Lead singer Myles Kennedy discusses Alter Bridge’s latest album The Last Hero, his interest in writing about heroes in the first place, why exploring the theme of disillusionment is particularly relevant today, and his continuing evolution as a musician, including how he got his musical start.
You just got back from Europe not too long ago after a run of shows over there. How did those go?
That was one of my favorite tours ever, I think for a number of reasons. The fans were great. It was really great to reconnect with them, because it had been a few years. And also we got to tour with some of our favorite bands. So just as a fan, that was real exciting for me.
We started off with Living Colour on the bill. They were pretty important with my musical development early on. Same with our drummer. He was swayed to play drums ultimately because of those guys, so that was fun. Then later on we hooked up with Gojira, who we’re massive fans of, and Volbeat. So it was a fun tour.
Then I know this new album, The Last Hero, has done pretty well for you guys. It had your second-highest debut that I think you’ve ever had. That must be pretty cool to see this far into your career, to see an album still connect like that.
Yeah, it’s definitely a relief to a point. The music and entertainment business in general, if you can continue to do things and put out things where people care, you’re lucky, because people usually have pretty short shelf lives it seems like. So the fact that this came out, I guess it was a testament to the fact that our fans still care and still embrace the band. That definitely inspires us.
In between this album and Fortress, you took a year off and did some other musical projects before getting back together and working on this album. How do you think that time apart doing other stuff ended up shaping the record?
I think having the luxury of performing and writing with other people and having various projects helps make it so that when you get back together with your brothers, so to speak, it keeps it fresh. It never really feels stale.
If we were to go from one record to the next, I don’t know how that would change things. I don’t know if there would be a certain chemistry change. But given that Mark and I have these particular projects that we do and tour on and make records with, it makes it so that when we do reconvene after a few years it’s fresh and exciting.
Being a band now for 12 years, do you find the songwriting process and just the way Alter Bridge functions has changed over the years, or has it stayed relatively consistent for you?
I think there’s been an evolution. When I first joined the band, I was brought in strictly as a singer. Because we hadn’t really worked together, there wasn’t a level of trust that had been developed, as far as what I could bring to the table creatively, and then also as a guitar player. By the time we started Blackbird, that bond had essentially started, and with each record it has continued to evolve.
One of the other things that’s really cool is we know how to bring out each other’s strengths. Also, having our producer Elvis in the mix as well. He’s definitely very, very good at doing that, and the psychology of making music and making records. So there’s just been a real trust that’s developed over the years that has been beneficial to the songwriting process.
So 2016 is drawing to a close here in a couple weeks and I think most people would agree this has not been one of the better years in recent memory. Looking back on the year as a whole, what do you think is going to stick out the most for you about it?
Well, it hasn’t been the best year, just in terms of the people we’ve lost. For me on a personal level, it’s been a real bummer. Some of my favorite artists passed away. My mother-in-law passed away. It seemed like it was just one thing after another. You continued to learn about people getting sick, so I don’t know what it is with 2016.
If there’s a glimmer of hope in something that has outshined all of the darkness it’s been what we were talking about earlier, with Alter Bridge and the idea that we put out this record and it felt like people still cared. That certainly has been very, very important to keep my head up, and it makes me very happy.
One of the things you said about making this record for you is you sort of approached it as making a political record without it being political. Has this taken on a different meaning for you in the wake of the election?
Yeah, I thought once the election came and went that would be it. A lot of the inspiration and things that trigged some of the emotions making this record, I actually wondered how relevant they would be as I continued to perform the songs.
The way that things have turned out, it feels now that we’re even more polarized than we were prior to the election. This album has turned out to be pretty, I guess the word I keep thinking is it’s resonating with people. These are very interesting times.
You were over in Europe during the election, right?
Yep, we were.
What was that like to see all this play out from over there?
Well, it was interesting because we had people who lived there asking us questions about the outcome of the election. They were ultimately trying to make sense of why things were the way they are here and asking us. I don’t have the answers for that.
I guess because people probably assumed it was going to turn out one way and the outcome was the opposite of that, there’s a certain amount of surprise and shock. People are questioning how that came to be and I’m like, “Don’t ask me [laughs]. I have no idea. It’s just the way it is right now in the United States.”
One of the words you seem to keep using to describe this record is disillusionment, wrestling with that and writing from that headspace. What was that like for you to explore lyrically? Was it difficult to not come out on a completely negative side?
Well yeah, I think that’s the challenge with a word that carries that much weight. We’ve always been a band that’s always tried to have a certain amount of hope and optimism in our songs, so balancing that can be a bit of a challenge.
Look, people are disillusioned right now. They’re disillusioned with our system. They’re disillusioned with our news media. People don’t know what’s true, what’s fact and what’s fiction anymore. In all my years on this planet, I’ve never really seen this. It feels like there are no absolutes anymore. Everything is just up in the air. We are definitely disillusioned. There’s no question about it.
On the album there’s also this theme of looking at what it means to be a hero and heroism and if that even still exists. You open the record with “Show Me a Leader,” close it with “The Last Hero.” What influenced you to take on that subject matter and what do you think you came away with after writing about it?
The hero concept is something I’ve been interested in for a few decades. There was someone by the name of Joseph Campbell, who I discovered on a PBS series called Power of Myth back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. He would bring up the importance of the hero in tribes and society and how crucial it is to have that. So it was something that was always in the back of my mind, and that’s maybe part of how it made its way onto this record.
And then trying to make it somewhat relevant to these times and some of the things we were just talking about and the need for heroes. A lot of people feel there are a lack of heroes, so it felt very timely and appropriate to deal with that subject matter on this record.
In your own life, have you found there are certain people you’ve gravitated towards or looked up to and viewed as heroes?
Yeah. He’s not around anymore, but Dr. Martin Luther King was certainly one for me that I learned about growing up. He had this ability to galvanize people, which I thought was very inspiring.
But as far as a personal level and people I have in my life, I would have to say my step dad. He’s been really important for me as a role model. My biological father passed away early on, and when my mom remarried my step dad I basically won the lottery. You hear all these horror stories about step dads coming in and not being good to the kids, but he’s been amazing. He’s definitely always been a hero to me.
That’s cool. And then one song in particular I was curious what it was like to write was “You Will Be Remembered,” which I’m guessing was maybe one of the more personal songs on there for you. What went into writing that one?
Looking at the hero theme throughout the record, that’s one that’s a bit of a departure in the sense that it’s more of a tribute to everyday heroes. People who serve their community or serve their country, be it a fireman or a soldier. You could basically plug in any number of professions who act selflessly and for the benefit of the community. That was really where that came from.
I don’t know if it was as personal as a song like “Cradle to the Grave,” which is very, very personal. “You Will Be Remembered” is a pretty broad stroke that could be a number of different people.
“Cradle to the Grave” was written about your mother-in-law, right?
Yeah. Essentially at that point she had been sick, so it was certainly me reflecting on that idea and those set of emotions I was feeling at that point. I had no idea as the lyric was being written that she would eventually pass away as quickly as she did. It was a real challenge to actually perform it, because by that point she had passed away.
In fact with “My Champion,” that was the first song I tracked vocally. I almost forget that I did the vocal, left the vocal booth, and my phone had been blowing up. My wife was basically like you need to get home now. This is going down. So I went home. I was home for a couple weeks and then sang the rest of the record when I got back to Florida. That was a bit challenging. Stuff was still pretty raw at that point to try and perform that.
One thing that remains a constant for you on this record is working with Michael “Elvis” Baskette, who’s done almost all of your records now and even some of your non Alter Bridge ones. What is it about him that you really respond to and keep coming back to?
I think it’s because he’s a producer in the truest sense of the word. He’s not just a great sound guy. He doesn’t just get great guitar tones, great drum sounds. He’s got engineering chops, and I’ve always recognized that in him because he engineered the second Mayfield Four record. I knew he was very gifted there, but what I didn’t know at that time was what a great song guy he was and what a great arranger of ideas he was. He’s very creative.
Then on top of that, he also understands the psychology of making records, how to get the best out of the artist and make you feel confident and get your best performances. So he’s got all three nailed perfectly. Frankly, I don’t really favor the idea of ever doing a record without him, because I just feel completely confident in his abilities.
As far as vocally, I’ve always admired the range you have and just the strength of your voice. How do you feel you’ve grown as a vocalist over the years and what has allowed you to tackle all these different projects?
I think I’ve been really lucky in the sense that I’ve been able to play in bands that tour as much as they do. In the last six years in particular, it’s been almost nonstop touring and using my voice. It forced me to really evolve as a singer.
When I first joined Alter Bridge, I was still learning about my voice. I hadn’t really found my identity yet as a singer. Through the luxury of getting to be in the music business as long as I have, I’ve developed who I am and found where my strengths are. From a technical standpoint, through night after night after night of performing, I’ve learned how to use my voice to where it lasts through the tour and feels stronger.
So yeah, it’s just been through repetition and the luxury of having musical opportunities that I’ve been able to evolve.
In addition to being a vocalist, you’re a fairly accomplished guitarist in your own right, and have now had the opportunity to make music with Mark and Slash for a number of years. How do you think their playing has impacted your guitar playing and writing from that angle?
When you spend enough time with another artist and you hear what they do night after night and day after day, it’s inevitable that to some degree it’s going to be part of your DNA musically. And also just watching how people operate. Watching how much they practice or how they view the instrument and the idea of making music. Watching the dedication to that can be very inspiring as well.
These are two guys who have had a ton of success for a long time, and with that said they don’t rest on their laurels. They don’t phone it in. They still practice all the time. They still work to evolve. Touring with Mark, he’s still on YouTube all the time trying to find new players that he can learn from and absorb their approaches into his playing. I think that’s really inspiring and really cool. It’s like he’s still 16 years old, trying to learn how to play guitar. It’s really great to see that.
When you were first starting out, what did you start with first? Did you focus more on being a singer or a guitar player?
I was strictly a guitar player. In fact, I had no intention of being a singer. I didn’t want to be in the front or the center of attention by any stretch of the imagination. I didn’t start singing until I had been playing for probably about six years. I started writing songs and that was when that came in.
How did you get over that not wanting to be the center of attention there?
I guess I just had to man up. I knew I could sing. I would sing along in the car to whatever I was listening to at that time, so I knew it was there.
I think once I started writing songs, I wanted to hear them performed live so badly and couldn’t find a singer. I think that’s what initially drove me to overcome my insecurities and my fears there. It was like, all right. You’ve spent all this time writing these songs, you better man up and perform them live [laughs].
Real quick before we go I also have to ask about that solo album you’ve been working on for what feels like forever. I hear that’s pretty much done at this point and now you’re just waiting for the right time to release it.
Yeah, that’s basically what I’ve been saying for a little while now. It is done. It’s mixed and everything. But you’re talking about someone who’s always writing and who’s always creating, so there’s a certain shelf life to that body of work.
So I guess we’ll see what happens between now and the end of this Alter Bridge album cycle, what comes after that. I could have a whole new set of songs ready to go. It might end up being one of these situations of which record will it be that comes out. There’s going to be something. It’s just a matter of which one will it be.
What are your plans then for 2017? Are you going to be out on the road with Alter Bridge all year?
Yeah, that’s the plan. We got a tour of the States coming up in January and February. We’ll be doing some more in late spring and then we’ll head back to Europe for the festivals. We’re going to touch on other territories worldwide. So yeah, just a lot of touring.
’The Last Hero’ is out now on the band’s own label. Current tour dates can be found on AlterBridge.com.