Mark Younger-Smith Interview

What’s it like to write songs with, and play guitar for, Billy Idol? Ask Mark Younger-Smith. That’s what he does. And so we did.

Q – Mark, you and Billy must be preparing to go out on the road in support of the “Cyberpunk” CD?
A – Yeah. I’m at the rehearsal place right now. I’m stepping away from the band for a few minutes to do this interview, and we’re right back into it.

Q – What are the tour plans?
A – We’re going to Europe to do some stadium dates with Bon Jovi. Then, we’re corning back and starting our own tour in October.

Q – Has the recession affected the touring at all?
A – We’re gearing down our show this tour. We’re going to try and play more places, because last tour we played nothing but the arena cities. But, we’re gonna play theatres this tour, and we’re gonna try to hit some of the smaller markets.

Q – You were out on the road with Charlie Sexton at one point…
A – That’s right.

Q – So touring the world is nothing new to you?
A – No. (Laughs)

Q – How then will this tour be different for you?
A – Well, the last tour that I did with Billy, for the last album, we toured almost as long as I toured with Charlie, but we played nothing but arenas. Charlie played a lot of theatres. But, this tour will be a lot more fun because Billy and I have been together for so long. We’re kind of like best buddies now. So, it’s a lot more fun this way. We travel together. We hang together. We do everything together. So, from that standpoint, it will be fun. Since I wrote most of the songs on this album with Billy, it’s more like I’m playing something from my own heart.

Q – You had a pretty big say in the writing, arrang­ing and production of “Cyberpunk” didn’t you?
A – Yes.

Q – Isn’t that unusual that someone like Billy Idol would bring someone in and make them an equal partner?
A – Well, I’m not really an equal partner. But, on “Charmed Life” on the last album we wrote our first song together towards the end of the project. It became a real favorite of ours as far as songs, and then we ended up writing a cou­ple more, that we ended up postponing the record, to put on that last record. So, I think the writing partnership kind of got really comfortable. Consequently, on this album we just really wrote well together. We had a good time writing songs together. We were both on the same plane as far as what we wanted to write about. Everything is fair and all that kind of stuff, so yeah, it’s great. I’m sure he had Steve doing a lot of stuff with him, too, before.

Q – As we talk, is there an L.A. music scene?
A – I don’t think there is one, if you want to know the truth. I think there’s a lot of people wanting to follow the Seattle thing. To me, I think the only way you can really stand out in Los Angeles is to do something totally different from everybody else. If there’s a scene going on, or a trend going on where there’s four or five bands playing a similar type style, then you really don’t get anywhere here, whereas I guess in a city like Seattle or where I’m from Austin, Texas you have a style of music that a lot of different bands will play, and they still get recognized and heard for the talent they have. Here, if you sound like somebody else, one of the bands get signed and everybody else goes by the wayside. Here, people tend not to try like somebody else. (Laughs) It’s an unfortunate situation for Los Ange­les. When, we were making this album, obviously Billy doesn’t have to think about that kind of stuff. I think we’ve come up with something that is very controversial. It’s dif­ferent from every record he’s ever done, and it’s not like anything anybody else is doing out there, consequently we don’t sound like the Seattle sound. We don’t sound like pop-rock. We don’t sound like heavy metal. It’s kind of a whole new genre for us, I think, this record. We’re making a lot more heavy statements I think about what the world is like today, and I don’t know if too many people are pre­pared for that.

Q – You were working construction at one point. Weren’t you afraid of an injury to your hand?
A – Well, I didn’t have much choice in the matter. When I was fired from Charlie’s band, to stay in Los Angeles I had to do everything I could. So, I got a job that would pay enough money for me to pay my bills, ’cause I had some pretty high bills. The only thing I could find was this construction job laying rebar and building foundations for homes that had been ruined in the earthquake of like ’86 or whenever it was. I’d come home. I couldn’t even pickup the guitar. It was terrible, but I had to do it. I’m one of those people who’s not about to say I’m not going to take a construction job because it’s not my style. I gotta survive. Maybe God was looking after me.

Q – One thing we always hear is how many great guitarists there are in LA.
A – Right.

Q – So besides talent, what else do you have to have to get to your level?
A – Well, I think experience makes a big difference. I’ve been playing music for a living since I was 13 years old. My parents left me in the Virgin Islands when I was a young kid, and I’ve played on cruise ships when I was rea­lly young making money. I think you tend to look at music a different way. I still want to play with heart and soul on everything I do but, at the same time, you have to look at things realistically. I think I tried to make myself the kind of person who would make everyone around me sound as good as possible, rather than the kind of person that wan­ted to make himself sound as good as possible. Really, in the guitar world, there’s enough guitar heroes. There’s plenty of ’em to go around, and the last thing I ever wan­ted to be was a guitar hero. I’d rather be remembered as somebody who was participating in writing songs that people remember which is probably one of the things Billy liked about me. I had a good sense of sound and tone and what sounded good with each other, rather than how many notes I could play on the guitar. As a matter of fact he said, ‘I think on this album you should show off a little bit.’ So there’s a couple of songs, like the very last song on the album “Mother Dawn” where I show off my licks, but I’m not really fond of that because, if the song is good enough you don’t need to stop the song, to have a guitar solo blazing away. (Laughs). If you’re gonna put a solo in there, it better be as good as the song is. (Laughs)

Q – You knew Stevie Ray Vaughn?
A – Oh yeah, sure. I used to see him play in clubs all the time.

Q – When he was coming up, not when he was famous?
A – Oh yeah, sure.

Q – Did you ever think he was gonna go places?
A – Well yeah, I mean his brother Jimmy and his group the Thunderbirds had more success early than Stevie did. But, you could tell that eventually something was gonna happen. There’s a lot of people coming out of that city ( Austin, Texas) like that. That’s the funny thing about Austin is people always talk about Seattle and really Aus­tin has been going for years with turning out people, but they’re all diversified. There’s so many different types of musicians. You got Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray. There’s country, and there’s R and B, and blues. And, there’s some great jazz players. For pop music, there’s Christopher Cross. He must’ve sold what, 5 or 6 million records. But, it’s a real diversified market there. I think if a city gets locked into one scene or one sound, it can kind of hurt it­self, more than help itself, ’cause after a few years that style dies away and then what are they left with? A bunch of bands that still sound like something that happened six years ago. I’d hate to see that happen to anybody. I think the stuff coming out of Seattle is really cool.

Q – You made your living for awhile by building guitars. How did you know you could do that?
A – That kind of goes back to when I lived in the Virgin Islands. There were no music stores there, so I had to work on my own guitars. I literally learned myself how to fix ’em. Then I got a few books and started learning how to tear them completely apart. Once I got over that part I had to remember how to put ’em back together. (Laughs). Eventually I got good enough to where I started repairing guitars for a living down in Texas. Then I got this job working with this guy who built guitars. We built like 175 guitars.

Q – For some of the most famous guitarists in the world.
A – Oh yeah. That’s something I used to be really proud of. I’m still really proud of it; it’s just that I don’t really talk about it anymore, because it’s just so long ago. It was like 1980, 1981.

Q – Do any of the people you built guitars for keep in regular contact with you?
A – Well, no. Basically, when I built the guitars they would come in. There were 3 people who worked there, the owner, I built the guitars, and there was another guy who did all the finishing work, you know, that painted ‘em. So basically the owner would meet them and greet them and they’d walk around and shake our hands. They’d sign the guitars under the neck. They never knew me. They wouldn’t remember me if they saw me now. Tom Petty is managed by our same management. It’s funny, he re­membered me when I was playing with Billy. He goes, “Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?” I said “yeah, you know me from Austin, Texas.” He said “Oh yeah, man.” I built him and Mike Campbell some guitars. He said, “I remember you. You built some guitars for us. What are you doing out here?” I said “I’m playing with Billy.” He goes, “Oh wow.” So, it was nice that somebody remem­bered.

Q – You were friends with James Honeymoon Scott (Pretenders) weren’t you?
A – Yeah. He was a good friend of mine.

Q – Did you or anyone else ever try to discourage him from taking drugs?
A – You know, the funny thing was I just recently in the last year and a half have stopped. So, the hardest thing for me to do at that time although, I wasn’t doing cocaine then. He had inherited a liver problem that nobody knew about, except him and his widow Peggy Sue. I guess what had happened was Peggy Sue was staying with me and it was kind of a weird situation when he went back, and Pete, the bass player was fired. Pete was the one that got him into the band. So, they were kind of partying together. Then, he had, from what I understand, 4 drinks and a couple lines of cocaine and his liver failed, which is how he died. He didn’t really overdose, which is why they didn’t say he overdosed, but the lifestyle he led, definitely con­tributed to the deterioration of his liver. I would get mad at him, because we would go out drinking and he’d mix wine and port. He’d take 2 or 3 drinks, and he’d pass out. I used to tell him, ‘hey man, you’re no fun. Come on. You can’t do that kind of stuff. Just don’t drink if it’s gonna be that way.’ That was a long time ago. I was a lot younger then. It was the rock ‘n’ roll scene. He’d come into Austin and we would hang out. He actually worked with me on a bunch of music that I did. It’s sad. Sure it would be great to say I tried to talk him out of it, but I’m not gonna regret that now. Back then, I don’t think people were as concerned with drug abuse and drug use and al­coholism as they are today. I smoke and I’m starting to feel like I should move to another country. (Laughs). Wow, I smoke and that’s bad. I’m clean. Because I’m smoking I’m looked at like what’s wrong with you? You smoke? Pretty soon they’re going to say any addiction is bad. So, don’t drink coffee in the morning. Don’t have a cigarette. You’re exercising too much. You’re addicted to exercising, you oughta stop exercising. (Laughs) I’m sure they’ll fig­ure out a way to kill you, no matter what you do. Life ends eventually. He was a great guy. I can’t say whether or not somebody should have or shouldn’t have. He was a really great guy. It’s a big loss to the music world. I still think about him all the time. I have pictures of ’em up with us together, in my house.

Q – I imagine you could write a book.
A – Yeah, probably, but I won’t. (Laughs)

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