After a couple of solo records following the end of his eponymous band, singer Eric Martin hooked up with bassist Billy Sheehan in 1988 to form the platinum-selling rock group Mr. Big. Best known for its hit ballad “To Be with You”—which was co-written by Martin and reached number one in 15 countries including the U.S. in 1992—the California-bred band called it quits a decade later, but in 2009 the original lineup reformed for a massive tour of Asia and Europe.
Last month, Mr. Big released What If…, the first album in 15 years from the reunited rockers, and on April 2 they’ll play their first American gig in almost as long at the House of Blues Los Angeles. In this exclusive interview, I spoke with Eric about his multiple side projects in Japan, his checkered history as a vocalist, and his most decadent backstage demand.
So Mr. Big is doing its 100th show in Japan in April…
I know—surreal. It’s actually 100 shows. I’ve asked our promoter Mr. Udo and this guy Tommy Shikatomi who’s been with us for years, What about Clapton or the Beatles or Elvis or the Supremes?—they’ve played thousands and thousands of shows, and they said, no, we’re one of the ones—I think us and the Ventures—are pretty much the only band that had done 100 shows in Japan. So it’s a great honor. Plus, it’s surreal for me that we even made it this far, you know? Played so many shows and actually came back to Osaka…
I remember the first show that we played in Osaka, which was Osaka Castle Hall, and ironically, the night before, [Mr. Big guitarist] Paul Gilbert and I went to see Eric Clapton, and I was talking to Mr. Udo and I go, “Man, I’d love to play a place like this!” and he goes, “Hey, Eric, you are.”…I didn’t know Japan very well; I didn’t know where I was half the time, and he goes, “You are, you’re playing here tomorrow night. This is going to be the best show ever.” And that was like the first show, and here it is, a hundred shows later. Yeah, it’s a great honor to be here, and it’s definitely going to be a celebration on that special night.
Can you tell us a little bit about how your Mr. Vocalist album series came to be?
The Mr. Vocalist series started…I think we started talking about it around 2007. And, you know, after years and years and years go by, I mean, there’s no Mr. Big, and it’s me taking care of myself—I’m doing solo tours all over the world, I’m traveling around in a van and, you know, ten hours to the next beach gig, and kind of struggling away but keeping my chops up and having a good time. And no record companies beating on the door anymore, and I did a few sessions here and there and some commercials and that, but for the most part it was just playing songs from my solo records and Mr. Big material that I had written, and toured on that two to three months out of the year.
So I get this phone call from this guy—his name is D.R., okay, and that’s a story in itself. I found out later that he was given that name because he was like a metalhead…he was the head of A&R for Sony, but he was a metalhead when he was a kid. And one of the big DJs over there, Masa Ito, gave him the name “Death Rider” (laughs). I don’t know. So here’s a guy named Death Rider, A&Ring a project with an American rock singer singing J-pop songs, which is a totally unique form of pop music—it sounds like a derivative of, you know, R&B, soul Muzak almost—I mean, I don’t want to say elevator music and downclown it, bit it’s very smooth jazz, or a little bit of Frank Sinatra thrown in, and tons of harmonies and all that.
But these songs are made popular by women. So here I am, you know, beauty and the beast, in a way. And, you know, Death Rider—the whole thing is very Japanese. It almost sounds like, Americans would think, “Wow, that sounds kind of wacky, almost like a novelty.” They love that—well, the guys in this project did. They loved the East meets West/West meets East kind of project. So in a way, I was up for the challenge. I sing rock and soul, and I’ve done it all. And also, they wanted me to be myself and just sing: “We want that ‘To Be with You’ guy,’” okay, because most of the songs were all ballads.
So I went into the studio the first time and I worked with Mr. Big’s engineer, this guy named Tom Size. So that was comfortable. And then, no producer, and just sing Japanese, J-pop love songs translated to English. And I don’t know the right word to say it, but you know, Japanese and American songs, totally different amount of syllables, you know? Very difficult to sing to. But I pulled it off, [it] sold two hundred thousand records, boom!—I’ve got a career as this torch singer. I did it, 2007, 2008, Mr. Big gets together, bada-bing, bada-boom, and I’ve been juggling, since 2009, two careers at the same time. Where I didn’t have anything going before, it’s always the case, you know? You’ve got nothing, and then all of a sudden, when it rains it pours. A lot.
How many more Mr. Vocalist albums are on the table?
They’re putting out a best-of. I’ve already done three and a Christmas album, and a live album video and tour and, you know, three or four videos. Worked with all the top Japanese performers as well as—actually, Paul Gilbert played a solo on one of the songs on one of the records. Marty Friedman from Megadeth fame and Cacophony fame if you go way back in Marty’s past, as well as this guy Jake Shimabukuro…oh my God, man, I saw this guy on YouTube playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on ukulele. Totally blew my mind. I ran into that guy in Japan, and I asked him to play on one of the songs. Him, and there’s a handful more.
We’ve done three and they’re already going to put out a best-of. And then I’ll be done with the “singing chick songs” trilogy, or whatever that is, and then in the future I’m going to be doing some rock stuff, so—I don’t know man; I always complain about how hard it is, but in the end it always turns out great. I’m not going to lie to you and just say—like every time I do an interview, and it’s usually a rock magazine interview, and they talk about Mr. Vocalist, they go, “What is this?” You know? But it’s two different worlds. Like the two different sides of Eric Martin, and I get to put my own spin on it, and I’m singing some chick songs to my own take on a man’s point of view, if you will….Got to have a little edge to it, because I won’t be able to sleep at night (laughs).
When you’re preparing to do these songs, do you listen to the original version over and over again to get the feel for it?
Oh, yeah. Some of the singers are great—this girl that I did one of her songs, Miho Fukuhara, she’s an amazing singer, and actually almost American-sounding. Soulful, kind of Mariah Carey meets Joss Stone or something like that. And she was the only one out of all of them where I felt a little uncomfortable covering, because it was almost like we were the same person, and I had a huskier voice than she did, you know? But I pulled it off and I did it, but the majority of the songs are—you know, they’ve got the pretty voices, and I listened to them and, it’s hard to listen to them on the record—I’ve got to see them do it so I can see where the phrases are and the inflections and all that, so I‘ll go on YouTube and research that. And then I listen to it and just like anything that you learn it, and you actually get up to the stage and get up to the mic,,,but I’m going to have to put my own stuff in and be myself. I got lucky so far—I only had one thing set back where [they] said, “Oh no, we want this.” But for the most part, they let me do what I want.
How were you picked as the vocalist for Tak Matsumoto’s group TMG, and what was that experience like?
I knew of Tak and his singing partner Koshi Inaba—they’re huge. Both of them have a group called B’z and they enlist American artists—Billy Sheehan actually played bass on a tour with them at one time. Those guys have sold 80 million records, and I’m not lying, man—about 80 million records, and they’ve got 25 [albums] (laughs). They play huge Woodstock-type of venues and all that, but anyway. I know Tak, because he used to come to Mr. Big shows in the past, and I met him a few times—very quiet guy, really sweet, sweet man. But I heard from a friend of his that he wanted to do a solo album, like a solo band album, and have an American rock feel. And so his partners called me and I eventually got a hold of Tak, and Tak said that B’z were playing at the Fillmore in San Francisco, and he wanted me to come down and meet with him. And I knew about the project and everything, and I asked him if he had any players in mind. He was looking around, but this was like the beginning stages of it.
So at the time, I was writing with my old friend Jack Blades, who’s my neighbor, from Night Ranger, and a great bass player, underrated in a way. I mean, obviously not as flashy and—I’m not going to say not as talented as Billy Sheehan, but a great bass player; underrated—a good songwriter and also a really good guy. So I invited Jack just to make sure maybe Jack had a secure position in this project, as well. So we went down there and Jack did all the talking, man….
Tak has a studio in L.A., in Beverly Hills, ooh—so Brian Tichy, I don’t know who Brian’s playing with now, but he did most of the album. Basically, we wrote all the songs right there in Beverly Hills, me and Jack. And I wrote some with my partner at home, Andre Pessis, he’s a songwriter. And Brian played the drums, and also, Cindy Blackman—she was playing with Lenny Kravitz at the time—she came in and she played on a couple of songs. And I think a couple of songs, we had some kind of studio trickery or something. And we were going to have Brian Tichy go out on the road with us, but then I think he got a gig with somebody else, like Billy Idol or something. And then we got Chris Frazier to play drums, and Chris played with Steve Vai, and he was out with Whitesnake, and a great guy—what a fantastic band.
And at that time, Mr. Big had already been broken up and was kind of a faded memory, but, you know, I missed being in a [band]—it reminded me of the Mr. Big of 1989, when we just got to know each other, totally talented folks but really a lot of fun and a lot of laughs, and that’s how TMG was. Really cool music—God, they poured millions of dollars into this recording, and it sounded like it. Really cool American-feel rock and roll songs, and I think we spent about a year on it. You know, making a record, doing tons of videos and press. And we played twenty shows in Japan, and that’s all she wrote.
Is there an open door between you and Tak collaborating in the future?
Oh, man. Me and Jack e-mail him like every couple of months…when we see each other, we always go, “Hey, let’s call Tak up.” So we call him up or e-mail him and we always ask him, and his words are, “Uhh, let me think about it.” (Laughs.) So he’s been thinking about it for a lot of years (laughs). Man, I’d love to do that again, that was so much fun.
Tak is up for a Grammy this year with Larry Carlton.
Oh, nice. Good things. That guy’s like a cat, man; he always lands on his feet. He’s like a machine when it comes to writing, and he’s a great guitar player, a good person, and I hope all the best for him. But, you know, after you’re done with the jazz thing and you want another American rock feel (laughs), give me a call.
We’ll get that message out. How did you originally hook up with Andre Pessis? You guys have been writing together since the second Mr. Big album.
Even before that. He lives a couple of streets down, and everyone in this town knows him…he made it, but he stayed in the same place, you know? He used to manage a band called Clover, which had Huey Lewis in it and a guy named Alex Call, a singer-songwriter who wrote [Tommy Tutone’s] “867-5309/Jenny,” and when Huey branched out and did his Huey Lewis and the News band, Andre wrote songs for him, and he wrote a song called “Walking on a Thin Line” that was on Sports, and you know, 20 million records later, next thing you know, old Andre’s a rich man.
It also opened the door for him to write hit songs for tons of other people, like Bonnie Raitt, Tim McGraw, even Ben E. King (laughs)! A lot of rock bands, as well. But I was helping him out, singing demos for him…how did we meet? He was doing a demo with an old friend, Jonathan Cain, from Journey. It was a song called “Living on Love,” I think it was called, and I sang the demo. And it didn’t get cut, but…after that song, Jonathan Cain and I hooked up, but we wrote a song that’s on the first Mr. Big album [“How Can You Do What You Do”], but me and Andre hooked up as friends, immediately. And we didn’t write at all for a year, you know? Just hanging out, going to dinner, going to concerts, hanging out and being friends. And then we started writing for Lean into It. We had written before that, as well; we got 20, 30, 40 songs, you know? Country songs, R&B songs, rock songs and stuff. But on Lean into It, we wrote specifically for Mr. Big and we got a lot of really cool songs on it, and then we’ve been writing ever since.
Most of the songs that you wrote for Mr. Big usually had his name attached, but for the new record, there are only three co-writes with him. Did you take a different approach for this album?
Well, yeah. In the past, the band wrote all the songs with each other, or by one guy. When me and Billy first started Mr. Big, Billy had two songs and I had two songs, and then we all wrote everything together for the first one. Then on Lean into It, Andre and I collaborated, and Paul and Billy and Pat [Torpey, drummer] would jam on a bunch of tunes and then send it on up to the Bay Area. Andre and I would get together, take our machetes out and chop all the fat off the bone and try to make sense of about 10 songs and make one really good one, and write a couple of ballads on our own. That’s how we did [it].
And then Paul left [in 1998], and it was me, Billy, Pat and Richie [Kotzen, Gilbert’s replacement], we did the same thing, but Andre and I, we wrote a lot of rock songs together. Mainly, we were just helping the band write rock songs, and then trying to come up with our, you know, a ballad, or some other kind of thing. But I started writing a lot more heavier stuff. And on this album, how it was different was that Paul probably actually took the lead for me; he started working with Linus of Hollywood, and this guy’s a producer and he’s also a pop writer. And that’s the thing; it’s almost like he’s Paul’s muse, like Andre’s my muse, and they both share a huge love for the Beatles and the Jellyfishes and the Cheap Tricks and all that.
And those two wrote a couple of songs, and Billy, Pat and Paul together wrote like 112 ideas, which was overkill, and we only had about two and a half weeks to come up with stuff. So when they sent it up to me, I wrote some things, but I was sitting there saying, this is just too much. So those guys kind of took the reins and became overnight songwriters, in a way. Billy wrote a couple of songs, and Pat wrote some really cool songs—I didn’t realize he was such a great lyricist, you know? And then Andre and I wrote about nine, and we got three.
But it was so comfortable to work that way, it really was. I mean it had been 15 years, the band broke up, me and Andre still had our chemistry, and if it ain’t broken, there’s no need to fix it or do anything new—we had a chemistry that was really cool. So we got together that way and wrote the record. Nothing was planned; it came together really cool that the way the record sounds is kind of like this classic, or earthy toned—like a live album with no audience or something, but the subject matter or the energy of the record came together, and I don’t know how it worked, but it worked. And nothing was like, “we need to write a classic rock record” or “we need to do something like Lean into It”—nothing like that happened; it was just a collection of songs that we gave to our producer Kevin Shirley, and he picked his favorites and we made it.
I wanted to ask about the new song “Stranger in My Life.” How was putting a song like that together today different for you compared to the old Mr. Big era? As a lyricist, do you tend to draw from that well of emotions?
You know, when I look back on the records, the first album was just my life experiences up until ’89, and I wrote, you know, whatever. And some of it is really ambiguous, and it only means something to me, and some people get it and some people don’t. I think my lyrics took a backseat to the music I was writing, and I wasn’t putting the lyrics first. On Lean into It, there’s a lot of don’t- get-your-box-of-tissues-out, but there was a lot of heartbreak-y kind of songs on it, or…I didn’t pour too much of myself; I didn’t wear my heart out on my sleeve, basically—I didn’t let anybody see it. But I did write a few love songs about myself, and it was weird.
And mainly, I just wrote songs about guys in the band, like what I thought about them. Like I wrote “Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy” about Billy, and about his love kind of quest and stuff (laughs), or just the way he was a rock and roll pirate or something, like his swagger. I looked at him as Lord Byron at the time, you know? I’m not going to say there was a girl in every port, but hey, sorry Mrs. Sheehan, but (in a jive voice) that’s the way your man was! So I would write about everybody else, and all that.
Later on, as I kind of got into it a little bit more, I’d write songs about myself, almost like self-help books, you know? Everything was therapeutic, and everything was—what am I trying to say? Or the inner core of Eric Martin…that’s how I wrote. And then, I don’t know what happened. The band broke up, 15 years later, I think, I became a little more of a—I wrote songs, but I was lazy, too, man. It was like, some kind of weird writer’s block, and…
It’s funny; I’m an extroverted person, but when it comes to writing, I become really introverted, because when I say—like the way I talk, and the way my mouth takes over and my brain goes to sleep, in a way. And then I write, it’s like I’m really comfortable and I have the patience and I delve down deep, you know? There’s one song on the new album called “I Won’t Get in My Way,” which kind of sums up me and how excited I am about this band, and how I’ll get on with my life and make decisions on all the right reasons, you know? To know who I am and what I want out of life.
I don’t make any excuses anymore. I don’t put the blame on anybody, because I used to blame everybody: “Why am I not at where I should be?” or whatever. And I used to think about it, where I thought, “You’re tripping over yourself, man. You’re your own worst enemy,” you know? I don’t make any excuses anymore for missing my goals, you know? Basically, that song is, like, failure is not an option. So I don’t know if I’ve become a better writer, but I just know that I can understand what I’m writing about now, you know? I can understand myself a little bit better.
Read part 2 here.
What If… is in stores now. Visit Mr. Big online at www.mrbigsite.com for tour dates, and Eric’s homepage at http://ericmartin.com.
Thoughts on this Q&A? Leave a comment below.
Want more from this Examiner? Click the “subscribe” button above for free alerts to his newly published stories, and visit his Performing Arts Q&A and Japanese Culture pages.