Charisma is defined as a special charm that causes people to be excitedly attracted to someone. Beholding that ignitable quality can cause legions of worshipers to almost fall over themselves attempting to be closer to the light that beams forth from these people. Musicians tend to have this in abundance but it typically goes hand-in-hand with a Machiavellian ego, bequeathing the term Rock Star upon them in all its glory. But a chosen few can possess this gem while still retaining a humbleness of spirit. And Marco Mendoza is one of these people. Just ask Dokken drummer Wild Mick Brown, who played with the bassist years ago in Ted Nugent’s band. “He reeks of it,” Brown told me last week about Mendoza’s allure. “I had the pleasure of standing next to him, walking through a fairgrounds, and people would swarm on him just from his charisma. They knew he was a rock star but it wasn’t about him being ‘Marco Mendoza’ – it was about his charisma. It’s really something to walk next to that guy.”
Brown has definitely hit the nail on the head with his description. Mendoza has no airs about him. He is charming, he is polite, he is grateful for his life. For a man who once danced in the belly of the beast, he now waltzes outside of it. Changing his life over twenty-five years ago, he is sober and an inspiration to others who find themselves trapped within the ribcage of a once idyllic bird of paradise. His family is his elixir now and he dotes on them and praises them any chance he gets. And that family includes his musical brothers-in-arms.
Mendoza, who was born in Mexico, followed his passion of playing music to the States and has become a well sought after musician, playing on albums by John Sykes, Whitesnake and The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan, and touring with numerous bands. He has been with Thin Lizzy, who recently changed their name to Black Star Riders, off and on since 1994, and he is currently a productive member of the new group, the Dead Daisies, alongside former INXS belter Jon Stevens and GNR bandmates Richard Fortus and Dizzy Reed. The band recently played on the Rockstar Energy Drink Uproar tour and I had a chance to talk with Mendoza about life in a rock band.
You just finished up the Uproar tour. What will you remember the most about it?
I can’t remember the last time I did something like that. The setup was a little different than what I expected but all in all, it was great. I think it’s a great vehicle for new bands to break new ground and to get exposed to the bigger audiences. To do as many shows as we did, considering that the Daisies is relatively a new band, especially in the US, I definitely was aware of the response and how we were getting on the radar and it was very cool. I think it’s a great idea. I’ve heard about these festivals for years, although I’ve been involved with bands that were headliners. So when I got the call to be a part of this, they sent me the music and I heard Jon Stevens sing and then I heard Richard Fortus, who I had some experience with and we had played some music together, and to be a part of this with Dizzy and everybody else, it was like, “Yeah, let’s do this.” All in all, it was a great experience. I had a blast, it was fun.
I know that the heat was obviously a big factor. I talked to Dizzy and he said the keys were burning his fingers in Phoenix. As a performer, how did it affect you and how do you prepare for something like that?
Well, you know I’ve done tours, shed tours in the summer in the south, and you’re aware of it so you stay hydrated, you try to eat right, you exercise, you take care of yourself. I got to say, one thing that is working for me is that I don’t drink anymore. So that is a plus factor for me and I try to stay fit. Drinking lots of water and staying hydrated, that’s the first thing, cause you’re out there being very physical and active. A few years ago, I passed out on stage. I think it was somewhere in Atlanta in the summertime and the humidity was like 90% and the heat was like 100 plus. But also we were playing a longer set, a hundred minutes, a hundred and ten minutes, so yeah, your legs start getting wobbly and you get light-headed and boom, you’re out. So you try to pace yourself. You don’t push yourself as much as you would do under a controlled environment.
But I dig it, to be honest. I’m the opposite, I’m from the other school. If I get up and do a show and I get off and I’m not sweating, something’s wrong. So I had a blast. I know that a couple of them were extremely hot. Albuquerque was 110 and Dallas was really hot but you just deal with it. Most of the time, I don’t think about it that much. The show’s got to happen and you get up there. You just pace yourself a lot better, that’s all.
They had a lot of younger, newer bands that were playing. Were there any that you really liked or caught your eye?
Yeah, I really loved Duff McKagan’s band, Walking Papers. I really loved that band. There was quite a few bands that made a big impression but we were so busy doing interviews and all that, we really didn’t get to hang. Then also, the fact that we were flying in and flying out was another factor. But I think, out of all the bands, they were all great and I know they’re new and I should remember their names and get into their music but I am extremely busy right now. I got off the tour and we went straight into the studio with the Dead Daisies, and I’ve done two albums since. I’m working with Dolores O’ Riordan from the Cranberries also. I’m just extremely busy, just coming and going, but it’s good to know there’s a lot of good music, new players coming up. It’s just a tough market right now. But a festival like Uproar is definitely a great vehicle for them.
You’ve worked with Dolores before. What were you doing this time?
Well, we’re working on her third album. We really don’t know at this point if it’s going to be an album. There’s some songs, some movie possibilities, a lot of things cooking in her world so we’re working on that right now. We’ll see. I did two albums with her, Are You Listening? and Baggage, so this will be number three. She did go out with the Cranberries. They did a new album and they’ve been touring for the past two or three years. So we’ll see what’s happening for next year.
How exactly did you come to be in the Dead Daisies?
Earlier this year, I was in Australia touring with Thin Lizzy. I was touring with them and Motley Crue, on the Motley Crue/KISS tour, and I got approached by management. They started talking to me about the possibility of working with the Dead Daisies and I said, “Yeah. I am a little busy but let’s look at the time frame.” You know, I talk to a lot of people, Leslie, and nine out of ten times, it never happens for whatever reason. But they did call. I got home and I was in the studio and they did call and they said they had the possibility of getting a support slot for Aerosmith in Australia. And they told me that Richard Fortus was in the line-up and they sent the music and I fell in love with the music right away. And it worked out, my schedule was open, and they flew me out to Australia and we rehearsed and we did seven shows supporting Aerosmith. And it was a great time. This energy between all of us and the chemistry was just so great and the music was great. We got on the radar and then we started getting invited to do this and do that and do this and do that and that’s how the Uproar tour came about. And I think you will agree with me that the music recordings are amazing and it’s great music but there’s something to be reckoned with when you see the lineup play live. It’s just great music, a great bunch of cats. And Jon Stevens at the helm just singing his heart out.
And Jon had the walking boot on and his thumb was messed up but he still got out there and did it.
Yeah and it didn’t affect his singing at all (laughs)
I asked him about the heat and he said it didn’t bother him.
It didn’t. He’s from Australia. He’s like me, we’re real tough. We deal with circumstances as they come. Having been around for a few years, you get to be a pro at it. The show has got to go on regardless so you go out there. But if you noticed, we kept hydrating. I was drinking so much water, tons of water, and that’s key.
You’ve played with Richard Fortus before in Thin Lizzy. What special quality does he bring to the bands that he plays with?
One thing you can say about Richard, not only is he a dear friend and we’re friends regardless of what’s going on on the business side of music and I dig him as a human being and we’re always going to be friends, but as a guitar player, he’s got a unique style and a unique tone and a unique approach to music that is undeniable. He’s got his signature sound. And as a live performer, he’s just great, he gets it all, so he’s definitely an asset to any configuration in any situation and any lineup. I had heard about Richard before but we never got to play until he joined up with us, with Thin Lizzy, and we got to hang. He’s definitely a powerful player, a powerful musician and songwriter and in the studio he is great. He’s just one of those guys who is really together.
I understand that the new songs the Dead Daisies were working on are a little bit heavier than what is on the current record.
The new songs, we talked about it and I think we all came to the agreement that because of the lineup, because of the musicians involved, that we could go in a heavier direction. So we just went there naturally. Jon, to begin with, Jon is one of those singers that can sing anything and he just ate it up. I think we did five tracks and they’re amazing, just great stuff. It’s a little heavier, a little bluesier, a little riffier, heavy on the rock side. It’s good, that’s all I can tell you. Wait till you hear it.
You will be playing with Black Star Riders on their upcoming UK tour in November.
We did an album that came out earlier this year, in May, and while all that is going on, I got the call from the Daisies to be part of that. But initially, I was going to do the run in Australia, opening up for Aerosmith. I’m a musician, I’m always going to have the desire to work for anything that’s good musically and I love doing what I do. So unbeknownst to me, there was a connection. The Dead Daisies got invited to open up for Black Star Riders so now my commitment, my prior commitment, is to Black Star Riders. So I spoke to both managements and spoke to both lineups and players and I think initially the idea was that I’d be able to play with both projects. Then we all started thinking about it and long story short, we came to the decision that it wouldn’t be wise, because the Dead Daisies are trying to get established and the same thing for Black Star Riders.
So I’m going to be playing with Black Star Riders and the Daisies are going to be supporting BSR. They got Darryl Jones from the Rolling Stones to come in and play bass so he’s going to be filling in in that spot for now. It is what it is. I’m excited to have a bunch of friends on the road. I absolutely love the Daisies and their music, and the same thing with Black Star Riders. I think it’s going to be cool, going to be a great time. We’re doing some dates in Europe and Germany and Italy and Scandinavia and Spain. Then we hook up with the Daisies in the UK in mid-November and play through December.
How do you make touring livable since you spend so much time on the road? What is the secret?
The secret for me is very simple. Before I find myself wanting to complain about this and that, I look around, and we all talk about it and we have a laugh about it, but the bottom line, or however you want to break it down, it really is a privilege to be doing what we do. It’s a privilege for somebody like me that when I was a kid I was hoping to have a career in the music business. And here it is, you know, going on thirty years. I feel really privileged and really blessed that I’m on the road and working with all these great bands and doing great music and hopefully making a difference out there. So for the most part, accommodations are livable and very comfortable.
Again, I try to eat right, I try to exercise, I don’t drink anymore, I don’t do any drugs. I haven’t for a few years. I stay focused and I’m always the guy that will get up and cruise around and try to experience the country, the city, and all that it has to offer, culturally or otherwise; just the scenery alone. I’m that guy who is walking around town. If you think about it, how many people would love to be in our shoes, traveling the world, you know. So I look at the positive. I could complain about this and that and yet the biggest one for me is being away from my family and my kids and my wife and my home. But most of the time, if you really think about it, they’re short periods – six weeks here, eight weeks there. Then when I’m home, I get to be home twenty-four/seven. So it’s all good. No complaints from me.
You’ve created a good balance
I think so. I really enjoy what I do and that’s key, you know. I tell everybody, and I talk to my kids, try to find a career in your life that is going to make you happy regardless of how successful you are or not, because at the end that’s the driving force. Anything that is passion-driven, it’s bound to be successful at one point or another. That’s just the way it is. That’s the law of the universe. You put your time in, you get better at it and you’re going to float to the top and be fulfilled. I think that’s the definition of success. Without sounding arrogant, I think I’m very successful in that regard. You get to play with all these great cats and great talents and record and then you play live; to perform and to put on a good show and play some good music. I always like to say that every time I get on stage, I want to win. Whatever that means. You get up there and win and you enjoy the music and you perform good, you’re inside the music, you deliver, and then you know when you get off if you didn’t exactly deliver or not. You know it. So far so good (laughs).
When you first joined Thin Lizzy, were you intimidated by the history of the band or the iconic songs and whether you could thrive and be a vital part of that band?
I started working with John Sykes, who was part of that lineup, and I think we’ve done six albums or so, and he invited me in; talked to the other guys when Thin Lizzy had an opportunity to get together after Phil Lynott’s passing in 1986. 1994 was the year and there was an opportunity to put all the guys together so John called me and he says, “We’re thinking about doing this and I want you in here. Are you into it?” And I said, “Of course.” So I got my hands on everything I could Thin Lizzy, including VHS videos in those days, and cassettes and this and that, and I did my work. I got in there and I discovered how prolific the band was and how wide-ranging, style-wise, of songs they covered. Up to that point, being from southern California, we’d only heard a little bit. But we heard Thin Lizzy and we loved it but we just got the tip of the iceberg.
I got in and I fell in love with the music, with the history and the legacy and Phil and the boys. So I did my homework. I think I prepared like twenty-five songs and I went to meet the guys at the rehearsal studio and we started playing and every song they pulled out, I nailed it. I like to think I did (laughs). I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. So that’s what it was and we got along really well and before you know it we were in Japan and the fact that Phil wasn’t there anymore and was known to everybody yet the band was a great representation of the legacy of Thin Lizzy playing the songs. The lineup was the Thunder & Lightning lineup with John Sykes, Scott Gorham, Brian Downey, Darren Wharton and myself. So we started getting everybody there and that’s how it happened, you know. That’s how it is in the music business. You never know. Timing is everything.
Was I intimidated? I try not to think of music that way. As a bass player I try to get in and do my homework, prepare myself as much as I can. If something is meant to happen, then it happens and that’s the mantra I go by. But yeah, it’s great and I’ve been there since. I think I left for a few years cause I was busy with Whitesnake and our schedules didn’t coincide, but that’s what it was with Thin Lizzy.
Now we have this new episode, this new chapter, cause BSR is the Thin Lizzy lineup minus Brian Downey and Darren Wharton. It’s a great album, it’s getting a great response and great reviews all over the place. We did six festivals over the summer and now we’re going out there and getting behind it full-on and we’re hoping for the best. Apparently, everything is looking good, ticket sales are over the top and everything is great so here we go (laughs)
How did you feel about the name change?
To be honest, the way the whole thing happened, let’s just say that I wasn’t involved with the process of that because when Thin Lizzy stopped, came to a screeching halt, I had other things that I was getting myself in. Then the guys called and said, “We really want you here. Are you interested?” And I said, “Of course, I love you guys and I believe in this, the songs are great, the music is great.” I’ll say this, band names are the hardest things to come by in order to be original and unique. It’s almost like everything has been done already and I really am a firm believer that the name of the band is only as great as the music and the performances.
People will remember, once we start playing, and that’s a guarantee, they’ll remember Black Star Riders based on the performance and the music. This is the flag that we have and we fly it and we go. Think about it, Leslie. There’re a lot of names of bands that are considered classic names now. We could have called the band Yellow and then you go out there and you pull some good shows down and the album is great and is well-received and then before you know it, Yellow makes a lot of sense. So Black Star Riders, BSR, I dig it. I dig the logo. I think it’s relevant today. The market that we’re shooting for is the younger kids. We’re trying to get the younger rockers and younger generations on board so it makes sense. I have a big family of teenagers and they dig it so that’s a good sign. The name is only as heavy as the music and the band behind it. So it’s going to be a heavy name. Hopefully by this time next year, it’s going to be heavier.
We all know that the bass player and the drummer are the foundation of any band.
Yes, thank you. I’m glad you said that.
Which drummer would you say you have connected with the best in your career?
I have to say at the top of my list, not only because he’s a great drummer but because we’ve been involved in so many projects for so many years, I’ve spent, I think, more time with Tommy Aldridge than anybody else. Then Joey Heredia, who is somebody you might not even know, but who is a powerhouse of a drummer, very unique in style and I have a project with him, a trio that’s considered like Latin fusion funk. I absolutely love Brian Downey. But with Tommy, we played years with Ted Nugent, years with Whitesnake, years with John Sykes and even Thin Lizzy. I lock in with Tommy Aldridge really well. We know each other’s playing and we dig each other so much. There is a mutual respect factor there that we know whenever we play together, we know the job’s going to get done and it’s fun doing it. And he’s a great guy, a great cat, man, and I love him to death.
Jimmy DeGrasso [new BSR drummer], I just got to know him. We would see each other here and there on the road but never got to play. He was really impressive to me and we locked in right away. I can’t wait to spend more time with him playing. Also, with the Daisies, of course we went on this US run and we went through three different drummers. Alex Carapetis, who began the tour, is a relatively new cat on the scene, a great drummer, going to hear a lot from him. Then Frank Ferrer from Guns N Roses came in and just absolutely killed it on drums but then he had prior commitments, like all of us. Then Brian Tichy came and he’s another cat that I would love to have another opportunity to play and record and write with. I used him on my solo project in the studio, Live For Tomorrow.
There’re a few other guys that I would love to have the opportunity to play with. Simon Phillips is one. There’re a few cats that I use when I’m doing my solo stuff, one of which is Kenny Aronoff. I haven’t played with him in a while but Kenny, I mean, come on, it doesn’t get any better there. Kenny Aronoff and Tommy Clufetos, who is now playing with Black Sabbath. There are so many cats in Europe and in Scandinavia, a couple of guys I use on drums and they just bring it, man. Morten Hellborn in Copenhagen, I also use. So there’s so many. But you’re right, the connection between the bass player and the drummer is a big factor in the rest of the music because you can have the best players but if the carburetor ain’t carbureting, guess what? (laughs)
Tichy told me that if he is off his game, it can throw everybody else off, so he has to be on his game.
Absolutely, that’s how it is. It’s so important. The drummer carries the rhythm, the power behind the power. Everybody knows that. Having the drummer kick some butt is very important in the whole mix. And then as a bass player, you’re right, after the drummer the bass. What we do is we set up the foundation for the guitar players and the vocals and the singers and the songs. Very important.
On your solo records, you can hear a strong Jazz funk sound to your playing. Was it natural fusing that into your playing?
I grew up in Mexico. I was bombarded by different genres of music. Growing up in Mexico, you listen to a lot of African rhythms but starting with Mexican music. My father was a Big Band lover and he was a clarinet player so Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Billie Holiday, all the Big Band stuff, Gene Krupa. Then my grandmother came to raise us cause my parents divorced and she brought a piano and she was a classical piano teacher. So I was influenced by a lot of this stuff. When I started growing up and I knew I was going to be playing music for the rest of my life, I allowed myself to get into these different genres and get to the foundation of what my job was as a bass player, rhythm-wise and all that.
When I came to LA, I started doing a lot of different gigs – Reggae gigs, Salsa gigs, straight ahead be bop gigs, all kinds of stuff, so when I was given the opportunity to come up with something that just comes out of you naturally, all those influences are going to be there. Without having any boundaries, it’s amazing what can happen. When there’s no direction musically, you can go in all these different directions. For me, I dig it. It’s like my language because I’m influenced by all these different types of music. If I’m going to play rock & roll and that’s what’s expected of me, I know what tools to bring, what bass to bring, how to approach that. If I’m going to play pop, I know what it is. If there’s a little bit of Jazz fusion stuff, there’s a lot of notes and I know what I need to do.
Let’s just say when you open your mind and your heart, a lot of stuff can come out with no boundaries. And the same thing applies to music. I was given the opportunity to do that so I went. You don’t plan it like that, it just happens. And whether it’s commercial or not, cause we had a few problems with the labels, you know what I mean. They wanted straight ahead rock & roll, melodic rock, what they call melodic rock; it’s all music to me, it’s all rock & roll. So there were a few issues there but the point is that you’re constantly growing and constantly being creative and you’re moving forward. That’s what is important in my mind.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
Oh wow, I met Alice Cooper in San Diego, my first concert ever; Alice Cooper in the San Diego Sports Arena. I must have been fourteen or fifteen and the people I was with knew some people and we got backstage and we said hello and that was in like passing. And I was so impressed and he moved me in such a way, his music, who he was as an entertainer, a musician, as a singer, the theatrical part of it, all made such an impact and would later become my pursuit. He inspired me so much. But gosh, I meet a lot of cats, you know. I’m constantly meeting people that I look up to, people that inspire me or touch me in one way or another in the music business. To this day I get calls from so and so and it’s like mind blowing, the stuff that happens.
But to add to the drummer list, Deen Castronovo, because Deen is one of those guys that is so talented as a drummer, as a singer, as a musician. He is the most beautiful cat on the planet and we did Soul SirkUS with Neal Schon and Jeff Scott Soto so pick up that album. And also Virgil Donati came in. Deen got sick and couldn’t get on the road and Virgil came in, another cat that is insane, very talented. We have an album, actually, that I did with Neal Schon and Deen Castronovo that is soon to be released. I just don’t know when so look out for that one. When everything becomes official, it’s on my website, www.marcomendoza.com. I also got a call from a few labels to maybe work on another solo album for next year so we might be working on that. So there’s a lot in the pipeline.
You are very open about your sobriety. What was the first thing you noticed about your playing once you got rid of all the toxins in your life?
Well, the first thing I did sober, I was scared (laughs). I was really scared because up to that point I had always been under the influence to get on stage and do music. One thing that I noticed right away after I got over the fear was that I really enjoyed it. I could hear the other players, I could hear the song, I could understand what my job was. It kept growing and kept growing and it’s a buzz, it’s a high. If you can imagine getting in front of thousands and thousands of people, like most recently Download with 110,000 people I’m told, to get out there and to hear the roar and you start playing your music, I can’t explain it to you, what kind of high and what kind of buzz you get naturally. It’s amazing.
So I think I enjoyed that life better than being under the influence. So I told myself, I want more of this and twenty-six years later, September 20, I’ve marked twenty-six years of sobriety. I got sober in my twenties out of necessity. It was really bad. I was strung out on heroin and cocaine and alcohol. I was addicted to more, if you know what I mean. More of anything that I could get, I would do it. If there was anything out there that I could do to just get me all buzzed, I would do it. But things got really bad and I won’t get into that but sobriety is where it’s at for me, absolutely. And performing and doing music sober, there is great satisfaction in the fact that all your senses are there, your sense of hearing, you can see the audience, you can feel the excitement, you can feel the energy coming back to you from the audience and on stage. It’s hard to put into words but I’m sure you’ve heard this once or twice before. But for me, I choose to be sober. Being under the influence of anything for me is just not a choice anymore. I have to be sober and I don’t see it changing.
It’s almost like, are you into rollercoasters? If you talk to people who are and if you ask them, when you get on the rollercoaster, have you been on it when you’re drunk or under the influence, and if they have, they’ll say, “Yes, it came and went and I didn’t know it happened and blah blah blah and before you know it, it was over.” With the guys who are addicted to adrenalin like I am and endorphins like I am, they will remember every second of it and that’s the part of the journey, that part of the ride, that’s so cool. So to get into the studio, to write songs, to record them, to release them, and to have an audience sing and rock out to what you’re playing out there and enjoying what you do, there’s no better high. And you’re there in all your senses absorbing this energy and it’s just amazing. It’s great and it’s exhausting at the same time. That’s why after any concert you’re drained but you get ready for the next one.
On the other side of that, how did people first react to you when you got sober?
Still to this day some people don’t know what to do with me. But I think I have a bit of a reputation out there in the business of being sober now. And when people think about me now or I get calls to do this or that, to be part of this or that, they know that sobriety is part of who I am and what I do. So now it’s comfortable. At the beginning, it wasn’t. I could feel the energy of people not trusting me because I wasn’t drinking so much where I couldn’t remember my name the next day. I just choose not to do that anymore. There’s no hidden agenda, I’m not here to change or influence anybody. I’m here to be who I am and for people that have had enough, if they’re having issues, they’ll come start talking to me. When they’re ready to make that commitment, cause it is a commitment and it’s a lifestyle change, then they go. And I’m here to kind of share my experience and how I did it. That’s all it is.
But, yeah, sometimes you hang out in certain projects and drinking is a big part of what happens and I just don’t. I go and hang and I can hang out with the best of them and I can party with the best of them. I just don’t drink or do anything that alters my personality in any way. That’s it. That’s who I am. But yeah, at the beginning, the first reaction was like, “Who is this guy? Can we trust this guy?” And to this day, I’m constantly being invited to partake in this and that and I just don’t. I don’t need to. I’m not willing to pay the consequences anymore. And part of it is seeing a lot of people who I consider my friends, not making it, not waking up the next morning because they drank too much or they took too many pills or whatever by mistake or not. I just don’t want to take that chance. I’ve got kids, I’ve got a family, I’ve got a great life that I’m really grateful for. I want to take care of myself and my body as much as I can to be around as long as I can in the best way possible. It’s that simple. That’s why I try to eat right, I try to work out, take care of my body so my body can take care of me. There’re a lot of things in this music business of ours that I still have yet to accomplish. I have short term goals and I have long term goals that I keep to myself but I’m still out there trying to achieve.
Being on the road in itself is physically exhausting. All the travel involved and all the energy and you’re constantly on. You know, the moment I leave my home and I go to the airport, you’re on, because people recognize you and they ask you for a picture or a signature and all that. You want to be on. I want to be able to experience everything to the fullest and enjoy it and remember it. So I’m not running. I stopped running. I stopped running from myself twenty-six years ago. I embrace who I am – all my shortcomings, all my assets, all the good and the bad, and I’m a work in progress and always trying to achieve the best and become a better person.