While guitarist Monte Pittman has just released first album on a label, The Power of Three, via Metal Blade, chances are you’ve seen or heard him before. It’s actually his third solo album, but even if you’re not a guitarist, you may be familiar with his work in Prong, or perhaps as Madonna’s guitarist since 2001. He’s even played with American Idol singer Adam Lambert. We caught up with Pittman to discuss signing with a label for his third album, whether crowdfunding has jumped the shark, and teaching Madonna how to play Pantera’s “A New Level.”
So you signed with Metal Blade for The Power of Three. What led you to sign with a label, which you didn’t do for your first two albums?
Rachel Fine from the Howard Stern Show tweeted ‘what’s your ultimate Christmas dinner guest list?’ and she had put me and Brian Slagel on there. I had met Brian a few times over the years. So I clicked on there and asked “oh what’s Brian up t,o” and from there we started communicating. We decided to get together and grab lunch. Our schedules didn’t work out, but thankfully after I recorded The Power of Three with Fleming Rassmussen, I contacted him again to play the album and ask what he thought I should do with it, and he offered to sign me to Metal Blade. I wouldn’t have even thought about that, I felt like maybe it wasn’t heavy enough. I think of Mortician as heavy but what I’m doing is like “oh some distortion, some chords,” but yeah it came out heavy and it makes all the sense in the world.
Your last solo album was crowdfunded. Why didn’t you do that again?
Well I did, but it just didn’t do the same. The first one that I did, I raised $65,000, and Kickstarter was a new thing a lot of people didn’t know about. I had a couple of friends suggest it to me and I said ‘no I don’t want to ask fans for money, that’s not cool,’ but the more I looked into it I realized I could offer guitar lessons and maybe give out the album in advance. I got to thinking about things like playing house parties, ‘I’ll do an acoustic show there by your fireplace with a bottle of wine, you invite your friends over,’ something like that. It got popular really fast and it got on the popular page and I made the goal low. I tell other bands who ask me that question. I made the goal for $5,000 and I thought if I got that then I could have my demos recorded and they’ll do a nice mix of it and I’ll just release it myself. Doing the guitar lessons and playing house parties led to the success of it.
The second one that I did, I didn’t do some of the same incentives because you have to remember that there is a cost for sending things, sending CDs to Singapore and South Africa cost more money than what the incentive was. So the second one I did was a lot different, but still as successful,, and it helped me and my drummer and bass player fly to Copenhagen and have a place to stay and get our gear there. When people ask where I see crowdfunding going, I think as soon as you’ve got it figured out, it goes somewhere else. Now there are a lot of bands doing crowd funding, it’s not such a new thing anymore.
Do you feel like it’s jumped the shark?
A little bit. Some people say “let’s do this just to do it,” but you have to put a lot of work behind it. It comes down to your fans wanting to do that to help you out. Maybe I’ll do one for a tour or something like that, but there are so many people doing it now that it’s hard to be seen. When I did the first one, I raised the most money that any rock musician had raised for the longest period of time. So that was getting attention and people would hear the material and what I was doing and they were like “hey that’s pretty cool I’ll give him a dollar.”Now there’s plenty of that out there. So it’ll be something else.
What are your thoughts on streaming services like Spotify and Pandora?
You know it’s here, it exists and I’ll be positive about it. As a guitar teacher, I teach a lot of kids from 5-10 years old, and chances are we’re going to be listening to different music If someone wants to learn a song, with kids a lot of times its One Direction (laughs) and of course I don’t have those albums, but I can just click on it and figure it out. I like to do those things in front of them so they see how I’m doing it and apply that later on to learn. They have a song that’s just like a Who song and so I say ‘here’s this song, it’s these three chords’ and I make them play through the whole song, and when they get to the bridge I can tell they’re bored. “So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way check out Iron Maiden.” With one kid, I felt really bad about doing this, I went to The Who and I said ‘check this out; and they said “what is that?” They looked kind of devastated and said “well wait that’s this other song by One Direction,” so I just said ‘okay be a kid while you still can.’
I like finding new music that way, I’ll go on Spotify and if I like a song I’ll add it on iTunes because it’s better quality, which is crazy because when iTunes first came people thought “oh well I’m not getting an iPod because it’s lower quality than the CD.” The music business revolves in cycles whether people notice it or not. There was a statement last year about how a lot of albums didn’t sell but a lot of singles sold and that reminded me that when I was a little kid and there were 45’s or singles. Also, if you had a cassette tape of something that you liked, you would high speed dub it and that was a much lower quality than the original take, but if it was something that you really liked then you would go out and buy it, but if it was something you listened to a couple times and was like “eh it’s okay” you wouldn’t. That’s how I see it now, streaming is like the high speed dubbed quality that came from iTunes. I just recently saw an interview on the Metal Evolution documentaries where Lars Ulrich was talking about underground tape trading and the tapes would be dubbed over so many times that it would be poor quality. I kind of look at it like that now. From having my own releases that are out, I’m getting more money from Spotify than I am from iTunes just from people listening to something once over and over again and getting a penny because for iTunes you get 16 cents or whatever you get from a track and if a person listens to it on Spotify 16 times it kind of balances out.
Talk a little bit about your album. How does it differ in any ways from the first two?
It’s drastically different. When I started out playing on my own, I started doing acoustic shows, so I didn’t have to worry if the rest of the band was in town or free to do a gig. I started getting better set times and better gigs so I started playing with a drummer and a bass player and from there it kept progressing. We would have some jams and I would pick up the electric and I would start doing some free form guitar solos and people loved that. So I added that into the songs that ended up being my second album, so that has acoustic guitars and drums and bass but it also has guitar solos. After having the guitar solos, the guy that produced it said “you need an electric part here throughout the song” and that led to it just being a rock album. From doing that stuff live, I needed some faster tempo songs and some straight ahead rock parts – I needed to crank it up a notch. That led to where it is today. I met Flemming Rasmussen a few years ago on a day off in Copenhagen and we kept in touch. I would ask him questions about sound and he was helping me with some demos. He would tell me about mic’s, and EQ’s, and things like that and I recorded an acoustic EP with him. That led to us working together, I gave him everything I had been working on; I gave him the heavy songs I was going to have also and he was like “this is what you need to be doing. The acoustic stuff is cool so I get why you’re doing that, but you need to be doing this heavy stuff.”
Would you play with Prong again?
Oh yeah. There are no plans to do that. The reason I stopped playing in Prong is that you can’t be in two places at once. From 2000 to the end of the Power of the Damager tour, I would always go back and forth. It almost became a joke – Tommy would get a tour set up, and as soon as we were getting ready to do something, it’d be like ‘hey I have to go out with Madonna.’ A lot of times it worked out perfectly, but we started having conflicts with scheduling, so he would get somebody else. Looking back at Prong, having new blood is what has always kept that band fresh. Mike Kirkland played bass on Beg to Differ then they got Troy Gregory to play bass on Prove You Wrong and that reinvented the band and then you get Raven and JB [keyboardist John Bechtel] in there for the Cleansing era, which is one of the best metal albums in my opinion; one of the best sounding guitar tones and you had Rude Awakening that only sold 10,000 albums the first week, so they were dropped by Sony the next week and then the band split up. So when I joined the band, we started playing together and building them up again.
If we could work something out, I would gladly do it. We talked about doing some writing together, I think it’d be cool if we did some shows together. Some Prong with Monte Pittman opening. Then we could always get together on stage and do stuff. Tommy is the closest to a brother that I’ve ever had. Everything is great between us, I’m sure we will do something in the future, but I know we’re both concentrating on our projects and Tommy needs to be the one, that’s his band, he needs to be the one doing it. I’m honored to have been able to helped out and get it going but now its just feeding it. The last album Carved Into Stone, people tell that’s one of their favorite albums that they ever did and I didn’t have anything to do with that. When people tell me it’s one of their favorite albums I’m like “oh thanks, I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t jinx that one.” (laughs)
I was completely blown away by seeing the clip of Madonna playing “A New Level.” How did that happen?
I’ve never told these stories because I’ve never really had the platform to. Dimebag came to a Prong show in Dallas when it was me, Tommy, and Don backstage. He came down to say hi and hang out a little bit and Tommy introduced us. Of course I knew who he was, but we have a lot of mutual friends and [Pantera producer] Sterling Winfield, he mixed my band in Texas’ last album. If we would’ve stayed together we were going to do our next album at Dimes house, but I moved to Los Angeles and that changed everything. Dime was asking “Do you guys do ‘Cut Rate’” and he was talking about the rhythm part under the guitar solo, saying how Prong was one of his biggest influences, one of his favorite bands. Tommy was one his favorite guitar players and was talking about right hand technique and he said “you have to stay on top of that string” and it seemed like nothing at the time. A couple of years later, I was playing bass for Prong during the Damager tour. I was tired, we had been playing every day and I was like ‘how the hell did Raven do this on the bass?’ Doing it on the guitar is one thing, but doing it on the bass is a much bigger strain. So I remembered ‘stay on top of the string,’ and there was something to that; something to keeping your pick right there on the string and just relaxing. It’s so simple, but you play guitar and you naturally do what you do; you don’t analyze every little thing you do.
I passed this on to Madonna when I was working on some lessons with her. I said ‘you gotta stay on top of the string,’ and next lesson she sounded much better, and she was like “yeah, you gotta stay on top of the string.” He had said something to me and I said something to her and it drastically improved her right hand. So I started telling her the story of Pantera and it was the perfect introduction to me showing her drop D tuning on the guitar because, if you play guitar you know what I’m talking about, one finger you hold down makes the chord, and the way “A New Level” works is those notes just move up chromatically. I thought it would be something easy for her to remember and she just kept playing it and playing it. When we were in band rehearsal we were gonna do her song “Hung up,” the key is in D minor. According to the way Pantera played “A New Level, it was tuned down a whole step, but just for this instance it’s the same notes so it doesn’t matter. We would end the song and she would play that riff and the band would join in and they don’t really know that kind of music.
What’s really a strange coincidence, and here’s something I never told anybody, but on the ‘Sticky & Sweet’ tour, one of the themes of the show was it was like a game, and that was right before the last song, so the title “A New Level” was perfect.Who would have ever thought that? If I would’ve shown her “Walk” or something like that it, it would’ve had nothing to do with the show. It just so happens the riff I showed her actually was relevant to the whole show we were doing and that stayed in there. That was awesome, I got to play some Pantera to a sold out stadium of 80,000 people every night! I don’t know when else I would get that experience; and to pay tribute, too, because I’m from right outside of there so I’ve always known about Pantera years before they made it. You used to hear them on the radio in Shreveport, with Pantera and Phil’s old band Razor White playing at a place called the Million Dollar Sand Piper.
Has there been any more metal infiltration of Madonna or her band?
I don’t want to overkill it. We didn’t have time to get into it, but I wanted to teach her “Creeping Death,” but there’s a lot of complicated parts, but I thought she would love the lyrics to that. It seems like something she’d love so that’s something in the future I might throw her way. You never know.