Interview: Gary Cherone of Extreme on the 25th anniversary of ‘Pornograffitti’ and why there isn’t a Spanish version of ‘More Than Words’

Rock band Extreme are probably best known for the monster ballad “More Than Words,” which is the very definition of the clichéd double-edged sword.

Sure, it endeared the Boston band to millions, and still gets played regularly on soft-rock stations. But it wasn’t even remotely representative of the group’s sound that came to full maturity with their second album, Pornograffitti, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

While the record has ultimately been dealt the fate of having the ballad on it, it was so much more; Nuno Bettencourt especially showcased his guitar prowess on songs like “Decadence Dance,” “When I’m President” and the title track. It set him up to be one of the top in demand guitarists for artists diverse as Toni Braxton to Perry Farrell to Rihanna.

Vanyaland caught up with Extreme frontman Gary Cherone a few days before the tour to support the deluxe edition of Pornograffitti where the album will be played in full front to back, including a hometown gig tomorrow night, January 21 at the House of Blues. The singer talked about how the album came together, how its success gave them freedom as artists and why housewives were in for a shock when they went looking for “the pretty ballad by the two Italian boys.”

Michael Christopher: Does it feel like 25 years since Pornograffiti?

Gary Cherone: Most of the time, no; but gearing up for this run, and doing a lot of these interviews and when it’s mentioned, “25 years…” I go, “Really?” It puts the focus on that record and it just makes me think that that was an important record for us. It really put us on the map and it we found our identity. It makes you feel old [laughs].

Where did you do the bulk of the writing?

That’s a great question, because the history of Pornograffitti is really in the clubs. Our first record came out in ’89, Extreme one; and it should’ve come out in ’88, but the record company delayed it. So we were writing Pornograffitti by the time it came out, and “Decadance Dance” was already written, “Get the Funk Out” was already written… I think “More Than Words” was written. And we had to go out and promote that first record, and we were performing [those songs live.] So we literally wrote that album in the clubs, and you could tell when we went into the studio to record that record – we were ready.

When you reflect on it, how do you see yourself as not just a band, but as a songwriter; do you recognize that guy?

Hopefully there has been growth in 25 years [laughs]! But like I said, we found our identity on that record. Some of the songs, lyrically… but that was the album that Extreme found their identity. We haven’t played some of those songs in 25 years and some of them we never played live, they just fell by the wayside.

As a songwriter I’m not embarrassed — we’re proud of that record.

You’ve spent a bit time recently playing it in full overseas; do you find anything new in the songs or do you twist them up a bit?

We definitely enjoyed playing the songs we haven’t played, like “When I’m President,” “Little Jack Horny” and “Suzi.” Some of the songs have evolved, but I can say right now we’re playing the songs better than ever — and I think that’s what the audience will really dig. I point to Nuno, because Nuno shines on all the records, but this record the riffs are just ballistic and he’s on fire on this tour.

I think that’s the album that had him kind of pull away from the pack from the other guitarists of that era.

I agree. I agree. I don’t think it was just because of his solos; I think that when you hear a Nuno riff, the song “Pornograffitti” comes to mind, it’s very identifiable, it’s very “Nuno.” I think the first record we were a combination of our influences, growing up on a combination of Aerosmith, VH and Queen, but Pornograffiti was where we came into our own.

Does it bother you that “More Than Words” has become the band’s signature song, not so much then, but now, as the one song that the most casual fans know?

Now, that we’re older and wiser, you can look at it in perspective. That’s the song that put the band on the map. If “More Than Words” was not a success or not on that record, that record might have sold like the first record — 300,000 copies. We certainly wouldn’t have had the freedom to write III Sides to Every Story.

Once that was a hit, and we had a lot of stubborn people in this band, we did what we wanted. We went into the third record with a budget and said, “Let’s bring in an orchestra!” [laughs] So we owe a debt to “More Than Words.” At the time it was very frustrating because we followed up “More Than Words” with “Hole Hearted,” so the perception of the band was this acoustic duo, ballad band, and obviously we were much more than that.

Those two songs are the anomalies on the record — the rest of it doesn’t sound like that.

Right. And there’s the story of the housewife going into the record store looking for the pretty ballad by the two Italian boys and they go to the rock section and they see an album called Pornograffitti and you’ve got the lyrics, “Suzi wants her all day sucker.” I’m sure there were a few returns on the record.

When you started working on III Sides to Every Story, did you consciously try to move away from the acoustic sound? Because right out of the gate you have “Warhead,” which is one of the heaviest songs Extreme has done.

The record company always wants to repeat the success, so I’m sure they were looking for the next “More Than Words.” It wasn’t a conscious decision; what Nuno and I wrote was very honest. We were very ambitious and wanted to do a concept album and had to convince the record company we weren’t out of our minds. And to their credit, they did support us – they still thought we were crazy, but they supported us.

Tell me a little bit about the deluxe edition of Pornograffitti.

There’s some cuts we put at the end… you know, as a fan of other bands that remastered their records? There are pros and cons to it. I’m more about it being reissued, and the excitement is there could be a new generation that gets turned onto the band and other music as well.

You mention being a fan, when you look at something like what Led Zeppelin is doing with the companion audio discs; are you a fan of that or do you think it takes away from the original recording?

No, I am a fan of that, and I like to hear those live cuts from that time. When you’re a die-hard fan, you want to look behind the curtain. You want to hear the outtakes, the imperfections and it even makes you appreciate what‘s on the original record. I’m a big Dylan fan, so I’m getting all the bootleg series of that stuff and getting to hear alternative cuts of songs that are ingrained in your brain for so many years.

Speaking of alternative cuts, on the deluxe edition of Pornograffitti, there’s like, five different versions of “More Than Words.”

Yeah. That’s funny because that time period was a classic case of the record company trying to exploit the success of “More Than Words.” Anytime we put a single out after that, they’d put “the conga version,” the a capella version,” and that was just the record company trying to squeeze as much juice out of that lemon as they could.

In retrospect you can see why they did it, but at the time, I think they wanted us to do a Spanish version. I think we were halfway through it and the band and myself, we said, “Enough’s enough.” We weren’t gonna exploit the song [like that]; the song is the song.

Looking back, was it beneficial that you took that break from the mid to late 90s?

You can’t change the past. Looking back on it, I’ve heard Nuno say the band should’ve never broken up. I’ve always said, before I had time to mourn the breakup, I was in Van Halen; so the latter half of the ’90s was a whirlwind for me. It would’ve been nice if we stayed together and did a few records, but the band is healthy, we’re still full of piss and vinegar and want to make new music together. We appreciate it more now than we did back then, and we think — and you’ll see this at the show — that the band is better than it ever was.


Follow Michael Christopher on Twitter @blackbranchmc