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Musical Mondaze

Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal

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In our current spoiler alert society, there aren’t very many surprises left. For guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, 2017 brought about one very big eureka moment – the mainstream success of his latest project, the progressive rock band Sons of Apollo.

Comprised of Thal, former Dream Theater members Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian, Mr. Big founding member Billy Sheehan, and ex-Journey vocalist Jeff Scott Soto, the supergroup released their first album, “Psychotic Symphony” on October 20 and saw it debut at #1 on Billboard’s “Heatseekers” Chart, not at all what Thal expected when he thought they would churn out an album that “musician fans and friends” would enjoy.

We recently sat down with the renowned guitar hero to discuss what keeps him in the music biz, the reason he gravitates towards collaborations, and why he refuses to go half way on any project he commits himself to.

TrunkSpace: So often we hear, especially nowadays, about the negative impact of being in the public spotlight, but we have to imagine that for a musician, hearing how you positively impact fans is a driving force to keep going forward. Is that true with you and your career?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: It’s definitely a driving force. Absolutely. Most of the time I want to stop. I want to stop being a musician, and I hate the music business, and I just want to do something else with my life. And then I’ll get a message from somebody saying that what I did helped them and meant something to them, and I realize that that’s why I do this, and it’s so easy to forget that. But that is why we do what we do.

TrunkSpace: You mention the occasional desire to leave the music business. Are you somebody who has to step away and refuel the tank between projects to then get that creative spark back?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: I think so. And I think that I need to live life for a while – experience life – have stories that I feel are new stories to tell, and then I can do it. If I was gonna sit in the studio every day, I don’t know if that would work. I don’t know if being an output machine, just pumping out music daily, maybe would be even better, but I found that for most of my life I’ve needed to just live my life and then go and make some music.

TrunkSpace: Does that also apply to diversifying who you’re playing with and finding new voices to write alongside? Do your collaborations keep things fresh?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: That definitely is a big part of it. I think collaboration is so important. And there’s only so much I can get out of myself, and I only have a finite amount of anything to offer. But when you’re working with someone else, each one of you has something the other doesn’t, and when you put the two together it’s almost like the result is bigger than the sum of both parts by themselves.

TrunkSpace: When you look at those various collaborations throughout your career, do you view them as different roads all intersecting, or are they the same road traveling along the same career path?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: Good question. I guess they’re the same life path, but different things. I guess you could say they’re different movies. One is “Star Wars,” the other is “The Empire Strikes Back,” and the other one is “The Return of the Jedi.” But they’re part of the same collection in your life. And that’s the thing, everybody’s lives are connected and we’re all part of this web, so it’s not a linear thing. I think everything we do is more like we expand outward than going in one direction. I think we’re like a circle that keeps expanding.

TrunkSpace: And like anything in life, you get from those experiences what you’re willing to put in.
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: Oh sure, yeah. And, for me, I find that I need to immerse myself fully and go in deep. I have a very hard time just doing anything half way. I need to fully commit to whatever I’m doing while I’m doing it, whether it’s a band or whether it’s just producing or recording or my own albums or just doing a guest guitar solo for somebody. I need to really just fully commit.

TrunkSpace: Your latest project Sons of Apollo is filled with career musicians who have been at it for decades. Does working with that caliber of musicians provide a vibe of, everyone knows what they’re there to do and they do it. Does it make the process more efficient?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: Well, definitely with Sons of Apollo, you have a bunch of people that are the same types of creatures on the same page. It works well. That’s the thing, like any relationship, it has to be a balanced one where… if one loves someone more than the other does, it doesn’t quite work out well. So, we’re all on the same level as far as things. And, for me, and I noticed for Jeff and Derek and all the guys, they’re the same way, they care 100 percent. They fully put their heart and everything into it. And I think that’s why it works. And what I’ve realized is that when you’re like that, you’re gonna do much better in a band than as a hired gun kind of guy. And I think that’s why I’ve had difficulties in the past when it was a hired gun situation – which I never was, I was never a hired gun player, I was always a band guy, always had bands, always had it either in my solo band or Art of Anarchy or now Sons of Apollo. That’s the kind of person I am, and that’s just how I operate. If it’s something where it’s just more like employment, I could maybe do it for a short time, but after a certain point I need more, and it hurts too much to not give more or to just be kept at that employee distance and not a partnership kind of thing.

TrunkSpace: You knew the guys from Sons of Apollo for a long time. When you’re in that sort of relationship with other musicians, when do you know that a jam session is becoming more than that? Is it a bit unspoken at first, or does it just kind of happen?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: You kind of know pretty quickly – it happens immediately. As soon as you start playing together you just have this comfort and there’s this mind reading thing where you’ll end up doing the same kind of feel with the same kind of accents at the same time, like you’re anticipating the same things and reading each other’s minds and instinctively just know what the other is gonna do. And a lot of times that just happens. It happens more often than not, I’ve found.

TrunkSpace: Where does “Psychotic Symphony” sit for you in terms of your own relationship with your music? Is it an album that in 20 years you’ll look back on and see as a career highlight, both as a songwriter, and just as the experience?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: I think so. It’s funny, it’s not what I expected. Going from Art of Anarchy, which was radio rock, to Sons of Apollo, which is really like classic progressive hard rock… to me, Sons of Apollo I thought was gonna be more like something just for musicians, but it kind of blew up. Something is weird in the universe when women are coming up to you saying how much they love your progressive rock band. That’s not supposed to happen. Women are supposed to run in the opposite direction. (Laughter) And we would joke about that in the studio. We would come up with this crazy part in this weird time signature, and I would say something like, “We just lost two more female members of the audience.” (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: (Laughter) Life is all about expectations. When you have them tied to something, you tend to either be surprised or disappointed. Is part of the surprise with how well Sons of Apollo has been received because you had expectations?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: Yeah. I went into it thinking we were just gonna bust out an album in 10 days, and that musician fans and friends would enjoy it, and that would be it, just for the sake of making an album, but then it took on a life. And here we are in 2018, we’re gonna be touring all year, and starting to write ideas for a second album. But that’s how it is, you never know what’s gonna happen. All you can do is just put stuff out into the universe and it takes on a life of its own, and you have to let it have that life and don’t hold it back, and support it.

Psychotic Symphony” is available now from InsideOutMusic.

For Sons of Apollo tour dates, visit here.

 

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Musical Mondaze

Mr. Big

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Anyone who listened to the radio in 1991 or watched MTV in the age of actual music videos has emphatically sung along with Mr. Big’s “To Be with You,” the hit single from their platinum-selling sophomore album “Lean Into It.” Nearly three decades later, the band is continuing to write, record, and tour the world and doing so on their own terms now that the music industry has been flipped on its head. Their ninth studio album, “Defying Gravity,” is set for release July 7.

We recently sat down with bass player Billy Sheehan to discuss how their record label originally despised “Lean Into It,” the process that went into recording their new album, and how being crushed to death by those who adore you may not be the worst way to go.

TrunkSpace: When the band first got together, did you ever think you’d still be talking about Mr. Big almost 30 years later?
Sheehan: Well, I guess in the back of your mind, when you’re putting a band together you hope that it’s THE band and it’s going to stay together forever and your kids are going to hang out together, but it doesn’t always work out EXACTLY that way. But we came pretty close. We’re still here. We had a little break for a few years, but we were back together in 2009 just like we were when we started. I’m really pleased. I’m a fan of a lot of bands and a lot of music and I’m always disturbed when I hear that they don’t like each other and stay in separate hotels and have different tour buses and don’t speak to each other and they don’t sound check together. It’s like, “C’mon, if you’re up on stage having fun, that doesn’t happen off the stage?” (Laughter) Fortunately I’m not a good enough actor to make it to fake it like that, so we really do enjoy hanging. We have a good time together and performing on stage. We’re not faking it. When it looks like we’re having a good time, we actually are. So that lead to a longevity that we’re extending into 2017 and we’re still enjoying it. And in many ways, enjoying it even more.

TrunkSpace: So much has changed in the industry both in terms of how it operates and how people consume their music. Has that changed the experience for you guys?
Sheehan: Well, in some ways, some things haven’t changed much because we had an ethic early on that we were in touch with people. We’d get fan mail, we’d write back. I’d throw a couple of pics in an envelope and we’d always send it back. To this day I’ll get an email from somebody that says, “Back in 1984 you sent me a Talas bumper sticker.” (Laughter) It’s good that now that we have the Internet we can directly communicate with everybody. And generally on Facebook and via email and several different formats, I respond to everything I can. It’s an overwhelming task, but I go at it pretty heavily to make sure that I respond to people. So that part of the business has remained kind of the same for us, however of course, the record business as we know it is pretty much gone. There’s no big budgets. Fortunately for us we don’t need a big budget to make a record. We did this in six days. We can do the inexpensive version, which is almost better for us because we actually play, so going in and playing is always, for us, superior than piecing things together in different cities. That’s exemplified on this record, of course.

But yeah, things are different. I think that in some ways they’re actually better because the one thing that you can’t substitute is a live performance. You can fake it with a lot of digital trickery in the studio. You can pitch correct vocals. You can punch in and punch out and fix timing and fix errors easily after the fact if you need to. We don’t rely on that. Occasionally once in a while there’s a thing that we just have to change. There’s no two ways about it. That ONE note… there’s no way that can stand, so we’ve got to go in and fix it, but… it’s a microscopic amount. We rely on what we do live and because of that live performance, and because it can’t be downloaded, we’ll always have something that we can do that is alive and fresh. And being in a room of your peers and people of like mind as an audience member and seeing a band that you love, that experience… you can’t do that in virtual reality. You can’t do that as a download. You’ve got to be there and you’ve got to see it and smell it and feel it. That’s what we do. That’s what we’ve always done, so in spite of everything changing around us, fortunately it has kind of come back to a situation where the thing that we do best, in my humble opinion, or the thing that we love best rather… is the thing that’s really happening today in many ways.

TrunkSpace: During that time when the labels were in control by way of being in control of the money, did that mean that they also had more of a say over the creative? In the case of Mr. Big, did they try to squeeze themselves into what you were doing in terms of songwriting and recording?
Sheehan: We did have a lot of pressure. Fortunately for Mr. Big, our manager was a guy named Herbie Herbert. He was a legend in the music business. In the Woodstock movie, he’s seen moving Carlos Santana’s amps around. He’s one of the founding fathers of many aspects of the music business that we know of today, so he had a lot of power. When we presented “Lean Into It,” the album with “To Be with You” and “Green-Tinted” and all of those songs on it, we presented it to the label and they HATED it. They despised it. They were not going to release it. They wanted us to go back in and start over again. Fortunately we had our manager Herbie who went into the offices of Atlantic Records and got into a, literally, screaming shouting match with the then president, Mr. Doug Morris. He finally got them to agree to release it, but they said, “We’ll release it, but we’re not going to do anything. We’re not going to have anything to do with it. We’re not going to promote it. We’re not going to do anything. You’re on your own. Fuck you, get out of here.” (Laughter) And that’s how we launched “Lean Into It.” Fortunately our manager was powerful enough that he knew the right people to get us the right airplay and he got us on the right tours. Eventually he found the right promotional people to get “To Be with You” to be played on the radio and then BANG, we had a hit record. All due to our manager. Completely.

So that helped us in many ways, to keep a powerful manager. It helped us to keep that influence of the label off our backs. We’d do our best to cooperate because we liked our label. We liked Atlantic Records and I don’t dislike Doug Morris. He’s a very successful music guy. But fortunately we didn’t have a lot of pressure. It got to the level to where they would strongly suggest things, but we didn’t necessarily have to do it. We would do it sometimes to keep the peace to some degree, but fortunately we were in a great situation with our management.

TrunkSpace: Did the label want “Lean Into It” to be more like something else that was released around that time?
Sheehan: I don’t even know what their idea was, but I remember we were in the middle of doing interviews… we were doing interviews for the “Lean Into It” record, talking about the songs and all that good stuff. We had just delivered the record to the label and now the publicity was starting and all of a sudden I heard, “Billy, I’ve got to talk to you for a minute. They’re not going to release the record.” (Laughter) I go, “Whaaaat?!?!” (Laughter) So all hell broke lose and Herbie flew to New York and they literally had to call security over the argument that had ensued in the office. But in the end, we got our way. Thank you, Herbie!

TrunkSpace: So with “Defying Gravity” being your ninth album, what did you guys want to bring to it that you didn’t bring on the previous eight? Was there something new that you wanted to try or perhaps a different approach?
Sheehan: Well, what’s old is new again and the fact that we brought our original producer in, Kevin Elson. He did our first four records with us. We had our greatest success with him and amazing times from the beginning of the band, right on up to our greatest success. He’s a dear friend and a wonderful guy and a legendary producer. He grew up with and did the live sound for Lynyrd Skynyrd. He was on the plane with them that crashed, survived, and Herbie hired him instantly to do all of Journey’s live mixing and production of their records. He’s quite a storied and legendary guy with amazing ears and just a wonderful sweet man. So, the problem that it brought with it, as we started reminiscing about the stories back in the old days and laughing about it, we go, “Wait, we’ve got to shut up! We’ve only got six days to do this record! We better hurry up!” (Laughter)

So that was one thing that we wanted to bring into this record. We didn’t know how it would turn out, but I think we have a record that sonically is a little bit more like our earlier records, but still has a lot of the features that are modern in 2017. A good combination of the two. You never know when you combine things. When you’re making stew or soup and you put whatever in there, you’re never sure how it’s going to come out in the end, but we got lucky and I think what we had in the end represents a lot of the band sonically from our earlier days. There’s no subwoofer, deep, low end bass that was non-existent back in those days. Sonically it’s more in tune with a regular rock record as opposed to a digital feast or cornucopia using sonic trickery. It’s a rock record and I think that’s good for us to do. I think with Mr. Big, that’s the kind of band we are and that’s the kind of record that I think works best on us.

TrunkSpace: So in terms of the songwriting itself, how much time spans the creation of the tracks on the album? How far back do they go?
Sheehan: We went back a few months. We got together… myself, Pat, and Paul… and did what we initially did. We come up with some ideas and songs and send them up to Eric and see what he can add or subtract from them and then he sends them back down to us. We did that a bunch of times. But when we went into the studio, we didn’t have 11 complete songs, by any means. We had two or three that were pretty much done, but every time we tracked a new song we kind of had to map it out all new right then and there, which again like I said earlier, it was kind of good to have that pressure on you because you can take unlimited time on any project and when you do it just seems to drag on and lose it’s spirit and lose it’s soul and it’s fire. So, we could see each other playing and I’d look up and it would look like Pat’s going into the part where the chord changes, so I better change there too and by chance I’d get it right and it would work out. We arranged a lot on the fly and I think that was a beneficial thing also.

TrunkSpace: Did part of that arranging on the fly magic also play into having Kevin back with you guys?
Sheehan: Very much. He knows when to put his hands on and when to take his hands off. When things are going smooth and fine, he sits back and just makes sure everything is sounding right. When things slow down, he’ll say, “Okay, maybe this part and maybe not that and maybe this and not that.” He’s never dictatorial and always pleasant and easy and open to suggestion. It’s a real joy to work with someone like that. I’ve worked with producers that it’s just, “It’s my way or just leave!” and that’s not really conducive to an experience that you’ll want to reproduce on the road. (Laughter)

Photo By: William Hames

TrunkSpace: You’ve worked with many other artists over the course of your career, including David Lee Roth. In working with different people and on different projects, does each become it’s own unique experience or does it all start to feel like the same process?
Sheehan: It can be very different. Some aspects of it are the same. Basically you want to get your rythm section… the drums and the bass… that arrangement down and then you start to flesh our more guitar parts and vocal things. That’s kind of a basic. There’s some things that make sense. But everybody’s fingerprint, cornea, DNA… they’re all different and that adds up to a different personality and a different dynamic. When you get in a room full of four people and change one, the whole thing is different again. It doesn’t seem like it should be that way, but it really is quite different. As a fan I know every time I saw a band change members, it always threw me. Sometimes it was okay, but not very often. I always like the original chemistry that I fell in love with. So, similarly when you’re putting a record together in the studio, there’s a dynamic that happens with every person that’s involved. Even with people who are kind of on the outside and not really involved, they still have an influence on how it goes down. So it seems to me that, to your point, that it is very different is the more accurate one.

TrunkSpace: A lot of times people are not always comfortable with the mass exposure they receive when something like “Lean Into It” hits on such a massive, global scale. How did you view all of the attention at the time?
Sheehan: Well, we rolled around in it. We put our heads under the water and it was incredible. It was an amazing experience. And it happened all over the world too. We were number one in 14 countries. There were about four or five times where we were actually in danger… legitimate physical danger from crowds. We showed up in Singapore one time and they announced what flight we were coming in on and there were about 4,000 to 5,000 people at the airport and no one to get us. We were supposed to take cabs to our hotel, so we had to stay behind customs and then the police showed up and they tried to get us into cars. Kids were pushing and the police had billy clubs and pistols hit the floor as we ran. We managed to get there and there were kids camping out in the lobby. And this happened a bunch of times. We didn’t want to see anyone get hurt, so that was a concern of ours, but I guess if you’re going to die, dying being crushed by people who love you would not be the worst way to go. (Laughter)

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