22nd February 2017
Extreme, an interview with
Extreme are genuine rock’n’roll survivors. The bastard offspring of Aerosmith and Queen, the Boston band broke big with 1990’s landmark Pornograffitti album and its epic follow-up III Sides To Every Story, finding themselves anointed successors to Freddie Mercury and co by none other than Brian May himself. After a split in the late-90s, during which time singer Gary Cherone stepped into the shoes of Dave Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar as frontman for Van Halen, the band returned in 2008 with a brand new album, Saudades de Rock. As Extreme gear up to headline Ramblin’ Man’s main stage on Saturday, 29 July, Gary Cherone and guitarist Nuno Bettencourt look back on the ups and downs of their career…
Let’s go back to the beginning. It’s more than 30 years since Extreme started out. What was it like being a rock band in Boston in the mid-80s?
Gary Cherone: We were outcasts in some ways. Boston had Aerosmith, J Geils Band, Boston itself, but in the 80s is was a college town dominated by just a few radio stations that leaned towards new wave bands. There was a scene in Boston, it wasn’t supported by radio, but it was there. From ’85 to ’89, we were headlining the clubs – it was kind of like the East Coast Sunset Strip.
Nuno Bettencourt: It was a good time for music. The building where we had our rehearsal room, there were all these other bands. You had a death metal band next door and a jazz band over there. We quit our day jobs, everybody slept in that place. We were going for broke. And that’s where we wrote a lot o f the songs that got us our record deal.
You weren’t based in New York or LA. How hard was it to get a deal?
GC: It took a few years, but it wasn’t that hard. We got a few demos out to LA, we got a few showcases, we were lucky enough to get people out to Boston to see the band. We were packing the clubs. The problems started after we got signed. The album was delayed, record company guys putting their hands in the pie.
When your debut album came out, you were lumped in with MTV bands like Guns N’ Roses and Poison. Did you feel any affinity with those bands?
GC: We were an odd one out. You had Guns N’ Roses with that raunchy, raw rock’n’roll. You had Poison with the glam thing. We were from Boston, we came from that Aerosmith school. We had a groove. Some people called it funk rock or funky rock. We didn’t fit in.
That first album sold 300,000 copies. Amazing numbers today, but disappointing back then. If that happened now, you’d have been dropped right away…
GC: The record company liked what they saw. They were supportive. I think the secret of the success of Pornograffitti, our second record, was that our first record was delayed a year. So by the time that first record came out, we were past that. We went on tour on that first record, we were doing Get The Funk Out, we were doing Decadence Dance. I think we really found our identity on the second record. It goes without saying it dwarfed the first one.
NB: Can you imagine reaching 300,000 people on the strength of your music alone, just by hitting the van and touring? The labels gave you a six album deal, because they knew it took those building blocks. They knew you had to become better writers. They knew that you would make albums that were better and better. As great as The Beatles were, it took them a while to go from I Wanna Hold Your Hand to Rubber Soul to Sgt Peppers. Imagine if that was today – we wouldn’t have even heard that.
Pornograffittii was a great leap forward compared to the debut album. Where did that come from?
GC: Hard work. There’s no substitute for going out there and playing. I think the first record did OK, but we were playing clubs to 20 people. We were road dogs. The band still has that mentality, and we want to bring it to the festival – we always put on the full metal jacket and play like it’s our last gig. Maybe that’s naive, but we’re still true believers in what we do
NB: I think if you really look at yourself as an artist or songwriter, you don’t calculate anything. You’re not going, ‘Well, this year I’m going to try out this sound.’ Because our album was delayed a year, we said ‘Fuck it’ – we went back in and started recording the songs that we had. A lot of that stuff on Pornograffitti was around the same period, we just went with whatever we had first. Pornograffitti could have been our first album if we’d wanted it to.
Get The Funk Out was your breakthrough hit in the UK. Did you know how important that song would be?
GC: Nuno was a riff machine. I remember him playing the demo. We were just in the process of writing, but you know some songs are better than others, and that was one.
NB: No, anybody who tells you they know a song is going to be a hit is full of shit. A friend of mine was in a supermarket and she heard More Than Words. She was, like, ‘That’s such an incredible song – how did you write it?’ I was, like, ‘Well, we just wrote a song on a porch and that’s how it turned out.’ We were writing songs that became hits, we weren’t writing hits. With Get The Funk Out, we didn’t go, ‘Oh, we’re gonna do this brew of rock and funk with horns in it.’ We did it because we loved funk and we wanted to put some horns in it. There was no calculation.
It was More Than Words that truly broke the band worldwide. How did having a US Number 1 single change your life?
GC: We were in the UK when we heard. We were dong a club tour, and we kept calling home to our families. They’d tell us they were playing More Than Words constantly on MTV. I think we were at the Mayfair Hotel when we heard. We had a fun night. People forget that it was nine months after we put out Pornograffitti, and we were still playing clubs. We couldn’t buy a tour, then More Than Words hit and we jumped on the Dave Lee Roth tour, then the Bon Jovi tour, the ZZ Top tour. We were on the road for another year.
NB: There was nothing on the radio like it at the time. We didn’t invent acoustic music, but nobody knew what the fuck to do with it since the 70s. People were, like, ‘Wow, this is fresh for right now.’ It was pre-MTV Unplugged. I thought it was more rock’n’roll because of that than most of the songs you’d hear on the radio at that time.
Did you enjoy being the band of the moment?
NB: Fuck yeah! It was better than being band of no moment. But we never looked at it that way. When people ask us about More Than Words being a blessing or a curse, I always laugh. Like, let me weigh it up: either it’s a worldwide smash, the rest of the world knows the rest of your album, and you get to play arenas and everything, or it isn’t and I’m working at Burger King today. It’s a no-brainer. And you wrote it, you created it. There’s no way in hell that I’m ever embarrassed or ashamed or worried that it was a ballad.
What was it like being in the eye of the hurricane?
GC: It was our version of Beatlemania – we were flown all over the place, playing Top Of The Pops, doing radio stations. It was great. Exhausting but great. But I think Pat and Paul enjoyed it more than Nuno and I. We were still out to conquer the world, trying to write a better album than Pornograffitti.
There’s a rumour that the voice that says ‘Did you say your prayers?’ at the start of the song Money (In God We Trust) is Janet Jackson. Is that true?
NB: That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that. I played on her single, Black Cat around the time. But it is not Janet. I’ll tell you what, I want you to print that it is – I think we can run with it.
You famously opened the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992. What was it like walking out in front of the crowd at Wembley Stadium on that day?
GC: You know, I recently watched it again. A friend sent it to me and said, ‘Do you know this guy?’ I still get caught up in emotion about it. Brian May was the one who asked us to do it. I remember pulling out all the Queen CDs, putting a medley together. We knew exactly what we wanted to do. It probably pissed off a few people that we were doing so many Queen songs, but to walk out there and do Mustapha, that’s pretty amazing.
What was it like backstage?
GC: It was a whirlwind. The day before, at the rehearsal, I’m on the side waiting to sing Hammer To Fall with Queen and I’m standing next to Annie Lennox. Then I walk outside, and you’ve got Bowie getting ready to come in. I remember Roger Daltrey bringing us to meet his two daughters, who were Extreme fans. I’m going, ‘You know who your father is, right?!’ We were there with Metallica and Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses, and we were all like kids.
Queen were always a big influence on Extreme. What did you learn from them?
GC: Eclecticism. To hear Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy or Love Of My Life or Take My Breath Away next to the heavy stuff was just incredible. For a 13 year old kid, it was like, (admiringly) ‘What is this?’. The other progressive bands, they didn’t have the humour, the camp, the intellect, But for me personally, it was the vocals. To this day, there’s Freddie Mercury and there’s everybody else.
Queen really fed into your third album, III Sides To Every Story. That was a hugely ambitious, semi-conceptual album. Wouldn’t it have just been easier to make Pornograffitti Part 2?
NB: That’s a good question. The label wanted us to do that – ‘These guys are gonna come up with some more acoustic tracks, they’re gonna be that band’. But we never, ever looked back. Maybe it was to our detriment as a band – we could have gone, ‘Let’s give them what they want, let’s give them what they think we are’, but we couldn’t do it. People talk about III Sides as if we were trying to do something crazy. It wasn’t – if you take away the third side, it’s not that different. There are some funk songs with horns, there’s a piano song, there’s an acoustic song here and there. It’s not like the band switched and started playing jazz fusion. Why would we release another acoustic song a single anyway? I mean, Mr Big already did that for us. They released the follow-up to More Than Words right after us…
GC: During that period, Nuno and I threw in the kitchen sink. III Sides was indulgent, it was self-absorbed – it was everything we wanted it to be. It came out in 1992, around the time Nirvana and Pearl Jam came through. Maybe our record was overlooked, but it holds up.
You released one more album, Waiting For The Punchline, then split up. When did you realise it was time to call it a day?
GC: I wanted to keep the band together, Nuno wanted to do some stuff solo-wise, separate from the band. I understood where he was coming from. We just got burnt out. We were in a hurricane that didn’t stop. Maybe we should have taken a year off and got back together. We kept in touch, we never fell out to the point where we made each other sick. It was just a matter of time. We should have got back together sooner.
Gary, you joined Van Halen after Extreme ended. What was the best part of that?
GC: Touring. I think if I was to do it again, I would tour with the band before writing the record. There’s some good songs on the record (VHIII), but I think it fell short. But you’ve got to remember that at the beginning of 1996, I was writing with Nuno in Australia for the next Extreme record. Within six months he does his solo thing and I get a call from VH. It was all so quick.
You recorded a second album with Van Halen. Will it ever see the light of day?
GC: I wonder. Actually, the mythology of it is bigger than what it was. We wrote a cropful of songs – some were fully demoed up, some were scratches – just guitar. But it was more of a band by then, less then a project. Were the songs better? I would say yes.
Did you miss Extreme while you were away from it?
NB: No, I didn’t. Because if I had, we would have been playing. But I think Gary did. I went up and visited him when he was with Van Halen, and hung out with those guys. He was almost done with the Van Halen album, playing me this stuff. We stepped outside, and he said, ‘You give me the word right now and we walk out of here and I’m done with this.’ He was ready. I was just not ready. Of course, you feel like the bad guy, but I was, like ‘You need to see this through, you got to do this because it’s Van Halen.’
You reunited for a handful of gigs in the mid-2000s. Then you got made it permanent a few years later and made a new album Saudades de Rock. Who called who about getting back together?
GC: Me. I called Nuno. In the early 2000s, before we got back together, we’d hook up, we even wrote a few songs. But I was the one knocking on Nuno’s door.
Do you think a band like Extreme would get off the ground if you were starting out in 2017?
NB: It’s hard to say. New bands don’t stand a chance these days. The old system is gone. As soon as people started sharing music – or you can use the word ‘stealing’ or ‘taking’ – it took away a lot of the money that was in the industry to sign those new bands, to find the new David Bowies or Bob Dylans or the Van Halens. Back then, the true route to development was your basement, your garage, the clubs you played. You didn’t have the easy route to go on The Voice or American Idol or X Factor. If we’d have had those shows in the 50s, 60s or 70s, we wouldn’t have the history we have today. The voices of our generation wouldn’t have made it past the first audition. Bob Dylan would have walked up one sang one line, and Simon Cowell would have gone, ‘You are the fucking worst thing I have ever heard – get out!’ Madonna wouldn’t have made it through, Bowie wouldn’t have made it through.
GC: I think the cream rises. We’re in a different world. There’s a lot of factions – there’s the little niche scenes. I think we would be successful, but if we sold 300,000 records today, that’s triple platinum. The golden age of CDs, those days are over. But we’ll survive.
You’re working on a new album now. Where are things at with it?
GC: We got a cropful of songs. Some are past the some demo stages, some with just the basic tracks done. I would love to tell you when, but our goal is to put out a couple of tracks before the festival just for the fans, and follow up with a record.
Can we expect to hear any of the new songs at Ramblin’ Man Fair?
GC: I think so. We’ll be playing old songs, deep cuts, and new music as well. It’s been a while since we played the UK. The last time we played Pornograffitti. This is gonna be something completely different.