An Interview with Extreme's Gary Cherone
How can you forget "Extreme"? They were one of the most underrated bands of the '80s. They had great pop hooks, memorable melodies, screaming guitar riffs, powerful vocals and killer production value. Many will claim to know them from their syrupy-sweet ballad, "More Than Words," which ruled the airwaves in 1990. Pornograffiti was a funked-up follow-up to a less than well received debut. Their sophomore effort contained the aforementioned "More Than Words," "Decadence" and the radio friendly hit "Hole Hearted". It was the recording that clearly put them on the map. But by the time Waiting for the Punchline hit the shelves in '95, the musical landscape had changed and the Boston-based quartet call it quits.
Then amidst all the controversy of Sammy Hagar's departure from rock kings, Van Halen, and the band's possible reunion with original frontman "Diamond" David Lee Roth, Van Halen recruits Gary Cherone, former lead singer of Extreme, to front the band. Gary found himself back in the limelight, fronting one of the hottest bands in world. But enough of the history lesson, let's look at the future, Gary Cherone's future, that is.
The former Extreme and Van Halen vocalist has a new band and he's putting his aggressive and atmospheric brand of edgy rock all over his new outfit, Tribe of Judah. The group released their first effort, Exit Elvis, on October 22, 2002. Exit Elvis can be heavy, quirky, and powerful. Its diverse influences are obviously Cherone's doing, but his new bandmates help bring his vision clearly into focus.
Meet Tribe of Judah: Gary Cherone, lead vocals; Leo Mellace, guitar; Pat Badger, also a former member of Extreme, on bass; Steve Ferlazzo, keyboards/programming; and Steve Vai's favorite drummer, Mike Mangini, behind the kit. Guitar.com met up with Gary and Leo, just before the release of the record to discuss TOJ and how the band came to be, recording this independent release and why Gary doesn't play guitar.
Guitar.com: I really enjoyed the new recording. I was actually kind of surprised when I heard it because it sounds really current. It's as active as any band out there and I thought that was great. How did the two of you hook up, or have you always known each other?
Gary Cherone: I guess it seems like everyone I know knows Leo or has met Leo, except for me. But once I saw him, I recognized his face. He knew Pat (Badger, Extreme basisst), Nuno (Bettencourt, Extreme guitarist), and everyone. But I was the oddball out from way back when. Thanks for what you said about the record I think what's funny about the record is that people have preconceived ideas with my name on it, and so far it's been good. It breaks those preconceptions from the first note. So that's what we're trying to do.
Guitar.com: It's the relevance of it, I think that's what you're up against. You think about Extreme, you think about Van Halen.
Guitar.com: It didn't take much more than the first or second listen and it started to stand on its own.
Cherone: That's great.
Guitar.com: The second track is...
Cherone: It's called "No One"
Guitar.com: I kept blasting that one. I thought it was slammin'. The guitars on that song are exceptionally strong and I think expected, for better or worse, due to your legacy.
Cherone: That's one of my favorites, sonically, on the record.
Guitar.com: The vocal layering and the guitar structures are excellent. What was the creative process for this project? Was it something where you (Gary) wrote everything or was it a collaborative effort between you, Leo, and the other members?
Cherone: It was a project-timed band over a span of about a year and a half. I met with Steve (Ferlazzo), the keyboard/programmer first. We were working on some earlier songs like "In My Dreams" and "Left for Dead." Leo came later to put a lead on that song and it worked within that song.
Leo Mellace: I got hired kinda, to do a lead. That's how I met Gary. And then I guess I did a solo for another unrelated solo track and he was like, "Hey, maybe this guy's not bad."
Cherone: I'm still asking myself that question. (laughs)
Mellace: And then I had to take over.....(more laughs)
Cherone: He had to impose himself, by the time we hit "Exit Elvis" [the last song on the CD], I was lucky to get a verse in (laughs).
Guitar.com: You didn't realize you were doing a solo guitar record....(laughs)
Mellace: Yeah, it's funny how that happened....
Cherone: You know it's so funny. Yeah, I just go, "Hmmmm... (deep in thought) Oh yeah, another guitar player I gotta deal with." (everyone laughs).
Guitar.com: It seems like you have the Boston connection in line for this recording. Mike Mangini, Leo, Pat Badger....
Cherone: Coming from L.A. in the beginning of 2000, I was coming home. It wasn't going to be an over-the-phone band. I wanted to find some writing partners. Steve came first to do a solo song, just an unrelated song and then the project evolved into a band. Leo came shortly after that and it was very easy to incorporate Michael and Pat. They were waiting in the wings.
Guitar.com: So it was a very organic process.
Mellace: Yeah, right.
Cherone: And in a relatively short time. Two years is short in rock and roll time.
Guitar.com: I'm assuming, Gary, that you don't play guitar?
Cherone: No, I don't. Leo has taught me a few chords.
Mellace: I'm trying to teach him.
Cherone: Leo wants to see me up there with a guitar. And I keep telling him - you DON'T want to see me up there with a guitar in my hands. (everyone laughs)
Guitar.com: So was it a real reunion with Pat Badger?
Cherone: Yeah, well, Pat remained close to all the Extreme guys. Paul Geary (former Extreme Drummer) is managing the band.
Guitar.com: Oh is he? That's great.
Cherone: He handles Godsmack. I had spent three years in L.A. and so I didn't get to see a lot of the guys. And when I came home, Pat knew about it and wanted to be involved. And with Michael, he was another easy choice. The tough thing with him was his scheduling. He's a tough guy to pin down. He's all over the place. Everybody wants him.
Guitar.com: I hear a lot of diverse influences on the CD, some more subtle than others: industrial, house, maybe even a little gypsy swing. Was that a collective thing or did that come from you, Gary, and your creative source?
Mellace: I think he set the tone with the synth-thing. I'm really into production and I'm into synths and stuff like that, but I definitely felt the pressure. During the journey of making a record you go through a lot of things. I wanted to make sure that there were some synths in there cause I'm a big fan of that stuff too, but I felt the pressure of Eddie and Nuno, making sure that when people listen to Gary's record, that when they want to hear some guitar, I'm going to stand up and there's going to be some stuff on that level.
Guitar.com: And I think you did that. Theres some strong guitar on there.
Mellace: Thanks - yeah, we had that. But I also wanted, in the process, the wonderful melodies that Gary wrote on this record, to be brought out with different types of chord progressions that he hasn't done before. We paid close attention to the vocals. I think with the synth thing, it was the beginning of it and we didn't want to get too far away from that. We didn't want to make it a three-piece rock band record.
Cherone: Right...that especially, coming out of VH. The obvious thing would be that people might preconceive that I would put together a three-piece band and do what I've always done. So sure, we returned to the egg with the guitar and the heavy rock 'n roll, 'cause if you strip away all the synths and the distortion...it's rock and roll songs. But that was just, if there was any plan, I knew what I didn't want to do. It started to evolve, once the characters came in and the writing came in. To Steven and Leo's credit the great thing was, I think going in, I never ever want to write something that's preconceived, be it pop song, pop single, pop this. And some songs come out like that. On "In My Dreams" the arrangement is pretty standard: boom, chorus. And then you've got "Elvis," [Editor's Note: Gary is referring to "Exit Elvis," a 6:34 song that weaves a unique blend of rock bombast with everything from gypsy mystique to jazz improv.] You can't create an Elvis [without someone saying] "the songs are too long" or "you can't put violin in that song."
Mellace: Being effected by the radio and stuff...we wanted to do a song that, you know...people don't really write songs like that anymore because they just feel like it's not going to get played on the radio, it's not going to sell records, so why do it. We were like, "You can't control that stuff. Let's make something in the spirit of Queen," or just in the spirit of....
Guitar.com: That's what I thought of, when I heard it, a little Queen, a little Todd Rundgren, just the way it's seamed together. It has these abrupt, almost startling, passages but they seam together really nicely. It makes for nice...
Cherone: Texture changes.....
Guitar.com: That's right. And you know, you don't get that from a young band. They couldn't afford to do that.
Cherone: They wouldn't, especially a label. They wouldn't allow them to do that.
Guitar.com: A producer wouldn't let them either. Now did you guys self-produce?
Cherone: Yeah, this was independent and that was one of the reasons. If I was still on a major label at the time, they wouldn't have even listened to "Elvis." And I would have just said, 'Fine cut it....ahh, it's the last song on the record....who cares." But this record, out of everything we've done, barring a few Extreme records, was the most uninhibited piece of music I've written.
Guitar.com: And I think "Elvis" might be my second favorite.....
Mellace: Really? I'm glad you like it.
Guitar.com: It's the oddity of it. The quirky guitar parts and the uniqueness of the track. It's not a 2:46 pop song by any stretch of the imagination. You don't hear that lack of structure anymore in commercial music.
Cherone: And there's some real standouts on that track. The violin or the girl....
Guitar.com: Who played the Violin?
Cherone: A local guy.
Mellace: Kay Ichubachi, he's a Berklee (College of Music) kid. I met him through the Berklee connection.
Guitar.com: You went to Berklee?
Mellace: Yeah, he's just a wonderful musician. We had some basic outlines for him, what we wanted. He just made it magical.
Guitar.com: That part is real special. And that's part of the unexpected nature of that track, its great textures.
Mellace: I think we wanted to do that. For me personally, like in "Thanks for Nothing," there's a little fusion break in the middle of it. I don't know if you're familiar with that track....
Guitar.com: Yeah, that's the one you're going to release as a single?
Mellace: Right, we tried to....people can get so bored of hearing some music...
Cherone: We hope - sorry for interrupting, Leo - we hope people will reach "Elvis." It's the last song on the record. They're hearing "Left for Dead," "No One." They might think, "Hmmm, good rock songs," blah, blah, blah. "Thanks for Nothing," you know, that might fit well with what's going on in music radio today. Then we get a little ambitious with "Ambiguous Headdress," but by the time we get to "Elvis," we couldn't have put it anywhere else. It would have...
Guitar.com: I can see that...
Cherone: Yeah, it epitomizes a tried and collective writing process.
Guitar.com: Music isn't all that challenging to listen to anymore, generically speaking. There's a great deal of pabulum out there that sort of washes over you, without even thinking about it. It's nice to have to force yourself to listen to it. I was driving with a friend back from New York this weekend and I had the CD in the car. We were talking about music and stuff and then popped in the CD. After that we talked very little. We spent the time listening.
Cherone: That's great...right...
Guitar.com: Yeah, we listened from start to finish, intently. I don't think you get that a lot from music anymore.
Cherone: What you get from the younger bands - again, whether it's that little window that the label might let you have, or maybe it's the band that can't expand because they're young, whatever - but you get ten of the same songs. There's nothing wrong with that. AC/DC did it fifteen times. Whatever works. But that doesn't...I mean, I wouldn't want to do ten of the same songs.
Guitar.com: Well, I guess there are only so many formulas for an A&R rep's standpoint.
Mellace: Right. And there's added pressure on them as well. No doubt about it. Like I said, we made some good music on that record. We weren't chasing anyone's tail on that record. We can never be accused of that.
Guitar.com: Did you record it here in Boston?
Mellace: We recorded most of the stuff in two studios: Sanctum Sound in Boston and Vortex in Hyde Park.
Guitar.com: Do you have a website?
Mellace: Yes, www.tojonline.com
Cherone: Also Spitfire (www.spitfirerecords.com) has a Tribe of Judah page as well.
Guitar.com: What other projects have you done, Leo?
Mellace: When I got to Berklee I basically made a decision that Eddie had taken rock guitar as far as it could go. So I started getting into jazz. I played in a lot of jazz bands. Produced a lot of R&B records, jazz stuff. And I've been doing a lot of session stuff, basically.
Guitar.com: All here in Boston?
Mellace: Yeah, all in Boston, some New York stuff. I did some guitar instrumental stuff. I was in Guitar Player in June of '98, doing an instrumental jazz thing. That's kind of how I met Mike Mangini, cause I was doing that instrumental thing. I had to play on some stuff with some other great local guys like bass player Baron Browne, who's in Vital Information right now. So I really did a lot of studio stuff and producing. And that's kind of how I met Gary, getting hired to play some studio stuff.
Guitar.com: Gary, did you take some time after Van Halen or did you jump right into this project?
Cherone: I'm still waiting to take a vacation. When Extreme broke up, three months later I got the call from VH. No, there was a year, the last year of Van Halen after the tour, we were writing some stuff. It started to become obvious. I was getting real frustrated as to what I wanted to do and what I wanted to say. And so by the end of '99, I knew I was headed home. And now looking back, maybe I needed some time off but I'm kinda glad I didn't. It was just about creating. I needed to get a creative outlet. It's taken a little less than two years to put a band together and get a record out. So I'm really proud of it.
Guitar.com: That's a really good pace, going straight from Van Halen right into this.
Cherone: Yeah, it was tough.
Guitar.com: Do you think Tribe will appease the Extreme fan base out there?
Cherone: Yeah, I think there's plenty of guitar stuff, and the vocals...
Guitar.com: It's the vocals stuff - not to take away from the music - but it is recognizable and an immediate link to Extreme. And there's some music on there that's going to make them stretch.
Cherone: Sure, yeah, but that's what Extreme did. And Tribe is a new band. It's not all going to be related to anything. Any of the past.
Guitar.com: Are there any touring plans or is it still coming together?
Cherone: The record is coming out October 22nd. The plan is to go out in November. Best case scenario November 1st. In all reality, probably mid-November. We'd love to latch onto a major tour but I don't think that will happen, but if it does, great. We'll go coast-to-coast in America by ourselves in November.
Mellace: We're trying to work out doing a bunch of House of Blues dates. [Editor's Note: This interview was conducted in the House of Blues, Cambridge, MA.]
Cherone: And we'll probably do a big record release here. It'll be fun. I'm so excited to be finally talking about a new record.
Guitar.com: Leo, what guitars will you take out on the road with you for this tour?
Mellace: I'm having some stuff - I'm designing with a guitar tech. His name is Mike Keegan. He's worked with Eddie, Godsmack. He's worked with all sorts. He's a great, great guy. Just working on something with Fender. I have some Strats and a Les Paul. I have an Eddie "Wolfgang."
Guitar.com: What about gear?
Mellace: I'll take a few of my Marshall JCM100 heads and I have a Bogner. Bogner gave me an endorsement and I'll take that with me. It's a great head. I love it. Between Marshall, Bogner - and I have this old Fender Dual Showman that's tremendous. That's what I used on "No One." I'm using it all: Marshall, Fender, I switch 'em all out.
Guitar.com: No rack gear...pedals?
Mellace: I'm using some light rack gear. I'm doing a lot of pedals and I'm using this thing called a GCX from Voodoo Lab. It basically takes the pedals out of the chain when I'm not using them. It's like a switching system. And I get to switch amps out as well.
Guitar.com: What's your long term plan at this point, to get out on tour? Have you started thinking about a second record, or is it too early?
Cherone: We're excited about the release of the record but, we're definitely thinking about new songs. It's so funny, these songs are two years old. They're old to us.
Mellace: We have something kind of cultivated now. It took the course of the record because we weren't a band before the record. The record happened first and the band evolved from that. And now we feel like we've got a handle on that now. But the way this industry is, you never know what's going to happen in the next year but we're hoping....
Guitar.com: But you're in production now, you're in rehearsals...
Cherone: Yeah, right, and yesterday in rehearsals Leo came up with this new riff. You have to review and rehearse but you don't really wanna. You wanna jam. So there's a fine line between that.
Guitar.com: So the songs haven't even taken on a life of their own as of yet because you haven't gigged much to date.
Cherone: Yeah, we played a handful of shows last year.
Guitar.com: Oh, did you really?
Mellace: Only about ten.
Cherone: Yeah, in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire.....
Mellace: Just to get it out there.
Cherone: Just to get our own ya-ya's out. We played all new stuff. It was very exciting. And it just made you want to get the record out and tour. And of course, you still can have the bad vocal night, the broken guitar string, all the stuff that makes touring fun - but that's rock and roll.
Guitar.com: Will you shoot a video for the release?
Cherone: We hope. With an independent label like Spitfire, everything is contingent on success. Everybody talks a good game...it's your word. We're coming up to the line now. Everybody's psyched and there seems to be a genuine like of the record at the company. They're very excited about it. We'll see. I think we'll sell some records out of the box. I think the existing fans are going to boost it and I'd love to a video for one of these.
Guitar.com: Well thanks for taking the time to speak with us. We wish you much success with the release of Exit Elvis. Best of luck.