American singer and musician Eric Martin (60) rose to fame with hard rock band Mr. Big in the early nineties. The members scored a worldwide number one hit with the ballad To Be With You and have been successful both as a group and with their own music projects. During the Covid-19 pandemic there are hardly any concerts, but it’s a good time to catch up with Eric and have an online chat about his songwriting, the politeness of Japanese audiences and a funny story involving Paul Rodgers, David Coverdale and Chinese chicken salad.
The days of touring and performing in front of large crowds seem like a vague memory nowadays to many artists. The last time Eric Martin set foot outside the United States was in the beginning of 2020. “I played a couple of shows in Germany with ‘Frontm3n’,” he recalls. “Which is a fantastic collaboration project between Peter Howarth (of The Hollies), Mick Wilson and Pete Lincoln (former frontmen of bands 10 CC and The Sweet). After returning to the US I did play a couple of smaller solo shows. Of course it’s nothing like the pre-Covid era. But things are starting to open up, so I have good hopes for the future!”
In the meantime, because of the lockdowns, many musicians use this time to improve their craftsmanship. By writing songs, for instance. How does the songwriting process work for Eric?
“I have to be inspired to write,” he says. “There has to be a certain spark. And when it’s there, I immediately start writing. Usually I start with the title and then the rest of the words follow. At first I was writing songs on my own, but then I started working together with different people, such as recently with German musician Oliver Hartmann of rock opera Avantasia. But one of my biggest muses is my longtime writing partner Andre Pessis, whom I’ve known for over thirty years. He scored hits with Huey Lewis and the News, Tim McGraw, Waylon Jennings and with Mr. Big. Andre and I just sit on the porch and joke around, and in that relaxed state we get inspired to write lyrics,” Eric laughs. “With Mr. Big, we all wrote songs and snippets of songs, ‘sniglets’ as we call them. And when we gathered in the studio, I would play my song ideas live in front of my band members, so they could hear the emotions and everything. That was my way of trying to ‘sell’ a song to them. Sometimes bass player Billy Sheehan, drummer Pat Torpey and guitarist Paul Gilbert liked it and sometimes they didn’t get it right away. Or as Billy would proclaim: ‘It doesn’t kill me’. Even though he was trying to be nice, those words would sort of feel like being punched in the chest! Because your song is a bit like your baby and criticism is hard to take sometimes. But the funny thing is, with To Be With You, our phenomenal Rock God Billy was the one who saw potential in my little acoustic campfire song and wanted to put it on the album. A great decision, as it turned out! It opened many doors for us worldwide.”
Fans loved the ballad and it became a huge hit. Despite appreciating all their fans around the world, Mr. Big has built up a kind of special relationship with Japan. Over thirty years the band played at least a hundred times in the land of the rising sun. “In the eighties the band Journey already informed us that Japanese audiences are not the same as American ones,” Eric remembers. “In Japan the fans were more introverted and did not jump up and down so much. That sort of behaviour wasn’t encouraged either, as in some venues there were security people with batons walking around, making sure that the fans remained seated and didn’t get too wild and excited during the concert. But the most remarkable thing would happen between songs, when I talked to the audience. Everyone would quiet down so they could listen to what I was going to say. It was really respectful, but I wasn’t used to complete silence during a concert. Sometimes it was so quiet that, despite standing in an arena with thousands of people, I could actually hear my own heartbeat and the laughter of the crew behind me when I remarked upon that out loud. Over the years things have changed though and Japanese fans have become a bit more extraverted during the shows. They’re really one of the greatest audiences I’ve ever played in front of.”
Fist-of-fury fist bumps and pré-stage jitters
Even with over forty years of experience across the globe, the pré-stage jitters remain. “Yeah, I still get that nervous adrenaline rush and I feel butterflies in my stomach,” Eric admits. “But it makes me want to perform to the best of my abilities, regardless of how I feel that day. The funny thing before Mr. Big concerts was the difference between me and the rest of the guys. While I was all pumped up and a bit anxious before going on stage, Billy, Paul and Pat were just relaxed and quiet, in their own world. Often they would try to get me to relax. Pat would go: ‘Calm down, Eric, calm down…’ in a soothing voice and Billy would bluntly say: ‘Dude, you need to chill out!’. But eventually we came up with a so-called ‘Fist-of-fury fist bump’, which was probably Paul’s idea. And that felt nice. It gave us a little moment together before our performance.”
Rock star cookbook
Eric recalled a delightful little story of the old days: “Over the years I have often played in the same festival circuit as Whitesnake. And about ten years ago lead singer David Coverdale’s wife contacted my then-wife for a book project. She wanted to make a cookbook with recipes from rock star’s wives. They wanted my ex-wife, who is of Sicilian descent, to share her mother’s sauce recipe. But she was like ‘I’m not giving up my mom’s famous sauce recipe!’. So one night we were having Chinese chicken salad take-away and she decided to find out the ingredients and give that as a recipe for the cookery book. Years later at an award show we are talking to my idol, Free’s and Bad Company’s singer Paul Rodgers. [Incidentally, a song called ‘Mr. Big’ by Free was our inspiration for the band’s name.] While I was hanging onto every word Paul said, David Coverdale came up and approached us. It seemed like he was blanking on my name. He snapped his fingers in an attempt to remember, pointed at me, and said with his fancy English accent: ‘Chinese chicken salad!’. I didn’t even get a chance to remind him of my actual name, because he quickly asked ‘Could you introduce me to Paul Rodgers?’. It was just such a surreal rockstar moment!”
Future music with Mr. Big’s Billy and Paul
It’s been three years since the beloved Pat Torpey passed away due to complications from Parkinson’s disease. Fortunately, with some adjustments, he had been able to go along on Mr. Big’s tour. “We had a very good drummer called Matt Starr who partly took over from Pat during the last world tour,” Eric explains. “It worked well and we were glad that Pat was still on stage with us during those concerts, singing and drumming on a few songs. But I still miss him everyday. When Pat discovered he had Parkinson’s disease, it was obviously a very traumatic experience for him. I mean, he was always a physically active guy, playing baseball, being outdoors and doing push-ups before the start of a concert. When he told me about his diagnosis, at first I didn’t really know how to handle that. But I think focussing on working on the album was sort of therapeutic both for him and for me. Pat was such a fantastic drummer, singer and human being. He was the glue that kept us all together. In the near future, I hope Billy, Paul and I do get a chance to make music again and perform. When the timing and energy is right, I’m sure we can get together. I would love that.”
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