Shred is not dead. That’s one thought that comes to mind as you’re listening to Inferno, the brand new album by guitarist Marty Friedman. As Friedman himself tells us during our conversation, it’s been a long time since he’s released an album in this vein and beyond that, he’s been away from the metal community for quite a while, having spent the past 10 years living and working in Japan. So he’s aware that his guitar work might not be front and center in the minds of many at this point.
The former Megadeth guitarist rounds up an intriguing list of guest players and friends on Inferno, including Danko Jones, his former Cacophony conspirator Jason Becker, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Gregg Bissonette and David Davidson of Revocation, just to name a few.
When you title your album something like Inferno, the skeptical music fan usually says “Well then, you’d better be able to back that title up and deliver an album that is worthy.” Have no fear — you won’t waste a single minute here. Friedman’s Inferno is all of that and then some.
We spoke with Friedman recently from his home in Japan to get the inside scoop on the new album.
I like your comment in the bio for this new album, about how you wanted to go “balls out” when it came to your approach to this record. Before I read that, I was listening to the opening track and title track of this album and I found myself thinking, “Man, he is not messing around on this one.”[Laughs] Definitely not. It’s kind of my first simultaneous international release in a long time. The record company was pumped even before we started, so I didn’t want to let them down and I didn’t want to let anybody down. I knew if I did my normal amount of work on something that it would be great, but if I just went to the verge of killing myself on the record, it would be fantastic. So that’s what I did!
As you mentioned, it’s been a long time since your last proper solo release here in the States, Music For Speeding in 2003, if I’m correct. You’ve continued to create in that time with your Japanese releases. With this being your first proper American release in a while, did you find yourself writing with a certain purpose or goals, or does it all end up as the same songwriting and creative process?
It usually is the same, but actually you’re right, I did have different goals this time. I was definitely conscious of concerning myself with what I thought the entire world as a whole wanted from me. You know, I could fool myself and tell everybody that they want me to do this exploratory experimental Japanese avant garde thing, but that would just be fooling myself. I was honest with myself and I knew that I think for the most part, people want me to play my ass off and play aggressively, which is fine, and in a metal context, which is also fine. But I also wanted to be sure that I wasn’t looking back and repeating something I did before or getting nostalgic or anything like that. It was of the utmost importance to me to do something new, challenging, modern and totally fresh at the same time. So with those two criteria in mind, that’s how I approached the entire album.
I would imagine that in the past, you’ve probably had people come to you in the past and say “Hey, we’d love to get a record from you that has the classic Marty Friedman sound” that you’re known for. Is it hard for you to approach something like this and not put yourself into that box?
I don’t really think about it too much that way. I pretty much do what I’m up for doing at the time. I kind of always had it in the back of my mind that I was going to do a total ballbusting killer album of this style. I always knew I was going to do it, but the opportunity never arrived and I have just been too busy with my own Japanese activities to pursue it and I knew if I were to pursue it, I would have to go completely in, no half assed doing it in the break of something, during a break of a tour or a break of some kind of television program or something.
I knew I would have to devote real time to it, so I always kind of put it off and put it off until Prosthetic, the record label, they came to me with the idea and it was something I always wanted to do, but I don’t think I would have ever approached it unless I had the enthusiasm of a record company behind me. Because you go and do it and then the thing gets ignored. So I really wanted to make sure that a record company was into it and lo and behold, it was actually their idea and they were the ones that pushed me into doing it, which I was very happy to be pushed into doing.
The guests on this album, many of them who have been influenced by you as a player adds an interesting angle to the album, but nothing feels out of place. It all feels like an album collectively.
Oh, thanks! That’s really important to me, because having guests for the sake of guests is a complete waste of time and the reason why I got into this guest thing is because I remember that Michael Schenker once asked me to do something with him and do an album together. Being a fan of his, I remember the enthusiasm that I felt as we started working on stuff together. I was just so beyond pumped up to do it. I wanted to give other guys that feeling and get that feeling on a record, you know, get it in the grooves and get it on the vinyl and all of that.
So I purposefully set out for people who had their own style, but who have said really nice things about me in the press that might feel the same way I felt about Michael Schenker back then. I really think that I captured everybody’s enthusiasm and all of the guests who joined me were really eager to please me for whatever reason. We’d keep going back and forth working on a demo and every time I would just step it up a few notches, they would go “Oh, well I’ve really got to up my game now!” and by the end of the day, it’s a really nice quality piece of music that’s a collaboration and not just some guest banging out something.
How together were the songs as you started to work with each of these people?
Every single guest is a complete collaboration, with the songwriting and of course all of the lyrics are the guest’s lyrics and the music is the guest and me together. Often cases, the music is written more by the guest than me and my position is more of a co-writer/arranger/guitar player. So I really get these guys working their butts off and I can do the things that I like to do, which is arrange and play guitar solos and produce and co-write. Sometimes I just like the sound of my guitar playing over other people’s music even more than my own, because it’s just a different flavor that for whatever reason makes my playing sound better to my ears.
‘Sociopaths’ is a track that seems like one that might have put you through your paces. Can you talk about developing that one with David Davidson?
David Davidson was a guy that was referred to me by the record company. Actually, a publicist sent me a list of all of these current metal and rock artists who said nice things about me in interviews and stuff. I knew maybe less than half of them and so I started researching all of them and I found David Davidson and his band Revocation blew my mind. They are pretty much exactly what I kind of hoped that Megadeth was going to turn into. Just a real futuristic atomic powered thrash band with really great musicianship and a real current exciting sound that just keeps getting heavier and heavier, but rooted in thrash metal and that’s what I thought Megadeth was. I thought if I would have seen Megadeth turn into something more like that, I might have been challenged to stick around a little bit longer. Anyway, that’s the way I felt when I heard Revocation — I was like “Wow, this is thrash metal, but it still sounds like 2012” or whenever I heard it. I liked it, so working with him was a big pleasure, especially to find out that he was influenced by me in his playing, which I couldn’t hear, because he’s got such an original unique style of his own, which is fantastic.
Do you find yourself asking somebody like that when they tell you that and you don’t hear it, do you probe deeper and ask them what elements of your playing they took from?
Not really, but I always tell them that I’m flattered, because it’s one thing to be influenced by my playing, but it’s another thing to be influenced and then carve your own identity and carve out your own success with your own playing. That means a lot to me. If someone was a complete clone of mine, I would say “Wow, it’s really nice to have a fan like that,” but when I hear guys who say “Yeah, I was influenced by you and here’s my four albums and this album is this and that and I’ve done this and that” and they’ve got all of these great accomplishments that really have nothing to do with me, that kind of speaks bigger volumes in my book.
Of course I love any fan of mine in any capacity, but that’s the biggest thrill when there’s someone who you wouldn’t necessarily know is a big Marty fan and they turn out to be. Ben Weinman from Dillinger Escape Plan, we did this thing on Fuse TV together and I think his music is absolutely just amazing and it doesn’t remind me of myself at all, but it turns out that he was very much influenced by my playing. So I really like it when guys are influenced by me, but they take their own direction and it’s far away from mine. I don’t know what they got from my playing, but whatever it is, it kind of moves them into a good direction. I get really stoked about that.
I love the stuff that you did with Danko Jones on this record. You guys had some fun.
Yeah, he’s the guy on the album that we’ve been friends for years already, so he wasn’t someone new to me, but we had yet to work together. We’d always threatened each other to do something and this time it worked out just fantastically. It was just a blast.
Another old friend of yours that pops up on this album is Jason Becker. What was the collaborative process like working on ‘Horrors’?
It was very similar to what we’d originally done. We’d both have ideas and put them together and make these crazy epic kind of songs. The only difference now is that he’s creating music with his eyes on a computer and we’ve both grown in extreme levels musically, mainly because of the time, but also because of all of the experiences that we’ve both racked up since then. So it’s really a rare opportunity to hear this kind of growth in a project like Cacophony, to hear it so many years later and we’ve both really been pushing our music to the limits up until now, so it’s a great little peek into what could have been and what actually is.
It’s a really epic piece. I like the way that one unfolds….a lot happens in the nearly seven minutes that the track runs.
Yeah, it’s one of those things that I don’t think we could have even come near something that cool in the Cacophony days. Our minds weren’t deep enough to do that. At that time when we started working together, we didn’t really know what to keep and what to throw away. We kept what we thought was fun to play and what we thought was cool, but we weren’t so efficient in the art of listening back and deciding if it’s really making our hair stand up on end or not. We were just kind of like “This is great, let’s put it out like this.” But with ‘Horrors,’ especially with my arranging, I’m a big listener now, so I listen to a lot of things and just throw away tons of stuff if it’s not mind-blowing. That’s the main difference between then and now, so I don’t think we ever would have been able to come up with something that deep back then.
It’s interesting to me, hearing how this album is sequenced and the way ‘Resin’ moves into ‘Wicked Panacea.’ Do you start to hear stuff like that early on?
That was one of the earlier things. That’s really the only way I could excuse that ‘Wicked Panacea’ entrance — it’s just an acoustic guitar, but I knew it would be really cool if it was falling off this big cliff of noise, which the end of ‘Resin’ is. That was one of the earliest things of that whole record, was that transition. I knew I wanted to have a big dramatic drop off, because acoustic guitar by itself is fine, but it would have so much more impact after this big airplane hangar of noise — it would just mean so much more. There’s two groups that do this great. There’s a group called Mono in Japan that are absolutely the kings of this stuff, the dramatic quick changes and Opeth is really fantastic at that. So that’s my little homage to that type of thing which I really love and it’s quite hard to do. It was a challenge, but that little transition right there is one of my favorite parts of the record.
You referred to this album as being “American-made from the ground up,” right down to recording it here in the U.S. Clearly with technology being what it is, you could have stayed in Japan for the recording process and worked with the other musicians remotely. What made it important for you to take a different approach?
It was kind of [related to] logistics, because I did want guests to come and join me actually in the studio. Danko came down to the studio and Jorgen from Shining came to the studio in L.A. and a lot of the guests and my drummer were in America. Gregg Bissonette came into the studio — I had guys coming in and out of the studio the whole time. So I kind of wanted to be in a little bit more reachable place for that and I wanted a certain engineer and he was American and he had a great studio. I also wanted to be in the vibe of America for this record.
The only thing I did in Japan was I did some bass tracks here and I did some additional guitars, but everything else was American. I have such a different mindset between Japan and America. It’s kind of hard to explain, but when I’m in America — you know, I grew up in America, so I feel more like I’m making an American project. I’ve been living in Japan for 10 years, so I feel like I live in Japan, which I do. It’s a completely different feeling and I’m lucky to experience both. This album definitely called for a more American vibe overall.
Moving to Japan like you did, that’s a very interesting transition. I don’t know that you could have seen it playing out the way it has and being as massive as it has been with all of the stuff that you’re wrapped up with.
Yeah, there’s no possible way. I didn’t expect to do as much as I’ve done at all. I just hoped to be in some kind of domestic Japanese music situation. Things have just blown my mind as far as what I expected and what I wound up doing, with things that have opened themselves up to me. But at the same time, there’s a give and take, because it’s been at the cost of cultivating the rest of the world. You know, I work so hard in Japan.
My career is doing fantastic here in Japan, but a big majority of the rest of the world just knows me from the last time I released a platinum album and that would be with Megadeth, a long, long time ago. Which I don’t blame them, I mean, you’d have to learn three or four different languages to find out everything I’ve done in between. [Laughs]. Only my hardest core fans really know what I’ve been up to in Japan, but I think people deserve to get something.
I’ve been very lucky to have fans around the world who have supported me way back in the beginning and even now and a lot of people who’ve probably forgotten about me because I’m out of their radar now that I’m in Japan and I hold nothing against anybody. I just really want them to have access to what I’m doing, because I think people will enjoy it, if for no other reason than that. I think people outside of Japan would enjoy even the things I’m doing in Japan, but it’s really hard to get all of those things available to everybody.
So now that I’m on an American project and it’s a worldwide project, this is my one chance in a long time to allow people to hear what I’m about now and possibly compare it to what they know me from and hopefully hear the insanely vast improvement and the depth that has changed so much since they last heard my playing.
With all of the stuff that you’ve been doing, have you been able to see as a player how that’s all fed back into the kind of record you made with this record as opposed to if you would have made this new record 10 years ago?
Oh God, yes. You hit it right on the button. I’ve been in Japan for 10 years and I’ve done a billion projects — lots of solo albums here. I listen to the output that I’ve done in the last 10 years and you can not even compare it to the 10 years that I did before as far as depth and intensity and density and growth. It boggles even my mind, first of all, how friggin’ hard I’ve wound up working.
The 10 years prior to that, of course I was doing fantastic things. I was making history with a great band that I loved. It was great. But as far as musical growth and depth and stuff that really turned me on musically, I was moving at a snail’s pace. Ever since I came here, it’s made my mind blow up from stimulation and the result is an album like Inferno, which just came out naturally.
You’ve done so many things since moving to Japan, and part of that has been a ton of TV work. You’ve said that “TV facilitated the ability for me to do exactly what I wanted to do musically without having to compromise.” How did it open the door for you to really do that?
Well, first of all, my music is not exactly Justin Bieber. It’s not super-commercial and super-mainstream, although I’ve done a lot of songwriting, recording and producing and guitar playing for Top 10 acts here in Japan all of the time, which I love doing because I love popular music, especially in Japan. But Marty Friedman, the solo artist, is definitely not the most commercial thing in the world. It’s a bit eclectic and it’s very intense. There’s a lot to listen to and it can be quite hard to listen to at points, but it is what it is. So I think that had I not been so visible on television, it would be harder for me to get a major label anywhere to release my stuff, especially with all creative freedom in my corner. I mean, nobody really tells me what to do.
I can only attest that to the face familiarity [I have]. They know me from being on TV or being in the media and stuff like that, so it’s kind of almost like a free pass to do what I want, despite the fact that it’s not going to necessarily be the biggest mainstream commercial hit that they’re going to make billions of dollars off of. But I’ve consistently released album after album after album, all on major labels here, and they’ve all done respectably well and gotten me to the next step. I can only say that I’ve been allowed to do that because of doing all kinds of other activities in Japan as well.
I know you’ve been playing some live shows. How much of this record is in the set?
We’ve been playing four songs off of it, which is a lot for a brand new record, but the response has been fantastic. Actually, this record is really what I want to play and represent live. I basically chose the setlist as mostly Inferno stuff and stuff from my previous solo albums that kind of fit into the Inferno vibe. I kept it really heavy and dark and intense and not too light. I only did one ballad in there and the rest of it is just full throttle, balls out ripping kind of stuff.
Did you have to do any sort of conditioning to be able to pull off a set like this?
Not really, if anything I’m an endurance junkie. Endurance is the easiest thing. I’ve never really had a problem with stamina or that kind of thing. For whatever reason, when I’m playing live, I get this jolt of energy and I’m not even the most athletic person at all, but I just go completely ape-shit when I’m playing. So that comes kind of naturally, especially after our first few gigs, it’s just off the hook. It was a very natural thing. My band is really good, so it makes it really easy to play this stuff, although it sounds kind of difficult. I think it would be difficult if it wasn’t my own, but since it’s mine and I spent so many months recording this stuff, I know it only too well. So it was rather easy to put together a setlist.
Who’s in your band on this run?
The guitarist is Takayoshi Ohmura and he’s also in a band called Babymetal and they’re starting to breakout worldwide. The bass player is a guy from Israel named Or Lubianiker and the drummer is a guy named Johan Nunez from Gus G’s band Firewind. Those two guys are relative recent members of my band, but Takayoshi has been playing in my solo band since 2008.
I know you spent a lot of time working on this record. It seems like it might have been a lot to jam creatively into one album. Do you still have additional songs and collaborations that you didn’t get to on this one?
Well, I’ve got a lot of additional songs and collaborations that I threw away to narrow it down to only the stuff that I really liked. I spent a lot of time listening and even if I worked hard on a song and even if it got finished, if it was just a 9.5 in my book, I just said “You know, I’ll just pass on it and wait until I’ve got something that really excites me.” That’s one of the joys of not having a deadline. So yeah, there’s probably an album and a half’s worth of stuff that’s been thrown away and I doubt that I’ll even revisit it. Because I’m one of those guys that if it’s not good now, it’s not going to be good three years later. So just delete it and come up with something new.