An Interview with Nuno Bettencourt (3/29/16)

Five of the worlds best guitarists will be coming to Oakland's Fox Theater next Friday, April 8th for what's being billed as 'Generation Axe'. The tour's the brain child of Steve Vai and features Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, Nuno Bettencourt and Tosin Abasi. You won't want to miss this show, and limited tickets are still available here.

We had the chance to speak with Nuno Bettencourt earlier this week and our full interview is below.

SFBayAreaConcerts: How did this tour come about?

Nuno Bettencourt: Well, I’ve spoken before in the past with Steve, Steve Vai has obviously done some tours with guitars called G3 back in the day... where he would have a couple of guitar players play with him, but everybody would kinda do their own thing, and maybe get together and jam at the end. That was more about the individual, you know? And I was approached before in the past for some of those, but you know, I come from a background where I love guitar, but I love guitar players who are in bands. I grew up with Brian May because he was in Queen, and I love Queen. And even Eddie Van Halen, with his band Van Halen, it wasn’t just him, you know? I was always attracted to those bands, Jimmy Page and Zeppelin. I never did instrumental albums, and I could never really do those tours. But Steve hit me up and said 'I want to try something different', where yes, every individual will get 15-20 minutes to shine and do their own thing, but the beauty is gonna be, let’s get five guys who can really do this, and see what they would do together as well. See if they can come together and unify, put their egos aside, play for the song, and play 4, 5, 6 compositions that people will never get a chance to see these guys do together, ever. We’ll make it just about playing, strength in numbers, that only a team of people can do together. And I was like, “I’m in, let’s do it.”
Nuno Bettencourt (Photo: Brian Malloy)
SFBAC: So have you played with any of these guys before?

Nuno Bettencourt: Not really. The first time ever, a few months ago, there was a benefit for another fellow guitarist who had cancer. I think I was onstage at one point with Steve and Zakk, but it was at the end of the show, and everybody’s not really playing together, everyone’s just jamming away, and it wasn’t like this. So in reality, no, I’ve never really performed with these guys.

SFBAC: Can I assume that you’ve already started rehearsals?

Nuno Bettencourt: Ha! Our first rehearsal was yesterday!

SFBAC: And how’d it go? Were there any surprises?

Nuno Bettencourt: Umm… There’s always surprises <chuckles>… There’s always surprises. Some I can’t get into. haha. Look, we knew, it’s not only you’re getting five completely different guitar players playing five different styles. But it’s also five different personalities, you know? And as good as it sometimes looks on paper, it’s always going to be ‘wow’ when you get those…, it’s like putting chemicals together when people are experimenting for the first time. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if there’s going to be an explosion. You don’t know if it’s just gonna fizzle. You don’t know if something beautiful’s going to come out of it. So, you know, it’s really interesting. And for the first day, it was pretty smooth all things considered. But, today’s another day and we hope it just gets better and we get it all together!

SFBAC: What can we expect for the show next week?

Nuno Bettencourt: Well, it’s gonna be a little bit of everything, and unpredictable. Meaning, I think we do… I think there’s really only one way to open a show like that, and it’s to have all five crazy guitarists all on that stage and come out and just blow everybody away with a couple of tunes and some stuff that we’re working on. Then it’s gonna go into Tosin Abasi where he’ll do his 20 minutes, I come in after him, we’re supposed to do something together… He’ll kinda hand the baton to me… It’s basically like a relay. And then I play 15-20 minutes and Zack comes out and plays a song with me… And so forth… We’ll do some stuff together in the middle too, and then hopefully, there’ll be a nice big massive ending to really blow everyone away. Because at the end of the day, the truth is, we’ve all been around long enough, that I think anyone who really cares about us at any point in time, knows what we do... I think, they’re not gonna come to the show to see Yngwie… Yeah, they'll come, but I’ve seen Yngwie before, what I wanna know is what is he gonna do with Zack? What is he gonna do with Tosin? What's gonna happen? I think that’s gonna be the excitement of that. You know? It’s strength in numbers, and it's not about us individually in this thing… I mean it’s like we’re going to be serving the appetizers throughout the night, but the ‘meal’ is gonna be when we’re all there together.

SFBAC: And how about the backing band? Will you each have different supporting musicians, or will there be the same guys throughout the night?

Nuno Bettencourt: Yeah, definitely a backing band. Initially when we started, we had lists of bassists and drummers and keyboard players. And the idea was, could we all get through it finding the right trio that we need, that maybe doesn’t belong to any of us… So nobody gets any sorta, like, ‘oh, we can use my drummer’ or ‘I know this guy, or that guy’… But that went away pretty quick. So our drummer is Tosin’s drummer from Animals as Leaders, Matt Garstka. And I believe the bass player has played with Steve before, Peter Griffin, and the keyboard player is Ygnewie’s. So I’m really the only guy that didn’t get a band member in that!  I’m not very happy about that! [jokingly] <chuckles> But I’m OK with that!

SFBAC: Switching over to Extreme, I saw you were on the road last year supporting the 25th Anniversary of Pornograffitti, and there were a few select dates with the band this year. Can we expect a new Extreme album after the Generation Axe tour?

Nuno Bettencourt: Yeah, well, Extreme’s been working on an album for the last six months. We have about 15-16 songs, and we’d like to get it done by the fall or winter, so we can release it early next year. And then do more touring next year. We’re excited about this album of course, and yeah, that’s where we’re at. Other than that, I’ve just launched a company called Atlantis Entertainment in January which has taken up a lot of my time. It's going to be an entertainment group, that hopefully will have a music division, a film division and also a live concert division. I’ve got some partners, and we’re trying to find some new talent out there. Trying to find the new Dylans, and Bowies and Queen’s of the world and give ‘em a shot.

SFBAC: How did this all come about?

Nuno Bettencourt: I’ve always wanted to, I had an idea to do a festival called Atlantis Festival… I’m from Portugal in the Azores, the islands in the middle of the atlantic, and I’ve played just about every festival there is to be played around the world. And most of them are either in a football stadium or a cow pasture somewhere. And I always thought it would be amazing, where I came from there are these lakes called Seven Cities where it’s inside what used to be an ancient volcano crater for instance. And I always thought what a great place to put 40-50-60 thousand people to do a concert. So that’s where it started, and we’re hoping to launch it there next year, and we want to start building that brand, the Atlantis Festival. And the idea is to strip back… You know how most festivals have become six stages and like 120 bands, and 70 thousand people, and I don’t know if anybody’s even watching anyone because they’re trying to put away tents, and once they leave for the main thing, they can’t find their friends ever again, and then the beer tent’s a million miles away. It’s like, Coachella’s great, but I feel like everyone goes wanting to see the line-ups, but they kinda just wanna get a great selfie and then they go home. <chuckles> So I wanna try to go back to what, almost like what Woodstock did, quality over quantity, it was just one stage. You couldn’t wait to see the band. One audience vying for one band at a time. And having instead of 100, having the great four to five per night that we know we’re waiting for. And have them do their full set, with quality, and sound checks and stuff. I wanna bring it back to that.

SFBAC: That sounds great! Bringing it back to the Bay Area, do you have a favorite memory from the numerous times you played in/around SF?

Nuno Bettencourt: Yeah, you know, one of the earliest things we did with Extreme, will always stick in my head. It was the first tour we did, I remember hanging in San Fran with a local band that took us around on our days off. I loved San Fran and they took us to certain strips and I think even, because we were there, I believe the Pornograffitti album cover... We took a lot from there, from all the neon and all the signs that were there in San Fran. I think that was from a strip that was down there. And we changed the names and put our names on it. But, one of the greatest things that ever happened to me, when we were there, I was the biggest, and still am, one of the biggest Journey fans of all time. And I loved Neal Schon’s playing, and I knew they were from the Bay Area, but I never imagined that the first gig we did in a club, I remember looking over to the side of the stage with the monitor board and there was Neal Schon watching the show and who stopped in to see the set. I couldn’t fucking believe it. And then I got to meet Steve Perry after that, and we wrote some stuff together, but yeah, that was one of my best, and early memories for me.

SFBAC: What are you thoughts on how the music industry has changed over the years since you’ve been playing?

Nuno Bettencourt: Well, look, I mean, we know that music has changed since forever, since the 50’s, since the 40’s, since the 60’s, everybody complains about different things. But whether disco coming into the 70’s, and what happened to Rock and Roll for a minute? But I think the one thing that’s really changed everything is obviously the Internet. The Internet is one of the greatest things in the world, because of the way it’s pulled the world together. At the flick of a spacebar we can be anywhere. We can take a personal tour of Egypt if we want. We can download music, we can talk to our friends, we can do anything. But with every great thing that came with it, there was always the negative as well. Meaning that, I’ve felt that, for concerts, for people going out to experience live music, I don’t know if it helps so much because you can just click a button and watch a performance. Like for instance, Generation Axe will kick off in Seattle, right? And instead of you buying a ticket in San Fran, and can’t wait, unfortunately, instead of you witnessing and walking in and seeing for the first time what you can’t wait to see, you’re unfortunately going to see us while we’re on stage in Seattle. You’re gonna see some of the lowest res, horrible sounding, horribly shot versions of the whole show, and kinda kill the excitement before we even get to you… a little bit. Do you know what I mean? It spells everything out. Oh, they’re gonna do this, they’re gonna open with that… I don’t know if it sounded so good. It’s a weird element. On the other hand, it might get you more excited. Of course, the hard core fans will get more excited. But there’s an element of mystery that’s gone. And an element of passion that’s gone to leave the house and go do something. I mean, it’s all in your laptop, it’s all in your phone. It’s right there. I don’t want to be like, ‘back in the day, we didn’t have those things’, but… I love my phone, I’m on it all the time, like everyone else, I love the communication element of it, I love discovering stuff, looking up everything. I love it like everybody else. And the other version of music, I think that is a kinda a little bit sad, is due to all the downloading... A lot of the labels have disappeared. I think it went from 25 majors down to four or five left, maybe? And because of that, you don’t have as much of a home for the new David Bowies of the world, and the new people to be discovered. Now, it’s gotta be really quick and really like, if you don’t have a Justin Bieber album, which, I’m sure he’s talented in his own right, but if you don’t have that kind of success, you don’t really get that much support. Nobody has that level of commitment and that kind of support anymore. I don’t wanna say nobody, but not as much as it used to be. And because of The Voice, and American Idol, and the kind of glorified variety shows, the gong show versions of stuff where you win a contest to become a star… I think that’s also affected a lot of artists, artists don’t necessarily think they’re not the best singers in the world, you know? I think if we had the Voice back in the 60’s and Bob Dylan walked up and sings two lines <sings> ‘da da doo’, and they’d say ‘you are the worst singer in the world, get the fuck out of here now.’ And we would’ve never heard our voice of a generation at that point, you know? Jagger would have never made it through an audition, you know? Fucking, Bowie would have been like ‘Let’s Dance’, and they’d be like ‘get out.’ And that’s it. Everybody treats it as acrobatics, can you hit these notes, can you do that? And I think what’s happened, is a lot of the potential younger versions of those Bowies and stuff, go like, holy shit, do I go through all of this, get a band together and play clubs, and stuff that we used to do? Or just go on American Idol and do that audition to get discovered and take that quick route? And I think there’s a lot of that, posting on YouTube to get discovered… Posting tracks, as opposed to, it’s kind of derailed the path an artist might take to become great. You know? That worries me a little bit.

SFBAC: One last question, more so out of curiosity, why do you think Japan is such a heavy consumer of American rock music and you and/or Extreme specifically?

Nuno Bettencourt: Well, I will say that Japan definitely, they’re a loyal... And american rock and roll is a great commodity there. And I would say that it’s mostly because they don’t have it as much. And I think when there’s such a language barrier like that, as opposed to going to the UK where the fans are still amazing, and Europe... I think in the places where we go, where they’re far enough away where we don’t get there a lot, I think they’re a lot more passionate. And I think culturally, for whatever reason, ever since Extreme’s been going there, they’re not just interested in this song, or this player, they love the detail, they want to dissect what you’re doing. I do guitar interviews there, and I learn things about my playing that I didn’t even know. They’re like wait, when you do this, you’re holding the pick in the third tucked into your finger like this in your hand. And I’m like, ‘I am? OK.’ They love the detail of everything. And they love the fact that when you do perform there, they’re super quiet between the songs, and everybody gets upset because they think the crowds aren’t passionate, but it’s quite the opposite, they want to hear everything you have to say, they want to take in everything that you’re doing. And they kinda do the reverse, they make all the noise during the song. But I just think, they… like a food, they just love it. They love dissecting it, they love the flavors and love talking about it. And there’s a big ‘why?’, like why did you write that song? Why would you play that riff? And part of me is like, I don’t know why… I just played it. I mean, I was in my room, and maybe I was inspired by Zeppelin, but that’s not enough for them. They want to know where it came from. They want to know where snow comes from basically. <chuckles>

SFBAC: That’s so interesting. Well, hopefully the fans at the Fox will treat you the same next week when Generation Axe hits the stage! Thanks so much for your time and good luck with the tour!

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