Gary Cherone's New Tribe

Singer battles God, and the ghost of Van Halen

Gary Cherone hit the rock & roll big time as singer for the pop-metal band Extreme, when their single "More Than Words" hit Number One in 1990. Unfortunately, the band's success was short lived as its subsequent efforts were swallowed up by the alternative rock explosion led by Nirvana and Pearl Jam. By the time 1995's Waiting for the Punchline arrived, Extreme had become one, and they split officially in 1996.

Bettencourt, always a respected guitarist, launched a solo career, but Cherone took on the more dubious task of fronting Van Halen -- Extreme's most obvious early influence. It didn't go well: He sang on only one album, 1998's Van Halen III, and the subsequent tour, both of which bombed with critics and fans, leading to his unceremonious, if civil, ouster.

But Cherone has come a long way from his days as a floppy-locked lead singer and cock-rock poser. He earned strong reviews for his portrayal of Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar in the 1994 and 1996 productions. And now shortly shorn and sometimes bleached, he has opened another, darker and more thoughtful chapter of his career, forming Tribe of Judah with former Extreme mates guitarist Mike Mangini and bassist Pat Badger, as well as keyboardist Steve Ferlazzo and guitarist Leo Mellace. Their debut album, Exit Elvis, tackles everything from abstract philosophy to nursery rhymes.

How did Tribe of Judah come about?

At the beginning of 2000, coming back from Los Angeles, I pretty much knew I didn't want to put a three-piece band together, which is what I was comfortable with. I was intrigued by some of the electronica going on. So I looked around and hooked up with Steve Ferlazo and wrote a couple songs with him. At that time it was just me kind of experimenting. Through an engineer I knew, I hooked up with Leo Mellace shortly after that. We wrote a song, he played a lead on an unrelated song, a solo song for a solo record I've been working on as well, and we hit it off. To me that's where bands start: If you get along with the guys and you see a bunch of talent. But if you don't get along with the other musicians, nothing's going to happen.

Where did you get the title "Exit Elvis"?

Actually, it was a poem I've had for a while that evolved into a song. There really isn't a traditional chorus and I didn't have any title for it, and the last line of the poem is "Exit Elvis." I went through a few titles for the record. I was leery of using the word "Elvis" in the title for the record, not because it's light-hearted, but more pop-cultured . . . but some of the imaging, it kind of summed up the record. The song itself is a critique on art in general -- without that sounding too heavy-handed -- "Is there anything new to add to anything anymore?"

Is it a stage direction?

It's more a paraphrase of "Elvis is leaving the building," and that being a metaphor for how everything will end up in a dentist's office being muzak anyway. You hear the Beatles on muzak. Which is an abomination.

Who was the little girl on "2+2" and where did the idea come from?

It's pretty much an interlude -- it was a nursery rhyme I wrote. I knew if I sang it, people wouldn't get it. The little girl was one of my friend's daughters. I had a bunch of little kids come in and sing nursery rhymes. But after hearing it, they sang too good, and this little girl sang a little out of key. She was eleven, and I hope she never reads this interview. It was just perfect. I think there's the irony, within all the lyrics, having a little girl sing something that on the surface sounds silly but the lyrics go a little deeper.

Where did the cover art concept come from? [The album art features three shots of Cherone. In the first he's looking at a gun with the barrel facing him, in the second the gun is closer to his neck, and in the third it's flush against his neck.]

Having a bad hair day [laughs]. I wanted to draw people into the content of the lyrics, and I wanted to provoke a little thought. I didn't want to put a disturbing or shocking image just to grab attention. What it [represents] to me is the theme going throughout the record: man's free will and man being the measure of all things. If that's true, the image would be taking that philosophy to its logical conclusion.

Do you think people will find the themes disturbing?

In a way, I think that the record is somewhat disturbing, somewhat grim. For me, the record is so overtly ironic: How could I mean those things? I'm just trying to challenge that mindset. I've struggled with it, tried to come to my own conclusions about the death of God and all that. To me, it's arguing for the exact opposite. With "Left for Dead," that would be the classic argument of man's free will, and if there is a God, an absolute law, then ultimately man has to be subject to that. So there's that struggle, that there's no room for the two of us: God and man. Ultimately, in order for man to be free, he would have to put God to death. And that's the premise of the record. It gets pretty crazy after that.

How is this album a progression? How is this band an evolution from your past two high-profile musical experiences?

I'm truly blessed to be surrounded by the incredible talent of the past and now. With Extreme, you bond, you find you've been with the players for ten years, you kind of know your role and you grow at a more gradual pace. With Van Halen, they're a band for twenty years before you and you're walking into that, there's somewhat, not from the band, but a restriction for how far you can push the envelope. With Tribe of Judah, this has been the most uninhibited record I've made, period, because of the players, and because of my past.

Did you feel that level of camaraderie in your other collaborations?

As far as Extreme, that was a band grown out of love. We were together ten years, and I consider them all brothers of mine. Case in point, with Tribe of Judah, it was very easy after I found my writing partner with Leo. It was easy to hook up with Pat from Extreme. We're very close. As far as the Van Halen relationship, that was shorter lived. Still I think it worked, whether the public thought so or not -- we wrote because we got along, Eddie and I got along very quickly.

Do you think you had an honest chance to sing in Van Halen?

In hindsight, I wish we had toured before we made the record. There's no substitute for time spent with people. I certainly jumped into the belly of the whale with Van Halen. I would have loved to have done another record. I was frustrated when I left.

Do you ever talk to Van Halen?

Mostly Michael -- he's the diplomat. He gets along with Sammy and all the ex-singers.

Have you spoken with the ex-singers?

Well, Extreme played with Roth ten years ago. I thought he was a little off his rocker then. I like Dave -- and Sammy, I wasn't that familiar with his stuff 'til after I joined the band. Great singer, great guy. He invited me on stage a couple nights. I got to meet him. I haven't talked to Eddie in a while. He was battling cancer, and he's got a clean bill of health.

Have you ever responded to the shots they've taken at you? Like Dave saying you couldn't tour with him and Sammy because your were doing The Vagina Monologues?

I thought that was very classic Dave, very funny. I didn't respond back then, but a month ago, Sammy invited me to come up, in Boston, to jam with him. So I called some people, I got a Vagina Monologues T-shirt and gave it to one of Dave's roadies to give to him.