Periphery guitarist talks prog and progress
By Gary Graff
October 31, 2018
You could say Mark Holcomb is on the Periphery of greatness — but the truth is he’s well past that. A member of the progressive troupe Periphery since 2011, when he replaced founding member Alex Bois, Holcomb has established himself as a virtuoso lead player and soloist, meshing what sounds like effortlessly with bandmates Misha Mansoor and Jake Bowen. He’s been a fixture on Periphery’s last four studio albums and two EPs, and outside of the band you’ll frequently find him conducting instructional clinics for Seymour Duncan pickups, Paul Reed Smith guitars and D’Addario strings. Because he’s so much a part of a band situation Holcomb doesn’t always get his deserved props, so we’re shining a light on him as he’s working on Periphery’s next album, planned for early 2019 release, in Dallas.
FGPO: So how did all this begin for you?
Holcomb: I started when I was about 13. I was an athlete when I was a kid, and I hurt my knee real bad playing basketball. I wanted to pick up something as a hobby and I decided on guitar. I took two lessons and from there I just fell in love with it. I became a little metal head in my teenager years, and it never stopped from there. It’s been my passion since then. I owe every bit of my personality to the guitar.
FGPO: Two lessons? Ever do more than that?
Holcomb: I think I took a couple more in 1995, when I was 13 — maybe five, six total. I never had formal training. None of us in the band have any music theory background. We all grew up playing using our ears, which I think is just as valuable. I know some musicians who can spit theory at you all day, but they can’t really transcribe things by ear and don’t know how to follow things by ear. I’m not saying that’s the ultimate skill; just as valuable is how you apply it. With us in the band, that’s our language, our ability to hear what one another are doing. That’s our way of communicating with one another.
FGPO: Who were the greatest influences or sources for your playing?
Holcomb: The first ones that made me thing about guitar in a kind of serious way were Dimebag Darrell and Randy Rhoads and James Hetfield. It was Metallica that made me look at the guitar in a different way. Then once I started to practice and started playing lead more, I got into Ozzy Osbourne’s first couple of albums with Randy Rhoads on guitar, then Dimebag Darrell with Pantera. That’s when my tastes exploded. And then I got into more serious prog music.
FGPO: When you mention someone like Hetfield that implies a really strong rhythm base to your approach.
Holcomb: Oh, yeah. Even now when I’m doing clinics, people ask me…because our music is focused heavily on rhythm and playing tightly and having this machine-like syncopation, they say, “How do you get your right hand to do that? How do you synchronize your right and left hand to where you’re creating this artificial-sounding silence through muting?” I just say, “Go listen to (Metallica’s) ‘Disposable Heroes’ on Master of Puppets. Listen to that galloping pattern James plays for seven and a half minutes — while singing!” There’s still so much that can be learned from them; I saw them play a couple of years ago, and (Hetfield) was great, still downpicking everything. It’s still inspiring.
FGPO: Was there a “eureka” moment, or an epiphany when you recognized what would become your style?
Holcomb: I don’ think I had that realization on my own. It was when I started writing and started working with other people and creating music with others. What I sound like has always evolved around chemistry with other musicians. I still have insecurities with my own playing (laughs); I have days I hate myself so bad, and days I don’t. I think it’s normal to question yourself as a guitarist on a regular basis — and healthy to some extent.
FGPO: What is it that collaboration brings out of you?
Holcomb: I get a lot of my confidence to this day from being with others, sitting down with others and learning, vibing off another guitar player’s or drummer’s energy or talent. That’s the kind of stuff that’s picked me up from where I’ve started.
FGPO: So what is Periphery’s method of collaborating?
Holcomb: Normally it starts with me and Misha and Jake as the creative nexus of the band when it come sot the music. We sit down together, normally two or three weeks before we start (recording) and just write. We live together and play guitar pretty much all day and record ideas and see what sticks and arrange the songs one by one. We’ve done the past two albums like that, a sort of “retreat” style or approach. We hole up together and write all day. We demo drums using software. It’s a pretty democratic process between the three of us. Once we have a song written, we send it to our singer (Spencer Sotelo) and drummer (Matt Halpern) and they give their feedback. Sometimes it doesn’t inspire (Sotelo), sometimes it does. Then we work from there.
FGPO: Ever wind up meeting or working with someone who was really intimidating?
Holcomb: I can’t say I’ve ever gotten super star-struck or anything like that. I did meet James Hetfield seven years ago. We were both on the same music festival in Australia. Metallica was headlining and we did five shows, and I met James there for the first time. They say never meet your heroes, but whoever said that never met James Hetfield. He was the sweetest guy you could ever ask to meet, so humble and grateful. That taught me a lot about musicians who act like divas or jerks and how you don’t have to be like that.
FGPO: What’s the new Periphery album sounding like?
Holcomb: It’s a big, weird album. We took off a year to work on it and kind of said to ourselves that there’s no rules, let’s make the songs long and go all-out. The first song on the album’s 15 minutes long, so that should give you some idea about where we’re headed. But we’re not trying to blow anybody’s minds or do anything that’s so original; we’re trying to write music that sounds fun and that we have fun playing. I don’t know what causes that kind of mystique that surrounds us — but I don’t mind, because it helps sell records!
FGPO: You do a lot of clinics as well. What appeals to you about that?
Holcomb: I was intimidated at the beginning, so I had to figure out how to do it best. At first I got a bunch of questions about the music industry and then I started to get a bunch of questions about the technology we utilize in Periphery and then I got questions about theory on the songwriting. I developed my routine based off the questions I got at the very beginning, so now I think I’ve got it down to this sort of scheme where I touch on all those aspects to an extent. And, of course, playing songs and meeting people and getting in front of people and answering any questions they have is great. There’s no shortage of curiosity about our music.
FGPO: What’s on your wish list of things to do?
Holcomb: I’d like to release 10 albums. I’d like to get to that point in my career where I can look back and say that the catalog of music I’ve released exceeds that of some of my favorite bands. I was thinking about Pantera the other day, when someone was playing their music; They only have five or six albums as the classic Pantera, and we have five or six now. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that we have an equal number of albums compared to legends like that. So I would like to keep this going and have a fan base that sticks with us for years. That would be really nice.
FGPO: Do you have a solo album in you?
Holcomb: Well, I have a side project with Misha called Haunted Shores, and we have a lot of fun with that. That’s a project where we get to have our cake and eat it, too. Periphery has a very high standard, which is why it takes so long to make an album. It’s a democracy, five opinionated members that each have to put our stamp on it. With Haunted Shores it’s Misha and I having fun with thrash, fast, unrelenting music. One day maybe I’ll think about another project, but right now I’m pretty satisfied.