Power of Metal.dk Interview

Interview with Tony MacAlpine, March 2012


Although he’s in a world of his own, he’s also one of the most down to earth musicians around. A contradiction? Maybe not, for while he commands a high level of respect as a guitar player from within the Metal community, the person in question won’t hesitate to go back and forth from genre to genre – irrespective of whether that genre is Jazz, Blues, Classical music or Metal.

Tony MacAlpine was born and raised in Springfield Massachusetts, and in his early years was a classically trained pianist and violinist. He began his musical education at age 5 as a piano major at the Springfield Conservatory of Music and furthered his studies at HARTT College in Connecticut.

At age 12, Tony picked up the guitar. He was later “discovered” in the pages of Guitar Player magazine by Mike Varney in 1984, and became a leader in the neoclassical guitar virtuoso movement of the mid to late 80s – a movement which also included the like of Jason Becker, Marty Freidman, Vinnie Moore and David Chastain.

After having released 10 solo albums, Tony spent the last 10 years focusing his energies on numerous musical collaborations – these included touring and/or recording with musicians such as Bunny Brunel, Steve Vai and Derek Sherinian (more info at the end of this interview). Then, a few months ago, he tapped into his creativity to record solo (studio) album no. 11, the eponymously-titled “Tony Macalpine”.

It was during a European tour to promote this album that I grabbed an opportunity to have a friendly chat with Tony MacAlpine……..

Chris:            Time and again London stages have hosted you – for instance you once played at the Astoria (now defunct London venue) with Steve Vai’s band in a gig that got an official DVD release…..

Tony: Yes, that’s right! I’ve also played with Planet X and I think with my solo group too. I enjoyed it here and have always had a great time.

None of the musicians you’re currently touring with have been with your band for very long. So could you tell me how they came to be part of your band and what you liked about the playing of each?

Tony: Well these musicians are extremely talented players. They’re very professional and very musical. Nili Brosh is a really young guitar player. She’s 22 years old, from Israel, and graduated from the Berklee College of Music. I think she’s a very good player. It takes that to coexist with other musicians who have been able to know the demands of music and the harsh reality of having to live on the road.

Of course bass player Bjorn Englen has played with Yngwie Malmsteen, Uli Jon Roth…..he’s been in a lot of guitar bands so he’s a very solid player and he understands the music and what it’s all about. Aquiles Priester is from the band Angra – he’s a very well-known drummer in his native Brazil. He’s really outgrown his contemporaries in the ranks.

So, yeah, they’re the kind of players who are able to assume their role.

I’ll be honest with you – I’ve only heard your most recent album for the first time this morning. So obviously I’ve only been able to skim through it but it seems to be very eclectic, yet you keep within your own style. Was this ‘eclecticism’ due to an over-accumulation of ideas since your previous solo effort?

Tony: No, it had nothing to do with that. Let me just say that this year being the 25th anniversary since “Edge Of Insanity” came out, I thought the new record was a nice opportunity to make a departure from what I had been doing for the last few years. I’ve been working with Steve Vai, with Michel Polnareff – the great French pop star. I’ve been working with Planet X, with Virgil Donati and his band, with the band CAB…..I did a lot of things outside of this instrumental stuff and I really wasn’t sitting home writing tunes to be used on this record.

We started writing this record a year before we released it. It was a short period of time of writing and I had a lot of inspiration to do it and a great producer and sound engineer to work with: Ulrich Wild. Ulrich as produced so many records [Dethklok, Prong, Slipknot, Pantera, et al] – he’s a Grammy Award winning guy.

So he came to my place, we worked on some stuff in my studio and then he mixed it in his place. In a very short time – in about 6 months – we had everything together…..after the initial year of writing it.

One composition from the new album that struck me as being different from what you’ve done before was ‘Flowers For Monday’ How did the idea for that composition come about?

You know, I’ve never really ever recorded – at least not to the best of my knowledge – any acoustic guitar track. So I wanted to do that and I did ‘Flowers For Monday’ and another track which appears as a bonus track on the Japanese version, a track called ‘Donostia’. So there are 2 songs of the same kind of physicality. Besides, I also wanted to do a sombre and dark piece and that’s how those two songs came to be.

This is already your 10th solo album. Why was it this one that bore your name as its title?

Tony: Because I hadn’t really done that before and I just thought it was a good time to do so after that 10 year period of not working on any solo stuff. We had talked about it and just felt the time was right. We reckoned who not make it an exposť of my music?

Fair enough. Tony, for a number of years you were involved in the G3 concept where you played guitar and keyboards with Steve Vai’s band. This included the 2003 edition which featured Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen; in 2004 with Satriani, Vai and Robert Fripp; in 2005 with Vai, Satriani and John Petrucci; and other editions.

What was that experience like? Wasn’t there ever any clash of egos, or were those events more like family gatherings?

Tony: Yeah it was pretty much like a family. I had spent a lot of time talking with Yngwie about life. Joe [Satriani] has always been a very good friend ever since I lived in San Francisco all those years ago when I was doing the “Eyes Of The World” [1990] record – I’ve known all of those guys going back to the Bill Graham days and all the musicians that he’s worked with: Jonathan Mover [drummer – Marillion, GTR, Joe Satriani, Alice Cooper, Frank Gambale]…..all those from the East Coast.

[Note: Bill Graham was a Rock promoter and manager who worked with countless influential musicians, such as Joe Satriani, Bob Dylan, Bob Geldof (in the ‘Live Aid’ colossal), The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Gabriel and many others. Graham was killed in a helicopter crash in 1991.]

Of course I’ve known Steve [Vai] for many years. And everybody just gets along absolutely fine with each other. You know, when you know you’re out there on the road, even if you might have an issue [with someone] you kind of let it go because you’re going to be on the road for quite a long time with people. So it was a pretty cool thing. Everybody was pretty tight.

You’ve also been involved in record production for many years. Is that something which comes natural to you as a musician?

Tony: One of the first ones I did was [guitarist] Joey Tafolla’s “Out Of The Sun” record – it also had Paul Gilbert on it. Yes, I do a lot of production work whenever I have the time.

Is it an easygoing work for you?

Tony: It’s never easy working with people in a recording studio because they have to be willing to take advice and that’s a very personal thing. In fact it’s a difficult thing – [as a producer] you have to be able to interact with them. It’s very much a team effort.

I mainly work with singers – when I’m producing stuff, I don’t really work too much with guitar players. Through my own music and my associations with other guitar players, I do [production] work with other guitar players. I would say the “Out Of The Sun” project was a rarity because Joey Tafolla was a student of mine so when he had got a record deal, he called me and I ended up producing his album.

To be honest I took a long time to warm to early albums of yours such as “Edge Of Insanity” (1985) and “Maximum Security” (1987). However I appreciate them now more than I did when they were released.

Do you think you’ve made such giant leaps ahead as a musician that those albums don’t really represent you any more?

Tony: No. I disagree. Recording music is like playing a part in a movie – you have to believe in that character for that movie. In fact tonight we’re playing the entire “Edge Of Insanity” album in the first part of the gig. These are the things that we swear by and we live by. These are the things that are exponents of what we are when we create them. If you don’t have that belief when you do something, then there’s no point in recording it. So that’s definitely what I am and what I continue to be.

When studying music, why did you switch from piano to guitar as a kid?

Tony: I started playing piano when I was 5 years old. I studied it for 18 years at the Springfield Conservatory of Music under the direction of Marion Jensen and along the way I was playing guitar. So I didn’t leave anything. I played both instruments all the time…a bit like an athlete playing 2 sports.

I’ve got quite a collection of instrumental guitar albums but I must say that relatively few of them have been made into a tour. What are the challenges of converting your instrumental music for a live audience?

Tony: Well, it’s tough. It’s always a diminished type of audience because guitar music has more of an exclusive appeal. Occasionally you also have drum tours but also then you’d mainly be reaching for drummers…..

A niche audience…..

Tony: Exactly. That’s the tough thing in itself. It doesn’t really quite ever have the same impact as coming out with a vocals-fronted band. The challenge in itself is just being able to reproduce live what you did in the studio. Other than that, if you have the reputation as a player, you’ll be able to pull that off each and every time.

Speaking about live performances, guitarists such as Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen put a lot of emphasis on showmanship at their gigs. Does that flamboyancy come natural to you?

Tony: Yeah, I play guitar and enjoy the interaction with the audience. But every performer has his thing. My emphasis is to portray the emotions that we feel in the music that we’re playing. I don’t have a lot of costumes on and laser lights and things like that. It’s a very simple show – we just get right down to the music

Around 2000, you were involved in the critically acclaimed CAB – a Jazz Fusion band inspired by the like of Return To Forever and Weather Report and which featured Jazz greats such as Bunny Brunel, Dennis Chambers and keyboardist Brian Auger.

How did your involvement with CAB come about?

Tony: I got a call from Bunny Brunel – at that time he was working with Raymond Gomez, the great Fusion player. He had just done some stuff with Chick Corea and asked me if I wanted to get involved in something with him. There was Dennis Chambers playing drums with Brian Auger on keyboards. ‘Why don’t you come down here to jam with us?’ he told me. I said ‘Sure, I will.’ So I met the band, gave it a whirl and loved the material.

Before that experience, was Brian Auger someone you looked up to as a keyboardist?

Tony: He’s always been a great player but I was more into the Rock ‘N’ Roll players such as Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson and those type of guys.

How does your training in Classical music help when composing the less restricted Jazz Fusion genre?

Tony: Well…I wouldn’t really know because my first exposure to music was Classical so I would have had to live a long period of time without contact with Classical to know the difference it would have had. I can just say that my exposure to music was my first introduction to instrumental music...playing Beethoven sonatas, Chopin, Liszt, Mozart...Schuman…that was my first exposure to music. So it’s really hard for me to know what it could have been like because obviously the whole idiom of Classical music and Jazz is completely different.

From the composers you’ve mentioned, you seem to have a particular preference for Chopin – I get this impression from your playing and from the fact that you’ve often included Chopin compositions in your solo albums.

What is it that attracts you to Chopin?

Tony: I wouldn’t say it’s just Chopin. I mean I haven’t recorded a lot of Classical music and when I do include Classical music on my records, they’re very short pieces, such as an etude or a prelude. I mean I would love to play the Appassionata Sonata [Beethoven’s sonata masterpiece for piano] but nobody’s gonna sit around for that. So you have to do something that’s kind of short and Chopin did a lot of pieces that are short.

You’ve played with so many musicians through your career but there are a few of them with whom you seem to have developed a particularly strong professional relationship. Billy Sheehan is possibly one such musician.  So how did you get to know Billy?

Tony: You know, incidentally right now Billy and I are doing something with Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian - we’ve even got some shows coming up in October.

Really? What’s the name of the band?

Tony: There’s no name for it. We just show up and we play! [laughs] I met Billy through my very first record that I did: “Edge Of Insanity”. Besides Billy on bass there was also Steve Smith [Journey] who played drums on that record. Both Billy and Steve had come on as session players and that’s how I met them. I was lucky enough to have had those guys play on my first record.

And of course you kept in touch since then……

Tony: Yeah, I’m a guy who goes to parties and gets hold of names and numbers while I’m there.

Would you be interested in forming a more commercially-oriented band such as Mr. Big? Or such as M.A.R.S.?

Tony: You know, I’m just really happy to be playing music. When an opportunity comes along, you decide if that’s what you want to do but I’m not really looking for the biggest pay-day in music. Commercial music is a different extreme to whatever it is that I’m doing right now. However if there’s an opportunity for a collaboration and this collaboration is something I feel I can make a valid contribution to, yeah why not, I’ll consider it.

In fact I’m gonna be doing a record with Lady GaGa next week….

What?!! Are you serious?

Tony: Ha-ha! Nah, I’m just kidding!! Didn’t think you’d take me seriously there….

[Both of us laugh.]

Well I’ve heard so many odd collaborations in the music business that nothing surprises me any more….

Keeping on the subject of Billy Sheehan, is The Devil’s Slingshot still active?

[Around 2007, Tony Macalpine got together with Billy Sheehan and drummer Virgil Donati to form an instrumental Progressive Metal band called The Devil’s Slingshot. With this band they released one solitary album – “Clinophobia” - in 2007.]

Tony: No. It’s not. Until it lasted we enjoyed it but we got into a few legal wrangles with our record label so we decided to…..move along.

Here’s my last question for you: what would you like to do that you haven’t yet had the opportunity to do?

Tony: I’d like to do an acoustic recording with acoustic guitar, piano and orchestra. Yes, that’s something I’d like to work on.

That sounds interesting actually. I hope you do manage to realise that aspiration.

Tony: Thank you.

© 2012 - Chris Galea

Selected album discography:

- Tony MacAlpine (2011) (feat. T.M. [g., k., b., drum progr.], Virgil Donati [d.], Marco Minnemann [d.], Philip Bynoe [b.])
- Chromaticity (2001) (feat. T.M. [g., k.], Steve Smith [d.], Barry Sparks [b.])
- Master of Paradise(1999)(feat. T.M. [g., k., l.vox], Atma Anur [d.], Larry "Bones" Dennison [b.])
- Violent Machine (1997) (feat. T.M. (g., k.), Mike Terrana [d.], Kevin Chown [b. – Tarja Turunen, The Supremes])
- Evolution (1995) (feat. T.M. [all g., k.], Mike Terrana [d.], Tony Franklin [b.])
- Premonition (1994) (feat. T.M. [all instruments except bass], Tony Franklin [bass])
- Madness (1993) (feat. T.M., Gina Demos [guest g.], Glen Slobel [d.], Larry ‘Bones’ Dennison)
- Freedom to Fly (1992) (feat. T.M., Mike Terrana , Larry ‘bones’ Dennison [b.])
- Eyes of the World (1990) (feat. T.M. [g., k.], Alan Sehorn [v.], Mike Jaques [b.], Billy Carmassi [d.])
- Maximum Security (1987) (feat. T.M. [g.,b.,k.], Deen Castronovo [d.], Atma Anur [d], George Lynch [g. on 2 tracks], Jeff Watson [g. on 1 track)])
- Edge of Insanity (1985) (feat. T.M., Billy Sheehan, Steve Smith)

Seven the Hardway (2010) 

Theatre de Marionnettes (2008)
CAB 4 (2003)
CAB 2 (2001)
CAB (2000) 

Clinophobia (2007) 

G3: Live in Tokyo (2005)
G3: Live in Denver (2004)
Live at the Astoria London (2003) 

Burning Live in Tokyo (live) (2004)
Lapse of Reality (2004)
Dreamtower (2003) 

Live from Oz (live - 2002)
MoonBabies (2002)
Universe (2000) 

Project: Driver (1986)

Tony MacAlpine - Tony MacAlpine

Label: Favored Nations

Link: www.tonymacalpine.com  / www.youtube.com/macalpinetony.


Touring line-up:
Tony Macalpine – guitars & keyboard
Bjorn Englen - bass
Aquiles Priester - drums
Nili Brosh - guitars

See above