Mr. Big’s New Digs
The last time I saw Mr. Big guitarist Paul Gilbert, he, along with his four-piece cover band, Electric Fence, was opening for Joe Satriani at a concert sponsored by Ibanez Guitars during the week of NAMM in January. Gilbert was wearing a downright hideous suit. It looked something like Clem Kadiddlehopper wearing a golf uniform. What’s more “strange” to me is Electric Fence did everything from Lou Rawls, to the Who, to the Spice Girls (???). Yet it would set the tone for the eclectic approach to his debut album, King of Clubs, which is simply a colorful, yet more focused, exploration into some of the childhood influences [Eddie Van Halen and Cheap Trick] he hasn’t had a chance to express with Mr. Big. Although he’s sold millions of albums with Mr. Big [propelled by such hits as “To Be With You”], Gilbert, “officially taking a break” from his Big duties, has found a sense of liberation.
So what possessed you to do [“Two Become One”] a Spice Girls tune at NAMM?
The chords are good. I heard the song on MTV, and I thought, “Man, those are great chord changes.” I liked the melody. A great song is a great song, regardless of who performs it. I like to take a great song from a completely different style from what I do, and make it my own.
Do you think they’re talented?
Yeah, they’re good. It’s obvious the record company’s very involved in the marketing. But, when it comes down to it — I saw a documentary — they’re singing. I doubt they have the musical depth that somebody who’s practiced their instrument for years has, but they do the job. And whoever writes their songs is good.
Were you sad when Ginger left?
Actually, I was excited because I thought it was my big chance to join.
When did you start playing guitar?
I tried to play at six, but I gave up because lessons were boring. I started again when I was nine, playing by ear. I had the worst technique in the world, because I didn’t have a teacher. I didn’t know what I was doing. After two years, I finally started taking lessons again. [Yet] the best teacher I’ve had has been my record player. I learned to play back in the Dark Ages, before they had CD’s. [So it was] my record player, my ear, and being in bands, learning from other musicians I played with. The only real schooling I had was at a school called GIT [Guitar Institute of Technology] when I moved to California. It was a great school. It was inspiring to be around so many great musicians… It was only a year long. After I graduated, I became a teacher there, which was pretty amazing because I was eighteen years old. At the time, they wanted to have more rock instructors because they had mostly jazz and fusion players. [GIT] noticed me as a student, and hired me as a teacher, which was great because it gave me a chance to stay in California where all of the music industry was. And I could keep the business without having to work at Burger King or Domino’s Pizza.
Did you ever put anyone in time-out, or give out grades?
Not really. Initially, I had thirty private students. I had to check and make sure they were doing their homework. I think, when it’s music school, homework is fun. All the people there are excited to play. The only problem I had as a teacher — I was doing real well being a one-on-one instructor, so they decided to put me in the classroom. When I got in the classroom, I couldn’t help but feel the class was an audience. I’d start performing (laughs). I got really carried away. I’d cover what the class was supposed to cover in about ten minutes. Then I’d spend the rest of the hour showing off. I thought I was just doing great. I remember getting called in by the boss of all the teachers. And he was saying, “I think we’re gonna have to put you back to one-on-one, because we’re getting complaints.” I was blown away. I was like, “What? I’m playing great!” [He was like,] “Yeah, you’re playing great, but you’re not teaching anything.”
What inspired you to play guitar?
My parents had a lot of Beatles records. Also, they had the Rolling Stones, and a lot of classical music. But, initially, the classical music I didn’t like. I was into rock. I didn’t know what instrument I wanted to play. I just knew I wanted to play something. Guitar lessons were boring, so I started taking drum lessons because I thought drumming would be fun. The drum lessons were boring, so I gave that up. We had a piano at home. I tried that, but it seemed really hard. So, again, I started playing by ear. But the Beatles made me want to be a musician. Led Zeppelin was inspiring with Jimmy Page playing… all the guitarists of that late ’70s, early ’80s era… There was a lot of exciting guitar at that time.
Well, you must’ve fared pretty well because you play almost everything on your album.
I initially wanted to play everything, including the drums. A week into [the album], I fired myself. I wasn’t quite good enough. I was struggling a little too much with it, so I kept one track: the song “I’m Just in Love.” I’m still playing drums. On everything else, I had my friend Jeff Martin come down and play a song, and Pat Torpey, who’s Mr. Big’s drummer.
You’re the cutest kid on this album cover.
I couldn’t resist putting those photos in, because I was lucky enough to have parents who let me have long hair.
What’re you screaming about on the cover?
I’m pretending I’m a caveman, because I’m holding a club.
I thought it was ice cream.
Most people think it’s either ice cream or a chicken leg, but it’s a club, which is one of the references to the album title. The other reference is that I live in Las Vegas, so there’s a lot of gambling going on. And, of course, the King of Clubs is a card used for that. The third reference is whenever you’re in a big band, and you do a solo album, you usually have to take a step down on the ladder of fame and success — at least temporarily. And I thought, if that’s the case, maybe I’ll be playing clubs, instead of theaters or arenas. So, hopefully, I can be the king of clubs.
How old are you there?
What about the one of you holding the guitar, and wearing checkered pants?
[All of] those [photos] are right around the same era.
I’ve gotta tell you, those pants are ugly.
Boy, if I could find pants like that today, though, I’d buy them in a second.
Actually, the outfit you were wearing at NAMM wasn’t too bad. It’s very “colorful.”
It’s always fun dressing up. If anything, from my years of living in Las Vegas, probably the main influence I’ve picked up is my trip to the Liberace Museum. He had such amazing outfits, I thought, “Man, screw this grunge stuff. I’m dressing up.”
Your album seems more nostalgic than the stuff you’ve done with Mr. Big. The closest I came to anything Mr. Big was “Double Trouble,” which leads me to believe that when people go off and do solo albums, and the music is totally different from the bands they were in, it makes me think they’ve been dying to do this because they have their own way of writing.
That’s why I wanted to do the album in the first place. I was writing stuff for Mr. Big. And the main inspiration was to do songs that I can sing, because I’ve had a lot of offers, over the years, people who’ve suggested that I do an instrumental guitar record. I’ve just never been that big a fan of instrumental guitar music. I can take a song here and there, but, in general, the stuff I listen to always has a singer. That’s what I like. Whenever I write, lots of times I write simultaneously the guitar and vocal part. When I write, I’m the one that’s singing, so I’ll write for my voice. Everybody’s voice is different. Sometimes, when I write a song and play it for Mr. Big, Eric, the singer, would go, “Man, it doesn’t feel comfortable for me to sing it, because you wrote it for your voice.” Some of the songs were written during the Mr. Big era. Some are more recent.
I thought “Girlfriend’s Birthday” was pretty funny… Have you ever gotten into trouble [for not remembering her birthday]?
I came really close. That’s the oldest song on the record, so I wasn’t married yet. At the last second, I remembered her birthday, and was able to get a present to her. But the fear of coming so close to forgetting it inspired the song, like almost getting in a car wreck and, at the last minute, swerving and missing and being okay. Still, the fear stays with you.
Did you end up marrying her?
What was the present?
I played “Happy Birthday” on my guitar, made a tape of it, and sent it up.
Is that all you could come up with?
Maybe that’s why it didn’t work out.
Do you enjoy doing NAMM conventions?
I had a great time at that show because I know the audience is all musicians and guitar players, people working the industry. So I can tailor what I do for the audience, not just music for musicians. In a way, I did the opposite thing. I played the Spice Girls, and pop tunes by David Bowie. I don’t know if you remember this, but I came out and said something like, “This is something from Al DiMeola’s Elegant Gypsy album,” which is something the NAMM show people would expect from me, something with a lot of flashy guitar. Then I go into a David Bowie song, and give them the exact opposite. So I really have fun with the audience that way.
What’s with “The Jam” being twenty minutes long?
That’s my attempt at humor, especially with the gong at the end. Remember the Gong Show? The plot of the Gong Show is: if the judges don’t like [your] act, they gong [you].
So they waited twenty minutes?
It took them a while to decide. Fifteen minutes, and they’re still thinking, “Well, maybe… I just need to hear a little more.” To me, making it twenty minutes before getting gonged, I thought, is pretty funny. And it’s my slightly sarcastic gift for the guitar players, because the album really is more of a pop album than a guitar album. A lot of guitar players know who I am, and will buy it, and, after listening to the first couple songs, go “Where’s the instrumental guitar stuff?” So I save it for the guitar players. There’s no way they can complain. If they want their guitar, there it is.