Monte Pittman, part 1 : the power of heavy metal

With his third solo record named The Power Of Three, singer-guitar player Monte Pittman goes back to his first loves and blows us away. A classy riff-machine taking us back to the transition between the late 80s’ and the early 90s’, all the more so as Monte Pittman isn’t really famous yet, having remained a shadowy figure – but his experience of the music industry is immense nonetheless. Let’s hope the future will change that, and bring his talents to light. Because as far as heavy metal – in the broadest sense – goes, The Power Of Three is both back to the basics and a breath of fresh air.

We offer you a lengthy – one hour long! – interview split in two parts. In the first one, a talkative and very friendly Monte Pittman tells us about The Power Of Three and its very specific, adventurous, passion-fueled genesis. And as passionately we listen to him (or read him) talking about his incredible experience with Flemming Rasmussen, producer of Metallica’s legendary Master Of Puppets, Pittman’s “favorite record of all time”, or about his meeting with Brian Slagel, one of the biggest talent scoots of the metal world (he got Metallica and Slayer started in their early days), and [head] of Metal Blade for 32 years.

The second part of this interview will be published in the coming days, and will focus on his 10-years collaboration, as a musician and as a guitar teacher, with one of the world’s biggest popstars: Madonna.

Monte Pittman (vocals & guitar): How’s it going?!

Radio Metal: Great and you?

I’m doing good and keeping myself busy!

Busy doing what?

I’m trying to book as many shows as I can.

Are you coming to France?

Uh… I’m struggling just to get to San Diego [laughs]. I’d love to, but I just keep saying: “One step at a time”. I’m doing South By Southwest in Austin, and I’m from Texas, so I’m just filling in the gaps. I haven’t had much time because it’s coming up soon, but by time everybody gets back to you they’re like: “Oh, we have that day booked…” and getting other bands. The communication is so important. Some people don’t get that. Anyhow. I guess the more you play the album the higher are my chances to get out!

Then, I’ll be playing it all day! [Laughs]

Awesome! Just keep playing it and I’ll come and play it everywhere. Where are you at?

We’re in Lyon in France.

Well, Lyon was my second guess. I played there with Prong back in 2008. I had a good time, I love it here.

« I’ve always done all kind of things because being versatile is how I’ve survived. »

You have an album that’s out now, The Power Of Three. The title of the album obviously seems to be a reference to the fact that the band is a power trio. Is it the band form that you like the most?

It just happened that way. Sometimes, we have a fourth member, Alex Skolnick. He’s played guitar with us a couple of times when he was available. We live in different cities and he obviously has many many things going on, but yes, I’m doing good just to keep a three-piece going. I couldn’t imagine adding another member. But yeah, it’s the third album, we’re a three-piece band, so I called the album the Power Of Three, because I love the fact that things happen in threes. I know a lot of things that go with the power of three that I thought were really cool. I got asked about that a lot, because everyone has a different idea. Sometimes someone ask: “Is this about this over here?”, and I’m like: “No, I don’t even know about that!” So I’m actually been learning a lot by naming my album that. So there you go! [Laughs]

Can you introduce your colleagues from your solo band to us?

Yes. Kane Ritchotte plays the drums, and Max Whipple plays the bass. I met Kane because he played in my second album, Pain, Love & Destiny. He played drums on that, and he and Max had a band together. He and Max grew up playing together, and the guy who ended up producing my second album was gonna do their album right after. So he got Kane in there, and when we needed a bass player, Kane said: “Let’s get Max!” That’s how we got Max, and it just stayed that way.

Like you said, you did an album called Pain, Love, & Destiny which was softer and much more rock oriented. What motivated you to change and to go back to your metal roots with The Power Of Three?

I have an album before that called The Deepest Dark. It’s just an acoustic album. There’s a song on that album called “Out Of The Black” and when I play that live, it’s heavy. At the time, that was the heaviest song in my set. But on the album, it’s kind of an acoustic version because that way I can recreate it. Here, in L.A., it can be really hard to get people to record together, to get everyone scheduled, because everyone’s constantly doing something. It seems that by time you get something going, people have already found another gig and are doing something else. So I would do these acoustic shows, got better and better set times, and when it was time to do my second album I wanted that to be an acoustic album with drums and bass, but then with some guitar solos too. Then the guy who produced it, Noah Shain, said that we had to do something with the electric parts. So then we added electric guitar parts on there, and that’s what made it a kind of hybrid of an acoustic album and a rock album. Then again, I wanted those songs to make sense if they were played acoustically, and when I played them live, they would rock.

There’s a song called “(I Am) The Black Rabbit” that seems to be one of the most popular tracks of Pain, Love, & Destiny: when you’re building up to a chorus, that’s where the heavy elements first started showing its face again. You’d be going into a part that’s like [he sings a rhythm], and then you go to another part of the song. So we use those just as it fills. Some people would say to me: “Oh that’s cool, I like how you put that heavy metal stuff in there”, and I was like: “Where?” That’s what other people would have thought of as heavy metal. I didn’t think of it like that. So, playing that live, I needed faster and heavier songs, so something just came to me, I kept writing heavier and faster songs, and they just started flowing, as if the flood gates were open. Then I was going to do an acoustic EP with Flemming Rasmussen, and when I gave him all of my demos with some acoustic songs, some blues songs and some heavy songs, he said: “We need to record these heavy songs!” So I said: “Alright, let’s do it, yeah!” Once I embraced that and made the decision that OK, I was going to do that, Flemming really helped me to focus on that. I’ve always done all kind of things because being versatile is how I’ve survived. After recording that I played it for Brian Slagel, he signed me to Metal Blade and that just really got me thinking: “OK, this is what I need to be doing.”

« [Flemming Rasmussen] turns all the dials and get the amps set just right. […] I even thought about taking some hot glue and put it on the buttons so they never change! »

But weren’t you afraid to disconcert those who have followed you as a solo artist, and who liked the more rock or even acoustic music you did before?

No, I’ve always wanted to be able to do everything. My guitar teacher taught me to be able to play everything. If I wanted to learn a Slayer song, then he would make me learn a jazz or a country song. I still never learned the country solos, I won’t be playing them [laughs], give me the Slayer! For guitar players, that’s the kind of music that works on the guitar: you love plugging in and cranking up the amp and going for it, but it’s also great to just sit back and play acoustic too. I like both of those things, and so I think that’s where it comes from.

Do you think being versatile is important for a musician?

That’s been essential for my survival. Tastes change with the audience, music constantly changes and then, even if you love it, you can’t listen to Master Of Puppets all the time. You gotta listen to something else too. I reference it to food: I wouldn’t eat the same thing every day. You want to break that up. It just so happens that I would do one project, and then go to another project, and they kind of feed themselves. I do one thing, and then it helps me to get prepared to do the other thing. Since the beginning of 2000, not necessarily now, but for the last decade, I would go back and forth playing guitar for Madonna and playing with Prong. When I’m playing Madonna songs, pop songs, sitting around at sound check, I wanna play some heavy stuff. But then I’ll be on tour with Prong, and just to take a break from the heavy stuff all the time, I’d maybe come up with an acoustic idea, a dance song or something. They kind of feed each other.

The music on The Power Of Three sounds like a mix of late 80s’-early 90s’ metal. We can hear references to bands like Metallica or Alice In Chains. Does this era for metal means anything special to you?

That’s when I got my first guitar. I kinda hit this full-circle moment – I don’t know any other way to say it – where all the things that I first started liking when I got my first guitar came back. I kinda hit the reset button in myself, and went back to why I started playing guitar and to what I loved. That era of music is when some of the best music was ever made, in my opinion. What I wanted to do was to kind of go back and make the ultimate album that I never had, but with a new take on it all.

The album was produced by Flemming Rasmussen. Is it his work on Metallica’s Master Of Puppet, one of the most classic album of metal, that pushed you to want to work with him, or was it completely something else?

What happened is I was on tour with Madonna, and we had a day off in Copenhagen. I was looking for something to do, and somebody just came to me and I said: “Hey, Sweet Silence studio is around here, I should just go and check it out.” I found the address and went to the place thinking I would get a business card. I just wanted to see where these albums were made, but the building was going to be demolished, it’d been sold and it was going to be torn down. That led to me researching that and I found Flemming’s informations. It was on his myspace page and he was saying: “The building is being sold and demolished, but I’m still available for mixes, here is my info.” So I contacted him and said: “Hey, I know you don’t know me or anything but I’m playing tomorrow. If you don’t have anything else to do, I wanted to invite you out to the show.” Long story short, that led to us starting a friendly relationship: when I would come back into town we would get out together, have a couple of beers and talk, and we were like: “One day, we’re going to work on a project together, we’re gonna record something together.” And then the next time I came through, he said: “Hey, once we were talking about recording together, do you want me to fire up the studio?” So we did, and we recorded an acoustic EP. That’s when I gave him all my demos. Then from there, we had made plans to come back and record The Power Of Three.

Master Of Puppets is probably my number one favorite album of all times. It changed my life more than once, too. It helped to have someone who I know has made those classic albums. Sometimes, what I had done in the past, is you record something with somebody, and a lot of it is trial and error, a lot of it is guessing: “Oh let’s try this with the guitar”, or: “I’m gonna try with the mic on there, let’s try the amp, let’s do this.” It’s a lot of that. With Flemming, you know what you’re doing. I didn’t even touch the amp. The amps are there, I’m going to be playing and he goes through, turns all the dials and get the amps set just right. I marked them, like that’s the way this amp is going to sound for ever. I even thought about taking some hot glue and put it on the buttons so they never change! But having someone who has made such amazing albums was definitely a bonus: he did Cat Stevens, he did Rainbow… The reason Metallica hired him is because he’d done Rainbow, and then he also did Morbid Angel. But the way he records is very… I use the word “symphonic”. I think he’s done a lot of classical, symphonies and things like that, because he doesn’t just record the amp right there, he records the room, and then he has the sounds of the room working together. He tried to explain it to me but I’m just not smart enough to keep up with him [laughs]…

(About Metallica) « They had bad hair before, I’d cut it off too if my hair looked like that. »

Is that why this album sounds that natural, actually? Not overproduced? We can really hear all the instruments and not just the drums being trigged or stuff like that…

Yeah, he had us record together in the same room, so we were recording at the same time. All analog, all on tape, we did it all just like he would have done Ride The Lightning or Master Of Puppets, even using the same mics that recorded the guitars for those albums, the same vocal mic I used is the same mic that “Trapped Under Ice” was recorded on… On one hand, that really gets you pumped up for being in the studio. That really got me excited, and you also know that it’s gonna come out good, you know the equipment works. And he’s really good on the psychological side of getting your head in the game. I don’t know how other people would have seen this but for me, from directly working with him, I see now what he added to a band like Metallica. I’m a huge fan of just about everything Metallica’s done, they can do no wrong, except for the Load album [laughs], but hey, you know, you can’t win them all… And you can hear the drastic difference between the recordings that he did and the recordings that he didn’t do. Every day he would do something just to keep our head in the game. He had us rent an apartment so we all lived together, because he wanted us all living together; he would pick us up, drive us to work together, listening to the demos of what we were gonna record on the way, and it would be different every morning. One morning he would be like: “Let’s stop and get some breakfast”, and then he would have us all sit there in the break room. And I couldn’t eat, I was just excited to record, but he’d be like: “No, sit down”, would make some coffee, and we would be just talking about whatever, just communicating with each other. We were in this room, surrounded by the Master Of Puppets golden, platinum albums. The first time Ride The Lightning went gold, that award, that gold record was on the wall. All of this was really inspiring. He was just kinda getting us thinking a certain way everyday to record us.

You just mentioned the Load album. Do you mean you prefer Lulu to Load?

I prefer Lulu to Load! I’m don’t like Load or Reload. I love those guys, I’d do whatever for them, but I don’t like that album. Love them though, great guys. I wouldn’t be here without them, but no, Load is my least favorite album ever. Sorry! [Laughs] And it has nothing to do with their hair! I don’t care what their hair look like. They had bad hair before, I’d cut it off too if my hair looked like that. But, no, I’m not a fan of Load or Reload. I’ll take Lulu over.

Because many people at the time didn’t like the Load album, but ten years later find it better than they thought at the beginning… But you never changed your mind?

No! Nope. I know I’m being too cynical here, so I have to say something positive: “The Memory Remains” and “Fuel” are okay and the chorus for “Bleeding Me” was okay. “Until It Sleeps”, the wicked game thing? No, sorry! The video? No no no! I love them, I can’t say how much I love these guys, they’re like the big brothers that I never had.

The artwork for the album by Cam Rackham features a portrait of Charron, if that’s how you pronounce it. What does it represent or symbolize for you?

Well, I needed an album cover, and sometimes an album cover doesn’t stick with you until you’ve heard the music, because it needs to represent what you’re listening to. A friend of mine told me about Cam and I saw his artwork and especially that painting, and I thought: “That’s it, that’s the album cover for this album.” Then when he told me about it, I realized he’d done four pieces based on Greek mythology. I believe it’s pronounced “Charron”, I don’t know exactly how to say it either, but that is the ferry man that takes you to the underworld after you die. And I thought: “You know what? That makes a lot of sense because this is me kind of going back to the heavy music.” But at the end of the day, I just thought it was an awesome picture and said: “Hey, there we go. I need an album cover and that works.” But having the story of that, I think that’s really cool too.

« I think it’s really cool that the labels now that are getting the good music out there are the labels that had all the death metal bands in the early 90s’. »

Pain, Love & Destiny was released independently and you justified that in the past by saying that you wanted to have full control over your music. So how come this time your album is out on Metal Blade? Why didn’t you continue independently?

I was going to release The Power of Three on my own. Actually, I wanted to release the third album as three EPs. The EP that Flemming and I did was done in one day, it was called M.P.3: The Power Of Three Part. 1, and I was gonna have Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Part 2 was gonna be the heavy, and Part 3 was gonna be the blues. I had trouble calling it M.P.3 because that is an audio format. It stood for “Monte Pittman 3”, but a lot of people didn’t want to call it that because MP3 is the way you listen to music. If I were to do that all over again I would just call it a single with one of the song titles. To me now, doing that EP, M.P.3: The Power Of Three Part. 1, sums up the first three recordings: The Deepest Dark, Pain, Love & Destiny, and the M.P.3 EP or single, whatever that would be. After recording The Power Of Three, I was sitting there with Flemming and he was going through the sounds, he was sitting at the board and I was sitting behind him just watching him, and I thought: “I can’t release this on my own. There’s gotta be somebody out there that would get behind it.” Now as fate would have it, one or two months before that Rachel Fine from the Howard Stern show had sent out a tweet right before Christmas, and it said: “Name your ultimate Christmas dinner guest” and she had put me and Brian Slagel on there. I had met Brian over the years a few times, and recently Chris Barnes introduced us again, because he’s buddy of mine. Me and Brian had talked about getting together and having lunch, dinner or coffee, so when I went back from recording the album, I wrote to him: “Hey let’s get together!” We made plans, we had diner and I said: “Hey, I wanna play you something we’ve just recorded with Flemming.” And he was interested in hearing what Flemming Rasmussen was up to, and I said: “Look, I don’t want to release this on my own”, thinking that he would know of some new label that was starting out, that maybe it would help to have just a little push behind it, and also thinking that this was not heavy enough for Metal Blade. When I played it for him, he was telling me that actually it wasn’t just Cannibal Corpse, they got Ghost too, and he was telling me about Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats, which is one of my favorite bands now. Then he said: “Hey man, I’ll take this!” And I was like: “Wow… Really?” I wasn’t even expecting that! So we immediately started talking about me signing to Metal Blade.

One day, I thought: “This is great”, the next day I thought: “No, I don’t know what to do here”, and the next day I’d be like: “If I don’t know what to do, what I am even doing here? I should give up and quit and that’s it.” But then I thought: “OK, if I were to give up and quit, I may as well have these people put out the album.” I was trying to psych myself out and live in that frame of mind. Does that make sense? And then the next day I thought: “This is the best decision I can ever make in my life. That just makes sense.” I don’t know if Brian Slagel and Flemming Rasmussen have ever worked on a project together before. They’re both very responsible in creating one of my favorite bands ever. Without both of these guys, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now, I don’t even know if I’d be alive! Not to get morbid on you [laughs]. But it made all the sense in the world, so I signed to Metal Blade, and that is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. It’s such an amazing company, it’s a record label that’s over 30 years of success, and you can’t say that too often. I think it’s really cool that the labels now that are getting the good music out there are the labels that had all the death metal bands in the early 90s’. See, you’ve got Metal Blade, Nuclear Blast, Century Media, Prosthetic, and other labels are crumbling… That says a lot, that speaks volumes. Something that was said – I don’t know if it’s still the case, I don’t really keep up with it – last year, Warner Bros., had said that they were gonna start using Kickstarter to find all of their new artists. Why would you need them if you already have something like that?

Do you think you will continue on this path musically?

Yeah, then after signing on Metal Blade I told myself: “Alright, OK, let’s play the game a little bit.” [laughs] I’ll throw my chips in. I always write as soon as I’m done: when I finished The Power Of Three, I saw where I should go after that. Making an album is how I would imagine making a movie is. For instance as soon as I finished Pain, Love & Destiny, I’d master the album, had the artwork and it was coming out, I was sitting outside and I’d made a fire ; I love sitting by the fire with a bottle of wine and an acoustic guitar. I was sitting there and something came to me: “A dark horse you’ve been having nightmares for years about…” I was like: “Awesome, I gotta write that line down!” And then I tweeted out something – you gotta follow me on Twitter, type Monte Pittman – : “I’ve just started writing the next album” [laughs]. So after finishing The Power of Three I started writing more, and I’m gonna really embrace that. I mean, I can’t stop it; the heaviness is just coming out. And you take from what people like, when people tell me like: “Oh I love ‘All Is Fair In Love And war’” or “I love ‘Delusions Of Grandeur’”. I ask them what they like about it, and they say: “Oh man I love that guitar solo, I love the fast parts.” Dino Cazares, a good friend of mine, when I was telling him about it, was like: “You made a heavy album? With some fast guitar playing?” And I was like: “Yeah!” Then he asked: “There’s double-kick in some songs? You gotta have some double-kicks in there!” and I was like: “Mmh, OK…” I went home to look at my demos, and thought: “I might program some double-kicks here… Oh, OK, I like that!” [Laughs] So yeah, there will be two more heavy albums at least, and let’s see where it goes from there, but I still want to have something for everybody. And then going back to me having blues music. I feel like I’ll do that when I’m old [laughs]. Old people do that, right?

Interview conducted on February, 25th 2014 by Spaceman.
Transcription : Chloé
Questions & introduction : Spaceman

Album The Power of Three, out since January, 22nd 2014 via Metal Blade Records

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