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Mr. Big: In-depth Interview With Paul Gilbert

By Aniruddh "Andrew" Bansal, May 23rd 2011, Los Angeles CA: It is on days like this that I feel like I'm a fortunate human being, getting to have one-on-one conversations with my favorite musicians. Today was another such day, as I got a chance to speak to my favorite guitar player, Paul Gilbert.

In the interview we discussed a whole variety of topics starting with the Mr. Big reunion, new album and tour. I also asked him about what it's like working with bassist extraordinaire Billy Sheehan, after which I touched upon some aspects of Paul's guitar playing and stage persona. We end the interview by talking about his future plans, and a band that we both love, The Doors.

Andrew: You said in a recent interview that while writing the "What If..." album, you had the live show in mind. So when you were ready to play in Los Angeles on the 2nd of April, was the rehearsal process easy for you as a result?
Paul: The rehearsals were very luxurious for me. Normally, I'll rehearse for two days with my solo band before we hit the road. With Mr. Big, we rehearsed for about two weeks! I enjoyed having the chance to really digest the new songs.

Andrew: You did a solo show at the House Of Blues on February 28th 2009, and I was there. You invited members of Mr. Big to join you for the encore. Was that the very first time since announcing the reunion that you performed together on stage?
Paul: We hadn't reunited yet at that point. We were just jamming and having fun. But that was one of the things that inspired our reunion.

Andrew: That show was a special treat for fans, because you also performed with Richie Kotzen, who replaced you in Mr. Big 12 years back. At the time when you were on stage with him, did that cross your mind at all?
Paul: We were just having fun playing music together. Music makes me forget almost everything except music.

Andrew: The band has been incredibly huge in Japan. What do you attribute that success to?
Paul: I'm not really sure. My passion is playing guitar, so I spend a lot of time playing guitar, thinking about playing guitar, and thinking about guitar equipment. I'm happy and thankful if I have success anywhere, but I can't get myself to theorize about it for very long. I'd rather play guitar.

Andrew: How long did it take for you guys to write this album and how much of a challenge was it to write again as a group after such a long time?
Paul: We spent two or three months putting the songs together. I don't really think of it as a challenge. I just think of it as jamming and finding our best ideas. We work hard at it, but we're always confident that something good will happen.

Andrew: Which of the songs came most naturally to you while writing?
Paul: All of them happened quickly. We actually wrote over 100 musical ideas, so it was just a matter of choosing our favorites and then building those into songs.

Andrew: Billy Sheehan is a very unique bassist in the sense that he can give lead guitarists a run for their money! In a way, does that take the pressure off you because of the fact that his bass is often the lead instrument in Mr. Big's music, specially on the new tracks like "Still Ain't Enough For Me" and "Around The World"?
Paul: Billy is a very powerful player and his bass style is a huge part of the Mr. Big sound. I just try to listen to what he's doing and play something that sounds good together with him. Sometimes I'll do a fast unison line together with him. Sometimes, I'll play something slow to give him room to go crazy. I just go by instinct, and try to make the song sound good.

Andrew: Would you say this is the most diverse album you've ever done? I certainly think so, as it has tunes of greatly varying styles and tempo.
Paul: I like different styles and tempos, so lots of my albums have those contrasts. Mr. Big's most successful record, "Lean Into It" had fast heavy songs like "Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy", and acoustic ballads like "To Be With You", so contrast is nothing new for us.

Andrew: You are unique not only musically but also in your appearance. While performing, you always wear headphones and use coiled guitar cables. How did that become a part of your on-stage persona?
Paul: Well, I can get a really good mix with my headphones. It sounds a lot better than just using normal stage monitors, so I'm enjoying a better sound. I like coiled guitar cables. They remind me of Jimi Hendrix. Have you even seen a picture of him without a coiled cable?

Andrew: Another unique attribute of yours is the facial expression that accompanies your guitar playing. I know that you give importance to it, but do you feel some guitarists overdo it?
Paul: Every guitar player ... actually every musician has their own way of feeling the music. Playing music is very emotionally liberating to me, so I might make faces that you wouldn't see in every-day conversation. But if I didn't have a way to release these emotions, I might go crazy.

Andrew: What does the future look like for Mr. Big from here on? Can we expect you to put out new material as frequently as you did back in the early 90s?
Paul: We just enjoy ourselves in the moment. We're doing a lot of touring this year. After that, we'll see how we feel and make plans from there.

Andrew: Does this place a hold on your solo career, and is there an update on the status of Racer X?
Paul: I'm not really making any plans until I finish this tour. I want to put all my energy into what I'm doing now.

Andrew: I was at the Hollywood guitar clinic that you did in the summer of 2009. You played a cover of The Doors' "Light My Fire" that night. Does their music still remain as a huge influence on you?
Paul: I didn't really like The Doors when I was growing up. But now, I like them a lot more. It's a lot of fun to cover their songs, because the vocals are pretty low and easy to sing, and the solos are really long!

Andrew: When people talk about The Doors, it's always about Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, and hardly anyone talks about the guitar riffs. Do you agree that guitarists of the earlier times are often underrated just because their riffs weren't exactly "complex"?
Paul: Yeah, sometimes complex things will catch the attention of musicians more. But I think a lot more people have heard the guitar intro to "Roadhouse Blues" than any Allan Holdsworth song. I think there is room for both in this world. I would be very sad if only one kind of music were allowed.

Andrew: Final question. I've been noticing a resurgence in vinyl these days, with people wanting to buy vinyl again. Are you the kind of person who still enjoys collecting vinyl? If yes, which was the first ever vinyl you bought?
Paul: If I stayed home more, maybe I would get back into vinyl. But I am always traveling, so I usually don't listen to any music. I play 2 and a half hours of my own music every night. Plus soundcheck. Plus practicing that I do on my own. So there is no time for other music.

Andrew: Thanks a lot for your time, Paul. It was an honor and a privilege to get to interview you.
Paul: Thank you! I hope you can make it to one of the Mr. Big shows!

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