Interview with Mr. Big guitarist / solo artist Paul Gilbert

Date: May 6, 2021
Interviewer: Ruben Mosqueda
Photos: Joe Schaeffer Photography (first, second, fourth and fifth photos)

Paul Gilbert started off his career as one of the guitarists of the L.A. metal act Racer-X, which also featured future Judas Priest drummer Scott Travis and singer Jeff Martin (who would later go onto drum for Badlands, Michael Schenker as well as some fill in dates with Dokken). Rounding out the band was bassist Juan Alderete and guitarist Bruce Bouillet, the latter who would later go on to form The Scream with John Corabi. As you know, Gilbert went on to form Mr. Big with bassist Billy Sheehan, singer Eric Martin and the late drummer Pat Torpey. Gilbert has been releasing solo music for many years with the most notable albums being ‘King of Clubs’ and ‘Flying Dog.’ Gilbert is about to release his 16th solo effort titled ‘Werewolves of Portland’ via Mascot Records on June 4th, 2021. Sleaze Roxx caught up with Gilbert from his home studio in Portland, Oregon, USA on May 6th, 2021.

Sleaze Roxx: You have a new album coming on June 4th titled, ‘Werewolves Of Portland.’ Was this an album that was written over the pandemic? How did these times influence the album?

Paul Gilbert: Yes, it was. My plan was to record it about a year ago. I had done one rehearsal and then Covid caused me to quarantine for a while. No one, as you know, had any idea how long that was going to last. The delay went on and on. After about six months, I said, “I think I have to change my plan [laughs]!” I originally wanted to cut it ‘live.’ Well, that wasn’t going to work with everything going on. I decided to play all of the instruments myself. I thought that was pretty fun! Especially playing the drums. I loved that! I really like playing with other people [laughs]! The thought of doing it all alone was weird. I was writing, recording, performing and engineering an album… You need to have another human being in the room to look at that can give you a grin every now and again to let you know that you’re on the right track. So, I knew that I wanted to work with an engineer. I showed up at his studio and we were both wearing masks. That lasted about an hour. We thought we’d risk it! We did have contact with many other people. It turned out fine. We still kept our distance of course and other precautions. The guy’s name is Kevin Hahn.

I met Kevin through Kelly Lemieux [Buckcherry] who is a bass player who I play with sometimes. I said to Kevin, “I don’t know how my drumming is going to go, because I haven’t played drums in ages. Just hit record and we’ll see what happens! If it’s good we’ll keep it. If it’s not, we’ll have to find someone that can come in here that can do it.” We just needed to start somewhere. So he pressed record, I did it and it was alright [laughs]. Kevin is great. He went in with protools and fixed a mistake here and there. Since I was the songwriter, I really knew what I wanted in terms of the drums and guitar. Where I really needed some help was with the bass parts, that was a little more challenging. Kevin was really helpful when it came time to do the bass parts. “Professorship At The Leningrad Conservatory” is one where Kevin was helpful because I can play funk guitar, but I don’t play funk bass. He saved me a lot of time with some great ideas on that. I had spent something like two days trying to figure out a good bass part on that and I got it done in an hour, due to his guidance.

Sleaze Roxx: You moved to Portland [Oregon] in recent years. What inspired the move?

Paul Gilbert: I moved to Portland five-six years ago. I can’t recall exactly. I wanted somewhere peaceful with nice trees and laid back people [laughs]. I don’t know what happened! I had been in L.A. for about 10 years in the ’80s and another 10 years in the 2000s. My wife never liked it there for whatever reason. She’s the one that convinced me to make the move. There was this period where there was this drought… It just never rained. Places like Portland and Seattle were known for rain! I was like, “Whoa, I could use some rain for a change!” So I wanted to be around trees, rain and nature. That was a change of pace. The food was good, at least at the time when I moved up here. I had played gigs here before and people seemed… normal [laughs]! It was just great. I’d hang out at the guitar shops and everyone was cool. I just don’t know what’s going on around here right now. People are destroying property, breaking windows and spray painting walls. Portland’s become the most angry, rageful city that I have ever seen in my life [laughs]! There’s some deep seeded anger. When I came up with the title ‘Werewolves of Portland’, I just thought it was a funny title and it was a nod to the old Warren Zevon song “Werewolves of London.” It was just a lighthearted idea by switching the city name. I wasn’t thinking beyond that. Then all of a sudden it’s like, “Whoa ‘werewolves’ have taken on a whole new metaphor!” I thought about changing the title, but I liked it and I decided to keep it. Who cares. It’s fine.

Sleaze Roxx: I’m just down the road on I-84 East in the Columbia Gorge. I haven’t been to Portland since February of 2020 when I saw Blue Oÿster Cult.

Paul Gilbert: Don’t come [laughs]! I’m just kidding of course, but it’s changed a lot since then. You live in a beautiful part of the state. I like to go to Oxbow Park [Gresham, Oregon] or I like to go to Mount Hood. It’s beautiful out that way. Maybe I should move to Troutdale?

Sleaze Roxx: Will you be promoting this album with any limited live performances of perhaps a live stream at all?

Paul Gilbert: First of all, I have no idea [laughs]! I’m a musician. I have no idea how to promote it. I let the record company give me direction. They encourage me to make some videos for it. On the last album, it was easy to make videos because we brought in a guy with a camera into the studio and he made the videos while we played live. I was a little hesitant to do that for this record since I played everything. I just didn’t know how that would work. Failure would have been more dramatic than the success of making it all work, I suppose. I documented very little, plus we aren’t’ supposed to be breathing air indoors with other people! The first video for the album was for “Argument About Pie” and I believe that’s the first lyric video for an all instrumental song. I’m really proud of that one. I drew the whole thing. I had drawn before, but that’s the most drawing that I had even done in my life [laughs]!

It was time consuming, but very gratifying. I think it turned out great. It really added meaning to what I was trying to get across musically with the song. I also made a video for the title track “Werewolves of Portland.” That should be coming out in about two weeks. That one I show with my son. I have a six year old son. We both dressed up in wolf costumes! It’s us dancing around and playing around, being wolves [laughs]! Because of what is going on in Portland, it could make you sad or angry. Some of the songs on the record could be looked at as some negative rant about what’s going on, but that’s not why I want to be a musician. I don’t want to be the guy that rants at people. I’m so happy that the “Werewolves of Portland” video isn’t that at all. It’s fun. It’s me and my kid having a great time.

Paul Gilbert‘s “Argument About Pie” video (from upcoming Werewolves of Portland):

Sleaze Roxx: You have been making solo albums since ’98 when you released ‘King of Clubs’ and ‘Flying Dog.’ Those albums received critical acclaim. What’s been your experience with people’s reception with instrumental or mostly instrumental albums?

Paul Gilbert: With the early stuff in the ’90s, I had given up on the expectations of having any kind of a solo career in America or Europe. Mr. Big had become so ‘big’ in Japan. When you leave a band and you make solo music, it’s just never going to be as big as the band. Even my little ‘fraction’ of a career in Japan was pretty good. I would head to Japan for a short tour and I would make a couple of records a year. That kept me busy. I spent the majority of that time focusing on one country and was able to live on that. The first album where I started branching out to other parts of the world was ‘Get Out of My Yard’, the first instrumental record. I would always get asked “When are you going to make an instrumental record?” It was something that I had always resisted. So I finally decided to do it. I was wondering what I would come up with if I gave myself that assignment. I was really curious what I could draw out of myself. I made that album, then I’m on G3 with Joe Satriani and I did my very first tour of Europe as a solo artist and it did very well.

It was funny, because when I did that record, I almost felt my career go down a little bit in Japan. It rose in the rest of the world. I didn’t know if it was better to do vocal records for Japan and all instrumental stuff for the rest of the world? I felt like I would have to split myself in half and be a different person for different places. It’s hard. It was a journey of self discovery and how you feel yourself. I think I’m figuring out who I am, combined with what I’m able to do. If I woke up one morning with the voice of Freddie Mercury, then I could just be a lead singer. That’s just not the case, but as a performer and songwriter, I’m also closer to that. I’m not a ‘shred-metal’ guy. I don’t listen to djent [metal] or prog-djent. I don’t know anything about that! I love The Beatles, Queen and The Carpenters. When I write songs, it’s more like that. My voice won’t do that, so I use the guitar to play those kinds of melodies on it. The guitar allows me to be a better singer with a better voice. The better voice being my guitar.

Paul Gilbert‘s “A Thunderous Ovation Shook The Columns” track (from upcoming Werewolves of Portland):

Sleaze Roxx: You wear hearing protection. When did you notice a change in your hearing and do you have an idea of when the damage transpired? How did this influence your writing and your playing?

Paul Gilbert: I have a lot of hearing loss and it’s been a gradual thing in my journey of losing so much treble. I have to sort of feel it out. The thing that I do now is that I wear ear plugs, which takes out even more treble. Then I have to make choices… In a perfect world, you have perfect hearing and you can hear everything — a great mix of the band and you can hear yourself. That just isn’t going to happen for me. I cannot hear cymbals or a hi-hat. Treble is gone. In order to function on stage with other musicians, I gotta really choose my battles. I need to hear myself, the kick drum and the snare. If I start drifting off time, they’ll have to follow me, because I won’t be able to hear them. So even when I’m wrong, I’m right [laughs]! So it’s like following the leader and my apologies if I drift. What has happened because I don’t hear myself very well, is that I have to use what I call my ‘inner melodic generator.’ Half of what I’m hearing is my imagination. I think that has helped really improve my musicianship.

Sleaze Roxx: Racer-X were signed by Mike Varney’s Shrapnel Records. What made that label the place to be?

Paul Gilbert: Back in the day, Mike had a column in Guitar Player [magazine] called ‘Spotlight.’ I had sent a tape to Mike. Randy Rhoads had passed away. I was about 15 years old at the time. I didn’t know anyone in the business, but I thought, “If I don’t try, I will never get a gig like that.” So the only thing I could think of was to get a tape to someone, because I didn’t have any connections. I remember Mike had printed the address and said something like that he would respond to anyone that would send him a tape. He mentioned that he would respond whether he liked it or not. I sent him the tape and he got back to me. He said, “Hey you’re just a kid, I can’t help you get the Ozzy audition. I really like your playing. Keep sending me stuff!” The funny thing about Mike is, he always liked my guitar playing but he always hated my songs. He really hated them! He was polite about it! He’d say stuff like, “This is terrible! Are you joking [laughs]?” It kind of… If he had hated my playing as well, that would have been discouraging. I think just the fact that he liked one thing and didn’t like the other, helped motivate me to work harder and make him like my songs. I really worked on my ability to write songs.

When I was 17, I moved to LA. He liked my songs a lot better. He looked for some musicians for me to play with. He connected me with [singer] Jeff Martin and the other guys I met while in school at G.I.T. — the whole time I’m sending demos to Mike. I wanted to be a band like Van Halen, Journey where it featured the song and the singer. Mike would say stuff like, “If there’s a spot with space, fill it! This is going to be the only time you’re going to have to ‘rip’ people’s heads off! Just over play and go crazy [laughs]!” I loved Yngwie [Malmsteen] and Van Halen to some extent did that. My first instinct wasn’t to go that crazy. I had a sense of balance. Mike was one that wanted to tip the balance to guitar. Go nuts! He wanted me to get it out of my system because he felt at some point I would be in a big band and I wouldn’t be able to do that in it.

Racer X performing “Scarified” in 1987:

Sleaze Roxx: When did you meet Billy Sheehan for the first time? Did you talk about working together back then?

Paul Gilbert: I was aware of Billy’s work and I was thrilled to work with him. He left the David Lee Roth gig and had been putting it out there that he wanted to put a band together. One of the people that he had reached out to was Mike Varney.

Sleaze Roxx: Mr. Big had a hit single with “To Be With You.” How do you feel about that song and is it fun to perform?

Paul Gilbert: I don’t mind playing it. It does not reflect what the band was about as a whole, but bands write and record ballads. We love ballads. It opened things for a wider audience. It charted very high for us and it helped sell some records. The fans love that song. How could we not play that?

Sleaze Roxx: Mr. Big used power drills on “Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy.” Eddie Van Halen used a drill on “Poundcake.” ‘Lean Into It’ and ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’ were both released in 1991. Both are the opening track on their respective albums. Is there some funny business happening there?

Paul Gilbert: [Bursts into laughter] The drill thing goes back to my days in Racer-X. I think Bruce and I were on the cover of one of the guitar magazines holding drills. Then Eddie goes and uses a drill on “Poundcake!” That was just surreal to me. I don’t even think I was on Eddie’s radar when he thought about doing that. What Eddie did, he decided to do on his own. I don’t think there was any ‘theft’ involved there at all. Eddie was and will always be a hero of mine. I have so many memories of picking up those early Van Halen records. I would take them, listen to them and try to dissect them. They were my homework assignment. Everyone knows about his tapping, but a lot of the stuff that I learned from Eddie’s playing was the finger picking, like you hear on “Little Guitars” or on “Bottoms Up.” He helped me develop my finger picking. I also loved his vibrato. There would be people at the guitar shops playing Eddie Van Halen, but they wouldn’t be able to capture that vibrato. It was like getting a mouthful of icing, but they were missing the cake! That’s the best part! Eddie played with the energy of a kid, but the grip of a grown-up.

Mr. Big‘s “Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy” video: