Marcus Henderson is no stranger to the world of rock and roll. Even if you‘re not sure you’ve heard the name, you’ve certainly heard his masterful fretwork as the monster guitarist behind Guitar Hero as well as Rock Band, Karaoke Revolution Party and many others. Marcus also helped us design the Epiphone Marcus Henderson Apparition signature model, one of the finest shredding guitars ever made. And though he can certainly still shred (pretenders to the throne beware), shredding is not the focus of his debut solo album—and single-- "Embers."
Today, Marcus Henderson is reintroducing himself to the world with a new sound and Epiphone is proud to present an exclusive sneak peak at what our Epi guitar hero has been up to. When we first started chatting with Marcus about making his first solo album, a lot of the conversation was not about shredding but about song construction and the legacy of artists like XTC and Todd Rundgren, who know something about both chops and production.
With Embers, Marcus is in the unusual position of starting fresh even though he played a big part in the groundbreaking and multi-million selling endeavor that reignited kids (and adults) passion for playing guitar. Now he’s making his debut all over again. And from the sound of it, he couldn’t be happier. Epiphone spoke with Marcus from his home in the Bay Area about his title track single “Embers,” which comes out this week. It’s the first of several singles to be released in anticipation of the full album in early 2015. Look for more about Marcus and the new album in the coming months here on Epiphone.com
It’s great to speak with you again, Marcus. Congrats on the release of your first solo single. What’s the story behind “Embers”?
Thanks so much! On "Embers," I truly felt like I had to do something outside of my wheelhouse. I’ve worked on a lot of video games where the game was the star and we all worked on a common goal together to release an amazing experience for people. Having a history of sort of being a session-type guy that performs a variety of styles and techniques, I had never really had my own voice out there except in the rare moments I was able to share my original work--like say, Arterial Black from GH 2. So for me on my solo effort, it was like the paralysis-by-analysis thing—what of my musical identities do I want to display? What do I want to put out there? Do I noodle and shred my way through this or can I try to create something that allows me to take a developmental leap and display my passion for lyrical melodies, song structure with meaningful guitar playing.
And then some of those decisions were kind of made for me when I found out my wife was expecting and I realized in order to break away from the music game market and make original tunes, I had to pick a direction and then move. You really don’t get a second chance to make that first impression as a solo artist musically and I’ve always felt I had a more ambitious compositional sensibility that got lost in the din of the bands I was in. I also didn’t want to make songs that could be thought of as a vehicle to show off these fancy techniques that I’ve worked on forever. Shred guitar is great but it’s also a straight jacket. You’ve got to know when to try to crawl on land for the first time, regardless of being aware that you may not make it at all. It’s a terrifyingly painful but rewarding process.
When we spoke to you at the beginning of this process, you thought you might reach out to a producer to help out.
Eventually I did find a producer, and since all of money goes to raising a child, turns out the producer was me all along! (laughs) We talked before about how much a fan I am of Todd Rundgren and (producer) Roy Thomas Baker from Queen.
So I grew up loving those wide-open, giant sounding recordings. That goes back to what I listened to growing up in the 80s where rock music was super well produced and countless hours were spent on getting the feel and vibe right for each track. I honestly believe that in order to be truthful to yourself, you gotta not only be afraid to fail, but you’ve got to to also fearlessly tread forward in the spirit of progress. There’s something to be said for the wonderful consistency of a band like AC/DC. I love and appreciate that in a band. I just never had that luxury.
How do you think you’ve changed as a guitarist?
One of the things that I think happens as you get older is you choose your words more carefully. Whereas when I was—say--15, I wanted to show off my chops. I didn’t know anything about melody or harmonic structure, but I could learn stuff really quickly by ear. I just wanted to play as fast and loud as possible like every kid (laughs). Now for my solo album, I’ve feel like I’ve sort of already played so many gazillions of notes for all of these games and stuff over the years, that I’ve got to try to move forward with saying something I’ve never said before.
In the end, after exhaustive scrutiny on every note, you just have to go by feel. There’s so many elements involved with making something you have complete control over and man, I’m so beyond lucky that I get to do this at all! I suppose in the end, it’s this comprehensive process of elimination. You have to feel that what you’re doing is right and believe in it no matter what. If you can get your point across with the least amount of notes and the most amount of emotional impact, then I think you’re doing something right.
This brings to mind the story of Houdini publishing the secrets behind his escapes so he can be free to do something new. You’re now in the strange position of introducing yourself all over again.
Right! There are so many gateways to sliding down the safe pathway if you feel like you’re out of ideas. But that inevitably cuts off people who are not really that interested in hearing you travel down those well-trodden paths. I think that’s the weird myopic part of being a guitar player and being a musician in general. You wanna think that everybody wants to drink your Kool-aid all the time, because it takes massive amounts of confidence just to expose yourself in the first place and the self-delusion kicks in. It’s safe to repeat yourself, but as you progress musically, eventually you have to serve the song, serve the mood and you have to fearlessly go about it. I’m known as being a heavy metal/ hard rock guitar player. And it’s in my blood for sure.
But it’s also in my blood to progress and allow myself to develop as a songwriter, explore new paths that seem challenging yet familiar, and I feel like “Embers” is about where I am right now in my life. Sure there’s crazy heavy stuff on the album to come, but you can’t be afraid to grow. I love heavy metal and hard rock and black metal. But I also love Vivaldi and Depeche Mode as much as I do Neurosis, Emperor and Ulver. Ask any one of these bands and you’ll find that people love all styles of music. They just get locked into this style and when it becomes just a product, the innovation sometimes seems to disappear.
There are more singles to come before the new album is released. Why did you choose “Embers” as the first one?
It just felt natural to me to introduce something different than what people expect. I wanted to make a balanced album that illustrates who I am in but still allows me to try to grow into the musician I want to be. You never stop learning. It’s what keeps it fresh after 27 years of playing for me. Zakk Wylde once said “when you stop growing and the flames are out you might as well quit”
or something like that and he’s right. You can have your identity but still have room to grow and develop as a musician.
Do you plan to tour?
Heck yeah! If it gets some traction, and people dig it, I’ll go anywhere,
dude! Beyond that I really can’t control it. In this process the only thing I can control is putting out the best, most honest music within me and I think “Embers” is the most effective way to introduce myself as an original musician first and a video game cover guy after. It’s been a really weird year for me, so the spirit of "Embers" is truly about how when all else fails, just trust in yourself and use the force. Since I can’t sing very well (laughs) the guitar is my voice here. In the end, it’s really about how no matter what happens, when everything seems to be falling apart in front of you, you’ve got to keep your head up, stay positive and keep your embers glowing as hot as you can.