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Monte Pittman’s triple play

Guitarist discusses his metallic new album, Prong and Madonna

Monte Pittman hit the jackpot. Having moved to Los Angeles in his mid-20s to teach guitar, the native Texan, in short order, became Madonna’s guitar teacher, having been introduced by the man she was dating at the time, famed British director Guy Ritchie, also a student of Pittman’s.

Within a month, Pittman was playing alongside Madonna on the “David Letterman Show,” her performance coinciding with promotion for her album, Music. That was only the start of their working relationship, as Pittman went on to provide guitar for all of Madonna’s five tours since then, the first being the 2001 Drowned World Tour.

That, in and of itself, would make Pittman the envy of any struggling musician trying to find work in the field, let alone all the perks, such as performing in some of the biggest venues and music events in the world, including the 2012 Super Bowl. Then, along came Prong.

Joining the alternative-metal attack dogs, Pittman played bass and guitar for Prong on the raging albums Scorpio Rising and Power of the Damager, as well as the concert outing 100% Live. Prong and Madonna couldn’t be more different, of course, but that doesn’t really concern Pittman. He’s enjoyed both experiences immensely.

These days, though, Pittman’s focus is on his burgeoning solo career, christened by 2009’s sonorous acoustic vessel, The Deepest Dark. It was a successful debut, hitting No. 1 on the Best Selling Acoustic Albums list at CD-Baby.com. A Kickstarter campaign helped Pittman record the follow-up, 2011’s grungy rocker Pain, Love & Destiny. On CD Baby, that one kicked up a fuss, reaching No. 1 on its Rock Album and Pop Album charts, while also cracking the Top 10 Albums list as well.

Now comes The Power of Three, Pittman’s most metallic offering yet. Together with drummer Kane Ritchotte and bassist Max Whipple, as well as Flemming Rasmussen, who helped Metallica achieve thrash nirvana with Master of Puppets, Pittman and company went to Copenhagen, Denmark, to map out and execute a hard-driving record, one that often gnashes its teeth in the most savage manner possible, while still leaning on well-crafted melodies.

In this wide-ranging e-mail interview, Pittman talked about his extraordinary career and a record that promises to soon make him a household name in the world of heavy metal, Madonna or no Madonna.

Before recording The Power of Three, did you have an idea in mind of what kind of album you wanted to make?
Monte Pittman: Yes. I knew exactly what I wanted it to be like. We recorded the album in the order you hear it. We got off the plane and recorded “A Dark Horse.” The last song we recorded was “All Is Fair In Love And War.” I set out to make an album that would have been my favorite album when I got my first guitar.

There are a lot of heavy riffs and really satisfying thrash elements to this record, especially with “A Dark Horse,” but there’s also a song like “Everything’s Undone,” which has a good, strong melody as well. Was it important for you to make a diverse record?
MP: I like a variety of different music and different bands. I think it all comes from what’s fun to play on the guitar. If you don’t have a good melody, then you may not have a song. I usually make sure that the song can work on the acoustic. You hear everything a little differently that way and may pick up a new idea on the way.

Talk about the making of both “A Dark Horse” and “Everything’s Undone.” Did those songs evolve in different ways?
MP: After I finished Pain, Love, & Destiny, I was sitting outside by the fire and the lyric “A Dark Horse you’ve been having nightmares for years about” came to me. That was the beginning. I wrote a majority of “A Dark Horse” probably at the end of 2004. I didn’t know where it would go. It wasn’t a Prong song. I thought one day I’ll make a heavy album just for fun or something. When I started seeing the big picture with making The Power of Three, I started looking at it again. Then I pieced it all together on an acoustic. Sometimes when I write, I’ll hang on to something for a while. If I still like the song later on, then I know I might have something. “Everything’s Undone” was written when I got my first prototype for my signature Jarrell MPS guitar. Those guitars are very inspiring to play.

Was there a song on the record that ended up sounding much different than you originally intended? And does that happen a lot for you, or do you have them mapped out so well beforehand that they end up being exactly what you thought they’d be?
MP: No. I put a lot of work in the demos, and I knew what I wanted everything to be. Once Flemming started in on it, I handed the keys over to him and it became his baby. On “All Is Fair In Love And War,” we left room to be in the moment while recording. So I guess that one would be the most different. The original main riff for “Missing” was more like Cannibal Corpse at first. That song is all written from the Enigmatic scale.

How did you hook up with Flemming Rasmussen for this record and what was his biggest contribution to the album?
MP: I met him on a day off in Copenhagen while on tour. We stayed in contact and would get together when I came back into town. We would say, “One day we should work together on something.” We did an acoustic EP in one day the last time I was on tour in Copenhagen on a day off. He had been helping me with my demos, and he sat me down and said I need to concentrate on the heavy songs I was writing. So I did. Flemming was going to produce my Pain, Love, & Destiny album, but our schedules didn’t match. Flemming had several massive contributions to the album. He had us all record together at the same time. When you hear the album, that’s us playing in the same room at the same time recording all analog. He would always get us in the right frame of mind. Flemming has done a little of everything … Metallica, Rainbow, Cat Stevens and Morbid Angel. I like that he’s done different kinds of albums.

Talk about the choice of cover art for The Power of Three. Why is it special for you?
MP: My friend Kevin Wilson, who runs Sacred Tattoo in New York, suggested I check out Cam Rackam. Kevin has a gallery in his shop where artists do exhibits. Cam had a painting of Charon that I was blown away by, so I went with that one. Megan Massacre was going to do the album cover, but she’s one of the best tattoo artists on the planet. She was too busy. She wound up buying the original painting of Cam’s also!

Do you see this record as a progression from Pain, Love & Destiny or a shift into different territory?
MP: It’s a natural progression. Sometimes I write for what I don’t have, and I needed some faster/heavier songs. On Pain, Love, & Destiny, I would sneak in some heavy parts as fills going into a chorus. My song, “(I Am) The Black Rabbit” isn’t too far from where the material for The Power Of Three is.

You left Longview, Texas, at age 24 and headed for Los Angeles, where you ultimately became a guitar teacher. How tough a decision was that for you and what was attractive about teaching guitar?
MP: I taught as an apprentice under my teacher, Robert Browning. I love teaching. I keeps everything fresh in my head. When you teach, you have to know it in a different way than just being able to play it.

As the story goes, your third student was Guy Ritchie, the British filmmaker. And then you started teaching guitar to his wife at the time, Madonna. What do you remember about meeting each of them for the first time, and what were they like as students?
MP: They were just dating at the time. They were both great to me. They treated me like family. They would learn everything I gave them to learn. Luckily for me, Madonna was just releasing her Music album, and there was a lot of acoustic guitar on there.

You’ve been playing with Madonna and helping write songs for her for a long time now. In working with her, and teaching her Pantera riffs, what would fans of hard rock and heavy metal find most surprising about what she’s like as an artist?
MP: Most people will say they admire her work ethic and that she’s always pushing the boundaries. Madonna has something for everyone. Even the most diehard metal heads will usually point out at least one song they like. Even if you don’t like that style of music, you can’t deny “Open Your Heart” or “Ray Of Light” or “Secret” aren’t great songs.

Is the approach to that kind of songwriting different from the creative process for your own solo work? If so, what’s different about it?
MP: Not in the situations I’ve been in. It usually comes from playing your guitar and coming up with an idea.

When you were asked to play with Madonna, what was your reaction?
MP: I was excited! She has always been super cool to me. She hadn’t toured in seven years, so it was an exciting time to be in that position.

You worked with Prong on Scorpio Rising and Power of the Damager, co-writing songs and playing guitar, adding backing vocals and some bass work. And those were great Prong records. You also played guitar on the Prong live album 100% Live. What did you find most rewarding about you’re experience with Prong?
MP: Thank you! I would say the most rewarding thing is being able to help put one of my favorite bands ever back together. Live, Tommy Victor would let me start “Another Worldly Device” since that’s one of my favorite songs. I learned a lot of things that come in handy now with my own band from playing in Prong.

Do you have a favorite Prong album of those two?
MP: Power Of The Damager I guess. I played bass on that one minus a couple guitar solos. We stayed out at Sonic Ranch outside of El Paso and at Al Jourgensen’s house making that one, so we had a great time making it. I started doing background vocals with that and that helped open the door to me singing on my own.

You did an acoustic solo record as well, with 2009’s The Deepest Dark. Did you have to approach that differently than other projects?
MP: That was my first solo release. I made it just acoustic guitar and vocals so I could recreate it anywhere. That’s what started it all. The Deepest Dark was going to be the soundtrack for a film but that never happened. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t release it before. I wasn’t ready yet. Going back and forth between Prong and Madonna took up all my time.

You’ve done so much in music. Do you have a favorite moment from your days with Madonna or Prong that is really special to you or unusual?
MP: Playing events like Live 8 and Live Earth. That’s a great bonus playing with Madonna. Live 8 was Pink Floyd’s last show. Getting to watch them rehearse and soundcheck the day before was something I’ll never forget. I happened to be one of the only people around with them backstage at the end of the night, so I got to see them all say bye to each other. Also, I got up onstage with Paul McCartney for “Hey Jude.” He invited people up from all the bands for the finale. At Live Earth, I joined Spinal Tap to play “Big Bottom.” They invited anyone who could play bass to join them. With Prong, there were so many great times on the road. Shows with Anthrax, Type O Negative, and Soulfly … it was never a dull moment.

What are your hopes for The Power of Three and what are your plans for the coming weeks, months and years?
MP: To get this out there to every pair of ears that will listen. I’m working on booking some shows now that I’ll announce soon. I’ve got enough material written for the next two albums, and I’ll keep writing as I go along. I’m putting the team together still and finding the right people to keep pushing this forward.