PAUL GILBERT Is 'In The Moment' As The End Of MR. BIG Approaches

July 9, 2024

By David E. Gehlke

The release of MR. BIG's tenth and final studio album, "Ten", coincides with their farewell tour, appropriately titled "The BIG Finish". Citing the 2018 death of drummer Pat Torpey and vocalist Eric Martin's unwillingness to do long bouts of dates, MR. BIG is putting a nice, tidy, drama-free bow on a career that proved an assemblage of world-class players can match great songwriting with stellar musicianship. Joining them in the studio and on the road is former SPOCK's BEARD drummer Nick D'Virgillo, who has proven himself capable of filling Torpey's rather large shoes. If there was a proper way for an established, well-liked band to go out, then this may be the template.

When BLABBERMOUTH.NET caught up with guitarist Paul Gilbert, he sounded very much at ease with MR. BIG's impending goodbye. He was also kind enough to wax on his standing among the guitar heroes from the late '80s and early '90s, as well as his relationship with heavy metal, joking that he, like so many of us, wishes he could still dress (and look) like every day was 1983.

Blabbermouth: You have Nick joining you for the new album and tour dates. What's it been like having him behind the kit in place of Pat?

Paul: " Nick has been fantastic. Of course, I played with him before this. We did a couple of things at Sweetwater's studio. Immediately, I connected to him really well as a musician and as a person. He's also a really good singer. I'm a big SPOCK's BEARD fan. When Neal Morse left the band, Nick took over as the lead singer, so I thought he'd be perfect for filling in the Pat Torpey role and he has! Everybody loves him. That's been wonderful."

Blabbermouth: Pat was an excellent singer, which we can't forget about.

Paul: "Oh yeah. And he was a force of nature and clear-thinking. [Laughs] That was nice to have as well."

Blabbermouth: Did you or Billy (Sheehan, bass) have to do any adjusting to Nick?

Paul: "Nick just made it easy for everybody. I think if we had to adapt to anything, it wasn't Nick. It was more the challenge of doing the 'Lean Into It' album [live]. We never played several of those songs live. Some of them were 'songwriter's songs.' Stuff that we wrote and could play, but a couple of them were co-written or had outside songwriters. The original songwriter wasn't there. They had written things that weren't necessarily in his [Martin's] range decades ago. We did some major reshuffling of E [tuning]. It's beyond tuning your guitar down a half-step. It used to be in E and now it's B, and all the chords are in different spots, and you have to forget what you knew and remember something different and all your instincts are wrong. That took a while to get used to."

Blabbermouth: Watching the live footage, you would never know the band went to such lengths for these kinds of things.

Paul: "The results were good! Possibly, we should have started there in the first place. [Laughs]"

Blabbermouth: Has a sense of finality set in for you and MR. BIG?

Paul: "I'm very much in the moment with MR. BIG, which is wonderful. That's a happy place when you're like, 'My whole universe is tonight's gig.' You're not distracted by the future or the past and you're enjoying that moment. I guess another thing that I enjoy is there's less pressure of like, 'Oh, we have to make sure to do everything perfectly because the band has to survive forever.' I feel if I screw up, it's not as big of a deal. And the result of that is I actually screw up less. [Laughs] That works well."

Blabbermouth: Given your musical pedigree, was there a big microscope on you guys to always play everything flawlessly?

Paul: "When we first got together, the first eight years of establishing the band, the goal was wanting MR. BIG to be a known touring and recording entity, and that's how we had self-enforced rules. One was that we didn't do outside projects; everything had to be about the band. With those rules lifted, it's easier to enjoy the situation. I'm still kind of glad we did that because it worked. We did establish the band, so maybe it wasn't necessary. In my world of guitar, I think the only thing that I really had to deal with that's challenging is sometimes the tempos change. We play something live and it gets way faster than the original version; I might have to re-think my approach on how to play it. That happens here and there. Some things are so easy that you can speed them up all day, and it will be all right. Other things reach a certain threshold and one of those is 'Take Cover'. It's like this looping guitar part, and the way I originally played it was an unusual technique, and I can play it at that studio tempo, but if it got one click faster, I'm destroyed. I remember taking that road early on and realizing, 'I've got to rethink this. I've got to have a plan B ready to go so I don't stop and give up.' There are things, like if the tempo gets fast, I can switch to plan B in a couple of other places. I still get the notes across, but plan B is sometimes, 'Why wasn't I doing that at the beginning?'"

Blabbermouth: You mentioned feeling less pressure when playing live. Did the same apply when putting together "Ten"?

Paul: "I think the specific thing is that I had no fear of overdubs. One of the first songs that come to mind is Eric's song 'Sunday Morning Kinda Girl'. He had the idea for the guitar solo. He sang the melody to me, and I loved it. I played that, but then, as soon as I played it, I thought, 'That would sound cool with a harmony.' So I played that. Then I thought, 'That would sound cool with another harmony! Sort of Brian May [QUEEN] style.' So we did that. On previous albums, I may hesitate because I didn't think I'd be able to do it live, but now I'm going for it. In terms of production, I was a little more open to doing overdubs that would be impractical live because I thought, 'The record's the record.'"

Blabbermouth: In light of what you said, will any songs from "Ten" nudge their way into the set?

Paul: "It's possible. Obviously, we have our singles. People might enjoy hearing those, but at the same time, when you see a band that's been around for a long time, you tend to want to hear the classic hits. I think we're careful about that, like, 'Here's one from our new album!' Is everyone going to head to the bathroom?"

Blabbermouth: Health is now a regular topic for bands in your age bracket. How are you feeling? How are you holding up?

Paul: "My hands feel good, thank goodness. I broke my hip last year, but I don't play guitar with my hips, so I'm okay. [Laughs] It was horrible. I don't recommend it to anybody. I got a big piece of titanium, so I can walk and rock out. I can't run. That doesn't affect anything onstage. It just makes me scared of dangerous, crazy people. In Portland, there are some dangerous, crazy people. I'm really careful if I walk into the grocery store and I see somebody who is out of their mind on fentanyl. I'll be alert since I can't run away from them, and I used to be able to. [Laughs] I was a little less fearful of the crazy people; now I need to watch out for them."

Blabbermouth: The DIO instrumental tribute album ("The Dio Album") you released last year is great. You've always been a little adjacent to the genre, but has your view of metal evolved?

Paul: "The newer bands that I like that are metal sound like older bands. I love THE DARKNESS and THE WILDHEARTS, although they are not that new. Maybe THE DARKNESS isn't either. They seem new. [Laughs] It's still melodic metal. Post-METALLICA, I never got that much into them because they had gruffer, lower vocals and I tend to like the operatic vocals—the singers who sing high. Like RAINBOW, DEEP PURPLE, DIO, JUDAS PRIEST, IRON MAIDEN and BLACK SABBATH with Ozzy [Osbourne]. I love that stuff. And T&T. I love them. ACCEPT and SCORPIONS I love. Basically, up to the mid-'80s is the era that I was into. Later on, a band like THE DARKNESS sounds like that era, essentially. I'm not an expert on that stuff. I haven't given it as much of a chance as I should, but I definitely love the old stuff. It's great. Sometimes, especially in our VIP things where we get to meet some fans close up, occasionally, there will be a guy who will come dressed as an '80s metal guy. They've been able to look like that successfully. They've got a jean jacket, all the patches; their hair is perfect, long and wavy—they look like DEF LEPPARD in 1983. Every part, including the chains. It's all perfect. Part of me is really jealous because that's what I wanted, and I never quite, but maybe for a brief time, I was able to look like that. My body didn't grow into that. I look at those people and go, 'If I could press a button and look like that, I would probably play metal forever. It would be so right.' I have that element to my playing, but I can't get that look. I look like me, and that takes me where it takes me. I have to embrace my genetics." [Laughs]

Blabbermouth: I think you met people halfway with your image. In the late '80s, you looked like a dude in a band who could play guitar really well.

Paul: "It's easier when you're younger. David Coverdale [WHITESNAKE] is older than I am and he's still rocking it. If I could press the David Coverdale button and pop on the stage looking like that, I'd leave all this jazz/blues stuff behind! Give me A minor/F all day."

Blabbermouth: While on the subject, how do you feel about the term "shredder?"

Paul: "The thing I wonder about the word 'shredder' is if anybody describes themselves that way and is happy. 'What kind of guitar do you play?' I wonder if anybody goes, 'Oh, I'm a shredder!' Maybe they feel right about saying that. I don't know anybody who does that."

Blabbermouth: Were you called a shredder?

Paul: "It got sprinkled in. I never liked it, but I understand. It's a marketing tool. If you're trying to promote your show or clinic or whatever it is, you could write something like, 'Pioneer of shred.' Put that in the bio! That was never a term that I used, even at the peak of my career; whenever it was, when I was 'shredding' the most, that word wasn't in my vocabulary. I thought it was something you did to paper when you wanted to destroy your documents."

Blabbermouth: How did it feel to be part of that exclusive group of players like Tony McAlpine, Greg Howe, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai?

Paul: "I was happy to have a career. That was the idea of being a professional rock musician. It was a dream. I didn't really set out…that didn't exist when I was starting. Maybe the closest thing was instrumental fusion musicians in the '70s, where there was no singer, and no one was trying to have any hits. Maybe they were, but it was more about long solos. I wasn't into that at all. I was into bands with singers. I liked VAN HALEN, the harmony vocals, and the fact that when the solo came up, you'd rip for eight bars. Essentially, I was into backing up singers. When I hooked up with Mike Varney [Shrapnel Records], I was still in a band with a singer, RACER X. We had an instrumental here and there, but I had no special desire to make instrumental music. In a way, I felt a little less of a connection to the instrumental guys because it wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in a band. I put that off for as long as I could. My first instrumental record wasn't until the early 2000s."

Blabbermouth: Have you given any thought to how the last MR. BIG show will go down?

Paul: "I'm taking it day by day, which is a wonderful existence. I'm sure when we do the very last show, and we play 'Just Take My Heart' together, we're all going to feel it. It will be a good feeling. It adds value to it. It makes you appreciate the good parts. It's very different than 'Oh, this song again.' That's the cool part — it adds an appreciation. Any amount of sadness is balanced by looking back and being proud of our accomplishments, and the joy of it is knowing that it is still pretty good quality."

Photo credit: Joel Barrios / Photography That Rocks

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