Gary Cherone is perhaps best-known for being the longtime vocalist of the Boston-based rock band Extreme and after that, the guy who picked up the microphone for Van Halen as the group’s singer for the Van Halen III album and tour. (If you’re a Van Halen fan, hopefully you got a chance to see Cherone on that tour — the shows were great!)
Since 2007, Cherone has been focused on his new band Hurtsmile, a collaboration with his brother Mark playing guitars, bassist Joe Pessia and drummer Dana Spellman. They released their self-titled debut in 2011, which Cherone described at the time as an album which was “about returning to my roots [and] writing a record in my basement — a straight up rock `n’ roll record that turned out to be more diverse and ambitious than I expected.”
The Hurtsmile album was well-received and Cherone and crew have come back around for round two, with plans to release their second album Retrogrenade in late May. Fans can pre-order the album now via PledgeMusic and there are a variety of purchase packages including autographed items and handwritten lyrics for Extreme fan favorites like “More Than Words” and “Hole Hearted.”
We recently caught up with Cherone to get a little bit of insight regarding the forthcoming album and what fans can look forward to.
These Pledge campaigns are fun, because they really give the fan the opportunity to get that fly on the wall experience of being in the studio almost.
Yeah and you know sometimes, it’s funny, from our side — the artist’s side, you take some of that for granted. Not that you forget, because I’m still a fan of rock and roll and I’d love to be a fly on the wall at an Aerosmith or Who session. But you do sometimes forget that a fan only sees the show and there’s only a few people that really get to go backstage and see what’s behind the curtain. Pledge actually is an opportunity to let them peek.
As an artist, is it hard for you to open up your creative process like that? Does that take some adjustment to get used to that.
Yeah, I think it really depends…it’s a fine line where the comfort zone is. Because there’s some areas writing-wise where you really have to be secluded, even amongst a band. Nuno and I pretty much write the records, so we have things together with the band and we also have things [where] you need that solitude. So to have that camera in there and all of that, sometimes it takes a little adjusting.
Frontiers put out the last record. Are you going DIY with this one or will there be a label involved?
Yeah, there will be a label involved. We’re considering this Pledge campaign a pre-release for the select fans. We’re doing a little bit of a different thing than Pat [Badger’s Pledge campaign], because Japan is putting it out. So we’re coinciding the Pledge release with the Japan release and there’s a few hurdles that we have to jump over. We’re actually blocking the Japanese fans from the Pledge campaign, which is interesting. I don’t know if you can completely do that with technology today.
So ours is a little bit different. We’re going to independently release it on Pledge as a pre-release and we plan on doing a video or two and getting it out there. The Pledge people will oversee the process of that. That’s exciting, because if it’s a video or a photo shoot, they’re seeing the filming of that, which is fun for them to see.
The last album found you working to make a footprint in the marketplace and music collections of fans with a new band. Were you able to get a satisfactory amount of traction? Obviously, it seems like you feel like you made enough of an impression to come back with album number two.
Right. It’s always…you know, I don’t refer to this as a side-project, other than the fact that Extreme is the profile band. We refer to it as the mothership. So anything that Nuno and I or even Pat now is doing, is always going to be an offshoot of that because of the brand Extreme. With Hurtsmile, it was important to establish it as a band and not necessarily a side project, so the second record establishes that, that it’s not just a one-off, so that helps. I think for me [going into this record], you know, we toured Japan on the last record and we did some shows. We played out in L.A. with Cinderella and we played with [Sammy] Hagar, so that helped to establish it more than just [being] “Gary Cherone’s side project.”
With this band feeling probably more like a living, breathing functioning thing, what were you looking to accomplish going into album number two?
I think that the first record started off with the inception of the band. Not that it was a project, but you’re finding your legs. I look back on that record as a complete thought — it differentiated us from Extreme. You know, sound-wise, Mark’s a different type of guitar player [and that] adds a little bit of a different edge to it. This new record, I think it’s about the songs. I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people.
It’s actually even a 180…not a 180 from the first record, but song-wise and the spectrum of where we go on this record is really broadened. It broadens even the appeal of the band. There’s the rock you’d expect, there’s some pop elements, blues elements and there’s even a tinge of an Eagles element. I don’t know if you read the bio, but it’s a little bit of that classic rock influence. It’s a fun record…not in a light way, but it’s not a one-trick pony, for sure.
What took you in that direction?
Boredom. [Laughs] No, I think it’s the makeup of the band. I don’t know, maybe it’s A.D.D. You know what it is? It’s the freedom of following your muse. The guys, Mark, Joe and Dana, we come from the same school of Aerosmith, Zeppelin, AC/DC, Cheap Trick, the Eagles, the Beatles — you name it. When we went in and we introduced a song, there was an unspoken language. Not that we were ripping off the bands, but everybody knew where we were coming from. That’s something that you can’t manufacture.
Obviously, Extreme has had that as well. And you know, just Mark and I being brothers and growing up with the same album collection — I was the older brother and I pretty much turned my little brother onto this stuff and then as he grew up, he found his own way. We just titled the record Retrogrenade, one word. I don’t know what that means, but it means our record. [Laughs]
You say “grenade” and that makes me think about how you’ve never been shy as a songwriter about putting your thoughts and opinions out there in the songs. It’s something that obviously goes a long way back to the protest singers that were writing songs that spoke for a generation. I read something that you said, talking about the first record, saying “There’s always going to be a little bit of piss and vinegar in rock and roll” and that’s certainly very true. Were there certain songwriters and bands that gave you that freedom to feel like you could express similar things with your songwriting?
Yeah, well thank you for saying that. I appreciate that. Absolutely. To sum it up, it would be — and I’m not comparing it — but it would be to aspire to and to be inspired, it was Dylan and it was Lennon. It’s funny, but I discovered Dylan in ‘89 — I came late to the party, but now I’m a veteran Dylan listener. But the Beatles, there’s something about Lennon’s acerbic wit and his tongue — not that I agree everything with he said, but he wasn’t afraid to say it. And Dylan of course, those early records, you know, [they were] kind of the unofficial soundtrack of the civil rights movement and all of that stuff. It was brilliant and it’s still cutting. It’s timeless.
You think of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” it wasn’t just for the time, it was forever. Those are the two artists that would sum it up for me. It’s funny, I don’t do it consciously, but I think there’s been a Lennon line or a Dylan line on every record since III Sides — I don’t do it consciously, but I’ll write the song, whether it ends up on a record six months later or a year later, it just happens. I’ll leave it to you to find it, but there’s one on this record as well. [Laughs] Those would be the artists that to this day are the standards [for me].
Those thoughts and opinions were right there from the beginning with the first Extreme record. Was there ever any blowback that came back as a result of some of the stuff you guys were putting out there?
Sure. And that’s the risk of sharing your opinion. You can disguise it in abstractions or generalities, but you’ll run across an interviewer who gets it and disagrees with you and will challenge you. I actually like those interviews. There’s this one woman who disagreed with me on the whole pro-life issue and she was giving me a hard time throughout the whole interview on the first record and I finally caught on at the end, because we got to the end of the record and I go “Wait a minute” and then I go “Okay, now I get it!” [Laughs] She laughed and I said “Well, just be fair — we can agree to disagree — just be fair.”
Did you have the luxury of being able to spend a good amount of time on stuff with this new record?
Yeah, the process was longer than usual because of scheduling. We had some hurdles to jump through and that’s the situation with band members and stuff. Marky and I were the main songwriters on the first record. Joe Pessia, the bass player, contributed on this record and we just had a lot of fun making this record. We were comfortable. Not that we weren’t comfortable on the first record, but the roles were well-established and we just enjoyed it.
The second record is really not as topical as the past — it’s really a departure and it really embraces more of a……it’s really about relationships, which is something that Extreme touched on, but it’s almost a return to that. Maybe it was because of the music. The music kind of dictates where the lyrics will go. There’s one track called “Big Government” on it, but that’s pretty much an outcast of a record that’s more about relationships. You know, love lost, love won and all of that. So that’s something that I think is maybe going to surprise people as well.
When will the new record be out?
Yeah, right now the Japanese date is set for late May and the Pledge campaign should be wrapping up around there, so we’ll get that out to the fans. Then obviously Extreme in the summer — no rest for the weary. We’ll come home in August and do some regional shows and a record release show.
Extreme’s playing shows this year with full-album performances of Pornograffiti…
I remember that we did four shows in Japan and I had to run up the stairs and go grab a copy of Pornograffiti, because I forgot the words I wrote. [Laughs] It comes [back] pretty quick. We only did four shows in Japan [playing] Pornograffiti and they were tremendous. So we’re excited to do this in Europe and we just booked some dates in the U.S. and we’re going to expand on that later in the year.
How does that record hold up for you as you look back it now?
The majority of the record I think holds up. I think the production is a little of the time whereas Three Sides, I think is a little bit more pristine of a production, so I think I could go back and listen to that. But Pornograffiti’s songs and you know, the concept of it, it still works. We did about four or five of those songs throughout our touring career since Pornograffiti.
We call them the four food groups, you know, we’re always going to do “Get The Funk Out,” “Decadence Dance,” “More Than Words” and “Hole Hearted.” But the fun part about this tour is all of the other songs. You know, we never did “When I First Kissed You” and always wanted to do it, so that’s a real showcase for Nuno on the keyboards and that’s fun for us to do. “Song For Love,” “He-Man Woman Hater,” some of that stuff we haven’t done in 15+ years.
Some bands find doing the full album thing challenging, just because it really puts the flow of the setlist to the test, based on how good the flow of the album is. How did you find that part of it to be?
Yeah, well I was the reluctant one. I was saying “Well, we’re doing Pornograffiti, but let’s screw with the order.” It was Nuno and Pat who insisted on doing it in order and I’m like “I don’t want to do ‘More Than Words’ the fifth song coming in,” just because of exactly what you said about the flow. But we worked it up in rehearsal and then it just worked live.
So I’ll be the one to say that I was wrong about not wanting to do it in chronological order. It works even as a show, because we’ve opened with “Decadence” and it comes to crescendo with “Song For Love” and “Hole Hearted” is kind of the encore of that record, which we’re lucky enough that it was a hit so people pretty much sing it. The record’s about an hour and five [minutes] with the interludes and stuff and then we come on and we do the catalog, the III Sides To Every Story stuff, “Play With Me” off the first record, so it works as a show because the encores is all of the other stuff.
Hurtsmile band image via Facebook.