The equivalent of being a musical chef, guitarist Nuno Bettencourt is a gifted songwriter/instrumentalist/producer who refuses to compromise or be rushed with the creative process.
His band Extreme recently released its most recent album “Six,” the follow-up to 2008’s “Saudades de Rock”(which roughly translates in Bettencourt’s native Portuguese to “Nostalgic Yearnings of Rock”). Why the decade-and-a-half gap? Was it the inadvertent hiatus the band went on when Bettencourt was hired to be Rihanna’s touring guitarist? Or how it allowed vocalist Gary Cherone to work on Hurtsmile, a side project he created with his brother Mark? Or was it tour commitments that took the band to the Far East, India and Australia? All those were factors, but for Bettencourt, recording “Six” was more about maintaining the band’s high standards.
“When people ask why it took 15 years—look, we had three or four albums worth of material that we should have put out,” Bettencourt pointed out in a recent interview. “But we never like to put anything out that’s going to contribute to music, music history and our legacy in a way that’s for the sake of touring and for the sake of punching it in. We always look at our albums as stuff that will be here long after we’re gone. So what are we saying, what are we leaving behind and what are we trying to contribute right now when people are listening to music? If it doesn’t turn us on that way, why would we put it on the album? Every song on here had to fight for the position it was in. Once we record them, they are no longer ours. Once I listen to them, I think if this was somebody else’s album I was listening to, what would I skip over? I don’t want to skip over anything. Every song had to hold its weight.”
The dozen songs that make up “Six” represent the sweet spot Extreme has always nailed since coming together in Boston in 1985 -- a bridge between hard rock with swagger and thoughtful guitar-driven pop awash in hooks and harmonies. The album opens with “Rise” and “#REBEL,” both replete with Bettencourt’s fleet-fingered riffing, which owes more than a nod to the late Eddie Van Halen, who is also a hero of the Portuguese guitarist.
Elsewhere, jams like “Banshee” and “The Mask” resonate with the kind of soloing reminiscent of when six-string desperadoes like Warren DiMartini, George Lynch and Vito Bratta roamed the hard rock landscape. But true to form, Bettencourt’s unerring pop craft is what always separated him from the pack. He doesn’t disappoint here, whether it’s via “Other Side of the Rainbow” and its combination of shimmering acoustic guitar and Bettencourt’s harmonies fitting perfectly with Cherone’s soulful phrasing, the ska-flavored “Beautiful Girls” or the subtle melancholy of “Hurricane,” which is built on some heartfelt call-and-response inspired by the passing of a dear friend. The stylistic breadth on this new project came through some hard-fought debating in the recording studio, which at times had Bettencourt wondering whether “Six” would ever get finished.
“The great Freddie Mercury said many decades ago, ‘The band makes its best music when (it’s) on the verge of breaking up’,” Bettencourt said with a laugh before turning serious. “There was a time where we weren’t going to make it to the release of this album. It was pretty close. It was a bit of a stalemate because of literally what to do with the album. What’s going on — you get really protective of your children right there. They’re like your babies.”
With time in the recording studio behind them, Bettencourt and his bandmates are in their element where they feel they truly excel — on stage in front of an audience.
“The best of Extreme that you’ll see is on a stage,” the guitarist said. “I say that both confidently and humbly. I don’t brag about much of anything, but I’ve always been proud of this band. I don’t care if you like the band or not. I definitely feel like if you come to an Extreme show, you will respect the fact that these guys are in their mid-50s to early 60s. If you A-B a show from when they’re 18 to 21 and it might even be better (now) —sonically, physically and vocally. That’s one of the things that is amazing about us, but also hurts us because nobody ever wants to take us on tour.”
Bettencourt’s musical journey began as the youngest of 10 in a musical Portuguese family in the Azores. Early musical memories are of his siblings picking up whatever their multi-instrumentalist father left around the house and playing and singing the Beatles catalog and Christmas songs during the holidays. And while Bettencourt didn’t pick up the guitar until he was about 11 or 12, the influence his family had on him was substantial.
“It’s really what shaped me and what culturally forced me to be a musician whether I liked it or not,” he said.
The argument can be made that Bettencourt’s early background not only exposed him to popular music, but that his familial roots paved the way for him to land a regular gig as Rihanna’s touring guitarist. And while he got into a bit of trouble saying in another interview “I’m sorry, most of the guitar players who I admire could not in their lifetime play that gig. I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Slash is one of the greatest rock guitar players of all time, but I guarantee — and he’d be the first to tell you — that if he jumps up and he’s got to play a clean intro to ‘Rude Boy’ [by] Rihanna, it ain’t happening.”
While he initially demurred to address that quote, Bettencourt did clarify what it was like playing as a hired hand for the pop star versus leading Extreme.
“When we get out of our own water and go try other things, yes we can play it technically, but our feels, culture and everything is different,” he said. “I think people sometimes forget to have respect for the guys who play R&B, punk rock and whatever, as easy as we think it is. When you’re in your own skin, you’re invincible.”
And while there may have been a 15-year gap between albums for Extreme, chalk it up to Bettencourt’s unwillingness to take creative shortcuts while trying to be true to not only himself and his band, but the group’s fans as well. This philosophy has served him well.
“Especially in music, you can only really be authentic,” he said. “You’ve got to do it for the love of it. I’ve never done anything musically in my career or played a note for money, fame or any of that. Does it feel good? Is it great to get paid? Does it feel good to have people singing your songs and chanting your name? Yeah. But people will never connect with you on anything if you’re not there for the right reasons—the passion and the love of it.”
Extreme will play Jannus Live in downtown St. Pete on Saturday, March 9, with special guests Living Colour. Click here for ticket info.
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