Billboard Lounge: Mark Rivera Interview

Jan 6, 2017

Billboard Lounge - January 06 2017

Q: Where do you see yourself down the road for your music and career?

A: I’m in the process of doing a one-man show that’s going to encompass everything from the time I was 10 years old until currently. In fact, the guy who did Dexter, his name is Jim Manos, he’s writing my story, and Chazz Palminteri and I are friends and I’ve spoken to Chaz because he’s the one-man show guy. Billy [Joel]’s residency is going on, from what I know will be there this whole year, and he shows no signs of tiring, and he says as long as there are people putting their butt in the seats, he’ll continue to play. I see it, to me, playing live as often as possible is God’s greatest gift outside of my family.

Q: What is your most memorable experience as a musician?

A: The one I would say that really struck me is when Paul McCartney did the 9/11 concert. It was Billy, it was The [Rolling] Stones, it was this and that, about 10, 12 bands, and I was on the side of the stage, and The Who came out. When The Who played “We Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and I saw these firemen on top of each other’s shoulders crying, I knew this is one of the greatest moments that music is a way of healing, and that’s one thing I will never forget. But that show with Billy, at The Garden, left amazing such an amazing impression. I think the real heroes in my life besides my mom and dad were all the firemen and the police officers. It was really emotional, so I would have to say that sticks out in my mind as the greatest form of entertainment in the sense of healing, which is very important.

Q: At what moment did you know that you wanted to be a performer?

A: February 8, 1964. I think it was the eight or the ninth, The Beatles played on The Ed Sullivan Show. I had already played saxophone for a couple of years, but the moment my father gave me the album on that Sunday afternoon, I listened to the record, I saw John Lennon with his boot on, and I was like ‘Wow, he’s cool.’ Then I heard of the record, it really grabbed me. Then I saw the show, and I was like, ‘That’s it.’

Q: So you were playing an instrument at the time?

A: I was playing an instrument, but I grew up, 7 or 8 years old I had a guitar in my hand, so this was only two and a half years later. But with that instinct, it was like, ‘I want to do that,’ and I knew I wanted to be in a band. The funny thing was, The Beatles didn’t have a saxophone, so I had to pick up a bass guitar, play whatever else I could play to be in the band. And you talk about 360, I’m now Ringo Starr’s musical director, and that’s been going on for 21 years.

Q: When did you start playing the saxophone?

A: When I was about eight, eight or nine.

Q: What artists have inspired your work? I know you have worked with some pretty incredible people, if you had to name a top three.

A: The Beatles, undoubtedly, Stevie Woodward of Traffic. I love Peter Gabriel, I played on Sledgehammer. But yeah, The Beatles, all black music. Motown was what I really loved more than anything. Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, The Temptations, that music really resonated with me. It’s funny because The Beatles, they’re white, but they were really giving us our rhythm and blues with the long haircut, same as The Stones, the ultimate blues band.

Q: When you’re on tour, what’s the ultimate go-to food?

A: I love Indian, Thai, Italian, you can’t go wrong with Italian food, it’s part of my background. I wouldn’t say that Italian is a go-to because there’s so many crappy Italian restaurants, but if you can find a good Indian restaurant or a Thai restaurant, they’re usually some hole in the wall and they’re pretty authentic. Then that’s really good.

Q: Do you have a favorite spot in Brooklyn?

A: I live about an hour north of here, but when I was a kid, just pizzerias. I grew up in Sunset Park, which bordered on Borough Park, which is a Hassidic Jewish neighborhood, so it was really kind of an eclectic melting pot.

Q: Who has been the greatest supporter of your career?

A: Currently, my wife, but my father and mother, undoubtedly. Undoubtedly. And my Uncle Vinny (who first put the saxophone is his hand). As far as perseverance or as far as belief and really never veering from the belief or the passion that I would do well, was my parents, they were the greatest people ever. And now my wife has taken over the torch.

Q: What is the most inspiring musical performance you’ve ever seen?

A: I would say that night when I saw The Who, that really stuck out. I mean, I could tell you when I saw [Jimi] Hendrix. I saw Hendrix, I saw The Who, back in the day I saw Cream. So many shows back in the 60s, those were all amazing, but that night I think I was old enough, or I had enough of an understanding of what made a show great. At the end of the day, that show left such an amazing impression on me. Talk about shows, one of my favorite things is the first time I was on stage with Ringo; I thought that I had to pinch myself. The Beatles’ performance on television was insane, but the show The Who put on, they were just unbelievable.

Q: Being a Brooklyn native, what does it mean for you to be able to come back and perform?

A: I love it, I love it. Like I said, we play The Garden once a month, and I love the gig, I love Billy. This is home. We were driving down, coming up Dean Street, going up just every neighborhood, Atlantic Avenue, Flatbush Avenue. I’m probably three miles away from where I was born. It just means a great deal to me. To me, a Brooklyn boy, I’m thrilled to be here, I’m proud. To be asked to do this is an absolute honor, and quite frankly, I play in front of tens of thousands of people and it’s like no problem, then they ask me to play the Star Spangled Banner, it’s unnerving to be up there alone with an instrument, so hopefully I don’t screw up.

Q: What is your favorite place to go to for peace of mind and inspiration?

A: When I was a kid, Greenwood Cemetery. It’s right outside of Sunset Park. They’re now doing tours, it’s one of the destinations for people visiting Brooklyn. When I was a kid, we used to sneak through the fences, turn up our 10 speed bikes, and get in there. We’d ride around the cemetery, it was so beautiful. It’s so peaceful. There’s nothing that’s that quiet, it’s like a square mile, and you’re in the middle of it. I love my property that I live on now, but I have a place that I call my happy place. A very good friend of mine Finn, he and his wife have a beautiful place up in Maine, and talk about tranquility. For me, any way to get into nature, because our lives have becomes so chaotic and we’re bombarded by so many things, and I think it’s a fact that if you can find a little solitude, and breathe some clean air and walk in nature, it lowers your blood pressure, it chills you out. But Greenwood Cemetery, my home, and up in Maine, those are my three great memories.

Q: Aside from you, who has inspired your music?

A: I would say obviously The Beatles, the band Traffic, Stevie Woodward, I wanted to be Stevie Woodward because he played so many instruments, he sang, very soulfully.

Q: What advice would you give other artists pursuing their dream?

A: Expect to hear ‘no’ a lot more times. In fact, I read these spiritual things, and they say that every time you come up to some adversity, take it as an opportunity. In fact, the Greek word ‘crisis’ is cut into two parts, the first part of the word is ‘something in need of solution,’ but through that, the other part of the word is an opportunity. So every time something goes wrong, take it as an opportunity for a stepping stone. There were times I could barely make my phone bill, like $40. I would tell anybody, if you’re in it, and you’ve caught the bug, don’t let anything get in your way. But if you’re only in it to be famous, like a Kardashian or something, find something else because it’s a crappy way to make a living unless you love it. I think the best thing is work your craft, sing, play, and play with better musicians. You don’t want to be the best guy in the band, you really don’t want to because, it’s like anything, if you’re the smartest guy in your group, find another group, and learn.