February 17, 2014 Interview – Monte Pittman
Life sometimes takes us down paths we may not have envisioned when laying out our plans. For guitarist Monte Pittman, leaving his home town of Longview, TX back in 1999 to move out to Los Angeles, CA to further pursue his music career led him on an unforeseen journey. Within a year of his arrival on the west coast, Pittman became a member of thrash metal band Prong and guitarist for pop rock icon Madonna. Now remaining Madonna’s guitarist through three albums and five touring cycles over the past decade, Pittman has seen his fair share of success. With a burning passion to excel in his own music, Pittman began his solo career in 2009 with his debut The Deepest Dark. After signing with Metal Blade Records, Pittman now unleashes his third and heaviest album to date The Power of Three in 2014. Recently we sat down with Monte Pittman for an in depth look at his career with Prong and Madonna, the birth of his solo career, love for music, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been involved in music for over 2 decades now. You started out early on with your band Myra Mains, but in 1999 decided to move to Los Angeles to further pursue your musical career. Since then a lot of great things have happened for you including working with Prong and Madonna. When you look back on the past 15 years since you made this decision in your life, could you have ever imagined the success you have had?
Monte Pittman – No, I always wanted my own band to do something and do it that way. I would have never guessed I would have been playing with other people. Prong was one of my favorite bands and still is. That really started everything, it happened as soon as I got to LA. Ivan De Prume, which used to play drums in White Zombie, was friends with Tommy Victor. He introduced us both, and that is where that happened. Then I started teaching Madonna guitar lessons and she invited me to join her band and come on tour with her. I would just go back and forth from playing with Prong and Madonna. Eventually I got back to why I moved out from Texas to California; to have my own band and work as a professional musician. I started playing my own solo shows and that is where it brought me to now; doing a heavy album with Metal Blade records.
CrypticRock.com – That is a great unforeseen story. Since giving Madonna guitar lessons, you have assisted in writing and recording 4 albums with Madonna as well as toured worldwide with her 5 times since 2001. What has the experience of working with a pop icon been like?
Monte Pittman – Really cool. Her music has all kind of different styles. There is always something that we are doing that is somewhat of a rock kind of music. You always get to do something acoustic and something kind of atmospheric. We have just about every style in the time I have been with her, that is a great thing. I love all kinds of different music and so does she. Variety is the spice of life as they say. It is nothing I would have gone for an audition for if I heard it was happening, but I became friends with her through teaching her. She invited to come along with her, and I am still around.
CrypticRock.com – It is really unbelievable and has to be a cool experience. Showing the extreme diversity as a musician, you were also a part of Prong for a while as well as playing for Madonna like you said. I imagine there is a night and day difference between working with Madonna and Prong respectfully. What was your experience like working with Prong?
Monte Pittman – What is funny is people always said that when I said I play in Madonna and Prong, they say how do you do that? There are a lot of similarities. One of the craziest things they both come from the same place, CBGB’s. When Prong started out they came from CBGB’s. Madonna had a band when she was first in New York before called The Breakfast Club and they played CBGB’s. It all kind of comes from there. I think Madonna definitely has a punk rock attitude and loves that kind of music. Prong is one of my favorite bands still and it was great to be there to start it when Tommy was going to start Prong again. After Rude Awakening came out the band got dropped because they only dropped 10,000 albums in the first week. Being there when it started up again and being such a huge fan I got to say this is what it needs to be like, really have my input. It was great to be able to be there and have it start up again. Things are still great with Tommy and I. There are so many people that tell me they loved the last album Carved Into Stone (2012), and he is working on a new album now. It is great that things are happening the way they are. Hopefully we can do some shows together.
CrypticRock.com – That would be a great tour if it happened. You decided to pursue a solo career as a musician in 2009 with your debut album The Deepest Dark, which was a great acoustic rock composition. Then in 2011 you released a very different record with more of a hard rock vibe entitled Pain, Love & Destiny. What made you decide to branch out into harder rock from your initial acoustic material?
Monte Pittman – It was a natural progression. I started playing out acoustic that way I didn’t have to worry about someone else being out of town or couldn’t do a gig. At the end of the day I moved out here to play music. Instead of running into a wall every time you book a gig; someone’s out of town or someone else has something else going on that night. So I started doing my own acoustic stuff. I had done it before but I kind of stopped. When I first moved to LA I played some open mic nights. I played one in Santa Monica. The lights were really bright in my face, I couldn’t see the audience very well, and I just went up there and went for it. I had a standing ovation, a great response, and it startled the hell out of me and I never did it again (laughs). One of my students wanted to use the songs from the demo of The Deepest Dark for a movie he was going to work on. I held onto those songs for a few years, plans changed, and that never actually came to fruition. I wanted to play shows, I started to play acoustic. From there I started getting better set times, getting better gigs, so I started playing with a drummer and bass player. As things kept progressing I started picking up an electric guitar and started doing guitar solos to make up for the time and make it more interesting. People from the audience said they liked that and I should add more of that into my music. So when I was doing Pain, Love, & Destiny, which was going to be acoustic with drums and bass, I put some guitar solos in there. The guy who produced that said that we had to play electric. You can’t just pick up the electric guitar, play a solo, and put it down. That led to me making a rock album. From playing the rock stuff live, it was like ok now I need faster songs and that is what helped to allow me to bring in the heavy stuff. I had made all these demos, acoustic demos, blues demos, and heavy demos. I gave them to Flemming Rasmussen because we did an acoustic EP. He said you have to focus on these heavy songs. We made plans to go out and record in Copenhagen. That changed everything and started a divine cycle, and he signed me to Metal Blade.
CrypticRock.com – It almost seems like a trilogy over the past 5 years leading us to this point.
Monte Pittman – It really is. The first three being The Deepest Dark, Pain, Love & Density, The Power of Three , and the MP3 The Power of Three Part 1, kind of sum of the first part of the trilogy I guess you could say. The Power of Three, which is the third album. There will be 2 more heavy albums at least with Metal Blade. Who knows where it will go from there, every time I make plans something changes, so I don’t want to jinx it (laughs). We have the next two albums written, we can record them tomorrow if we had to. I have that as a template and there will be writing along the way. We will see what people like from this material and we will take it from there, perfecting it as we go along.
CrypticRock.com – Now in 2014 we see you go deeper into your bank of influence and talent with The Power of Three which is a great heavy metal record. Tell me what the writing and recording process was like for this new record?
Monte Pittman – I had written it all, made a demo of the entire album, and I knew exactly what the album was going to be. It was recorded live in the same room as Ride The Lightening (1984). We tracked the tape; we did everything like they did for Ride The Lightening. A lot of the same equipment even. The writing side of it, I had some riffs that I had in the past, but a lot of it came while I was a on a camping trip out in Death Valley. I had my acoustic and I wrote 14 songs on that trip. That is pretty much the majority of what you hear. You just fine tune it as you go along. A lot of times when I write lyrics you just naturally use the same word you have used in another song. When I look at the entire body of work, it is like ok I used this word a lot, let’s find another word I can put in place of that. When you do that then what you are saying is something completely different. To me success when writing a song is when someone asks you about a song you wrote and they think it means one thing, but to you being the writer it does not actually mean that. You want it to be about whatever the listener decides it is about, it is part of the art of it. It is like a painting, if you look at a piece of art it can mean several different things. What are you seeing, one person maybe seeing one thing, and another maybe seeing another.
CrypticRock.com – That is the beauty of music and art, is that it is open to interpretation. This record has a lot of well crafted songs. One of the things that stick out is the excellent production on the record. A lot of hard rock and metal records now a day are mastered so loud that you experience ear fatigue. Was that something you wanted to go for with this record?
Monte Pittman – Yes, I went through several different mastering guys. I went through mastering hell to get this. Alan Douches did the mastering. He has done Cannibal Corpse and Black Dalia Murder. He just knocked it out of the park. It was night and day compared to some of the other mastering jobs and I went to some of the biggest people. I had a few days where I hated this album and I did not like that. I put so much into this album and I said we are not going out like this. Alan was a suggestion from both Brian’s label and Tommy Victor because he did the Prong Carved Into Stone album. He is just amazing how he brings out the EQ’s and everything breathes. A lot of that is also Flemming’s production and recording it onto tape. There was no repairing something in pro tools, there was no taking the drums and replacing the sounds, we got it right there.
CrypticRock.com – That is why the record really stands strong. It has that natural feel to it. Now being involved in both the pop rock and metal world you have a broad prospective of modern music. It is a strange time in music as sadly not many people actually buy music anymore and it is a digital world. In your opinion what do you think of the state of the music industry?
Monte Pittman – Music revolves in cycles in every way. Last year there was a report in an article saying that not a lot of albums sold but it was a good year for singles. That reminded me when I was a little kid where there would be 45’s or singles. Also you have streaming now which is a lower quality of listening, it is getting better, but right now if you listen to something on Spotify and you listen to the same track on iTunes it is a lot better quality. That is crazy too because when that first came out I remember people were saying why would you sacrifice the quality of a CD? The two things that I see that are congruent is singles/45’s and also the streaming is like taking a cassette tape, high speed dubbing it, and it doesn’t have the same quality of the original tape. With people not buying music the way they use to, what I learned from Flemming is people are not buying albums, but how many people are making albums? People are going into a computer, and take one section and loop it over and over again until you get it right. Then you replace all the drum sounds, and then you move all the drum sounds to where they are perfectly in time, to where it does not even sound like a human played it. When Led Zeppelin made an album, it is them playing, and that is what you hear. A lot of what you are not hearing anymore is humans making music. What Flemming wanted us to do was play together in the same room at the same time and make it like you would an old album. Now you don’t see people doing that, you see people doing things at separate times. People record different parts at different times. You are losing some of that personality.
CrypticRock.com – I totally agree. It is great that you actually played the music live. It is refreshing to see that coming back and see that personality and atmosphere.
Monte Pittman – Yes absolutely. Maybe subconsciously people are susceptible to that. I think right now we are in a transition period, I think we always are. What did people do when cassette tapes came out instead of vinyl and 8 tracks? Then when CD’s came out, we are in another transition now. To look at it from a positive side you can put your music out there all over the world immediately. Those sorts of things are so valuable; you kind of have to give and take some.
CrypticRock.com – That’s very true, you have to take the good with the band. With the new record can we expect a tour in support of it?
Monte Pittman – Yes, we are working on that now. Getting all the material out there, assembling a team, and getting everyone in place. We have some shows in the works which will be announced.
CrypticRock.com – That is exciting. Seeing your broad range of styles, I would like to know what some of your musical influences are.
Monte Pittman – Growing up I was into Kiss and that started getting me into Motley Crue and Twisted Sister. Then all the thrash bands like Metallica and Slayer, which is when I got my first guitar. That was an exciting time to be playing guitar and have all that as an influence. Then you have Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and these guitar virtuosos, so there was plenty of material to learn. Then there was the whole grunge scene that came out, it was the other side of things; all those kind of the bands at the time, and then Pantera, Sepultura, and Prong. Then in the mid to late 1990’s I started getting into the death metal bands because there was just nothing like it. Some of that mixed with acoustic guys such as Nick Drake, Elliot Smith, Ray LaMontagne. As far as guitar players there is always the obvious people, right now people that influence me I would say Freddie King. I think he is probably one of the best guitar players who ever lived. I’d say Jeff Beck and King are two of the biggest ever for me.
CrypticRock.com – It is good not to limit yourself in what you listen to. It all shows through one way or another.
Monte Pittman – John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk are two of my biggest influences and they are not even guitar players. It is what they play; Coltrane could possibly be the best musician that ever lived. What he was doing was crazy, what he was playing, how he was getting those notes, that is something that gets me going and interests me now. You take that approach and I apply it to what I am doing with heavy music. Another guitarist I love is Tuck Andress, a jazz guy. He is a solo guitarist where he is doing it all on guitar, he kind of makes it sound like a drum even. I remember in an interview with him he said a lot of his influences were from horn players so he would just think that way and play that on a guitar.
CrypticRock.com – That is a very interesting approach to take.
Monte Pittman – There is one musical technique that I like to use a lot and at times I did not even realize I was using it; it is called an enclosure. Let’s say you were going to play an A; you play an A sharp and A flat before you play the A. You see that a lot in classical music, Mozart and Tchaikovsky did it. Coltrane, if he was going to play an A he would play A flat, B, B flat, A. Myles Davis would do the opposite, he would play A sharp, G, G Sharp, A. One would go one way the other would go the opposite way. It almost makes an optical illusion with sound. That is what you hear at the beginning of the song “A Dark Horse”. The melody is enclosures, it goes 1 note above, 1 note underneath, and then it plays the notes.
CrypticRock.com – That is amazing and crazy how many different techniques are involved in composing music. My last question for you is regarding films. Crypticrock.com is a rock/metal and horror news site so we like to focus on all genres. Are you a fan of horror films and if so what are some of your favorite horror films?
Monte Pittman – Friday The 13th Part 2 (1981) is my favorite of all time. I love that stuff. Ari Lehman, who was the first Jason Voorhees, and I follow each other on Twitter (laughs). There are so many things I could tell you about Friday The 13th, especially about music. Where I grew up in Texas, there is a scene in Friday the 13th where that is what my back yard looked like (laughs). There were some scary things that happened in real life that happened not too far from where I lived so it was really scary as a kid. One day when I was older I rented the VHS tape of Friday the 13th and I watched it on mute. I said what was the big deal about it, this is not scary. Then I removed mute and that music came back on and it was so scary. The music makes such an effect in those films. I figured out all the music from Friday the 13th on the guitar. They all come from an augmented scale, which I look at is the opposite of a diminished scale, which you would normally think of as scary music. With diminished scales you would flat the 5th note and an augmented scale raise it one. I look at it similar and I apply that into some of my music too. I’d love to score a movie like that. If they do make another Friday the 13th movie like they are speaking about, maybe they can use me for the music. I will scare the fuck out of everyone (laughs).
CrypticRock.com – (laughs) That would be great. You are absolutely right about the music having an effect on the atmosphere of the movies, whether it is Friday the 13th or any horror movie. I’d love to see them go back to that in horror. I feel like scores are not as strong as they once were for horror films. That is what made the films have that eerie feel.
Monte Pittman – I wish I could get into that. That would be a dream if I could one day somehow have a situation where I could make one of those movies, I’d make the scariest movie imaginable. It seems like so much fun. The Friday the 13th (2009) remake they did, I liked it, but the music was like this dance music. That needs to be organic strings on tape, which is part of what brings you in.