“OK, we’re rolling.”
And with those three declarative words — as spoken by producer Kevin Elson right after the music kicks in on “Open Your Eyes,” an instant callback to the beginning of “Addicted to That Rush,” the hard-charging lead track on the band’s self-titled 1989 debut — Mr. Big plants the flag between past, present, and future with DEFYING GRAVITY, the band’s ninth original studio album that’s set for release on Frontiers Music Srl on July 7, 2017.
DEFYING GRAVITY, recorded in just six (count ’em!) days at Ocean Studios in Burbank, California, reunites Mr. Big with the aforementioned noted producer Kevin Elson (Journey, Europe, Lynyrd Skynyrd), who’s back behind the boards for the first time since helming the band’s first four albums. DEFYING GRAVITY deftly showcases that patented Mr. Big blend of crunch and melody, from the freight-train ride of the aforementioned opening cut “Open Your Eyes” to the harmony-laden wonderment of “Damn I’m in Love Again” to the grateful/wistful nostalgia of “1992” (recalling the days when the band was flying high atop the singles charts with their international #1 smash “To Be With You”) to the barnburning slide-blues closing track, “Be Kind.” Overall, DEFYING GRAVITY is prime evidence that the only thing Mr. Big remains tethered to is their ongoing pursuit of achieving creative excellence.
“It’s inspiring to work with Mr. Big,” observes guitarist/songwriter Paul Gilbert, who penned much of the material on the new album. “I know that any ideas I bring into the studio have to go through our long-established band filter, which means the songs all have to rock, have melody, and put a grin on the faces of all of my bandmates to make the final cut.” What that means is Gilbert, lead vocalist Eric Martin, bassist Billy Sheehan, and drummer Pat Torpey all have to agree collectively on the finished product — as does touring drummer Matt Starr, who also joined in on the studio proceedings this time around.
That tried-and-true “all for one, one for all” mentality is one of the main things that fuels Mr. Big to reach for new heights whenever they’re recording. “That’s what makes a band a band,” believes Torpey. “I think we all feel that way. It’s not one guy’s vision that the other guys all just follow. We’re always kicking ideas around to come to some kind of consensus. And that makes Mr. Big music what it is.”
Adds Sheehan, “I like recording with a sense of urgency. Put a mike in front of us, roll tape, and that should sound like what you’re hearing from us live. When you can create that kind of pressure in the studio in a short amount of time, it makes for better songs — and better performances.”
Once Martin got in sync with Gilbert, the album took shape in a relatively short amount of time. “My music tells you more about me than I can actually tell you myself,” the vocalist admits. “And DEFYING GRAVITY is about ignoring everybody in life who tells you it can’t be done; that it’s impossible to do what you love. You have to stand your ground whenever someone tells you to give up your dream to do anything your heart desires — whether it be as a musician, painter, dancer, or whatever you want to be — in favor of a life that’s safe and conventional.”
To a man, Mr. Big couldn’t be more pleased to be working with Elson again. “Kevin Elson is really, really good at steering the ship through rough waters and making it seem like they’re not rough waters,” Gilbert notes. “He’s a very even-keeled guy — mellow, but he still gets it done.” Concurs Sheehan, “It was glorious and fantastic. Kevin creates an atmosphere of ease and creativity. He’s full of so many ideas. Really a wonderful man.” Torpey adds, “We’ve got a lot of history with him. He’s a great guy, super-talented. It’s not like having a dictator for a producer, just somebody who barks commands. He’s got so much experience, history, and pedigree — and he’s also a really, really good friend, so the vibe in the studio was perfect.” Sums up Martin, “I always loved Kevin because of his musical sense, and I love singing in front of him. Kevin has a different approach that’s more cerebral. He has a lot of ideas like a musician and a songwriter would. Kevin’s a huge piece of our recording puzzle. He’s a musician’s friend. He gets good sounds, and I trust his insight and his criticism. Kevin has the golden touch, and he knows how to make great voices sound even greater.”
One of the key tracks on DEFYING GRAVITY, “1992,” hearkens back to the glories of much headier days for Mr. Big — albeit with tongue planted firmly in cheek. “That was an incredible period in our lives, right when the rumblings of grunge were starting to happen,” Gilbert points out. “So here I am writing about and tweaking something that was so positive in just about every way, but it did open the world to us. Suddenly, we were playing stadiums in Indonesia, just going all over the place. And to this day, whenever we start a tour, we end up going all around the world. That whole era, back when we all still had giant hair” — Gilbert pauses here to laugh at the visual — “really opened the door for us. Thankfully, people still gravitate toward the underlying thing that is still really important, and that’s the music.”
Sheehan adds his own spin on the track: “It’s a song about its own history. It reminds me of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water,’ a song where a band goes back and talks about how it all went down in a really clever way. And ‘1992’ certainly pops for me from a philosophical point of view.” Muses Torpey, “Who would have thought we’d actually be talking about something like this 25 years later? But I’ve had those thoughts myself. It’s really interesting to reflect back like that and actually have it come out in a song. It’s an epic kind of song that’s got the classic rock stuff, the crazy guitar-and-bass stuff, and the big vocals from Eric. It’s a Mr. Big song; no doubt.”
Speaking of the band’s inherent instrumental virtuosity, you’ll find plenty of it on display during the middle section of “Mean to Me,” where Paul and Billy trade a score of hot licks back and forth. “That song came about very quickly,” Gilbert reports, “and the solo was a first take with no overdubs at all; it was done live with the band. The delay I used helped make it twice as fast, but you still have to be dead-on accurate, and play the notes super-staccato so that it doesn’t get sloppy. Billy, however, does it all for real where no effects were necessary. He battles my technology-aided solo with the pure fire from his hands.” Observes Torpey, “The songs themselves are always important, but we always want to come up with the right vehicle to have some gymnastics between those twin towers of rock, Billy and Paul. That’s a big part of what we do, and we utilize it. I hope the fans like it.”
Martin is proud DEFYING GRAVITY showcases the best of what Mr. Big has to offer. “There’s something about this band. We’ve been through a lot of stuff together,” he notes, “but there’s a spiritual bond we all share, no matter what. And that raises you up to give the best performance you can for a record that came together so quickly, like this one did.” Adds Sheehan, “This record really seems to fit in with some of my favorite times in music, which were right around ’68 to ’74. The other thing is, Mr. Big is really a singing band, and I love the fact we have that here with the background vocals we were able to add to some of the songs.”
For his part, Gilbert is very much looking forward to bringing DEFYING GRAVITY to life for Mr. Big fans the world over: “We’re aware that we’re going to be playing this music onstage, and we’re no longer just going to be looking into each other’s eyes — we’re going to be looking into the eyes of the audience. We know our audience quite well, and we’re really looking forward to seeing their reactions to the album.”
Torpey has the final word: “The title says it all: Defying Gravity. We’re still here, and we’re still keeping the ball rolling down that hill. We’re still doing it. The album has a real positive message, and that’s what I like about it,” he concludes. “We can still fly, even after all these years.”
Indeed, Mr. Big’s keen combination of their virtuosic nature with a DNA-infused sense of melody continues to enable listeners the ability to sing along to every word they hear. Not a lot of acts can do that as deftly as Mr. Big does, and DEFYING GRAVITY finds this still-hungry band collectively leaning into it to bump ahead their music into new stratospheres. Climb aboard.
2017 ARTIST BIO – BY MIKE METTLER
Photo: William Hames