Mark Tremonti is one of the rare souls who dedicated himself entirely to his art early on in life and never looked back. Rock’ n’ roll is more than his passion; it’s his lifeblood. With over three decades in the music business under his belt, he’s built a name for himself as one of the purest, precise, and prolific guitarists, songwriters, and frontmen of the modern era. With a GRAMMY® Award, recognition at #1 on Guitar World’s “Top 20 Best Guitarists of the Decade,” and 40 million units sold between Creed, Alter Bridge, and his namesake solo band Tremonti, he maintains a breakneck pace in terms of both studio output and live shows. Once again, he directly channels this skillful focus, rigid discipline, and relentless drive into Tremonti’s fifth full-length offering. “Marching In Time” fuses uncompromising thrash-induced fret fireworks, wrecking ball grooves, and soaring melodies all at once to present a definitive sonic statement. Available now via Napalm Records, the album is his most impressive release to date and showcases his evolution as a guitarist, songwriter, and storyteller. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Mark Tremonti to discuss the latest exciting chapter in his career. The interview focuses on the origins of “Marching In Time,” his passion for songwriting, and the creative process. Mark also reflects on his 20-year relationship with Paul Reed Smith Guitars and the process of blending art and sound with the PRS Mark Tremonti x Joe Fenton Limited Edition Models. Most importantly, he teases a top-secret project that is headed our way in 2022!
You don’t get to the point you’ve reached in your career without having a solid work ethic and creative drive. Was that something that came naturally to you?
I think it’s just who I am. I just try to hit the ground running when I wake up every morning and try to get as much done as I can because, if I don’t, I stress myself out! I try to accomplish as much as possible; that’s just how I’m wired. If I just sit around, I will get stressed out. When I climb into bed at night, I want to know that I got something done. I want to feel like I did some work on the guitar, worked on some new songs, fixed something around the house, or spent some quality time with my kids. It’s a good and bad thing. Sometimes, I wish I could take some of that wiring out of my brain!
You hit the ground running as a young man and achieved incredible success along the way. What are some of the lessons learned early on in your career that still resonate?
One of the most important things that I learned was not to get sidetracked in anything but trying to create the best song that you can. If you do that, everything else will fall into place. If you’re an artist or a writer, hire people around you that you trust so you can do what you do best. As a musician in this business, you’ll learn some harsh lessons along the way about the business side of things. The music business is a place where you will encounter some seedy folks, so you gotta keep your eye out!
What should a young musician be looking for right off the bat?
When you’re a young musician, and you have someone in the business that has an interest in you, it’s one thing to be a hard-working, good person that wants people to think kindly of you, but when it comes down to signing deals or contracts, you’ve gotta look out for yourself. You can’t worry about whether they will think any less of you because of it. If you sign a contract early on in your career, it could really damage your career if you don’t have proper representation. So you’ve just got to understand that it’s a regular thing in this world, in general, to have an attorney to look over whatever you’re looking at to make sure you’re protected.
Did you ever have someone in a mentor role during your early years as an artist?
No, I was just kind of a lone wolf in my family doing the music route. I was just trying to be as smart as I could about it. I was going to school for finance. I went to Clemson, and then I went to Florida State University. I knew that I would try to get my degree and a record deal simultaneously. If I got the record deal, I would just drop out, and that’s what happened! I got about halfway through college and got our first record deal. I Had to decide between staying in school or going on tour, so it was an easy decision! I knew I could always go back to school. But yeah, there was no one coaching me through. I didn’t have much to lose at the time, ya know. I had crappy jobs. I was putting myself through school, so I didn’t have to ask my parents’ permission. After my first year in college, my parents had told me that I would have to finance the rest of my life, pretty much. So I did that, and I’m glad because it made me be able to stand on my own feet. So, when I jumped into the music business, I didn’t know what the hell was going on at first! [laughs] You make many mistakes along the way, but that’s the best way to learn how not to make mistakes in the future!
Well said! You’ve always been a guy with several irons in the fire. Was it ever difficult to find a balance and keep your sanity?
Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve ever kept my sanity! [laughs] I’m always anxious! I think Myles [Kennedy] and I, in Alter Bridge, are always very focused on making the next record. “Let it be done. Let it be finished. Let it be right!” There isn’t a lot of sleeping until it’s entirely recorded. But, again, I think that’s just how I’m wired. Throughout my whole musical journey, I’ve only run into a couple of people who are wired like that. One is Bret Hesla, who’s a producer now, but has been in and out of many bands. He’s one of the most talented guys I’ve ever worked with. He’s got that work ethic where he wakes up thinking about it and goes to sleep thinking about it. Myles is another one of those people who do it for the right reasons! They are artists! I believe, as a songwriter, you’re in the constant search to write that perfect song, and you’ll never get there, but that won’t stop you from trying. It’s kind of an addiction! When you write something that speaks to yourself as a songwriter, it gives you a certain kind of rush. You are constantly trying to chase that down and want to write that next song, put out that next album, or get on stage and perform that song for the first time. All of these different exciting moments you live for as an artist!
When did you first fall in love with songwriting?
Yeah, ya know, I grew up in Detroit. I had a band, and we went to a professional studio and recorded demos. For a 7th or 8th grade band, we were pretty decent! When I listened back to those demos, it was alright! It was terrible! [laughs] We were all into it! We practiced all the time and took it very seriously, but then my parents moved me to Florida. I hated it! I even ran away at one point. There were no musicians, and nobody listened to the kind of music I listened to. What I’m getting at is that, as a songwriter, it was the best period of my life. I had no friends. I didn’t want to make any friends because all these kids were different and listened to Janet Jackson and C+C Music Factory! It was such a crazy world, and it was so much different than the one I was from. So, I bought myself a 4-track recorder and a drum machine. I tracked my own demos and wrote my own songs. Those couple of years of isolation really helped me become a songwriter. They were some of the saddest times of my life, and I wouldn’t want to go through it again. I actually wrote a song called “Shed My Skin,” off of an early Alter Bridge record, that was about that time in my life. It was hard, but that experience is what helped me develop the most as a songwriter.
Was there a point where you felt you and finally came into your own as a songwriter?
I think it was in the early days of Creed. I think when you can see the cause and effect of a song that you’ve written impacts an audience, that’s when you really know if what you are doing is right or wrong. I think one of the most poignant songs for me was “My Own Prison.” “My Own Prison” was a song that we would play at our local shows, and immediately, everybody loved it. The club owners would be like, “Hey, you’ve got to play My Own Prison tonight!” At that point, we didn’t have all the other songs that people are familiar with. “My Own Prison” was the only one. Then we got it recorded and put it on the local radio station, it took off, and you saw the cause and effect of putting these songs together and how it can affect people. I really think “My Own Prison” was what ignited my confidence in songwriting as a professional.
As a songwriter, do you prefer a solo approach over co-writing with another artist?
You know, I’ve always been a solitary songwriter. I do write with Myles, and I have written with Scott Stapp in Creed, but I like to write the original ideas on my own. I like to seclude myself because when I write, I sing in my falsetto, and I make mistakes. Some of the stuff would be very embarrassing for a stranger to hear. When you sit down to write, you aren’t spitting out “Stairway to Heaven.” At first, it’s just a bunch of gibberish. There’s a great clip from that Beatles documentary that just came out, and it shows Paul McCartney writing a tune. It shows him fumbling around until he finds the magic. He did it quickly in that clip, but sometimes you can fumble around for a week until you find something. So, I need to spend a lot of alone time before I get with the band. Back in the early days, I would get with Scott Stapp and filter it through him to see what he dug. One thing that always bothered me a little bit as a musician was that I was a songwriter first and foremost before I was a guitar player. I love writing vocal melodies and songs. For years and years, people would just say, “Mark — The guitar player of the band…” [laughs] I’m a songwriter! Those vocals, I wrote a lot of those parts. Scott wrote them as well, but I wrote as well, and it’s my favorite thing to do! Same with Alter Bridge, Myles and I both agree that melody is by far the most essential part of the song and that it is my favorite thing to write.
What goes into building out your ideas?
I teach songwriting, and when I go out on tour, I do guitar clinics. Half the time I will spend answering whatever questions they have on guitar, and the other half is focused on songwriting. The thing that gets people most excited is the songwriting portion of it! I tell people that you have to be organized when you are a writer, especially with the way I write. I don’t sit down and write one song until it’s finished. Sometimes I will start, and I’ll jump around and do all these different things. Anyway, I work in GarageBand a lot when it comes to organizing stuff. I will have files that are listed as choruses, verses, bridges, and guitar riffs. I will have choruses one through twelve, and each chorus file will have 100 choruses on there. I will label them by BPMs, slow to fast. So, if I am looking for them, I will tap tempo whatever idea I am working on, and I can go right to the tempo I am looking for. I also label them by what tuning they are in because I write in different tunings. Each track will have a brief description of what the part is, beats per minute, and what tuning it is in. Then I also have a rating system of how much I like it! So, when I am writing a song, I can always go back to these folders. Say I write a verse, I’ve got all these riffs, and I’ve got this part that could be a bridge, but I just don’t have the chorus. I can just go back to my files and go through all of my chorus ideas to see if any of them fit. If not, I will just keep writing but, more times than not, I will find something sitting there that has been waiting to find a home.
That’s really interesting. It sounds like these songwriting clinics are something you are pretty passionate about.
Yeah, I enjoy it! I like to see people come in and leave with a smile on their faces. I love hearing the stories afterward of how much they enjoyed it. In those clinics, I actually write! On this new record, ‘Marching In Time,’ I began to write the title track at one of these clinics. On that song, I said, “Okay, here’s a fingerstyle that I like to use, and I like to throw it at any tuning. I will just fumble around, and I don’t know where I’m going.” Then I came up with a guitar line for Marching In Time’s verse. I told them, “We are in the trust tree right now! I’m going to try to write a melody over this right now. If it’s good or bad, just don’t judge me. I’m going to do my best!” I’m also not seeing in my full voice because if I’m writing for 8 hours a day, I can’t shout for those eight years. I can only shout for about an hour, and I’m done, so I write in my falsetto. So, I’m doing that in front of this group of people, and I wrote the verse, melody, and music for “Marching In Time.” It’s really cool to have the birth of that title track taped on GarageBand in front of a class. You can actually hear the class in the background going, “Oh, that’s cool!” [laughs]
That’s really awesome! Let’s talk about ‘Marching In Time.’ What got the ball rolling for this one?
Covid destroyed the Alter Bridge cycle for ‘Walk The Sky,’ It was one of those things where we were just waiting and waiting to get the green light for being able to go back out on tour. I had no real deadlines for anything. I went into about a five-month funk. I was like, “I’ll fix the house. I’ll work on the car. I’ll do this or that.” I wasn’t doing anything other than playing guitar or writing music. I just wasn’t inspired because the world was in such a dark place, so it was hard for me to say, “I’m going to go play guitar for 5 hours.” I just played less and wrote less. Finally, I snapped out of it. I remember saying, “Alter Bridge isn’t going to go back out on tour until we write a new record, so I guess I will jump into the next solo record.” What a wasted opportunity it was for us for that album! It was our first number one album, and the tour was doing better than it’s ever done in our careers, and then it all suddenly went away. Don’t pity me; everybody went through it. Anyway, I was just depressed about it. As I said, I knew the next step was to start writing the next solo record. I still had more time than ever to write an album with all of that free time. This is the first album that I’ve ever had that much time to put into the writing process, so everything was checked and double-checked long before we went into the studio.
Is having more time for an album always a good thing?
I think that every songwriter should experiment with doing it in a number of ways. Doing it this way is great but also capturing lightning in a bottle is great. I think flexing those different creative muscles along the way in your career will show you where you shine because some people work better in the moment, and some people work better when it’s well thought out. I personally like to mix it up as much as possible. I like to be very prepared to begin with, but this one was uber-prepared! Everything was done! I played it for the producer, Elvis Baskette, and he’s like, “Okay, all we have to do is chop 4 or 5 songs off!” That’s a tough thing because you’ve worked so hard on all of these songs but then have to come to grips with a few of these never seeing the light of day. Most of the time, not all of the time, but once a song is cut from the rotation from an upcoming record, it’s scarred. You think, “Well, if that song wasn’t good enough then, why’s it gonna be good enough now?”
Did the global pandemic impact the content of the record In terms of content?
There was only one song where it seeped its way into the lyrical content, which is the title track, “Marching In Time.” I found out that my wife was pregnant, and the song is pretty much about having and bringing up a child in a global pandemic. None of us knew how this thing was going to play out. At the same time the pandemic was going on, you had all the riots happening across the country nonstop. You also had politicians tearing each other down. The world was in a shit place at the time. The song is just a father saying, “Don’t let what’s going on in the world corrupt you. Don’t let it turn you into one of these cold people. Don’t watch the news and think you should become one of these people.” It was the words of a father trying to protect their child and keep them pure.
This isn’t your first foray into fatherhood, as you have two sons. However, this time around, it’s a little bit different as your family welcomed a baby girl. How has that impacted you?
I think it was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who had the quote, “Every man wants to have a son, but every man needs to have a daughter.” It changes you. I think it makes you a better person. I grew up with brothers and the only female in my life, other than grandparents and aunts, was my mother. She passed away when she was only 54 years old, so my life was always very male-centric. When I had my daughter, it was just such a different thing. She’s just the sweetest thing in the world, and I think it softens you up big time! It’s definitely softened me up!
Each album encapsulates a period of time. Looking back on your body of work, what milestones spring to mind?
With the first Creed record, I feel like I was a child when I put that out. It feels like I was a kid; it really does. When I was younger, I felt like if you got a record deal and put out four records, that that was a big, full career. I also thought that by the time you were 30, you were too old to do this anymore. I felt like it was a short window, so you better hit big and try to survive as long as you can. In those days, we were just naive young dudes putting out something we were passionate about. 14 albums down the road, and I still love that rush of putting out albums.
What does ‘Marching In Time’ mean to you personally?
It means a lot. As a songwriter, people often ask, “What are you trying to accomplish with this record? What’s your vision?” The only thing I ever try to accomplish is to improve upon the building blocks that I’ve set before as a songwriter and have that reflected in the way that the fans accept the record. When the fans say that this is their favorite record, that means a lot! It means that the hard work you put in is being recognized in some way. I’d say that if you asked most Tremonti fans what their favorite record was, they would say it’s this new one, and that definitely means a lot!
You always come across as calm, cool, and collected. Do you feel pressure when it comes to trying to raise the bar with each record?
I did between these records. I worked tirelessly on the ‘Dying Machine” record. It was a very, very hard record to write. Lyrically, it was really tough because it was a concept record, and it was the first time I was doing that. I also had the bright idea of writing a novel to accompany the record! [laughs] I was like, “Ya know, I don’t think anybody’s done that before. I’m gonna do it! I’m going to write a novel. I’ve always wanted to be a writer.” One of my dreams was always to become a published author. It’s getting close! I’m rewriting “A Dying Machine” right now. That being said, I thought the amount of work I put into “A Dying Machine,” I thought it would be tough to put out another record that would top it. Not that this new record tops it, but I think it’s different. It’s a lighter listen than “A Dying Machine.” With that record, I kind of asked the listener to go deeper down the rabbit role. It was like I was saying, “Come on this journey with me. Come into my imagination.” It wasn’t just some easy listening, rock-metal album. This new album is more accessible, I think. People have been responding really well to it!
You’re celebrating a twenty-year partnership with Paul Reed Smith Guitars, which is an incredible milestone. I live right down the road from the factory, and their work always blows me away. What have been some of the highlights of that collaboration?
We were finally getting to the arena level with Creed. I remember my tech or manager bringing up the guitar case of my signature model that we had dialed in and seeing it for the first time, opening the case. For me, that was one of the most epic parts of my whole career! Up until that point, we were dialing in the guitar. Paul was deliberately trying to make it look as far away from a Les Paul as he could. Some of the designs were kinda funky, and the first one looked like a blue whale with this tiny little lip on the bottom. Finally, we got it dialed in and ready to go! When I opened that case for the first time, that was one of the coolest parts of my PRS experience! Years later, we released the SE model, and I think Guitar World came out and said it was the best quality per dollar you could spend on a guitar, and it got all the highest ratings.
I love guitars, obviously, because I’m a guitar player, but I’m obsessed with amplifiers. If you look behind me, I’m surrounded by amplifiers. They’re everywhere! [laughs] They are my true obsession. When we discussed doing a signature amp, when PRS had their amp part of their factory, I was like, “I’m not a one amp guy. I love lots of different amplifiers. I’d hate to do a signature amp and then, all of a sudden, some other company comes out with something I like more, and I can’t use it.” So, I was online one day googling “top-selling amps.” I think Musician’s Friend came out with “Top Selling Amps of The Year.” The top 10 were all lunchbox-style amps. 15-watt, 10-watt, 8-watt, or whatever it was. They were cheap, entry point kind of amps. I was like, “Dammit! That’s what I should do. I should come out with a 15-watt head. Make it really affordable. People aren’t going to expect me to play it on stage, so if somebody comes out with something better, I’m not playing it on stage anyway. I’m going to do my best to make the best amp!” Years later, it’s still what’s sitting to me at all times — the MC-15! Of all the amps I have, it’s still my go-to and the one that I write on. Being that I’m such an amp freak, I was really cautious about putting the amp out.
Another one of the coolest moments of my PRS story comes from when we put the amp out at NAMM. There were almost 8000 products that came out that year and our amp won best in show. Sam Ash himself came up behind me, took the sign and put it right on top of that amp, and said congratulations. He said, “Ya know what? This sounds like a $4000 dollar amplifier, and it’s $600 bucks.” I said, “Exactly!” I told Paul when it came out that I wanted to see a five before the price, and I’m not talking $5000! It needs to be $599. It came out being something like $650 in the end, but everybody loved it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad review. I might have seen one person say that their tube was noisy or something, but you ship 1000 amps, and there’s gonna be a tube that’s cracked somewhere, here or there.
Everybody loves it, and I’m dialing in the MC-100 right now! We are getting to the finish line on that, and, for me, that’s going to be pretty much the baddest thing on Earth! I don’t think there will ever be a better amp. If I feel like I can make it sound better, we will just tweak the amp and do another version of it, but of all the amps I own, it’s going to be the best one!
PRS is releasing an ultra-limited-edition version of your signature guitar with some incredible artwork from artist Joe Fenton. How did you originally cross paths, and what’s it been like working with an artist of that caliber?
I’ve gone through moments in my life where I’ve thought, “Okay, I’m going to get a tattoo.” Then I never get it. [laughs] It was in one of those moments when I was on the internet looking up artists when I came across Joe Fenton’s stuff. I thought, ‘Wow, that would be some cool tattoo work.’ That got me thinking, “Maybe I won’t get a tattoo. Maybe I’ll have him paint it on a guitar.” I contacted him, and he was really into it, and we came up with designs slowly but surely. I told him that I loved Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” He does such a great job! So, I got on a conference call with Paul, Beverly [Fowler], and Rich [Hannon] at PRS, and they said, “We need to come up with a good idea for your 20th anniversary with us.” We had discussed taking my charcoal burst, which is probably my most well-known guitar and doing a reproduction of it down to every little crack, nook, and scratch on it. Then we also talked about doing a murdered-out version of the guitar. Then we brought up the Fenton thing, and I think everyone thought that was by far the best idea! So, Paul had to get on the phone with Joe to work out a deal to paint 20 guitars, which took him a very long time! Joe is the kind of artist who, when you say, “Hey, let’s do this deal. Just paint a little thing on each guitar,” he paints a huge thing on every guitar because that’s just the kind of guy he is. Everybody at PRS was floored when they saw those guitars come in!
The video they recently put out of him painting specific details was mind-blowing!
Yeah, it’s incredible! My guitar is a high gloss finish, but Bev said, “I think it would turn out better if you did it in a matte finish.” I agreed, and the matte finish looks so much better than the original! It’s incredible! In the end, we had done 20, and I asked, “I get to pick my favorite one, right?” They were like, “Uh, no. It’s 20 for the people to buy.”
That had to be a little soul-crushing in the moment! [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah! She said, “Alright, we will make one more, and yours will be the 21st.” So, I got on the phone with Joe after looking at all the designs. I picked my favorite aspects of all of them, and he put together an idea. He’s already given me one version of it, so once he gets it done, he will paint me my 21st! [laughs]
Another awesome milestone! Looking to the future, what does 2022 hold for you?
In January, we will go to Europe. After that, we come home and make up for the Daughtry tour that was just canceled. I think it’s February 22nd that we start on that, which is 5 or 6 weeks. Then Myles and I will go into the studio in April and May. Then I’ll go back to Europe to hit the big festivals. We go on a Veragos ship here in The States. Then we hit the festivals, along with our own shows and tour in the Fall. We will release the Alter Bridge next Fall and hit the road for an Alter Bridge tour next winter.
I also have a record that I’ve recorded, and I am mixing on December 10th. I’ve been recording this project for about a year and a half to two years. It could be the most exciting thing I’ve ever done! It’s a top-secret project, and I haven’t announced it to anybody yet. It’s going to get announced on March 21st. It’s all for charity. I’m starting a charity called “Take A Chance for Charity,” where I want artists, athletes, and anyone with a platform to do something that nobody would expect — Something fun, something different to raise money for charity. I am raising money for Down Syndrome. I don’t want to offend any of my bandmates, but this album to me has been one of the coolest things I’ve gotten to do, so I can’t wait to unveil it! (Editor’s Note: Mark Tremonti revealed his ‘Tremonti Sings Sinatra’ album to benefit the National Down Syndrome Society on March 21st, 2021- Learn more here!)
That’s terrific, Mark! You are truly an inspiration! Thanks for your time today, and I look forward to spreading the word!
You bet! Thanks for having me! I look forward to talking to you again soon!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.