Heavy-duty rocker tells FBPO about his days with Ozzy, Whitesnake and Ted Nugent from his current gig with Thin Lizzy
Born into a musical family, Marco Mendoza spent his formative years in Tijuana, Mexico. He is perhaps best known for his bass playing with several rock bands, including Thin Lizzy, Blue Murder, Whitesnake, Ted Nugent, Neal Schon and Soul SirkUS. He also performs with Dolores O’Riordan and the Lynch Mob, as well as his own solo project. Marco has recorded three CDs as a leader: Live For Today, Live For Tomorrow and his newest effort, Casa Mendoza, which was released in late 2010.
Photo: Ross Halfin
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing.
MM: I was born in San Diego, but when I was about 5 years old, my parents separated and I grew up in Tijuana. My grandmother was a piano teacher from Mexico City and I give her a lot of credit for teaching me and inspiring me to learn the foundations of music. She had about ten or twenty students at any given time, so there was always music around the house. Her passion was classical music, so that was one side. My father was a clarinet player and he used to listen to the big bands like Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and all the cats from way back. My mom was a professional singer in Mexico, so I was surrounded by music since I was very young and I developed a real appreciation for it.
FBPO: How did you end up a bass player?
MM: My brother and I started a little garage band. My brother is a drummer and I played guitar. We used to play little private parties. It just so happened there was another band in the neighborhood and they were a few years ahead of us. They had a PA and they had transportation. Their bass player was moving out and they liked the way I sang. They approached me and said, “We want you and your brother to play with us, but we need a bass player. Do you play bass?” And I lied and I said, “Of course!” even though I had never played it before.
Within a week, my dad and I went to a local pawn shop and bought a bass. I learned the band’s repertoire and I was in! They really needed somebody to sing, and I did. So it was out of necessity because I wanted to play with the better cats in the hood. I realized how much I really enjoyed it and it became a challenge to start singing and playing. I took my time with it, like anything else. If you have an affinity for something, if you really dig it, you start spending more time with it and challenging yourself more and more. I went from a guitar player to a bass player just like that. Within a week!
FBPO: I remember hanging out with you at all those jam sessions in the LA area back in the early ’90s. Was there a turning point, a defining moment when your career really started to take off?
MM: Yes. It was when I got sober. That’s when I really started getting serious about my career. Up till that point, I was struggling with alcohol addiction and drug addiction. Everything and anything that happened in my career I used to sabotage. I was just out of control. I still managed to work. Every so I often, I’d do some high profile thing, but I was scared to death because my life was a mess.
FBPO: Was there a particular gig that set the stage for your turnaround?
MM: No, I wish I could say that was the case. Up to the point I got sober, I had done a bunch of different things. I did a lot of studio work, a lot of projects and pretty much just anything that came my way. I managed to make a living off it, but I was pretty much just drifting, barely making it. I realized that I really needed to get serious about my life and my career. I took inventory and I realized how much music meant to me.
I met Bill Ward from Black Sabbath. He was doing a solo project and asked me to play on his album. That was the beginning of my realizing this could be a cool thing. I dedicated a lot of time to being a pro, with all that entails, like being on time, preparing myself. I was a lot more focused.
FBPO: When was this?
MM: It was September 20, 1987. That’s my sobriety date. That’s my birthday! That was a defining moment for me as a person, as a human being, as a musician. Things started happening. One thing led to another. I knew that I wanted to be in LA. I decided that I needed to be in the center of it all. It was a sort of rebirth. I looked inside myself and learned a lot more about who I was and who I wanted to be. It’s been good ever since that point.
I worked with Bill Ward and we shot a couple of videos with Ozzy. Jack Bruce was on the project. So was Tim Bogert. I was surrounded by the best players. At that time, I was really into fretless. John Sykes had heard about me. He was looking for a replacement for Tony Franklin, who plays fretless, and he came to one of my local gigs, introduced himself and within ten days to two weeks, I was in the studio, doing a Blue Murder album. I think I ended up doing seven albums with him, altogether.
FBPO: Is that how the Thin Lizzy gig came about?
MM: That was the connection, right. John had done Thunder and Lighting with Phil (Lynott) and the boys and Brian (Downey) and Darren (Wharton). Every time we’d go out supporting his albums, we would include a lot of Lizzy songs that he co-wrote with Phil, like “Cold Sweat,” “Thunder and Lightning,” etc.
If memory serves me correctly, we were in Japan and Udo, the Japanese promoter, approached John and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get the boys together and maybe do a little run or something?” And before we knew it, he was calling everybody. And they needed a bass player, so John said, “I got this guy Marco and I think he’d be perfect.” So they came to LA and they pretty much auditioned me, along with a couple other cats that came in. I had done a lot of homework and we fell in like and everybody was happy, and there you go!
FBPO: How about Whitesnake? They seem to go through a lot of bass players, don’t they?
MM: Yeah! David Coverdale is Whitesnake. That’s the way I look at it. David has gone through a few lineup changes, to say the least. He’s had the opportunity to recruit some of the best players around. In that regard, I was really flattered when he called me because he really is very meticulous about picking and choosing the right cats for his band and his project.
For me, it was one of the highlights of my career, absolutely. I’ll never forget it. I had a great time. That particular lineup was unbelievable. There was a lot of talent and we were really tight as friends and brothers. The common denominator was that we all wanted to make a difference. I had a great time. It just got to the point where there were some other opportunities coming up for me, personally, and I made that choice.
I don’t regret it. I miss it, but look at what I’ve done since. Just to name a few things: Soul SirkUS with Neal Schon, Deen Castronovo and Virgil Donati; Lynch Mob, Smoke & Mirrors; two albums with Dolores O’Riordan and the Cranberries. I’ve done three or four runs with Ted Nugent and a couple of live albums. I’ve also done some of my own solo stuff, including Live For Tomorrow and Casa Mendoza. So I think I made the right decision, to be honest.
FBPO: Who else was in the lineup when you were with Whitesnake?
MM: Tommy Aldridge was on drums, Timothy Drury on keyboards, Reb Beach on guitar, Doug Aldrich on guitar, and David Coverdale. That was a great lineup. We had a blast!
FBPO: I grew up in Michigan, so we were always hearing something about Ted Nugent. What’s he really like?
MM: Ted is a one-of-a-kind cat, who’s also passion driven. I like to hang out with him, whether we’re working or not, because it’s like going to school. He’s very inspirational to me. He’s just a “full of life” human being. He doesn’t believe in wasting any time. He wants to be productive in every possible way. That energy is so, so contagious! I consider him a friend.
He’s a great family guy. He’s very enthusiastic about his points of view regarding politics. He’s very direct in his beliefs and I really appreciate that. And on stage, man, forget it! He’s like 150% a hundred percent of the time! It’s amazing! I love it. He’s really together.
FBPO: What advice do you have for young wannabes with aspirations of going to New York or LA or Nashville in hopes of “hitting it big” in the music world? Things aren’t quite the same now as they were back in those days, are they?
MM: No, no, no. The industry has changed. It’s really hard. I feel really bad for the kids. There’s a lot of talented kids out there, a lot of talent. We all know what’s going on with the industry. It’s come to a screeching halt. I do a lot of clinics and master classes all over the planet and I tell everybody if you’re really serious about being a musician and a bass player and making this your career, I would suggest that you go to the center of it all and LA is it. Even New York is drying up a lot.
The other thing I tell them is that, for me, it was a lifetime commitment. I made that commitment when I was 15-16. I got married very young, when I was 16, and I had to provide for my family and it became a job. I would tell everybody to make sure you know how willing you are to go to any length to get what you’re hoping to get. It’s a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of compromise, but in the end, it’s a passion-driven career, man, that’s the bottom line.
You’ll be all right. You’ll get up. You’ll get hit, here and there, but you’ll get up and say it’s all right. It’s part of being an artist. Not only a musician, but an artist. And be a pro. Show up on time, learn your stuff and make sure you have a good time doing it! I dig the whole process. Nothing else gives me that thrill, so I keep coming back for more! And that energy is contagious!
FBPO: How does it feel to be back with Thin Lizzy?
MM: Really good! I’m having a blast. I’d say this is the most fun I’ve had with Thin Lizzy ever. It just feels right. The timing is right. Ricky Warwick is fronting the band. He plays guitar and harmonica and he’s also a cat that’s passion-driven. He got to experience the Phil Lynott Thin Lizzy phenomenon when he was growing up in Belfast.
We have Vivian Campbell on the other guitar, who’s also an Irish guy. These guys have the Thin Lizzy thing in their DNA, in their blood. They grew up with it. I’m always trying to pick their brains because, coming from California, we only got a little bit of Lizzy.
Then there’s Brian Downey, the original guy. Nobody plays drums for Thin Lizzy like Brian, with all due respect to the other guys. It just sounds right. Those songs were written that way, were played that way, were recorded that way and, of course, there he is!
And then Darren Wharton on the keyboards and Scott Gorham and me. We’re having a blast!
If there’s any doubt in your mind that this thing ain’t Thin Lizzy without Phil, just open your mind, come check out a show and I guarantee you that you will reconsider that. The fact is that Phil’s no longer around, he passed away, but he left a big legacy. They made a mark in rock & roll history, these guys. They left a lot of music. Now we have three quarters of the original lineup, so it’s good. We’re already talking about recording something and I hope it comes to fruition because it would be a good thing.
FBPO: I hope so, too. Other than that, what’s next? What lies ahead for you and your career?
MM: I did an album with Deen Castronovo and Neal Schon that’s going get mixed soon. Hopefully, we’ll get that out by around the fall. I hope to do another solo album this year. I have three albums out with my solo thing. My main focus now, my priority, is Thin Lizzy. We’re gonna be really bitchy, man!
FBPO: Tell me about Casa Mendoza, your newest release. You must be excited about that.
MM: Yeah, yeah! As you can tell, I get excited with anything and everything to do with music! Casa Mendoza is a bunch of songs. I think I did two covers and some original writing. That’s my new endeavor. That’s my new commitment to myself, to start spending time writing. I’ve always been involved in other people’s projects, writing and contributing, but I never took time to do it for myself.
I also love to sing. It’s always a learning process. I’m always challenging myself to get better. Casa Mendoza is an album that shows another side of me, my ethnic roots. The Latin American/Afro Cuban grooves are there, Brazilian grooves, mixed in with some R&B and rock & soul and even gospel influences. It’s a mixture of all kinds of stuff. Lyrically, I sing about things that I’ve experienced myself, things I want to sing about, which is my spiritual connection.
FBPO: Who else is on it?
MM: We have Joey Heredia on drums. He’s an amazing drummer. We have Steve Weingart, who’s touring with Steve Lukather, on keyboards and Rafa Moreira on guitar. He’s played with Christina Aguilera, Pink, Paul Stanley, etc. He’s one of the newer cats in L.A. And Ronnie Gutierrez, playing timbales and percussion.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
MM: I would probably be some kind of artist. Something that involves painting or sculptures, architecture, hair design. If I stayed in music, I would probably be a singer, a front man and/or a dancer. I really love that kind of art. It’s beautiful.
Jon Liebman's Rock Bass book is endorsed by Marco Mendoza