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:: Spotlight :: Interview with Extreme

By: Justin Donnelly

From the late ‘80’s through to the mid ‘90’s, Extreme was one of the biggest names within the hard rock scene, with a string of hit singles and sales of over ten million albums to their name. But in 1996, the music scene had shifted, and the Boston based four-piece act decided to disband in order to pursue other musical endeavours. But even after finding considerable success in a host of other ventures (vocalist Gary Cherone with Van Halen and Tribe Of Judah, and guitarist Nuno Bettencourt with Mourning Widows, Population 1 and DramaGods), Cherone and Bettencourt, along with original bassist Pat Badger and new drummer Kevin Figueiredo, have reunited one again under the banner of Extreme, with their latest album ‘Saudades De Rock’ boasting the first new material from the band in twelve long years. During a brief spell at his Boston home, I caught up with Cherone to discuss Extreme’s new experimental sound and their latest effort ‘Saudades De Rock’.

Of course no conversation with Cherone could get underway without asking the obvious - why did the band decided now was the right time to reactivate Extreme on a full-time basis, despite the band’s willingness to play the odd show here and there over the last couple of years?

“It’s funny you know, because throughout the years, Bettencourt and I have always been close. There were no fights when Extreme disbanded. We’ve always been brothers, and mutual fans of each others projects that we’ve done throughout the years. So we always knew that Extreme would always get back together. It was never a question of if. It was always a question of when. It’s just been that in the past couple of years, we seemed to be colliding more. I mean we did these one-off returns in 2005 and in 2006, but over the last three or four years, it just seemed to be getting more frequent. That’s when I really started bugging him! (Laughs) I told him that if we’re going to do things, then let’s do it! It was as simple as that. He was finishing up the Perry Farrell’s Satellite Party project (Bettencourt was a member of the band from 2004 through to 2007) he was doing, which he actually quit sooner than I thought, to tell you the truth, and we started recording in late 2007. Even before that though, we were writing. We were having writing sessions all the time, where he would come up here to Boston, or if I was in L.A., we would hook up for a weekend and write some songs. It was always that relationship. But the one thing that always kept us from doing Extreme full-time was an agreement between the two of us. We both decided a long time ago was that if we were going to do Extreme again, it really had to be based on new music. So the timing was right for us, and we surprised ourselves with the amount of material that we wrote, and the album that we eventually came up with. We’re ready to go.”

Although getting together on and off over the years to write songs, it wasn’t until the band were together in the one place for writing sessions that the material really started pouring out of the song writing pair.

“That’s exactly what happened. Bettencourt and I would get together and have these little writing sessions with an acoustic guitar or a piano. But when we got into the rehearsal studio and plugged in, everybody was overflowing with ideas. Throughout my whole career, I have been trying to keep up with Bettencourt’s inspiration. There was so much music coming out of him, and so many ideas. And believe it or not, we were writing a couple of songs a day! There was an overwhelming amount of material coming out of those sessions. The hard part of putting the new Extreme album together was cutting tracks away, and letting the cream rise so to speak. We had to balance off the ballads with the rockers, and balancing off the pair of them with the more eclectic songs we came up with. That was tough. But I think we managed to do that.”

While all of Extreme’s albums in the past have always had their own individual character and feel, ‘Saudades De Rock’ is something different for the band, with the thirteen tracks on the album seemingly touching upon all facets of the band’s past, while presenting some previously unheard new sounds from the band.

“You know what? You nailed it! I think you described it perfectly. It took us a while to understand what it was, because we would be in the belly of the whale writing this stuff. We would have outside listeners like family members and managers saying to us, ‘Wow! ‘Star’ could have come right off ‘Pornograffitti’ (1990)’. ‘Ghost’ would remind people of ‘III Sides To Every Story’ (1992), and maybe ‘King Of The Ladies’ has that fun spirit that meant it would easily slot into our first album (1989). Or maybe some of the rawer sounding stuff could have found a home on ‘Waiting For The Punchline’ (1995). That was some of the classic elements we didn’t have to really try too hard to write. We never actually thought about it, or really preconceived anything. We just ended up writing just for the sake of the song, so all that stuff really came out quite naturally. But there were some newer elements which reflected where we had been in the last ten years. I think that shows the different influences and experiences we had been through in that time, which was finally starting to show through on some of this new material. Songs like ‘Take Us Alive’, ‘Learn To Love’, or even ‘Sunrise’, are just some of the new directions and grooves that we went in and did differently. Again, it’s a combination of players and chemistry, and maybe subliminally, our new drummer Figueiredo with his personality. I have been saying to myself that we really made a selfish album. We made an album for ourselves. And I think it was very liberating to do that. Not that we didn’t do that in the past! (Laughs) The easy part really was just getting together.”

Unlike ‘Waiting For The Punchline’, ‘Saudades De Rock’ marks a return of the band’s harmony vocals and more straightforward rock sound. It’s a fact that’s not lost on Cherone one bit.

“I think following up ‘III Sides To Every Story’, combined with the endless cycle of making an album and touring it constantly over that many years, and just some of the pressures of life on the road and all of that other stuff, we went into ‘Waiting For The Punchline’ with a different mindset. It wasn’t necessarily the clearest vision, because we simply stripped down everything. We stripped down too much. We pulled some of the classic elements of Extreme’s sound and the harmonies off that album. We were biting our nose to spite our face by doing that, and I think we lost a little perspective during the recording of that album. I still think that album is good, but I think we succeeded on this album what we tried to do with ‘Waiting For The Punchline’. We stripped down too much on ‘Waiting For The Punchline’, and it’s taken us thirteen years after that to know what we wanted. There just wasn’t the pressure of the record company to follow up another ‘More Than Words’ while we were making ‘Saudades De Rock’. Coming back fresh, I think Bettencourt’s production on this album has brought out some of the best performances in Extreme’s career. I think the singing in particular is better. And I don’t just think my vocals, but Bettencourt’s too with his harmonies. Bettencourt is playing his ass off as well. If you’re an Extreme fan, and I don’t know how many are out there, you will not be disappointed with this album. I think it’s all of the above. I think it’s a piece of every album we’ve ever done, plus something new.”

Extreme has always attracted as much acclaim as they did criticism for their eclectic sound and reluctance to limit themselves to any one particular genre. And in true Extreme form, ‘Saudades De Rock’ looks set to divide the masses once again with its wide and varied mix of influences and styles presented throughout.

“I think that with all Extreme albums, there’s always going to be some surprises. We’ve streamed ‘Star’ as the first song off the new album on the website, and I think we’ve received around seventy-five to eighty percent positive reviews. But I think like all Extreme albums, whether you release ‘Rest In Peace’, ‘Warheads’, ‘Decadence Dance’ or ‘When I First Kissed You’, you could misdirect people. With this album, I think people are going to have to digest the whole album more than just the once to know just where the band is at these days. I’ll give you an example. I remember when every time I would get a new Queen album, I would always be initially disappointed. I remember picking up ‘The Game’ (1980) and thinking it was nothing like ‘Jazz’ (1978). I really didn’t know if I liked it or not. But I ended up loving it! Queen was Queen, and they were always off to do a new thing with every new album. Again, I think our philosophy is the same. Don’t get me wrong, and just for the record, I’m not comparing Extreme with Queen. But I think we always try and do something new with every album, much like Queen did. I think Extreme is an anomaly. We’re a quirky band. We don’t fit into any genre. We’re lumped in with a lot of the hair bands from the ‘80’s, but I think that’s only because we came out before Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But I think fans and critics of Extreme know what we are, and that this band has held its own and that we’ve separated ourselves from some of our contemporaries.”

One interesting track that appears on ‘Saudades De Rock’ is ‘Interface’, which appears in re-recorded form from ‘Love’, the 2005 debut effort from Bettencourt’s other outfit DramaGods.

“That’s right. It’s a brilliant song. That was just one of the songs that we brought up in conversation during the writing sessions for the album. Bettencourt always loved the song, and I guess when he wrote it back in the day, he always pictured it as an Extreme song. It was a great song, and happens to be one of my favourite songs on that particular album. He mentioned it, and nobody was opposed to doing it. It ended up being one of the cream songs that rose to the top. Only a small number of people heard the DramaGods album, so if this draws attention to that album, then that’s great. A great song is a great song no matter who does it.”

Not only did Extreme pinch ‘Interface’ from DramaGods, but they also borrowed their drummer Figueiredo as well.

“(Laughs) Very good! I like that. First and foremost, Bettencourt and I always talked about getting Extreme back together, but only if there was something new to offer. We didn’t want to punch in and do a nostalgic tour. We played here and there, but they were just one offs for fun. But we never ever thought of touring purely off our back catalogue. So the first reason we got back together was the purely to make new music. But secondly, Bettencourt found a drummer that he was happy with. I think that’s the secret behind Bettencourt’s success, as well as Extreme’s. That was an easy decision. When Bettencourt and I decided to put the band back together, drummers were talked about. Although Paul Geary came and did a few of the one off shows with us in the past, he’s now pretty much retired. So he was ruled out straight away. Michael Mangini on the other hand was in a different place, and we were in a different place too. So that didn’t work out. That’s when Bettencourt suggested Figueiredo. Bettencourt was a fan of Figueiredo’s playing, and I had seen Figueiredo play for years, so it was an easy decision to get him in the band. He’s from the east coast, so he was just an easy fit. Plus, because he was from the east coast and grew up in the same area, him and Pat Badger (Bassist) hit it off immediately. He’s just a regular guy. And he’s a John Bonham fan too! (Laughs)”

Being as diverse sounding as ‘Saudades De Rock’ is, I imagined that there wouldn’t be any one clear favourite track that all four members of the band would agree on as their particular favourite to play once touring commences. And I suspected, Cherone confirmed it all depends on what mood the band are all in.

“It’s funny because we can now let the touring fights begin! (Laughs) We’re already jostling for positions for particular favourites. You know, you get in those moods, and favourites will always change. One personal favourite for me is ‘Learn To Love’. I remember when we wrote it, and we were going to do it like any other song. Nobody really thinks in terms of singles, we just write and whatever happens just happens. Even if the arrangement gets long or epic, like on ‘Last Hour’. But the one song that I tend to gravitate towards is ‘Learn To Love’. I thought that was something new for Extreme. It has a little rock and roll soul in the chorus, and this blues like soul thing going on around it. Some people call it an album track, but another one of my favourites is ‘Sunrise’. I think it has this real Led Zeppelin ‘Houses Of The Holy’ (1973) kind of vibe to it. I love ‘Ghost’ and ‘Interface’ too. I think ‘Take Us Alive’ could be an Extreme classic. That’s a real rock/country thing. That has more of a Led Zeppelin country take on it. For some strange reason, I think we’ll probably play that one for the rest of our lives. Everyone’s got their favourites. I think ‘Comfortably Dumb’ might be a live thing. ‘Star’ and ‘Slide’ are live tracks too. ‘Peace (Saudade)’ is a track that we may end the show with, with Bettencourt sitting at the piano. We may even save that as an encore. The album has a lot of different flavours, so it depends on the mood you’re in when it comes to picking any one stand out.”

One track that didn’t get a mention from Cherone is the absolutely rocking ‘King Of The Ladies’.

“You know what’s so funny about that? That’s the track that everyone mentions as their favourite, hence why I didn’t mention it. When we wrote that, it was so fun. I think it’s got a great guitar riff, and the chorus could be a Kiss chorus. And live, I think the fans are going to eat it up. That song has a hint of the first two albums. It has a real fun vibe to it, and it’s got that little rock something going on.”

Undoubtedly one of Cherone’s strongest performances on ‘Saudades De Rock’ is on ‘Learn To Love’, where he clearly pushes his high end vocals to heights previously unheard of before. But as Cherone reveals, the challenge will be reproducing those vocals on a nightly basis on tour.

“Believe it or not, but I have this ‘Live Items Veto Clause’! (Laughs) Whenever I see it in the set list, and my voice is shit that night, I will take a magic marker and scratch it off the set list. To tell you the truth, going into this tour, that’s one of the songs that I’m looking forward to most doing live. It’s also going to be one of the biggest challenges too because of that same reason. Even when we wrote it, I was thinking to myself that I had better be on my game in the studio to sing it. And even when I had finished recording it, I remember thinking, I don’t know if I can pull this shit off live! It actually reminded me of some of the stuff I was doing in Van Halen. It was almost out of my key. But overall, I think it’s one of the band’s best performances on the album. That’s why I’m excited to do it. Then again, I think I’m going to have to pick my nights when I do it. I’m thinking sometime around the last hour. They’re the ones I have to be careful of doing, in regards to being able to do them well. I’ll probably pick and choose the nights I sing that one for sure.”

One song that’s unlikely to be aired from the new album is the European bonus track ‘Americocaine’, which is lifted from the band’s original demo from 1985.

“That’s right. The Japanese version of the album also has another track on the album, and that is called ‘Mr. Bates’. Both those tracks were early Extreme club songs. Some of those songs made it to the first album. Personally, ‘Mr. Bates’ really sounds like the embryonic stage of the band, and before Bettencourt and I really found ourselves as songwriters, which really only presented itself from ‘Pornograffitti’ onwards. ‘Americocaine’ was the first song that we ever wrote, and we co-wrote it with Paul Mangone, who was my bass player in my band before Extreme (The Dream). Extreme recorded a version of the song after that, and then Bettencourt came in and put an incredible lead to it, as well as adding in a new middle eight. I think it’s cool because from 1985 to 2008, it shows the growth of the band! (Laughs)”

With Extreme rarities clearly still sitting in the vaults, and the band in action, one has to wonder if there’s a possibility of that material ever seeing the light of day sometime soon.

“Absolutely! When we were putting together tracks for bonuses or b-sides for ‘Saudades De Rock’, we went through a bunch of b-sides that we had. That’s something that I’ve personally always wanted to compile into one package. I think when the profile is back up; it may lend itself to a box set with a bonus disc. Literally, there’s got to be fifteen to twenty tracks that never got released. Those are tracks that are in different stages of production. There’s some really early stuff, that if you’re an Extreme fan, you can see the growth of the band and how the band developed into what we became. And some of those songs were on the first album. So those will come out in a box set most likely, and hopefully in the not too distant future if things go according to plan.”

Aside from breaking new ground in the musical sense, Extreme are also trying out something new on the label front, with ‘Saudades De Rock’ being released through the newly established Open E Records.

“Open E Records is an independent label, and distributed through Universal Records here in the U.S., and through other distributors in the rest of the world. So ‘Saudades De Rock’ is an independent album. We have our bases covered, and the label is doing a good job promoting and publishing the album. In this day and age, an album is only as good as the tour. Albums will come and go, but you have to keep your profile up there on the road. Luckily with Extreme, we’ll be playing all the different markets, from Japan, Australia, Europe, South America, Canada, South Korea and the U.K. Hopefully we will keep the life of this album going, and it will give ‘Saudades De Rock’ a good shot as far as maybe having an opportunity of being successful. We’re all very excited. We’re quite literally chomping at the bit at the moment. We’re two weeks away from touring this album. It seems like old times again. And you can be sure that we’ll be back in Australia before the end of the year as well. We’re working on the details as we speak. You can expect to see us down there on the ‘Take Us Alive’ world tour, and we’ll have a beer backstage.”

I would like to thank Gary Cherone for his generous time, and Jeanna Sims at Stomp Records Distribution for making the interview possible.

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