high-quality efforts with Creed and Alter Bridge, it’s definitely time to stop referring to Mark Tremonti in one dimensional terms. Yes, he is a sensational six-string exponent, one of the finest of his generation, but equally we can't ignore the fact he’s also a gifted songwriter who’s also evolved into a fantastic singer.

Stacked to the rafters with brutal metal riffage and scintillating solos, not to mention magnificent performances from the rest of the band on tracks that range from face-frying bangers to towering ballads and prog-infused epics, ‘Marching in Time’ excels because of Tremonti’s all round game. Each immense hook delivers the kind of anthemic uppercut that could knock out a stadium rock crowd with one blow.  

We caught up with Mark to chat about Tremonti’s finest moment to date, while discovering which guitarist he thinks might be the best in the world, and finding out why fans should keep their ears peeled for a special announcement early next year.     

Some songwriters weren’t able to write during the pandemic. How did it affect you?

I felt the same way. For about five months I wasn’t excited about writing or playing a ton of guitar.  I kept myself busy working around the house and had a baby daughter I was preparing for. But when I got back into putting this record together I snapped out of it and, to me, I can hear the excitement of getting back into songwriting and creating. With this record we had a lot more time to thoroughly piece things together. It was a lot of work, but every record takes a non stop effort to get finalised and ready to go. Not just the lyrical content, but the vocal melodies and transitions from part to part, making sure it all fits, and that the record is a dynamic one that tells a story and sounds fresh and new from previous attempts.

A lot of the themes on the album give off the air of someone suffering an existential crisis that’s been triggered by the pandemic and having a lot of time to think.

Each song is definitely a different story but some look inside, some look at fictional characters. So there’s a little bit of everything thrown in. The title track is probably the most personal. That was about finding out my wife was pregnant in 2020, when the world was turned upside down, and the fear of bringing a child into a world that’s in such a bad place at the present moment.    

You’ve previously talked about how writing vocal melodies is your favourite thing to do.  There’s certainly a darkness and intensity to the album, but the choruses deliver hope. Who are your inspirations when it comes to writing killer melodic lines?

It probably goes way back to when I was a child and listening to Gerry Rafferty, Paul Simon, Seals & Crofts and even Journey—‘70s soft rock was where I got my start, then my world collided with speed metal when I was growing up.  So I tried to combine those two. I like a chorus to really lift you up. It’s the centre of the song so a lot of times that feeling is an uplifting one. That being said, I love heavy, dark choruses as well, but I think the chorus should be the most emotionally intense part of the song.  

Ryan Bennett stepped in for Garrett Whitlock on drums a few years ago and immediately makes his presence felt on pulverising opener A World Away. What did he bring to the table?    

A new energy. He’s a hungry, passionate musician. I told him many times ‘this is your introduction to our fanbase’ and I wanted to give him that opportunity to shine, especially on the ending of Marching in Time, he almost has his own drum solo. I think he stepped right up to bat and did a great job.   

What’s the guitar playing relationship like between yourself and Eric Friedman in Tremonti and how does it differ with how you and Myles Kennedy interact in Alter Bridge?

I’ll write the music and he’ll write to fill out the sound. Sometimes we just quad guitars and play the same riffs, but a lot of the time he’ll add layers to what I’m doing. He fills the same role as Myles does in Alter Bridge, where I’m kind of the meat and potatoes, big heavy riffing guy, and when you hear effects or arpeggiated things on top of that, those are usually Myles or Eric.    

When you’re playing a solo, what do you want to hear beneath and around you, in terms of rhythms, chord progressions, particular keys, that inspire you to hit your finest heights?

I want a big, nice lush wall of rhythm guitar beds to begin with. But I also want some unique chord changes to hit. Or memorable vocal melodies that shine through when you kind of imitate them with your guitar solo. I try not to rely on technique the whole time through a solo. I wanna create a little song within a song. It’s got to have its own melody, tell its own story. I don’t want to just blast through licks you’ve heard a hundred times. 

Let That Be Us is probably my favourite solo on the record. The Last One of Us was a tough one to put together because it’s about twice as long as any of the other solos on the album. It’s got some bluesy jazzy stuff in it too. The fun thing about that one was I got to come out swinging with it and then do a backed off solo, with a little more space, and hopefully a little more class than just the full speed stuff. 

You’ve spoken a lot about your growing love for blues guitarists and that comes across on the record’s very singable solos. Which of those players inspire you the most?

BB King is, for me, the skeleton of the blues if you want to dive in and learn an outline of how to  be a blues player. And then Albert Collins and Albert King. I’m particularly drawn to modern players too. Derek Trucks could be one of the best guitar players on earth. Jeff Beck. Eric Gales is incredible. Joe Bonamassa has become one of the superheroes of the guitar world, the unstoppable force that he is. I could go on and on. To me, it’s much more exciting than the players I grew up wanting to be on the shred side of things. I still enjoy that, but lean more towards blues-based lead guitar playing these days.      

Last month marked the 30th anniversary of Metallica’s ‘The Black Album’.  You’re a huge fan of ‘Master of Puppets’ and have spoken passionately about that record, but what did you make of ‘The Black Album’ when you first heard it? 

I thought it was a new Metallica. This wasn’t the Metallica I grew up with but I loved it just the same. I thought The Unforgiven was an amazing track. You couldn’t help but love Enter Sandman the first hundred times you heard it. It was awesome right out of the gate. Nothing Else Matters was the song every guitar player I knew was immediately playing. Wherever I May Roam was such a great riff, great song. My biggest complaint was there was no instrumental, because those were some of my favourite Metallica tracks. Orion is my favourite song off of my favourite record, so that was a very important song for me.        

It’s been pointed out that Tremonti is much more of a side band than a pure solo gig for you, so do you have any plans for a solo album where you take complete creative control and maybe do something that might surprise people?

This band is as close as it gets to being 100% my personal expression, because I write all the songs, lyrics, melodies and parts. It’s the favourite things that can come out of my imagination. There’s no compromise. But I do have a project that’s way different from anything I’ve ever done in the past and is top secret. It’s definitely something people aren’t gonna see coming and we’re gonna announce it in the spring. 

You recently revealed that Alter Bridge will start making a new album soon. You and Myles wrote separately for your last record ‘Walk The Sky’, which was different to how you’d done things in the past. Do you intend to adopt that approach again or return to your previous way of collaborating?

It’s going to be a combination of both. Me and Myles know, at this point, we can write independently and still get together and make it sound like Alter Bridge. That’s what we had to do on the last record. We had to come to the table with songs ready to go and then choose which we were gonna finalise. Whenever you take a song you’ve written on your own, and then put it through the Alter Bridge filter, it gives it that Alter Bridge flavour.  We now know that we can write as much as we want, no matter how independent we are and how much time we spend apart, and can always get together and spend a couple months giving it that Alter Bridge sound.     

What's it been like to play gigs again after such a long hiatus, and will you be coming over to the UK at any point soon, given the logistical issues associated with touring right now?

It’s been great. It was the longest I’ve been off tour since 1997 so it’s definitely been good to get back into the swing of things. We do have dates booked through the end of this year in the States and then have the minimum of January through most of February booked and ready to go for Europe. But in Europe, as you know, each country is different so we don’t want to take any chances on booking 25 shows and have two of them go to the wayside because of Covid restrictions. It’s a moving target right now and we’re still putting it together to make sure we’re all safe.  

Tremonti's 'Marching In Time' is out on September 24 through Napalm.

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