MR.BIG – drummer Pat Torpey discusses the band reunion and plans for the future.

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PAT TORPEY

INTERVIEW BY MARKO SYRJÄLÄ

TRANSCRIPTION BY ANTAURA ZED

Mr. Big is an American hard rock band formed in Los Angeles, California, in 1988. The band was originally composed of Eric Martin (vocals), Paul Gilbert (guitar, Billy Sheehan (bass), and Pat Torpey (drums). In 1989 the band inked a recording contract with Atlantic, resulting in a self-titled debut the same year. The album was a big success, especially in Japan, and included the MTV hit singles “Addicted to That Rush” and ”Wind Me Up.” The sophomore album LEAN INTO IT followed in 1991, and it included another massive international hit, “To Be with You.” Their third album, BUMP AHEAD, came out in 1993, and it failed to reach its predecessor’s sales figures. During the next few years, Mr. Big toured a lot. The touring included a successful Aerosmith tour in Europe, three sold-out headline performances at Tokyo’s classic Budokan Arena, and a massive show in Sao Paulo in front of 100,000 people. HEY MAN album was released in 1996, but it didn’t succeed, and the band went on hiatus. In 1999 Mr. Big reformed, but with a new guitarist Ritchie Kotzen (ex-Poison). This lineup released two albums: GET OVER IT (2000) and ACTUAL SIZE (2001), before calling its quits in 2002. In February of 2009, it was announced that the original lineup of Mr. Big would do a reunion tour in Japan. As expected, the tour turned out to be highly successful, and the band decided to continue playing together a bit more.  European tour started in early September in Tallinn, Estonia. On the next day, the band arrived in Helsinki, and I then had a chance to sit down with Mr.Torpey and discuss the past and possible future of Mr.Big. 

THE RE-UNION

You just played the first show on this European tour in Estonia. How was that?

It was fantastic. It was great; really good.

Have you never been to Estonia before?

No. I think Paul had and Billy had – they both had, not me.

Tell about Mr.Big reunion. Whose idea was it to put this band back together? 

Well, it- I don’t think it was anyone person’s idea, it was everybody’s idea. We had a lot of time pass, and it seemed to correct right. There was kind of a catalyst that got it going. Paul was doing a show at the House of Blues in Los Angeles; I think it was May of last year – not last May but a year ago – yeah, it was May. And I was playing drums with Richie Kotzen, and Paul asked Ritchie to open. Paul didn’t know that I was playing drums for him on that show. And so Ritchie told me, “Yeah, it’ll be great. Pat’s going to play drums.” And Paul said, “Oh, really? Wow. I’ll invite Billy down, and we’ll have him sit in for an encore, and told him “we’ll play some stuff.” So Paul sent me an email, and I was like, “Yeah, sure. You know, that’d be great.” And then it was. It was a lot of fun, and Ritchie sang too – Ritchie sang a song. Eric wasn’t there; Eric lives in San Francisco. And so one thing led to another, and here we are in Finland. A year and a half later, we’re playing shows.

So, all of the guys – Billy, Eric, and Paul – are busy with their things all the time. Was it hard to set this thing up because they have so many other things going on?

Well, not really. Once the, you know- when there’s a desire and a will, you make it happen. You know it has taken a while to- we didn’t immediately just jump in and do it, you know, we had to make some plans and start planning. I think officially, we didn’t decide we would do the reunion thing until August of, like, a year ago, you know. And then we had to decide: “Okay, well, what are we going to do? How are we going to do this?” All those things, you know, management, we had to make all those business decisions. But the good part is that everybody agreed. We all wanted to do it. There wasn’t one guy going, “I’m not sure, you know…” That’s what’s the best thing about it – because we’re all kind of in the same place, to use a cliché. And that’s what makes it fun and kind of reignited the spark of wanting to play together, and it’s just been enjoyable. We’ve already done a Japanese tour, and we did a show in Indonesia about a month ago.

There’s a DVD to be released from that tour in Japan, right?

Yeah, we did a thing at BUDOKAN LIVE – a live CD and DVD. So, now it’s just kind of- we’ve kind of been able to go right into cruising, you know what I mean? It’s like the band’s really tight together. I mean, I feel like we’d play anywhere right now because we’re playing well, and all the cylinders are firing, you know, on the engine.

Mr.Big broke up in 2002. Is there anything different now compared to the old days?

Well, I think there are a lot of things that are different in a positive way. I mean, when we stopped playing together, there were, you know- there was kind of a bad vibe going on, but it wasn’t like we hated each other or anything. It was just that we’d been through a lot. We went through a lot of the same things that bands go through. The only difference is we don’t do drugs, you know, we’re pretty clean, ordinary guys. But we just had some musical differences that, you know, started and then got bigger and bigger, and then people decided to do other things. So it’s just a part of the growth pattern that I think everybody goes the, ough and now those things are- they’ve tried, and now this is fun again. So I think what’s different about it now is also the intensity, because fifteen years ago, or when we first got together in ’92, ’91, ’90, and ’80, we were so, “We’re going to be the best band! We’re gonna be so good!” and everybody was just so intense and crazy, you know.

Hungry?

Yeah, you know, and not just hungry but, you know, so focused that we’d forget to look at the big picture. We were so focused on this one thing that you forget how fun everything is and how great it is actually to be able to be doing what we’re doing, and so you kind of take it for granted a little bit. And that’s not there anymore. And it’s good – it’s a good place to be.

Paul left the band in 1999. You continued with Ritchie Kotzen, but you decided to call it quits only three years later. Would you briefly tell what caused Mr.Big to break up back then?

There was tension inside the band. I mean, I don’t have to give the specifics; it was just personalities. You know musical things. And it had just run its course, you know. Like I said: marriages go through this, bands break up, bands get back together, and nothing huge and juicy happens. There wasn’t any big fight, and then, you know, “Fuck you!” You know, it was nothing like that. And I remained friends with Paul and Billy and Eric the whole time.

You stayed friends, but you also played with Paul, Billy, and Ritchie in various situations during the years? 

Yeah, I did some stuff with Paul. I did recordings with him, and I played with Ritchie. And I did a thing with Billy, a couple of other things. I didn’t play with Eric, but that was more of a geography thing.  He lives in San Francisco. And I was doing other things as, well, and I did a couple of solo things. I tried that for a while.

Your solo albums were released in Japan only, right?

Yeah, in Southeast Asia. Two records were released: ODD MAN OUT and Y2K. So there really isn’t, you know- that’s all that happened. I think fans were aware that we had some tensions inside the band musically. Everybody knew about it. But, you know, when I see our old performance, DVD’s and we were still playing really well. We were a good band, and I’m proud because I see it and I think, “Wow. I hope we can still be that good.” Everybody was playing well and doing well.

One thing people keep saying,  especially here in Finland, “Yeah, Mr. Big – they’re just a ballad band with ‘To Be With You’” Do you ever get fed up with that?

Well, not really. It’s kind of like, I don’t have time to really have that upset me because it’s like, you can’t please everybody, so I don’t even try. We just play what we like. We figure out that there are enough people out there who will appreciate something that we do. I don’t have to worry about the people who don’t. Some people think we’re a ballad, band and other people think, “Oh, it’s too hard rock.” You know, it’s like, whatever, because I can’t explain it. I’m just playing music and taking all the influences that I’ve had my whole life and having it come through me in another way. Music is like food: some people like burgers, some people like pasta, you know. Whatever. I don’t really care, to be honest with you.

Isn’t it kind of strange when most of Mr.Big’s material is something else but ballads, but you’re still best known about those songs?

With “To Be With You.” Well, I think that’s okay. I mean, it’s nothing to complain about. You know some of my favorites are, and I’ve had this question asked to me before. Some of our favorite albums, CDs, or whatever were albums containing all kinds of stuff on it: any Beatles thing, Hendrix or Zeppelin, these old classic records. And they had ballads and rock tunes and instrumental things. So, in a way- If people think we’re a ballad band, that just means they haven’t listened to everything we’ve done. And if people believe we are only just about the technical stuff, they haven’t listened to everything we’ve done either. We do some bluesy s, and we, we do some pop-rock, you know, ballads, you know, acoustic. And one other thing is: we’re really into singing – all of us – even more than before. If you see our show now, we do even more vocal things than we’ve ever done before.

The Fab Four?

Yeah, well, I guess. We have one singer, though. We have one real lead singer, that’s one of the things, but- Vocals have always been, for me, that still ways a big deal. I wanted to be a good drummer, but I wanted to be Paul McCartney, you know – I wanted to have this voice.

Who doesn’t?

Yeah, exactly. That’s what I say.

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Mr.Big promo pic from 1989

OTHER PROJECTS

Let’s talk about some past projects. Say something about your working with Impellitteri?

Oh, wow. That was a long time ago. Well, you know, I never really was in the band with Chris. At the time, a buddy of mine was playing bass – Chuck Wright. Chuck and I have known each other for decades. He had a drummer, and he left, and they were already in the studio, and Chris, was trying to get this record together. So Chuck told Chris, “I know, Pat,” and I’d never met Chris before, so he asked me to come down. That was the first time I ever recorded double kick drums. I’d never really played much double kick drum, but he had many of these double kick drum things. So for about a week, I was like, “Okay, I’ve gotta get this together and practice.” But then they needed somebody, and my picture was on the album because I was there. But I was already doing other things even when that came out.

You never toured with them?

No, I never did. I played a NAMM [National Association of Music Merchants] show with Chris once – that was the only time I ever played live with him. And then they ended up getting some guy – I can’t remember his name. But I like Chris, he’s a great guy, really, cool and we’re still buddies and everything.

How about Graham Bonnet, who sang on the STAND IN LINE album?

Graham? I barely know him, you know. I mean, I did a couple of photo sessions with him, and that was it. I barely know the guy.

You also worked with Ted Nugent at one point, didn’t you?

Yeah, that was way early on. That was in like in the mid-80s. And that was because Tom Werman was producing. He produced a lot of Ted Nugent, Cheap Trick, a few different things. And there was an engineer guy named Duane Baron who worked with him all the time and started then working with John Purdell. He’s a keyboard player, a producer, engineer, and John and I used to be in a band together a couple of years before that. John was the singer/keyboard player, I was the drummer, with Chuck Wright playing bass, it was a band called Exposure. When they started working with Ted, you know, they needed somebody to play drums, and I actually didn’t really play drums on it. They were all nuts and crazy about these sequencers, you know, so I was playing pads into a sequencer, and then they would manipulate everything. This was before computer-based recording like Pro Tools and so on. It was just crazy. I remember so many times just saying, “Why don’t we just set up a kit, let me just play? It’s rock and roll, and this isn’t rock and roll.” And, you know, then I overdubbed the cymbals and, whatever, you know, it came out. But that was what that was about.

Actually, I don’t like that album (IF YOU CAN’T LICK ‘EM… LICK ‘EM) too much. The drums on it sound like, ugh…

Oh, it’s terrible, and I think so too. Believe me, I’m the first guy to go, “Pfft!” you know. There’s something about people, and they think they can control [everything]: “Oh, we’ll be able to move this and move that, and that’ll be great!” and I’m like, “Yeah, but it sounds terrible.” I think it does. And they don’t hear it as I do, you know. I hear all the subtleties.

Another interesting aspect of your past is your tour with Robert Plant.

Yes, in ’88 – “the Now and Zen” tour.

That was just before Mr. Big?

Right. And I was already in Mr. Big. Mr. Big was already together. We just hadn’t; we just were finishing up getting the record deal together, everything with Atlantic, and so we had some time off. We weren’t going to start recording until January, and this was in October, so I was in the right place at the right time and got a phone call. It was pretty cool. It was a surprise to me. I was pretty excited about it, being able to play with Robert Plant. I mean, Led Zeppelin is a big deal to me. They were a one of a kind band, you know.

During the past few years, you have been doing drum clinics around the world?

Yeah, exactly, I have. I have been doing clinics in Southeast Asia more than anything: China, Southeast Asia, and some European things. I did a thing in Italy, and a thing in Slovenia, and then went to Russia and so on.

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Pat Torpey live in Finland in 2009

THE EARLY YEARS

When you were really young, I read somewhere you had to choose between sports and musician career?

Well, yeah. I’m a jock, I mean, I like sports. I still do. I still play baseball every weekend,  every weekend I play. But the draw of music was so strong. It was like a magnet, you know. I just couldn’t- I knew that was more important to me. Even in high school, when it came time to play football for the high school team or play music, I played music. I just had a more long-term vision of what I wanted to do with my life and professional sports. I mean, I’m not that big so that I couldn’t play football. I was okay. I mean, I’m not great, and  I just like to do it for fun. Recreation “Laughs”

Speaking of influences, was Bonzo [John Bonham] one of them?

Huge. But you know, it’s almost kind of, you know- he’s one of those guys who influenced everybody, every drummer and people in music just because of his sound and approach. I mean, even his last name, Bonham: “Let’s do a Bonham thing,” it’s like an adjective now. If I could get to a spot where someone could say, “Hey, do a Torpey thing,” that would be great. That’s a real testament to how much influence the guy had. Up to a certain point, there were all these other things in music, and then all of a sudden, there’s Led Zeppelin and John Bonham, and I was like, “Whoa. This is completely different than anything I’ve ever heard.”

Are there any other guys who influenced your playing? Like Neil Peart?

Well, not so much Neil. I mean, Neil’s great, you know. I was not a huge fan of Rush until we toured with them. When we toured with Rush, then I became a fan. But up to that point, I was more into the early progressive bands like Genesis and Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer to a certain degree and The Strawbs, Spooky Tooth, all of these kinds of mid-60s things, you know, psychedelic. Another big deal when I was young was Mitch Mitchell, who was with Hendrix. That was a big influence on me. You know, if anybody asks me, “Who are your influences?” it’s like, well, there are millions of them. There are so many great drummers playing now. I think I’ve seen every Buddy Rich drum solo that has been recorded on video. I saw one today on the Internet that I had never seen before, and I’m telling you, you know, I just shake my head going, “Oh my god, this guy is superhuman. Superhuman!” Many people have influenced me, but Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, and Clive Bunker go as far as the rock genre goes. The original Jethro Tull drummer was a big deal for me. He influenced me. I was very young when I saw him, and I was like, “Whoa. What the hell’s that?” Just a completely different approach.

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Reunited Mr.Big: Paul Gilbert, Pat Torpey, Eric Martin, and Billy Sheenan

THE FUTURE OF MR.BIG?

What about the future of Mr. Big? Are there any plans to do new material?

Well, it’s kind of a question mark right now. There are no plans, but there are no plans not to. So, we’re kind of taking it as it comes, you know, and it’s been good, and as long as it remains good, we’ll probably take the next step. We’re playing a couple of things that are new things to us to play live. “Hold Your Head Up,” the old Argent tune. We recorded a demo of it years ago at Paul’s house, and it was pretty cool. So we thought, “Hey, let’s start doing it live the next time around.” It’s a song that we’d recorded, and that’s a new thing. But as far as, like, brand new material, we haven’t gotten there yet, but I know everybody has ideas. I know I do, you know, I’ve got some ideas that I want to show Billy and Paul – “Hey, what do you think?” you know? So, I hope so. You never know.

You did a tour of Japan, and now you’re doing this European tour. Do you have any plans to do a U.S. tour?

Well, possibly. It probably would be in the springtime of next year. They have a lot of these package tours that go out, you know. It’s possible.

How about doing some festivals like Rocklahoma?

Yeah, yeah, exactly. They were trying to get us to do that last time. The thing is, it got to be financially viable, and it got to make sense because it’s not like we’re trying to promote ourselves. Before we were- you know, fifteen, twenty years ago we had an album out, we were trying to play everywhere, you know, even to where the financial aspect sometimes had to be put on the backburner. And I’m not saying we’re only doing this for the money, but what I’m saying is we’re not going to go out and play unless it makes sense to. We’re not just going to just, you know- You know what I’m trying to say. Because I don’t want it to sound like the only reason why we’re doing this is for money because we’re not making huge amounts of money, you know. I mean, it’s costly to tour and to be able to tour and put on the show that we want to put on. So we’ll see. Everything’s good, though. I mean, it’s like, you know, I couldn’t be happier. I’m a lucky guy.

Maybe we will see you at a festival in Sweden next year.

Yeah, that’s another thing that’s possible that we talked about. Many festivals happen in Europe as well – in the summer and springtime, right?

Yeah, there’s something like maybe ten to fifteen huge outdoor festivals in Europe.

Yeah? I’d love to do it. So, we’ll see.

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