Songwriter Interviews

Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme

by Greg Prato

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Rihanna fans may be wondering, "Who is that long-haired gentleman playing guitar in the band?" That dear friends, would be Mr. Nuno Bettencourt of the band Extreme, best known for their #1 acoustic ballad "More Than Words" and its similarly sensitive follow-up hit, "Hole Hearted."

Rihanna convinced Nuno to join her on tour back in 2009 by giving him free rein to riff - seems the pop megastar wanted a sharper sound for her live show. Nuno went over so well that he has been on every Rihanna tour since, also joining her on stage for Saturday Night Live and the Grammy Awards.

Extreme, meanwhile, is still very much alive and well. The group released their first album in 1989, but hit it big with their second LP, Pornograffitti, which contains those aforementioned hit ballads. They parted ways in 1996, with lead singer Gary Cherone joining Van Halen (an impossible task, really) and Nuno working as a solo artist. The split was amicable, and in 2007 they re-formed, releasing their fifth album, Saudades de Rock, the following year.

Nuno, who writes the songs with Cherone, explained the sentiment behind "More Than Words," talked about his Rihanna gig, and told the scatalogical origin story of "Hole Hearted."
Greg Prato (Songfacts): I recently interviewed the guitarists from DragonForce for the site, and they listed you as a favorite guitarist. How does it make you feel knowing that you're still inspiring other guitarists at this stage of your career?

Nuno Bettencourt: It's one of those things where you kind of know, but you don't know. It's really nice.

I find out in these crazy little ways. I was at a soundcheck not too long ago for the Grammys at the Staples Center, and of course, when you're doing the Grammys, there's a who's who of everybody that's around - it's amazing the people that you run into. I saw Ed Sheeran, and I'm a fan of his writing and singing. I was going to say hi to him, and he ended up coming up to me and saying, "Hey, I wanted to say hello." And he said the first song he ever learned on guitar was "Layla," but the second one was an Extreme song. Knowing what he does, I thought it was going to be "More Than Words." Instead, he said he learned "Cupid's Dead." I was like, "What?" And he went up and actually played it! John Mayer was on stage, and everybody just started playing "Cupid's Dead" out of nowhere. It feels good, that somebody listened.

Songfacts: How do you compare playing with Extreme to playing in Rihanna's band?

Nuno: The cool thing is you get to use the same rig and play everything the same way you would do it. I look at it like getting to ruin every one of her songs, doing what I do! That was the first stipulation. I said, "Look, there's not really any guitar on her stuff." And they said, "No, but that's why she wants you there. It's to make it rock out a little more." So that was fun.

Doing the Grammys was great, because I've played with Rihanna for years, but the fact that I get to stand next to Paul McCartney - who is a master at songwriting - and perform with him, rehearse with him for two or three days and pick his brain, hear his stories and conversations, was cool.

Assessing Queen's recording career today, few other artists in the history of modern music have amassed such an impressive body of work, and for the most part without the aid of outside songwriters (take that, modern mainstream artists!). And while Queen remained incredibly popular throughout the world in the '80s, they hit a rough spot in the US which can be traced directly to their 1982 album, Hot Space.

After the success of their #1 smash hit "Another One Bites the Dust" in 1980 (which embraced dance/funk sounds), Queen decided to fully embrace the "dancier side of things" on the entire first side of Hot Space. Only one teeny problem: Queen built their reputation as a rock band, not as a dance act, and in the early '80s, there was still a clear division between rock and anything resembling disco. As a result, Hot Space did not replicate the success of Queen's prior albums (even though much of the second side featured more rocking material), and due to the fact that the album was supported by Queen's last-ever US tour with Freddie Mercury behind he mic, the band's popularity dwindled Stateside for the remainder of the '80s and into the '90s... until Wayne's World came along.
Songfacts: I remember reading a while back that you listed Queen's Hot Space as an important album for you. What did it teach you?

Nuno: I think it's interesting because that album taught me two things. It taught me that even if you're in a band as a guitar player, music doesn't have to be driven by guitar - it's about the song, first. But I think the main thing is that Queen actually did an album like that - it was the fans' least favorite, but it was one of my favorites because it took a risk and branched out. All those synth parts they did and horns, I could always hear them with guitar in my head somehow.

But quite oddly enough, or coincidentally enough, the title Hot Space is exactly what it meant: it's all the space between the music. That's what makes it funky and that's what makes it have a pocket.

Songfacts: What are some memories of playing the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992?

Nuno: Well, it will always be one of the greatest days of my life. You have those "Top 5" days in your career, and to be a part of that and to put together that Queen medley and be able to play to Freddie's fans and Queen fans, it was just something really, really special. It's not like covering something, and you say, "Hey, let's do a Queen cover or a Queen medley." We did it for his fans. We were able to do that for them and to feel as if he was there - it was like he was on stage with us. It was pretty incredible.

Songfacts: How did you come up with the sentiment for the song "More Than Words"?

Nuno: When you want to write something beautiful or pretty, a lot of the times it ends up being a love song or a ballad. We were sitting there talking about how tiring it was writing about going for the jugular with love and what it is and what it means and how beautiful it is. For "More Than Words," we said, "Hey, let's write something that is about showing it, not just saying it or singing it in a song." And that's exactly what the lyrics say: It's about showing it. It's as simple as that.

That song was written on a porch with just me and a guitar, and everything was coming at once in a five-ten-fifteen minute period. I went in, showed Gary, worked up some lyrics, and we put it on there. Some of those magical songs come really quick.

Songfacts: Do the best songs come the quickest?

Nuno: Yes. I won't keep working on a song if it doesn't come fast. They're always like that. I think you've got to go with the vibe - it's not just the parts of the music or the theory behind it.

Songfacts: Did any relationships that the band members had at the time serve as an inspiration for the lyrics of "More Than Words"?

Nuno: The sentiment was more from Gary's side, as far as that part of it goes. But I don't think it was anything specific, other than just writing a really nice message. It wasn't related to a specific person or a specific relationship - it was a belief that we had.

It was something that we always knew from being guys. Everybody throws the word "love" around like confetti. Like, "I love my dog." "I love this dress." "I love this food." The word "love" itself gets really diluted, so we just wanted to say, "It's not really about saying it," because everybody gets really worked up when somebody says that to each other. They say, "I love you," and everybody goes, "Oh my God! It must be serious. It must be heavy." It's like, "Eh... it's easy to say that." It's really about showing it constantly and continuously in a relationship. We knew that was the message.

Songfacts: Were you worried about what such a sensitive song would do to the band's image at that point?

Nuno: No. We always just wrote what we felt. We'd been around and put out ballads before, but that's the one that crossed over. Obviously, it confuses people a bit. The fans knew that we were always like that anyway, that we do a lot of different types of music. But the fact is, there are two types of fans: there's your fans, and there's fans that will know you from "More Than Words" or "Hole Hearted" and they won't talk about the other stuff. So, we were always aware that there was going to be that group of people, more of the mainstream audience, that was going to go see the band, and when we opened with "Decadence Dance," they were going to go, "Uh... are we at the right show?" We always knew that.
The band chose the name Extreme because they were influenced by a wide range of sounds, from Prince to Led Zeppelin. "Extreme" has since become a marketing buzzword, used to brand everything from Doritos to makeovers. When the X Games started in 1995, they were called the "Extreme Games" that first year.
Songfacts: The lyrics to the song are pieced together interestingly - like when Gary sings, "Don't - ever - let - me - go." How did that happen? Was it Gary that came up with that?

Nuno: Gary doesn't really write with the melody a lot of the times when we do stuff together. So I already had a melody, and I was humming every part - I had it in my head already, the harmonies and everything else. So, we just kind of wrote to that melody, and that's how the phrasings and those over-the-bar things happened. It happened naturally.

Songfacts: Was there a real relationship that inspired "Hole Hearted"?

Nuno: "Hole Hearted" was one of those songs where I had my first 12-string [guitar] sent to me. I was in the studio, and the album was pretty much done. I opened the twelve-string, and the first thing I played were those opening chords. The song, once again, just happened.

Oddly enough - I don't know if this is too much information - but I wrote it on the toilet! I got kind of excited that I had my first 12-string, and it made me want to go to the toilet. I sat down, took my time, and dare I say, the ideas just came out. They came pouring out.

But that song was written fast, and I remember coming out of the bathroom, saying, "I've got this really cool tune," and everybody looked at me kind of weird. I was listening to Led Zeppelin III at the time a lot, and there was a lot of acoustic stuff on there. So I kind of took the groove a little bit, borrowed that feel from being inspired by the Zep III album.

Songfacts: Where did the idea for the song "Play With Me" come from?

Nuno: I was listening to a lot of Kix at the time. I liked that groove and the way they did this kind of punk-pop thing. I was always - and still am - a big Kix fan. It was definitely a Kix influence.

Songfacts: What about "Rest in Peace"?

Nuno: "Rest in Peace," I threw a little bit of an obvious "tip your hat" moment to where it came from: the riff was definitely inspired by Hendrix. I was always a big fan.

But that was just the riff. The rest of it was very odd. Lyrically, there was a lot of stuff going on: we were in the Gulf War at that time, and would watch people with signs outside the White House that said "MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR." We thought that war is not that simple. Nobody wants war until somebody is invading their country. So we thought about the statement "Make Love, Not War." We know that America is going into different countries and certain areas, but you hope and have faith that it's for the right reasons. And when there are genocides and things like that going on, that's what inspired that period of the Gulf War. We don't love war - we definitely love "love" more. But it was just saying, "It's really not that simple."

Songfacts: And what inspired "Hip Today"?

Nuno: We were just realizing the genres were changing before us, and we were in the middle of it. There was this hair metal thing going on that we didn't really know if we fit in, and there was grunge going on afterwards. We were just kind of going, "Wow." That was not about any genre in particular, it's just about music in general - how songs will stand the test of time, not the genre.

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

Nuno: I'm a big Queen fan, I'm a big Beatles fan - great songwriters. I love Bread, I think they're great songwriters. But there's people that write rock songs amazingly well, like AC/DC. Journey were great songwriters. Queen was definitely top of the rock, and the Beatles were top of the pop/melodic stuff. Everybody else that I love was in the middle of that.

Songfacts: You mentioned being a fan of Kix earlier, too.

Nuno: I saw Kix probably 12 times through the years. There was a club called Celebration that they'd play in Boston, and we'd go down to watch. I just thought they were one of the coolest bands, especially live. I used to love watching them live, and I thought they were one of those bands that didn't get their just-desserts.

Songfacts: What are Extreme's plans to write and record a new album?

Nuno: I'm writing all the time. We're in the studio right now with a couple of friends that are writers, and we're working on some new stuff. So we're constantly writing. With Extreme, we should have done an album ages ago, but we're slowly but surely starting to write stuff.

May 8, 2015
For more Nuno, visit facebook.com/nunorocks
And for more Extreme, visit extreme-band.com
Top photo: Brian Malloy
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Comments: 8

  • Joshua Castner from Castrop GermanyNuno is sooo cool!!! I saw him live today he's just awesome!!!!
  • Alex from VancouverWhat will happened to Extreme without 'More than Words" :)
    https://goo.gl/j3biyh
  • Rachel from Boston,magreat interview that band is the best love seeing them cant wait till there back in Boston
  • Carney from New Haven, CtVery underrated guitarist.
  • Eyal Sucher from IsraelIt's great fun to learn these small bits of information 20+ years after listening to the songs...
  • Chris H. from Castle Donington, UkI've seen Extreme a few tomes over the years. My favourite band to see live. Looking forward to the next album and visit to the UK. Good interview.
  • Daniel from Portland, OregonNice questions, nice answers.
  • Juliet Valencia from United StatesThis was a great article and I realized something that I had no idea. Thanks.
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