Modern hard rockers Alter Bridge get in tune with the political mood and streaming

“It would be really nice if people could come together and unify a little more. We’re very polarized right now.”

The ability to be both timely and timeless with one’s music is not an easy feat for any recording artist to accomplish. But modern hard-rock icons Alter Bridge were able to hit upon that mystical balance just as they commenced the writing process for their current release, The Last Hero, almost a year ago.

“When we were putting the record together early last year, one of the things I thought about lyrically was whether any of it would continue to resonate once the election process was over,” vocalist/guitarist Myles Kennedy admitted to Digital Trends. “I feel like, in some ways, it’s only been amplified, you know? We’re definitely not taking sides here — we’re reflecting the general frustration and how polarized things are, as opposed to cramming our agenda down someone’s throat. It’s a very interesting time in our country, for sure.”

Kennedy and his bandmates — guitarist Mark Tremonti, bassist Brian Marshall, and drummer Scott Phillips —definitely hit the songwriting zeitgeist bullseye all throughout The Last Hero, from the hammering thrust of lead track Show Me a Leader to the fade-in-to-sonic-assault vibe of The Other Side to the wistful, wishful thinking of My Champion to the dreamy wash of This Side of Fate.

While on a short break before getting back out on the road with Alter Bridge for the balance of 2017, Kennedy called Digital Trends from his home in the Pacific Northwest to discuss how to connect lyrics with a broad audience without choosing sides, achieving the right vocal balance in final mixes, and getting in tune with streaming.

Digital Trends: Even though The Last Hero came out back in October, it seems as relevant at this moment than at any time before now, don’t you think? Especially when you come right out of the box with Show Me a Leader, a song that seems like the manifesto for, “Hey, let’s put up or shut up” in this age. In other words, “Enough talk — we need to take action.”

Myles Kennedy: Yes. That song, in a lot of ways, was ultimately trying to reflect the emotions people are feeling. And there still is a lot of disillusionment about the leadership in politics and the whole dog-and-pony show. So yeah, it’s definitely a reflection of that.

What is it you say in Twilight? “Divided by our differences”…?

Yeah — “Divided by our differences now everything is torn apart/tomorrow is contingent on the tolerance of every heart.” And that last line sums up the need for a certain amount of tolerance regardless of skin color, religious beliefs, or political beliefs. It would be really nice if people could come together and unify a little more. We’re very polarized right now, for whatever reason.

“A lot of times when I’m performing a song, it takes me back to where I was psychologically as the lyric was being written.”

Have you ended up singing Last Hero lyrics a little bit differently as time has moved on? I get the original resonance behind them when listening to the record itself, but has your interpretation of them changed when you sing them in front of people now, given how the world has changed in recent months?

Not so far, but it may as time goes on. We’ll see how things play out. A lot of times when I’m performing a song, it tends to take me back to where I was psychologically as the lyric was being written. But then there are those songs that take on a different meaning and interpretation, depending on the situation at hand. Right now, though, it’s still taking me back to about a year ago when we were putting this record together.

Now that you’re a number of albums deep into Alter Bridge’s career, you have to balance the desires of your fans and listeners with the ways you want to stretch creatively as songwriters. How do you manage that once you get into the studio?

It’s an interesting process, because you do want to satiate your fan base and give them the music they know you for and that’s synonymous with your brand, but at the same time, you want to evolve creatively and push yourself to see what you’re capable of, as opposed to regurgitating the same formula over and over again.

That can be a hard one, because you can cross the line into just overt self-indulgence very quickly, and then alienate people — and you don’t want to do that. At the same time, you don’t want to bore people: “Well, I already bought this record. It sounds the same as the last three records. I don’t want this again.”

Are you pretty hands-on in the studio about saying, “Hey, I want my vocals to be this far up in the mix, and I also want it doubled here.” What’s your process?

I tend to let a lot of that fall on our producer Elvis’ shoulders (i.e., producer and mixer Michael “Elvis” Baskette) because I trust him so much. A lot of times in the past, I’ve done records where I’ve had a very clear vision of how I see the final production being, and that’s been great.

Way back in The Mayfield Four days [the alt-rock band Kennedy was lead vocalist/guitarist for from 1996-2002], I would hear the songs in my head, and I would get attached to the idea of how they should sound in the end. I wouldn’t always trust the people who we’d turn that over to, to do it completely. As time has gone on, that’s something I’ve learned how to relinquish control of.

And Elvis, in particular — he always takes things that I’ve heard a certain way, and steps it up to another level. That’s not to say the people I’d worked with in the past hadn’t; it’s just that, by having that maturity as a songwriter, you learn how to better utilize that trust.

I mean, I’m not a mixer. That’s not what I do. I’m a songwriter, a singer, and a guitar player. You might have some ideas here and there, but you let the mixer mix the song because, overall, you’ve gotta trust their instincts.

We both grew up in the vinyl era, so I’m curious — from your point of view, what’s the best way to listen to an Alter Bridge record these days? Do you still like putting the needle down on a record, or…?

Well, that’s a good question, because a lot of it for me depends on the medium it’s recorded on. For Alter Bridge, I would say listening to it on CD would probably be the way I would most prefer to do it, because it was recorded in the digital domain.

But if a record was done strictly in analog — for example, I have a hard time listening to Steely Dan’s Aja (1977) on an MP3 or CD because it was an analog recording, and it sounds so good on vinyl! In fact, in the last five years, I’ve probably listened to Aja more than any other record. That’s probably my Desert Island Disc. It’s the perfect album.

I have to agree with you there. On the other side of things, I’m also curious to get your viewpoint about streaming.

“Streaming is the new frontier. It’s much more ideal than file-sharing.”

Well, as somebody who’s officially jumped onboard with that as well, that’s the way I listen to a lot of music now — especially for discovering new music. It’s the new frontier. And I appreciate that more than the way it was when Napster was at its zenith, where people were essentially just sharing files and whatnot. Streaming is more ideal.

From the artist’s standpoint, are you getting more from streaming than you used to, prior to the days of the Internet? No — and I don’t know if those days are ever going to come back — but at least, technically speaking, it’s the legal way to do it. It doesn’t seem as shady to me as it did early on.

And now that we’re getting hi-res streaming, I’m encouraged that some of the subtleties and detail in the mixes of songs like Twilight and how The Last Hero unfolds will be able to fully heard. I hate missing out on the care that’s been taken with putting mixes like that together.

That’s exciting to hear — that as technology advances, that sort of thing will shine through a little more, because you are missing a lot with streaming as it is now, before all that.

Let’s circle back to vinyl. Why do you think people are clueing more into it now?

You know, I don’t know! From a technical level, I don’t know why that is. I can just speak for myself, but there’s something about the ritual of it, because I grew up on vinyl — taking the record out, and putting the needle down on it. But also, just the experience — as a technical geek, there’s something in the midrange in particular that seems a lot warmer. It doesn’t have the high-end hype like putting a CD on does. There’s a warmth, obviously, with vinyl that you just don’t get with CDs. There’s something very, very different about it when you juxtapose the two.

It’s an interesting point. And with Alter Bridge, you guys literally alter things between thrash and acoustic, so the dynamic range on a record like The Last Hero is pretty broad. You must have discussions with Elvis about how your vocals can’t get buried in the overall mix when they’re on a particularly heavy track.

Occasionally, when Elvis is sending out mixes, one of us may say, “Hey, can you turn my guitars up on this part” or “turn up the vocal a little bit here.” But the beauty with Elvis is, generally, there’s only one recall. It’s not one of these things where you’ve got eight recalls to get the mix right. He’s so good that the first mix is so close, and there are only a few little minor details to adjust. That’s a very, very wonderful thing.

Nowadays, you’ve got to make your bread and butter onstage. As the guy who has to sing all these songs every night, do you follow the template of the record when you play live, or take a different approach to them?

Well, some of the stuff is pretty challenging to play live. We started doing The Last Hero on the last run, and that’s a pretty difficult song, because of the production and how many layers we put on it. So to convey that without using backing tracks live — which we refuse to do — is kind of a challenge.

And that’s the trick — to make sure it’s still conveyed properly in the live setting without all the bells and whistles. The hardest part for me is making sure I can still pull everything off vocally reasonably well by the time we’re that deep into a tour. (chuckles)

You just don’t want to let fans down. They pay hard-earned money to come see a show. They don’t want to get screwed. We’re just trying to make people leave happy.

One of your songs, Metalingus, has almost 16 million listens on Spotify, while Addicted to Pain has over 8 million listens. Why do you think Alter Bridge music connects with so many people?

Well, perhaps it’s because they realize it’s coming from a sincere place. There’s a certain honesty we’re conveying with our music that’s from the heart, and there’s a universal quality the songs and the subject matter have that seems to resonate with people. So perhaps that’s it.

You never really know for sure, but when I hear Spotify numbers like that — well, I didn’t know them before you told me, and it kind of blows my mind, to be honest with you. I can tell you all four of us are extremely grateful for getting that kind of response to what we’re doing. It’s exciting to hear.