Songwriter Interviews

Eric Martin of Mr. Big

by Greg Prato

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The casual music listener may be fooled into thinking that Mr. Big specialize in ballads, as their two biggest hits were ballad-based: "To Be With You" and "Just Take My Heart." But as many a metalhead knows, singer Paul Gilbert and bassist Billy Sheehan both have some serious metal roots (Gilbert was a member of the shred-happy Racer X, while Sheehan was a member of both Talas and David Lee Roth's first solo band after exiting Van Halen), and tunes such as "Addicted to That Rush" and "Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy" are both hard rockers.

Mr. Big was unable to keep the hits coming in the US, but they have remained incredibly popular in Japan (regularly headlining large venues whenever they make the trek over to the Land of the Rising Sun), and continue to issue recordings to this day, including their eighth studio album overall, 2014's The Stories We Could Tell....

The band's singer, Eric Martin, chatted with Songfacts around the album's release, discussing songwriting, the stories behind several of his band's best-known tunes, and why Mr. Big and Japan have built such a long-lasting friendship.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): If you want to start off by talking about the new album, The Stories We Could Tell... - how does it compare to previous Mr. Big albums musically?

Eric Martin: I don't really think it compares. I've said this recently in a Japanese magazine - you won't read it - that most of the albums we've done, we always took our second album, Lean Into It, as a blueprint. There was a great collection of songs and it was a smorgasbord of music and lyrics. And the sound quality and all that. I think some of our records had tried to be that Lean Into It album, but I kind of look at this one particularly, it's unique and it stands out.

This is the record that I've always wanted to make. At the beginning we had inklings of it where we talked about our influence. We're all influenced by blues-based rocker bands like Free, even like Grand Funk. That kind of style, or Bad Company. I remember Billy always talking about a band called Spooky Tooth. And Pat with Cactus. Beatles, as well. But a lot of blues rocker bands; we all agreed that we love the band Free, which is the same kind of band that we are: bass, drums, guitar, and vocal. And even though we have some songs that are... I'm not saying formulaic, but some songs are structured. And our first album was more spontaneous, just kind of jamming. Like a rock and soul band would do. Like Free.

That's how I look at this record. Musically, it's a little more structured, but it has that feel of our first album. It's a little bit more on the blues side. Still chock full of rock, but it definitely has a blue tint to it.

Songfacts: How would you say that the songwriting works primarily in the band?

Martin: Well, in the beginning we all wrote together. Leading into it, I discovered my partner in crime, this guy Andre Pessis. He and I have been writing since '92 - written hundreds of tunes. We were writing lyrics and melodies, and Billy, Pat and Paul would jam on tunes. When we'd get in the studio, there were hundreds of ideas - unfinished stuff, lots of riffs. And then me and Andre would basically chop all that stuff up, cut it, paste it, glue it, and try to make sense of it.

Okay, logistically, I live in the Bay Area, San Francisco, and the three guys live in LA. They would write hundreds of ideas and then they'd send it to me. And a couple of weeks later I'd say "Okay, here's about three or four of your ideas to make one song."

We did it like that and then Andre and I started writing songs of our own. Everybody brings maybe one or two songs to the table, but for the most part we do it with hundreds of ideas. These CDs are crazy. We call them "sniglets." Nobody gets it.

Not Necessarily the News was a television program that ran as a series on HBO from 1983-1990 (and for quite a few years, used an instrumental bit of Eric Clapton's "Motherless Children" as their opening theme song). One of the program's more popular regular bits was hosted by a chap by the name of Rich Hall. Called "Sniglets," it focused on humorous words that were not included in dictionaries. For example, a comb-over hairstyle was called a "yinkel," and the dried residue that accumulates on a ketchup bottle was called "flen." For additional sniglets, point your peepers here.
But sniglets are just ideas that have potential, and the rest of it's scraps. And we've got a hard drive full of scraps that sometimes actually turn into gems, as well. Just like on this record. There was hundreds of ideas from 2009 when we first got back together. We'd come up with ideas; we'd just throw it into this hard drive. Billy had our "rock vault." So it's individually and collectively, but mainly the three of those guys write all these music ideas, and me and Andre come up with lyrics and melodies.

Songfacts: It's funny that you just used the word "sniglets," because I remember it being used in the show Not Necessary the News from the '80s. I don't think I've even heard that word in probably two or three decades!

Martin: Sniglets. I know. I've been trying to explain that to the Japanese!

Songfacts: What is the lead single from The Stories We Could Tell...?

Martin: Are you asking me what it is? Because I don't know, is it "Gotta Love The Ride"?

Songfacts: No, no. I'm just asking which it is, because with the press release I received, it didn't say which song was going to be the first single.

Martin: I don't know. The three that they were playing on whatever format it was, were a song called "Gotta Love the Ride," and then "I Forget to Breathe," and then another one, "The Monster in Me." We just got back from Japan doing a promo tour, and we had a ballad that's called "East/West" that seemed to be getting over really big. I really don't know. What is that kind of format anymore? We really don't get on the radio - they only play "To Be With You." I mean, thank God, but they only play "To Be With You."

Songfacts: What is your favorite song on the new album?

Martin: The first song, "Gotta Love the Ride," I love. It's simple. Life is more about the journey than the destination. The destination for some of us is a big payoff, but the journey is what you remember, and that's the key to paradise in my opinion. Everybody wants to cross the finish line as fast as they can, but without taking in life's beautiful moments. That's pretty much what I wrote that about.

And there's another song called "I Forget to Breathe." It's a song about sheer amazement about how one feels in the face of something bigger than they are. How a perfect moon or your first-born child or the spark of love just completely takes you back. It's like staring in the face of something that's bigger than you are, and you forget to breathe in its awesomeness. We all strive to be greater than we are, and in the face of it, we forget to breathe.

Songfacts: Before, you mentioned the song "To Be With You." What was the lyric inspiration behind that particular track?

Martin: "To Be With You." I had this girlfriend. Well, I wanted her to be my girlfriend. We were really, really good friends. Her name was Patricia, actually. Patricia Reynolds. She's remarried. We were really, really good friends.

She taught me how to basically write songs, write poetry. She used to write poetry and read it to me and we'd sit in her father's broken-down Mercedes Benz in the backyard of her house with trees and weeds growing in it. She used to put crystals up.

I was totally enamored with this woman. She was beautiful. Smart. I mean, brains, beauty, break down the walls, made me crawl on my belly like a reptile!

I just loved this woman, but she just wanted to be my friend. She'd have tons of boyfriends, and maybe she misconstrued promiscuity for love. But I wanted to be the knight in shining armor. That's what I was, a knight in shining armor. But basically, I didn't get my feet wet.

I wrote the song when I was about 16, 17 years old. Mainly to impress my sister's girlfriends, because Patricia wasn't having me anyway. But I wrote it about her and I wrote it about how I would have done anything to just be more than a friend and a confidante. But as you go up, you kind of go, "Maybe that's what it was. That was my place."

And the year before I joined Mr. Big, my publisher at the time set me up with another writer named David Grahame. David was Paul McCartney in the play Beatlemania, and he kind of looked like Paul McCartney. And it was good. It was really short and sweet. I think we might have spent two days together, we wrote two songs.

The first song we wrote was a song called "Captured By Cathy's Kiss," which never saw the light of day. And he goes, "Hey, do you have any other songs?" And I didn't. I didn't have anything. I mean, I'd written a couple of other things that were on a couple of solo albums that I did prior - this was 1988, I think. And I reached into my bag of cassettes and I pulled out "To Be With You." And my little demo of "To Be With You," I had the majority of the lyrics, there was a couple that didn't make it, that weren't good, but musically it was more Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It was a little on the folk side for the music. The melody was the same, but the music was kind of folk.

So when I got together with David, we did this demo and we played piano and acoustic guitar. He goes, "Let's do something like 'Give Peace a Chance' by The Beatles. How about just a bass drum and a hand clap?" Which totally breathes new life into it. And then he came up with the second verse part: "Your game of love was all rained out." I don't know if he was a baseball fan or something like that, but I thought that was funny and cute. He wrote a couple more things too, but he breathed new life into this song. Gave a little humor, and my music was a little on the stale side. So with the help of the bass drum and the handclap, he gave it a step, gave it a little spark.

Songfacts: Looking back at that song today, what would you say are some pros and cons of having such a big hit with that specific song and it being a ballad?

Martin: You know, everybody always says there are cons, or "Is that an albatross around your neck?" Not at all. I had nothing forever, and I've always been a rock singer, an R&B singer, a folk singer, just a singer in general. When I got in Mr. Big, we rocked out and we had a huge following of mainly dudes. When "To Be With You" hit #1 - it was #1 in 15 countries - it completely changed my life. Bowled me over, swept me off my feet. I had some change in my pocket. I keep using the word "spark." "Spark" is a huge word for me. It lit a fire underneath me.

If that was the last song anybody ever heard from me, that would have fine with me. I love the vocal, I love the production of the song, I love singing it every night. Our drummer, Pat, said the other day, "Man, you're not sick of that song, are you?" And I go, "No, not at all, man, I love it!" I love singing it. And yeah, we went through a period where when "To Be With You" was a hit, girls started coming to gigs, and then we had ballads and we were riding a wave in the middle '90s.

But you know how radio dictates what you're supposed to hear, especially America? That's not the case in Europe or in Asia. They still listen to something on the radio and they'll just go out and buy that record, because there's a lot more.

Some of these folks would come to the gig and be completely freaked out because our band played harder stuff. We're playing our songs like "Addicted To That Rush" and "Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy," which ain't Metallica, but it was definitely harder than "To Be With You." And people would be freaked out.

And maybe we would lose a little of our hardcore audience. We did for a period. We had a lot more of what we called "Yuppies" back then - more of a dressed-up crowd instead of jackboots and jeans. But I still love the tune and I've never felt like it was a curse at all. Because "To Be With You" is on the lead-in to an album, and the album is like a smorgasbord of musical ideas and it's tons of variation on that record.

We had another song called "Green Tinted Sixties Mind" which is totally psychedelic. We had some blues, some folk, all kinds of stuff. I always feel like I'm defending "To Be With You," and I don't feel that way at all. I wear it on my heart. I wear it on my sleeve.

Songfacts: You just mentioned the song "Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy." If you want to talk about he lyrical inspiration behind that song, too.

Martin: Mainly the inspiration was from Billy Sheehan, who's kind of a Lord Byron back in the day, girl in every port. But he was a charming fellow, he didn't hurt anybody. It was an autobiographical idea. He wrote some lyrics, and I wasn't digging on it. I said, "Do you mind if I rework it?"

This was early '90s, so it was a little on the "cock rock" side. But I wrote it about his conquests: I'll be your daddy, your brother, lover, little boy, I'll be all those kind of characters for you.

Songfacts: What about the song "Just Take My Heart."

Martin: "Just Take My Heart" is about me and my first wife. Stacey was her name. Just laying there in bed the night before both of us are going to go our separate ways. You could hear a pin drop, that's how quiet it was. She was leaving me for another man.

That was a tough year for me. I just talked to a guy the other day who was going through the same thing, and I said, "So, do you still live in the house?" He goes, "Yeah, man, we sleep in the same bed." I go, "Me, too. I did the same thing." It was really, really a tough situation for me.

Lyrically, that's what it's about. Musically, it felt a little formulaic, but it was truly heartfelt. Every lyric was exactly what I was thinking when I was laying there right before.

Mr. Big has retained a large and loyal fan base in Japan for decades, but they were not the first US rock import to score big with the Japanese - Aerosmith, Kiss, and Cheap Trick all launched successful tours there during the late '70s (as heard on Cheap Trick's classic At Budokan recording). And earlier in the decade, quite a few British rock acts played before large Japanese audiences, including Deep Purple (resulting in their Made in Japan album), Led Zeppelin, and Queen.
Songfacts: How would you describe Mr. Big's relationship with Japan? Because it's pretty well known that Mr. Big remains very popular in Japan.

Martin: They're a very loyal bunch of people. Billy Sheehan was going over there in 1988, '89, telling people that he's got this band. He found me first, and then we got Paul Gilbert and Pat, he was pretty much just laying some groundwork.

We went over there, we started playing clubs and doing all kinds of interviews, just like campaigning. And then we just sort of grew up with these folks. We were going to Japan maybe twice a year for 10 years, then 20 years. In 2011, we played our hundredth show there, like an anniversary.

A lot of bands go over there and they play the gigs, and they go, "They treat you like the Beatles." But they don't come back. It probably costs a little bit of money to come back or whatever. Or they go over there and they maybe take it for granted. But you've got to be great, you've got to be fantastic.

It's not a built-in audience. You've got some musicians who have gone into New York or San Francisco or LA or Chicago, the big cities, and they've seen it and done it. And there's a mentality: "You've got to prove something to me." It's not an attitude, but you come into these gigs and they go, "Show me something I haven't seen before."

But something about Japan I've noticed, they love to be entertained. And we love entertaining them. We talked about that early on where you can't take it for granted. They love you, so when you come back you might get a little lazy on stage or goof around or make those rookie mistakes and drink too much and don't play right. And we always kept the audience totally digging us.

We try to do the best we can every time we play there. And over the 25 years of playing over there or having our music over there, we always thought they were incredibly special. What we gave, they gave back harder. They love rock and roll. They like all kinds of music, but rock and roll is king in Japan.

Our first show that we played in Japan was in Osaka in 1989, and it was a great show. And we haven't played anything less than that.

February 17, 2015
For more Mr. Big, visit mrbigsite.com

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  • Angel Cook from New Zealandthank you for your amazing interview
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