Interview By: Jim Markunas
America loves a good come-back. You may know Eric from his 80s metal band, Mr. Big; their hit song "To Be With You" is as standard in elevators as Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." But... Don't call Eric Martin a "come-back kid!" He's been pulling a Robbie Williams for the last decade, touring incessantly and becoming a huge sensation in the international market while flying under the radar in the U.S. Yes... Eric Martin may have only a handful of hits in the United States (it's been 10 years since Mr. Big or Eric have done a U.S. tour), but in Japan, Eric is a king among men. We caught up with Eric via phone to discuss his new album Timeless, a collection of cover-songs originally sung by female singers, now tastefully and unpretentiously performed by Eric and a band of famous Japanese studio musicians.
Jim: You’re a male rocker doing an acoustic album of all female songs. Tell us about that.
Eric: The band I was in (Mr. Big) just reunited. We did a tour in Japan, Europe, and South East Asia. I got back to the US a week ago. I was approached by the Japanese to do this project and in between touring, I recorded Timeless. In Japan, I am known as Mr. Vocalist. When Mr. Big broke up in 2002, I fell down the ladder, but I was on the ladder. My career was more overseas, I was doing solo work and was touring. I didn't do much in the US; I would play some solo shows and charity shows, but for the most part, I was kinda like an ex-patriot. My mom used to say, they only play that one song ("To Be With You"), but in England for example, I am played and written about all the time.
Timeless was a challenge, but I thought, "I do different things- I am a crooner, a rocker." That’s the way I roll. My mom has passed, which bums me out, but she would have enjoyed it. I'm still doing the Mr. Big thing, but right now, I'm in my crooner shoes.
Some of these songs, I grew up with, like “Superstar” by The Carpenters. Karen Carpenter had a lot of soul, not sure about Richard though. I had the album as a kid and really dug it. “You Got A Friend” by Carol King, was another. “No One” by Alicia Keys is also pretty catchy. As a man, it’s cool to take on a female song and give it a 'man’s point of view.' I'm not trying to take away from the original songs, just putting my own spin on them.
Jim: It’s an original concept. I was listening to the album with a girlfriend and she remarked how all the songs were done by females.
Eric: It is, but others have done similar concepts. Rod Stewart and Michael Buble, for example, have done Motown, which I have thought about doing. Luther Vandross did a cover of “Superstar” years ago, but I'm not comparing my version to his. There's a shock value, where someone will stay, “Is that the same guy who sang metal? Now he's in an Armani suit?" There's still some edge, and I'm digging it. They're all good songs! I altered some of the arrangements so they would fit my style, but they still have the same spirit - just a different attitude.
Jim: What I liked was the fact that the album was not over-produced unlike some the original songs. It had a more honest, stripped-down feel.
Eric: The band on the album was Japanese; they are all rockers, the same as me. I didn’t want to copy anyone or do a 'Karaoke album.' When Timeless first came to me, it did sound like Karaoke, so I changed the arrangements to sound more like me. The album worked in Japan... America may be another story. I'm taking my chances!
Jim: Will there be a U.S. tour?
Eric: I don’t have any plans, but maybe there will be TV appearances and press. I didn’t see myself doing this, but it’s good. It’s interesting being a crooner. My dad would listen to this kind of music. My dad played drums in The Four Aces, with Doris Day and he had a great career. He played with everybody and that’s what he did, and now I'm the one on tour. I just got home after 5 months on the road and my kids give me the same look that I gave my Dad and it’s weird!
When Mr. Big broke up in 2002, and I would tour as a solo artist, I would play with bands in Europe who didn't speak English. My wife and I had kids and I've been just going ever since. I have been in Japan off and on for two years. I would be doing 90 TV appearances a day! That’s worse than touring. It’s different. On tour, you get to the venue, change clothes and hit the stage. Now, I'm wearing suits, wearing makeup…it’s crazy.
Jim: When you go to Japan and other countries, is it like a vacation?
Eric: Not really, it’s work. I might get a day or two to do tourist things, but being on the road is work. You see the cornfields of Kansas and Rome. But... Doing the press and tour for Timeless is rewarding and a new chapter. I'm 45-and-change (48 years old) and I'm having a great time.
Jim: We like re-birth in America.
Eric: It sells. I'm in a good period in my life. Mr. Big is back together and I'm struggling, but I'm lucky… I've had big hits worldwide and they've stood the test of time. I still hear “To Be With You” everywhere. I love being where I'm at… there are no more monkeys on my back. America loves retro and a comeback.
Jim: Like Britney Spears, America loved watching her grow, fall apart and come back.
Eric: True. I've noticed that in Japan, people don’t care about that. I didn’t think I was making a comeback, but I guess I am. I was not aware of that.
Jim: I guess I'm the first to tell you.
Jim: What else are you up to?
Eric: I'm leaving Sunday to go to Japan. I just did a Christmas album. Christmas in Japan, is different than in America. There are Christmas trees and decorations, but the pomp and Jesus parts are taken out. Christmas is more for lovers, not for families. I sang four or five Japanese songs- ones for lovers.
Jim: Christmas is more like Valentine’s Day in Japan?
Eric: Yes, but with a Christmas wreath! Every place is different. I also sang "White Christmas" for the album. There are also about two Christmas songs on the Timeless album. "White Christmas" is a classic. I also did "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)" with Japanese artist Miho. She is considered like Christina Aguilera or Beyonce. My kids, have had the chance to come to Japan to see Mr. Big play, but they fell asleep two songs in.
Jim: How old are your kids?
Eric: The twins are five.
Jim: They're still at the cute stage, but they'll be teenagers soon, and think their parents are lame!
Eric: Yeah, people tell me that. I was out with my kids, and I was holding their hands. They saw their friends and didn't want to be seen holding hands with their Dad. I thought, "This is odd, this should happen later in life!" My friend, Jack Blades from Night Ranger, would say that when his kids where teenagers they didn't want to listen to the songs or go up on stage. “Do we have to listen to 'Sister Christian' again?” Don’t get me wrong, they love their dad, but when you're a teenager, you're into different things. My kids love music, they want to be in the business…one wants to sing and one wants to be a manager.
Jim: How do you feel about the future of the music industry and that records aren't selling?
Eric: You care what I think? I don’t know! Albums aren't selling, but I'm lucky that I'm touring, selling albums and I can pay the bills. The industry has changed so many times. We've gone from vinyl to CD’s to I don't know what. Technology keeps moving forward. You still can be paid in the music business…doing TV, movies, etc. I go to record stores and there's so many bands, that all the albums are are on the floor and not on the shelves.
I can play clubs and arenas. Can I still sell albums? I don't know. It’s frustrating, but I'm lucky to have what I have.
Jim: Why did you go with a major label instead of going with an indie?
Eric: That was a fluke. I haven't had a major label since Atlantic. They (Sony) are offering me work. Wouldn’t you?
Eric: I have worked with indie labels. In the industry, people want another “To Be With You” and say that the new songs don’t sound like “Be With You,” but you can’t make every song sound like that. Sony International brought me in on their domestic label, domestic being Japan. I'm their only American act, so it’s interesting. I've done so much and it’s selling.
I was in rock magazines and now I'm in fashion magazines. It is awesome, but it’s a transition. I love being in the studio and being creative. The grooming and window-dressing is odd, but I think I can wear my own clothes as a rocker, but as a crooner... it’s different. I'm not used it, but I do love it. Take a second listen to Timeless. I hope you'll still like it!
The Eric Martin Interview
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