Stripped Down: A Conversation With Eric Martin Of Mr. Big

Written by Music, Popdose Interviews

Eric Martin stops by the Popdose Lounge to talk about his acoustic tour, possible new music from Mr. Big & his memories of working with Toto.

It’s been a roller coaster ride of rock and roll good times and unbelievable experiences for Eric Martin over the years which has left him with quite a few tales to tell. We wrapped in the roller coaster wording very specifically, because on the afternoon of our conversation, he was a bit hoarse from a busy weekend that included two nights opening for fellow Bay Area rockers Y&T followed by a day of riding the coasters at Six Flags with his twin boys, “screaming bloody murder on the Medusa ride!”

Best known as the longtime vocalist for the Los Angeles-based hard rock group Mr. Big, he found chart-topping success with the band in the early ‘90s with the ballad “To Be With You.” Martin had certainly put in his 10,000 hours leading up to that point, so the record sales and recognition that finally came through were both well-deserved and long overdue. As he recalls though, he handled things well and skipped the temptation to add the obligatory expensive real estate and Porsche to his holdings. The extent of his celebratory splurging at that time was limited to purchasing himself a cell phone that was “almost as big as a shoe and it had a gigantic antenna.”

It was a long climb to the top of the charts for “To Be With You” and an equally relaxed trip back down the charts, which meant that as “To Be With You” was descending downward, the follow-up single “Just Take My Heart” was on its way up, eventually grazing the outskirts of the Top 15 and peaking at the #16 chart position. The band maintained a nearly constant presence on the radio for more than a year and the Lean Into It album charted Top 20 on the album charts and eventually went platinum.

He’s been reflecting on those days lately, performing career-spanning acoustic sets around the globe which feature an evening of stories and songs. A series of U.S. dates will kick off on December 5th with a show at Joe’s in Akron, OH and the shows will continue through late January. We recently rang Martin at his California home to talk a bit about his current activities.

You came up in a really fertile musical scene there in the San Francisco area. How did that influence where you went as an artist with everything that was around you?

San Francisco is kind of like a melting pot of music. I lived in Sacramento, California — I mean, if you go way back, I’m an Army brat and I grew up in Italy, Germany and pretty much every post in America where my dad was stationed. But we moved to Sacramento and Tesla hadn’t even been born yet, I don’t think. I played in a bunch of bands there and it was more classic rock type bands trying to be Led Zeppelin, Free, Bad Company and stuff like that. I moved to San Francisco and it was a whole different scene. It was almost punk rock — there was no pop — there was heavy rock and melodic rock definitely. But there was a punk scene going on at the same time.

I remember this time where I opened to AC/DC at the old Waldorf. It was like their first time in the Bay Area. As much as I wanted to be [like] Y&T, I equally wanted to be [like] AC/DC, because it seemed like kind of simple cool rock. But they almost sounded punk to me when they first came out. My band was called Kid Courage and we were like the Tubes meet the Rolling Stones — I didn’t know what I was doing, you know? I think we were wearing suits onstage and AC/DC comes out and just blew us away in jeans and a t-shirt, just bashing out A chords and screaming at the audience and the chicks were lining up at the door.

I don’t know if that answers your question, but there was all kinds of music coming out of the Bay Area and there was a lot of bands. I was in a band called 415 and one of the guys in the band was in a band called Mile High and that was the guy John Nymann. It all goes back to Y&T — he’s in Y&T now. Then [drummer] Troy Luccketta [went onto] Tesla later on. Eventually, we called it the Eric Martin Band. But we all listened to classic rock — that was our big thing, with a little bit of punk thrown in.

Let’s talk a little bit about this current tour that you’re doing. It’s just you and a guitar in a storytellers type format. I know you’ve done quite a few of these shows this year. Have you been doing these types of shows for a while beyond that?

I think when I wrote “To Be With You” and I brought it into Mr. Big, I started playing acoustic guitar and singing [and doing] the token “white boy on the acoustic guitar” thing where I did “To Be With You” and the ballad kind of stuff with “Wild World” and the more stripped down stuff. We kind of had the [part of the show] where we’d play the heavy rock and then we’d have a little B-stage and play the little acoustic songs. So I kind of cut my teeth in that kind of format.

I used to play at home all of the time in the Bay Area, playing some acoustic shows. I put on a little concert at a place called the Sweetwater and I called it Wooden Music Night and I had people come up that were rockers that wouldn’t be doing this type of format [normally] just to make it special and I kind of did that, but I never took it on the road. There was no outlet for it — when I was with Mr. Big, it was just [about] playing Mr. Big music and then if I was doing solo [stuff], I’d have a rock band with me.

But then after a while, the rock band that I had, they all had second jobs, so they couldn’t go out or their wives wouldn’t let them or some sh-t! So I just decided, “Hey man, I’ve got enough material — I’ve got a plethora…a cornucopia of albums to choose from!” and I just did it and I was really scared. I started doing it a little bit after the Mr. Big tour in 2011 and then I kind of took it on the road. I’m not saying that I never looked back — every night is kind of scary when there’s no strings attached and you’re all by yourself and people are shouting out the really hard Mr. Big songs to play! “Addicted To That Rush,” “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind!” and it was like “uh, no!” But I definitely aim to please — if I don’t know it, I’ll get somebody in the audience knowing it and they’ll come up and they’ll play it and I’ll sing it or I’ll do it a cappella or I’ll do it in some format to please the audience.

But yeah, this year started out pretty cool — I started out in February and for about four or five months I was in a rock opera called Avantasia and then after that I just went solo and I’ve been doing it for a bunch of months now, playing every little dive bar, club, bar mitzvah and laundromat opening. Mama needs a new pair of shoes, if you catch my drift! But I’m having a great time, I really am. It’s scary. When you said the “storyteller” thing, yeah it’s [a] storyteller thing, but it’s almost like beating off the hecklers. It’s [an evening of] jokes, stories and just conversation with the audience and then about an hour and a half of music.

I always like hearing an artist like yourself talk about still having nerves before a performance, because that proves that you’re still invested in what you do. But at the same time, I’m a little bit surprised to hear you say that, because it seems like a show like this would be easier for a guy like you. Because it probably flies fairly close to how you wrote some of these songs, right?

Yes, to both observations. I mean I just get nervous anyway. It’s almost an anxiety or some kind of [feeling like] “Oh God, I hope I do tonight.” You know, [when you’re doing a normal show], the solos and the hard hitting snare drums kind of cover you up, say if you have your scratchy voice, but when you play [with only an] acoustic guitar, [you’re] naked to the world, you know?

Oh yeah.

Maybe I worry about that a little bit? I’m not nervous through the whole show — I’m a little nervous when I first come out and I’m like “Hey, what’s happening?” and everybody’s like “Alright — we’re so excited to have you here, Eric!” with a scream and a yell and they’re like floating around going “Okay, dance little monkey!” So I do feel a little nervous, but I do fit very comfortably in the driver’s seat of it. I’m comfortable playing acoustic guitar — I mean, look, I suck — I’m not the greatest [guitar player]. Nobody’s coming to see Paul Gilbert [ style riffs with the way I play] — I even have to say it sometimes at the door, “Hey guys, you know I’m not Paul Gilbert, so you can have your money back if you want!” [Laughs] But I play the guitar singer/songwriter style, where I’m just playing chords — there’s no solo licks or anything, just chords and singing my heart out.

How far back are you going with the setlist? Are you doing some Eric Martin Band cuts as well in addition to the Mr. Big stuff?

Oh yeah! All of it! I mean, I think I do all of it and then somebody always throws out some kind of a left turn [like] “Sucker For A Pretty Face” or whatever. [Laughs] And I’ll do it if I remember it! “Sucker For A Pretty Face” is a 1983 poppy song that I did with the Eric Martin Band, but there was another song on that album called “Don’t Stop,” which is a Frankie Miller song and I definitely do that live. So I go back to the ‘80s and then [there’s also] a ton of Mr. Big songs.

Are you still writing these days?

I am and to be perfectly honest, when I had my kids, for some reason the creativity just zapped right out of me. For years, I was just writing and writing and I also had Mr. Big and that was a great outlet to be creative. But when the kids came, I don’t know, I didn’t get fat and lazy, but maybe I was too happy or something! Because I wrote a lot of broken-hearted love songs on top of some hard rock music. But am I writing? Yes, I am writing and I’ve been threatening to do another solo album for the longest time. I wrote a bunch of new Mr. Big songs — that’s kind of the priority right now.

Very cool!

Yeah, we were actually supposed to tour in 2013. When we decided to get back together in 2009 and do a record eventually and do some touring, we all agreed that we didn’t want to have any record company involvement or have to do something. It’s not like “Man, I’ve got to pay my rent — I really need to get out on the road” or anything. Everybody’s making it as painless as possible and if a project comes up, [it’s cool, whether] Paul’s teaching or doing some clinics or doing his solo albums.

Billy got a great project together with another Mr. Big alumnus, Richie Kotzen and they’ve got their Winery Dogs. Pat Torpey is spending a lot of time with his kid and he’s a big real estate mogul now and then me, I’m playing acoustic. It’s something that I need to do to kind of keep my chops up — I need to get out on the road. Because also, I want to be prepared for when Billy, Pat, Paul and our management give me that call again and say “Alright, let’s go in the studio.”

I asked that question as a lead-in, because I’m always interested to hear artistically what somebody like you gets out of doing something like these shows. I know that everything feeds into the writing and creation process in some way, so I was interested to hear how it is benefiting you and what you’re getting out of it besides just being out on the road.

My ego. I definitely love the pat on the back, like “F–k, where have you been? Thank you for coming to our town!” This is what I get all of the time and this is funny as hell. They go “Oh my God, you look so young! And then they get up really close and they go “Ohhhhhhhh.” [Laughs] That’s kind of funny to me. “Oh, I see some crow’s feet!”

What I get out of it is that I love singing. I really do. It sounds cliche, but I love doing different versions of these Mr. Big songs and making it kind of swampy blues and an almost acoustic country [vibe] — not like the country music you’re hearing on the radio — all of that metropolitan country or whatever that is. It’s more like a Mr. Big song with an Allman Brothers vibe [and things like that]. I just love fooling around with these songs and I genuinely love singing it. But after all this is said and done, I also really miss just holding that microphone and rocking out.

So I don’t know — while I’m out there and playing my solo act, I’m not looking to really do an acoustic album or anything. I already kind of did that with Mr. Big already with the Live From The Living Room album that we did. I mean, it would be kind of cool to do some acoustic stuff — I always do anyway. That’s kind of what I write on is a piano or the acoustic guitar. I have a few rock songs too, but you’re always going to get some acoustic music from me [with] Mr. Big. As it is now, I’m just trying to write heavy.

You had a shot at the Toto gig at least twice. What was it like working with those guys?

Actually, I didn’t have a shot at it twice. Steve Lukather played on a couple of my solo albums and he talked to the guys in the band about me and they were like “Oh yeah, okay, cool” and it had to be towards the Mr. Big years when Billy gave me the call and he and I started Mr. Big. That was 1988, so I think this was like ‘86 or ‘87. I was playing at a club called Wolfgang’s that Bill Graham owned and the whole band came down and watched me play. I mean, the Porcaro brothers, David Paich and Steve Lukather — and they actually brought their friend Boz Scaggs with them and it was a really great, great night. I think we jammed a little bit — Lukather definitely got up.

They asked me if I’d audition for the band, so I came to L.A. and I practiced at a studio [with them]. They had so much equipment. And I’m no stranger to that — I was managed by this guy Herbie Herbert, who managed Journey, so I used to go to the Journey warehouse all of the time and they’ve got a whole history of stuff. It was the same thing with Toto. So I’m hanging with the Toto guys and I sing “Africa,” “Georgy Porgy” and “Hold The Line” 10,000 times and “99” and you know, all of these really great Toto songs. They go “Yeah, can you come back the next day?” and I go “Yeah.” So I came back the next day and the next day and the next day — it was like 10 days. I’m thinking “Sh-t, nobody lasts more than two days!” Nobody even lasts one day! And I’m thinking in the back of my head, “I’m in the band,” you know? I didn’t run out and lease a Porsche or anything.

I didn’t go out and buy some real estate in Beverly Hills or anything, but I was excited about the possibility of being in Toto. I thought it would be a perfect merger in a way, because I couldn’t make up my mind what avenue I wanted to go down. I wanted to be an R&B singer and then I wanted to be a rock singer and it even shows on my earlier solo albums where I’m really wishy-washy on all of those songs. I remember that we went to a restaurant and I thought I was going to be crowned king, you know? We’re just hanging out and each guy’s going outside, talking, and then coming back in. And they go “Yeah, man, everything’s good — hey do you want to order?” And then Jeff leaves and he doesn’t come back. Everybody keeps going outside to talk to Jeff.

So Jeff’s gone and then the whole band comes back in and they go “Look, we all love you, but Jeff just thinks you’re a little too green.” The legendary Jeff Porcaro. I was excited that I lasted for 10 days, but I was also a little disappointed because I really wanted the gig and I thought I did everything I could. I sang great and I felt good and I made some really good friends. But in a way it was good that I didn’t sign any contract or anything because only about a year later, I get the call from Billy Sheehan and the next thing you know, old Jed’s a millionaire.

The reason I asked that question, was because I had a friend that interviewed Steve Lukather recently and he was talking about how they had looked at you twice. Once prior to the Isolation album and then again during the period going into the Fahrenheit record after that, which you just spoke about.

Oh, I didn’t know that about the ‘84 period. Here’s another little story — I went to David Paich’s house and I think his house, one portion of it is called The Manor and that’s the recording studio where they did a lot of their records. I didn’t know it was going to be called Fahrenheit, but I remember singing on “Fahrenheit,” the song, and I remember singing “I’ll Be Over You” hearing Lukather’s guide vocal.

And he goes “Yeah man, just fool around with it!” And I’m like “Why am I doing this song — you sound amazing!” Why the hell am I doing this, you know? Lukather kind of second-guessed it and said “Eh, I don’t know if I want to do it.” I’m looking at Paich and going “Holy God, this is a smash!” But anyway — I didn’t know about the first time — that’s awesome. That makes me feel good! I might go out and buy a Porsche now. [Laughs]

From the way Lukather told it, it sounds like you ran up against Jeff both times.

Yeah. [Martin chuckles] You know, maybe I was green. I mean, I had albums under my belt and I definitely could sing but I was younger — a lot younger than those guys. I don’t know, maybe they just felt that I needed a little bit more experience. So be it — hey, I’ve got no animosity towards any of these cats. I mean, I went to the NAMM show a few years ago and I ran up to Luke and we were walking across the street and everybody knows Lukather. Everybody.

Every session player, rock star, women — everybody’s just like “Luke — hey, what’s going on?” and he’s high-fiving everybody. In the same breath he’s saying “This is the guy that we were supposed to get,” so that went a long way for me. I was really excited to hear that….and he ran into Paich and he goes “Hey, you know who this is” and he goes “Yep, the guy that got away.” So that made me feel good.

One of your early tours found the Eric Martin Band out opening for ZZ Top and Night Ranger. What was it like touring with the little ol’ band from Texas?

That was only a handful of dates. Frank Beard was really nice. I remember that. He came out a little bit — Dusty [Hill] and Billy [Gibbons] hung out a lot and you couldn’t really get to those guys very much, but Frank would come out and hang out with us. He and Troy Luccketta became good friends. Night Ranger was also on that bill and I grew up with Jeff [Watson] and Jack [Blades] and Brad [Gillis]. I didn’t know Kelly [Keagy] until years later and [now] Kelly and I are really good friends. But Jack, Jeff and I, we went way back.

So it was kind of cool to hang out with the Bay Area Mafia, you know? But it was really exciting playing the first gig at the Mississippi Gulfport Coliseum. I mean, dude, we were playing funky little clubs for years. I mean, we opened for some really good bands in our hometown, but we never branched out and we never went anywhere. [So on that tour], our first big gig was playing this gigantic 20,000 sold out venue. It was good times. That was the Eliminator tour and it was so exciting. But you’ve got three bands on a bill and we didn’t get a soundcheck or anything.

Jack, I’m not trying to step on his toes or anything, but those guys would set up in front of ZZ Top and we barely even would fit on the stage [in front of that] and we had like six guys and two pianos. I used to play piano on one side and the other guy played piano and synths and stuff like that on the other side and then I’d come out in the middle. I couldn’t come out in the middle on that tour because there was no room! [Laughs]