By Jeb Wright
Okay, look here… when you read the below interview there will be parts of our discussion where you may think to yourself, “This guy does not know what the heck he is talking about.” Well, that’s probably true. It’s like this… I like Paul Gilbert. I love the way he plays guitar. I didn’t do my normal due diligence and kinda inserted foot-in-mouth when it came to him singing on his solo albums—the last several have been instrumental—and I may not have known he did a covers album… so he makes fun of me a bit. That’s okay though, as I deserved it. Now, I do know his latest album, as it was sent to me for free… so, Paul… you see, big shooters like Jeb Wright don’t search the ‘net’ for music. Instead we are ‘catered to’ and begged to listen to new music by older guys who used to be in ‘80s hair bands… just saying, for future reference… next time it will go better if you understand the rules.
Oh that was funny. I’m such a jerk. I won’t be screwing around and talking smack on his newest album, however, as Paul kicks-ass, vocally and instrumentally. AND there is a bonus track that kicks-ass. It is Ted Nugent’s “Great White Buffalo.” Paul has never heard the Ted’s studio version so, ya know, I’m not the only one that needs to search the Internet. Just saying…
Enough of justifying my existence and taking cheap shots at Paul… So, without further ado… here is my interview with Mr. Big… and Tall… Paul Gilbert!
Jeb: Nice to talk to you again, Paul. Okay, you’re perhaps the most amazing guitar player on the planet… or at least in the top 5%. So……. we will start off our interview by saying… DUDE. YOU SING! I suppose I should have figured that… but YOU SING! And you have a unique and good voice. Who knew?
Paul: Well, I guess this would be a good time to introduce the solo albums that I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. I didn’t promote them here in the states much. There was a lot of grunge and hip-hop going on, so I mainly toured and released albums in Japan and the rest of the world. Let’s see if I can remember the titles. King of Clubs, Flying Dog, Beehive Live, Burning Organ, Gilbert Hotel, Acoustic Samurai, Spaceship One, and of course the new one, I Can Destroy, which fortunately is getting a proper push in the USA. I should also mention that I’m not the only singer on the record. Tony Spinner and Freddie Nelson help me out with the harmonies and some of the higher lines.
Jeb: Some fans… me… still ache for more balls-to-the-wall solo guitar without singing. A) When can we get more full-shred? B) Why sing on this one? C) Do you get more nervous being a vocalist than a guitarist?
Paul: I did three instrumental records right in a row. Get Out of My Yard, Silence Followed by a Deafening Roar, and Fuzz Universe are all specifically designing to melt faces. I’m not sure what the future will hold. It’s likely to be some kind of rock and roll, with other ingredients stirred in to keep it interesting. Lately, I just want to play hard and bend strings a lot. Many of the guitarists who are interested in my style tend to play softly and don’t bend strings much. It’s important to me to turn that around. Otherwise, they should take up the harpsichord instead. I actually love the harpsichord, but you can’t make it scream like a guitar.
Jeb: You say you ‘see the fretboard’ differently now than you used to. Tell me what that means and how it changes your approach to composition?
Paul: Every guitar player has to visualize shapes on the fretboard, so you know where to put your fingers to get your favorite notes. My favorite notes when I was a teenager are different than my favorite notes now. So I’ve had to learn a lot of new shapes… and teach my fingers to play inside of them. It would be like an astronomer looking at the constellations for 35 years, and then having to learn an entirely different set of stars to look at. It takes some work, but it keeps me excited about playing… and listening.
Jeb: I can’t go any further without talking about the bonus track “Great White Buffalo.” Politics aside, Ted Nugent in the 1970s was a bad-ass axe-slinger who would play fast and write a killer riff. This version reminds me much more of his Amboy Dukes version on Tooth, Fang & Claw. Am I on target?
Paul: I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard the studio version. I grew up with the live one from Double Live Gonzo. I did my best, but I don’t know if I can match the energy of Ted Nugent in his 20s. I can’t help but like Ted Nugent, just because he’s always smiling, optimistic, and funny.
Jeb: Tell me your history with that song? If you were inspired to remake that song there must have been a reason.
Paul: It’s a great riff. And it makes me smile to sing a song about a buffalo… not only a buffalo, but a specific kind of buffalo. This could be the start of some sort of zoological rock. A song about a wombat would be good. But even better would be a certain kind. “The Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombat.” Now we’re talking.
Jeb: “Everbody Use Your Goddamn Turn Signal” is a great rock song. Tell me about the inspiration to the title. Was it a one-time incident or the straw that broke the camel’s back?
Paul: No, it was definitely cumulative, from years of driving in L.A… which really isn’t a bad place to drive. You just have to do it a lot. I have since moved to a part of Portland, where I can get to a lot of places on foot, and don’t have to spend so much time in the car.
Jeb: Title track “I Can Destroy” has some great playing. You riff, you fly and you have so much damn melody. On top of that you have some Van Halen type flavor in the rhythm. How did this come about?
Paul: I should give credit to the experience of teaching at my online guitar school. Many of my lessons are new riffs that I create in order to help a student with a particular technique issue of their playing. After I finish the lesson, I often think, “Hey that phrase could become a cool song.” The musical seeds of “I Can Destroy” came from that.
Jeb: Soloing evolves over the years, but I would imagine the songwriting craft and lyric writing also evolves. Explain the process for all and how it relates to this album?
Paul: With the exception of the title track, most of the songs on the record began with the lyrics, and then I built the music around that. For me, that’s a much easier way to work. Lyrics can have a certain rhythm built in to them. And then I start adding chords to that. And very quickly, I have a whole song. The other general idea is just to enjoy the process. If things start getting tedious then I know I need to take the song in another direction.
Jeb: Kevin Shirley produced this. In the good old days, Producers did more than advise about how to turn knobs. They were involved in the commercial process as well as the creative process. How was Kevin involved and what does he bring to the table?
Paul: Kevin has great ears for every aspect of the music, and he knows how to get the most inspired performances from musicians. Since I had worked with Kevin before on a Mr. Big album, I knew how he worked. And I knew that we wouldn’t be doing much, or any overdubs, or repairing things. So I made sure to put together a great band that could create a complete sound in a single live performance. It was really helpful to have Tony Spinner and Freddie Nelson playing guitar and singing with me. And of course, Kevin Chown on bass, and Thomas Lang on drums were amazing.
Jeb: “Knocking on a Locked Door” is just more fun than I think anyone should be allowed to have. It is not as complicated sounding as your usual tune. Did you hammer this out fast? What bands influence you to create this way?
Paul: Well, like most of the songs on the record, this song started with the lyrics. The melody came next, followed by the chords, groove, and arrangement. There are a couple tricky parts in there, but it didn’t seem like it needed prog-rock elements in order to work. I didn’t have specific bands in mind when I wrote it, but over the years I’ve listened to The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Iggy and The Stooges, The Wildhearts, and Green Day. Of course there is some complicated music that I love, too.
Jeb: “Gonna Make You Love Me” seems just wrong coming from someone as good as you… ha, ha, ha! This sounds like a bar band tune. You have other more blues themed songs on here as well. You’re not as known for this. It was a bit of a surprise.
Paul: While I was trying out my early song ideas, I got together with Tony Spinner and Freddie Nelson. Having their voices and guitars made the songs sound much better and gave me confidence to keep writing. At the same time, I asked them if they had any songs that they thought might work for the album. Freddie had “Gonna Make You Love Me,” and I thought it was great. It’s a more optimistic tune than I would write myself. From my experience, I don’t have that power over anyone. But it’s fun singing as though I might.
Jeb: “I Am Not The One (Who Wants To Be With You)” is another down and dirty ditty. I could hear your ‘other’ band, you know the one that made a ton of money… I could hear this on an album by that band.
Paul: If Mr. Big ever wants to perform “I Am Not The One (Who Wants To Be With You),” I’ll certainly be open to it. But since we already do “To Be With You,” it might be a little too much. Actually, I’ve done my own crazy version of “To Be With You,” with a double neck guitar, wild key changes, and chunky Van Halen style riffing. I should add that to my own set again.
Jeb: “Love We Had” is like a sad ending to “To Be With You.”
Paul: Sad endings make good ballads. But I look at it more as appreciating something that you had, and treasuring those fond memories. And if any sadness remains, you just bend the strings a little more, and it makes everything feel good.
Jeb: After 30 years as a pro, do you ever fear the day you pick up the guitar and you have nothing new to say?
Paul: I fear scuba diving to the bottom of the ocean at night. There is a company in Hawaii that brings people down to the bottom of the ocean at night to watch the manta rays feeding on the plankton that is attracted by the airport landing lights. That’s sounds so cool to me, but I’m too scared to do it. I don’t want a shark to sneak up on me. Compared to this, music doesn’t scare me at all. And music is such a big, endless art, that there are also lots of places to explore.
Jeb: Will you tour in support of this album? What’s up for you the rest of this year?
Paul: Yes! Dates are being booked now for Europe, and possible even the states. As a solo artist, I haven’t played outside of Southern California, so I’m excited to get to some other cities. I’ve also got a guitar camp coming up in July called “The Great Guitar Escape.” It’s in Cambria, California this year and features some fantastic players to help me teach and jam.
Jeb: Playing an album with so many styles make me wonder if you would ever consider a ‘covers album’. Pay homage to the guitarists that most influenced you? Or would you see that as drab?
Paul: Jeb, there’s this thing called the Internet… Sorry, I realize that my previous albums haven’t been promoted heavily here in the states. You see, my last solo album was mostly covers. Although on this album, I paid homage to my favorite singers by playing the vocal melodies on guitar. When I do covers, I usually cover something that is less predictable, for example, I’ve covered a lot of songs that were originally performed by women. I’ve covered ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” The Spice Girls’ “2 Become 1,” Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” and Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move.” And I’ve covered a lot of music that was originally played with keyboards. “Karn Evil 9” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” by Genesis, “Roundabout” by Yes, and various Bach and Mozart pieces.
Jeb: Last one: I saw you in Hollywood several years ago jamming with Uli Jon Roth at the Musician’s Institute, I think it was in Hollywood. I was amazed at you all… I am from Kansas so forgive the ‘you all’. Did Uli influence you, and if so, what was it like to trade solos with him?
Paul: I listened to a lot of Uli’s playing on the early Scorpions tunes. I also loved his playing. His vibrato is so beautiful. That jam at MI was interesting because I was expecting to do the usual type of jam where we each play short solos back and forth. So I purposefully made my first solo short, expecting that Uli would do a short solo, and so on. But when Uli started soloing, he didn’t stop! I waited a bit, and realized that he wasn’t going to “throw the ball back.” So I just started looking for holes where I could fill in some notes here and there. By the end of the jam we were both playing together, at the same time, and somehow it was working great. It turned out to be very cool, and I really enjoyed it. I think Uli did too, as he invited me to jam with him again at a NAMM show concert. When we did that jam, I made sure to make my first solo nice and long!
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