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Alter Bridge: Runaway Train

Shaking off the shadow of Creed/nearly calling it quits/fighting with record labels are all part of the Alter Bridge story. But has the glory time finally come for rock’s hardest-working band?

Granted, it doesn’t look like much, just one in a neat row of modern units skirting the city. But inside Studio Barbarosa things are getting tasty. It’s an oppressively hot afternoon in Altamonte Springs, at the northern lip of Orlando, and Alter Bridge are busy readying their much-anticipated new album.

RISE TODAY 

For some of the band this is the first time they’ve heard the final mixes. Anticipation is high. There’s a palpable feeling that this could be big, the record that finally tips them into the metal superstar bracket. But no one dares say as much, at least not in public.

Since they began in 2004, Alter Bridge have slowly and surely inched free from the shadow of Creed – one of the most successful US rock bands of the post-grunge era, that included three members of Alter Bridge – to emerge as a thunderous proposition in their own right. Especially in Europe. Previous album AB III went Top 10 in the UK, their momentum sealed by a triumphant sell-out show at Wembley Arena in 2011, later issued on DVD.

“Finishing the last tour at Wembley, with such a big crowd, was something else,” drummer Scott ‘Flip’ Phillips tells me inside. “It was like: ‘Man, we finally made it! We finally got here!’ We’ve achieved so much over the last three records and right now it feels like we’re on a good incline. It’s not peaked out, this thing’s still building.”

If the studio presents a deliberately blank façade, its interior is anything but. A small reception space gives way to a smart lounge area decked out with leather sofas, an orange-baize pool table and, dominating one side of the room, a flat-screen TV the size of a small airstrip. The other walls are taken up with painted canvasses – spectral ships, hanging trees, a hooded figure on a cross, jumpsuit Elvis – while in the corridor beyond hang portraits of the Kiss Catman Peter Criss, and scarifying Swedish doom types Ghost in full cleric-from-hell garb. A sign over the adjacent door, etched onto a kitsch wooden plaque with a drawing of a toy guitar, says: ‘Studio Barbarosa’. It looks like a bauble from some Nashville novelty shop. 

BEFORE TOMORROW COMES (LIVE) 

Pushing open the door reveals a state-of-the-art mixing desk and tangles of wires. On a board pinned to the wall is a list of songs-in-progress for the still nameless new album. The working titles alone are intriguing: Molly Hatchet; Tooly Jam; Megladon; Ritual. Throughout the day, as Classic Rock interviews each Alter Bridge member in turn in the lounge, the studio door will intermittently swing open, bringing with it sudden gusts of noise as producer Michael ‘Elvis’ Baskette works his way through playback. 

The snatches I hear are extraordinary. Alter Bridge sound like a rock connoisseur’s fever dream: monstrous riffs and charging rhythms lashed to a keenly cultivated sense of melody. The band are also blessed with one of the finest singers of our times. Myles Kennedy, his profile spiked high after being Slash’s frontman in recent years, has one of those octave-bothering voices that tends to elicit awe and wonder in equal spoonfuls.

Baskette, who first worked with him in 2001 when Kennedy was singer with Washington combo the Mayfield Four, says: “The coolest thing has been watching this guy rise from an unknown to a massive star, knowing that he was probably the best singer I’ve ever worked with. Just to watch that transition has been awesome. Plus he’s the most down-to-earth person you could imagine.”

He’s no slouch as a musician either. A key feature of Alter Bridge is the interplay between Kennedy and fellow guitarist-songwriter Mark Tremonti. Kennedy, a former guitar teacher who honed his chops in blues and jazz bands, is a supreme technician. Tremonti, who grew up obsessed with the speed metal of Slayer, Megadeth and Testament, is entirely self-taught. The two styles complement each other spankingly. “Mark’s a real aggressive player, and Myles has a theory-oriented mind,” offers bassist Brian Marshall. “So the two tones, with Mark being the more distorted player and Myles coming out with these ambient parts, has really opened everything up.”

IN LOVING MEMORY 

One of the more engaging paradoxes of Alter Bridge is its chemistry. Given the ferocity and untrammelled power of much of the music, you could be forgiven for expecting the band to be a bunch of hard-nosed brawlers who stay up all night pumping iron, snorting banned substances and heading into town for whatever chunk of action happens to be going.

But while the four of them may sport a fair spread of body ink, in truth they appear to be a group of contented family men – the average age is 40; Kennedy the oldest at 43 – with scant regard for the tiresome excesses of rock’n’roll. When we head for a spot of lunch (at that most salacious of metal hangouts, the local branch of Cracker Barrel), Tremonti is keeping tabs on his carbs and salt intake. Marshall, who tells me he quit drinking nine months ago (“I had to stop. It was just one of those things that escalated. I was drinking a lot of wine before and after shows”), is trying to kick smoking too. He spends the day puffing vapour from e-cigarettes. Kennedy, a lifelong sufferer of intestinal disorder Crohn’s disease, orders something obscenely healthy from the menu. Suddenly remembering the company he’s in, he blurts out to the waitress in mock-rock bravado: “And I’ll have mine smothered in vodka!”

This is very much in keeping with the quartet’s sensibility. For all their might and sheer physicality, Alter Bridge are a band who touch people on an emotional level. Songs like Rise Today and Before Tomorrow Comes are calls to empowerment, salve for mind and soul that draw steady waves of fist-pumpage at the band’s live shows.

As does In Loving Memory, a highly personal number written by Tremonti after the death of his mother in 2002. Its effect on both audience and Alter Bridge alike is particularly apparent on 2011’s Live From Amsterdam set. “You can see it on the DVD,” says the guitarist. “When they started singing that back at us I was fighting back the tears. It’s tough. I get messages constantly from people who’ve lost loved ones, saying that it’s spoken to them so much.”

Marshall, the most soft-voiced of all four, is visibly emotional when the subject comes up: “In Loving Memory is a song that I wish a lot more people could hear. Everybody can relate to it. It’s powerful, it’s made me weep.”

If they gave out prizes for self-effacement, Kennedy would be at the front of the queue. Self-critical to the last, he says he can’t bear to watch himself on film. He’s seen the Wembley DVD just once, and then only to approve it for release. “I have a tough time watching myself,” he says. “Even when I listen to myself in the studio, I’m generally the guy who’ll pick it apart.”

WATCH OVER YOU 

His bandmates didn’t even know he was a guitar player until after they’d recorded Alter Bridge’s 2004 debut One Day Remains. “I guess I didn’t want to come in with the attitude of: ‘Hey, lemme show you this! I’ve got somethin’ for ya!’ That’s just not my thing. I’m not an alpha male, let’s put it that way.”

Tremonti, on the other hand, is a man who exudes a quiet, almost steely self-assurance. He remembers vividly the night he discovered Kennedy’s ‘latent’ talent: “Myles was staying at my house, and I was walking upstairs when I heard this great, shreddy jazz thing going on his bedroom. I knocked on his door, and when he opened it he had his guitar on and was playing along to this stuff. I was like: ‘What are you doin’? How did you get to play guitar that good and never let us know about it? You’re a hundred times better than I am at doing that lead stuff!’ He’s the type of guy who you could throw in with any blues or jazz band and he’d be able to improvise all night.”

One of the new songs I keep hearing at Barbarosa is Molly Hatchet, named after the southern rock hounds who built this studio in 1979. When Alter Bridge all gather to listen in the control room, there’s an almost audible collective intake of breath. Manager Steve Wood, whose enthusiasm knows few bounds, is nearly on the floor. It’s an astonishing vocal tour de force from Kennedy, his voice leaping and swooping like the restless incarnation of the late Jeff Buckley. It is, perhaps, his finest studio moment thus far.

SLIP TO THE VOID (LIVE AT WEMBLEY) 

When we sit down later, he tells me it’s going to end up as All Ends Well, though he’s still unsure if it’ll make it on to the final album. Given the alarming intensity of the song, this seems like classic Kennedy diffidence.

“My mom always believed in me as a kid, but my problem was I never believed in myself,” he explains. “As you’ve probably figured, I’m still not the most over-confident person in the world. So seeing how life has turned out for me, I kind of wrote it from her perspective. The message is: keep believing in yourself. But it’s really hard to see that when you’re a geeky 16-year-old who doesn’t fit in that well.”

I mention his similarity to Buckley, the son of folk-jazz siren Tim, who died of a heroin overdose in 1975. “It’s really interesting that you bring that up, because maybe the reason Buckley appealed to me – and which I didn’t even know when I first heard him – was that he also lost his dad when he was young. A lot of the singers I like lost their parents at a young age. It’s kinda strange. So I don’t know if it’s this ache that I hear in the way they express themselves that I relate to.”

ISOLATION 

Kennedy lost his father when he was just four. The emotional trauma, he admits: “kind of shaped me as an artist and as a person. It’s something I’ve always gone back to, those intense feelings.” Indeed, if Alter Bridge music has a troubled heart, an unresolved darkness at its centre, then it’s often provided by the singer. AB III was stacked with references to crises of faith and hope.

“Someone once joked around with me that I was the Prince of Darkness. And though I am a very happy person, and have a wonderful life and nothing to complain about, there are always those other parts that you can draw from. After losing my dad at a young age, that hole is always there. Everyone thinks I’m a workaholic. And part of that’s because if I stay busy and focused I can keep that dark stuff at bay. I can write about it and get it out. When I’ve gone through phases where I didn’t have that luxury, then those ghosts have tended to rear their ugly heads. And that’s just not a place I want to be.”

The early-evening sun is dipping towards the horizon as Alter Bridge pose for our photographer at a disused train track downtown. Almost simultaneously, an unusually large moon rises in front of us. “Whoa! It’s a John Holmes moon!” quips Kennedy. Straddling the rusted rails, surrounded by abandoned husks of old freighters, it’s not difficult to see this scene as a classic American metaphor for their story so far. Theirs is a journey that’s been anything but smooth. 

Tremonti, Marshall and Phillips formed Alter Bridge from the ashes of Creed, the staggeringly successful group they’d co-founded with singer Scott Stapp in 1995. Creed’s first three albums all went multi-platinum in the US, their home territory accounting for the vast majority of their 53 million sales worldwide. Yet, despite also scooping a Grammy for 2000’s With Arms Wide Open, Creed sharply divided opinion. Fans may have lapped up their heart-on-sleeve power balladry and earnestly anthemic rock, largely driven by the religious symbolism of Stapp’s lyrics, but critics were often coldly dismissive.

WORDS DARKER THAN THEIR WINGS 

Creed didn’t end well. Stapp’s increasingly erratic behaviour, alongside a growing dependency on booze and drugs, had created a schism. One infamous Illinois gig in December 2002 found him so addled that several disgusted punters later filed lawsuits against the band. When Tremonti began scouting for a vocalist for his new project, he was careful to select someone with both the prerequisite talent and temperament. “The Mayfield Four opened for Creed way back in the day,” recalls the guitarist, “and Myles had a reputation as a great singer.”

Tremonti held auditions at his house, and Kennedy was in. Although no one ever officially told him so, and the singer didn’t think to ask. “We just kinda kept going until one day I said: ‘I guess you’re in the band now, so we’ve gotta put you through your initiation,’” Tremonti says, laughing. “So I took him to the world’s tallest freefall in Kissimmee, Florida, and we did the 30-storey drop together. We’ve got it on video, and he looks terrified!”

Having signed to Wind-Up Records, Alter Bridge released their debut album, One Day Remains, written mostly by Tremonti. Unsurprisingly, given the make-up of three quarters of the band, it bore a passing resemblance to Creed. The label were all too happy to play up the connection, which immediately caused friction. US sales of One Day Remains were steady, but no one seemed to take Alter Bridge seriously.

It was entirely different in Europe, however, where Creed had barely registered at all.

FORTRESS 

“There was no such thing as a lukewarm Creed fan,” explains Phillips. “You either loved us or hated us. And because we’d been around so much in the States, on TV and awards shows, people were kinda glad to see us go. But we didn’t burn ourselves out in the rest of the world.”

“The saturation of Creed over here hurt us,” adds Marshall. “I think people saw Alter Bridge as just a spin-off, so nobody really respected it. But we didn’t have that battle in the UK and Europe. Also, Alter Bridge is a completely different band, more cerebral. It takes a different kind of mind to understand and appreciate it.”

Alter Bridge began the hard way, hitting the road in Europe and attempting to shake off any Creed residue. Where the latter had invariably taken the commercial route, Alter Bridge were faster, louder, more truculent. And more complex. A new set of uncommonly loyal fans soon became a fixture. “Regardless of obstacles we had in the beginning,” explains Tremonti, “we always had this core fan base that were die-hard. They really lived for the band and kept us going.”

It was a different scenario with the record company. By 2006, relations with Wind-Up had soured to the extent that the band wanted out. There followed a protracted and bitter struggle, resolved only when Alter Bridge opted to buy themselves free of their contract. It was a risky move, not to mention financially crippling, but one they were prepared to take.

THE UNINVITED (LIVE AT THE HOUSE OF BLUES

“We just wanted to persevere,” Phillips says. “After we recorded One Day Remains, Myles started playing guitar and found his comfort zone. That’s when we felt we had the best stuff ahead of us. We were in a really bad situation, but it was that need to press through. I don’t think we had any Plan B, it was all or nothing.”

Universal Republic snapped them up for 2007’s Blackbird, an album that fully heralded the arrival of the Alter Bridge sound. The emotive heft of songs such as Rise Above and Watch Over You, the latter dealing with the psychological fallout from addiction, quickly became live favourites. Moreover, the title song was a buzzing eight-minute masterwork that alternated between roaring metal and plaintive acoustics, the band interweaving new textures and tones. Marshall and Phillips proved themselves a formidable rhythm section, providing both melody and rare finesse. 

Such were the searing back- to-back licks of Tremonti and Kennedy, meanwhile, that Guitarist magazine later voted the song – ahead of Hendrix, Page, Van Halen and others – as having the greatest guitar solo of all time.

“I think we were trying to be safe and still carry our old Creed fan base with the first record,” says Tremonti. “But that was the wrong way to look at it. So with Blackbird our main goal was to make this band sound completely different.”

ALL ENDS WELL

Marshall remembers the Blackbird album “as a real dark time, going through that thing with Wind-Up and the insane amount of money that we had to get a loan for and are still trying to claw our way out of. But there was also a bonding between us all. That was when the band really evolved.”

They needed that tight-knit sense of brotherhood. More and more people may have been turning up at their live shows, but Alter Bridge weren’t the kind of band you’d hear much on the radio. And the label appeared to be doing little in terms of promotion. Matters came to a head when they sat on the Blu-ray version of Live From Amsterdam, recorded in late 2008, for the best part of two years. Another record company wrangle ensued, and the band again had to extricate themselves, at some cost, from their contract.

It would’ve been enough to see off most groups. But Alter Bridge’s tale is as much about dogged determination and force of will as it is musical chops.

“Fan base-wise we always felt we were making headway,” says Phillips, “but behind the scenes we were struggling with labels and the business. Whenever we felt we were right on the cusp of something great, it would just fall apart. We put our backs against the wall. It was a case of us against the world.”

CRY OF ACHILLES 

Salvation arrived in the shape of Roadrunner Records. Receptive to Alter Bridge and their snowballing fan base, the label offered a roof for 2010’s AB III. The record paid dividends on several fronts. Lead-off single Isolation topped the Hot Mainstream Rock chart, while the album made No.9 in the UK. The critics, too, were mostly effusive in their praise. A triumphant stream of festival appearances culminated in the Wembley headliner of late 2011.

It also served as a validation of sorts for Kennedy, who had undergone some rigorous soul-searching around the time of the Universal Republic spat. “There was a point in 2008 or 2009 where I really thought: ‘I don’t know how much more I have in me. I don’t know where this is all going,’” he confesses. “I’d actually started thinking about what else I could do. Would I go back to teaching guitar? So the questioning and the fear for the future was definitely happening during that period of writing AB III. But then it was as if all the stars suddenly fell into place.”

In the interim between Blackbird and the release of AB III, Kennedy found himself jamming with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones after the Led Zeppelin reunion, and appearing in an all-star roll-call on Slash’s self-titled solo album. After fronting the latter’s touring band across the planet for most of 2010 and the first half of 2011, he then found himself central to Slash’s follow-up, Apocalyptic Love, billed as Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators.

Tremonti and the others have been busy too, most notably reuniting Creed in 2009. There was a new album, Full Circle, and an extensive tour, though it’s telling that Stapp travelled in a separate bus and had his own dressing room. Tremonti, who also found time to release his solo record All I Was, isn’t yet sure if they’ll repeat the experience.

For all the deserved success of AB III, though, it’s less ambitious than Blackbird. Sure, there are the showcase tunes – Slip To The Void; Words Darker Than Their Wings; Isolation – but it’s largely content to play it safe, to consolidate rather than push on.

CRY A RIVER (LIVE AT THE HOUSE OF PAIN)

This is where the new album comes in. Prior to visiting Alter Bridge in Florida, what scant word there was suggested that this record was heavier and more explorative. There was even mention of an epic that burrowed deep into prog rock. “There are a few prog spots on the record,” confirms Tremonti, “but it’s not self-indulgent. There are moments where we’ve tried to mess with time and the overall arrangements. One song is about seven-and-a-half minutes long. We decided to throw everything at it and experiment a little. It started out being called Ritua_l, then Myles rewrote the lyrics and now it’s called _Fortress. This record’s more energetic than anything we’ve done before. We really tore these songs apart and put them back together 18 different ways.”

“This record is interesting in that, for lack of a better word, it’s pretty angry at times,” Kennedy adds. “There are songs that deal with betrayal, and there’s a certain intensity, fury and rage that comes through. I’ve lived through it and so have people around me. It can pertain to relationships or how you feel about your government or corporations. Everything’s kind of a mess and it has been for some time. Musically, the record still has that element of heavy. I never want to be that guy who always says each record is the best thing they’ve ever done, but I do feel like we’ve stretched ourselves further than we have before. It’s a very colourful record in that sense.”

Later that night, at a great sushi restaurant recommended by two of the guys from Trivium, who also join us, Kennedy leans over the table, gives a sly wink and says he’s come up with the album title: Pink.

FORTRESS 

As it turns out, Alter Bridge call it Fortress. When the official press announcement arrives five-and-a-bit weeks later, a scan of the tracklist reveals that Tooly Jam and Megladon have morphed to become The Uninvited, Molly Hatchet is now indeed All Ends Well, and the album is book-ended by two epics: Cry Of Achilles and the fearsome title track.

The music is almost overwhelming at times, heavy and raw. Tracks such as Cry A River and Addicted To Pain feature some of the most brutal guitar of Tremonti’s career, while there’s a gorgeous, surprisingly bluesy quality to his licks on Bleed It Dry. Farther From The Sun even carries echoes of Blackbird in the back-to-back riffs of Tremonti and Kennedy. Aside from his guitar  work, the latter excels, particularly on All Ends Well and the wall-of-death anguish of Lover. The arrangements are often dense and complex, not just when it comes to the fluid tempos of the two longer tracks, but also on tracks like Calm The Fire or Peace Is Broken, a terrific showcase for Phillips’s drumming. As the last note subsides, you feel both exhausted and exhilarated. In short, it’s everything they promised and more.

If Alter Bridge really are the next superstars-in-waiting, this could well be the record to give them that final push. All they need is a tailwind and a bit of luck.

“We’ve had the highbrow critics who’ve said that no matter what you do, if you were from Creed this couldn’t have any kind of credibility,” says Tremonti, when we catch up again later on the phone. “But I think we’ve outrun that now. I feel at this point we’ve hit our stride and proved ourselves. Everybody knows what kind of a band we are. And that means a lot to us because we’ve had to fight so much.”

ADDICTED TO PAIN 

Producer Michael Baskette, who’s now overseen each album since One Day Remains, and who Kennedy refers to as “our George Martin”, is ideally placed to judge the Alter Bridge effect. “I’ve watched it building the entire time and it’s super-exciting to me,” he offers. “They’ve worked so hard to get here, and now it’s time to go. They’ve delivered the right thing with this record. It’s never been more primed for them to do their thing. The sky’s the limit.” 

The Guitar Hero

Mark Tremonti 

Born in Detroit, Tremonti moved to Orlando, Florida as a teenager.

“One of the first times I remember seeing a guitar as something awesome was in Back To The Future, when Michael J Fox had that big, humongous amp. Then I saw the movie Crossroads and that blew me away. My brother Mike was also into Kiss, and I thought Ace [Frehley] really was the man in that band.

“I was a songwriter right off the bat. I’d bought my four-track, and vocal melodies were my thing. I never really learned theory, and ended up developing my own style by not learning traditional guitar. Me and Myles have been songwriting guitar players since we were young. I live for it.”

BLEED IT DRY 

The Reluctant Star

Myles Kennedy (vocals, guitar)

“I started singing as a kid, though to be honest I didn’t really like my voice. I actually began as a guitarist, and was a guitar teacher for a long time.”

Aside from Alter Bridge, Kennedy has also been fronting Slash’s band since 2010.

“I definitely think it’s raised awareness of who this guy from Spokane, Washington is. I love getting to play with Slash, and next year we’ll start work on the new record.”

In June 2008, not long after the Led Zeppelin reunion show, he was even invited for sessions with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. “They said: ‘Hey, we’ve got some things we’ve been working on. Can you sing over the top of it?’ It was like nothing I’ll ever experience again. There’s very rarely a week that goes by when I don’t think about all that.”

FARTHER FROM THE SUN 

The Quiet One

Brian Marshall (bass)

“As far as being a bass player goes, I’ve hit on some of my influences with Fortress; I can relate some of the music to Rush’s 2112. Geddy Lee, John Entwistle and Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris are probably three of my biggest influences. I was a drummer in high school, but scratched up my dad’s kit. Then I asked my drum teacher what his favourite instrument was and he said bass guitar. So I bought a [Fender] Squier.” Marshall gave Creed their name, borrowing from a previous group he’d played in, Mattox Creed. He quit the band in 2000, and briefly recorded as Grand Luxx before returning for their 2009 reunion album, Full Circle, and accompanying tour.

LOVER 

The Groove King

Scott ‘Flip’ Phillips (drums)

“I’ve always stuck to my roots. I’m a huge John Bonham fan, and Will Calhoun from Living Colour was probably the reason I began playing drums. I didn’t start until I was 18, though I’d played piano and saxophone as a kid. It was probably right about the time that Time’s Up [1990], the second Living Colour record, came out. You could tell the guy had ridiculous chops, but he knew when to lay back and not display them. From there I really got into Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron, who was another guy like that. And I’ve certainly taken an influence from other bands who are far more progressive.”

Away from Creed and Alter Bridge, in 2012 Phillips formed Projected, a cult supergroup with members of Sevendust and Submersed.

CALM THE FIRE (LIVE PREMIERE) 

This feature was originally published in Classic Rock issue 189. 

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