Hailing from the Boston music scene, guitarist Mark Cherone has established himself as one of the city’s most electrifying talents. As the prolific songwriter and, charismatic guitarist, for Flesh and Superzero, he has toured the world over and continues to evolve at his craft. It’s no secret that Mark Cherone comes from a very musical family and a part of his life which he is excited to embrace. His latest project is a collaboration between him and his brother, frontman extraordinaire/songwriter Gary Cherone (Extreme/Van Halen).
In 2007, The Brothers Cherone teamed up with Joe Pessia (Tantric/DramaGods) and Dana Spellman to record the self-titled debut, Hurtsmile, a musically aggressive sucker punch to the face featuring Cherone’s most provocative lyrics to date. Hurtsmile’s music is chock-full of swaggering guitars, soaring vocals and trademark eclecticism, with The Boston Globe declaring the quartet, “hard-hitting.” The band’s sophomore album, Retrogrenade, is set for an October 7th release via Slipkid Records and serves as a fitting followup to the band’s acclaimed self-titled debut in 2011. The fan-funded ‘Retrogrenade’ pays homage to almost every genre these gifted artists have excelled at in the past. Inspired by the classic rock records they grew up on, legendary bands like Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Queen and Led Zeppelin, ‘RETROGRENADE’ is the collective effort of Hurtsmile flexing their musical muscle.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with guitarist Mark Cherone to discuss his career, the formation and evolution of Hurtsmile, the creation of ‘Retrogrenade’ and what the band has in store for us in the long and short term!
Music is clearly your passion and a major part of your life. What are your earliest memories of music in your life?
Obviously, I come from a musical family, so it goes all the way back to my earlier childhood. In the early days, there was a lot of dressing up like KISS and performing in front of a mirror! [laughs] Then Gary [Cherone] got involved with bands right out of high school. I was a little younger than him but his band would practice at our house. Things like being in a band or to try to write a song before you knew how to play an instrument was the norm. I never thought of doing anything else, ya know. When I got older, I went to Berklee College of Music and met Nuno [Bettencourt]. Those two things totally changed my life. I got involved with bands right after I met Nuno. It was such a blessing to be next to someone who is that talented at a young age.
Who were your biggest influences?
All those legends from the old days influenced me. I have to say Pete Townshend made me want to play guitar, get on stage, write a rock opera and completely everything he was doing. As far as guitarists go, I love Brian May. As I got older, I got into guitarists that aren’t as heralded as they should be, guys like Elliot Easton from The Cars and Brian Setzer. They are pretty famous and people certainly know them but you have people like Eddie Van Halen, who the whole world agrees are incredible but then there are guys like Lindsey Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac, who are just tremendous! The way they write is like a song within a song. When I go to write a solo, I am trying to write a story and not just kind of whang. I am trying to make it a melody or go from point A to point B. Those guys influenced me musically early on. Personally, my brother Gary, I saw him develop as an artist and performer in the clubs. I would see the things he would do, the way he would dress and the different phases he went through. A lot of times when I would go to see Gary play, I would see the local warm up bands or the bands after him. There was a lot of great local talent and that was terrific because, when you see someone performing on TV, it feels like it is a million miles away. When you see a band in a club and they are great, you think, “Wow! I guess it is possible to do it!” [laughs]
You mentioned your brother, Gary, who is also a part of Hurtsmile. Have the two of you always been collaborative or was there any sibling rivalry along the way?
It has always been about mutual support and we would show each other what we were working on. We actually had a very parallel career for a long time until Hurtsmile, give or take a few different little projects. He would show me what Extreme was working on and I would show him what Flesh was doing. I would tell him I had an idea for something or if I wasn’t too sure about something or if I thought it might be too goofy. It was great to have a sounding board like Gary and also to see what they were working on before the whole world saw it. That was a lot of fun to see too!
For those who might just now be discovering Hurtsmile, how did it get off the ground originally?
It was a very natural and subtle thing. People would always say to me, “Hey, why don’t you do something with your brother?” Obviously, he was busy with Extreme and, once it was rolling, it was a train that would tour, make albums and often be in California, so I didn’t see Gary very often. Then it came to a point, five years ago or more, that we were home a lot. We started doing a tribute to The Who. We had this idea to play “Who’s Next,” the album, in its entirety. We started to assemble some musicians and we did this band called Slip Kid. It was awesome! That was really the first time we rehearsed every week. A couple years into that, I don’t know if he said, “If you have any riffs, hand them to me,” but I handed him a cassette with two riffs I was working on. He called me a week later and said, “I’ve got lyrics to the first riff! Why don’t you come down? We will get Dana [Spellman].” We wrote the first song on the first album, “Just War Theory.” That was the first riff I showed him, the first lyric he wrote and the first song on the first album! [laughs] Then it snowballed from there. I said, “If you like that one, I will show you this other one I have.” The next thing I know, Gary was like, “Let’s demo. Let’s go in the studio.” We jumped in the studio and we didn’t have a bass player. It was just me, Dana and Gary. We borrowed Dana’s friend to play bass on the demo. We did three songs and I thought that was great. I thought it was better than just fartin’ around with The Who. Gary wanted to post the songs on MySpace! [laughs] I thought, “Well, this is pretty cool! I got a little MySpace thing with Gary and that is pretty high profile. That is pretty cool!” Anyway, what happened was it just snowballed.
We needed a bass player, so we thought of Joe [Pessia], who is a fantastic guitarist. He was playing guitar with Tantric at the time but we knew he did bass with Nuno in DramaGods, so we knew he could do both. We said, “Hey, we’ve got this thing. We are demoing songs. Can you come to practice and play bass, so we can flesh out these songs a little better?” Once Joe joined, it just took off exponentially! Joe brought something that was special. It wasn’t just a couple of riffs here and there. All of a sudden, there was a compositional element that we were able to develop. At one point, we got interrupted when Gary returned to Extreme to make “Saudades de Rock.” He was in California at Nuno’s house. I called him up and said, “Joe, Dana and Joe just practiced and we have this new riff. I’ve gotta send you this!” We sent him, “Infidel,” which is this kind of crazy song on the first album. I don’t know if we would have been able to do that without Joe because we were really able to hear the song in the practice room, rather than imagining the song. Once Joe joined, it became obvious that this was a band and not a project or a couple song demos. We just wrote, wrote, and wrote while Gary was on tour. He came home and matched up the lyrics with the music. Then he got excited and said, “Let’s make an album! Let’s name the band and do it! Who cares what people think, let’s just do it!” So, we did the first album and it was a lot of fun. We toured it and then he got busy with Extreme again. We actually wrote while we were on tour. We had a couple of songs for this album. We would always say, “We don’t want to do one. We have to do two!” [laughs] Every time we crossed the threshold, we would say “Ya know what? We have to go to the next threshold! This threshold stinks!” After we did the first album, which I thought was going to be the finish line, we all definitely wanted to do a second album.
What were your expectations, goals or hopes for this new album when you started?
We knew what we had in Joe. He is a tremendous player. He is not just a bass player. He is playing mandolin, engineering, writing and coming up with great vocal harmony ideas. Joe was a beast and Dana is a beast on drums. We knew we had a lot of muscle in the room. With the first album, we didn’t know what we were dealing with and were just throwing out riffs and slapping stuff together a little bit. This new album, I knew we could do more. I knew if someone said they wanted to do a heavy metal song or a disco song, whatever someone said they wanted to do, we could do it! Maybe not to my family but this album is kind of diverse. It is all over the place stylistically. There is a meat and potato feel to it, as the majority of the album is rock ‘n’ roll. It is definitely a diverse album as far as styles. That was part of the fun in seeing how far we could take it stylistically.
What can you tell us about the writing process in the band?
It’s funny because I had done things the same way for the longest time with my previous bands where I would sit at home, sing, write lyrics and try to be Pete Townshend by being the lyricist and the music guy. With Gary being the lyricist, it gave me freedom musically to write whatever and have Gary worry about the lyrics and melody. We went to the point where I would bring in songs and he would say a week later, “OK, I’ve got it. Let’s go to the practice room with this.” He would sing the verse on my chorus and my chorus on the verse. I would point it out to him and he would say, “No. it’s the other way around!” [laughs] Everything was flipped upside down! It was great! I had to be open to that and let go of the wheel a little bit and say, “It’s backwards but let’s do it!” On the first album, Gary handed me a sheet of lyrics and didn’t tell me much. He said, “Write something to this.” That was something I had never done! That was exciting. That song, if you have the first album, is “Beyond The Garden.” Gary emailed me lyrics, I strummed a few chords and came in and said, “OK, I think this is what I want to do with it.” We developed “Beyond The Garden” from that. It was exciting for me because I definitely realized that there is more than one way to write. Even nowadays, I will sometimes bring in a song half-baked just because I don’t want to come in empty handed. I kind of wish I brought in a riff or an idea more developed but I don’t. I just come in and say, “All I have is this stupid riff but if you want to, let’s jam on it.” Joe will come up with a complimentary piece, going from A to B, going back and forth between the riff I wrote and the riff he wrote. We will do that for a week or two until someone finally comes up with a C section. That was great too because Joe was hearing things I wasn’t hearing. I am very open to it. It was very nerve-wracking to do at first, to be that collaborative because it feels like you are losing control of your baby. [laughs] Once you see the fruits of it and it gets a little bigger than you had planned, you are a little more open to it.
Looking back on the process of putting “Retrogrenade” together, what were some of the challenges you encountered?
Ya know, the challenge is keeping up with these guys! [laughs] I think they are the best! They are all A+ at what they do. I have always been a little rag-tag, a little punk and a little rough around the edges when it comes to my playing but, when I am in the room with these guys, I am kind of on my best behavior when I play guitar. I try to clean it up a little better! That has been the challenge just to keep up with them. Dana can play anything, anytime, anywhere. He is just one of those guys! It’s great because the one thing we all have in common is rock ‘n’ roll, which is not really a technical thing. It’s a vibe.
“Retrogrenade” is a great title for the record. What is the back-story there?
It was very eleventh hour. Gary had a handful of titles. He was emailing us saying, “What do you guys think? Out of these three, which one do you like?” We would email him back with our opinions. He was leaning a certain direction and we had decided on an album title. The night before we had to send it in to the manager, he wrote “Retrogrenade.” He said, “I’ve got this thing and I think I like Retrogrenade.” We were all like, “Yeah. That is better than the other ones you sent earlier this week!” [laughs] He did it very last minute but I think it came from looking back on these dozen songs. We definitely are wearing our influences on our sleeve a little bit with Aerosmith, AC/DC, The Eagles and even newer influences like Gary and I recently got into Zac Brown. I guess having the word retro in there sort of tied it all together. Like anything we do, whether it is this band or other bands, it is done with vitality. We mean it! I think that is where the grenade comes in. It’s not just retro, it’s explosive! We are not just putting on a Johnny Bravo suit, we actually mean this!
You built these songs from the ground up and had some time to live with them. Which songs resonate with you the most?
It’s funny, it’s always like the one we are working on at the time is my favorite one. [laughs] We are actually working toward our record release party this month, so the songs in the set are the most rockin’ songs. There is the opening track, “Rock & Roll Cliché,” is still a lot of fun to play even though we have played it a million times at practice. I look forward to playing that live. There is also a kind of sleepy, slide guitar, Zeppelin influenced song, called “Where Do We Go From Here,” which I love that is in the set too. Those two songs really jump out at me but I have to say I am pretty happy with the whole album.
How have you evolved as an artist through the years and with the experiences from all of your projects?
That is tough to answer because I am not done evolving. However, I am trying to simplify things. As far as lyrics go. These days I am trying to be so overt because I believe the music covers a lot of ground as far as the ambience and you don’t have to say certain things. I think I have learned that by working with Gary. As far as the music goes, I am really into space now. In the early days, you tend to fill up every little bit of space with a harmonic or a squeal or something! Nowadays, I love the air between the notes and find it just as appealing. Dana has taught me a lot. He will flip a beat. He will do the first half of a verse with one beat and then open the high hat and add a bass drum on the second half of the verse. It is a subtle change but it keeps the thing moving. The evolution is still going on and is something I think about all of the time when I am working on a song now. The only thing that screwed me up was going through a phase recently where I listened to a lot of YES and suddenly I wanted to hear every note played all of the time! [laughs] Other than that, I am trying to simplify!
As you mentioned, your focus is clearly on this band and everyone seems committed to bringing it forward. What do you think the future holds for Hurtsmile in both the short and long term?
The plan is to tour and reach as many markets as we can in the continental United States. There are bunch of different cities that we had hoped to go to with the last album but didn’t get to, so I think that is in the plans for this go-round. Videos have been talked about in terms of which songs, where when and how. I think that is going to happen in the next couple of months. I think we are going to video a lot of this release show and see if any of it is usable for a video. So, yeah, definitely videos and as many shows as we can pump out. Ya know, Gary, when he gets busy with Extreme, all bets are off. [laughs] We respect Extreme and anytime those four guys are available to do something we have to let them do it. I think the writing is still there and is still there. I plan on writing and showing Gary more music. Gary wants to do a lot of things. He wants to do alternate versions of some of the songs we have done. He has had a lot of ideas in mind for the band. Right now, we are happy with wrapping up this album, as far as recording and releasing it. Now, we get to do one of the fun things, which is to perform it! All of these songs, we have yet to perform live. We are definitely psyched to do that!
You have certainly seen a lot of changes occur during your time in the music industry. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to aspiring musicians?
Looking back, I would say being open to playing with lots of different musicians and even musicians that are into different styles than you are is important. I think there is something to gain from that and you can put it in your back pocket. If you are a rocker and work with a country artist or vice versa, you are going to learn something, if that doesn’t become your main project. I think if you are starting out, say yes more than no to as many projects as you can and be open. Also, work, work, work, work, work! Whether it is writing, recording or playing live, just do it as relentlessly as you can! I think that will season you much faster than if you wait around for the perfect opportunity.
Thanks so much for your time today, Mark! I appreciate it and look forward to spreading the word on the album!
Thanks so much for your time and support, Jason! Talk to you soon!
To get all the latest information and tour dates for Hurtsmile, visit their official website at www.hurtsmile.com. Connect with them on social media via Facebook and Twitter. Click here to get tickets to Hurtsmile’s ‘Retrogrenade’ release party this October!