No strangers to scorching solos, industrious riffs and thematic intensity, Alter Bridge are back with their seventh album, Pawns & Kings. Across ten songs, the band welcome fans new and old alike to join them on the next chapter in their journey – which at this point, has spanned nearly two decades. Heralded by the singles ‘Silver Tongue’, ‘Sin After Sin’ and its title track, Pawns & Kings veers away from the themes of its two (largely politically driven) predecessors, The Last Hero (2016) and Walk The Sky (2019).
For album number seven, Alter Bridge have instead opted for a message a little more resolute. This resigned standpoint is delivered with a combination of techniques and gear that uphold the signature Alter Bridge character, while introducing new elements that demonstrate the band’s continued evolution in songwriting and performance.
From their respective homes, guitarists Myles Kennedy and Mark Tremonti (who also just released a covers album, Mark Tremonti Sings Frank Sinatra, to raise funds for Down Syndrome charities) talk to Australian Guitar about the themes, gear and more that drive the hard rock heroes’ latest offering.
ON THE MESSAGE BEHIND PAWNS & KINGS…
With The Last Hero released around the time Donald Trump was elected as the 45th US President, it was difficult for Kennedy to say how (if at all) the unfolding of a new political landscape would shape the future of Alter Bridge. Though on the surface, Pawns & Kings may show the band in the same ballpark of disdain and incredulity they were on The Last Hero, there’s more throwing of arms to the air with a sense of “whatever”.
Ever a pensive man, Kennedy broaches the band’s thematic evolution: “These are very tumultuous, strange times, and they’re very polarised. And for me, I think what I’ve learned is that you’re not going to change anybody’s minds. Some bands are really good at that; they find their spot and preach their worries and that’s great for them. For me, I don’t feel comfortable in that realm, I like to keep the lyrics timeless.”
Kennedy takes album cut ‘Silver Tongue’ as an example, noting how people have tried to attach “something” to it. He, however, observes it to be a “timeless tale” – one that’s “been going on as long as there have been human beings”. He says: “You have people that seduce, people that are good at manipulating other people, and it doesn’t always lead to good things. That’s a song that is relevant now and will probably be relevant a hundred years from now because that’s just the way we’re hardwired, unfortunately.
“Then you have a song like ‘Pawns & Kings’, which I feel is an empowering song. It’s like the battle cry for the underdog. Though you may look at a circumstance and think it seems impossible to overcome it, that song is that ray of hope – at least, that’s what I extract from it. After years and years of writing songs, I’ve learnt that if you can keep it ambiguous enough, it’ll apply in different arenas. I feel like it ages better – the shelf life doesn’t run out as quickly.”
Alter Bridge have indeed written songs that fit that mould in the past, such as ‘Wayward One’ from 2007’s Blackbird. It’s far from a conscious reasoning, though, that Alter Bridge have no notions of being the best band in the world for pushing political opinion. Kennedy says humbly: “Speaking for myself, I think if there’s any agenda, [it’s to] remember to be good to one another. Humanity is very important to me. And that song, ‘Wayward One’, is definitely a song about empathy. It’s supercharged with empathy.
“[Nowadays] there’s so much divisiveness, so much tribalism and so much embolism, I don’t want to add to the noise there.” Kennedy pauses, drawing a weighted breath. “I don’t know what’s going on – as a human being, I just want there to be more bridges – no pun intended! I want there to be more conversation – everybody just needs to chill out and talk to one another and remember that we’re all in this together. At the end of the day, we’re all stardust, man. We all have the same blood.”
To speak to Kennedy, perched on top of a stool, relaxed in an environment he controls, he comes across as being the kind of man who prefers being in his own head rather than having everyone else’s conversations melting in there. “I like to learn things,” he says reasonably. “I’m always up for learning from somebody and I do like stimulating conversations, it keeps you sharp. And I need all the help I can get there, trust me. Especially the older I get and the more I realise how important it is to try and silence all the noise.
“It’s no secret at this point, especially after Walk The Sky. Walk The Sky was essentially, in a lot of ways, me really being open to talking about how into meditation I am and being present I am, and I feel like that has been such a saving grace in my life. Not to preach the gospel of meditation; I don’t want to be that guy, but at the same time, I feel like it’s helped me be a better artist, because by learning how to turn down the noise in my brain, I can centre in on the music.”
ON ALTERING THEIR SONGWRITING PROCESS…
Centre in on the music, Kennedy and Tremonti surely did. Though the pair have a certain aptitude in how they’ve demoed songs over the last 25 years or so, pandemic-driven lockdowns and not being able to be physically present with one another forced Kennedy, at least, to refine his song writing craft even more. “All I had to do was sit in my studio and work,” he says. “I feel like I became, not a better songwriter, but better at documenting ideas and concepts. Just quicker. For me, that helped a lot with the process.
“[Album opener] ‘This Is War’, that came to me in kind of a dream state. And as I was waking up, I’d spent enough time after the pandemic in my studio getting pretty proficient with my stuff where it didn’t take long to take what I was hearing in my head and track it.
“Program the drums quickly, play all the parts, and then move on without it being this laboured, ‘Oh I’ve gotta get this right and this right and fine tune this,’ so it’s just very streamlined – in a lot of ways, that helped the creation of this record tremendously.”
Kennedy’s statement isn’t to say that his approach to his contribution to Pawns & Kings was entirely different to Alter Bridge’s prior six albums, rather, he sees it as more of a carry-over methodology that began with Walk The Sky. “The demos were more realised than they had been in the past,” Kennedy recalls. “A lot of times Mark and I would kind of get in the same room and go ‘Hey, do you have a part that goes with this part?’
“It’s funny because people will go, ‘Oh, go back to the old way you used to do it,’ and well, it’s really no different. We’re refining the ideas a little bit more before we present them to our partner. So, if I hand over a track, I’m still leaving him a space there to put his stamp on it, it’s the same concept.”
Tremonti offers his take on working out balance between himself and Kennedy when lockdowns prevented them from working simultaneously. “I would break out my cell phone, get on Zoom with him,” Tremonti says of a process that became the standard for so many other musicians. “I would turn in a few songs, he [Kennedy] would listen to them and give his input. I remember the first song he turned in was ‘Silver Tongue’ - he turned in two parts that went back and forth [between us].
“We like to keep our demo phase loose. We don’t want to say, ‘Here’s this completely completed song,’ because then it turns into somebody’s solo project. So, when we can get together as a band, we can always have that alternate sound.
“When Scott and Brian [bassist Brian Marshall and drummer Scott Phillips] come to the mix, it gives it that backbone, that rhythm section that is so recognisable to us. When it’s just me and Myles doing our demos, it sounds a little bit like me, it sounds a little bit like Myles. But when you get us all playing on it, it gets that AB characteristic.”
ON GUITARS, PEDALS AND MORE…
Kennedy is positively swimming in equipment in what he calls his “office studio environment”. He sits with his arms folded looking from an angle at a monitor, the camera capturing his profile. None of the gear here, however, made it onto the new album. “I had grand delusions of trying to do a YouTube channel like when the pandemic hit,” he explains with a bashful smile. “I bought all the stuff, and had it set up and I was like, ‘Well I’ve gotta come up with content for that. I can set the camera, but I think I’d be a huge bore,’ so I scrapped the plans!”
Thanks to a good hunk of other gear though, the sonic stamp in Pawns & Kings is distinctly Alter Bridge, with many of its riffs’ nuances and the execution of solos echoing the band’s earlier work nearly some 20 years ago. Album cut ‘This Is War’, for example, boasts a menacingly effervescent opening riff with a very distinct attack that continues into the chorus. Such a sound was established throughout the album by a relative newcomer to Kennedy’s arsenal, the PRS McCarty Electric Guitar. “It has elements of a single coil sound that uses Narrowfield pickups,” the frontman says of the instrument’s make up. “It gets that top end that I really like with that character without all of the hum, and especially when using high gain like we’re using, the last thing you want to do is plug a single coil into some of these amps, it’s going to buzz like crazy.
“This guitar worked really well for that. It just has a certain cut – I used that guitar on about 80 per cent of the record. Then there’s my tried and true [PRS SC] 245 that I’ve used since the Blackbird days , I used that on the other tracks. I’ve used it forever, it’s kind of been a signature guitar for a long time until this black [McCarty] one came along, it’s like I love this guitar! It just has such a character to it.”
At times, some of the album’s guitar rhythms and melodies boast a wonderful push and pull, which are then interjected by wailing, desperate solos. This marriage of sound and technique is sometimes broken down in songs like ‘Stay’ (which sees Tremonti take on lead vocals) or can establish a particular swagger as in ‘Holiday’, before bringing back the aggressive drives as heard in ‘Fable Of The Silent Son’. Because this audio landscape is so in keeping with the noise of Alter Bridge releases of yore, you may think the band have utilised many of the same pedals – not so.
Where FullTone was the preferred pedal for the effects on renowned Alter Bridge hits like ‘Before Tomorrow Comes’ and the solo on ‘Blackbird’, Kennedy has “started veering away” from the brand, his eye caught by something a little sexier – the J. Rockett Chicken Soup Overdrive.
“They’re amazing,” Kennedy gushes. “I’m afraid to say this because people are going to snag them up! They have a notch at the mid-range frequency that works perfectly for us. It’s like corduroy, that’s the sound I’m shooting for; it’s not too saturated, it’s still got this space, and that’s what I like about using [these] pedals, you know. I’m not using Metal Zones, let’s just put it that way!”
Choosing the right instrument is (as Kennedy attests, appreciative of the intentional pun) instrumental in establishing one’s signature sound.
“I think that’s part of the journey,” he says. “I kind of look at it like my voice – it took me years and years to find this sound and it’s the same thing, stylistically, the inflections: it’s me. When I sing, you’re gonna know ‘That’s that guy’. It’s the same thing with guitar, and that’s why I’m so grateful that PRS did this for me, it’s like I was hearing this thing that didn’t exist and I was like ‘Wow how can we get this character?’
“Mark has utilised these guitars now for nearly two decades, probably over two decades, and you know it’s part of his musical DNA – so you combine that sound with his touch and there’s Mark. I think that’s why I embarked on this as well.”
ON AMPS AND THAT ELUSIVE MT100…
Tremonti looks as if he’s nested in a small warehouse, but really, it’s his home studio, “the best room in the house”, according to the Riff Lord. It’s really no secret but Tremonti is, by all accounts, an amp-over-guitar man. “I have a signature guitar and I don’t need to upgrade, you know, because I love my guitar,” he says. “I’ve got the MT 15 right here,” he points over his shoulder. He flips around his phone camera to proudly show off his collection of amps, moving away from his desk and taking the camera into what can only be described as a walk-in wardrobe for amplifiers. “There’s the RK100,” he says, pointing to a monster at the bottom of a shelf housing various heads. “Here are the best ones though,” he adds, gesturing towards a Dumble and a Trainwreck. “Those are the best other than, of course, the MT 15. Yeah, that’s my obsession: all these amps.”
Rumours about and images of the MT100 have graced online forums and interviews with Tremonti for around four years now. Amp aficionados and/or followers of Tremonti’s dedication to the box beasts will already know, with the PRS Mark Tremonti Signature MT 15 being the colossus that it is, that the MT100 should knock down walls – and Tremonti has one right behind him.
It’s a wooden prototype and not the actual thing; Tremonti’s not permitted to share photos of it yet. Nevertheless, the MT 100 was the main focus on Pawns & Kings. “I’ve got two prototypes here,” Tremonti says. “The first prototype was a two channel but now it’s a three channel. That was one of the first versions of the three channel,” he finishes, indicating the wooden box again. “I just sent the newest prototype back to the factory two days ago, and I should get it back tomorrow. And fingers crossed, after almost four years, I’ll be able to greenlight the head.
“I’ve also been opening up all my cabinets at home and mix matching speakers and trying to come up with the best [configuration]. ‘What are we using? What speakers are we using? What dimensions are we using? What grill are we using?’ I finally came up with a pattern of speakers in the cabinet that sounds perfect for the head, and to me it’s going to be the greatest, greatest tone I’ve ever had.”
In collaboration with PRS’ Rich Hannon and Doug Sewell, Tremonti was instrumental in developing his new obsession. “Round and round and round just to get it right,” he says of the meticulous process in the amp’s creation. “Because, you know, once you think you’re at a finish line with something, all of a sudden, a war breaks out, and you can’t get the tubes. So, we had to change tubes. And we had to make that work. We had to, like I said, go from a two channel to a three channel and they had to find a whole new chassis.
“It’s made us come through a lot of changes, but it’s going to end up being, for me, the perfect amplifier. And I’m glad, I don’t ever want to just put something out because it’s easy. You know, I want to put it out because it’s absolutely right, and it’s taken a lot of years to get it that way.”
ON RECREATING THEIR IN-HOUSE SOUND ON THE LIVE STAGE…
Alter Bridge hit the road once more earlier in November when they commenced a tour through Europe and North America that will take them well into 2023. No matter where you’re positioned in any kind of venue – front back, stalls, balcony etc. – the high-end quality of sound with which Alter Bridge perform never wavers. That being said, there’s much to account for when trying to balance the distinct preferences and styles of both guitarists’ gear and technique.
“There has to be a good balance between me and Myles, our amps have to fill different frequency ranges,” Tremonti begins. “When I was younger, I used to like that scooped kind of low end and high-end heavy metal kind of sound, but that stuff doesn’t cut through a mix well. So, I added way more mid-range to my tone. So, it really punches through the mix, and it doesn’t really live with the bass guitar when it comes to the frequencies, [so it] can get muddied up there.
“Our sound engineer is brilliant at taking everything we do and putting it in its own space, you know, so nobody shares the same frequencies. Myles is here, and I’m there, and it all works.”
Kennedy’s preference for amps still lies with his trusted Diezel VH4 100w Guitar Amp Head and his Herbert 180W Tube Guitar Head. “They fit really well in this context,” he says of using them for Pawns & Kings. Were he and Tremonti both to utilise Diezels on the live stage, they’d end up filling the same frequencies, as Tremonti explains.
“I used to be a huge believer in having two amps at the same time for your tone,” he says, “because those two amps are going to do two different things and fill that bigger space. But I’m finally down to one amp live and it’s just going to be the MT 100. That’s because I have a three-channel amp. It’s such a versatile amp, I don’t need anything else.
“It’s got the best clean channel I’ve ever heard on a 100 watt head,” he continues, “and it’s got a great overdrive channel that serves a good gap between your dead clean and your heavy lead sound. That amp will go from as clean as you can get to a really sweet overdrive, like a Dumble kind of boutique sound, to a heavy metal sound, you know? So, it’s got everything, everything that you could ever, I could ever need live.”
“It’s a noise machine up there!” Kennedy cries. “120 decibels of pure sonic fury up there!” A stark contrast to the in-studio setting, then.
ON HOW TO PLAY SONGS FROM PAWNS & KINGS…
When you give it a listen, it may seem that there’s a certain complexity of character to Pawns & Kings. Tremonti, however, says there are both technically demanding aspects to playing some of the new material, and some relatively simple areas, too. On the album’s title track, Tremonti elaborates, “There’s not a lot of effects on there. I leave my gain at about noon and just kind of use a lot of palm muting for some of the heavier, faster riffs.
“Like, if I was to learn that song from scratch, I would probably start with the hardest part and go straight to the bridge and learn the bridge breakdown riff, the heavy riffs, because that’s the toughest part to learn.” Tremonti’s advice? “Go backwards from there.”
Tremonti got tripped up in the early stages of putting down the track, though. “Scott and Myles were playing the intro with this weird feel,” he recalls. “Me and Elvis [producer Michael “Elvis” Baskette] are like, ‘What are you doing? This is so weird’, like, it’s this weird time thing. And me and Elvis were like, ‘I don’t get it’, but Scott and Myles are like, ‘No, this is great, we’re gonna do this.’ So, the beginning of that song, I would leave that for last and then learn the rest of it.
“Learn the bridge first,” Tremonti’s lesson continues. “You know, the chorus is very simple and straightforward.” Tremonti moves onto unpacking the more technically challenging and “weird” ideas of ‘Pawns & Kings’, revealing they can trip up even a well-seasoned musician like Tremonti. “I would compartmentalise every bit of that song,” he advises, “because I remember how difficult it was for me to memorise the song as a whole in one day and be able to... because when we do pre-production, you could spend a month on a song but then you put it away for three months, so you have to relearn it and play it in one day.
“And that song was a challenge. For your brain to have to take that information in so quickly and be able to play it from start to finish in one day, it was tough. There’s a lot going on there.”
As for other cuts of the album suitable for some stellar Alter Bridge imitation action, Tremonti recommends single ‘Silver Tongue’. “I think the driving force of it is the main opening riff that, um,” Tremonti vocalises a few chugga-chugga-chuggas, “That’s how that song was born.
“When you write a song, there’s usually that key part where you’re like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna build a whole song around this part,’ because that was the special part that I think built that song.”
HOW THE ALBUM STANDS UP IN THE ALTER BRIDGE DISCOGRAPHY…
“I’m such a funny bird there because I don’t truly know until about a decade later,” Kennedy says of how he thinks Pawns & Kings will stand up in the band’s twenty years of music-making history. “You’re talking to the one guy who very rarely listens to a record once he’s [been] a part of making it. I’m always just kind of moving onto the next thing.
“Part of the problem also is I’m hypercritical; I’ll pick things apart and get lost in my head, and that’s something I’m trying to work on so maybe I’ll be more comfortable listening to records as I continue to evolve as a human being and become more conscious. I think for whatever reason, it’s a real challenge.
“But with all of that nonsense aside, I will say that we’ve achieved what we set out to do when we made this record, which was have it be a little bit more refined, not as dense from a sonic standpoint, not as many layers, though there’s still layering here and there – on ‘Fable Son’ there’s some sonic landscaping – but overall, we tried to keep this more focused, and Elvis was on board with this as well, but Mark and I, we were like: this is what we want to shoot for here.
Kennedy ponders, “People keep comparing it to Fortress, which is interesting for me because I don’t know if that’s going to be a shared assessment. Who knows.” It’s an assessment Kennedy admits he would be more than happy with. “From what I remember [of it], that probably would be on top of my list as one of my favourite AB records,” he says, “especially its title track; it shapes the whole thing and pulls it altogether.”
That old delivery choice, you might argue, should have been considered for the title track on Pawns & Kings, which serves as the album’s closing track. “Part of the reason we did that is because we thought, “Well if it’s gonna be the closing track, because we called the record Pawns & Kings, we figured it might be a nice way to punctuate the record, and there’s something about the way that song ends where it’s very final.”
You might say it’s the checkmate. Realising he’s set himself up for one final yet appropriate pun, Kennedy smiles, “Yes! There you have it.”