Over two years ago I had the honor of speaking with Agent Cooper and Dreaded Marco lead guitarist, Mike Martin (formerly of Fozzy and Stuck Mojo), about his life in music. It was even more special due to the fact that it was my first interview for Better B# and that it was nearly three hours long. It was a blast and I couldn’t be more excited to speak with him once more to catch up on what has occurred in the time between. So let’s not dally any longer! Thanks for joining me again, Mike. How have you been?
Thanks so much for taking the time! I’ve been doing great. 2015 is already a busy year!
You’re in several bands now. Not only do you have your own solo project, but you’re also the lead guitarist in both the prog rock band Agent Cooper, as well as rockers The Dreaded Marco. How do you balance all of these obligations?
I’m very fortunate to be able to play with such a diverse group of different bands. I’m interested in many styles of music. It’s great to have opportunities that allow me to express those sides of my playing. It can be a bit of a balancing act. This month I’m playing gigs with my solo group, The Dixie Duncan Band, The Dreaded Marco and Stickman. Finding the time and the headspace to keep rehearsals scheduled and attention to the details of all of our music is a challenge for sure. I count my blessings everyday that I get to wake up and make music for a living so I work very hard to stay focused and bring my “A” game to every show no matter the project. I always give 100%.
The Dreaded Marco is your most recent endeavor. They’ve released a few albums on their own prior to this, but you joined them for their newest album, Safe Word. How did you get involved with them?
I’ve been friends with The Dreaded Marco guys for years. Our drummer, Mike Froedge, has been a key player around the Atlanta area with bands like doubleDrive, Speed X as well as having toured with Black Label Society and runs a very successful studio in town where we did some Stuck Mojo tour rehearsals before. The original guitarist, Dixie Duncan, is a very good friend of mine and we’ve been ardent supporters and fans of each other’s work for years. Dixie and I conspired to have me open up their Classy album release show a few years back. I’ve been a fan since the band’s inception. After Dixie decided to leave the band a couple of years ago, the guys reached out to me and Troy McLawhorn from Evanescence, Seether and doubleDrive to fill in on some shows. Troy and Froedge obviously have a lot of history together so it was an honor for me to get asked to join the band and record the latest album with them.
On Safe Word, which is a really fun record by the way, you not only handle guitar duties but also appear to be the person who experiences quite a few random encounters between songs. Can you tell us about that release and what it was like creating it?
Thanks, man! It was a lot of fun putting this album together. I think that joy comes across in the performances. That’s actually our bassist Scott Williams doing the spoken intermezzo parts. We do sound a little alike too. Even my older brother thought that was me at first!
The guys already had all of the songs on the table written and ready to go when they pulled me in. What was cool was that they already knew that we weren’t going to do a ton of overdubs. We really wanted the album to sound like what we sound like live so they gave me all the room in the world to write my guitar parts. I wrote around Charlie’s parts so we could have a cool complimentary guitar sound. Some of my ideas led the guys to change some of their parts too so it was good to not just be a session guy on the album but actually get to influence the writing process and put my sound all over all of the songs. We’re very pleased with the way it all turned out.
The Dreaded Marco isn’t the only group you’ve been busy with lately. You released an album with Agent Cooper this last year entitled Far From Sleep that slipped under the noses of some people. I gave your bandmate, Sean Delson, a hard time about that when I interviewed him recently, but he made it up to me by saying that new material is currently being recorded for a new album. What can we expect from this next batch of songs? Any idea when we’ll get a taste of it? I don’t suppose we’ll get as lucky as last time with being the first to hear the title of the upcoming album, eh? I’m hoping you all aren’t going with what Sean told me, The Barry Adkins Story – A Tale Of Woe.
Yeah, there are probably things we should have done differently with the completion and release of that. It really is a good album and I like all of the guitar work I got to do on it. I don’t, unfortunately, have any announcements to make about a new album.
That was the first album since 2 Of 5 and the track “Wormwood” that I produced and recorded all of my guitar parts at my home studio. Lots of different tones. We recorded Safe Word, including all of my guitar parts, at Mike Froedge’s studio, Open Sky, in Atlanta. I was very pleased with the sound of the guitars on everything. Since then I’ve made some changes and additions to my studio and I’m getting better tones now more than ever which makes me very excited about my next round of solo recordings.
What is your most memorable moment or story from Agent Cooper’s European tour with Tony MacAlpine?
Getting to work so closely with Tony. I pulled double duty but my main job on the tour was teching for him. Amazing to get to watch him work everyday. Hands down, he is one of the finest musicians and nicest people I have ever worked with. There are a lot of moments that I think of fondly but one that stands out to me right now was spending some time one day after sound check with Tony going over his pedal board and tweaking settings for everything. Incredibly humbling to be working with one of your guitar heroes and influencing decisions that they he was making with his rig and set up. Tony was very gracious to me and I’m humbled that he trusted me with that. We also would go out for coffee and hot chocolate just about every day. Such an amazing time for me!
Last time I spoke with you, you were on Steve Vai’s label, Digital Nations, which re-released your solo album, 2 Of 5. How has that affected your career?
It was a huge turning point for sure! That came right on the heels of my leaving Fozzy so it was exactly the adrenaline shot I needed to keep moving forward. I still get a lot of positive messages and emails about my work with Fozzy and Mojo but the deal with Vai definitely allowed me to keep the focus on my own work. It brought me a lot of new fans from all over the world. Many of them did not know of my work with Fozzy and Mojo so it’s been great to branch out on my own in that way. It really put my feet back under me, you know? Gave me some confidence in myself and my work at a time when everything was in flux and I was very depressed and filled with self doubt. Not just career-wise, but dealing with a family tragedy that was going on all through that transition period along with all of my career changes. Now as a solo artist, I’ve been in a position to open for many of my heroes and some of the best players out there whether it was Steve Vai, Richie Kotzen, The Aristocrats, The Guitar Gods Tour with Yngwie, Bumblefoot and Gary Hoey directly as a result of the re-release. It was a big factor in Tony MacAlpine’s decision to hire me as tech and do that UK/EU tour in 2012 as well since it gave him and his manager a point of reference for promoting the tour since we both had albums out with Vai’s label.
You also had told me about working on a new solo release. How is that going? What lay in store for us?
I’m always writing so that never stops. I’ve had a few things take precedence of my time along the way so I haven’t been in a giant hurry for my next solo release. I needed to get clear of a few things that were taking up some time and energy plus joining The Dreaded Marco and getting Safe Word out definitely needed to be a priority for me. The instrumental market is tough. I’m a touring guy that loves being in a band so I tend to lean towards those experiences first since that’s really what I’m all about. That’s not to say I don’t feel expressive in the instrumental genre. It just is a bit more psychotherapy for me to be that unrestricted with my need to be expressive, you know? I make everything I do very personal and emotional regardless, but the solo stuff has it’s own space in my universe and the most important thing for me is to get that in a context where I can perform it live regularly in an honest, transportive and vulnerable way and that is very hard for us instrumental rock guys to do.
I’ve been pouring over my notes and archives to get a sense of what the next release will ultimately be. I’ve got some heavier riffs that were left over from an album I was working on for a band some years back that have not found a home yet since they weren’t used for that album. I’ve had a lot of fans asking if there’s going to be something like “Wormwood, Part 2”, I have a lot of meditative pieces, so on and so on. A full album may not be next. It may be a string of singles that stand alone or maybe successive EP’s if I find some songs that hang together well enough. As much as I’d like to just throw a full length album out there, it’s expensive to make and expensive to promote properly and those promotional windows can be very short without a decent budget. My thinking now is if I keep putting out a series of shorter length releases it may give me a better opportunity to get the music on the road to be heard live first. All that said, I’m still in the decision phase of all of that. Singles or EP’s mean new music out sooner versus a full length release somewhere in early 2016.
Will “The Redemption Of Purity And Innocence” make an appearance?
You remembered that title! Excellent! It is definitely in the pool of top contenders as a single. It has the potential to be a bit more epic in length so it may just need to be dealt with that way. It’s also likely to get a bit orchestral and as much as I like writing and working with software synthesizers, my classical background makes me yearn for real ensembles populated with real people moving real instruments. But, that is very, very expensive, so we shall see!
All of these bands you’ve been in – Fozzy to Stuck Mojo, Agent Cooper to The Dreaded Marco, and your solo work – all of these have very different styles and attitudes. Do you find that you have to become the rocker, the progger, the jazz guitarist, or are all of these simply aspects of who Mike Martin is as a player which need to stretch their legs from time to time?
They are all facets of my musical identity and psyche, for sure. It all feels very unified in my heart and soul but I do know how confusing that can be when I’m trying to describe what it is that I do. The best way I can possibly express it would be to quote my dear friend, composer and drummer, Quentin Baxter who simply would say it like this: I’m a musician. I play music. The rest are details that are not unimportant, but they can put boxes on the nature of the art unnecessarily. I simply just allow myself to be the thing that I am. The rest sorts itself out. An interesting thing that my brain does when I focus too much on one thing is to just vomit out something completely different to help balance the emotional equation. A good example of that is a ballad I will be releasing as a single entitled “Wherever You Are” that I wrote in the last hours before hopping on a plane to Europe for the first time with Fozzy and Stuck Mojo. I had been so focused on all of that aggressive music and nervous about the tour that it just came out. I was wise enough to record the first sketch on the spot to capture the emotion of the moment.
What are your favorite songs on the recent Dreaded Marco and Agent Cooper albums and what makes them special to you?
I’d have to say “A Positive Message (For A Change)” and “The Lesser of Two Evils” both off of the Safe Word album. They are both really powerful live and I think we captured that energy in the studio. There’s an emotional component to “Lesser” that is very moving to me. I went for a more subtle and understated approach to my guitar parts on that but I really love the way everything comes together. My guitar parts are not so understated on “A Positive Message” but my and Charlie’s parts mesh together in a very cool way. I’m very proud of that one!
On your Youtube page you’ve reviewed a number of guitar amplifiers and surely used many more during your musical life. Is there one amp to rule them all when it comes to chasing that perfect tone? Perhaps you can discuss your thoughts on Solid State versus Tube versus Digital Amplifications such as the work Positive Grid is doing.
That could be an hour long discussion at the very least! There are so many amazing amps on the market these days. I personally prefer tube amps for most of what I do but it’s tough to deny a good solid state amp like a Roland JC120. My go to amp for many years now has been a Peavey JSX. It’s like a Swiss Army knife of guitar tone! There are definitely times when only a Marshall will do what you need, or a Fender for that matter, but I need my amps to give me good variety of sounds. FUCHS amplifiers are amazing as are Orange and I use them both a lot. I’d own one of everything if I could but I have to find other ways of dealing with that. I have a friend here in Georgia that makes boutique overdrive pedals called Jetter Gear and I find they help me fill in the gaps. He really knows how to get to the soul of an amp’s tone and create a stomp box that just works beautifully with them. In a pinch, I have been using the Positive Grid BIAS app on my iPhone and I have to say it is amazing as well. I mainly got it for hotel and dressing room practice and writing sessions when I’m traveling but I’ve now used it on some rehearsals and expect I could use it on a gig in an emergency. It sounds that good. And it’s on my phone?! Crazy! They make a desktop version now too that I have yet to try but I can see where it would be very helpful in a digital recording situation either when writing or re-amping or just auditioning sounds. It’s an amazing time to be a music maker, that is for sure!
I know that you’ve been with with Dean Markley for a while now. How did you find your way to them? Did you happen to experiment with other companies or did you just try DM, like their work, and stick with them?
When I was first starting out I would buy the strings I could afford with the money I made doing chores at home and eventually after I got my first gigs and a part time job at KFC (of all places!) on the weekends when I was 14. I would buy Dean Markley Strings whenever I could afford them. They always sounded great and would last and hold their pitch a good long time. Which was important to me as I couldn’t afford to buy strings very often!
Years later I got a job doing guitar sales in a big music shop here in the Atlanta area called Ken Stanton Music and part of my job was doing maintenance on instruments, restringing customer guitars, setting them up, etc. So I got to play every brand and label of guitar string imaginable! It was a wonderful experience to be able to get to know them all through my job, you know? Blue Steel Strings were a newer product from Dean Markley at the time and I liked them so much when I would put them on other people’s guitars that I started buying them to put on my guitars too.
After I got my first seven string Ibanez in 1998 (which is still my #1 guitar!) I started buying some other brands too since they made 7 string sets which made them convenient. And I liked them as well. Flash forward to 2004 when I started playing with Fozzy, they were a Dean Markley artist so I started getting strings directly from them and have been using them ever since! They really are great strings and they have been putting out a very consistent product all of these years. I’m very demanding of my strings and they have always delivered beautiful tone, stay in tune fantastically under heavy abuse, feel really good under the fingers (that is very important!) and last reliably if I’m not changing strings all the time like I do when I’m on tour or recording. They really have been amazing to work with all of these years and I am so grateful for their support and keeping me on as an artist even after major changes in my career along the way. They’ve been there for the highs and the lows and I can’t tell you how much that means to me!
Now for a more…diverse line of questioning. Last time we talked you spoke about the proper use of turn signals. What other common courtesies have people been neglecting that makes you want to scream?
That’s still a big pet peeve of mine for sure. I think lately I’ve just become tired of the lack of honesty in the world. There seems to be a “fake it until you make it” philosophy that is just pervasive everywhere, not just in the music business. It’s in our schools, our news media, our politics, our social networking, our pop culture. I’m ready to see the world get back to reality.
What is your drink of choice?
Bourbon, whiskey or scotch with a good cigar is a nice treat these days. Bulliet Bourbon seems to be my go to as of late.
What has been on your playlist as of late?
Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Big Wreck, Animals As Leaders, Steven Wilson, The Aristocrats, KXM, Ty Tabor, Beitthemeans, Meshuggah, Rene Marie, Dead Sara, Angel Vivaldi… lots of stuff. I always seem to have some Rush and Frank Zappa on hand too. But I’ve been writing and arranging a lot the last few months so I haven’t been able to listen to too much other music.
You mentioned that you like to make songs for pets; your cats specifically. Were you aware that music has been made specifically for cats? Perhaps there is a market for your pet projects after all?
No! I’ll definitely have to look into that. I have no doubt that if my cats could get away with using my credit card, they would definitely go shopping. Even though they get free dinner and a show here at home every night! Maybe I should consider branching out into that. I seem to have the perfect test subjects and control group here. They’re all critics!
In addition to music for cats, music has been made recently using patterns found in ocean microbial formations, as well as by analyzing the ring patterns of trees and assigning them audible notes. They make for some surprising songs! Seems rather Frank Zappa-esque to me. What do you think about undertakings such this?
I think it’s great! This whole universe seems to be held together by vibrations at the quantum level. Even Pythagoras pondered the Music of The Spheres and the harmony of the universe so long ago. The more we study nature, we will learn about ourselves, our art and our existence. I am all for it!
What is your craziest personal story? Doesn’t matter whether it is music related or not.
While I have found myself in the company of some colorful characters and bore witness to some crazy situations, I’ve always been pretty nerdy and responsible. I have to say I don’t really have any crazy stories. As far as you know…
What is the dream of your musical career?
It probably sounds cliche but I have already done so much that I feel like I am living the dream. Every day I wake up and I know that even though I struggle, this struggle is mine and I’m thankful to be in the fight and still able to swing for the fences. I have a lot more music in me and I just hope and pray that I’ll be blessed with many more years of good health and the ability to keep on this journey. I don’t ever want to lose this spark or the fire in my belly.
What is next for Mike Martin?
Got some cool shows coming up in the next few weeks opening for Jake E. Lee with The Dixie Duncan Band and we are looking at some possible tour dates this summer with that project as well as getting some recording done.
The Dreaded Marco are doing a big fundraiser for a cancer charity at the Atlanta Hard Rock Cafe and we are opening for dUg Pinnick and Corey Glover when they roll through Atlanta late this month. We have some plans for shooting some videos and talking with a couple of labels and booking agents now about taking this thing to the next level. We already have about half of our next record written too.
Along the way I’ll be getting out with my solo band more the second half of the year as I’m working on finishing my next releases. Hopefully I’ll find a way come up with the appropriate budget for that and start paying on my student loans before they haul me off to debtors prison! And to top it off, I’m actually going to be playing a show in Atlanta with my friends’ band Stickman and we will be playing on the same bill with Fozzy.
I really appreciate being given the opportunity to speak with you once more, Mike. It is always a delight. In case I’ve missed anything, or you’d like to plug something, feel free! Otherwise, best of luck and hopefully we’ll get a chance to see more of you real soon.
Always a pleasure, Barry! Thank you so much for keeping up with me and my projects. You are a big part of the support that allows me to keep doing what I’m doing and I can’t thank you enough for that! For anyone wanting to keep up with my projects and guest appearances like on Bonz from Stuck Mojo’s new album Broken Silence, follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc, check out my website http://mikemartin.net and you can find all of that plus more demonstration videos on my YouTube channel and get information about lessons with me via Skype and iChat or just drop me an email and keep in touch. And if anyone buys my music I promise I’ll use that money to make more music!
For more on Mike Martin, visit:
Buy his solo album, 2 of 5 from: iTunes | Amazon
Buy The Dreaded Marco’s Safe Word from: iTunes | Amazon
Buy Agent Cooper’s Far From Sleep from: iTunes | Amazon | CDBaby