The Last Hero: An Interview with Brian Marshall
Alter Bridge’s fifth studio album, The Last Hero, is a continuation of the band’s heavy-yet-melodic style. That sound is anchored by the thick bass work of Brian Marshall.
The bassist, along with guitarist Mark Tremonti and drummer Scott “Flip” Philips, was a founding member of Creed before forming Alter Bridge in 2004. Vocalist Myles Kennedy rounds out the group, who spent this past summer on the road touring and playing festivals.
We caught up with Marshall in between tours to get the scoop on The Last Hero, using altered tunings, and his gear.
Do festivals blend in together after you do so many of them?
Yeah. Some are better than others. I think that it gives you a good chance to reach an audience who may or may not have heard you or even heard of you. But your set times are usually short. We’ve been at least main stage, but we typically get 35 to 45 minutes, which is about seven or eight songs. We try to cater to the festival patrons and to the other bands, as well. If a band like Disturbed is headlining then we’ll try to stay in the heavier vibe of Alter Bridge and not really play the ballad stuff.
It’s kind of like camping out there in those festivals. Your facilities are porta potties and trailers for dressing rooms. The catering is usually pretty bad. But you do get to meet a lot of your peers and bands that you don’t get to see every day. It always ends up a cool experience.
What’s the background on The Last Hero?
We had a lot of time off since Fortress. Myles went off and did the Slash record and meanwhile Mark went and did his solo album. Me and Flip did some [work with the band] Projected. We had about 18 months where we weren’t really active so we were anxious to get back in and write.
Over the course of those 18 months, Mark and Myles did some writing on their own while they were on the road and they logged it into their computers. It usually starts with a part or two, and here’s no real full songs until the band all gets together. That’s when we really piece it out and tell if it’s going to work for us or not, or whether it would work for Mark’s solo record. We’re all filters are far as that’s concerned.
When we got together for this particular album, it was more of an in-the-moment kind of thing. Myles stayed over at Mark’s house during pre-production, which was really writing on the spot with our producer Elvis Baskette. He’s been with us for the last four records. Mark and Myles would get together and brainstorm the night before, then we’d all get together and go through what ideas that had spawned that night or piece together something they had written months ago on the road.
When we got together in the daytime it was really just the band and Elvis and our engineer just recording our demos. We had our phones on and played to a click to try to get the tempo right for each particular riff. We just worked on arranging and writing and making adjustments in the whole songwriting process. Really just the fine details [like putting] stops here and there and finding the peaks and valleys. That’s the process this album took on.
The pre-production was about a month, then we took a week off and Flip flew up to L.A. and recorded the drums and NRG studios. I was back in Orlando tracking the bass. We had it all planned out and worked hard to get it done. As far as lyrics, a lot of that came from Myles and he would be able to speak best on that. I think when we all got together to think about the theme of the album it started coming together much later, after he was in the process of laying down the vocals. Mark has a big part in that, too. When he’s writing, he’s immediately thinking about melody. It may be a cool riff, but he’s thinking about the vocal melody on top of it. It’s a real congruent effort amongst Mark and Myles.
When we all get together, Flip and I discuss how we’d like to approach the song. Sometimes we don’t even discuss it and it falls into place. He and I and Mark (and Myles at this point) have been playing together for 20 years at this, as you know. To have that kind of experience and connection with your fellow musicians makes the whole process like a machine. We just know what each other is thinking and doing.
Sometimes it seems lately like we really want to challenge ourselves and not do something that we’ve done before. Elvis is a big part of that as well as Flip. He has a really good ear. For a drummer, anyway [laughs]. When a riff comes from Mark, Flip will be the first to say, “Hey, that sounds like this song we did 10 or 15 years ago.” Then the rest of us will realize it, too, so we’ll make changes to it. Elvis pushes us, too, and he’s a real integral part of the process at this point.
Being a producer is a big role to fill.
Absolutely. He has fresh ears, too. On the previous records we would have writing sessions before we would include Elvis, so it was different having him there throughout the writing for this particular album. Sometimes you’re writing and you get “demo-itis”, where you get stuck on how the demo sounds and don’t hear the song sounding any other way. Then you can pass it on to Elvis and he’ll say, “This part needs changed”, and that’s when it really starts to develop.
With this album I read that the guitars were using altered tunings. What were you playing and were you down-tuning?
Absolutely. I played a Music Man for the recording. I’ve actually kind of switched over to them from my Sadowsky basses. I have typically preferred passive electronics in my basses for most of my career, but I’ve always recorded – since the second Creed record, Human Clay – with an active bass, and it’s always been a StingRay. I’ve always recorded with them, but I always felt like I had more control and warmth [with passive electronics], plus I like fewer knobs and simplicity on stage. I finally got to a point where I just wasn’t able to emulate the tone that I could get on record across the bass from the B-string to the G-string. I was always kind of struggling with it.
When I was playing with Creed, I took a Music Man out with me. [When you’re] going from a passive to an active bass in the same set on the same stage on the same night, you really have the let your tech and the front-of-house guy and everybody know that there’s gonna be some volume adjustments. That element of risk was concerning to me, so I said, “I’m just gonna try a Music Man.” They sent me a bass and then another that was more of a custom-built one with the neck-through design. On the first run of “The Last Hero” record tour with Disturbed and Breaking Benjamin, I played two StingRays and then I had a few Sadowskys that I could either play active or passive. I set them for active and leveled out all of the pads and got them even across the board. That StingRay neck-through has been my number one since then.
Getting back to the tuning, yes I had to drop the tuning. With Mark playing a seven-string guitar I had to just drop the tuning even further. I think we were in drop G# for the low B-string, but I don’t use it a whole lot. The rest of the bass is tuned to drop C#. I tend to be a little flexible with the B-string and make it work wherever I can. I don’t really stick to the normal tuning of that string. If I need it to be an open G# and then tune the other four strings normally, then I’ll do that for the benefit of the song and my playing.
Is that something you’re just accustomed to now or can it be a brain buster when you’re figuring out what note to play?
No, it’s not [difficult] because when I’m in the process of writing and recording songs I write it down and always know what I’m doing. It’s kind of like muscle memory. I’ll know this is where I want to hit that big bottom note and I’ll know that it won’t be a standard octave shape, it will be a half step up. So instead of playing two frets up, I’ll play three frets up for an octave. It kinds of makes playing the song a little easier for me. If I have to fret a note that can just as easily be an open string – and it actually sounds better open – then it opens up my playing. It made a difference for me when I was able to just use that string as freely and comfortably as possible and not really worry about why the theory doesn’t fit behind it.
It’s an innovative idea.
What kind of got me thinking that way was that when I was recording the One Day Remains record. We were working out a part and the producer said, “There’s not a lower note?” I said, “No, I can’t go any lower than that.” Then I thought, “Yes, I can! I’ll just tune it down.” [laughs] Then if I could do it there, I could do it live. So every time we’d start writing something I’d figure out how to make it work.
You guys are getting ready to head to Europe for a tour. What kind of tour prep do you do?
Well, I just finished my two hour long rehearsal. I’m playing with a little Ashdown 4×10 at home with an old Fender Deluxe Jazz. Basically, I’m just a shameless Spotify user so I’ll pull up our records on Spotify. I know the typical song sets that we play so I’ll run through that stuff. Since the album has just been released, we haven’t really played much besides two songs off the new record so I’ve been playing through those pretty heavily. I just play with the record itself and try to play as loose as I can while I get my dexterity and my strength in my hands. I do exercises and strength building.
Playing with Mark over the years, he likes to play the heavier stuff and I’ve had to obviously keep up with him because he’s gotten to be a really great, great guitar player. Keeping up with that and keeping my strength and speed up is important. I’ve always been a finger player. There are a few songs that I play with a pick on, but it’s usually just straight sixteenth notes. I feel like I’ve really progressed over the last few years just in speed alone, especially with my right hand.
So I just practice with the record. We start a group text with the guys and just request different things that we want to play. Then I just pull it up and start practicing with it, and it comes back just like riding a bike.
Well you have a pretty serious catalog at this point.
Yeah, we have a lot of stuff to choose from. It’s a cool feeling to have all of those songs in your back pocket. I remember when we first started, we didn’t want to play any Creed songs and Myles really didn’t care to play any Mayfield Four songs. We only had 11 or 12 songs that the band had written, so we’d have to throw in some covers. We have whole records to choose from now.
What kind of other gear are you playing?
I’m kind of playing Ampeg SVT and VRs now. I’ve got an A and a B rig, and I’m playing both an Ampeg and an Ashdown rig.
What makes you choose each one?
I really love both. They’re both great amps. I was with Ashdown ever since the last Creed record in 2009. I also have a Tech 21 Sansamp to dirty up the tone. Right now I have a bass synthesizer that I’m going to be introducing on this run so I’m excited to put that in the loop. It’s the Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro-Synth. Elvis always uses it on the records and I love it when it hits. I’m just gonna stick it on and fool with it in the loop and see if I can get it to pop like it does on the record. I don’t use it like [hums disco bass line]. Nothing like that, just like at the end of a chorus where it slows down I’ll pop it on real quick and make it funnel out.