Nuno Bettencourt: “Kurt Cobain had more vibe, feel and atmosphere than half of the guitar players who were shredding”

By Mordechai Kleidermacher published about 18 hours ago

In this interview, the guitar hero opines on the rise of alt-rock, the excitement of creating his first solo album, and why Extreme were – in their heyday – “the most misinterpreted band of all time”

The following interview with Nuno Bettencourt first appeared in the March 1997 issue of Guitar World.

To shred or not to shred? That is the pressing question beleaguered speed masters of yore have been asking themselves. Ridiculed for their faster-than-thou aesthetic, bummed by alternative rock’s iron grip on the charts, shredders across the U.S.A. struggle daily with their terrible dilemma.

For his part, former Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt has opted to shed the shred. On Schizophonic, his debut solo album, the man with prodigious technique delivers a disc of catchy, contemporary, alternative-sounding rock songs that heavily emphasize tunes over licks. But let it not be said that Nuno – who rose to fame in the early Nineties on the strength of his buzz-saw chops and his band’s hit acoustic ballad, More Than Words – is jumping on the alternative bandwagon. 

Long before the Nirvana-fied Nineties took hold, Extreme were writing quirky, inventive songs, and they continued to do so until their breakup last year. On Schizophonic, an album loaded with tuneful rockers and memorable ballads, Nuno proudly carries the tradition forward – producing, singing, writing and playing the guitar, bass, drums and anything else he can get his hyper little hands on.

“I’m a musician and I have my own career,” says the Boston native, “but the bottom line is that I’m still more of a music fan than anything. I love a lot of new bands that are out. And you know what? That shit affects me. It does. I get inspired by Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana, and by a lot of the bands on the alternative scene, especially when it comes to the songwriting. 

“Alternative was such a breath of fresh air when it came to songwriting, as well as the idea that you should ‘forget about the playing.’ That hit me hard. If somebody says that there’s a bit of this record that sounds like Radiohead or is influenced by Kurt Cobain, I say, ‘Fuck yeah! How could there not be?’

“On the other hand, I didn’t put Schizophonic together with the intention of creating an alternative record. Many of the songs were recorded and written over a span of four years, so I didn’t have any one thing in particular in mind. Everything I’ve ever listened to, whether it was Queen or Nirvana, is on this record.”

Let’s first talk about Extreme’s breakup. What happened?

“Everybody was starting to feel like it was a little bit of work. And the second it starts to feel like it’s not fun anymore, that’s when you’ve got to stop. Creatively, it was starting to become a sort of push-and-pull situation. When I started to bring my lyrics to Gary [Cherone, Extreme’s vocalist], he would say, ‘Hey, these are great. You should keep them for yourself.’ That sort of thing.

“After a decade, Extreme had become too comfortable in the way we did things. There was no room for growth – for anybody! When I started coming up with some different sounds and new ideas and new ways of doing things, I started feeling this tension. The lyric issue was probably one of the bigger things. I think it was really hard for Gary. 

“Doing what I’m doing now, singing my own lyrics and expressing myself the way I want, I can understand why it might have been tough for Gary – who was used to writing and singing his own lyrics about things that were very close to him – to have to sing somebody else’s thoughts and to express somebody else’s experiences. 

“I was also beginning to experiment with loops and things that didn’t require the real drums to be there – like you hear on Fallen Angels. I didn’t care if there was a bass player, a drummer, or if I didn’t play on the record. I just wanted the songs to be happening. If something worked, that’s all I cared about.”

People were feeling that their toes were being stepped on?

“Yeah, I think so. And then we put out the third record [III Sides to Every Story], and it didn’t do the sort of numbers that everybody expected – even though, for me, it was still pretty successful. It was like, ‘Uh-oh, what’s wrong?'”

(Image credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns)

What clinched the band’s breakup?

“It was pure heart. There were no attitudes, no arguing, no fighting. Really. It was a matter of showing up at rehearsal or at a gig and feeling like, ‘Do I really want to be here? Am I faking this? And if so, I just don’t want to do it.’

“I was just having so much fun doing all this stuff on my own. When I was on tour with the band, I’d use our days off to record songs here and there, and I had a great time doing that. I shit and breathe music 24 hours a day. There’s not a moment that goes by, almost, when I’m not writing or working on something. This is what I do. It’s like oxygen to me. 

“The solo record actually was supposed to come out before the last Extreme album [Waiting for the Punchline], but I agreed to wait. Then I said, ‘I can’t wait anymore.’ They tried to get me to wait again. And I said, ‘You know what? I’ve been recording this for fuckin’ three years already.’ I just had to do it. I was busting out of my skin to express myself in this manner.

“We tried to keep it going for a while. Then the Van Halen thing happened and there was no reason to keep it to ourselves. I was so excited that Gary got the gig. I think it’s perfect for him, and Van Halen fans don’t know what they’re in for. They’re going to love it. I heard the stuff, and it’s great! It’s the best stuff since Roth.”

If you could write Extreme’s epitaph what would it be?

“I’d say, ‘Here lies Extreme, the most misunderstood band of the Eighties and Nineties. The most misinterpreted band of all time.’ Only the people who saw us live and the hardcore fans knew what was going on. 

“As far as the mainstream public who bought the singles for More Than Words – they had no idea what we were about, though I’m glad that people connected with even one of our songs. That’s a privilege. But we were one of the few bands who were writing music without worrying about what people thought.”

Your solo debut was recorded in an unusual way, in unusual places. What is the story behind that?

“It varies. Some songs were recorded in a proper studio, some were recorded in a barn near Boston, on a 16-track. Fine by Me was recorded on a four-track in a hotel room in Tokyo. I just dragged some gear into the hotel room, and I must have almost gotten thrown out of the room three times while I was recording it. I was really digging the song, and I didn’t want to end it. It was, like, three in the morning, after a gig.

“When I was on tour with the band, I’d record in the dressing room all the way up until the show. Then I’d finish the show, and use the monitor board to mix on. Everybody thought I was insane, basically. When we’d have a day off, I would call a local studio, bring my guitar with me and use whatever was there and record a song in a day. I’d stay there for 16, 17 hours, get to bed at four in the morning and do the gig the next day.”

You don’t seem too concerned with displaying your lead chops on the album. Most of the solos are very quiet and short. Are you trying to get away from your shred past?

“That’s never really been my thing, anyway. My goal has never been to be involved in the guitar Olympics, but to write the best songs I could. I’m finding myself in a much different frame of mind nowadays than when I was with Extreme. 

“Even though I was one of the writers, I was the guitar player in the band, and when it came down to recording, my job was to think about guitar. For this record, I got a lot of creative energy out of my system in different areas – in the drum tracks or the bass, vocally or lyrically. I, therefore, didn’t need to release that much on guitar.”

(Image credit: Denise Truscello/WireImage)

What are your thoughts about the anti-technical guitar sentiment that’s prevalent in the alternative community, and conversely, the attitude of metal-shred types that these slacker guitar guys are just a bunch of wimps who can’t play?

“It’s understandable that a new thing comes along and everybody goes, ‘Hey, what the fuck?!’ But I say, ‘Bring it on.’ If it was Nirvana that changed it all, don’t be an asshole and go, ‘Fuck, the guy can’t play guitar!’ You better open your ears and listen to what’s happening, because it’s happening for a reason. Learn from it and understand it, because you can get something from it. 

“So what if Kurt Cobain couldn’t play a solo? His rhythm playing – in terms of the pocket and the energy he had – was incredible. He had more vibe, feel and atmosphere than half of the guitar players who were shredding for the previous five years. The goal is not to play a fast solo but to inspire and affect somebody.”

Do you think there is relevance to the sort of anti-metal/shred attitude in the alternative community?

“No, they’re full of shit too. Sure, when it first started, it was a rebellious, don’t-give-in-to-the-mainstream stance. If they were so hip and rebellious, then Nirvana wouldn’t have done videos; they wouldn’t have done Unplugged. Nobody would have given in to the big machine they were all fighting against in the first place. But they all did – they all gave in. 

“Everything they were saying that the metal bands did, in being these MTV darlings, now they’re doing the same shit. It’s just music to me, and this us-against-them, metal-versus-alternative shit is stupid. It’s one thing to not like a band and not like their style, but to say they just suck – I think that’s wrong.

“Now that we’re on the subject, one of the things that bothers me the most these days is radio stations. 

“I can understand that there’s a new movement – alternative, punk, whatever – and that there are new fans and people who want to hear new things. That’s great. But what bothers me the fucking most is listening to a station here at home, WAAF – I used to call it WEXT because they played Extreme 24 hours a day when it was cool to play Extreme. They played Mötley Crüe to death, and all the metal bands that were happening at the time. They kissed their asses, doing all the promotions for the shows, the backstage concert winners, blah, blah, blah. Now, all of a sudden there’s this complete reversal.” 

“I don’t mind that they don’t play those bands anymore. What I do mind is what I heard on the radio today. Somebody called in and requested Mötley Crüe, and instead of saying to the guy, ‘We don’t play that anymore,’ the DJ recorded him and said, ‘Yeah! Right! Like we play that crap – like we ever played it. We don’t play that shit.’ Denying that they had ever played it. 

“They hung up on him, recorded it and put it on the air. These guys worshipped Mötley Crüe back then, hanging out with them backstage.”

In that context, are you concerned that your past association with Extreme and reputation as a shredder will keep your new music from getting a fair shot?

“All I have are the songs. That’s why I had to make the strongest record possible, songwise, because nobody can argue with songs. You can say whatever you want about what I did in the past, talk about the clothes I’m wearing now, but if somebody digs the songs, that’s it. There’s no stopping a song.”

What do you say to people who say you’re just jumping on the alternative bandwagon?

“I say, ‘Hey, I had to hitch a ride on the alternative bandwagon because the metal one ran out of gas.'”

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