Tips from the Pros: How to Back a Superstar

“If you join Justin Timberlake’s band, you’d better know how to pack a suitcase for a year,” says Mike Scott.
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“If you join Justin Timberlake’s band, you’d better know how to pack a suitcase for a year,” says Mike Scott. “We did 212 shows last year, and this year looks to be even busier.”

Formerly with Prince, Rihanna, and other pop stars, Scott has joined forces with Elliott Ives to deliver a twin-guitar attack at Timberlake shows worldwide. Here, the rock/funk tag team shares what it’s like playing guitar for one of the world’s biggest stars.

Ives: While it may sound obvious, the first thing to do if you join a group like this is just pay attention. You’re on stage with 15 other people, including keyboardists, singers, and horn players, as well as another guitarist. Plus, there are Pro Tools tracks flying in—cool Timbaland textures that can’t really be created by normal instruments. There is a ton of stuff going on.

Scott: Joining this band is like merging into traffic at rush hour. You’ve got to find your lane. You can’t just pull in at 100 mph.

Ives: The fun part is that there are plenty of guitar parts from the albums Justin wants heavier on stage. He’ll say, “Get it dirtier. Bloody that thing up!” When you’re in a band with all these crystal-clear sounds going on, it’s the guitarists’ job to take things over the top with overdrive and feedback, and to do all the other fun stuff guitar players are known for.

Scott: [Timberlake producers] Jerome Harmon and Timbaland came to a show recently, and there was so much heavy guitar, they were like, “What is this, Mötley Crüe?” [Laughs.]

Ives: On other songs, though, you may be playing the dopest part ever, but the guitars will be buried in the mix out front. That’s okay. Accept that you’re part of a bigger machine whose job it is to translate the songs from the record in a live setting.

Scott: And be ready to do some homework. You’ll have to learn multiple versions of many songs for all the TV and promo gigs Justin does. It’s kind of like football. There are a lot of plays in the playbook.

Ives: Take a song like “Mirrors,” for example. We have what we call “the Video Music Awards version,” “the Jimmy Fallon version,” “the Grammys version,” etc. Each version has a different intro length, or maybe an altered ending, or a special outro or something.

Scott: Keep in mind Justin is a dancer, singer, and movie star, so you will be expected to have some steps on stage. Elliott and I have two or three signature routines we do. Sometimes, though, incorporating dance steps is tough when all you want to do is play. Once, we were given something that was just too tricky to handle with the lick we were playing. We told the choreographer, “Here, take the guitar. Let’s see you do that while playing what we’re playing [laughs].”

Ives: You must also be ready and able to sing backup vocals whenever necessary, as well as be comfortable performing using in-ear monitors.

Scott: Don’t expect to get tons of attention. There’s no Beatlemania here—at least not for you. The band could come out on stage totally naked, and, if Justin were onstage, the fans wouldn’t notice. That reminds me—be ready for “Wardrobe.” They may dress you up in some crazy attire. In some cases, it’s stuff you wouldn’t want your mom, your girlfriend, or your best friend to see you wearing, but it works well in the show.

Ives: It’s your job to be professional off stage, too. You’re traveling the world, representing the artist—in this case, an artist who is under the microscope 24/7—so you obviously must conduct yourself professionally in public.

Scott: It’s a wonderful gig. I love playing for Justin because, as a bandleader, he doesn’t miss a thing. He always shows up to soundcheck, and from each lighting cue to every chord voicing and guitar tone, he knows exactly what’s going on at all times. He’s on top of it. He’s a very musical and inspiring cat.

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